Sunday, 11 September 2011

Reasons to write

Most weeks, I try to read both the Times Literary Supplement and the Saturday Guardian Review. The differences – and the similarities – between them are often striking. The TLS is published (according to the printed date) on a Friday, but is always on the news stands the previous morning; the Guardian Review is folded in with all the other Saturday Guardian supplements – Family, Money, Work and other cheerful weekend topics. The TLS is more obviously academic in focus. The Guardian Review puts more emphasis on using writers from outside the academy and on the craft of writing itself.

The TLS tends to cover a wider range of subject areas in greater depth, but both give a good deal of prominence to fiction. Here, too, the choice of reviewer is indicative: last week Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, The Cat’s Table, was discussed in both papers. The novelist Annie Proulx reviewed it for the Guardian Review; the TLS reviewer was Madeline Clements, who announced, in ‘This Week’s Contributors’, that she was ‘writing a doctoral thesis on Muslim self-representation in the post 9/11 novels of Anglophone South Asian writers.’ Both reviews made me want to go out and read the book, but while Clements approached her subject cautiously, Proulx jumped straight in declaring her admiration for Ondaatje and his importance as a writer.

The TLS letters page is the place to go if you enjoy academic bitchiness, but not if you don’t. Sometimes it’s rather like reading David Lodge’s Small World without the laughs. Last week (2 September 2011, p.6), an outraged American historian took his revenge on a reviewer who had accused him of having ‘some kind of soft spot for Stalin’: her review, he began, ‘grossly distorts the book, my purpose in writing it, and the historical evidence that I present.’ Five paragraphs later (which other newspaper or journal in the world allows an author five paragraphs to fulminate against a bad review?), he declared that a book on a subject such as his own ‘requires, in short, a sophisticated approach to the historical analysis of evidence’ and signed off by saying that neither the reviewer’s review nor her own book on his subject – there’s the rub - ‘show readiness to understand or engage in such work.’ Ouch.

Life is generally friendlier in the Guardian Review. The job of writing and the difference between writing and reading are always under discussion. In the ‘Guardian Book Club’ column last week (03.09.11), Neil Gaiman wrote about his novel American Gods:

I do not know how American Gods looks from the outside. I’ve never read it, not to find out what happened next, anyway. I wrote it to find out what happened next, and that’s a very different thing.

The poet Lavinia Greenlaw (in ‘Author, author’, another regular Guardian Review column, with a different author writing each week about how and why they write) described the impulse to write in not dissimilar terms:

The way I know something might become a poem has nothing to do with thinking about it. It’s a physical sensation rather like the first instant of a memory before you’ve made sense of it.

She quoted Robert Frost: “the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.”

The biographer Fiona MacCarthy was the writer in last week’s feature interview (‘A life in writing’). Her subjects nearly always appeal to me – Eric Gill, Stanley Spencer, William Morris and Lord Byron – and I was struck by the comment made by her interviewer, Paul Laity:

She has remarked that she doesn’t choose her subjects so much as wait for them “to claim me … always creative people of one sort or another for whom I feel a deep affinity.”

All of this interests me very much as I begin work on a book I have been promising myself (and other people) to write as soon as I have retired. It’s about the life and influence of the Victorian stained glass designer, Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907). I have been writing and lecturing on his work for twenty-five years, and it’s time I did the job properly. I’ve not attempted a full-length biography before. Has Kempe claimed me, as Fiona MacCarthy has been claimed by her latest subject, Burne-Jones, Kempe’s contemporary and in some respects his arch rival?

Kempe is a fascinating, contradictory and still controversial figure for those with an interest in Victorian church art and its legacy: Pevsner once described his work as “disastrously retardataire” and he has strong supporters and equally strong detractors. Having read last weekend’s Guardian Review, I am keen to interrogate my own reasons for liking Kempe’s work so much that I want to spend the next couple of years writing about it and him. My provisional title, echoing George Herbert, is Espying Heaven: Charles Eamer Kempe and the art of stained glass, and if the book ever gets reviewed in the TLS  (‘In your dreams!”) I just hope I shan’t feel moved to write a five-paragraph letter of protest against what the reviewer thinks of it.

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From now on, I shall try to add a new post every fortnight or less. I welcome comments and feedback.

1 comment:

  1. I'm interested to know how your book re Charles Kempe is progressing - noting in your blog of 21 Sept 2011 you anticipated spending the 'next couple of years' on the project. (Looking forward to your lecture at Ely next week)