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The Death of the Writer Part I

The Ignition Temperature of the Writer

From BSUC Sucks – the True Voice of the Students:

MA Student burns to death – overwork blamed.

Students all over campus were horrified to learn that Mike Hockney, a student on the MA Creative Writing programme, turned into a human torch in front of his classmates and was incinerated within seconds. An investigation is underway, but BSUC’s outgoing student president has already declared his conviction that Mr Hockney was the victim of an unrelenting work schedule. ‘I hear he put so much effort into his last essay that he simply exploded,’ Mr Greenshaw declared over a pint in the students’ union. ‘This is a major health and safety issue,’ he added. ‘As my last task as president, I’ll be lobbying the authorities to ensure that students are expected to complete no more than one essay per calendar year.’ Downing his lager in one, he said, ‘When will the bastards get off our case?’


From The Bath Chronicle:

BSUC student dies in bizarre circumstances.

An unnamed student was today reported to have burst into flames in his creative writing class for no apparent reason. An expert on the expansion of tertiary education said that this was a classic example of the dangers of unrestrained growth in the university sector. ‘Degrees are a joke nowadays,’ he said. ‘When I was at Cambridge, students didn’t turn into fireballs during lectures. That was because we actually did some work. These days, students are so lazy that they’ve built up huge reserves of unused energy and the slightest spark can lead to an inferno, as we’ve seen in this unfortunate case.


From The Sunday Times:

Would-be writer consumed by conflagration.

A creative writing student has died at Bath Spa University College. Cause of death was thought to be depression-induced spontaneous human combustion. A commentator who did not wish to be named said that creative writing courses are a cynical method for exploiting vulnerable amateur writers and that it was only a matter of time before a tragedy like this occurred. ‘The creative writing industry is all about self-deluding, unpublished writers subsidising commercially unsuccessful published writers. Even worse, academic writers who have never published a creative word in their lives are being sustained in comfortable lifestyles by the funds brought in from these untalented, hopeless scribblers.’


From Official Transcript of Police Interview between Detective Inspector James Yates and Kate Johnson (Suspect 1) and David Catzman (Suspect 2):

Johnson: Listen, the whole thing was a joke. Dave and I suspended a couple of buckets several feet above Mike’s head. We filled the buckets with glue and stirred in some red paint and thousands of deliciously literary sentences that we’d cut out of books by Don DeLillo, Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates and William Styron. The idea was that when Mike made his customary outburst, denouncing the latest literary masterpiece as ‘the worst book ever published,’ we’d tip the buckets over his head. Thousands of the literary words that he loathed so much would cascade all over him and stick to him like, er, glue.

Catzman: Yeah, it would take him a week to wash them all off. It would have been so funny. We wanted to say that we could read him like a book. 

D.I. Yates: But, it didn’t turn out like that, did it?

Johnson: No. Mike was in mid-outburst against Toni Morrison’s Beloved, ranting and railing and saying it was a disgrace that Morrison had been awarded a Nobel Prize for writing impenetrable drivel, when we tipped the buckets… 

Catzman: Everything happened in slow motion. As the literary sentences fluttered downwards, they caught the sunlight and seemed like tiny glittering fireflies, burning with literary brilliance.

Yates: Are you saying the paper fragments were on fire? 

Johnson: Only metaphorically. William Styron burnishes his words so much that they kind of glow with an inner fire. Uh, if you know what I mean.

Yates: No, I don’t. I’m a Dan Brown man myself.  

Catzman: We didn’t do anything wrong. It was just paper, paint and glue.

Yates: But by your own admission, as soon as the paper began to stick to Mr Hockney, sparks appeared all over his body and a fire began. That suggests an inflammable accelerator. Or do I mean flammable? 

Johnson: Mike stood up with a crazed look in his eye, threw aside the table and rushed towards the tutor with his hands outstretched…

Yates: As if he intended to strangle him? Did he have any reason for wanting to attack the tutor? 

