John Walsh: Who wants a genius as their mentor? Not me

Notebook

Share
Related Topics

When Naomi Alderman was rung up last autumn and asked if she'd be interested in "some kind of literary mentor scheme", it must have surprised her that she was being offered the protégée role. Alderman was, after all, a published writer. She'd won the Orange Award for new writers, and been named Young Writer of the Year by a Sunday newspaper.

The caller didn't say who the mentor would be, but encouraged her to apply. The fact that the scheme was being organised by the Rolex Mentor and Protégée Arts Initiative should have hinted that something special was involved. But it was only months later, after she and many others had been whittled down to a shortlist, that she learned her mentor would be Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood? The gimlet-eyed, curly-barneted Canadian author of The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace? The five-times Booker shortlistee (and one-time winner) who's generally held to be one of the world's greatest living writers? Leaving aside the question of why Ms Atwood might condescend to be a glorified tutor (the $50,000 honorarium and free Oyster Royal might explain it), is Ms Alderman sure she wants the ordeal of having such a literary titan, whose disapproving gaze can freeze the blood of interviewers, scrutinise her new work in progress? Isn't she afraid that every word, clause and sentence will be judged inapt, unvivid, lazy, clichéd, or just wrong? Why would you want to come so close to a writer whose influence will loom over your work like a giant shadow?

We could all do with a mentor. But you don't want a mentor who's stratospherically better than you'll ever be. It's too depressing. You'll just start trying to imitate them. If I joined the Rolex scheme and found myself mentored by, I don't know, Cormac McCarthy, I might start my novel confidently enough ("Gerald awoke with a start in his Clapham maisonette, knowing with a ghastly certainty that his wife Prue had been unfaithful") but after one session with the author of All The Pretty Horses, it would have changed beyond recognition ("Gerry knew that a goodlookin woman was like a goodlookin horse – always more trouble than they were worth...")

Obviously I'd be grateful if Rolex gave me Stephen King as a mentor, but I'm not sure my book would preserve its original integrity ("Gerald woke in the burning warehouse, to see snakes wriggling in the eye sockets of the mad clown face...").

I'd love to tell friends that Philip Roth had agreed to mentor my work for six months, but I couldn't swear that I would retain much of my unique authorial voice after his helpful interventions ("Nathan didn't wake up. He'd been dead for three days, and now lay unmourned by his last girlfriend, Sadie Weizman, 61 years his junior, the recipient of his phenomenal, unflagging, jackhammer sexual prowess...").

Even if one were offered a titanically gifted British writer – say, Irvine Welsh – as mentor, I fear that some trace elements of their style might be detectable in one's own ("Gezzah woke wi a pain innez bollix the size oava fookin caber. He wiz pished, an hud been pished since the skag deal had goan doon. 'Yah plukey-faced wide-oh,' said hez hoor Prudence, 'Get ootay the bed and start cookin' up...'").

As St Augustine might have said: give us help and advice, Lord. But not too much.

Shake it all about

The humble handshake is news. A survey suggests that half of us no longer proffer a mitt to strangers. We think it's too formal a way to greet friends – the hug and kiss have eclipsed it – and is "appropriate only in a business setting". One person in 12 worries that it's a health risk.

Recently, the British Olympic Association's chief medic was asked if inter-team handshakes should be avoided. "I think, within reason, yes," he said. "We're talking about minimising risk of illness. It's all about hand hygiene." Later the BOA amended the ruling to say: "Do shake hands. Do use hand foam."

But what about the moment when Team GB meets its Olympic rivals and either refuses to grasp their outstretched hands or else sprays them with disinfectant? Do we want to seem a crowd of unfriendly neurotics? No we don't. Let's shake on that.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Technical Support Analyst (C++, Windows, Linux, Perl, Graduate)

£30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global leader in trading platforms and e...

Junior IT Consultant (SQL, Java, C++, Oracle, Graduate)

£28000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A fast growing consultancy to the financia...

Technical Support Analyst (Windows, Linux, Unix, Graduate)

£30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Support Analyst - Liverpool Stre...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Forty per cent of global trades in euros are cleared through London  

The success enjoyed by the City of London owes nothing to the EU

Nigel Farage
Sami Khedira of Germany runs past Oscar of Brazil with the ball during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between Brazil and Germany  

If they weren't obsessed with instant profits, England could have a team as good as Germany’s

Mark Steel
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil