Adding Value To Writing. Nthposition. January 2009.

The original is here . In retrospect, this piece was really about stringing three of my favourite quotes about writing into a piece. “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”


Paperbacks have brought reading to the masses. Have there been mass products as beautiful as Penguin’s Worlds Classics, for instance, in history? One cannot forget, though, that a paperback is a beautiful triumph of marketing, and a delivery vehicle for marketing itself. Who, in their early years, has not been influenced as much by the bit in the back of the book about other books, as much as any more elevated or personal factor? In recent years, the trend is to “add value” to use a cant phrase, by going beyond a simple list of mini blurbs about other books on the publisher’s list to feature chapters of upcoming books, author interviews, and various other bits and pieces.

Most of this is frankly ephemera but sometimes the miscellaneous material supposed to entice one into purchasing a paperback is useful and interesting after all. An example being the extras in the paperback edition of JG Ballard’sKingdom Come. Amidst Ballard’s Desert Island Discs selection (his choice does not include any of the various earnest bands, from Joy Division to The Klaxons, who purport to be influenced by his imagery) and his “top ten reads”, there is a brief piece entitled ‘Remaking The World’. In this, Ballard writes:

“Cyril Connolly said that the greatest enemy of creativity is the pram in the hall, but I think he was completely wrong. It was the enemy of a certain kind of dilettante life that he aspired to, the man of letters, but for the real novelist the pram in the hall is the greatest ally – it brings you up sharp and you realise what reality is all about.”

Ballard, who has moved from the margins of science-fiction and theavant garde to become a grand old man of literature without ever meaning to (and is still a far finer short story writer than novelist – the novels tend to repeat themselves, at times numbingly so as inKingdom Come), is an exemplary figure for any aspiring writer, keeping a barely credible level of industry well into his seventies (now, unfortunately, terminal prostate cancer seems set to take his life.)

What is the dilettante life that Ballard is attacking? It is the writer’s life as a series of gestures and poses, of literary gossip and parties, of conferences about ‘The Role of the Writer in Modern Society’ and such. Evelyn Waugh, in one of the great literary eviscerations, his review of Stephen Spender’s memoir World Within World, asked:

Why, one asks, does Mr. Spender write at all? The answer seems to be that he early fell in love with The Literary Life. When he met Mr T. S. Eliot he confessed the desire ‘to be a poet’. ‘I can understand your wanting to write poems,’ replied the Master. ‘But I don’t know what you mean by “being a poet”.’

Mr. Spender knew very well. He meant going to literary luncheons, addressing youth rallies and summer schools, saluting the great and ‘discovering’ the young, adding his name to letters to The Times, flitting about the world to cultural congresses. All the penalties of eminence which real writers shirk Mr. Spender pays with enthusiasm and they may very well be grateful to him. In middle age he forms a valuable dummy who draws off the bores while they get on with their work. Why, one asks, does Mr. Spender write at all?

Settling down to write is what matters to Waugh and to Ballard. So many tendentious and portentous things are written about writing that the fundamental reality – that a writer is simply someone who writes every day (or thereabouts) and the rest is moonshine. How many delusions attach themselves to those who wish, well, “to be a poet.” Waugh’s “penalties of eminence” attach themselves to the uneminent as well as the published, and a whole panoply of secondary activities lurk to tempt the would-be writer from their proper place – writing something somewhere, somehow. A related illusion is that a writer needs Life Experience, something akin to the finding oneself of gap years and mid-life crises. Writing based on life experiences lead to those dull accounts of drunken or intoxicated states and fictionalised stories which anyone who has been at a writing group has had inflicted on them.

On the topic of unglamorous workhorse-ism, readers older than the mid-twenties may remember a time when Sir Alan Sugar was famous for owning a company – Amstrad (a contraction of “Alan Michael Sugar Trading”) that actually produced things, rather than being a caricature capitalist “firing” people who actually don’t work for him from the chance to work for him. It was, it is true, a company devoted to the profound philosophy of pile ’em high and flog ’em cheap. However a lot of people felt a lot of affection for some of those things, in particular the determinedly glitz-free Amstrad PCW. It was a word processor, purchased by some families (mine included) as an apparently serious alternative to the frivolous Commodores and Spectrums. Unable to display any on-screen colours aside from snot-green, it was homely and clunky even during the 1980s.

Its devoted user base supported some magazines, of which 8000 Plus, later PCW Plus, was the leading light. Computer magazines have sharpened such wits as Markus Berkmann and Charlie Booker, inter alia, and in retrospect were at times astonishingly sophisticated and well written. PCW Plus featured a column by the science fiction author David Langford which exemplified this. Handily archived by Langford on his site (discovering this archive of well-remembered pieces from magazines the physical copies of which have long disappeared from my possession was a great joy), the columns were models of wit and clarity, as well as insight about writing and possibly even the nature of literary art. The June 1991 column was a particular gem, using the clichéd advice to writers “to write about what you know.” The whole column is worth seeking out, and anyone with literary pretensions will cringe at the accuracy of certain passages:

Another dangerous kind of specialist knowledge is the Thing That Really Happened To You. If you’re writing straight journalism, the facts are supposed to come first (I know they don’t always). In fiction, though, that’s not the point.
In writing fiction, you are constructing a narrative machine designed to give the reader particular sensations of excitement, wonder, terror or whatever. If one of the components doesn’t fit, it’s no good wailing – as inexperienced writers so often do – ‘But that’s the way it happened, I was there.’ Real-life incidents generally need to be distanced, fictionalised and filed down to shape before they can work as a cog in the narrative. Authenticity, alas, is no guarantee of artistic value.

And there’s the rub. Nothing guarantees artistic value. Writing, like all art, is mysterious and defies all generalisations. Your experience, your sense of how a writer should think or act or dress, your ability to make witty conversation at cocktail parties, even being in a position to go to cocktail parties, doesn’t matter. One doesn’t deserve or earn the right to write. You have to just write.

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