Thursday, November 30, 2006

Our Treasured Fourth Estate

Now let's look at the second half of this post on Shameless Words and have a really good laugh.

Thanks to Debi for the link.

Monday, November 27, 2006


For a brilliant deconstruction of Rachel Cooke's illogical arguments in the Observer yesterday, see Alan Bissett's blog today on the Guardian website.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Simpering Bitches

So today in the Observer, in an article by Rachel Cooke about the review debate, is a picture of the title of this blog with MY WHOPPING SPELLING MISTAKE! (The pic isn't included in the online article.) Funnily enough, I noticed it only last night and corrected it, but that's MORE THAN THREE MONTHS since I wrote it, and in all that time I was blind to it, and no one pointed it out to me.

Were you all avin a larf?

One thing you can say about writing for print publications: at least you get a copy editor to save you from yourself.

Cooke's view of blog reviews is clear from the title: Deliver Us From these Latter-Day Pooters.

As I have written below, I have my own reservations about a culture of recommendation without careful analysis, but I seem to be being held up as one of Susan Hill's main supporters on positive reviewing (see the Guardian Arts blog). A real first for The Bitch: never before in her life has she been identified with 'simpering acolytes'.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

What Do We Mean by 'Critical'?

Just thought I'd bring up from my comments one by Katy Evans-Bush which seems to me one of the most sensible and indeed important things to have been said in the recent debate about reviews:
The word "critical" doesn't have to mean "negative" - it can also mean "expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature, music, or art". I think "I like it" or "I don't like it" can be of some use, but if a reader discusses a book in terms of what the author was trying to achieve - whether the book succeeded in that project, how its various elements operated - it might never be necessary to say "I hated this!"

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Blog Reviews: Trust and Silence

As I have noted, several people in the current debate about blog reviewing have stated that they write only positive reviews, as there is too much castigation in the world already, and that if they don't like a book they don't mention it. However, as a writer I feel very strongly that a bad review of my work is far better than nothing at all. A bad review at least lets people know about a book and gives them the chance to make up their own minds, whereas not to be mentioned is in effect to be silenced, the worst fate a writer can face.

Much has been made by both Sutherland and bloggers of the need to be able to 'trust' a reviewer's opinion, but I find this stance pretty suspect, if not elitist. One should never assume that a reader will 'trust' your opinion as a reviewer; in my opinion one should always review with the acknowledgement that one could be wrong. As a reader too, I feel the same: I want to be given the chance to make up my own mind, and I can't if a book is never even mentioned (and I don't happen to know about it). What's most important is the airing of opinions - debate, discussion. In my reading group people often change their minds about a book after an evening's discussion, or even about the question of what books are for. (For an example of this see our latest discussion.)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Sutherland, Logic and the Bloggers

Funny thing, debate: the way whatever you say gets coloured for listeners by one extreme position or the other. Katy Evans-Bush has left a comment on my last post which prompts me to make my position clear on the furore surrounding Susan Hill's blog about John Sutherland's comments on web reviewers.

Although I do have my opinions about newspaper reviews, I haven't in fact voiced them so far on this occasion. The thing which concerns me is the lack of logic (or knowledge) which appears to be leading Sutherland to assume that (at the risk of repeating myself) all blog reviewers are untrained, that all untrained reviewers are not be trusted, and that readers cannot be expected to discriminate between good and bad reviews (or biased and unbiased reviews) and should therefore only trust the establishment (his word), ie newspaper reviews.

As it happens I think, like Scott Pack, that there is a place for both types of reviewing. Much has been made by bloggers in this debate of the fact that web reviews are written by 'book lovers', which I think can lead to a tendency towards positive reviews. This is of course a generalisation, and there are critical reviews on the web, but I know that many people think that recommendation is more positive and healthy than detraction. Personally I am interested in looking carefully at how books do and don't work, and so think that there's a place for the critical and (potentially negative) review - which newspapers do give space to.

Maybe this is all that John Sutherland was trying to say, but an injudicious phrase or two swept him away into the fury (and derision!) of bloggers. He did sound uncomfortable, I thought, on Radio 4 and further divested of his characteristic incisiveness and logic.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Welcome to an Orwellian World

Can you believe this?

On reading Susan Hill's blog about newspaper books pages, the literary editor of a national newspaper has emailed her to say that no books she publishes or writes will now be reviewed by that paper! (She won't name him/her.)

