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“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take it as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”

Karl Popper


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The Chronicles of Wasted Time

Recently I wrote two memoirs. I never intended to write even one, but here they are and each one is completely different. I reckon that, without stretching the truth, I could write at least two more, just as different as the first two. That’s the elasticity of time, and the ambiguity of life.

Time is not our friend. It creeps past us on silent feet, one second after another. We never see it go, and it never comes back. Nobody ever stops to tell us: “Hey, pay attention, this is the best bit.” The best bit of your life just slides past like all the rest, into oblivion. Shakespeare’s chronicles of wasted time are the poems that record love and beauty in the past – celebrated now but wasted then.

Everything glowed with a gleam/And Yet we were looking away.

Thomas Hardy, “The Self Unseeing.”

If time is not our friend, memory is positively treacherous. Some people remember every detail of their past lives, every meal they have ever eaten and with whom, and even more intimate details. It must be hard to live inside their busy heads. With every moment of their past engraved there, diamond-bright, there’s no way to escape into fantasy or selective editing. I both envy and fear the absolute recall and steady hand of a Proust or a Nabokov. The complete, unvarnished truth is not something that most of us want to live with, which is why Sigmund Freud invented The Unconscious – that convenient basement of the mind into which all the unwanted rubbish can be dumped.

Forgetting allows us to live our lives forwards, without nostalgia or regret. Most of us, I believe, are blessed with a kind of built-in self-editor that tidies up and improves the past as we go along. Nietzsche, going to extremes as always, once said: “No man with a good memory can ever be creative.” The quote may not be exact, but it’s an interesting thought. If you have a bad memory, everything is always new, including the leftovers you put in the refrigerator yesterday and rediscover with pleasure today.

So why a memoir, let alone two? And why now?

Age must be part of the answer. The desire to write a memoir typically arrives at about the same stage of life as arthritis. There is an irrational fear of forgetting everything, which makes little sense because, when we do lose it all, we won’t know that we’ve lost it. This may be why some people suffering from dementia exhibit an eerie, tranquil happiness. Their personal slate has been wiped clean.

A slightly more rational reason is to leave a record of one’s life, a justification, what used to be called an apologia, and I must plead guilty to that. There were some personal things that I wanted to say, and I’m glad I went ahead and did it even if nobody ever reads the books. We want the past to make sense, if only to ourselves, and the only way to do that is by careful and selective remembering and forgetting. Otherwise, our stories are indeed the chronicles of wasted time, a chaos of tiny events that added up to nothing and meant nothing. As Donald Trump used to say when confronted by some unpleasant truth: “Sad.”

Losing the Language

The English language is always in decline. People have been complaining about it for five hundred years, ever since the translators of the King James Bible finished their masterpiece, and Shakespeare put down his quill and went into retirement. But the decline has speeded up. We seem to be losing our ancient language in several different ways.

Perhaps the least important danger is the collapse of grammar. There have been too many pedantic, scolding books about grammar and punctuation in the last few years. Frankly, most of these rules are trivial. If I hesitate over “I” and “me” or “him” and “he” I can check the grammar book which says: “Any pronouns that appear in an appositive are assumed to have the same function as the word the appositive refers to.” Fine, I can live with that, whatever it means. But who really cares about fine distinctions between “less” and “fewer,” “that” and “which,” “may” and “might”? Who can figure out “who” and “whom” in the proper case? Who can get excited about the floating apostrophe? Not I (or me).

My education was grammar-free. We had a splendid English teacher, Mr. Thomas. He taught us to appreciate fine literature, which was no easy task in a school for uncultured and unruly boys. But he didn’t teach grammar at all. He believed that grammar was learned by reading good writers and imitating them, not by following a set of rules. We never parsed a sentence or discussed the difference between adverbs and adjectives, and we never even suspected the existence of the subjunctive tense, even though it may have been the case that we used it all the time. As a consequence, I am not qualified or willing to correct the English grammar of anyone else, as long as I can clearly understand what they are trying to say.

