Category Archives: aren’t you rather young to be writing your memoirs?

Introduction from “Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs” (1973)

It is a fact of crucial significance in the history of the novel this century that James Joyce opened the first cinema in Dublin in 1909. Joyce saw very early on that film must usurp some of the prerogatives which until then had belonged almost exclusively to the novelist. Film could tell a story more directly, in less time and with more concrete detail than a novel; certain
aspects of character could be more easily delineated and kept constantly before
the audience (for example, physical characteristics like a limp, a scar,
particular ugliness or beauty) ; no novelist”s description of a battle squadron
at sea in a gale could really hope to compete with that in a well-shot film;
and why should anyone who simply wanted to be told a story spend all his spare
time for a week or weeks reading a book when he could experience the same thing
in a version in some ways superior at his local cinema in only one evening?

It was not the first time that storytelling had passed from one medium to
another. Originally it had been the chief concern of poetry, and long narrative
poems were bestsellers right up to the works of Walter Scott and Byron. The
latter supplanted the former in the favours of the public, and Scott adroitly
turned from narrative poems to narrative novels and continued to be a
bestseller. You will agree it would be perversely anachronistic to write a long
narrative poem today? People still do, of course; but such works are rarely
published, and, if they are, the writer is thought of as a literary
flatearther. But poetry did not die when storytelling moved on. It concentrated
on the things it was still best able to do: the short, economical lyric, the
intense emotional statement, depth rather than scale, the exploitation of
rhythms which made their optimum impact at short lengths but which would have
become monotonous and unreadable if maintained longer than a few pages. In the
same way, the novel may not only survive but evolve to greater achievements by
concentrating on those things it can still do best: the precise use of
language, exploitation of the technological fact of the book, the explication
of thought. Film is an excellent medium for showing things, but it is very poor
at taking an audience inside characters” minds, at telling it what people are
thinking. Again, Joyce saw this at once, and developed the technique of
interior monologue within a few years of the appearance of the cinema. In some
ways the history of the novel in the twentieth century has seen large areas of
the old territory of the novelist increasingly taken over by other media, until
the only thing the novelist can with any certainty call exclusively his own is
the inside of his own skull: and that is what he should be exploring, rather
than anachronistically fighting a battle he is bound to lose.

Joyce is the Einstein of the novel. His subject-matter in Ulysses was
available to anyone, the events of one day in one place; but by means of form,
style and technique in language he made it into something very much more, a
novel, not a story about anything. What happens is nothing like as important as
how it is written, as the medium of the words and form through which it is made
to happen to the reader. And for style alone Ulysses
would have been a revolution. Or, rather, styles. For Joyce saw that such a
huge range of subject matter could not be conveyed in one style, and
accordingly used many. Just in this one innovation (and there are many others)
lie a great advance and freedom offered to subsequent generations of writers.

But how many have seen it, have followed him? Very few. It is not a question of
influence, of writing like Joyce. It is a matter of realising that the novel is
an evolving form, not a static one, of accepting that for practical purposes
where Joyce left off should ever since have been regarded as the starting
point. As Sterne said a long time ago :

“Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by
pouring only out of one vessel into another? Are we for ever to be twisting,
and untwisting the same rope ? For ever in the same track-for ever at the same

The last thirty years have seen the storytelling function pass on yet again. Now
anyone who wants simply to be told a story has the need satisfied by
television; serials like Coronation Street and so on do very little more than answer the question “What happens next?” All other writing possibilities are subjugated to narrative. If a writer”s chief interest is in telling stories (even remembering that telling stories is a
euphemism for telling lies; and I shall come to that) then the best place to do
it now is in television, which is technically better equipped and will reach
more people than a novel can today. And the most aware film-makers have
realised this, and directors such as Godard, Resnais, and Antonioni no longer
make the chief point of their films a story; their work concentrates on those
things film can do solely and those things it can do best.

