Thursday, January 31, 2013

What makes you think you know me?

In a Guardian article today about Ricky Gervais's controversial new character Derek, Mark Lawson notes this:
Performers such as Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield used to argue that actors should be wary of giving interviews because the profession demands the ability to disappear within a part. But contemporary actor-comedians such as Gervais, not only chat-show regulars but also constantly visible on social media, are as far from that mysterious ideal as it is possible to be. The risk is that a proportion of viewers will always be judging the public personality – and, in Gervais's case, controversy – as much as the work. It's intriguing to speculate about how Derek would be received if played by an unknown actor.
I have often argued on this blog a similar case regarding writers: the fact that, if novels don't exactly get judged purely on the personalities of their authors (though I suspect they often do), our celebrity culture does mean that very often it's the novelist rather than the novel that gets attention. In a books marketing climate depending on social media it's unavoidable: authors are now pretty much required by their publishers to have a profile on social media.

It's a conundrum: as I have pointed out often enough, many writers write precisely because they find social interaction more difficult than the page, and most writers write precisely because they find social interaction inadequate: it's solitary contemplation that produces original thought and it's the calm of the page where those thoughts can be properly transmitted and appreciated. This last is a point made strongly by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. (Tania Hershman, who it seems is also currently concerned with these issues, alerts us to a moving film of Cain speaking.) Cain doesn't in any way suggest we give up social interaction, but pleads for more space for the privacy and contemplation necessary for creative production.

Here's another thought. If the recent 'sock-puppetry' scandal has shown us anything, it's that you can't always trust who someone is online anyway, and I'd say you can't always know who someone is online even when they're using their own name. Another thing the scandal showed was that there's now a whole culture - especially among authors, or at least those authors who were up in arms - of obsession with honesty and being up front, but it seems to me that writers, above anyone, are capable of fictional manipulation - either consciously or unconsciously - when it comes to their online selves. I'd go further and say that we never really know a person from any of their fundamentally public appearances.

I've been thinking about these issues a fair bit since I discovered in the pages of Nicholas Royle's new novel First Novel (which plays with the issue of the difficulty of knowing what's fiction and what isn't) a character (appearing intermittently and briefly) who answers to my description and bears my writing name. Other characters in the novel are recognisable as real-life people to those who know them in life, but their names are changed, and other writers are mentioned, but only as the authors of their books - they do not appear as characters (except maybe Paul Auster, though if I remember correctly that's only in the narrator's imagination). People keep coming up to me and suggesting it's outrageous and asking me if I feel weird about it. The answer is: no, on reflection, I don't (though their reaction does make me feel weird - it's not me, folks, it's a character!). I haven't discussed it at all with Nick, and he may have other things to say about it, but as far as I can see, it's a kind of literary joke about the knowability of anyone with any kind of public profile. Who is this Elizabeth Baines? No one really knows: it's significant - and funny - that the glasses of the EB in the novel flash at one point with the reflections of a glitter ball. For one thing, as Nick knows, it's a pen name, the name behind which, in the beginning, when I first started writing, I hid my real identity. But it's all very complex: in fact, I wasn't so much hiding as naming my deepest, most private, contemplative self, the self that (with luck) emerges on the page, and delineating and protecting it from my social identity - which in turn makes it ironic that it's now become the name for my public profile, and the active promotional side of me as a writer, as well as a name by which people know me on a social level after all. 

The truth of it all is this: as difficult as it is nowadays, if you really want to know a writer, try to forget the public profile and look at the work for what it is.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Prize Change?

I'm a bit behind with this, but I'd like to note here the interesting list of finalists for the International Man Booker, and the official statement which is a declaration of fulfilled intention to reverse a tradition:
The previous incarnations of the prize have included a large cluster of well-known and indeed expected names, from Doris Lessing and Milan Kundera to Amos Oz and Joyce Carol Oates. There is, however, nothing familiar or expected about the list unveiled today.
The statement points out that the list (below) includes only two well-known names and quotes the prize administrator as saying that the judges were chosen, and a larger number appointed than previously, in order to allow the panel "to read in far greater depth than ever before.”
This is presented as such an innovation that it's wearying confirmation that our prize culture relies too heavily on the known and approved (and so, probably, previously hyped). It would be nice to think, though, that this development - along with the great surprise finds of this year's Booker shortlist - are signs of permanent change.

Here's the list:
U R Ananthamurthy (India), Aharon Appelfeld (Israel), Lydia Davis (USA), Intizar Husain (Pakistan), Yan Lianke (China), Marie NDiaye (France), Josip Novakovich (Canada), Marilynne Robinson (USA), Vladimir Sorokin (Russia) and Peter Stamm (Switzerland).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Giving it to the students

A deeply-thought article by Rachel Cusk in yesterday's Guardian Review, considering the value of teaching creative writing - not only for students, but also in relation to the creative well-being of teacher-writers and our culture in general.

With searing insight she identifies the impulse which sends students flocking to courses:
Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language; the student feels a need to assert a 'true' self through the language system, perhaps for the reason that this same system, so intrinsic to every personal and social network, has given rise to a 'false' self
and her article is steeped in a need to honour that. Market-driven publishers, she points out, do not always do so - publication is not always 'an assurance of quality', and this justifies the need for the kind of academic haven for writing which painting and music have always enjoyed:
academic institutions offer a shelter for literary values, and for those who wish to practise them
But what of the writer-teacher? With unerring precision, she puts her finger on a conundrum here:
the role of teacher, like that of parent, effectively ends what might be called creative unself-consciousness. The teacher/parent is under pressure to surrender, as the phrase goes, the inner child, to displace it into actual children, to become scheduled and reliable in order to leave the child irresponsible and free. For a writer, who may have fought every social compulsion to "grow up", whose inner world has been constellated around avoiding that surrender, this is an interesting predicament. Like the child, the creative writing student is posited as a centre of vulnerable creativity, needful of attention and authority. So the writer is giving to others the service he might customarily have given himself.
Some writers will be creatively diminished by this, she says, others made bigger, enriched, and in a perhaps politic gesture, she leaves it there, so it's a conundrum that remains unaddressed in the article. Yet I suspect it's one that's crucial to the whole subject: more than once have I given up teaching creative writing for the sake of my own writing self, and thus the sake of my own writing - exciting as I do find teaching, exhilarating and stimulating as the writing community of a university can be - and I can't remember the number of times other teacher writers have said to me - or announced at readings - that if they had my opportunity (a partner prepared to foot the bills) they'd do it too. Cusk rather brushes aside the need for money that leads published writers into teaching, listing it as only one reason alongside possible others. Last September I heard a complaint (in a workshop discussion at a two-day celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stand Magazine) that, while it is now essentially the academy that funds literary writers, writers - especially poets - seem reluctant to acknowledge their academic affiliations in their  biographies; on the contrary, they were taking the money and running. Other reasons that bring writers to the academy, says Cusk, are an interest in the subject and a desire for social participation, and (again in contrast to the Stand complaint) a desire (of which she rightly seems not to approve) for the professional profile that attachment to an institution confers, and for the way it can 'ward off the suspicion of amateurism and the insecurity of creative freedom'.

It occurs to me that every reason Cusk lists is essentially selfish: she doesn't include a love of teaching for its own sake, or a desire to bring other writers forth into the world. I'm pretty sure from this article, and her previous piece for the Guardian, that Rachel Cusk has these last qualities and is one of those brilliant and committed teachers of creative writing, but the overall view of creative writing teaching she provides is, in spite of her project of defence, less heartening.

Is it possible that those writers most able to divest themselves of their self-oriented writing identities for their students are the ones who find it most difficult to keep going at both?  And if it is, what does it mean for students, for the academy, and for literature? I'd call it more than 'interesting.'

Oh, and I should of course refer you to Marcel Theroux's pretty honest guest post on this blog for Faber Academy.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The way we change

Sometimes you get such searing insights into how the world of reading, and of selling books, has changed. At Christmas a relative I visited was weeding his bookshelves, and one of the books he offered round was this 1949 Pan paperback edition he bought from a secondhand-bookshop when he was a teenager. I took it for its classic cover design, but when I got it home I could hardly believe the 'blurb' (below) on the back of this populist publication, which in its structure, language and preoccupations reads more like a (stilted) essay, and appeals to assumed biobliographic and philanthropic interests in the readership rather than to a simple desire for spills and thrills. I particularly like the opening academically-inclined salvo:
THE SAINT VERSUS SCOTLAND YARD was originally entitled The Holy Terror, but its present title was used in the American editions and is therefore now adopted to obviate confusion.
and the assurance that the author is
himself [?] deeply interested in problems of psychology and philosophy
as well as the fact that
Enthusiasts for the Saint are reminded of the Saint Club ... which, besides giving members some amusement, supports the Arbor Youth Club in a heavily blitzed East End area of London
although we are told that Charteris has 'invented new ways of selling books,' and that last, with its carefully-placed contact details,  is probably an example.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Women and winning

