This talk was first delivered to students of the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck on May 3rd 2016.
Leicester City won the Premier League, and since then a great deal of the national conversation – online, in newspapers, in corridors – has been, ‘How did they do it?’ The next thing after that, of course, is, ‘What can we learn from how they did it?’ Business leaders and politicians and other important people will turn to sports performance coaches for wisdom. ‘How do we acquire your winning ways?’ they will ask. ‘So that we, too, can outperform our competitors.’ They will ask, ‘What can we do that you do?’
Shouldn’t writers be asking the same questions?
And that is what I’m going to be exploring – but not specifically in reference to Leicester City; partly because I planned this weeks ago, and couldn’t be certain they were going to win; partly because they are a team and you are not. Writers, you don’t need to be told, fail or succeed or just meander along, in isolation. If there is anything for us to learn from sport, it will be from athletes who compete individually.
Sometimes it’s good to give background. For the past year and a half I have been researching the life of a writer and sportsman. He was born in November 1785, grew up to be a champion Cumberland & Westmoreland-style wrestler, wrote the world’s first history of wrestling and also a novel titled Henry and Mary. His name was William Litt, and he was my great-great-great – that’s three greats – grandfather. The result of this research will hopefully, around this time next year, be published as a non-fiction book called Wrestliana.
Alongside my research, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about sport and what possible relations it might have to writing – in terms of training and coaching, winning and losing. And I’d like to share a few of those ideas today.
More specifically, because in these summer talks I am mainly thinking of what I can say that will be of practical use to you, in trying to become better writers, I will be talking about how coaches formulate sports training.
I’m going to ask, is there – for a novelist or short story writer – an equivalent to what a cyclist or a tennis player needs to put themselves through in order to be in with a chance of performing, of winning, at the highest level?
Here is one athlete, Victoria Pendleton, talking about what she puts herself through. It’s part of an advertisement – an advertisement for what, you’ll see. (Again, I chose this clip before the resignation of the Technical Director of British Cyling, Shane Sutton, was accused of sexism and bullying – and resigned.)
And here is another athlete, Steve Redgrave, from a BBC Documentary. At this point, he is in training for the 2004 Olympic Games – and has been doing an endurance test (an Ergo test) to give the coaches a chance to decide whether he’s fit enough to get in the coxless four boat. Yes, he is a team athlete. But I’m showing this clip for a very particular reason – it’s the most brutal example I’ve seen of ‘What athletes put themselves through in order to succeed.’ But, as we’ll hear later from the cyclist Chris Hoy, what you’re about to see (using an ergometer) is a standard component of many athletes’ training. Just before you watch this I’d like to remind you that Steve Redgrave is Great Britain’s most successful Olympic athlete of all time. He is what a lazy commentator would call ‘a born winner’. Keep saying that to yourself as you watch. ‘Here is a winner.’
‘Pretty shit birthday.’
That scene, I’d say, was more what you’d expect to see in a nursing home than in a gym. ‘Just move your legs.’
The writer I’ve chosen to talk about, and to ask you to read, is Claire-Louise Bennett, whose first book, POND, was published by Stinging Fly and then by Fitzcarraldo Editions last year. I will talk about her writing, which I think is extremely interesting and accomplished and endearing and successful, in the second half of the talk.
The other book I suggested you might look at was David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Talent, Practice and the Truth About Success. Epstein’s seems to me the most satisfactory approach, so far, to the question of what makes a successful athlete. (And, by extension, the publishers would like us to believe, a successful practitioner of any very difficult thing.)
I read The Sports Gene, I should say, after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, and Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.
Both Gladwell and Syed argue, convincingly – or at least, I thought convincingly at the time I read them – that what is shorthanded as ‘the 10,000 Hours Rule’ – (or the 10,000 Hours to Expertise Rule) applies not just to sport but also to other very difficult things: among them, writing prose fiction.
The 10,000 hours to expertise rule derives from a scientific paper called ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’. The lead researcher was K. Anders Ericsson.
