Thursday, 1 July 2010

Is the Pen a Phallic Symbol?

For every writer with Nigel Slater's reserve (see below), there are several, it seems to me, who cannot write a word without powerfully imposing their egos on it. Every sentence they compose seems silently to proclaim, 'What I have to say is Important - simply because I think it.'

You'd think that good writing should be more about insight, imagination and empathy than ego but there are reasons so many writers fall prey to this particular form of hubris. First, as for politicians, thinking that you're cleverer than other people can be a key reason for ambitious kids to want to be writers in the first place. For the record, I don't think it's an especially good one, in either case. Believing that what you have to say is somehow more valid or weighty than anyone else's opinion is the kiss of death in writing as in life generally. Early success can be a crucial intensifier of this trait; desperately trying to succeed in a overcrowded fishbowl is another.

On a more subtle level, though, there's no point trying to be a neutral writer. Objectivity is impossible to achieve anyway and subjectivity in everything from the choice of a word or a fact to the perspective of a fictional character is everything. That's why readers love their favourite writers so much, and see their books as friends. And it is also why so many readers love the writers I'm criticising here, because they love the intensity of their gaze, regardless of where it's directed.

What's interesting is that the worst culprits seem to be men - often good writers, but (for me) such rampant egomaniacs that their preoccupation with themselves can actually override their talent. I can't think of a woman I would include in this category, except (judging by their journalism alone; I haven't read their books) perhaps Germaine Greer or Jeanette Winterson.

So, the men: Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Salman Rushdie. I tried Rabbit Run in my late 20s, couldn't get into it, and put it down to not being ready. Some years later - feeling more mature! and having greatly enjoyed Updike's reviewing in the New Yorker - I bought the Rabbit omnibus, anticipating with delight an entire holiday spent in Rabbit's company. But I was disappointed. Despite the exquisite writing, at times excruciatingly so, at others luminescent, some of the best descriptions I have ever read - I found Rabbit himself, and thus Updike, so unpleasant that I couldn't finish the first installment. I couldn't have cared less that he would one day rise again, and still later actually be rich.

There does seem to be a fiction/non-fiction split (Paul Theroux being the exception that proves the rule). I've never even bought a Martin Amis novel, because simply reading the dust jacket in the bookshop makes me want to shout out, 'Unreadable Wank!', and yet Experience and his literary criticism are dazzling. Is it because he's harder on himself when he's trying to tell the truth?

For purposes of research I seek out my disdainfully uncreased volume of the Rabbit novels. He is just as small a character as I remembered, though the writing seems even more incredible to me now than it did when I last looked. Now I wonder, why do I blame Updike for Rabbit's nastiness? Or do I just not get it? It must be something I lack, not to be able to put aside my scruples and enjoy the virtuosity. Or perhaps I'm just jealous. Maybe there's something to Freud, after all.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like your ultimate test is truth-telling, of one kind of another (as per your point, well made, about Amis), so I’m intrigued by your reaction to Rabbit. Do you think it’s really his unlikeability or rather that, on some fundamental level, for all the dazzling, dizzying prose, and the countless, brilliant moments of observation, you just don’t buy it – that Rabbit-land, for you, is not quite convincingly rendered as someplace real on this Earth? Certainly I think he treads the line between mannered artifice and artful reality quite dangerously (for me he falls just on the right side, but I can see how easily he wouldn’t for everyone). The others you mention: I agree, pretty much artifice to the core (though I’d argue that each at different points stumbled upon moments of authenticity, when they were writing beyond their egos; but these works seem to be the all-too-accidental exceptions.) And yes, it’s a guy thing.