Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Touch and Go

I was thrilled to be sent the lovely diary which Faber has produced on its 80th birthday, designed in the style of those early Faber books. Inside, each double-page spread is beautifully adorned with a picture of the cover of the first edition of a classic Faber, or some other archival material, and the one for the second week of April particularly struck me. It's a photo or scan of a 1957 letter, typed in red ink and sent by a reader to poetry editor 'Mr Eliot'. The reader is unsure of his/her own opinion of the book on which he/she is reporting, since it's 'won the First Publication Award in a contest sponsored by the New York Poetry Centre and judged by Auden, Spender and Marianne Moore' but the poet is a 'young Englishman whose poems have been chiefly published in America' (one senses a prejudice here) and 'the quality seems to me very uneven.' On balance, the reader feels that while it might be 'worth while asking Spender informally for some more information about the Award' and about the judges' assessment of the poet's work, 'I don't feel we'd want to take him on yet.'

But at least the reader is honest about his/her lack of confidence in his/her own doubts. And fortunately, as a result, the American-born TS Eliot has no hesitation in scribbling across the bottom, 'I'm inclined to think we ought to take this man now. Let's discuss him. TSE.'

The poet and book in question? Ted Hughes and his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain.

Such an interesting insight into how the fate of writers can sometimes hang in the balance...

(I would scan the page for you, but I'm not sure about the copyright.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Richard and Judy Bottleneck

In his review of the 100 top bestsellers for 2008, John Dugdale forecasts bad times ahead for literary fiction as a result of Richard and Judy's move from prominence:
It's not just authors of commercial fiction who will miss the teatime taste dictators, as they regularly backed more ambitious writing.
Others expressed similar thoughts in the wake of the loss of the Jonathan Ross show, the view being that commercial fiction once promenaded there will now be forced into the 'lower-level' publicity slots, ousting more literary fiction.

Well, I don't know about you, but I have this weird hunch that it might not be such a bad world in which publishers can no longer bring home the (literary) bacon via a tiny selection of the literary titles published each year by relying on celebrity-based TV and a couple of dictators, as Dugdale calls them, and will maybe have to find some other way of upping their marketing game for literary fiction in general.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

21: A New Online Critical Journal

The launch yesterday of 21, a new online critical journal from Edge Hill University, edited by Ailsa Cox and Rob Spence and concerned with contemporary and innovative fiction. Among the articles I haven't yet read is one on post 9/11 fiction, and those I have are a revealing interview with writer Charles Lambert and an interesting piece on the issue of collecting short stories in volumes by Ailsa Cox (instigator of the Edge Hill Prize for short story collections), including a report on a recent linked conference. There's also an article by me on the critical response to Anne Enright's The Gathering and its implications for the way we read now and the contemporary status of fiction.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

One Person's Poison...

Robert McCrum is hopeful that the recession will actually be good for books, and for novels and poetry in particular.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Amazon Exposed and a Poet Revealed

Sorry for the gap - been so busy, alternately gadding about and blowing my nose with a stinking cold. And now any Christmas spirit I may have salvaged is severely squashed by this news about Amazon, relayed by that fine exploder of icons, The Richard Madeley Appreciation Society. (I recommend his interview with poet Katy Evans-Bush).

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Uselessness of Literature

There's something in the air, an attitude to literature, which has been making me steam this past week. First and foremost it came wafting towards me from the stage at the Literature and Science 'debate' at Manchester University in a veritable CP-Snow-Two-Cultures attitude. As a result, since no one on the panel was a scientist, what emerged - most particularly from Martin Amis - was a sense of science as 'the other'. Now this in itself infuriates me. We live in a world increasingly dominated by science and a life increasingly technological in nature, and if literature sees itself as separate from this - and not, as it should, as the very means by which we process and come to terms with the effect of science on the way we think about the world and ourselves - then it simply declares itself irrelevant and indeed signs its own death warrant and justifies another reference to literature which made my blood boil last week:
Does it matter—in so far as anything literary matters these days—if historical fiction is inaccurate? (my italics) (A Historical Whopper, Theodore Dalrymple, BMJ). (Thanks to John Grue for the link.)
In fact Martis Amis has engaged in his fiction with notions presented to us by science, and it's becoming clear that there's a disjunction between his fiction and his public pronouncements, but while I find the latter understandable as a novelist's hyperbole and ironic provocation, I also consider them irresponsible and even dangerous in the context of public debate.

But it wasn't just the angle of the discussion which created this inadvertent demotion of literature; Amis was explicit: Literature doesn't make anything happen, he said.

I'm not the only one who is incensed by such a statement. Clare Dudman, chemist and fiction writer, commented on my post below:
Did Martin Amis really say that? The point of literature then is that it has no point. If any of us believed that then surely we wouldn't write at all!
Exactly. Call me an uncool idealist, but I would never have written my novel The Birth Machine, or the novella which is currently seeking a publisher, if I hadn't hoped they might at least cause some debate about certain modes of scientific thinking and their effects on our lives - and surely, to influence thought and opinion is potentially to influence action.

Today Robert McCrum (who once thought that good literature always finds a market, but who has clearly changed his mind on this) describes the very real way in which serious literature is being eradicated from our culture. He ends on a positive note, with the hope that the recession, by squeezing the publishing industry as a whole and along with it the bestseller culture, will make way for a resurgence of serious literature. Hope he's right, and just so long as Martin Amis and others stop announcing the urbane uselessness of literature...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Literature and Science at Manchester University

There's something I don't quite get about these public talks with Martin Amis, Professor of the Creative Writing School at Manchester University. Once more, last night, for 'Literature and Science', the last in this year's series, the huge Whitworth Hall was almost full - and this on a night of frost and threatened snow. It's as though there's a huge public appetite for intellectual debate, as though, despite the softer options of pop culture or the computer or books by the fire, people are prepared, for the sake of real-life debate, to battle through the freezing winds and stand with their toes dropping off at bus stops.

And yet. I dunno... Bear with me while I try to work it out.

Discussing the subject with Amis were psychotherapist Adam Phillips and philosopher John Gray, chaired by a woman I didn't know and who failed to identify herself but later said in passing that she had a scientific background.

The hall was freezing. People kept their coats on. The panel filed onto the stage and were introduced. John Gray, we were told, challenges the whole notion of science as modern and progressive, indeed challenges the whole notion of progress.

Well, I was interested already: this is the subject of some of my writing.

Amis began. He said there was something he felt he should mention before we went any further: the terrible events in Mumbai. You know, I just don't know what to think about the fact that he did this. It seems so right that someone with a public platform should use it to address a matter of current urgency - and some of what he said was interesting, but enough material for another (hot) debate - but there's something about this which is somehow also wrong: the hi-jacking of an agreed intellectual agenda, which is in danger of privileging, however briefly, the hi-jacker himself over that agenda. Not to mention the fact that he began by saying that 'Mumbai' was like a primitive baby-talk form of 'Bombay'...

I think this is my main problem with Amis when he steps away from writing the fiction which I, for one, have stoutly championed: so often when he speaks in public it's in terms of hierarchies. He turned to the subject in hand and immediately presented us with one: historically, he said, literature has been concerned [in response to the growth of science] with the following, in order: gods, demigods, kings and queens, statesmen and soldiers, the middle classes, Everyman and the working classes, down to the present age, the age of irony in literature.

