Saturday, December 29, 2007

Not that I've Read His Book

We can only suppose and hope that Pierre Bayard, author of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is having a laugh in Saturday Guardian Review commentary:

I have often found myself in the delicate situation of having to express my thoughts on books I haven't read. Because I teach literature at university level, there is, in fact, no way to avoid commenting on books that I haven't even opened. It's true that this is also the case for the majority of my students, but if even one of them has read the text I'm discussing, there is a risk that at any moment my class will be disrupted and I will find myself humiliated
implying as he does with those words 'a delicate situation' and 'humiliation' that it's all a matter of personal status and dignity rather intellectual honesty and inquiry, and who cares if in the process none of us really knows what we're discussing?

We really shouldn't let the three 'repressive' 'internalized constraints' he lists stop us in our 'non-reading': firstly, 'the [social] obligation to read', which he says (god forbid) 'remains [like all unthinking practices] the object of a kind of worship', secondly, 'the obligation to read thoroughly', and thirdly the 'understanding that one must read a book in order to talk about it with any precision'.

After all, as he says, 'it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven't read it in its entirety - or even opened it.'

Pity then that his later, more coherent argument for a wider understanding of the different ways we read gets submerged in such a spoof...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Christmas Carol for Waterstone's

With apologies to C Dickens.

Old Waterstone's is as dead as a doornail.

Bill knew it was dead. How could it be otherwise? Bill's friend Liz worked at Deansgate Waterstone's for I don't know how many years. Yet - so Bill told me yesterday at a playwrights' Christmas gathering (where half of Manc, it seemed, was wearing Santa hats and yelling their heads off in the Duke's down in Castlefield) - when Bill went into Waterstone's recently for books for research, he had to spend one and a half hours looking for them because the staff had no idea where they were, and it was only after that time that they were discovered in the stock room.

Well, it's Christmas, and I didn't like to be negative, so I didn't add my story: that some time ago I began arranging a reading there for myself and some fellow Salt authors. Then in October I got a regretful email: unfortunately the reading couldn't go ahead because the reading room was to be used to store Christmas stock!

Well, we had our drink and then we all said Merry Christmas and goodbye and, undaunted, I went off to Waterstone's to do some Christmas shopping. I looked for a display of the Booker shortlist. I couldn't find one anywhere. I asked an assistant. She looked startled (as if she rarely gets that kind of question) and a little ashamed (as if she'd she'd always been dreading it). She said, 'Oh, no we don't have one of those. It's all Christmas stock at the moment.' (Note that: booksellers do not expect anyone to give Booker books for Christmas: only the 'Christmas Stock'.) Trying to be helpful, she told me: 'They'll be dotted about on the shelves.'

I couldn't remember all of them offhand - and I was interested in the long list, too - so I asked if she could remind me. No, of course she couldn't. She had to look them up on the internet.

You will, therefore, permit me to repeat emphatically that old Waterstone's is as dead as a doornail.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dressed-Up Theatre

What do you conclude when everyone comes out of a play and says, 'Weren't the costumes fantastic?' (as so many people said to me on Monday night after the Royal Exchange production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband)?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Production Line Novelists

Matthew Wright investigates UK Creative Writing courses for Education Guardian. This bit struck me:
Novels by faculty members count as publications towards a department's research exercise. [Philip] Hensher [professor at Exeter] says there "may be some awareness in departments that employing a busy novelist, publishing a book every two years or so, is not going to do their RAE scores any harm."
Well now. Some prolific novelists are great. But not all great novelists are prolific.

Can you see where this could be leading?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Politics and the Writer

If only Martin Amis had watched his language. Now we have the latest in Terry Eagleton's reaction to Amis's connotational errors. He says this to the Observer's Tim Adams:
I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on such matters [as terrorism] any more than we should listen to window cleaners.
Well, all I can say then is that Marxist literary theory has come a heck of a long way from the Soviet concept of literature as politically useful, because, although he doesn't actually say it, this is coming very close to saying that fiction itself has nothing politically useful to say, or at least is likely to be interpreted as saying this, without the careful distinction being made between novelists' public pronouncements and their novels. And such a notion dovetails dangerously with those of a publishing world largely intent on 'entertainment' rather than thoughtful or politically-committed literature.

No wonder that, as Tom Chatfield says in a comment on my post about the recent Manchester University debate on Literature and Terrorism, 'literature' that evening was a very little word. In the intervening days it has become clearer to me that that 'debate' not only pushed literature aside for the issues themselves, but actively and in process privileged public discourse over literature - and worse, colluded in the cult of personality - by allowing Amis's predicament and defence of his public pronouncements to be the focus.

Even so, I'd like to question that distinction between the importance of a novelist's work and that of his or her public pronouncements. 'I don't know where [novelists'] status comes from,' says Eagleton (by which he means the status which gives them a right to make public political statements). This is another statement implying a reductive attitude to literature and an underestimation of its potential cultural power. If novels matter to people, if they have been affected by them emotionally and politically, then it is natural for people to want to hear what novelists have to say on matters of political urgency. Well-known novelists, in other words, already have a voice. Of course they need to be careful how they use it, and in my view Amis should have been far more circumspect (and dropped his fictive tropes of irony and exaggerated rhetoric) before he spoke publicly and outside the accustomed parameters of fictive expression.

For me this comes at a weekend when fiction and political action have collided with tear-wrenching urgency. Recently, quite out of the blue, I was asked to contribute to 'Fragments from the Dark', an anthology of fiction pieces and poetry about exile and home, which will appear in the summer from the publishing arm of Hafan (Haven), the Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group. This week coordinating editor Jeni Williams alerts me to a heartbreaking article in the New Statesman about the plight of children being imprisoned in UK deportation holding centres, in breach of a key UN Convention. Easy pickings for a government with deportation targets to achieve, many of the families are simply lone mothers and children who have fled domestic or political violence, taken suddenly at dawn from their UK homes - and settled and ordered lives in the community which can include GCSEs - to be kept in the centres without adequate clothes or food. Even if they are eventually returned to their UK homes, most of these children will be seriously emotionally damaged. Jeni also copies me the email she has sent to the Children's Commissioner, Prof Aynsley-Green, who is trying to combat this situation, in which she describes with heart-rending vividness families she is working with in these situations.

Personally, on political issues I always feel happiest sticking to what I do best, ie saying it through fiction, but you know, sometimes there just isn't the time.

Email to support The Children's Commissioner, Prof Aynsley-Green at

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Uses of Prizes

Maya Jaggi defends the apparently 'non-literary' choice of pop singer Lily Allen for inclusion on the judging panel of next year's Orange Prize. Maggie Gee, chair of the Royal Society of Literature has complained about the lack of 'serious writers' on the panel, but Jaggi supports the claim made by the prize's co-founder and director Kate Mosse that the members of such a jury need to be 'readers' more than they need to be writers: people able to judge accessibility as well as excellence.

The danger with a highly literary jury, says Jaggi, is that 'experts end up only talking to each other', and 'the ultimate aim is to serve not just writers but readers.'

Well, maybe. It is after all an author's job, in my view, to reach out to readers. Just as long as Mosse's aim to 'entice as many readers as possible to sample not just the winner but the longlist' doesn't mean excellence is pushed off the agenda....

