Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Those slippery ideas...

Jessica Ruston at the enjoyable blog The Book Bar feels that writers are often over-concerned about protecting their ideas: there are bound to be zeitgeist ideas out there, and if another writer is first to write the one you had in mind, well you just pick yourself up and turn to another one...

Hm, says The Bitch, gnashing her teeth at the memory of what happened to her.

The Bitch thought the same as Jessica the time a freelance producer went down to London with a few of her ideas, all of which were duly rejected, only for one of them to appear as a well-received drama series a year later. You hear of it happening all the time, after all.

But she got a bit more cynical when, not so long ago, she went in for one of these New Writing Schemes run by a major television company and funded by the local arts body. She should have smelled a rat right at the start, of course - why would a major TV company need puny arts board funding to run such a scheme, which consisted of a single day of workshops with fees, presumably, to three well-known TV writers, a fee of £500 each to the fifteen or so participants to write a detailed treatment, and a big plate of sandwiches? Could it possibly just be to give the whole thing a veneer of worthy respectability? The project was supposed to be an investment for the company, after all: the stated aim was to look for new writers.

Ha. Well, I did smell a rat when I saw the contract. There was the clause which is apparently standard nowadays, based on Jessica's idea of a big Floating Tank of Ideas, stating that there was no come-back if my idea wasn't taken on but was later used by the company. But we were being asked to write detailed treatments, and were hardly being paid professional rates to do so... Was this really a cynical ideas-trawling exercise, and this time they were getting them on the cheap?

Well, true to form, The Bitch kicked up and tried to negotiate the contract, but she'd met her true match in the disgustingly young but steely woman running the show, who told her in no uncertain terms that the contract wasn't negotiable (did that woman own a dictionary?), that The Bitch had behaved pretty badly and joined the scheme in bad faith, and The Bitch was forthwith kicked off the scheme - without her £500.

Too late, like a fool she had already written her detailed treatment. And the real rat turned out to be not the company but a writer (as Jessica indicates): six months later the famous writer who read her treatment replicated in his drama series not only her storyline and theme but even the camera shots with which, in the workshop, he had been so taken. Well, maybe he did it subconsciously, and what's a Bitch to do, but take it as a compliment...

But you still wonder about the TV company. The writers on this scheme had all been chosen via stiff competition, all were of a professional standard and offered good ideas, and a series of six dramas was promised as an outcome. In the event, no series materialised. Only one of those ideas was produced under the name of a writer in that workshop, as a lone drama which went out about midnight when no one would be watching... perhaps to fulfill the conditions of the arts board grant?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Some joke, surely...

Others have commented on the contempt for blogs in the Observer books pages, but surely it's just a joke...

This week the Observer's 'Browser' pours vitriol over Scott Pack, former chief buyer for Waterstone's and now publisher with the online Friday Project, for starting his blog Me and My Big Mouth. Presumably someone sensible at the Friday Project will tell Mr Pack that it's his job to find interesting/amusing/informative new authors and not offend people with his tedious comments, says the Browser offensively (and under the tediously offensive title That's codswallop, Scott.) Impossible to believe that the Browser did not know that this would send us winging straight off to Scott's site to check this out and find not tedious comments but a chatty, personal, ironic and surprisingly self-deprecating tone, interesting insider's insights and among other things an informative and engaging post on literary magazines (which get short shrift in pages like the Observer). And in the process of course we are introduced to the Friday Project, so as Commercial Director, Pack is hardly failing to do his job...

And Pack alerted me to another site, The Age of Uncertainty, which I found I loved! Thanks, Browser!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Newspapers, doncha just love em?

On Monday The Times runs a piece in its My Edinburgh column, apparently by Rose Heiney, 'actress and (in theory) novelist', who with two others is performing the show, Bite Me. Chattily she takes us through her accommodation experiences and her prior show nerves, and The Bitch mildly enjoys her somewhat transparent self-deprecating style. Until she hits this paragraph:
My parents [the Times columnist Libby Purves and Paul Heiney] are in broadcasting. Does that make things any easier? Only in the sense that it gives you a little comfort in leading a freelance life.
The Bitch drops the paper. Is she kidding? Only in the sense that it gets you a two-thirds-page column with a colour photo (all that free publicity) in Mummy's paper!

