Monday, March 24, 2008

The Reality of Literature

Apropos the issue of 'realism' and 'reality' in literature, there's an article in today's Guardian by Tom Sykes recalling how just as his memoir had been accepted for publication, the James Frey scandal broke, so he ended up being made by his publisher's lawyers to check details with everyone mentioned in the book. The joke here is that while no one seemed to mind being portrayed as cheats or dissolutes, they objected to what they saw as minor misrepresentations such as hair colour and verbal ticks, but this last does hinge on a crucial issue at the heart of the debates about both authenticity in memoirs and representation in fiction.

The thing is, what 'authenticity' are we talking about? And whose authenticity? OK, so Tom Sykes sees the beard of his husband's sister as ginger, and she sees it as blond. The acceptance of her objection to this is based on an assumption that there's an objective reality. What a joke! We all see things differently - some of us are even colourblind, and if I shut one eye I can see a particular red chair in my room as more orange than if I shut the other.

What no one seems to be able to grasp is that books - not just fiction, but memoirs too - are never truly about factual reality but about one person's perception, skewed by such physical limitations, by emotion, and by that utterly unreliable factor, memory - and we are fools to expect them to be anything different.

I have written before about a similar experience of my own. I once wrote an autobiographical short story, far more autobiographical than anything else I had ever written. A chance came up to contribute to a collection of memoir pieces, and since at the time it was getting very difficult to place short stories, like a fool I sent it in. Well, my publisher too wanted to take the precaution of asking contributors to check with those who featured in our pieces, and I was forced to contact my sister. And guess what, she remembered things differently from the way I did, and I was forced to change it to her version, with the net result that the so-called 'memoir' I had published is less true to my memory, and therefore less autobiographical, than the piece would have been had I published it as fiction!

Which is why it seems obvious to me that memoirs as a literary form are pretty dubious, and as for fiction: there's no such thing as 'realism', as Will Self says - or at least beyond the reality of the author's psyche.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Believable Characters Are Unbelievable

As far as I'm concerned, Will Self puts his finger on the truth when he says that naturalistic novels, with their pretence of 'veracity', are thus 'more about an invented reality even than the things I write.'

Personally, I'm getting more and more impatient with the concept of 'character', and the fake authority of narratives which purport to anatomize the motivations of characters, so I smiled when I read him quoted as saying that even in life (leave alone books) 'people's motives are so often not just obscure to them, but absolutely fucking mad.'

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sour Grapes and Bitter Fare at the Orange Feast?

Question: Do we still need a prize for women writers?

Tim Lott doesn't think so. He objects strongly in the Telegraph to the notion that there's a need for the Orange Prize, but the bitterness of his piece and the tenor of some of the comments from men on the online piece fill one with the kind of female unease one thought one had long left behind. Lott reasons thus:
Women are predominant, in terms of numbers and power, in most of the major publishing houses and agencies. They sell most of the books, into a market that largely comprises women readers. They are favoured by what is overwhelmingly the most important prize (the Richard and Judy list), and comprise most of the reading groups that drive sales. Girls in schools are more literate than boys, and pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers.
Yet he also acknowledges this:
Despite 12 years of consciousness-raising by the Orange, the Booker still doesn't give women their mathematical due - a 3:10 ratio remains.
What we could conclude from this, in fact, is that even in a situation where men are in a minority, it is maleness which gets you the most institutionalized accolades (the Booker being our most institutionalized and status-filled literary accolade) - just as while more women than men are teachers, more headteachers are men than women. (And I do hope that the failure of my comment pointing this out to appear on the Telegraph site isn't down to anti-feminism!)

But doubt about the validity of it all isn't just confined to men, and has leaked from the female Orange judges themselves. Last year chair Muriel Gray castigated the entries, and by extension women's fiction in general, for being 'too domestic'. This year chair Kirsty Lang* agrees that a lot of the books were 'domestic dramas'. Asked by the Guardian if she had a problem with that she said not, since 'most readers of fiction are women and we like our reading to reflect our experience', yet this is somewhat undercut by her later statement: 'I would have liked to have seen bigger political themes.'

In other words, here we are again: women may be in the majority as the writers and readers of fiction, but they are identified (rightly or wrongly) with the domestic and the domestic is not valued. (It would be interesting to examine the perception and to look at the precise proportion of both women's and men's books that are either purely domestic or tackle political themes 'through the prism of the family', as Lang says some of the Orange novels do.) (And anyway, when did we go and forget that the personal is political?)

