What Bono can learn from the Booker winner

The U2 singer’s iTunes apology had parallels with Richard Flanagan’s speech, but each came from a very different place

Two people, one a writer, the other a musician. Two statements, the first made in a moment of triumph, the second in one of contrition. Richard Flanagan and Bono. You know one of these men well – have perhaps had your fill at this stage. You should get to know the former, too, not simply through the Australian's at times astonishing novels – vivid, unforgettable – but also through the words he spoke this week on winning the Man Booker Prize, which offered an unintended but enlightening parallel to Bono's apology.

“To be a writer is to journey into humility,” Flanagan said from the stage. “It is to be defeated by ever greater things.” In this “rare moment of success” he thanked his wife for travelling “with me through many dark times over 30 years with love, with grace, with serene dignity, and always kept me standing”.

Flanagan later expanded on this with a frankness that had you relishing his victory whether or not you had read his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

"A year and a half ago, when I finished this book, I was contemplating going to get what work I could in the mines in far northern Australia, because things had come to such a pass with my writing. I had spent so long on this book. There's nothing unusual about that for writers. Writing is a very hard life for so many writers."


Here was a writer laying out the truth. About scraping by. About creating despite the rarity of success and the paucity of money. About the literary debris that litters the path to a finished novel.

Flanagan had written five other drafts on the subject of second World War prisoners working on the Thailand-Burma railway. He had destroyed them all, wiping them from his hard drive and burning the printouts.

“A good writer needs a good rubbish bin, and I just got a box of matches and struck the match and put it to the paper and that’s it. They were rubbish, they were bad and they didn’t work. I don’t think I’m much of a writer, but I’m a better rewriter.”

Around the same time on Tuesday Bono was talking about the placing of the new U2 album in every iTunes user’s inbox, and about how much it had irritated people.

“I had this beautiful idea, and we kind of got carried away with ourselves,” he said. “Artists are prone to that kind of thing. Drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”

It seems too easy to beat up on the U2 singer these days, and he had been pummelled globally after the stunt, so there’s no point in just adding a punch to the melee before running away again. Plus, you can’t always be sure there’s not irony in that apology.

But in these two statements there is a point at which Flanagan and Bono share something. It is in the desperation. Yet it is that same point at which their perspectives diverged.

Flanagan’s fear, and that of so many writers, was of not being able to earn enough to live, entwined with the fear that what he was creating was not strong enough to be published, to earn an audience.

Bono’s was a fear of losing relevance – he has said so explicitly – and audience, but the band’s privilege blinded them from the truth most artists, of whatever hue, know all too well. You have to earn both. Each and every time.

Both men generalised – Flanagan about writers, Bono about all artists – but only the former sounded sincere, as if reflecting a universal truth that will never change. Bono, unfortunately, sounded as if he were really just talking about himself.

The two men were born only a year apart, on opposite ends of the earth, and their careers have run along at a far distance from each other for 30 years, with no cause to cross. Even this week they only glanced, different universes brushing past each other as they drifted in opposite directions.

Yet the Booker winner’s words held a mirror to Bono’s, reflecting the truth of one artist’s fear against another’s, and cast a sharp light on how different two apparently similar needs can be, depending on whether you’re on the ground looking up or at the top looking down.

shegarty@irishtimes.com @shanehegarty