Saturday, 31 July 2010

Without a Doubt

Was the great novel you’ve just read a fluke? Could its author do it again and would the new book be as good as the first? Doubt follows writers around like a ghost. It’s worse with verse. Can the poet ever again write a new poem as decent as the one just completed? Isn’t the whole business a catalogue of chance? Writers persistently doubt their powers and always need people out there to reassure them that, yes, they should carry on.

Years back when blues singers were being rediscovered living in shacks on the Mississippi delta they were encouraged, fifty years on, to record again in spanking new studios and on first class instruments. It turned out that all they wanted to know was how they’d done today. Had the track they’d just laid down been anything like as good as the stuff they used to make? They had no idea if it had been Cripple Hard-Armed Davies playing with them on that recording of Wuppa Wuppa Blues they’d made in Clarksdale in 1928. Who cares? All that matters is now. So, too, with writers.

Doubt comes in insidious forms. It sneaks up on you. Wales Book of the Year long listees sometimes wonder if they’ve got in there by mistake. Wasn’t the novel they wrote two years back, which got absolutely nowhere, actually much better?

Why are my poems not in your anthology, a well-known poet complained to me. The book I was editing collected work originated from Cardiff. He lived in Aberystwyth. I explained, or tried to. But his doubts persisted. There was a conspiracy, out there, against him. His work was not up to the mark. I had taken against him because of that dismal review he’d written of my work and published in Planet in 1978. As time had moved on his poems had become dated. He was on a black list somewhere. Anything but the truth. I needed material about the capital. He hadn’t written any.

Recently I discovered the work of Philip Roth. I read The Plot Against America, by chance, and found it spellbinding. Why had I never read this genius before, for genius he certainly appeared. The book was a thrilling meld of history, fantasy, personal demons and ideological battle. It was written with erudition and humour and had a plot which whistled.

When done I tackled Amazon and ordered a Roth bucket-full. The Ghost Writer, The Human Stain, American Pastoral. How often in life do you discover a new writer with so much published brilliance under his genius belt? Roth, an author possessed of no doubt whatsoever. His works stretched, glowing, towards the horizon.

And how did I find them? I’m not sure yet. Has doubt arrived? We’ll see.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 31st July, 2010. #158

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