Dead People Who Would Have Been Bloggers

I’m not suggesting that to paint a bison on a wall, or blow coloured powder through your fingers to make your hand-print on a cave wall is the equivalent of blogging – communication, yes; symbolism, yes but for blogging you do need words. However, words have been around for a long time, and as long as they have been around there have been people who wanted to… just update you on their Daily Doings, on their Thoughts, people who just had a weird idea or two and found some sort of pleasure in putting it out there… see if there was any reaction.

These individuals were not necessarily novelists. Writing a novel is a specialised, long-term project and requires a lot of sterling qualities that bloggers may or may not be somewhat deficient in – gritty determination; staying power; that passionate, obsessive attention to detail; that ability to remember who in God’s name Catherine Earnshaw is and why there need to be two Catherine’s in one book; that ability to keep going day after day, pushing that knot towards the invisible end of that invisible piece of string, building that wall whilst standing two inches away from it, telling the joke for which there may well turn out never to have been a punchline; wading on through that dark, dark treacle when one’s novel sinks into its inevitable Soggy Bottom – or rather it’s Soggy Middle.

I’m not like that, fellow bloggers. Maybe you are – in which case why are you wasting your time on this frippery? Wamble off somewhere and pen that novel. Get thee to a nunnery, why woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?

All through history there have been people who have something to say – sometimes frivolous but equally often unique, subtle, interesting, humorous; people who wanted to gossip rather than lecture; people who just wanted to say, hey, what do you think about this? In the past those people did blog, they just didn’t call it that, and they used whatever medium came to hand. In Ancient Rome Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, tutor and advisor to the truly horrible Emperor Nero, wrote letters.

seneca.jpg

Except that they weren’t really letters. His one hundred and twenty-four were formally addressed to a friend, a distant student, but whether or not such student actually existed – is unimportant. The Letters were Seneca’s way of talking to the world. Give him a computer, he would have blogged.

Diarist Samuel Pepys would probably have blogged. He eventually had to give up diarising because of his eyesight. He was afraid that having to write, with an inkpot and quill pen, by candlelight, was damaging it further. However, he might well have blogged in his own private code, based on the well-known (in those days) Shelton’s Shorthand, plus Spanish, Italian and French, since the grown-up stuff was interspersed with quite a lot of saucy stuff about maids and mistresses that he that wouldn’t have wanted his wife to read, also a lot of stuff about his wife that she probably wouldn’t have wanted other people to know.

pepys

For example (skip this bit, children):

“… and did tocar mi cosa con su mano [ touch my thing with her hand] through my chemise but yet so as to hazer me hazer la grande cosa ” [make me make the great thing (orgasm)]

Jane Austen would have blogged, you betcha. She would probably have called herself Johan Austen for more gravitas, or Herbert Finke and had one of those little round pictures where you can almost but not quite see someone’s face, and it might not be them anyway (not that I can speak, hiding behind a picture of a stuffed witch puppet). Can you imagine her observations, this quiet, mob-capped auntie in the corner? I think I would almost rather have been able to read Aunt Jane’s blog than Pride and Prejudice. Almost.  Better still, Cassandra might not have been able to get her censoring little hands on it after her sister’s death.

Charles Dickens would have blogged. He published those enormous and rather wonderful novels of his in weekly instalments – respect to him; it’s no easy feat to write a novel on the hoof, no safety net – the possibility of tossing the whole thing in the wastepaper basket half way through or drastically rewriting it. But he was also a businessman and wrote and published several magazines. I can imagine his blog as being more of a zine, but a wonderful zine. A wonderful new(ish) word zine is, too – so useful for Scrabble.

And then there are the women’s magazine journalists, the newspaper columnists, the poets, the publishers of scandalous broadsheets and lofty sermons. Do you think they would have been able to resist the lure of that lit-up screen? Two more, and then I’ll shut up.

Nella Last (or Housewife, 49 so brilliantly played by the so recently late Victoria Wood) who wrote page after unpunctuated page, in pencil on scraps of paper, and submitted them to Mass Observation movement during the Second World War. What she writes about is so dull, so every-day and yet, running beneath it all, the sorrows of a real-life mismatched but stuck-to marriage, the loved but not entirely comprehended son, the struggles, the clever ‘dodges’, the pride in being able to manage, the pleasure in making her ‘dollies’ for the hospital, the achievement of running a wartime charity shop; the emergence of a downtrodden middle-aged woman, partly through her writings and partly through war, into a circumscribed individuality. She’d have blogged – if her husband had allowed her on the computer.

