Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Writing or the Writer?

In the wake of Norman Mailer's death, a slightly shocking 'good riddance' from Joan Smith on the Guardian Books Blog, which gives rise to a long debate about whether we should judge a writer's work in the light of his or her life.

As so often, on the whole the commenters fall into two extreme camps, but it seems to me the issue is more complex than they allow. I've said often enough that I deplore the cult of personality in the contemporary literary world, which does indeed distort our perceptions of writing. On the other hand, as Zadie Smith pointed out earlier this year (the Guardian link seems to have disappeared, I'm afraid), a writers' writing is inevitably coloured or indeed motored by his or her personality - insights, attitudes, perceptions - and thus can't be seen as 'separate' in quite the way some of Joan Smith's commenters claim.

As John Morton says (last post), it's important to concentrate on the writing rather than the writer, but sensitive readers must be alert to the sensibility behind any piece of writing, regardless of fine sentences or clever structure etc. Great writing is always a combination of the two - linguistic facility and sharp sensibility. In fact, it's the writing that will tell you the real truth about an author's character, rather than any self-made or publisher-generated reputation.

As for Mailer, well, I haven't read enough of him, or recently enough, to comment on his writing, but I do know that long ago something about it put me way off. Whether that was his reputation colouring my perception or his sensibility leaking through the prose, I'll have to look again to find out.
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