Clive James wrote that he gave up writing his Observer TV column when he started seeing the same ideas coming around and being acclaimed as original. Now it's not just a matter of ideas. Is it me, or are there more anniversaries than there used to be?
At the moment there are celebrations accompanying the 30th anniversary of the first episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. There is a documentary, a book, repeats. A nation rejoices. But didn't we go through all this for the 25th anniversary? I remember a documentary presented by the comedy producer John Lloyd that featured all the same stories that are being told this time around.
We are paying a terrible price for living in an age when the people running BBC television are of the generation who spent much of the early seventies in playgrounds across Britain doing funny walks, pretending to be gumbies (the one impersonation that everybody could manage) and doing impromptu performances of the four Yorkshiremen sketch.
I was a schoolboy in the early seventies so I used to love it as well, but I now seem to have a much clearer memory of the story behind the show than I have of the show itself. I know about the different titles that were considered, such as Owl Stretching (I've never seen anybody mention that the Monty Python title itself was, in its surreal, Edwardian militariness, a variation on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had come out two years earlier - perhaps it's too obvious). I've heard about the resistance of the stuck-up BBC. I'm familiar with the combinations in which they wrote.
Haven't the Pythons got better things to do than talk about themselves again? In the case of Eric Idle and Terry Jones the answer is decidedly not. Outside of Python, has Idle created a single thing that's funny, apart from the strange semi-Californian accent in which he now speaks? (Imagine if back in 1970 you had been told that the two most successful Pythons in the nineties would be Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.)
Are we more compelled by the story behind the thing rather than the thing itself? The biography of a writer, rather than the books the writer wrote? I've just edited a book called The Faber Book of Writers on Writers, which is in some ways the fragmentary history of how people started being drawn not just to the books but to the person who wrote them. It consists of pieces written by writers about meeting other famous writers and moves from Shakespeare's time, in which there seems to have been no interest at all in the details of a writer's life, up to the present day, in which people are more interested in Norman Mailer's penis or Martin Amis's teeth than in their books.
In my introduction I mention in passing the way that writers now talk in detail about how they write. One example I gave was Vladimir Nabokov's use of index cards. He claimed that he had the entire novel complete in his head and that actually writing it was just a mechanical process of transcribing it on to these cards. Since it was already there in his head, these could be written in any order.
I wrote that this was the sort of detail you try to forget while you are reading the book. One reviewer took me to task for this observation, commenting ironically and alliteratively that "perhaps the myth of male genius requires the maintenance of mystique". Certainly writers, both male and female, mythologise themselves, not least when they describe their own working methods. The most notorious example is Coleridge, who introduced most of his major works with elaborate descriptions of how they were composed (most famously in his clearly mendacious account of having composed Kubla Khan in a dream).
Obviously I have hugely mixed feelings about this subject or I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of doing a whole book on the subject. Part of me feels that it's all a form of laziness: it's easier to listen to authors talking than to read their books, it's easier for authors to talk about writing than to write. And yet, if you read a book and love it, you want to know about the magician who created the spell.
It's one of the paradoxes of literature. Writers want to be read, yet get disturbed by the results. Wordsworth spent his old age cursing the tourists coming up by train to the Lake District. Many of them called on him as well. But whose fault was it? He had written his greatest poetry about himself and the Lake District. He had dangled the enticing food under his readers' nostrils. Now they wanted to eat it.