Reviewing additions to the “literary failure memoir” genre in the 3/25/13 New Yorker, Giles Harvey concludes that the authors are making an inordinate fuss over their failure to succeed at a career in which success is unlikely (since the career barely any longer exists), and that some are such poor writers they don’t deserve to succeed. Redemption, even learning, seems to be lacking.
Doubtless some will read my previous post (“Good writing done me in”) as an apology for poor writing skills, a dismissal of knowledge and craft in the service of letting it all hang out, and terrible advice to school kids who need to learn the best possible communication skills.
Not so. I’m arguing that it’s useful to match degree of craft to purpose in writing. When I gave up fiction for journalism in the early 60s, a lot of people castigated me for selling out. (I castigated myself.) But I needed to eat (and wanted to drink, oh yes). Some of the best writing I ever did was reporting for the Sunday magazines, helped enormously by the scrupulous writing skills I’d taught myself for fiction. (It must be hard for today’s North American writers in all genres to believe that my fiction and journalism usually went straight to the printer with not a comma changed or a fact checked, even with a lead time of six weeks: editors had learned to trust me (but my sentences were simpler then–my 16-year-old self would have been horrified at the idea of parens within parens).) It was unthinking prejudice that led some to assume attempting to write fiction was always a more worthwhile pursuit than making a career in journalism. I’m not sure many would make that mistake these days. (Though you’d be surprised how some envy me for having novels published when they never pick up a novel and know nobody who ever reads novels.)
Expertise in basic skills is useful for any writer, and essential for the wretch on fire with a passion for writing. Nothing will stop the truly passionate from learning what they need to learn. But every kid in any class might learn to value any attempt they make at writing for the gifts it might bring, some unknowable at the time of writing: I think every kid through every stage of development, however clumsy the attempts at writing, should save every word in a time capsule to open periodically through life to help him understand where he came from and who he is.
We forget who we were, especially who we were when we were very young. I had no memory until I read Aubade thirty years after I wrote it of how angry I was as an adolescent. I had no idea when I wrote Aubade and my headmaster banned it that one day teachers would recommend it to their students as the “ultimate gay young adult novel” (because it was written by a young gay adult). We can never know how valuable our words, however clumsily shaped, may one day be to us, or even to others.
These days I sometimes recommend that psychotherapy clients start journaling in search of (to help create) that authentic self they can respect, but find so elusive. I ask that they not shape the writing. I suggest that when a thought seems worth it they jot down key words, phrases, on their phone or laptop. Don’t “write,” lose the restrictions. Match means to ends.
When I was 16 I behaved very differently. Before I wrote my first novel Aubade the summer I left school, I studied two thick manuals by Uzzell on the technique of the novel, and both Fowler books. (You’re reading this blog and don’t know who the Fowlers were? Enough of that 16-year-old schoolmarm remains in me to tell you to look it up.) All that studying (which I’d refused to do in school) resulted in a novel that the London Sunday Times later called “maturely sophisticated in style and structure.” (Which was probably what got it published and saved it from being rejected as filth. Though that happened: Dot, the woman who ran the railway station bookstall in Bangor, the Northern Irish town where I grew up, ordered some copies to make a few shillings and then sent them back when she read what she called “the dirtiest book I ever read.” Lives were sheltered in that benighted decade of the 50s.)
Fast forward to the 90s, and a New York agent explained to me why the treatment I’d written for a nonfiction book wouldn’t sell. “But it’s so well-written,” I complained. “Oh, well-written,” she said dismissively. (She’d been the same notoriously demanding Ph.D. student who gave me an unprecedented A+ in a lit course at Columbia.) Or to psychology grad school, where I couldn’t understand why a peer got an A for a paper that was full of typos and grammatical errors, whereas I got only an A-.
I was still focused on form, not content, and it took me a long time to begin to understand why murky clunky detouring allusive writing got the praise and my clear prose was rejected. For years I supposed that the murk was designed to disguise a lack of content, but eventually I was willing to admit that my transparent prose only served to reveal the thinness of my ideas.
To write most sentences is to lie by omission. To select x number of words is to choose not to tell the whole truth. Even if we knew it, even if such a thing exists, even if we always know what it is that we know.
