Writers, by and large, are a boring lot — even more so now that so many are employed by the state to teach middle-class youth how to tell imaginary stories in prose. Yes, yes, the academy is a fascinating subject and you can’t have enough tales about college politics or balding, paunchy middle-aged lecturers lusting after young girls.
But even so, something elemental has been lost: a connection to the blood and piss and fecal slime of life.
Take killing for instance. Read a modern literary novel about killing, and you’ll get a lot of angst-ridden waffle ripping off other, older books. Naturally this waffle will be written by somebody with little or no experience of violence.
Of course, I am not suggesting that authors should kill just so they can know what it feels like. But given that we live in an extremely violent world, I have been wondering recently about authors who have direct experience of killing. Who are they, and what can they tell us?
In my efforts to identify violent men of letters, I have come up with two categories: the professional killer and the inspired amateur.
The first category is the broadest, and contains some of the greatest names of world literature. Cervantes, for instance, was a professional soldier who lost the use of his left arm in battle. Extremely proud of all the killing he did, he went on to write Don Quixote, a humorous novel about a demented knight who believes the world is like the one you encounter in story books, and not the extremely violent place Cervantes knew it to be.
Another great author-killer is Leo Tolstoy. It's been a while since I read The Sevastopol Sketches, his account of his military experiences in the Crimean war, but I do note that in later life he grew a very long beard and took to munching vegetables, so he was undoubtedly much less gung ho about killing than Cervantes .
Then there is Winston Churchill, who had few qualms about killing when he felt it necessary. In The River War he recounts his youthful experiences massacring tribesmen in the Sudan.
But then, war is war and it’s acceptable to shed blood on the battlefield. Of course, popular fiction is awash with dead bodies and corpses; detective stories and true crime are top-selling genres in the US and Britain.
But how many of those individuals writing about killing have actually snuffed out another’s life?
Precious few, as far as I can see. I suppose the most famous freelance author-killer is William Burroughs, who shot his common law wife, Joan Vollmer, in 1951. It didn’t do his career any harm, that’s for sure, but only added to the myth of the skeletal narco-fiend.
There is a lot of violence in his books, and I do believe that it is intended as a critique of something or other, but alas I find his work unreadable so there’s not much I can learn there.