Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pelicans to fly back

I find it exciting that Penguin are to bring back their non-fiction imprint, Pelican. How can they have gone, cheap books to feed the intellectual hunger of the masses? What does it mean that they did? And what does it mean that, as reported by Paul Laity in the Guardian, some of the early Pelicans sold 250 million copies in total, print runs of 50,000 being standard, whereas 'these days a publisher would be delighted if such a book made it up to 2,000 copies'? That by the end of the eighties, when Pelicans disappeared, we had become a culture hooked on entertainment rather than intellectual inquiry, or that, with more people going to university and a proliferation of media, we had other ways of getting our intellectual fulfilment? Penguin believes there's still that hunger and still a need to fulfil it with cheap books. I can vouch for that last. I had been to university, and I had even studied philosophy, but I'll never forget the night I was babysitting and learned for the first time about Hegelian dialectic (and was absolutely hooked), from a Pelican which has long gone now - I suspect one of the kids has gone off with it.

Those above are the Pelicans we have left. Notice we have two copies of the Uses of Literacy; we usually give away books we've doubled up on, but neither of us will part with our copy. That copy of mine with the Lowry on the front is forever linked in my mind with the view from the desk where I wrote my Education Diploma dissertation - luminous green leaves coming out in the very high trees, and two wood pigeons trying to make a nest which kept dropping to bits on the ground - and with the feeling the book had left me with: that my whole sense of the world had been adjusted and confirmed, and that everything at last made sense.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Novels about writing.

It's interesting that, as John Dugdale says in today's Guardian Saturday Review, 'literature about literature' is booming. It's not only the novels openly depicting the great writers, of which there has been a spate lately, he says, but fictions depicting more generally the world of writing and writers, such as Hanif Kureishi's recent The Last Word and a forthcoming novel by that wonderful writer Edward St Aubyn about the world of literary prizes. Last year, of course, Nicholas Royle published his much admired novel about the world of University Creative Writing (in which yours truly - or rather an approximation of yours truly - makes a couple of cameo appearances).

I think it's no surprise, and I've never understood the prejudice against it. 'Oh God, novels about writing!' a literary agent once commented to me with a groan - though I don't think he was expressing a personal prejudice, rather a general industry perception at the time of the unsaleability of such books. It was a wrong perception, I think, and one based in a view of writers and the public as Us and Them.

I don't think for a moment the public sees it like that. I remember as a child from an ordinary background avidly reading novels with an eye on the notion of becoming a novelist myself: I didn't feel the least different from the novelist I was reading and his or her world: the greatness of the writing drew me right into his or her psyche, and I identified, not just with the characters, but with the writer, and any novel about writing would have really pressed my button. And how many people, ordinary people, have you heard casually mentioning they could write a novel/wouldn't mind writing a novel one day? Plenty have said it to me: it's usually the first thing they say after they learn I'm a writer - milkmen, shopkeepers, the lot. And what about the plethora of Creative Writing students? Most of the casual commenters won't bother, and aren't even saying it seriously, but it shows that the whole idea of novel-writing is interesting to them and that they certainly haven't written it off as something that excludes them. Apart from that, though, story-telling is hard-wired in us; we're all story-tellers and we all tell stories all the time - to entertain, to promote or save ourselves or others etc etc, in our day-to-day lives. And in turn we are affected by the story-telling of others - the images they have of us, the truths and lies they tell. So many dramas - soaps that people are entirely hooked on - are subtly based on the notion of story-telling as the engine of life, the effects that people can have on each other's lives by the stories they tell about others and themselves. Who could not be interested in that? (And I have to say it's a major theme for me in my writing.) Novel-writing is the dramatic extension of that (and after all, a major storyline of Neighbours once was a character - a very ordinary girl - becoming a novelist): it's the stories we tell set in stone (or paper or Kindle), and how much more dynamic can be the effect of that? Which is why the window cleaner tells me he wants to write a novel. Novels unpicking the effects of published and unpublished stories, as Royle's so cleverly does, can only therefore be interesting to all.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Spectacle versus words: it's not just Jamaica Inn

It's always fun to criticise things wittily on Twitter, and I can't deny that I enjoyed the tweeting about BBC1's dramatisation of Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, which received around 800 complaints for poor sound quality, viewers saying that the dialogue was inaudible and they simply couldn't tell what was supposed to be going on. I took part myself, but all along my heart was sinking for everyone involved in the production. Yesterday's Guardian article by Hannah Ellis-Peterson reveals that there is now tension at the BBC, with the various departments hugely upset and trying to fend off blame. Script-writer Emma Frost (who was first reported as being upset that her dialogue - greatly praised by the Du Maurier estate - had been mangled) was pleading for sympathy for sound operator Matt Gill who she said 'is crying' (I must say I was almost crying too when I thought of him); those who had seen previews reported having no problem with the sound and suggested that the glitch came in transmission, but those responsible for transmission claim it's an 'artistic issue', with actors, dialogue coach, and (by extension) director being held variously to blame.