Monday, December 10, 2007

Short Stories Reviewed

Tania Hershman alerts me to Issue 2 of her great new website The Short Review, devoted to reviews of short story collections:

On the menu this month are:

  • debut collections by: a Brit living in Prague, a Canadian, and a Panamanian- American (The Loudest Sound and Nothing; Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction; Come Together, Fall Apart)
  • anthologies from Britain and Australia (You Are Here; The Sleepers Almanac)
  • classics of different shades (Katherine Mansfield's Collected Stories; Self Help by Lorrie Moore)
  • the English translation of a Polish collection (Tales from Galicia)
  • a zombie-filled second collection (Magic for Beginners)
  • an award-winning flash fiction collection from a small press (The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Further Thoughts on the Branding of Authors

Further thoughts about the issues raised in my last post (can't you tell I'm blogging in a hurry at the moment - it's because I've started writing again!):

Comparing our lack of seriousness about books to the attitude of the poverty-stricken but book-desiring inhabitants of Zimbabwe, Doris Lessing also said this:
There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: "Is she good-looking?" If this is a man: "Charismatic? Handsome?" We joke, but it is not a joke.
Now Dominic Proctor's notion of 'branding' authors, as he describes it to Danuta Kean, seems essentially a good one. His idea, if I read it correctly, is that at present publishing is geared to retail structures which treat books as commodities to be sold alongside other similar commodities, (3 for 2s etc). This means that each book loses its individuality and becomes divorced from a writer's oeuvre and turns into a 'one-off' product. Such a system, as so many writers have found to their cost, places no investment in either an author's career or in the long-term life of a book (authors dropped when their first books don't 'sell', books shifted back to the warehouse and pulped after a very short shelf life) and ignores the potential of word-of-mouth build. Instead, he says, publishers should be building what he calls a 'brand' to attract a community of readers around an author's entire oeuvre.

So far so good - great, in fact. And here's Joanna Prior, marketing and publicity director at Penguin, on how Penguin helped Zadie Smith to break out of what Danuta Kean calls 'one hit wonderland':
“A lot of what it comes from is an unshakable belief that you have the ‘real thing’ on your hands, that you have an author who is going to write for a career not just one book.” Such belief, she believes, should fuel publishers’ confidence to create distinct identities that set authors apart. In the case of Smith this meant an emphasis on her distinctive name using bold cover design and tactical publicity that showcased her as a voice for a new generation.

Well, again, that sounds smashing. But didn't you notice all those journalists commenting, as Doris Lessing intimates, on Zadie's youth and beauty, and didn't they put plenty of stress on her personal background?

It's one thing when an author's work is the brand, it's another when the brand is the person of the author. It's dangerous, actually, as Zadie was clearly indicating when not so long ago she pointed out wryly that she'll be old 'and ugly' soon.

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Oh, hey, Doris has said it: when the internet was invented we never asked, did we, whether even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find that a whole day has passed in blogging etc. (From Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech.)

Doris Lessing dismisses the internet as 'inane' so her comment above may well be dismissed in turn as uninformed, but actually for writers - and about writers - she is expressing a horrible truth. Last week Grumpy Old Bookman gave up because there were 'better things to do' he said, by which I guess he means write. The fact which most people skirt around is that blogging is time-consuming, and can use up huge dollops of precious creativity. And this week, just as I was having similar thoughts myself, Julian Gough expressed a different sense of his blog as a trap: he's fed up with his own blog persona - a natural experience, I think, for creators, who thrive on chameleon-like renewal and innovation.

Yet now here's an excellent piece by Danuta Kean on advertising mogul Dominic Proctor's idea that authors should be created as brands (rather than books being treated as one-off products, as currently happens). And in the comments that follow, guess what emerges as the best way for authors to do this for themselves if their publishers don't do it for them? Why, the internet, of course! As Roger Morris, who has done this most successfully, says there, it's a hard slog.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Judging the Competition

The BBC National Short Story Award has at last been announced, later than the two previous years, and renamed (it was previously called the National Short Story Prize).

Here's a sentence from the Terms and Conditions:
In order to establish a manageable long list all entries will initially be read by at least two (2) sifters from mixed teams chosen by the BBC, Booktrust and Scottish Book Trust.
Hmm. Fellow writers have pointed out to me that you can't expect anything else, given the numbers that will be involved. But I wonder: the numbers won't be that great, surely, since one of the conditions of entry is that a writer must have been published, and the kind of publication they've got in mind is implied by the fact that there's a space in the application form to name your publisher - and indeed a space for publishers to sign if they're submitting their authors.

As far as I'm concerned one of the greatest skills of judging or editing is the ability to recognize the innovative and creatively odd-ball which conventional expections would pass over. It surely follows that it's at that very early stage that the greatest and most expert judging skill is required. It's why, when Ailsa Cox and I were editing metropolitan, we would never let our workers do the initial sifting in spite of the fact that we were swamped with manuscripts, and it's why of course they wanted to do it and were furious that we wouldn't let them (as indeed I'd have been in their situation).

So what does this mean? That the so-called judges of this competition are not the real ones, they're just figureheads, and the real groundwork is being done by more expert but anonymous people? Or does it mean that the whole thing is geared from the start towards conventionality - as one has to suspect when the BBC, with its strangulating charter (and the formal restrictions on stories suitable for broadcast), is now so heavily involved?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Must-Have Book

I've been so busy (and worn out) that I've only just got around to looking at Sunday's papers (before throwing them out), so I've only just caught up with Rachel Cooke's reaction to that talked-about book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read:
...yet another product of a world that commodifies everything, that regards books pretty much as if they were status handbags. It sees reading only as a social indicator, as a way of getting on or looking cool, ignoring the fact that, at bottom, it is a private pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake.
The first time it ever occurred to me that people bought books just to be cool - and not to read them - was, I'm afraid, on the publication of Trainspotting which people seemed to have a habit of wearing sticking out their back pockets or handbags. I hasten to say that I think the book's brilliant, but how could so many people read it so easily? As anyone who's done psychology or any actor will tell you the phonetic transcription of speech sounds is one the most difficult things to read, because of the component of expectation in the psychological process of perception and therefore of reading: the prior connections we make in our heads between the sounds of a dialect and any written form involve the standard forms and not those phonetic ones. Even the kids in Dundee I taught had problems with Rabbie Burns, so used were they to reading standard English.

It's this idea 'that reading is a private pleasure for it's own sake' which Rachel Cooke uses to challenges author Pierre Bayard's justifications, including his assertion that we forget half the books we read anyway. Call me an old sobersides, but I'd go further: beyond the pleasure principle, books can affect us, affect our world view and even, I would claim, the way we behave in the world - even if we do forget them on the conscious level.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The End of Romance?

Speaking of language: I wonder if it was really necessary for the Guardian to line up for and against arguments about whether Mills and Boon books perpetuate a patriarchal sexual ideology? Just look at the titles quoted and on display in the pic, and the power relations they express:

The Italian's Captive Virgin
The Desert Shiek's Captive Wife
The Greek Tycoon's Inn[ocent?].... [rest of title hidden]
The Spanish Prince's....
His Christmas Bride
The Prince's Forbidden V[irgin?]

Apart from this, one of the biggest criticisms came inadvertently from my one-time mother-in-law, who loved the things. She would sit with her feet up and read non-stop for a whole afternoon, and then when she'd got to the end she would look suddenly shocked and say in wonder and disappointment: 'Oh, I think I've read that one before!'

Literature, Language and Speech in the Age of Terrorism

Halfway through the Q & A at Monday's Manchester University sell-out debate between Martin Amis, Ed Husain and Maureen Freely on Literature and Terrorism, a questioner asked: 'Do you think we can get back to Literature?'

I think this must have been Tom Chatfield who writes about the event on the Prospect Magazine blog. Can literature tackle the subject of terrorism, he asked, or must it buckle and be sidelined in the face of it - as, he was implying, was indeed happening in this debate?

Only Maureen Freely tackled with any urgency the subject of the responsibility of the writer, while Amis and Husain concentrated in their opening speeches on reiterating their distinctions between Islam and Islamism and on condemning jihadist terrorism, and like Tom Chatfield I found her contribution moving. Apart from that, and a few angry reiterations of familiar political positions from the floor, there was no real debate, as Maureen Freely says on the Guardian Books blog. Instead there was a disconcerting sense, in that vast hall packed with 500 people, of issues being skirted around.

'What do you expect a novelist to do, deny his feelings?' asked Martin Amis, when finally, towards the end, a questioner challenged him outright about what Maureen Freely calls The Controversy, reiterating the point he made in Saturday's Guardian.

