Sunday, 20 July 2014

Saw Your Site. Liked it. Thought I’d, um…add a comment… Instead… Yes… Exactly.

Homage to QWERT YUIOP.  Oh how the memories come back.  I lived with this book for years.  When I did eventually leave off reading it the cover had disintegrated and the pages had fallen out; free at last to float back to that looser wilder world of the newspapers and magazines.  What a book! At least that is how I remember it.  A degree course in literature in the years when I needed it most.  Though Urgent Copy is the better collection, I think.  Slow reviewing as opposed to fast.  There is a lot of fast in QWERT YUIOP.

Having spent a month dissing our speedy culture I see your point, and accept it.  We do need quick reviews.  They are…  ?  A question mark holds up the smooth flow of agreement.  The words starting to think for themselves begin to ask questions we find difficult to answer.  Our obtuseness upsets them.  They become angry; and their questions marks fly at us like scythes…  We duck.  We dive for cover. We put up Pentaphragmataceae, erect a a fence of semi-colons, even dig out an oblique reference to Jorge Luis Borges. They jump over our full stops and run across our paragraph breaks… Who reads our columns?  The buyers?  The publishers?  The writers?  Who? Who? Who?  Does… - they are getting a little edgy and we can feel their effrontery -… does anybody read us at all?  Are we something to read for those who do not read?  Are we merely an excuse to pass the time of day? A row of multifarious objects on which indifferent eyes can focus while the train takes the rest of the body home.  Once read completely forgotten.  Only the landfill destined to remember us…  Catching up with these runaways, who we find crying on the kerb, we usher them into the nearest library, where we sit them down, give them a can of coke, and tell them it is all right, eventually they too will be collected between two covers.  To reassure them we pull out a book by Anthony Burgess, and direct them to a blog post by Jonathan Gibbs….

Thomas Chadwick wants to live in more ethereal surroundings.  We put him in the hot houses of Kew Gardens to experience the high literary temperature that thickens the atmosphere around literature.  It is a heady place where criticism mutates into its own species of imaginative writing, to add to Poetry, Drama and The Novel; we think of Marcel Proust, and his By Way of Sainte-Beuve, or Jonathan Raban’s For Love or Money; two masterpieces of the genre.  Thomas Chadwick is arguing, or at least he seems to me to be arguing, for an old-fashioned literary culture, something that still exists but which seems far more fragile than it once did.  We leave Thomas behind in the glasshouse and go to a public toilet, to there imagine a last gloop of toothpaste, and our efforts to squeeze it out of the tube; folding it over and over… Aaaaarghhhhh! Just enough for the upper row.

There are two types of review and they exist on very different terms and have quite distinct values, and there are good reasons to keep them separate, at least for polemical purposes.  Burgess, of course, straddled both cultures, and wrote some great books and plenty of marvellous reviews, while making a mountain of money.  But comparing his two collections, one from the 60s the other from the 80s, I can’t help but feel there was a slight dropping off in quality.  By the time of QWERT YUIOP Burgess had become a tad too friendly with his bank manager. 

John Gross’ The Rise and Fall of the Man Letters is a wonderful history of this literary marketplace; while Stefan Collini’s Common Reading is an acutely sceptical take on it.  He usefully argues that a golden age of literary journalism never really existed, although every literary journalist believed that it did.  A jab in the ribs for those of us addicted to ideas of cultural decline.

Also interested by your thoughts on women writers.  It is not a view I share.  When I read women authors I don’t feel that they have a different species of sensibility.  Rosamond Lehmann. Betty Miller. Mollie Panter-Downes.  These three writers have perceptions which I find similar to such male counterparts as Henry Green, William Sansom and James Hanley.  All six are in many ways closer in sensibility than to more conventional novelists of both sexes; the latter separate again from the lay audience.  Of course the surface detail is often different.  But underneath…  When Henry Green drops his trousers won’t we see the same accoutrements as when Rosamond Lehmann raises up her skirt?

I can’t resist Selina Hasting’s description

In her late thirties more beautiful than ever, Rosamond in a silvery skirt and purple chiffon blouse made a magnificent figure, with her pale complexion, imposing height and thick, permanently white hair.

Of course you play both sides of the question, and cleverly refuse to answer the most difficult issue of all - is there really a distinctive female subjectivity that cannot be communicated to a man.  If we are to believe you, in your most candid moments, we would have to say that Renata Adler and Elena Ferrante speak to you less because they are women than because their work resonates with your masculinity.  Is this the source of your dilemma?  That you are looking for something that art cannot really provide - a guidebook to elucidate your inner personality.  Know thyself, you say.  Know thyself!  Is this really possible?  Is it desirable?  Isn’t the secret of our inner selves their banality?  The reason for Freud’s continuing popularity - he makes us far more interesting than we actually are; even the most bourgeois of the bourgeoisie living inside a Greek drama.  I digress.  Of course I do.  To return to the argument: to believe that we can know ourselves… Doesn't this suggest that we must first have a strong and self-conscious vision of our self, which we then extend back into our being? No wonder women novelists struggle to get in - they must first pass the security guards of our own self-consciousness.  We are a man it seems, before we are a reader; which is just your point of course. Proust had very different ideas.  I think Proust was right, although note his reference to “intelligent” readers in the following quotation.