There’s the rub as Shakespeare himself might have pointed out. It’s not grammar but meaning that worries me. Whatever the secret of good writing or speaking, it is certainly not grammatical pedantry. It is all about words. The best writers use simple, direct language, the exact opposite of the foggy, euphemistic stuff designed to avoid hard truths and painful feelings. But plain old words are losing their meanings faster than we can reinvent them. Many of our best insults and negative expressions like “old” or “crazy” have vanished into the fog of political correctness and flabby sentimentality, and words referring to things that make us uncomfortable, like “posterity” and “modesty” have simply faded away. It’s a process of simplification and impoverishment, the Twitification of the language.

Alongside this blurring of exact meanings comes the plague of wild adjectival inflation which aims to substitute emotion for content. The advertising industry has debased just about every superlative in the language. What words are left once every tacky mass-produced product is described as magnificent, perfect, great, wonderful, a masterpiece, exceptionally unique, or even incredible, for things that are sadly all too credible? Advertising and politics are the enemies of language because nothing in them can be expressed plainly, least of all the plain truth. George Orwell had a lot to say on this subject and I can’t compete with a writer who was so incredibly unique.

There’s nothing to be done about this. We can’t get back to the language of Shakespeare, or even the stately and supple prose of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it is worth remembering and regretting the awesome language we once had before we, like, totally lost it.

Writers in Love

“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence”
H.L.Mencken

Writing and love don’t mix. Romantic love* gives its victims blanket permission to be silly, and this silliness too often takes literary form. In the worst-case scenario, lovers may write poetry. This should be actively discouraged. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a particularly egregious case or, in music, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – but everyone will have their own favorite examples of creative work done under the influence of emotional intoxication.

Nobody can write sensibly while in love. If the love is truly passionate and mutual, the sexual demands alone should leave a person incapable of raising his/her hands to the keyboard, let alone having an original thought. The critical faculties are necessarily suspended, not just in relation to the loved one, but in relation to everything. People in love can’t drive, type, or even prepare a meal with proper concentration. They are, as the ancient Greeks knew, temporarily insane.

Scott Fitzgerald said: “It’s easy to be loved, but hard to love.” This is true. It’s fine to write while being loved. Being loved is a confidence booster. Loving is an energy drain.

Writing about love is easier, but not much. The language of literary romance is very restrictive, rather like a computer code. Bosoms heave, hearts pound and flutter, breath is short, eyes cloud over, and the victim suffers from weakness, faintness, and a sense of fatality. These are very much like the symptoms of a real heart attack. The trouble is, you don’t get rushed into intensive care to fix the problem.

That’s why lots of writers prefer to write about sex, and let love take care of itself. But sex raises a different problem. The language is richer but the content is more limited. It’s like writing about car mechanics. As the guy in your local repair shop will tell you there are lots of different models of cars, some more desirable than others. But they are all based on the same mechanical principles and they all work the same way. This doesn’t make for great literature.

I have a theory that the best writing about relationships happens just after those affairs end when the mind snaps back into focus. Some authors manage to stay angry for a lifetime on the basis of a single failed love affair. This can be very productive – for example the comical revenge novels of Fay Weldon. On the other hand, love that sticks around and matures can produce some very fine writing, such as the biography of Iris Murdoch, Elegy for Iris, by her husband John Bayley.

The question of a writer’s muse is bound to come up here because the Muse is imagined to be both an object of love and a source of creativity. Muses are female by definition. The original nine Muses were daughters of Zeus, a good pedigree, and their job was to be patron goddesses of the arts. The Greek Muses were not love objects, they were organizers, like chairs of academic departments: Erato controlled love poetry, Terpsichore was in charge of dance, and so on. No fewer than four of the original Muses were concerned with poetry. Comedy and tragedy each had its own Muse, but nobody was assigned to essays or general non-fiction.

The contemporary Muse is very different. She is a living, loving inspiration. She must still be female because men don’t have the special skills needed for this job. But this kind of Muse is also dying out. Women are too busy following their own dreams – and the Muse’s task is both exhausting and, perhaps, demeaning. The best kind of Muse may be an ex-lover living several thousand miles away, who can safely be idealized. But the most useful kind would be a woman like Vladimir Nabokov’s wife Vera, who so fiercely protected his writing time and his privacy that she made his astonishing output possible.

