Journalistic reports on matters of interest to writers, often practical, from a broad perspective.


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Friday, 22 December 2017 09:18

Letter from London #29

Written by Edwin Riddell
Shakespeare Shakespeare

A few years ago I ran into an old college contemporary in a London club.

Storm Thorgerson was one of those people instantly recognised by their manner or bearing. On this occasion, he was sitting in a corner reading a volume of Shakespeare. Rather ostentatiously I thought, but that was Storm. He'd achieved success in life as a graphic artist, notably on album covers for the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Anyway, his career was a long way from the English and Philosophy degrees for which we had both opted at university. When I asked him about the Shakespeare, he said he'd always been grateful    for studying literature. It had provided him with a lifelong interest and pleasure.


That remark struck me. If I had not been a professional writer, I'm quite sure that I would have been an even more avid reader than I am now. Imagine that.


Such thoughts were prompted through discussion in these pages about the difficulties writers face nowadays in getting published. Even seasoned authors face much diminished advances. Consulting royalty statements recently, it was sobering to note that one got an advance approaching $10,000 back in the 1990s for a first book. Advances of any kind are now pretty rare, and mostly meagre.

Of course, alongside the decline of traditional publishing, there have sprung up hundreds, if not thousands, of new online outlets   Few of these seem to provide much in the way of financial reward. On the other hand, they undoubtedly give a means whereby many more authors can reach  an audience than ever before.

Writing was always an itch that required the majority of its sufferers to keep the day job. Otherwise, down the ages, most of us have survived on a diet of more or less hack work.


John le CarreBut I would like to suggest that there now exist far more urgent, noble, and compelling reasons for treasuring and encouraging literature, whether as reader or writer.

The English spy novelist John le Carré (Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy) recently told an audience that “something truly, seriously bad is happening...  a kind of burning of the books...where real news is declared “as fake news, the law becomes fake news, everything becomes fake news. I think of all things that were happening across Europe in the 1930s, in Spain, in Japan, obviously in Germany. To me, these are absolutely comparable signs,” he said.

Le Carré's words have struck echoes. Writing in The Guardian this week, columnist Rafael Behr noted: “The goal is not always to execute a specific outcome but to stoke existing tensions, nurture rage, exacerbate polarisation and shroud everything in such a fog of lies that truth becomes ungraspable. The purpose of fake news is to debase the currency of all news, and so undermine the foundations of pluralistic politics.”


Writing is about truth, or it is about nothing. But that truth comes in a host of forms. It includes - but is more than - the proving of rational, objective or scientific fact. The truth of a person's nature, the real significance of an event - truth has a myriad aspects. A good example of this slow reveal of human nature is a book I have just read for the first time, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. It's an unusually effective kind of emotional suspense story set on the East Coast in the post-WWII era.

Anglo Saxon Attitudes by Angus WilsonOne of my favourite comic English novels is Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson. Its subject is the importance and limitations of truth. It is at times wildly funny, and a mordant take on British society in roughly the same postwar years. Much of it is set around Christmas.


Each time a person sits down to read or write they are taking part in a transaction that is designed to elicit or illuminate an aspect of truth - whether it be of life, fate, love, or journalistic fact.

As for John le Carré, he admitted to being old-fashioned and writes every day with a pen. Now 85, he said he would continue working. “I would go on writing even if I knew I was not going to be published, ever. I couldn’t help it.”

Recommended reading:

John le Carré:  Smiley's People

Angus Wilson:  Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Richard Yates:  Revolutionary Road


~Edwin Riddell


  • Comment Link kankan roy Friday, 20 March 2020 17:43 posted by kankan roy

    it is fine piece of writing about writing. i myself is a compulsive writer. when i write definitely about truth i am in a extempore mode. i misspell gramammer disregarded punctuation missed incomprehensible even to me. it would definitely take many readings to make it appetising. but i shall miss the truth that is the reality i am trying to capture. reality is nothing but my feelings that moment. an idea that is about to hatch. i have written about 1 million words without ever thinking of publishing them. i knew men of words who are learned in many languages and writing but scared of publishing. i thought i had some important things to tell. it is about truth that cannot be expressed adequately no matter how many words i produce. they are nothing but some direction that lay hidden. that shall remain hidden. only the writer know what it is. le carre knows it and that why he writes. reader may get near to what he is describing in words. but never that near. i infact think my writing even if unreadable but it is riddle about why i am trying to tell ~ a reality and a very common one. errors are requirement to express the idea that hatched in me.

