Stephen, it was really nothing

Critics are not much liked or admired. There may have been a time when they were a vital part of the ecosystem that is publishing and writing but with the reduction in pages for book reviews they could be added to a list of endangered species. At some time, very soon no doubt, Google will have another algorithm that can do the same task, and simultaneously, in twelve languages.

It’s in that twilight setting of criticism that AA Gill’s win for the Hatchet Job stands out. He won for a critique of Morrissey’s autobiography. This book, published under the imprint of Penguin classics and adored by the middle –aged fan base, was mercilessly and accurately analyzed. The elegance of Gill’s piece lies in the structural analysis of the book. The review is sharp and funny and very well written, but most of all it exposes the qualitative differences in writing song lyrics and writing full length prose.

Morrissey has always been seen as a writer, a serious writer too: his songs held in high esteem for their skill and emotional depth. By using his family name, not his first and ever his full name, he has elevated his status to that of the greats: Shelley, Swinburne, Mallarmé and others. It seems it’s the company he’d prefer for eternity.

Gill’s review peeled apart the considerable gap between the work of those poets and a song lyricist. Song lyrics are not, whether Schubert or The Smiths, good writing in their own terms; they work with the melody and the overall musical effect. It’s a very different skill. When writers turn their hand to something as ‘easy’ as song lyrics they turn out lumpy, turgid, and overly descriptive. Advertising copywriters have discovered, to their disappointment, that condensing all their ideas into an eight word slogan sells soda but can’t sustain a book.

Rock music is fine for such writing. Rising supreme in the canon is a power ballad about May Queens, spring cleans, the promise of long days for tall people, and offers the closing admonition to the listener to be a rock and not to roll. The symbolist synecdoche aside, this song, widely banned in music shops around the world, contains the blunder ‘all that glitters is gold’. Gold glisters, it does not glitter. This obvious error has not been corrected by an editor in the forty years since the composition was first played. Lovers of the song do not care: glitters, glisters, who cares? It’s just some nerdy definition which distracts from playing air guitar.

Lord Byron, the Kanye West of his age, could write a canto of his epic Don Juan and it would become an instant best seller. In a letter to his publisher, who had sent him some books and magazines, while he was in exile in Ravenna, he complained: “Here are Johnny Keats’s piss a-bed poetry […] There is such trash of Keats and the like upon my tables, that I am ashamed to look at them.”

These days we put Byron and Keats and Percy Bysshe together in the same movement. That’s not how he saw it.

Nearly two hundred years later it’s probably true that more people read Keats than Byron. Even so, Byron can give us pause on the vagaries of time and the merits of various writing styles. In a stronger letter he opined further on Keats’s works: “Mr Keats, whose poetry you enquire after, appears to me what I have already said: such writing is a sort of mental masturbation — he is always frigging his Imagination. I don’t mean he is indecent, but viciously soliciting his ideas into a state, which is neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium.”

Opium and raw pork; there must be a song by The Doors about that.

Guy Cranswick
17th February 2014


What is the date today?

Like a man on an exhausting walk across the tundra I am not quite sure where I am. It all looks the same in every direction, featureless; there is no landmark to act as a guide, only the voices that usher me on step by step.

I am reading The Brothers Karamazov. I have no idea if I like it or not but its there, expansive, intimidating. The weight of orthodox icons, obsessive men, religious doctrine and snow is crushing. The snow isn’t another character aiding or impeding but it’s profoundly immanent. It has to be as its Russia and vastness and snow are inscribed into the national character.

The Brothers Karamazov is almost like a long plane flight where the past is erased and the future is uncertain. All there is for the time being is an aisle, the sound of air conditioning and the strange man two seats up on the left who sits very straight in his chair and is still wearing his business shoes.

Freud said the book was” the most magnificent novel ever written.” His reasons for that high opinion may lie in his own profession. His praise was more than likely formed by seeing the work within his own analytical work in psychology. The characters of Karamazov are nothing if not complex – sublime material for a mind, such as Freud’s, to interpret.

It’s almost too predictable to state that Nabokov didn’t share the same view. There is a shambling, rambling never-ending quality to the book which would have provoked stern moral disapproval from him.

Reading very long books is like having one’s mind wiped. They are worlds unto themselves. The stuff on Orthodox doctrine is not easy and seems to have no end. It’s quite difficult to find the beginning too. If you have no compass for such long digressions on faith in that church it is bewildering. All those names and patronymics become hypnotic and it’s a shame we don’t have them. Even so I have forgotten my name Perhaps it’s Sergei Michailovich by now. I’ll have to check in the list of characters.

In the post Fiction is good for absolutely nothing I went over a Cold War story of how the KGB used Dostoevsky to understand their enemy. The CIA, on the other hand, spent millions on game theory and psychologists like the Canadian, Dr Cameron, who proposed a means to erase memory and impose new structures on the human mind.

How any of Russia’s enemies were like the characters in The Brothers Karamazov is intriguing. Government officials are more median type personalities than anything in Dostoevsky. Those characters tend to be on the margins. Maybe by reading Dostoevsky the KGB had forgotten what their objective was.

Despite all his work, Dr Cameron’s ECT treatment in the 1950s was a complete failure. All his patients could say after they had had their brains wiped and restored was “I am at ease with myself.” That is not a very durable sentence. Cameron and the KGB had discovered the means to baffle themselves.

I need to find a new direction. Disorientated people are often asked simple things to establish their mental state such as: What is the date today; what month is it; who is the president of the United States?

I know this; it’s, err, right there…it’s Ford – I’m right, aren’t I?

Guy Cranswick
9th February 2014