Thursday, May 01, 2008

Credit crunch

Lionel Shriver argues in The Observer (apropos Harvard getting their mitts on some salacious scrawlings from Norman Mailer's paramour) that we should disregard the details of the writer's life when we consider the works.

This sounds, superficially at least, like Barthes's Death of the Author, arguing that once a writer offers up his/her work to the public, we are all effectively writing it according to our personal tastes, whims, instincts and prejudices. But Shriver isn't going that far. As a reader, she just wants to keep the creator and the creation in separate compartments, and asks that the same courtesy is extended to her as a writer:

"In fact, I do not especially care to know anything about the novelists whose work I admire, for I've found that meeting most writers distracts, if not detracts, from their work. As a whole, we authors are a disappointing bunch. Thus I've never understood why any of my readers would want to meet me, either. My favourite colour should have no bearing on my novels, which you like or you don't."

All of which sounds eminently reasonable: we should take each piece of writing as a discrete entity, with no reference to what the author did before or after or during. Except that, if we take this to the logical conclusion, we shouldn't refer to anything the author has written before or after. And Shriver's article is suffixed with the information that her latest novel The Post-Birthday World is now out in paperback. If we don't care about the author of the article, why should we care about this book she happens to have written? She's also failed to notice that the two living authors who do most to keep details of their personal lives from their readers, Salinger and Pynchon, have made themselves even more fascinating than most writers whose private lives are public property.

So what's Shriver asking for? She seems to demand that 'Lionel Shriver' be nothing more than an authorial brand, a badge of quality that we must promise not to deconstruct. OK, maybe her life, her opinions, her favourite colour really are utterly tedious. But, for good or ill, the punters will be the judges.

25 comments:

thedonething said...

It does seem a little strange, given that she writes a column about herself.

For example, a brief internet search reveals that she recycles yoghurt pots and travels by bike, but won't give up her old light bulbs. That's more than I know about my own mother.

Charles Frith said...

This gets filed under 'everything is contextual' which is the book I'm never going to write because its all in the title.

We should in general pay more to the creative output then the creative but I recall seeing VS Naipul at the TCCC a few years back and despite loving his writing I thought he was a arrogant and pompous tosser then and I've subsequently been proved right.

The man was a Monster!!

red said...

I kind of get where she's coming from because I have been disappointed by some of my favourite writer's political beliefs and behaviour in the past- and this disappointment has in turn detracted from my enjoyment of their books.
If I hadn't known anything about their personal convictions perhaps I would have continued to cherish their writings...

patroclus said...

Didn't she write a whole article recently about how her mum hasn't spoken to her for years because she interpreted something Lionel wrote in one of her books as a slight on her cooking?

If the writer's personal life is irrelevant, why did she write that article? She could just have written a letter to her mum and then the rest of us wouldn't have had to learn anything about her private life, and therefore wouldn't have had our objective appreciation of her novels IRREVOCABLY DAMAGED.

patroclus said...

Oops, the Done Thing already said that..

thedonething said...

But your example was better, dammit.

Tim Footman said...

Are you sure she isn't your mother, TDT? Not that you'd know, of course.

Charles/Red: I know what you mean about finding out that your favourite authors are arseholes. But it does make me more tolerant, I hope - thinking as I talk to some insufferable bigot at a party, "Yes, but so was Evelyn Waugh..."

Well, Patroclus, it was such a good point, it was worth reiterating.

I still think the bare fact that she elected to call herself 'Lionel' indicates a certain desire to hog the limelight, so pish and tush to the rest of her blather.

Chris said...

If you aren't a nice person, you can't make good art. Simple. Why would you spend precious reading time in the company of a prick?

(Not a day goes by when I don't regret reading Robert Crumb's Wodehouse biography...)

Rimshot said...

Should (and by extention: Should Not) is a cognitive distortion.

Billy said...

I feel an urge to mention the Residents.

Chris said...

I actually woke up in the middle of the night from the horror of imagining what a Robert Crumb biography of Wodehouse might be like. Pretty awesome, I'd imagine.

McCrumb is what I meant to say.

wyndham said...

I like Lionel, she is perverse and contradictory to the point of insanity. Also, has anyone actually read The Post-Birthday World? I recommend it, her portrait of a top snooker player is very funny, but perhaps not in the way she intended.

Rosie said...

there has been some debate around this in Ireland of late after one of our most acclaimed poets was found to be exploiting teenage boys in Nepal - should his work be removed from school curricula?

it happened some years ago when another poet was found to be a sex offender and a paedophile, his work was dropped from the prescribed reading lists pretty quicksmart. it'll be interesting to see if the same thing happens this time around.

Tim Footman said...

I beg to differ, Chris: Evelyn Waugh; Ezra Pound; Caravaggio. But I do like the idea of a scrawny Bertie Wooster pummelling the ample arse of an Aunt or two.

Rimshot: I'm too tired to argue.

Again, Billy, their lack of personality is more intriguing than any personality they might be able to concoct.

Well, Wyndham, she's disproved her own point, then: her bonkersness adds to the attraction of her own books.

Rosie: I can just about see an argument for dropping the work of a living artist who might profit from becoming a 'set text', if he's done something really iffy. But dead authors? Byron's sex life was pretty squalid - should we dump him from the curriculum on moral grounds.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Absolutely. Petrarch holds his place in the pantheon despite his paedophile tendencies, which nobody got very excited about in his day. We continue to sing Gesualdo's sacred motets although he murdered his wife and her lover and stuffed his (her lover's) severed member in her mouth before rigor mortis set in. We recognise Ruskin's authority despite his extraordinary marital goings-on. Yet without their proclivities, too often ill-judged by the temper of our times, they wouldn't be the people they were.
Maybe someone could compile a list of desperate traitors/cads/criminals/berks/arseholes whose work merits present public esteem for that very reason. I think I'd probably start with Burne-Jones...

M.A.Peel said...

CCH--It's funny you mention Gesualdo. I had a choir director who would not program his Tenebrae responses--which are masterpieces--because of that whole murder thing.

Chris said...

I wasn't really expecting anybody to agree with me, there are clearly more exceptions to than examples of my 'nice people' rule. But I still think it's an interesting one to follow, or at least to think about.

It's an idea I've been keen on (I said this on my blog recently) since discovering The Pastels in the mid 1990s, and realising that it was possible for there to be great and profound records about friendship and, y'know, happiness. It's amazing to me that such a slim section of pop operates in this way. And sometimes, listening to Future Pilot AKA or Jonathan Richman or Nagisa Ni Te, I think that the rest ought just to be chucked out.

Annie Rhiannon said...

Please will you write my last two essays for me. One is on Irish cinema, the other on Turkish-German cinema.

They're due on Thursday, thanks.

xxx

Tim Footman said...

I never knew about the Gesualdo business, Christopher, but coincidentally I was involved in a discussion of Ruskin's goings-on (or maybe non-goings-on) with your daughter on another blog.

Mrs Peel: Was it the murder that he objected to, or the whole severed member bit to which Christopher alludes so elegantly.

I adore Nagisa Ni Te, Chris, but I've never thought the songs were about happiness. Utterly melancholy, I reckon.

The Commitments is very funny and has lots of swearing. Fear Eats The Soul is a bit grim. I know, the bloke in Fear Eats The Soul is Moroccan, not Turkish, but whatever. by Annie Rhiannon.

(If you give me a good mark, I'll send you a Polaroid of Jonathan Rhys Meyers' bits.)

Rosie said...

if you're taking requests, Tim, i'd appreciate an irish translation of Peter Tremayne's The Haunted Abbot by 5pm monday please. that way i could pass go, collect 30% and start worrying about the other 70% on the exam paper.

Tim Footman said...

Rosie, haven't you heard? There's no such thing as the Irish language. Just speak English while gazing wistfully into the middle distance, while flutey music plays in the background. If in doubt, pepper sentences with "To be sure" and "That's grand, so it is".

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Irish? A doddle.

Aigh nó a mean thù ios só léasaigh dat thí slíps inn this clós, bhears a bíord,and dhos not smóc bíocós obh de trobal straigeingh a meaits. It is só longh sins thi did anasth dea's bhorc dat thí thincs 'manuil leabear' is de neim obh a Portuguis arditeitear. [Lamhd láftar]

(Flann O'Brien)

Don't expect this will help Rosie much, but it might be worth a try.

Rosie said...

ar dóigh, Christopher, míle buíochas.

Tim, you're off the christmas card list.

Tim Footman said...

Sorry.

And for Cromwell also, that was a bad call.

Tim Footman said...
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