I have recently retired from social networks such as Twitter, feeling bewildered and disappointed. In the week since, I’ve been reflecting on what created that bewilderment in me. Today while listening to a Radio 4 piece about the life and work of WS Sullivan, (He of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) I had a sudden insight that startled me. The surprise came from the idea that this was too obvious, too simple to be true. Obvious truths are often overlooked for that reason; we are suspicious of truths like that. Truth is supposed to be difficult and should require searching intellectual striving, shouldn’t it? Truth is to be found in philosophically robust and earnest investigation, is it not? A program about WS Sullivan should not be a fertile ground for self-enlightenment and blinding revelations?
My novels are first and foremost entertainments. A journey the reader willingly travels with me. The novelist’s first objective is to entice and welcome their fellow passengers with fascinations of plot or (strongly in my case)character. That journey needs to involve and give pleasure or my fellow traveller will get off. My novels are character led and strong on dialogue and filmic in style. I’m told the journey is a pleasure. My fellow travellers come back for more so I’m doing something right. So why was the whole Twitter thing so disastrous? I forgot my novelists skills and told the truth unadorned and simply. People do not like that. In fact they are antagonised by it. In my novels I also tell truths but they are on many levels and are subtly woven into character dialogue and plot.
Excessive bluntness has always been a great handicap for me. I stupidly imagine everyone values simple truths as much as I do. I forget most hate to be confronted with truth naked and raw. The Irish in particular have developed a culture that rewards indirectness, subtlety, deviousness, even. They do not value bluntness and do not call a spade a spade. We have terms like: ‘Putting it on the long finger’ to describe the act of prevarication. We do not like to say: ‘No’ so will put something off indefinitely until the asker gets the idea and stops asking. “Oh now, I don’t know about that.” is a fairly strong term of disagreement. “No I won’t,” is rude in the extreme.
Getting what one wants without directly asking is considered a highly desirable skill here. One of our most infamous figures and Presidents: the late Eamon de Valera, known as ‘the long fellow’ had another knick-name one might assume was extremely derogatory: ‘the cute whore.’ In fact that is high praise. A ‘cute whore’ is someone who gets what they want without directness or obvious asking. He was renowned for his prevarications and ability to negotiated for days while saying nothing of any consequence: hence ‘cute whore.’ I’m an abject failure as ‘a cute whore.’
Why? Because I’m from a very different cultural tradition. The Irishmen grown in Belfast do call a spade a spade and we do say no in fact we are famous for saying NO SURRENDER very stridently. We left Ireland in big numbers and settled in the US and Canada, where we became known as ‘Scots Irish.’ We had huge influence and produced a startlingly large number of US leaders, generals and men of letters. One of my great literary heroes; John Steinbeck was from that tradition although his name would not suggest that. His great novel: East of Eden reveals that background. In it, his characters struggle with the shackles and bindings that Scots Irish conservativeness brings. I too have had that struggle. I left the North thirty years ago to be free of those tribal shackles. It’s still in me though. That defiant streak and tendency to say ‘no’ when it might be more politic to get out ‘the long finger’ or be a ‘cute whore.’
The revelation I had was simple: Social media is all about politics and cute whore-ishness. Never say anything too meaningful or too truthful.
I must save it and place it in the mouths of my characters.