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16 October 2014

Mark Lawson: the problem with writing about writing

Egotism and self-flagellation.

By Mark Lawson

Fiction about writing fiction is generally considered a cop-out: there’s a feeling that the author should be able to think of something else, while the audience will soon want to. This fear has been ignored by an alarming number of this year’s cultural products.

In the UK premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Broadway comedy Seminar (at the Hampstead Theatre in London), Roger Allam plays a great American novelist reduced to teaching creative writing. It opened shortly before the release of The Rewrite, a film in which Hugh Grant plays a failed English screenwriter forced to take a job tutoring US college students. Five of the most widely reviewed novels of the past year have novelists as major characters: Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word, Edward St Aubyn’s Lost for Words, J K Rowling’s The Silkworm, Rachel Cusk’s Outline and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.

Apart from accusations of creative laziness, the biggest risk of this genre is that autobiographical or biographical readings are unavoidable: is Kureishi’s “Mamoon Azam” V S Naipaul? Is Mitchell’s “Crispin Hershey” Martin Amis? Is Cusk’s “Faye” Rachel Cusk? The other drawback of characters who are writers is that the main aspects of the profession – sitting, thinking, scribbling, drinking tea – are inherently undramatic, which requires the introduction of non-literary plot twists.

Daringly, for works advertised as comedies, both Seminar and The Rewrite feature teachers having sex with students who are several decades their junior. While these affairs are not criminal – the women are established as over-age and ecstatically consenting – they are grossly unprofessional and The Rewrite struggles to debate and excuse this sort of conduct within the context of a romcom. And, although it was written by a woman, Seminar perpetuates the stereotype of male American novelists as phallic battering rams without questioning such behaviour.

With novels about novelists, the general objection is a suspicion of egotism. The best defence against self-indulgence may be self-flagellation. Dick Francis understood that people were more likely to buy books about jockeys who fell off or took bribes rather than those about winning the Gold Cup at a canter. Similarly, the writers created by Kureishi, Cusk, St Aubyn, Rowling and Mitchell cover a spectrum of behaviour ranging from, at best, solipsism to, at worst, homicide, with much activity in the middle ground of seduction and corruption. So most fictions about fiction at least contain a useful hint to any other writer who, while sitting blankly at a laptop, suddenly imagines a character sitting at a laptop: make them really horrible in the hope that readers will take the stories as a sort of whistleblowing.

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The theatrical and cinematic examples are less instructive. One jeopardy of scripts about writing teachers is that they provoke  critics to say that the authors could have done with a few lessons themselves – and both Seminar and The Rewrite resort to tricks that aspiring writers would be unwise to try at home. In Rebeck’s play, a young woman behaves entirely out of character purely to allow the dramatist to surprise the audience by having one person come onstage when we expect another. In the final scene of the Hugh Grant film, a huge, dangling loose end is tied up by a close-up of a mobile phone, a tactic that seems unlikely to be recommended by reputable screenwriting teachers.

Boogie shoes at the National

Among the controversies attending Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, was a tendency to build grandiose cultural centres that appalled many taxpayers and architectural critics. So there’s a certain dark humour in Marcos – as the subject of David Byrne’s and Fatboy Slim’s musical Here Lies Love – presiding over the £80m renovation of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre of Great Britain.

Throughout his career, Byrne has shown a talent for exploding forms, so it’s a surprise that his experiment with musical theatre seems so indebted to Lord Lloyd-Webber, not just in subject (Imelda, like Eva Perón, was an actressy singer who made a political marriage and then aimed to be a saint of the people) but in music: from the catchy title number to an aria for Natalie Mendoza’s feisty Imelda, “Why Don’t You Love Me?”, which might be subtitled “Don’t Cry for Me, Filipinos”. The Marcos couple’s trajectory from popularity to corruption, martial law and exile is sketched in but, in its level of political analysis, the musical makes Evita seem like Francis Fukuyama.

If the content is conventional, the staging by the director Alex Timbers is wildly innovative, with the acting space constantly being reshaped between – and during – numbers. The auditorium even becomes a disco, with a few rows of seated customers looking down on a pit in which standing (and, if they choose, dancing) ticket-holders are moved around various fixed and revolving stages by ushers in pink jumpsuits. The only flourish lacking is a tap-dance number for all 3,000 pairs in Imelda’s shoe closet. Here Lies Love ultimately feels all sizzle and no meat but the sizzle is thrilling.