Friday, December 22, 2006

Heh Heh

Who said the book world was genteel? asks Maxim Jakubowski on the Guardian books blog. You ought to cry, but you can't help grinning at the tale he tells.

Thanks to Petrona for the link.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas Quizzical

So the reviewing debate makes it into the Guardian Christmas quiz with John Sutherland as star protagonist:

Who started a vicious turf war between paid-up members of Grub St and the bloggers?

Here are my Christmas quiz questions:

1. Since most bloggers I read reacted humorously or thoughtfully, where was the viciousness?

2. And who introduced the notion of exclusive territory, as replicated in those phrases paid-up and turf war?

I tell you, John Crace (who compiles the books questions) is my favourite bookish satirist of all...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Campaigning Novels

I'll probably get shot down in flames for this post, but here goes.

In yesterday's Guardian Lucasta Miller writes about the recent discovery of a letter written by the Rev. Patrick Bronte soon after the death of his daughter Charlotte, which appears to disprove the established view that he was a domestic tyrant. Miller writes that it was Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte's biographer, who established this unfavourable reputation, demonising the Reverend in her attempt to present Charlotte as a victim and thus excuse what she considered the 'damaged imagination' which had given rise to what were seen as Charlotte's 'immoral and unchristian novels.'

I have been musing ever since why none of this surprised me.

Now there are many things I like about Gaskell, enough anyway for me to agree a few years back to write a serialisation of Mary Barton for Radio 4, and to work for a week on a treatment (until the BBC told my producer that sorry, their mistake, wires had got crossed, but there was already another writer-producer team working on the same project). And one of the things I like about her is her campaigning zeal. But the fact is that a campaigning zeal is not unproblematic - for a biographer (warping and supressing the facts in service of the campaign to improve Charlotte Bronte's image) or for a novelist either.

Gaskell's own biographer, Jenny Uglow, makes much of Gaskell's belief in stories (her biography is subtitled A Habit of Stories). Discussing the writing of Mary Barton, she says: Gaskell knew that stories had a persuasive power beyond that of rational exposition. However, the very wording of this sentence reveals Gaskell's view of stories as a means to a different end, in this case the (undoubtedly laudable) campaign to illustrate the plight of the working classes.

I know many people who love Mary Barton unreservedly, but all of these people are and always have been middle class. For some of us who hail from rather lower orders it's hard not to read this book without a sense of the sentimentality with which the characters are depicted, or a knowledge that this was a book written for the middle classes, or to get through the following passage without a sense of exclusion:
...what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks ... there are earnest men among these people, men who have endured wrongs without complaining...
And, frankly, I find the novel schematic.

I feel similarly about some of the feminist novels of the seventies and eighties (excuse me now while I don my asbestos suit), in which organic aesthetic concerns were subsumed by a political voice - which is a hard thing to say because it risks seeming to endorse the view that all feminist novels were so.

But before someone writes and points it out, yes, I was on the judging panel the year Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories won the Portico prize - a work of impeccable scholarship and warmth which presents Gaskell in all her complexity. And, hey, I did love the TV adaptation of North and South not so long ago...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Never so Bad

Today's Arts Guardian presents us with its Review of the year, subtitled Why we've never had it so good.

Here are their categories: Theatre, Film, Visual Art, Music (divided into four sorts, each of which forms a category of its own: Jazz, World Music, Classical and Pop), Dance, Architecture, TV.

Books? No Books. There hardly ever is in these things. Why? Why don't books (at least books of creative writing - those potential categories Novel, Poetry or Short Stories) qualify as 'Art'? Are they any less 'art' than, say, Pop or TV? Or is it, on this occasion, that the compilers believe that in the world of books we haven't had it so good this year?

Or is it that art means entertainment now and words, unlike pictures and sounds, are just too damned abstract, or even too much like damned hard work?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Those Great Editorial Decisions

How about this?

Thanks to Laura Lippmann via Miss Snark.

The Bitch Is Not Top of the Class in Reading

I really meant it when I said that I don't know how Susan Hill does what she does: all that reading while writing and publishing and blogging and all the other things she does - and not quite in the way some people took it. My tone was pure wonder.

You know, when I go to her site and to those of all those other omnivorous readers, something tightens in my stomach: that very same feeling I used to get when I stood on the sidelines and all those mega-athletic types ran the hundred metres etc. I feel inadequate, and because it's books, and because as a writer I'm supposed to be a well-read type, I feel guilty about it too.

It's pathetic, I know, but I just don't find reading books all that easy. They can take me over. They can affect me in such a way that they fill my mind, colour everything, they can even change me, as both a person and a writer. It's like a love affair in fact, it really is: if I like a book, I'm transported, I day-dream it, with no eyes for any other, sometimes going over its imagery and language for days, or even weeks after I have put it down. For this reason, as I have written on my other blog, it can be quite lethal for me to read while I'm in the middle of writing something myself. And in a way, if books don't do this, for me they're not really worth reading . It's precisely the effect I would love to be able to have on others as a writer.

No need to tell me: Bitch as I am, I'm also pretty weedy.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Orwell and the Plain English Campaign

The debate on the Guardian website and on my post below, generated by Germaine Greer's award of a Golden Bull by the Plain English Campaign, has sent me back to Orwell's 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language.

