Trying to Pass: Building a Career in Reading and Writing
My career as a writer (reader, novelist, poet, story-writer, blogger, performer), as a one-time bookseller (salesman, computer technician, merchandiser, buyer, reader, marketer, web designer, copywriter, schmoozer), as an editor and proofreader (reader, wrangler, negotiator, stickler, sympathizer), as a one-time literary scholar (student, researcher, teacher, consultant, reader, writer), consists of a schizoid routine of squeezing on masks ranging from ill-fitting to fairly comfortable, a daily performance of trying to pass as clever, accessible, worth your interest, skilled, friendly, serious, one of the boys, self-possessed, appropriate. The confidence to change these faces repeatedly without dissolving has been slow to build, and always a work in progress.
Reflecting on my academic and creative development so far, I’m tempted to ignore the first eighteen years of my life, mired as I was in the blinkered and uncritical complacencies of a white, suburban, apartheid, 80s education. I remember a Poe-esque ghost story I wrote in standard three, when I was ten – mainly because it remains in the only school exercise book I didn’t discard or burn in a rush of year-end glee. It’s a handwritten half-page replete with time-shifting infidelity and doppelgangers to which a rather satisfying Freudian or feminist reading can be applied, and illustrated in pencil-crayon. This was before I had read any Poe. Then two years later the teacher spoke to my mother about the gruesomely detailed drawings of road accidents which I had drawn in an English class. Far from any attempt to sublimate the latent effects of a repressed traumatic incident, I think these drawings were attempts to be cool beside my horror-obsessed best friend. I would be tempted to say those were the creative highlights of my childhood years, and leave it there.
But I can only imagine that a journalist father, a mother who also reported news and taught Latin and English, and a houseful of books had something to do with my choice of studies, career and hobby. It was only later, when I was already reading postgraduate English, that I learned that my father’s sister had been an English teacher at Cambridge in the 50s and that Sylvia Plath was one of her students. I have a copy of a letter Sylvia Plath wrote to Aunt Doris, charming, chatty, friendly, speaking of a productive period in Boston with Ted Hughes. My father rejected intellectualism. He had finished high school two years early, matriculating with a full set of distinctions at the age of fifteen, then started earning an honest living as a newspaperman. He didn’t encourage any of his children to go to university; he did not attend our graduations. I edged back into academia after a decade of working for a company, then edged out again after completing my doctorate. The company sells books, though, and ink remains in my blood. Despite my father’s passive discouragement, and due probably more to my mother’s literate presence, I stumbled my way into English Literature, into writing and into bookselling.
After twelve years of Christian National Education, I came to university not knowing what a Hindu was, and it’s telling that I found out in an English class. That’s where my affair with reading and writing and books began to germinate. I also came out of my faux-Victorian boys’ high school unable to speak to girls, so naturally the confidence to pursue my affairs took time to develop.
I scraped through first-year English with just a pass. Being shown by curmudgeonly professors just how ill-equipped one was to write a literary essay was a common rite of passage at the time. A pass was fine, and I would have cruised through my whole degree, reading as little as possible, bunking afternoon lectures and, crucially, learning to speak to girls, if it weren’t for an overseas trip in the middle of my second year. My mother and I flew to Paris in early July. It was my first time on an aeroplane and I delighted in the airline meals, served with miniaturized flair from the pâté de foie gras to the tiny jar containing three glace cherries in an amaretto syrup. (We flew French, of course.) We stayed in an apartment in Les Halles, across the square from the Centre Pompidou. I had not heard of the Centre Pompidou, and we didn’t go in. We did see the Louvre, though; my mother was more interested in classical antiquity than modern art; and we took the train around the country, visiting towns in Normandy, Van Gogh’s Arles, Robin Hood’s Carcassonne and elegant Beaune, an itinerary I’d made up after reading a travel guide. Then we toured Switzerland by boat, bus, tram and train with my sister who was living in Berne, and from there to Athens and the Peloponnese to visit family, fallen columns wide as I am tall and late-night restaurants on Fowles’s island. I came back with a luxurious mid-winter tan, knowing that the world was bigger and far richer than I had ever imagined. It epitomises my bourgeoishood, but those felicitous five weeks saved my life.
