Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hot Writers

Have you ever been hot? Writers are like other creative athletes, they have streaks, they hit their groove, they sometimes can't do any wrong. All creatives know this; and its important to recognise this. We all know that between 1965-8 the Beatles could do no wrong; or think of the Clash from 1979-80... or that initial period of songwriting by Noel Gallagher that fuelled Oasis's first two albums. For writers its the same sometimes. Martin Amis through Money, Time's Arrow and London Fields, before it came crashing down around The Information; John Fowles from The Collector through French Lieutenant's Woman, the Magus and the Ebony Tower. For poets: think of those midnight writing sessions that fuelled Plath's tragic Ariel poems; or going back, the year of Keats' Odes.

Hot writing is the most exciting kind - its not just about a steady career or an accumulation of skills, but some kind of breakthrough from what went before. There's little in Chatwin's work before In Patagonia to suggest he was about to hit  a hot spot, yet there'd been plenty of people who'd seen his potential: for publishers and editors and agents surely the job shouldn't be about shoring up writers who are predictabley competent but ideally spotting the hot spot and going for it. Zadie Smith was clearly hot around the time she was signed up prior to White Teeth, but since then has she merely been competent? Hot is a particularly conflation of risk taking, ego, opportunity and zeitgeist. It might happen "overnight" but an overnight sensation is usually a decade or more in the coming. In the visual arts we often see it more clearly as the first time a painter paints in what we later know as their clear style (think of Pollocks splatter paintings for instance). Grab artists whilst they are hot - and work their asses off; they'll enjoy it as there's nothing better than being a creative person when you get in the zone.

I was hot for a while, I think - perhaps '96-'99 whilst I was both learning my stuff with fiction, getting a few things published, and moving on. I felt at the time that I could do anything with my material, that I was brave enough to keep getting better. It's something I hope will happen with poetry - and there's been moments over the last two or three years where I've felt the sizzle, yet there's such a gap between you as the artist and the world your art comes into. You know you're hot, but few of us have that entree to capture that heat and do what's necessary. Didn't Chatwin have a book contract for a novel he'd never write when he sent that famous postcard "gone to Patagonia?"

That's the thing: did Plath realise she'd made a fundamental breakthrough? or did she think this stuff was useless and moreover, how could anyone publish it? This is where the business end of the industry needs to step in I guess. Are publishers and agents looking for what's hot? I sometimes think so, but more often think they're just keeping their fingers crossed that their newst prodigy is not going to fuck up. The thing is the real leaps you find in "hot" writing - which is the zeitgeist defining Money rather than the funny, but little novels that preceded it - can sometimes be prophecied and sometimes not. Its only in retrospect, when the writing has gone lukewarm again, that we notice it's gone. Maybe that's why late career writers like Amis and Winterson take the University shilling? Because they want to feel the heat again and new writing is always where it's going to come from.

Hot writing is not just good writing, not competent writing, not even successful writing - it can even be bad writing at times - but what it is, is when a writer seems to get everything right - the subject, the form, the execution, and over not one thing but two or three. I'm sure some very good writers have never been hot - and also sure that some hot writers have burnt out tragically or been spectacularly unsuccessful (hello, Franz Kafka), but also that if there's anything that we as writers should be looking out for amongst our peers is when they start to heat up; catch them whilst they can, or as Snoop Doggy Dogg said, drop it like its hot.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Nice. And this'll always be a hot topic.