Literary forms do become exhausted, clapped out, as well. Look what had
happened to five-act blank verse drama by the beginning of the nineteenth
century. Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Tennyson all wrote blank-verse,
quasi-Elizabethan plays; and all of them, without exception, are resounding
failures. They are so not because the men who wrote them were inferior poets,
but because the form was finished, worn out, exhausted, and everything that
could be done with it had been done too many times already. That is what seems
to have happened to the nineteenth century narrative novel, too, by the
outbreak of the First World War. No matter how good the writers are who now
attempt it, it cannot be made to work for our time, and the writing of it is
anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant, and perverse.

Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of
ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict,
close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories really is
telling lies. Philip Pacey took me up on this to express it thus:

“Telling stories is telling
lies is telling
lies about people is creating or
hardening prejudices is
providing an
alternative to real communication not a stimulus
to communication and/or communication itself
is an escape from the challenge
of coming
to terms with real people”

I am not interested in telling lies in my own novels. A useful distinction
between literature and other writing for me is that the former teaches one
something true about life: and how can you convey truth in a vehicle of
fiction? The two terms, truth and fiction, are opposites, and it must logically
be impossible.

The two terms novel and fiction are not, incidentally, synonymous, as many seem
to suppose in the way they use them interchangeably. The publisher of Trawl
wished to classify it as autobiography, not as a novel. It is a novel, I
insisted and could prove; what it is not is fiction. The novel is a form in the
same sense that the sonnet is a form; within that form, one may write truth or
fiction. I choose to write truth in the form of a novel.

In any case, surely it must be a confession of failure on the part of any
novelist to rely on that primitive, vulgar and idle curiosity of the reader to
know “what happens next” (however banal or hackneyed it may be) to hold his
interest? Can he not face the fact that it is his choice of words, his style.
which ought to keep the reader reading? Have such novelists no pride? The drunk
who tells you the story of his troubles in a pub relies on the same curiosity.

And when they consider the other arts, are they not ashamed? Imagine the
reception of someone producing a nineteenth-century symphony or a
Pre-Raphaelite painting today! The avant garde of even ten years ago is now
accepted in music and painting, is the establishment in these arts in some
cases. But today the neo-Dickensian novel not only receives great praise,
review space and sales but also acts as a qualification to elevate its authors
to chairs at universities. On reflection. perhaps the latter is not so
surprising; let the dead live with the dead.

All I have said about the history of the novel so far seems to me logical, and
to have been available and obvious to anyone starting seriously to write in the
form today. Why then do so many novelists still write as though the revolution
that was Ulysses had never happened, still rely on the crutch of storytelling? Why, more
damningly for my case you might think, do hundreds of thousands of readers
still gorge the stuff to surfeit?

I do not know. I can only assume that just as there seem to be so many writers
imitating the act of being nineteenth-century novelists, so there must be large
numbers imitating the act of being nineteenth-century readers, too. But it does
not affect the logic of my case, nor the practice of my own work in the novel
form. It may simply be a matter of education, or of communication; when I
proposed this book to my publisher and outlined its thesis, he said it would be
necessary for me to speak very clearly and very loudly. Perhaps the din of the
marketplace vendors in pap and propaganda is so high that even doing that will
not be enough.

The architects can teach us something: their aesthetic problems are combined
with functional ones in a way that dramatises the crucial nature of their final
actions. Form follows function said Louis Sullivan, mentor of Frank Lloyd
Wright, and just listen to Mies van der Rohe :

To create form out of the nature of our tasks with the methods of our time-this is our task.
We must make clear, step by step, what things
are possible, necessary, and significant.
Only an architecture honestly arrived at by the
explicit use of available building materials can
be justified in moral terms.

Subject matter is everywhere, general, is brick, concrete, plastic; the ways of
putting it together are particular, are crucial. But I recognise that there are
not simply problems of form, but problems of writing. Form is not the aim, but
the result. If form were the aim then one would have formalism; and I reject

The novelist cannot legitimately or successfully embody present-day reality in
exhausted forms. If he is serious, he will be making a statement which attempts
to change society towards a condition he conceives to be better, and he will be
making at least implicitly a statement of faith in the evolution of the form in
which he is working. Both these aspects of making are radical; this is
inescapable unless he chooses escapism.