Television drama production is a highly collaborative project, and it seems to me that it's a waste of time, and unfair, to try blaming one party, and my sense is that this fiasco is the culmination of a trend in film drama production that's been building for some time, and a salutary awakening. In recent years I've found myself missing dialogue in the cinema, and I've truly wondered if my hearing was going - especially as those around me seemed quite happy even while sweet packets were rattling all around - to the extent that I've had my hearing tested, only to have it found perfect. When I wondered about it to a companion he said to me: 'But no one else wants to hear all the words like you do.'


This is the crux. Television and film drama, such wonderful media for picture-making, have become central to a cultural tendency to privilege image - and indeed spectacle - over words, and thus in effect, as this particular drama shows, over meaning and ideas. The script is no longer of prime importance. It's been a long while now since the Writers' Guild lost its battle for script writers to be named in TV listings (who cares about the writer? Who cares about the words? Who cares about anything but a 'high concept' to sell, and pretty well-known actors to look at, and some nice scenes to watch?). Jamaica Inn certainly looked beautiful, and interesting, and gothically stark etc. But it wasn't just the inaudibility of the words that suffered from the tendency to make this the prime priority. Why did Mary Yellan stomp the cold rainy moors in a tiny velvet bolero jacket more suited to ladies in town? Because it looked so fetching, of course. Why did these country people keep letting themselves get so wet in the rain (all country people without central heating or mod cons know it can lead to an early death), even standing snogging in the downpour when there was shelter nearby they could have run to? Because running water looks so beautiful on film, of course, as Blade Runner so iconically showed. Why did we keep getting time-release shots of the clouds when much time didn't really seem to have gone by? Well, you know the answer...  And all those camera shots of the exceedingly comely Mary Yellan actor Jessica Brown Findlay, and that striking picture of the inn from afar when she was inside it, confused the viewpoint - the novel, and the story, are about the mystery as seen from Mary Yellan's viewpoint - and I believe thus contributed to the sense of not knowing what was going on.

It's ironic therefore that someone from the BBC hauled up to comment on the news programme pleaded an over-insistence on authenticity, in the process blaming the actors. Actors like to get involved in the parts and be authentic, he claimed, appearing to refer to both the dialect and the inarticulacy of the characters. But this is to misunderstand the job of the actor and the processes involved, and seriously to short-change the professionalism of those involved here. Acting is supremely an art of communication. The job of an actor is to look authentic while in fact being highly inauthentic. The prime focus of an actor's interest is not how he or she feels while playing a part (though of course they have to feel) but how he or she comes across to the audience, and that's what the director is there to guide them about. One of the clearer voices in Jamaica Inn was Brown Findlay's but there was a moment when she had me completely stumped. 'My uncle is a ragger,' she seemed to me to say, and I simply couldn't concentrate for the next few minutes for wondering what on earth she meant (I hadn't read the book). Now it may be that in the Launceston dialect of the era 'wrecker' would sound like 'ragger' (perhaps it still does), in which case Brown Findlay had indeed done a wonderful job of authenticity just there, but authenticity is not exactly useful if it confuses a modern metropolitan audience. The collaborative job of the production team is to make things communicable while authentic-seeming enough not to spoil the suspension of disbelief. This was just one of those moments where that collaborative grip slipped. It's the kind of thing that happens all the time in rehearsals and shooting, and which requires time (and thus money) to sort out. And it's my hunch that the problem here is where the resources are being directed: towards the creation of spectacle rather than those quieter - but all-important - aspects of drama, the words and the meaning.

And yet. People were so up in arms. Maybe we're not so unattached to words and meaning, after all...

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What makes a novelist?

I have wondered on this blog what makes some people who can write wonderful prose never bother trying to be writers. (I think of the school students I taught whom I naively thought were destined for literary greatness but who never wrote once they left school; I think of adults I've taught who were simply happy to write small pieces privately but had no interest in writing anything ambitious or in being published - I had a hard time believing them, really.)

