Sunday, May 27, 2007
First surprise: I drove down with my partner, and as we entered the town from the north the festival signs directed us not left as before but right: the festival is now so huge that it needs a much bigger site, three-quarters of a mile or so out of town, and a shuttle bus to take you between the two. No more wandering straight from the tents into the scores of second-hand bookshops in the hour or so between shows. And there was unsettling evidence of institutionalised crowd control: police tape lined the roads and guys in luminous jackets waved us into the parking field and charged us £4.50 (I never remember paying before!) and pointed to the spot we must park in. We got out, and below us was the huge white-tented site with the SkyARTS flags flying and, scoring the hill above it, the works for the oil* pipeline which is crossing Wales from Milford Haven.
(* Edited-in correction: Not oil, but gas! But then, even David Miliband, the environment secretary, apparently appeared to reveal at Hay that he didn't know what it was, or anything at all about the pipeline itself.)
You're not supposed to bite the hand that feeds you, and Sam, the Sky PR who met us, was as sweet as the schoolgirls who had minded me last time, but I'd be betraying my dead Irish dad's injunctions about being true to my hunches if I didn't report to you, dear bloggers, that my heart sank with a sense of corporate might quite antipathetic to the festival's creative origins.
And wouldn't you know it, my first event was a media event: the daily roundup of the festival with Mariella Frostrup, filmed for Sky TV. The woman next to me, on the other side to Debi, was a veteran of the festival. Well, she said to me ruefully, without much conviction: we have to move with the times and nostalgia's a terrible thing. And then on came Mariella, beautiful and intelligent, and interviewed Peter Florence who began the festival 20 years ago, and indeed she questioned him precisely about the change in the nature of the festival - less emphasis on literature and books and more on politics and the media. It hasn't really changed, he said, not in spirit, but boy did he seem defensive to me, and of course, this was telly, so she let him get away with it, and then he was gone and there was a break and the makeup woman came in and redid Mariella's makeup and hair and powdered the bald head of composer Michael Nyman who was due on next.
Ha! 'What did you think?' asked Sam afterwards. 'Isn't Mariella professional?' we said truthfully. 'And isn't Sandi Toksvig quick-witted?' 'Oh yes! But what did you think of the stage?' Ah yes, it was true, that was the real star, the stage...
And where were the books? There were things mimicking books: Penguin-cover deckchairs, Penguin-cover mugs:
huge models near the entrance:
but books, real books? At last we found some, in Pemberton's festival bookshop, but only the festival authors were stocked there, and there simply wasn't time to get into town between shows for that staple traditional Hay experience - emerging inspired from a literary event to browse the fund of literary history on offer in the town (or to escape the Sky-high site food prices!).
Of course we went into town. It was dead, but then it was only Friday and the festival hadn't really got going. How do you feel about the change? we asked one bookshop owner. It had definitely made a difference to her trade, she said. At the Honesty Bookshop, where you leave the money for your book in a box, there was no one around to be honest or cheat:
This and the Castle Bookshop (below), which has a fantastic stock of old prints, were not the only ones we found empty.
Back at the festival, and there still wasn't much literature on offer. Debi and I attended a comic revue with Bonnie Langford and Sandi Toksvig and then my partner and I went to a concert given by the contemporary folk musician Seth Lakeman in the biggest tent of all, a huge stadium which filled up with young people who suddenly appeared from nowhere in their droves, but were no longer in evidence next day.
Next day, Saturday, things were suddenly buzzing - queues of traffic down the lanes (and police everywhere) and long queues of people at the ticket office and outside the events) - and it looked as if the festival would be unlikely to have a detrimental impact on the town businesses after all. And at last, there was a literary event I could go to: David Freeman, who runs the Meet the Author website, interviewing two novelists, Australian Gail Jones and Booker-shortlisted Hisham Matar. Freeman's gushing style seemed designed to provoke a self-congratulatory stance in his guests, which Matar failed to avoid altogether. However, even I was near to tears when he described how a friend smuggled copies of his books into Libya and he thought, like Ovid (overlook the self-flattering comparison) 'My book has gone back without me.' This interview seemed to me somehow to sum up the culture clash at the heart of this festival, and which has perhaps been at the heart of it all along, and of all author readings. The whole thrust of Freeman's questioning was to make parallels between the books and the authors' lives, or even to privilege their lives over their books. Gail Jones, an academic clearly aware of such problems, smartly side-stepped this trap, but then she sounded off-puttingly like an academic, so hey... (Hay). Matar had a Thing about not signing books for dealers, and as an author I can see his point, but he even refused to sign blank copies for Tim of KC Books, not knowing perhaps that Tim had sponsored this event...