Present-day reality is changing rapidly; it always has done, but for each
generation it appears to be speeding up. Novelists must evolve (by inventing,
borrowing, stealing or cobbling from other media) forms which will more or less
satisfactorily contain an ever-changing reality, their own reality and not
Dickens” reality or Hardy”s reality or even James Joyce”s reality. Present-day
reality is markedly different from say nineteenth-century reality. Then it was
possible to believe in pattern and eternity, but today what characterises our
reality is the probability that chaos is the most likely explanation; while at
the same time recognising that even to seek an explanation represents a denial
of chaos. Samuel Beckett, who of all living is the man I believe most worth
reading and listening to, is reported thus:

“What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art.
It only means that there will be new form, and that this form will be of such a
type that it admits the chaos, and does not try to say that the chaos is really
something else. The forms and the chaos remain separate. . . to find a form
that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”

Whether or not it can be demonstrated that all is chaos, certainly all is
change: the very process of life itself is growth and decay at an enormous
variety of rates. Change is a condition of life. Rather than deplore this, or
hunt the chimaerae of stability or reversal, one should perhaps embrace change
as all there is. Or might be. For change is never for the better or for the
worse; change simply is. No sooner is a style or technique established than the
reasons for its adoption have vanished or become irrelevant. We have to make
allowances and imaginative, lying leaps for Shakespeare, for even Noel Coward,
to try to understand how they must have seemed to their contemporaries. I feel
myself fortunate sometimes that I can laugh at the joke that just as I was
beginning to think I knew something about how to write a novel it is no longer
of any use to me in attempting the next one. Even in this introduction I am
trying to make patterns, to impose patterns on the chaos, in the doubtful
interest of helping you (and myself) to understand what I am saying. When
lecturing on the same material I ought to drop my notes, refer to them in any
chaotic order. Order and chaos are opposites, too.

This (and other things I have said) must appear paradoxical. But why should
novelists be expected to avoid paradox any more than philosophers ?

While I believe (as far as I believe anything) that there may be (how can I
know?) chaos underlying it all, another paradox is that I still go on behaving
as though pattern could exist, as though day will follow night will follow
breakfast. Or whatever the order should be.

I do not really know why I write. Sometimes I think it is simply because I can
do nothing better. Certainly there is no single reason, but many. I can, and
will, enumerate some of them; but in general I prefer not to think about them.

I think I write because I have something to say that I fail to say
satisfactorily in conversation, in person. Then there are things like conceit,
stubbornness, a desire to retaliate on those who have hurt me paralleled by a
desire to repay those who have helped me, a need to try to create something
which may live after me (which I take to be the detritus of the religious
feeling), the sheer technical joy of forcing almost intractable words into
patterns of meaning and form that are uniquely (for the moment at least) mine,
a need to make people laugh with me in case they laugh at me, a desire to
codify experience, to come to terms with things that have happened to me, and
to try to tell the truth (to discover what is the truth) about them. And I
write especially to exorcise, to remove from myself, from my mind, the burden
having to bear some pain, the hurt of some experience: in order that it may be
over there, in a book, and not in here in my mind.

The following tries to grope towards it, in another way:

I have a (vision) of something that (happened) to mesomething which (affected) me
something which meant (something) to me
and I (wrote) (filmed) it
I wanted it to be fixed
so that I could refer to it
so that I could build on it
so that I would not have to repeat it
Such a hostage to fortune!

What I have been trying to do in the novel form has been too much refracted
through the conservativeness of reviewers and others; the reasons why I have
written in the ways that I have done have become lost, have never reached as
many people, nor in anything like a definitive form. “Experimental” to most
reviewers is almost always a synonym for “unsuccessful”. I object to the word
experimental being applied to my own work. Certainly I make experiments, but
the unsuccessful ones are quietly hidden away and what I choose to publish is
in my terms successful: that is, it has been the best way I could find of
solving particular writing problems. Where I depart from convention, it is
because the convention has failed, is inadequate for conveying what I have to
say. The relevant questions are surely whether each device works or not,
whether it achieves what it set out to achieve, and how less good were the
alternatives. So for every device I have used there is a literary rationale and
a technical justification; anyone who cannot accept this has simply not
understood the problem which had to be solved.

