Niamh Collins continues her exploration of ‘literary legacy’ and how writers can use history. If you missed it part one is over here.
Certain books just capture the imagination, stocked at every Waterstones down the country, translate into multiple languages, survive the evolution of the human race and still be stuffed into a trusty beach bag summer after summer. I wonder what Jane Austen’s reaction would be to this? Did she live in the hope of one day becoming a memory? I think she would have smiled more at the twelve-year-old girl reading her book in a powder blue swimsuit while her brother attacks her senselessly with a water pistol than seeing ‘I could easily forgive his pride had he not mortified mine’ inked onto a dishcloth. But maybe she would have found that amusing? I think I would.
TRUTH WILL ALWAYS BE RELEVANT
As a writer, there is something intimidating about history, how did Austen manage it? Well, she had her finger consistently on the pulse of the period she was living in. I would be willing to venture a guess that Austen did not trouble herself with her 2019 audience, nor much her 1800 contemporaries. Even her nephew was unable to identify his aunt’s cleverness, “She was always very careful not to meddle with matters which she did not thoroughly understand. She never touched upon politics, law, or medicine, subjects which some novel writers have ventured on rather too boldly, and have treated, perhaps, with more brilliancy than accuracy.” Austen exhibits the cleverness of presenting a highly political, social comment wrapped up in what appears to be a very conventional love story. What can we learn from our literary ancestors? Truth will always be relevant. It’s often only when taking a step back from the literary canon that one can appreciate how little we truly know of it. Like the undiscovered ocean floor, millions of books lie in attics, shop floors, woodworm draws and tiny scraps of torn paper that line the family garbage can. Not all books are equal. There is often good reason why Austen is chosen, Shakespeare is chosen, Chretien De Troyes is chosen; their eclectic and often radical perceptions transcend their time and contemporary audience. However, this attitude is slowly evolving and academics are slowly engaging with the more obscure and undiscovered gems of our literary world; and this is something which should excite all of us. In a world where time is being dominated more and more, the four hundredpages that excited the Victorians or the diversions that thrilled the monks of Lindisfarne as they listened heartily to tales of Ingeld on a rare break from the gospel, now weary modern readers.
WE ALL CRAVE THE OUTSTRETCHED ARM OF THE READER
My own mother is shamefaced to confess she hasn’t read a full book since she was a teenager, ‘I don’t have time to finish reading the cooking instructions on a Heinz tomato soup’ she laments as I thrust the titbits of a lecture worthy of mention often to the displeasure of an already exhausted family table. If we don’t have time to read the ‘must’ reads, then what happens to the rows of books that line the shelves, that we turn round and round like shells plucked from the beach; nod to show intrigue of a good opening line, smile at an impressive synopsis only to return it to the shelf and walk away? But, let us not be dissuaded by some of the more unpalatable realities of the market place. We must know them to combat them. Make no mistake, a good story will always be in fashion. As writers, we must be responsible for enthusing every line of our books with the enthusiasm that places us behind the desk every morning, and constantly ask ourselves, ‘is this keeping my audience as enthused as I am.’ In the words of Robert Frost; ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.’ Writers are incredibly generous people. They share their souls, and that’s what a book is, good or bad. A bad book often takes the same self-flagellation, irritation, sweat, tears, and energy as a masterpiece. But readers are incredibly generous people too. Think about Virginia Woolf’s troubled Judith Shakespeare; all the talent, with none of the praise awarded to her ego-pampered elder sibling. I wonder if any of Jane Austen’s friends were novel writers? The debate surrounding William Shakespeare’s own obscure identity raises questions on whether the immortality of the author is a nonsense anyway. Does it matter if Shakespeare wrote all his plays? If he didn’t, I’d still get shivers as Shylock wraps the prayer shawl around his shoulders once Jessica has fled from him. Lips will still quiver when Othello burns with passionate rage as Iago pulls on the puppet strings of those around him; ‘she is gone. I am abused and my relief must be to loathe her’ and Desdemona’s death cry will canter around the auditorium and chill us to our very core. Seventy years from death legal ownership of material melts into air and the public takes the chiming rhymes and gritty phrases and makes their own symphonies. Maybe the immortality authors dream of is not the sound of their own name reverberating off the walls of people’s living rooms, or stamped onto polyester T-Shirts?
ONE PEN CAN CHANGE THE TAPESTRY OF A LIFE
Shakespeare’s intensely personal love sonnets describe an enduring lust that speaks to many burning lovers. Anne Frank’s haunting tale of her incarceration becomes a tale of remarkable resilience in the face of political dystopia. Christine De Pizan’s, ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’ used her own role as a prominent medieval political thinker to document and defend the important contribution of women to society. Maya Angelou’s intensely powerful autobiography becomes a striking recount of a woman who boldly challenges racism and prejudice. As a writer, I believe that we all crave the outstretched arm of the reader saying ‘now I can see what this is like’. We all have one book in us, not because a quip insists we do, but because we all have a story; a past, a future, a legacy, even if it’s not having our names branded on Mr and Mrs Jones’ rubber gloves. Last time I found I had a full afternoon to peruse a book shop I deliberately chose a book I had never heard of, whose writer was not a face, not a personality, not a dishcloth, nor someone who will ever likely be written about in two hundred years time. I was in a little Hampstead book shop, it was buried deep in the abyss of covers and I decided to spend the afternoon being a generous reader. Reading words that might not change the world, but likely changed the person who wrote them, and therefore, in my eyes, they deserved my full attention.
PERSONAL AND PASSIONATE BOOKS WILL STAND THE TEST OF TIME
Words like ‘immortality’ and ‘legacy’ are perhaps concepts which are too loaded with other suggestions of egotism and perpetuation of selfdom. Success is not the enemy, the mass market is not the enemy, but possibly as authors, we need to begin by asking ourselves the many ‘W’s’, why are we writing? Who for? What for? There are no right or wrong answers, even if the answer is simply, ‘I’m writing for myself’. We only have to take a look at the inspiring work of The Arts Alliance to realise the impact of arts-based initiatives in rehabilitation programmes given to offenders in our prison networks. Simply one person and one pen can change the tapestry of a life. How lucky we are; that we can write day in, and day out. It is a privilege and a pleasure. At the top of my pin board, stamped from my old battered 1947 Smith Corona, I have pinned up all the reasons I decided to write in the first place. We can find inspiration from our historical past but also our own pasts. We are where we are because of where we have been. As the brilliant late Carrie Fisher quipped, ‘take your broken heart and make it into art’.
DON’T DROWN YOUR READERS WITH YOUR PASSION BUT ENTHUSE THEM WITH IT
Write your book, and be passionate about the story you are telling. Don’t drown your readers with your passion but enthuse them with it. Be clever in how you tell your story, try writing it from a perspective that surprises even yourself. It is often the most personal and passionate books that stand the test of time.
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