This, our growing understanding that we are not the centre of the universe, may be an accurate assessment of our historical-psychological position, but the terms in which he spoke of it were interesting, and perhaps telling: he spoke of it as a 'descent' of literature, and of literature as 'historically looking downwards'. We still have cosmic yearnings, though, he said, we still aspire if not to godhead then at least to angeldom - and he informed us of another hierarchy, the nine orders of angels, of which we would probably hope to be Seraphim, he said (though perhaps he should speak for himself). The history of literature and science, he said, was one of increasing 'humiliation' - there he is with that word again! - and disappointment for the human species. The place we are now is realizing that we are not even intelligent enough as a species to understand the universe. As a result, a plausible future for the novel is to move inwards, as the ex-sci-fi writer JG Ballard has done, to a concern with the inner world, and with neuroscience and developmental psychology. The place of the novel is to recreate what it is to be human (not quite sure what he meant by that in this context - it could be seen as begging the question), but it was interesting, he said, that while Einstein would read philosophy to know how to think about his own science, Amis understood that not many present-day scientists would do such a thing.

Then in turn, Adam Phillips and John Gray were asked to speak. See, again, there is something about this, the way Amis always goes first, even when he says he doesn't know anything about the subject at hand: the others always end up looking as if they're responding to him whether or not they do, but in any case they mostly do, and yet it's not a proper debate, and so there's your real-life hierarchy right in front of your face.

Adam Phillips asked the question which Amis's speech had raised but failed to address: why is it so disturbing, after all, to discover we're merely animals? (Well, he threw it out at us.) He then presented his view of the science/literature issue from the point of view of psychotherapy. He told us that having been educated in the sixties and seventies he'd grown up with an anti-technological, Lawrentian view of the world, and the great thing for him about literature then was that it did not have any pretensions [as science did] to progress. The issue of science versus literature was not really an issue for him until psychotherapy brought him up against it. Literature is about singularity (of a character or a voice), but science deals in generalities. Freud himself was perplexed because while you can apply certain general principles of psychology theory (eg we all have an Oedipus complex, all children develop in certain stages) each case history is individual and indeed like a story: singularity is asserted and dissolves the theoretical categories. Psychology therefore is symptomatic of the science/literature dichotomy and its debate around progress: it wants to be concerned with generalities but constantly comes up against idiosyncracy. (I think that's the gist of what he said.)

John Gray said it was interesting how science got used as part of a project of human redemption/salvation/liberation, and amongst writers who have embraced the idea of science as a way for humanity to lift itself out of the animal condition, the Darwinian HG Wells is the most interesting, and The Island of Doctor Moreau the most interesting of his books. Moreau's attempts to 'bring the animal out of humanity' fail, and it is interesting that despite Wells's personal commitment to the idea that progress in science could be used to elevate humanity, his fables point to a different notion: that [scientific] knowledge can't create human progress (and at the end of his life Wells came to the latter conclusion). Gray talked then about the fact that Stalin had tried to develop a supersoldier who would need less sleep and food and would have fewer responses of sympathy - an experiment which of course also failed (I wasn't quite sure of the thread of his argument here), before saying that on the whole literature has not embraced the idea of human progress through science.

Amis was then asked to comment, and he said something which seemed to me once again to appeal anxiously to hierarchy: that yes, we are animals, but the thing which 'marks us off ' (note that language) from the other animals is our knowledge of death, and the thing about literature is that it gives us immortality. But then he turned his statement into a question: Do we take this as a defining difference?

At this point I started to lose grip of the discussion, sitting there at the back of a cold hall (with people around me putting their scarves back on), and the mics not working properly so that John Gray's voice became a shuffly mumble and it all came over to me as not so much a discussion with a development but a choppy to-and-fro between various hobby horses, Amis (it seemed to me) throwing in smoke bombs of references to pseudoscience (which the others then tried to question or define: Gray: What do we mean by pseudoscience? The alchemists, after all, were the precursors of science; Phillips: Pseudoscience is propaganda) and repressive regimes, in particular the Nazi project, which he said was pseudoscience. (Here was one whiff of proper debate, when Gray countered that the Nazis did claim to be rational and scientific and that a lot of anthropology before then was racist.) There was reference to the fact that at certain periods of history knowledge has been seen as a temptation and/or a form of oppression (Gray) and that Stalin was perjorative about reason, since once you discredit reason you can believe anything is possible, which gives you all sorts of licence (Amis). There was agreement that there is a certain sado-masochism in our attitude to science, ie that we feel we must submit to scientific truth, and Phillips asked why we so value predictability [of which, presumably, science provides at least an illusion]? All this interspersed with little lectures (I began to feel like a second-rate student just not following), on the history of philosophy from Gray, on facts about the Nazis and Stalin from Amis.

I kept thinking, Eh? What? as statements came in apparently inconsequentially and begged far too many questions (Phillips: 'It's a paradox that we're animals who have to learn how to be better animals'; Gray: 'The Spanish Inquisition was an attempt to close off knowledge but also an attempt to close off doubt' (an opposition I thought debatable, but which was simply left hanging); Amis: 'Jewish science ( beg pardon?) - Einstein and others - was a revolt against pseudoscience'.

And then it was opened up to the audience. Someone asked (asked, notice: this was not a debate) what made literature different from science (a question which had not yet been addressed) and Amis said (in the patrician manner which he has in public nowadays) that it was a question of innovation (literature wasn't at all innovative; no literary technique is ever really new, but it will survive because people always want stories and literature is the ideal way to commune with oneself, that's what's human [and presumably not animal - EB] about it. Comma publisher Ra Page (looking ridiculously handsome the way he has grown his beard) said that he thought the panel had been making a category error in blaming science with all their talk of pseudoscience because pseudoscience was simply 'not science'. Well, I didn't think the panel had actually been blaming science, but others must have agreed with him because he got a big clap. John Gray argued that they were not making a category error. A man with an Eastern European accent stood up quivering with passion and said that he wanted to put the record straight: there had been a lot of talk tonight about totalitarian regimes using science, but the truth was that art was often their principle motivator. Amis suavely countered with the statement that the point of literature is that it makes nothing happen: the category error occurs when people mistake fiction for something else, as in the case of Salman Rushdie. Finally Gray came in with the ground-touching statement that all human activities - science and literature (look at the fascist thirties writers) - can be used either for good or bad.

And then we all got up (after we'd waited for them to leave: not hierarchy, apparently, but a chance for them to get to the book-signing tables) and went off out into the cold again, and the people I spoke to had apparently found it all far less frustrating than I. The Martin Show was over - for that's how it was billed. And you couldn't help wondering: was that why so many people had come?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Where Will We Keep the Knowledge?

Adam O'Riordan gets shot down in flames on the Guardian books blog for suggesting that the digitization of our libraries (he cites the replacement of Whitechapel Library with the Whitechapel Idea Store) may be some force for good.

Well, I was sitting in the cafe late afternoon the other day and a friend came in and told me, her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm, that she had only just come out, she had been at the computer all day preparing something for her students, and what she had been doing specifically was researching the history of religion in Britain. She proceeded to tell me breathlessly all about that history (much of which was new to her), and what shot through my mind as she did was the memory - not all that old a memory - of getting on the bus into Manchester and spending a whole morning in central library and waiting while they got books up from the stacks just to verify a small point in a play I was writing. And I thought, My god, isn't the internet wonderful? And: My god, hasn't the world changed?

And my friend came to the end of her account and paused, and then said to me: 'Isn't the internet wonderful? And hasn't the world changed?'