I do not propose to go through the reasons for all the devices, not least
because the novels should speak for themselves; and they are clear enough to a
reader who will think about them, let alone be open and sympathetic towards
them. But I will mention some of them, and deal in detail with The Unfortunates
, since its form seems perhaps the most extreme.

Travelling People (published 1963) had an explanatory prelude which summed up much of my thinking on the novel at that point, as follows :

“Seated comfortably in a wood and wickerwork chair of eighteenth-century
Chinese manufacture, I began seriously to meditate upon the form of my
allegedly full-time literary sublimations. Rapidly, I recalled the conclusions
reached in previous meditations on the same subject: my rejection of
stage-drama as having too many limitations, of verse as being unacceptable at
the present time on the scale I wished to attempt, and of radio and television
as requiring too many entrepreneurs between the writer and the audience; and my
resultant choice of the novel as the form possessing fewest limitations, and
closest contact with the greatest audience.

But, now, what kind of novel? After comparatively little consideration, I
decided that one style for one novel was a convention that I resented most
strongly: it was perhaps comparable to eating a meal in which each course had
been cooked in the same manner. The style of each chapter should spring
naturally from its subject matter. Furthermore, I meditated, at ease in far
eastern luxury, Dr. Johnson”s remarks about each member of an audience always
being aware that he is in a theatre could with complete relevance be applied
also to the novel reader, who surely always knows that he is reading a book and
not, for instance, taking part in a punitive raid on the curiously-shaped
inhabitants of another planet. From this I concluded that it was not only
permissible to expose the mechanism of a novel, but by so doing I should come
nearer to reality and truth: adapting to refute, in fact, the ancients: Artis est monstrare artem

Pursuing this thought, I realised that it would be desirable to have interludes
between my chapters in which I could stand back, so to speak, from my novel,
and talk about it with the reader, or with those parts of myself which might
hold differing opinions, if necessary; and in which technical questions could
be considered, and quotations from other writers included, where relevant,
without any question of destroying the reader”s suspension of disbelief, since
such suspension was not to be attempted.

I should be determined not to lead my reader into believing that he was doing
anything but reading a novel, having noted with abhorrence the shabby chicanery
practised on their readers by many novelists, particularly of the popular
class. This applied especially to digression, where the reader is led, wilfully
and wantonly, astray; my novel would have clear notice, one way or another, of
digressions, so that the reader might have complete freedom of choice in
whether or not he would read them. Thus, having decided in a general way upon
the construction of my novel I thought about actually rising to commence its
composition; but persuaded by oriental comfort that I was nearer the Good Life
engaged in meditation, I turned my mind to the deep consideration of such other
matters as I deemed worthy of my attention, and, after a short while thus
engaged, fell asleep.”

Travelling People employed eight separate styles or conventions for nine chapters; the first and
last chapters sharing one style in order to give the book cyclical unity within
the motif announced by its title and epigraph. These styles included interior
monologue, a letter, extracts from a journal, and a film script. This latter
illustrates the method of the novel typically. The subject-matter was a gala
evening at a country club, with a large number of characters involved both
individually and in small groups. A film technique, cutting quickly from group
to group and incidentally counterpointing the stagey artificiality of the
occasion, seemed natural and apt. It is not, of course, a film; but the way it
is written is intended to evoke what the reader knows as film technique.

The passage quoted above was deliberately a pastiche of eighteenth-century
English, for I had found that it was necessary to return to the very beginnings
of the novel in England in order to try to re-think it and re-justify it for
myself. Most obvious of my debts was to the black pages of Tristram Shandy
, but I extended the device beyond Sterne”s simple use of it to indicate a
character”s death. The section concerned is the interior monologue of an old
man prone to heart attacks; when he becomes unconscious he obviously cannot
indicate this in words representing thought, but a modified form of Sterne”s
black pages solves the problem. First I used random- pattern grey to indicate
unconsciousness after a heart attack, then a regular-pattern grey to indicate
sleep or recuperative unconsciousness; and subsequently black when he dies.

