Wednesday, September 27, 2006

My Rochester, Your Jane

God, how I hate those (admittedly compulsive) TV adaptations of novels you long ago made your own! Reviewing BBC1's Jane Eyre Sam Wollaston writes in The Guardian that this Mr Rochester is 'fiery and brooding'. What?!! Compared with the Rochester of my memory he's a simpering coquette! And in my memory Rochester taunts Jane and makes her miserable, whereas in the same scene here he flirts and flatters and Jane is duly flattered in turn.

Time to read it again, I guess...

Monday, September 25, 2006

Novelists and wealth

Nice to see that a generous new prize, the EDS Dylan Thomas Award, has been established for new novelists, and only a Bitch would complain that a maximum age requirement of 30 is pandering to the Cult of Youth: presumably older new novelists are assumed to be less poor. Nick Laird, husband of the confessedly well-off Zadie Smith gives us a giggle, though. One of the six finalists interviewed last week in The Independent (the editor-in-chief of which was one of the judges), Laird tells us that the award would enable him to give up reviewing and concentrate on writing full time. He makes a living out of reviewing? Good god!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Novels versus Memoirs

The day after the Booker shortlist announcement, the Guardian ran an article on the disgraced American author James Frey. For those not familiar with the story, Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, an account of his life as a drug addict, became an all-time best-seller after being chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, but was later exposed by the Smoking Gun website as being semi-fictional, and a discredited Frey was forced to issue an apology (although the book is still selling well, apparently).

In the interview with Laura Barton, Frey makes this claim which tickled the Bitch's antennae: he says that initially he wrote the book as fiction, but that it was turned down by 17 publishers(including Doubleday who eventually published it), all of them asking 'How much of this is true?' and clearly in the market for non-fiction rather than fiction. Barton doesn't manage to ascertain at what stage the book began being touted as non-fiction - whether Frey made the decision himself before re-submitting, or whether the publishers were complicit in the transformation (Frey claims the latter, but his now ex-agent claims to have been duped by him).

Whatever the truth of this particular situation, it's extremely interesting that a fine writer, as Barton assures us he is (I haven't read the book), and a man who apparently longed to be a novelist, feels compelled to allow his work of autobiographical fiction to be launched on the world as a memoir, and exceedingly interesting that non-fiction is what sells now.

Laura Barton speculates that perhaps this latter 'is an indication that we are recoiling from a culture that has grown increasingly synthetic.' Yet, as I have argued before, it is good novels, with their particular universalising power, which are anything but emotionally synthetic, but have the real power of emotional truth. Perhaps the very reason that this book affected so many people so powerfully, was that it was indeed really a novel, with all the novelistic tropes and exaggerations and patterns which can so persuade the emotions.

Oprah claimed that, having identified so closely with the book, readers now felt betrayed. But could it possibly be that readers are in fact easier with the idea of a memoir because the experience in a memoir is safely identifiable as another's, and not our own as a good novel can make it? That the emotion evoked by a memoir is thus easier to handle, more safely sentimental?

And then we come to the Booker shortlist, only one of which I have read, Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. Now this is a book with a very moving story - that of a nine-year-old boy in Gadafy's Libya, with a dissident father under threat of arrest and torture and an unhappy mother driven to illegal drink - and, in view of the current asylum-seekers debate, a story which needs to be told. The thing which strikes me about it, though, is that, like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (which has an interestingly similar cover illustration), it takes the form of a memoir, and to my mind it suffers from that. The narrative is constantly interrupted and slowed down and deprived of dynamism by memories related in the past continuous tense (we used to ...) (or whatever that tense is called nowadays), and towards the end there is a memoir-like filling-in-the-gaps exposition which I found indeed distancing (although the book is then saved by a very moving end).

Interesting that The Observer, reporting on the shortlist on Sunday, felt compelled to point out the parallels between the events of the novel and those of Matar's life, as well as those between Edward St Aubyn's book and life. Why are we so keen nowadays to see an author's life in their books? Cult of personality, as I so often think? Or retreat into the safety of the otherness of memoir?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Bitch Unmasked

OK. So I switched to Blogger beta, little guessing that it would automatically combine both my blogs under one identity, my real one. Ha! The Bitch busted at a stroke.

