Monday, October 30, 2006

To Hell With It

Pity The Bitch: worn out after a big writing project, and her RSI so bad on Friday evening that SHE COULDN'T LIFT A GLASS OF WINE!!!! Well, that was it. Envy The Bitch: she's off to the sun for a week to nurture her arm and hone her bitching skills while drinking cava through a straw...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Taking Comfort by Roger Morris

Macmillan New Writing. Cause of well documented controversy. No advances for writers, but, according to the website, books by talented new writers who 'otherwise might fail to get into print'.
A potentially dangerous statement to make, this last, you might think, but now they've made it, let's examine it via the one the Bitch has now read, Roger Morris's Taking Comfort.

Here's the blurb through which you approach the book:
It's Rob's first day in his new job. On the way into work, he sees a student throw herself under a tube train. Acting on an impulse, he picks up a file she dropped as she jumped. Over the next few days, he's witness to other disturbing events, some more serious than others. From each one he takes a 'souvenir'. As his behaviour becomes increasingly obsessive, he crosses the line between witnessing disasters and seeking them out, and events begin to spiral out of control.
Hm. Sounds a bit like a thriller and not, therefore, quite The Bitch's cup of tea, a very different sort of thing from the brilliant psychological story by the same author, The Symptoms of his Madness Were as Follows which she once published in metropolitan, her literary magazine. Though that, too, was about a man with an obsession... So let's give it a go.

The bookseller holds it up (The Bitch has had to order it) and the dustcover confirms the impression: those dun greys, those fine lines like the crosshairs of a gun's sighting, that view of the tube station similarly circled, the blood-red lights of the train intimating violence and death, that minimalist collage of what seem like mystery/thriller clues: the knife, so iconically thrillerish, pointing towards that unsettling scene, but then the stranger teabag with its cosier Agatha-Christie-type connotations. The typeface: angular and sans serif mainly, though curiously not entirely, but on the whole at odds with its message 'Taking Comfort' - though, The Bitch thinks, carrying home the black shiny Waterstone's bag, comfort is perhaps what people read thrillers for: the comfort of the familiar mode, the comfort of violence packaged and dealt with and formulated - precisely the things which make her impatient with the genre.

She gets home. She sits down. She opens the book up, and she knows straight away that this is something else. Nothing formulaic at all, but something original and exciting; it's a book which deals, yes, with the violence and the existential fear which imbue every thriller, but its real task is to question our contemporary psychological reality, and the way it does this is by attention to LANGUAGE.
Language is where this book is at. Rob, the book's main character, (like Morris himself) works in marketing. He weighs words, he knows the weight of words, and we learn to weigh them with him as the book plugs us directly into his psyche. The novel begins as Rob makes his way to his new marketing job carrying his new briefcase, a Di Beradino classic, its marketing copy running in his head:

Robust stitching and lined with a cotton material Flapover conceals triple sectioned interior pus pockets on front Size 44 x 33 x 14cm

He is a marketing man. He can appreciate the abrupt punctuation-free poetry of that copy.

He is a marketing man. A phrase which recurs, a litany inside Rob's head, like other phrases, and phrases in the heads of other characters, replicating the psychology by which we maintain our tenuous hold on reality, and our sense of safety. The Bitch appreciates the poetry of this prose.

Furthermore, the novel is concerned with the way in which, in our commercial yet post 9/11 world we assuage our existential dread with objects:
In his hand, you have to imagine how it feels, the Di Beradino classic briefcase... The whole focus of his being is in the grip of his hand around that hard leather handle, in the way the seam stubs into the underbellies of his fingers, in the swing of the handle in its sold brass satin finished fittings. In the sense he has of its contents and how they influence the swing and how that swing uplifts him.
This is how we 'take comfort', how all of the novel's characters take comfort, pinning their fears and desires on certain objects - Rob's wife Julia on her particular brand of cooking knife, the Sabatier Au Carbone 8 inch Carbon Steel Chef's Knife (the knife on the dustcover), the receptionist on her Twirl mug - their psyches/identities and the objects becoming intertwined. And the form of the book replicates this perfectly, each short chapter being named for a branded object, and each moving forward the action through a character's relationship with that object.