Whoa, Martin, stop there. OK, yes, novelists, unlike politicians and Amis's 'post-historical automata', deal in feelings, and this is why I'm always saying that, contrary to current belief, fiction has potentially greater persuasive power than any political tract. But a novel is complex and subtle, it's not just a knee-jerk response, and we are not, after all, writing novels when we are speaking in public - briefly, and without the emotional investment a novel earns from an audience - on political issues. Indeed, Amis himself (in his own defence) makes a distinction between the status of the two forms of expression: What you say about something is never your last word on any subject. But what you write should aspire to be just that: your last word. The trouble is, though, what you say to a journalist, or even on telly, gets written down and can be, and mostly is, presented as your last word.

To me there is no doubting Amis's sincerity, but he does seem to have some confusions and he really needs to watch his language. I do agree with him that there's a mistaken and dangerous 'liberal' inability to condemn horrors perceived to be confined to other cultures, but perhaps the 60% of an audience who failed to put up their hands when he asked how many would call themselves 'morally superior' to suicide bombers were simply shocked by his diction? It's one thing to condemn an action, but it's another to bring the focus back onto oneself and bathe in moral righteousness. Much of Amis's diction is hierarchical in this way: we in the west are more 'evolved' than Islamic states, he says (it's no good Amis claiming as he has that by 'evolved' he simply means 'more civilized': the word has inescapable Darwinian connotations of progression and hierarchy); Muslims need (and want) 'to put their house in order', he says, calling on Biblical and western-political notions of division and patriarchal hierarchy (and in danger of conflating Islam and Islamism once again.)

It's a mindset that doesn't help. Maureen Freely, who grew up in Turkey, where East and West most graphically meet, put her finger on this at one point, calling on everyone to stop thinking, in this age of mass immigration and global communication, in divisive terms of East and West. She got a clap, I think.

But she's right: through no fault of her own, she failed really to challenge, and in spite of her best efforts, the subject of literature, its political responsibility and its power in the face of terrorism trickled away. Meanwhile, today a Turkish publisher goes on trial for publishing a book 'insulting Turkishness'...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Whose Carver?

James Campbell considers the planned re-issue of Carver's collection What We talk About When We Talk About Love (with Carver's original title Beginners), in the light of the comparative endings of the story One More Thing which have now been made available. It's clear that Gordon Lish's so-called 'edit' amounted to a breathtaking rewrite which, as Campbell says, changed utterly the character of the protagonist, turning him away from verbosity and towards the taciturnity we have come to associate with both Carver's characters and his prose. The Lish treatment gives the story that resonant and ambiguous combination of full stop yet lack of closure which is common to Carver's stories as published, but which is missing from the original version of this one.

Campbell points out one factor which will make any well-known author with similar plans of redress quail: it matters not a jot which version is better; in the most significant sense, the well-known versions of an author's characters (and his or her prose) no longer belong to him, his executors or his publishers. They are emotionally owned by the reading public, and it is therefore the well-known versions which are most likely to survive.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Who Needs Angst?

Never averse to stretching an argument in order to push his own agenda, Mark Ravenhill asserted earlier this week that while TV and cinema are dying in the face of the media, theatre will always live on, due to people's desire to experience live performance.

Come again?

Last night I went to the Royal Exchange to see A Conversation by Australian David Williamson, one of a trilogy he's written around the format of a Community Conference, the central process of what is known as Transformative Justice - practised in Australia - whereby victims and perpetrators are brought together in dialogue as a way of moving them on respectively from their pain or grief and to face up to what they have done.

This play has moved on to the main stage from the studio, a process which the Royal Exchange, newly committed to new writing, it seems, has apparently taken to its heart. Great, absolutely marvellous. And to my mind this play definitely deserved such treatment. Brilliant. In spite of being harrowing (it deals with a particularly horrific murder) and, by virtue of its format, not very theatrical, it was utterly enthralling and wonderfully acted.

But. But, what about this audience in which Ravenhill places such faith for the continuance of theatre?

As I came up the steps with The Partner, a woman standing at the top waved some tickets at us. 'Free tickets? Would you like some free tickets?' (Her friends had presumably failed to show.) 'No thanks,' said The Partner, 'We've already got comps.' 'Oh, dear,' said the woman, 'so has everyone, it seems, I simply can't give them away!' So the house was having to be papered.

Even so, there weren't all that many people milling around, and one of the two bars was, unusually, closed. And, as happens when it's desperate, whatever they'd paid the audience was allowed to fill up the more expensive seats at stage level. And the majority of that audience was - yet again - over fifty.

And yet look what all those young people, and those who'd stayed at home or weren't prepared to fork out the price of a ticket, were missing: for once the play began, that audience was rapt for every moment of the play's uninterrupted ninety minutes, right to the end.

It's hard in such a situation not to agree with the media moguls that everyone just wants 'entertainment' nowadays, and the easier and more accessible the better. Not that artists, writers and literary and theatrical professionals shouldn't be fighting this, which I guess is the true motive behind Ravenhill's somewhat specious argument.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Salt Autumn Party

An announcement today (on both my blogs): on Thursday evening Salt Publishing will be holding a party at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road to celebrate their poetry and short story lists and launch their autumn titles. Yours truly will be reading, along with a glittering array of brilliant, prize-winning, other Salt authors - or Salties, as some of us like to call ourselves.

Everyone is welcome. Come along and celebrate with this truly wonderful, and superhuman, publisher (I know I'm biased, but...!): The Gallery, Foyles Bookshop, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, 6.30-8.30, Thursday November 29th 2007. Readings kick off on the dot at 6.30 (and I'm reading at the start).

The pic shows the cover of Salt's autumn short story catalogue, and is taken from that of their brilliant collection by Charles Yu, the title story of which, Third Class Superhero, won the 2004 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. Charles has also been named one of the US National Book Foundation's '5 Under 35' writers of exciting fiction.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Thingness of Books

Several of last week's discussions about book publishing - about the potential demise of the hardback, about the Kindle, Amazon's new e-book reader, about the wasteful sale or return book retail practice and suggestions for its abolition, and about whether or not we should write in the margins of books - circled implicitly around an important issue: that of the thingness or otherwise of books and how this might now be changing.

I hold up my hand: I have been guilty of fetishizing the physicality of books: of loving their feel and their look and their smell. Yet Nicholas Clee, drawing together two of these discussions (sale or return and the e-book) predicts a future in which books (or at least backlists) are digitized. In such a scenario, our concept of books would no longer be inextricably tied up with their thingness and objectness but would move towards that of books as abstract entities (ideas and imagination) which simply need vehicles - a more sophisticated concept, surely?

As for sale or return, Joel Rickett quotes Hachette's Tim Hely-Hutchinson on the 'heart-breaking' experience of seeing 'palette loads of some of your best books' coming back to the warehouse. I know how he feels: I'd say it was soul-destroying, actually, to get back a packet of copies of the short-story magazine metropolitan which I once published, to open it up and find the damn things fingered and grubby and no longer saleable. All that money down the drain: the money we spent printing them and sending them out and the money the bookshop spent sending them back. Dead things - dead trees - which no one would now read. I used to hope that the fact that they were dog-eared meant that someone had read them - hopping on one foot while the shop assistants' backs were turned - but no one would read them again now, or properly, and I'd get overwhelmed by a sense of the thingness of them killing off the potential of the brilliant contents.

There was one lighter moment: when I rang Liverpool Blackwell's to ask how many they'd sold of one issue, the manager said, None. But she couldn't send them back to me: they'd had every single copy stolen. Well, I chose to believe her, anyway, and to think that those contents had gone winging their way into the world, slipping the material structures of commerce, and into people's conciousness...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Too Literary For What?

Indicators of the way the wind may be blowing in our literary world, perhaps?:

Vanessa Gebbie reports that the publisher turned down all of the winning and commended novels in the Lichfield/Time Warner First Novel Competition as 'too literary'. Vanessa comments: 'If you want to get anywhere… dumb down, folks!'

