Writing and Being Human: Losing Yourself to Find Yourself
With writing, snobbery abounds. The more people publish, the more controllers of the word will attempt to define taste. Those in ivory towers defining the canon occasionally attempt to break the mould, but in places of learning frequently the death worshipping ‘lit crit brigade’ are at war with the creative set. This could be the longstanding left-brain right brain split, but it can more often than not be put down to a petty and pointless warfare built on a sad envy. So what’s new, and isn’t it all a matter of taste anyway, despite what the critics and academics say?
People will always worship what is dressed up as a Penguin Classic, even if this turns out to be Morrissey’s novel, winner of the bad sex award. Don’t judge a person or a book by its cover, or the state of their phylactery. And is it true that there is more confessional literature around now than there used to be, which must be a dumbing down? I don’t believe it is, in terms of the dominance of the genre, but quantity wise of course it’s true. Fundamentally, this really isn’t such a big deal.
Would it be better if we lived in a world where everyone attempted at every opportunity to divorce themselves from their feelings, Dr. Spock fashion, and never attempted to express who they were in any direct way, writing dry abstract prose, a theoretical book of numbers? Despite humans wanting to understand humans, it seems we can only do this through masks, and being one-stepped removed, hence the dominance of the fantasy of the robot, but at least that’s been useful. Brian Eno in his 2015 John Peel Lecture defined art as being anything that isn’t actually useful, but this binary approach to utility and art is as limiting as any other definition.
It is quintessentially human to want to make sense of identity, and to learn from other peoples’ experiences, and this in itself develops empathy, so it is obvious why memoir, biography and autobiography are so popular.
There is no one definition of what it is to be human, but having empathy for others is a good definition, optimistically, of the ideals of what it is to be human. To be human is to be full of contradictions and conflicts. For Aldous Huxley, the only person without contradictions is a dead person, but this is questionable. We are told we live in the age of narcissism, and yet true empathy is often obvious, especially with writing and reading.
A writer needs this level of empathy to get inside the skin of their characters, and a reader needs it for full immersion in a text. One reader of my 2015 novel Spit Roast commented, “I like the short story at the start, but the rest is too much about you”. To be sure, I would not call the book an especially easy read. They did know me, so they were looking for the connections. Actually, it isn’t just about me, but still. It’s about John Tao, who is an everyman, and his nemesis or shadow Augustine Illumines.
If we get under the skin of one person, we can find traits of many others, levels of being that bring forth being. They are part of the collective unconscious. For poet Paul Muldoon the writer is a shaman absorbing the words from outside their being. Is this a sin? A novelist is someone who confuses his own life with that of his characters, according to Alain Robbe-Grillet. You have to be able to both; give up yourself and have the guts to hang on to yourself. Anything else is cowardice.