It is Rob's intimate understanding of all this, as a marketing man, which sets him on the obsessive object-collecting course which will lead towards terror...

And as the Bitch is reading, she becomes aware of her own implication in these things. She remembers how she felt about the shiny black Waterstone's bag as she brought the book home. How she loves those bags, their glossiness, the depth of their blackness, the way they slip on the surface of the books inside them, and the freight of memory they carry, all those author readings when Robert Topping was at Manchester Waterstone's...

And the hardback book now in her hand. Taking Comfort. There's a lovely weight to it, solid without being heavy, it kind of anchors comfortably in her hand. And the cover, a matt ground with the picture and objects picked out in a shiny texture, and the dustcover very nice substantial paper, weighted in place around the contours of the book, with a comforting silky feel to the touch. The flyleaf a classy heavy paper in navy. In fact, the book is beautifully bound, just like books used to be, and the creamy paper is more than satisfying to turn and of a texture which makes the print easy to read. And there's a dark-blue ribbon marker which The Bitch can't help sometimes handling, and at its end a ridge of glue to stop it unravelling, a little nub which is somehow satisfying to rub across the cushion of your thumb. As an object this book is a beautiful thing, freighted, weighted, with this meaning: that this novel has been published with thought and care - is it too much to say even with love? - by people who understand it and want to do it justice, and have thought about how to carry its meanings in a concrete dimension.

And then The Bitch begins to notice imperfections which, freighted with this meaning, are touching, almost moving: on page 23 of her copy a small portion of the print is smudged, which makes her think of the guys at the printer's working on this book - all the work that has gone into this book! - and the care which has meant that there are no other smudges; and then she comes upon a pair of pages which have creased, ever so slightly, in the folding process, and the even fainter imprints of those creases on the adjoining pages, and she thinks of the people working those folding machines, and of the fact that however mechanised the printing process nowadays, it's still such a searingly human endeavour...

Yet none of this distracts her from the words of the novel; strangely, but not so strangely, the novel and these thoughts enhance each other. And as she reads compulsively on - this is a book The Bitch can't put down - and the events, as the blurb promised, spiral, she finds that she is fingering the final pages, and maybe she wouldn't have noticed she was doing it but for the fact that she finds these pages won't open at the bottom, they're not properly cut. And it even occurs to The Bitch that this could be a deliberate marketing ploy, but whether or not it is, it adds to her sense of excitement, as well as flooding her with thoughts of former times when the pages of books, routinely, had to be cut, and in a very concrete way this places this book, so supremely about our contemporary existence, in the tradition of great writing in which it belongs.

So. This is a book which opens up your perceptions, challenges your assumptions and makes you think about language. Does this mean, as Macmillan say, that 'it might otherwise have failed to get into print'? Well, if The Bitch's own experience as a writer is anything to go by, she thinks, yes, probably. It is clearly the thriller aspect of the book, though, which Macmillan have decided to stress in the marketing, and as I said in an earlier post, with the right marketing you can sell anything. I hope I'm right, because this book deserves to be read, and people deserve the chance to read it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Living Through the Kids

With reference to my final comment yesterday, here's a piece by John Mullan in today's Guardian, about one way books can be kept alive.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Glittering Inconsistencies

Jason Cowley, in today's Observer, writes about what he calls 'our age of awards'. Prizes are becoming the ultimate measure of cultural success and value, he says, and compares them (as I compared the Observer's own recent 'Best Of' list) to sports events.
There was a time when, as Wordsworth wrote, 'Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.' The culture is no longer so patient. In a time of information overload - of cultural excess and superabundance - our taste is being increasingly created for us by prize juries and award ceremonies... Prizes create cultural hierarchies and canons of value. They alert us to what we should be taking seriously: reading, watching, looking at, and listening to. We like to think that value simply blooms out of a novel or album or artwork - the romantic Wordsworthian ideal. We would like to separate aesthetics from economics, creation from production. In reality, value has to be socially produced.
I think Cowley hits the nail on the head here, but I also think he seriously weakens his own argument by taking to task Martin Amis and Phillip Roth for purporting to despise prizes yet nevertheless being in thrall to them. Amis, he says, for all his elevated disapproval, is preoccupied perhaps more than any other writer of his generation by the larger literary game, by who is winning and losing, and goes on to cite Amis's novel on the subject, The Information. As for Roth, a writer known to take an active part in his own jacket designs, Cowley calls him 'disingenuous' for allowing himself to be represented on his latest by merely a long list of prizes won, an act which Cowley calls 'an exercise in self-aggrandisement'.

