I like this guy. I don’t agree with him, I’ve never read his books, I’d like to argue with him – but I like him. And interviewer Devika Bakshi is right – he has a great face. See for yourself (at right).
On reading young writers:
Alan Bennett said something fantastic once. Someone said to him, “Which other playwrights do you like?” And he goes, “Well, I don’t really go to the theatre.” And the person interviewing him goes, “But you’re always at the theatre, we’ve seen you at the first nights…” and he says, “Yes, I go, it’s impolite not to go to a first night. I have a drink and things, and when the play begins, I quietly creep out.” And they said, “Well, why do you do that?” And he said, “Because I’m very easily influenced. And I don’t want to be watching another play and thinking: ‘I should be doing that’.” It’s a beautifully tactful way of saying I don’t want one of two things: I don’t want to be at a play where everybody’s saying ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ and I think it’s rubbish. I don’t want to be in that position. But also, at my age and experience, I don’t want to be watching a play by someone who’s just born that’s so brilliant that I would feel threatened by it.
I once heard [Norman] Mailer talk in London, and someone was saying, “Who of the great successful writers of now do you like?” And he laughed, as though, you know, ‘Do I want to hear of the great successful writers?’—it’s a jealous profession we have—and he said, “I’m at work on my old rusty Lincoln, trying to get underneath, and I’m trying to get my old rusty Lincoln to start again, and somebody goes whizzing by in a brand new Maserati. Why would I get out from under my car to look at that?”
On writers “finding their voice” [Note: Here's where I disagree profoundly – the claim to be "looking for my voice" is the mark of an amateur. Just try to tell your story as clearly and succinctly as you can. That's your voice. I know Jacobson is a big famous dude, and I'm a nobody – but still, common sense is common sense. – ED]
The old cliché about a novelist is you have to find your voice, but you do have to find your voice. And I didn’t find it until it just found me, when somehow or other, it was forced upon me that my voice was not late Henry James, or even early Henry James. It was a very English voice, behind which, interlaced with which, was the demotic of the Manchester street. My father was a very, very vivid man, he worked on the markets, was a taxi driver; our house was full of uneducated Jewish people coming and going, making Jewish jokes, using bits of Yiddish, and I thought: ‘Actually, that’s my voice, forget Henry James.’ That first novel had a bit of that [voice]. Then more and more I thought that’s my unique contribution to English literature. This is where I draw my strength, and the particular thing I know that other people don’t know.
And in the end that’s what you have to tap: what do you know that no one else knows? How do you speak in a way that nobody else speaks? What’s your experience that’s not like anybody else’s experience?
Without that, I would’ve written boring, solemn books.
Advice to young writers:
Read other writers but don’t be other writers. Don’t be cowed by all the great writers that you like. I was really frightened by them, thinking, ‘I’m never going to be as good as that.’ Well, you’re not. None of us are. Dickens isn’t as good as Dostoevsky, and sometimes Dostoevsky isn’t as good as Dickens. Know how great they are, but don’t be cowed by it. Find your own voice, and revere it.
And remember that it’s your job as a writer, if you see any sign of ideology in you, to kill it. Writing is not the expression of your belief system. Don’t have a belief system. If you have a belief system, give up art—unless you’re confident that in the making of art, in the writing of a novel, you will lose your belief system.
What you believe is of no interest to anybody. Almost what anybody believes is of no interest to anybody. Remember how superior art is to belief. And away you go! And don’t expect to do very well.
[Excuse me – if good writing excludes a belief system, why are you reading Dostoevsky? – ED]
Read the whole thing here. It’s a great interview.