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Laurence Inman’s Blog

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING SELF IMPORTANT

20-11-2008

There are writers. And then there are SELF IMPORTANT WRITERS. Laurence Inman spots the difference.

Every year I am asked to do a session with students of creative writing at Wolverhampton University. The group this year were a pleasant bunch of young people, all wanting to become writers, but remaining level-headed enough to realise that there’s probably never going to be any money in it.

The course tutor, Paul McDonald, is a jovial chap, well known to readers of Tindal Street fiction as the author of three (possibly four) very funny novels.

I usually talk about writing techniques for a bit. We look at how really great authors, like Jane Austen and Robert Carver, do things. I might read an extract from one of my own stories. We’ll finish by chatting generally about the literary racket, being on the telly, show-business etc. I usually read a couple of poems. Two hours just fly by.

I’m glad that no one ever reveals an ambition to be an Important Writer. Or perhaps that should be Self-Important Writer. SIW.

There are many types of self-importance, but the writerly kind is the most annoying, even more annoying than the rock star variety, you know, like Bonio and that other one, Gobdorf, lording it with politicians all over the place.

To be a SIW you first have to go to one of two universities. There you will meet all the people who will later be of some use to you – editors, producers of arty progs on the telly, publishers, other SIWs who will write reviews of your books in the posh papers.

They will be your mates. All you have to do then is start telling them you’re a writer. It’s not like being a surgeon or anything important; no tests are made of your claim. They’ll do the rest.

You’re thinking Martin Amis, aren’t you ? He is the perfect example. His dad gave him all the low-down he needed to keep turning out the same pile of rat-shit every year and make a very decent living oiling up the other SIWs in his close little circle.

I’ll never forget seeing him on the telly telling David Niven: ‘For a non-writer, you write very well.’

'How very kind of you to say so,' replied Niven, who had just sold 300 million copies of his autobiography.

I met a SIW once. His name was Caryl Philips. He went to Kings Norton school for a bit. I was teaching there when he came back with a film crew to do part of a programme about his life (see earlier paragraph.) He treated us all with icy condescension, as did the crew, because they are all part of a better world.

A whole school day was disrupted for the sake of this pantomime. Even the Head walking into assembly needed four takes, while the rest of us sat there patiently, extras in Philips’ fantasy.

Because a fantasy it was. When the thing was broadcast it became obvious that he saw the school as part of some larger racist conspiracy to hold him back from his true destiny. The Head, especially, was portrayed as a bumbling old blimp.

In fact this Head had long-established contacts with a particular Oxford college. Entry requirements were, in such cases, allowed to be flexible. Philips was not the only Old Nort who went there.

And that was the way he re-paid those efforts on his behalf. All that thought and determination, for such a puny and unjustified revenge.

I tried to read a couple of his books once. I usually finish a book once I start reading it. I give it fifty pages at least. These were books I had to put from me after less than ten. You see him on the telly sometimes, or in the Sunday mags. He dismisses other people’s work as ‘reportage’ or ‘comment’ or ‘journalism’ – to distinguish it from the real thing, which he does.

He doesn’t, believe me.

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