But surely, in relation to Amis, the point is that it is those who fall on the wrong side of a cultural situation (Amis is famously not a prize-winner) who know best its iniquities (and will be obsessed with them)? And if, as Cowley says, prizes have a stranglehold on our culture, then an understanding of the iniquities does not free anyone, including Roth, from the trap. Cowley thinks there is a sense of presumption in not noting where or when the writer was born: as if to say, 'You know exactly who the famous and excellent Philip Roth is, he needs no introduction.' Instead, we are told only what he won, as if past achievement validates the present offering. Well, excuse me, but, against the grain of the cult of personality, I think a writer's literary history is more important than his personal one...

But then at the end Cowley tells us this about the prize culture: shouldn't be taken too seriously, and one wonders how serious he himself is being. This is his reason: no one now has heard of the first Nobel Literature prizewinner, Sully Prudhomme, who won that year over Tolstoy. But, to take his earlier argument further, it's a different culture now. In this era of remainders and the slashing of backlists, would Tolstoy's books remain on the shelves nowadays long enough to become classics, or would they have been binned, as he tells us Lionel Shriver's were before she won the Orange Prize?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tagged, Memed, Caught Out Again

The Bitch has been tagged, memed, and last week when it first happened she didn't even know what it meant.

Last week Debi Alper, who has a fabulously witty blog, tagged her thus: Five Things Feminism Has Done For Me. Well, this is what feminism has done for The Bitch:

1. To make her stick to her own agenda (fiction and publishing, not feminism!).
2. To make her set her own rules (five things be blowed).

Today Roger Morris zaps her: Eight Things About Me.

What???? Well, here goes:

1. Far from wanting to reveal eight things about herself, The Bitch would still be anonymous if Blogger hadn't undone her (for The Bitch's anonymity was in part an attempt to underline her view that in our present cultural climate words and ideas are subverted to image and personality).

2. Even on her writer's blog The Bitch tries to stick to professional matters, though she knows she's not successful, and anyway being professional means using images etc in just the way she critiques here.

3. The Bitch once ate for breakfast a literary agent who wanted to sell her fiction as autobiographical.

4. The Bitch once ate for tea an editor who ditto.

5. The Bitch keeps a bullwhip ready for when newspaper journalists come calling and ask to go to the loo and go through your cabinet.

6. Schooled from the age of five, The Bitch has never, ever allowed anyone to misquote her

7. or judge her work by her life.

8. The Bitch is a writer of fiction. (Geddit?)

And now I'm supposed to tag someone else. How about Ms Baroque, Fessing Author, Alias Lucy Diamond , nmj, and Bournemouth Runner at The Art of Fiction (and they can choose either meme or none at all..)

The Bitch Munches her Words

I stand corrected: there was at least one other writer I knew at Murat Belge's talk on Freedom of Expression last Saturday. Last night we were waiting in the Museum cafe to be let into the Animal Room (!) for a reading by the American poet Sharon Olds (a Manchester Literature Festival and Poetry School event). Poet and Poetry School coordinator Linda Chase came up and said she'd seen our backs in the church. She was way at the back and left before I turned round at the end to check out the crowd - because, from what she said, she hadn't been nearly as impressed as I and The Partner were, though she was too busy organising last night's event to stick around and say why...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Thanks for Sharing

Oh, The Bitch is undone! (Maybe).

