Tuesday 27 November 2012

In defence of blogging

Over the past few months, as I’ve let people know about this blog, a few of my older friends have expressed unease – they don’t get what blogging is for. One wonders why I don’t just write a journal and keep it to myself. Another struggles with a sense of disapproval that he can’t quite put his finger on.

When I moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago, I started writing an annual letter home, which I’d photocopy and mail to friends and family. A quaint process it seems now, but not so obviously antiquated back then at the turn of the century. Not everybody liked it. Rumours reached me of two separate recipients refusing to read it. One, I was informed (whether reliably or not, I couldn’t say), used to toss it in the bin unread. The other annually rejected his wife’s offers to read bits of it aloud (I like to imagine him sticking his fingers in his ears and humming). I half understood these reactions. I assumed they were rooted in a feeling that a duplicated letter is somehow fraudulent. What friends write to each other should be personal and spontaneous.

In an essay on the wonderful letters of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, Tom Paulin writes about this expectation: “Are letters not written… as throwaway, disposable, flimsy unique holographs which aim to flower once and once only in the recipient’s reading and then disappear immediately? The merest suspicion that the writer is aiming beyond the addressee… freezes a letter’s immediacy and destroys its spirit” (Tom Paulin, Writing to the Moment, Faber 1996, p. 216).

Perhaps the discomfort with blogging is related to this. Perhaps it’s an expression of the more general sense that the proper barriers between the private and the public spheres have been eroded. In Malcolm Bradbury’s 1972 novel The History Man, the radical sociologist Howard Kirk is writing a book called The Defeat of Privacy which anticipates this trend. He says, “It’s about the fact that there are no more private selves, no more private corners in society… There are no concealments any longer, no mysterious dark places of the soul. We’re all there in front of the entire audience of the universe in a state of exposure.” What seemed radical thinking in the 1970s – utopian or nightmarish according to your point of view – now sounds like an ordinary day in the world of Facebook and Twitter.

In fact, with lots of people updating their status hourly, the weekly composing of a blog post seems, in comparison, positively sedate, even old-fashioned. The technology would have been unimaginable to an Elizabethan pamphleteer or an eighteenth century essayist, but the impulse to develop a thought in public would surely have been recognised. I grew up, before the invention of the internet, with people who were forever firing off letters to the local newspaper, or the town council, or haranguing whoever would listen on whatever seemed important to them at the time.  

I’m not unsympathetic to the anti-blog arguments, starting with the fact that there are probably more people writing them than reading them. On the other hand, here are five things a blog won’t do:

Create litter.
Trap you in a corner at a party.
Interrupt your evening with a loud ringing noise.
Stop you from sleeping on the train.
Drive you from the dinner table in tears. 

Friday 16 November 2012

Looking for a plot

So the new novel is in the hands of my agent, and I’m itching to break ground on a new one. But about what, and set where, and in what form? There’s something odd about this searching for a subject – a period of vague preoccupation. It feels faintly undignified. ‘Nothing to do?’ my father would ask. ‘Come to me. I’ll give you a job.’

I’m descended from doers and makers – carpenters on my father’s side, tailors on my mother’s. I was brought up to respect the dignity of labour. Shoulders were to be kept to the wheel, noses to the grindstone. ‘Make way for the working man,’ my father would say, coming through the kitchen with his tools and his saw-horse. He was never happier than when he had a job on. He saw university education, out of the reach of a pre-war working class boy, as the route for his children to professional lives – in medicine, preferably, or the law. But book-learning in itself had an uncertain value. And paying attention to dreams (see Marx, Hitler and Madame de Pompadour) like other forms of introspection would have come under the heading of ‘worrying about yourself’, which was not to be encouraged.

My mother, who was sometimes visited in dreams by saints or by the dead, and had been known to act on their promptings, would have had more sympathy.  

Depending on such irrational sources of guidance is, of course, ridiculous. Except that the rational sources are no more reliable. A female writer friend tells me that people (not in the business) are constantly urging her ‘do a Fifty Shades of Grey’. But the random success of mummy porn, like the random success of boy wizards, teenage vampires,  and Vatican conspiracies, is not useful data. You can only create what you’re inspired to create and hope someone buys it when it’s finished.  

My father earned his living as a spec builder – putting up one house at a time, or small developments of two or three houses – always dependent on a prompt sale to pay down debts. Alongside the stresses and the frustrations, no doubt compounded by the pressure to provide for nine children, he regularly experienced the pleasure of a day’s work done for its own sake rather than for an hourly wage. Once a house was near completion, buying another site meant having somewhere to move the shed, the scaffolding and the cement mixer, and offered the prospect of future profit. But it also expressed a creative impulse. He too was always looking for his next plot. 

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Two cheers for American democracy

Why is Obama’s victory a good thing? I’d like to say it’s because he’ll introduce transformative social programmes, put a stop to casino capitalism, and lead a green revolution. But that might be over-optimistic. He will certainly promote relatively progressive domestic policies and, in spite of continuing drone strikes and renditions, restrain America’s more dangerous impulses abroad. And the alternative really would have been ugly. Here are my top reasons for celebrating.