As David Epstein puts it, ‘The media interpretation of Ericsson’s work has often been to say that 10,000 hours is both necessary and sufficient to make anyone an expert in anything. No one, the idea goes, achieves expertise with less, and everyone achieves expertise with that amount.’
What the Ericsson and the other researchers suggested – after studying student violinists in West Berlin – was that, Epstein again, ‘expert musicians, regardless of the instrument, accumulate 10,000 hours of practice by age twenty, and that skilled performers engage in greater quantities of “deliberate practice,” the kind of effortful exercises that strain the capacity of the trainee. The kind of practice that is often done in solitude.’
Solitude is an interesting word for him to bring in, here. Because solitude is much more associated with writers than with athletes – and especially Romantic writers. For example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Fears in Solitude’, William Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’, which includes the phrase ‘the bliss of solitude’, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude’, John Keats’s sonnet ‘O Solitude! If I must with thee dwell…’
Rather than with solitude, we tend to associate athletes with the arena and with television. Their moments of achievement are live in front of a crowd of perhaps, 100,000 – and distantly witnessed by an audience on screens-of-various-sorts of sometimes well over a billion.
And we, as viewers, however much the commentators may speak of – to take one completely random example – Serena Williams, being a ‘natural athlete’, know that there is an almost unimaginable amount of training goes into each shot she plays. Repetitious training.
This, folks, is another tennis player, Andre Agassi voicing his seven years-old self:
‘My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I’ll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I’ll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don’t lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.’
They will also, no sweat – or rather, with an immense amount of sweat, as Agassi grew up in Las Vegas – they will also hit the 10,000 hours very rapidly.
Most sport depends upon the extremely efficient repetition, under immense stress, of pre-established movements. For example, a serve in tennis – the second serve, down the centre line, of Serena Williams, at break point against, on Centre Court, Wimbledon, in the final.
But a tennis serve is perhaps not the purest example. A purer example would be the perpetually circling legs of Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins on their bicycles.
In some sports, there is almost no variation between one iteration of the repeated, pre-established movement and the next.
To be able to train for the Tour de France, or the Boat Race, or any kind of Olympic Final, an athlete needs to have an astonishing tolerance for repetition. You might have to go as far as to say, they need to have an appetite for repetition.
There are many nuances to what Chris Hoy did on the cycle track, but essentially – on the final lap – he was pumping his astonishingly powerful legs up and down very fast again and again.
In order to be able to do this, to perform at the highest level, his training was repetitious. Here are some quotes from an interview he did (with The Telegraph) about preparation for the 2012 Olympics:
‘Take standing starts. I have done nearly 500 practice starts a year for 15 years but there are still technical things which I need coaches to help with.’
(Just flip back, for a moment to the word solitude – is it solitude, for an athlete, if the coach is there? Is it a different kind of solitude, a solitude within the body, although there is actually someone in the room with you?)
The standing starts were one of the more interesting parts of Chris Hoy’s training. In the gym, he said:
‘I’m focused on doing really heavy weights for maybe four to 10 reps. You are basically looking to lift all you physically can for those repetitions in three main exercises: the squat, the deadlift and the leg press.
On the track:
‘I’ll work on the track for three hours every afternoon. Each session we’ll focus on one particular issue ranging from the snap start, through general acceleration, top end speed, sheer endurance to lactic production and tolerance.’
But also in the lab, doing what we saw Steve Redgrave doing:
‘Once a week I go in and work on an orgometer set up in the lab which has a massive flywheel attached to a bike which is about 12 feet long.’
‘With the damage you do your body in training you have to have complete rest. You have to get your feet up and do nothing. It’s hard to do that at home when there are so many distractions and demands on your time so that’s why we go away… You only realise when you go away how much you do when you are supposedly doing nothing. I get back from the track, have a physio session and a massage and then after a high-protein and carbs meal I’ll just go up to my room and watch DVDs until I go to sleep at 10pm. Not exactly glamorous but we all bring down films and old comedy shows and keep ourselves entertained.’