Last night she went with The Partner to a reading by the Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry. Now Barry to The Bitch's mind is a quite brilliant writer, a writer after her own heart, one of those you read and get the quite spooky feeling that he's written what you might have written, or would have written if you could/in another life, or already once did in a previous life etc, etc. Turned out he's a brilliant reader as well, which so few novelists are, and The Bitch was bewitched, and, as he read from his latest novel A Long Long Way, laughing and in tears.

Then he turned to one of his plays and read a long tale-telling speech from near the end about a dog and a ewe, which he pronounced, exactly as the Bitch's Irish father did, 'Yo'. The Partner gave The Bitch a nudge, and she knew what he was thinking: about the tale her father always told of the time he was eight years old but not at school because his parents were so poor, and the schoolmaster happened by and asked him if he could spell ewe, and he could, so after all he went to school, paid for by the church... It's one of those little incidents from real life I've pleated into the made-up rest of a novel of I've just written.

Well, then I went to get my copies of Barry's books signed, and I told Barry what a brilliant writer I thought he was, not caring if he thought I was a suck, and he looked ridiculously pleased, and it was like some kind of literary love-in. And then The Partner, who was standing right beside The Bitch, said,'Tell him about your father's ewe.' For god's sake! (These people at signings, wanting to come up and identify, and tell you their life stories!) But Barry was looking curious now - or was that glazed? - and out of embarrassment, The Bitch told him.

A strange look had come over Barry's face. 'What church was that?' he wanted to know. 'What town was it?' The Bitch answered in embarrassment, feeling possibly patronised - for god's sake, it was meant to be just a throwaway anecdote! She began to leave (to make a hasty retreat) and Barry said, his face impassive: 'Don't be surprised if you come across that incident in the next thing I write.'

The Bitch jumped like a scalded cat. 'You can't! I've just put it in my novel!'

'We'll just have to see who gets there first.'

'But that's not fair! You've got a publisher, and I haven't yet!'

His face was bland, beatific. 'It never is fair.'


His grin was impassive, enigmatic.

I think he was joking (why the hell would he want my silly little anecdote?). But just in case: YOU READ IT HERE FIRST.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Voices and Ears

Yesterday afternoon I went to St Ann's Church in the centre of Manchester for the talk on Freedom of Expression by Turkey's Murat Belge, an Amnesty International event which was part of the Manchester Literature Festival.

How could this be more timely - two days after Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize and the French parliament approved a bill outlawing the denial of the Turkish massacre of Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century. (Earlier this year, of course, Pamuk narrowly escaped trial for his 'insult to Turkishness' in referring to this episode and calling it a massacre.) Belge is indeed Pamuk's publisher in Instanbul.

Now, you know, I always have a funny feeling about churches. I can never enter a church without thinking of the tensions around religion in my own childhood household (my parents were of different religions, Catholic and Protestant), and they take me back to those days and Sunday School where I always felt like both a traitor and a heathen and was filled with a frightening sense of being out of place and somehow punishably in the wrong. But somehow yesterday...

The sun was drenching Manchester as we drove in, mid-October and people strolling in sleeveless vests and sandals; this wasn't the Manchester we have always known (it used to be frosty for the Poetry Festival!), it was Manchester autumn easternised, and the John Rylands Library on Deansgate, newly cleaned and extended, no longer seemed simply grimly Northern Neo-Gothic but glowed a mediterranean red. And St Ann's Church was filled with light, the stained-glass windows showing up as delicate pastel, and all the wood coloured like honey.

At the front, as people filed in, Murat Belge was trying out the microphone, which didn't seem to be working very well. He was a little man, and he wasn't fierce or intent as the picture above portrays him, but he looked like someone's grandad, and he had a twinkle in his eye. 'Come nearer to the front,' the organisers asked us, because of the microphone problem and because , they said, Murat Belge had a 'very quiet voice', and we did. Beginning his talk in an indeed quietly husky voice, Belge explained: he'd had glottal cancer, and having the choice of surgery, had opted (he said with a twinkle) 'to lose a little of his voice rather than his life.'

