On the Pain of Reading Contemporary Writing When You Are a Contemporary Writer

Will Self Navigates the Tricky Territory Between Pity, Envy, and Rumors of Posterity

It’s torture to me—no, really: torture, and I’d sooner undergo considerable physical pain rather than having to endure this psychic one. To what do I refer? Why, reading contemporary fiction, of course. For this, the last of my essays on reading for Lit Hub I’d like to discuss reading as a writer. I am a writer—and I do read; but whether or not you know my work, or feel it lends any weight to my opinions is probably less important than those opinions themselves.

I want to say something like “When it comes to their reading habits there are two kinds of writers…” because a nice binary opposition often stimulates us to… Well, to what? Surely only to confirm ourselves as being on the right side of the divide, and that’s not very interesting at all—or even credible. No, when it comes to their reading habits there are probably as many different ones as there are individual writers—but that being noted, and following the above, I never cease to be amazed by those of my peers who spend a great deal of their leisure time reading works written by others of our peers. (Or at least: so they claim—the ever-present pressures of commoditization rear their hydra-heads here; for if you don’t puff your peers’ works, you can’t complain when yours remain… uninflated.)

But the analogy which explains my own semi-recumbent position would be this: doing the work required to get readers to suspend disbelief—which is surely the very first requirement of the fiction writer—is exhausting. One way of thinking about it is that the writer has to divide themselves psychically into reader and writer while sustaining a strange commerce between the two: writing as if you didn’t know who that reader was, and reading in the same spirit. What’s entailed then is a sort of vital alienation from your own self—and it’s out of this, I’d argue, that the necessary criticality emerges required to make the judgement calls implicit in the production of quality prose.

Another way of conceptualizing this diplopic state is that it is itself a form of suspension of disbelief: you know fine well reader and writer are the same individual: you. But in common with Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen you’ve strengthened your fabulating muscles to the point where you can believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast—including that you have two separate beings confined within your mind, both passionately engaged with literature. But it’s exhausting—this suspension, quite as exhausting as suspending something physical in the air above you. I always think of seals—not that you see them performing in circuses anymore, but I have memories of the poor creatures, corralled in the ring and fishily induced to mount daises upon which they’d squat, balancing brightly colored beach balls on their moist and pointy noses.

Well, just suppose you were a seal. (And hopefully your fabulating muscles are strong enough to keep your knowledge to the contrary aloft.) Surely the last thing you’d want to do after a hard day at the circus is watch another poor seal doing precisely the same thing. That’s what it feels like to me when I read someone else’s fiction after a session spent trying to craft my own: a deep sympathy born of the same muscles tensing in the same places induces a dull ache, interspersed with piercing pains when I see my fellow amphibians try something fancy. There’s this, and there’s also further suffering to be gained from adopting the reader’s (or circus goer’s) view, but without the balm of any disbelief.

I already note that my own generation of writers seem, as we enter our sixties, significantly less marmoreal than those even a half-generation above us.

What do I mean by this—well, anyone who’s ever stood in the wings of a theatre during a performance will know: the audience’s deeply credulous faces can be seen turned to the foot lights, as they sop up scenery you know is merely a painted flat, and emotions you can tell are being faked, since the performers’ expressions sickly o’er so very suddenly as they exit.

It’s as if we were pursued by bears—such is our desire to stay in the fantasy, rather than collapse back into the reality of the situation, but the writer—I’d argue—is compelled to abide precisely in this divided state: at once effortfully suspending disbelief, and collapsing under its weight. Is it only contemporary fiction that induces this specular nightmare in me? Well, yes—and I certainly don’t discount the possibility that my own ego may be bound up in it as well. Because if reading my peers’ works pains me—while that pain is compounded by two countervailing pressures—there are also two equally upsetting emotional reactions. On the one flipper, if the seal in question is making an appalling mess of it—dropping the ball, yelping hysterically while slipping saltily off the dais—I can’t suspend any disbelief at all, and am simply suffused with pity: for them, for me, for the entire bob of literary artificers. But on the other, if they’re balancing that ball brilliantly—spinning it, flipping it, catching it with artful aplomb—I’m visited with the most terrible sense of envy.