It's true, though, that the source of much of our digitized knowledge is physical books. Does it matter, therefore, that libraries are dispensing with them while installing the computers which anyway most people have at home...? And what does this mean for the future form of our knowledge repositories (our idea stores)?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just Doing It

Anne Enright is another established writer adding weight to the argument (a good one, in my opinion) that writing can't be taught in any crude sense, that you learn how to do it by, well, doing it.
Writing is learned from the inside out; it is not a subject like geography, that can be doled out in parcels of information. Writing is a discipline and, as with any discipline, whether spiritual or physical, the doing is everything. No one can do it for you.
Nevertheless, she still refers to her 'teachers' (Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury), and suggests that the role they played (at UEA) was a nurturing one:
The job of the teacher in these hazy, dangerous circumstances, is to feed the student and to keep her safe. Angela Carter did the first, with a scattering of photocopies, musings and anecdotes (she never mentioned my work, I think) and Malcolm Bradbury did the second, by smiling a lot, and liking books, and keeping quiet (I don't think he ever mentioned my work either. I might be wrong). The other students did mention my work; they had various opinions about it, but that was fine, because Malcolm was there to like us all, and keep us safe.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

As If Non-Readers Care Anyway

Seems we don't need publishers pushing us into making our novels more 'accessible' for non-readers when we've got Lionel Shriver.
Literature is not very popular these days, to put it mildly. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half of Americans do not read books at all, and those who do average a mere six a year. You'd think literary writers would be bending over backwards to ingratiate themselves to readers -- to make their work maximally accessible, straightforward and inviting. But no.
Dan Green and his commenters explain why her argument, which focuses on speech punctuation, is outrageous.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Misery Realized

Danuta Kean suggests that the misery memoir cult has paved the way for the graphic details recounted in newspaper and TV reports about Baby P, a development she condemns. In a comment on the post, however, Kay Lacey sounds a warning about freedom of speech.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Toughness and the Impersonal Personality of Poetry

Jeanette Winterson, writing in today's Guardian about TS Eliot, argues (from her own experience) that poetry, far from being 'merely a luxury for the educated middle classes' offers tough language for tough lives (and indeed suggests that those who argue otherwise must have 'had things pretty easy'.)

As usual her thoughts are very quotable, including this passage which struck me particularly:
Eliot himself liked to talk about "impersonality" as a necessary virtue in a poet, but we should not misunderstand him. In his 1927 essay "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca", he muses on Shakespeare's "struggle to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, universal and impersonal".

In the land of reality TV and confessional talk shows, Eliot's wish to withdraw the personal from his poetry - from any poetry - is easy to misread. But the paradox of the best writing is that while the writer's voice is unmistakable, the writer has somehow performed the Indian rope trick and disappeared [my italics]. Celebrity culture can't imagine anyone wanting to disappear, or that such a thing might be necessary. Now, when we are told that everything depends on our "personality", it seems strange to hear Eliot saying, as he does in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent", that "poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Split Personality of the Writer-Blogger

Over at Dan Green's The Reading Experience, there's a debate about what is seen as the increasing tendency of literary bloggers to be coralled into publishers' marketing systems rather than to retain critical independence. Since I have championed the idea of critical independence on this blog, on one occasion pouring scorn on a publisher's enthusiasm for the virtual book tour, and yet today am hosting with happy enthusiasm such a tour on my author blog - Charles Lambert's The Scent of Cinnamon - I should perhaps say some words about my own position within what Dan sees as the evolving function or nature of 'lit-bloggers', and about the conflicting allegiances which we literary bloggers who are also writers need to negotiate.

Norm once asked me with a genuinely puzzled air why I had two blogs. Now Norm is of course an academic, with an academic's happy insulation from commercial demands (though he may disagree with me about that last), but others, including literary bloggers, have seemed as puzzled. The way it happened is very much to the point.

This was the blog with which I began blogging. I began it with the specific intention of discussing the increasing commercialization of publishing and its implictions for 'literary fiction', an agenda which inevitably included discussions on the nature of fiction. Since 'literary fiction', for want of a better word, is what I write myself - or at least what other people seem to have decided I write - and since I'd experienced this increasing commercialization at first hand, I can't claim that my aims were impartial, but I hoped to approach the matter in as rational a way as possible, and in order to focus attention on my arguments I made the blog pseudonymous (about which Susan Hill complained on Scott Pack's blog: she felt I should have the courage of my convictions and stand up and be counted rather than hide behind a pseudonym, and indeed seemed to feel that my views were less valid while they weren't contextualized by my identity). But there was of course another reason for assuming a blogging name: as I've discussed before, writers can be extremely vulnerable: after all, what writer in their right mind looking for a publisher (as I was at the time) would be seen as going round criticizing the publishing industry? Not that I was doing that; I understand that publishers too can be the victims of an increasingly commercial culture, but you never know... The joke was, though, that in the end Blogger outed me anyway, by combining the blog with the other, author blog I had started in the meantime.

So why had I started another, author blog? Whether we like it or not, whether we are ideologically opposed to it or not, any published author must nowadays take an active part in the publicity machine, and the blog is clearly the prime tool for this. I hadn't at that point found my short-story publisher, but it's instructive to read this in their current submissions guidelines: You should be prepared to assist in a wide range of marketing practices, including social networking sites and blogs. As a publisher or a writer, it's only sensible, after all, to embrace the marketing opportunities of the web. We writers want to sell our books because - apart from the odd purist who claims otherwise - we want people to read them, and we want our publishers take our next book (and not turn us down as someone who doesn't sell). Not that selling my work is all I'm doing on my author blog; what I'm doing is far more complex, and I hope has more integrity, than that - I'm engaging in thoughtful discussions with readers and other writers, mostly about the writing process and the writing life. But there is that necessary element of promotion which I'd like to keep separate from this blog as far as possible, and which does therefore result in something of a split personality.

Though, I know, I know, I've felt compelled to advertise my writing on this page too...

Monday, November 10, 2008

How to Talk About Writing and How to Write About Thinking

Is it me? I sometimes don't quite follow the Author, Author pieces in Saturday's Guardian Review, those articles in which authors talk about their own take on the writing process. Maybe it's something to do with the essentially idiosyncratic nature of the writing process for each writer: either those authors are talking to themselves in their own private language, using their own private short-cut associations, or I'm so caught up in my own that I can't always relate to the whole of their arguments. On Saturday Adam Thirwell wrote about the difficulty of representing thoughts and psychology truthfully in novels, but if you can sort out the difference between the description in the first paragraph here and the intimate third person, or between the two modes in the two separate paragraphs, then you're brighter (or more patient, or less hung up on your own writing obsessions) than I:
In an essay, I once wrote about how Franz Kafka invented a strange style in his novels about this man he called K: where, although it looks like a third-person narrative, it is in fact a disguised first-person narrative, belonging to K. And suddenly I thought that I understood more precisely why Kafka wanted to do this. It was a way of inventing a subterfuge, so that he could be true to the cloudiness of thoughts. In a diary entry, on January 12 1911, Kafka noted how he hadn't been writing much, partly because he was lazy, true, but also "because of the fear of betraying my self-perception". Because, he continued, if a thought cannot be written down "with the greatest completeness, with the incidental consequences, as well as with entire truthfulness" - which it couldn't - then what was written down would replace the vague thought "in such a way that the real feeling will disappear while the worthlessness of what has been noted down will be recognised too late". This is why Kafka needed to write in the third person, while really describing the personal contours of a character's thoughts: it was a way of outwitting the imprecise solidity of language.

This is one technique in the art of the novel. Another, however, is to use the completeness and truthfulness of the third person, while still talking as if it's really you.
Even so, there was something that seemed to chime with my own current thinking about the matter. Thirwell describes a thought of his own:
...there could be a way of describing reality which was both true to the seriousness of the world and yet also true to its absolute flippancy, because even the most passionate of experiences, especially the most passionate, were weightless.
That seemed akin to my current struggle to find narrative modes which don't deny the complexity of the emotional reality I want to convey or subtly change it.

