Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Becoming a nobody and Ahdaf Soueif

I am in agreement with J D Salinger:

I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.

I suppose my appreciation of the Salinger quote is a sign of impending middle-age and my lack of satisfaction with myself: I don't have a "life project".

Or you could say it is wisdom, slowly seeping into my consciousness.  I suppose that in the flatter world of today, where class, culture, race, even nationality, barriers are declining in influence, a world in which we increasingly grow up believing we can be anything, that absolutely anything is possible, I suppose in a world like that we all end up having the same dreams, wanting the same things.  We all want to become millionaires, have big houses and the best amenities, to leave traces, to have influence, to be renowned.

What about that alternative of dying a complete unknown?  Remembered only by a close circle of children, siblings, and friends - and perhaps a few colleagues here and there.  Outside of that circle of, say, 20-odd, no one has ever heard of you and no one ever will.

You lived in a rundown home in an undistinguished neighbourhood, you drove a below-average car, you took the occasional above-average holiday, you went out to ordinary places.  And you were proud, and you felt great.  You lived it: Life.

Ahdaf Soueif (of Map of Love fame) was on Egyptian television tonight (Dream2).  I was surprised when she said that a book that no one reads is a failure.  She said the art of the writer is to make the reader keep reading.  She mentioned several writers who took part in PalFest and she qualified each of the names with how famous, how big their readership is.  She certainly seemed pleased with her million plus readership in Britain alone.

It brought to mind the little chats I had with avantcaire about whether the appreciation of the multitudes is important for art (I think so), or if a niche of ten-odd was sufficient (avantcaire thought so).  Ahdaf Soueif seemed to agree with me.

Yet, because of that little Salinger seed that I mentioned above, that may or may not grow, I was less respectful of her achievement.

FYI: The secret to keep the reader reading - according to Dr Soueif - is Detail.

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avantcaire said...

dying a complete unknown is not dying 'Remembered only by a close circle of children, siblings, and friends - and perhaps a few colleagues here and there'.

this is one of those debates i constantly seem to be having or witnessing. im taking a class at the columbia journalism school with a phd student from the history dept and the question is often asked in class about the value of a great historical book that isn't read by anyone. the journalists usually call it pointless, the history student on the other hand reminds us of many important works that were not widely read and yet were widely influential.
the audience (that mythical audience of ten) matters of course. a small but influential audience can cascade ideas out to much wider audiences. (i hear this in music all the time- small, unknown musicians will often influence the sounds that soundtrack our lives- see hip hop's pete rock, dj premier etc for obvious examples).
but even if that mythical audience of ten is in fact the only audience there's still beauty and value in it. listening to old tapes of high school friends' songs can often be as impactful as any other music in my collection.

and then there's the wisdom of walter benjamin.

avantcaire said...

i wonder what ahdaf would have said about this pre-map of love. don't think anyone noticed her earlier books.

Ahmed said...

Two points:

1- If you have the talent to impress ten 'influentials', shouldn't you reach out wider and cut the middlemen?

2- Aim higher. It takes approximately the same amount of effort to write a book that ten friends read and one that ten million do.

These two points are so ingrained in my psyche's (and so many people's) that I have rarely questioned them.

I am aware that both points are 50% of the reason why people never make it! (You make it harder on yourself.)

The other 50% is a lack of talent.

* All imho, of course.
* I think.
* God knows.

avantcaire said...

i don't think a mass audience is the ambition of every writer / creator.

if it is one's ambition then by all means go for broke. but many are content with finding a small but admired and respected audience. and others are sincerely consumed with the subject matter rather than the reaction to it.

as usual ill revert to music analogies and think of the many many genius jazz musicians who played and innovated night after night with no concern and sometimes even scorn for recording these sounds that were revolutionizing music and whose sonic repercussions continue to be felt all around us.

avantcaire said...

"it's not going to be a hit, so why even bother with it?".

Anonymous said...

Ahmed: I have a few things to say.

1. I thought I'd come check you out after you commented on Ninja's blog back on WP, especially after what he said back to you. (I'm paikea) I just want to say I think it was really cool of you to try to engage him in a conversation - as rebuffed as it was. Even though, I'm an atheist, I'm so NOT in the "Islam is eeevil" camp. We're all not like that - I just wanted you to know. I may be in the I don't exactly love religions in general camp, but that may be more of an, "I don't love eevil people," camp.

2. I love this post. I'm a writer. Or have been struggling to be one for the last few years. I've also been mulling over exactly what I want to contribute to this world. I'm currently non-working, because I'm doing the writing thing (and because my wonderful husband said he didn't care that I didn't have a job, as long as I was happy.) I'm in my late 30's. My mother has issues with this. She raised me to be Somebody (with a capital S), and I feel like I failed her - not the least because she goes around telling people I "follow my husband around the world", rather then telling them I'm a writer - mostly because whenever I write something political, it usually disagrees with her world view (as a Conservative Catholic), and she thinks sci-fi/fantasy is crap (which I also write - and have published stories).

I'm still working on "having the courage to be nobody". (Btw, I hated Catcher - lol!) But, I have very loyal friends, a life that I love, and last but not least, a husband that I adore. So, I think being "nobody" is pretty good.

Of course, being a blogger means that I haven't totally given up - lol!

Keep writing:) I intend to:)

Ahmed said...


Thank you so much for dropping by. Comments like yours brighten one's days and make the whole blogging thing worthwhile.

1) I am glad I engaged with Flying Ninja, and thanks for your support.

2) I think we are kindred spirits - you hit all the important points: expectations from our parents, wanting to be a Somebody, not having a grand life project, not publishing a 'big' thing.

It's tough for us, but the good news is we are not giving up.

Keep writing too. :)