Catzman: Mike complained relentlessly about having to read literary ‘junk’ when he was solely interested in writing popular fiction. He said that the context module was supposed to offer ‘practical help’ and that literary fiction with its zero pace, zero action, inherent lack of story, unengaging characters and non-existent plots was a total waste of time. He regarded it as some sort of heresy when the tutor said thatThe Da Vinci Code wasn’t worth reading.

Yates: Not worth reading? Was the tutor out of his mind? I think I’m getting the picture now. Your tutor and both of you were in it together. I’ve seen Rope. I know what you literary types think you can get away with. You thought you could pull off the perfect murder, didn’t you? Admit it, it was petrol you poured over Mr Hockney and then you tossed a match.

Johnson: No, we borrowed an idea from Stephen King’s Carrie, that’s all. You know, pig’s blood and all that. We just wanted to teach Mike a lesson. 

Catzman: Besides, Mike insisted on calling all of the characters in his book ‘Dexter’. That’s exactly what all of my characters were called. Something had to give.

Yates: This is beginning to sound like a confession. I suggest once again that you avail yourself of your right to have a solicitor present. 

From The Writer Exploded by Paul Dale:

Glue, paper, and paint, I swear that’s all it was – a prank that went disastrously wrong. I saw the whole thing. Jesus, the only thing left unburnt was his lower right leg with a shoe attached. Only my Buddhism stopped me going crazy. That, and the fact that I knew this would make a great story, and a Hollywood studio was sure to offer a fortune for the film rights.

Many people have dismissed the possibility of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) on the grounds that to cremate a human body requires a temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit for about two hours. What they don’t know is that SHC has a legitimate scientific basis. Did I mention that I have a degree in physics? Anyway, the ignition point of human fat is relatively low. Once ignited, the body’s fat can burn hot enough to destroy even bones.

I’m certain that’s what happened to Mike. When the literary sentences stuck to him, his flesh began to smoulder and suddenly caught fire, as if the very contact of the words against his skin had caused an incredible amount of friction. As everyone knows, Fahrenheit 451 is the ignition temperature of paper. In my opinion, Mike was exuding so much heat from raging against Beloved that he ignited the paper. The ‘candle effect’ then took over. That’s when the body is slowly consumed by a lower temperature flame using the clothing as a wick and the body fats as fuel. I think Mike burned especially quickly because he generated a lot of methane as additional fuel. Er, actually, what I mean is that he talked crap most of the time.

From Diary of Mike Hockney (entry of 17th June 2005):

Hate Hate Hate Hate! Hate(!!) Hate Hate!!!! Hate

I refuse to use his name. I will call him only Context Module Tutor. In fact, that’s too good for him. Let’s just leave it at CMT, right?

CMT says that we should not use our critical essay to trash a novel. Why the hell not? The word ‘critical’ derives from the Greek word kritikos meaning ‘capable of judging’. What kind of judgement is it if only a favourable, sycophantic response is allowed? You see, we’re dealing with a loaded agenda, literary indoctrination, compulsory proselytisation in which we’re expected to praise the books we despise. It’s positively Kafkaesque.

As soon as a book hits the shops the author has to take his chances. The best writers can fuck up just like anyone else. Reputations are there to be overturned.

You know, sometimes I think a point is reached when garbage is treated as the highest art, when a book becomes a blank canvas onto which anything at all can be projected. Literary fiction isn’t writing, it’s wanking with words.

Kill CMT Kill CMT Kill CMT Kill CMT! Kill CMT Kill CMT(!!) 

Sara Hudson (interviewed for H2O, the official BSUC student magazine):

Who? Oh, the Scotch guy? I could never understand what he was saying. Do they speak English in Scotchland? Anyway, I don’t think he voted for me. I was the best goddamn student president this college never had. What the hell had the war in I–raq got to do with it, anyway? Goddamn Commies.