The decline of the traditional Muse is undeniably a good thing. Lacking this source of inspiration, men are less likely to launch into romantic writing. Men, of course, are the true romantics in this world, because they can’t help themselves. If you don’t believe me, check the romantic literature. Women are the voice of reason, the organizers of male emotions. For a really rational fix on love, you have to go to female authors, like Jane Austen, who had absolutely no illusions as to what the Great Game was about.

These reflections lead to four clear conclusions:

1. Never write while actively in love, and especially not during the early high-fever stages of the malady.

2. Write about love only in case of urgent financial need, and with tongue firmly in cheek.

3. Only men should write about love. Women should write about its consequences.

4. When it comes to love, there are no clear conclusions.

Bookstore Memories

Back in the long-forgotten pre-Amazon era, I spent some happy years working in a big university bookstore near Trinity College in Cambridge – the old Cambridge, not the new construction by the Charles River. The bookstore was a veritable warren of wisdom, with sections for Greek and Latin books, mathematics, art, literature, the sciences, philosophy, and an enormous history department. It was a happy hunting ground for professors, and for the more dedicated students, and we liked to think that it was in some sense the intellectual heart of the university.

It must be admitted that our stock, though huge, was limited. We didn’t sell T-shirts, gifts, greeting cards, CDs, magazines, mugs, or stuffed toys, but only books. Although the store was in a prime retail location it never occurred to the owners to sell anything else. It certainly never occurred to them to sell absolutely everything else, and to get rid of the books. But the wheel of history has taken another turn, and the bookstore at our nearby university here in New York has taken exactly that step. The books are gone. They will now be ordered from and delivered by Amazon. So, the store is no longer a bookstore but a delivery channel for those dreadful things called textbooks – educational fast food, and just as unhealthy.

Textbooks aside, you would think a university with a faculty of over a thousand would feel the need to have a flourishing general bookstore on campus or nearby. But the only independent bookstore close to the university shut down years ago. What happened to intellectual curiosity? Have even professors given up reading? Amazon is a convenient resource, I use it myself in the absence of a local bookstore. But it only works if you know exactly what you want. It is not a place where you can browse, read, and make discoveries, and the reviews are worse than useless.

I could scarcely believe in the idea of a university bookstore with no books, and paid a visit just to convince myself that it was true. There were piles of T-shirts, baseball hats, backpacks, earbuds and all kinds of college branded merchandise, but indeed no books apart from half a dozen shelves of bestsellers and cut-price remainders at the back of the store. How many T-shirts can anyone use in a four-year college career? Many of mine are more than twenty years old, and they still work well.

This trend from learning to leisurewear has spread way beyond New York. I walked into a bookstore at the University of Iowa when I was teaching summer school there, and walked straight out because I thought it was a clothing store. The books, apparently, were hidden away where they couldn’t upset anybody.

A well-stocked bookshop, like a fine library, is slightly intimidating. It reminds us of all the things we don’t know. Knowledge on the Internet is fragmented and invisible. If we don’t search for it, it doesn’t exist. The Internet never confronts us with our own ignorance, which is why it is so popular and so politically dangerous. Real books are solid, visible, and hard to ignore. Yet now even some university libraries are beginning to get rid of their books and replace them with screens for students to goggle or Google at. This may the penultimate step towards the end of the five-hundred-year history of the printed book. It’s too bad. But you can always read your T-shirt.

The Curse of the Autodidact

Writers need to know things, and the best writers know a lot. Historical novels obviously depend on massive research, but any novel, short story or essay is much richer if it is well-seasoned with facts and ideas.

This was a barrier I ran into when I first started writing. Having skipped the college degree and jumped straight into Journalism at the age of sixteen I very quickly reached my level of incompetence. It was clear to me that the writers I admired were much better educated than I was, and that I could never aspire to do what they did without pounding a great many more facts into my head.

So I became that most annoying of creatures, an autodidact. On weekends I scoured the public libraries and the secondhand bookstores in Charing Cross Road in London. Two tedious years in the army provided me with a lot more reading time and, by my early twenties, I was quite certain that I knew everything worth knowing.

This illusion was briskly shattered by the clever boys and girls of the London literary scene. I had acquired some knowledge, but it was just a grab bag of disconnected facts and ideas. Nothing coherent came out of it.

