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Book review: On Writing by AL Kennedy

AL Kennedy. Picture: Contributed

AL Kennedy. Picture: Contributed

  • by STUART KELLY
 

ONE of the most admirable aspects of AL Kennedy’s career thus far has been how different each new work is from the last.

On Writing by AL Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, £17.99

The alcoholic Hannah Luckraft’s pitchy comic journey through the Stations of the Cross in Paradise would not lead you to the suffering Stoic former tail gunner Alfred Day in Day, nor from him could one infer Elizabeth Barber and her stage-psychic ex Arthur on their unrelaxing cruise in The Blue Book. Having previously written non-fiction (On Bullfighting and a long essay on The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp), the same lack of pattern applies: from Powell and Pressburger and matadors and crippling (because well-nigh crippled) depression we get a wryly intimate, unexpectedly revealing and fundamentally affirmative investigation into the art, craft, tedium and vicissitudes of writing. Although it is entitled On Writing, AL Kennedy’s book is as much about being a writer, and all the oddities, privileges and frustrations that involves.

The book is divided into two unequal parts. Firstly, there are the collected and revised blogposts Kennedy wrote for the Guardian website, dating from the publication of the short story collection What Becomes, through the research, writing, editing and publication of The Blue Book up to commencing a new collection of stories. This is the DVD ­extra taken to a whole new level – an extended “The Making Of...”. Secondly, there is a set of six essays, on insomnia, the purpose of art, the role of the workshop in teaching ­creative writing, the concept of character, voice (both projected and inscribed) and a version of Kennedy’s Fringe show, Words (for which she took the voice coaching described in the previous essay).

There is an uncomfortable irony that runs through the blogs. Writing, as Kennedy ­describes it, is a solitary endeavour conducted with the unshakeable faith that readers out there will be emotionally and intellectually moved; as she phrases it, “character-building” writers are “intimately intruding upon the reader. We set our words ­inside their minds”. For words, one could as easily read worlds.

But for a professional writer in the 21st century, however significant a role the metaphorical garret played in the composition of the work, the mundane reality is a series of publicity tours, literary festivals and a great many delayed trains and identikit hotel rooms. Add to this repeated bouts of ill health and exhaustion, ranging from viral labyrinthitis to stomach ulcers, and you have the perfect antidote to Romantic ideas of the “Portrait of the Artist”.

But Kennedy does give invaluable advice to authors in the book (Post XXII is a ­brilliant dissection of starting to write). Her humour – often sardonic, never malicious – is deployed to great effect; as when she describes “the tediously repeated ‘advice’ imposed upon new authors: “Write about what you know”. Many people are still unacquainted with the unabridged version of this advice: “Write about what you know. I am an idiot and have never heard of research, its challenges, serendipities and joys. I lack imagination and therefore cannot imagine that you may not. Do not be free, do not explore the boundaries of your possible talent, do not – for pity’s sake – grow beyond the limits of your everyday life and its most superficial details”. To which one can only add “hear, hear”.

There is also a thread of brilliantly uncompromising defences of art in general, and literature in particular. Blog post XLII deals exceptionally with some of the canards about arts funding – including the mythic “arts funding vs baby in incubator” pseudo-­dilemma, which Kennedy later deconstructs perfectly. The role of the arts is to maximise empathy. Being aware of the humanness of others means we might campaign for their incubators rather than our creative writing classes.

As one would expect in such a come-all-ye, there is some repetition between the pieces. Even that seems important, as the reader watches Kennedy learn a fact, try it out in different contexts and resolve on its use. Although she doesn’t retread her ground, I wish she would produce a companion volume “On Reading”.

 

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