I’ve just finished a book called Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness. ‘Shrinking violet’ is not, in fact, a phrase heard much these days: along with the word ‘wallflower’, it has a pre-1960s feel to it. In Howard Jacobson’s autobiographical novel The Mighty Walzer, the Shrinking Violets are the central character’s shy aunts as described by his father, who refers to them as if they were ‘an established showbiz group like the Andrews Sisters’. (Jacobson, by the way, has described himself as an acutely shy child who became a writer ‘because I was afraid of the world and wanted to remake it’.)
A Google search for ‘shrinking violet’ today brings up links to a weight reduction method that women may use to magically ‘reduce by a dress size in one treatment’. It seems to involve wrapping oneself in a heat-inducing cling film-type material full of essential oils that trigger lipolysis, which breaks down fats so they can be processed by the liver. It promises, in other words, a literal rather than a figurative shrinking – the only type of shrinking now deemed acceptable in a society ruled by what Susan Cain calls the ‘extrovert ideal’.
Someone once suggested to me that writing a book was like dropping a stone down a really deep well. The stone might rattle along the sides of the well’s walls a bit, to remind you of its continued existence, and then years later you might hear the tiniest plop as it hit the water table. I think the metaphor was meant to be consoling, to remind you never to give up hope of a long-delayed response to your work. But instead it made me worry that writing was a one-sided and fluky affair, with no guarantee that it would ever find a reader. Anyway, I have thrown in my stone, and I will come back in a year to see if I can hear a little splash.