By John Dugdale
Self-flagellation by authors is a long and distinguished tradition, with Tolstoy (who dismissed Anna Karenina as sentimental, “serving no purpose” and “bad”) and Kafka (for whom The Metamorphosis was “imperfect almost to its very marrow”) among its illustrious exemplars. Yet the appearance of startling ruthlessness is deceptive, as it is a younger self and his or her efforts that are usually being punished, whether by criticism or self-parody. The implicit message is: these are mistakes I wouldn’t make now.
The same is true of the confessions collected by Robin Robertson in his 2003 book Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame. Most of the tales of disastrous experiences are from the start of the authors’ careers, as with Julian Barnes’s anecdote about a literary party that couldn’t have gone worse for him, or Margaret Atwood’s account of an early signing session in the men’s underwear section of a department store and a TV appearance in which she followed a woman from the Colostomy Association. You don’t believe the shameful memories still keep them awake today.
This makes the self-rubbishing under the heading “What’s Wrong with Me?” in the latest Dublin Review more radical, as the authors who responded to its invitation (to reveal “what they do that causes them dismay, or what they wish they could do but can’t”) are exposing abiding, apparently ineradicable, flaws – not long-ago humiliations, or callow books, or problems since conquered.
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