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.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Author's Voice

As I said a few posts ago, I'm rarely thrilled by readings of fiction by actors, who have a tendency to 'do' characters' voices, while self-consciously imposing their own (often pretentious) voices on the 'narrative'. There's a strange effect: characters and 'narrative' become separated in a weird literalness, when together they ought to form one organic narrative voice.

This morning Radio 4's Woman's Hour featured Edna O'Brien, whose The Country Girls is currently being reissued. Now, Edna O'Brien does not have a young woman's voice. It was perhaps one of the most moving things I have heard: a palimpsest of storytelling which no young actor, attempting to approximate the voice of the young naive narrator, could ever have achieved.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Women, Publishers and Language

Laura Dietz asks if the ubiquitousness of unchallenging 'domestic' writing by women is the fault of women writers themselves, or of publishers who overlook the more challenging work of female writers. It looks like the latter, is her tentative conclusion, since the all-female winners of the New Writing prize - all of whom would have sent in their own best unpublished work - have been praised as innovative and bold, whereas the Orange prize, based on already-published books nominated by their publishers, tends, she says (or at least Muriel Gray, last year's chair, said), to be dominated by books which conform to traditional conventions.

One commenter on the post opens up the discussion of what in fact makes for challenging writing - subject matter or writing style and use of language - and states the opinion, with which I agree, that it's on the level of language and style which books can be the most challenging.

It would be nice to think that the appearance on this year's Booker shortlist of Anne Enright - a linguistically bold and innovative writer if I ever saw one - is a welcome sign of a reversal of the situation Dietz describes.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Book Reviews

Interesting post by Dan Green at The Reading Experience on the 'crisis in book reviewing'.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

When is a Short Story Not a short Story?

Yesterday Julian Gough wrote in the Guardian about the current state of the short story, expanding on a view he touched on previously, via this blog: that while short stories may appear to have been squeezed from our present culture, in reality they survive, sometimes extended to novella length by writers such as Ian McEwan, at other times linked together, as in David Mitchell's books, to create what he says could be called the 'multistory novel'.

Gough presents these developments as meaning that the short story is after all alive and well (just a little bit hidden), and are a Good Thing: Our lives feel fragmented enough already, he says, and all short story writers need to do is come up with an 'organising principle'. But I don't think he even needs to make this case: Salt Publishing have just sent me a splendid leaflet detailing their new list of short story collections. And I can't help thinking that by doing so, and by implying that short stories are 'fragments', as a writer of (marvellous) stand-alone stories he's just shot himself, and the rest of us short-story writers, in the foot.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Depends What You're Judging

Any author would be a fool not to be glad of the exposure gained by winning a prize, but that should not prevent us from noting certain invidious aspects of the whole prize game. Notwithstanding the buzz of critical comment (especially on the web) each time the result of the Booker or any other literary competition is announced, there is an ingrained public acceptance, I think, that the winner has been judged The Best - with the danger of a consequent diminishing in the public perception of those works over which it has won.

Great then that Giles Foden, one of this year's Booker judges, has this to say about the judging process, now at shortlist stage:
Filters affect outcomes. If one looked only at literary style, Anne Enright or Ian McEwan would win. If one considered books as nothing but psychological mechanisms, Mohsin Hamid would be the victor: The Reluctant Fundamentalist does subtle things to manipulate its readers. For implicit polemic and strong portrayal of character, however, Indra Sinha would be the choice. If it's strangeness and beauty you're after, look no further than Nicola Barker's Darkmans. Then there is Lloyd Jones, the supposed new favourite and (according to some reports) an "unknown writer", whose Mister Pip would win if the sole criterion was the emotional impact of the story.
Judges in other years have revealed the way that some of these criteria can outweigh others, and other factors that come into play, such as compromise choices. One time that I was on the judging panel for a competition for an unpublished novel, the eventual winner hadn't even featured on most of the judges' personal shortlists.

Articles like Foden's contribute towards transparency, but I sometimes think it would be good if judging panels went the whole hog and officially owned up to their 'filters'. Though thinking back to that particular first-novel competition, you can see why they don't...

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Myth About Facts

It's an interesting paradox that in a culture hooked on the value of fact over fiction, there's a tendency not to allow certain facts to get in the way of a nice juicy story, especially if it involves a scapegoat to get everyone else off the hook.

This morning the Guardian prints an article by Suzanne Goldenberg reporting that James Frey is now to publish a novel as a novel, and not (as with his previous book) as a memoir. Not so long ago, the very same paper published a long profile of James Frey by Laura Barton, in which Frey claimed that he had never intended his first book as a memoir, but was pressured by publisher responses to sell it as such. Many authors would have recognized from personal experience - as indeed did the Bitch - a situation which is becoming all too familiar. After I wrote about it, an agent commented thus on my post:
As an agent, I feel quite strongly that Frey was shafted by his publisher and agent. Not only must they have known that embellishment was going on, they *did* know - I met an editor at Doubleday who told me, prior to the book's Oprah laurels, that he was sure some of the book wasn't true. It is deeply disingenuous of the professionals closely involved in the book's publication to claim they were duped by Frey, ruthless of them to drop him, and deeply immoral for them to continue to profit from the discredited works which they are merrily doing.
Yet this statement and Frey's Guardian claim are still apparently out of the equation, and the assumption that Frey simply and deceitfully duped his publishers, as well as the public, persists. Today's Guardian article replicates that version wholesale, damningly referring to 'his deceptions'. Goldenberg makes much of the fact that Frey made personal apologies on both the Oprah Winfrey show and in a new edition of the book, but to take that at face value is to show a monumental naivite, and to underestimate the vulnerability and powerlessness of authors. James Frey would not be the first author to be forced to issue a public apology for something for which he/she was not solely responsible - the Bitch is one, for a start, and her publisher was nothing like as powerful as Frey's - and to comply out of sheer dread of being dropped.

