Feeling like a bona-fide student I cycled down to the university and strolled into the lecture theatre to hear Jonathan Coe speak. I had heard of Coe, and of at least one of his books, ‘What a Carve-up!’ which is a satire set in the Thatcher years.
though I hadn’t read him. He proved to be a down-to-earth and personable speaker who gave us a run-through of his writing career which began when he was eight (same age as me, though I didn’t continue writing). He actually had a copy of his first story, thanks to his father who had kept it, and he read some of it to us. It was amusing but remarkably mature for that age. He was published at a reasonable age, too (unlike me) and having talked about that process, he went on to describe what he saw as the role of the writer. He calls the author a ‘benign dictator’, in the sense that he/she is in control of the narrative. The author takes you somewhere, and you want to be taken: what you don’t want is to have to join in that process – unlike what happens in modern ‘collaborative’ literature where the reader is invited to participate in the writing or structuring of the novel. This sounds open and exciting but is in fact wearying: he quoted the case of BS Johnson – who I hadn’t heard of – who wrote a novel – which I had – where the chapters were printed separately and put in a box.
The reader then sorts them and reads them in any order. Quite apart from the logistical challenge of writing such a novel, it does make the reader do a lot of the work; perhaps too much. I know if I read it I’d always be worrying about the other possibilities and whether I’d picked the best combination.
Coe wasn’t mean about Johnson; he acknowledged that these experiments are interesting, but ultimately he returns to the idea of the novelist as being ‘in charge’ of the narrative. He quoted someone else as saying that Johnson was ‘plagued by self-certainties’.
So that was good. And so home, using my new flashy lights and my hi-viz vest.