Peter Strauss

Their Finest Hours

Mortification: Writer's Stories of their Public Sham


Fourth Estate 304pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

WE SHOULD BE grateful to the diarist John Evelyn, who in 1645 first appropriated the term ‘mortification’ for the sense defined by the OED as ‘the feeling of humiliation caused by a disappointment, a rebuff or slight, or an untoward accident; the sense of disappointment or vexation’. Equally, we should be grateful to the Manchester United supporters who mooned through the bookshop window at Robin Robertson during a reading of his poetry. That was the moment he conceived of this project, and in a beautifully written preface he tells of having been ‘regularly entertained by writers’ tales of past deflations and struck by their willingness to turn abasement into anecdote’. He goes on, ‘These are the best stories I think: those told against the teller.’ Robertson, a highly respected editor, known for the devotion his authors show him, has assembled marvellous array of writers, ranging from seasoned authors and critics such as Margaret Atwood and Karl Miller (who contribute multiple mortifications) to debut novelist and Booker Prize winner D B C Pierre.

At first glance this may sound an obvious idea, and following on logically from each other. The length of entries varies from a single page (160 words, to be precise) in the case of Michael Ondaatje to seven pages (well over 4,000) in the case of Anne Enright. The seventy contributions are often witty, always engaging, and sometimes, underneath, very sad.

The balance between prescription and description is extremely well handled, and I suspect that many of the contributors wish they had had the opportunity to heed one of the pieces of advice contained herein in particular: ‘In cases where mortification is suspected, the patient should on no account be offered, or allowed to partake of, alcohol.’ David Hment seems to have almost poured himself ftom Oxford to Cheltenham for the first reading of his first book, when his inebriation led to a series of startling mishaps. As Michael Longley later states, ‘the worst ones [mortifications] vanish into the black hole of alcoholic amnesia’. one assumes that eyewitness accounts help fll in the details of such embarrassments. Indeed, James Wood both doubts the reliabilitv of the writer’s own memory, calling it an ‘error producing organ’, and also suggests that such incidents are, by their nature, self-willed. Val McDerrnid feels, intriguingly, that genre writers are more prone to hhation as there is always the potential question, ‘~aveyo u- ever thought of writing a proper novel?’ However, Edna O’Brien’s over- – Time to meet hearing of a remark that she ‘writes for servants, everyone knows that’ demonstrates that non-genre writers face their own potential pitfalls. Such comments are even more embarrassing when made directly to the writer, as in Elizabeth McCracken’s pitch- perfect account of a reading that encouraged a member of the audience to question her talent, or that of Louise Welsh, who was asked why a session was called ‘Provocation’ when nothing contained in the session was in the least provocative, or Paul Bailey’s story of the alcoholically challenged fan who actually got on stage.

Each reader will find his own particular favourites. John Banvllle and Jonathan Coe deliver dark, hnny, heartfelt pieces on the ignominy of having no audience at a reading. Hugo Hamilton tells of the destructive effect of muzak; Claire Messud documents publishing rejection and the thickness of fellow-writers’ skins; Don Paterson delivers a wondeMy tactlle account – enough to make you squirm – of all the dirt-cheap bedsits poets are put up in. Julian Barnes’s characteristically faultless account of stammering his way through his first meeting with his first publisher; Anne Enright’s journey for a prize that did not materialise; Paul Farley’s extraordinary additional outfit at a pukka reading; John Lanchester’s virtuoso description of a single word-change which alienated a whole conference; Andrew O’Hagan’s sense of displacement on American radio (‘my shiny-covered new book seemed dead on the table between us’): Rutlert Thomson’s shame, at his exposed literary ambition; Adam Thorpe’s nerve-tingling interview (for Literary Review) with Joseph Brodsky; and Colm Toibin’s desire to please a famous writer who though t his first book was called ‘The Outh’ and was seriously disappointed when he found out it was The South – all made for compelling reading. I was also impressed with Sean O’Reilly’s and Niall Griffiths’s honesty in unflinchingly revealing the intimate truth.

But perhaps Duncan McLean’s battle cry is the most ferociously direct: ‘On the whole, professional writers are a lot of whingeing bastards who wouldn’t last a day in a real job … The true mortification of being a writer is having to meet other writers hm time to time and listen to their mundane egotistical rantings.’ Maybe that is why, having found only two copies of one of his books to sign, he begins to sign the books of a different McLean (as Alan Warner does a different Warner, but on the insistence of his neighbours, who think he wrote them). This echoes John – Lanchester’s pithy analysis of the your publisner publicity that accompanies the process of publication: ‘The truth is that the whole contemporary edifice of readings and tours and interviews and festivals is based on a mistake. The mistake is that we should want to meet the writers we admire, because there is something more to them in person than there is on the page, so that meeting them in the flesh somehow adds to the experience of reading their work. The idea is that the person is the real thing, whereas the writing is somehow an excrescence or epiphenomenon. But that is not true. The work is the real thing.’ One quotes from anthologies to show how good they are.

It will be interesting to see if this book is performance- proof. The last anthology Robin Robertson edited (Firebird) received what was apparently a shoclung review from Geoff Dyer in Literary Review, as a mortifjringly challenged Dyer charmingly tells us in his contribution. I would be mortified if people did not feel impelled to purchase thls one: it seems the perfect Christmas present, an idea as simple as Schott’s Original Miscellany and equally effective.


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