I wrote this little essay on fame, bands, Jack Nicholson and new writing as the introduction to Birkbeck’s annual short-story anthology MIR13 (The Mechanics’ Institute REVIEW).
A new issue of this, MIR14, is being compiled right now. It is taking UK wide submissions until Friday 10 February 2017. Details on how to submit here.
So, if you are a short story writer in the UK, or know one, please think about submitting. It’s a good place to meet people.
Here’s the introduction:
In 1998, a documentary was released about Radiohead and how and what it was to be a member of the biggest band in the world, and to be on a World Tour. The title was Meeting People is Easy.
In 1980, a documentary was released about The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s movie about exactly what it feels like to be a writer, and in one scene of this the actor Jack Nicholson observed, ‘The average celebrity meets, in one year, ten times the amount of people that the average person meets in his entire life.’
I like that, ‘the average celebrity’.
Major bands play nightly to audiences in stadiums, and even concert halls, made up of many more than the entire number of people who will ever read a reasonably successful first novel. Big movies, though often based on books and short stories and comics, are now routinely financed to the level of quarter of a billion dollars – and are expected to recoup that, through ticket sales and merchandizing, within a year.
Bands and movies meet, and need to meet, a lot of people. They seem to find it easier than novels and short stories. A covers band can still fill the pub on a Friday. Student films can get thousands of hits on YouTube. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of small bands and ignored movies, just that it’s very easy for writers to feel overawed by kinds of success that aren’t available to them. Or that, when these successes do occasionally occur, writers shy away. Salman Rushdie strolled onstage to stand alongside U2; he was wise enough not to try being their support act. J.K. Rowling could have played Madison Square Gardens, if she’d wanted. The Royal Albert Hall was enough.
For most writers, meeting people – by which I mean readers – is hard.
No-one really gets my stuff, you’ll hear them say. Because getting, and being got, is the important part of meeting.
For celebrities, such as Radiohead or Jack Nicholson, the idea of meeting is debased. It means nothing for them to be told, again, I think you are wonderful, I love your work, your thingy-X got me through just such a hard time in my life, and I just want to say thank you, sob, thank you. The nice ones try to keep meeting meaningful, to begin with, but eventually the relentless repetition exhausts them – as it would you, however nice you are. Even if you are as nice as Radiohead. Better for the famous only to meet the also-already-famous, the more likely to be blasé, unphased. That means there’s less chance of sobs and crass flirting, mad-eyed attempts to connect and hyperventilation.
Auden wrote, in his poem ‘This Loved One’, that ‘“Good day, good luck”/Is no real meeting.’
Really meeting people, in terms of encounter, of coming together (sometimes – yes – in bed, sometimes intellectually) is not easy. It’s one of life’s most difficult accomplishments.
How many people have I really met? One in a bakery, when I was four years-old. One in a tutorial room in Oxford. One outside a fish restaurant. One in a pole-dancing club in Croatia. On last week, in Montreal.
No, I don’t think I’ve really met more than ten people in my life. Writers, though – writers I really meet all the time. That’s why I need them so much. That’s why I’m addicted to them.
I have really met, and know I have really met, John Keats, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Moore, David Foster Wallace, and perhaps a thousand more.
Some writers are such powerful intensities of presentness that you meet them in a single sentence (Simone Weil, Karl Kraus) or you meet them before you’ve ever even met them (Franz Kafka, Emily Brontë). You sense them afar, like a house burning in the next but one street. You hear of them, and know your heart should take warning.
Gerald Manley Hopkins I met in a highly critical description of him, from an essay title – it said he ‘makes of language a muscle-bound monstrosity’. Discuss. I wrote my first sincere imitation of Hopkins before I’d read a word Hopkins wrote. The influence would have been obvious to anyone.
For real meeting to occur, with writers, an introduction is often necessary. As readers, we cascade down through time: C loved B who was influenced by A who got their idea of what writing (meaning life) was from Z. Or the book is placed in our hands, by hands we love. ‘This is for you.’
But introductions, however tremulous, guarantee nothing. Anthologies are often where readers meet writers. And the Introductions (capital I) of anthologies, in trying to force real meetings, can overegg. I could say what I’ve been building up to: ‘Reader, meet these writers. They’re wonderful. You’re going to love them.’ It’s still chancy. Whatever I say, you’re quickly going to make up your mind. You’ve done it before. You pick up so much from the very first.
You glimpse them in their names, their titles; estimate them from where they occur in the running order (the editors wouldn’t start with a duffer or end with a flub); you look at page numbers and suss the long and the short.
You almost meet them after the page turn – you’re almost there in the millisecond scan you make of their first page, taking in paragraph breaks, capital letters, dialogue or no dialogue, polysyllabics or streaky I, I, I. Just the shape of it.
You’re an experienced sizer-upper; it’s the head-to-toe-to-head, hair-shoes-hair glance in the gay bar.
Get you, darling – and now I’m going to have you.
But really you meet them in that first sentence – then comes the mumbled or omitted or zinging or heart-vaporising Hello; then comes that handshake of the eyes – or maybe they’ll kiss you, and that’ll be it?
The promiscuous, contrary to reputation, really do meet more people – it’s just that they insist on parting from them.
Meeting writers is easy because writers are easy, loose; anyone can have them. They are the most known (not the best known) people in the world. For millennia, they have been trying to find someone to spend the night with, someone to hear them confess but also, ever since they began scribbling, they have been giving themselves away.
Each writer is, potentially, the average celebrity.
Isn’t Jack funny? Aren’t Radiohead nice?
Here, person, are many new writers for you to meet.
I hope you get on famously.