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!