And then we thought we'd check out an aspect of the Fringe Festival which has started up as a response to the changes. Each day this week there is an event sponsored by Welsh Academi at the Hay Poetry Bookshop in the town, and on Saturday the internationally esteemed Irish poet Tony Curtis was reading from his brilliant and moving new book, The Well in the Rain. What a difference! A tiny space, crammed with an audience, no microphones needed, the poet (a poet!) chatting to us all individually, informal in his reading, even answering his phone halfway through and giving us all a laugh. The kind of event with which festivals begin... But then how much money did that event make, eh, and for whom?
Back at the site the protesters to the pipeline had set up outside.
A big concern of the festival this year is the environment, and the first day, Thursday, was devoted to a conference on the topic. However, the pipeline protesters were keen to tell me that they'd been offered a stall by one of the local shop owners, but had been evicted by the festival organisers. You could say they were paranoid, but of course this was the day Gordon Brown was speaking, and it was hard to think they were with this security guard standing at the entrance nearby:
and these signs on the gate to the 'VIP' car park:
But not everyone's so hot on security. The Guardian seem to be having a high old time in their festival bus. On Saturday afternoon my partner wandered into their enclosure and had a glass of champagne and a scone with jam and strawberries and cream, before he realised he was in a private party...
I'm left with the words of the woman who runs the Castle Bookshop. 'We've hardly had a soul in all day,' she said on Friday. 'But even so, we've had something stolen.'
Thursday, May 24, 2007
John Baker will take over the Hay blogging later in the week.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
And in the same edition John Crace gives good giggle as usual over the morning cuppa, with a digested read of the novel harshly critiqued on Saturday by Pankaj Mishra: Don Delillo's This Falling Man:
Keith had been alive for six days now yet all he could feel was the symbolism of his alienation. The planes had hit, but everyone else was missing. Even the living were missing each other. Missing themselves. Deep.
Up above the New York skyline, she saw a man dangling from a rope. It was a performance artist. The Falling Man. Lianne felt her guts cramp with poignancy. The image of the towers. He was falling. She was falling. And the critics would certainly fall for it.
Monday, May 21, 2007
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Fittingly, it's literary journalism of the most iconoclastic, offering a fundamental reappraisal of the nature and value of contemporary western fiction. He considers the usual suspects, those white male writers who are viewed as having claimed this ground and who so often seem to inhabit a literary tower impenetrable to criticism, and finds them lacking:
Struggling to define cultural otherness, DeLillo, Updike and Amis fail to recognise that belief and ideology remain the unseen and overwhelming forces behind gaudy fantasies about virgins. Assembled from jihad-mongering journalism and propaganda videos and websites, their identikit terrorists make Conrad's witheringly evoked revolutionaries in The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes look multidimensional.These authors fail to transcend the Western literary cult of individual experience, he implies, and continue to see the situation in terms of a simple opposition between 'Muslims' and 'the west' which simply does not echo the experience of many Muslims for whom 'the west is inseparable from their deepest sense of themselves'.
'Most of the literary fiction that self-consciously addresses 9/11 still seems underpinned by outdated assumptions of national isolation and self-sufficiency', he says. He sees too the voyeuristic fictive efforts of these writers to recreate the twin-towers experience as 'fuelled by masculine anxiety' and points out that female writers like Deborah Eisenberg, Claire Messud and Jennifer Egan, who treat the events more glancingly, are more successful at conveying 'how the obsessions with terror, image, novelty and celebrity work out in ordinary ... life'. There is a rich fund of such writing, he tells us - including that from Kiran Desai, David Mitchell and Jeffrey Eugenides - to which we should be looking for a true evocation of a 'new spiritual homelessness.'
And for me, as a writer, this was truly the best and most dynamic kind of criticism: it has inspired me to rush to my desk and write!
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Simon and Schuster claim that this is simply a response to new technology, ie print on demand, whereby it is no longer necessary for publishers to retain a minimum number of warehoused printed copies. However, Guild executive Paul Aiken sees great danger in print on demand which can mean that the book is available 'only in dribs and drabs' (and therefore not aggressively published) and this new contract as allowing Simon and Schuster to sit on the rights to a book indefinitely while they stop bothering to publish it altogether. “We’re not against the technology," he says, "we’re just against the technology being used to lock up rights.”
