Andrew O’Hagan on the Morality of Style
Since his first book, The Missing, was published in 1996, Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan has pushed the limits of literary genre, blurring the boundaries between fiction, memoir, documentary, and journalism. He has published four novels: Our Fathers; Personality; The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe; and Be Near Me, which was long-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and won a 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Most recently, he is the author of The Atlantic Ocean: Reports from Britain and America, which the New York Times has described as “a stunning collection of essays . . . from the best essayist of his generation.” His stories, essays, and reports have appeared in the London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, Granta, the Guardian and the New Yorker. He is currently a creative writing fellow at King’s College London and editor at large at Esquire London.
O’Hagan visited American University as part of the 2013-2014 Visiting Writers Series. He spoke beautifully and at length about his work and writing in general. This is what he had to say about style and morality.
“I think, in childhood even, I was absolutely convinced that the best writing helps you to live your life. It’s not just that it was either well-written or badly written. Oscar Wilde had said that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book, things are either well or badly written, that’s all. For me, he was wrong about that, and sentences could convey morality. I think I agree with the thrust of what he says… There is no such thing as an immoral book, but… a style itself can convey a morality.
“I’ll describe, if I can, why I think it can… You’re trying to find a form of sentence if you’re a prose writer, a line, perhaps, if you’re a poet, a stanza, that somehow carries an ineffable truth. And when it does, when the work pays off, sometimes the truth is in the rhythm. Sometimes the truth is in the unsaid thing. In the course of these essays [in The Atlantic Ocean], essays that are about four or five thousand words long, we’re lucky if we have two moments of pure clarity. I feel that is moral. Quite simply exciting.
“When I was excited about the writers I loved growing up, I was excited and made alive by them. But I really felt that it was about more than being impressed by them. It was about being made by them, being shaped by them. I loved Virginia Woolf a great deal when I was too small to understand what Virginia Woolf was doing. In fact, I may still be too small to understand what Virginia Woolf is doing. There was an effort involved, which felt like the hunt for something very dear, something very essential to the business of life. Of course, one had health and, to some small extent, happiness at that age, but the hunt for great writing… felt like a moral search. That’s to say, a search for how to be good, a search around the question of how to live and what to do. And how to live, what to do, was a daily conundrum, and still is a daily conundrum.
“Sometimes, getting to the end of one of Henry James’ long paragraphs in The Golden Bowl, I feel like I’ve been morally replenished. I’ve been dry cleaned inside. And that’s what I loved about the writers I love… There was no side-stepping the fact that this [great writing] was really about the hard stuff. These writers were drawing blood, morally speaking. They were right inside the heart.”
Photo by Jane Swan