At least that’s not as bad as the futility one can feel, as a contemporary writing reader, on returning to classics read before—or, worse still, tackling one of the acknowledged greats for the first time. With these works the very fact of their survival can make them seem top-heavy: a great encrustation of regard attaches to them, such that they might collapse on top of you, crushing you to death with their marmoreal prose.

I can’t help thinking that it’s this—besides the obvious and understandable political objections—that’s created much of the animus against the canon: a sort of febrile ressentiment aimed by writers who feel their own potential claims on posterity being eroded against the giants who have preceded them, and whose immortality is ensured. Because let’s face it, even the best of today’s works face an uphill struggle when it comes to attaining classic status. In sheer quantitative terms there are so very many books published nowadays, it stands to reason that the proportion of them that can reasonably be expected to be still being read a decade hence—let alone a century—must be proportionately smaller.

In this regard, I had a sobering episode a couple of years ago when my adult children and I had to clear out the old family home. When my late wife and I bought the house in the mid-1990s, what I think of as “peak paper” was about to be reached: as working journalists we bought several newspapers every day; as regular book reviewers we were sent—unsolicited—several publishers’ bound proofs of new books every week; and then there were both volumes that had been inherited—the rump of parental and grandparental collections—and those that were being bought: as a confirmed bibliophile (albeit a gourmand rather than a gourmet), once I began to do reasonably well as a writer I decided to allow myself this ongoing treat: if I wanted a book—any book—I would buy it.

For a long time I refused to discard anything—and by anything I do mean that copy of Rosemary Conley’s Hip and Thigh Diet missing both covers and chewed by the puppy. My argument was—as per my previous essay for Lit Hub on what we should read—that our four children needed to grow up alongside the same sort of melange of literature that I had. We would exert no pressure on them to read, nor otherwise turn up the pedagogic thermostat—rather, they would absorb text by means of the sheer physical presence of it in their lives, for every way they turned they’d run up against a groaning shelf. Eventually, running out of wall space, my wife prevailed on me to at least get rid of actual duplicates of works—and from there it wasn’t too much of a stretch, I thought, to begin deaccessioning in earnest; for by then the writing was no longer on the wall, but the screen—and it was perfectly clear than if the next generation were to become serious readers, propinquity was insufficient to stimulate them.

As a confirmed bibliophile, once I began to do reasonably well as a writer I decided to allow myself this ongoing treat: if I wanted a book—any book—I would buy it.

The criterion for keeping or rejecting any given thing was this: did it have lasting value? (In other words: had it already lasted—or did we confidently believe it would.) Or: did any of us have a reasonable expectation of reading it within the next five years? Sentiment was no good reason for making the cut—especially given that all those 1980s and even 90s paperbacks were already suffering from perished glue and its sequel: falling leaves. As I say: I thought we’d applied this rubric pretty exhaustively—but when we came to sort through the books again, there were scores—nay, hundreds—that didn’t meet these criteria.

Time, as many lit-critically minded people have observed over the years, is the best judge—and I was shocked how poorly, in particular, my contemporaries fared when it came to making this new selection. Did I want to read this sensitive novel about growing up in rural Wales again? Well, no—since I could scarcely recall having parsed it the first time. Those figurative trees, felled to make paper pulp, were chopped down once more as novel after novel got the axe. The only category of books that suffered even greater winnowing were the plethora of works concerned with the zeitgeist: clever analyses of this subculture or that trend, collections of cutting-edge journalism long since blunted by time—and memoirs of politicians who’d rusted away on the scrapheap heap of history.

If I recount this mournful deaccessioning at some length (a sort of bathetic counterpart to Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay, “Unpacking My Library”), it’s because it made me realize two things: firstly, that my idea of what it was to be une homme ou femme des lettres had been weirdly bound up (if you’ll forgive the pun) in the codex. I might pour scorn on the fusty, tweedy image of the literary type, immured by leather-bound volumes in their room-of-their-own, but the truth was I did think there was some sort of osmotic relationship between possessing all those tomes, and writing more of them—almost as if an essence thereby extracted was suffusing my own word-stream. I believe modish academic critics call this “inter-textuality.”

