The Crowd At The Graveside

Who here mourns for Iain Banks?

You? Well, I'm sorry for your loss. Were you family? A friend?

Oh. You read some of his books. You particularly enjoyed the ones where he wasn't mucking around with talking spaceships and people with implausibly complicated names. Right.

Oh. I'm sorry. You met him once. At a book signing. For The Steep Approach To Garbadale. He seemed very nice, did he? Lovely accent. You would have stayed to chat a bit longer but, you know, it was an awfully long queue.

The death of a famous person always brings the dashed-off tributes and the trite memoria out of the woodwork. In Banks, we have a tragic hero for everyone. Beloved by a broad readership, a terrible early death, a final book that talks to an extent about that death. He's even coined not one, but two metaphors for the process of passing away, both of which have been heavily over-used on the social networks over the past few days. There's an outpouring of … something. You shouldn't call it grief. There'd have to be a genuine loss for that.

I can't mourn for Iain Banks, because I didn't know him. It's sad that he's gone, of course, but I have to be honest. Part of the reason I'm sad is because there will be no more Culture books, no more of his skewed, luxuriant thrillers and family dramas. It's pure self-interest, and I make no apology for it.

In the absence of real grief, the tributes have been pouring in, and they all have one thing in common. They're not really about Iain Banks at all. As the writer has no real story to tell about the man, then they simply talk about themselves, and how their work or lives have been in some way changed for the better thanks to his writing. It's a common event when famous people die. There's no other reference point for your perceived sorrow other than the one in the mirror. Perhaps there's an element of sheaudenfreude here, perhaps even some mutant cousin of Munchausen Syndrome. We make ourselves feel better by associating ourselves, however tangentially, with tragedy.

There's another angle. As TLC has pointed out to me on many occasions, the act of blogging (into which we can tie Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook in their micro-blogging facilities) is inherently narcissistic. Here I am. This is my opinion. It is relevant because of reasons. You must read. Please.

Therefore, an easy way to get hits when a famous person dies is to write about the famous person. You can be lyrical, silly or wailingly bereft. As long as there's something out there about how you've pulled out your creased old copy of The Wasp Factory again, the one with the black and white cover, and how you will read it while feeling sad. There you go. You've had your say on the matter. Congratufuckinglations.


And of course, I'm no better. Here I am, sneering at you while doing the same things for which I'm sneering at you. I'm the really irritating bloke in the crowd telling you that you're all wrong to feel the way you do, while contributing to the noise. Maybe the terrible truth about it is that I should feel sadder. Perhaps I'm the one in the wrong here. But, in the same way that I can't tell you how to feel, you can't tell me. I don't feel sad because (once again, through a megaphone from the rooftops) I DIDN'T KNOW THE GUY. And there's a very, very good chance that you didn't either.

If you are a friend of Iain Banks, or a member of his family, then I'm truly, deeply sorry for your loss. This must be a horrible time for you, and nothing I can say will make a single bit of difference. If you're not, and you took the time to email Iain after he announced that he was dying, then you've already done a good thing. Take comfort in that.

It's telling that the people who knew Iain best are staying off-radar. Other things on their mind, of course. Ken McLoed, his mentor and friend for over thirty years, has instead run a piece in The Guardian on Banks and his SF writing. It feels like a tribute, and it's the only current writing on the man that I'd recommend. It's moving, funny, insightful and wise. All the things this piece is not.

I'm sorry. I just thought I needed to say something.



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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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