Since Travelling People is part truth and part fiction it now embarrasses me and I will not allow it to be reprinted; though I am still pleased that its devices work. And I learnt a
certain amount through it; not least that there was a lot of the writing I
could do in my head without having to amass a pile of paper three feet high to
see if something worked.

But I really discovered what I should be doing with Albert Angelo
(1964) where I broke through the English disease of the objective correlative
to speak truth directly if solipsistically in the novel form, and heard my own
small voice. And again there were devices used to solve problems which I felt
could not be dealt with in other ways. Thus a specially-designed type-character
draws attention to physical descriptions which I believe tend to be skipped, do
not usually penetrate. To convey what a particular lesson is like, the thoughts
of a teacher are given on the righthand side of a page in italic, with his and
his pupils” speech on the left in roman, so that, though the reader obviously
cannot read both at once, when he has read both he will have seen that they are
simultaneous and have enacted such simultaneity for himself. When Albert finds
a fortuneteller”s card in the street it is further from the truth to describe
it than simply to reproduce it. And when a future event must be revealed, I
could (and can; can you ?) think of no way nearer to the truth and more
effective than to cut a section through those pages intervening so that the
event may be read in its place but before the reader reaches that place.

Trawl (1966) is all interior monologue, a representation of the inside of my mind but
at one stage removed; the closest one can come in writing. The only real
technical problem was the representation of breaks in the mind”s workings; I
finally decided on a stylized scheme of 3 em, 6 em and 9 em spaces. In order
not to have a break which ran-on at the end of a line looking like a paragraph,
these spaces were punctuated by dots at decimal point level. I now doubt
whether these dots were necessary. To make up for the absence of those
paragraph breaks which give the reader”s eye rest and location on the page, the
line length was deliberately shortened; this gave the book a long, narrow

The rhythms of the language of Trawl attempted to parallel those of the sea, while much use was made of the trawl itself as a metaphor for the way the subconscious mind may appear to work.

With each of my novels there has always been a certain point when what has been
until then just a mass of subject-matter, the material of living, of my life,
comes to have a shape, a form that I recognise as a novel. This crucial
interaction between the material and myself has always been reduced to a single
point in time: obviously a very exciting moment for me, and a moment of great
relief, too, that I am able to write another novel.

The moment at which The Unfortunates (1969) occurred was on the main
railway station at Nottingham. I had been sent there to report a soccer match
for the Observer, a quite routine League match, nothing special. I had hardly thought about
where I was going, specifically: when you are going away to report soccer in a
different city each Saturday you get the mechanics of travelling to and finding
your way about in a strange place to an almost automatic state. But when I came
up the stairs from the platform into the entrance hall, it hit me: I knew this
city, I knew it very well. It was the city in which a very great friend of
mine, one who had helped me with my work when no one else was interested, had
lived until his tragic early death from cancer some two years before.

It was the first time I had been back since his death, and all the afternoon I
was there the things we had done together kept coming back to me as I was going
about this routine job of reporting a soccer match: the dead past and the
living present interacted and transposed themselves in my mind. I realised that
afternoon that I had to write a novel about this man, Tony, and his tragic and
pointless death and its effect on me and the other people who knew him and whom
he had left behind. The following passage from The Unfortunates
explains his importance to me :

“To Tony, the criticism of literature was a study, a pursuit, a discipline of
the highest kind in itself: to me, I told him, the only use of criticism was if
it helped people to write better books. This he took as a challenge, this he
accepted. Or perhaps I made the challenge, said that I would show him the novel
as I wrote it, the novel I had in mind or was writing: and that he would
therefore have a chance of influencing, of making better, a piece of what set
out to be literature, for the sake of argument, rather than expend himself on
dead men”s work.”

The main technical problem with The Unfortunates was the randomness of the material. That is, the memories of Tony and theroutine football reporting, the past and the present, interwove in a completely random manner, without chronology. This is the way the mind works, my mind
anyway, and for reasons given the novel was to be as nearly as possible a
re-created transcript of how my mind worked during eight hours on this
particular Saturday.

