Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Matter with Books

So the Bitch stumbles down into the kitchen this morning, switches on the kettle and the radio, thinking about the scene she will write today, and wait - what was that on the radio? Orhan Pamuk (the Turkish novelist)? Someone's threatened his life? The Bitch jumps to attention, but the item's over, the briefest of mentions.

In some places novels can be a matter of life and death. In other places this fact is a matter of little or relative consequence, not even mentioned on the TV news.

Jenny Diski has posted sardonically here and here on what novels, on the contrary, mean in our country. And John Baker provides a link showing what some books mean to some people.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Reading Endeavour

I have argued before in this blog for a greater role for writers in the debate about how we should read fiction, and here is Zadie Smith taking that role in yesterday's Guardian, and quoting as her mentors those other great writer-critics, Nabokov, Iris Murdoch and Virginia Woolf.

This second half of Zadie's fiction 'tips' takes a little more work from the reader than last week's offering, though that's perhaps fitting in view of what she has to say about the role of the reader, and she is wrestling - with the writerly honesty which last week she advocated - with concepts which are subtle and nowadays unfamiliar.

Readers, she says, have a duty as great as that which she has outlined for writers, and of a similar nature, a duty which she feels they have generally abdicated. She identifies two kinds of contemporary 'failing' reader or critic: firstly the 'system' reader/critic:
In writing schools, in reading groups, in universities, various general reading systems are offered - the post-colonial, the gendered, the postmodern, the state-of-the-nation and so on. They are like the instructions that come with furniture at IKEA. All one need do is seek out the flatpack novels that most closely resemble the blueprints already to hand ... We want [novels] to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas ... to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day
and secondly, the 'corrective' reader/critic, who more properly relates to a novel on an individual, personal level, bringing to it his own tastes and prejudices, but less properly fails to admit to himself that this is what he is doing and imagines that he is applying universal aesthetic criteria.

Both types of reader are in consequence closed to novels which fail to fulfil their respective preconditions. Ideally, she says,
Both the writer and the reader must undergo an ethical expansion - allow me to call it an expansion of the heart - in order to comprehend the human otherness that fiction confronts them with.
Like Woolf, she concedes that a perfect meeting of minds between writer and readers is of course never possible; we must always fail in the endeavour, and indeed it is this failure which makes each novel, and each reading, individual and fascinating. But it is the willingness to make the endeavour which allows us to 'fail better.'

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Show Us a Few Wrinkles

Here's a thought from the Bitch (not that she hasn't had it before):

Say we accept Zadie Smith's contention that writing is forged from an author's personality, and that therefore the greater the personality the greater the novel. And say we accept that, while clearly some fifty-year-olds are idiots and some fifteen-year-olds geniuses, on the whole, in general, skills and personality are enriched by experience.

What then are the implications for the future of our literature in a culture powered by worship of the Next New Thing?

Monday, January 15, 2007

What Novels Are For

Bournemouth Runner at The Art of Fiction and others were pleased about one particular aspect of Zadie Smith's Guardian article: the fact that she highlights a problem previously discussed on this blog, the problem which the commercialisation of fiction publishing presents for many writers:
By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so... Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment ... will always be welcomed. This is not a good time, in literature, to be a curio...

...Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure - but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about ... [novelists'] duty to express accurately their way of being in the world.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Discomfort of Oversimplifying

It's only fair that I pull up Susan Hill's comment on my last post, pointing out that my final reference to her concept of 'comfort-blanket' books misrepresented and oversimplified:

The two things are not incompatible.. Comfort blanket books can be great literature at the same time. Or not. A comfort blanket book is, by definition, one which you have read before enough times to know very well and to be guaranteed delight, pleasure, interest, even intellectual stimulation - it has nothing to do with being lulled to sleep. It has everything to do with the certain expectation of reward. I do not mean, by 'comfort blanket books' ones which are necesssarily easy to read or have happy endings or are undemanding.. I do mean those which I return to knowing that although I may get something new out of them, I will also get a repeat of something old - in the best sense - too.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Great Mind of Zadie Smith

Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow bloggers me hearties, I commend to you one of the most serious and insightful minds in the literary world today: that of Zadie Smith.