In twelve step programs they say that “More will be revealed.” In my twenties huge chunks of my earlier experience were unavailable to my consciousness. It’s unclear to me that I deliberately suppressed the early experience. Maybe more likely, I was too busy creating an identity I could live with to handle, integrate, the early experiences into my view of the world. I’ve known men, not me, who woke up one morning at the age of 24 and realized that they were gay (or longed for monogamy, or didn’t want children) but with no memory of ever having considered such a possibility before that morning.
When I was in school I was bullied. I don’t recall ever saying that before. I felt (feel?) so much shame about it that I couldn’t tell even a therapist. However, in school I also bullied. That, unlike being bullied, was something I only remembered, admitted to myself, quite recently. I could write a thousand pages about how those experiences have formed my character and influenced the way I behave towards others. But I don’t think I bullied because I was bullied. I bullied because it was part of my nature.
I’ve written that in writing Aubade I wrote everything I knew. But I didn’t. The book was thought of as daring, but I left out what I was ashamed of, or what even that reckless child knew would be considered beyond all acceptable thinking in that place at that time. So I lied by omission then, and maybe later I lied deliberately through shame.
When I was a teenager writing fiction I was constantly told (accused!) that writing came easily to me. When I started writing for the quality London Sunday newspapers I struggled to the point where people watching me said I should find another profession.
My first three novels came fairly easily, for different reasons. When I wrote Aubade I wrote all I knew. I didn’t have to choose what to say about the experiences/feelings/competing beliefs/responses to other writing that flood my brain these days. Writing my second and third novels I wanted to produce x number of words so that I could get the contracted advance and eat.
Of course I was spoiled by writing a highly praised novel at age 16. I expected writing to come easily, and I didn’t have the inner resources (or respect for the work) to fight to succeed when it got hard.
I started out with more respect for journalism, not least because I could earn £20 more for a piece in the Sunday Times or Telegraph magazines than I got for the advance on my first novel. I wasn’t writing to formula and had no idea how corrupt many Fleet Street journalists were about stretching the truth until I started working alongside them. I was willing to pound the streets (I once interviewed every tenant on every floor of every building on both sides of an entire block in Soho) and struggle to craft a story from what I believed to be the absolute truth. Journalism only came easily to me when I lost respect for my assignments: when I moved to New York, twice a year I’d get sent to Hollywood to interview stars such as Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson. That was when I truly wrote to formula.
These days (these last few years) I read almost nothing but 19th and 20th century Russian history and fiction, part of my struggle to learn the Russian language that I’ll probably still be engaged in the day I croak. Which has taught me respect for suffering and genius. While I wrote the new introduction to Waiting for the Sky to Fall I was also reading Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, with its useful distinction between autobiography and memoir. I thought of writing a memoir about how I became who I am, but I cringed at the difficulty of handling the interactions between the three main things that shaped me (no, pounded me into shape). Maybe three books that covered the same years? Maybe three long parts of the same book? That would truly be opening a vein, and at the very least bloody hard work.
When Aubade was last published in 1989 an interviewer wrote that “even by the most objective standards, Martin’s life was dreadful. His family was not just poor; they were destitute.”
I was shocked then (we’d never discussed poverty in the interview, so he based his assessment on what I’d written in the new Introduction), and shocked just now when I dug out the interview to check what he’d said. What he wrote stung so badly that I softened it in memory. “Objectively” maybe what he wrote was right, based on what I’d written, but the data I remembered and my feelings about the data didn’t coincide. Growing up I felt the effects of poverty on my sister far more than I felt them on myself. And if we were that poor, how could I afford even the few books I mentioned in my last blog?
Now I remember that before I wrote Aubade I studied the craft of fiction writing in two books I ordered that were imported from the U.S., written by a man called Thomas H. Uzzell. (They’re still available on Amazon.) But how did I hear about those books? Maybe in some monthly magazine for writers? Books and Bookmen? So I had money for those. And earlier I wrote about my adolescent torpor/depression. But I had the energy to study those books. All my energy was in fact focused and contained around that one objective: I was going to be a writer.
The money thing is partly explained by the way poor people have to operate. My family spent what they had when they had it. They’d learned that present needs (some wants) wipe out long-term goals. You can’t save for the large economy size because you need the small size now. You may have no furniture in your home in the projects but you do rent a large-screen TV. I once pretended to my family that I’d saved fifteen shillings, then when they told me they needed it I pretended I’d lost it.
