Ten entries from my notebooks on writing
Here I am in the town where I was born, looking down into a mysterious cave. Those who have read my novel Volcano Street may detect some resonance here. The picture is, or could be, a metaphor. Life presents us with a mysterious cave; we might ignore it, but still the cave is there. This parable is as true of literary life as of life in other aspects. For years I have been trying to understand literature. In some small ways I believe I do. But my sense of my limitations – in this regard, as in others – is greater than anyone else’s could be. I don’t pretend to be an intellectual. I love literature because when I was a boy in the town in this picture I lay on my stomach on a rug indoors, on days of merciless summer heat, with the holland blinds drawn and making golden light, and read, obsessively, shabby paperbacks by Agatha Christie.
Here are ten entries from my notebooks. I don’t claim any of them is profound. Nor do I claim that any of them is true, or, even, that I still believe them now. These are just things I’ve thought about.
There is folly, indeed a splashy vulgarity, in the assumption that formal innovation is the hallmark of literary value. Some great writers have done nothing innovative with form: Shakespeare, Pope, Austen. But Shakespeare is better than Beckett; Pope is better than Pound; Austen is better than Woolf. Originality comes not from form but from sensibility, which in literature is manifested in the use of language. Shakespeare’s sonnets are great not because they are sonnets but because they are by Shakespeare. Housman works in constrictive forms but achieves remarkable effects: “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble …” is profound and beautiful from the opening line. Most poets would never think of an image such as “The tree of man was never quiet” (later plundered for a Patrick White title). Housman did.
Fiction which only appeals to “fans” is bad by definition. Great fantasists such as Tolkien, T. H. White, or Mervyn Peake attract people who are swiftly, indeed immediately, bored by Terry Brooks, David Eddings, or Robert Jordan. The first three are real writers and the second three are not. (Later note: Whether there is significance in the fact that the first three are English and the second three are American is one of those questions it is, perhaps, safest not to ponder. But see point 9 below.)
The teaching of creative writing has (by now) been going on for so long and has spread so widely that undeniably it has produced some good writers – or appears to have done. Whether those writers would have emerged anyway is one of those imponderables we ponder all the same.
I don’t belong to a political party. I’d love to believe that this or that system would set all to rights. But human beings can’t be set to rights. We are inherently unstable creatures living in extreme ecological imbalance: see, for example, William R. Catton’s great book Overshoot or Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. The human story is not going to end happily. That doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time trying to improve things. Look at it this way: the fact that we’re going to die doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the best of our lives.
Novelists should show humility: the novel is a cumbersome form, too long to memorise, and dependent on complex and inherently unstable technologies of production and dissemination; few novels, in fact I’d assume none, will be remembered for as long as the plays of Sophocles or the poetry of Homer – and Shakespeare, we might add, is better than any novelist, including Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Joyce.
I hate computers. Things were better when we wrote by hand, in notebooks, or on typewriters: more real, more intimate. I liked life more in the past than I like it now. So I imitate life in the past. I write on my typewriter. But it isn’t the same. It’s an affectation, when I want it to be real. We would not miss computers, television, motor cars, or any other of the more obnoxious modern inventions, had they not been foisted upon us, in order to make profits for corrupt and stupid people. (Later note: Few modern developments constitute “progress” in a meaningful sense, though they may be said to do so. Still, whether it is good, whether it it bad, the modernity of humans is, and must be, a temporary phase in our planet’s story, as is our present vastly inflated human population. Coming down from all this will, of course, be the hard part – no, the horrific part …)
I have always found a strange enchantment in book titles that mention colours. I wish I could think of a good one myself. Ten examples: Redgauntlet (Sir Walter Scott, 1824). Le Rouge et le Noir [rendered by translators as Scarlet and Black or The Red and the Black] (Stendhal, 1830). Green Mansions (W. H. Hudson, 1904). Greenmantle (John Buchan, 1916). Crome [sic] Yellow (Aldous Huxley, 1921). Blue Voyage (Conrad Aiken, 1927). Dark Green, Bright Red (Gore Vidal, 1950). A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962). Red Shift (Alan Garner, 1973). The Color Purple (Alice Walker, 1982).
Stop trying to rehash old things [incomplete pieces of writing] from years ago. Isn’t it a kind of vanity, the assumption that you can’t ever let anything slip, that every last thing has to be “filled out,” built up, turned into a completed book? That isn’t how writing works. It’s a messy business, with false starts, wrong leads; what you complete and, finally, publish is going to be a fraction of all the things you started. Ideally, one would have fewer false leads as one got older. Will that happen?
There is no such thing as American literature. It didn’t develop and it doesn’t progress. There is no tradition of it, as there is of English literature or French; only a number of isolated geniuses, in between mediocrities. America is a profoundly unliterary country, so it is no surprise that some of its few genuinely great writers, such as Henry James or T. S. Eliot, have spent large parts of their lives as expatriates. Those who have stayed at home have too often been destroyed, sometimes by failure, sometimes by success. (Later note: I should add that I love a great many American writers, including lost heroes such as Booth Tarkington and John P. Marquand, and that part of me – in truth, a large part – wishes I were American.) (Still later note: I no longer want to be American. I have two passports: Australian, British. Australian is the one that counts. This is what I am.)
I can’t look back to some time in the past and say, “How I envy that time, things were perfect then.” It doesn’t work that way. I think, “What was there in that time that made it turn into this time? That time, being part of our past, is, at least in some way, what made us what we are now.” I wish I didn’t find what we are now to be so disappointing, so damning. Capitalism, combined with industrialism, creates a species of hell. I should like to believe in a life which is not corrupt, which is beautiful.
The writer’s task is not to solve the mysteries of literature, let alone of life. Keats knew everything when he talked about “negative capability,” that capacity to believe in more than one thing at once. Literature is not religion, not philosophy, not politics; to confuse it with those things is a mistake. Real writers write because there is nothing else they can do. What it means is neither here nor there. Here are some words: you like them or you don’t. Here is a story: you like it or you don’t. All that matters is to make something new. Literature – it must – makes a new world. But we hope, too, that at the same time it leads us back, somehow, to the world where we began, that it shows us what lies in – yes, of course – the mysterious cave.