Yet DJ Taylor notes in a Guardian article titled, 'Independents fight back' that independent publishers (less in thrall to the 'market' than the big guns) feature significantly on this year's Costa shortlists. (Can't find a link for the Taylor piece, I'm afraid.) *

* Got the link now, thanks to Adele Geras.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Hard Sell

Well, that's it - the Bitch is unlikely to have a book published in hardback now, that dream she first conceived in the libraries of all those small towns she lived in as a child, which was all she could conceive, because that's all the libraries had then - stacks of hardbacks and nothing else. (Hardback fiction is on the way out according to Picador, who are to begin putting literary fiction straight into paperback.)

Up to now the only hardbacks I've ever been in have been anthologies; my books have come from publishers who have published in paperback from the start, setting the trend which Picador is now to follow - along with other mainstream publishers, it's predicted.

'A moribund market' is what Picador calls hardback fiction, and some shockingly dire hardback sales figures for one of our top authors, Graham Swift, have been revealed. Well, the writing has been on the wall for some time. From Richard and Judy to my reading group, people no longer consider books not yet in paperback, and retailer discounts have impacted on the format.

There are some dissenting voices. The Guardian quotes Weidenfeld and Nicholson's Kirsty Dunseath: 'Coming out in hardback is a statement of confidence in a novel and gets the reviews. It doesn't say much for your confidence coming out in paperback.' Well, that's certainly always been the assumption: hardback good, paperback first imprint bad; and the pioneering independent publishers haven't found it easy to get press coverage for their first imprint paperbacks. (The same prejudice could work the other way too: once, when I was starting out, I was invited to send stories to a prestigious showcase anthology for new writers, but was then told not to send them after all as my work had already appeared - in a different anthology - 'between hard covers': a simplistic hierarchy which categorized me as more established than in fact I was.)

Scott Pack, ever pithy, gets it right, telling the Guardian: 'They should be reviewing on the basis of content rather than the binding', which made the Partner of the Bitch practically fall out of bed laughing when he read it this morning at the thought that it needed to be said.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Roar for Powerful Words

Well, I'm flattered enough to groom my whiskers: Charles Lambert has awarded me a Shameless Lions Roar for Powerful Words, but I'm also circling in my cage. One of the responsibilities this carries is to list three things which in my view characterize powerful writing, and here I am gnawing the thing to bits as usual: I mean, what are we taking about here, fiction or non-fiction? And is the implication that as award-winners, we KNOW, and have the secrets to impart - in which case, forget it, I'm rendered wordless, it's like, er, asking a lion to deconstruct how he roars?

But no, look, the other responsibility here is to nominate five others, and the following (although I know some have already received the award) demonstrate to me the three most important qualities of powerful writing: seriousness of intent, wit in execution and economy and/or vividness with language:

Jenny Diski
The Age of Uncertainty
That's So Pants
Baroque in Hackney

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Terrorism of Intellectual Repression

It's an indication of the pass we have come to that, I'm ashamed to say, I needed to think about doing on this blog what Hari Kunzru also does in the Guardian today: respond to the conviction of amateur poet Samina Malik for the possession of "records likely to be used for terrorism" by confessing, in the name of freedom of thought, to one's own similar records, research for writing.

Kunzru points out that
we seem to have accepted the principle that it should be illegal to think, read and write certain things. Incitement to violence is rightly criminalised, but what about imagining violence? It's hard not to link Malik's poems to other trends - the push for ever-widening hate speech laws, the calls for writers like Monica Ali to be "careful" about how they represent the world. We are being taught to be circumspect. How long before it's suggested we should shut up altogether?
In fact my records look pretty weedy besides Kunzru's: I downloaded instructions on how to make a bomb when I was researching the IRA for my latest, unpublished novel. I have to say though that even as I downloaded them, a couple of years ago now, I had a sense of doing something incriminating - mainly perhaps because the novel is very much about such matters (persecution and the need to hide 'incriminating' evidence) , but also because I feel this atmosphere of intellectual repression has been building for some time. And I can't even prove my purpose: I never actually used the instructions for the novel in the end.

Last week I stood in the rooms where Anne Frank hid with her family from the Nazis. How long, as Kunzru says, before we need to hide our thoughts, if not our bodies, altogether?

The Writing or the Writer?

In the wake of Norman Mailer's death, a slightly shocking 'good riddance' from Joan Smith on the Guardian Books Blog, which gives rise to a long debate about whether we should judge a writer's work in the light of his or her life.

As so often, on the whole the commenters fall into two extreme camps, but it seems to me the issue is more complex than they allow. I've said often enough that I deplore the cult of personality in the contemporary literary world, which does indeed distort our perceptions of writing. On the other hand, as Zadie Smith pointed out earlier this year (the Guardian link seems to have disappeared, I'm afraid), a writers' writing is inevitably coloured or indeed motored by his or her personality - insights, attitudes, perceptions - and thus can't be seen as 'separate' in quite the way some of Joan Smith's commenters claim.

As John Morton says (last post), it's important to concentrate on the writing rather than the writer, but sensitive readers must be alert to the sensibility behind any piece of writing, regardless of fine sentences or clever structure etc. Great writing is always a combination of the two - linguistic facility and sharp sensibility. In fact, it's the writing that will tell you the real truth about an author's character, rather than any self-made or publisher-generated reputation.

As for Mailer, well, I haven't read enough of him, or recently enough, to comment on his writing, but I do know that long ago something about it put me way off. Whether that was his reputation colouring my perception or his sensibility leaking through the prose, I'll have to look again to find out.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Teach Yourself to Read

A good post, in my view, by John Morton on the Guardian books blog, in which he considers the general response to Anne Enright's London Review of Books article on the McCanns, and the wider implications of the superficial or wilful way in which people read.

Doesn't stop the commenting jokers getting the boot into Enright all over again though...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Short break

I'm taking a break for the next few days - back next Tuesday or Wednesday.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lucy Honeychurch, the Wanton

Here's an excellent post by Daniel Green at the Reading Experience on adapting classic novels for TV.

The thrust of his argument as I read it is that however faithfully a filmmaker tries to replicate a novel, a film can never be a true substitute:
'A good film requires careful attention, just as does a good novel, but the kind of attention being paid is not the kind required by fiction'
and the two forms inevitably produce different creatures.

However it seems that now the adapters aren't even trying for replication. I have to admit I found interesting Andrew Davies's highlighting of the suppressed homosexual theme in A Room With a View (last Sunday night's adaptation) - but surely that suppression is part of the essence of the novel, a novel about suppression with its own meta-suppression. And as for the reversal of the novel's ending with the WWI addition, well please tell me why this was necessary. And another thing: the way these contemporary interpreters of Victorian and Edwardian middle-class female protagonists leave their mouths hanging OPEN! Is no one in the media old enough, or well enough (or sensitively enough) read to know that even in the early sixties girls were constantly expected to hold their mouths closed as a sign of breeding and virtue? And especially when it comes to Miss Lucy Honeychurch! Oh, I know that Lucy's got a wild soul, but remember it's a wild soul in conflict with her breeding, and it's her PIANO PLAYING which betrays this, not hanging lips and glittering teeth on show. Did they feel they had to 'modernise' her to make modern audiences identify? Or do they just not care?

All of this works towards a dilution of Lucy's suppression and eventual rebellion: not only would that piano playing be so much more shocking coming from a girl with all the historically-correct physical social manners, and her rebellion that much more dynamic (even - or especially - to modern eyes), but the explicitness of the homosexuality in the film dilutes the theme of Lucy's suppression which in the novel has to stand for it as well as for itself.

I'm telling you, Lucy's mouth wasn't the only one hanging open.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Bravura Inconsistency

Gratifying that Saturday's Guardian Review led with an extract from The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, in which Richard Ford asserts the importance of the short story, 'the high-wire act of literature'. The great short story, he says, is an act of daring and audacity, a bravura performance - 'short stories are often good on the strength of sheer nerve' - and it is this which gives it its authority.

