Friday, August 31, 2007

Coincidence or a Bad Girl Misbehaving?

As we've discussed on this blog before, you can't copyright ideas, and you'd be mad to want to, but it's riling when someone appears to have taken your idea and flown with it, and doesn't even acknowledge you...

Maybe this isn't at all what has happened in the case of the anthology, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, edited by Ellen Sussman, newly published in the US and receiving a lot of publicity, most recently in the New York Times. This book is strikingly similar in concept to last year's UK Bitch Lit anthology from the non-profit Crocus Books (in which one of my stories appears), but apparently bears no acknowledgement of the similarity. It's perfectly possible that when in 2004 Mary Sharratt, Bitch Lit co-editor with Maya Chowdhry, went to Ellen Sussman with a proposal for a US Bitch Lit version, Sussman had already had the same original idea. Though you can't blame Sharratt for wondering why, if so, she didn't she mention it.

Normblog profile

I am honoured to have a Normblog profile up today.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Writers versus Books

Joseph Ridgwell writes on the Guardian books blog about ageism in British publishing, but spoils his own case with his suggestion, only half tongue-in-cheek I think, that people should be banned from publishing books before they are thirty.

The point which gets rather swamped in the comment debate he thus generates is that the age of a writer should be irrelevant. We should stop thinking in terms of the personal characterstics of writers and get back to thinking in terms of books.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Coming up with the Goods

It seems unanswerable, doesn't it, the statement made so often in response to complaints that nowadays good novels don't always find publishing homes: 'Publishing is a business, not a charity'?

How can you deny it? Why would anyone continue publishing if they had to make losses?

But as I read an edited version of Jeremy Paxman's Edinburgh Festival castigation of the BBC for a loss of standards, in which he stated: 'Youth... This is the great motive force in contemporary television. Why do they want to find it? The motive is the same everywhere. Money' - well, another thought popped into my head:

There's business and there's business and there's money and there's money. After all, you wouldn't defend a grocer or a food wholesaler for being so obsessed with money he drops his standards and cheats his customers, or even poisons them, would you?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Long and the Short of It

Mark Ravenhill writes about the ‘hunger for the epic’, the apparent need in a world devoted to the soundbite and fleeting images, a world where ‘brevity is everything’, for something meatier: the doorstop novel (he cites Harry Potter), the epic movie (Pirates of the Caribbean) and the hours-long stage play (David Edgar’s popular adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC).

Ravenhill has been presenting a series of breakfast-time plays at the Edinburgh festival. The fact that people have got up early (after late festival nights) to pack out his houses he sees as another example of this hunger, because the plays are interconnected and thus episodes in what he views as an epic project.

I think he’s looking at this the wrong way round. As Ravenhill himself comments, ‘Many critics pointed out how much the Harry Potter books would benefit from an editor’s pencil’. What does this mean? It means that those who read Harry Potter don’t mind this, probably don’t notice it, they read it passively, even unthinkingly, rushing on through the narrative in a way which is not at odds, as Ravenhill would have it, with an accelerated world and an impatient culture. It’s the short thing, the tightly-packed thing, the short story or the short play, which requires the leisured and thoughtful response and close attention to language, not the longer work, as Ravenhill claims.

Maybe Ravenhill is right that people are now hungering after more intellectually-challenging literary or theatrical experiences. But could it not be that the popularity of his festival plays is down to their shortness and the linguistic compactness which this allows, the piecemeal presentation which gives the audience the chance to breathe and think and ‘gradually see the rules and patterns’ of the larger project? And could this be why short stories now seem to be on the up?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Words for Free

Not so long ago, discussing the controversy over copyright and Google Booksearch, I described my feeling of pleasure when two out-of-print anthologies in which my work featured appeared on Google Booksearch, and my disappointment when they disappeared again (they have since been reinstated). As I stated then, although the actual contents of those books weren't available online I wouldn't have minded if they had been, since I didn't think it likely that many people would otherwise read the few copies available in libraries such as that of the University of Michigan.

Today Peter Finch, Chief Executive of the Welsh Academy, writes to Academy members (of which I'm one) about Welsh Journals Online, a proposal by the National Library of Wales to digitize the entire content of the majority of twentieth-century literary periodicals in Wales.

A member of a nation in which education and literature have always had pride of place, he acknowledges the excitingly democratic nature of library digitization projects:
No need any longer to visit the National Library at Aberystwyth to don white gloves and look at the ancient pages of Brut y Tywysogion. Log on and there are all the pages - viewable entirely for free and with no problem parking your car in order to get to see them. A service for the public has been created that is entirely in keeping with the spirit that founded the public library service
and as a gifted and serious writer himself, he understands my impulse above. Authors on Welsh Journals Online will not be paid and 'will be given the right to say no and not to participate but the reality is that most will want to be included. This will offer some of them an opportunity to see work from years past appear again to re-read and re-evaluate'.