It's a question that Guardian reviewer Lee Robson takes David Lodge to task for not asking in Lodge's newly published collection of essays Lives in Writing. Robson answers it himself with reference to the critic Frank Kermode's discussion (in his memoir) of 'what kind of person makes a good novelist'. Kermode himself, a 'champion defeatist', was discouraged from trying to be a novelist by the suggestion that he hadn't had enough real-life experience. He came to the conclusion that people who made good novelists, such as William Golding and Iris Murdoch, were 'people very unlike him'. They had a 'capacity' that he lacked, to write convincingly about things they hadn't actually experienced.

Robson however points out that both Golding and Murdoch, whose early novels were rejected, had to develop that ability (that they too at one point lacked it), and comes to the conclusion that the novelist is rather
'...not someone who can [just] mix autobiography and invention, as Lodge ... suggests, but someone whose sensibility contains a balance of the intuitive and the pragmatic, the introvert and the extrovert, the better to create fiction that is neither too personal nor too [mired in technical facts].'
Which seems about right, if you add in the need for determination and maybe obsession - and perhaps especially in the current commercial literary climate.

Lodge, it seems, is complaining about the kind of reductive biographical readings of fiction about which I've frequently complained here, those that reduce fiction to mere biography or indeed 'disregard' or devalue it if it doesn't fit known biographical facts about the author. However, Robson in turn complains that this 'blinds him to more desirable forms of biographical insight into the writing - and non-writing - of novels', and points to the life experiences that do indeed make people novelists or non-writers, such as Frank Kermode's unhappy childhood that left him with 'a lifelong sense of himself as a failure', the childhood nurturing that, conversely, gave Philip Roth his supreme literary confidence, and the family habits that fed Muriel Spark's subversive wit.

I haven't read Lodge's book, but it seems to me harsh to chastise him for not taking on a different project from the one in which he is engaged - Lodge is apparently concerned with our reading of texts, whereas Robson's interest here is essentially biographical and sociological - but I find Robson's point interesting and astute, nevertheless.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rules for writers that shouldn't be rules

I've been meaning for ages to post on this (it's been a preoccupation of the WIP that's been keeping me away from this blog), but now I have the time at last I find that someone has already done it so brilliantly I don't need to. 

The title of the article, 'The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (And Probably Already Have)' is a bit misleading, as its author Susan Defreitas makes clear that the rules she examines, such as Show Don't Tell, Don't Use Adverbs etc do have their place, which is with beginner writers making traditional beginner mistakes such as verbosity, over-explaining, failure to realise the texture of a scene, lack of grounding in reality etc (and also as general notions to go on keeping in mind to avoid such mistakes thereafter). She shows, however (with considerable wit) that such advice taken to extremes can turn writing leaden and unremarkable, and, with quotes from Salman Rushdie and Nabakov, that writers with skill may ignore it with equanimity. 'Language is your Swiss army knife, and you can’t do shit like this with just the knife and the corkscrew.' I particularly like her words on cutting:
...beginning writers tend to be verbose. We can’t tell the difference between an essential detail and an inessential one. We’re like golden retrievers romping through Storyland, and pretty much every damn thing we see is a squirrel. 
But push this advice too far, and again, you’ll get stuck writing mediocre fiction. Because sometimes the things that don’t work are actually important. They don’t work not because they’re the wrong things, but because they’re the hard, ambitious, at-the-very-edge-of-what-you-even-know-how-to-say-things, and the only way to land them is to dig deeper, work harder, and sometimes even (god help you) add rather than cut.
There's an underlying implication in the article that these rules are indeed being taken too seriously and too widely, and it's a sense of this that made me want to blog about it too. I do come across a lot of writing that seems in thrall to 'show don't tell' and in dire fear of making any statements about feelings or motives, and is either weighed down with over-elaborate, clogged and seemingly mechanical external detail, or simply too stark, either way leaving us without a sense of the emotion, or, as Defreitas says, 'the thought processes giving rise to that emotion.'

Do read her article.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

It's what you expect and how you read

Here's our reading group discussion of Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. It's perhaps an interesting insight into the difficulties of innovative fiction. It's a book based on hindsight rather than 'what-happens-next' plot (what happens is given from the outset), with a resulting non-linear structure and an innovative prose style. Opinions in our group were strongly divided, with most people finding the book stunning, but others left cold and unengaged and one even seriously irritated. Most strikingly and interestingly, the two camps had wildly differing impressions of the pace of the book, with those who were positive (and accepting of the premise) finding it urgent and emotionally involving, while those who were negative (and who I suspect preferred to read for plot) found it insufficiently urgent, static and repetitive.