World Book Day sends shivers down columnist Mark Beaumont's spine – literature has been a life-ruining creative torment
Thought for the day: Grammarly would fucking massacre Ulysses. And the entire works of Shakespeare (“replace outdated vocabulary”), Dickens (“shorten sentences throughout”) and Anthony Burgess (“error type WTF found”). TS Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Williams Faulkner and Burroughs would not compute, but EL James and Dan Brown would get green-lit all the way. Because formula destroys art. I know first-hand – I’ve heard the Tom Walker album.
The day that thought was for is last Thursday, World Book Day. A day I approach as warily as Richard Herring approaches International Women’s Day. Not because I’m duty-bound to spend the full 24 hours telling idiots on the internet when World Paintings Day is (it’s April 15), but because it comes with an inherent sense of personal dread. I salute the intention – to encourage children to lose themselves in the soul-nourishing art of the printed word – and if, in any way, it leads to someone wandering into a bookshop and discovering a dusty copy of my reasonably-reviewed 2013 Bon Iver biography Good Winter, I could certainly do with the two quid. But the very idea of a World Book Day is a torment for me, a global irritant, the literary equivalent of a National Mumford Month. Because books have ruined my life.
Not reading books, although I’ve certainly wasted countless tube journeys I could otherwise have spent staring blankly into the middle distance slogging through ‘novels’ ‘written’ by TV comedians. I mean writing the damned things. Since I was 17, I have been ‘writing a novel’ every day of my life. Mostly, that’s involved failing to find any time to write a novel, but the cloying weight of fiction unfinished is a relentless burden that drags on my spirit daily, a constant psychological background hum ensuring that, ’til my dying day, I will never have a moment’s guilt-free spare time. Whoever said “inspiration is a curse” probably had it published two weeks before I finished spending three years of my life writing innumerable drafts of an almost identical sentiment.
I’ve completed five novels – two shit, one grossly implausible, one great idea badly executed and one I’m actually extremely proud of. The last took me 10 years to get right, and fucked up most of them for me. My insistence on spending almost every Friday night clutching my brow in front of a series of computers – which would virtually all fall into obsolescence before the book was finished – gave my ex-fiancee ample opportunity to cheat on me for three years. Subsequent fledgling relationships would often flounder when I’d describe the novel – an internal psychological entity is born into, and exists within, ten different people for the final six minutes of their lives; it experiences everything its hosts do, but can’t communicate with them. It’s a rock star dying of a heroin overdose, then an accountant jumping from his office building, then a pilot crashing a plane and so on to a deeply disturbing, purposefully mind-fucking conclusion. The idea was the create something shocking, confrontational and entirely original in literature; the effect was to trigger several dozen weirdo alarms in Upper Street pubs.
To say I took the idea to obsessive experimental lengths would be like saying Brexit is mildly untidy. My agent took it well when I told her that the existential protagonist would have to be learning its entire vocabulary from its hosts, only ever using words already used in the text. She was surprisingly supportive when I insisted there had to be a chapter entirely in Japanese syntax. She even bit her tongue when I told her it was called . But no earthly publisher had the faintest idea what to do with it.
When it did finally emerge on Kindle in 2013, I was suddenly terrified of it. People I knew well, who’d read it, started treating me as though I might be secretly unhinged. I was told of people finishing the book in coffee shops with a voluminous “what the fuck!” The Amazon reviews were positive, but exactly as horrified as I’d intended: “unpleasant yet adventurous”, “relentlessly obscene”, “like nothing you’ve ever read or would want to again” and the customer review headline of my dreams – “ban this sick filth”.
When people told me they were reading it, I worried for their mental state come the final lines. The inbox for the social media promotional page filled with messages from teenagers who thought they’d stumbled across the devil’s Facebook and thought, if they repeated the title a dozen times in Messenger, He might appear and grant them unholy Fortnite abilities or exclusive diabolic Pokemon.  had taken the best years of my life, but for six years I left it hanging there, un-promoted, like the cursed box that horror movie victims find in their attic.
In the meantime, I built up a formidable music book catalogue, itself no roll in The Dirt. My first, on Muse, became a fan favourite and something of a best-seller, which led to me being offered deals to write about acts and genres I was, shall we say, a little less familiar with. I got most of the way through a biography of Jay-Z, for instance, before I realised that, in ’90s rap slang, ‘cheese’ meant ‘money’. I just thought Jay-Z really liked cheese. Like, an Alex James level cheeseoholic right here. In which case, why was he so down on crackers?
And then there was the book I wrote on Kanye West, which over-ran the requested word length by such a degree that I’ve been too scared to calculate what the advance from the publisher works out to per word, in case I discover that it’s into negative figures and I’ve somehow ended up paying them. And all due to the unprecedented amount of coverage Kanye had on the Mail Online since hooking up with Kim. My research involved more side-boob than an Essex wedding.
All my life, books have been a scolding mistress, a compulsive inadequacy, a home-wrecker, a time-eater and an all-consuming psychic predator. Anyone bless-cursed with the unwavering and unforgiving creative impulse will know the feeling. So of course I’m 20,000 words into novel six, The Bridges Burst, a coming-of-age road trip inspired by the mythology surrounding Neutral Milk Hotel. I’ve promised my agent it won’t make anyone question their entire psychological world-view this time. I suspect she’ll believe that when she sees it.