Thursday, 5 November 2009

Make it count

Writing is a luxury. Reading is a luxury. Curious things for a writer to say? Stories may go back to the Palaeolithic campfires, but when they were told then the day’s work was done; any crisis was past. That is no longer the case. A tragedy or a triumph, if it is of sufficient magnitude, is all around the world in minutes. Famine, disease, crime, war: we know, we can see, that these things afflict real living people every moment of every day. And this is without even mentioning that the ecosystem is in a state of potentially disastrous flux. Everywhere there is suffering, every week brings a new crisis.

And we sit and write, we lounge and read. Is there anything we can say to ourselves that justifies such self-indulgence, such apparently wilful negligence of real problems?

I don’t know the answer to that. I have 1700 books in one room, more than I can ever read in the time I have left to live—if I want to actually live as well. Averaging out their value, every single one of those books could provide money to save a human life, somewhere in the world. (Let’s not even go near the DVD box sets…) How can I even hesitate, if I can pick up a collected volume of comics and know that it’s worth four or five human lives?

Stories are part of our human makeup, it could be retorted; literature is a treasury of the human spirit, a repository of inspirational dreams and salutary nightmares. We require myths, ancient and modern, in order to better understand the world and ourselves. We need fiction: even the lightest, most superficial works provide relief from the harpies and furies of the world, giving our hearts and minds essential rest before we plunge back in. And writers need to nourish their work; we need the stories of others to stoke the fires of our own inspiration. Fiction Books

Perhaps this is the crux. I look around at the books I have collected and know that at the time each one seemed essential, served a purpose, if only for some tangential aspect of research. If I am to justify these acquisitions, it must be through the work that they support. In an age when people starve almost literally in front of my eyes, if I can break away from my desk to get a biscuit, I had better be fucking certain that what I write when I come back to that desk (too busy usually to even attend properly to the taste of the food) is worth the effort. Dig deep, mine the very depths of your experience and your imagination, write true, make it good—make it count.

Raymond Chandler said we’re competing for beer money, so we have a duty to make our work gripping, entertaining. If we write with our eye on everything the world is, everything about it that demands our attention, we have a duty to do much, much more.

Fiction Books

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