Why Writing Matters by Jonathan Coe
The following talk was given by Jonathan Coe, for the RSL and Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, to celebrate the first National Writing Day, 21 June 2017.
A few years ago, I found myself travelling back to the UK from Italy by train. Actually, I didn’t ‘find myself’ – I’d chosen to travel this way. I’d been speaking at a literary festival in Italy and the organisers were bemused that I’d chosen to travel home by this archaic means of transport. But I love trains, and I especially love writing on trains. I thought I had many hours of calm, productive writing heaven ahead of me. I sat down at my solo table, took out my laptop, and then realised I’d done something incredibly stupid. I hadn’t brought the power cable with me. And the battery was flat. And with that simple fact, the entire plan lay in ruins.
My despair lasted for about five minutes. From the deepest recesses of my subconscious, a memory began to surface. The memory of a time before computers. What was that thing I used to write with, back in those days? A pen, was it called? What was that weird white flat substance I used to make marks on with my pen? Paper, something like that? I had both of these things with me, as it happened, and through that silly act of forgetfulness, I was forced into writing longhand again, just for a few hours, and in those few hours I rediscovered the joy of writing, the joy I’d forgotten, the physical joy of putting words down on paper with a pen, and that’s been my way of working ever since.
Apart from anything else, this change of direction reminded me of the beautiful, primal, technological simplicity of the act of writing. I began writing when I was eight years old. I bought a hardback notebook from the stationers’ down the road and in it I wrote a 150-page story about a Victorian detective investigating the mystery of a haunted castle. A sort of mash-up of Sherlock Holmes, The Three Investigators – in case anyone here remembers those stories – and the cartoon strips I was reading in my favourite comics at the time. This was 1969. No computers, no internet. If you had been blessed with some sort of creative impulse, your options were very limited back in those days. You couldn’t make a video and get it out on YouTube in a matter of seconds, you couldn’t record a song and upload it straight to soundcloud. In a couple of years I would get my first cassette recorder as a birthday present, but for the moment, the only technology in my bedroom was an old radio that my father had built in the 1950s. Plus – pen and paper. That was my technology. Simple, direct. And this is why – for me at least – nothing will ever really replace the power of the written word. When I wrote that first story I had no idea what a ‘writer’ was, no image in my head of what such a person looked like. I had no audience in mind for my story. I had no idea if there were any rules for writing. I just had a pen, paper, my imagination, and time on my hands. And that’s literally all you need. (Though perhaps, nowadays, the last of these is the most difficult thing to find, for everybody.) Novels may be under threat from superb long-form TV series but look how many people you need, and how much money, to get one of those off the ground. Think how many intermediaries there are between the writer and the viewer. The beauty of books, for me, is the simplicity, directness and intimacy of the relationship between the writer and the reader.
I remember a few years ago being on a tube train and seeing the woman opposite me reading Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding – one of my favourite novels. And she was smiling. Not laughing out loud, but smiling. And I thought to myself, “Wow, that is amazing. One evening back in the 1740s, a man was sitting in a room, by himself, writing by candlelight and putting a series of marks and symbols down onto paper. Now, 250 years later, a woman sitting on the London underground, on her way to some job in a high-rise office block, is absorbing those same marks and symbols and they are producing a reaction in her – a physical reaction. The corners of her mouth are stretching. Complicated emotional impulses and responses are being set off.” In that moment I realised that good writing – whether it’s a novel or a poem, journalism or science – can transcend time, and gender, and age, and ethnicity, and communicate thoughts and emotions across all of these divides, in a way that almost, when you think about it, seems supernatural.
That’s one reason I think that writing matters. Let me come to another one, more specific to the present situation we found ourselves in, and more specific to my own work. I’ve written three non-fiction books and eleven novels. It’s the novels that I’m proudest of and the novels which I consider my most honest pieces of work. Let me explain what I mean by that, and why I think that writing fiction is the most honest thing you can do nowadays.
