Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Week Twenty-Eight - Jeanette

Martin Bauman: A Novel by David Leavitt (2000)
Recommended by Nik

                        What is your chief motivation for writing?
(a) Personal satisfaction
(b) Financial reward
(c)  Public recognition
(d) Desire to communicate
(e) Other (please amplify below)

What is my chief motivation for writing?
(a) Sort of, but I wouldn’t call it ‘satisfaction’. I remember after finishing Seasons They Change I wasn’t happy, as such (actually, I was decidedly miserable); but I was utterly fulfilled. This was a very peculiar feeling as, prior to then, I had always found fulfillment and happiness inextricably, and uncomplicatedly, linked.
(d) I wouldn’t couch it in those terms. I do believe that a writer, to exist, needs a reader but – and maybe it’s the legacy of all those critical theory texts (see last week) – I don’t see it as a simple relationship. The writer doesn’t pour communication libations into a reader’s hungry mouth.
(e) This is what I would plump for, as does Martin Bauman.

The only answer I could give to this question would be (e) other. Please amplify below, you say; all right, I will. But I must warn you, it will take more than a paragraph. Indeed, you may say this very novel is my amplification.

I might say that, on some level, this blog has become my amplification. At a time when my creativity is stuttering like a Geiger counter miles from radiation, I am using it a means to keep up a regular narration of my world.

Anyway. I talk to Nik a lot about writing. I talk to Nik a lot about everything. I see him virtually every week, usually at least twice; we’ve holidayed together, I’ve stayed with his parents, we’ve applied to be on Pointless (they didn’t want us), he made me the Madonna T-shirt in the photo, he’s my named next-of-kin… in short, I couldn’t imagine my world without him.

The first moment I really knew Nik and I would be close was during a visit to the West End. This pub was two doors down from our office and Nik, Noshee (she’s coming up in a few weeks) and I would often wander down for a drink after work. Nik and I played on the pop quiz machine.

What came up?

Name the Louise solo singles.

“‘Pandora’s Kiss.’”
“‘Naked’, of course.”
“‘Light Of My Life.’”
“‘Light Of My Life’ was crap, wasn’t it? Inauspicious start for her.”
“‘Undivided Love.’”
“Oh god, that cover of ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’.”

We smiled at each other. We’ve been smiling at each other for close on a decade now.

Nik, like Gary in Week One, often claims he’s ‘not a reader’ yet regularly scouts for book tips pre-holiday, loves certain authors (notably Alan Hollinghurst), and has always offered very fair and insightful criticism of my own work. He specifically picked Martin Bauman for me because it was about writing.

Baumann, a young Jewish gay man living in early 1980s New York, begins his story – that ‘amplification’ – with a creative writing course run by the monstrous ego of Stanley Flint. I have always been ambivalent about creative writing courses, and Leavitt’s portrayal of Flint brought out a lot of the reasons why. The hysterical diva-ishness of Flint shrouds a deeply insecure man who depends on the adoration of his class. He dismisses would-be writers on very little evidence.

            After less than half a minute, he put the pages down.
‘No, no, I’m sorry,’ he said, giving them back to her. ‘This is crap. You will never be a writer. Please leave.’

The guru complex is overt in Martin Bauman, but I’d wager a less extreme – and perhaps more insidiously psychologically damaging – version of Flint is rife in the creative writing teaching industry. Writers are notoriously competitive (Bauman himself certainly is) and a creative writing teacher is usually one only because of a painful failure to carve out his or her own full-time authorial career. This isn’t good seeding ground for impartial and supportive development of others’ writing, and Leavitt brings this out well.

The other aspect of the writer’s life deftly tackled by Leavitt is the shift in American publishing and the collateral damage it wreaked on writers. As the Reagan era really chomped down, publishing changed from a supportive literary enclave to an aggressive free-market. Bauman, writing saleable ‘gay stories’, initially benefits from this. His work is snapped up and expectations are high. Bauman’s first book, the story collection The Deviled-Egg Plate, gets ‘favourable to mixed reviews’ but his next work, the novel The Terrorist, critically bombs. Bauman hadn’t changed his style or his subject matter much, but his name no longer offers the shock of the new. If one lives by the zeitgeist, one dies by it, too.

More poignantly, since Bauman is writing about gay life in the early AIDS era, his position is a problematic one (and emblematic of the different issues writers outside of the straight white male canon face). Bauman is a naturally personal writer and focuses on love, eroticism, and family, but some see this as an avoidance of political responsibility.

Seamus Holt complained in Queer Times that [my] ‘wan, watered-down portrayal of gay life’ amounted to ‘the worst kind of assimilationist nonsense.’

Holt, whom Bauman meets, is considered by most in the gay community as a bore intent on curbing people’s fun with his incessant AIDS harangues.

Thunderous before a mob of perfectly coifed, elegantly employed young men, he would thrust out his finger like a demonic preacher, and scream, ‘In five years half of you in this room are going to be dead. In five years half of you in this room are going to be dead. In five years half of you in this room are going to be dead, dead, dead.’ […] In the end, of course, history did prove him wrong, though not in the way his enemies would have predicted: five years later, not half, but three-quarters of the men in that room were dead.

This aspect of Martin Bauman brilliantly evokes the terrible human tendency for collective denial in the face of impending cataclysm. Holt-like voices that speak of the real danger are ignored or ridiculed. I’m reminded of one of my favourite works of modern non-fiction, Simon Garfield’s The End Of Innocence: Britain In The Time Of AIDS, and its accompanying 1995 TV programme. These works, which I highly recommend, chart the condition’s social journey, including the way AIDS was both minimised and exaggerated.

[Blogger will only let me embed Part Four of the documentary. Part One is here, and you can find the other parts on YouTube, too.]

Martin Bauman is a book of strong ideas rather than a captivating story but – as our narrator noted – that’s its point. He’s trying to find out his chief motivation for writing. Does he? Perhaps not.

Have I found mine, within this blog? Certainly not. Yet am I, through writing this particular blog entry, glad to remember that moment at the pop quiz machine, Louise’s ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, and her Tarantino-baiting video? Damn right I am. Indeed, perhaps this is what I have found via this blog: that picking those delicate wild flowers from memory is as creative as scoping out the big existential angst.