Quote of The Week

“The word ‘reality’ is one of the very few words that means nothing without quotes.”

Vladimir Nabokov


What do I Know?

There are few things more pleasing than discovering the expression of a latent thought – that is a thought that has been lurking in the back of your mind for years or decades, but has never quite come into focus. Margaret Attwood just provided me with this pleasure in the following quotation.

“Everyone thinks writers must know more about the inside of the human head, but that is wrong. They know less. That’s why they write. Trying to find out what everyone else takes for granted.”

These few words lit up a dark corner that has disturbed me for years. There are many plausible answers to the question: “Why do we write?” I’ve used most of them in my lifetime. But, as Attwood implies, the real reason I write is that I don’t understand anything about other human beings, and I’m trying to find out.

The human world is awash with enthusiasms and manias, all of which are incomprehensible to me: sports, religion, and war are three of the big ones. I just can’t understand what anybody sees in any of them, yet they seem to be as basic to human happiness as food or sex.

It’s disappointing that forty years or more of writing haven’t brought me any closer to answers, but at least I tried. In the end, I’m happy to relax into the bemused acquiescence of the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne. In middle age he became skeptical about the possibility of any true knowledge, and adopted the motto: “Que sais-je?” – What do I know?

It’s the thought that counts

Here’s a book worth reading, although it was published back in 2011 which now almost seems like an age of innocence – Except When I Write by Arthur Krystal. He is a well-known essayist and critic (New Yorker, Harpers, etc.) and has collected together twelve of his best essays and critical reviews from 2005 to 2009.

The first essay alone is worth the price – “When Writers Speak.” In it Krystal offers a quotation that Edgar Allan Poe attributed to Montaigne.
“People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.”

This mild but disturbing aperçu brought me up short. It had the same effect on Krystal, and perhaps on you. How true it is – at least for my mental habit. Most of the time I live and talk on automatic pilot, using the same stock repertoire of actions and phrases that I’ve been using all my life. Thought is not necessary, unless I try to solve a crossword or puzzle out some new outrage committed by my computer.

It’s the same for most of us. Recently I took a two-hour train trip to and from New York, during which I was surrounded by people who talked loudly and incessantly to each other or (more often) to some disembodied entity hiding inside a cell phone. I must have been an unwilling listener to eight or ten conversations on that train, and none of them made any sense whatsoever. They were (to use a good old-fashioned word) just blather, empty words, ungrammatical stream of consciousness noise. No communication was taking place, except the kind of communication that occurs when one monkey chatters to another – a kind of verbal grooming or exchange of recognition signals.

It was depressing to realize that I often do exactly the same thing. Faced with a social situation, or an unexpected phone call or an encounter in the post office, I can blather as well as anyone. Not a single thought enters my head while I am doing it.

But when I sit down to write, as Montaigne said, I begin to think. The rusty gears of my brain grind into action and (as has often been pointed out to me by my nearest and dearest) I disappear into a state of abstraction where I don’t want to talk to anybody. This is exactly why writing is so hard. It’s not the writing it’s the thinking that produces keyboard avoidance and writer’s block.

The reverse side of this phenomenon, as Krystal points out, is that writers are often poor speakers. Our literary skills don’t always translate into verbal skills, perhaps because the thinking part of our brains is reserved for or used up by the first.

As someone who works in radio, where speech and writing (and, occasionally, thought) come together, I found Krystal’s speculations fascinating. But you have to read the whole of Krystal’s essay – if I describe it in any more detail here I will probably be guilty of copyright infringement. The rest of his book is excellent too, especially if you are interested in Hazlitt, Poe, Barzun, or Scott Fitzgerald (some of his favorite subjects). His essays are models of complex yet completely friendly writing, and they must have required a lot of thought.

The Teaching Experience

A lot of writers teach to pay the rent. It’s the almost ideal occupation because of the long vacations and the fact that teaching is (or was) all about words, books, and ideas. Some have made the leap from teaching to literary fame, like Frank McCourt (Teacher Man) and Alan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind).

