Friday, 20 January 2017

BBC Radio 4 Open Book: 'Glad to be Unhappy'

The other week I was delighted to have another turn in the regular Column slot for BBC Radio 4's unmissable Open Book show with Mariella Frostrup.

It's a lovely opportunity for a writer to address some literary theme of their fancy with reference to current or recent events and one's own writing practice.

For a while at least you can listen to my latest effort on BBC I-Player here, between 10:03 and 14:05. My argument, as the producers pithily encapsulated it, was that 'unhappy books can help us have a Happy New Year.' And below is the text of my lesson.

* * *

"You must change your life. Don’t you think? That’s the customary message of New Year – that any pockets of dissatisfaction you’re carrying about your person are not just ‘winter blues’ – but, rather, – a reminder that the future is now; we have but one life; and the sands in the glass are running.

I imagine all of us who love books also look to them, at times, for help and advice – with our resolutions, our indecisions and predicaments. Every publishing year ends with the round-ups of ‘best new books.’ But come the New Year it’s usually old books that are on my mind – old and trusted friends I’ve come to count on.

In publishing terms, the notion of a book that’s ‘good for you’ is vested mainly in the non-fiction genre of ‘self-help’ – or ‘positive psychology’, since ‘the positive’ is what these books want to accentuate. I’ve never read Dr Thomas A. Harris’s I’m OK, You’re OK, or Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do it. But that’s not to say they wouldn’t do me the power of good.

A few years ago the Reading Agency actually persuaded GPs to offer ‘books on prescription’: an approved set of self-help titles for people experiencing various mental health issues. Sometimes a bestseller addresses a similar readership: like Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a layperson’s testament to how the ordinary problem of depression might be confronted.

Of course, depression is not easily dispelled by an £8.99 paperback, however insightful. I suspect a lot of self-help titles are targeted not at sufferers per se so much as interested readers who want some idea of how to prepare themselves for the worst. But then, good fiction gives us that, too.

The Reading Agency also recommends a number of fictional works it describes as ‘mood-boosting’ and ‘uplifting’ – from Poldark to Winnie the Pooh. But what really makes a book ‘uplifting’? ‘The good ends happily, the bad unhappily’ – that’s the famous definition proposed by Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism. But I was reminded of old Prism recently when a poet friend told me that he just can’t be bothered with ‘gloomy’ literature – that poetry, for him, is all about making clear that life is good and the world is beautiful. 

I do endorse those feelings; but there’s more than one way to relish what it means to be alive. A book that brings solace is not necessarily one that tries to tell us that everything’s OK. Kafka speaks to many when he writes that books, rather than cheering us up, ought to ‘wake us up with a blow to the head’ and ‘affect us like a disaster.’  

For the characters in my novels, things tend to end disastrously. If I’m honest, I plan it that way. Life is good, yes, but one or two of the ineluctable truths of life are tragic. And as a reader I feel braced – uplifted – when a book shows me that these things just have to be faced. ‘Death,’ as Saul Bellow writes in Humboldt's Gift, ‘is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything. 

We should all take our uplift where we can, whether it’s Bridget Jones or Jeeves and Wooster or whatever. But there’s a lot to be said, too, for the Kafkas and Becketts, the supposed merchants of gloom. I’m not saying that Waiting for Godot is a feel-good night out, but in the midst of its desolation is a huge moment of uplift, when Vladimir cries out: ‘Let us do something, while we have the chance!’ I accept that King Lear is widely felt to be a bleak sort of a play – all its wisest words coming too late to save the characters from their evil fates. But I can think of few more mood-boosting moments in literature than the stoicism of Cordelia when she’s facing the end. ‘We are not the first / Who, with best meaning, have incurr'd the worst. 

This is 2017, and it’s dark out there – cold, too – and it will be that way for a while. But we’ve faced it all before, and we’ll just have to face it again. On that score, the great books never lie to us."

Getting Started at the Faber Academy: January-April 2017

Pleasure to report, I will be sitting in as guest tutor for the Faber Academy's writing course in Getting Started: Beginners' Fiction, running on Tuesdays from January 24 to April 11 2017. The course is intended to be both playful and serious, an enquiry into what writing is and why we do it. Among the topics I will be exploring with the students are:
  •  What makes fiction worth our while?
  • How do you develop and shape an idea?
  • What does it mean to write about what you know?
  • What makes a reader care?
 As of this morning I believe there's still one place available on the course. It could be you?

The TLS enjoyed my Wodehouse book...

The New Year brought a lovely write-up of Highballs for Breakfast in the Times Literary Supplement, written by the Oxford scholar and editor of Wodehouse's correspondence Sophie Ratcliffe. The headline and the accompanying picture were very pleasing, too. But the following was, of course, the money passage for the book's editor:

Richard T. Kelly’s enjoyable book sources a wide range of Wodehouse’s writings on drinking, from his early journalism through to Blandings and Mr Mulliner... what stands out is the sheer joy of Wodehouse’s writing on this theme... a wonderfully cheering collection