A reviewer once wrote that my first novel had “a tiny arena but intense truthfulness.” When I was sixteen all the energy I had was focused on that ambition to be a writer and I went about it the only way I knew how, however self-ill-advised that turned out to be. I wrote all I knew as a sixteen-year-old, and though I knew so little, it turned out seeming consciously economical and complete.
An awkward working class adolescent boy from nowhere who wanted to be a famous writer. (That “famous” was part of the problem.) Anyone sensible looking at my life couldn’t have found more unlikely circumstances for a future writer. Few books, adoptive parents who lacked not just formal education but emotional and political education. Ulster was a repressive society. At that time (probably still) Catholics and Protestants lived segregated lives in different schools and churches, rarely socializing, sharing an uneasy peace and keeping their mouths shut about religious and economic differences except on drunken or rare occasions like the Twelfth of July, when the Orangemen banged their big drums. Repression leaked into my family and into me: it wasn’t until I was gone away twenty or thirty years that it occurred to me to come up with a convincing reason why my parents barely spoke to each other when I was growing up. One spectacular repression was the fact of my adoption. Anyone who knew our family knew I was adopted, but all were sworn to secrecy. Amazingly they kept their mouths shut, even my best friend growing up, though his mother speculated juicily about who my father was.
Apart from the English classes that I lived for, my education hardly fitted me with the tools that are useful for a writer to have. Without supervision, in grammar school I drifted, dreaming through classes or lusting after some teachers. Except for my English homework, I spent a few careless minutes on homework, guessing answers that I could easily have researched if I hadn’t been sunk in torpor. Depression, I’d label it now.
It really does help a writer to have knowledge of the world: geography, history, math, foreign language and cultures, all the things I paid no attention to. (I don’t know how I squeaked through my school leaving exams.) I felt the lack of knowledge and discipline later, writing both fiction and nonfiction. As a journalist I was good at short bursts of sustained effort, but I usually had enough sense to avoid committing to the books editors offered me: an appraisal of the British unions, a paperback expansion of a piece I wrote on a Glasgow gang. Rash as my behavior often was, I had enough sense to know I didn’t have sustained effort in me. As a fiction writer I stopped being explicit: my trees remained trees, not what kind of tree, the details of its leaves. My characters’ clothes went undescribed. How much did they cost? How often were they cleaned? Later in life the kind of writing I admired seemed beyond me. Walking down the street, I thought I didn’t have words to name or describe the buildings, the clouds, the features of people’s faces, the characteristics of their body language. Am I walking on asphalt or cement? (Growing up I didn’t know how to pronounce asphalt, as in the movie The Asphalt Jungle. Maybe we called it tar.) When I read now I check for specificity. Is the writer able to name things? If not, what do they do to make up for what I see as that flaw?
Reading these last few paragraphs, I realized that they can’t be entirely true. MORE TO COME
It was of course a ridiculous ambition. I grew up in a home where they complained when I pulled away the heavy sofa and armchair to open the musty cockroachy cupboard where our books were housed: three or four slip-cased classic novels and the Books of Knowledge, a junior encyclopedia. When I was 13 or 14 I sent away for the New Imperial Reference Dictionary, which I think cost 30 shillings, an impossible sum, but you could pay it off in five shilling installments. It included a small dictionary of quotations about Life and Literature. And in those days before ubiquitous paperbacks there were book clubs which sent you hardback reprints once a month, novels by H.E. Bates and A.J. Cronin, autobiographies by writers like Cronin and Richard Church: the Companion Book Club, the World Book Club, the more highbrow Reader’s Union, which is how I got to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at age 15. I joined the clubs, then figured out how to pay for the books. The rest of my reading was books from the Carnegie Library, but after I turned 12 or 13 I remember books being mostly unread while the fines piled up because I’d lost most energy for anything, sunk in my adolescent lassitude.
