Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Prof Does not Profess to be the Greatest

So what does Professor Amis, last week dubbed 'the greatest living British author', think of such an idea? The same as JG Ballard, Louise Doughty and me: this morning on Radio 4's Today programme he called such comparisons 'futile' and offered his opinion that 'the only critic is time'.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Literary Credentials

Here's a giggle, courtesy of Cristina Odone, Observer, today:
Emma Soames, editor of Saga magazine, whose career took off when she was appointed editor of the Literary Review, attributes her success to being mistaken for a book-loving bluestocking. 'In fact,' she cheekily confesses, 'my only literary qualification was to have had an affair with Martin Amis.'

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Greatest Living Joke

Well, here's one game you won't catch the Bitch joining in: Who is the greatest living British author? (Guardian, today.) And here are the comments which best echo the Bitch's thoughts on the matter:

JG Ballard:
This is one of those questions that makes one suspect we are in the trough of the literary wave.

Louise Doughty:
The title of "Britain's greatest living author" is a deeply silly moniker to give to anyone, and probably the kiss of death. Amis was lionised in the 80s, but that made it inevitable that people would turn on him - remember all that absurd stuff about his teeth. Getting the crown should strike fear into the heart of any author. I prefer to think about great books rather than great writers... The need to identify "great writers" is a boy thing... In the end it is not for us to identify the great writers. We don't have any sense of perspective. Kafka published virtually nothing in his lifetime, while Pearl S Buck won the Nobel prize for literature.
Because they end the piece with Louise Doughty's contribution, you suspect the Guardian agrees with her, and that their tongue is firmly in their cheek. After all, the article is actually titled Who is the greatest of them all? and we all know who asked a similar question, and what happened to her.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Writers Reading

Daniel Green at The Reading Experience adds some interesting thoughts about Creative Writing courses and innovation, mainly in relation to the reading experience of writing students, which has apparently taken a nosedive. He offers an extract from an interview with Stephen Dixon in the Baltimore City Paper, in which Dixon states:
[If] you have a history of having read [important literature], you want to go on to something new. So a lot of students are sort of writing what's already been written.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Here We Go Again

Oh dear, this is getting boring, but you feel it shouldn't pass without comment. Erstwhile Bad Boy of theatre turned Guardian columnist Mark Ravenhill has joined the ranks of those privileged with a public platform who condemn the more 'democratic' opportunity for comment which the internet provides.

He does make some new points which are worth considering. It's not democracy, he says: true political democracy in this country is dead (and I won't argue with that), and this seeming democracy of the internet is in truth just a sop to make us believe otherwise, and that no one with any power takes any notice of the views aired by the public therein.

But then he doesn't seem to believe in democracy anyway. Things have got a little confused, he says, but right from the start he seems to confuse things himself. He starts out reasonably enough (except that we can guess where he's going): Not so long ago writing a certain type of letter was enough to make you a figure of fun. But then in his next sentence he appears to be referring not just to 'a certain type of letter writer' but to all writers of letters to public bodies: Writing to the newspapers, the BBC or the prime minister made you an archetype as recognisable as a fat mother-in-law on a seaside postcard (let's pass over his apparent collusion with the viewpoint implied by this last comparison). This slippage allows him to go on to do as others have done before him and lump all internet commenters together and compare them with the green ink writer ... 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' and to pronounce that they should be regarded with patronising amusement.

But - though one gets weary of repeating it - as there were always different newspaper letter-writers, so there are also different internet commenters, some superficial, others serious and worth taking seriously unless you want to collude with a government you believe deaf to the people.

Apart from which, not everyone who uses green ink is Disgusted of TW - a past editor of mine, for a start!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Creative Accounting

I have my own questions about the boom in Creative Writing courses, which I've aired here and here, but today in the Guardian Claire Armitstead considers the most fundamental one, Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

Whenever I'm asked that question I think of the fourteen-year-old girl I taught in a Glasgow school, whose weekly stories were as good as many a first novel, and more mature than some. I could teach her nothing. I was her copyeditor merely, pointing out the odd spelling mistake. It goes against my educationist grain to say this, but faced with that you just know that great writers are born.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Carver said the same, and the fact that American universities have produced so many of his clones proves the point: what you can't teach or impart, as Armitstead's article indicates, are genius or flair or originality. Technique, I agree, can be taught to some extent, and the ability to be critically self-aware. But after that, as Armitstead says, what Creative Writing courses offer are time and space and permission, and that most precious commodity of all - whatever anyone else says - contacts. And you do need all of those last, as well as sheer bloody-minded determination, because I tell you this: I was certain, absolutely certain, that that pupil of mine would be a great writer one day and I have watched out down the years for her work to appear in print, but (unless she has a pseudonym) it hasn't. (And I can't tell you how sad that makes me, even if the truth is that she simply lost interest in writing, because I'm sure we've lost out.)

