The Sunday Sermon

A long time ago, almost before the Internet was invented, I once saw a well-known television presenter buying a top-shelf magazine. I was in a newsagent just off Oxford Street in London, queuing to buy bottled water, stamps, biros and cigarettes before going back to the British Library and noticed, ahead of me, a man on tip-toes reaching for a magazine which was not Apiculture Quarterly, Eschatology Today or The Review of Contemporary Wallpapers. It was not even, as I recall, the kind of publication not kept at eye-level in which John Updike or Norman Mailer would occasionally contribut9e a threnody to their flagging concupiscence. It was a sweaty June day, and the air smelt of exhaust fumes. I remember thinking, crikey, you don’t often see someone actually and in broad daylight buying a, and then thought, blimey, though the man buying that one-handed read is none other than TV’s —-

He was reaching up, like this

But the purpose of this sermon is not to castigate. These were the days before the population of the country could be divided into those that were celebrities, those that had been celebrities and those that wanted to be celebrities. Anonymity had not gone out of fashion. I was as struck by having seen a person I knew but did not know as with the fact that the person in question was witnessed in the act of purchasing  a sample of that most plangent and cringeling of genres, “British Erotica”.

I was reminded of the TV presenter and his top-shelf acquisition throughout my chairing duties at the Aye Write festival. I don’t, at some deep level, understand book festivals. Why pay £7 to hear an author reading an extract from their book, when for £10 you get the whole book and read it for yourself? If you want to hear writers talking about their craft, inspiration, hobbies or romantic misadventures, then there are plenty radio programmes and television shows on which authors, in their own voices, say things. Some people evidently attend in the hope that the writer will somehow reveal How Literature Gets Done, yet if I had to hazard a definition for literature, it would probably be “the writing for which there is no trick”.   

I’ve tentatively concluded that what audiences are seeking is the aura. Walter Benjamin, to whom I turn in times of need, posited the aura in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. When you can buy a postcard of the Mona Lisa outside the Louvre, why pay to go in and gaze on the original? Benjamin’s essay, oddly, avoids discussing literature, the form of art most dependent on mechanical reproduction. The book being mass-produced and readily available, the aura inheres in the person of the author. It is to the author, not the book, that we seek exclusive access. Book events resemble nothing more than religious rituals: the reverential silence, the reading of the text, the exposition and elucidation, the supplications, the hieratic writer raised on a dais with an intercessory acolyte between the congregation and the sacerdotal figure – and finally the collection plate and a handshake.   

The startle of seeing a well-known TV presenter caught red-handed but not red-faced with a scuddie book is a fine way of evaporating the aura. Without the constructed event, it’s just a middle-aged bloke wishing he had the correct change and hoping the callow youth behind him isn’t smirking. Authors, I can reliably inform you, often do very everyday, anonymous things: they drink takeaway coffee, pay gas bills, buy magazines. But in the context of a festival, they are transformed into celebrity and celebrant. The collective will of an audience beseeches them, “turn not thy face from us”.

It is our error to confuse the artificer with the artefact. It is the written not the writer that truly gives us the impassive and empathic acceptance of art, that is perpetually open to us, that acknowledges our commonality. It is art that does not wince from us. In an etiolated way, that is maybe even what the television presenter sought in pornography.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Sunday Sermon

  1. lee

    I totally agree, and yet. . . I feel people just want to be in the same room, breathing the same air of their favourite authors. You can do it so much more readily with writers than, say, with film stars or even telly peeps. And it’s also reassuring to see that yes, this person does actually exist. That life-altering work of art you bought does come from a human being.

  2. I have been wondering this myself, why do people go to readings. Apart from the possibility of getting an insight into why and how the writer wrote what they wrote, I do feel that there’s more to words than reading from the page. Story telling and poetry have been oral until only very recently. I usually get a lot from hearing the actual writer reading their own words in their own voice and can take the cadences/accent/ etc home with me.

    Of course, some readers awful to listen to, both the way they read and the things they say and detract from their work. They should never be left out of the house

  3. John

    I agree about the oddity of paying to hear readings. I don’t quite get it. Especially when many readers bring nothing new to “their” words by reading them out loud. Though some do.

    But free-entry events, such as the West Port Book Fest (do you know it?) are more useful to both writers and readers in giving a taster of works that might prompt a buy, but also have the added advantage of knowing the author is not just there for their fee.

    Then there’s that old idea of the author dying in the birth of their book; that they become obsolete, unnecessary, unimportant with respect to the work they’ve made. If the book’s good, good, that’s all that should matter. The work may be great, it’s maker may be a git – wouldn’t want knowledge of that spoiling appreciation of the work, though it might.

    Yet the recluse is still treated as an oddity by the media (generally), as someone “not playing the game”. Even the word “recluse” has negative connotations. Why not “private”? Too normal-sounding, I suppose. And an artist is anything but normal, right? They are abnormal, extraordinary, superhuman. If ever they do pay gas bills, it must surely be for research purposes; as a glimpse into the lives of us regular folk.

    • Thanks for the comments, flock.
      In reverse order: Jim, I’ve really enjoyed the West Port Festival and I think they manage to shift the paradigm quite a bit. In fact, I was one of the founders of the first “fringe” book festival, an event called Thirsty Lunch that put on 28 free readings in August 2004. “Tasters” are a good way of thinking about it, and I’ve often felt very conflicted that, in my role as Literary Editor, I’ll have to cover a big “name” at EIBF rather than go to a less well known, perhaps less predictable writer. The “standard” book festival event absolutely enshrines the Romantic myth of the exceptionality of the writer. Publicity has changed beyond all recognition in the last ten years – so much so that a standard publishing contract now contains a commitment on the author’s part to engage in “all reasonable” promotional activities. Which kind of keeps them away from the old writing malarkey.
      Emerging writer: yes, it does sometimes give you a different insight to hear an author read – a “click”. Jim Kelman’s Kieron Smith, Boy is a different kettle of coconuts aloud. I’m surprised more publicists don’t use the Interweb to capitalise on this: it’s surely not too difficult to put up a YouTube clip or two. However, the other side of the question is worth bearing in mind. J H Prynne, the poet, refuses to read his work aloud, in part because it collapses the multiplicity of potential meanings that the reader can generate into one official reading under the authorial imprimatur. And have you ever heard T S Eliot reading The Waste Land? The old crook tries to make it scan. AYpril Isthe CROOlest MUnth. Shudder.
      Lee: the desire to go to book festivals is understandable; I just wish people were more self-reflexive about it, and far be it from me to deny the pleasure to those that receive it. But in terms of the “breath” analogy – right now, statistically speaking, I’m breathing an oxygen molecule that’s been through the lungs of Dante, Milton and Ezra Pound.
      I’m an old Barthesian on this question (although Barthes was pre-empted by Proust to an extent in Against Sainte-Beuve). The author is not the custodian of meaning. As Derrida says, writing is nothing other than giving to read.

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