Stuart Kelly: DBC Pierre’s mediocre instructions on writing

DBC Pierre
DBC Pierre
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Lavish use of expletives does nothing to atone for the tedium of a lecture on the writer’s craft by a self-styled ignoramus, writes Stuart Kelly

Release The Bats: Writing Your Way Out Of It by DBC Pierre | Faber & Faber, £12.99

In this confection of unamusing musings on the life, craft and art of the novelist, DBC Pierre, who won the Booker Prize in 2003 with Vernon God Little, presents himself as the quintessential literary ingénue, and then proceeds to tell us that he, proudly untaught, will now teach us about literature. The result may have some merit merely in being the most conveniently-bound-together compilation of hackneyed clichés, threadbare platitudes, trite stereotypes, stale commonplaces and bromidic banalities about writing I have ever come across.

The gang’s certainly all here, from “show, don’t tell”, to “eccentricities make characters”, to the three-act division of set-up, confrontation and resolution. Dialogue is not a transcription of what people actually say, and sometimes life is stranger and more coincidental than literature. Playing his rebellious outsider card for all it’s worth, Pierre advises authors to write first drafts in a white heat of passion, and then edit and polish them carefully. You may, he says, care to keep some computer files of quick ideas and others of things you have had to cut out from the final draft. There’s a tiresome list of what he considers to be the benefits of various drugs. Almost as if to disguise the crushing mundanity, the text is sassed up with expletives; like a nervous chef adding chilli and tabasco and cayenne pepper to cover the tofu. Literature is a “headf***” where we have to get “around the fear of being crap” to convey “that shit was life or death”.

The portrayal of the author as the classic poète maudit, driven by demons, high or drunk or both, vatic in the ability to realise that “nothing is as it seems” and with the subsequent duty to “show what really is” is one of the least remarkable depictions of writers. For every outrageous Alexander Trocchi or barfly Charles Bukowski, there’s a TS Eliot in his four-piece suit or a JG Ballard conjuring surrealism in suburbia.

Given that the starting point for the whole endeavour is Pierre’s insistence that he knew nothing, it seems fair to point out when he obviously knows nothing. So, for example, in his precis of the current state of literature, Pierre writes “novels today still tend to be modernist, which among other things means they have defined beginnings and middles, and seek to neatly resolve a story at the end. They not only tell of external events but explore a character’s subjective thoughts. Modernism in literature grew as a reaction to nineteenth-century realism, which was more about the external story. Postmodernism grew as a reaction to modernism, and throws out the rules of any defined form or structure”.

Let’s go through this slowly, noting en passant the split infinitive in the first sentence. What are the “clearly defined beginnings and middles” of the Modernist classics – Remembrance Of Things Past, The Waves, The Man Without Qualities, Ulysses or As I Lay Dying? Were pre-Modernist novels like Middlemarch, Great Expectations, Germinal, War And Peace or The Age Of Innocence really more concerned with plot and less concerned with subjective experience? As for postmodernism eschewing rules: Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, structured around a Knight’s Tour of a chessboard, or the Chinese box-puzzle of Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, or the sci-fi campus comedy update of Three Billy Goats Gruff in Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy or Burgess’s limitation to words used by Shakespeare in Nothing Like The Son or Christine Brooke-Rose’s use of computer language in Xorandor? Scientists have a phrase I like – “not even wrong” – and Pierre’s account of literary history is not even wrong here.

Likewise, there are clangers a-plenty when he talks about style. “The best writing in all forms” he says, then interpolating for a bit of “I’m still cool” vibe “except premium supermarket ready-meal advertising and exposed-brick gastro-victim bistro-menu design” is – aha! “accepted to be economical”. By whom, precisely? I presume he is thinking of the lapidary Hemingway (a Modernist whose books, I recall, seem to have some action in them); the “less is more” mantra is more frequently associated with Orwell. So the linguistic exuberance and inventiveness of David Foster Wallace, Nicola Barker, Will Self, China Miéville, Ben Marcus – I could go on – is not “the best writing”? Good writing can have many different aesthetics, from the pyrotechnic to the Laodicean. Pierre, in his sudden swerve to the proscriptive, shows that despite his preferred pose as a rebel without a subclause, is more conservative than he would have you believe.

I could find an error, solecism or canard on almost every page of this book. But that is not the book’s most egregious selfishness. Pages 243 to 275, headed “Chapters in Mind-Bites” with the gracious subtitle “Suck them up or stick them up” are actually just quotes from the previous chapters. As an exercise in inflating a limp work it is close to shameless. It was at this point that I thought that Release The Bats might actually be a work of genius. Surely, it seems to be saying, you didn’t take any of this drivel seriously? It was all finger-quotes ironic.