Or was it? And is this last statement of mine too obtuse for anywhere but my private writing journal?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Why the Loss of Ross Matters

Scott Pack and Danuta Kean point out that the loss of the Jonathan Ross show means the loss of the main publicity opportunity for celeb Christmas books, and that their sales will suffer. Danuta spells out why this matters for less commercial books:
...the celebs scheduled for Ross will be hustled to the next shows in line – BBC’s One Show, Paul O’Grady, Graham Norton and Alan Titchmarsh. In turn the B List celebs previously scheduled for these shows will be bumped down to the next level and down and down they all go
until even the local radio stations will no longer be open to such books.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Littleness of Big Ideas

I quite like this article by Germaine Greer in which she denounces 'big idea' books as missing the real point. I guess I feel that to put such stress on the notion that 'big idea' thinking is basically male (Greer's springboard is the recent debate about such books and gender) is also to miss the main point a little, or at least to distract from it (and arguably to be in danger of inadvertently condoning such thinking), but as a writer trying to write a literature addressing the fluidity and multiplicity of reality, it gives me a kick to read Greer's argument that 'there is no answer to everything'.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Politics, Fame and the Writer

Stuart Evers attends an audience with Toni Morrison and ends up reflecting ruefully on the dangers of fame (which he feels Morrison escapes) for writers and their writing.

Meanwhile, in the process of asking prominent Americans about the cultural legacy of the Bush administration (which you may think a very strange phrase), The Guardian elicits some interesting comments from writers, some of them on the nature of fiction and the process of writing:

Paul Auster: Art isn't journalism. Some of the greatest historical novels were written long after the events discussed in the book. You think of War and Peace, written in 1870 about things that happened in 1812. I think there's this confusion in the minds of the public that artists are supposed to respond immediately to things that are going on. We've been living through a new era. Everyone knows the world has changed, but exactly where the story is taking us is unclear right now and until it plays out further I don't know if anyone has a clear vision of what's happening.

Joyce Carol Oates: Most artists live through a sequence of administrations, and their art evolves in ways too individual to be related to larger, generic forces.

Gore Vidal: We have a president who cannot read. He's dyslexic, as was his father before him. It must have an effect. I watch a good deal of television because of the elections. The professional television people, all of them graduates of our finest universities, can't use proper English. We are losing the language, I suppose... Art is always needed in a country that doesn't much like it. Performance is all anybody cares about.

Edward Albee: I have found over the past eight years that commerce has taken over the arts in the United States... The only art that is allowed any great exposure is commercial art that is not going to rock the boat.

Lionel Shriver: ...here's the really bad news: Obama could be terrible for the arts. Why, when there's barely an artist in the States who doesn't support him? Art thrives on resistance. There's nothing more arid, more enervating, more stultifying, or more utterly uninspiring than getting your way.

The Golden Notebook Project

Bob Stein, director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, alerts us to a very interesting experiment in close reading, The Golden Notebook Project. Beginning on 10th November, seven women will read Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, making comments in the 'margin' in order, as I understand it, to conduct a progressive web-based discussion in line with the reading as part of an ongoing investigation into the ways in which the web interfaces with our reading. The comments will be made in a group blog, and the public will be able to read along and join in the discussion.

His email states:
The idea for the project arose out of my experience re-reading the novel in the summer of 2007 just before Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Golden Notebook was one of the two or three most influential books of my youth and I decided I wanted to "try it on" again after so many years. It turned out to be one of the most interesting reading experiences of my life. With an interval of thirty-seven years the lens of perception was so different; things that stood out the first-time around were now of lesser importance, and entire themes I missed the first time came front and center. When I told my younger colleagues what I was reading, I was surprised that not one of them had read it, not even the ones with degrees in English literature. It occurred to me that it would be very interesting to eavesdrop on a conversation between two readers, one under thirty, one over fifty or sixty, in which they react to the book and to each other's reactions. And then of course I realized that we now actually have the technology to do just that.
Should you wish to participate, the book is available online, but Stein suggests readers obtain printed copies:
This is not essentially an experiment in online reading itself. Although the online version of the text is quite readable, for now, we believe books made of paper still have a substantial advantage over the screen for sustained reading of a linear narrative.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Google Digitization Deal

The Guardian reports on the US deal which Google has struck with publishers and authors over digitization of books. The Writers' Guild blog gathers comment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hang On, Though...

Here's the original More4 interview with Richard Dawkins, which I'm sorry I didn't look at before posting below. Turns out he's not talking about fiction in general but myths (both religious and folklore) and his concern is much more specifically whether or not it's a good idea, or at all fair, to bring children up to believe in them. He states categorically that he is agnostic on the matter, since the research has not been done, and merely very curious. A censorious commenter on the Guardian post is suspicious that Dawkins has on the contrary already made up his mind that it's a pretty bad thing - and Dawkins does elsewhere call it child abuse - but quite frankly when I remember how scared I was of the bogeyman under my bed and how frightened of God's censure whenever I did wrong, and the appalling energy that went in that, the timidity it engendered in me as a child, I can't help making up my own mind against the practice...

Is That a Fact, Richard?

Jean Hannah Edelstein comments on Richard Dawkins' apparent belief (oh no, sorry, his thesis which he thinks should be put to scientific test) that children can't distinguish fact from fiction.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Battles, Manifestos and Very Tall Chairs

Today the Guardian reports the advent of Horizon Review and another new lit mag Artesian, and last night I went to the John Rylands Library for a Manchester Literature Festival Public Debate on the future of independent magazines. Here's my account of it (though do bear in mind that one woman's impression is another person's lie, and apologies to anyone I've misrepresented):

Michael Schmidt, founder of Carcanet and PN Review, chaired and was flanked by magazine editors Philip Davis (Liverpool-based The Reader), Margaret Obank (Banipal, which publishes contemporary Arab work in English translation), Adam Petite (online poetry mag Manifold) and Fiona Sampson (Poetry Review). This was the swish new glass-walled bit of the library, and the seating for the panel was very high chairs on spindly legs, and the first thing that happened was that Philip Davis declined to sit on his because, he said, his legs were too little, and thus, in a very physical way, he took a stand right at the start.

Michael began by asking each editor in turn to speak about the aims of their own magazine. I'm afraid I was still thinking about the business of the chairs (plus it suddenly struck me that Michael, whom I have known for years, and my ex-husband look like each other nowadays - though they are not remotely related - when once upon a time they didn't look like each other at all, which made me remember how at my grandmother's funeral all the older men of her village similarly looked like one another when as young men they didn't). So I don't actually remember the beginning of the discussion very well, but I see that I wrote down one word against each of Banipal (redress), The Reader (integrity) and Manifold (experimentation).

Then I started concentrating. Michael said that PN Review exists within the Anglo-European tradition, with a bias towards Modernism, and thus finds itself at odds with a lot of the literary establishment. Fiona Sampson, calm and articulate as ever, then spoke at some length and very interestingly about her editorship of PN Review. The magazine will be a hundred next year, she said. It is published by the Poetry Society and is therefore obliged to align itself with the aims of the Society. As its editor she has to accept that it is thus addressed to the mainstream readership of Society members already interested in poetry and probably writing it, but who don't buy too many books and may live in rural isolation from centres of culture. There has to be a mission to keep such readers in touch and also to educate them. As a poet herself she is not in line with this British poetic tradition, she is more internationalist, but she feels that this places her in a good position as editor. She knows she can't give her readership Geoffrey Hill from cover to cover, she doesn't like anecdotal poetry but she publishes it, yet she can also accommodate her more ideal, sceptical reader. There are two types of editor, she noted, advocates of particular schools and those who edit against the grain of personal taste, and she counts herself among the latter. The practice she is trying to develop is to publish whatever works on its own terms, and to open up a field of mutual respect between poetries. If poetries only speak to themselves, well that's the law of diminshing returns, she felt. And also: seduction is very important, so while print mags remain, production values remain important too.