It is no shame to surrender against overwhelming odds, so that’s what I did. After a belated immersion in the world of university and graduate school, I emerged somewhat chastened but also at least half-educated. This has been enormously useful, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

The trouble is that it is hard to stop. Those old autodidact habits haven’t gone away. I find myself going to lectures and to seminars at the One Day University, my study is cluttered with serious books and college courses on tape, and I haunt the local library like an inquisitive ghost. It’s a kind of neurosis. Most of this stuff I don’t need to know (this week the subject is Nietzsche) and none of it is remotely useful. I’ve never taken a course in carpentry, or electrical repair, or plumbing, although all these would be skills I could use.

There are a lot of others like me. I keep on meeting them in seminars and lecture rooms. We are decades past the stage of being educated, and probably past the stage of remembering anything we imagine we learn. But that is the curse of the autodidact.

The Art of the Holiday Letter

We won’t be sending out any Holiday Letters this year, or any other year. They are just too difficult to write – especially for someone like me who specializes in non-fiction. Our lives, unadorned by imagination, are just not interesting enough. Consider the plot elements that are needed to make a really good Holiday Letter: births, deaths, divorces, marriages, dreadful illnesses bravely born, dramatic traffic accidents, exotic travels, the acquisition of new (and better) homes and cars, career successes, and brilliant achievements by one’s children and grandchildren.

Running through this checklist I find that I have nothing at all worth telling about the year 2006. Our travels were frequent but modest, our medical bills are low, our cars remain without a scratch, and even the cats are thriving. What could I possibly say?

A few years ago, when I felt more guilty about not participating in this ritual, I set myself the task of writing the universal or generic holiday letter, written in the third person superlative, as a kind of template which I could adapt to my own life. It was published as a commentary in The New York Times under the title “More Than Perfect.” Here’s the letter.

“Dear Friends,

This has been a wonderful year for us. Joanna became CEO of the Megabucks Mining Corporation. But she hasn’t given up her sculpture. In fact her work won three top awards in prestigious exhibitions this year, and her studio was featured in The Architectural Review.

Meanwhile, Giles has been making his mark in the literary world. As you know his first novel was a great critical success, and Doubleday has offered a big advance on the second. He has a collection of poems on the way too, but becoming dean at the university has kept him from working on this as hard as he would like. The big Guggenheim grant he was hoping for just came through as well, so this is going to be a very busy and exciting year for Giles.

Speaking of the Guggenheim, you won’t believe it but young Angelica has just won a Fulbright. She’s going to India. And Edwin continues to be a star student and athlete in his high school, taking both the Latin and the mathematics prizes this fall and captaining the senior hockey team. He’s planning to go to Harvard Law School, and become an advocate for the poor.

Our late summer cruise to South America and the West Indies was just divine, such luxury we could scarcely bear to leave the ship. The China and Tibet tour was more challenging, but so educational for the children, and we made it up to them with a couple of weeks at Club Med in Morocco.

After Joanna’s promotion, we moved to a fine new house up in the hills with sixteen bedrooms, a Jacuzzi, and a forty-foot indoor pool. You must come and see us soon. But we expect to be away a lot this coming year: the Greek Islands in May, when they’re at their best, then Australia in July and France in October after the crowds have gone, to work on our French and tour the vineyards.

We still find time to jog ten miles a day in the mornings and go to the gym in the evenings. Giles is working on his golf and has taken up the piano. Joanna is re-reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in the original, which she finds so much deeper and more moving than the translation.

With love to you all, from Joanna and Giles, Angelica and Edwin.”

That’s your typical holiday letter. That’s why I gave up writing them – I just can’t compete. Even design is part of the competition – fancy papers, envelopes lined in gold foil, and copperplate handwriting in which the cynical eye may detect Lucinda Calligraphy from Word for Windows, or Freehand 575 from WordPerfect. Some are written in bad verse, or coyly presented from the viewpoint of the family dog or goldfish. Many come with full-color pictures, inevitably set on an exotic beach in front of a five star hotel, with the glowing and beautiful family looking like an out-take from Lives of the Rich and Famous.