Armitstead's article ends on a sour note, though, and suggests a dispiriting cynicism behind Martin Amis's recent appointment at Manchester:
The boom is not so much about making great writers as about universities trying to attract students and making more money by appealing to young people with impossible dreams.
In my experience, they're often not so young, actually, and when publishers are on the lookout for babes in arms... Well, do the maths.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Youth, Age and the Universities

It is a truth universally acknowledged by publishers that writers must not grow older, and a truth which must be dealt with by writers that they do. Pricking up her ears for the current lingo at the bus stop at school coming-out time is one of the Bitch's now customary practices, and even Zadie Smith, hardly any time ago considered The Voice of Cool Youth, must now, in the Acknowledgements for On Beauty, thank her younger brothers for advice on all the things I am too old to know. And now here's Martin Amis giving as one of his reasons for taking on a Creative Writing Professorship at the University of Manchester the fact that he wants to keep in touch with how young people think.

Martin Amis getting down with the students - I guess their recruitment will go through the roof. Meanwhile, in the other, Metropolitan University just down the road, Andrew Biswell's Writing School continues to flourish and to hold practically weekly author readings to which the public is invited. Last night an almost full house gathered to hear Rose Bailey and UA Fanthorpe and was saved the disappointment of their non-attendance due to flu by a last-minute stand-in from tutor Simon Armitage, and treated to extracts from his alliterative translation of Gawain and the Green Knight, and to some pretty funny new prose poems.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

What or Who You Know

Well, I'm sorry to say I misrepresented the case of Marie Phillips in my last post, and here's her comment which I've pulled up:
Hello! Strugglingauthor here. Just a quick correction. Dan Franklin was not in fact shown my novel by the Cape rep, he was shown it by me. The Cape rep did however tell me (or rather, my boss) that Dan was a good bloke who would probably read it if I sent it to him because he's one of the few remaining editors who do read unsolicited m/s's. A fact which I am now happy to tell people unconnected with bookselling for nothing. It's not always who you know, but it might be what you know.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Big and Little Publishers and the Myths of Publishability

During the autumn there was a skirmish in the litblogs about whether or not it's hard to get published. Susan Hill upset struggling-writer bloggers by stating that if a writer is good, he or she will get published, and that all that publishers are looking out for is good books. Susan also argues for people to be realistic about the fact that publishing is a business, and that publishers need to be able to sell their books, so presumably her definition of good books includes saleability. Anyways, for her it seemed to follow - although I'm not sure she ever actually stated this - that if writers were failing to get published, it must mean that they weren't producing good books. In any case, she called for blogging writers to stop whingeing and claiming that publishers don't look at their slush piles and that you need contacts just to get read.

Susan's 'talent will out' argument is an old and familiar one, and has been trotted out by Robert McCrum in the past, but by last spring even Robert McCrum appeared to be taking a different view, and it seems to me that these issues need unpacking.

Today, the Guardian reports that the winner of the Costa awards, Stef Penney's first novel The Tenderness of Wolves, was turned down by 'many publishers' before it was taken by the new independent publisher Quercus, and that Brian Thompson's shortlisted memoir, also from a small independent publisher, was rejected by ten others. I keep coming across such examples: the brilliant writer Tamar Yellin (whom I am proud to say we published in metropolitan) is now winning American prizes with her novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher which a British literary agent failed to sell and which was eventually published by the American Toby Press. You could say that talent did out in the end with these authors, but it is easy to imagine authors losing heart and giving up earlier than this, and that without the existence of those small publishers even these novels might not have seen the light of day.

