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Writers Writing About Writers Writing

A descent into writerly hell

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Unless you’re, say, Philip Roth, it’s hard to see why, as a writer, you would ever want to write about the writer’s life, with all its drudgery, ennui, despair and boredom. If you are Philip Roth, however, it’s not an issue. In fact, your writer’s life is so richly packed with people, opinions, moments and events, you find it hard not to write about it.

Take – from a number of possibilities – The Anatomy Lesson. In this book, your fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman is not only rich and celebrated, he enjoys all the comforts of a Manhattan apartment, an accommodating mistress, the bitter consolations of three expensive divorces, a coterie of excitable and loquacious friends, and a bad back so interesting it demands its own novel. Does this sound like your world? I hate to admit it, but it doesn’t sound like mine.

Worse, it comes over as scandalisingly self-absorbed, even for Roth, while offering few of the dividends that the reader might find in, say, Portnoy’s Complaint. If this is the best Roth can do, one tends to think, then writers writing about writers writing – or failing to write – ought, for sheer avoidability, to be out there with political autobiographies and books of investment tips. The life of an astronaut, on the other hand, yes, that could hold the attention. Or an undertaker, threatened by the Mob. Or a mother of three discovering true love with another mother of three. Anything, really, other than writing about the neurotic headbanging inwardness – broken only by occasional trips to the library – of the writer’s average day.

The odd thing is, Roth is not alone. Other famous writers have written about writers writing, and their efforts are similarly problematic. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook manages to be a great – and, at the same time, truly bad – book about the writer’s life. There, I said it: for all its determination to articulate a new kind of consciousness, to unpick the way great political movements radically interlock with the microcosmos of the writer’s destiny and personal relationships, The Golden Notebook is a) ludicrously po-faced and b) about twice as long as it needs to be. ‘I think I shall go to a psycho-analyst’, says Anna on page 213 of my edition. A hundred pages later, she declares ‘I have decided never to write again.’ A hundred pages further on: ‘I am increasingly afflicted by vertigo where words means nothing.’ A shade under a hundred pages after that, she’s asking ‘What do I know about mental sickness?’ To which the exhausted answer has to be: search me.

Saul Bellow, another Nobel Laureate, knocked out a few writer-on-writer novels, among them Humboldt’s Gift — a writer writing about a writer writing about another writer. Pulitzer Prizewinner or not, this turns out to be just as hard to enjoy as The Golden Notebook; only shorter. A.S. Byatt’s Possession tries to bring the concept to life by adding an element of quaint historiography; but it too fails – for this reader at least – nodding, on its way to failure, in the direction of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This, in turn, was a novel which seemed incalculably clever when I first read it years ago but which, in keeping with the others, now appears depressingly strained and arid. Despite its cunning, tragicomic, king-of-Zembla backstory, Pale Fire determinedly commits the reader into the hands of two raving pedants: Shade, the poet, and Kinbote, the unreliable explicator — for what seems to me an awfully long time. I suppose masterpieces are like that, but I’m not sure I have the patience any more.

The worst of the bunch? There’s a good case to be made for John Fowles’ Mantissa. In this impressively wrong-headed book, the author dives deep into the wellspring of creation by having his alter-ego conduct a long and direly unfunny conversation with Erato, the lyric muse. Unless you’ve actually read Mantissa, you can’t know how terrible it is. The fact that the book opens with the magisterial announcement ‘A short extract from Mantissa was first published in the magazine Antaeus in 1981’ ought to set alarm bells ringing: this is a book which takes itself seriously. That, plus two prefatory epigraphs from ultra-heavyweights Descartes and Marivaux. After which, it’s all sexual taunting, hospital beds, lousy puns, implausible delirium, narrative inertia and John Fowles’ learning worn indescribably heavily. Don’t say he didn’t warn you.

Still, the writers in question clearly thought it worth writing these novels and the publishers thought it worth publishing them. And there are scores of other, comparable efforts, from Stephen King all the way through to Martin Amis. But why would readers want to read them? Do these involuted fictions have a degree of currency because so many readers think they too could be writers? That the gap which separates the creator from the consumer is so narrow – especially nowadays, in a world of writing classes and push-button self-publishing – that any insights into the job are potentially useful? Is it (perish the thought) because the figure of the writer is still haloed, still culturally numinous? That would account for the regularity with which readers turn up to hear writers talk: just to be in the same room, to breathe the same air.

Could it even be that writers, having apparently broken free from the constraints and obligations of normal life, are just too different (the jammy bastards) not to want to emulate in some way? I remember a fellow non-fiction author, seriously drunk at a literary festival, breathing heavily into his glass and gasping, ‘I’ve never wanted to be anything else but a writer’; and the playwright and film director Christopher Hampton, who happened to be at the next table, turning and looking at him with a terrible mixture of pity, scorn and outrage. So I don’t think that can be the answer. No matter, though. The itch to write about writing, and read about writers writing, is still there: popular novelist Freya North has just published The Turning Point — a novel in which a novelist writes about her novelist’s block. And there will be others.

Has anyone managed to catch the true essence of the writing life? The only writer who comes close, for me, is Michael Frayn, in his classics Towards the End of the Morning, The Tin Men and Sweet Dreams. Now, Frayn never intended these to be viewed as a trilogy, but I’m going to group them like that anyway because, together, they form a perfect Divine Comedy of the writer’s life.

Towards the End of the Morning is the Inferno. Its hero is a deeply insignificant staffer on a major national newspaper; he aspires to greater things; a chance of escape comes his way; he blows it; he ends up where he started, condemned forever to the sheer hell of insignificance. The Tin Men is Purgatorio. In this many-stranded novel, set in a 1960s research institute, one of the characters dreams of becoming a published novelist. We look in on his efforts from time to time — and it becomes increasingly clear that, instead of finding his own voice, he is trapped, helplessly recycling other, more successful voices. Sometimes his stuff comes out as bad Kingsley Amis, sometimes as Beat manqué, sometimes as garbled Alain Robbe-Grillet. Every time it is dreadfully, depressingly, funny. But because this is Purgatorio, there is hope: by the time he gets to his final false start – the excruciating Beat/Jazz pastiche – he realises that perhaps novel-writing is best left to someone else. He has a moment of real insight; he turns his back on the whole ghastly business and at that point is free at last.

And the Paradiso? All right, it’s true that Sweet Dreams isn’t ostensibly about writing at all. It’s about a Guardian liberal who dies and goes to a Guardian, middle-class Heaven — one in which his every yearning is translated into a perfect, unconditional reality. It’s a lucid dream in which contradictions and non sequiturs are happily tolerated and all the failures of life are translated into blissful successes. He creates a narrative, in other words, but also inhabits the narrative he creates. A kind of metafiction? Maybe. But also a perfect comic novelisation of the self, a writer’s apotheosis. Am I stretching a point? Well, if – if – you read Sweet Dreams in this way, it fits perfectly into the Divine Comedy scheme: a progression from eternal writing drudgery to an escape from writing torment and, at last, into a heavenly invention in which writer and story are the same thing.

As for this writer? Well, assuming I can tear myself away from my current insanity-inducing project long enough, I thought I might try a new flavour of instant coffee, before getting some money from the cashpoint. And of course, the car won’t wash itself. So it’s a pretty busy morning, all in all. Which is how we writers actually roll, I think.

Charles Jennings is a writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster. His most recent book, Sediment, won the 2014 John Avery Award.

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