Back in English class, when faced with Chaucer, I thought of the Bayeux tapestry. Milton called to mind the ceilings of gothic cathedrals towering over their sad smattering of little wooden chairs. I even read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a different way, going to the library to look up original reviews and argue a point with them. I started getting firsts for my essays, and I was encouraged. In third year, I specialized in American fiction and American history, and here left a door open to postgraduate studies. In third year and Honours, a course on revisionary feminist readings of Victorian gothic horror and a class on psychoanalytical approaches to Poe opened my eyes. Throughout my childhood, I had been kept in order by four older siblings and a pair of understandably harassed parents, Catholic Mass every weekend, the white side of apartheid education, and a weird form of Calvinism I had hybridized and internalized all on my own, and now, entering my twenties, my adolescent crises not expressed, much less resolved, I was asked to engage with profound ideas about sex and the viscera of the mind. Again, in an English class; again, in relation to fiction.
The Poe course was also my first overt scrape with any sort of literary theory. Throughout my undergraduate degree theoretical approaches were safely isolated in the Comparative Literature department. Literary theory was offered as an optional module in the English Honours course, but I knew I wasn’t clever enough for that. In the mid-90s, my Honours course on modern American fiction didn’t refer to the novels by DeLillo, Pynchon, Vonnegut and Vidal as postmodern. Postmodernism, I suppose, remained a spurious concept for the theorists. For my Master’s I eventually took a crash course in psychoanalytical, feminist and queer approaches to fiction, and when I passed well I believed that perhaps I was becoming one of those clever people I admired.
For a long time I thought formal theorizing, understanding and applying semiotics and deconstruction, was a pinnacle of the discipline; when I was studying it was what all the smart kids were doing, the ones who were a grade and a rung up from me. But later, during my doctorate, just as I started to understand Derrida and Barthes and Kristeva in the (translated) original, I was beset with the nagging suspicion that theorists and literary scholars remain estranged, and, sadly, that these fascinating thinkers are seen as more than a little musty. Just as I thought I was passing for a clever English researcher, the rules changed. I was a jack-of-all-approaches, so I had to tighten up, get disciplined. But I still can’t bring myself to think of English as a discipline. For me fiction is fun, it’s blood and guts, it’s sex and perversity; it’s about art, travel, science, philosophy, psychology, brain surgery, cathedrals, snow geese and whales. It’s about writing. It’s life. It’s truth, and I don’t mind saying so, even if this does dent my credibility as a scholar. It outs me as what I probably am under all those masks: a reader, an amateur.
Selling books in a variety of capacities for a trade bookseller taught me much that studying English Literature did not. Apart from a suite of valuable technical and interpersonal skills, I learned there are a hundred thousand books published for every one taught in a university. A hundred thousand perspectives and opinions, many of them unchallenging trash, many of them poorly expressed, many of them self-obsessed, glib, and cynically materialist (“they keep the tills ringing”). But so many of them are incisive, interesting and mind-opening; they instil their readers – through fiction’s magical osmosis – with empathy and experience. The picture a student of Literature gets is that there are only a few books worth reading, which last for centuries, mostly written by well-educated men. A bookseller learns that there are too many worthwhile books published in a week to read in a decade, and that the average lifespan of these books is six months, after which they are returned to publishers and their space on the shelf taken by something new. This makes the business of being a writer somewhat less pressured. You don’t have to be Shakespeare or Hemingway, and the chances are that even if you get published nobody will remember your story in six months, if they noticed it in the first place. There’s really no point in worrying about posterity when you write.
Although I had a couple of miserable love poems published while I was at university, my confidence to write only started to develop once I had left. I stopped reading the canonical masters (and indeed I struggle to think of any female writers I may have been prescribed before my own MA. Gaskell, Eliot … ? How odd that the act of prescribing a book by a modern female author could still be construed in itself as a political one), and started reading the advance copies that publishers give to booksellers. At last I started reading current fiction. Not the ten- or twenty-year-old fare that was prescribed in contemporary literature courses, but books that were to be published next month, books that featured in newspapers, not academic journals.
Though this was an important development, there was more groundwork to be done. I had to leave the vicious trenches of bookselling at a large store and take up a cushy desk job at the head office. It was only then that I could come home calm and energetic enough to write. And I had to take a twelve-week course to disabuse myself of all my negative conditioning around writing. The Artist’s Way was essential therapy, unburdening me of a lifetime’s worth of reasons why I shouldn’t write: I had no talent, I was too white, too South African, I was too inexperienced, I wanted to be good, and some of the other deep-seated reasons that are best left out of this essay and in the therapist’s rooms. Admitting this is another dent in my façade. It makes me seem like a new-age cottonhead without the necessary critical rigour to be a scholar, or indeed a serious writer. Some cruel and persuasive part of me still says that I’m supposed to be born with this stuff, not learn it.
