Azara Blog: Doris Lessing visits Cambridge

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Date published: 2005/11/23

Doris Lessing paid a visit to St Catharine's College tonight. She is a good example of how interesting old people can be. She started by talking a bit about how although people might think we live in horrid times, people have pretty much always thought that. And situations that people think might last forever (e.g. the so-called war on terror) have a habit of going away suddenly. Before the War (which for people over a certain age means the very real WWII, not the phoney so-called war on terror) she pointed out that people thought that the Third Reich, Communism and the British Empire would all last pretty much forever, but they are all gone.

She then read some excerpts from a recent collection of her essays, Time Bites, interspersing this with more general commentary. Like many people over a certain age, she believes that the kids of today don't receive a decent education. In particular she mentioned a daughter of a friend of hers who apparently got through school without knowing anything about Christian ceremonies or history. Well, you can't really blame the schools for this, this is just someone who is not interested enough in things to go out and read. And no doubt every generation has made the same sort of complaint about the next generation, it's one of the perils of growing old.

Along the same line, she said that the publishing industry was getting worse and worse, with publishers having to "bribe" booksellers to get books stocked. And her editors keep changing because the previous one has either been sacked or decided to change jobs. Well, publishing is more fluid these days, because of the internet (i.e. Amazon) and the end of the cosy price agreements that used to exist in the UK publishing industry.

She also talked about what it takes to be a writer. Basically, the advice was that it was a lot of hard work, best done in isolation. And don't show your books to your friends while you are writing it, they will just criticise it. Just write what you want and be damned. (Also don't pay any attention to the critics, but everybody knows that already.) Don't copy another book's ideas (apparently publishers are still awash in variants of Bridget Jones's Diary), write in your own voice. Don't write as if there is an intended reader. She said she could tell who was a real writer by whether or not they were willing to scrap what they had written and start again.

Apparently self (or "vanity") publishing is on the rise. Well blogging is a good example of that. But she meant old-fashioned, dead-wood publishing. Even here she said it was relatively trivial to get a good printer and someone who could put together a book cover, for not much money. But the big problem, of course, is not so much the production of the book, but its distribution. (The same problem with music or films, of course.) You can do it all yourself, but this means you end up with stacks and stacks of books in your house, and you spend all your time putting parcels together. So not necessarily a good idea.

At the end there was a question and answer session with the usual sorts of questions ("what's your favourite novel?": "none").

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