Michael noted the connection between what she'd said and Thom Gunn's essay on the Spectrum of Poetry, and then asked Philip Davis to speak. From his separate position on the floor Philip Davis said this: Here were the words he hated: art, culture, academic, intellectual, lucidity, respect. What he values is liveliness across a wide range, and he wants his magazine to have to do with life rather than artiness. He's interested in new writing of all sorts, poetry, fiction and non-fiction (but not reviews - he hates reviews) and also old writing: in each issue he has a very old poem with writing around it as a context for reading, since the whole point of his magazine is to foster the practice of reading. He wants writers writing as hard as they can, the thing he values is honesty, it doesn't matter if work is rough, if it's difficult, dealing with difficult thoughts, then that might be necessary, what he doesn't want is anything second-hand - and the lucid is all too often second-hand, which is condescending to the reader. Above all he would like the magazine to be at the centre of a reading revolution. He has no set agenda, he hates agendas - political, religious, social etc - he is tired to death of people knowing what they think in advance and what he wants most of all in the writing he publishes is surprise. To pigeonhle anything in advance is dangerous. He wants as wide and general and liberal a mixture as possible (though too wide a range might be worrying); at the same time he would love to be able to publish an issue where he agreed with everything in it. The main point, he reiterated, is that the whole magazine must be alert to surprise, and human experience is more important than artiness.

Then Margaret Obank said that Banipal was established to promote new cultural voices and ideas, that she and her colleagues had discovered that there was an appetite for them but the problem remained to be solved as to how to allow people to access them in the magazine: they'd had a distributor but the distributor didn't provide promotion to bookshops and their main sales were through subscriptions. They had also begun conducting reading tours, ie physically bringing the literature to readers, and developing other activities around the mag. Michael asked her if they had a website, and she said they had, which led onto Adam Petite and online Manifold. I was really interested in this, but I'm afraid I couldn't follow anything he said for some reason, mainly I think because his comments were virtual in the old sense, ie he never seemed to complete his sentences.

Or maybe my concentration was packing up. Next Fiona said something about 'the poetic sulk' and how she sometimes wishes the idiots, the anoraks in bedsits would get over themselves, can't they see that they're not doing anything all that different from each other, but I couldn't work out what point she was making. It must have been to do with her notion of mutual poetic respect, because then Philip said he doesn't want to be in any field of mutual respect, he's interested in individual voices. At some point Michael said he was trying to get Philip to make a point that wasn't aggressive at which Philip couldn't help laughing with everyone else.

Then the discussion was opened up to the floor, and MMU's Andrew Biswell who was sitting in front of me asked if there are too many lit mags chasing too few grants, and what about the argument that if they don't sell they don't deserve to exist. I long ago got weary with this particular issue so now I got distracted by thinking how soft Andrew's crewcut looked, but I did note that Fiona swiftly apprised the room of the fact that Poetry Review doesn't receive a penny grant and is profit-making, yet she was very much down on that last idea: you may as well say let's close down the universities because they don't make a profit. Andrew said, But people want degrees; if they don't want little mags... and then the panel gave varying responses to that: Adam said that people do have a hunger for literature that's not populist, and Philip said that he doesn't care about economics and - I didn't quite get the connection - he wishes that the TLS and the LRB didn't exist; he just felt that if people ever didn't want The Reader then it should go, he'd want it killed. He didn't like the idea of an overprotected bloom for a small number of people, and if that happened to The Reader he'd accept he'd failed.

Barry Wood, whom I've also known for years, then picked up on a reference to bagpipes and said he thought that little mags were like that, bagpipes, they can be annoying and/or stimulating, and that that's what they're for: to extend and intensify readers' experience. Fiona said we should distinguish between little mags and literary periodicals, but either this distinction wasn't adequately defined or I was losing grip again. When I next picked up the thread Philip was saying , "If it moves me, it's good", and then James Byrne of Wolf Magazine challenged him and said wasn't it as important to move your readers (since you claim to be so concerned with reading, was the implication, I think)? Philip said it was foolish to imagine you can ever respond on behalf of others, ie to fabricate an imaginary reader; and then he repeated what he himself did and didn't like in writing: he didn't like cool or hypothetical, he liked commitment and belief and the things that are about human experience. James then asked the whole panel about the problem of most magazine readers being subscribers who are in turn contributors, and they all chewed over this extremely boring though no doubt important point, which somehow took them back again to the matter of editor bias, and Michael said, interestingly, that as an editor he is often very excited by work he simply doesn't understand, because his own lack of understanding interests him.

John Atkins asked the panel how important they felt a manifesto was to the long-term existence of a magazine, and each reiterated his or her manifesto, including, with amusement at himself, the apparently anti-manifesto Philip; Cathy Bolton asked whether mags should serve writers or readers which took us back over quite a lot of the same ground again, Michael seeing a strong tension between the two though feeling that his role on the whole was to serve 'writers who are readers', Fiona agreeing that there was a real tension but that on the whole her mag was there to serve writers, especially emerging writers, Philip saying that he was there to serve readers, to change the climate of England. Adam said Manifold was meant to serve both, at which Michael created something of a short silence by pronouncing that if a piece is published online then no print magazine will touch it afterwards (well, I think that's what he said).

Someone in the audience then mentioned the new online Horizon Review - which references Cyril Connolly's magazine Horizon - and basically asked the panel to say what they thought of it (at which point I started cringeing, since I have a story in the first issue). Fiona said its editor Jane Holland is a good tough woman and that she should do well with it. Michael said he thought it was a mistake to use the same name: Connolly's Horizon belonged to its moment and to reference it so strongly was to create the error of nostalgia.

At which Fiona said, "Yes, but she got on Start the Week with it, didn't she?"

And that was it (and I'm not sure that the future of lit mags was all that much addressed.) But then I could have misheard everything, in view of what happened later: it was John's birthday and he and I went to Livebait where we'll never go again, because they were so short-staffed we had to wait for ever and the sweet young male waiter offered us puddings on the house in compensation - or rather we thought he did, we both heard it - but then the waitress putting out our pudding spoons said, Well, she was the acting manageress and if we were getting free puddings they would have to be on him, not the house; and he was forced to come and apologize (cringeing with agony) and tell us we'd misheard! Can you imagine the embarrassment? Though as John said, (bless his shopkeeper's grandson's socks), Whatever happened to the customer is always right?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Big Brother in Hackney

I feel duty-bound to draw attention to this article by Iain Sinclair in today's Guardian, describing Orwellian censorship by Hackney local authority and its library so-called service.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Even If It's Not True...

Interesting that an author (Milan Kundera) who has worked so hard to keep his life separate from his work should now have his activities publicly investigated, and depressing to think that his work may now be viewed through this prism.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Slow Brilliance

An interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker arguing that to associate genius with precocity is to misunderstand the nature of a certain experimental type of genius. Thanks to Kate Brown for the link.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jane Holland Discusses Horizon Review on Start the Week

An email today from Jane Holland, editor of Horizon Review (in the first and current issue of which there's a story by yours truly): she'll be discussing Horizon Review and the current state of literary criticism on Radio 4's "Start the Week" this coming Monday, 20th October, at 9am.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Profuse apologies to Paul Magrs for omitting, in my post on Metropolitan alumni, his reputation as a novelist for adults. Since the year in which we published his story, 1996, Paul has published a phenomenal ten novels for adults (as well as another ten for young adults).

Ironically, the error occurred precisely due to the fact that half-way through writing the blog I decided that Paul hardly qualified for the list of then unknowns we had published. Looking back at his Metropolitan biog I saw that the same year he had already published his first novel and had another and a volume of stories due out. I whipped him out - or I thought I did: I left in the bit about his children's novels and ended up inadvertently giving quite the wrong impression.

Apologies to Paul, and I really should stop blogging late at night, especially when it comes to long lists of names with links...

Friday, October 03, 2008

Review: The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

So Sceptre ask me if I'd like this book. Quick check of the blurb on their website, and I'm envisaging writing a piece on publishing marketing strategy:
We don't want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this:

It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.

The story starts there, but the book doesn't.

And it's what happens afterwards that is most important.

Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.
Hm, I'm thinking. Clever. Maybe. Maybe good: the latest - and perhaps inevitable - twist in the Cult of Overhype: a return to the concept of the book inside the cover, the book as an intellectual and emotional adventure rather than a box-checked lifestyle commodity. Or maybe just a cynical use of mystique.

The book arrives. No author photo, no author bio. Just a note from Senior Editor Suzie Doore passionately recommending the novel.

I start reading.

People, I don't want to write a slick clever review about marketing, or indeed literary technique. I want to tell you that when I finished this book (I was sitting on the floor leaning on the sofa) I turned around and put my head on my arms and I sobbed.

It's the story that so affected me, and although they ask us not to reveal it, the publishers are right that it's the story you want to tell when you've read the book.

It's a brilliant achievement since it's a story which on the whole in Britain we don't want to know, indeed don't want to believe, a fact which indeed motors the utterly engrossing edge-of-the-chair plot of this novel. And of course, after all, this is down to Chris Cleave's literary skill.

This story we don't want to know, we shut it up inside immigration detention centres, we fly it out again quick. But Chris Cleave, via an amazing and witty literary ventriloquism, monumental empathy and huge skill in plot manipulation, brings together the seemingly disparate worlds of two female narrators, Little Bee, escaped from certain death in a Nigerian oil war, and Sarah, a London-based working mother and lifestyle magazine editor, and in so doing illustrates to devastating effect our innocent complicity in political horrors we think of as remote.

Read it, is all. I'm just so glad I was given the chance to do so.

And if you want afterwards to read some real-life stories of women escaped from cruelty in other countries, I recommend Fragments from the Dark (to which I had the privilege of being asked to contribute).

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Inflammatory Words

Suzanne Morrison provides me with a link to the Seattle Times article about the pulling by Random House of Sherry Jones's Jewel of Medina. The report makes clear that on being told by academic Denise Spellberg that the book was inflammatory and 'pornographic', Muslim website owner Shahed Amanullah did not take up the baton of alarm, as some British newspapers have (mainly by omission) implied, but simply sent out emails asking postgraduate students if they had heard of the book, presumably in order to discover Muslim opinion. He is reported as saying this:
"What I got back was a collective shrug of the shoulders. The thing that is surreal for me is that here you had a non-Muslim write a book, and you had a non-Muslim complain about it, and a non-Muslim publisher pull the book."
Well, now of course the British publisher of the book has been firebombed.

Looking back on this story it's easy to see whose words were inflammatory.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Where Are they Now?

Last week I immersed myself in short stories in preparation for workshops I would be conducting at a Short Story day hosted by the National Short Story Campaign. One of the things I did was revisit metropolitan, the short-story magazine I co-founded and co-edited with Ailsa Cox (and which the two of us co-published with John Ashbrook).

It was an experience both exhilarating and depressing, and a sober illustration of the problems which exist nowadays for unknown but talented writers of serious literature. I was newly stunned by the standard, originality and energy of the stories we published, and I have to say grabbed by them in a way I wasn't by the stories in many published collections. Several literary agents were too at the time, and picked up several of our writers. Yet what struck me last week was how few, even so, have yet made it as mainstream authors.

Some have made it into mainstream publication, although few are known for their short stories. Roger Morris is known for his critically-acclaimed Macmillan New Writing novel Taking Comfort and - perhaps better - for his Faber crime novels. Susan Davis and Paul Magrs publish fiction for young adults. [Edited-in correction: Paul has also published 10 mainstream novels for adults, two of which were already placed with mainstream publishers, along with a collection of stories, before we published his story, so doesn't in fact qualify for this list of 'unknowns'.]. Daniel Davies (if indeed it is the same Daniel Davies) has published a novel with Serpent's Tail. Art Corriveau's novels have been published by Penguin, but his short stories are published by an independent press. The agent of the brilliant Tamar Yellin failed to place her collection of stories or her novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher with any British publisher, but after they were published by the American Toby Press, the latter won the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize and the former was short-listed for the first Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The novels of Nigel Pickard, Robert Graham and Frank Downes have come from small presses.

And what about the others? One, Fi Francis, has sadly died - such a loss to literature - and I was recently astonished to be told that another, Penny Rendall, has given up writing. But even allowing for such tragedies and contingencies, it's a shameful fact that so few of the following names aren't better known as writers of fiction, although many have made names for themselves in other fields: Judith Amanthis, Marion Baraitser, Alex Barr, Kate Barry, Kirsty Brackenridge, Madeleine Cary, Dave Downes, Frank Downes, Michael Eaude, Molly Firth, Veronika Forster, Iain Grant, Vicky Grut, Atar Hadari, George Hawthorn, Hilaire, Graeme Hodgson, Rose Hughes, Robert Lawlor, Roderick Lowell Huntress, Mairead Irish, Simon King-Spooner, Kath Mackay, Camden McDonald, Menzies McKillop, Jim McLaughlin, Char March, Heather Leach, Georgina Lock, Paul Marshall, Mindy Meleyal, Rowan Metcalfe, S Morrisey, Graham Mort, Ravinder Randhawa, Karen Rosenberg, John Sitzia, Helen Smith, Amanda Szekely, Mandy Sutter, Kanta Walker, Cathy Wright.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Freedom of Speech

A small quiz:

Which of the following do you find most worrying?

1. The foiled firebomb attack this weekend on the home-cum-business premises of Gibson Square publisher Martin Rynja, who in a determined stand for freedom of speech is about to publish Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina, a novel about the Prophet Muhammad's relationship with his child bride, and which Jones insists honours the Prophet and his wife.

2. The fact that on being sent the book for a cover quote by a previous publisher, American academic Denise Spellberg, according to Shahed Amanullah, editor of a Muslim website, made a 'frantic call' to him denouncing the book as 'incredibly offensive', which resulted in a furore, with those who had not read the book also denouncing it and issuing 'warnings'.

3. The fact that 2. caused the book's previous publisher, the giant Random House, to withdraw from publication altogether.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

E-Lit: a Red Herring?

Interesting article by Andrew Gallix on the Guardian books blog this week, asking whether e-literature can ever be innovative in the ways which have sometimes been supposed.

It's a point which writer and Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher and I have often discussed: the fact that while hypertext is so astoundingly non-linear, no real way has yet been found to apply this to fiction on the web without losing words in favour of other media such as pictures and music. Responding to the article, Adrian makes this point again, and notes rightly that my Manchester-Festival commissioned blogstory last year (which had to take the form of a real-time blog) was inevitably more conventionally linear than my writing for print, since the blog is essentially a linear, sequential form. (Adrian offers his own piece on this post, but the links don't seem to work, and I'm not sure if this is his joke...)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Things You Can Sell and the Things that Make You Swoon

God in heaven help us, the Guardian magazine runs a feature today on fashion in literature: 'Chic Lit', actress Emily Mortimer dressed in clothes echoing female characters from fiction (she's a writer's daughter too - John Mortimer - geddit?); journalist Helen Gordon writing as if authors from Austen to Douglas Coupland wrote about fashion simply to relish it, rather than (often satirically) as signifiers of their characters' personalities and conditions; and - most telling of all - books recently in print displayed next to the latest fashion accessories (a full page spread, for instance, in which Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Life is suspended on a string next to a Gucci bag - why?)

Conjures some depressing images, doesn't it: publishers scrambling to be part of this latest, dummest kind of promotion, and editors turning manuscripts down because they can't quite see them on such a page... (You think I'm joking?)

