Wednesday 13 January 2016


You know that old saw "Those who can, do . . . those who can't, teach"?  There are countless variations and one of them might be "Those who can, write books; those who can't, write about reading". Weirdly over Christmas I had two analyses of the process of writing thrust upon me. For Christmas, Dau.I gave me a copy of the The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby. It is the writer's critical diary of the books he a) bought and b) read between 2003 and 2006. There is a only a small overlap between the two sets. As Hornby gets prodigious amount of new books, you may be sure that if he doesn't read them very soon after getting home, they will become mere insulative wall-paper in his office. I like Hornby's writing, I've been amused and informed by Fever Pitch his soccer-fan book and High Fidelity his [auto]biography of a music groupie and About a Boy about two males growing up: one a child, the other an 'adult'. He is funny and can be gratifyingly cruel in exposing pretension and nonsense. The Spree is a bit like a blog: Hornby can put whatever he wants down without having to develop a sustained coherent plot or get it past a really critical editor.  It is therefore a little inconsequential and a little dated? David Copperfield may be for all time, but many hot properties from 10 years ago have gone down the toilet of history. Indeed, I was about 100 pages in when I started to realise that I'd read the book before; probably when it was first published [2006] but almost nothing had been retained by my 'mind'.

While I was over in England, I started reading dipping into The Boy's copy of The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life [2015] by Andy "Writer-Editor-Bookseller" Miller [Grauniad review].  It's an outrageous sub-title which exposes a lot of our reading as First World Stress.  It's a different class of thing when people in the Horn of Africa talk about how fifty great bowls of mealie-meal porridge saved my life. If I hadn't gotten The Polysyllabic Spree in my stocking a few days previously, I might have had an unaccountably strong sense of  déja vu about Miller's reading list. The concept is the same although the list is different to Hornby's and the analysis/exegesis is better developed. 50 great books inevitably includes a lot of 'classics' which Alan Bennett defined as "a book that everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have":  Middlemarch, War and Peace, David Copperfield etc. I'm never sure if these achieve their 'perpetually-in-print' status because they are timelessly good or because nobody got round to reading anything else:  that classics are the Harry Potter of yesterday.  In a telling chapter Miller intercalates a critical analysis of Moby Dick and The Da Vinci Code.  As a writer, he is able to join the long list of critics and writers who have recognised that the writing in The Da Vinci Code is sketchy, unconvincing and ungrammatical.  Pundits like Stephen Fry, leave it there - misplaced apostrophes and shonky sentence structure make the book beyond redemption: utter crap . . . without pausing to wonder why TdVC has sold 10 millions copies more than the complete works of, say, Stephen Fry.

Miller isn't so cheap or dismissive and makes an interesting editor's point.  He asserts that the publishers should be ashamed to have let such poor English go out under their imprimatur: do they not employ copy-editors? Indeed, surely Dan Brown could have caught the worst of his unhappy writing if he'd been bothered to re-read it.  There is no credibility in the suggestion that TdVC was deliberately badly written in order to generate [even adverse] comment in the press.

Miller also makes a writer's point. He writes, not as a diary or as therapy, but to be published. He would be delighted if any of his books acquired traction and sold half the number of copies that Dan Brown's has racked up. He doesn't think it is fair, appropriate or dignified to slag off a fellow author because he has made money - good luck to him indeed.  But when Miller asks the rhetorical question Would I write a galloping pot-boiler and be slap-dash in its writing? he says he wouldn't . . . couldn't do so.  He writes like Luther, because he can do no other, what he writes comes from some internal well-spring of creativity. . . when he is inspired/driven to get something down on paper.  The externals: money, copies sold, Booker Prize, favorable reviews in the Guardian; are irrelevant to the creative process. Me, I'm still waiting for The Blob to go viral and get me a job writing for money but that's not why or what I write.

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