If, as I’m starting to suspect, all blogging is a long game of follow my leader, then, following Mark Ravenhill’s recent Guardian Arts blog post, this week’s hot topic is biographical readings of writers’ work. The subject has already kicked off a heated exchange on David Eldridge’s blog between him and critic Ian Shuttleworth*. Ravenhill’s original post is as fair-minded and witty as it is light, but he raises an interesting point. The most striking passage for me is his admission ‘I'd bump into friends from university and see they were longing to ask: “How long were you actually a rent boy for?” In the end, I decided all this gave me a grungy glamour. Without ever actually lying, I never disabused them of the notion.’
Of course he did. We all wanted to look grungy and glamorous in ’96. But there’s something else going on here. It is David Eldridge who connects it to Max Stafford-Clark, to whom the quotation “all plays are either autobiography or journalism,” is attributed. The way this belief manifested itself in Stafford-Clark’s work with writers has cast an extremely long shadow in its legacy for the Court.
A writer friend of mine, who shall remain nameless – for reasons which shall become clear – once wrote a provocative (and immediately countered) article for Noises Off magazine arguing that Graham Whybrow’s claim that he could identify the work of any Royal Court writer on the strength of a single page of their work was probably predicated on the fact that within the given page there’d either be a character who was a one-legged black lesbian; so it was probably by the Court’s one-legged black lesbian writer, or... so on, and so on.
I wouldn’t go that far, but it seems fair to say that for a while a certain brand of identity politics was at the very least not-discouraged, particularly around the young writers programme. I shall give a biographical example: - a few years ago a (different) writer friend who I knew from university had a play staged as part of the
This idea has turned on Max Stafford-Clark and bitten him on the arse at least once. There is a passage in Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha of Suburbia in which the young Karim (a thinly veiled, wish-fulfillment version of a young Hanif Kureshi, m’lud) is working as a writer (as Kureshi did) with a director of strong left-wing inclinations, who is widely thought to be a thinly veiled version of M S-C (with whom Kureshi did indeed work when he was a young Royal Court playwright). The book contains a scene in which the director, along with his wife, seduces Karim and his girlfriend with the aim of essentially stealing the girlfriend. So much for teaching people to write what they know. This story has an amusing – if wholly apocryphal coda: when filming the excellent BBC adaptation some years later, the set for this (enormously memorable – at least to this impressionable young thing) scene was dressed to exactly resemble M S-C’s house. Shortly after this has been televised – so the apocryphal story goes – M S-C had invited a couple of people back to his house. They arrived at the house, and entered the living room in question.
“So, this is where it all happened, then?” says one of the party, with a knowing look.
Awkward silence descends for the rest of a much-shortened rest-of-evening.
But I digress.
While Ravenhill suggests that it is a little odd to be confused with a character from your play, he then goes on to note the useful critical insights that such a school of criticism can sometimes offer. Eldridge, however, uses the occasion to take some issue with his work being read autobiographically –understandably, given the personal repercussions which he describes. What is fascinating is the fact that he does not comment on the fact that the play has also been reviewed autobiographically. He cites some initial comments from Ian Shuttleworth’s review, but omits to mention the end:
“I come from a similarly sacrificing working-class family, and I keenly feel similar debts to the departed. I could therefore be expected to connect profoundly with Eldridge's play. But not a sausage, I'm afraid.”
As a critic (ha!), not a writer, I find this sort of thing fascinating. Shuttleworth, after all, is giving explicit and personal grounds for the reason that he didn’t like the play. No pretence of objectivity or Olympian judgment here. This is explicitly a man with a history, sitting in a theatre, watching a play about another man with an apparently similar history. While on one hand it suggests it should have been a pushover for the play to have *got* him, it simultaneously admits the possibility that as someone so strongly identifying with the subject matter, he may not be the best judge.
Critics are often criticised for the dual, contradictory sins of both pretended objectivity and excessive of subjectivity. I find it interesting (not to mention brave) how readily Charles Spencer will talk about his position as a recovering alcoholic to contextualise his response to works dealing in similar themes of addiction. Similarly, if you can find a review of a play about
I guess the point of all this is that all writers, not to mention directors, actors, probably sound-designers and lighting designers, and other artists of any stripe you care to mention, will bring something of themselves to their work - both wittingly and unwittingly; and those watching their work, whether writing about it or not, will speculate over it, as much as they will appreciate other elements and the whole. But is it really, as David Eldridge says, “reductive” or “wrong-headed” to speculate? In much the same way as his play pricked the curiosity of his reviewers with its incidental spatial and temporal intersections with his own life, isn’t it precisely these same sorts of starting points that often ambush writers with ideas?
At the same time, I do hope we have gone beyond the era of identity politics into one where “write what you know” is only a helpful suggestion rather than an absolute and final restriction. I don’t want to be party to a culture, which, when faced with two plays on any given issue, will always pick the one written by the person who has the closest personal connection to the issue over the play that is best, irrespective of its author.
So, write what you know. Or don’t. Some part of you will creep in anyway and give your biographers and critics something to agonise over. But, if you are writing about what you know, please don’t do what John le Carré does and forget to tell everyone what it is you know before continuing the story; it makes it almost impossible to understand.
*In the interests of full biographical disclosure, Ian and I have a long personal history; I don’t know Mr Eldridge at all.