Bigmouth Strikes Again, or: I Know Morrissey Hates It When People Use This Title and He Is Exactly the Kind of Person to Google Himself
Morrissey is writing a novel, and this worries me. It worries me because he is a fantastic writer who has never had or needed constraints, and writing a novel without constraints requires tremendous self-discipline or the egregious ability to completely ignore reading as a reader would. Morrissey, I believe, is in the latter camp, which means he is probably going to release a novel that is absolutely wonderful in a purely stylistic sense, but that is unable to be the work it could have been with a bit of light editing and proofing. I worry, because Morrissey needs editing, and who could edit Morrissey?
If Autobiography was edited, it was edited by Morrissey himself. I refuse to believe that anyone at Penguin would have let Morrissey use the phrase “bearded clam” in earnest. This is Morrissey, remember? The guy that’s been compared to Oscar Wilde in terms of his wit. I also don’t believe that an editor wouldn’t check pronouns, because Morrissey misspells “Huntingdon” (as in life sciences) as “Huntington”. This is Morrissey, remember? The hardcore animal protectionist who can’t spell the name of one of the most infamous animal research laboratories in the world.
Not that Morrissey can’t tell a compelling story, mind. Like any narcissist, he has had much practice at telling stories about himself, and turning himself and his life in to a story. This despite his constant assurances that he does not like himself. Morrissey is the expert at exhibiting self loathing as a form of narcissism, in that for some, the focus on the self as an object of loathing is the act of directing a constant attention towards the self, the act of believing oneself to be uniquely awful, uniquely unlovable, and in that uniqueness finding a form of self love. Morrissey wasn’t like the other boys, but who is? The story of his childhood is Dickensian in the vividness of the characters he draws, something probably afforded him by the fact that many who are so drawn and now dead. Morrissey seems to be at his most open and comfortable when discussing his childhood and adolescence, even when dealing with poverty and ritualised abuse. If you, like me, love reading accounts of the development and education of your favourite artists, then this section of Autobiography will be of immense interest to you. And will probably also make you glad you didn’t grow up working class in Manchester, in the ’60s. Unless you did, poor you. Hopefully you’re not as much of an arse as Morrissey, because Morrissey was not born an arse, he was made one.
I would say that the first section has the quality of a Künstlerroman and can be read and enjoyed as such, but that would imply that Autobiography has sections. I’m not that hapless a reader that a lack of chapter breaks completely throws me and makes me unable to follow the work, and, after all, Autobiography does proceed (mostly) chronologically; but the lack of any breaks whatsoever gives the work a confused quality, as if Morrissey wrote it in a Keruoac style week long marathon, not a good quality for an autobiography, an act of teasing out and introsepction. And Morrissey is famously straight(ish) edge, so you have to wonder what fuelled him. What makes it worse is that it is fairly clear where the breaks could have been put in, and weren’t, speaking yet again to a lack of editing. Then again, he did get them to publish it as a Penguin Classic. If he had that kind of pull, it’s no surprise it came out exactly as he wrote it.
So, there’s a (largely) identifiable first section detailing his youth, which segues in to a history of his time with the Smiths, which is all well and good, because anyone reading this book is probably interested in hearing about Morrissey’s time with the Smiths from Morrissey himself. All throughout this, though, it is intimated that, despite the problems with record companies, there is trouble to come, which builds suspense as if he is writing his life as fiction. Morrissey is a very skilled narcissist.
From there on, you’ll be hard pressed to find any of the wonderfully evocative writing present in the early parts of the book, as Morrissey recounts the court case bought against himself and Marr, by Rourke and Joyce. For around fifty pages, Morrissey does not do much but constantly reiterate the arguments made against him, and his own problems with them. I understand his desire to publicly defend himself in print against what he sees as an injustice, but this aimless, shapeless “but, but, but, however” begins to grate when you realise that yes, he is going to go on, and on, and on, about this court case. Where earlier Morrissey elaborated character as well as any skilled fictionalist, here he resorts to petty character assassination and whining, letting his obvious talent for the written word slide, as opposed to spitefully taking his opportunity to put in the knife. Again, again, again, if he’d written this for his own amusement, this would be perfectly understandable, but he believed his work good enough to be a classic, and any editor would have looked at this section and decided that it needed to be cut in half, at least, and Morrissey’s line of argument be made much clearer and less circular. If he is going to be writing as if he is responding to a court judgement (an arguably bad judgement, but bear with me), then he should bloody well be careful to make his argument followable. As it is, I have trouble sympathising with him because he demonstrates not much more than the very nastiness he argues was falsely attributed to him.
Then, sadly, it just gets boring. Yeah, I know, I should find a better adjective, but I was bored. Not because of a limited attention span (I finished it in about two days), but because for the last hundred or so pages (again, no chapter breaks), he simply says nothing. He went here and sang. Then he went there and sang. Then he came home to Manchester and… sang. All the promising powers of observation and description and storytelling demonstrated earlier seem to desert him as he simply recounts the last ten years of his life touring. Maybe not much more happened and he needed to fill out space. Maybe, as mentioned earlier, he had more freedom to tell stories when the stories happened a long time ago, and there is no one to be hurt (or more likely, no one he wishes to hurt). This is a classic, allegedly, and a good chunk of it is simply a slightly fleshed out touring itinerary.
To return to the question I asked at the beginning: who edits Morrissey? Probably, no one. If he could get his first book published as a Penguin Classic, then it’s feasible that he had the influence to also make sure that he had total (like, authoritarian) control over what exactly the text was. Or he persuaded Penguin to let him edit it himself. Or leaned on them until they chose the person that he wanted to edit it, someone who could rubber stamp his excesses, not who they wanted to edit it, someone who would curtail them. Curtail them, or perhaps mould them in to an exceptional piece of personal storytelling, which it could have been. If only it was bloody edited.