And those brackets have alerted The Bitch to what she should have realised all along: that this is one of those dishonest supposedly first-person accounts a journalist has concocted out of an interview (in this case Dominic Maxwell). The Bitch now imagines the scenario:

Dominic (down phone): Rose, both your parents are in broadcasting. Does that make things any easier?

Rose (thinking, Oh god he would come up with that one! Now no one will think I have any real talent! Defensively, with heart sinking and imagining the reaction of readers like The Bitch): Only in the sense that it gives you a little comfort in leading a freelance life.

You can imagine the conversation which led to this airily smug little paragraph, which even while she understood what was going on made The Bitch sneer:

During the day I'm actually writing a novel... I've got an agent for it and we're hoping to sell it at the start of September.

It gets worse, though, much worse:

It's a difficult situation for me and my parents at the moment [Heiney's brother Nick committed suicide in June after suffering from depression for years] but I don't mind talking about it, it's such an elephant in the room. I didn't consider cancelling the show.

At which point The Bitch was no longer sneering at Rose Heiney's apparent self-serving glibness but ready to bop Dominic Maxwell on the nose.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Loss of Marbles

Last week The Telegraph, no less, treated us to a juicy instance of literary ageism.

Reporting on the Booker long list, Arts correspondent Nigel Reynolds tells us: ...the most remarkable is Nadine Gordimer.

And why is she so remarkable? Is it because, as he says, her long life has been devoted to writing about the moral and psychological traumas of her native South Africa? Apparently not. The most remarkable thing, it seems, is the fact that, at 82, she is almost certainly the oldest writer ever to make it into the count-off for the prize.

Perhaps, one thinks, he means merely that this is remarkable in view of the ageism rife in the contemporary literary world. But no: it would seem he is parroting the sentiment he quotes later, expressed by 'a Booker insider': Obviously it's remarkable that Nadine Gordimer is on the list at 82, and that he's absorbing without question the implication that writers at such an age should have lost their marbles, rather than have accumulated the kind of wisdom we ought to envy.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Sophistry and Youth

Lionel Shriver gave us a laugh in last Friday's Guardian, and I'm still laughing.

She's fed up of looking so young for her age, she says (alongside a pic of herself I'd already seen in a women's mag makeover), and before we all start getting resentful, she says, well, there's a big disadvantage: people think you're less experienced and stupider than you are.

That'll be the people her own age (49), then - or even younger, but looking their age and still old enough to feel contempt for youth.

Hang on a sec, though. Aren't they the people who've all been pensioned off (or rather shrugged off without pensions) in this Blairite world of 'modernisation' and The Next New Thing, and a contempt for the past or its lessons and an outright horror of anyone associated with it, ie anyone over 40?

Well, she's not actually that fed up about it, she admits: she's rather dreading starting to crumble like everyone else, she's vain really, and, look, dead honest about it.

Yeah, right.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Which Reality?

It has struck me before, and it strikes me now, that Germaine Greer doesn't understand the nature of novels, Professor of Literature though she may be (and I think I'm right that I once read her as saying she doesn't like novels much, which fits.)

In Saturday's Guardian she made her promised riposte to last week's criticisms of her stance over the Brick Lane furore.

"Perhaps [Natasha] Walter doesn't understand how disturbing it is to have
gobbets of your life sampled, digested and dished back up to you in recognisable form."

She goes on to tell us how others have represented her in books, in particular her ex-husband and also David Plante in Difficult Women, and how freaked out she felt. Well, I read the David Plante book, and a specious bit of nastiness it was too, but for God's sake, Germaine, it wasn't a novel! She seems to be making no distinction on this level between this book and the one by her ex-husband, which was indeed a novel, and interestingly, it seems she was far more upset by the latter (even given the fact that, as she implies, she was young then and not yet hardened.)

