My word, Miss Perkins

Jenny Diski

  • Literary Secretaries/Secretarial Culture edited by Leah Price and Pamela Thurschwell
    Ashgate, 168 pp, £40.00, January 2005, ISBN 0 7546 3804 9

Just after the beginning of the first Gulf War I arrived at Toronto airport to take part in a literary festival. Along with a couple of dozen others (mostly dark-skinned or from Islamic countries) I was sent to wait in a queue for special questioning when I presented my passport. After about an hour I was taken to a cubicle by a short but perfectly square woman in uniform who lolled behind a desk and looked at me long and mean. I had been on a seven-hour flight and no one had mentioned before I got to Heathrow that Air Canada was all non-smoking. I was not cheerful.

‘What’s your job?’

‘I’m a writer.’

‘Why are you here?’

I showed her my letter from the festival. She glanced at it.

‘What are you doing at this here festival?’

‘I’ve come to do a reading.’

Nothing up to this point had got a reaction. Her eyes had remained blank as mirror shades. Now, though, her eyebrows hit her hairline and she lunged forward across the desk, her face all lit up in a smirk of triumph. She knew how to winkle out the bad guys all right.

‘Oh yeah? You just said you were a writer! Now you tell me you’re reading.’ She drew out the last word in proper third-degree style. ‘So which is it, huh?’

She sat back hard in her seat and waited to see how I would wriggle out of that one. I lost the will to live at this point. I also sat back in my chair. I put my hands up. All I wanted was a cigarette.

‘Officer, you got me. You’d better send me back to the UK. Deport me. I want to go home. By BA, preferably.’ They still had a smoking section.

She’d hoped for better. She narrowed her eyes and gave me another mean look, then told me to wait while she left to make a phone call. Twenty minutes later she returned and grudgingly dismissed me from the cubicle and her life. I was allowed to stay in spite of the wild discrepancy in my story.

If I hadn’t been so addicted to nicotine, I might have been less sullen about it. These category errors happen. What’s the most frequent question writers get asked? ‘Do you use a pen or do you type?’ Readers read; writers write, right? Well no. For those who think academically about that sort of thing, like the contributors to this book of essays, authors create, and typists write. Some authors apparently split themselves in two and do both. Just ten minutes ago I heard Alexander McCall Smith, a writer of feel-good detective novels, tell an interviewer how his work comes to him through his ‘unconscious’: plots, characters, everything bubbles up from the murky depths and tells him its story. He just types it out. Now this I envy. My unconscious, if I have one, which I doubt, is so unconscious that it doesn’t tell me anything, not consciously, anyway, and I have to manage all on my own. I write as I type, or I type as I write (do cats eat bats or do bats eat cats?).

‘Whatever they may do,’ the bibliographer Roger Stoddard has noted, ‘authors do not write books.’ Leah Price and Pamela Thurschwell take up the distinction and declare that their volume will focus ‘on the representation, self-representation and non-representation, in literature, film and other cultural forms, of those who do write – manuscripts and memos, forms and faxes’. In these days of computers, with authors emailing finished manuscripts to publishers (and for all I know publishers sending them directly on to the printers) the distinction can’t be quite so clear. There’s talk in these essays of Henry James dictating to Mary Weld (she records that it took 194 days to dictate The Wings of the Dove but makes no mention of content or quality) and of Erle Stanley Gardner’s fiction factory, with his suite of Della Streets banging out the latest Perry Mason case. U.A. Fanthorpe is quoted on

the saddest dedication: lastly my wife,
Who did the typing.

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