It is the small publishers who prove Susan Hill's argument that 'all you need do is send your manuscript off to an editor' - as the Bitch can testify with her own recent success with the independent publisher Salt. But it really is not the same with mainstream publishers. To begin with, big publishers seldom look at unagented work. To counter this notion Susan Hill quoted the phenomenal success of Marie Phillips, who had indeed dubbed herself Struggling Author, and whose forthcoming debut novel Gods Behaving Badly was picked up overnight by Cape director Dan Franklin without the mediation of a literary agent. Later, however, Marie, who worked in a bookshop, revealed on her blog that Franklin was shown the novel by the Cape rep. People who pointed this out were seen as crying sour grapes, but as far as the Bitch is concerned - well, a Cape rep once also offered to show her novel 'round the office' (though that was before she'd even written it, and by the time she had he was no longer repping at the bookshop she frequented - shucks!) and although of course it's not to say that anyone in 'the office' would have necessarily picked it up, if they had, the Bitch would most certainly have felt that she'd had a leg-up.

And it's not that easy to get an agent even to look at your submission (the Bitch, though previously published, has standard rejection cards), and when you do get an agent to take you on, well, as the Bitch can vouch again, it's all about marketing and hype and not the book - this is not my fantasy, those are the words of an agent - and the agent tries to set up an auction, and if he fails, if there isn't a scramble for the book within four days, well, in the current state of affairs, where a book has to be 'hot', where there has to be a big buzz going round about it, he's just not going to sell it, and he has to give up on it, however great he thinks it is as literature, and however well he thought it would sell.

Susan Hill says publishing is a subjective business, and as an ex-publisher of a literary magazine the Bitch can agree that on the independent publishing level it is. But now, with the big publishers, editors' decisions can't just be subjective: as Miss Snark has indicated, however great an editor thinks a book is as literature, however much he or she loved it personally, she can't publish it if she doesn't think it will sell enough to recoup the advance for which an agent is angling.

But who knows what sells? As I've pointed out before, current marketing philosophy has its huge blind spots. To knock on the head the notion that otherwise good books turned down by mainstream publishers must inevitably lack the saleability factor, here's the Guardian quoting Simon Robertson, Waterstone's fiction buyer, and Foyles' Kate Gunning respectively on the Tenderness of Wolves: 'Will be a monster paperback'; 'Broad commercial appeal'.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

To Be Green or Not to Be

Oh dear. I knew there was something scratching at the back of my brain when I wrote yesterday about the new, more convivial atmosphere at Manchester's Library Theatre, and it did hit me later in the day: what was I doing, thrilling about the use of PLASTIC CUPS?!!! And here today in the Guardian is Mark Fisher, my eco-conscience personified, asking how green our theatres are.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the Library Theatre

Last time I went to the Library Theatre I moaned about the institutional ambience, and the way it can affect one's enjoyment of a play. Last night I went again. Well, I don't know what's happened, but what a transformation!

We were there to see Chris Honer's production of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead. Press Night was inevitably going to be crowded for such a famous play, and there were actors I knew to gab to, but there was something more creating the sense of excitement which previously I'd been missing. Why did the air seem more charged with expectancy? Why did the foyer lights, and the lights in the bar, seem brighter? Was it warmer? Yes it was! I had worn an extra jumper in readiness, but I had to take it off! And when we ordered our pre-show and interval drinks, we were told that it would be cheaper to buy a bottle, which came with a dish of mixed spiced olives (and which they kept corked for us during Act 1), and someone came round offering us plastic cups so that we didn't have to gulp our unfinished drinks but could TAKE THEM INTO THE SHOW!

But I don't think it was just this convivial atmosphere which made me enjoy a play which I have seen twice before without any such enjoyment. I have always had the oddest feelings about R&G, and about Stoppard plays in general. Stoppard ought to be my hero, since I'm always being pulled up by theatre script readers for employing those very techniques for which Stoppard is lauded - non-naturalistic dialogue, long speeches in which characters engage with ideas - and I have complained elsewhere about the insistence on naturalism in contemporary theatre. But Stoppard's plays have always seemed to me to justify those naturalist objections, since they have always come over to me as cold metaphysical exercises.

But it wasn't like that last night. For the first time for me, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, played by Leigh Symonds and Graeme Hawley, were utterly, comically and tragically human in their plight as pawns in a greater game they don't understand. Other productions I've seen have been consciously stark and modernistic, but this one, done more fittingly in Shakespearean dress, was rich in all ways: visually and choreographically and thus emotionally, as well as metaphysically, and I'm telling you, my mind has been changed about this play.

It's a hard thing for a writer to say, this, but you're nothing without a good director, in the end.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Book Review: Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman

This blog is not primarily a book review blog; it's only occasionally that I've written about a book, and then it's been a book which I just happened to have read. Cynical Bitch though I am, I had naively assumed that review bloggers were doing the same but more often, and when the dispute about blog versus newspaper reviewing broke, the fact that many bloggers were being sent books by publishers was news to me.