(Again, in relation to solitude, the only time in Chris Hoy’s training day when he seemed to be alone was when he went up to his room to watch DVDs.)
Dave Brailsford, formerly performance director of British Cycling, and currently general manager of Team Sky, did an interview with the BBC’s Sport Wales in January 2016. In it, he gave his equation for performance.
Some of you have written that down, I can see. I am wondering, whether a phrase like that, repeated, turned into a mantra, is likely to be useful for the kind of people who become writers – useful in the same way, or to the same extent, that it clearly is useful for the kind of people who become cyclists?
One of the reasons I have become interested in sports training, or performance coaching, is that I don’t – as yet – know of any writer (and I’ve asked around a bit) who has a relationship to anyone – agent, editor, life-coach – that is in any way similar to the relationship between Dave Brailsford and Bradley Wiggins.
Hilary Mantel doesn’t have someone standing behind her, as she sits at her desk, saying, ‘Go on, go on, Hils – push; push! You can do it. You know you can do it.’ Nor does Don DeLillo have a physio to keep his shoulders in shape after another long day at the Olympia SM-9 typewriter. Nor does Alice Munro have a dietician planning the balance of proteins and carbs in her late evening snack in order to get her brain chemistry just right for the next morning’s sentences.
Why not? It’s funny – but why not?
Partly it must be because there’s a lot less money in writing than in sport. If Hilary Mantel were fronting an advertising campaign for Nike or for Quorn, as Mo Farah is doing, then those companies might want her productivity as a writer to be as efficiently managed as possible.
Think back to the Victoria Pendleton clip – which was an advertisement for unnecessarily big cars. Think how many brand names appeared onscreen during it.
Six are visible in the first tenth of a second.
For reasons that will become clear, I think it’s more likely that rather than Hilary Mantel, a writer such as James Patterson, author of the Alex Cross series (of which there are 23 outings so far), would employ a coach or coaching team.
The twentieth century witnessed the rise of the coach, as a cultural figure. If you remember Chariots of Fire, one of the reasons that the 100 metre runner Harold Abrahams was looked down upon was his use of a professional coach, Sam Mussabini, in advance of the 1924 Olympic Games. That’s less than a hundred years ago. The world now, not just of sport but of all human endeavour, including sex, is unthinkable without coaches.
Another of the reasons I became interested in sports training was that what I do, as a tutor of Creative Writing – particularly in one-on-one dissertation supervisions – is a form of coaching. But it’s quite an unstudied one. If I want to learn about how to coach sports, I can take any of several dozen courses or read any of a thousand books. For coaching writers, coaching as coaching rather than setting writing exercises, there is almost nothing.
The final reason I became interested is that I wondered if coaching might help me get better, as a writer. I am still thinking about this.
But I have begun to come up with an answer.
I said just now that a defining characteristic of athletes is an astonishing tolerance of or appetite for repetition. I will say now that writers (of a type I’ll soon define) – writers – nd all other artists – are opposite to this. A defining characteristic of writers is an astonishing intolerance of repetition.
It used to frustrate me more than almost anything – my handwriting at Primary School and Middle School was what teachers used to call ‘bad’. A line from a report at Russell Primary School said of my presentation, ‘It looks as if a spider has dipped its legs in ink and dragged its way across Toby’s page.’ My handwriting was hard to read, but I did try to make it neater. And I looked with appalled wonder, mystified longing, at the handwriting of the girls whose desks I shared. They seemed to be able, from their fingers, to print letters as a typewriter does. Looking across at their handwriting, I knew I could never do that. Why not? Because for some reason my hand refuses to draw the same line in the same way twice. There is something about that desirable action, on a very core level, that repulses me. (Repetition is predictable; life is unpredictable; therefore repetition must be death.) It is automation. I did not think this at Primary School – I just thought, as the teachers did, that I was bad at writing. I just thought I needed to get better at it, by practising.
Why mention this? For several reasons. First, because I’m the only writer whose experience I can describe from the inside.
But more importantly because I think how a writer physically produces their words has a great effect on how those words read.
I have come to believe that two of the clearest influences upon my work are how I read and how I write. That sounds so obvious as not to be worth stating. How I read is not the subject of today’s talk – but, sketchily, I read many books at once, perhaps twenty, in different genres and at different speeds. Some books I am always reading, though I may pick them up only once or twice a year; other books I will read in one go, or in two or three days. In other words, my reading is as diverse and hare-brained as my writing. Many writers, I’m sure, read one book at a time, cover to cover, at a steady pace of one page a minute, between the hours of four and five in the afternoon… This, I believe, will effect the kind of prose they produce. The same goes for all other habits of reading.
What you can take away from this is that, although you might not be able to control your writing process, you can definitely control what you read whilst you are in a particular stage of writing or rewriting. And you can use it, I think, to modify your own expectations of what writing is. Some writers are great encouragers of confidence, stretching out, and should be read when you’re doing a first draft – for me, these are Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, Claire-Louise Bennett. Other writers are great discouragers, great holders back, and should be read when you’re doing a final edit – for me, Jane Austen, Samuel Beckett.
To return to my handwriting, on the level of the individual letter – my f’s were always a failure. They never settled. They never formed into a shape I liked. I could not find a way to bring myself to repeat them, because that disgusted me. And what goes on the level of the letter goes, also, on the level of the work. I don’t want any one of my books to resemble any other. Ideally, they would all seem as if they had been written by different authors (very different authors). They would each be as completely distinct as A B C D E etcetera. That, I’ve realized, is one of the reasons for what has been called ‘the alphabet thing’ – the alphabetical ordering of my fiction titles, from Adventures in Capitalism and Beatniks to Life-Like and Modern Witchcraft.
From your point of view this – I think – is a learning moment. Your capacity to tolerate repetition will, I think, manifest itself in your handwriting, and also in the kind of fiction you produce. I am not suggesting a value judgement here (Bad Handwriting equals Good Writer), more a method of self-scrutiny, self-comprehension.
Many of you, I know, would tell me that your handwriting, too, is a catastrophe – and also, I suspect, that it is an anachronism. Why use a pen or pencil when everything you put down will have to be typed up anyway? (That would be my answer right there: use a pen or pencil because what you put down will then have to be typed up.) For many writers, of previous generations, the treble moment of transition from manuscript to typescript was one of great insight.
Treble because there is first the moment of rereading the original words with a view to typing them up. I call this rereading but, in truth, it may be the first time these words are read rather than written. As the eyes of the typer-upper, i.e., you, go over the notebook or A4 page, the reverse of the envelope or the inky palm, small decisions and revisions are being made – do I really type all of this? Are there words I’ve clearly misspelled or, in haste, chosen badly? Also, even before this, there is estrangement: here is your best chance of reading what you have written as if it had been written by someone else.
Secondly, there is the moment of typing itself, where the continuance of a sentence – the long keeping-going before the right ring-finger can hit the full-stop key and the thumb the space bar – begins to seem intolerable, or the number of times (I’ve only just noticed) that words in this paragraph begin with ‘s’, or just that you’ve used ‘what’ and ‘that’ sixtimes in four lines – that is another moment of self-scrutiny.
Thirdly, there is the turning of irregular pages into regular ones – the final glance as you scroll down and down, that tells you the scene goes on for five pages, and does it really need to go on for five pages, and that you haven’t written any dialogue within living memory.
There’s also a fourthly, perhaps, which is the moment of seeing the typescript as you print it out.
Plus, if you handwrite, you will write initially in anticipation of having to type up rather than type in the knowledge that you can, later on, always delete. These are radically different working practices. If you’re lazy, as most of us are, you won’t want to retype unnecessary phrases or words. So, by virtue of being handwritten, your first draft is likely to be better already…
All of these are, I’d say, practical opportunities for you to see your writing and feel your writing afresh. Opening up a Word document and scanning your eyes across and down the page does not afford you this. It’s too much the same every time, again and again.
