This month marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Baudelaire’s birth, the French poet famous for his descriptions of the flâneur: a man of the crowd, who thrived in the metropolis’ multitude. Following Baudelaire through 19th-century Paris, Matthew Beaumont discovers a parallel archetype — the convalescent hero of modernity — who emerges from the sickbed into city streets with a feverish curiosity.
He was one of the most wildly imaginative writers of any generation but even for Douglas Adams writing could be a torturous process, requiring a “general note to myself” that he would finally get pleasure from it.
“Writing isn’t so bad really when you get through the worry. Forget about the worry, just press on. Don’t be embarrassed about the bad bits. Don’t strain at them,” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author wrote to himself. “Writing can be good. You attack it, don’t let it attack you. You can get pleasure out of it. You can certainly do very well for yourself with it!”
Shortly after 335 B.C., within a newly built library tucked just east of Athens’ limestone city walls, a free-thinking Greek polymath by the name of Aristotle gathered up an armful of old theater scripts. As he pored over their delicate papyrus in the amber flicker of a sesame lamp, he was struck by a revolutionary idea: What if literature was an invention for making us happier and healthier? The idea made intuitive sense; when people felt bored, or unhappy, or at a loss for meaning, they frequently turned to plays or poetry. And afterwards, they often reported feeling better. But what could be the secret to literature’s feel-better power? What hidden nuts-and-bolts conveyed its psychological benefits?
I try to write using ordinary words and simple sentences.
That kind of writing is easier to read, and the easier something is to read, the more deeply readers will engage with it. The less energy they expend on your prose, the more they’ll have left for your ideas.
And the further they’ll read. Most readers’ energy tends to flag part way through an article or essay. If the friction of reading is low enough, more keep going till the end….
Young authors may be self-censoring because they worry they will be “trolled” or “cancelled”, according to celebrated writer Sir Kazuo Ishiguro.
Sir Kazuo, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, warned that a “climate of fear” was preventing some people from writing what they want.
He said they may be concerned that an “anonymous lynch mob will turn up online and make their lives a misery”.
He told the BBC: “I very much fear for the younger generation of writers.”
A writer’s room tends to be a private place, a sanctuary from domesticity and the excitements of children, pets and unwanted visitors. This is certainly how George Bernard Shaw promoted his writing hut to the world, with himself as something of a creative hermit, tucked away in his modest retreat with only a few pens, a supply of ink, a small table, a narrow bed and a wicker chair for comfort. His biographer Michael Holroyd described it as a kind of “monk’s cell”. The truth is a little more complicated.
Shaw’s writing refuge was a six-square-metre wooden summerhouse, originally intended for his wife Charlotte and inspired by the similar setup owned by his neighbour Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the naturalist who was part of Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, which he wrote up as The Worst Journey In The World. The hut was built on a revolving base that used castors on a circular track, essentially a shed on a lazy Susan. This meant the hut, at his home in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, could be moved to improve the light or change the view (or indeed just for a bit of exercise). Spectacularly high-tech for its time, it also had an electric heater and a telephone connection to the house as well as an alarm clock to alert the Nobel Prize winner that it was lunchtime. Shaw particularly enjoyed the isolation since it allowed the staff at the house with some degree of honesty to tell callers that “Mr Shaw is out” to prevent interruptions. He also called it “London” for the same reason (“I’m sorry Sir, Mr Shaw is in London”).
Ahmet Altan, one of Turkey’s most skillful historical novelists, lives in solitary confinement in a cell four meters long, at Silivri Prison, Europe’s largest penal facility. In I’ll Never See This World Again, his fifteenth book, and the first he wrote from prison, Altan recalled the passing comment of a judge who held the author’s fate in his hands: “If only you had stuck to writing novels and kept your nose out of political affairs.”
