A Footnote That Stung

Never would I have guessed that something as small as a footnote could punch me in the face. And yet it did. Two quick jabs followed by a right hook. Here, this comes from Martin Amis’s Inside Story:

“An illiterate, underbred book… the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating.”

A less distressed reader would’ve noticed the quotation marks on both ends of the paragraph, softening the blow like a pair of boxing gloves. This isn’t Martin Amis being cruel and judgmental, but a ghost of Virginia Woolf’s.

What am I, if not a self-taught, working man? What about all the other writers these days?

Illiterate, underbred, egotistic, insistent, raw…

Yeah, I am all of those things.

You could argue that a page from a journal shouldn’t be taken seriously, that it was never intended for a broader audience. Perhaps. Though, who can say for sure? All writers, famous or not, secretly hope to have their diaries discovered, curated, and published posthumously — a final act of hubris. And, unlike other such acts in a writer’s life, this one shifting most of the work to some hapless editor or a grief-stricken family member.

The allure of a scandal you can view from the safety and comfort of the afterlife must be too great for any person of literary persuasion to resist.

I burned some of mine, by the way. My diaries, I mean. And the love letters I wrote when I was fifteen. (Please don’t ask why they were still in my possession.) I disposed of all incriminating material when I realized that sometimes people — and this may include me — die suddenly.

And so I pictured my then fiance, my parents, my brother, my friends, tears still hot on their cheeks, going through my possessions, then someone stumbling upon my diary, thinking it would be a good idea to have a peek. Not to pry, not out of indiscretion, but in a kind-hearted way. Let’s read a fragment out loud. It can’t hurt, can it? Oh, here’s one about you —

And then all of them finding out what I really thought.

Blank expressions, last traces of tears quickly disappearing, a brief exchange of wild-eyed glances over the boxes of paper on the floor… And then, no one mentioning my name ever again.

Yeah, my diaries had to go. It was for the best.

I guess it speaks for the gravity of good old Virginia’s writing that it can still pack a punch nearly a century later.

Yes, I am a self-taught man. Most writers are. (Persons, not necessarily men.) Notice I didn’t add a “but I’m proud of it.” Because I’m not. Not much to be proud of there. I am, as a writer, as editor, as a person in general, self-taught and awfully unsophisticated. I’ve spent enough time among more sophisticated people to notice the difference.

But then again, what can I do about it? Very little. People with large inheritances or trust funds aside, we are all working-class down here. We read and write because none of us have any clue about anything. We’d like to, you know, so we learn and prod, some better than others, but underneath all the pretense, we are all children trying on our parent’s clothes. Sometimes too busy putting on a show to notice that everyone else is pretending too.

Originally published at https://www.sebastianhetman.com on June 10, 2021.

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Sebastian Hetman

Writer. Editor. An avid reader. Thinks too much. Writes about human nature and the stories we tell ourselves. Cooks. The owner of Twitter’s most beloved desk.