What’s wrong with holiday letters is exactly the same as what’s wrong with commercial television. The writers feel they have to be upbeat or lose their audience, and the audience is so mixed and remote that nothing really interesting can be said. If you compose the same letter for aged relatives in the English countryside as for young and trendy friends in Greenwich Village, a certain bland and fantastical quality is sure to creep in.

Even when something bad has happened to the perfect family, it appears in the same golden glow. The heart bypass was a great success, I was back to marathon training within two weeks; the divorce was so amicable and you must come to Santa Barbara to meet my new partner Tom or Theresa or Godfrey (as the case may be); the pandemic gave us the perfect opportunity to work on our spirituality.

Truth in advertising doesn’t seem to apply to holiday letters, although it should. However, about once a year, like a breath of fresh air, we get a letter that can at least be attempted to be believed: the kids have dropped out of school and been busted for drugs, the house has been repossessed, the car caught fire, the dog died. Now that’s more like it. And it is tempting to accept the challenge, and send just such a completely honest holiday letter, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the events of the past year. It might cost us a few friends who would never write to us again. But we could still read about them, in the color section of the Sunday papers.

The Knowledge Man

Denis Diderot is an almost-forgotten name in intellectual history, although everybody knows Mr. Google. But whenever we use an online search engine to answer one of our questions we are benefitting from the genius, bravery, and determination of Monsieur Diderot.

His idea, which was as simple as it was revolutionary, was to gather together all the knowledge in the world in a systematic way so that anybody could find information about anything. In other words, Diderot invented the encyclopedia.

It was a project on a heroic scale, completed in 1772 and filling twenty-seven large volumes containing seventy-five thousand entries. It was not at all popular among the rich and powerful of the time. The idea of spreading knowledge is never welcomed by people whose position depends on the ignorance of those less fortunate. Knowledge really is power. That’s why universal education evokes such mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is the force behind economic and social progress. On the other, once people start thinking for themselves, who knows what might happen?

Diderot was said to have written ten thousand of the Encyclopedia articles himself. Some of them were so radical that the entire book was banned for a while. But now it is treated as an intellectual monument, and the French state honored the author in his tricentennial year.

When I was growing up, encyclopedia salesmen came from door to door. “The encyclopedia man” became a kind of joke, spoofed by Monty Python among others. My parents had two different sets in multiple volumes, one for adults and one for children – that is to say, for me, my very own encyclopedia. An encyclopedia in the house was supposed to guarantee that your child would grow up both intelligent and knowledgeable, and obviously, it worked in my case. You can still find printed encyclopedias gathering dust in public libraries, but rarely on family bookshelves – the Internet has seen to that. I leave it to you to decide whether the Internet in the house will guarantee that your child will grow up both intelligent and knowledgeable.

The great thing about an encyclopedia in book form, and especially a big one like Britannica or Americana, is that you can read it, explore it, and get lost in it. One thing leads to another, and another, and another. You may start by looking up Diderot and end up reading about speculative fiction or Italian opera. I know, because it happened to me. Internet search engines simply seek out a target and hit it: here’s your question, here’s your answer, end of story. This is very practical and useful, but there’s no adventure in it and precious little chance of making strange or unexpected discoveries.

Intellectual giants of the past like Goethe, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Freud all admired Diderot, not just for his massive encyclopedia but for his subversive satirical writing. He was a man with a mission, to promote knowledge in all its forms without prejudice and without censorship. It is ironic to reflect that if he were to pursue the same passion today, three centuries later, he would probably be in as much trouble with the authorities now as he was then.

Note:A splendid new biography of Diderot was published in 2019 – Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely by Andrew S. Curran.

Memories are Made of This?

The basement of a house is like the Freudian subconscious. It’s where we store all the things we cannot bear to throw away, but we don’t want to remember right now. It’s always a mistake to go poking around down there, but sometimes I can’t resist a little personal archaeology, a dig into the buried treasures of my life.

Our basement harbors a large closet assigned to “my stuff.” This category includes everything mechanical and electrical, plus all my personal files and souvenirs. A lot of memories are hiding in that closet – real personal history. I should have recalled Oscar Wilde’s epigram on this subject. “The only duty we owe to history,” he said, “Is to rewrite it.”

I rewrite history as I go along. My memory is highly selective in a positive way. I remember the good things and forget the bad and the boring. This may not make for an interesting autobiography if I should ever write one, but it does make for better sleep. The closet was another matter.

