Howard Jacobson: The indiscreet charmlessness of the literati (not including me, of course)

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The Independent Online

I have been proof-reading all this week. A new novel. Not something you want to hear about just yet, though I'll be doing my best to ensure you hear about nothing else once it's published. Every man his own marketing machine now. No dignity left in the profession. At the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this month there were a hundred publicity photographs of Jamie Oliver to every one of VS Naipaul. At a book fair! And Naipaul having just won the Nobel prize for literature.

But there you are: who gives a monkey's about a Nobel prize? All that matters is whether the world's women want to eat and mother you. And Naipaul doesn't do motherability. Not on his book jackets, at least.

And will I be doing motherability on mine? Wait and see. I'll be doing mother-something, I think I can promise that.

I have been proof-reading, anyway, which is a dispiriting business because it invariably comes at the wrong time – never close enough to the actual writing for you still to be in the original white heat of creative energy, in love with every word, but never far enough away from it for you to stumble, marvelling upon your own prose, like Cortez (though that should, of course, read Balboa – those being the sorts of details proof-readers notice) espying the Pacific for the first time.

You feel a bit of this and a bit of that when you're proof-reading, now up yourself, now down yourself, but you don't recapture that urgency that made you write through the nigh, for fear the world would end before your book did. "Only allow me to finish this"' you say to God, "and you can do whatever you like with me thereafter." Proof-reading is the thereafter, and it would appear that you are not after all ready to give up everything for your book's sake.

Over and above the standard desperation that overwhelms you the minute you have to start putting back those individual quirks of syntax and punctuation that your editor has removed, there's bound to be further bothersomeness of your own making.

This time what's bothering me is charm. Is my writing charming enough? Have I forgotten to do whatever it was I did last time, when I was definitely found charming? Following which question, of course, the antithetical one: am I too charming? And what am I doing caring whether anyone finds me – not me, my writing – charming at all? Should I put a bit of last-minute charm in while I still have the chance? Or should I take some out?

I don't know where this worry about charm has come from. It isn't a concern I am aware of having entertained before. Possibly it's seeing Peter Carey win the Booker prize for the second time. Now there's a charming writer. Myself, though I admire Carey, I have sometimes wondered whether he isn't excessively charming, too calculatedly a winner of hearts. Which could account for why I haven't wanted to read anything he has written since Oscar and Lucinda. Nobody charms me and gets away with it.

Conversely, the only other novelist to have won the Booker twice – also from a Commonwealth country, and also beginning with a C – is Coetzee, and he is not a charming writer at all. A powerful novel, Disgrace, but reading it is like swallowing ash.

So there would appear to be no rule. Charm them and they love you, don't charm them and they love you. Carey or Coetzee, Jamie Oliver or Anne Robinson. Anne Robinson, in case you can't put a picture to the name, is that woman who winks through a hole in the side of her face and is often photographed – to my embarrassment, if not to hers – holding a whip.

Why a woman so concerned for her marketability would not have rung up a dominatrix proper and asked her to demonstrate the difference between wielding a riding-crop and twiddling a feather-duster, I can't imagine. Pride, I suppose. The poor woman thinks she's genuinely scary. So let me be the one to tell her: Laa-Laa of the Teletubbies is more scary – just a little less ambitious.

Of all popular forms of charm, self-conscious charmlessness is the least charming. Give me in-your-face unctuousness any time. "I've always said that affection lasts longer than admiration," oozed Des O'Connor the other night, in the course of receiving television's equivalent of the Nobel prize for literature. In other words: "I don't care if you make fun of me, as long as you love me."

This is more honourable than "I don't care if you hate me, as long as you pay me", since we all know that being loved is everybody's goal and being hated – the line extends from Gilbert Harding to David Starkie – is just the unlovable person's strategy for getting where those of us with natural charm already are.

Why the public can be bothered to buy into this is another of life's little mysteries. It might make sense to think of it as soft porn, S&M chic: flinching from a pain you don't actually feel.

If you want the genuine thing – real abrasiveness, grating wit, a bruising intelligence – go see Jackie Mason. I took a night off from my proof-reading to see him and came out a changed man. First time I'd laughed in a month. Everyone felt the same – how good it was, how needful, how curative, to have comedy rough you up.

So now that's something else I have to check in my proofs, whether I'm rough enough.