My Five Year Old Could Have Done That!

I’m going to take a brief aside from poetry to talk about one of the world’s most annoying received phrases instead. Yup, I’m talking about that very original refrain: ‘My five year old could have done that!’ (Hereafter shortened to MFYOCHDT!)

Most of you will recognise this argument-starter as the favoured assail of those that don’t appreciate modern art. It’s a hard one to combat too. There are perhaps too many ways to answer it, and too many barriers on the other side. The two sides of the argument short circuit themselves in exasperation. Nonetheless, it is one of my chief irritations because it’s the verbal equivalent of crossing your arms, digging your heels in and refusing to engage with the subject. It also assumes a level of arrogance that, to me, is incomprehensible. Modern art is there to challenge. By its very nature it provokes strong reactions – maybe you love a piece, maybe you hate it. But to refuse to even acknowledge it? Hmmmm…

                                                                              Comments from a certain newspaper…

Modern art is often materially reductive, but all the more powerful for the lack of fussiness. It is the distillation of a feeling, a snapshot of a moment. The stripping of layers serves to highlight the properties that the artist sought to convey in their purest forms. Trying to engage with those sensations is to try somebody else’s skin on. Whose five year old can create that illusion?

Part of the problem, I feel, is embarrassment. ‘MFYOCHDT’ is shorthand for discomfort and incomprehension. It’s a get out clause to avoid attempting to understand the work. Amazingly enough, I’m not the only one out there who is sick of hearing the same old put-down. I’ve discovered that Susie Hodge has written a timely book that acts as a tour guide through some of the more controversial moments of recent art history. She has created an accessible and absorbing volume that provides contexts to installations and paintings derided by the MFYOCHDT gang.

If you have an overuser of ‘MFYOCHDT’ in your life, you could do worse for an xmas present:

That is all.


Should writers be read and not heard?

This is something that I’m sure I’m not alone in considering. Last month I read an article in The Guardian describing the difficulties of being an introverted writer in the 21st century. Writers of old rarely met their ‘public’ (unless they went on a forward-thinking tour, Dickens-stylee) but it’s an occupational demand these days given the wealth of literary festivals and the plethora of ‘evening with’ events. A writer doesn’t stand much of a chance of shouting above the noise unless they jump on stage to talk about the nitty gritty of their inspirations/ character motivations/ what they had for breakfast.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with discussing my work with an audience (especially after a complimentary glass of vino) and meeting other writers is always a bonus. But I can see how going from living half the year cocooned in a study surrounded by research, to diving on stage with the enthusiasm of a RADA graduate can for some, be jarring (as indeed, The Guardian columnist suggested). It’s probable that in the future, publishers will need to provide their writers with publicity training. Aside from this issue, my other concern is over-visibility. I find myself questioning what my literary heroines would have done. This in itself doesn’t help my line of questioning, largely because my top two literary heroines, Zadie Smith and Sylvia Plath are about as visible as writers can get (albeit posthumously for the latter). Why do I worry? Well for one thing, it removes, in part, the ownership that a reader can feel towards a text. I don’t particularly want my readers to have to negotiate my voice and face out of their reading experience – it should belong to them more than me.

Of course, I’m thinking about this issue in broad terms and not just in application to myself or more specifically, my career. I write as an audience member as well as a writer. My debut collection ‘The Shape of a Forest’ is due to be published by Parthian next year and I am very much looking forward to promoting it (yesterday I was asked to provide a signed copy of my book for a charity auction – it’s the first time I’ve had such a request and I couldn’t help but feel heartened by the interest). The relevance of my book, for the purposes of this article, is the unseen history of getting the thing published. The road to getting my collection accepted by a publisher was, I would imagine, a typical route. I entered the competitions and spoke at as many events as was possible in order to get my work noticed. This would have been tremendously difficult if I have of been of a quieter disposition. I also went to every literary festival going in order to ‘network’ (bleh! I know, I know!) and to see how the professionals do it. So despite my material only just coming out in the next few months, I have a lot of experience of seeing how others promote their work. One poet, an extremely famous poet at that, was very rude to her audience and it completely put me off her work (if you think this is extreme, you should have seen her face, it was as though she hated each and every one of us). I was subsequently asked to review her newly published collection, and refused because of the difficulty that I now have in separating the woman from the work. She didn’t leave a good impression and it was one that wholly marred the idealised version of her that I had in my head (selfish, I know). That’s an intense reaction yes, and in all honesty, it is also the only negative experience that I have had with a writer. It’s possibly not even her fault; maybe she was having a bad day, maybe her publicist made her do it, maybe we were the fifth audience she’d had in as many days. But that’s not really the point. The physical ‘her’ has now interfered with the ‘written’ her. Her narrator is, to me, indivisible from the person. It leaves me wondering how subtle these impressions are, even if the writer interacts positively with the audience. To me, possibly because my book is shortly due out, I’ve started thinking about these issues in more depth than I ever have previously. I’m unresolved on the answer because we need to sell books (especially since the emergence of the Kindle and all of the ramifications on the industry that it has wrought) so any publicity is good publicity. Or is it?