The Guardian focuses on another aspect of Lang's comments: the fact that in general the novels had been 'infected by misery memoirs'. It's not clear whether this is a direct quote from Lang, or a Guardian interpolation, but it's a pretty loaded bombshell, with the negative connotations of 'infected', and its smearing of women's fiction with the dubious moral and aesthetic status (much discussed on this blog) of a non-fiction genre which the Guardian indeed calls 'much derided.'

Perhaps this is the trouble with a prize for women's fiction: it means that any trends in contemporary fiction get blamed on the women, and guys like Edward St Aubyn get off scot-free.

*Sorry, at the risk of proving how inept women are, I confess that in an earlier version of this I called her Kirsty Wark.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Leave Me Out of It

David Jenkins writes in today's Guardian about the experience of finding yourself in someone's novel.

I wrote about it here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Trouble With Literary Prizes and Non-Edited Books

Another literary prize judge joins former Booker judges in commenting on the onerousness of the task. At the Wrexham Library launch of the long list for the Wales Book of the Year 2008 (on which I'm delighted to report that fellow Salt author Carys Davies appears), writer and broadcaster Mavis Nicholson reported that she and her two fellow judges had had to read 200 books, all so very different from each other - some sad, some funny - that it was very difficult to turn from one to another and know that you would be giving it a fair reading.

Nicholson's suggestion to the prize organizers for a solution to the problem was that entries should be filtered before the judges take over. In this particular case she felt it was justified as so many of the entries had been what she called 'fluffy' - presumably by this she meant commercial and non-serious, and clearly this award is aimed at literary works. However, as a principle I think this too has problems, as I've written before, and as I was discussing recently with Jen Hamilton-Emery of Salt books. It is at this early stage that the most sophisticated skill in judging or editing is required, the point at which conventional expectations can miss the oddball and innovative.

Nicholson also made a very strong complaint on behalf of all three judges. Too many of the books they had looked at had hardly been edited she said, and were full of spelling mistakes for instance, and it was clear to them that publishers were no longer properly editing books.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Joan Smith Tells Writers to Get Angry

Looks like it's not only me who thinks that writers have been cowed by the current commodification of literature. In an article printed in the latest newsletter of the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society and, I understand, that of the Society of Authors, she invites writers to get angry at last.
'No one likes us much; the general public imagines we're all earning as much as Dan Brown and if we aren't it's our own fault for not being popular enough. Publishers don't like us because we're not Dan Brown, and they don't know how to sell books by writers who aren't already bestselling authors.'

I'll skip over the bit where she says 'bloggers' loathe 'us' because 'they' are jealous of the small success 'we' have achieved and concentrate on the other, more insightful things she says:
'No one wants to hear about the things which have become standard, from barely civil rejections of manuscripts by editors who've loved previous books to incessant demands that books should be easier to read and make fewer demands on readers.

Twenty years ago, when I was writing Misogynies, I was able to include a discussion of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. No one suggested it was too dark or challenging but I very much doubt I'd be able to do it today; not long ago an editor at one of the country's leading publishing houses told me that readers expect even such subjects as sex-trafficking to be handled in a light way....

...Contemporary publishing is driven by an obsession with profit, celebrity and gimmicks, which has resulted in a cull of non-populist writers ... terrorised by accountants and marketing departments, mainstream publishers are desperately trying to work out what sells and the only way they can do it is by referring to something else ... I remember reading that one author's first novel had been reissued under a new title to maintain his 'brand' while another had her career mapped out for her - a string of bestsellers with imaginary publication dates - before her first novel was even in the bookshops.

The result of all this hype is a migration to small independent publishers by authors of the calibre of Francis King, Emma Tennant and Maureen Freely...

...We can react to this in two ways. One is as individuals, demoralised and struggling to find the energy to keep writing. The other is as professional writers who understand the vital role of literature in our culture, and how it's being undermined. When publishers stop doing their job, ours is to get angry and tell the world.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Opening It Up or Narrowing It Down?

You know me: my heart sank when I opened the Observer on Sunday and there was a double-page spread on the new pony race, the public vote for the best Booker book.

After listing some of its benefits -'the Booker stirs up literary debate and makes people who would otherwise go to bed with a biography or a thriller open a novel, probably by someone they've never heard of' and 'promotes a global readership of British fiction' and has come up with 'an impressive list of winners' - the article's author Robert McCrum concludes that while 'lotteries and literature go ill together' (here, here) ' the Booker probably does more good than harm.' ( I actually typed 'more harm than good' and had to edit it!)

