Letters from Inspiring Writers: Alistair Harper Responds to a Groupie

November 4, 2008

Hi there,
Firstly, thank you for such kind words. Even my vanity levels are not
high enough to see the justification in comparing me to Lawrence Sterne,
James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon in one sentence. Maybe two of the three
I could handle.

I got your letter in Italy in the same town that Gore Vidal described
himself as having always lived in his mind. I’m not quite sure what that
means, but he must have a big old brain to fit the whole place in. Now
it is a cold day in London and America is presumably about to vote in
Barack Obama as president. Earlier on in the street I saw a middle-aged
man in a McCain badge. This isn’t a common thing in London, the poor

But anyway, I’ll answer what you asked for. Should we take the time to
read if we’re writers and both writing if we’re readers. Well, I’d hope
very few readers feel the need to write. If only because I need as
little competition as I can get. Also, because writing is an arrogant
act, leaving your ideas on the world, presuming you have something to
say. It seems a rather horrible idea that people would read only to
write, pick up tips from the rest of humanity before inevitably doing
your own declaration. Also, reading has very little to do with writing,
no more than driving has to do with car manufacture. Hopefully people
feel the need to read to be entertained or understand or whatever racket
they are interested in. Hopefully people read because they enjoy it and
hopefully that’s why writers read as well. Inevitably, the simple
pleasure of reading is lost to seedier tradesman tactics of making
mental notes of an impressive technique rather than simply enjoying the
effect of it, but still, by and large, reading something good is good,
reading something bad is, well, left unfinished.

Sometimes reading can even be good for you. You can learn how to trick
slow-minded local boys to paint your aunt’s fence. Or to negotiate a
deal with Mephistopheles. All useful information to have. But I don’t
think it’s essential to life like the posters they put up in high
schools suggest. If enjoying the religious doubt of Graham Greene isn’t
your bag then you should go off and do something else like fly a kite or
have sex. We won’t be alive very long and we may as well enjoy ourselves
while we’re here.

As for writing, deciding to write, or make a living off it or what have
you, well, I think a lot of people are decidedly negative. All these
writers glare suspiciously over their moustaches and say writing is not
something chosen as a career but something that chooses you, powerless
in its grasp. What they never admit is that being able to do writing as
a paid job is much more to do with contacts and nepotism than talent.
That writing is far less soul destroying than a call centre or stacking
shelves. The great secret about writing is that it is a very pleasant
way to do a little hard work. I have to resort to quotation to get this
right: “A journalist is a person who works harder than any other lazy
person in the world.” People say that you should write for pleasure, or
only do it if there is nothing else you can do, like you’re some legless
swamp beast incapable of anything other than tight prose. What they
don’t admit is that writing is reasonably pleasurable as work goes. It’s
not as pleasurable as reading something good, but then that’s not work,
is it?

From: ‘Alastair Harper
To: revisingproust@nonpretentious.com
Sent: Tue Nov 4 6:29
Subject: Re: A Fan’s Evaluation

On 10/13/08, revisingproust@nonpretentious.com wrote

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2 Responses to “ Letters from Inspiring Writers: Alistair Harper Responds to a Groupie ”

  1. RustedJesus on November 7, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    I read because I’m afraid to write. Or more accurately, because I’m afraid to fail.

    I’m also getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m lazy. It’s the lazy person’s doctorate. Not that there isn’t a lot of work involved, but the pace at which you may accomplish it is significantly slower than say a J.D. or M.D. Procrastination is a key component to success.

  2. RustedJesus on November 7, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Also, Alastair, if you’re reading this, did you know David Foster Wallace? If so, or even if not, thoughts on him, his work/life? And maybe this is too personal, or crass, but regarding his death, were you surprised? I suppose I should provide context for that question. Here is a post I wrote in response to the sad news of his death:


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