Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dear Richard and Judy

Richard and Judy. Nicholas Clee asks on the Guardian book blog if they are skewing our literary culture with their choices and their effect in turn on book-buyers' choices. There are some interesting and entertaining comments. Clee focusses on the effect on the marketing choices publishers make for their books - do some published books fall by the wayside as a result? he asks - but there's a heartfelt comment from Crabtree, a well-reviewed novelist, arguing that publishers' choices of what to publish in the first place is affected:
As a novelist who has just received the devastating news that her German publisher has decided to drop her, and is now bricking it that her English-language publisher might follow suit, I can tell you that the answer to your question, Nicholas, is YES YES YES.
The Bitch can agree, for she can bring for your delectation the experience of having a novel she had written discussed by a literary agent primarily in terms of whether or not it was 'a Richard and Judy' book (and thus saleable to publishers).

Over at The Reading Experience, Daniel Green tackles the subject of the increasing commercialization of publishing with his customary wit and insight:

According to the Book Industry Study Group's Albert N. Greco, "The book business has been around for centuries. It's a mature business, and it's hard to get tremendous growth."

This another way of saying that, historically speaking, the book business has been very successful. It's hung around a long time and mostly managed to satisfy its customers, the identity of which--readers--it has effectively targeted and the outer boundaries of which--extending to and stopping at nonreaders--are generally well known.

It seems to me that those involved in the book business as it is currently configured would do well to keep Greco's warning in mind. "Tremendous growth" beyond the confines of those human beings who read isn't just unlikely... Steady sales of good books among serious readers seems to me a perfectly sound business strategy. Otherwise, produce some other piece of merchandise for which "tremendous growth" is not only possible but is its primary reason for existence.

Finally, before I disappear for a weekend to Paris, here's blogger Norm responding to the undervaluing of literature displayed in the reaction by some to Rushdie's knighthood, by setting up a short-short story competition.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cults and Culture

Today Mark Ravenhill writes about 'the cult of Story' led by master-class script guru Robert McKee and followed by film industry professionals world wide, and expresses the thoughts of the Bitch exactly:
It's a sinister conspiracy no one's talking about... It's spreading through movies, television drama, fiction writing for adults and children. It's beginning to creep into the theatre. It's a cult with thousands of glassy-eyed members.
Rather than relying on skill, taste and discretion in the difficult task of script-reading, he tells us, script editors and directors, schooled in McKee's writing-by-numbers formula, will say things like this to a writer: 'I'm missing the initiating incident on page 28'. Challenging forms are dying from our culture as a result.

Hooray for Ravenhill, I say. And he's right about the silence of everyone else: McKee has been going for years now, for years now we have had endorsing flyers about his seminars from the Writers' Guild, and a generation of industry professionals have his words seeping from their pores. Why has no one, to my knowledge, challenged it before? A cult indeed.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Freedom to Be Offended

Anthony Andrews agrees with me, kind of:
Knighthoods are for snobs and faceless civil servants, not dissident artists. But if it means that The Satanic Verses, in spite of the book chains, finds a new readership, then arise Sir Salman, we salute you.
Of those, including writers, who once condemned Rushdie for 'his participation in his own downfall' he points out rightly:
Few appeared to realise that a massive symbolic attack had been launched against the most vital freedom, not only in art but in society, the freedom of expression. Still less that our rather timid and repentant response would encourage religious extremists and censors.
Freedom of speech threatened by a newly emerged respect for the 'right not to be offended'. What a joke. As if that's a right: not to be offended.

Once I went to Methodist Sunday School, and my ex-Catholic Irish father sneered. I was offended. But guess what, it taught me to stand up for what I believed in. Guess what, it made me stronger in my faith (until, all of my own accord, I lost it). One thing that scares me in life is politeness, because you don't know what people are really thinking, you don't know where you stand, and you don't know what stratagems they could be using against you while they smile and smile and smile...

Never trust those who are too scared to offend you. Trust those who have the courage to tell you what they think. For the sake of everyone's gods, let's embrace the freedom to be offended.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Such an Honour

The Bitch is coming out of Heal's in Manchester. (Please know, dear readers, that the Bitch is not in the habit going to Heal's, but it's good to see how the other half lives, don't you think, and anyway on this occasion, there's a certain exquisite lamp requested for a special birthday by a young relative, which can only be sourced therein.) Anyway, there she is coming out and two black-clad Furies, who seem to have been watching the door and waiting for this very moment, sweep towards her, one carrying a sort of machine gun on his shoulder and the other, a blonde ice-queen, some kind of dead-black laser rod.

'Madam!' cries the ice queen. The Bitch shrinks. Madam? Is this what coming out of Heal's does to you? Get you called Madam while a microphone is shoved in your face? 'Madam, we're from Channel M and we wonder what you think...' and the Bitch stops hearing properly, just two words 'Queen' and 'Honours' float up to her and wild thoughts are flashing in her head: she is wondering, what's this, why were they so keen to get the views of those coming out of Heal's, and the word 'Queen' has triggered the memory of being caught between her English primary school teacher who once told her she must worship the Queen and her Irish dad who exploded when he heard about it, and she tries to concentrate on the question, 'Do you think the Honours system is a good thing?' and then bursts out a flat embarrassed 'No.' Ice queen looks disappointed and urges a bit wearily, 'Why not?' The Bitch says, just as flatly, 'Because I don't like elitism', which is true, but it's not the whole truth, it's not as though she doesn't believe in recognition of talent and good works, she absolutely does, it's just this whole thing being tied up with the monarchy and old, old systems of patronage, and all those political implications, and the dire situation that because of this, because of all those political connotations of this particular system, people can say, as they are doing, that a brilliant writer should not have been awarded or have accepted a knighthood for his writing because it has inflamed others whom his writing offends - thus calling for the very censorship of which David Edgar recently warned.

