It is a key belief of my that it is important to, occasionally, read bad books. Otherwise, how is one to retain a sense of ones own potentiality for publication?
So, I went into Morrissey’s Autobiography expecting to be annoyed. Expecting to hate it. One of the key reasons why I bought it was because the level of vitriol my girlfriend feels towards the man made purchasing his book a fun, forbidden, act. In a class on Wednesday, one of coursemates saw it in my bag and sneered.
This is a book NO ONE wanted me to read. Thus, partly because I’m an angry liberal vegetarian, partly because I quite liked the Smiths for about six months when I was nineteen, I decided to give it a go.
There are some GLARING faults. Some pretty huge problems. And several things that are just plain offensive. For example:
a) The word “Israelites” is used disparagingly to refer to lawyers/accountants at least once, I think twice;
b) There is a definite streak of misogyny, at one point criticising the New York Dolls for chasing “the bearded clam”, then on the next page referring to ignorant people as “clam-heads”, two phrases non-normative enough to, in close proximity, imply a connection between vaginas and idiocy;
c) It is, without a doubt, pretentious. The writing is incredibly readable (which is ultimately a good thing), but individual sentences and paragraphs are long, and done so in a deliberate, showy way that makes one feel as if there is an expectation that the reader should struggle;
e) An utter lack of managing to characterise any of the musicians he has toured with for the last twenty plus years;
f) He constantly quotes himself;
g) There is a boring obsession with statistics – venue sizes, chart positions, sales, financials, etc;
h) The book as a whole is poorly edited – the section about a court hearing re: Smiths loyalties in the mid-90s is surprisingly involving, quite well put together, it ends… But then there are about twenty more, UTTERLY redundant, pages where Morrissey goes through his own arguments A SECOND TIME;
i) It’s very, very arrogant;
j) Morrissey lacks the ability to write about Morrissey with any sense of self-awareness or detachment, writing about his early-90s habit of exiting restaurants whenever anyone he was with ordered meat without any acknowledgement of HOW FUCKING RUDE IT WAS…
There are more, I suppose. More criticisms I could level. It is divaish, it is impersonal, it barely gives any salacious details whatsoever. Morrissey is TERRIBLE at writing about himself. At writing about his life.
BUT – and this is quite a significant but – there are moments when his writing is excellent.
He can be genuinely witty, when he is self-deprecating without being self-hating, he can be charming. When he expresses his opinions eloquently and with restraint, he can be convincing. And the best bit (a section that I would have, had I been Morrissey, cut out and used on its own) is a deliciously out of place description of him visiting a Northern moor with some old friends and the group of them having an odd, tentatively supernatural, encounter. This five page section, where it didn’t matter who Morrissey was, what songs he had sung, what causes he had championed, what food he had refused, which expensive houses he had bought… this five page section was warm, was interesting, and possessed the kind of writerly, literary skill that he exhibited in the best of his lyrics.
I did enjoy reading the book, though, because amongst the errors that exist (due to Penguin’s deferential treatment of the artist) are occasional glimmers of the intellectual and poetic strength that have given Morrissey the success he has had.
But it is, sadly, not a good book. But Morrissey is confirmed, in places, as a talented writer.
Much as he has never written his own music, his strength lies in collaboration. With an assertive editor, this really could have been something special. Alas, it is not.
If you intend to read it, read it. If you weren’t, don’t. Actually, unless you’re prepared to be a very sympathetic and forgiving reader, steer clear.
NB: I liked it more than I expected to.
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