Our columnist Orlando Bird wonders whether we might all benefit from spending a little less time gloating online and a little more examining our creative flaws...
Take a look at my Twitter feed and you’ll notice that, besides working on a novel, I’ve set up my own business and am mastering Mandarin Chinese. Visit my blog and you’ll see that I’m widely credited with introducing the concepts of “freedom” and “truth” into popular discourse. Find me on Tumblr and marvel at the way I still manage to have so much fun at the same time.
I’d long imagined that this sort of self-promotion could only elicit one of two responses, involving either punching or vomiting. But as I blundered through an interview last week, I wasn’t so sure. I thought I’d been selling myself fairly well until one of my interviewers halted me mid-sentence. “Come on, big yourself up!”
It’s gradually dawning on me that the films of Woody Allen don’t give an entirely realistic impression of how the world works. Being relentlessly uncharitable about your own achievements, appearance and general worth may not be the best way to get people to like (or employ) you. Now is the time to be a self-promoter. From AL Kennedy to Lily Allen, many writers, musicians and artists have made their names online. Even the Pope can no longer take the love and devotion of 1.2 billion Catholics for granted, so he’s soliciting it on Twitter – it can only be a matter of time before he sets off a Harlem Shake in the Vatican.
At the same time, any cat that’s ever fallen into a bath can become a global superstar. As, of course, can bigger egos with smaller talents – hence the stream-of-consciousness blogs, the delusional tweets, and Justin Bieber. But amidst this orgy of self-promotion, we’re losing the art of honest self-criticism. And however underrated it may be at the moment, the ability to question your own greatness is worth having.
It was reassuring then to stumble across the latest edition of Dublin Review, in which several prominent writers have been commissioned to take the hatchet to their own work. Self-reflection is especially important in art, where one person’s masterpiece can be another’s outrage. For many, the classical pianist Glenn Gould represented the archetypal eccentric genius. But among his many peculiar habits (conducting his own playing whenever he had a spare hand, for example) was a fondness for creating alter egos who would savagely criticise his work. Though notoriously single-minded in his musical interpretations, Gould could look at his work from different and unfavourable perspectives. His brilliance may have seemed effortless, but it was in fact hard-won.
Nobody should torture themselves over their work. And, as Michael Cockerell’s recent documentary on Boris Johnson demonstrated, we should perhaps be wary of self-criticism – or self-deprecation – that comes too easily, as it can be a way of concealing Napoleonic levels of self-belief. But there should be time for stepping back and thinking about how we could do better. “The cleverest of all”, said Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month”. It didn’t do him any harm.
...on the Turner Prize
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