Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame, by Robin Robertson

Reaction by Maud Newton.

Many are the indignities writers endure: reading to an empty auditorium, staying at a flea-ridden bed & breakfast, being introduced to a live studio audience as the author of the wrong book. Seventy stories of this sort appear in Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame. These embarrassments can be acute, coming as they do on the heels of the great expectations publication inspires. But as a collection of seventy the stories become more than a little one-note.

Mortification is the stuff of great fiction. From the cuckold of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to the poseur-hero of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the memorable characters of literature experience humiliations most of us dread, and the best authors render their shame visceral.

What’s more, some outstanding writers have contributed to this volume. A.L. Kennedy, Rupert Thomson, Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Coe and Margaret Drabble are among them. It’s a pity, then, that the stories focus on the shameful experiences authors endure in their public lives as writers and not on the wellspring of private mortifications from which most writers draw in their fiction.

Still, the book offers readers (and would-be writers) a rare opportunity to witness the humiliations of their favorite authors. Jonathan Coe knocks off four anecdotes in the space of two pages. Here’s the first:

— The time when I agreed to appear at a crime writers’ festival (Why? I’m not a crime writer), was scheduled to read at the same time as Colin Dexter, and got an audience of precisely one. “I’m so glad you came along,” I said to the amiable punter, after twenty minutes’ chat. “Think how terrible it would have been if there’d been nobody.” “Actually,” he admitted, “I’m the person who was supposed to be introducing you.” (It was Ian Rankin.)

Rupert Thomson’s story, excerpted last year by the Guardian, is a standout. In the winter of 1992, he left London partly to avoid Granta‘s “Best of Young British Novelists 1993” announcement. “I felt fatalistic about the whole thing: I fully expected to be passed over, and I had no intention of being in London when that happened,” he explains. After the official selections were made, his girlfriend discovered the announcement in the newspaper, mistook Jeanette Winterson’s photo for Thomson’s, and told him he’d won.

Thomson’s piece resonates so deeply because it, like good fiction, reveals his most private hopes and then dashes them to pieces.

Details: Mortification : Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame, Ed. Robin Robertson, Fourth Estate, 288 pp., $12.57


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