Thursday, 6 May 2010

Fictional influences part 2

As part of the occasional series on stuff that's had a major effect on me and my writing I should mention Hubert Selby Jr.

I read 'Last Exit to Brooklyn' at a relatively young age. I'll borrow from Wikipedia: the book was 'has become a cult classic because of its harsh, uncompromising look at lower class Brooklyn in the 1950s and for its brusque, everyman style of prose. Although fellow writers praised the book on its release, Last Exit to Brooklyn caused much controversy due to its frank portrayals of taboo subjects, such as drug use, street violence, gang rape, homosexuality, transvestism and domestic violence.'
Published in 1964 it was the subject of an obscenity trial in the UK in 1966. Incidentally one expert witness for the prosecution was one Robert Maxwell, at that time a Labour MP and head of Pergamon Press.

Selby himself I have a great deal of admiration for. A former coal miner and merchant seaman, with no formal qualifications, he was diagnosed with advanced TB and told he had a year to live. His response was to take the view that he knew the alphabet (note: not spelling or sentence construction, but the alphabet), which was more than a lot of people in his neighbourhood knew. So on that basis he decided could just write about the stuff that happened in the area he lived in. Apart from anything else I suspect he wasn't well enough to go further than the corner shop to pick up his material!

I'm assuming it was a pretty rough neighbourhood. Everybody in it, or at least in the book version of it, is fucked-up in one way or another. They spend most of their time just dealing with their fucked-upness and trying to get by. Sometimes they get to have some fun; mostly even having fun turns out to be a fuckup and a problem. Actually there are still lots of places like that, and people like that, in the world today. For my sins, maybe, I seem to know quite a few of them... but that's another story.

What struck me about this book was the way taboo subjects were narrated and described (as Wikipedia notes too) in a no-nonsense, almost low-key way that was sympathetic to the characters while being nonjudgmental about what they did. It was a novel, or more properly I suppose a collection of stories, that just said 'This stuff happens, people are like that, there's no point ignoring it, and moralising about it won't make it any better.' I seem to remember at one point, either in the book itself or in some discussion of it, the argument being made that moralising about things generally only makes the moraliser feel better and doesn't help anyone else – if anything it can make things worse. And, looking at contemporary society, I think that's a pretty accurate observation.

Selby lived for another 40-odd years, and only died in 2004. He wrote a bunch of other stuff I've never read, and another novel, 'The Room', which I have – it's even more graphic that Last Exit, deals with the fantasy life of a remand prisoner in his cell, and explores very nasty bits of the psyche. I found it disturbing (and I know I have high tolerance levels for disturbing stuff). I seem to remember finding that turning the page came to be physically painful around the point that he described someone's testicles being tortured with piano wire... never mind.

So the bottom line, the influences I've taken with me over my writing life, are that: material I might want to write about can come from literally anywhere, anything or anyone I encounter; dealing with 'taboo' subjects is often best dealt with in a matter-of-fact style, and trying to make moral points is generally a bad idea. Of course I sometimes ditch these ideas and try other approaches. But as general guidelines they seem sensible to me. And if you've never read Last Exit to Brooklyn - read it!

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