Because the people who brought us the Iraq war were lining up behind Romney to push the button on Iran. It’s over 70 years since we last fixed Iran by installing the notorious Shah and we’re still living with the blowback.  

Because if someone on the Supreme Court dies or retires in the next four years, Obama gets to nominate the replacement. Anyone who thought these justices were above politics got a rude awakening in 2000 when they awarded the presidency to Bush, having stopped the Florida recount on the grounds that it was undermining the legitimacy of… uh… Bush. More recently they blew a hole in electoral finance reform by ruling that a donation is an act of free speech, and a multinational corporation is as entitled to its opinion as the next guy. Any shift in the balance of the Supreme Court could affect American politics for a generation.

Because Carl Rove’s bubble has finally burst. Now he has to explain to his billionaire donors why he got them zero return on their investment. And everyone’s reminded that who votes is more important than who signs the cheques.

Because it’s a victory for maths. Nerdy number crunchers like Nate Silver were pilloried on Fox News, but turned out to be right. The real scandal of Romney’s overheard remark on the 47% wasn’t that it was rude but that it was statistical nonsense. He muddled the 47% who don’t pay income tax because their wages are taxed at source, or they’re retired, or students, or unemployed, or live on investments like Romney himself, with the very different 47% who happen to be attached to the Democratic Party, many of whom pay lots of income tax. Anyone who could make such an elementary mistake shouldn’t be trusted anywhere near a political campaign, let alone a national budget.

Because no one seriously thinks those voting problems were an accident – the misinformation, the hours of queuing, the malfunctioning machines. If there’s any chance of doing anything to sort those problems before 2016, it won’t be Republicans pushing for change.

Because Obama leads a party for whom compromise isn’t a dirty word, and fact-checking isn’t something to sneer at, and which doesn’t confuse enforceable laws with assertions of religious dogma. The Republican manifesto declared that, from the moment of conception, the foetus should be afforded all the rights of personhood as defined in the fourteenth amendment – the rights not to be deprived of life, liberty or property, or denied equal protection under the law. Which is quite a sledge-hammer to take to the morning after pill. 

Because now there’s no chance that the Affordable Healthcare Act will be repealed before people have discovered that it's not really a charter for government bureaucrats to pull the plug on granny.   

Because as the slow recovery of the American economy begins to accelerate, Obama’s moderately Keynesian policies will get the credit. If Romney had won, any recovery seeded in the Obama years, however hampered by Romney’s policies of welfare for the rich and austerity for the rest, and however endangered by further financial deregulation, would have appeared on Romney’s watch, apparently vindicating the old trickledown voodoo. And Europe’s conservatives don’t need any encouragement.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Writing for the eternal

I had some good news this week. After a couple of rewrites my agent thinks my book is ready. This may not sound like much. She is my agent. Liking my stuff, you might think, is part of the job description. The rewriting was voluntary, anyway. She suggested some ways the book could be better and I chose to listen, because I trust her judgement, because she’s actively committed to the success of the book, and because her comments rang true – and you always know, honestly, when someone’s put a finger on what needs fixing, even if you initially register that knowledge as irritation or resistance. 

But my agent’s approval feels like a cause for celebration for two reasons. First because it’s a professional assessment of the book as a competitive product in a crowded marketplace, an assessment that moves it on to the next stage. Secondly because she said really nice things about it – and, when you spend your time writing books, such praise is rare. No doubt there are superstars in the book business who are constantly fending off adulation, but most people, in any area of work, live outside that kind of celebrity bubble. And what writers encounter, most of the time, is indifference.

Long before I tried it, I used to hear novelists saying that it’s a lonely occupation, writing a book. I have a better sense now of what this means. Obviously, it’s a solitary activity. For me at least, that’s one of its pleasures – I get to spend hours working on problems of my own making. But loneliness means something different. What writers crave, because it’s something we all need, is not company but validation. And this is the second most important reason to do other things on the side (money being the first, of course). For me that means editing, teaching and coaching, but I know writers for whom it’s working in a bookshop, writing advertising copy, bar-tending, lawyering or child-minding. In all these activities there’s a problem to which you’re the solution. You just have to show up and someone’s glad to see you. 

When you get to the end of your working day or working week as novelist , no one’s going to say ‘thanks’, or ‘well done’, or even ‘see you Monday’. You hope for readers out there who will eventually be pleased, but meanwhile you have to write for yourself, or perhaps, as a poet friend once put it, ‘for the eternal’. I happen to think my new book is the best thing I’ve ever written. Clearly that judgement is entirely worthless. Except that it’s an essential source of pleasure and satisfaction, and it’s what motivates the work. Without it, nothing would get done. 

Sunday 4 November 2012

The strange world of the Republican Party

All parties are coalitions. The Republican Party, in its present form, is a particularly weird coalition of evangelical conservatives, tea-party libertarians, and rich people. All three groups exhibit their own form of fundamentalism. The evangelicals have the Bible, the libertarians have the American Constitution, and the rich people have a breathtaking sense of entitlement.