Ah well, the anonymity was fun while it lasted (though some people had already guessed, and the clues were there), but there was a serious point. There is a long and honourable literary tradition of pseudonymity and anonymity, and for good reason. Although obviously it can be used for nefarious purposes - the personal attack on Scott Pack by The Observer's Browser comes to mind - it can also allow for clearer intellectual debate, a way of focussing properly on the issues.

Let me illustrate. A few weeks ago, one-time TV presenter Selina Scott was interviewed by The Guardian about her criticisms of contemporary television. One of Scott's main points was that older women are under-represented on today's TV. Scott, a willowy Diana lookalike (a fact which, as far as I remember, the article made a fair deal of) is now a woman of, shall we say, a certain age (but still a damn good-looker, actually!) And how did the interviewer respond to this statement of Scott's? By asking her if it were sour grapes! By focussing not on the issue - not inviting Scott to elaborate or prove her point or engaging in a debate about it - but on Scott herself, and in such a way as to invalidate and trivialise her point. And how did Scott feel forced to respond? By saying defensively that of course it wasn't sour grapes, she'd had plenty of opportunities - by which statement she was in great danger of disproving her point herself! The whole issue of women in television was thus muddied before being quickly dropped.

We're all familiar with the Victorian female novelists who adopted male pseudonyms in order to be read without prejudice, or indeed at all, and as I've indicated on my other blog, I've had my own experience of being silenced as a writer simply for being who people thought I was, or indeed for knowing the people I knew.

This blog was an attempt to interrogate that, and the anonymity was intended as an illustration of my point, the need sometimes in this age of obsession with personality to separate the personality from the message.

But you know who I am now. You can judge my comments through what you know about my life and own career. Ha! So hang me.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

This libraries problem...

Now that the newspapers have picked up Susan Hill's passionate and eloquent plea for libraries to stop turning away from books and becoming social centres instead, blog innocents are discussing the matter. 'What do you think?' asked the Partner of the Bitch on the way into the pub. 'She's right!' I cried as we ordered.
'But don't you think the libraries have a place as social centres - now that there's no longer the church or the village hall?'
The Bitch choked on her Pinot Grigio and considered going home to pack her bags.
'In fact,' went on The Partner, 'social centres are precisely what libraries are not becoming. The shift to computers is just as isolating as silent reading rooms: more so. Wouldn't it be better, if libraries want to expand, that they expanded into activities centred around books?'
He had a point. The Bitch abandoned her plans for packing.
'Though, you know,' he said, 'I have a hunch that for a lot of people libraries were never places for fiction. Many people went to the library mainly for facts.'
The Partner works with people's problems. 'Even so,' he went on, 'in the old days no one ever came to me and said that they had been to the library and read up about their condition. But every day I get people coming to me and saying that they've looked it up on the internet. So you can see why libraries might shift towards computers...'
'Also,' he said: 'this argument that libraries shouldn't abandon books because the expansion of the bookshops shows how much people love them and need them: well, couldn't that be an argument for the other side: people buy books now, so they borrow them less?'
Oh yeah. The Bitch's very own subject: commercialisation and commodification.
A bleakness descended over The Bitch. She decided to drown her sorrows and ended up pretty drunk.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An Extra Large Slice of Cheer

Something today to sweeten a bitch's whole outlook on the world:

In a comment on my post 'Big Slices of the Literary Tart' Susan Hill alerts us to that fact that 1,200 copies have now been sold of the first novel by Helen Slavin, The Extra Large Medium, recently published by Susan's press, Long Barn Books - when apparently 400 copies is normal for a first novel. On Monday I went out to buy it, and found it on a 3 for 2 offer in Waterstone's, which as far as I know is no mean feat for a small publisher. Yesterday I sat down to read it. I could not put it down. The dishes went unwashed, the writing I'm supposed to be doing went unwritten. I did not stop until I had finished, and when I looked up my eyes could no longer focus, literally, on the real world. This is some sassy book, written in a spare, witty and streetwise style, packed with word play, yet managing to tackle the serious issue of the nature of loss with the kind of interiority I value most in novels.