However, he points out this project has been funded:
In a society rich enough to pay for civic flowerbeds to be weeded and town centres to be illuminated 24/7 then authors should get something for what they do. In the whole digitisation process staffers working on the project at the National Library of Wales will be paid. So too the funders and Welsh Assembly Government and JISC. The operators of the internet servers on which the final project is to be stored will also receive financial consideration, as will the owners of the telephone lines down which the information will travel and the manufacturers of the equipment with which users will access it. But the creators of the works being read, the raison d'etre for the whole enterprise, they'll get nothing.
He has a big point there, I reckon. There is something pretty amazing about the ubiquitous idea that, as far as literature is concerned, if there is ever any money going, the last people it should go to are the primary providers. So we do it for the love of it? Should we stop paying doctors or teachers or plumbers if they heal or teach or plumb for the love of it? As Finch says, it's too late to do anything about this project - the money has already been allocated - but in the rush towards digitization this assumption must be challenged.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Graphic Language

I know I've been away, but I was pretty puzzled when today I first read about the fuss over Ian Rankin's statement that lesbian crime writers write the most 'graphic' novels, and that he finds this 'interesting'. What? Why would people bridle at a compliment? Doesn't 'graphic' mean 'vivid'? See what a week in the Welsh hills (and a lack of familiarity with crime novels generally) does to you - you simply don't keep up with the language and you have no idea that it's shorthand for 'graphic violence'. And, to add to the confusion, in the same paper I am told that Rankin, having left Rebus behind, is now embarked on a 'graphic novel'!

Thursday, August 16, 2007


This month John Baker is tackling the issue of 'inspiration' by running a series of pieces by writers describing how they create a text. Mine appeared yesterday.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ugly Romance

I couldn't agree more with John Sutherland when he says that those who have voted Wuthering Heights the most romantic novel ever have got it entirely wrong. It's what I said too when Norm invited me to contribute to his Writers' Choice.

What does it mean that people (60% of women polled, anyway) insist on reading this book, and the others he lists, in this way? That people don't in fact actually read? That we have forgotten, or are no longer educated, how to? That the tendency to privilege our preconceptions or wishes over clear-eyed analysis is a function of a commercial society based on fantasy and obsession with the self? (And as for the fact that our wishes are romantic, well, heaven help us.)

* Edited in: Norm has a great post on this, with all the links.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A short break

Along with several other bloggers, it seems, I'm off on holiday so won't be blogging for a week or so.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Acknowledging the Luck

Michael Holroyd writes amusingly in today's Guardian Review about the current tendency to fulsomeness and even sentimentality in book Acknowledgment sections and dedications:
Writing books is no longer a solitary affair ... These "warm and gracious" friends have become, as it were, "co-workers" on the book, eulogised for their "endless patience" and "great understanding". They are like wet-nurses tending to whatever the young manuscript and its trusty word-processor need.
What Holroyd fails to comment on is the whiff of uncertainty and/or relief coming off these missives, the sweat-soaked sense that the book might well never have been written and/or published if circumstances had been other, the contingency that always inevitably surrounds the making of a book - the author needing to keep sane and well, and if he/she doesn't have a commission needing savings in the bank or to be kept, or someone else to mind the kids. Not to mention the moral support you can need to stay on course in a world of shrinking publishing opportunities.

I have a collection of short stories forthcoming, and in the current climate I can't help feeling lucky. Part of that sense of luck is inextricably bound up with other people: the magazine editors who happened to be sticking their necks out and publishing short stories just at the time I happened to write them (and therefore boosted me to go on writing them), the literary professionals I happened to meet who gave me contacts and practical hints, the close friends and relatives who acted as my first readers and helped me go on believing in my stuff when the going got hard. Holroyd is right, that to go too far with your acknowledgments can seem hilariously self-serving (he quotes some howlers ), but they can also be a political statement about the precariousness of creative production.

I'm with Holroyd on dedications, though. A single name, that's all. And the reason it's there is between me and him.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Book Depository

Grumpy Old Bookman draws our attention the The Book Depository which acts both a bookseller and publisher, concentrating on fast service and with a core philosophy of making 'All books available to all', a key feature being the reprinting out-of-copyright works. Grumpy says that as far as he knows this venture has had little publicity, and I too have noticed little reference to it in discussions about either copyright or bookselling. I can't help agreeing with him that for readers (and authors with an eye on their own longevity) it would seem to be only a good thing, but that potentially it presents yet another threat to the independent bookseller.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Burden of Blogging

I never intended to leave this blog for so long, but have been almost entirely preoccupied with another, artistic, project, and coming back to it today, and checking into other litblogs again, feels like coming back to your home town after living away: whole discussions have taken place which have passed me by (and the population has changed: some blogs have gone inactive, others which were in abeyance have started up again), and, although it's only been a fortnight, people have started to forget me: my site stats for this blog have gone down.

The fact that blogging is a huge project which can clash with one's other, more creative work is the perpetual dilemma of the writer-blogger. In fact, I didn't find it quite as hard to keep in touch with my other, writer blog, as I could make it part of the current project, which was promoting a play, and use it as a personal diary of my current obsession. But keeping writing while blogging is a different matter, and I neglected even that blog while I was writing that play. This is a paradox, since - let's be frank - most writer-bloggers blog partly to get exposure for their work (and apparently some publishers now expect authors to blog as part of their marketing duties).

As far as I'm concerned, though, it is critical discussion - with which this blog is concerned - which takes the real time and commitment. Today Susan Hill has announced that she's no longer prepared to spend the time reading other blogs and getting drawn into their literary discussions, and who can blame her with all that writing to do? And Daniel Green at The Reading Experience gets to grips with Sven Birkerts' assertion that litbloggers fail to engage as thoughtfully as print reviewers in a long, thoughtful article that must have taken him hours.

It's like the Partner of the Bitch said: 'I don't understand it, this blogging. How can it take you all that time? Why are you up there all hours, and so late?' Darling, keeping up a litblog can be like writing an essay every single day.