In the late 90s I went to the United States partly to attend a cultural studies conference, and this time I designed an itinerary around my romantic fantasies of academia. I visited the campuses of Harvard and Brown and Princeton and NYU … and SUNY Stony Brook, where the conference was held. There were people teaching at these places who I had actually heard of, and their buildings and grounds were so impressive. In Providence I spent some time in Poe’s reading room in the Athenaeum. I ate donuts for breakfast in the vaulted dining room of the Princeton graduate college. I knocked timidly on Elaine Showalter’s office door, but she was away. Anne McClintock was the keynote speaker of the conference, and she spoke of the importance of accessibility in academic discourse. Without any sense of these schools’ context, not knowing that a mongrel South African with nothing to show for himself would not be allowed through the front gate, I collected application forms for every one.
Life intervened. I dusted off the forms a few years later. I’d had a few more poems published, my focus had shifted from literary criticism to creative writing, and I applied for an MFA in writing. The form asked me to choose between fiction and poetry, and I chose fiction, despite my lack of experience. I was forced to write four short stories as a portfolio for the application. Before this my writing process consisted of waiting around for sporadic inspiration, usually from dreams; honestly, my conversation with my imagination was that suppressed. This was the first time I had written on demand, and I had produced, and it felt good. I didn’t get into the courses, but the process was a turning point. Three years and two unpublished novels later, I applied to join competitive MFAs again – English ones now, at Birkbeck and Goldsmiths at the University of London – and I was accepted onto both. This time, I didn’t have the cash to attend the courses, but I had become a writer. Writing was no longer a romantic fantasy; it was work, it was a consistent part of my life, and it was deeply satisfying.
Now, though I seek disjuncture in an effort to present the trajectory of my working life as a noble and hard-wrought battle against materialist exigencies, I find myself uncovering, to my deeper but less dramatic comfort, a series of continuities. My latest research interests resolved themselves into a similar set of overarching concerns to the ones I investigated a decade before. And the fiction I’ve written in the intervening years has also revolved around sex and religion and apocalypse and new forms of belief, horror and subversion and repressed fear, the psychological effects of family and the possibility of personal and political action in a post-essentialist milieu. I found myself using my writing – whether academic or fictional – to poke at different angles of the formative questions that continue to nag me.
The chapters I submitted to Birkbeck and Goldsmiths were the opening to The Beggars’ Signwriters, which was published in 2006. Acceptance by the publisher, a few decent reviews and inclusion on two prize shortlists were all pleasing confirmation that I had written a novel that passed as a real novel. I entered the brief, innocent phase of my career as a published debutant, those glamorous weeks when people wanted my opinion and I agonized over the legacy I would leave by committing my profound utterances to print and disc. My book was announced at the publisher’s highlights presentation and treated to a great launch. I was flown to the Cape Town Book Fair, where I shared a session at their stand with one of the country’s most acclaimed writers. Soon, though, the attention my book had shared with many others of the season wandered off to a new month’s crop, the bookshops returned their copies, many of which have now been pulped. I found myself starting again, just me, my computer and my time, engaged in disciplined work without any guarantee of recognition or reward.
It’s a healthy ideal to write without pressure or expectation, with integrity, but it’s contrary to a successful writing career. Media interest and money convert into pressure on a writer to conform, to write for an audience, for sponsors, our latter-day patrons. It’s an insidious and compelling pressure, something for which fledgling writers are unprepared. (In fact, in my experience, new writers are unprepared for most things that happen after the book is published. If you expect a soft shoulder from your editor or your publisher, your peers or your critics, you’re mistaken. They treat you like you’re a hardened cynic like every other not-new writer, like you know your microscopic place in the bigger scheme, like you’ve done this before. That’s why writers’ support groups, blogs, forums and writing circles are important, if only because they allow new writers to complain about their miserable sales, poor royalties, short life-span and all their deflated expectations.) Lack of media interest and money, on the other hand, makes writers more reliant on their salaried work, allows them less time for contemplation and creation. Even our most critically acclaimed writers need a day job to pay their rent, distracting them from the more appropriate use of their unique skills: the far more important task of documenting the inner life of our society.
A career of reading and writing will always necessarily be a complicated one. Our greatest pleasures are solitary, but to make them resonate, and more practically, to make a living, we need to haul ourselves and our pleasures and vulnerabilities into the world. The imperative to share our intimate delights – to teach, to review, to edit, to analyse, to publicize, to sell – forces us to connect, trying to pass in our various masks; it forces us to drag our characters out into the scrutiny of the cold, critical light.