This may be to leave out the writing and rewriting that has gone on, in your head, before the words ever reach the page or screen. Most writers – I think – go sentence by sentence, and hold each sentence in mind only long enough to get it down. Dwelling with the words, getting narked by their lack of poise – that takes place during later, less headlong drafts.
This may seem a digression, but, as I said at the beginning, I am trying to find commonalities between athletes and writers – and to see whether there is anything we can learn from the way they train, or from the way they are coached.
It is clear that the most repetitious thing we, as writers, do is form or type the letters than make up the words we use. Can we do this better? Can we get more out of each set of reps? I’ve just suggested, ‘Yes, we can. And here’s how.’ Differentiate the kinds of exercise you do. Increase the resistance. Think about it.
I’d now like to begin to speak about Claire-Louise Bennett’s POND. But before I do I need to make some clear definitions. I said earlier that I believed it more likely that a writer such as James Patterson would employ a coach than a writer such as Hilary Mantel. What do I mean by ‘a writer such as’? Is it to do with the fact that James Patterson writes ‘genre fiction’.
Yes, in part. But, at least for the sake of this talk, I’d like to argue that it’s more important that James Patterson writes for readers of genre fiction.
As long as genre readers buy them, there is an advantage for the writer who supplies them with fiction in delivering two novels per year – or in Patterson’s case three or four – instead of just one.
I would argue that the same, on a very basic level, would not be the case for non-genre readers of Hilary Mantel. However much they love Wolf Hall, they are glad it is part of a trilogy rather than an ongoing, open ended series, and they are relieved that there won’t be another six hundred and seventy two page instalment coming along every three months for the foreseeable future. They would prefer it, I expect, that after concluding the final part of the trilogy, Hilary Mantel moved on to a different kind of fiction – just as she did after Beyond Black or A Place of Greater Safety.
Obviously, there is no absolute distinction between readers of genre fiction and readers of non-genre fiction (you see, I am not yet calling it ‘literary fiction’ or ‘literature’). They are sometimes housed within the same people, but they are different markets and they have different expectations. The figure the author presents to each market is very different: the genre reader will respect the writer as a craftsperson, and even more as someone who knows a lot about the activities of Detective Chief Inspectors or dragons, but the moment a writer starts going on about what they do as high art, the genre reader will start to disengage.
What it comes down to, I think, is this: Readers of genre fiction would welcome more of the same – more novels per year by the same writer –because, reading generically, the same is essentially what they are after, again and again. Someone who buys every James Patterson novel as it comes out cannot possibly be described as an exploratory reader. They would be happy if the experience was made more intense, but they are clearly not unhappy (because they keep buying the books) if the experience remains basically similar. Like the athletes, the addicted reader of the Alex Cross series of novels has a high tolerance of, or an addiction to, repetition. This, however you want to express it, cannot be said of the addicted reader of Hilary Mantel. The Alex Cross reader is happy to meet the same main character and minor characters facing roughly the same challenges for the twenty-third time. No Mantel reader, however adoring, wants twenty-three novels about Thomas Cromwell.
So, for a writer like James Patterson, increased productivity would be a good thing; for Hilary Mantel, a bad thing. Which makes James Patterson more likely than Hilary Mantel to employ a coach, if that coach helped them write more words per hour or more hours per day.
Where I think Hilary Mantel would immediately start using a coach is if she felt that the coach could help her write better than she does, whether or not this also involved an increase in her productivity.
The reason, apart from the non-corporate sponsorship of non-genre writers, that they don’t already employ coaches is that – I think we can assume – they feel the constant presence of a coach, in their solitude, would have a negative effect on their writing, and on their individual relationship to their individual reader.
However, you – you in this room – your reason for taking a Creative Writing course was, quite likely, to experience a form of coaching. You don’t want – I hope you don’t want – the Creative Writing tutor looking over you shoulder as you write; you don’t want me there in your ear, ‘Go on, push those verbs harder – really work them,’ but you do want guidance, encouragement, feedback, suggestions of new working methods, etcetera.
Creative writing tutors exist to teach their students to write better; and most writers – at an early stage – write better when they write more. It would, for the majority of you, be a bad idea for me to try to get you to produce less – and this goes whether you are a Hilary Mantel or a James Patterson, are writing for non-genre or genre readers. But, when you have moved on from the writing course, overproduction might become a real problem – if you are a certain kind of writer.
I now need to make some statements about the writers who write for these differing kinds of readers which will seem judgemental. (I hope it will be understood that I’m the last person to be snobby about genre fiction. I’m the one who has written two crime novels, a thriller, a science fiction novel and a comic. Not a graphic novel, a comic.)
There are differences in how one writes for genre and non-genre readers, and these differences have an effect on the kind of writing one is likely to produce. Because genre readers are reading within a genre, they are seeking the pleasures that that particular genre normally delivers. They are seeking a repetition of the pleasure they have experienced before (which is why they are more likely to be attracted back to novels written in series). In other words, if you are writing a crime novel that does not deliver gradually increasing suspense and a sense of looming threat, you are doing something that is likely to make the majority of your readers feel disappointed. And you won’t keep them as readers for very long.
Conversely, non-genre readers are more likely to tolerate writing whose pleasures are discovered in the reading. I don’t need to define this any further than to say Claire-Louise Bennett’s POND is a non-generic book whose pleasures are not closely repetitious of pleasures delivered by other books. It is harder to say what POND is like than it is to say what an Alex Cross novel is like. For example, it is unclear whether POND is a collection of short stories or a novel or, more likely, an indeterminate form midway between. It is unclear whether POND is fiction or autobiography or, again, an indeterminate form.
Indeterminate may be the useful word here.
Genre novels deliver determinate pleasures; non-genre novels deliver indeterminate pleasures.
The judgemental bit is this: I believe that writing that aims to deliver determinate pleasures is less likely to be seen, eventually, as Literature – capital L – than writing that aims to deliver determinate pleasures.
For a fuller explanation of this, you’ll have to go back to my talk from last year, in which I refer to Literature as creating the possibility of possibilities. Genre fiction, I would say, by definition only realizes possibilities already existing within the genre. Genre fiction may reinvent the genre but it does not invent a new genre, except when it has failed at the genre it was attempting to reinvent.
At this point in my argument, I’d like those of you who have read POND to take a moment, in your heads, to compare the kind of life lived by the female protagonist of all the episodes and the life of Victoria Pendleton. What, in other words, happens to an athlete during their average day and what happens to the writer within POND.
We know absolutely that the narrator of POND is a writer, and a handwriting writer, because the episode ‘The Deepest Sea’ begins –
‘This is being written with green ink…’
And the episode, as it continues, clearly fits within the familiar isolated rented cottage, ramshackle, distracted, verbally inspired world of the first hundred pages of the book.
What we see in Victoria Pendleton is what you might call a radical efficiency of the self. Her day is full of calibrations, measurements of what she has achieved. The days of the narrator of POND are completely unlike that. They are not purposeful. In one episode, ‘Over and Done With’, the main achievement of a day is for the narrator – let’s call her C-L – to have burned some holly that she put up as decoration before Christmas and began to become oppressed by. In ‘Lady of the House’, C-L irons two shirts. Throughout POND, everything that C-L does is done hesitantly, with self-questioning before and regret afterwards. It is not, you would think, a productive way of being.
And yet – and yet – it is the way of being that, I have no doubt, resulted in the book POND being written.
For a little while, I’d like to talk not about C-L or Claire-Louise Bennett but about the painter Francis Bacon.
I’d like to do this partly because his interviews with David Sylvester are one of my touchstones when thinking about what an artist, in any field, is; but partly because he was a more extreme version of what I am talking about here than any writer I can think of.
Perhaps I could have chosen Jean Rhys, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski or Thomas de Quincey – but I know less about them, and their work processes, than I do about Francis Bacon.
Writers are artists, but it’s often easier, and more insight-generating, to talk about painters being artists than novelists.
Francis Bacon did not have a coach, or a coach figure. And he did not live a life directed toward greater and greater efficiency of energy production.
Francis Bacon’s preparation for a particular painting was not repeatedly practising the kind of hand gestures he might make when doing that painting, nor, even, was it making preparatory sketches – although he did sometimes do this. Sometimes, too, his preparation was simply to sit and let the images fall into his head, like slides into a projector. This is how he describes it in his interviews with David Sylvester. But just as likely as this, Bacon’s preparation was getting pissed in the Colony Club or losing a vast amount of money at roulette. If it was efficiency, of a particular sort, it was efficiency of being rather than productivity of doing.
Bacon’s belief about an artist was not that they should do more art but that they should make better art.
A sports performance coach, if put in charge of Francis Bacon, would most likely want him to spend more hours at the easel.
‘Go on, Francis – fifteen more squirts of the cadmium red. You can do it.’
It would take an entirely different kind of coach – more like a production manager – to see that getting pissed or losing money were exactly what Bacon needed to be doing, in order to (transfer the phrase from sport) get in shape for his next painting.
The lives of athletes need to be boring and predictable. Chris Hoy, upstairs, watching DVDs. Their raw materials are food and air; they turn what they eat and the oxygen they breathe – they metabolize those basic inputs – into muscles, and those muscles are trained to be able to perform in very particular ways. An artist – a writer – needs to metabolize something more than what they had for dinner last night and breakfast this morning, and what they breathe in through their lungs.
The key writer here is Marcel Proust – the key writer, I would say, behind Claire-Louise Bennett. The story of Proust’s life, summarized, is that he spent many years thinking that he was wasting his life and that he had no subject, then he realized that his subject was those that think they are wasting their lives and have no subject until they realize that their subject is those that think they are wasting their lives, and so on…
Proust’s novel, A la Recherche de Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, is the great twentieth century, modernist demonstration, of one of the key artistic truths: that time lost or wasted can be the most useful time of all, that lack of productivity can be exactly what is needed in order – in the end – to create.
Like In Search of Lost Time, POND is about time lost, wasted – about inefficiency, failed thoughts and gestures – about lack, terror of absences, misunderstanding the self – about being marginal, drifting away. Its characteristic mode is to seem to be faffing around, dithering, then to hit something descriptively so accurately that the reader is astounded. But there would be no astonishment without the preparatory dither; there would be no coming into sudden focus without the blurriness.
Here are a crucial few sentences from ‘Lady of the House’ –
‘Has it really become an inclination of mine to reminisce in such a gratuitous way? And since when? Because if you must know I don’t recall ever regarding anything I may remember from my past as being particularly interesting or poignant, or even especially reliable actually. On account of my radical immaturity – characterised by a lack of ambition – real events don’t make much difference to me, as such the impact they have upon my mind is either zilch or blistering, and so, naturally, I have to question my facility to form memories that have any congruity at all with what in fact took place – landmark events and so on included.’
POND is an artistic whole. What goes for POND on the level of theme also goes on the level of the sentence. The prose is I’ve just quoted is not conventionally good prose – in the sense that, if it were brought into a creative writing workshop, it would very likely have a hard time.
Imagine what a creative writing workshop is likely to say about the single sentence:
‘Has it really become an inclination of mine to reminisce in such a gratuitous way?’
But we can do better than this. Let’s take a single page of POND, page 166, and mark it up. And let’s delete anything that seems unnecessary – unnecessary in terms of grammatically redundant, repetitious. Let’s imagine we are Ernest Hemingway rewriting this, or Raymond Carver’s editor – Gordon Lish – attacking it. Let’s go –
Claire-Louise Bennett loves redundancies:
actually, especially, in fact, having said that,…
She loves vaguenesses: for some reason, if you must know, as such, and so on, that kind of thing, it might be the case that…
She loves slightly archaic phrasings:
two men who I presume were, I don’t ever recall ever regarding anything I may remember…, my generally dubious mode or relation, my somewhat poeticised rendering…
Some of her most distinctive stylistic markers are adverbs. (Distinctive, perhaps, because so many writers on creative writing courses have been warned off them.)
