Sunday, November 15, 2015

Young Writer of the Year Award

Writing, and promotion of my new book, may have been keeping me away from this blog lately but yesterday I attended an event for bloggers which has brought me right back. The Sunday Times and literary agents Peters Fraser and Dunlop kindly invited us to meet the writers shortlisted for The Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and it was a very enjoyable and interesting afternoon which raised some key questions about the promotion and nurturing of young writers at the starts of their careers.

Begun in 1991 but temporarily discontinued since 2009, the newly-rejuvenated award, administered by the Society of Authors, is for a full-length book by a UK or Irish writer between the ages of 18 and 35. It boasts among its previous winners such luminaries as Helen Simpson (the first winner), Caryl Phillips, Paul Farley and Zadie Smith, a record justifiably prompting the prize's reinstatement, prime movers of which were Andrew Holgate, literary editor of The Sunday Times and PFD's Caroline Michel. Judges this year were Andrew Holgate, Chief Fiction Reviewer Peter Kemp, and previous winner Sarah Waters.

The prize is for a book of either fiction or non-fiction, extended this year to include Irish, self-published and digital books. Andrew Holgate explained that it is avowedly literary in intent, and the shortlist bears this out, consisting of three literary novels and a book of poetry - no non-fiction makes the cut this year as sufficiently literary in character.

The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota (above), which was also shortlisted for this year's Man Booker, is a huge sweeping novel following the individual progress of each of four young characters who have had to leave India for Britain (I think he said four: I'm only a third of the way through the novel and so far three have been dealt with in detail). It is Sunjeev's second novel, but the other three books on the shortlist are debuts: Ben Fergusson's Betty-Trask- and HWA-Debut-Award-winning The Spring of Kasper Meier (Little, Brown) set in Berlin immediately after WWII, Sara Taylor's The Shore (Heinemann), a multi-viewpoint fiction charting a community on the rural coast of Virginia, which is being shortlisted just about everywhere (Bailey's Prize, Guardian First Book Award), and Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe's collection of poems exploring her dual British-Chinese heritage, which has garnered shortlistings in the T S Eliot and Forward First Collection prizes.

I would say that all of these books have a kind of literary ease that amply qualifies them for this shortlisting - each of the authors is wonderfully at home in the language, each has a sharp and original eye and accurate feel for our physical world and a psychological acuity, and each is powered by a deep moral sense. (You could tell that last anyway; they were such nice people!) (I've begun all of the books - for this event I broke my general rule of reading only one book at a time in order to give it its due attention, and it's a testament to these books that they're all nevertheless very individual and vivid in my mind.) Pick up any one of these four books and you know you're in the hands of a born writer - proved, perhaps, by the fact that Sunjeev confirmed the rumour that he hadn't read a novel until he picked up Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children at the age of, I think, eighteen.

But what happens to a born literary writer in a culture hellbent on the commercial and on fetishising the Next New Thing, in which authors are routinely dropped after non-mega-selling debuts? It's a question, I think, at the heart of this prize. No doubt there will be accusations that, as a prize for young writers, it's contributing to the cult of youth, but I think its serious literary purpose runs counter to that, designed as it is to give status, exposure and encouragement to young writers writing into our culture through its squeezed literary end. Not, though, that one of these books fails to be exciting and engrossing.

In connection with this, after excellent readings by the authors, Andrew Holgate, chairing the Q & A, asked all four writers about the question of risk involved in the writing of their novels. It has to be said that all four books were published by mainstream publishers, and that none - with the exception perhaps of Sarah Howe's poetry collection - begins with the kind of unfamiliarity of language or tone that would frighten the horses. However, as he pointed out, Sunjeev goes on to create fundamental temporal shifts - we constantly move back in time to the earlier histories of the characters, slowly discovering how they are in the situation at the start of the novel - and in particular with the refusal to explain the Indian words his characters use all the time, expecting the reader to elucidate from the context, or, as Sunjeev put it, to just accept it as part of the music of the novel. Sara Taylor, Andrew Holgate suggested, takes similar risks with time, and with her multi-viewpoint narrative (although she replied that she was surprised it was seen as 'risk': to her the writing of it was simply fun). Sarah Howe's book is striking for its wide range of forms, unusual in a poetry collection, raging from pieces that are more or less prose poems (she called them 'prose') to entirely lyrical verse. Ben Fergusson takes the striking decision to eschew the usual youthful tenor of gay literature and portray a middle-aged man blackmailed for his homosexuality (and very gripping it is).

