Amateur Writing

Posted: January 19, 2010 in Critical Hit
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Note: The following started life as a Facebook comment, in response to this article by Susan Hill on the benefits of reading established writers over amateurs.

Beneath the ire and invective, I think there were two main points in that article, and that, while individually interesting, they contradict each other in confluence.

Hill says, “If someone writes a marvellous short story I don’t care where they come from,” and that people who have done so should be lauded. By contrast, she despises those who are elevated “just because they have put one word in front of another, or because they’re asylum seekers.” That’s not an entirely unreasonable statement, I feel: the idea that positive discrimination should not extend to the fields of creative endeavour. Rather, everyone should start from an equal footing.

But Hill begins her rant by complaining about the idea of having her name taken off a piece of writing. Sarcastically, she laments of the idea that “names…are invidious. They might indicate to people that the story was worth reading.” Which, for me, given the fairly obvious fact that not everything a person ever writes is brilliant – even a professional writer, even a genius – this entirely negates the idea that she’s after a level playing field. It’s not enough that her story be good, or that it be displayed alongside other good works; we must know they are hers – and that her works have a pedigree, in the form of her previous publications – as distinct from the work of the unfamous.

If the insult of anonymity comes from having good works (hers and those of established writers) displayed alongside bad (the efforts of token, unvetted enthusiasts), she has no reason to be fearful that some ignorant member of the vox populi might express preference for the latter kind, simply because of a lack of nomenclature to guide them, because the whole burden of her argument is that this cannot actually happen. She has worked hard; her work is therefore better, and reasonable people should know this to be so. Nonetheless, this is the fear that comes across – and if you consider the idea, which Hill clearly hasn’t, that the token, unfamously authored works might have been chosen as much for their quality as because their authors were asylum seekers, then this fear, expressed through the removal of her name, completely undermines any claim that she would approve of any short story that was good, regardless of where the author came from.

Because if the origins of the author don’t matter, then why should their title? Hill simply wants us to know how successful she’s been, and takes umbrage at the notion that a chance might be taken – gasp! – on some unproven newcomer whose works aren’t necessarily up to her own calibre. Yes, names are an individual guide to what is worth reading, but only subjectively: we return to authors we like, but not everyone likes the same thing. Take away the names for an instant, however, and we are forced to contemplate flying blind. If, walking through that exhibit – assuming Hill had submitted – a fan of hers was forced to try and distinguish her contribution from those of a dozen anonymous others, and confess afterwards that though they liked six pieces, they couldn’t say for certain that one in particular was hers, then I’d call that a valuable exercise. Perhaps – and this, for Hill, seems the most dangerous thought – perhaps, without that signifying name, she might not even make the fan’s list in the first place.

As Hill herself points out, “you cannot get a single reader if no reader chooses you” – but choice can be made on grounds other than a name. The arts world is nepotistic, by its nature – that won’t ever really change. But if, for a day, we can pretend otherwise by letting someone whose name we don’t know stand alongside the greats – allowing other people to judge, name-free, whether they could potentially belong there – then that really is an example of democracy in writing.

Bottom line: Hill believes in the potential talent of new writers. She just wants to have heard of them – and for them to have heard of her – first.

  1. alison grahame says:

    Never heard of Susan Hill and now don’t want to. Fig Jammmer par excellence!

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