What a writer needs is …

Good question, isn’t it? Love, fame, chocolate, a good kick up the arse, a publication contract …?

Virginia Woolf famously said that a female writer needed money and a room of her own. In a provocative article Matt Shoard argues that discomfort in one’s living arrangements is more conducive to the great novel than the Hosking Trust offering of a rural idyll in which to write.

I am inclined to agree with him, but for different reasons. I spent a disproportionately painful part of my life running charitable trusts – I do believe being a bullfighter or a bailiff would have been less stressful and vicious, but that’s another story. Let’s just say that the disbursement of funds and the making of grants, the awarding of scholarships and the other bits of giving money to good causes was the dirtiest, most compromised part of the whole business.

It was never, ever, about the good cause. Never ever. It was about who’d got their way last time, or some new trustee who wanted to be noticed by launching a coup, or which special adviser or celeb endorser had a pet project that had to be funded or they’d huff off; it was all about which projects might get us column inches in the press and which – of course – ticked all the Charity Commission boxes that kept our charity status intact.

So when you let a committee of people who have spare time in the middle of the day make decisions about worth, you end up with a compromised set of agreements, based on horse-trading and pork barrel negotiations, that always reward the safe and sensible, not the dangerous and insane. These are nice people who do good things in warm rooms – they are not talent spotters. Talent spotters are generally chain-smoking despots with toxic personal lives and a completely unbending sense of what is good in their field. Talent spotters compromise like Vlad the Impaler did – ie they don’t.

If you want great literature to emerge from a rural idyll, go grab a random dub poet and force them to live in the worst web-fingered wilds of the country, with a sulky wood-burning stove and mad livestock for company. Don’t tell them they have to write to get out – just leave them there until they do. It may not turn out to be great literature, but duress, stress and anger are as likely to produce work of calibre as any committee-based judgement.

Mini book reviews:

Belle de Jour – the intimate adventures of a London call girl, published by Orion – I went back to this after the revelation of Belle’s real name. Still enjoyed it just as much the second time: zingy writing and a truly superb sense of pace make this autobiography a romp in both senses of the word – you emerge from it laughing and a little bit breathless. Best of the best in erotica, this one in my view.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Hammond – this is book club book this month, so I’ll report back on the group discussion next week.

Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates – still reading this one. Whether you buy by subject matter (Marilyn Monroe) or by the inch, this book is BIG! I hope to have finished it in the next fortnight, but it’s not a book I want to rush, which gives you the hint that it’s quite a read, I hope.

The picture shows the Cream Tea cafe in Brighton, excellent hazelnut roulade, which is obviously what every writer REALLY needs!


  1. Jane Steen
    26th March 2010

    I always thought I’d need a rural idyll. Then I gave up on that idea and started writing seriously anyway. I found I can write through countless interruptions from teenage daughters demanding anything from cash to can I unblock the toilet (and WHY is that MY job?)

    I should have known I could do it, as I wrote a large chunk of my master’s thesis in longhand, on the sticky tables in the lobby of a skating rink. With the smell of fries wafting around me and my special needs, back then very ADD daughter in attendance.

    The beauty of the writer’s craft is that it only needs the tiniest space to be practiced, plus commitment.

  2. Jim Murdoch
    26th March 2010

    My objection to the “rural idyll” is a different one. It’s not home. Home is that tatty comfortable jacket that’s oh so comfortable and fits you perfectly. I’m not saying I can only write in my office surrounded by my models of Gerry Anderson spacecraft because that’s not true. But I would still miss the familiar comforts and discomforts if it comes to that. There would also be the added pressure of knowing that I was being expected to write. Being paid after the fact is one thing but being paid albeit by benefits in kind up front is something else entirely. I suppose it’s like a mechanic who insists on using his personal tools rather than those provided by his employer. I know I probably will never refer to 95% of the books I have in my room ever again but I like that they’re there if I need to rely on them.

  3. James Burt
    26th March 2010

    I’m currently in my rural idyll, and will be here until I finish the draft of my novel. It’s frustrating to know everyone’s having an exciting time in Brighton while I’m here. The quicker I type, the sooner I can get back!

    BTW, the article you linked to:
    “You can almost see Dan Brown leaving and David Foster Wallace taking his place.”
    What an unfortunate example for Matt Shoard to pick!

  4. Kay Sexton
    26th March 2010

    Jane, Jim, James – working on the Hoskings theory, you are all clearly inestimably well-placed! Obviously such sensible, intelligent and balanced folk have no need of cosseting to produce good prose and excellent arguments. I think a case is made, but nobody needs to pick it up and carry it to a rural idyll unless they want to …

  5. Anonymous
    30th March 2010

    Hi. Some years ago, I moved from grey grim Brighton, (it was 1995. Times were hard) to the supposed rural idyl of Totnes, Devon. Lovely landscape. Beautiful green fields, rolling hills etc, but I ended up living in a concrete box of a flat in a block full of desperate single mothers, some fleeing violent ex-boyfriends. Various drunks, druggies and folks with reality discernment problems would kip on the floor in the landing outside my door. (Why my door? More spacious? Hoping for a morning cuppa?) Anyway, I’m back in Sussex now, but those five years of hell in paradise did spark a novel, about 50 songs, various poems… narrowly avoided a nervous breakdown, though.
    So yes, I agree. I wasn’t quite the rap poet when I went there but I almost ended up that way.


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