I lived for the daily English classes at my grammar school, but Mr. Grimes, the teacher who spoiled me with his attention, wasn’t a novel man. His forte was drama and poetry, so we discussed Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot at a fairly sophisticated level, though the Freudian implications of Hamlet were off limits. We had to study two or three novels for our school-leaving exams, but Grimes only mentioned them in a quick overview before the exams. I’d played a disturbed adolescent in plays on the Ulster BBC in Belfast, so why didn’t I want to write plays, or lyric poetry? Instead at 11 or 12 I was already preparing the cover pages of exercise books to write my novels: The Key to Bognor, with a drawing of a key on the cover; A Wind from Great Gable. But I couldn’t even think of an opening sentence, let alone characters or plot. Wait, I remember one opening: A man was walking along the seafront, and he looked suspicious because his teeth were too white.
Where did the ambition come from? Maybe the cupboard classics: The Cloister and the Hearth (but I never read that), Black Beauty, I think Kidnapped, maybe David Copperfield. Oh, I remember another novel: Joseph Hocking’s All Men Are Liars, an improving Protestant tract. The hero rescues a child from squalor and pays for her upbringing while he sinks into a life of depravity. Flash forward and he returns to fall head over heels in love with his ward. But consider where he’s been! To marry her would be to defile her! She spurns him! But he saves her life in an act of bravery, and so redeems himself. Unfortunately the details of the hero’s depravity weren’t even hinted at. But I still found the novel “harrowing,” a word unsuitable for use by a young Ulster lad.
The great leap occurred seemingly from nothing and nowhere: at 16 I wrote a novel. MORE TO COME
Years ago I got a call at home at six o’clock in the morning. “Is that the Ken Martin who writes for the International Observer?” “No,” I said. The caller seemed disappointed, but he ended the call.
For years I’ve wondered what he wanted with me. To buy the movie rights to a story I wrote? Had someone left me money? I’ll never know. And never know why, even half-asleep, I didn’t recognize that he was certainly asking for me? Was it because I hadn’t worked as a journalist for years? Was it that as far as I knew technically there was no such thing as an international Observer. The caller sounded American, and he’d probably got the name of the paper wrong because it was published in another country. Or was it one more instance of my kneejerk stubborn refusal to set the record straight when it would be easy to do so? I remember when I lived in London and a bar acquaintance assumed I’d been lying about an assignment because it didn’t appear in that Sunday’s magazine. I could have set him straight by telling him the magazine’s lead time was at least four weeks. But I refuse to defend myself because I assume the more I explain the more likely I’ll appear defensive, and I don’t want people to think they have the power to make me feel defensive. And maybe I believe people will believe whatever they want to, whatever I say.
When Jay Jenkins called and asked me if I was Kenneth Martin the novelist, I hesitated for barely a second before I said yes. I knew that my having written novels was a matter of public record. But when he said he wanted to republish Waiting for the Sky to Fall, I was telling the truth when I said I was surprised. “Novelist” wasn’t what I’d been calling myself about myself for the longest time. And I’m good at practicing amnesia in order to focus on the task at hand.
What happened to the ambitious child who lived and breathed to be a writer? MORE TO COME
Sometimes I suggest to psychotherapy clients that one mark of maturity is the ability to hold two conflicting beliefs in our head without feeling too uncomfortable. In the literary world I was more used to hearing strongly held opinions, even though I knew that sometimes people didn’t believe what they wrote.
In 1957 Penelope Mortimer, a novelist remembered for being married to the creator of Rumpole, gave Aubade a scathing review in the London Sunday Times. Never mind that she was careless enough to misquote one of my sentences, and wrote another sentence that made no logical sense. It stung. Fast forward 31 years, and a reviewer in the London Sunday Times gives a reprint of Aubade a favorable review: “It therefore treats very closely the concerns of adolescents, yet is maturely sophisticated in style and structure.”
In 1958 my agent Julian Jebb told me that Aubade wouldn’t be reviewed in the BBC’s highbrow weekly magazine The Listener, despite the literary editor being gay. Or perhaps because the literary editor was gay, and didn’t want to be seen promoting a novel with a gay theme because he was of necessity professionally closeted. It’s even possible he wanted to do his part in protecting me: the publisher Victor Gollancz thought it would be unfair to me to publish such a book at my age. Not that a stubbornly independent boy like me would ever have accepted help, or even admitted that he needed it.
Again, fast forward to 1989, and in The Listener Paul Binding gives the reprint of Aubade a very favorable review. I especially liked his focus on the new Introduction I wrote: “He has written for this edition an introduction scarcely less absorbing and revelatory than the novel itself. Kenneth Martin has a long memory, and his account of his London experiences is acid, poignant, honest, illuminating.”
