Saturday, 25 July 2009

Thank Goodness For Harriet

Writing in the blog of the magazine Prospect the journalist Craig Brown confesses to having very little recall of anything he reads: ‘The moment I finish a book, my memory ejects the names and professions of the main characters, their relation to one another and their causes for celebration or complaint… A year on, all that remains of a novel is a vague atmosphere, and maybe one or two random scenes’. Here’s the link to the article.

I have exactly the same problem with the books I write. Once I’ve truly finished a book, by which I mean that it’s been edited, copy edited, proof read and published, I forget all about it. What mattered to me was completing it, making that bit of my imagination real. Once it’s out there, I can relax and let it go about its business by itself.

The trouble is the reading public only encounters my books a considerable time after I’ve finished with them. Whenever I visit schools or take part in festivals, readers always ask me complicated questions about the motives and machinations of the characters and I find myself struggling desperately to work out the answers.

‘So why is Beatrice different from the other children?’ a frighteningly intelligent fourteen year old called Harriet asks me.

Beatrice, I think to myself. Which book is this? Oh yes, The Hollow People. Now what happens in that? Oh I remember! She’s the girl whose parents are doctors. But why is she different from the other children?

All the time that the cogs in my brain are grinding away, Harriet continues to fix me with her earnest gaze.

That girl will grow up to be Prime Minister, I think to myself. She’s so confident, so thoughtful, so idealistic. Wait a minute! Of course! That’s the reason.

‘Because Beatrice is idealistic,’ I tell Harriet.

She nods approvingly. It was the right answer.

Craig Brown agonises about his lack of recall for a while but concludes that it doesn’t really matter because reading is about the minute by minute pleasure of following the story, not a kind of self-improving acquisitiveness. He’s absolutely right. And as far as I’m concerned the same thing is true of writing. I do it for the joy of making up a story. What does it matter if I can’t remember much about it afterwards? After all, Harriet can.


Paul Lamb said...

My memory has always been notoriously spotty. I've taken to keeping all kinds of notes about this or that so that when I need to return to it, I can find my way back. Fortunately, the memories aren't lost; they're just obscured. When I read my notes, all of the facts of the matter come flooding back to me and I am where I was before. That's handy, and I'm glad I understand that about myself, but I don't think I would have the luxury of detailed notes if I were up on a podium before a crowd of insightful and curious people. Thanks for terrifying me this morning!

Brian Keaney said...

I make notes too, Paul. It's just that when I look at them a few months later I have absolutely no idea what they mean.

Jarucia said...


I liked this makes the argument for reading for pleasure rather than as a 'life changing' experience.

There are so many things I've read that I enjoyed, but didn't 'get' the way pundits say I should.

I'm always interested in hearing the 'extra' stuff others get out of what I write, but I don't write to preach/teach.

I recently watched this dark comedy called World's Greatest Dad (it's rather vulgar in many parts) BUT it addresses one of the latter parts of your post where you paraphrase C. Brown "...because reading is about the minute by minute pleasure of following the story, not a kind of self-improving acquisitiveness. "

Robin Williams character (an aspiring-to-be-published writer and father) is to die for from an author's POV. I'd recommend it if you're into comedies that make your skin crawl.

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks Jarucia. I'll check it out.