OFF RRP $29.99 $24.20
OFF RRP $29.99 $24.20
- Literary essays
- Paperback / softback
- Publication Date:
- Penguin Australia Pty Ltd
- Dimensions (mm):
Dear the letter I would have written for People of Letters if I had left myself more time to write it,
I think you could have been a really, really good letter. But a lifetime habit of doing things at the last minute was not to be broken, even by Ms Hardy, for whom I'd break most things, and so I am writing a rushed letter to you – the hypothetical better letter I would have written instead of this letter, had I had more time.
The reason I needed more time is that the task of choosing something that I wish I'd written is enormous, because the list – like a Parisian catwalk model – is pretty much bottomless.
I wish I'd written everything good. When I read or hear something I love, my reaction is generally, 'Wow . . . Fuck.' I reckon this feeling is what drives artists more than they care to admit. I love nothing more than reading good books, hearing great music, seeing great theatre and films, and I am inspired by – and admiring of – the work of others, but the creative life is kind of a narcissistic one, and therefore I feel judged by stuff I love.
The adequacy of others inspires in me a sense of inadequacy.
Although most artists like to pretend they are driven by loftier forces, I'm certainly not the first to acknowledge envy as a prime mover. W Somerset Maugham said, 'For most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One's best friend must also have failed.' Man, I wish I'd written that! I could have filled you, dear letter, with a ten-minute discussion of that line alone. Instead, I'm writing this letter about wishing I'd written a letter about wishing I'd written a line about wishing for the failure of my friends.
I'm such a fuckhead.
And I'm going to keep doing this for ten minutes. I bet the people in the People of Letters audience wish I'd written you, dear hypothetical better letter, instead of this impenetrable meta-letter to a better letter.
The tendrils of my artistic envy are so far-reaching, I could go to a figure-skating championship and wish I was a better skater, even though I've never skated. And that, dear lamented, unwritten, better People of Letters letter, is why I've been putting off writing you.
If I had made time to write you properly, I think I would have liked to write about a phrase, rather than, say, an entire novel or an entire song. Because, despite the fact that I make a living out of verbosity, it is pithiness that obsesses me. I'm a pith-head. I love a big idea clearly expressed within a tight phrase. Perhaps because my own stuff is often so appallingly overwritten, I covet ideas that have had the fat trimmed off them.
Oh, my dear People of Letters letter, you could have been a lovely love letter to one of the finest sentences ever. Three words. Eight letters. 'So it goes.'
I love Vonnegut, and Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my favourite novels for many reasons, but if I'm honest, it's mostly just that fucking sentence. It destroys me. Although, of course, it's not just the line. It's where he puts that line. The horrific events before it that make it heartbreakingly understated. It's simultaneously submissive and bitter. I love it because it condenses the world view that Vonnegut and I share, I suppose: the belief that trying to find meaning in chaos is absurd. Events don't happen for a reason, forces are not benevolent or malevolent; they just are, blah blah. I could write about this crap forever, but I will never write a line that good.
Ah well. So it goes.
Being Oscar week here in Los Angeles, I perhaps could have written you, dear letter, to this sentence, which I wish I'd written, and would have . . . if I wasn't so busy being not–Salman Rushdie. 'We always did prefer our iconic figures injured, stuck full of arrows or crucified upside down; we need them flayed and naked, we want to watch their beauty crumble slowly and to observe their narcissistic grief.'
I have thought about that phrase a lot in the years since I read it. The connection between the religious icons of the past and the pop icons of now is so obvious once you start thinking about it – once you've read a line like that, which captures the concept and distils it till it fits in the point of a dart.
Without their gruesome decline, neither Jesus Christ nor Britney Spears would make us salivate like they do, would sell as many sacred books or profane magazines. We crave the suffering of those we revere, and in satisfying that craving both feel guilty and somehow have our guilt assuaged:
I don't have to feel bad about my sins, because Jesus is bleeding for me.
I don't have to feel bad about being a bad parent, because Britney Spears doesn't even put seatbelts on her kids.
I could have written you, dear letter, about this line I wish I'd written from a monster fiction: 'All paradigm shifts answer the amoral craving for novelty.' That's from Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf. Now, I'm sure you clever bastards are already on top of it, but I had to read it four times, so I'll say it again: 'All paradigm shifts answer the amoral craving for novelty.'
Let's assume you're a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as I am. Was. When you heard he died the other week, two things happened: 1. You were shocked, genuinely saddened, appalled, all that; and 2. In the same moment, your brain went, Yippee! Something different! And started wondering who you could pass the news on to, so you could observe their shock, share in their moment of combined horror/excitement, after which you and they could have a little wank over how sad you were, because at least it was something novel.
I'm not hugely fond of 'paradigm shift', but 'amoral craving for novelty'. . . Shit yeah, I wish I'd written that.
Oh, the letter I coulda written about the thing I shoulda written!
The thing that really shits me is that it gets harder to write good things as time goes by, because so much stuff has already been made. Not only does the fact that Frost wrote 'Two roads diverged in a yellow wood' mean that no one else can come up with it; it also has a big fallout zone: you can't go anywhere near that shit.
'Three roads collide in a green forest'? That's out.
'Two paths bifurcate in an autumnal copse'? Nup. Can't do it.
Frost: you fuck.
Speaking of shit that makes me cross: I could write not just a letter, but a thesis on this:
Four seasons in one day
Lying in the depths of your imagination
Worlds above and worlds below
Sun shines on the black clouds hanging over the domain.
Even when you're feeling warm
The temperature could drop away
Like four seasons in one day.
Smiling as the shit comes down
You can tell a man from what he has to say
Everything gets turned around
And I will risk my neck again, again.
The lyrics are clearly perfect – and one day I will meet Neil Finn and I will punch him for them – but I think it's the music that makes me properly furious. Because, although I know I'll never be the lyricist Neil is, there's absolutely nothing – theoretically – out of reach about that melody and those chords. It's just having the poise to move the harmony when it needs to move, instead of on the ones and threes of four-four bars. I understand this. I feel it. I get it. Why can't I write a phrase like that? I'll tell you why: because fucking Neil Finn has already done it. Honestly, I don't know what the point is.
I just wish I'd been writing a hundred years ago: the odds on stuff being original would have been higher, and also it'd mean I'd be dead by now, and that'd be nice, because trying to write new stuff is currently making me want to kill myself.
Speaking of which, I wish I'd written the bass line to Stevie Wonder's 'I Wish'. I wish I'd written 'I Wish'. Pah. I wish! It's pathological! I'm white and sighted. It's not going to happen. I need to let it go.
Speaking of which, I wish I'd written 'Let It Go' from Frozen. Or 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight?' from The Lion King. They both won Oscars! What the fuck? I wrote a song with those chords when I was ten years old, and I didn't win an Oscar! My mum told me to shut up! As well she should have, because the lyrics were crap, because all the good ones are already written, so now I'm thirty-eight and so cynical that my most well-known song has the word 'fuck' in it 258 times in two minutes.
Actually, I'm glad I wrote that one. It's quite clever.
My ten minutes is up, dear better letter I should have written for People of Letters.
I do hope you write back. I'm interested in what hypothetical missives get up to in their spare time.
All my love,
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