Today the Guardian publishes an article by Zadie (and which I understand to be extracted from a promised book) on the nature of fiction and the condition, in creative terms, of the fiction writer. At the end of a week of blogosphere dispute about whether fiction writing 'should' be a painful experience or one which is fun, here is Zadie's (to me searingly accurate) view of 'the land where writers live':
...a country I imagine as mostly beach, with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach. Thrusting out of the shoreline are hundreds of piers, or "disappointed bridges", as Joyce called them. Most writers, most of the time, get wet.
As a result, she says, writing fiction can be 'some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you'll ever do'.

In illustration, she gives us the fictional story of 'Clive', who sets out to write a novel, and finally completes it:
Somehow, despite all Clive's best efforts, the novel he has pulled into existence is not the perfect novel that floated so tantalisingly above his computer. It is, rather, a poor simulacrum, a shadow of a shadow. In the transition from the dream to the real it has shed its aura of perfection; its shape is warped, unrecognisable. Something got in the way, something almost impossible to articulate and Clive must suffer the bleak sense ... that his novel was not only not good, but not true.
And what is this truth which would make for the perfect novel, but which inevitably evades the fiction writer? It is, says Zadie, the truth of the self, the writer's character, a fact little acknowledged by critics writing with the legacy of TS Eliot's injunction to separate the 'personality' of the writer from the writing:
To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character ... Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self - vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised. That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great.
She is careful here to make the distinction between crude autobiographical facts - an obsession with which, as I am always saying, can get in the way of a reader's receptivity to the writing - and the idea of a writer's personality in the truer sense. Personality, she says, 'is much more than autobiographical detail, it's our way of processing the world', and a writer's style is 'a personal necessity ... the only possible expression of a particular consciouness. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth'. And when a writer fails to find the style which does this adequately - as he or she always must, to a greater or lesser extent - then writing inevitably becomes an endeavour of failure and disappointment.

This is the one duty of writers, she says: 'to express accurately their way of being in the world' and a great novel is one which can do this, however alien to a reader the way of being expressed. The duty of readers is to meet this halfway, she says, and reading too is a skill to be honed:
Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced.
In a week when people have been posting about 'comfort-blanket' books, Zadie reminds us that books are meant to prevent us from what she calls 'sleepwalking through life.'

Friday, January 12, 2007

Prizes Prized?

Prompted by the Costa awards, announced this week, and by a post on the Guardian books blog by Lemn Sissay (a judge this year for the John Llewellyn Rhys Award), Jessica Ruston at the Book Bar has some perturbed thoughts about book prizes in general.

Sissay reveals the interesting fact that publishers and agents agree from the off that certain books will be entered for prizes as a way of guaranteeing press coverage for a book. Jessica wonders if this is 'tighten[ing] down the circle of books that get press coverage even further'.

My book group will be interested. They are constantly exclaiming: 'How on earth did this win a major prize?', and one of them practically threw a book across the room this week for being a 'typical Booker type book'.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Critic Mutation

Today Arts Guardian leads with an article by Peter Bradshaw titled Call Yourself a Critic? reflecting on the blogger/newspaper debate. He stresses the revolutionary nature of what has been happening:
Part of what's happening is that newspapers have, for hundreds of years, been a one-party state, and the net has brought that state to an end. Before the web, there was no serious opposition to the press in the press. Newspapers might express the most virulent opposition to every other institution in British public life: to the Church of England, political parties, the monarchy - anything but the press. Our media sections have nothing like the full-throttle, uncensored criticism of the press routinely expressed in blogs.
As a newspaper critic he says that this new critical attitude by bloggers to newspaper arts criticism has been a bracing, invigorating but often uncomfortable experience, and concludes:

The web and blogging have hugely increased the scope for such debates. The critic is finding that the newly empowered bloggers do not share his or her opinions about the new film, play or book, and especially his or her high opinion of him- or herself. So critics must sharpen their wits, clarify their opinions - and, just as importantly, get a sense of humour about themselves.
Both Bradshaw and music critic Dorian Lynsky in a companion article muse thoughtfully on the style of debate which has ensued and will ensue in future, but while Lynsky avers:
In an ideal world, there should be room for both print critics and online ones, with plenty of overlap between them. Good writing is good writing, wherever it appears
he slips into hierarchical Us-Them mode after all, appearing at one point to refer to newspaper critics and bloggers as critics and readers and concentrating on the commenters on his own posts (reactors to 'real' criticism), and the print version of his article is titled significantly, Calling all my hecklers.