George Mackay Brown, eccentric poet and dramatist from Stromness, Orkney, Scotland, and regular columnist in The Orcadian. He died in 1996. Apart from one or two sorties to university and so forth, he spent his whole life in this one, beloved place and he wrote about the small things, the daily things that were important to his readers. He said he wrote for an imaginary Orcadian, someone exiled to America maybe, or Canada. He wrote to give them a taste of home, to keep them in touch with what was important to all. After breakfast each day he would push aside the marmalade pot and the breadcrumbs and start writing. He often had a bit of a struggle to get his handwritten column to the post-box on time, when it was blowing a gale or the up-hill-and-down-dale streets were a sheet of ice. Often he was cold, in his own little house. Sometimes he was ill, sometimes depressed. Sometimes – pretty often, in fact – he turned to whiskey for solace and when he did he drank too much of it, but always he wrote. He brought Orkney to life. He knew so much about its history and geography, and was constantly referring to his overloaded bookshelves for the meaning of some tantalising word or phrase in the Orkney Norn – the old Norse language.

He was a nerd, before there was such a thing. He would have been a blogger, although he might have had to use the computer in the Public Library, since he had little money and only the most basic possessions. His newspaper columns were eventually collected into two books:  Under Brinkie’s Brae and Letters from Hamnavoe. He wrote about what he ate for his supper, his bachelor experiments with cooking; about the challenging Orcadian weather; about taking friends and visitors round the island and showing them the sights; about long walks and seabirds; about problems with heating, postal strikes; ballpoint pens; a sagging couch a friend had bought on his behalf in a sale; nature, football matches and television programmes… anything.

And that’s the thing about blogging, isn’t it? You don’t have to have a theme, or a purpose, or a noble aim. You don’t have to be coherent, you don’t need to be propagandising or sending some sort of message. You can write about anything. Just because.

ME AND MY SHADOW

The first time I met the dreaded doppelganger in literature, as opposed to life, was in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Now, I can usually tell if a book is not going to be worth persisting with before the end of Chapter One. I just get bored and give up. Sometimes I will keep going into the next chapter, or skip to the end and various random ‘middles’ hoping to come across some dramatic twist or intriguing development worth struggling on for. If the end and the middles are as bad as the beginning I put the book down and rarely pick it up again. Life is too short to be noble and conscientious.

Occasionally I will come across a book so unutterably wrong in some way that it really annoys me, and I am afraid Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those. Inevitably these annoying novels will also be ones that the literati think highly of; almost certainly they will have hitched a lift on the English Literature exam syllabus. I was force to read Frankenstein and work up intelligent-sounding essays about it, not once but twice. The first time was for a resit of A Level English Language & Literature (passed Grade A – yay!) and the second for an Open University Literature course. I was hoping against hope the dratted thing would be more digestible the second time around. It wasn’t. Wuthering Heights is another example.

Before I go on, let’s be sure what a doppelganger is or could be.

A doppelganger can be an exact double – an identical copy of the original – or it can be a complement. A complement would have different or opposing characteristics to the original, but would in some way complete it – yin and yang, two halves of one whole like Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and his Picture. The ‘scary’ version could be thought of as Jung’s Shadow archetype – an entity which encompasses all the qualities one lacks in conscious life or cannot bear to confront. The monster in Frankenstein is a species of Shadow being the alter ego of his creator, the scientist Victor Frankenstein.

It seems to me that in the end there is a very little difference between the frighteningly familiar and the frightfully foreign.  Whether a doppelganger appears to be your mirror-image or a Creature from your worst nightmares, coming face to face with it is a dreadful experience.

Since yesterday’s personal-experience post on doppelgangers I have been trying to decide

a) what exactly the trouble is with Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, and

b) why these two novels are nevertheless still read today, and continually cited as examples of great literature.

Most of my ‘thoughts’ were scribbled down with the dawn chorus this morning, when still half asleep. This is the untangled version.

I think it is to do with editing.

Oh, hang on, there’s more…

Taking (b) first.