And, as Scott Pack points out, John Sutherland on Radio 4 was claiming the high ground of impartiality and ethics for newspaper reviewing! Surely it's a joke. Surely our worst suspicions haven't really been confirmed. Surely we're not really in that Orwellian world....

Getting Bleaker...

I'm slowly beginning to understand why, in spite of the fact that several small publishers still insist on only looking at 'agented work', independent publishers no longer feature in the scheme of things for many literary agents. Not only can these publishers not afford the kind of advances agents expect for the work they put in, they are finding it more and more difficult to get their books into the shops, if this link is anything to go by.

Thanks (I think!) to Debi for the link.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Scott Pack on the Today Programme

This morning Scott Pack was on the Today programme, along with John Sutherland, to talk about Sutherland's recent complaints about blogging reviewers. Scott comments that the interview was nice and civilised, but here's the comment I've left on his post:

May have been the fault of the interview context (the brevity, and Humphreys drummming up controversy) but in accepting Humphreys' implication that all bloggers are untrained and then adding his own assumption that all untrained commentators have nothing of value to say, as well as appearing to believe that the readers of blog reviews have no ability to discriminate between good ones and bad, Sutherland was guilty of just the kind of lack of thoroughness of which he's accusing us all.

Scott says he's listened to the clip again and seems to think I'm being a bit harsh. I can't listen on this stop-gap laptop, so I'll have to leave you to judge.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What Is Theatre For?

Bit off my usual agenda for this particular blog (ie not prose fiction), but sometimes I really wonder: What is contemporary theatre FOR? (In connection with this, on my other blog today I ask what playwriting schemes are for.)

Last night I went to Manchester Library Theatre to see Too Close to Home by Rani Moorthy, produced by Rani's own theatre company Rasa, in association with the Library Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith. Now I like the Library Theatre, if only for old times' sake, and but there is a bit of a corporate dead hand over it all - the theatre space is often slightly cold (conjuring unmagical images, even as you seat yourself for the hoped-for magical experience, of the council boffins sending out memos about the heating to the poor old creatives) and the white wine is frankly crap. (God, I'm getting old. Time was when I dismissed people who cared about the wine as small-minded old lushes.)

I shouldn't moan though: more often than you'd expect in this ambience, the productions are inspired (last year's Much Ado, directed by Chris Honer, for instance), and there is something really homey about the way Chris, the theatre's Artistic Director, always mingles with the audience in his baggy trousers and pale jackets and with his truly twinkly smile. And I get free tickets to Press Night, for godssake (I'm not sure why: maybe because I was once a member of the Theatre Writers' Union, but more likely, in these more commercially-corporate times, because I once edited a glossy-looking magazine).

Rasa have become best known for Curry Tales, also co-produced with the Library Theatre, the one-woman show in which Rani told global stories while actually cooking on stage, and which was also apparently broadcast on Radio 4 (I'm not quite sure how that would have worked, but then they do it on The Food Programme all the time,) and for their on-stage fusion of western-style dialogue with Asian music and dance. In view of all this, and the fact that the advance publicity indicated that the play would portray the family of a young suicide bomber, Too Close to Home promised to be explosive in more senses than one.

Well, firstly, though I am accustomed to seeing plenty of theatre people I know at Press Night, THERE WAS ONLY ONE: playwright Rina Silverman, and she had paid. What did that mean? That all the others were so uninterested in this burning issue that they couldn't get up off their arses even for a free ticket? That usually they only come to see their friends on stage (few of them are Asian)? And WHAT DID IT MEAN ABOUT THE POWER, OR OTHERWISE, OF THEATRE, TO REACH ACROSS A CULTURAL DIVIDE?