The acceptable face of what binds these three together is the belief in personal responsibility. As a libertarian, you want to defend your own piece of land with your own gun without help or interference from the Government. As a Christian, you’re answerable for your moral choices to Christ who is your personal saviour. And as a corporate leader, you’d like to hire, fire, drill, liquidate, pollute, foreclose, move offshore and accumulate without consulting Washington bureaucrats, while continuing to pay less tax than your secretary.

These freedoms constitute the Party’s super-ego.  Its id looks a lot like an ageing, angry white guy. As the demographics shift against it, the Party becomes more entrenched in its own prejudices. Fox News and the radio shock jocks help to shore up its support, but inadvertently disable its leaders by keeping them in the same bubble of misinformation. Losing hope of winning the public argument, it increasingly puts its faith in non-democratic strategies.   

In states where Republicans are in power and the results promise to be close, attempts at voter suppression are big right now. Requiring a voter to present a driving licence with a current address on it would certainly stop dead people from voting. It would also discourage the young, the old, the poor and the transient. Sending white volunteers to patrol polling centres in black neighbourhoods is another way of discouraging the wrong kind of voter, as is advertising the right date for the election in English and the wrong date in Spanish.

As well as purging the voter rolls, Republicans have been busy in recent years purging their own party, in some cases replacing experienced, moderate congressional candidates with callow ideologues. The unintended consequence of these purges is a purge of popular support. African Americans don't much like a party that habitually portrays the elected President as a sinister interloper, who only got into college through affirmative action, governs on behalf of welfare recipients and is too stupid and lazy to do the job. Latinos don’t want to have to carry documentation on the street to prove they’re not illegal immigrants. Women would like their health insurance to cover birth control without their employers being allowed to veto it on moral grounds. Young people just don’t get see why gay rights are such a problem.

It’s not easy being a Republican these days. If you’re running as a candidate, the list of what you’ve got to sign up to keeps growing. An unelected fiscal guru called Grover Norquist has you sign a pledge never to raise taxes. The National Rifle Association demands that you love guns and give the right answers on gun issues. Worried about gun violence? Get a gun. High school massacres? Arm the teachers. The evangelical wing holds you to increasingly intrusive policies on women’s healthcare. And of course you’ll be expected to denounce Darwin and to reject global warming as a liberal myth.

If you deviate in a primary election on any of these, you can expect to be demolished by fabulously expensive TV ads funded by anonymous  donors, thanks to a recent ruling by the Republican-leaning Supreme Court. And if you win the primary, just like Romney you’ll have to get good at dodging and obfuscating in the hope that the general voter never finds out what you actually stand for.

My money is on Obama to win. My biggest concern is that having won the argument, and won over the majority of voters, he might still lose the election.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Marx, Hitler, and Madame de Pompadour

I’ve been writing for a week or so, but in an experimental, exploratory way, not yet having worked out what my subject is or how the story might develop. This isn’t “free writing”. I’m crafting it as I go. In fact, I think of it as series of technical exercises. I’ll be happy to scrap most of it, once something has begun to take root.

At this early stage, it seems as though the conscious mind has to be a junior partner in the process. It makes me pay attention to my dreams. Here’s one I had last night.

I’m going to a party. As I walk along the road, I see the guests standing in the garden, Marx and Hitler among them. As I get nearer I see there’s a car parked between the road and the garden, and the only way into the garden is to climb through the car - in one door and out the other. And I think to myself, "There must be some way into this party other than through Madame de Pompadour's Fiat." 

I didn’t get the pun on fiat until I woke up and remembered it means permission or authorization, with an echo of the “fiat lux” of Genesis - the first words of creation: let there be light. I had to google Madame de Pompadour. As the mistress of Louis XV, apparently, she was known for throwing good parties, and hung out with intellectuals and artists, including Voltaire.

The visual gag of climbing in one side of a car and out the other I associate with A Hard Day's Night where I think the Beatles are chased through the middle of a taxi (is this right?). Then it occurs to me that the Marx Brothers might have done the same thing in one of their films (did they?) and I wonder if there's a buried Marx connection.

It's all too easy to imagine what Freud would make of this dream - the narrow passage into Madame de Pompadour's garden, and my desire to find another way in. Thank you, Herr Doktor, but I’m looking for a more expansive reading, and sometimes a Fiat is all the permission I need.

Jung, on the other hand, would be on the look-out for archetypal images from the collective unconscious - Marx as the trickster, perhaps, and Hitler as the shadow - aspects of myself that I'm trying to get in touch with. Which would mean what? Subverting order and delving into dark places, I suppose. Gags are good (I like gags) but only as vehicles, as ways of getting to the serious stuff.

But why should I need the permission of Madame de Pompadour? As a muse, perhaps, an artistic patron, a figure both powerful and subversive. In the dream it’s her party and, though I resist, I have to climb through the technology (or technik) of her car to reach the garden where things take root.

That’s enough on the dream. Back to my technical exercises.