A Writer’s Place

March 2, 2018 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

It was a masterpiece of evasion. He was asked, as other writers were, to comment on the needs of publishers to seek out work of merit that might not be commercially viable. Other writers replied thoughtfully and frankly. He circumvented the question. He was not going to risk causing any offence, as if compliance were the first duty of a writer. Responsibility to the future of creative literature was clearly not a consideration. He had a career to consider.

His may be considered a writing life of clever observations drifting towards bland conclusions. Articulate and astute, all the conventional precepts of the age have been adhered to. There are no surprises. It has been writing that aspires only to an affirmation of agreed wisdoms. When the mood changes so will he, but the future will be disappointed by his lack of attack and urgency.

Writing demands above everything a personal voice. This voice from within takes precedence over external capability.

The personal voice, if conveyed with passion, will provide the dynamic that a calm and reasoned sensibility cannot offer. The contrast is between experimental free verse and a somnambulant poetry of perfect metrical form. One is engaged with the language of spirited feeling while the other is simply being correct. Perfect form lacks the happenstance of exploration. Everything is planned in advance. So in the end there is no poetry because there is no urgency at work.

When we speak of the personal voice we do not mean necessarily the dissenting voice. There is no virtue in being different for its own sake. What is a necessary virtue in writing, however, is a sense of integrity. Writing for the market is compromised if not corrupted.

Writing must accord with one’s conscience. How else might a writer take a stand against tyranny? It asks nothing of us to adhere to a fashionable cause. But to risk everything by refusing to testify to the orthodoxy of intolerance; that requires conviction. Orthodoxy succeeds by disregarding and demeaning the nature of conviction. If we cannot be sure of a writer’s integrity we cannot be sure of the writing. It declines into cliché because it has no independent life.

There are types of public discourse that succeed by cliché, as they do by hyperbole and regressive extremes. In superficial public discourse there are only the polarities of love and hate: there is no understanding of subtle and complex emotions. You do not have doubts about something: you hate it.

You are not inclined to admire something: you love it. Nothing else will do because there you perceive a wall of steel, insurmountably high, between the warring extremes that occupy and seek to master the public space.

This is no place for a writer to be. Writing occupies the space where received opinions fall like a house of cards when a breath of fresh air blows. A writer opens a window looking onto a variety of possible approaches. A writer must write according to conscience, rather than to an agenda agreed by others. Their primary motive is not an exchange of ideas but a doctrinal system that others are required to follow.

Institutional thinking has at its base the cliché. As a result the same points are driven home relentlessly. A perception becomes an unquestioned truth. There is no other way of seeing things.

The purpose of the institutional cliché is to propose a tenet one cannot argue against. That is why democracy needs writers with a detached and sceptical attitude to whatever is being said. There is a higher responsibility than careerist cleverness. For in the end it is the personal voice that conveys the intellectual and emotional authenticity that no cliché can countermand.

There is a problem of perception here. On the one hand we have Writing [capital W] in literary genres. This must aspire to be original and creative.

By contrast there are other types of writing, like collaborative scripts and assignment journalism. The technical demands of these forms are high, which is why excellence in these areas often proves elusive. Popular journalism, especially when spoken rather than written, is treacherous ground for the unwary. That said, there are some first-rate reporters honing complex responses into vignettes of articulate perception. The problem lies beneath in the second and third tiers of superficial glances and predictable opinions.

The good reporter makes hard work look easy. Therein lies the trap for clever, young media somethings who have much to learn. Writing of any type is not easy, although it is easy to talk fluidly about the surface of things. A media something speaks patronisingly of a playwright that his work has appeared only in ‘provincial’ theatres. Such dismissal is unaware of, or indifferent to, the insanely competitive nature of finding a platform. Successful publication, however, can lead not to approval but to contemptuous dismissal. Publish a novel and learn that ‘plenty of novels are published’. And most aren’t, but who cares about the myriad creatures when you’re part of the media?

It is timely to ask of these media somethings where are their poems, essays, symphonies or research papers? Where may we find their contributions? What risks have they taken? The defence for sure will be that they are part of ‘a great cultural organisation’. Even if we accept that grandiloquent self-definition there remains the question of an individual’s under-achievement.

Yes, it’s not an easy question, but it certainly is both legitimate and pertinent

Writing always must ask difficult questions.

It must offer uncomfortable truths. These things are woven into the fabric of literature. The task is to identify the right questions, then to ask them, then to demand answers from those who do not welcome questioning. The networks of influence and the structures of power are uneasy about discussion beyond the agreed bounds. The same old phrases provide reassurance that an unfamiliar angle of perception will undermine. To that extent all writing is subversive.

Literature can affirm, and sometimes is required to do so, but it has a responsibility to question. Those who seek influence shall find literary impediments in their path. Those who achieve power shall never rest easily while the doubts and denials are inscribed on the walls.

Power for its own sake is the mediocrity’s revenge on the talented. The fear of being found out is ever-present, if dimly so. It lies within an area of darkness. The writer shines a torch into the heart of things, including the writer’s own private self. Writing is more than typing out the words: it is an exploration of some essential aspect of the scene. What lies beneath is what is really there, and we can name it as fear of the challenges that writing confronts.

The first such challenge is the blank page or screen. It is hard to be original. It is not easy to express yourself in ways that are yours alone. The voyage out is across an uncharted sea towards an unknown destination whose precise nature is unknown.

There are many masterly evasions of the challenge. The supreme evasion is to seek literature’s absorption into popular media. The adaptation of the book is thought to be, by implication, more important than the book itself. Unless it feeds into the media it has no real existence. It certainly has no purpose.

This view, which is widely held, works only if a great network of writers and readers does not exist. This denial is at the core of the media’s failure to speak as they are required to speak. Journals and other resources embedded into society over generations and centuries are disregarded by the leviathan of media. ‘But this is the Twenty-first Century!’ comes the retort, as if we are incomparably enlightened now, despite all the evidence to the regressive and barbaric contrary.

If we are slipping backwards it will be the unacknowledged conscience of literature that saves us. The quiet, reflective word written far from the neon glare is the word that defies the banal, the bovine, the predictable and the wilfully obtuse. Words of sensitivity and intellect need to be sought. A responsibility to publish such words is fundamental to civilization. The alternative is a denial of literacy in favour of images and sounds designed to cajole the senses into conformity. A responsibility to the future proscribes such an alternative as unthinkable but all too possible.

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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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