Things I Don’t Want to Know: a powerful feminist response to Orwell’s Why I Write

Juliet Jacques on Deborah Levy's new essay.

At some point, any writer must seriously consider why s/he writes (or, at least, readers would like to think so). Famously, Samuel Johnson said that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”, but it’s widely accepted that the impulse transcends financial concerns: poets as great as T S Eliot and Paul Éluard wrote around day jobs, and numerous authors have continued when all financial logic must have implored them to stop. George Orwell’s essay Why I Write (1946) attempted to determine why he persisted with the "horrible, exhausting struggle" of writing books; in just ten pages, he identified sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose as his motivations.

Following her Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know, published by Notting Hill Editions, is a feminist response to Orwell. Ten times the length, Levy devotes a chapter to each of his categories, opening with her Political Purpose.

Distancing himself from the fervent experimentation of many of his contemporaries, Orwell said that good prose should be "like a window pane"; recalling a 1988 lecture by Polish director Zofia Kalinska, who stated that "the form must never be bigger than the content", Levy notes that for her, this felt subversive rather than natural. Levy does not worry too greatly about whether or not such innovation is inherently radical, instead building a canon of female authors who pushed formal boundaries – a passage on how Marguerite Duras had to nurture her monumental ego over time is especially memorable – and who strongly asserted their personalities in defiance of patriarchal expectations.

Orwell did not present any similar list of inspirations – perhaps this is something more pertinent to "minority" writers who have to search harder for like-minded role models – but discussed the "inescapable emotional attitude" that made him want to write at a young age, an ambition which coalesced with his feeling of being ‘isolated and undervalued’. He also confessed to feeling "forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer" by the political circumstances of the 1930s. Without stating so explicitly, Levy describes how the imprisonment of her father for being a member of the African National Congress in Johannesburg in 1964 started to shape her as an author.

Aged five when her father disappeared, and constantly confronted with reminders of the systematic cruelty of apartheid – often directly reproduced, as with the Whites Only beach sign in Durban – she realised that as the daughter of an ANC activist and as a girl, "to speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish". Levy shifts subtly between registers, presenting her formative experiences in an effortlessly childlike tone: one of the most touching moments is when her father returns after four years, and she tells him that their cat has died: “It’s lovely to be called Daddy again”, he tells her, and the reader sees Levy starting to make sense of the confusion and pain and commit significant moments to memory, even if she does not yet know that she will write about them some day.

Levy’s chapter on Sheer Egoism – which Orwell described as the "desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc" – begins after her family moved in England in 1974, where Levy felt in exile and where her parents’ marriage fell apart. For many authors, writing is an attempt to display their uniqueness, and political purpose and egoism often become intertwined. As the teenaged Levy discovers the existentialists, she contrasts the imagined action and intrigue of their lives at peace and war with the dull reality of hers: clearing the corpses of bees fatally attracted to the washing machine after she spilt a jar of honey in it, she reflects that Sartre and company "probably didn’t have to clean ovens with evil Brillo pads", but her first real encounter with a writer comes not at a literary gathering or in education, but when PhD student Farid arrives – as her family’s au pair.

All of this leads to a discussion of Levy’s adult Aesthetic Enthusiasm: the strongest chapter, drawing together her internalised political motivations and her love of language, and its ability to both repress and express the subconscious. Here, the reasons why she writes become perfectly clear: ‘We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics, from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our own desires too probably, whatever they were’.

In a recent interview with 3:AM magazine, Levy told Darran Anderson that Swimming Home grew from the helplessness she felt on reading about the death of the wonderful avant-garde novelist Ann Quin in 1973. Here, writing is a way of dealing with the experiences of injustice and despair, and perhaps with the underlying realisation that as an author, one often ends up being drawn towards such sadness – the only way to process the "knowledge that we cannot bear to live with", by trying to render it itself something useful or beautiful, or both. Even if Levy does not draw any categorical principles in the manner of Orwell, this sensitive conclusion ought to resonate with any writers who care to remember how they became socially aware.

 

Deborah Levy. Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.