I like the thrust of this, but I have problems with the fact that Ford elides the notion of the authority of the short story with that of the 'writer's authority.' While he admits that 'Great stories are congeries of plan, vigour, will and application, but also of luck and error and intuition and even, God knows, sudden inspiration for all of which there is no key', (as I also said recently), the article privileges the notions of conscious writerly decision-making and of the writer's conscious project to exert authority over the reader, 'to subordinate our concerns to hers' (a motive which he says propelled him first into writing). There's something chauvinistic about this, in spite of Ford's self-conscious care to award the writer female gender, a tension which I think deprives the article of clarity. He talks about the 'miracle' of fictive creation, yet so much of his diction leans towards a different concept of the process: - 'what the writer deems important ... authorial decisions ... the story's manufacture' (my bolds).

Interesting that in the same paper Jeanette Winterson writes somewhat differently about the creative process. For Winterson, writing is on the contrary a wholly private matter: 'an explanation, in code, of myself to myself.' What's miraculous about it for Winterson is that 'what begins as private notation becomes language other people can use.' I'm with Winterson on this: it is in this way that fiction exerts its authority, an authority in which readers share - as she says, 'The books we love speak for us and speak to us. I am always in dialogue with books that have affected me.' (Ford agrees with this last, somewhat inconsistently) - and not, as Ford would have it, to which we 'submit'.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Simple Division

I've been pretty busy lately, too busy to get to grips before now with this fact which has been knocking about in the back of my head: the fact that while people can't seem to get enough of misery memoirs we can't as a culture seem to stand what are termed 'dark novels'.

It's the 'miserable' nature of Anne Enright's The Gathering which seems to be the focus of those who have reacted to it negatively, and I know I'm not the only author to have had to abandon a novel because it was termed 'too dark' for the current market. Last spring Julian Gough seemed to demur: his Prospect article took as its premise that it's comedy in literary fiction against which we are prejudiced, and that we privilege instead the 'serious' and, he seemed to be implying, the miserablist. Gough presumably had in mind those highly established literary authors, such as Ian McEwan, who are allowed to go on writing in their own vein, while others - even Doris Lessing, it seems - must conform to the 'market' or be turned down, but in any case Gough thus contributed, in an otherwise excellent article, to a false division and an oversimplification of the issues.

Firstly, what do we mean by these terms 'tragedy/comedy', 'serious', 'miserablist'?

Tragedy, in literary terms, is the serious representation of a tragic human situation, but as I have said before it can be uplifting and need not be be 'miserablist'. And comedy - as Gough agreed in a comment on one of my posts - can be the most serious of literary modes.The Greeks, whom Gough used as his model, did indeed subscribe to an unbridgeable gulf between tragedy and comedy, and, he avers, valued the positivity of comedy over tragedy - but, he says, because so many of the Greek comedies were lost, Western civilization subsequently picked up the wrong idea, that tragedy is the proper mode for serious fiction. I do certainly think Gough is onto something in this last, but I also think it's at the root of his own collusion in a cultural error of opposition. Even if we were to accept those oppositions between tragedy and comedy, we should remember that while the Greeks may have seen comedy as a higher form, they didn't exactly dismiss the cathartic usefulness of tragedy which Anne Enright appealed to at her recent Whitworth Gallery reading. But the fact is that since the Greeks we've have a whole lot of stuff going on - not least Freudian concepts of the doubleness of our human psyche which can't so easily be divided up into clear oppositions, and a whole literary history of dark comedy which fuses both aspects of our experience, the tragic and the hilarious. Yet our cultural responses do still seem rooted in those oppositions: Gough can dismiss our literary heavyweights as miserablist; people can overlook the comedy and wit in Anne Enright's novel.

Is this, I wonder, why people can take - no, crave for - miserablist memoirs, when they seem to have such a distaste for serious novels: the fact that such memoirs, as apparent 'fact', are psychologically simpler, and thus easier to read for a culture still rooted in that divisive psychological error; whereas novels, forcing human tragedy through the hopeful and redeeming tropes of fiction are more psychologically complex and demand something more complex from the reader?

Or is it that the miserablism of these memoirs is not after all fundamentally serious, tending towards a wallowing in human misery which borders on a distasteful kind of enjoyment?

(Or simply, as I have often suggested before, that the universality of novels forces readers to identify in a way that memoirs, which are after all only the experience of identifiable others, don't, whatever Oprah Winfrey may say?)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

It Ain't Carved in Stone

Ms Baroque writes belatedly - and interestingly - about Tess Gallagher's intention to re-issue Raymond Carver's stories with Gordon Lish's editorial changes reversed.

Me too - belatedly, I mean. I think for us authors that news last week was too close to home for simple feelings and ready opinions. Well, it was for me at any rate, as I've done that very thing myself: reissued a book with the structure I'd been forced to abandon reinstated.

Editors, oh editors. (I can say these things, having been one.) Such power do they wield; with such delicacy and respect for an author's intentions do some wield it, with such disregard for this last do others wade in and consequently, in effect, substitute their own rewrites.

Like Gallagher, I'm pretty sure I made the right decision in undoing the editing - well, 99% sure anyway. But there's always that 1%, and all this speculation that the prose style for which Carver is so loved is not the one he intended, it's enough to make an author's blood run cold.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Responsibility to Understand the Nature of Fiction

Some things have to keep being said (as I keep saying). I was as shocked as today's letter writers to the Guardian by the misunderstandings about the nature of fiction displayed thus in Saturday's leader about Monica Ali's Brick Lane:
The artists are responding to a public hunger for some insights into British-Bangladeshi life. They are providing reportage from an under-reported community. There is a price for that, and it comes in treating one's subjects with greater care than if they were made up.
As I have said before in greater detail with reference to this novel, the idea that the subject of a novel is ever 'not made up' would be laughable if it were not coming from the pens and laptops of supposed intellectuals and literary experts.

As I said then: once real people and real places and real events get forged in the fire of fiction, you can't tell what's left of the reality, it simply doesn't relate to 'reality' in the way Greer, and the Muslim protestors, assume. ...Novels can't be divided up into the reality bits and the imagination bits, it's just one big meld, and the only real 'reality' of a novel is the author's psyche, and if it's a good or great novel it will have the reality of emotional truth.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Mark Lawson Pins It Down

Mark Lawson calls philistine the assumption which has emerged in response to Anne Enright's Booker win, the assumption that major arts prizes should reward works which 'excite the mass market' rather than those which have failed to sell.

He reminds us that such prizes exist to 'promote the kind of work which audiences are reluctant to find otherwise', and that the Booker 'is a marketing device for fiction that doesn't get an advertising budget.'

He points out too that many writers who are now bestsellers only gained attention through being shortlisted for the Booker, and that 'almost all art now considered significant could have been condemned for being "out of touch" with the bourgeoisie of the period.'

And this is the cause of such a mistaken assumption, he says:
'What has happened is that the spread of market economics across most political shadings has encouraged scepticism about cultural subsidy, whether it's the BBC licence fee or Arts Council grants. The result is that works of art are judged by the weight of public interest.'

Friday, October 19, 2007

Where's Your Sense of Humour, Boys?

Oh, and that's the other thing I should have said about The Gathering: it might make you weep, but it's also FUNNY!!! The thing which characterizes this book for me is its black humour, yet it's being almost universally called 'depressing'.

Now that, as Ms Baroque says, is depressing...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

So Death Isn't Daring Enough?

How interesting that Sam Jordison can say that Anne Enright is a conservative choice for the Booker. Well I haven't read Darkmans or Animal's People, one of which he says should have won instead, but they must be pretty brilliant linguistically to top Enright, in my opinion.

I'm not surprised by one of Jordison's objections: that Enright sticks to 'familiar themes'. It's a complaint which is even more familiar than those themes, and is a troubling approach to literature. We can know the theme of a novel without reading it - from the blurb, from what people tell us about it etc. It's what a writer does with that theme which is important - via structure, for instance, and above all language. Language can make us look at a familiar theme in a new way, can disrupt our preconceptions and give us new insights about a subject we may have assumed we've got taped. And this is what I think Anne Enright does here, with the familiar theme of the Irish family.