However, on the Guardian books blog, Nicholas Clee reports Mark LeFanu, general secretary of the UK Society of Authors, as seeing such changes in contracts as inevitable: "We need to work out a way in which we can give reasonable protection to publishers' interests while at the same time giving authors the opportunity to withdraw from contracts if sales are low."
Recently the Writer's Guild lawyer, vetting my contract with Salt, advised striking the clause which gave them electronic rights. But electronic rights are precisely the basis of Salt's innovative business model, and there was indeed a clause giving me back the rights if sales fall beneath a certain level within a certain time span.
Monday, May 14, 2007
Thanks to David Isaak for the link.
Excuse me while I go and cover my head in grief for my life-long belief in the power of words, now that words can mean whatever you decide, and the people who are doing the deciding are those whose real interests are anything but verbal.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Copy the questions into your blog and answer them. Then tag five other writers to do the same!
1. Do you outline? As a novelist? Is the Pope Protestant? (Well, there's always something there, sometimes clearer, sometimes fuzzier, like the outline of a ghost, lurking in an image, or an idea. But I never want it to be too clear, actually, otherwise why write the bloody thing? Writing's an exploration, not knowing everything and having to find it out is a great deal of the excitement, which will be transmitted to the reader). But as a radio dramatist? Is the Pope of the other persuasion? No one will let you write anything for radio or screen without an outline they can approve, and quite frankly that's writing by numbers: many's the time I've discovered that a play doesn't really want to and shouldn't be made to go the way it seemed logical at outline stage that it should. And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is why so much in the media is bland, unsurprising trash.
2. Do you write straight through a book, or do you sometimes tackle the scenes out of order? I don't do straight, my novels aren't linear, the episodes are always out of order, but yes, because there's another sort of order, the thematic, they do tend to stay in the sequence in which they come out.
3. Do you prefer writing with a pen or using a computer? You're joking me, encha? Isn't this the question writers can wearily and sneerily predict will be asked at every reading and render them gob-smacked because they do not understand why anybody wants to know or even gives a flying f***??? And if you think I'm going to confess to the panics I undergo when I can't find my silver Cross fountain pen...
4. Do you prefer writing in first person or third? Preference doesn't come into it. Each book, or section of a book makes its own demands in this respect.
5. Do you listen to music while you write? If so, do you create a playlist, listen randomly, or pick a single song that fits the book? Come off it, I'm making my own music in my head!
6. How do you come up with the perfect names for your characters? Who said they were perfect? Usually they just come, and like names in real life, once they're there you accept them and they fit. And then it's pretty hard having to ditch them because they turn out to be the names of real people, say...
7. When you're writing, do you ever imagine your book as a television show or movie? No, no, no... this is what makes me furious! When will people learn that novels aren't just fodder for movies or TV dramas? If I want to write a movie I'll damn well write a movie. (Didn't stop me thrilling, though, when one of my novels was optioned for TV).
8. Have you ever had a character insist on doing something you really didn't want him/her to do? Nah, they can do what they like and they do.
9. Do you know how a book is going to end when you start it? Sometimes. But then sometimes I turn out to be wrong.
10. Where do you write? You're at it again. I'd like to say on the roof or down a cave. You know where I write really, don't you?
11. What do you do when you get writer's block? Spit. Shout. Sigh. Eat. Feel sick. Drive my partner round the bend. No solutions, I'm afraid.
12. What size increments do you write in (either in terms of wordcount, or as a percentage of the book as a whole)? About three pages a day.
13. How many different drafts did you write for your last project? Three, if you count the aborted first go a few years ago when I hadn't guessed the secret, ie what the novel was really about.
14. Have you ever changed a character's name midway through a draft? Oh yes, see above. My mum reminded me that I hadn't changed the name of a right bitch. (Oops, I'm supposed to be writing fiction.)
15. Do you let anyone read your book while you're working on it, or do you wait until you've completed a draft before letting someone else see it? It's not a question of letting, it's a question of forcing - just one person, my partner: I make him sit down at the end of every writing day and look at what I've written, notwithstanding the weary set of his shoulders and the faint sigh...
