Howard Jacobson’s advice to writers: “If you see any sign of ideology in you, to kill it.”


Great face. But he looks like he just killed an ideology.

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).

A few excerpts from her interview with Howard Jacobson, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question, over at India’s Open – here.  (With a hat tip to Vikram Johri for this one.)

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]

Finklerquestion_bookcoverThe 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.

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5 Responses to “Howard Jacobson’s advice to writers: “If you see any sign of ideology in you, to kill it.””

  1. Max Taylor Says:

    Interesting interview and post, thank you. I enjoyed The Finkler Question quite a bit and appreciate getting to hear a bit about the author in his own voice. In respect of the cliche of “finding one’s voice,” I think it concerns integration of experience and identity as expressed on the page. A writer who has not yet found [his] voice on the page, and who experiments with taking on the voices of others, is a writer who has not yet individuated, has not yet owned the singularity of [his] perspective. Your comment, “[j]ust try to tell your story as clearly and succinctly as you can. *That’s* your voice,” while good advice, also seems to focus on the the artifact of the written page, and not the psyche and process of the writer.

    The fact that a writer writes down a story means the story will be expressed in a voice. Others will hear that voice, which has its own intonations and timbres and turns of phrase. If the writer has deliberately imitated the voices of others the intonations and timbres and turns of phrase will sound like mimicry to others who know the writers mimicked. But mimicry (which suggests a writer “still looking for [his] own voice”) just means the writer has not fully owned, or fully discovered, who [he] is. Don’t you think that’s a real process? I’m not so sure that’s the “mark of an amateur” so much as an indicator that maturity still lies ahead.

  2. Pierre de Taille Says:

    Hemingway gave two pieces of advice: write as best you can, and – finish what you started. Me, I too like to keep it simple. To write you need two things: a point of view, and a style, because “Le style, c’est l’homme même”, as the great naturalist Buffon (18th century) said, meaning, style is not form, it’s the expression of the true man (or woman) in you – your voice, if you want.

  3. Meg Says:

    Before Cynthia Haven writes another word she should learn that ‘goes’ is not a synonym for ‘says’. “Goes’ has to do with movement; ‘says’ has to do with speech. Repeating grotesqueries of English is always a mistake as it is always a mistake to waste one’s time reading – and quoting – people who are ignorant of basic English. I read Jacobsen often and consider him one of the most intelligent writers of our day. His columns on the destruction of English should be required reading for anyone who writes, especially for those who ‘blog’ who seem, frequently, to be the worst abusers of the language, the careless destruction of which will result in our finding ourselves swinging from branches grunting at each other or as Jacobson would put it “Looking out over Windermere, I think of Wordsworth writing about ‘the multitude of causes’ combining to reduce the human mind to ‘a state of almost savage torpor.’ He believes slovenly English is one of them.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thank you for your comment, Meg. Of course I am not free to alter Mr. Jacobson’s remarks.

  5. Richard Martin Says:

    So, it is not the dreaded blogger Ms. Haven but rather Mr. Jacobson himself who is destroying English by going “goes,” who is driving us to swing from branches grunting at one another. Too delicious for words.