Not Jordison, though: this is his other objection (as well as that of some of his commenters): he says that The Gathering is 'skilful, but never really daring writing'.

I beg to differ. I have to say that I have been pretty shocked by the readiness of people to comment on the Guardian books blog on things they haven't actually read (as they do in this thread) - a contemporary practice which is indeed linked, I think, to the readiness to dismiss a book for its theme. However, in spite of this modern reluctance to bother with the fuddy-duddiness of scrutiny, I crave your indulgence in asking you to look at this part of a section from The Gathering, quoted in the Guardian today:
My mother had 12 children and - as she told me one hard day - seven miscarriages. The holes in her head are not her fault. But even so, I have never forgive her any of it. I just can't.

I have not forgiven her for my sister Margaret who we called Midge, until she died, aged forty-two, from pancreatic cancer.

I do not forgive her my beautiful, drifting sister Bea. I do not forgive her my first brother Ernest, who was priest in Peru, until he became a lapsed priest in Peru.

I do not forgive her my brother Stevie, who is a little angel in heaven. I do not forgive her the whole tedious litany of Midge, Bea, Ernest, Stevie, Ita, Mossie, Liam, Veronica, Kitty, Alice and the twins, Ivor and Jem.
This is subtle, complex writing, a palimpsest of voices which is not just 'clever' as Jordison writes, but passionate yet controlled. Note the way that Enright incorporates the family consensus language into the individual voice of the narrator: the ironic quoting of the family's phrase for Stevie: 'a little angel in heaven', and this: 'Margaret, who we called Midge, until she died,' conjuring in a stroke the terrible time when the family stopped referring to Margaret as Midge and telling a whole story of how death altered the family's attitude to her and wiped an aspect of her personality. It is the tension between the irony of the narrator's voice and the scenarios she thus conjures which belie her avowed lack of forgiveness (for these were after all the mother's tragedies) and which give this passage real emotional power. And those repetitions: they are, after all, daring, and their rhythm adds to the emotional impact. (Another stunning irony: in criticising her family's 'litany' the narrator creates a litany of her own and subtly demonstrates her own implication in their psychology.)

This is not just a passage about an Irish family. It's a passage about the terrible power of love and its close relationship to hatred. And if you think you don't need to read about that because, yawn, it's been done, then god help you.

Last week Anne Enright read this very passage to a packed room in Manchester's Whitworth Gallery. The audience was utterly spellbound, and I know I wasn't the only one weeping. As far as I'm concerned, if the words were simply clever, I wouldn't be remembering them as vividly as I have since.

Monday, October 15, 2007

You Don't Have to be Trash to be Trashed

All writers with unplaced novels would be crowing with vindication if they weren't looking for the knives to slit their wrists after reading Carole Cadwalladr's Observer account of her visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

One gloomy publisher-turned-agent tells her:
'If you're not in a three-for-two or Richard & Judy, forget it ... Borders and Tesco have squeezed [publishers] so much that they've become completely risk-averse. It really is down to what sales and marketing think these days. And, frankly, there's no point selling to a publisher if they can't get enthusiastic about it - you might as well chuck it in the bin.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

To Speak or Not of Gender Bias

While the dominant literary stags have been busy clashing antlers, female writers have been re-emerging from the shadowy trees. Apart from the the long-overdue recognition of Doris Lessing, and in the wake of Jonathan Coe's tribute to the reclaimed Virago novelists, Joyce Johnson, fifties girlfriend of the more famous Jack (Kerouac), looks about to be recognized at last as a literary figure in her own right.

Doris Lessing is famously annoyed by any discussion of writers in terms of their gender, and on the highest literary level she is of course right to be. Trouble is, though, if we don't point out gender biases in our perception of fiction, we risk perpetuating them. As the Guardian's Laura Barton points out: Johnson's work, 'like that of many female artists, has been ushered to the sidelines of the beat movement.'

She goes on:
...unlike On the Road and the rest of Kerouac's canon, unlike the work of Ginsberg and Burroughs and Gary Snyder, Johnson's novels are now out of print - a situation that seems strangely to echo a passage from Minor Characters in which she recalls herself at 22, sitting black-clad in a beatnik bar in Greenwich Village: "The table in the exact centre of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place in America that's alive ... As a female, she's not quite a part of this convergence. A fact she ignores, sitting by in her excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall."

Narrative Choices

Over the past weeks I've been taking part in a fiction experiment which raises questions about authorship and narrative.

In the summer I was asked by Manchester Literature Festival if I would write an interactive blog story in the run-up to the festival. They had conceived it partly as a way of involving the public in the festival beforehand and partly as a narrative experiment in its own right. Well, my instant reaction was negative: the idea of literature as just a game or pure entertainment has always been anathema to me, and as a writer I've always been pretty possessive - maybe precious! - about my individual vision. But the more I thought about it, and the issues it raised, the more intrigued I became.

These were the terms of the commission: the story would appear once a week for six weeks and should be in the form of a blog. Each episode would be around only 500 words (I never once got it down to that) and the whole should thus be around 3,000 words. It should be set in Manchester and take place in real time - as blogs do - and therefore respond to events happening in the real world, both locally and internationally. It should be light in tone and, importantly, should be a comment on contemporary urban life. The actual story was entirely up to me. Most important of all, the story would be interactive: at the end of each instalment readers would be able to vote on three choices to affect events in the following instalment. It was made clear that there was no expectation - quite the opposite - that a conventionally integral story could emerge from this process. As the writer I secretly hoped I'd manage to make this happen, but knew it would be difficult: I tend to think of good short stories as integral by nature, seamless as eggs, but this would be fragmented by serialization as well as voters' input, and drawn out over six weeks of real time with five week-long longueurs, or at least real-time pauses, in the action. And why, come to think of it, should the idea of the integral short story not be challenged? In any event, this was never meant to be a conventionally-shaped and neat short story. It was to be something different, and an experiment (and also a bit of fun).

So what would I write? Every story for me is a mystery when I embark on it - I write to find things out, and the writing process is in fact like finding your way through a wood, the end hidden by the trees, the path towards it never clear and choices constantly having to be made. I began thus to see that this project was going to be the writing process writ large, and so I decided to start with an actual mystery - a mystery caller leaving an unclear message while the narrator/blogger was out - as well as a soap-opera-rich cast of characters to allow the narrative to develop in numerous alternative ways.

Well, then I panicked. Mind you, I always panic when I'm writing. But here was my panic writ large. What if I couldn't resolve the mystery? Don't mystery writers always know the end; isn't that how they plant clues? (And if I couldn't, I couldn't just scrap the story as I can when I'm writing privately.) And also, what if people thought therefore that I did know the ending, and that therefore the voters were being cheated? And did I? I was worried about having too little control, but also I was worried about having too much control. Naturally enough, two or three possible resolutions had occurred to me, so in a way I did know it, didn't I? But then again, what if, because of voters' choices, none of those endings, or any other I could think of, was possible after all?

Catherine Heffernan (who calls it a novel, and thus presumably had expectations of novelistic characteristics I could never achieve within the parameters) finds that the ending I did come up with was tacked on, unprepared for. Others however said that when they read the ending they thought 'Of course!' and have suggested that I had had it in mind all along. The fact is that both views are to some extent right.

When, in the first episode, I had the narrator comment that her dad always says the family is 'stamped English like a stick of rock through and through', that did reverberate for me very strongly - prejudice (including racism) is one of my biggest preoccupations in writing - and I knew right away that it could be a core issue in the story, but for this particular exercise the options had to remain open: I couldn't and shouldn't develop it at the expense of other options. In the event, it became the clincher, and I now find it hard, like others, to think that there had ever been any real choice, but that the internal logic of the story - that seed which had been planted at the beginning - had led towards it all along. Last night, at a MLF reading, Cathy Bolton, who commissioned this project, asked readers Maggie O'Farrell and Anne Enright (presumably with this project in mind) whether they planned out their novels or wrote 'blind', and Anne Enright described the latter process beautifully: she said that she wrote to find things out, but at the end she always finds she knew it all along; it's just that she didn't know what she knew. Normally, when you find it out you go back and adjust the beginning: you make more resonant those 'seeds' so that the ending becomes even more fitting and inevitable, however surprising, and you wipe all those false trails - as, clearly, I couldn't do here.