A small press, but an extra large, not medium achievement...

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ideas as commodities

This business of nicked ideas keeps buzzing round my head and won't be swatted away.

It's absolutely true that - as Jessica, Alan Kellogg and Susan Hill point out, and as the recent Dan Brown trial showed - there's no copyright on ideas, nor should there be. And that many great writers are great on the strength of borrowed ideas, and, as Alan says, Shakespeare is the biggest nicker of them all. Modern copyright only applies to text (in the broadest sense, including all the art forms), which is why, as Jessica, says, so many new writers rush around putting sealed envelopes in their bank safe deposits.

It all seems so simple. It's not. When does an idea become text? As Susan and Alan say, once it gets fleshed out with characters etc and becomes imbued with an author's voice. But according to the law, this has to be written down, and more fool you if you spend an evening in the bar with a famour writer telling him your plot. And what about what people can do with a text? That treatment you wrote, the storyline of which was cleverly enough distorted that lawyers might argue for days: the young boy turned into a young girl, the three separate but linking story strands brilliantly teased to make three separate episodes of a drama series (and thus losing the subtleties)? You might think that this makes the original treatment unrecognisable, and that therefore it doesn't matter, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the TV company wouldn't think so. A storyline about x? Sorry, it's been done... TV companies do not take the line that it's not the idea that matters but what you do with it, the way you write it. They are not interested in writing but in ideas as commodities.

This is what's at the root of the problem: the commodification of ideas and art. That offending clause I mentioned previously is based on the notion that TV companies can buy ideas off you, and not only ideas but ownership of what you've written, and they often do, sometimes replacing the writer halfway through the development process - another thing the standard contract allows for (and which my contract allowed for). The concept of copyright drops by the wayside in this scenario. In fact, it's the big boys who benefit from copyright law (how successful would I have been, rushing round and waving my little safe deposit box in the face of that big powerful organisation with Miss Ice-Cool TV Executive folding her arms at the door?). Which is why traditional copyright is now being challenged by the Creative Commons initiative, based as I understand it on the notion of making artists' work more freely available for acknowledged borrowing, and on a democratic melting pot of creativity in which one artist's work can enrich and generate that of another - but in which the operative words are acknowledged and democratic.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Bitch is a Dunce

Today The Bitch goes down on bended knee to beg forgiveness from all those people who have left witty and thoughtful comments on this blog which have only now appeared...

Pray give me leave to tell you a tale of a Blogger-Boggled Bitch.

Once upon a time a Bitch was blogging happily away, her comment settings fixed at the default mode they came with - Registered Users only, Comment Moderation unticked - and with email notification ticked, comments appearing on her posts (and in her email box) now and then. Then one day (this week) Jessica commented on Scott's Pack's blog that she had wanted to leave a comment on The Bitch's blog, but hadn't wanted the hassle of registering. Quickly, The Bitch adjusted her comments settings to allow anyone to comment, and generously Jessica tried again and The Bitch was rewarded by hearing what she had to say.

Next, The Bitch gets a gentle hint from Alan Kellogg: he presumes she's checking comment moderation. Yikes! thinks The Bitch, completely misunderstanding and thinking he means tick when he says check and is warning her against junk and offensive posts now that anyone can comment, and she dashes to the settings page and ticks 'Comment Moderation'. Some hours later she opens the Comment Moderation menu, and lo and behold, what does she find but a long list of comments waiting for moderation, some of them dating way back, one person even wondering why the comment she posted previously hadn't appeared! (And since The Bitch was away from her broadband and using a mobile connect card and paying for every kilobite downloaded, and every one of those beeps was audibly chipping at her meagre bank balance, she went hot, started a migraine, and published the lot without loading them up, so that junk and offensive stuff got published anyway!)

The Bitch is still scratching her word-filled but technologically-deficient little head about this, and maybe someday some kind person of a more worldly-wise character will take her by the hand, sit her down and explain, but in the meantime, folks, a thousand apologies and thanks for all your insight and wit.