Two boxes of memories came out of the closet. They contained all the things I couldn’t bring myself to throw away over the past thirty or forty years. They would be scrapbooks in embryo if I was in the habit of making scrapbooks.

I took a deep breath, remembering the fate of Pandora, and plunged into the oldest and dustiest box.

It seems that all my memories are made of paper – no floppy disks, no material mementos or souvenirs, not so much as a ring or a lock of hair, or fur. The boxes are filled with letters, photographs, old writings, reviews, and posters – nothing but paper. A splash of barbecue lighting fluid and a match would wipe out all my memories in a matter of seconds.

Would I miss my paper memories? I think not, or at least not yet. Perhaps, one day, bored in the nursing home I might say: “I wish I had all that old stuff to look through.” But not now.

The photographs were the most disturbing. Old color photos don’t fade the way black and whites used to, becoming sepia and “historic” and therefore harmless. They stay bright and sharp, embalming people in their Technicolor prime. It’s like The Picture of Dorian Gray in reverse. Nobody was as beautiful as memory paints them. Time has made them depressingly ordinary.
Old letters carry the same insidious payload of disappointment. Re-reading them, I realized that my old friends and I were never half as clever as we imagined. We were often dull, and trite, and pompous, and thoughtlessly sentimental. These letters cried out for a splash of lighting fluid and a match, and the same could be said of my own juvenile writings.

Some small things snapped my memory to attention, soundless soundbites from the past like Proust’s Madeleine: a card for my father’s funeral service; a wedding invitation from somebody I had intended to marry myself but forgot; a restaurant menu that reminded me of a unique evening; a train ticket that recalled a serious error of judgment on the way to Amsterdam, my first dog, my first motorcycle, my first love. A lot of things had slipped my mind, including names that should have been engraved there forever. Have they forgotten my name too? That would be justice.

After going through one moldy old cardboard box of paper, I had uncovered so many real memories that my carefully constructed false memories were in serious jeopardy. Freud was right: repression is good. I’ll wait a while before I open the second box.

Amnesia is a great gift. It makes everything always new. That’s why we write against the sedimentation of life into moldy old boxes. We write to keep life alive. Memory has nothing to do with it.

Writer in Love

“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence”
H.L.Mencken

Writing and love don’t mix. Romantic love* gives its victims blanket permission to be silly, and this silliness too often takes literary form. In the worst case scenario, lovers may write poetry. This should be actively discouraged. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a particularly egregious case or, in music, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – but everyone will have their own favorite examples of creative work done under the influence of emotional intoxication.

Nobody can write sensibly while in love. If the love is truly passionate and mutual, the sexual demands alone should leave a person incapable of raising his/her hands to the keyboard, let alone having an original thought. The critical faculties are necessarily suspended, not just in relation to the loved one, but in relation to everything. People in love can’t drive, type, or even prepare a meal with proper concentration. They are, as the ancient Greeks knew, temporarily insane.

Scott Fitzgerald said: “It’s easy to be loved, but hard to love.” This is true. It’s fine to write while being loved. Being loved is a confidence booster. Loving is an energy drain.

Writing about love is easier, but not much. The language of literary romance is very restrictive, rather like a computer code. Bosoms heave, hearts pound and flutter, breath is short, eyes cloud over, and the victim suffers from weakness, faintness, and a sense of fatality. These are very much like the symptoms of a real heart attack. The trouble is, you don’t get rushed into intensive care to fix the problem.

That’s why lots of writers prefer to write about sex, and let love take care of itself. But sex raises a different problem. The language is richer but the content is more limited. It’s like writing about car mechanics. As the guy in your local repair shop will tell you there are lots of different models of cars, some more desirable than others. But they are all based on the same mechanical principles and they all work the same way. This doesn’t make for great literature.