But what about the choices the readers made? How far did they affect the story and its internal logic? In the beginning I was cautious and offered what I thought of as superficial choices, a venue and a choice of companion, but in fact they were far more radically influential than I had imagined. For the second episode, the voters could choose whether the narrator went to meet her mystery caller in Manchester's slick wild clubland, a rumbustious working-class Salford pub or Central Library - each with very different possibilities as to the identity of the mystery caller. I was pretty sure they'd choose one of the first two - the narrative possibilities seemed so much richer and human - and started to imagine those scenarios, and then to my shock the voters chose Central Library. I found myself stumped. I had to go to the library and sit there, just to get inspired. And I did! I discovered the strange whispering-gallery echo effect which gave me ideas for both the plot and theme. And I talked to the librarian from the family history research department - which in the end led to the resolution of the mystery. What is interesting about this is that the choice I was least likely to make myself turned out to be narratively useful and, as all writers know really, in spite of the fact that stories have an internal logic, there are nevertheless many directions a story can go - leading to different meanings, but equally valid on a wider level.

Later, however, when I might have appeared to be offering a far more radical choice - a choice of action for the protagonist - voters plumped for the compromise option, which however was also the option with the greatest dramatic conflict and had the function of complicating the plot. So it's hard not to feel now that, in one way or another, there was in this instance no real choice, that the logic of the path the story had already taken was taking over both me and the voters.

None of this, in my view, is much different really from the usual process of writing fiction: sometimes you get stuck, sometimes the story takes over; often if you are stuck real life suddenly signals where you should go next. As far as I'm concerned writing is a weird mixture of intuition and logic, the conscious and the unconscious, of inspiration and a muscular wrestling with plot and facts, and sometimes a magical-seeming serendipity. When in episode 2 I had two characters arguing whether peaceful demonstrations are politically mistaken I had no idea that the events in Burma were about to occur, and I had people ringing up to say they didn't know I was psychic.

And that's how writing feels sometimes to me, like mediumship, like a listening and receiving. It's often only afterwards that you can see the pattern, and then work on a piece more logically and knock it into better shape. The fact that I couldn't do this last on this occasion means that there are of course loose ends, untied threads, and undeveloped elements. However, the fact that these things are still there on show is, I think, something of a demonstration of the narrative process.

Although I have to say this: I thought that by the time I had completed it I would be much clearer about the narrative process. In fact I'm now surer than ever that the narrative process is a (happily) mysterious thing.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Manchester Blog Awards

Last night's Manchester Blog Awards was a great event. This blog didn't win, but I could hardly expect it to with the competition it was up against, including the fabulous Mancubist, winner of our category, Arts and Culture. It was an amazing privilege to be shortlisted though, and I'd like to say a big thank you to those who nominated this blog.

(More colourful details on my author blog).

The other winners were as follows:

Best Personal Blog: Single Mother on the Verge

Best New Blog: Rent Girl

Best Political Blog: Politaholic

Best Writing on a Blog: Day of Moustaches

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Whose Territory?

Interesting. Jonathan Coe tells in the Guardian Saturday Review of the 'love affair' with Virago Modern Classics which he began as a student when his peers were immersing themselves in the male 'Granta generation' of Swift, Amis, Barnes and McEwan.

He writes of the revelation to him of Dorothy Richardson's subversive rhythmic prose which undercut the male narrative procedures of 'conflicts and linear progressions and sudden climaxes', and of May Sinclair's very different but equally singular novelistic power to select, pare down and omit. He tells us how they influenced him as a writer:
Before long, the Virago novels would unseat some of my deepest assumptions as a reader, and also alter my course as a writer.
He pays tribute (as I did recently) to those wonderful Virago covers. The sequence of Gwen John paintings of women reading on the Virago editions of Richardson's novels 'reflects', he says, 'upon the acts of reading and writing as essential ways for women to memorialise their experience, and insists, moreover, that a woman's experience has as much value as a man's'. Coe suggests that it is the Virago Modern Classics which have been largely instrumental in seeing off the kind of chauvinistic critical reception which women authors like Rosamond Lehmann once suffered.

Interestingly, however, he wonders if the gender bias which Virago challenged really has disappeared altogether. It might seem to have: male writers like Ian McEwan are no longer 'afraid to voyage in an "exclusively emotional and sexual sea" ', and 'Most of the new writers who have broken through to critical acclaim and big readerships in recent years have been women ... and these are, for the most part, writing big, historically and politically engaged novels.

Yet Coe is not convinced: I can't help thinking that some of that bias, subtle and unspoken, remains, he says, and points to the still male-dominated Booker shortlist as indication that the literary establishment has yet to learn to value women's writing.

I think Coe's instinct is right, love him, but he's not looking in quite the right place to prove it. He shouldn't just be looking at the literary establishment but at women writers themselves who have internalized the prejudices. While men like McEwan have taken up the challenge the women's presses offered, many young women writers have shied away from the territory that would brand them 'merely' women writers. I don't suppose I'm the only ex-women's press writer who read the disparaging and self-distancing reference to 'dusty Women's Press novels' in Zadie Smith's White Teeth and thought 'Ouch!'

Me, it warms the cockles of my heart that a man should be championing Virago and their writers in this way, but, like those contemporary women writers, I can't help wondering if this article, even now, would be seen as quite so authoritative had it been written by a woman.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Review: The Bookaholics' Guide to Book Blogs by Rebecca Gillieron and Catheryn Kilgarriff

I have to say I'm a bit puzzled as to why Marion Boyars offered me this book for review. Its single brief and slightly damning reference to this blog appears early on in a discussion of the online persona: ...some might be put off ... by the self-proclaimed 'Bookslut' or 'Fiction Bitch'. Since this is not a blog the authors recommend it would seem they share this view, and what seems to emerge from this book is a chariness of the kind of critical irreverence and impartiality which this blog is intended to stand for.

But since the Bitch does indeed always endeavour to be impartial, she will begin by agreeing with A Stevens that it has to be a good thing that lit-blogging has become such a force that publishers - as these authors are - are embracing it. It's just... well, you know the Bitch, bitchily suspicious as ever: she can't help seeing those little flies in the ointment. Like the spirit and the motives with which they are embracing it.

Of course it's only sensible for publishers to recognize the explosion of blog book-reviewing as a whole new potential marketing opportunity - it is after all their job to look out for marketing opportunities - and I should say right away that there is a genuine air of enthusiasm about this book which goes way beyond such simple pragmatism: you feel that the authors really do like the blogs they recommend.


Let's look again at some of that early chapter in which the authors discuss 'the online persona' and the names of blogs/bloggers.
Ms Baroque in Hackney suggests a perky, fun and modern if slightly flamboyant type of girl... it's clear she has a positive outlook on life and this welcome air of enthusiasm pervades all the postings on her blog ... Bookfox is another sassy-sounding young woman whose wit and cunning might just match up to her name.
Well, me, if I hadn't immediately detected in that title, 'Baroque in Hackney', a certain oxymoronic irony, I should never have clicked on and discovered precisely what I had hoped for: an incisive and sometimes politically angry mind amidst her love of beautiful things and her extremely fine prose - an aspect of her blog which I love most and find the authors skip over. And here they are on others:
There are some names which just don't sound appealing... Bibliophile Bullpen 'The Whiff of Old Books With Your Coffee' does little for the appetite. Calling yourself Checkhov's Mistress online doesn't exactly set a person up as a barrel of fun...
That phrase 'barrel of fun' and the earlier, describing Ms Baroque's 'welcome air of enthusiasm', are key, I think. For what publisher wouldn't want their books discussed on an instantly attractive and amenable platform? And this is how the book concludes: There has to be a way of encouraging the reading of books which is more democratic, fair and not full of intellectual concerns that put people off (My bolds). Democracy and fairness are set up in opposition to the intellectual - thus unwittingly endorsing the view of those critical of litblogs - and it is not intellectual engagement for which blogs should be valued, it seems.