I think some novels succeed initially and go on to achieve permanence in the literary canon solely because they arise from a first-rate idea. A single stroke of imaginative genius is the glue that holds the whole shambling creation together. The novel grips readers by means of that one core idea or image alone. The core image is usually embodied in one central character, more often than not male. In Frankenstein, of course, it is the Creature, a hideous, unlovable mishmash of a being who craves the love and attention of his ‘father’. In Wuthering Heights it is the violent, obsessive and tormented Heathcliff.

It is like one imagination gripping another – like the Vulcan mind-meld – I was going to say frogs mating but thought better of it! – once melded, the two minds are never entirely separated. When you think of all the novels that persist, that will never be cast upon that great slush-pile in the sky regardless of their overall quality and effectiveness, they have a unique central character. Think of the impossible but wonderful Mr Darcy; ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’ Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe. They are all unique, contradictory, many-dimensional characters. They have their faults, they have their shining virtues and because of this we believe in them. But this is only one element in the construction of a novel.

Now back to (a):

To me there are three main elements.

The first is imagination – the great idea, the inspiration. This element is pure ‘art’. You can learn to write good prose, or if you are lucky you will have been born with a facility and an ‘ear’ for words, just as artists have an eye for colour and form, and musicians have an ear for music. Nobody can give you imagination. You are either born with it or you are not. The eternal problem is that, as with intelligence and sense of humour, those with the least are convinced they have the most.

The second is the acquired skill or innate gift of the writer, which allows him or her to transform a brilliant idea into a great book. This element is part art and part craft. It is the skill you use to avoid pulling your reader up short – rudely catapulting him out of his suspended disbelief, as it were. You will use this part of your skill to avoid anachronisms, infelicities of style, contradictions and repetitions – anything that reminds the reader that he is reading a book, and that the book has a writer. He needs to remain immersed in the world you are conjuring up for him. He doesn’t need to overhear you prattling away in the background, providing a running commentary. Neither Mary Shelley nor Emily Bronte could be criticised for their ability to use the English language or produce a well-turned paragraph.

The third, and in some ways the most challenging, element is the ability to edit. Editing is also part art and part craft and a good writer will be editing himself as he goes along, but it’s difficult. A writer can gain a great deal from a professional editor; someone who can view his work with a calm and dispassionate eye. For me it is in this element that Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights both fall short. For me: maybe not for you.

When you start to write, one of the first things you realise – and a fascinating realisation it is – is that a story can go on and on for ever if you let it. Novels are expanding universes of words. For every twist your plot takes there is an infinite number of alternative twists. For every new character there is an infinite amount of back-story. You can never start a story at the beginning. There is no beginning, only the point at which you have chosen to jump in. You can never end a story. There is no end, only the point at which you decide to abandon your characters. There is no limit on the number of characters involved in your plot. They are infinite in number. You have chosen to ignore the many and focus on the few. There is no single, fixed plot to your story. It could go any which way. In writing you choose either this road or the road less travelled by. You have to make these decisions throughout the process – what to keep and what to kill.

Sometimes an author fails to notice that he/she is writing not one novel, but several, and that an interference pattern has been set up. Try to combine three potential – and temptingly related – novels into one actual novel is asking for trouble. Like cats in a bag, they will fight, and at the end you will be left with clouds of multi-coloured fur, a little heap of broken claws and a ragged ear or two. Part of the art is to recognise and extract the right story strand from a great imaginative tangle.

I also feel that a novel, article, poem, short story – whatever – has its own innate geometry, and that a good writer (or a good editor) will be able to sense, feel or see that geometry – or will at least be able to sense, feel or see when it is being distorted. It’s like the statue being present inside the block of stone. It’s like skiing downhill in the mist – you sense a tree or something ahead, and swerve. Or like when you take a wrong turn and drive off in the wrong direction. Suddenly the sun’s in the wrong place and the light is all wrong. It’s that playing piano in the dark thing – you need to believe in it and trust it.

The other thing is that the fact that you have written a passage, even if it is the best passage you (or anyone) ever wrote in your (or their) entire life is not enough to justify it remaining in your story. It either fits or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it goes. Kill Your Darlings. Seize that red pen and strike them through. For me, both Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights are rambling and out of shape. They don’t make sense – or at least, the effort required of the reader to try to make them make sense is too great. The cost-benefit ratio is too high.