February 2, 2009
‘There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light.’ Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
Who do we compare ourselves with when writing? During the process itself, all comparison should surely be banned. But upon reflection, it’s inevitable that some influences become clear, and that some assessment of ourselves against others takes place. This self-criticism is the only kind that really matters, after all.
It would of course, be hugely unproductive for a novelist to set out to be ‘as good as Dickens’ or a poet to set herself up as the next Milton. Unless one is psychotic, such reckless confidence would be bound to end in failure. But if one just occasionally finds a teaspoon of the richness of invention shown by Boz, or a tinge of his humour, that should be more than enough. (It’s hard to imagine any comparison with Milton bringing comfort. Apart from a mythical creature who is writing several volumes on the history of physics and the creation of the universe in rolling, unstoppable Big Bang rhyme. And if you are that person, the word ‘ambitious’ is probably apposite, dear little Satan of science.)
To look at one’s writing and say ‘it’s not as good as X’ (if X is not a joke) is to look at things through the night-coloured glasses Dickens evokes in the quotation given above. Far better to say does this represent a development of my own voice? Your own voice is inevitably formed by the previous words of others, but this should be a liberation, not a restriction.
At the same time, until you have read and continue to read as much as you possible can of writers good and bad, you will not have the framework for honestly assessing your own work. Creative writing courses that encourage people to ‘write what they know’ without seeking to increase their knowledge of literature are hideous aberrations. To write is to enter the maze of all that has been written before:
Eccentric, intervolved, yet regular
…when most irregular they seem’
You’re never going to get out of that maze. Most will sit and look at single leaves growing on the hedges making up the maze, and try to describe them, rather than reaching the centre where Milton and Dickens (and others) are having an endless Pickwickian picnic. (Milton at a picnic is a terrifying idea, incidentally.) Given they do this carefully and respectfully, with humour, emotion, inventiveness, or with hedge-trimming satire, nothing could be more valuable. If we just blunder along, relying on nothing but luck, the result will probably be less than enlightening.