I feared I might be starting from scratch, but it was actually the opposite. Writers who have never acted will balk when I say that, while the two are definitely not the same, the lessons learned as a performer resonate often when I write. I doubt that’s a surprise to Tony Bennett, a singer who also paints. In the last ten years, actor John Malkovich has spent more time designing couture men’s clothing than playing roles on the big screen. The “multitudes” are evident in the work of Joni Mitchell, who also paints when she isn’t composing songs that devastate with their emotional honesty. The Sistine Chapel may be a work of art, but so are Michelangelo’s poems and letters. And recently, Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement from the screen to pursue dressmaking — to add to his other skills as a cobbler and stonemason. From Victor Hugo to contemporary polymaths like Boots Riley, Solange, Janelle Monae, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Lady Gaga, artists have funneled their creative juices through multiple mediums for eons. For them, doing “one thing” has never been enough.
These attacks on clichés are at once captivating and convincing. However, they share two major blind spots. First, they assume that clichés are always used by others, never by the writer herself. This ignores the fact that clichés are intrinsic to communication, almost unavoidable, and subject to contextual interpretation. A seemingly authentic and effective saying is interpreted as a cliché from a different perspective, and vice versa. Thus, the US president Barack Obama declared in the 2013 Democratic National Committee that it’s a cliché to say that America is the greatest country on Earth – but was also accused of constantly using clichés in his own speeches, such the need to ‘protect future generations’, ‘together we can make a difference’ and ‘let me be clear’.
By sucking in shoppers and, as former Aldi UK CEO Paul Foley puts it, “sucking the profitability out of the industry” – profit margins of 2-3% are now the norm – the two German-owned companies have forced the “big four” supermarkets to take drastic measures. Morrisons has closed stores and laid off workers, while Sainsbury’s and Asda, desperate to cut costs and stop losing market share, announced a proposed £13bn merger in May, which the UK competition watchdog now appears likely to block. Tesco, meanwhile, has slashed its product range and bought the discount wholesaler Booker. In September, in a belated acknowledgement that the major threat to its business comes from Aldi and Lidl, Tesco launched its own discount chain, called Jack’s.
These industry shifts often lead the news, because supermarkets are so important to the economy: with more than 300,000 staff, Tesco is the UK’s biggest private-sector employer and the biggest retailer of any sort. But we also follow these stories closely for a more sentimental reason: grocery shopping is an intimate part of our lives. We don’t need to buy books or fancy trainers, but we do need to eat.
Fiction that dramatizes the struggle to be good is filtering down like a soft light on our messy present. “Such Good Work,” a first novel by the Swedish-American writer Johannes Lichtman, is one example; “The Altruists,” a début from Andrew Ridker, is another. Both authors came up in the M.F.A. system; both cast a brilliant German academic as the love interest of an undeserving male protagonist. More centrally, the two titles are about discovering and applying—to yourself, to others—a sustainable form of moral idealism.
The problem of offering a practical perspective on death is summarised at the outset. “Birth and death are the only human acts we cannot practise,” writes Tisdale, and so “death looms ahead as a kind of theory.” There are no dress rehearsals for death. Dreamless sleeps will be woken from; the deaths of others do not necessarily carry instruction as to how one ought to go into that good night, gentle or raging. Practical advice then must deal with the concrete details of death; Tisdale’s book addresses both future corpses and their carers and families, and indirectly, health professionals and advocates of varying stripe. The advice is direct. The grammatical mood is usually imperative, the mood and tone of the author running the spectrum from compassionate to faintly peremptory. The book is “about preparing for your own death and for the deaths of people close to you”. A bank of experience built up as a palliative nurse makes Tisdale a singularly qualified counsellor of corpses-to-be, and allows her to lay out the various dull, uninspiring, sometimes absurd practicalities attending the business of dying while avowing simultaneously “the strange, undeniable fact that the presence of death can be joyful”.