Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Writer's Life

I turned down an offer to write a Proust biography in 2006. I didn't want to write on the writer, having spent several years drowning in his book while I swam my way through a doctorate.

Why so snotty about biography?

I had been indoctrinated as an undergraduate with the idea of focusing exclusively on reading text — privileging close reading to the exclusion of history, whether personal or contextual. In fact I was taught to despise history and biography as being unworthy of study in their own right, in order to bring the study of language further into the light. This was the late 1980s, the heyday of critical theory.

It was assumed, firstly, that I would just know historical and biographical facts, and secondly, that they were of a lower order of knowledge than interpretations of the text. There was such a debate about the valency, credibility and construction of historical perspective, that I was able to wriggle through university history-free. It shocked my history-loving mother.

I did read several biographies of Proust once I was swimming in aforementioned doctorate, although I went on despising them, and pretending I hadn't read them.

Bit like pretending one doesn't look things up on Wikipedia.

Again, why so snotty about biography? 

Well, if I'm honest, there's definitely a part of me that can't stomach Proust's actual leisured, wealthy life, illnesses and complex sexuality, although I can intellectualize with the best of them about the polymorphic properties of sex as they are represented in A la recherche.

Ultimately I shy away from Proust's practice later on in life of watching rats fight with each other in order for him to achieve orgasm. Proust was an idol and an inspiration as a writer — I had feet of clay when it came to rats. It was a truth I would rather not have known about the writer, and I can't decide whether or not it impacts on my understanding of A la recherche, or its moral worth.

In a similar way it's hard to decide whether right-wing German philosophers like Heidegger or critics like Paul de Man should be thrown out of the syllabus.

Is that a compelling reason to be snotty about biography?

My one watertight defence is that Proust himself argued against looking for analogues in the life of its writer in order to explain a book. In fact, this is the very wellspring of A la recherche. His novel began life as an essay against the literary critic Sainte-Beuve, written in the form of a conversation with his mother. Characters started to emerge within this essay, and he put the novel together as a series of stitched-together sketches. Structure emerged.

Recently, however, my thinking on all this has been challenged, as I struggle away with my own writing.

I have been reading Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's outstanding critical biography of Dickens, and have realized for the first time (ignoramus that I am) that his novels emerged out of sketch writing. He started in life as a jobbing writer and journo, started to get known as Boz, for writing sketches and observations of London Life (he was a blogger, essentially), and out of that characters emerged, to whom readers responded by asking for more. So much about his practice was a relationship and response to readers in real time, plus a very high degree of self-performance.

I came to realize that it is very useful to a writer (a wouldbe writer) to read about a writer's creative practice -- what real writers actually do to get their stuff written.

More recently still, Rachel Cusk has written a perceptive and intelligent piece in the Guardian on the rise of the creative writing course, and the justification for including such courses within 'the academy'.

She takes issue with the argument against them, that 'creative writing can't be taught'. This is the same argument that has always beset literary criticism: that 'taste' cannot be taught.

In French studies in the 1980s, the desire to level the playing field against charges that it was elitist constituted a vulnerability, which gradually allowed critical theory to ossify the subject, rendering the study of texts sterile, in the effort to make close reading somehow objective.

What was great about studying French literature when I did was that it seemed in the vanguard of critical thought, and grain by grain, through arguments and bits of reading, I learnt to appraise whatever text came my way. What came with this, however, was the inability to read my own writing with anything other than a critical eye — and this is where I would have cherished the communality that Rachel Cusk describes. I was constantly searching out whatever was creative about studying literature and thought, and actually found the outlet in innumerable (probably terrible, though I loved them) plays as an undergraduate. The creative writing course — there was only the UEA's MA in existence when I left college in 1991 — would have fused the critic and the actress in me, and been a panacea to both.

Ah well. I'll just have to set up my own.

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