It's also one of those books--of which there is an entire cottage industry--which makes aspiring writers feel like they're part of some 'insider' club, listening in on the anecdotes of real writers, as if we were overhearing these stories in the corner of Nicole Krauss's Brooklyn apartment. We aspiring writers are suckers for illusion and want nothing more than to "be a writer"--indeed, if we're honest with ourselves, we spend more time wanting to "be a writer" than actually wanting to write. Alas.
As it turns out, many of the writers in this collection seem to confuse shame and mortification with being bored or not receiving a lavish red-carpet reception, such that some of the supposed scenes of "mortification" are really just episodes of a lackluster event. Don't give me your down-the-nose scoffing about the deplorable buffet at the Kalamazoo Literary Festival and Dwarf Toss. I want shame. I bought this sucker for the schadenfreude, not to hear your whining about poor train connections!
The best stories of mortification seem to involve copious amounts of alchohol, but even then the mortification is delayed until the next day (as when Michael Donaghy makes a deposit in the car-door pocket of his host the morning after: "an acid indigo porridge of red wine, Jameson's and aubergine curry").
Robin Robertson should also be credited for selecting some wonderful epigraphs for each chapter. My favorite, so far, is a proverb from Jean Cocteau:
An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.This heads John Lanchester's contribution, which includes an honest assessment about the culture (cult?) of "public readings":
The truth is that the whole contemporary edifice of readings and tours and interviews and festivals is based on a mistake. The mistake is that we should want to meet the writers we admire, because there is something more to them in person than there is on the page, so that meeting them in the flesh somehow adds to the experience of reading their work. The idea is that the person is the real thing, whereas writing is somehow an excresence or epiphenomenon ["the metaphysics of presence!]. But that's not true. The work is the real thing, and it is that to which readers should direct their attention.While I'm as much of an egomaniacal sucker for such opportunites as the next author, I concede a latent truth in the combination of Cocteau's maxim and Lanchester's observation. It is, I find, very hard to speak about books one has published. (Lanchester goes on to say that the writer finds it easier to speak about the book that one is in the process of writing.) The irony, of course, is that when a book appears, and if one is fortunate enough to have readers, and perhaps even a few enthusiastic readers who might invite you to an event, they want you to talk about the book. But, of course, what you wanted to say about X or Y is in the book. And you're already on to the next project, in the muck and mire of a new book-in-the-making which is filling your head and stealing your sleep, and it's difficult to go back and get excited about the book you put to bed a couple of years ago, but which is just now "appearing" for others. The trick, I think, is to find ways to put yourself in the shoes of the reader. And there's no shame in that.