'Only write when you've got something to say' was what I took from my conversation with William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks on Thursday. I had a list of questions beyond: “what inspired you to get involved with Bookfest?” Fortunately neither of them mentioned their new books and both seemed genuinely interested in Oxfam. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to ask them much else but I did get to watch and listen to them talk to each other for an hour: it was the first time they’d met. Both are famous for writing well about wars, France, as women and as spies. Both live near the Portobello Road bookshop where we met.
I asked William Boyd, who was born in West Africa, why he hadn't written more about the injustice in Africa in his novels set on the continent. He replied, "being a novelist is about examining the human condition. Novelists do not have a duty to educate their readers about particular issues. Novels are about character and story. If you allow politics to dominate it becomes a political tract, not a novel".
That seemed a bit of a cop-out. There's obviously a balance to be struck between giving your characters enough of yourself to be real and removing your thoughts sufficiently to allow the story to come to life. However, if Orwell's a novelist and 'The Poisonwood Bible' is a novel with insights into why the Congo is such a disaster, isn't Boyd hiding behind his definition of what a novelist is rather than answering the question? He certainly cares about West Africa, he was a friend of Ken Saro-Wiwa who was killed by the Government of Nigeria for standing up to them and Shell who oppressed his people in the Niger Delta. Boyd helped his friend and criticised the Government in newspaper articles, to the extent that he's not been back to Nigeria since. Maybe he doesn't really know why he writes what he does.
Both Boyd and Faulks seemed very aware of the people around them, but they also seemed a bit shy, keener to examine others than themselves, not naturally fond of the limelight but after years of book tours clever at disguising this.
They seem to view novels as the purest form of expression, which struck me as a bit smug. Neither seemed likely to have much time for blogging or twitter. Faulks was inspiring because he said a lot of what he wrote during his twenties was crap, but the thing was to get on with it and write. When I asked him why so many of his and Boyd’s books were set in the past he said it would take him too long to answer but “Tolstoy, Dickens and more than half of what we consider ‘great’ literature was set in an earlier period than when it was written”.
He added, “I don’t consider writing about the first half of the 20th century to be ‘history’. It’s the lifetime of my parents and grandparents, people I knew, and while aspects of their lives were different their way of looking at things wouldn’t have been all that far from our own”.
I've not written my blog or twittered for over 2 months. I didn't see the point as I'd lost my job and moved home aged 28 having left my beloved motorcycle in Senegal. I knew anything I wrote would have been self-pitying, angsty and boring.
If I had been blogging constantly I wouldn't have got the job that allowed me to meet two of the cleverest men I've ever encountered. Their thoughts on writing are much more worthy of blogging than a lengthy post explaining and excusing my laziness in not blogging more often.
Why Blogging is Rubbish
The beauty of the internet is that there are no rules.
So why does everyone say that blogging and tweeting must be done all the time? Why is constantly communicating, uploading links, videos and photos, commenting on other blogs and writing provocative, instant analysis in an effort to generate comments every day the only way to success?
Surely it all depends on what kind of blog you are writing and why you are writing it. Why do all blogs have to contribute to the information overload that means that despite technology making everything quicker we actually get less done than we did before email?
In the future won't magazines be replaced by the occasional blogger? Most of the time no one has anything interesting to say so why not wait until you do?
I only see the point in blogging when I'm:
A) Doing something that I'd be interested in reading about
B) Giving a perspective on something I care about in the hope that other people might like it.
That's why this blog post is a failure and why most of blogging is rubbish: it encourages you to write about what you think rather than what's really interesting. I set out to write about 2 famous writers and end up writing about myself.
I blogged and twittered in Sierra Leone because I was inspired by the people, the places, the stories and the ideas it provoked in me: the fourth generation of my family to come to this beautiful country; messed-up in many ways by well-intentioned people like me.
I'm blogging now because I feel guilty and frustrated I haven't managed to do more with the stories that found me in Sierra Leone. It's a guilt I feel every time I travel to a developing country and talk to people. In exchange for their time there's an implicit promise that through me their stories will get out to the world and people will realise that our dreams are not so different no matter where we live.
The problem is that no one except blogspot publishes me and 2 months of blog inactivity went unnoticed by all except my mother. There's too much information in the world and it's only going to get worse.
The answer is that less is more. You can't get anywhere that matters if you're constantly twittering.