This randomness was directly in conflict with the technological fact of the
bound book: for the bound book imposes an order, a fixed page order, on the
material. I think I went some way towards solving this problem by writing the
book in sections and having those sections not bound together but loose in a
box. The sections are of different lengths, of course: some are only a third of
a page long, others are as long as twelve pages. The longer ones were bound in
themselves as sections, or signatures, as printers call them.

The point of this device was that, apart from the first and last sections which
were marked as such, the other sections arrived in the reader”s hands in a
random order : he could read them in any order he liked. And if he imagined the
printer, or some previous reader, had selected a special order, then he could
shuffle them about and achieve his own random order. In this way the whole
novel reflected the randomness of the material: it was itself a physical
tangible metaphor for randomness and the nature of cancer.

Now I did not think then, and do not think now, that this solved the problem
completely. The lengths of the sections were really arbitrary again; even
separate sentences or separate words would be arbitrary in the same sense. But
I continue to believe that my solution was nearer; and even if it was only
marginally nearer, then it was still a better solution to the problem of
conveying the mind”s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book.

What matters most to me about The Unfortunates is that I have on recall as accurately as possible what happened, that I do not have to carry it around in my mind any more, that I have done Tony as much justice as I could at the time; that the need to communicate with myself then,
and with such older selves as I might be allowed, on something about which I
cared and care deeply may also mean that the novel will communicate that
experience to readers, too.

I shall return shortly to readers and communicating with them. But first there
are two other novels, and they represent a change (again!) of direction, an
elbow joint in the arm, still part of the same but perhaps going another way.
Perhaps I shall come to the body, sooner or later. The ideas for both House
Mother Normal
(1971 ) and Christie Malry”s Own Double-Entry (1973)
came to me whilst writing Travelling People (indeed, I discussed them
with Tony) but the subsequent three personal novels interposed themselves,
demanded to be written first. I also balked at House Mother Normal
since it seemed technically so difficult. What I wanted to do was to take an
evening in an old people”s home, and see a single set of events through the
eyes of not less than eight old people. Due to the various deformities and
deficiencies of the inmates, these events would seem to be progressively
“abnormal” to the reader. At the end, there would be the viewpoint of the House
Mother, an apparently “normal” person, and the events themselves would then be
seen to be so bizarre that everything that had come before would seem “normal”
by comparison. The idea was to say something about the things we call “normal”
and “abnormal” and the technical difficulty was to make the same thing
interesting nine times over since that was the number of times the events would
have to be described. By 1970 I thought that if I did not attempt the idea soon
then I never would; and so sat down to it. I was relieved to find that the
novel did work, on its own terms, while not asking it to do anything it clearly
should not be trying to do. Each of the old people was allotted a space of
twenty-one pages, and each line on each page represented the same moment in
each of the other accounts; this meant an unjustified right-hand margin and led
more than one reviewer to imagine the book was in verse. House Mother”s account
has an extra page in which she is shown to be

the puppet or concoction of a writer (youalways knew there was a writer behind it all?
Ah, there”s no fooling you readers !)
Nor should there be.

The reader is made very much aware that he is reading a book and being addressed
by the author in Christie Malry”s Own Double-Entry, too. The idea was that a young man who had learned the double-entry system of book-keeping started applying his knowledge to society and life; when society did him down, he did society down in order to balance the books. Form following
function, the book is divided into five parts each ended bya page of accounts
in which Christie attempts to draw a balance with life.

I do not really relish any more description of my work; it is there to be read,
and in writing so much about technique and form I am diverting you from what
the novels are about, what they are trying to say, and things like the nature
of the language used, and the fact that all of them have something comic in
them and three are intended to be very funny indeed. When I depart from what
may mistakenly be extracted from the above as rigid principles it is invariably
for the sake of the comic, for I find Sterne”s reasons all-persuasive :

“. . . .tis wrote, an” please your worships, against the spleen! in order, by a
more frequent and a more convulsive elevation and depression of the diaphragm,
and the succussations of the inter-costal and abdominal muscles in laughter, to
drive the gall and other bitter juices from the gall-bladder, liver, and
sweet-bread of his majesty”s subjects, with all the inimicitious passions which
belong to them, down into their duodenums.”

