Must Writers be Musicians?
Everyone loves music, don’t they? Most people claim they do. But ask any musician what proportion of people in an audience are actually listening and appreciating the music, and you get a different answer. A couple of weeks ago, while I was in Minneapolis attending the Associated Writers Conference, I found myself in a jazz bar downtown, completely surrounded by writers (most of them still had their conference nametags on), and guess how many were applauding the musicians’ solos? One. Me. And this wasn’t a third-rate provincial band, but an excellent one, playing standards by Sarah Vaughan and Ellington and Billie Holliday, as well as lighter contemporary stuff like Sade, and plenty of originals, which were just as good. It was a band who could easily have been playing in Chicago or New York–and no one, apparently, was listening, apart from me. Whenever I clapped the singer would throw me a rather desperate, grateful, but wry smile. This got me thinking about a couple of things: first of all, how could all these writers, who are supposedly artists and therefore sensitive people, be ignoring this real art that was taking place under their noses? (And that was in fact at a higher level than a lot of what they were being subjected to at the conference readings.) Were they tone-deaf? Or just paid-up subscribers to the new and pernicious myth about writers–that we are all “entrepreneurs”, that we must be constantly networking (as they were, furiously, with one another, dressed up, flirting, trying to impress, trying, trying, trying), building our “platforms” (they think we are locomotives, apparently) and all of the rest of the corporate bollocks we are being sold and apparently buying. I think it’s a bit of both. I’ve already railed and ranted against the corporate culture among scribblers in these pages, so let’s discuss the tone-deaf hypothesis a bit and see where it leads us.
I wonder sometimes if someone who is deaf to music can be a good writer. I have even known the occasional poet who had the temerity to admit that he had no ear for music–and it showed in his verse, of course. But obviously more prose writers suffer from this malady, whether they are aware of it or not. And I think that’s a problem. Fairly obviously, poetry is, or should be, musical: the so-called “language poets” are right about that, if nothing else. (Where they err is that they have abandoned meaning. Pure music can get away without meaning. Because poetry is made of language, which does have a musical aspect, but is also a system of signs that mean things, if you abandon the meaning, you lose something essential, and produce merely an inferior form of music.) But it’s true of prose too. Too often, because creative writing is taught in universities, which are purveyors of ideas, people, especially literature professors, suppose that the main feature of great writing is its “themes”. They neglect the language. The prose of nearly every great writer sings. That is hardly a metaphor. Whether they write in unashamedly lyrical prose (and remember “lyrical” means “apt to be sung to the music of a lyre”) like Virginia Woolf, Carson McCullers, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or in a much sparer style, like Hemingway, Tolstoy, or James Salter, the rhythm is strong, the sentences are melodic, and if read aloud, beautiful to the ear.
So it’s disturbing to contemplate a cellar full of writers–fourscore or a hundred of them, at my estimate–ignoring a damn good band. You may object that perhaps a good number of them were listening, but were too shy, or too ignorant of the conventions of jazz, to applaud in the right places (after solos and after each song). That’s possible. It’s certainly possible that there was an occasional person who was attempting to listen and who could barely do so because the halfwit next to her was yelling about the session he had just attended or the agent he hoped to bag, or was tediously describing the plot of his masterpiece to her. But still: eighty or a hundred. And one clapping. (With two hands–I’m not Zen enough to manage it with one yet.) You have to admit that it looks as if most of them had no ear. No doubt they have iPods and car stereos and phones that play their favorite music. But I suspect they are nodding along, as they text their friends, Tweet, and surf Facebook endlessly, to what? Not Bieber, let us devoutly hope, though obviously there are some pitiable folk who do. But vile music, execrable music, the sort of rubbish they play at the gym because they think it energizes you. (They are wrong.)
All right, you are saying, but who is this this Limey, Garry Goddamn something Powell, to tell us what to like? How can he be so sure of his taste? Is he just another middle-aged white man pontificating (a grievous sin nowadays, when we’re supposed to be equally fair to all opinions)? Well, you can judge. For once I’m not going to tell you what I consider to be good taste in music. I will tell you that I have the entire branch of philosophy known as Esthetics (or Aesthetics, as I prefer to spell it) on my side, and that the fundamental premise of this is that it is possible to arrive at objective criteria by which to evaluate an art. If it were not, all criticism would be impossible: one could do no more than say “I like this because I identify with it” or some such nonsense–which, come to think of it, is what most criticism does these days. I will also tell you that more than forty years of music making, quite a bit of it professionally, has taught me that musicians, although they by no means have a unanimous taste–one may like Beethoven more than Mozart, another the contrary, and opinions may differ on whether Armstrong or Chet Baker is the greater trumpet player–will agree to a remarkable degree on what is quality. They may not like King Crimson very much, or Tom Jobim, but they will recognize and respect the talent. On the other hand, almost none of them will respect Abba or Katy Perry or Bieber. Not even the musicians who play on their records like them–they are session musicians, simply doing it for the money. So it worries me a bit when a writer admits she likes Lady Gaga or Kanye West (or, to show that I am not just picking on stars of the current generation, Rod Stewart or Elton John or Bob Seeger–and of course there are far worse than these mediocrities.) What these people do is not listen to music but nod along to it. It is a reassuring soundtrack to their distracted lives. They believe they like it because they have heard it on the radio or in clubs or wherever many times–just the same way that they are convinced they like Franzen, Palahniuk, or July or whoever the latest literary darling is–because they have heard what a genius he or she is countless times. But they are not paying attention. Most of the time. They are trying to listen to too many voices.
As a culture we are paying attention less than ever before. This is something the Japanese understand, and we used to understand better than we do now. If you can’t sit still quietly without fiddling with your phone, if you can’t listen to music without talking or reading or texting, if you can’t sit and listen to your thoughts, to the cadences of the sentences that form like rainbows and clouds in your mind if you’ll just watch them–how on earth can you ever be a writer?