Well, The Bitch too has had a novel written about her, and she too knows how it feels, and therefore, like Greer, how certain people in Brick Lane might feel. God, what a nitwit that woman in that novel was! And what a sly, self-seeking cow, the way she did the dirty on the wonderful, sensitive, generous yet tortured hero (my ex's vision of himself). God, did I feel defiled, picked over, used, abused, you name it - and the effects were physical, I really did feel voo-dooed and possessed, my identity stolen, I was a trembling wreck and stopped eating for weeks.

But what did The Bitch do about it in the end? She wrote her own novel about the whole episode - ha! Wrote it like it was - yeah! - with a tough and feisty heroine (me) and a right bastard of a manipulative anti-hero. And The Bitch's novel got published - ha!- which the ex's didn't.

How's that for revenge?

Thing is, not long after publication, The Bitch and the partner she had now went into a bar and saw a mutual friend. We walked over, and he stood, looking rather stiff. 'Ive just read your novel,' he told me, and then turned to my partner, his fist clenching. 'You bastard!' he told him.
'It's not us!' we cried, laughing. But he didn't smile, and he was clearly never afterwards convinced.

See? Once real people and real places and real events get forged in the fire of fiction, you can't tell what's left of the reality, it simply doesn't relate to 'reality' in the way Greer, and the Muslim protestors, assume. 'Writers should beware of hanging the carcass of their imaginations around the necks of real people,' she says, but it ain't like that, novels can't be divided up into the reality bits and the imagination bits, it's just one big meld, and the only real 'reality' of a novel is the author's psyche, and if it's a good or great novel it will have the reality of emotional truth.

Greer seems to acknowledge this to some extent when she asks, 'Why did Monica Ali's book have to be called Brick Lane?' seeming to imply that she should have given it some other, fictional name. But the Brick Lane of the novel is the Brick Lane of a novelist's mind and claiming to be nothing else, and the trouble only comes when people fail to read it in this way.

And there is a regrettable tendency nowadays to read novels for fact. Quite apart from the cult of the Author as Personality and the consequent hunger to see connections between authors' books and their lives, there is a tendency to value those novels which provide 'information' and lists. Zadie Smith in a recent literary dispute with, I think, the critic James Wood, insisted that 'there is a beauty in information for its own sake [in novels]' - or words to that effect, and claimed it was something which only her generation appreciates. Grow up, Zadie: the beauty of information in novels depends on what you do with it, and the emotional truth you uncover in the process.

The reason Greer and the protestors and I and my ex (I heard he had a breakdown after my novel was published) were all so freaked is this: novels are not fact or 'information', but they are more powerful than either because they deal in emotional reality. My ex's novel told not the truth about me but the truth about what he wanted to do to me emotionally as our relationship was deteriorating, and my novel did the same in turn. I knew even as I was writing mine that I was doing him an injustice, but I knew too that the couple I was conjuring were not us but a symbol of my notion of a certain state of affairs between men and women. One has only to compare the two books to understand how little fiction is about factual reality, however much it may seem to be (and however even the author or his or her lovers and friends think it is), and how beside the point it is therefore to blame a novelist for getting the facts wrong.

If everyone understood this, then there wouldn't be people seeing Brick Lane as so dangerous or discrediting. While you can understand the Muslim protestors making this category error, it is a great shame that Germaine Greer, who ought to know better, is endorsing them.

People need to take a leaf from the book of The Bitch's stylish and gracious and sporting mother: she blithely refuses to recognise that any of the depictions of mothers in my work are her (even when I think I've skewered her with cruel accuracy).

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Snoozing while Nothing Much Happens

So the protest came to nothing much, according to the Guardian - just '60 or 70 older men' (vexed about leeches, perhaps) - and no book was burnt, and Salman Rushdie, having rolled his sleeves up, now declares that the whole thing was blown out of proportion by the media. Natasha Walter argues that the view of the campaigners did not represent the views of the larger Brick Lane Bengali community, and makes the most important point that the media need to take more care as to whom they choose as spokespersons for diverse and varied communities. A 'damp squib' is how Rushdie describes yesterday's protest, but even damp squibs have been lit by someone...