And then in his quiet husky voice he talked for forty minutes, about the significance of Pamuk's Nobel Prize and the French parliamentary vote, about the history of Turkey which has given rise to its present position, caught between east and west and the forces of traditionalism and modernisation, and about the prospect of Turkey's entry into the EU. No need for microphones: everyone was riveted, and you could have heard a pin drop in that church.

Magaret Atwood in Friday's Guardian and Robert McCrum in today's Observer praise the choice of Pamuk for the Nobel as the absolutely right moral decision, and of course they are right. I have only read Pamuk's Snow, and at the time I and my reading group, bringing to it our contemporary western literary expectations, found it heavy going, but that novel has stayed with me since in a way few novels do: dream-like and snowbound, aching with isolation and confusion and the sense of lost empire. However, Belge, an avowed internationalist, fears that the prize, and the French parliamentary vote, will provoke a backlash. He told us that although at one time 70% of the Turkish population was in favour of EU entry, that figure, under the influence of the traditionalists, has now dropped to 40%. Pamuk is viewed by many in Turkey as a traitor, and now, Belge said, in the wake of these two major events, the traditionalists will be able to say, Look at the kind of people we would be joining if we joined the EU. And he agreed with a comment from the floor that if Turkey does not join the EU, the way will be paved for a strengthening of fundamentalist Islamism.

Another question from the floor: 'What would happen to you if you gave this talk in Turkey?'

Belge paused. Then: 'Nothing.' He twinkled. 'Nothing. Usually. When it happens [arrest or prosecution for speaking out], it happens because a certain group decides go to the authorities and force them to act. And the authorities will act thinking, Well, nothing will really happen... But then of course sometimes it does [and people are imprisoned].'

He paused again. In the gap I noticed that the stained-glass window to my left was a modern replacement, a result of the IRA bomb.' But you know, the worst thing that happens is that you speak out, you give a talk, you write a paper and nothing happens. It is as though you never said it at all...'

And then it was over, and there was tea at the back, and buns made by the ladies of the church, just like in my childhod, and I swallowed mine too quickly, because, I tell you, I don't care, this Bitch was crying, and also wondering why I recognised no one here in the church, only one Manchester librarian. Murat Belge is a literary man, a publisher, a scholar of English literature, a Professor of Comparative Literature, and this was a literature festival, but as far as I could see the audience was made up not of literary people but of members of Amnesty International who had travelled from miles away, and politics students. Not a writer among them. Well, of course there may have been, for all I know, but there was not a writer that I knew, none from the Manchester writing scene who could be expected to turn up to events at a literature festival.
Aren't writers interested in these issues? Aren't British writers political nowadays? Oh well, these aren't our issues, are they, we're free, aren't we, to say whatever we like, and we've got such a great life nowadays there's something almost embarrassing about people who write dark novels... But these are our issues, increasingly: Murat Belge may have 'sacrificed some of his voice' but his message is loud and clear. So why, as in Turkey, are there people not listening here?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Uncreative Writing

As someone who has taught creative writing, the Bitch must seem a bit of a hypocrite to criticise creative writing courses, as I did in my post 'Authors and Authority', but then I've had first-hand experience of the pitfalls.

Interviewed today in the Guardian by Laura Barton, Booker winner Kiran Desai points out one of the problems: They demand you write a certain way because you have to present your work in half-hour instalments. You are having to polish only a little bit of it. It suits the short story more than the novel. She could never have written her 'monster' novel under these circumstances, she says.

The Bitch has often guiltily thought that it's nigh on impossible to write any novel under these circumstances. In particular, novels which play narrative games with readers' expectations simply don't lend themselves to the piecemeal week-by-week judgement of others' expectations. But for any novel to be unified and organic, you usually need to get to the end before you can know precisely how to hone the beginning, after all.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Too much experience?

Others have seen the prevalence of new writers on this year's Booker shortlist as evidence of the judges flying in the face of fashion and hype, and concentrating for once on talent alone. But here's John Ezard, reporting on Kiran Desai's win in today's Guardian:

...the publishing market treats novelists as promotable contenders with their first and second books, mature talents by their third, and burned out with their fourth and subsequent titles. This year's passed-over favourite, The Night Watch, was a fourth novel [and from the only established author on the list].

Monday, October 09, 2006

A British Sporting Event?

Robert McCrum tells us that, unlike the Americans, we British don't like lists and 'bests of' in our cultural life. Well, you could have fooled me, and anyway he goes ahead and gives us one: The Observer Best Novel of the Past 25 Years and runners up.

The winner is JM Coetzee, with Disgrace (in good old colonial style The Observer, 'following the Booker', decided to define 'British' as including 'Ireland and the literary traditions of the Commonwealth'); 2nd place goes to Martin Amis's Money, and joint third to five novels: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, Ian McEwan's Atonement, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Joint eighth place is shared by Ishiguro (again) (The Remains of the Day) and John McGahern with two novels, Amongst Women and That They May Face the Rising Sun.

This is not a readers' poll. If this poll has any consequence, McCrum opines, it derives from the fact that we have consulted with mainly professionals. Ah, that best of British... Those polled were writers themselves and critics. Well, I have recently argued that writers are excluded from debate about the meanings of their work, but this is not that kind of debate. It does not appear to be much of a debate at all, but just another of those winners-past-the-post British exercises, pitting different kinds of writing against each other in the pursuit of some kind of mythical pinnacle.

What does it all mean? McCrum feels that his wider trawl through the 'Commonwealth' makes The Observer poll more culturally inclusive than the similar American poll conducted last spring, but putting culturally diverse writings in competition with each other, in which some will 'win' and some won't, is surely to operate exclusivity. I notice some names missing from the list of those polled - apparently some declined, for these sorts of reasons - and isn't it obvious that writers, understandably, might well gun for the kind of writing which includes their own? (One would never want to accuse anyone of voting for their friends, of course!) And does it mean anything that, although the list of voters is almost half women, only one woman makes it to the first eight, and out of 51 runners-up only 18 are women? (What, so it's true, then: women's novels are less good than men's? Or no: women novelists are still in awe of the men while the men aren't so thrilled by the women? Which?)

And some of the names missing from the list of voters? Well, actually, JM Coetzee, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Is there some kind of poetic (or novelistic) justice going on here?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Selling Words

Jessica Ruston at the Book Bar, recently reviewing Marisha Pessl's novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics, laments the snides on the web implying that Pessl's youth and good looks are the reason for the attention the book has received. Good looks don't necessarily mean lack of talent, she says, and marketability is no bad thing: publishers to have to market books, after all.

Well, she's right of course on both counts, and any publisher would be mad not to use whatever is available to market a work. I've done it myself. When I published a literary magazine I and my colleagues worked like hell to sell the short stories we had chosen to publish, and we used all the marketing tools we could grab: buzz words (urban was the big buzz word of the time, so we subtitled the mag New Urban Writing, though we never for a moment let this influence the stories we chose, and not a soul ever complained about this last, which shows the power of the label); bright colour:
fancy photomontages: and towards the end, big bleed photos:

What we were trying to peddle were recognisable coolness and an air of youth, but what we were actually selling were the challenging and often experimental creations of talented and serious minds. As any snake-oil saleman will tell you, you can sell anything; you don't actually have to give people only what they think they want, as current marketing philosophy would have it.
On the other hand, though, I did always have a kind of sinking feeling, a feeling that things shouldn't be like this, that in a better society words would not have to be sold like this, subsumed to fashion and image...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

How to Sell a How-To Book

I posted below on the tendency in British culture to exclude writers, unlike artists, from debate about the meanings of their work and the ways in which it should be read. Today DJ Taylor writes in the The Guardian about the proliferation of books by experts - most notably John Mullan and John Sutherland - instructing us how to read novels.

Taylor's main point is that these books, aimed in the main at reading groups, reinforce, through their choice of novels for discussion, 'the stranglehold exerted on literature by the three-for-two promotion and the high-street discount'. Thus, he says, they contribute, in a way which would probably horrify their authors, to the 'homogenisation of our literary culture.'

He has a point, I think. The Bitch is in a reading group whose members pride themselves on being immune to hype, and on forming their own opinions without recourse to others - black looks for any fool who brings to a meeting reviews downloaded from the internet. But if these How-To books would never sell to my lot, they are clearly selling to someone. And anyway: which books come to mind when my independent, stroppy lot are thinking of books for discussion: why, the Booker shortlists, of course, the books they've seen in three-for-two promotions - they're the only ones they can be expected to have heard of, after all.

And if these How-To books didn't feed into the expectations of reading groups, how would they sell?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Don't We Just Love a Scapegoat?

Looking back at the last few lines of my last post, and musing on the fact that no one seems prepared to take at all seriously James Frey's claim that he originally intended his book as fiction, but that he was persuaded otherwise by his publisher, I've decided to bring to the top Rupert's comment on my post 'Novels versus Memoirs':

As an agent, I feel quite strongly that Frey was shafted by his publisher and agent. Not only must they have known that embellishment was going on, they *did* know - I met an editor at Doubleday who told me, prior to the book's Oprah laurels, that he was sure some of the book wasn't true. It is deeply disingenuous of the professionals closely involved in the book's publication to claim they were duped by Frey, ruthless of them to drop him, and deeply immoral for them to continue to profit from the discredited works which they are merrily doing.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Authors and Authority

Last week the Bitch went to a literary do and took with her a pair of young artists unused to literary events. Their outsiders' take on the evening seemed amusing at the time, but in retrospect raises serious issues about the status and power of writers in a Britain of market-led publishing on the one hand and rampant creative writing courses on the other.

The event was a prize-giving, the culmination of a competition run by an organisation whose main activity is running short courses and workshops for writers. A founder tutor and competition judge announced the prizes, in some cases inviting the author to read, and in every case talking in some detail about the winning work.

My artist guests were both fascinated and shocked. Firstly, they were fascinated by the thing I have always taken for granted, the spectacle of authors getting up and reading out their work aloud, sometimes with confidence, sometimes visibly shaking, sometimes reading well and sometimes not so well. What struck them forcibly, as contemporary artists trained to create work in such a way that it speaks for itself, was that the author was thus forced to be in the way of the writing, and the writing itself thus subsumed and ultimately divested of authority. This is obvious when the reading is bad, but it's true even if the reading is good, and of course it's true even at a famous author reading, where the whole thing plays into the cult of personality.

More importantly, however, the thing which shocked the artists was the compere's commentary. Trained in London art schools to take full responsiblity for the meanings of their work and, to that end, to control the context in which it appears, they were staggered that writers could be in a position where another person could decide independently what their work was about and announce it to the world, while the author had no opportunity for speaking about his or her work. Well, I laughed at the time, the judge was after all saying pretty nice things, and I was one of the winners, and it doesn't do to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it's true that when he said my story was a 'rite of passage' piece I was pretty gob-smacked for a moment, and couldn't work out how he made that out, and later when I did it struck me that, much as he'd liked my story, he may well have missed the point.

And afterwards it set me thinking. Clearly we can never expect to have ultimate control over how our work is read - books are ultimately what readers make of them - and clearly sometimes authorial intention fails to be realised, but writers do sometimes do new things which need to be read in new ways. Yet it does seem that on the whole it is the writers who have least voice in any debate about their work. One of the biggest crimes, for instance, has always been for a writer to take issue with a newspaper criticism (so undignified!), and now, it seems to me, the whole creative-writing teaching explosion has led to an ethos in which the authority on the meaning of a writer's work is not the writer but another (the teacher). Interesting that while the teaching of art has so much longer a history than the teaching of creative writing, artists do not suffer this situation. And look at James Frey, apparently utterly without control of the context of his work, and when he tells the Guardian that he first wrote his book as fiction, he may as well have said it into the wind, for there's John Burnside writing in the same paper last week, making the argument I have made about different kinds of literary truth, but nevertheless overlooking this crucial point.

Ironic, really, when you think of why we write in the first place...