The Elusive Tom Stoppard

Even after reading 800+ pages of biography there remains a hidden core to Tom Stoppard. That a person is not entirely captured on paper is true of any biography, the map is not the territory and all that, but the reader feels it especially keenly with Hermione Lee’s exploration of Stoppard’s life and work (I really enjoyed her previous biography of Penelope Fitzgerald). Part of it is that formidable page count, which at times feels slightly padded out with lists of the celebrity attendees at Stoppard’s annual parties and descriptions of home decorating choices. It seems that part of the way Lee chose to address her subject’s reticence was to aim for an exhaustive comprehensiveness, but I couldn’t help but feel as though the book might have been improved if she had adopted some of Stoppard’s own love of speed and concision. The exhaustiveness can become exhausting.

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Writing in the Real World: Four Quotes

As embarrassment has both private and public functions, so, too, do writers’ self-criticisms have several purposes, which are more complex and performative than an outright condemnation of their writing. Though, to some extent, it comes from a real and desperate need to admit how awful it is to have to live with the things one has made, it is also a way of controlling the narrative around one’s work: pre-empting the failings others might find, and therefore mitigating them.

Considering First Books – Lamorna Ash
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Writing Cricket Bats

Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly … (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels off the field. It’s better because it’s better. …

…He’s a lout with language. I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech … Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more, and Brodie knocks their corners off. I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.

Tom Stoppard, in his play The Real Thing, talking about good writing. Of course, getting the right words in the right order isn’t enough if the author doesn’t have anything true to say and much of The Real Thing is wrestling with this dynamic (the “real thing” being discussed in the play is as much art as it is love). The same character later cautions that it’s easy to get good at “persuasive nonsense. Sophistry in a phrase so neat you can’t see the loose end that would unravel it.” But, in the evangelical subculture I inhabit too often authors fail to recognize that the “cricket bat” of writing is more than just a block of wood. They keep trying to bash (very possibly true and meaningful) ideas with ugly hunks of lumber and then are puzzled by the fact that they don’t “travel.” This tendency extends from the popular level to the academic (but I mean, academic writing in general is very often just beating the ball into the ground with a splintery two-by-four, so evangelicals aren’t alone there).