  • Comment Link kanishka banala Thursday, 19 March 2020 09:38 posted by kanishka banala

    This writing explores the harsh realities of the literature world but also revealing the passion put behind the great works.

  • Comment Link Santanu Tripathy Monday, 30 December 2019 09:01 posted by Santanu Tripathy

    Enjoy my reading, indeed!!

  • Comment Link Scott Zachary Thursday, 10 October 2019 07:19 posted by Scott Zachary

    It hurts my mind to think about writing with a pen, especially because so much of good writing involves rewriting and rewriting. I can relate, however, to John le Carré when he says “I would go on writing even if I knew I was not going to be published, ever. I couldn’t help it.” To expand on that, I ask myself, "Would I write even if I knew I was not going to be read, ever? If I was my only audience?" Pondering that hurts my mind, too.

  • Comment Link Edwin Riddell Sunday, 12 August 2018 21:32 posted by Edwin Riddell

    Just to say, I appreciate the debate this has engendered, and apologise if I have not replied individually.

  • Comment Link Lisa Scuderi-Burkimsher Thursday, 05 July 2018 16:27 posted by Lisa Scuderi-Burkimsher


    I very much enjoyed your article and I admire this paragraph you wrote:

    Each time a person sits down to read or write they are taking part in a transaction that is designed to elicit or illuminate an aspect of truth - whether it be of life, fate, love, or journalistic fact.

    I spend a lot of time reading and I do some writing in my free time. Whenever I do either, it makes me feel like I've learned something new.

    Thank you for sharing this article, even though it was written last year and I only came across it now. :)

  • Comment Link EDITHAJAMBO Thursday, 24 May 2018 08:54 posted by EDITHAJAMBO

    I absolutely agree with the issue of truth telling,it should always be the pillar whenever someone thinks of writing.
    Someone might ask why truth telling,can't I be creative and color something fake to appear real?
    May be yes it is possible to color something fake but what we should bare in mind is the impact.
    if something is real the writer will really have it down with emotions and with that the reader will be impacted .
    I have know doubt we all write to impact the reader though creativity is crucial a thing.

  • Comment Link Edwin Riddell Monday, 26 March 2018 23:25 posted by Edwin Riddell

    Replying to Pete Kurtz

    Sorry, I've only just seen your message, Pete. Please feel free to quote me at will!

  • Comment Link Pete Kurtz Thursday, 22 February 2018 10:37 posted by Pete Kurtz

    (I'm familiar with Storm Thorgerson. I love '60s and '70s British rock and have many Hipgnosis album covers. He was a childhood friend of Syd Barrett of Cambridge, who I consider a musical and lyrical genius).

    Like Barrett, Thorgerson, le Carré, Shakespeare, and yourself, I subscribe to the school that believes searching for truth, whether or not a writer can extract it or a can reader recognize it, is a noble endeavor. If it's OK with you, I'd like to paraphrase, for a book I'm writing, how you describe truth ("It includes... has myriad aspects"). I'm not sure how much "truth" my book will have... if it has any... but I'd like to at least strive for it.

  • Comment Link Edwin Riddell Friday, 12 January 2018 11:22 posted by Edwin Riddell

    Replying to Wayne


    I think what le Carré is saying is that for him a writer must identify with the search for truth (in whatever form). However difficult that may be.

    Anyone who consciously sought to propagate untruth would thereby fall on the side of the people le Carré is criticising. In existentialist terms, they would be guilty of what Sartre called mauvaise foi ('bad faith'). In other words, even if objective truth is an implausibe concept, one must still go on looking for it.

    What I am sort of adding to the le Carré thesis is that the reader also subscribes to this general notion.

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