Thursday 27 November 2008

Must We Be Read?

“Life, it has been agreed by everyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for novelist or biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking. Thought and life are as poles asunder." This is how Virginia Woolf, speaking through the narrator in Orlando (1928), mocks the business of writing about writers. Yet this theme, that writing is somehow incompatible with living, recurs frequently in her writing, enough to betray a preoccupation, perhaps even an anxiety. It is an anxiety familiar to those who spend days, months, years of their life writing down imaginary things happening to imaginary people. A worm of suspicion, small and soft and slow, burrows through a hard tree bark that shields the writer from the possibility that these days, months, years, have perhaps been misspent. The narrator of Orlando is much harsher about misspent time. “If then," the narrator insists, “the subject of one’s biography will neither love nor kill, but will only think and imagine, we may conclude that her or she is no better than a corpse and so leave her.”

A corpse? Need it be so extreme? Can we not sit and think and write in the morning, and love (or kill) in the afternoon? But that is really beside the point. The point is that you create imaginary worlds, and these imaginary worlds depend on you for a living. Here now, few pages later, is Orlando’s manuscript speaking to her: “It wanted to be read. It must be read. It would die in her bosom if not read.” What then, if it is not read? Then not only it dies, but perhaps you die too. You, who have spent the days, months, years writing the dead thing, are perhaps a corpse too.

Should this be a warning to us all (or at least all of us without book deals) who are in the midst of writing pages that might rot away in some musty drawer, never to be read? Is this anxiety what fuels the infinite terror of never finding a publisher for our novel or a play? Or, perhaps, is it an anxiety that masks another, more terrifying, one—that it is not the writer that keeps the writing alive, but the writing that keeps the writer alive. And that if we awake one bright morning to find dead words on our page, we would no longer have the means of finding that which is alive in ourselves. That, to me, sounds far more terrifying than an unread manuscript.

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