Fortunately the Review makes up for this a little with an article from Nick Laird condemning just the kind of ethos in evidence here and showing how destructive it is for serious literature, though once again in making a special case for poetry he is rather dismissive of fiction:
A capitalist society ... teaches its citizens to think in terms of selling. Poetry manages, almost uniquely, to be outside of that, and this allows poets to make real art, without recourse to the market...
And there's a transcript of a speech by the sadly and recently late David Foster Wallace, which is so close to my own agenda in my current writing that (rather than those shoes and bags) it makes me want to swoon...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Three Sisters at the Royal Exchange

OK, so I'm off to the Royal Exchange to see Three Sisters, and I'm excited because I won't ever forget the great Uncle Vanya I once saw there with Leo McKern and Eleanor Bron - the scene where he brings the flowers is still with me, and I can still fill up remembering it. Pure Chekhov, it was, heartbreaking, utterly true to his insight into human longing and disappointment.

I take my seat in the first gallery. I look down. Why does this round stage, which can seem intimate even from the high-up second gallery, look so vast and far away? Across the other side, horizontally to me, is a long dinner table (the table where the soldiers will sit, their conversation undercutting that of the three sisters), and it seems immense yet miles distant, divided from us by (admittedly transparent) pillars. I feel I can't see it properly. I push my glasses up my nose, but I can't see it any better. Already I feel excluded from the space of this play.

The action begins, much nearer to us than the table, directly below: on our side of the stage Masha and Olga sit in separate spaces, Olga on a settle, Masha at a piano, Olga talking to Masha across the space. Well, I know this is the point, that Masha, churning with frustration, is cutting off, but somehow I can't join her, psychologically, in her space. I can't join Olga either, I'm watching them both from outside, and yet without focus: I can't take them both in at once and have to keep switching my attention from one to the other. Partly I think it's the performances, or Sarah Francom's direction, but most of all, I think, it's the set design of this production: presumably symbolically, but visually impossibly, the central space is constantly empty and the characters most frequently separated by this abyss.

It's like a tableau, this production of this play by this playwright whose concerns and approach were above all internal, psychological. And there's no moment of real stillness in a play which demands above all moments of stillness, and all that longing, all that desire, all that erotic tension between Vershinin and Masha, were - from my vantage point, at any rate - lost.

By the second act I had given up. Gauzes hung from the flies to the floor, shrouding the beds - set apart again around an empty space - and cutting us off from the characters and the action. Behind the gauze curtains the faces are indistinct and overall the characters are lost in the infinite space which the curtains define - which again may be symbolic of their condition but precludes the internal focus which the play requires. In the final act tree-trunks descended in true RX tradition, spindly but placed around the edges and cutting off the view of any actor directly opposite the ones you were sitting nearby.

Perhaps it was no wonder that the main laughs from the audience were at the outdated social mores...

Alfred Hickling thinks the problem is the play, but personally I think Chekhov and Stanislavski might just be having a bit of a twist in their graves.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Bit Hard

Yesterday the Sunday Times review was devoted to The Future of the Book, yet I can't find a link on the website - which may seem confirmation of the view expressed by some contributors that print media is getting left behind by the web. But maybe it's me...*

[*Yes it was me: it was The Independent, as Adele Geras points out. No wonder I couldn't find it: silly me!]

Pretty depressing article by John Walsh who believes like Sven Birkets (who in 1994 examined how students now respond to Henry James) that the way in which the internet has taught us to read is resulting in a loss of the ability to engage with serious fiction:
It seems that we may be losing the capacity of "settling into" a book or - more importantly - in the stream of somebody else's thoughts in a way that readers (and writers) once took for granted ... Now, many serious writers complain, challenging fiction doesn't appeal; "difficult" novels don't sell. Adam Mars-Jones's massive and beautifully written novel Pilcrow, published earlier this year, sold only a few hundred copies, and there have been several similar casualities. Although, traditionally, every Booker winner invariably becomes a world bestseller, the 2008 winner, Anne Enright's The Gathering, made the briefest appearance in the top 10 before disappearing. It had a narrative of sorts, but was broken-backed in structure and its strength was the narrator's wry, funny, piss-taking tone - exactly the kind of thing that Prof Birkets' students hated in Henry James.

To sell now, books evidently need to be big on plot and incident, short on interior monologue - the sort of titles the Richard and Judy Club strenuously promotes.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Question of Vulnerability

Anne Enright continues the week's Guardian theme of authors' vulnerability at public readings, particularly when it comes to the Q & A.

Apart from Norman Mailer, it once seemed to her:
I asked a question myself once. The writer was Norman Mailer, and I had just had enough of him - standing up there thinking he was someone, when every single thing he said was pants.
Enright challenged him:
He was advocating sex to the (manifestly anti-sex) audience. What a great activity. He couldn't praise it enough; metabolically, spiritually, possibly even financially. I put up my hand and waited to catch his eye.

I was a bit pink and tingly, indeed, as I got ready to break through the fourth wall that exists between performer and audience, between the one who is known and the one who is not. When my turn came, I found the act of speaking sort of mortifying and dreamlike. I said: "If you're that keen on sex, then why are all the sex scenes in your books so unhappy?" And he said: "Why are you so angry?"

Enright is telling this story ironically, first and foremost against herself, since earlier in the article she says, 'Long experience tells you that it is the angry people who ask about anger'. 'You have to hand it to Mailer,' she acknowledges, ' - now there was a man who was made for the Q & A.'

But she can't resist adding: 'The prose he read, I am delighted to report, was dire.'

Tee hee.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Writing on the Wall

I was in the doctor's this morning (nothing serious) and for some reason nothing was moving, and the wait was an hour and a quarter. At one point I looked up from my book and there were eighteen of us waiting, all in silence. One other person was reading a book, two others were reading waiting-room mags, but the other fourteen were sitting staring at the walls for one and a quarter hours.

Maybe they were the deep thinkers. Or maybe they were just too worried about their health...

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Just L'il Ole Me with the Power to Ban Books

I'm a bit late with this one, what with being stuck in the hills and that, but I can't resist it:

So on being presented by The Guardian with Carol Ann Duffy's poetic response to the banning of her poem Education for Leisure, Pat Schofield, the external examiner whose complaint led to the banning, had this to say:
"...a bit weird. But having read her other poems I found they were all a little bit weird. But that's me".
Correction: that's an external examiner whom we'd expect to be able to understand poems.

But then that's our education system, it seems.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Save Me from the Short Story

This week the books blog Vulpes Libris pays tribute to the short story while yet paradoxically providing an insight into the general prejudice against the form. Yesterday's post was a round-up of favourites (and the Bitch is pleased to have her own collection offered by the esteemed Dovegreyreader). However, the blog's coordinator Leena ended up asking for contributions from other bloggers, since she drew a blank with her fellow foxes, who confessed to little interest in or knowledge of the form.

While today's blog offers an appreciative review of the great collection The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets by Sophie Hannah, it also includes a contribution from Elaine of Random Jottings who, although going on to recommend several (canonical) short story writers (including the lengthy stories of Henry James), says this:
My main problem with this genre is that the narrative can be over far too quickly and just when you are getting interested in the characters and situation you turn the page and find that that is it, you have come to the end. I have lost count of the number of times I have done this and thought, oh damn just when it was getting interesting. When I am reading fiction I like something solid, something I can really get into so I somehow feel cheated with a short story and irritated that I am not going to know what happens next. I gather that short stories are regarded as being an art form on their own, incredibly difficult to write and anybody who can do them properly is regarded as a literary giant. This may be true but when I pick up a collection of short stories and find they are described as ‘exquisite vignettes’ (and yes this has happened), my main reaction is to run screaming from the room.
There is of course a whole essay to be written about the implicatons of this for the ways in which we read and our expectations of what we read...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Back to the Hills

I may or may not be blogging very much for the next 10 days or so. The usual reason. (There's still a cloud down on this hill.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Get Thee to an Old Folks' Home

Nice article by Mark Lawson on possible signs that ageism in the arts may be on the wane...

