Saturday, March 08, 2008

Hanif Kureishi at Manchester University

On Thursday night Hanif Kureishi read and talked to a sold-out theatre at Manchester University. Kureishi turned out to be a frank yet even-handed speaker and said what seemed to me eminently sensible things about writing. Yes, he thought intuition was a big part of writing but then you always had to have a rational understanding as to why you were following your intuitions. Yes, he thought (like me) that the distinction between autobiographical and non-autobiographical writing was a dubious one. Yes, he thought you developed as a writer as you got older, you learnt more skills but you can lose some of the fire of untutored youth. Yes, he had swapped about from form to form but he wouldn't say he liked any of them better than the others, films were good for making money and for getting away from the isolation of the desk, prose gave you more or less total creative control. Novels are great to get your teeth into but also hard work and short stories can come as light relief when you've finished one. Did he like working with actors? Well, if we thought writers were a pain we should meet some actors, they were awful, but then on the other hand he's been really grateful to the actors he's worked with, they can give an underwritten part wonderful life.

The narrator of his latest novel, Something to Tell You, is a psychoanalyst, and writing as therapy was a strong thread through the evening. The way he told it, he himself took up writing as the best form of therapy, but then on the other hand, as he always tells his creative writing students, you've always got to be aware of the reader and write for the reader. I'm not sure how the Creative Writing students in the audience must have reacted when, asked whether he agreed with Will Self's condemnation of the teaching of Creative Writing, Kureishi said that he could see where Self was coming from, there really was something dodgy about it all: what the universities are up to in fact is making money out of the fees, and it would be an utter cruelty to give 'these people' the impression they were likely to get a publishing deal, the point of it all for most of them was therapy (which of course is important), and some of them in fact were 'absolutely barking' - in fact he's noticed that when you get these shootings in American universities the perpetrators always turn out to be students of Creative Writing. But then after all it's true that madness is close to genius and all great writers really have to be mad - at which point the audience laughter turned from nervous to relieved.

It was an extra nice evening for me, as while I was waiting for the reading to begin, I looked up at the woman who was sitting down beside me and realized it was my friend, writer and counsellor Brenda Mallon whom I hadn't seen for ages. One of the many books Brenda has written is Women Dreaming, and afterwards she asked Kureishi how much he used his dreams in his writing, and he answered: 'All the time.'

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