My reaction to reading the blurb on the back of books – things like: “hauntingly affectless” or “a crystal of icy brilliance” is beginning to draw from that seething bottomless pit in my brain commonly referred to as the amygdala. You know – that slow burning tumult of emotion that, if emergency measures are not taken, will, you fear, erupt in spectacular social embarrassment and consequent loss of face. I think it’s the same feeling that makes me walk out of a shop the minute a sales assistant tells me her/his name before assuring me that if there is Anything they can help me with, I’ve only got to ask. I’m not one for giving rein to the sort of outbursts my amgydala would gleefully have me perform. I usually fight the urge, or perhaps deflect is a better word, or placate, even better. I placate the urge – satisfy its demand for expression with a curt, ‘no thanks’, before the speaker has completed the sentence, thereby registering in no uncertain terms, I tell myself, my feelings about this offensive attempt to pass off a sales pitch for an act of human kindness.
And recently, I’ve found myself doing the equivalent to the ‘curt retort’ in reaction to a book blurb’s attempts to pass off sales talk for how the book will change my life – by putting the offending book down. I’ve read countless books that promise all kinds of superlative states of being: promises of being mesmerized, confronted by dark elegiac beauty, boundless riches, through to claims of how I’m going to be shattered, transfixed, transported by the utterly beguiling or the crackling or sinewy, muscular prose. Images, I am assured, will strike me like lightning, strip me bare, fill me with joy, startle, fascinate, overwhelm or perhaps just touch me (profoundly) with their simple power.
The hyperbole is beginning to grate; the promised-land-is-nigh-if –you-buy-this-book rhetoric is beginning to grate. Books are a good thing and I enjoy reading, they can offer insights, engage you in a hitherto unknown world, but there are some blurbs that perpetuate a kind of pseudo, secular enlightenment myth and exploit that myth to sell more books… that in consuming them the reader will arrive at some sort of literary ‘nirvana’. Well, no, actually. You might find some escape, diversion, and for the attentive reader, insight and new understanding. ‘A perpetual discovery,’ Woolf once said talking about life. ‘Not the thing itself, but the perpetual discovery.’ Well, that works nicely for what books offer: pin prick moments of light, but never the whole thing, ‘the thing itself’ – you’re not going to fly to heaven on the back of a book. Perhaps the sales blurb given to hyperbole should read: ‘the contents of this book may expand your consciousness for a while and possible leave a residue which may or may not colour your outlook on the world.’ I don’t think that would grate. I’d probably buy it.
The 1934 Nobel Prize winning dramatist and novelist Pirandello once said that there were those who lived life and those who wrote about it. Today we may feel such neat categorising fails to capture the muddier and altogether more confounded sensibilities of the post-modern era. As a young man, back in the 80s I liked the alienation the title ‘writer’ conferred; it confirmed my credentials as a bone fide writer along with a poster I picked up in Paris which showed an image of a stack of penguin paperbacks, a typewriter and a smouldering cigarette in a cheap glass ashtray next to a pack of lucky strikes . Balanced on the leaning tower of books was a revolver. The trouble was, back then; I was neither living life nor writing about it…
But can you be a good writer if you don’t live life? It seems unlikely. Hemingway famously divided his day in two. He wrote, whilst stranding at his typewriter, in the mornings and then would go out and ‘live life’ which, according to legend, involved bar brawls or hunting great cats in Sub-Saharan Africa. If living life means immersing oneself within the world as we find it, whether that means shooting lions, racking one’s brain over which pair of shoes to wear or falling in love, there will not be many writers able to claim that they don’t live life. On the other hand there will be some who have that special gift of being in/out simultaneously, of having great powers of reflection, that while being immersed are taking notes!
I wanted to be a writer in the Henry Miller mode, iconoclastic, clever and utterly debauched. I even packed my typewriter and headed for the left bank. I ended up in a squalid room on the Rue de Lafayette, bored and lonely returning after a week, with a handful of false starts of the ‘novel’ I was going to write, skulking around homeless shelters in London, too embarrassed to return to my home town.
Like many young men, I had glamorised the idea of a writer, the suffering soul in his garret. Well, I say suffering, what I harboured, of course, was a kind of sexy suffering that was shared with cool émigrés, drunken artists and intellectual women desperate for liberation…
But even after Paris, I still believed in books, books of a certain kind, I hated what I referred to as escapist rubbish (the irony was beyond me!). Miller said somewhere, he didn’t read books – he ransacked them for the truth. That was exactly the kind of reader I was. Reading writers like Miller, Hesse or Knut Hamson was a feverish experience. They said things I wanted to say they were the kind of writers I wanted to be. I wanted to write the book of books, brimming with truth. I filled notepads with my insights and conversations. I was a writer, in the Pirandello sense: not living, but standing at the margins scribbling my notes.
It took a few years to realise that ‘truth’ is a tricky monster, that my desire to be a writer was nothing short of wanting to be god, or at least as a means of escaping my ignorance. It was not entirely with relief, however, that I came down from my make-belief mountain and joined the world of the living. It’s a lot easier to see from high up, the view is clearer, the trouble is there’s no detail and, of course, that’s where the devil resides, where life resides with all its messy tragedies, its unlikely triumphs and it’s where I now try to live and where I think the writer needs to be, if he or she has a chance of being any good.