And since the Bitch is choked and inarticulate with the weight of all this, the two Furies drop her, and jump impatiently away towards the next victim emerging from Heal's.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Revelling in Misery

I recently commented that we are drowning in misery memoirs, and in yesterday's Guardian Esther Addley considers why they are so popular and have taken the publishing industry by storm, indeed creating a whole new readership. Is it prurience that's operating here, as psychologist Oliver James 'unsettlingly' allows it could be? Or is it catharsis as one publisher claims - less worrying, if you overlook the implication that, as James, says 'a hell of a lot of people have had ... cruelty inflicted on them'? Or is it this, which he also allows, and which I am always saying: that 'when you read them you feel that your own lot isn't quite so bad' (which means of course that they lack the universal power of fiction)?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Laughing on the Other Side of Your Face

On the other hand (re comedy):

I am about to write a novel. It is based, in some part, on my own life, and rooted in a particularly dark episode in my childhood. I tell my sister, who naturally shared that dark bit of childhood. She looks at me fiercely. She tells me, somewhat censoriously: ‘Well, you know what you’re best at, don’t you? Comedy. You’ve got to write it as comedy.’

I laugh. That’s what we do in our family: laugh. I am gritting my teeth. I am thinking: typical, ****ing typical, laughing to hide the pain, comedy to hide the pain, to pretend none of it really happened, so we can duck from reality, and so that the problems never get acknowledged, never get ****ing resolved, and so we go on hurting, limping to our ****ing graves hurting and laughing, holding our ****ing painful sides. (Can you tell I was angry?) Comedy, I’m thinking, as my sister glares at me, easy only if you’re avoiding the truth, not so easy if you’re trying to confront it, and still hurting and so still involved, easy only if you’re detached (and safely up high like Julian Gough’s Greek gods). In fact, I’m so angry I’m near to ****ing tears.

I write the novel. I show it to my sister. ‘I was wrong,’ she decides, conciliatory, wiping away her tears. ‘There’s no way you could have written that bit as comedy.’ (And anyway, actually, it’s not as if the whole novel is unremittingly tragic - the habit of comedy’s too ingrained in me, and there are other episodes in the novel which my sister found laugh-out-loud.)

I send it off. ‘Too dark,’ say the publishers. ‘Hmm,’ says my sister, that sardonic, sarcastic, ironic, ****ing satirical I-was-right-all-along look entering her eyes. What a joke.

See, there’s also this about comedy: it depends on your sense of humour, which depends in turn on your relationship with the material:

Well, after that novel I wanted a laugh, and decided to write a short comic play. I’m now producing that play for a theatre festival. A couple of weeks ago I talked to directors interested in working on it. Here’s my conversation with one who had made clear that the play related to his life:

Elizabeth, I’m really keen to do this play, but you’ll need to do a lot of work on it.’

What? Oh! ‘What work?’

‘Well, this thing you reveal so very near the beginning: it would be much better if you kept the audience not knowing it, sitting on the edges of their seats, give them an emotional investment by keeping them guessing.’

‘Oh. Ah.’ (Thinks.) ‘Umm… But if you did that, how would you retain the comedy?’ (Julian Gough’s ‘gods'-eye view’)

The director goes white. ‘Comedy? You call this play a comedy?’

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Comedy of Tragedy and the Tragedy of Comedy

I have at last got round to reading Julian Gough's stimulating article in Prospect (expertly critiqued by Daniel Green at The Reading Experience), in which he considers how the European literary tradition, underpinned by Christianity, has to its detriment spurned comedy and embraced the tragic.
The comic point of view—the gods'-eye view—is much more uncomfortable for a believer in one all-powerful God than it was for the polytheistic Greeks. To have the gods laughing at us through our fictions is acceptable if the gods are multiple, and flawed like us, laughing in recognition and sympathy: if they are Greek gods. But to have the single omnipotent, omniscient God who made us laughing at us is a very different thing: sadistic, and almost unbearable. We do not wish to hear the sound of one God laughing.
We think of tragedy as major, he says, and comedy as minor... Brilliant comedies never win the Oscar. The Booker prize leans towards the tragic.

And, you could add, we are drowning in misery memoirs. Yet how does this sort with publishers' current allergy to novels which are 'too dark'? And how does Gough's complaint that we are stuck in the tragic fit with Mark Ravenhill's complaint in last Monday's Guardian that we are overly obsessed with 'fun'?:
News wants to be fun. Documentaries want to be fun. The neologism "info-tainment" may sound ridiculous but it is a real concept. And it has changed our broadcast and print media over the last decade. But can we honestly say that any of the greatest achievements of western culture are "fun"? King Lear or Anna Karenina, the Ring cycle or Crime and Punishment - it is not possible to describe them as "enjoyable" in any simple sense of the word. They are stern, uncompromising, engrossing. In places, they are hard work.
Ravenhill is right, there is a retreat from seriousness. But this doesn't undercut Gough's argument. As Gough says, true comedy is deeply serious, and can be more subversively so than tragedy.

Once upon a time I wrote darkly comic radio plays. When the 'marketing' ethos took over BBC Radio Drama Production I was asked to 'drop the irony' because what were required now were 'heart-warming' plays.