Becoming a walker
Trust me, I'm telling stories

Seized with desire

Over at Vulpes Libris there's an excellent interview with Susan Barrett, author of Fixing Shadows and The Inconstant Husband and, incidentally, a stablemate of mine at Headline Review. At one point she steps away from the questions and says, 'What fun writing this - it is a nice opportunity to post-rationalise, a bit of literary onanism.' Which made me laugh, but also got me thinking.

I guess whether we should pursue that precise analogy does depend on what you think of onanism as a form of pleasure, but post-rationalising is an interesting business. Yes, it's fun, though there are people who might say that writing 30,000 words of PhD commentary has to be the ultimate - um - well, you know what I mean. There's certainly a strong argument that, as Umberto Eco says in his essay 'Reflections on The Name of the Rose', 'The author must not interpret': that is, must not tell readers what to think of the book. And I do believe that to write a book in order to have interesting PhD-ish or even Vulpes-Libris-ish things to say about it would be a betrayal of what art is for, and comes perilously close to the recent Booker-winner who apparently half-admitted that s/he had written that book in order to win prizes. I also doubt if it would end up being a very good book.

But Eco goes on to say that even if the author must not interpret 'he [sic] may tell why and how he wrote his book'. If there is a whiff of self-admiration, of self-absorption in such telling, it's only really the self-consciousness of anyone who is asked to answer a question: the admiration and absorption is originally the questioner's. Deciding to write a novel is partly a matter of setting yourself a series of questions at different levels, from how did they get here and what happens next, to who's telling this story and is it past or present to them. The solution to these problems is the novel. Think of it that way, and talking about why and how you wrote it is merely another level of questions and answers.

If you can lay hands on a copy, I highly recommend Eco's brief account of writing his first, mega-selling novel. It's a while, I realised, since I read The Name of the Rose itself, but Eco's stylishly written and thought-provoking little essay has brought it all back. So I looked for the novel on my shelves, and realised, eventually, that I've never actually owned a copy: I must have borrowed my father's, which means I read it at least twenty-two years ago. It feels like eighteen months at the most: now that's a tribute to how much it gripped me at the time. Eco's account of it is delightful partly because, although his cultural, literary and theoretical erudition leaves the rest of us gasping, he still has to deal with the practicalities of his first novel as we all do: he bumps into the same problems, finds the same solutions, is constrained inconveniently as we are by the historical record, realises too late how last minute additions are being interpreted by others. All in all, there's something very delightful about the fact that even a professor of semiotics will admit to being seized with the desire to write a novel, 'Because I felt like poisoning a monk.'

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