My writing and blogging colleague Dan Holloway asked if any of the four had however felt any brake on them as beginners. Did they have any sense that it would be only later, once they were established, that they would truly be able to write what they wanted in the way that they wanted? Ben said he simply didn't think about expectations, and Sarah Howe said that she had never even thought of an audience when she sat down to write her poems, it had been an entirely private enterprise, and - interestingly - she now finds it weird to think that that there are things in her poems that she wouldn't even discuss with her family but which other people, strangers, are now reading. Sunjeev, the only one shortlisted with a second book, said that when he wrote it he did have to think about marketing, simply because he'd been through the process with his first book. However, he felt that, although he was indeed reacting to his first book in writing his second, it was more a question of reacting against himself and developing.* Perhaps inevitably for someone whose PhD is in censorship in the production of American first novels, Sara Taylor made clear that in writing her time-shifting multi-viewpoint book she was strongly reacting against cultural expectations, and the only limitation she felt was that of not wanting to reveal family secrets, a sentiment that Sarah Howe echoed, if I remember rightly. It was clear, however, that some of the four had, since writing their books, experienced the negative pressures of marketing: earlier, as we mingled, Sara Taylor had talked about the fact that she likes to call her book a 'fractured narrative', but had been made aware that in marketing terms the phrase had negative connotations, and there was a potential pigeon-holing problem in retailing terms for a book which has been referred to as both a novel and a collection of linked stories. For Sara herself that liminal quality is a strength, and Dan and I heartily agreed with her - and it's excellent that prize judges are rewarding her for it.

It was a thought-provoking and very enjoyable afternoon, and a privilege to be able to meet and talk to the authors and the prize organisers, and I thank them.

(I'm afraid I didn't get a photo of Sarah Howe reading: I was so engrossed in her mesmerising reading that I forgot, but she's there in the background of the photos of the others reading.)

A week tomorrow - the evening of Monday 23rd - some of the shortlisted authors and previous winners including Helen Simpson will be reading and speaking at Foyle's. Do go if you can - I would if I could! (Beer and pizza too, apparently!) Details here.

* Dan Holloway points out to me that in answer to his question, Sunjeev also said that he would never have felt able to write such a long and complex book the first time around as he wasn't ready. I missed Sunjeev actually saying that, and it's a crucial point. As Dan says: 'Yet he clearly was ready enough as a writer to be published. Which further emphasizes what we talked about afterwards - that it is so important for new writers to be given space, to know that they will be given several books in which to discover their voices before being dropped.' (Thank you, Dan.)

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Young Writer of the Year Award

The shortlist has been announced for the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.

Here's a summary from the press release:

Covering a rich variety of genres and forms, the 2015 shortlist includes: Ben Fergusson with his critically acclaimed historical fiction debut, The Spring of Kasper MeierSarah Howe and her poetic exploration of heritage and identity, Loop of JadeSunjeev Sahota with his second novel, the Man Booker shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, a timely take on the British immigrant experience; and Sara Taylor’s Baileys-nominated collection of interlinked short stories, The Shore.

I've just downloaded them all to my Kindle and can't wait to get reading this evening!

Monday, November 02, 2015

Three reading group discussions

Writing, and the publication of Used to Be, have kept me away from blogging recently, including the writing up of our reading group discussions, but here are the last three discussions which, post book launch, I've managed to write up over the last weekend:

The Bridge by Ian Banks

Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B S Johnson

The Quiet Soldier: Phuong's Story by Creina Mansfield

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Do we read a novel for its issues, or its treatment of issues?

Our two most recent reading group discussions, in each of which the book tended to prompt discussion of the issues on which it centred, rather than itself as a literary artefact:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

It's all to do with how we like to see ourselves

Excellent Guardian article by Sarah Churchwell on Go Set a Watchman, newly published and marketed as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but which was in fact Harper Lee's earlier attempt at the same book, which an editor advised her to rewrite by concentrating on protagonist Scout's perspective as a child. Churchwell considers and judges various responses to the revelation in GSaW that the anti-racist Atticus of TKaM, Scout's lawyer father, turns out to have been racist after all, and makes the politically and culturally important points that the values of the Atticus of TKaM 'are in fact rather more dubious than the book, or many of its readers, care to admit' and that this new publication highlights the fact that TKaM is a 'consoling, childish, whitewashed fable' - views of TKAM which our reading group ultimately came to when we read it. (You can read our discussion, in which we decided that TKaM was very much how America likes to see itself, rather than a representation of reality, here.) 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Simenon returns

I hadn't read the Inspector Maigret books - I've never been a fan of crime fiction - and I hadn't really watched the TV adaptations either - but he was somehow part of my consciousness as I
grew up: that pipe and bowler hat and, in the film adaptations, the homburg; the sense of a solid and impassive character at the still centre of a social maelstrom of crime and people pushed to the edge. And my curiosity was piqued when I had an invitation to a reception hosted by the agents managing his estate, Peters Fraser and Dunlop, to celebrate a resurgence in interest in the author. This includes a stunning new project by Penguin, English publishers of Maigret since the early fifties, to publish, over a 7-year period and beginning last autumn, new translations of all of his novels, unbelievably just less than 400 in all, 75 of them Maigrets.  Such a prodigious output is of course interesting in itself to a writer (how on earth did he do it?), but, without further investigation, it would be easy to dismiss Simenon consequently as inevitably a writer of pure pulp. Yet I began reading, and digging deeper, only to discover that he was greatly admired by none other than T S Eliot, Gide, Cocteau, Henry Miller, Colette, Muriel Spark, and a host of other literary writers, and to find there was indeed something in his insistently plain prose that is fascinatingly, almost magically evocative, and that at the centre of the books is a deeply humane and psychological interest in people.