For readers it is often said that they will go on reading the novel because it
enables them, unlike film or television, to exercise their imaginations, that
that is one of its chief attractions for them, that they may imagine the
characters and so on for themselves. Not with my novels; it follows from what I
have said earlier that I want my ideas to be expressed so precisely that the
very minimum of room for interpretation is left. Indeed I would go further and
say that to the extent that a reader can impose his own imagination on my
words, then that piece of writing is a failure. I want him to see my (vision),
not something conjured out of his own imagination. How is he supposed to grow
unless he will admit others” ideas? If he wants to impose his imagination, let
him write his own books. That may be thought to be anti-reader; but think a
little further, and what I am really doing is challenging the reader to prove
his own existence as palpably as I am proving mine by the act of writing.

Language, admittedly, is an imprecise tool with which to try to achieve
precision; the same word will have slightly different meanings for every
person. But that is outside me; I cannot control it. I can only use words to
mean something to me, and there is simply the hope (not even the expectation)
that they will mean the same thing to anyone else.

Which brings us to the question of for whom I write. I am always sceptical
about writers who claim to be writing for an identifiable public. How many
letters and phone calls do they receive from this public that they can know it
so well as to write for it? Precious few, in my experience, when I have
questioned them about it. I think I (after publishing some dozen books) have
personally had about five letters from “ordinary readers”, people I did not
know already that is; and three of those upbraided me viciously because I had
just published the book that they were going to have written.

No, apart from the disaster of Travelling People, I write perforce for myself, and the satisfaction has to be almost all for myself; and I can only hope there are some few people like me who will see what I am doing, and understand what I am saying, and use it for their own devious

Yet it should not have to be so. I think I do have a right to expect that most
readers should be open to new work, that there should be an audience in this
country willing to try to understand and be sympathetic to what those few
writers not shackled by tradition are trying to do and are doing. Only when one
has some contact with a continental European tradition of the avant garde does
one realise just how stultifyingly philistine is the general book culture of
this country. Compared with the writers of romances, thrillers, and the bent
but so-called straight novel, there are not many who are writing as though it
mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter.

Perhaps I should nod here to Samuel Beckett (of course), John Berger, Christine
Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Anthony Burgess, Alan Burns, Angela Carter, Eva
Figes, Giles Gordon, Wilson Harris, Rayner Heppenstall, even hasty, muddled
Robert Nye, Ann Quin, Penelope Shuttle, Alan Sillitoe (for his last book only,
Raw Material indeed), Stefan Themerson, and (coming) John Wheway; (stand by):
and if only Heathcote Williams would write a novel. . . .

Anyone who imagines himself or herself slighted by not being included above can
fill in his or her name here :


It would be a courtesy, however, to let me know his or her qualifications for
so imagining.

Are we concerned with courtesy ?

Nathalie Sarraute once described literature as a relay race, the baton of
innovation passing from one generation to another. The vast majority of British
novelists has dropped the baton, stood still, turned back, or not even realised
that there is a race. Most of what I have said has been said before, of course;
none of it is new, except possibly in context and combination. What I do not
understand is why British writers have not accepted it and acted upon it.

The pieces of prose (you will understand my avoidance of the term short story)
which follow were written in the interstices of novels and poems and other work
between 1960 and 1973; the dates given in the Contents are those of the year of
completion. None of them seem to me like each other, though some have links and
cross-references; neither can I really see either progession or retrogression.
The order is that which seemed least bad late on one particular May evening;
perhaps I shall regret it as soon as I see it fixed.

Make of them what you will. I offer them to you despite my experience that the
incomprehension and weight of prejudice which faces anyone trying to do
anything new in writing is enormous, sometimes disquieting, occasionally
laughable. A national daily newspaper (admittedly one known for its reactionary
opinions) returned a review copy of Travelling People with the complaint
that it must be a faulty copy for some of the pages were black; the Australian
Customs seized Albert Angelo (which had holes justifiably cut in some
pages, you will remember) and would not release it until they had been shown
the obscenities which (they were convinced) had been excised; and in one of our
biggest booksellers Trawl
was found in the Angling section. . .