Another of my favourite writers, BS Johnson, wrote a novel in 1964 called Albert Angelo which ends with a famous passage. The book is about an architect called Albert who has to spend all his time teaching for a living when he really wants to be designing buildings. In the final chapter, the author himself steps forward to tell the reader that in fact the book is about him, BS Johnson, not Albert, and that he wants to be a poet, not an architect. ‘OH FUCK ALL THIS LYING’, he writes, shouting out the words in block capitals. I love this book for its passion and inventiveness, just as I love this passage, but in my opinion it’s completely wrong-headed.
Writing fiction is indeed a form of lying but it is an extremely honest one. Much more honest than most non-fiction, if you ask me. After all, if there is an implicit agreement between you and the reader, before she even starts reading, that everything you are about to tell her is a lie – then really, nobody is being dishonest at all, are they? In his next book, Trawl, BS Johnson claimed that he was through with lying, and was only going to tell the truth from now on. It’s a good book, but reading it makes me watchful, wary and uneasy. How do we know that this memoir of his early life is really true at all? And even if everything in it is true, what about all the things he left out? Why did he leave them out? And why didn’t he tell us why he left them out? Editing, too, is a form of lying. This kind of hand-on-heart ‘truth-telling’ is less honest, in my view, than the overt lie of fiction.
There is truth and there is fiction, and in between there is half-truth. Truth is the most valuable thing of all; half-truth is the most dangerous. And yet this is what most of our written media and audiovisual media consists of nowadays. Politicians lie to us all the time, dressing up their lies as truth, everybody knows that. But other people lie as well. The makers of ‘reality TV’, for instance. God, how I hate that phrase! Reality TV has to be one of the most dishonest forms of entertainment ever invented. The ‘reality’ it presents to us is ruthlessly shaped, edited and distorted in order to fit the contours of a populist narrative, and then presented to us as though it represents ‘reality’ simply because there are no actors involved, and no paid or credited screenwriter. But what we see on the screen is not reality, not by any definition. It is a producer’s or director’s vision, realised in the cutting room.
The rise of reality TV over the last twenty years is part of a trend across all media in which the distinctions between what is real and what is invented have become increasingly blurred. Now we see the culmination of this trend in the proliferation of fake news, and its importance as a political tool on both sides of the ideological divide. Fake news is only going to get more and more sophisticated, and indeed faker, in the years ahead. Ever more complex video and audio technology will become accessible on home computers, and people are going to be able to make their own news footage, in which fake videos of Donald Trump and fake interviews with Vladimir Putin will become increasingly hard to distinguish from the real thing. Some of these will be made as a joke but most people will miss the joke and take them perfectly seriously. From now on it’s going to be very hard, very hard indeed, to tell what is real from what is fake.
And this is where novelists and short story writers come in. The reading public will never have any trouble making that distinction, when reading something written by a fiction writer. Everything we do is fake. Everything we do is fake, and we’re proud of it. Not ‘FUCK ALL THIS LYING’ but ‘CARRY ON LYING’. We don’t tell the truth – although there may be truths, nuggets of truth certainly, buried in the best of what we do – but nor do we try to hoodwink you. We are not bullshit artists, because even when we are offering you bullshit, we’re honest about it. I’m reminded of what Harold Pinter once said about Samuel Beckett:
He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy – he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not – he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.
Ah well. Most of us aren’t in that league, of course, and never will be. But we do our best, and we write in the confidence that we, too, are not trying to sell anything that people don’t want to buy. And we have an unwritten but binding contract to that effect with our readers. No one ever returned a copy of The Lord of the Rings, after all, saying they wanted their money back because they couldn’t find Mordor on an Ordnance Survey Map. We tell lies, we admit that we tell lies, and our readers like it that way. Alternative facts? Kellyanne Conway may have coined the phrase, but she didn’t invent the concept. Storytellers have been dealing in alternative facts ever since Homer, and indeed way before that. That’s why you can believe everything we tell you.
You can trust me on this, by the way – I’m a liar.