Speaking for myself, I will never forget the feeling of exposure the first time I put up a post all without the protection of the time-honoured authority of the printed publication (which I have also experienced), and it is through writing their own blog posts that these journalists are coming to experience this for themselves.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


Today, along with every other writer who registered, The Bitch gets her Public Lending Right statement.

Sheesh. Nine titles and what she gets is… well, not enough to make herself a good meal, leave alone buy one out.

Well, The Bitch can’t really complain. Six of those titles were dispensable-commodity jobs, novelisations of a children’s TV drama series, which she was persuaded to write (under a different name) while a single parent and her kids wanted designer trainers like all the rest – transitory paperbacks soon disintegrated and sold off or chucked in the library dustbins. (Good fun and good writing exercises, though.) And as for her three literary titles (two short novels, one reincarnated in a revised edition), well, they were initial-imprint paperbacks too, and came from minority presses and weren’t published in the first place in any true sense of the word, so were never likely to achieve great library borrowings.

But there’s a section on the form this year there never was before: a space to renounce your claim if you haven’t recorded any loans for a number of years. Maybe this is a special version of the statement sent out to those whose loans have dropped, but I wonder: is this a new acknowledgement that Public Lending Right, once fought for so diligently by Maureen Duffy and others as a way of giving writers some reward for the continuing lives of their books in libraries, is now, like publishers’ advances, just a short-term flash-in-the pan? That, as Susan Hill has complained, libraries too see books as dispensable commodities, and themselves no longer as the custodians of literature….?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Chin Up, Writers!

Susan Hill has posted a complaint, or at least an expression of amazement, that so many aspiring-writer bloggers complain about the pain of writing. Writing should be fun, she says, and if not, then for goodness' sake, give up.

Mm. Well, yes, it's fun when it's going well, it's especially fun when you're writing something comic, it's even exciting when you're writing something tragic; it sure is the bees knees when you get something published, and it's out of this world when people write and say they've liked your work. But as Bookseller to the Stars comments beneath her post, for writers undergoing rejection there's a panicky sense of 'is this really worthwhile?' that can take a good deal of the oomph out of the system.

And surely, with our history of novels which have made it after numerous earlier rejections (Watership Down, Life of Pi, We Need To Talk About Kevin for starters), no one would advise a writer to give up simply because they've been rejected so far?

As for the writing process itself, Susan does concede that there can be frustration and anxiety involved. Some books are difficult to write, she admits, and of course she's right that in the end you can get glorious satisfaction from finally writing them.

But then she does like to stir things up, doesn't she, our Susan?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Practice Doesn't Make Perfect

Today Grumpy Old Bookman has an interesting post on the publishing difficulties faced by new writers nowadays. There has been some dispute on the web about whether good new writers do indeed face particular difficulties, but GOB makes a convincing case. He is referring to genre writers, and in particular thriller writers, but it seems to me that his points could be made across the board.

GOB points out that Jack Higgins had written several competent but unsensational books before he made it with The Eagle Has Landed - similarly with Ken Follett. Present-day publishers, he says, are no longer prepared to allow writers to grow in this way, but seek an instant hit from the off. Nowadays any new writer whose first book does not promise to be an instant hit will be unlikely to get a foot in publishing. The comments are interesting, too: there's an instance of a previously published SF writer who can't get back on the ladder because, as GOB says, publishers want younger writers who will 'look really cool on Richard and Judy's sofa'.

GOB applauds the use of as a way around this problem (he reviews Ron Morgans' thriller Kill Chase which has been published this way). And it is of course this ethos which several new independents have been launched to counter. Then there's Macmillan New Writing, established specifically to allow new writers to develop without the pressure of earning back an advance. If the one example of MNW which I've read is anything to go by, Roger Morris's Taking Comfort (reviewed here), it's not just competent practice pieces that are being picked up this way, but literary gems.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Susan Hill's Books of the Year (2006) Prize

It may be clear by now that the Bitch is not a lover of lists, and is wary of the competitive whiff of 'best-ofs', but she has succumbed to Susan Hill's current project in which bloggers are asked to submit nominations for Books of the Year (one fiction book and one non-fiction): it's a chance, after all, to further promote one of the two debut novels I have loved this year and have posted about here and here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Once upon a time when the Bitch was a soppy little girl and long before she became a wise-ass city type, she knew everything about the countryside, and birds and animals, and her especial love was flowers. And she loved Wordsworth too because he did, and even after she became a cynical city type she had to admit that a big thing in her writing was a sense of the seasons, for which reason while writing she always had to keep her pathetic fallacy detector well polished.