The authors aren't unaware that bloggers are suspicious of publishers trying to co-opt their independent enthusiasm for marketing purposes: they quote a post by Susan Hill in which she wags her finger at any publishers getting hold of that notion. But in the very same post Susan says this: If we like [books] we say so. If we don't we ignore them, which in itself is amenable to publishers. Who when trying to sell books wouldn't embrace a platform where you could be sure not to get a negative press? And there's a chapter on publisher-led virtual book tours (around blogs) for which the authors show undiluted enthusiasm.

Well, I guess I've bucked the trend, then, by being critical here, and I may as well add a few more caveats. This book has clearly been brought out quickly, which may account for the typos and a more than occasional lack of clarity resulting from the chatty tone. This casual tone is intended I suspect to reflect the flavour of blogs, but if so does them no favours with such nonsensical sentences as this: It's difficult to imagine readers in their thousands rushing for the next instalment of Today in Literature or Reading Experience; though I'm sure they do.

The book may have been rushed out, but it's inevitably out of date already: the web moves faster than printing. Struggling Author, for instance, is listed as a bookseller blogger, but it's a long time now since Marie Phillips was a bookseller, and a while since her blog went private and became unavailable to the public. There's no index, which is a real irritation - if there's one thing a book can do better than a blog it's provide an index. Which leads me to my most fundamental question: what or who is this book for? Isn't the best place to find out about blogs the, er... blogosphere? The authors say that they want to capture a moment in blogging, that the book is a 'book blog keepsake.' But then it's only their moment: disarmingly they admit that the book blog sites that we refer to throughout this book are often written by people we know in the trade and have met at the many social events we attend.

Well, if we're going to bloggingly admit our interests, I'd just like to say I'm really tickled that they have chosen a cover showing three books by Adele Geras, because she happens to be my friend!!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Taking the P***

Today in the Guardian (can't find a link, I'm afraid), sly comment on the issue of fact versus fiction from my favourite literary satirist, John Crace. Here's an extract from his Digested Read of Robert Harris's The Ghost with its ghostwriter narrator:
Lang bounced into the room, closely followed by Amelia Bly, the PA who had nothing at all to do with Anji Hunter. It was immediately obvious they were having an affair. I made a mental note not to include any references to it in the book, though I couldn't resist a private chuckle at how pissed off the Blairs and Hunter would be when they read this roman a clef.
The great thing about Crace for me, though, is the way he pinpoints those authorial wobbles:
Ruth slipped between the sheets next to me. ...we kissed passionately. /'We shouldn't have done that,' I said next morning, 'because it's done nothing to further the plot.'
He can sniff them out in even the greatest writers, when surprisingly few critics can.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Different Kinds of Truth

The contentious issue of memoir versus autobiographical fiction has broken out over the papers like a rash in the past days. Last week Robert Harris commented that the reception to his recent novel The Ghost - which people have read as a roman a clef, taking it as factual truth and his characters as real-life political figures - means that 'you can't get the book airborne ... as a work of fiction.'

Saturday's Guardian review carries two more relevant articles. Blake Morrison writes of the experience of having his memoir, When Did You Last See Your Father? made into a film, and makes clear that the process has involved a certain fictionalization:
The real-life basis for [a certain] scene was a modest poetry award I'd won in 1985... The dowdy poetry gathering ... was sumptuously transformed: it looked as though I was collecting the Booker prize. For my wife Kathy, watching from the next table while Gina McKee played her, it was a stiff test of her capacity to suspend disbelief: in the film, she asks to be mentioned in Colin/Blake's acceptance speech, a request the real her would never make... Blake throws a wobbly when his father refuses to say "Well done". In reality, my father was effusive in praise of whatever small successes I enjoyed.
It's hard to know how Morrison must truly feel about these changes, because naturally enough he will be both emotionally and pragmatically caught up in the need to promote this film, and it's no surprise that he endorses them:
In terms of the film, though, there was a logic to these changes from the life. ...the film's narrative arc demands tension between father and son at that point.
This, however, expresses a crucial point, and shows why it is a mistake to read even memoirs - which also, as James Frey has pointed out, require narrative arcs - as totally factual rather than emotional truth.

The second Guardian article is an examination by Christopher Tayler of the relationship between Philip Roth and his alter ego, the Jewish author Nathan Zuckerman of his novels. Tayler makes some attempt to tease out the parallels and differences between the life of Zuckerman and Roth's own, but only to show ultimately the mistaken enterprise of doing so, ending with Roth's own take on the matter:
"To label books like mine 'autobiographical' or 'confessional'", he once told the French writer Alain Finkielkraut, "is not only to falsify their suppositional nature but, if I may say so, to slight whatever artfulness leads some readers to think that they must be autobiographical." In other words, he's happy to exploit confusion between Roth and Zuckerman for illusionistic purposes, but equally keen to pour cold water on readers drawn by a supposed voyeuristic appeal. As he told Hermione Lee in 1984: "Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that's it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade."
I should confess that I've only recently begun reading Roth, but for these playful yet serious concerns he's already one of my favourite writers.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Manchester Blog Awards

Well, waddeyaknow, your Bitch has gone all shy and blushing: this blog has been nominated for a Manchester Blog Award.

The blog awards will be held at 7pm Wednesday, Oct. 10, at Matt and Phred's Jazz Club on Tib Street in the Northern Quarter. Tickets are free, but should be reserved via the Manchester Literature Festival website.

Go here to find the list of nominees.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Mother of All Titles

Adele Geras ponders on the Guardian books blog whether novels sell best with straightforward titles.

I've always thought a concrete title (not necessarily straightforward, but offering a strong image) is best, but can only think of an abstract one for my latest work. My mother, although I didn't ask her, is trying her best to help me think of another, and this is how our conversations go:

Mother of the Bitch: How about 'Footprints'?

Bitch: What? Footprints? Why footprints?

MOB: Because it's about someone following on in another person's footsteps.

B: No it's not!!! It's the opposite! And anyway, there are no footprints in the book - if you use an image it's got to have been in the book.

MOB: Well, then, how about 'So the bough breaks'?

B: What? What's it got to do with boughs? And don't you mean branch? It's not a nineteenth century poem written by a maiden aunt, it's a modern novel written by me!!!

MOB: Well, I still think Footprints is smashing...

She's very sweet, you know. It's just sometimes I could throttle her.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Reality Fiction and Fantasy Memoirs

Some interesting recent twists in the saga of fiction versus fact. Apparently, celebrity novels are selling better than celebrity memoirs, since people know that under the guise of fiction celebrities can spill far more beans.

While this may seem to indicate the power of fiction over fact, what it really implies is that people are reading fiction as fact, and therefore for the wrong sort of truth.

As a result, the veil of fiction is no longer in any case protecting authors and their work. As I wrote last week, I have had my own problems with this and with people questioning my authorship and thus the 'authenticity ' of my work. The current row in France, in which novelist Marie Darrieussecq has been accused by Camille Laurens of plagiarising in her latest novel Lauren's own experience, is similarly symptomatic of this leakage between fact and fiction. While Laurens' experience was detailed in her 1995 memoir, it is interesting to note that it is the experience, not the words, which Darrieuseq is accused of filching, just as, if I had turned out to be a man as my feminist publishers suspected, then I would have been guilty in their eyes of stealing 'women's experience'.

As the Guardian's Richard Lea points out, you can't steal experience, unless empathy and imagination constitute stealing, though you suspect with a sinking heart that in this topsy-turvy media world of fantasy and 'reality' they do.