I've expressed my doubts previously as to how far such competitions open up people to literature generally. Geared as publisher's marketing campaigns are to them, don't they rather consist of a narrowing of buyers' and readers' focus to just a few books? And isn't this current exercise, along with the earlier Booker of Bookers, a narrowing of the cultural focus even further, in spite of the reports I've read of the publishers of previous but forgotten winners looking forward to a polishing of the backlists?

Interestingly, in the responses from a selection of interviewed previous judges, there emerge some other pretty powerful arguments against the validity of these kinds of competitions.

David Baddiel (2002): I found just reading those books soul-destroying. Your critical faculties get blunted... (my italics)

Rowan Pelling (2004): It's all a bit unfair because you don't read books in a vacuum. As I was having my little boy halfway through the process, the books I read before I gave birth were clouded by pregnancy, whereas I read The Line of Beauty when I was relaxing on holiday in the south of France.

Simon Armitage (2006): It's a hard slog - almost impossible. You have not much more than six months and at one stage, mathematically, it was a book every day and a half.

Adam Mars-Jones (1995): Books have a natural tempo and there can be a violation if you're making yourself read 60 pages an hour.

And Rowan Pelling again, most tellingly: When we were judging we tried three different voting systems and each time a different winner emerged.

And Adam Mars-Jones again, refusing to 'play the game', and telling us instead about the book which didn't win (and about which one wonders if it is still associated with the Booker in the popular mind): The book I genuinely liked best was Taking Apart the Poco Poco by Richard Francis, a family story told in strict equality by two parents, two children and the dog. But I couldn't convince anyone.

Perhaps the most pointed statement comes from the ever down-to-earth DJ Taylor with his eye, like McCrum's, on the paradoxes existing for writers and publishers nowadays:
The thing about serious writing is either it has to be part of the marketing circus or it has to exist in obscurity - there's no middle way.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Web as the Saviour of Serious Literature

Faber publisher Stephen Page continues to urge the publishing world to embrace the web, which he sees as the saviour of serious literature in a book world
now experiencing a concentration on fewer books derived from an obsession with bestsellers and celebrity, and an increasing sense that what is good is that which sells large volumes. As a result most serious or marginal books now begin life with a decreasing exposure in bookshops.

The Misery-Memoir Saga Goes On

Here we go again: two more cases of a publisher refusing to let the smell of rat put them off a juicy misery 'memoir' (here and here) and then coming over all hoodwinked when it's unveiled as fake. (Thanks to The Accidental Blogger for the links.)

And here's John Crace with a How To guide for misery-memoir writers. This injunction of his best sums up for me what's invidious about the whole fashion for 'authenticity', and it's a point I've made myself before:
remember that readers won't be reading [your book] as you would hope. They are not identifying with your struggle; they are thanking their lucky stars that they aren't you.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Artful Demotion of Literature

What the **** is going on? I keep coming across statements (usually in comment threads) that literature is not an art but a craft, and now my good friend Adrian Slatcher whose very own blog is named after Henry James's famous essay The Art of Fiction is having a crisis of confidence over the matter - though I suspect really he's artfully or even craftily pulling our legs.

The thing that really takes the biscuit is that the statement is never accompanied by a definition of the writer's terms (the word 'art' can of course carry different meanings). (Well I guess Adrian has a bash.)

Here are some of the Shorter OED definitions:
From Middle English, base meaning 'put together, join, fit'.

I. Skill ... 1. Skill as the result of knowledge and practice ... Technical or professional skill ... Human skill as opposed to nature. 2. The learning of the schools; scholarship (now archaic). 3. The application of skill according to aesthetic principles esp. in the production of visible works of imagination, imitation, or design (painting, sculpture, architecture etc); skilful execution of workmanship as an object in itself; the cultivation of the production of aesthetic objects in its principles, practice and results.

II. ... A pursuit or occupation in which the skill is directed towards the gratification of the aesthetic senses ; the product of any such pursuit.
It seems to me that the current opposition of 'art' and 'craft' on the web is a hierarchical one, and on the whole the thrust seems to be to value the notion of literature as 'craft' (and thus honest and straightforward) over the notion of literature as 'art' (airy-fairy and pretentious) - and the idea seems to be that those who consider their writing 'art' are being pretentious. Inherent in all this is a concept of literature as inferior to or at any rate different from the 'real' arts and of writers requiring less 'innate talent' for their chosen form (Adrian Slatcher) than do, say, musicians or painters.

