Man Down

A propos nothing in particular, I thought I’d talk about ambiguity this week. Inexactness, or the quality of being open to more than one interpretation, is both a curse and a blessing in publishing. It allows competing viewpoints from authors such as Reni Eddo-Lodge and Douglas Murray, or Jordan Peterson and Caitlin Moran, to exist on the same publishing lists, but at the same time can suggest a moral vacuum at the heart.

Actually, I don’t really want to talk about ambiguity at all, but really about Ed Lamont, the teacher who three decades ago taught me to be tolerant of it. For without “Mr Lamont” and his teaching of texts such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Color Purple I would not be here now—the 16-year-old me preferring Dean Koontz, Dennis Wheatley and Jeffrey Archer who, for all of their storytelling chops, were not big on subtlety. 

Teachers, like writers, can scarcely be aware of how they influence young minds through time as those developing individuals pass them by, brains briefly steered by the wisdom of those left behind. In this case, you don’t need to take my word for it. Three years ahead of me in the same school was the comedian Greg Davies, who in 2015 had this to say about “Mr Lamont”—and his fellow teacher Derek Evans—in the TES. “As well as being great teachers of literature, they encouraged me to develop skills I am using now. They were very supportive of my early stages of comedy, when I was huddled in the corner of a playground making up nonsense with my friends.”

Lacking my own funny bone, Ed Lamont taught me the value of weighing up different positions, of balancing competing and opposing ideas without blocking out one with the other. Perhaps most importantly, he showed me how to change my mind, or perhaps more importantly, that it could be changed both by good writing and persuasion.

Last week David Shelley, the c.e.o. of Hachette UK, told a House of Lords Committee that he thought some of the difficult discussions we are having today around publishing and the choices we make were exacerbated by social media, the algorithms privileging conflict over chat. It’s an argument familiar to anyone who has watched the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” that details the hold our tiny screens now have on us. The problem here though is to imagine that the debate is somehow diminished because the platform makes it uncomfortable viewing, or that those expressing their discontent lack the wherewithal to understand what is at play. As Hachette USA found out to its own cost a year ago, when it added Woody Allen’s memoir to its list, some authors cannot live in the same house together—nor should they be asked to.

Mr Lamont retired in 2005 and died a year later. His influence lives on—even today I resist didacticism, and remain wary of social media pile-ons, however certain they seem in their judgement. I know this though: publishing is in a tough spot and is in for a rough ride if it cannot learn the limits of its own ambiguity and, more importantly, how to change its mind.