What to think of such disparities? I suppose one lesson for a writer is to stick around. But I wouldn’t count on it. As I matured in the time of the Angry Young Men when middle-class Oxbridge graduates carefully adopted working class accents—sloppy journalists called me an Angry Young Man, but one reviewer congratulated me on not being angry—Noel Coward was two dirty words, despised for his facility and lack of seriousness. Today he’s acknowledged to be a master of his trade, but I pay no attention, because I’ve internalized those early judgments. Growing up, the last person I wanted to be compared to was Noel Coward.
These days my head buzzes with competing voices, imperfect memories, thoughts I’d rather not have. In the past those voices may have driven some mad because they made us doubt our comfortable selves. Maybe now we can welcome the clamor as a sign of maturity.
I wrote the Introduction to Aubade in 1989, at a time when I’d done little reading for years except what was required for my psychology degree at Columbia and then for the first of my psychology grad schools. I’d had a narrow focus for years, with little time for self-reflection. The Introduction to Aubade is straight recall of events and how I remembered their impact on me. I wrote it straight through in a few days and changed almost nothing before I sent it off to the publisher. I remember thinking intermittently through the years that if I wrote that Intro now without checking back it would probably be very different, in ways I couldn’t predict.
I wrote the first draft of the Intro to Waiting in much the same way: straight through, and getting it off quickly to the editor so that he’d have something if I got stymied making further changes. But for another month I tweaked it, cutting and pasting, adding, subtracting. And not just adding events or impressions: adding personal meaning. It was the most pleasurable writing I’d done in years because I was so fully engrossed in the task. Each morning at 7:30 I couldn’t wait to get my hands on yesterday’s printout, because in writing I was learning more about what Waiting might have meant to me and to others.
After finally accepting the value of Aubade, I’m way more ambivalent about the value of Waiting. After living through them, I’ve become fascinated with the way different generations value different kinds of writing, and what different standards reviewers bring to books in succeeding decades. I’m convinced that today’s writers are far better educated, technically proficient, psychologically aware. Yet books written back when, without that proficiency and awareness, may still be far more deeply treasured by readers (and writers).
I’m also fascinated by what writers don’t—can’t—know when they’re writing and that can only leak through in their writing by accident to later generations. When I wrote Aubade and Waiting I took for granted the austerities of postwar Britain, the limited diet, the fact that even the poorest people were expected to dress up for their office jobs, though how they were expected to find the money for good suits on what they earned is beyond me now. At a time when clothes were far more formal, expensive to buy and to clean, it was inconceivable to most of us that it might one day be acceptable for many professionals to wear jeans to the office, or that we’d even be encouraged to work from home. And don’t get me started on the colonialist prejudices expressed by the hero of Aubade.
“Crystalline” isn’t a word that trips off my tongue these days. In fact I had to go to a print dictionary to check the spelling because spellcheck didn’t recognize it. It came to mind because I remembered using it in some publicity blurb I wrote over half a century ago for the original edition of Aubade. Publishers asked me to write my own blurbs in those days, even before I reached the age of consent.
“Crystalline” got me thinking about something I didn’t have room to discuss in the Intros I wrote for Aubade and Waiting for the Sky to Fall: the kind of writing that was admired then versus what’s admired now. The Belfast Telegraph, which never made a secret of hating my guts after I trashed my hometown in an interview in a London Sunday paper, still had to concede that Aubade was written with the “economy of a born writer.” I remember reading Kingsley Amis’s remark that he’d aimed for “crystalline prose” when he started out. He gave up on that ambition, which is just as well, because no prose is less crystalline that Kingsley’s.
So economical, clear and sparkling was the goal to aim for. But is Dostoyevsky crystalline? These days, is Dave Eggers crystalline? “Crystalline” derailed me for a long time, because it led me to pay more attention to how I wrote than to what I wrote. And it led me to get impatient with a book like Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March because it seemed messy. I think a broad rule of thumb is that as we get older, the more aware we are of the complexity of the world and human consciousness, the less economical, clear and sparkling our prose is likely to become. Maybe when we’re about to croak, and things start to look simple again . . . .