Hazel McHaffie

Stephen Fry

A laugh a minute

Lots of varied commitments this week, chopping up my days, so I’ve been dipping in and out of author-related reading – reducing the pile of journals, newspaper cuttings, etc. which tend to accumulate when I’m lost in writing during more creative phases.

I’m quite sure you wouldn’t be interested in most of it – gloomy news about declining advances, abuses related to electronic publishing, tax anomalies, and such like woeful developments guaranteed to send any mid-list-or-below career writer into a deep depression. Yawn, yawn. But you might just be amused by a few gems discovered in amongst the serious stuff, so here goes.

Recently the Society of Authors did a survey of its members asking about author appearances – at literary festivals, signing events, schools and conferences, that kind of thing. The report made interesting reading, but my favourite bit was the postscript:
‘There’s always someone in the audience who knows more than you, even when you’re talking about yourself.’
Just the thing to tattoo somewhere on the mind as reassurance for that nasty moment when someone flummoxes you with a totally unanswerable question.

Then there was Simon Blackburn writing in The Author. He quoted the late Bernard Williams’ lament that much philosophical prose seems to aspire
to resemble scientific reports badly translated from the Martian.
I know exactly what he means.

In a different edition of The Author I found an article commiserating with authors who get one star ratings on Amazon. Mercifully I haven’t suffered from that affliction thus far (says she, tempting fate very unwisely) but it must surely be demoralising. Not necessarily, says Nigel Wilcockson of Random House. Sometimes it’s a case of personal jealousy/vindictiveness against a writer. And that’s been the case from as early as the 19th century. Blake received this:
an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.
And Dickens got:
he can scarcely attract the attention of the more intelligent classes of the community.’
So lift up your hearts and sing, all you vilified writers; at least you’re in good company!

Even frankly abusive comments can be well-expressed. How about this invective against Croker from his rival Macaulay in 1831:
the merits of Mr Croker’s performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton on which Dr Johnson dined, while travelling from London to Oxford, and which he, with characteristic energy, pronounced to be “as bad as bad could be – ill fed, ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed”.

Or much more recently, Steven Fry’s dismissal of Baron Christian de Massy’s memoir as
that marriage of style and content we look for in all great writing. A shatteringly vulgar and worthless life captured in shatteringly vulgar and worthless prose.
Wonderful – as long as you aren’t on the receiving end.

One of my personal favourites came from the Letters Desk of the Daily Telegraph in response to a piece about school reports:
When the workers of the world unite it would be presumptuous of Dewhurst to include himself among their number.

Have a fun week!

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