Sunday 19 October 2014

'Mischievous commonplaces'

'There is already an abundance, not to say superabundance of writers who are able to express in an effective manner the mischievous commonplaces which they have to say.'
That's John Stuart Mill, rebuffing a request for support from the gloriously named Neophyte Writers' Society [as quoted in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters]. And if he was right then, he'd be even righter now when, in an age of mass media and open-access electronic media, we are afloat on an ever widening sea of inane verbiage and 'mischievous commonplaces'. In any age, only a tiny - and ever dwindling - portion of what is being written is far above the level of tosh, and virtually all, even of the most respectable and articulate of it, will be deservedly forgotten within a short space of time.
 Anyone who has spent much time in a large library with historic holding will have come to this realisation, as they discover shelf after shelf, stack after stack of works published by respectable houses, doubtless in a hopeful, even triumphant spirit, only to fall into more or less instant oblivion, to survive only in a few obscure warehouses of the past, unread and meaningless to all but the occasional scholarly specialist. And these are the relatively spare and worthy relics of the age of print. What an infinitely vaster field of dust and delusion is represented by the exponentially growing archive of the electronic age...
 Yes, there is no virtue - and perhaps much mischief - in encouraging people to write. The likelihood is that the few worthwhile writers will persevere regardless; we are better off without the rest. In particular, those who believe themselves to be writing poetry should be firmly disabused, as is regularly proved on various Radio 4 'poetry' programmes week after week.
 Meanwhile, of course, I carry on writing.


  1. In Hallowtrow near Bath there’s a melancholy place called the Book Barn, where orphaned books accumulate in industrial quantities, copies having arrived not in single spies but in battalions. It purports to be a bookshop-cum-mail order company; in reality it’s a skip for unwanted literary outpourings. It’s not uncommon to find a dozen copies of a particular book. Sometimes this is quite cheering – yards of unwanted Alan Bennetts are for me a particularly welcome sight – but on the whole the effect is depressing. There are books which seem to have been written expressly to be thrown away; sociology and education most obviously fall into this category, but literary criticism (especially literary theory) is not far behind. (Someone once told me that between the wars second-hand bookshops were full of Victorian sermons and predicted that literary criticism would eventually go the same way. How right he was!) One comes away from the Book Barn with the smell of damp paper in one’s nostrils and a strong feeling of futility about all literary endeavours.

  2. Me too Nige. Here's a poem I just wrote!

    Love Poetry

    My tongue, my lips, speak kisses, words, and taste
    you, love. I tell my truth with carnal speech,
    and you make utterance – naked vowels -out-faced
    to me in tender causerie. The reach

    of love defined by tips of breasts, bent knees
    and fingertips. Extremity’s delight
    contained, fulfilled in limbs. In matrices
    like these does love find means and so recites

    its joy. But we use measured talk and line,
    whose borders loose the captured sense. We catch
    the meaning, let it walk, no more confined.
    Ties body thoughts that we leave unattached.

    My love for you’s interpreted in flesh,
    just as ideas in verse’s form are meshed.