There’s something about Toby Litt that’s like chewing on tinfoil. He’s like a casual acquaintance or work colleague that you run into a little too often: someone who doesn’t do or say anything actively wrong, but nevertheless leaves you with a faint sense of annoyance in his wake. I’ve read a couple of his books. Beatniks was fantastic, and haunting, and I can still recall its last line today. Finding Myself – a country-house mystery done as a novel-within-a-novel – was innovative and entertaining but ultimately had no story to it. There’s an affect of affectless in Litt, and quite a few other UK literary writers as well. You sense a coldness: not quite Chekhov’s chip of ice, but a quiet, immutable self-satisfaction.
I saw Litt once at an event in Manchester. He made great play against what he calls a ‘faux-naif style… the idea that you can be at a funeral and only grieving and not thinking about how you look, how you come across.’ Maybe I misunderstood his point – and I’m quoting from memory over some years – but I remember thinking that not everyone is rationally self conscious and self reflexive absolutely all the time. If they were, the world would be a more orderly place (and we might find less to write about in it).
Litt’s recent article about writing says all the right things. The majority of writing is really quite bad. Bad writers are self obsessed, and take criticism badly. There’s no great conspiracy to publishing. Gatekeepers exist because the impact of reading bad writing is so time consuming and soul destroying. Just because your girlfriend likes your stuff, doesn’t mean the world will. Litt says this, and it’s true. He even has a great line: ‘To write competently is to do a few magic tricks for friends and family; to write well is to run away to join the circus.’
And yet and but and all things considered – I do find things to argue with in Litt’s piece (don’t I always?) For a start, that ‘bad writers often write in order to forward a cause or enlarge other people’s understanding of a contemporary social issue.’ I agree that one should wear one’s politics lightly (and haven’t always taken my own advice) but if you write well enough, it’ll transcend your convictions. Upton Sinclair, for example, nailed the Chicago meatpackers to the wall in effortless prose. Uncle Tom’s Cabin reads a little melodramatic today but near started the Civil War. Authors in totalitarian states must find ever more inventive ways of writing well at all, because even in the digital age the secret police are afraid of good writing and will come down hard on it, as countless Saudi and Bangladeshi bloggers could attest. (Shahriar Mandanipour’s 2009 novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a brilliant satire on the loop fiction writers must jump through to get anything published while avoiding arrest.) And yet Litt also writes that stories are not timeless because ‘historical novels or science fiction novels are a response to a particular moment.’ Arguably so – and that particular moment has political and economic systems as well as cars, buildings and brand names.
Litt also says that ‘the most dangerous kind of writers for bad writers to read are what I call excuse writers – writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.’ The ‘excuse writer’ is a hard concept to pin down, but Litt gives some examples: ‘Jack Kerouac, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou’. These are ‘writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.’ What I think Litt means (and again, correct me if I’m wrong) is this: that many famous writers operated on an apparent irrationality and so it’s a danger for bad writers to tap into that irrationality as a short cut to success. ‘If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way.’
But I wonder if charm is all there really is to the legacies of these writers. When I think of authors I still admire and reread – Henry Miller, Peter Straub, Roth, Highsmith, Parker, Houellebecq, Donna Tartt, Vonnegut, King – they were all flawed and sometimes degenerate, but they had passion. Kerouac’s work was a tragic mess but there is passion and memorability in the mess that makes it worth rereading. Atwood is a supremely rationalist writer, but she has passion (‘context is all, or is it ripeness?’) You need to be serious and disciplined, but if serious and disciplined is all you are, why not design IT systems (and make a lot more money)? In their article on DFW, twenty years after the late novelist’s classic essay on irony, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll looked at the old soul lyric (‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen/Nobody knows my sorrow… Glory Hallelujah’) and quote Cornell West on it: ‘Going to struggle anyway. Cut against the grain anyway. Never view oneself as a spectator but always as a participant.’ The passion. Amen.
Again, though, Litt can’t make up his mind. ‘Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn,’ he writes – and then: ‘Bad writers think: ‘I want to write this.’ Good writers think: ‘This is being written.” Too much doubt and humility – and then not enough. Critiquing Litt is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. And yet if you are career focused this article is probably all good advice… however (to continue Litt’s marvellous circus metaphor) your career will be a tightrope of self consciousness and self reflexiveness.
And sometimes you will yearn to jump off the tightrope and dive into the carnival.