Yesterday I was challenged to a duel. Someone else told me I was a disgrace. I was described as - I quote from memory - a literary hack lurking in a snark pool. My behaviour, it was said, made what Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand did to Andrew Sachs seem like civilised frivolity.
Just another day on the message-boards, then. Only the most recklessly foolish, or irredeemably insecure, of authors will spend too much time hob-nobbing with the below-the-line community, whether it is in a good mood (rare) or an ugly one.
Write your column and run: it’s the only way.
And I yet I have found myself worrying about the reaction to my latest Independent column. It was about the life of Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider and many other books, who had died the previous week. Wilson had indeed lived the life of an outsider, disobeying all the basic rules of survival as a freelance writer and yet battling on as a writer, true to himself, for over half a century.
A life spent refusing to do the expected, declining to play the game when it would have been so much easier to join the literary establishment, has a sort of heroism to it, a point I made in the piece. It seemed to me a funny idea to consider the way Colin Wilson had conducted his career and write it up as a master-class for the ambitious young writer in what not to do. And there is, surely we can agree, something quite amusing about someone who talks of himself as a genius while also cheerfully discussing his panty fetishism with passing journalists.
The piece was written in neither a mocking tone nor a disrespectful spirit, but it is fair to say that it was read to be both those things, at least by those who wrote to the message-board. Not only was I not fit to tie Colin Wilson’s shoes as a writer and thinker (true), but I had been unnecessarily frivolous and insensitive at a time when there were those who were still grieving for him. He had a wife and family, someone wrote.
One gets used to getting scragged by readers’ reactions to a column, but it seemed to me that the tone of these comments was different from the usual rants. There was an air of genuine outrage, even personal hurt, to them. I was reminded of the letters and emails I received ten years ago having written a piece after Bob Hope died suggesting that his attitude to writers and comedy was a touch humourless. One email opened with the words, ‘You, sir, are a shit.’
Maybe I am. Perhaps anyone who writes a column for a period of time becomes de-sensitised to the effect of his or her words. Down here in the snark pool, everything in the daily news is potential material, and that includes famous people who have just died. I had always thought that those who have lived in the public eye could be discussed in a grown-up way after their death in a way that would not necessarily be appropriate at their funeral or among their nearest and dearest.
The reaction to the Colin Wilson piece made me wonder whether I am wrong about this, and that perhaps it should be agreed that, with few exceptions (Ronnie Kray, Saddam Hussein, Margaret Thatcher – the list would depend on one’s point of view), there should be a decent period of time – a month or three months or a year – before anything barbed, or less than solemn, should be written about someone who has died.
I’n genuinely sorry that my article was thought to be disrespectful to a hard-working and original writer. But I wonder, all the same, whether this twitchiness, this hyper-sensitivity to any perceived offence to the memory of the recently deceased, is a new thing, part of a 21st century sentimentality that is at its most sickly and overpowering around death.
Could it be that we are becoming as peculiar about bereavement as the Victorians were about sex?