Angels still sitting on my shoulder - The Critic, July 2020

Douglas Murray discusses the importance of intellectual mentors and reveals two who continue to guide him.

A little while back I wrote something wildly unpopular and an acquaintance noted that I didn’t seem to mind. “Why would I?” I asked, genuinely interested. We drilled down to what seemed to me a rather important truth, one that I suspect many, if not most, writers share. Which is that it bothers me less what millions of people think than does the judgment of a small group of people (probably no more than ten) whom I listen to and who would cause me to worry if they felt I had got something wrong.

 

This is, I suspect, a common if unspoken fact about writers, that although we should like the reading public to approve of what we do, experience trains us to lose the terror of their feedback — never more so than in this communication age. If a writer today took on board every reader’s opinion they would become a husk in minutes.

We all have an audience in our heads, the ideal critic, the person whose judgment matters

It is the same — perhaps more so — with television. One person says you were too aggressive. Another that you were not aggressive enough. One that you looked quite lovely. Another that they have never seen anyone look worse. One proclaims you a genius, another an ignoramus. So you work out that the twin impostors of praise and hate must be ignored in equal measure. Yet we all have an audience in our heads: the people we are really writing for.

Some years ago Martin Amis delivered a eulogy for the editor and critic John Gross. Describing what the young writer had learned from the older one, Amis concluded by saying that everything he wrote, whether it was for one of Gross’s journals or not, he would always in some sense pass by John Gross’s desk. “I still do that,” Amis concluded. “And I always will.”

Whether or not we have the ideal reader in mind, we all have the ideal critic, the person whose judgment matters. For most writers I imagine that that includes some close family and friends. But it will also feature people we have sought out.
today the word “mentor” has a slightly soppy quality. But perhaps because of the precariousness and unusualness of the life, having people to look up to, learn from and be guided by is vital for writers.

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