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Tuesday 19 July 2011

Readers Get More Say.

Some of the pleasures of a) writing of a past just within living memory and b) growing old and/or being a grandmother are the cross-checks available – things and attitudes do change. Whether they improve or not is part of the fun.

For example, I bought a second hand edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s letters in the Tottenham Court Road some years ago.

Among them is a short but indignant protest demanding that his name be removed from those advertised to appear at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

I don’t know who was responsible for publicizing that Nabokov would appear without first consulting him – the impression remains, however, that over fifty years ago, one author at least thought that the notion of a Book Festival in itself was an absurd imposition on an ideally intimate relationship between reader and text. The text mattered more than the writer.

To pretend otherwise, I suspect, struck Nabokov as a sop to ‘human interest’ and all kinds of horrors like gossip and gawking. Nabokov’s opinion of ‘human interest’ was not high; whose is right now? He was also rather down on those he considered ‘hacks’. The meaning of words moves on too, in some cases, from noun to verb.

Of a similar age but different temperament, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges put his attitude to the book-buying public another way. He claimed to find it difficult to conceive of a readership beyond the number 25. After that, things and faces started to blur and he was not sure who exactly was reading what he wrote.

These two writers have been dead for 34 and 25 years respectively. Hearing them speak now the time elapsed can seem longer. The surprise comes, I suppose, in their foreign but decidedly plummy English, and their confidence. Both only achieved fame relatively late in their lives.

We live in less confident times. Recently I spoke to a present-day writer, very shy but also very sharp-tongued, who complained that ‘These days we are all so wretchedly chummy. Writers have become votaries to very entitled consumers.’ He was really complaining that he spent so long ‘going to book festivals and pretending to be nice.’

I didn’t start publishing – I am certainly not famous – until late in my life. I am perhaps more grateful than confident as a consequence. And since my publicist, Lyndsey Ng of John Murray is presently trying to fix up some book festivals for me to attend around the publication of Icelight in October, I have to admit I have failed the Nabokov test. Abjectly.

There is something else however. The great Spanish painter Goya is famous for saying ‘Aún aprendo’ – I am still learning – when he was a very old exile in Bordeaux. I am not so old but I do like the feedback, even when it is not so complimentary, that book festivals provide. There is something quick and spontaneous about face to face meetings with people who have actually bought the words you have written. It’s something I find very helpful – and enjoyable.

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