16. What do you do to celebrate when you finish a draft? Go out! And fling my arms about and run!
17. One project at a time, or multiple projects at once? More than one? God forbid!
18. Do your books grow or shrink in revision? Mmm, neither really. Maybe I should be worried...
19. Do you have any writing or critique partners? Well, I don't think when it's done at knife point you see it as a partnership (see above), but my real-life partner's a damn good critic.
20. Do you prefer drafting or revising? I can't answer this. It's all a continuum for me, and although I know that later it's more like fine-tuning, it still feels part of the same process of pulling this thing together out of the ether.
I'm supposed to tag five other novelists now, and they can take it up or not as they wish:
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Monday, May 07, 2007
In [the contemporary] blizzard of commentary, from the blogosphere to talk radio, he says, newspaper review pages are no longer the 'ultimate gatekeepers' of literary taste, and, while admitting to having had his own merry digs at lit prizes in the past, he says that now the time has come to acknowledge the role [literary prizes] play in shaping public taste.
For those to whom this will come as heresy, he asks (with a searing frankness which is one of the best comments on last autumn's newspaper/blog review debate):
How much more reliable are reviews? Would you rather submit your first novel to a clique of well-lunched literati in a Soho meeting room than a (probably) failed novelist writing late in his/her dressing gown somewhere in the purlieus of Dollis Hill? Are the deliberations of a prize jury any less contingent than the speculations of a literary editor and his/her reviewers?
The literary prize has many well-rehearsed drawbacks, but it has one great virtue: it is conducted in public and is answerable to scrutiny. To some, that just leads to another disqualification (timid juries, they say, simply confirm the conventional wisdom). But it does not have to be so.
Friday, May 04, 2007
Here is the piece by Julian Gough:
Twelve hours after the announcement of the winner of the National Short Story Prize for 2007, I was still on the piss with A S Byatt. What a mind! I’d never met her before. I might never meet her again. Obviously I had to try. But she told me firmly that she is extremely married. So this might be shaky, due to heartache and champagne.
Some people worry that the short story, like the vole, is declining due to loss of habitat.
I am here with news of joy. It is going to be OK.
The modern short story is often to be found hiding in a novel, often an Irish novel. English novels tend to go for the one broad arc, like a cast iron bridge by Brunel, with some curlicue and filigree to give texture. The Irish novel tends to have a single structuring principle, which is used to give a different kind of unity to a thousand shards of story, mosaiced. The English novel is made of iron and is cast, the Irish novel is made of everything and is assembled. You see it in the many styles of Joyce’s Ulysses, the many sources and voices of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, the various islands and incidents of Swift’s Gullivers’s Travels.
A fugitive short story could hide comfortably in any great Irish novel. A character could just open his mouth in a pub, and the story could inhabit his mouth like a cave. I’ve hidden short stories in the mouths of characters, deep inside novels, myself.
No, no need to worry. The short story is merely hiding out in the novel until it is safe to come out. And soon it will be safe to come out. Because the internet is creating a vast new habitat that has not yet found its final shape, or final inhabitants. Cyberspace is ripe to be colonized by the small and nimble vole of the short story, who will change his form to suit the new terrain. But it will still be short, and still a story. It’s going to be alright.
Meanwhile the people creating the biggest problems for the short story are the short story writers. Especially the dead ones. Because Chekhov was so good, so revolutionary, contemporary short story writers think that they can be revolutionary by copying him. They copy him: and the revolution doesn’t happen and the audience wanders off. Because that’s not how you do it.
Chekhov didn’t have a television. He didn’t have broadband access to everything ever right here and right now always on and ever ready. Chekhov wouldn’t write Chekhovian short stories if he were alive today. He’d write something else.
If you are a writer, maybe you should stop showing us in meticulously observed and realistic detail the realistic things which we (after a century of Chekhov’s subtle influence) meticulously observe ourselves every day, and which tell us nothing new about the world or ourselves.
Go wild. Wilder. Rip it up and start again. You can’t make a mistake, because there aren’t any rules yet…
A suggestion. If you want to go forward, go much further back. Take a running jump at it. Don’t read Ian McEwan. He’s very good, but he is of no use to you. Kill the father, and embrace the grand father. Read Rabelais. Read Erasmus. Read Aristophanes. Read somebody I’ve never heard of, someone out of print for the past three hundred years, who has just been put up online by Project Gutenberg, or Google Book Search. And rip them off something rotten. Steal it, take the wheels off, rebuild the engine, see if it can be converted into a seaplane, collide it with Krazy Kat, or Swedish jazz, or Somali hip hop, or the stories your mother tells about working on the production line at a pea canning factory in Germany when she was nineteen.