So the 2013 Costa winners are announced: they are novelist Hilary Mantel, new writer Francesca Segal, poet Kathleen Jamie, graphic memoirists Mary and Bryan Talbot and children's author, Sally Gardner. While Telegraph writer Sameer Rahim cheers the fact that they are all female and wonders if this makes the all-women former Orange prize (which is still looking for a sponsor) redundant, it occurs to your blogger that the fact that he can find their all-female character so noticeable makes the answer no. He also notes that
three of the five Costa winners have male protagonists – evidence, if we needed it, that the authors are pursuing the stories that interest them and do not feel in the slightest inhibited their gender.
Hm. There are some odd implications here. Could there possibly be a hint that stories about men are more interesting than stories about women, even to women writers? That if women work with female protagonists they are somehow being inhibited by their gender? Even (it could follow) that female gender is essentially inhibiting (unless you escape it with a male protagonist?) Is it true that it still is? How many women writers, I wonder, create male protagonists because they know, consciously or unconsciously, that in our culture the male still stands for normal and the female is, well, female and therefore minority? In fact, you know, for this reason it's much simpler (as a woman), I find, to write with a male protagonist. Bring on a female protagonist and right away you're battling with complex issues and barriers both for your protagonist and her way of being in the world and indeed for your book, not least among the barriers being that it it is known that women readers are happy to read about men but male readers are less keen to read about women. (Even the remarkably sensitive men in my reading group still show this tendency to some extent.) Well, it's less hard than it was, I think, but I do reckon it would be really interesting to study the proportions of male and female protagonists in successful and/or prizewinning books by women.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

First Novel: a seventh novel by Nicholas Royle

How on earth do you review a novel written by someone you know and in which you encounter a character bearing your name and answering vaguely to your description but doing something you never did? This has been my experience on reading a proof copy of Nicholas Royle's new novel, First Novel, published tomorrow, 3rd January, and aptly described on the jacket as a 'fiendish piece of metafiction that blends reality and imagination to unsettling effect'.

Like his author, protagonist Paul Kinder is a lecturer in Creative Writing at a university in Manchester and lives here in Didsbury, the geographical details of which - along with some of the local inhabitants - are made carefully and vividly recognisable to those who know it in life. Unlike his author, who has several novels and many other publications to his name, Kinder once wrote (under a different name) a single novel that sank without trace and is now obsessed with first novels, collecting them from secondhand-book shops and (by default) teaching a course on First Novels. Meanwhile at night he drives around the dogging sites under the flightpaths of South Manchester, ostensibly researching a second novel, and remembers events in London, before his move to Manchester, which led to the breakdown of his marriage.

Interwoven with this narrative are others, in cleverly different prose styles, which are being written, it soon turns out, by his students. A first-person narrative written by MA Novel student Helen describes an encounter with a character who is clearly and unsettlingly Kinder in a house whose details so match Kinder's own it seems she must have been stalking him. Another, presented anonymously, spookily describes an incident Kinder saw two days before from the window of his home study: the harrassment and possible murder of a homeless man. More substantial, and the most obviously fictive, is the story of Ray, an RAF officer posted to Zanzibar in the 60s, and written by Grace, an undergraduate Kinder finds disturbing. But then First Novel is a book that turns the real and the fictive/fictional on end, and all of this culminates in a shocking connection we could never have guessed, and a dismantling of our assumptions about the reality of some important aspects of Paul Kinder's Didsbury activities.

Needless to say, this clever and thought-provoking novel more than touches on the issues with which this blog has often been concerned: the complex relationship between fiction and reality, the sometimes blurred edges between the two and the way that each can deeply affect the other. (Not to mention the issues around the teaching of Creative Writing.) Paul Kinder has difficulty distinguishing between right and left, on and off, and, as the novel progresses, in making choices of action, underlining the important point that not only is fiction contingent, poised on multiple narrative possibilities, reality is too - a point generally belied by conventional narrrative which fixes reality into single possibility. Everything here is under question, even metafiction, and so by implication First Novel's own metafictive status. Paul asks Helen of her own metafictive piece in which he and she appear: 
Would it seem bold taken out of context? If you weren't you and I wasn't me?
As for me: well, this is nothing like the time someone wrote a novel (unpublished) entirely about me without changing my writing name while changing everyone else's names - that really was deeply spooky.  The Elizabeth Baines in First Novel has only a walk-on part and, frankly, she's an imposter.

Though I've a damn good mind to write a riposte...