I’ve done my share of teaching, although I started late. The first time I faced a class, at a British University, I was already thirty years old. This gave me a certain advantage over the younger assistant professors. The students assumed I was more senior than I was, and I didn’t disillusion them. For twenty years I continued teaching at that university, and in New York, Connecticut, and California. It was a great experience, although it left me with an ineradicable streak of irony.

Now I only teach at summer writing schools, and the occasional adult seminar, where the dynamic is very different from that of a college class. But an opportunity just came along to teach a special seminar at the local university, which set me thinking again about the education process, which I thought I had left behind for good.

Teaching changes people. It gives confidence, or at least it did for me. It’s great for the self-esteem, perhaps too great. Professors feel sure of themselves. They are the experts, and they are on top of their subjects. They may occasionally be challenged by graduate students or a bright undergraduate, but basically they are invulnerable.

It’s a good feeling to be ‘the authority.’ It’s something I miss as a writer. My audience and work team consists of our two cats, who never defer to my authority in any way whatsoever. So the thought of a seminar is rather tempting.

Other kinds of teaching may be less good for the morale. Primary school teachers are (I hope) firmly in charge of their tiny pupils. But middle and high school teachers are on a battlefield, and they often seem crushed and embittered by the experience. Education works best from ages 0 to 10, and then again from about 20 to 30. The intermediate years are a waste of time.

Pedagogy has changed enormously in my lifetime. The boys’ school I went to was run by a team of authoritarian “masters” to used sarcasm and violence to keep us in line. But they were effective teachers. At university I encountered some of those old-fashioned professors of the type portrayed so vividly by John Houseman in the movie The Paper Chase. Teachers were always typecast as enemies, egomaniacs, or gurus. They fascinated us, because they were so different and we assumed (usually wrongly) that they had bottomless stores of secret knowledge.

All gone now: vanished beyond recall. Today’s teachers, at all levels, are supposed to be friends and confidantes, regular guys and gals who facilitate shared learning experiences instead of teaching. Now it seems they are supposed to be bodyguards and sharp shooters as well. Whatever they are paid, it cannot possibly be enough.


Every time I have to speak in public I am struck by the difference between the words that we write and the words that we say. I first learned this almost forty years ago when I first began teaching, but it still comes as a surprise. Things that are easy to write may be difficult or almost impossible to speak out loud. The most obvious example is the contrast between a love letter (easy, a piece of cake) and a verbal declaration of love face to face (terrifying, virtually out of the question).

There are a number of reasons for this. The spoken word carries a load of meaning and emotion that the written word can rarely equal. Speech and hearing are instinctively human, while writing and reading are mere techniques. When we speak we get an instant reaction from our audience, whether it is two hundred people or one. A live audience responds in a way that a computer keyboard does not, and you as a speaker may be diverted and even derailed by their responses. Also, when we speak, we hear the awful inadequacies of our own words. That’s why one of the best pieces of advice for writers is: “Read it out loud.”

Public speaking is a good exercise for writers, as well as being a potential source of income (always welcome). Reading your own works and talking about them is a great way to expand your audience, and your understanding of how other people react to your ideas.

The tradition of live storytelling has had a revival recently, and I’ve participated in one or two events. Once again, if you are not a trained actor, this is a useful way to get accustomed to public exposure. The best way is to start by reading traditional stories. For some reason it is easier to ‘tell’ other people’s words than it is to read one’s own. I don’t pretend to understand this, unless it is simple modesty (or embarrassment). If you’ve never been to a storytelling event for adults I can highly recommend it.

Radio occupies an interesting middle ground between public speaking and writing. The performer is invisible, but his or her words are carried by the voice. Good radio performers (and voice actors who read recorded books) can have tremendous impact, perhaps even greater than in a face-to-face situation. Sometimes I think that the invisible speaker is the best communicator of all – but we must come out into the daylight sometimes.

The best technique for preparing a public speech is well known, and it works. First write the whole thing out in full, so you can judge its completeness, its logic, and its length. This version will be almost literally unspeakable – stilted and awkward when you read it out loud. Then take the full version and make a series of brief notes cover the main points, and speak only from the notes. The effect is like magic. Your speech will suddenly flow naturally and expressively, and everyone will acclaim you as a great speaker. The ghastly effect of reading a speech from a text can be heard by listening to any politician. Never read a speech!


“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.”

Henry David Thoreau: Walden

We humans are a sociable species. That’s how we survive. We have the self-protective herd instinct that tells us to conform, follow the leader, and go with the crowd. This behavior can be seen in its purest form in your local high school, where ‘fitting in’ is practically a religion.

What makes us different from cows or lemmings is that we can and do break away from the herd, and think our separate thoughts. We are bees with a perspective on the hive, which allows us to evolve and to create. It also gives us a headache.

The moments when we are separated from the swarm, mentally or physically, are precious, potentially creative spaces, when we can actually reflect on what (for want of a better phrase) I have to call the meaning of life. Even though Monty Python made an international joke out of it, the meaning of life is still a pretty important question.

This makes the absence of solitude al the more disturbing. Oddly enough it used to be available in public places like airports or trains, where we had to wait in a kind of limbo. But limbo has been abolished by scientific progress. In any such area today, the whole world is connected with cell phones, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, blueteeth, greenteeth any many other technologies I haven’t even heard of yet. Everyone is talking into thin air, or peering at a tiny screen while trying to press buttons the size of deer ticks. Nobody has the slightest desire to pause for reflection. On the contrary, that kind of solitude has become quite scary.

Normally couples just ignore each one another in public spaces. Now they actively turn their backs, each one absorbed in communication with someone else, somewhere else. The solitude of their togetherness is too much to endure. Or perhaps they are just following the prescription of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

“I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”

Cellphones make it easy to escape the other, but not the millions and billions of others.
We can travel to the ends of the earth, but even the deserts and mountains are crowded. Resorts ironically offer “Relaxation and solitude,” when you and they know that thousands of others will be sharing the same solitary experience. Solitude, when we find it, is all in the mind.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel A Hundred Years of Solitude is not really “about” solitude, except in so far as it follows the pointless and circular lives of the Buendia family, cut off from the wider world and progress. They are solitary in so far as they are ignorant, and their solitude is less a gift than a pathology.

But solitude remains a romantic, poetic notion, especially for creative people. A strange thing happened to me last summer. On a trip abroad I was unable to connect to the Internet for about a week, I had no telephone, and the cell phone failed. We had no TV or radio either. We were cut off from the continuous chatter of the outside world, and achieved a kind of solitude by default.

It was very disturbing at first, but then a profound peace descended. This, I supposed, was the magic of solitude that everyone writes about, but almost nobody finds. I could almost feel my blood pressure going down, I slept better, I was relaxed – and I couldn’t write a word.

This may be what happens to people who hide away in remote writers’ colonies, hoping that peace and quiet will bring the inspiration that everyday life had failed to bring. Thoreau wrote a lot about solitude, but he was constantly involved with people, with nature, and with his own philosophy. He was no more solitary than I am, sitting completely alone in my study, apart from two cats, the birds outside the window, and the radio playing a harp concerto by a composer with a marvelous name – Karl Ditters Von Dittersdorf.

Real solitude must be very much like Death Lite. Solitary confinement is one of our cruelest punishments. Not wonder we love to dream about it, but never to practice it on ourselves.

The Writer as Sociologist

We tend to assume that writers began as students of literature, and most did. It’s no surprise that Martin Amis and John Updike are English graduates. But writers are a diverse and unpredictable lot, and some of us end up very far from where we started out, educationally speaking. The late Norman Mailer, for example, studied at Harvard to be an aeronautical engineer, and Saul Bellow read sociology and anthropology at Chicago.

It was reassuring to discover this last fact. People I meet often assume that I must have studied either literature or music, because these are the two things that I am publicly involved in right now. They are surprised and even offended to learn that, in fact, was trained, like Bellow, as a sociologist at the University of London. At the beginning of my university career I had studied literature for a time, but discovered that my opinions about canonical writers never coincided with those of my professors. Literature led me into some wonderful arguments, but also led to very poor grades.

Sociology suited me very well. It is (or was) a wide-open subject within which all kinds of curiosities can be indulged. In sociology we learned about the subject matter of literature – namely ourselves and our intricately connected world.

After graduating, on the basis of a thesis about radical politics, I spent almost twenty years teaching in the British and American university systems. What fascinated me as a teacher was the broad view of society, especially in classic theory. Sociology (like anthropology and history) tends to drag us away from our preoccupation with personal issues. It asks us to look at the big picture.

A few intellectuals began asking sociological questions in the eighteenth century, during the period now called The Enlightenment (l’éclairage, literally “lighting up” in French). As religion declined it was possible and necessary to investigate everything: where morality comes from, why we have conflicts and wars, what is the best kind of government, and whether human beings can or should ever be equal. These are huge questions, and they were taken up in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by a series of mighty intellectuals, including Marl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. They were not strictly scientific thinkers, but nor were they just speculative philosophers. Their theories open up the minds of students, create doubt and debate about the most fundamental things “we all know,” and generally provide a marvelous teaching tool.

The social sciences in general are justly notorious for promoting bad writing. This is partly because some of its practitioners are terrible writers, but mainly because the subject matter is accessible and familiar – the family, politics, social class, race, and so on. In an effort to make their work appear more academic and scientific, professional sociologists have packaged their work in a barbarous jargon that fools nobody but effectively conceals whatever it is they are trying to prove or explain.

For this and other reasons in the 1990s I began to edge away from sociology and towards journalism (which had been my first occupation and obsession before I began teaching). The sociological perspective has been invaluable. Every topic has two sides, the personal and the social. Most writers zero in on the personal. I could always be (or seem) original by choosing the social side.

Saul Bellow, as another sociologist-turned-writer, reinforces my point. Here’s a quote from his biography, as presented in Wikipedia:

“The author’s works speak to the disorienting nature of modern civilization, and the countervailing ability of humans to overcome their frailty and achieve greatness (or at least awareness). Bellow saw many flaws in modern civilization, and its ability to foster madness, materialism and misleading knowledge.”

Updike writes only about himself. Bellow writes about society. And I suspect that all writers, especially the most self-involved, would benefit from a few courses on sociology and anthropology (to say nothing of history and philosophy).

That’s my prejudice for today.

No time to write? Here’s the reason

Every writer has the same complaint – no time. Yet writers in the past managed to be prolific without even the crutch of a computer, or sometimes even a typewriter. How did they do it?

The answer is summed up in a book by Alison Light: Mrs. Woolf and The Servants. It records the sad travails of Virginia Woolf in dealing with the ill-paid people whose job it was to cook for her, clean for her, arrange her clothes, and in general make her life absolutely free of household cares. According to the book Mrs. Woolf hated her servants, even while she depended on them utterly.

We are all our own servants now, slaves to our homes and families. No wonder we have no time.

Short is Beautiful

Those of us who write on the small scale – little essays like this, for example – are constantly haunted by the notion that we should be doing something more serious, and/or something much bigger. Kind friends suggest it all the time. The underlying message is: “Why are you wasting your time on this trivial small stuff?” This is very annoying, especially if you like the trivial small stuff. I wanted to argue for the value of writing that readers love and remember just because it is engaging, simple, and short.

Inexperienced writers tend to suffer badly from the Henry James syndrome – never use one word when you can use sixty-four. Probably this habit was learned in school or college when we were required to write five or ten pages on this subject or that. Lacking ideas, we simply multiplied words until we had filled the necessary amount of paper. Exactly the same thing happens in writing workshops: too many words, not enough content.

