'Writing' by Toby Litt
THE POETRY REVIEW ESSAY
Poetry Review, vol. 93, no. 3, pp. 42-48
Litt suggests that the public still think that writers are Romantics, ‘still muse-haunted sensitives, victims of the descending, perhaps bestowed world’ (p. 42). (Why is Litt so hostile to the stereotyped Romantic? This is reminiscent of Carr’s comments about modernist attitudes in From My Guy to Sci-Fi where the ‘mincing Meredith’ et al are reviled by the masculinity of modernist movement.)
Litt thinks that other art-forms have shrugged off Romantic stereotypes:
[C]lassical music had Serialism, sculpture Duchamp, painting Warhol. Literature, however, despite the resolutely anti-Romantic efforts of the Dadaists, William Burroughs and the Oulipo movement, has yet to convince the public, or I would say, itself that it derives from anything other than Inspiration.
Litt suggests that the dominance of a Romantic account of composition is due to writer’s ‘desktop’ experience. Writers use the idea of being inspired for their own purposes whether that be to gain solitude or behave badly. Litt believes that writers lie to themselves.
Litt moves on to describe how cinema has portrayed the writing process. He cites Adaptation and The Shining as the best portrayals of inspiration. He mentions Dorothy Parker and The Vicious Circle as a bad example of a portrayal of inspiration, with its picturing of a waste paper basket filling up with paper.
Litt states: ‘The history of writing is in many departments, that of a descent.’ He mentions The Moronic Inferno by Martin Amis which traces a descent of subject. Amis’ assertion that the protagonists of literature have descended from gods to kings to generals to fabulous lovers (all superhuman) to ordinary people is useful to Litt, because he can compare this with the descent in inspiration: ‘from God plain-and-simple to the God-inspired poet to the thing-inspired poet (Nature, Woman, Beauty), to the self inspired poet, all the way to the non-existent poet’.
Litt is concerned by the argument that if Milton had not existed Paradise Lost would still have existed. He argues that writers are capable of having an engaged relationship with the zeitgeist – a two way relationship.
Litt criticises Graham Swift’s likening of the writing process to wiping the dust off an inscrption or gravestone. Litt thinks that writers lie to avoid what he calls ‘the Great Terror’ i.e. the blank page. He quotes Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, which suggests that the true processes of writing are a dirty secret and that bad must come before good. He states: ‘writing is rewriting’ and suggests that each cancellation is an act of self-cancellation.
How do bad writers become good? Alexander Pope knew the answer: “I believe that no one qualification is so likely to make a good writer, as the power of rejecting his own thoughts, and it must be this (if anything) that can give me the chance to be one.” […]’
Accordinf to Litt, each small erasure teaches the writer something about language.
And so all writers write their way out of the primeval sludge and stodge of bad words with which they all began, by crossing their bad selves out. […] Writing, to define it, is a continuous process of self-criticism motivated by aesthetic self-disgust, self hate. Hate powers. Hate is the motor force.
According to Litt’s argument, all writers are on their way to greatness, but some are slower than others. To Litt, writers are ideas, or at least the idea that some day they may be a writer.
Litt now moves on to the idea of the writer as a performed self. He uses the analogy of writing-as-jazz.
The genius of improvisation is dependent upon hours of practice; the eight bars of God-kissing couldn’t exist without the woodshed. Charlie Parker didn’t play bum notes. He had good and bad nights, sessions, but he never failed to be Parker. To write, really to write, is equivalent to having achieved an unmistakable tone on the piano- like Art Tatum, like Thelonius Monk – the piano, an instrument that any fool can get chopsticks out of.
Litt thinks that the question to be asked is not “where does your inspiration come from?” but “how did you come to own these words?”. The public’s view of inspiration suggests that writing must be beyond a single person. Inspiration is a good explanation otherwise the poet must have cheated or had help.
Litt suggests that Romanticism allows the writer to be free to concentrate on the written rather than the writing. They can be absent from their own process.
I don’t believe, though, that the great writers of the past were ever faux-naif – not about their workings, nor their work, nor their world. (I don’t mean Heaney, Larkin, Carver, Frost, Hemmingway, Lawrence, Hardy, Dickens; I mean Beckett, Celan, Joyce, Rilke, Proust, James, Browning, Flaubert.) They did what they did at a point of necessary awareness and hence difficulty.