The work of the literary editor is conducted in a kind of shadow, cast by the name of the author. A few editors have stepped out of that shadow, becoming perhaps more infamous than famous, for the labels “editor” and “famous” seem like a contradiction in terms, essentially incompatible. An example is Gordon Lish, who became known in the literary world as “Captain Fiction” and whose authors included Raymond Carver. Another is Maxwell Perkins, editor of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, whose epithet was the “Editor of Genius.” One of the most celebrated editing jobs ever done was carried out by Ezra Pound, not in any formal capacity, but as a friend, his ruthless hand paring down an early version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into the form in which we know it today. Gordon Lish’s editing was quite as unconstrained and uncompromising, the style we think of as Carver’s being in fact Lish’s work. Carver himself was rather ambivalent about it, though it unquestionably established his name as a writer. This became apparent when Carver’s own manuscript was published after his death, his stories there being quite differently ample and expansive, barely recognizable. There is little doubt that the editor’s Carver was better than Carver’s Carver, and how must that have made the author feel as he stood in the spotlight to receive his accolades, hailed as the great new name of American literature? The example is interesting, for the job of the editor is to exert influence, not for his own good, nor necessarily for the author’s, but for that of the book, and if we can suggest that Lish went too far, we must also ask in relation to what? After all, the book was certainly the better for it. Were the wounded feelings of its author more important? Without Lish, Carver’s books would have been poorer and he would have been a reasonably good writer rather than a brilliant one. This raises the question of what a writer is, and where the boundaries run between the author, the book, and the surrounding world.
When I first went to see him, I telephoned P. G. Wodehouse and asked for directions from New York to his house on Long Island. He merely chuckled, as if I had asked him to compare Euclid with Einstein or attempt some other laughably impossible task. “Oh, I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I don’t have a clue.” I learned the route anyway, and my arrival for lunch, only ten minutes late, seemed to astonish him. “You had no trouble? Oh, that is good. That’s wonderful!” His face beaming at having in his house such a certified problem-solver, a junior Jeeves almost, he led me without further to-do to a telephone, which he had been dialing all morning in a futile effort to reach a number in New York. He had, of course, done everything right but dial the area code, an addition to the Bell system that had somehow escaped his attention since he had last attempted long distance. He was intensely pleased when New York answered, and I sunned myself in the warm glow of his gratitude for the rest of the day. All of which is by way of saying that Wodehouse, who lived four months past his ninety-third birthday, had discovered his own secret of long life: he simply ignored what was worrisome, bothersome, or confusing in the world around him…
This essay looks at the history of the novel, starting from the influential postwar critical insistence on the importance of the novel as a nineteenth-century genre. It notes that this tradition singularly fails to take account of the history of the novel in antiquity–for clear ideological reasons. It then explores the degree to which the texts known as the novel from antiquity, such as Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, Petronius’s Satyricon, or Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, constitute a genre. Although there is a great deal of porousness between different forms of prose in antiquity, the essay concludes by exploring why the ancient novel, ignored by critics for so long, has now become such a hot topic. It argues that much as the postwar critics could not fit the ancient novel into their histories, now the ancient novel’s interests in sophisticated erotics, narrative flair, and cultural hybridity seem all too timely.
This new year, more than most, seems to be about the “out with the old” half of the cliché. So I asked users of the site to suggest words they’d like to see go into the void along with the year-that-must-not-be-named. Preferably recent and overworked words. Preferably avoiding words associated with some political faction or ideology the suggester hates.
There were some good ones. Many of them were euphemistic weasel-words: issue for “problem,” concerning for “worrisome,” impact (v.) for “completely bollix up” (leading to the even more grating adjective impactful)…
Here’s a interesting chart for structuring conflicts in a story. I haven’t really used it much so far, but I like the idea of ‘nesting’ conflicts like HTML tags.
When I think about the story I’m currently working on, I do think the conflicts are nested like that. It opens with a character question, which will be resolved at the very end of the story. Then comes an event: two people disappeared. Closely followed by an inquiry: what happened? Those are also resolved in inverse order (first they find out what happened to those people, then they get them back).
So it seems like I’m subconsciously using this method after all! Which would make this a great troubleshooting tool if a story doesn’t ‘feel’ right.