And secondly, that just as the Roman emperors receiving triumphal accolades were accompanied by slaves tasked with whispering in their ears: “remember, Caesar, you are mortal…” So every writer, no matter how fixated they may be on that desideratum, posterity, must acknowledge their works’ limited shelf-life as well their own mortality.

And not just this—but still more worryingly, their inter-changeability with exactly those works by their peers that they’ve just boxed up and humped to the charity-run thrift shop. I have to say, while this state of mind has some timeless aspects, I nonetheless feel that it’s a growth area of uneasiness. With so many more books and writers—while there seem to be appreciably fewer serious readers, surely there’s going to be a lot less posterity to go round. I already note that my own generation of writers seem, as we enter our sixties, significantly less marmoreal than those even a half-generation above us. In part this has to be a function of ideological shifts that are by no means unwelcome: the need to make pedestals available to those formerly denied them—but it remains, as well, a reflection of a culture in which literature is no longer center stage (or screen).

I don’t need no Yaddo, bro—over the years and now decades, I’ve created numerous little writers’ colonies of my own: isolate cottages rented or borrowed, hotel rooms and serviced apartments in distant cities in which I would immure myself to write in solitude. I used to travel frequently to Manchester in the north of England, where I found the atmosphere—not that I experienced it much—particularly congenial for this enterprise. One afternoon I took a break from typing to have a smoke on the balcony, and while I was out there I was joined on an adjoining one by a man about ten years younger than me. Recognizing me as we mutually inhaled—he inflated my ego by saying: “Do you know, I’m absolutely amazed to meet you in person, because I read a novel by you when I was a young man and it had a really profound effect on me.”

I’m English enough (I’m half-American) to have experienced some embarrassment during the ensuing minutes, as my disciple struggled to remember any of the following: the title of the novel, what it was about, and what precisely the epiphany it had engendered had been. I offered up a few suggestions—but they didn’t help much either—so I delivered him from his misery: “Really,” I said, “it doesn’t matter—the important thing is that you read and responded to literature, not that I wrote it.” I didn’t mean it when I said it—but on reflection, I do believe this: what we’re engaged in, as writers and readers, is the creation of a collective work: a great quilt to which we both add original patches, and alter those already sewn. If it hadn’t been my novel that had provoked this man’s epiphany, it might well have been someone else’s—quite possibly one of those I so expeditiously despatched to the thrift shop.

All of which is by way of saying: there are no “guilty pleasures” when it comes to reading—even if it’s your metier: read what the hell you like—everyone else is. And moreover, as I think the above makes clear: all of us tend to forget much of what we read anyway. Homer Simpson puts it with characteristic eloquence: “Every time I learn something new it pushes old stuff out of my brain.” I would say, though, that for the writer of fictions quality definitely has a quantity of its own: creative writing teachers may try to instill in their students the rudiments of plotting, and try to convey the great gearing into it of character development, but for those who have read hundreds—nay, thousands—of novels, such formalist analysis has become entirely intuitive. I pretty much spent the entirety of my twenties lying in bed reading the novels of the Western canon (as it was then defined), and I don’t regret this in the slightest.

Of course, it could be that when you began this essay you weren’t looking for an established novelist’s musings on his complicated relationship with his peers, and his anxieties concerning his influences—but rather, for a rule-of-thumb guide to how to read specifically for research. I’ve answered part of that question: no amount of absorbing others’ metaphors will teach you how to make your own. (Or indeed help you to avoid them, Kafka-style, altogether.) As to reading purely for research, beyond the bold generalities, easily obtained from the obvious reference works, in my experience the key to producing works that seem, while invented, to have the whiff of actualité about them, is to seek out an obscure first-person account of the situation or the events you wish to depict—and thoroughly plagiarize it. The poet, W.H. Auden, used to write in the margins of books “GETS,” which stood for Good Enough to Steal.

Will Self
Will Self
Will Self is the author of many novels and books of nonfiction, including Great Apes; The Book of Dave; How the Dead Live, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year; The Butt, winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction; and Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He lives in South London.





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