It’s the age-old question: can creative writing be taught? To which the answer is invariably: well, yes, probably, a bit, to wildly varying degrees of success. To dismiss academic degrees, residential writing courses and writing guides outright is to deny budding writers from all social backgrounds a chance to have a go. Nevertheless, the best a teacher can do is inspire and encourage, or add finesse to any existing talent. Because the real work takes place alone in rooms, day after day, month after month, driven largely by delusional desire – a point D B C Pierre notes here. No one is born a writer: rather, you are shaped by experience, stimulus, ambition. You can’t teach hunger.
Nor is writing a science to be broken down to simple formulas, which can render “how to write” books problematic. The only fixed factor is that the novelist crawls to his or her desk to play God. Words are their weapons to be deployed in deadly combinations, and the imagination remains a largely unexplored planet, through which the writer wanders, treading a thin line between brilliant and batshit mental. “Crazy is good,” Pierre writes. “Fucking crazy is bad.”
Merging anecdote-driven theory with a freewheeling, maverick energy, Release the Bats offers a turbocharged manifesto of sorts that is fully in sync with Pierre’s established public persona of someone hitting his conversational stride halfway between his sixth and seventh sundowner. He is the raconteur still quoting Bukowski at the bar long after it has shut and the house lights have been turned on, wine-stained teeth bared, flecks of spittle and tobacco flying. This book has a similar effect: charming and insightful for a while, but prone to losing itself in its own digressional reveries.
Many points are valid, highly quotable and clearly derived from experience (“Write something down and keep doing it” is a necessary statement of the obvious), and his thoughts on the relationship between narcotics and creativity are unsurprisingly involved. “Tripping expands the writer, not the writing” is wisdom that any lysergic adventurer may want to bear in mind, but often such thoughts could be left at single sentences. A manual for writing, however informal, should not inspire the reader to want to edit it down to certain crucial, Brian Eno-style Oblique Strategies (which Pierre does for himself at the end via some “mind bites”), yet such is the case here. It drags in places, while some nuggets either seem wildly generalised or sound good on paper but may not work in practice, such as his belief that: “We can write like the people we won’t be for many years. Wisdom, altruism and microsensitivity can blow through a hangover.” If only, mate. If only.
It is difficult to tell at whom this book, delivered with an almost contractual air of urgency, is aimed. Pierre suggests it might be for those who wonder if they are writers, yet early on he advises people not to bother, as the odds of finishing a book are thousands to one. Or perhaps it is for those who sit in the front row at literary festivals, keen for a glimpse behind the curtain to see the hidden machinations of these word wizards, when in fact most writers’ works are more interesting than their process. It is for this very reason that films about novelists rarely succeed: because writing is merely the transference of thoughts into the physical realm. It’s not a spectator sport. Pierre acknowledges this several times over: “Locking yourself away in a crucible of secret frustration is where writing comes from.”
He is at his best when evoking scenes from his picaresque formative years as the young Peter Finlay in order to illustrate points about character or plot development, whether in descriptions of sailing the Pacific and Atlantic on a liner as a child or adventuring with a swashbuckling mob of wannabe bullfighters in Spain. It is in his recollections of his adolescence in Mexico City during the 1970s, living in an opulent house complete with staff, that Pierre’s writing most comes alive: “This easy-listening idyll of values never felt so safe again . . . this place of ambassadors and Weight Watchers, of positive thinking and Juicy Fruit gum, Erica Jong and varicose veins.” Such colourfully summoned biographical sections of places and lifestyles probably alien to many readers are of far greater impact than Pierre’s thoughts on literary theory. His life is so rich and mysterious that you rather wish he had committed fully to a memoir, instead of offering these beguiling, faded Polaroid-style glimpses.
Those elements of his past that the press found so fascinating after his 2003 Man Booker Prize victory – myth-fuelling rumours of vast debts, dodgy dealings and dalliances with drugs – surely comprise his best book yet. This is not it, but when it is written it will be a rip-snorter.
Ben Myers’s novel “Turning Blue” will be published by Moth/Mayfly on 1 August
Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It by D B C Pierre is published by Faber & Faber (304pp, £12.99)
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue