Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Small Round-Up

Laura Elkin alerts us to The Millions on the future of book reviewing.

Meanwhile, today on my author blog I have my own review ( a rave one) of Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball.

And I must say I'm pretty thrilled that the Pulitzer Prize has gone to a book of short stories, Elizbeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

You Can Censor Comics But You can't Stop the Comedy

Katy Evans-Bush on a cartoonist facing a two-year prison sentence in Cairo for writing the first graphic novel in Arabic. The trial was set for yesterday, but was adjourned for a reason providing some comic leavening:
the judge charged the vice officer who originally reported the novel a fine of 50 EGP for not showing up during the hearing session after being summoned by the court for testifying.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Kiddies' History

In her Observer TV review on Sunday Kathryn Flett echoed something Adrian Slatcher and I were saying recently over a drink:
From Life on Mars to the recent Red Riding our screens are now regularly suffused with 1970s Hovis-coloured shades of greige ... where were the men in tightly fitting polycotton shirts repeat-patterened with drawings of vintage Rolls Royces? You never see them on TV, but they were all over men's backs like a virulent strain of psoriasis.
Yes, and what about the pinks shirts too, and the purple trousers and the red-and-yellow tartans, the hippy multicolours, and, towards the end of the decade, the womens' orange jumpsuits?

It's more than interesting, this tendency to turn the past to sepia, as we've discussed before. There's a parallel paradoxical tendency to paint the past in brighter-than-suitable colours, which I feel however comes from the same, somewhat worrying cultural impulse, and which I found in the programme notes for the production of Macbeth I saw at the Royal Exchange last week:
In Britain we have a very clear idea of what childhood during wartime is like: the excitement of air raids and hiding in shelters; hearing and being able to identify a dozen different models of aeroplane as they pass by; playing around in the debris and finding souvenirs; proudly boasting about fathers and older brothers in the armed services, smart and heroic in uniforms; being herded off into the countryside as evacuees and finding imaginary countries in wardrobes.
I got that far and I thought: 'Tell that to the seventy-odd-year-olds in the audience!' In fact, it seems on reading further that the author is agreeing with me: his point is that this is an illusion, and he goes on to state that 'writers in particular have given us a skewed picture of childhood during wartime' (and there is of course that dig at C S Lewis). But the piece here is sloppy and muddled and indeed colludes with that rosy picture of life for children in wartime Britain. As a point of fact, the falsely rosy view he describes is mainly derived from postwar children's comics, though he doesn't say so. He says: 'The softening filter of nostalgia has meant that whole generations of wartime children grew up remembering 'the good old days' and the Blitz spirit.' Who is he referring to here? There was only one generation of wartime children, after all, and it is 'whole generations' who have followed. He must therefore mean the latter: we generations who were brought up on the myths. But he muddies this by his use of the word 'remembering' (we can't remember what we haven't actually experienced) and of the phrase 'wartime children'. Thus a reader not seeing the flaws in this sentence (and indeed reading quickly at the theatre, as one does) will come away with the impression that wartime Britain was not so traumatic for children as to prevent them forgetting that it was bad at all - which was enough to make my companion, who was born during the war, throw down the programme in disgust and indeed some upset. But then perhaps that is indeed what the author of this piece is saying, since he then goes on to conclude:
Compare this to children living through wars elsewhere and... well, there's no comparison.
Well, it's just a theatre programme, you might say, and the standard of those is often pretty dubious, but when you consider that this production would be aimed at the scores of schoolchildren studying Macbeth for exams, you'd think a little more responsibility was in order. And I'd say the same for the production itself. This was a production screaming RELEVANCE - to Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia, with the soldiers in modern combat gear and operating modern warfare technology, and to the schoolchildren themselves, with the witches transformed into the demonic wraiths of female children raped and murdered in war. This last, by which a subsidiary theme of the original, that of the effect of war on innocents, is made a central one, is not the only way that the production radically skews the play. I'm getting pretty sick of Shakespeare productions in which actors say their speeches as if they have no idea what they mean and simply can't wait to get to the end, and compensate by shouting them, and, with the exception of a beautifully judged performance by John MacMillan as Malcolm and a (less satisfactory) one by Hilary Maclean as Lady Macbeth, this happens here. But it's made much worse by the fact that the complex psychology of the main characters is subsumed in this production's pursuit of spectacle. Macbeth is a deeply psychological play about the pull between personal ambition and guilt, which both of the Macbeths suffer, but not here: the coke-sniffing Lady Macbeth takes one frenetic angry note throughout, and Macbeth's conversion from coward to tyrant to troubled soul is, well, laughable - and the audience did indeed laugh at him at one moment during the scene where Banquo's ghost appears at the feast.

Honestly, I know this play through and through - I've studied it, I've taught it in schools (even so, I'm not precious about it, I'm always up for new insights) - but I just couldn't follow, so distracted was I by working out the modern parallels, and the flashing lights (which as a migraine sufferer I had to close my eyes to, missing some crucial moments), and the weird experience of listening to apparently garbled (shouted) speeches ringing with phrases which were so familiar to me and the meaning of which I thought I knew...

Director Matthew Dunster made some interesting revelations to Kevin Bourke in the Manchester Evening News:
It’s not, I put to Matthew, a play any director undertakes lightly.

“I probably did, actually,” he replies, confoundingly. “I was asked to do it and I said I’d love to do it, just because I wanted to have a go at it. I wanted to have a go at it in a very populist, contemporary, theatrical way ... one of the problems with Macbeth is that people do tend to come at it with this heavy weight and one of my bugbears with Shakespeare is it carries so much intellectual baggage with it. I thought, ‘I just want to make a really good show'.

"I’ve taken not scissors but a big pair of garden shears to it!,” he laughs... Where we think [Shakespeare] would benefit from our contemporary eyes saying ‘we don’t need that, that’s no use to us’, we’ve just got rid of it."

That would be the complex psychology of the tyrant, then. And, er, that's not relevant to Iraq...?

Not so much a case of teaching Granny to suck eggs, I'd say, but of teaching Granny to suck eggs when you don't even know what eggs are...

Amazon Censorship

On Thursday last week the ranking disappeared from my Amazon page for my story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World. Well, no one can call me paranoid: I just decided that they must have removed the ranking facility altogether (and I was busy so I didn't bother to check anyone else's). Then on Saturday it appeared again and I decided it had just been a glitch.

But what do I discover today but that Amazon have apparently removed the ranking facility from all books with 'adult' content. Seems that in response to a massive protest Amazon are now saying that it was just a glitch but here's the reply which Mark Probst received from Amazon when he inquired:
In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature. 

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.
Best regards,
Ashlyn D
Member Services Advantage (Quoted from Mark Probst’s Blog)
The most outrageous aspect of this is that by 'adult' Amazon seems to mean 'gay and lesbian', so that classic gay and lesbian books without the inclusion of explicit sex have had their ranking removed while books including explicit hetereosexual sex have been left alone. (God knows what happened with mine: did they take another look at the one erotic story in my book and decide that because it was heterosexual sex it was OK after all?)

It is of course a matter of extreme concern that an organization with the power of Amazon could practise such censorship, and I urge you to sign the petition set up to protest.

Here's a post by Anne Brooke on the Vulpes Libris blog, which supplies more details.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Short Stories on the Up

I was going to post about a couple of recent Guardian articles which seem to indicate a resurgence of interest in the short story, but Tania Hershman has beaten me to it with an excellent post on the Short Review blog, which I do recommend you read.

What she doesn't mention there is that this resurgence is reflected by the judges of the Orange New Writing prize, who have commended Tania herself for her wonderful collection, The White Road and Other Stories! Very many congratulations to Tania!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Different Kettle of Fish?

Sometimes, when there are other, more desperate things going on, one is tempted into thinking that writing about literary things is a little effete. But then the way we use language is at the root of everything, as Orwell taught us, and a letter to The Guardian yesterday from Professor John Veit-Wilson reminds us of an earlier use of the word 'kettling' for containing crowds:
The word was used in 1942 about the practice of the Nazi government in Warsaw when they "shut us [the Jews] up in a manageable area - the 'Kettle' - and combed through our helpless crowd", as John Hersey's fictionalised account of the Ringleblum archives reported in 1950.

Perhaps those who have little sense of history or political philosophy are unaware of the connotations of the term, but for the rest of us this police practice is one more sign that the government of covert forces behind it are putting into place, little by little, whatever would be needed at some future stage for totalitarian control.

Literary Agents

Much ado about literary agents over at the Guardian books blog.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

How to Dress for Safety

A PS to yesterday's post:

So, city workers were advised to dress down to avoid being targeted by G20 protesters. Perhaps others should have been advised to dress up to avoid being targeted by riot police.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Kettles, Cages and Clean-ups

I'm sorry to have been silent for a while. I got stuck inside my own head, the way you sometimes do as a writer, and got to that stage where I just needed to get out and away and look at the outside world instead. So I borrowed someone's London flat and went walking and here are some of the things I saw:

A clean-up operation on the River Lee:

Some very nice polite schoolboys:

Environmental protesters on a bus stop in Bishopsgate:

Lib Dem Shadow Climate Change Secretary Simon Hughes and an environmental campaigner:

Some dancing environmental campaigners:

The City of London police in formation across Bishopsgate:

A very nice polite policeman:

The kettle in Threadneedle St not yet steaming:

Every exit barred:

Business as usual on the Millennium Bridge:

Three hunched figures and beds like cages in the Tate Modern:

John Siddique launching his Salt poetry collection, Recital: An Almanac under a beautiful moon at the National Portrait Gallery:

A lovely part of the (I presume) cleaned-up Regent's Canal:

Some more caged creatures:

Some free birds in a cultivated park: