what it means to have a life

John Crace at the Guardian books blog distinguishes JG Ballard from most writers today on that basis that Ballard had accumulated some experiences before putting pen to paper:

Before he had even got his first short story published in the late 1950s, Ballard had survived the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, been separated from his parents, been interned in a prisoner of war camp where he lived off weevils, joined the RAF and served in Canada, been an encyclopedia salesman and even worked as a porter in Covent Garden market.

Ballard had a life experience that few modern writers can hope to match. To generalise wildly, the career path of most young (successful) writers goes something like this. Go to university – preferably Oxford or Cambridge – and read English. While there, start writing novel and get a few pieces published in the university magazine. Move to London after graduation, start a creative writing postgraduate degree and pick up some work reviewing books for the literary supplements while tidying up the fourth draft of your novel. You then get your novel published, which gets a few kind reviews thanks to the contacts you’ve made and sells precisely 317 copies.

But someone, somewhere offers you a contract to write a second novel and your career is up and running. From then on you have a meta life. You write because you write, not because you necessarily have anything interesting to say. You probably actually write quite well, but you are trading on style, not substance, because you’ve never actually done anything much beyond writing.

A few points. It’s true that the lives of many contemporary writers are drearily similar, particular as a result of the ever-intensifying relationship between literary writing and the university. The Australian version of the career path outlined above would involve an undergraduate degree in arts, a postgraduate degree in creative writing (from which a book emerges) and then employment at a university somewhere to teach writing and sporadically produce novels. It’s just the economic reality — you can’t live as a writer and the higher education is the biggest employer of the skills you acquire while working on a novel. What else are you going to do?

Yet the idea that you need some kind of swashbuckling biography before you can write is romantic nonsense, the sort of rubbish that convinces teenage boys that, because so many great novelists were alcoholics, the best way to finish a manuscript is to drink every night.

Actually, the nature of writing already imposes a certain uniformity on writing lives. If you are a writer, you write. That means spending a lot of time in front of a computer screen, which is why author biographies often seem so dull. If the person’s an accomplished writer, you have a pretty good idea of what they do most of the time — they write books. That’s why the feature that the Guardian‘s been running on photos of writers’ studies is so bloody dull, since the setup’s inevitably the same. A computer. A desk. A chair. Maybe a bookcase with a few books. Rock’n roll it aint.

Crace’s post argues that Ballard possessed both  style and substance, in contrast with many  contemporary writers who have only style. That seems a fair point but it’s nothing to do with whether or not the early lives of today’s novelists contain sufficient adventures. Yes, writers who don’t engage with their world almost inevitably write dull books. But what does engagement mean? It means participating in (or at least being aware of) the social and aesthetic debates of the day, a participation that will mostly involve writing.

Think of the most socially committed writers you can name. What do they do? Well, pretty much the same as every other professional writer. They produce books, they speak at events, they contribute to publications. The form’s the same; it’s the content that’s different. Do such people have lives? Yes, of course they do, but not in the way Crace means. Basically, if you’re looking for adventurers in the old school sense, writers simply aren’t who you’re after.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Surely it is the life of the mind that counts for most, though. Some of my more favoured writers have incredible life stories – others live in the same place all their lives and go travelling in their heads instead.
    There’s a nasty little story in Robert Gray’s bio about Les Murray cutting Bruce Chatwin’s carefully polished adventure stories down to size. More about jealousy than what you’re talking about, though.

  2. Yes, I’ve read that story, too. One of those incidents from which no-one emerges looking very good.
    What I was trying to get at was simply that there’s nothing special about writers — or at least not in that romantic way. If some momentous event happens in a city, writers will participate in the same ways and to the same extent as other citizens. If, say, it’s a war, some will fight, some will run, some will protest, etc. If anything, their profession as writers makes it harder to participate, partly because writing inculcates a certain bookishness and partly because writers need to spend a lot of time writing.
    What they do with that event in their writing, however, is an entirely different matter. In IMO, those writers whose work doesn’t engage (whatever that means) with the events of their era will always be second-rate.

  3. A point someone made to me recently was that writers in England (in particular?) need inherited money or a rich spouse in order to live & write, because the job of writing itself is so badly paid.

    Same here?

  4. ‘the idea that you need some kind of swashbuckling biography before you can write is romantic nonsense’

    oh, damn! i spent years working on my swashbuckling biography when i should have been in the library.

  5. There can be great adventures in small lives. But I don’t think there’s much anyone under the age of thirty can tell me about life, even less if they have led the kind of career path you describe as the norm for an Australian writer. (Which was incredibly depressing by the way and may go a long way to explaining the state of literature in Australia.)

  6. There are infinitely interesting things about the world now that young writers can embrace, own, write about – just look at Nam Le. Paul Squires, he’s under 30 – do you really think he can tell you nothing about ‘life’? I resent that comment. I have friends (writers) in their 20s who lead much more interesting lives both physically and mentally than many people who’ve been on this earth a lot longer. They’re also often aware of their naivetes, the things they still have to learn etc. and it gives their writing an immediacy, a freshness, and a curiosity.
    A really fantastic post Jeff. I love to think about writers I admire leading ordinary lives of train trips, crashing computers, and so on.

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