I once gave a rather lengthy talk on the subject of brevity at a writers conference. It had a mixed reception. Writers love their words. They are also captivated by the universal delusion of the age that more equals better: the SUV syndrome. Many writers want their work to be big and flashy and intimidating, like an SUV or an eight hundred page book by Tom Wolfe. But the taste of the reading public is moving in the opposite direction, towards the Prius – small, neat, and economical. Publishers like Orion and Penguin have done well with abbreviated versions of big classics like War and Peace and Moby Dick. Newspaper and magazine articles are getting shorter. Younger people (and some not so young) have stripped the language down to tweets and text messages (translation: yungA ppl av stripD d lang dwn 2 txt msgs), which can compress the whole of War and Peace into a few keystrokes. This is no time for writers to indulge their love of words.

Nobody much liked this line of argument, except for the poets who were happily composing twelve-word Haiku on their laptops. About halfway through the talk it dawned on me that I was repeating the mistake that made King Canute famous. The tide of words is unstoppable.

I failed to anticipate the obvious objection to my crusade for brevity, although nobody said it out loud: brevity is hard work. We have a lot of words, and its fun to splurge them all out on paper. Cutting is a slow and painful process. As Blaise Pascal wrote to a friend: “I’m sorry this letter is longer than usual, but I lacked the time to make it short.” Precisely.

But I do wish writers, amateur and professional, would practice some self-discipline and learn when enough is enough. Brevity is the soul of wit. That’s six hundred words. I’ll stop.

Ordinary Lives

I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately, including Gore Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation, and feeling almost overwhelmed by the huge number of celebrity anecdotes. Vidal doesn’t just drop names, he buries the reader in truckloads of them. Not a page goes by without some story about Tennessee Williams, Tom Wolf, Samuel Barber Louis Auchincloss, Frederico Fellini, Paul Newman, and on and on and on.

Alan Bennett’s diaries are much the same. Every big name from Vivien Leigh to Sir John Gielgud and the Princess of Wales puts in an appearance – many times. Martin Amis, Cyril Connelly, and even P.D.James, have the same extraordinary web of celebrity connections. They seem to have known everyone who was ever in the headlines in the twentieth century. It has to do with money, of course, and privileged schooling that sets up elite networks at an early age.

It made me think how difficult it has become for ordinary people to sell memoirs. Publishers are not just looking for books about celebrities they are looking for books by and about celebrities.

I’ve never met an authentic celebrity in my whole life – or if I did I’ve forgotten, which amounts to the same thing – so my own memoir has precious little chance of hitting the New York Times bestseller list.

The annoying thing is that these celebrity-laden memoirs are interesting. That’s why I’m reading them, and why I would never read my own memoir. My quotidian is not their quotidian, dammit.

The Curtain

Most writers dream about being novelists, although it’s not obvious why. The market for serious novels is getting smaller all the time. But the fiction itch, it seems, must be scratched. Even after having had successful careers as journalists, essayists, or script writers, many of our fellow scribblers feel that they absolutely must write a novel, or more particularly “my novel.” I share the common weakness, if that’s what it is. I read a lot of novels, and I would love to write them. Unfortunately that particular talent has passed me by.

But it’s still interesting to read about novelists: how they work, how they imagine their fictional worlds, how they create characters, and how they succeed or fail. Therefore I recommend a though-provoking little book – really an extended essay – by Milan Kundera. It’s called The Curtain.

Nobody could be better qualified to write about the novel, and Kundera does it intensely and with great style and learning. He has sections on the nature of a story, aesthetics, memory, and the history of the novel, among many other things. I was particularly interested in his discussion of how the passage of time is treated in fiction, and how the telescoping of events creates a world that is both engaging and completely unreal. In fiction we have the charming convention that allows us to write: “Later that day….” or “After thirty years lost in the jungle….” The tedium of everyday life is simply erased. No wonder we love stories!

This is not an easy book. Kundera’s arguments demand close attention. The average reader, like me, will have to make a few trips to the library to check out his references. But it repays the effort. It almost persuades me to try once more to write a novel – almost, but not quite.