I have a theory that the best writing about relationships happens just after those affairs end, when the mind snaps back into focus. Some authors manage to stay angry for a lifetime on the basis of a single failed love affair. This can be very productive – for example the comical revenge novels of Fay Weldon. On the other hand, love that sticks around and matures can produce some very fine writing, such as the biography of Iris Murdoch, Elegy for Iris, by her husband John Bayley,
The question of a writer’s muse is bound to come up here because the Muse is imagined to be both an object of love and a source of creativity. Muses are female by definition. The original nine Muses were daughters of Zeus, a good pedigree, and their job was to be patron goddesses of the arts. The Greek Muses were not love objects, they were organizers, like chairs of academic departments: Erato controlled love poetry, Terpsichore was in charge of dance, and so on. No fewer than four of the original Muses were concerned with poetry. Comedy and tragedy each had its own Muse, but nobody was assigned to essays or general non-fiction.

The contemporary Muse is very different. She is a living, loving inspiration. She must still be female because men don’t have the special skills needed for this job. But this kind of Muse is also dying out. Women are too busy following their own dreams – and the Muse’s task is both exhausting and, perhaps, demeaning. The best kind of Muse may be an ex-lover living several thousand miles away, who can safely be idealized. But the most useful kind would be a woman like Vladimir Nabokov’s wife Vera, who so fiercely protected his writing time and his privacy that she made his astonishing output possible.

The decline of the traditional Muse is undeniably a good thing. Lacking this source of inspiration, men are less likely to launch into romantic writing. Men, of course, are the true romantics in this world, because they can’t help themselves. If you don’t believe me, check the romantic literature. Women are the voice of reason, the organizers of male emotions. For a really rational fix on love, you have to go to female authors, like Jane Austen, who had absolutely no illusions as to what the Great Game was about.
These reflections lead to four clear conclusions:

1. Never write while in actively love, and especially not during the early high-fever stages of the malady.

2. Write about love only in case of urgent financial need, and with tongue firmly in cheek.

3. Only men should write about love. Women should write about its consequences.

When it comes to love, there are no clear conclusions.

Writers do it in Groups

“I can take any amount of criticism,
as long as it is unqualified praise.”

Noël Coward

Writing, like reading, is a solitary vice. Even the printed page is private. Other people will read it in other places. Most of us don’t like to expose our work in public. Criticism hurts, especially personal criticism. A stinging review in The New York Review of Books is one thing: a face-to-face insult from somebody we know is something else entirely.

One of my online correspondents reported that she had shared one of my essays with her writing group. She passed on some of their comments.

“Their biggest quibble was your sweeping use of generalizations. One also observed that he might have guessed you were British even if I hadn’t mentioned it. We agreed your arch diction, lack of contractions, etc. all contribute to that brilliant but befuddled British voice not often heard in everyday American reading. One person observed, ‘He doesn’t pull any punches,’ admitting that in one passage where he was mad at you, it was
because you were quite probably right.

“So, overwhelming verdict: true, acerbic, funny, well-said, but nothing you don’t
already know.”

I’m glad I wasn’t there. I would have disputed every single comment, including the positive ones. “Arch diction” indeed! How could any sagacious critic arrive such an implausible evaluation of a genre that is au fond colloquial?

This is probably why I don’t go to writing groups anymore. I just can’t take criticism.

When writers ask me about the value of writing groups I warmly recommend them. I’m sincerely convinced that they are a wonderful resource – for other people.

“Have you ever grouped?” asked my correspondent. It sounds a bit naughty but, yes, I have grouped quite a lot – sometimes with writers. Her question took me back in time forty-eight years, to my very first writing group. The setting was a ghastly place called Dagenham, to the east of London in England. My parents had moved out to the suburbs in 1940, when our London house was bombed. So I grew up in a suburb very much like the one you see on that undeservedly popular British comedy “Putting on Appearances.” A few miles away was Dagenham – a very different place. It owed existence entirely to the giant Ford motor plant – then the biggest in Europe. A huge development of ugly government housing (what the British call “council housing”) had been built for the workers around the perimeter of the plant. There were no other amenities, except for a lot of gloomy pubs. Dagenham, in those days, was a place to avoid.

Naturally I was attracted to it. I was a bookish teenager with dreams of being a “socially relevant” writer. The suburb where we lived was completely middle class and dull. But Dagenham was teeming with social relevance – trade unionists, socialists, communists, anarchists, criminals and even a few fascists. This was the place for a young writer to be. So I was excited to learn of the existence of a group called the Dagenham Poet’s and Writer’s Circle. Here I expected to meet the Orwells and Garcia Lorcas of the present and future age.