But the OED definition of art I 1) would apply very well to any 'mere' or 'down-to-earth' craft. As for the last two definitions I've quoted, well, what I want to know is what good piece of literature is not a work of 'imagination, imitation or design' or not 'directed towards the gratification of the aesthetic senses'?

The deeper question to ask here is: why is there such a fear of the notion of literature as art? Is it linked to the general commodification of literature and does the fact that so many are expressing it mean that writers have finally been cowed?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

How We Read

An article on Alan Sillitoe by DJ Taylor in The Guardian Review has set me thinking about the ways we read and about how far a consciousness of this affects the way we write. The comment of Taylor's which interests me was that Sillitoe's early depictions of working-class life were originally received by critics as anthropological insights, and as a result their artistry was overlooked or ignored.

My first reaction was surprise since it was Sillitoe's artistry which so forcibly struck me as a working-class but educated teenager (and which now, as Taylor says, strikes the critics) - and which indeed fuelled my desire to write. A moment's reflection, though, and it's not surprising at all, given that the literary establishment of the time was middle to upper class and if we accept that one of the main things that people want from books, rightly or wrongly and whether or not they are aware of it, is a sense of identification or inclusion.

Regular readers of this blog will know very well that I frequently rail against the lowest-common-denominator effects of a literary culture which panders too much to this impulse in readers, and argue with James Wood for the encouragement of a more mature reading of fiction, but I have to say that as a writer I take a different tack: I want to lure readers, and I can't assume they are my Ideal Readers, they're only human after all, and it's only human to want to identify with the characters and situations in books.

As a writer you simply can't afford to sneer as James Wood does at the 'book clubs up and down the country' where 'novels are denounced because some feeble reader "couldn't find any characters to identify with", or "didn't think that any of the characters 'grow" ' (my italics). It is as if for Wood these readers are not the real readers, but every writer knows that they are, and as for the literati and the critics, well those fifties critics of Sillitoe were hardly exempt from the 'sin'. For me evidence of the need to identify is everywhere, from my own feelings of exclusion as a teenager from the ethos and mentality of some middle-class novels to Sarfraz Manzoor's recent statement at a reading that he felt excluded from the biographies about 'non-ordinary' lives which he read as a teenager (an exclusion which indeed propelled him write his own memoir as redress). And the trouble is, as Taylor indicates, if you're stuck on that, on non-identification, as indeed were those fifties critics of Sillitoe, you can't easily get past to appreciate or enjoy the other elements of a novel, the artistry, the writing.

The prior experience of the reader ultimately determines - or at least inevitably affects - the reading. At present I'm reading Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky for my reading group and it struck me to wonder how much less vivid the descriptions of the North African landscape and villages (vivid as they are) would have been for me before I had travelled myself. There's another thing we read for besides identification (I'm sure Pierre Bayard must say it in his book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read but I haven't read it - hah!). This is for an extension of our experience - it's what I think most children read for, and why as an aspirational teenager I did gobble up other middle-class books. But when as a nineteen-year-old steeped in images from The Odyssey and Euripedes I made my first trip to Greece, I was still shocked by the reality: so that's what the smell of eucalyptus trees is like! So that's what it's like to be buffeted in the face by a hot wind! So that's why it's called the wine-dark sea! And my re-readings afterwards were incomparably richer.

Which is why I have been known to state that ultimately any piece of fiction is necessarily what a reader makes of it. But that shouldn't stop us as writers trying to draw in as many readers as possible. The most obvious way to do this is to make readers 'like' characters, although this isn't always possible or desirable (and I suppose it's the insistence on this emotionally easy formula which Wood is attacking) but some means must be found to cause the reader to make an emotional investment in at least some of the apparatus of a story or novel - an investment which goes beyond mere anthropological interest if that is not yours as the writer. The point is to get the reader to share with you the emotional heart of the novel, wherever it lies for you as the author, and to do this you must create a spell.

One of the ways I try to do this - probably a result of my background as a teacher - is to follow Orwell's advice and 'never use a long word when a short one will do.' This is not to patronize readers but to strive to make every word immediately lucid in order not to spoil the flow for any reader and break the fictive spell. But then another thing I know is that some people like books with long, abstract or foreign words precisely because they read to have their egos flattered and feel clever...