Well, she knows nuttin no more. As Steerforth has noted, there is ample evidence this season that things are changing fast. And what does this do for a writer? How dated our books will become. What anachronisms will occur - are occuring already: not so long ago in Waterstone's I picked up a novel written recently but set in the thirties which began with a reference to green leaves on the trees in October. Yet it's only in the past three years or so, I think, that the trees have still been green in October. And if we get it right, if we portray the past as it was - with leafless trees and bone-hard ground in October, will young readers believe us, or see our writing as unrealistic, or will we betray ourselves as unpalatably linked with a past which has gone (and God knows no one respects the past much nowadays)?

Susan Hill says she's going to record the things in her garden to check all this out, and here are my notes:

Here in South Manchester in January we have not yet had frost. There are fuchsias and roses still flowering in the gardens, and yes, there are still some trees with leaves on them, mostly yellow, but some green. Nasturtium plants are still trailing over the trellises, not black and slimy as they should be with frost. As last year, the jasmine over my front door, which is meant to flower in spring and summer, is coming into flower right now. On a Christmas walk, like Steerforth I found spring flowers - coltsfoot and tansy - and witnessed ducks taking part in mating rituals.

How will this affect our psyches as writers? How will it affect the kind of literature we write?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Not Blogging

'Happy New Year,' says the Partner of the Bitch, handing her the Guardian and that grotesque image of a hanged man's face. Words fail me.

But words have been failing me, blog-wise, for the Christmas period. With not much to discuss on the literary front and everything shrinking (or rather swelling) to the personal, there's not much to blog about for someone who's always banging on critically about the cult of personality. Even on my other, writer blog I try to stick to professional matters (unsuccessfully, I know), and it's more than just policy, it's superstition: I'm afraid of jinxing or using up the material I could put into my writing.

And then it seems to me that it's impossible to write about anything personal without fictionalising it anyway...

Yet how I loved Ms Baroque's vivid account of her Christmas with her children, and all her evocative personal posts, and those of nmj and Steerforth, for instance. It's made me think a lot about blogging. A blog is after all a public space - over Christmas twenty-odd people in Montreal, presumably students, came to my writer blog after Googling 'Themes in Compass and Torch' (one of my short stories) - and a writer always does well to be careful about his/her public image. Yet there's something so personal about the blogosphere - the language, the spontaneity, the discussions, and the fact that you really do feel you have made friends with like-minded people.

So I don't know...

I could tell you about literary-related things, I guess; I could stretch it and tell you about the things I did with members of our reading group: the Carol Concert in Bridgewater Hall with the Mozart Festival Orchestra dressed up in eighteenth-century costume and all the middle-aged women in glittery tops milling in the foyer, or drinks in the pub on Christmas Day, when the landlady came round and wished us all Merry Christmas so we felt we were in a soap pub rather than a real one. I could tell you about the literati party, when I talked for two hours to a Royal-Court produced playwright who has decided no longer to bother even trying with a British theatre system which has turned its back on the kind of play he writes, and to which a famous novelist turned up at the end with her parents in tow - but it was a private, not a public literary event so I won't mention their names. The two family parties - the one where my ex and my current sat down together with the kids, and the one with the Irish lot all singing and playing - don't qualify, of course. One New Year's Eve party does, as I talked for an hour to two handsome and disgustingly young marketing men about an issue I've addressed in this blog. Both agreed with my assessment that current marketing philosophy is about feeding into established practices, and both insisted that it is very difficult to 'market into the unknown'. Both however agreed, when they thought about it, that books (which can be intended conversely to surprise people or change their minds) require a new and different marketing strategy to be devised.

And then I went on to the crime-writer's party, whose name I had better not drop...

Daniel Green at The Reading Experience points to some interesting links about the nature of blogs: Robert Nagle answering the criticisms of George Will.

Happy New Year.