On Sunday morning I was listening to the slot on Radio 4 at 0845 where someone talks in an extended secular version of thought for the day. Will Self had a few sessions a while back, Howard Jacobson had a slot a couple of weeks ago, and this coming Sunday it will be AL Kennedy. It isn’t always authors but they get a lot of the gigs.

The thought occurred to me that, whilst I like all these writers, both in terms of their work and listening to them talk about our society and the problems and joys of the world, (probably not so much the joys with those three! Although Jacobson can be good for an uplifting insight), I wonder why we should listen to authors so much.

Yes they sometimes have an insight into the human condition, but here we are giving them a slot on national radio to pontificate to us on matters about which frankly there are experts who should be able to speak more authoritatively.  Not necessarily the human condition of course; unless we are looking at psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, behavioural scientists of all ilks, but in matters of security, policing, military, employment, cultural direction (writing is one little bit) and myriad other subjects. Why do authors get the nod on these?

Probably because they are seen as communicators. Increasingly part of the baggage of being an author is being an all round communicator. As publishers withdraw  to a greater or lesser extent from publicising their own products, and as agents want the cash but not the effort of pushing their clients, authors get jiffed with doing the spadework of marketing themselves. Fine, they should be positive about their own work, but if they were great PR people, or market savvy tech heads or schmoozers personified, why would they have chosen a profession that involves being shut up in a room on their own with their imagination for company? Authors generally don’t want the hassle of that other side of the business, that’s why there are publishers and why agents managed to horn in on the process. But it seems authors get wheeled out anyway, when one might think they were better employed, er …writing.

So there we are, with authors being paraded to smile, sign books, chat on radio, contribute to TV arts shows if un/lucky, give lectures at literary events, peddle advice to wannabes on the writing for everyman/woman circuit. And now because some of them can string a coherent sentence together about the mythic resonance of the washerwoman as a mother earth figure in their latest oeuvre, they are invited to blab about anything that takes their fancy in a regular repeat radio slot.

What privileges their opinion over anyone else’s? They have a facility for the medium but is the medium really the message? Are those who are easy with creating an imaginary world and filling it with their interpretation of how people should behave, always the best people to comment on the real world where the characters are different and reactions intractable?

Just a thought.


And by the way BBC, I have many useful insights and I am available for recording whenever you want on any subject.


I recently read Howard Jacobson’s ‘Zoo Time’. I wish I’d read it before I wrote my ‘Fan Fiction and other Guff’ post, I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort by simply saying ‘read his book’. It’s interesting for me in particular as the character comes from Wilmslow, a place I know well. My father was the manager of the Employment Exchange there in the 1970s. The clientele of Jacobson’s character’s boutique is from a slightly later period than I remember. There was more old money around then, although that was mostly in Mobberley and Alderley vice Wilmslow and the first WAGs were about, although not yet labouring under that name. The place had an air of desperately, no, enthusiastically, wanting to sell out to a sort of post Thatcherite culture before its time, a barrow boy mentality of stacking anything high and selling it very dearly to any mug who would go for the glitz and bling. The rugby club was all flash and as it turned out no trousers when professionalism came along. Odd because that is exactly the sort of entrepreneurism the town loved.

Personal resonance aside (at least the geographical kind) Zoo time uses the vehicle of a writer writing about a writer (as Jacobson says – the sign that he is finished!). In fact he hammers the irony home by writing about a writer writing about writing and indeed about a writer writing about writing a piece where he wants the character to be a writer but he decides he has to make him a comedian. Unsurprisingly he fails. Not Jacobson who succeeds as he nearly always does, but the character of the writer he creates. He fails not only in this creation but in his marriage, his attempted seduction of his mother-in-law and his desire not to succumb to the dumbing down of publishing and book buying and not reading that has become the reality of corporate buyouts of the publishing houses. His character laments that there are no readers any longer, that no-one has readers. I wonder if I had read a review of this sometime and it had sat in my head waiting to pop out as if I had thought it myself?

Jacobson’s character in the end makes a success of resurrecting his writing career, a second wave if you like, by embracing the very forms and attitudes he has poured scorn on throughout the preceding chapters. If you weren’t reading a Jacobson book and you didn’t know his constant unapologetic support for intellectual quality in fiction you may think he was thinking of selling out himself. But in the end it is obvious that the genius of the think subverts the journey’s end.

I’d recommend this for anyone, particularly if you are struggling with writing professionally, but only if you are mentally strong, otherwise you may have abandoned the idea of writing for publication and certainly for paid publication well before you get to the end. A brilliant book as is the norm from Jacobson.

THE SINS OF LITERATURE: BBC R4 0900hrs 5 August 2013

Publicity for this series passed me by and it was by chance that I caught the last ten minutes of it on radio this morning. Intrigued, I immediately went and listened to the whole thing on iPlayer. It was fascinating to listen to authors of the quality and success of Martin Amis, Howard Jacobson and Deborah Mogach talking about novel writing and being a novelist. The episode title was ‘Thou Shalt Not Bore’. It didn’t.

 One thing that struck me was how certain things are self evident to one writer as a keystone to the novel and either irrelevant or anathema to another. The VS Pritchett comment ‘There’s no such thing as plot, only characters’ was trotted out as an introduction to a discussion about character development. Deborah Mogach waxed lyrical about how vital an interest in character development was and she described a sort of ‘method writing’ whereby she became the character for a period in order to immerse herself in that person’s psyche, to understand how the character reacted as they went through the book. Will Self confessed to a total lack of interest in character. Mogach suggested later in a section on the dodgy middle of novels that the immersion in and development of character was what got the author through that period (the bit readers skip). At this point Robert McCrum, the ring master of the series, cunningly allowed Paul Auster and Siri Hustverdt to recall an encounter with Mickey Spillane who observed, ‘Nobody reads a book to get to the middle’. Spillane at that time had sold something like 175 million books and didn’t worry about fitting into the ‘literary’ fiction world. He also said to them ‘I am a writer, you guys are authors.’ In the pecking order of the literary world that put them clearly way above him. No doubt he failed to avoid cliché, adverbs and repetition of words. Interesting that Amis derided this last piece of advice often given to aspiring writers; ‘avoid repeating a word.’ His advice was that, if it were the word you needed, you should use it three times to show you knew what you were doing.

So an iconoclast perhaps. On the other hand he revealed he finished Lionel Asbo (could anyone who hadn’t got his reputation get away with such a clichéd name/title?) and then spent a year revising it. His reason was he hadn’t put any suffering in it. I guess spending a year rewriting something produces sufficient suffering for a whole raft of novels.

This led us neatly to McCrum’s comment that ‘finishing’ the novel was in fact as Churchill said about something else entirely: ‘Not the end, nor even the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning’. Editors and rewrites again.

I shall definitely be listening to the second programme, a room of one’s own ‘Thou Shalt not Hide’.