The spark of art comes from banging things together.
There is a potential downside to making it new. The publishing industry might have problems recognizing its merits, and will definitely have problems marketing it and selling it through channels which are friendlier to industrial product in standard packaging (Pink and pale blue and lime green for chick lit, dark orange flames against black, with gold type, for SAS memoirs… just slot book into package.)
I spent seven years having a go at revolutionizing the novel. At the end of it I had no money, no publisher, and was homeless. But I had some bloody good art, and that has to be enough for you because it may well be all you will get.
I was lucky. Halfway through writing my novel Jude, I realized I needed to step outside it, and write a short story. I needed to see where Jude had come from, and why he had left on the quest of the novel. So I wrote “The Orphan and the Mob”. And I wrote it as well as I could. I wrote it insanely meticulously (draft after draft, polish after polish, building in layer after layer), considering how it was a short story and would never earn me any money. And then it won the National Short Story Prize. And I cried.
It is incredibly important for writers to be able to write at any length.
Some ideas are short, and some ideas are long, and we need to make sure that the good stuff gets to the reader intact, neither cropped nor stretched to fit the publishing industry. This prize is terrific because it brings short stories out of hiding and into the spotlight, brings them to big audiences, at a time when the publishing industry either can’t or won’t.
Whatever you want to write, write it the way you want to write it, write it whatever length it wants to be, and stick it up on the internet if nobody will publish it. Don’t kill it to fit it into an industrial box. Artistically, we live in a golden age of freedom, and that’s terrifying. Commercially, we live with market censorship of certain forms. It’s a pain, but it’s survivable. I’m running out of time, the deadline is here, the champagne is wearing off, so, last suggestions: try comedy instead of tragedy. Ditch realism for a bit, see what happens. Because reality isn’t realistic any more.
Call this reality? Call this realistic? On the piss with A S Byatt, in a place that doesn’t allow mobile phones. A writer born in London, back in London, with an Irish mobile phone stuffed down my left sock and a German mobile phone stuck down my right sock, both phones vibrating with congratulations from England and Ireland and America and Berlin. Vibrating with love from around the one world.
It’s hard, being a writer. It’s lonely. May you all have such a moment in your future. May there be enough love to go round.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Blair is only interested in popular culture and not the arts. He is by nature and mission a leveller, and art asks people to be more than they are, better that they are; it asks for intensity, concentration and effort. Blair worries too much about elitism to recognise art's power to change lives.Unfortunately, you can imagine that some people will give this statement scant intensity or concentration, for Winterson herself has sometimes been accused of elitism, for her challenging, uncompromising and sometimes extremely daring prose, and indeed for her very insistence on art as corrective and transformative. She takes a moral and evangelizing stance to literature which is easily dismissed when clearly stemming from her proselytizing religious background, and in a culture where government and big business go hand in hand to 'please' and pander to 'choice'.
It gets harder and harder to say some things. In a comment on my post below, Alan Kellog makes some points about why short stories are so hard to sell which, though true, made my heart sink, feeding as they could into prejudices against the short story form. And recently, after a reading by short-story writer Chrissie Gittins, several of us discussed an issue about short stories which I felt I could hardly replicate on my blog for fear of doing the same. Several commentators, we noted, had recently pushed the short story as ideal for our age of rush, when people don't have time for long novels, and I have done it myself when selling the short-story mag metropolitan. Yet I know I was wrong, and the other day all of us, all short-story writers, felt strongly that this not only did a disservice to short stories but reinforced the cultural expectations which are squashing them: short stories, more than novels, require the intensity, the concentration and attention which Winterson identifies - and which nowadays seem to many people a BAD THING.
But the Bad Thing in reality is a culture and a society in which this state of affairs can occur, in which people, including Tony Blair, see freedom only in placation and passivity. And as Adam Curtis recently showed in his stunning BBC film The Trap, such 'freedom for the people' is in fact nothing of the kind.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
While Salt's self-styled 'literary' character is thus confirmed, their concern with business strategy is considered and energetic, as publisher Chris Hamilton-Emery demonstrates here, here and here.