I do wonder, though. I'll never forget the time I was teaching in a Glasgow comprehensive, not long out of college. I was twenty-three. We had cosy little individual staff rooms and the people in mine were a riot: swearers, drunkards, anti-establishment cynics who held parties in the school after hours - you know, you've seen them on Teachers. Well, I was telling them a story about some really stuffy people, and I described those people: straight-laced, tradition-bound, no sense of humour - well, what did I expect, they were all over thirty!

There was a gulping silence, and then everyone in the room said, 'Well, thanks!'

Well, of course I knew if I thought about it that they were all over thirty, but I didn't think of them as over thirty, for this reason: the image in my head of thirty-year-olds was pretty dire, and they simply didn't fit it. But such images are pretty hard to shift, and I do wonder sometimes what images are in the heads of the young people who seem increasingly nowadays to be running our arts organisations (and of course, in the theatre especially, funded to look for work by even younger people)...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

No Point in Whispering when You Want a Shout

OK, so I looked up Blurbings.com, the service providing book blurbs (by which they seem to mean puff quotes), which has apparently caused some outrage. And thanks to Tania Hershman I found the hilarious article by Rebecca Johnson on Salon.com exposing the fact that nothing could be more potentially corrupt than the traditional way that such cover quotes are obtained.

Blurbings.com tells us:
Normally, a blurb will cost an author and/or publisher $14 - $23, which includes printing of the galleys, packaging and mailing fees. The standard 30 – 50 blurbs expected per book can range from $420 to $1,150. It is also very time consuming researching and contacting prospective authors as well as conducting follow-ups during the duration of the process.
Notice any figure missing? A fee to the poor 'blurbing' author! As Rebecca Johnson says, it's also a time-consuming business for the endorsing author, who is expected to do it for free. Once, I remember, the winning novel of a competition for which I'd been on the judging panel, which was now to be published by a small publisher, was sent off for a quote to a famous novelist well known for her left-wing feminist views. How amazed and shocked the publisher was when she wrote back that she didn't do quotes for free. But you know, in reality, it's their shock which is shocking.

Here's my own recent cringe-worthy experience, my search for a cover quote for my recent story collection. Would I ask people I knew? Would I heck! How could I live with myself (and them afterwards) otherwise? So what did I do? I sent initial queries to the agents of short story writers I didn't know personally but whose work I respected. Guess what? Back came nice polite letters from the agents telling me that their clients were fiendishly busy but wished me all the luck.

What next? OK, I would bite the bullet and ask a well-known short story writer I had met not so long ago. But I wouldn't put her on the spot by ringing her up, or suggesting the coffee we had vaguely mooted. Instead I sent her a postcard, in which I insisted (repeatedly) that she must refuse to do it if she didn't want to etc etc, she didn't even need to answer this card if she didn't want to.

Guess what? She didn't answer the card. I didn't get a quote, and yet I still may have spoilt a beautiful potential friendship...

What next? Well, there's that mega-famous author who's really close friends with some really close old friends of mine, and I've met her at their house more than once... that wouldn't be so bad, would it. I mean, it's pulling strings, but I can hardly be said to know her, and she wouldn't feel obliged to give a good quote whatever... So I email my friends and ask them what they think. Well, they'll read the stories first and decide whether to ask her. I email the stories. One of my friends reads them over a week on his train journey to work. He really likes them, he thinks his friend the mega-famous author will like them. He'll contact her and ask.

Days go by. Weeks. A month, two... I give up. (Nine months later, when the book is published, I'm at a party at his house - the mega-famous author isn't - and he tells me she never answered his query.)

Meanwhile, I have caved in completely. I have rung up my good friend who has agreed to look at the manuscript, and there I am in his kitchen on Sunday afternoon, handing it over and cringing inwardly, not nearly as sure as he seems to be that he'll like the book when he reads it... But then we're saved the embarrassment: for my publisher decides it's better he doesn't do it anyway, since he's already just provided a quote for another of her books.

I was lucky in the end. I walked into the foyer of MMU for a reading, and Livi Michael, writer of wonderful novels for adults and children - and of brilliant short stories, one of which we published in metropolitan - came sweeping across the tiles to greet me. Livi! Perhaps I could ask Livi! But does she know my work? Would she hate my work? How could I put her through the embarrassment of saying no if she didn't like it? No, I can't ask Livi!

She sees the look on my face. 'I know what you're going to ask me,' she says, 'and the answer is Yes!' Turns out she did like my work already: turns out she loved the book.

Even so, it's not the easiest thing in the world, coming up with a quote that sums up and yet does justice to a book. Wouldn't surprise me if Livi, like so many of my writer friends, has since declared herself a blurb-free zone.

And I did only manage to get one shout.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

It's All too Much for an Author

Got my head stuck in that bearpit the Guardian books blog this week, where, after writing a post on the problems of having to sell one's book via one's identity in this commercially-oriented literary world, Josie Henley Einion was torn apart by the resident purists for using both her identity and the books blog to sell her novel.

Sigh. I must get out more...

And in so doing, I missed an apparent web discussion about book blurbs... well, it happened according to the Guardian, but I still can't find it, or should I say I'm not prepared to spend a moment longer at this ruddy computer on this first hot day of August, and I'm off in to the garden.

Which is just as well, because if you ever got me started on the excruciating process of having to creep to your well-known friends and acquaintances for shouts... Can't think about it any more, I'm shuddering too much. I'm off to do some weeding...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Internet Widower

John Keenan responds on the Guardian books blog to John Updike's contempt for the internet, and links it to a fading relevance in his recent novels, in particular The Widows of Eastwick.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thanks, Enid

In response to Enid Blyton's win in the recent Costa poll for the best-loved children's writer, Lucy Mangan writes in today's Guardian of her own childhood obsession with Blyton and the fact that while Blyton's books were once banned from public libraries as politically incorrect and culturally impoverished, she opened up for generations of children the 'promised land' of reading.

I've said it many times before and I'll say it again here: she opened up for me the promised land of writing. I wanted consciously to be a writer from the age of eight - in fact, I was a writer before that, and Enid Blyton played no small part in that. Like Lucy Mangan, while I was reading everything, including Dickens, I gobbled up Blyton - The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, and in particular the Adventure Series (The Castle of Adventure, The Valley of Adventure etc) - like a drug. You can say this for Blyton, which you can't say for Dickens: nearly every time I finished one of her books, I went off and wrote a story of my own.

Why was this? I don't have any Blyton books here to study for the reason: while I still have many of the books I read then I never kept a single Blyton; that wasn't the point of them, the point of them was what they triggered in me. I do of course remember though that they were, as Mangan says, formulaic and baldly told. It's interesting to me that Mangan reports that Blyton decribed her working method thus: '...simply a matter of opening the sluice gates and out it all pours with no effort or labour of my own.' Clearly, what is going to result from this is unthinking, cliched, repetitive. Yet there was something exciting for me, I think, generated by that, an energy - and a permission just to do it, which the classics, bound by their mature and rarified insights and more sophisticated use of language, couldn't give. The classics (after a certain age I never read any other books specifically intended for children; I stayed away from them like the plague) were exclusive in their consciousness (while of course being in the long term far more nourishing fodder), whereas Blyton did not even merely include me in hers, she allowed me to take over: so bald was her prose (as I remember) that it left infinite room for my own projections, my own imaginings of the settings and the inner thoughts of the characters. No wonder I would go off and write when I'd finished reading one: I was already writing as I was reading.

I must have another look at The Faraway Tree. So many people have told me that they hated it when I've said I loved it. I had chicken pox, I remember, and I suppose I was a bit delirious. But that notion of a tree you can climb to another world, the world of imagination (Yes, OK, I know it's derivative in the first place, but it's probably something about the very bald way she wrote it!) has been the basis of of my concept of writing ever since.

Creativity works in more complicated ways than we sometimes think, and all I can say is, Thanks, Enid.