And as for the play. Oh well. Groan. I am going to have to say it: it left me cold. COLD, COLD, about this BURNING ISSUE!!! Oh, did I get weary with the wordy, wordy, 'western-style' dialogue, and I couldn't hear a fair bit of it (either the blocking was poor or the actors were occasionally swallowing their words), and, because so much of it was relating and recalling and telling, this really mattered, and, although I was meant to I didn't find it funny, and oh god, I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND. I never felt that I had any real insight into the mind of the young suicide bomber, and if this was the point, that, just like the real families of suicide bombers, the family didn't either, then it JUST WASN'T ENOUGH FOR ME, not in a two-and-a-half hour play with all that investment of creativity and time and attention, and BECAUSE IT SEEMS TO ME THIS IS THE BIG THING WE REALLY ALL DO NEED TO UNDERSTAND. But even allowing for this, acknowledging, say, that the focus of the play was the emotional effect on the family, well, I didn't understand the family either: I didn't find that the religious passion of the elder brother resonated (and believe me, I know about religious passion), I had no idea why the father had gone mad, either in terms of fact/plot or in terms of the theme of the play (except, as the Partner of the Bitch said, in order to become sane at the end), I was completely stymied by the sexual attraction between the elder brother and his aunt, and as for the mother, the main part played by Rani herself: I just didn't get her, crying one minute, grinning her head off and playing the clown the next - the whole family, in fact, quarrelling then hugging and joking in a way which seems borrowed from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - but with nothing like the same conviction or forward momentum beneath the emotional see-sawing.

Hardly for one moment was I able to forget that these were actors acting on a stage. It's the worst criticism. Plays are meant to transport you, to take you into their worlds, and this play, with this subject matter, needed to do that especially. In one 'comic' moment, the mother is shouting at a neighbour for putting pork into her dustbin. She storms out to him, and in order to facilitate her exit, the huge fridge door becomes briefly an outside door. A line of Asian schoolgirls with their teachers gave a great spurt of laughter, a response I don't think was intended, and it was the only outright laugh the play got.

Oh dear. Was it me, was it the play, was it the theatre: I was physically cold, too, and had to put my leather jacket back on. All I know is, I wasn't transported, and that's what theatre has to do if it's to affect people's minds. We left the theatre quickly, as one does when one has been disappointed in a play, slightly deflated. When we got outside, the streets were glossy with rain and reflected lights, the Partner remarking with satisfaction, 'Typical Manc', and it lifted our spirits. We had already forgotten the leaflet for the play, featuring an intent young man carrying a rucksack through exactly the same night-time Westernised scene.

Oh, and half-way through the play The Partner of The Bitch fell asleep.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Furious Bloggers and Frightened Mandarins

Today Susan Hill writes pretty furiously about an article in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph by John Sutherland. I couldn't find the link: the ST site doesn't seem v user-friendly to me, or else they simply don't put most of their articles online, which perhaps wouldn't be surprising when, according to Susan, the article describes a contempt by 'literary mandarins' for online reviewers - of whom Susan is of course one of the champions. This is an issue which is of interest of course to us all, but the thing that strikes me, as it has struck me many times before, is: How does Susan do it? She reads crates of books, she's doing an MA, she's a very active publisher, she keeps on writing her novels, and all the time she's incessantly blogging about it all (and many other things besides), and finding time to contemplate in her garden. No doubt about it, the woman's a Superwoman. She says she's becoming an anarchist as far as books are concerned. Too right: read the piece and feel the great wind of challenging energy blowing off your screen. No wonder the newspaper literary 'mandarins' are quailing...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Where Did I Really Go?

A week away, and when I got back I found that my laptop had pined away without me and died, and it's been another week being mended (and still isn't done, but now the computer shop have lent me another, so at last I can blog again). (But then, a blissful week on a Spanish island, and the Bitch's bitching faculties, which she meant to hone, have all but disappeared...)

Because I had to write about it when I got back, the book I took with me was Wuthering Heights, and for the whole week thus experienced a perpetually fluxing culture shock.

At Manchest airport I begin my re-reading, and I'm plunged into a world of horses, candles, and roads so small they disappear beneath snowdrifts; I look up and the planes on the runway fill my view.
Mr Earnshaw: I'm going to Liverpool today... I shall walk there and back; sixty miles each way.
The pilot's voice in my ear: We will be in Mallorca in two-and-a-half hours.
Lockwood falls into snowdrifts, people banished from the Wuthering Heights kitchen fire shiver in the unheated rooms, the moors are winter-bare; outside the airport, between the palms, the air is balmy.
I lie on my hotel bed: Nelly Dean must run for the doctor; my mobile phone goes, a call from home. Hareton and Heathcliff serve up porridge; I put down my book and stroll out for tapas.

Yet every single time I picked it up the book enclosed me in its world. The power of fiction, eh?