Funny how, in a world hooked on facts, some of the facts seem too slippery to hold. Seems then they need to be stated over and over again.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Too Old or Too Young?

Zoe Williams has a witty crack on the Guardian books blog at both the cult of youth and the supremacy of memoir over fiction in present-day publishing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Il Gatto Mumificato

I think I've spelled that right - I don't have a good Italian dictionary!

Still on the theme of writers' lives (as opposed to their books), last Saturday Lucasta Miller wrote interestingly about visiting writers' houses. Virginia Woolf was ambivalent, she says, finding the Bronte's house touching yet vulgarising and detracting from the work, but Miller's own visit to the Wordsworths' house in Somerset added to her understanding of Dorothy.

Some years ago I visited Petrarch's house in Northern Italy. There was a lovely atmosphere, stone floors smoothed by the years to a polish, beautifully tinted rounded leaded panes, an orange grove outside I think, and things in glass display boxes - manuscripts, quill pens, pictures, I think - oh I don't know, I could hardly look at anything but Petrarch's cat: mummified and mounted on the wall! His cat! See, that's what I know about Petrarch now: he loved his cat!! And in spite of all the words I have spilled about writer's books being more important than their lives, that was something I was really glad to know, and the mummy seemed to me touching and not macabre at all!!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Off With Their Heads

The estimable Steerforth has, as far as I know, no writer's axe to grind, and his unsentimental bookseller's arguments for the need for marketability in fiction are always admirably reasoned. So I think we can take seriously his comment on my post below:
These days I'm often told that unless X's third novel works, they're going to be dropped. It can sometimes be shocking how many well-known names fall into that category.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Not Hot Enough to Handle?

Apparently, once upon a time Ian Rankin's early Rebus novels were not successes. Debi Alper points out that nowadays he'd be likely to be dropped rather than allowed the time to build such a following that those early editions are now collectors' items...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Scared of Interacting?

A Stevens asks in the Guardian books blog whether litblogs, with their scope for ready 'roastings', are making writers risk-averse. In the comments the matter discussed here recently comes up, ie whether some mystique surrounding writers would serve their books better. No way, says suzanabrams: as a result of the blogosphere, interactivity between writers and readers is here to stay.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Literature: Can't Face it.

It's as I was saying: it's a great shame that people can't take literature undiluted and have this urge to know about the author and see him or her in the flesh. And as I've said before, and as Alyssa McDonald says on the Guardian books blog, publishers ought to take note of the fact that too many author readings can put you right off a book. I can't agree with her about Simon Armitage, though, whom she thinks a terrible reader: like several of the commenters I find that the 'flatness' of which she complains in his reading allows him to avoid the melodramatics of which she also complains in other readers, and allows the work to breathe separate from his person. MacDonald advocates the use of actors, but I can never abide the readings of actors - they always privilege the 'characters' over the narrative voice - and some of them have such pretentious narrative voices - and as a performer myself I'm always worried that I'll do this too.

Some of the commenters suggest the Guardian uses a less unflattering photo of Armitage - but no one so far, I notice, has suggested taking it off altogether...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Grace Paley

I was saddened by the death of Grace Paley last week, which I first read about on a Susan Hill's blog, and not in a newspaper. Paley's greatness as a short story writer is clearly yet to be fully acknowledged - or maybe it's the continuing British misapprehension that short stories can never be great - but great she most certainly was. Linguistically tough and inventive yet poetic, political yet lyrical, her stories give voice to a multitude of American immigrant experiences, clear eyed about pain and yet singing with optimism, a combination brilliantly captured in the Sally Ducksbury paintings on those eighties Virago covers above. It was Paley who taught me about the true meaning of Voice in fiction, and she was one of my greatest inspirations as a short-story writer. Perhaps my favourite of her stories is A Conversation with My Father in which her father, on his death-bed, chides her for not writing good old fashioned linear stories like de Maupassant or Chekhov. Ever obliging and, like the real-life Paley open to every possibilty, the daughter in the story tries, but not without commenting on

'..the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.'

Saturday, September 01, 2007

You Stick with Your Reading, I'll Stick with Mine

Here's a quote from, would you believe it, the publicity for Atonement:
'A book is an illusion, a series of symbols on a page that create an narrative in your mind. There are as many different versions of the book as there are readers of it. I've made an adaptation of the book that happened in my head as I read it.' - Jo Wright, Director.
Well, yes, precisely my objection to screen adaptations of novels, as I've said before, and written about in more detail on my other blog, and the very reason I won't be rushing to see this one.