For when a writer reads a book, the closeness of social observation, the slant towards pessimism or optimism, are accepted conditions which he does not dispute, which he does not even begin to see.  But for “intelligent” readers the fact that something may be ”untrue” or “dismal” is a defect in the author himself, which they are astonished and rather pleased to find recurring, and even being made more of, in each of his books, as if he had not been able to get the better of it, and which finally makes them see him in the disagreeable light of a person who is always wrong-headed or who has a depressing effect on one, so much so that whenever the bookseller hands them a Balzac or a George Eliot, they push it away, saying: “No, thank you!  It’s bound to be untrue, or gloomy, this new one will be worse than the rest, I’ve had enough of it.”

The “intelligent” reader is precisely the one that allows the surface phenomena to predominate.  Isn’t gender the most superficial surface detail of all, and therefore the one to attract the most intelligent of readers?

Let us assume you are right.  What are the wider implications of such a view?  If it is true that women have a completely separate sensibility how does that affect other areas of life, for example in public affairs?   Do the genders see the world so differently that some shared vision remains forever elusive?  Are we destined to talk past each other, catching snippets of conversation, and riffing only on those phrases that resonate with our unique sex?  The two sexes stand-up comedians who josh with an audience they cannot see and can hardly hear…

Art is an artificial affair.  It is an interstitial space into which its practitioners must squeeze themselves, losing much of their personalities along the way.  The space itself creating the art.  All literature is other, to use your expression. The male and female writer are both inventions that exist within conventions that both the sexes must accept.  Ah! you say, but we have been conditioned to be see the male convention as natural; again I use your phrase.  This is possible, although as A.S. Byatt has argued (and Virago’s back catalogue shows) Britain has a rich history of literature written by women, which has been largely ignored or downplayed, and especially by the academic feminists who would prefer it didn’t exist.  Although we do need to qualify these counter-intuitive remarks: the canon of received opinion may be biased in favour of the male; and it is here where the newspapers may have an influence; as you yourself make us aware.  

Is it the culture of the press that magnifies the importance of the man writer? Are you, perhaps, an example of this very phenomenon?  Sorry, sorry… A bit too direct I know.  I smile.  I apologise.  I change the subject…  I spray-paint a beard onto a blond girl who is waving at me from a wall in west London.  I give her a present of an enormous air bubble that quotes Janos Lavin, the greatest painter in 1950's fiction.  It attracts the attentions of the journalists who look out of their office windows…  But let’s leave them…  Oh, look, look! one has gone and bought a pair of binoculars…  Leave him!  Come back to me!  It was just a ruse to….

Looking at the world through the eyes of a reviewer are you seeing it differently from when you look at it through the eyes of a writer?  The one persona closer to our ordinary workaday selves is more riddled with cliché.  The other, being slower and more inward-looking, and relying less on custom and habit for its thoughts and perceptions, is perhaps less likely to foreground the gender bias.  Are newspapers the problem?  Is Thomas Chadwick right after all?  Of course! of course! these are different questions.  The problem is we keep mixing them up!  I guilty with everyone else.  Literature is different from the press, and yet it needs it in order to survive; I imagine a terrified scribe carried across a torrential river on the back of a muscleman.

Is the solution simple?  Traditionally the newspapers have been read more by men than women; while with novels it is the other way round. Is this the reason for the imbalance between the original work and the reviews?  The culture of the newspapers producing a male mentality, which the history of the medium naturally reinforces; until, that is, the readership of the press becomes more evenly balanced between the sexes.  Have we reached that stage now?  Is that why sites like Vida exist? Exposing the tensions between an old culture and a new audience?  There is a nice comment about all of this in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day: Louie, a minor female character, suddenly starts reading newspapers; a symbol of the transgressions war creates, and allows.

The past.  So different from today.  And isn’t this past more difficult to grasp than the other sex, especially in an era when gender differences appear to be reducing?  The 1940s more alien to me than Emily Witt, as she experiments at the Burning Man festival in 2013.  Gender.  It is a strange thing.  At the moment it feels very ideological.  The idea of gender itself is being used both to change and validate the culture - because we are women-friendly we are good, seems to be the message.  This is dangerous.  Because the ideology is always a simplification abstracted from the reality; the idea “woman” far less complex and various than the women we know and love.  And this creates strange effects.  Emphasising how different women are it at the same time celebrates how both sexes are so alike.  The destination point: a single sex world based on an extremely narrow view of the female personality.  We have been here before.  In the Soviet Union the ideal was to turn a woman into a man - everyone a worker before they are a person.  Today we are all meant to be consumers; a traditionally more female role - does this have something to do with it?   I have digressed again. These are reflections for longer more detailed posts.  They are not for a short comment on a blog I like.  Men and women are different.  But not so different as to preclude understanding.  Artists are another story entirely.  Few of us can comprehend them.

I have similar thoughts about public life too.  You may be interested in the elaboration of this idea, which also deals with this question of slow and quick culture.  It is a long piece with lots of footnotes.  It is called The Temperate Zone.  Hope you like it. Though there is no pressure, I assure you.  You don’t have to read it, if you don’t want to.  I won’t be upset.  I’ll understand.


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