I stayed with the circle for about six months. It was depressing beyond description, but I’ll try. Our monthly meetings took place in the claustrophobic front room of Dagenham’s self-appointed poet Laureate – a middle-aged widow with hysterical tendencies. All the other members were male, and all except me were middle-aged. We perched on chairs and collapsing sofas, and drank tea, and listened to socially relevant writing. Most of it was very (very) bad poetry. As the most junior member, I never contributed anything to the circle myself, and I almost gave up the idea of being a writer there and then.

You might think that I had been inoculated against writing groups for life. But, about six years later in the much more promising territory of Hampstead, North London, I was tempted into grouping once again. Hampstead was and is a major center of literary and artistic activity in London and, at the time, I ran a small bookstore in the High Street. That was my downfall. All the writers and would-be writers came to my bookstore. John Mortimer (later the author of the Rumpole books) and Elias Cannetti (later a Nobel Prizewinner) were both regular customers. But these interesting people just passed in and out of the store, exchanging no more than a few words. I wanted to get to know some real writers.

So I repressed the memory of The Dagenham Poet’s and Writer’s Circle and started a writing group of my own, based at the bookstore. This was better. Social relevance was irrelevant in Hampstead. The members of our little group aspired to high art. Unfortunately, their definition of high art was any piece of writing that displayed (a) depressing feelings (b) obscure metaphors and (c) uncontrolled verbosity. This was a much better-educated group than the one I had joined six years before, and it made me doubt the value of higher education.

Most of them were poets who had been influenced, more or less indiscriminately, by Eliot, Plath and other prize neurotics. Lorna was a poet – the first one I had ever known intimately. We shared a small studio apartment for a while and, more importantly, an old but beautiful Aston Martin sports car. Fortunately, she had the prime requisite of a full-time poet: a private income. It was an interesting experience, from which I am now almost fully recovered. When we split up she got the apartment, the car, and the writing group. I moved to another city and married a woman who believed that all writers were egotistical wasters.

She kept me out of writing groups for many years, bless her. When that phase of my life was over I found myself in Santa Cruz, California. It seemed like a good place to try again. I was surrounded by creative people who were also beautiful. So I joined (or was hijacked by) an eclectic writing/art/multimedia group at the university. They were in the habit of holding meetings naked, in a huge hot tub under the redwood trees. This was very exotic, but I found it hard to concentrate on literary matters in these circumstances. Also, the members of the group seemed less interested in writing than in expressing their (rather predictable) feelings and ingesting large amounts of dope. I narrowly escaped marrying a graduate student, and left California forever. (Ok, the truth is that the INS threw me out because my visa had expired).

A long period of solitary writing followed. But when I came from England to Long Island in 1986 I felt so isolated, and so out of touch with this alien culture, that I formed a writing group again. We attracted one excellent professional writer and several with real talent. At my insistence, we spent part of our meetings on the analysis of published writing, rather than focusing always on ourselves.

The group ran for two years, usually with six to ten people at each meeting. During that time we published four books and a lot of shorter pieces between us. Then it succumbed to the usual problems: too many people being too busy, too much repetition, and boredom with each other’s quirks and stories.

Repetition is the bane of writing groups. I visited another on Long Island in which one of the members had been bringing back the same chapters of the same novel for two years, as if constant exposure might make her very bad writing better. Constant “workshopping” can bring anyone’s writing to a standstill. More importantly, groups are bad at criticism because they are at least fifty percent social. Supportive comments are nice to hear but useless. A writer needs to develop a built-in critic, an inner editor, who is infinitely sharper and more demanding than any friendly writing group could possibly be.

Ernest Hemmingway expressed the same thought in fewer words: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit detector.”

There’s a whole phenomenon of virtual writers’ groups on the web.These offer a chance to share ideas, advice, and work in progress with a much larger number of people without the intensity of face to face meetings. But it all seems a bit cold-blooded, and who has the time to read all the stuff posted on all the hundreds of web sites aimed at writers?

There must be many writers’ groups out there that are stimulating, competitive, educational, and even romantically exciting. I’ve heard about them, just as I’ve heard about many splendid parties to which I have never been never invited.