All of this, in some people’s opinion, is rankly bad writing – it isn’t anything like efficient, direct, clear. And it is also writing that is incapable of giving anything other than indeterminate pleasures.
But, for me, Claire-Louise Bennett is one of the most successful writers – by which I mean most interesting, most creating of the possibility of possibilities, most likely to be writing what will one day be seen as Literature – that I have read in recent years.
And, more than that, for the purposes of the talk today, she is a counterargument to the idea that writers of the kind she is (a writer for readers of non-generic fiction) might need coaching.
POND, more than anything, is a book about solitude. Most of the time, the main character is alone, and is doing the kind of things one does when one is alone. There is no coach or coach-figure. And, I’d say, even the introduction of the idea of one would destroy the likelihood of Claire-Louise Bennett ever writing anything interesting again, or C-L ever having a wayward enough day for us to want to hear about it.
When I – as a non-genre reader – read POND, I am extremely grateful that it exists. I would like to read something else by Claire-Louise Bennett, but I don’t want her to publish another book next week, and another three months later, and so on. It would destroy my sense of her completely for her to become extremely productive. Instead, I hope that she pursues the mode of writing – and of living – that has resulted in POND; and that, as I understand it, is an artist’s efficiency of being rather than an athlete’s productivity of doing.
What POND possesses is the quality of private origin. And it does this partly by lacking any sense of having been efficiently produced; the efficient is the always already public. It is road-ready from the get-go. It is Victoria Pendleton, with branding on her clothing, branding flashing past her as she accelerates behind the motorbike. It is ‘I believe every journey should end in a place like this.’ I may be in the minority, but I find humanity in inefficiency, I find stumbling and shambling endearing; I quickly tire of the perfectly presented, because I know it knows what it’s doing. In pop music terms, POND is a break-up album – something recorded (even by a multi-platinum megastar) not out of contractual requirement but emotional need. Bob Dylan needed to write Blood on the Tracks; Joni Mitchell, Blue.
I believe that it is this quality of private, necessary origin that, ultimately, endears works of fiction to readers. They have an obscurity about them, these works. Despite publication, they are secretly shared. I feel – for example – that I am the best, most inward, reader of Wuthering Heights there has ever been; I am aware that thousands of others have felt the same.
It is not only non-generic writing that gives this sense of private origin. I get it, too, though maybe in a slightly different way, from the Harry Potter novels or The Hunger Games.
We are surrounded by those shouting for our attention. It’s unsurprising that those shying away, the secretive types, become more appealing.
Claire-Louise Bennett has, on the page, what we all wish we had: charisma.
If I knew that POND had been written anywhere other than solitude, had been written with a coach in the room shouting, ‘Go on, Claire-Louise, explore dropping that camomile teabag in the bin harder. Really investigate the moment’ – if I thought it had been made from a productivity of doing rather than an efficiency of being, then I would hate it.
The writing I love speaks to solitude, out of solitude. Alexander Pope, in the Preface to his Poems, wrote, with wonderful eighteenth century sexism and delightful ignorance of what the world closet would come to mean:
‘Poetry [is] by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.’
In other words, after all this, I am saying that there is something writers of fiction for non-genre readers can learn from athletes and what they put themselves through in order to succeed, but it’s on the level of aversion, on the close examination of an anti-type. Your reps are different to their reps, just as your abs are different to their abs.
However, writers of fiction for genre readers – writers publicly producing determinate pleasures for readers who want more of the same, again and again – these writers could do very well to emulate athletes, to pursue a productivity of doing, and to employ a dietician, a physio, a coach.
Or, in fact, to become – themselves – a coach.