The Belgian Georges Simenon (1906-1989) did start out writing pulp novels as a 19-year-old in Paris, typing 80 pages a day and publishing, between 1923 and 1933, more than 200 books under 18 pseudonyms. At the reception Simenon's son, John, told us that his father regarded that period as his practice in novel-writing. In 1931 he wrote his first Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian - he produced 11 of them that year (at the same time as the short stories he had always also written) - and began also to write what he called his romans durs, his psychological 'hard novels', considered by many to be superior. It is however for the Maigret novels that he has been best known, and so it was to a Maigret novel, The Yellow Dog, one of those first 11, that I first turned, the story of a small provincial coastal town in which the prominent bourgeois citizens are being mysteriously murdered or attacked. As Maigret sets about solving the mystery, a strange yellow dogs lurks at the scenes of crime, a signature kind of touch in Simenon: something baffling, often seemingly inconsequential as far as the plot goes, but with unsettling reverberations that seem to me to symbolise the psychological dimensions of crime overlooked in institutional police procedure but which Maigret always purposefully waits and watches to uncover. Julian Barnes asserts in his TSL review that a Maigret novel has no subtext, but I would say that this does indeed thus amount to a pretty clever subtext - one that serves a double role as a subplot which, as Barnes puts it, 'ends up being part of the main plot.' Famously averse to the literary - rigorously excising all rhetorical devices such as metaphors, consciously using a restricted vocabulary and avoiding taxing the reader with anything more than novella length - Simenon yet manages to create resonance and atmosphere and a deep psychological dimension, and it's actually quite hard to work out how he does it. It's no wonder he has been so revered by literary writers: he's like the magician with the sleight-of-hand secret we all want. He does describe the weather - weather plays a huge role in the Maigret books; Maigret is always pulling on his coat against a deep frost or looking out through the window at rain and a grey, grey Paris - but he never employs metaphor to convey it or any of the surroundings, an alcohol-soaked world of seedy bars and backstreets, simply stating what they're like in plain terms. I have written before about the magical effect for me in childhood of the plain writing of Enid Blyton, a plainness that amounts almost to an absence of detail or dimension, which very absence released me as a reader to complete and enrich the story for myself, and, I must say, got me addicted to her books. Barnes sees something similar happening here. Similarly, he notices, Maigret is not fully characterised, and as a result '[Simenon] invites us to fill in the blanks, which we happily and sympathetically do.' Yet, unlike Blyton, Simenon somehow conveys a complex moral and social world - the world of pre- and postwar France with its social divisions and, over the years, the fate of the bourgeoisie and the bureaucratisation of the police force. Perhaps the clue is in the very 'absence' of Maigret's character. Maigret is characterised by reticence and silence, by his mode of watchfulness and waiting and psychological observation, and, aided by a simplicity of language and style with which we can all identify, we watch his world through his eyes, becoming active participants in the story ourselves. Most attractive to me about the books is Maigret's interest in and often sympathy with the criminal as a human being in extremis. The unravelling of the mystery is never the real issue: the real issue is the puzzle of the criminal's mind, often, as in The Friend of Madame Maigret, pondered over and unpicked long after his identity has been proved. Maigrets are never really whodunnits but whydunnits. John talked about his father's view that all people are essentially biologically irresponsible - in extremis the biological imperative overrides social responsibility - and the books I have read bear this out.

John told us about his working process: first the inspiration and digestion and then the rumination and walking to soak up the atmosphere of the settings (though one can't help feeling these must have been pretty quick stages!), next the 'click', followed by the rapid production of the first draft (interestingly, he moved from using a typewriter at this stage to using a fountain pen), and finally the polish in which all rhetorical devices such as adjectives and adverbs were rigorously removed.

Much has been written about Simenon's excesses as a drinker and a womaniser (Maigret doesn't womanise but he drinks all day on the job!), and one can't help feeling that someone who could produce such volume so quickly with such little revision must have been possessed of a manic energy, but in talking about him as a father, John movingly showed us a different side. He was always there for him and his siblings, he said, and had a Socratean mode of helping them with their problems, posing questions to help them to work out solutions for themselves - a method which does indeed, of course, transfer to the Maigret books, where patient questioning and waiting for people to reveal themselves are what win out in the end.

It seems strange that, as the most translated French-speaking author of the 20th century, and the third most translated author of all time in the US and UK, with over 500 hours of TV drama adaptations and more than 90 feature films, Simenon's books should have fallen out of favour, as seems to be the case, but this looks to change. The Penguin project gathers apace, with the Maigret series well on its way and the rest of the oeuvre begun, with some of the books translated into English for the first time. And it was announced that ITV is to produce two stand-alone films with Rowan Atkinson to play the leading role.

Thank you to PFD for opening my eyes to Simenon's work (and for a really lovely reception), and to John for the insights he gave into his ideas and working methods.