No doubt the PEC would pull me up on that first sentence for its length, long sentences being one of their bugbears. And do you know, I have a hunch they would be right. Maybe the facts packed into it would be clearer and more quickly assimilated if I separated them. But the fact is, I can't be bothered to go back and do this because of the time and thought it would take without making it clumsy, and I've got a damned play to write. This is one of Orwell's points: that writing more simply yet with a satisfying rhythm takes time and thought. It's easier and lazier to pick up on euphonious ready-made constructions (which tend to be abstract and convoluted), and when we do this we tend to write with less thought. Orwell expresses an opposite idea to the one that to simplify language is to dumb down: by providing a translation of a Bible passage into modern-day speak he demonstrates that the simpler, more concrete language of the original is far more vivid and thus more meaningful.

There are some odd apparent inconsistencies about the PEC. It's very off-putting to me that that arch mangler of the English language, Tony Blair, is one of their supporters - the guy who has so dramatically mouthed (as if it's his own coinage!) one of the very cliches Orwell condemned all that time ago: stand shoulder to shoulder. But then (to unpick another cliche) you don't necessarily blame the bandwagon for those who jump on it, do you, and it's the vice of our age (so well demonstrated in Animal Farm) to lump together everything a person says as either good or bad, simply because of who they are. And just because the application of a set of principles is not always successful does not of course mean those principles are wrong. Anyway, some of the PEC's examples of clarification don't seem so bad to me:
Before: High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the on-going learning process.
After: Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.
I have to say, the first of these is the kind of thing I have satirised many a time in a radio play.

However, the thing which discredits the PEC for me is what seems to be a huge category error. Not content with the rightful target of officialese, at the end of their section on 'Long Sentences' they provide a list of creative works with exceptionally long sentences, including Ulysses (for Molly Bloom's long stream-of-consciousness monologue). It's not altogether clear that they are condemning them and that they have no notion that these long sentences are artfully constructed for specific and dynamic effect, but it looks like it (and anyway, I thought they were all about clarity?)

Nevertheless, I think that Orwell's six rules for writing English are useful for creative writers, and I have always tried to abide by them myself whatever I'm writing (not always successfully, of course, as that redundant 'myself' proves!). It's perhaps worth repeating them here:
i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii) Never use a long word when a short word will do. (This does not preclude the notion that sometimes a short word will not do.)
iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.
iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent. (Once again, this does not preclude the notion that there may not be an equivalent.)
vi) Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Little but Large

I am amazed and thrilled that a book of short stories can win a major award!

Today the Guardian announces that the winner of its first book prize is A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by the Chinese writer resident in the US, Yiyun Li.

Now I now that this book has not come from nowhere - it's already won several major international prizes, including the PEN/Hemingway award - and that the political import of these stories will have helped in this, but these are SHORT STORIES, for goodness' sake.

For years now the short story has been in major decline in Britain, to the point where it's almost dead, and I began this blog lamenting this fact. It's years since the fact that short stories don't sell became established publishing wisdom and many British writers - including me, originally a short-story writer - were forced away from short-story writing into other forms. It's years since, squeezed by market forces, the British print literary magazines, the last great haven of the short story, more or less disappeared (online magazines having yet to achieve the same kind of reputation with the literary establishment). (As I've written before, I've had my own attempt to combat this last decline, but found the battle so hard it left me no time to write.)

Depressingly, I've seen a more general contempt for the short story increase down the years, and signs that people no longer know how to read them. My reading group, for instance, won't touch them: they're not satisfying, some of the members have complained, you can't sink into them like you can with a novel, and anyway how could you discuss a whole book of different stories? They had not entertained the idea that a single really good short story could take as much time to discuss as a novel.

Now wouldn't it be nice if this award meant the turning of the tide?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Plain Mystifying

Noosa Lee at That's So Pants and Ms Baroque cheer Germaine Greer for her sarcastic response to her 'Golden Bull' award from the Plain English Campaign. Prof Greer receives this award for the following sentence in a Guardian article on October 23rd:
The first attribute of the art object is that it creates a discontinuity between itself and the unsynthesised manifold.
'The unsynthesised manifold', as Greer explains in her more recent article, is a phrase from Kant's Critique of Judgement which should be familiar to students of aesthetic theory, and Greer says, to 'most reasonably educated Guardian readers'.

Now I agree with those who have said that the PEC are barking up the wrong tree here (legalese and political obfuscation are surely the better targets), and it's also true that, as Ms Baroque illustrates with examples from their web site, there is a dangerous linguistic dumbing-down tendency in their philosophy and practice.

But, I don't know... Maybe it's the ex-secondary-school teacher in me, a teacher of rehoused Gorbals kids who had arrived at secondary school at the age of twelve unable to read... Those contemptuous sniggers when I didn't make myself understood, those life chances which failure to understand meant those kids wouldn't get... Maybe it's the ex-twelve-year-old in me whose uneducated relatives looked so dismayingly uncomfortable when I used big words they didn't understand... But, the thing is, I'm not very happy with that elitist supposition about 'most Guardian readers', Greer's assumption (in her original article) that she had no need even to say where that phrase comes from, leave alone what it means.

It's all a question of who you are writing for, I suppose. Are you writing only for those who already understand everything about the subject you're addressing, or are you prepared to include those who don't?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

What a Joker

What a wag that Jasper Gerard is.

Bloggers are the codgers who used to write letters in green ink banging on about speed humps or Judao-Freemason conspiracies, he writes green-inkishly, in a piece in today's Observer entitled 'Leave us some moron-free zones'.

They probably include gifted amateurs, he concedes, after a week of debate in which many have pointed out that plenty of professional thinkers blog - that wicked probably indicating that he hasn't bothered to look anyway. And slyly he manages to both misrepresent the motives of most bloggers and pander to the newspapercentric view of them as a threat by suggesting that the blogging of these 'gifted amateurs' might earn them what he codgerishly calls a proper job.