From Notes on Literary Deconstruction by Mike Hockney:

In ancient Delphi, the Pythia – the priestess of Apollo – made her way every morning to the adytum, the inner chamber of Apollo’s temple. She sat on a bronze tripod set over a cleft in the ground. Constantly chewing bay leaves, she occasionally sipped water from the Kassotis spring. All the while she inhaled the fumes that issued from the chasm below. They sent her into a trance, and out flowed the precious prophecies. The fumes inhaled by the Pythia were probably ethylene – a sweet-smelling gas that can produce a floating sensation and euphoria.

Anyway, it was the job of priests to submit the pilgrims’ questions to the Pythia. They wrote down her oracular responses and set about interpreting them, but their replies were always ambiguous.

The thing is, the Pythia hasn’t gone away, and nor have her priests. Nowadays, the literary writer is the Pythia balanced on a tripod over the fissure, inhaling the delirium-inducing vapours. Her priestly interpreters are the literary academics, their livelihoods dependent on spin-doctoring the Pythia’s oracles. They call this literary criticism. Others call it bullshit.

The answers of the new priesthood make as much sense as they did the first time around i.e. none. Of course, they never produce their own oracles. That would require too much creativity. Their sole talent, if you can call it that, is to put the finest gloss on their chosen Pythia’s ramblings. It’s their role in life; their curse, perhaps. To protect their status, they must continually oversell their Pythia and her incomprehensible oracles. ‘The Pythia I serve is the greatest genius of all,’ each of them proclaims fiercely. They write books on them, go on academic tours, give radio interviews. Not quite rock ‘n’ roll, but as close as these fuckers will ever get.

Question – is Joyce Carol Oates today’s ultimate Pythia? Perhaps Anne Tyler. Surely Toni Morrison can stake a claim. After all, she has the Nobel Prize for her oracular outpourings. What about a male Pythia? What about Don DeLillo?

Whenever I think of a literary Pythia and her high priest of interpretation – herhermeneutikos – I’m reminded of Hans Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Two weavers came to town one day and claimed they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable, with wondrous colors and the rarest patterns. Clothes made of this magic material had another quality – they became invisible to anyone who was unfit for his job, or who was unusually stupid.

Question – are the Pythia’s priests and the Emperor’s weavers one and the same? The weavers weave their miraculous garments and sell them to us. If we, the ordinary people, fail to ‘see’ the gleaming, glinting garments then apparently it’s because we’re unfit or stupid.

    I’m not buying the con. Not once did I fail to see the priests and weavers as the charlatans, swindlers and snake-oil salesmen they truly are.

From The Fire Within by Jules Williams:

Well, I’m psychic, so of course I saw the whole thing coming. People ask me why I didn’t warn Mike. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The rules don’t allow it. If I saw the future and then changed it, it would mean that I hadn’t seen the future at all. It’s a paradox, you see. Haven’t you watched Dr Who? You can’t go around disturbing the universal order, you know. 

From What the Fuck is going on? by Mike Hockney

This is fucking unbelievable. I’m in some kind of pitched battle in the middle of a putrid marsh. I think there are people under my feet. Hold on, just a second ago I was in class racing towards CMT. What the hell happened? Something dropped on me, didn’t it? Snow that burned. Confetti that contained fire. I noticed Kate and Dave giggling and then…

CMT stared curiously at me, as though he thought I were the kind of person who had never read Henry James. (Well, at least he got that right.)

Flames. I remember intense heat. My flesh began to burn. Man, I think I exploded. It was spontaneous combustion, wasn’t it? I always knew Beloved would finish me off. How could any thriller writer possibly endure one second of that concentrated literary acid?

So, where am I now? It’s some kind of literary hell, isn’t it? If memory serves, the fifth circle of Dante’s Inferno was the ring reserved for the angry. Was that my sin on earth – to have raged too much? It was all CMT’s fault. I can’t believe the garbage he made us read. I heard on the radio yesterday that Nick Hornby’s greatest inspiration for his appalling brand of excruciating, brain-dead, middle England banalities wasDinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler. He referred to her as a ‘fantastic plotter’. I almost choked.

CMT’s fault. CMT to blame. CMT guilty on all counts.

CMT eats shit.