Then Vintage asked me if I'd like a copy of Anonymous Lawyer - a Novel, the book of the famous blog, published in the UK this week. Instantly I was dubious, and a question which had been much discussed was thrown into stark relief for me. Would my critical independence be compromised? For I must say such an offer seems a heck of a lot more like a 'gift' than one mediated impersonally by a literary editor (and I have noticed that bloggers have begun thanking publishers in their blogs for their copies). But hey, a Bitch is a Bitch, and this was a blog book, surrounded by specific issues of blog anonymity, and I was very interested, so in the next instant I emailed back and said yes.

Turns out Jeremy Blachman, the author, is a man after the Bitch's own heart - in fact, he's a bitch and a half. The blog, initially anonymous, is a hoot and deservedly popular. Purportedly written by a hiring partner in a large Los Angeles law firm - monstrously vain, scheming and sadistic, but ultimately vulnerable - it exposes with broad satire the nasty underbelly of corporate law. There was much speculation about the identity of the author and whether or not the blog was fictional, which is amusing to read now, but the author was finally outed as a Harvard law student whose recent experience of student internship in a law firm was from the other side. An astute editor picked up on Blachman's thus clearly fictive skills and the book, or at least the idea of the book, soon followed.

It's hard to believe in retrospect that the blog was ever thought to be anything but fiction, which shows the power of context. The novel takes the form of the original blog - interspersed with emails - and its style and voice, those of a satirically exaggerated (unreliable) narrator, are identical:
We have students lining up to hand us their resumes, yet we've got a 30 percent annual turnover rate... That makes my job a bit of a challenge. How to stay positive about selling students on the excellence of this place when we have to make sure the boxes of copier paper aren't tied up wih rope - because that rope is just too tempting. One hanging every so often is to be expected, but when there's another one every time we get new office supplies it starts to get a little difficult to work.
The blog is smartly shaped into a proper story - that of Anonymous Lawyer's scheming to oust his rival to the chairmanship of the firm - but the novel is more complex, both structurally and thematically, than this. Rather than simply being the means of telling a story, the blog is a crucial aspect of the wider story. It's the place where Anonymous Lawyer postures (though sometimes letting his mask slip), but it is counterpointed by the emails in which a different reality unfolds. Initially there is some fun (which Blachman must have had in real life) at the expense of those emailing to guess AL's identity, but eventually someone emails who really does know who he is, his anonymity is threatened, the incriminating blog becomes the potential means of his downfall, and the stage is set for further machiavellian manipulations. Thus the novel goes beyond the scope of the original real-life blog to become not simply an expose of the evils of corporate law but a witty comment on the nature of blogging and anonymity, and on the double-edged power and vulnerability of bloggers.

Not that the wit doesn't sometimes wear thin. The serial nature of a blog allows for - maybe even requires - some repetition, but a novel with its demand for development is less forgiving. I found this funny at the beginning of the novel:
He fired his assistant on the day she announced she was pregnant... At least I wait until they come back from maternity leave before I tell them they're fired.
but by the end of the novel, when this joke was still being riffed, its lack of subtlety, the very thing which had made it funny, had palled.

This isn't a subtle novel, and nor is it meant to be; its fast pace and rude wit are probably best taken at a sitting. At first I was suspicious of it as a publisher's cynical marketing conconction - a sentence in Blachman's Acknowledgements runs: Even when I was sure I couldn't write this book I never felt [my editor's] confidence waver. But the Acknowledgements refers to Blachman's prior aspirations as a fiction-writer, and the book justifies them.

But, hey, speaking of marketing, what about the product? I simply couldn't get this paperback to stop springing shut on me, and I've got bad enough RSI in my thumb without having to strain it further that way. And when I finally cracked the spine to make the book lie flat, all the pages came unglued and fell about in my hands.

Who said books last longer than blogs?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Quietly Chilling News

Admittedly I've been too busy writing even to blog, stuck up in my study from 7 in the morning and into the evenings, lost in a made-up world, so I may have missed many things, but I didn't see another reference to that death threat to Orhan Pamuk until today. Today the Guardian reports in its international pages that the Turkish novelist has cancelled a book tour as a result of the apparent threat called out by Yasin Hayal, accused by the Turkish police of orchestrating the murder of the Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink.