Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Who Needs Angst?

Never averse to stretching an argument in order to push his own agenda, Mark Ravenhill asserted earlier this week that while TV and cinema are dying in the face of the media, theatre will always live on, due to people's desire to experience live performance.

Come again?

Last night I went to the Royal Exchange to see A Conversation by Australian David Williamson, one of a trilogy he's written around the format of a Community Conference, the central process of what is known as Transformative Justice - practised in Australia - whereby victims and perpetrators are brought together in dialogue as a way of moving them on respectively from their pain or grief and to face up to what they have done.

This play has moved on to the main stage from the studio, a process which the Royal Exchange, newly committed to new writing, it seems, has apparently taken to its heart. Great, absolutely marvellous. And to my mind this play definitely deserved such treatment. Brilliant. In spite of being harrowing (it deals with a particularly horrific murder) and, by virtue of its format, not very theatrical, it was utterly enthralling and wonderfully acted.

But. But, what about this audience in which Ravenhill places such faith for the continuance of theatre?

As I came up the steps with The Partner, a woman standing at the top waved some tickets at us. 'Free tickets? Would you like some free tickets?' (Her friends had presumably failed to show.) 'No thanks,' said The Partner, 'We've already got comps.' 'Oh, dear,' said the woman, 'so has everyone, it seems, I simply can't give them away!' So the house was having to be papered.

Even so, there weren't all that many people milling around, and one of the two bars was, unusually, closed. And, as happens when it's desperate, whatever they'd paid the audience was allowed to fill up the more expensive seats at stage level. And the majority of that audience was - yet again - over fifty.

And yet look what all those young people, and those who'd stayed at home or weren't prepared to fork out the price of a ticket, were missing: for once the play began, that audience was rapt for every moment of the play's uninterrupted ninety minutes, right to the end.

It's hard in such a situation not to agree with the media moguls that everyone just wants 'entertainment' nowadays, and the easier and more accessible the better. Not that artists, writers and literary and theatrical professionals shouldn't be fighting this, which I guess is the true motive behind Ravenhill's somewhat specious argument.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Salt Autumn Party

An announcement today (on both my blogs): on Thursday evening Salt Publishing will be holding a party at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road to celebrate their poetry and short story lists and launch their autumn titles. Yours truly will be reading, along with a glittering array of brilliant, prize-winning, other Salt authors - or Salties, as some of us like to call ourselves.

Everyone is welcome. Come along and celebrate with this truly wonderful, and superhuman, publisher (I know I'm biased, but...!): The Gallery, Foyles Bookshop, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, 6.30-8.30, Thursday November 29th 2007. Readings kick off on the dot at 6.30 (and I'm reading at the start).

The pic shows the cover of Salt's autumn short story catalogue, and is taken from that of their brilliant collection by Charles Yu, the title story of which, Third Class Superhero, won the 2004 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. Charles has also been named one of the US National Book Foundation's '5 Under 35' writers of exciting fiction.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Thingness of Books

Several of last week's discussions about book publishing - about the potential demise of the hardback, about the Kindle, Amazon's new e-book reader, about the wasteful sale or return book retail practice and suggestions for its abolition, and about whether or not we should write in the margins of books - circled implicitly around an important issue: that of the thingness or otherwise of books and how this might now be changing.

I hold up my hand: I have been guilty of fetishizing the physicality of books: of loving their feel and their look and their smell. Yet Nicholas Clee, drawing together two of these discussions (sale or return and the e-book) predicts a future in which books (or at least backlists) are digitized. In such a scenario, our concept of books would no longer be inextricably tied up with their thingness and objectness but would move towards that of books as abstract entities (ideas and imagination) which simply need vehicles - a more sophisticated concept, surely?

As for sale or return, Joel Rickett quotes Hachette's Tim Hely-Hutchinson on the 'heart-breaking' experience of seeing 'palette loads of some of your best books' coming back to the warehouse. I know how he feels: I'd say it was soul-destroying, actually, to get back a packet of copies of the short-story magazine metropolitan which I once published, to open it up and find the damn things fingered and grubby and no longer saleable. All that money down the drain: the money we spent printing them and sending them out and the money the bookshop spent sending them back. Dead things - dead trees - which no one would now read. I used to hope that the fact that they were dog-eared meant that someone had read them - hopping on one foot while the shop assistants' backs were turned - but no one would read them again now, or properly, and I'd get overwhelmed by a sense of the thingness of them killing off the potential of the brilliant contents.

There was one lighter moment: when I rang Liverpool Blackwell's to ask how many they'd sold of one issue, the manager said, None. But she couldn't send them back to me: they'd had every single copy stolen. Well, I chose to believe her, anyway, and to think that those contents had gone winging their way into the world, slipping the material structures of commerce, and into people's conciousness...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Too Literary For What?

Indicators of the way the wind may be blowing in our literary world, perhaps?:

Vanessa Gebbie reports that the publisher turned down all of the winning and commended novels in the Lichfield/Time Warner First Novel Competition as 'too literary'. Vanessa comments: 'If you want to get anywhere… dumb down, folks!'

Yet DJ Taylor notes in a Guardian article titled, 'Independents fight back' that independent publishers (less in thrall to the 'market' than the big guns) feature significantly on this year's Costa shortlists. (Can't find a link for the Taylor piece, I'm afraid.) *

* Got the link now, thanks to Adele Geras.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Hard Sell

Well, that's it - the Bitch is unlikely to have a book published in hardback now, that dream she first conceived in the libraries of all those small towns she lived in as a child, which was all she could conceive, because that's all the libraries had then - stacks of hardbacks and nothing else. (Hardback fiction is on the way out according to Picador, who are to begin putting literary fiction straight into paperback.)

Up to now the only hardbacks I've ever been in have been anthologies; my books have come from publishers who have published in paperback from the start, setting the trend which Picador is now to follow - along with other mainstream publishers, it's predicted.

'A moribund market' is what Picador calls hardback fiction, and some shockingly dire hardback sales figures for one of our top authors, Graham Swift, have been revealed. Well, the writing has been on the wall for some time. From Richard and Judy to my reading group, people no longer consider books not yet in paperback, and retailer discounts have impacted on the format.

There are some dissenting voices. The Guardian quotes Weidenfeld and Nicholson's Kirsty Dunseath: 'Coming out in hardback is a statement of confidence in a novel and gets the reviews. It doesn't say much for your confidence coming out in paperback.' Well, that's certainly always been the assumption: hardback good, paperback first imprint bad; and the pioneering independent publishers haven't found it easy to get press coverage for their first imprint paperbacks. (The same prejudice could work the other way too: once, when I was starting out, I was invited to send stories to a prestigious showcase anthology for new writers, but was then told not to send them after all as my work had already appeared - in a different anthology - 'between hard covers': a simplistic hierarchy which categorized me as more established than in fact I was.)

Scott Pack, ever pithy, gets it right, telling the Guardian: 'They should be reviewing on the basis of content rather than the binding', which made the Partner of the Bitch practically fall out of bed laughing when he read it this morning at the thought that it needed to be said.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Roar for Powerful Words

Well, I'm flattered enough to groom my whiskers: Charles Lambert has awarded me a Shameless Lions Roar for Powerful Words, but I'm also circling in my cage. One of the responsibilities this carries is to list three things which in my view characterize powerful writing, and here I am gnawing the thing to bits as usual: I mean, what are we taking about here, fiction or non-fiction? And is the implication that as award-winners, we KNOW, and have the secrets to impart - in which case, forget it, I'm rendered wordless, it's like, er, asking a lion to deconstruct how he roars?

But no, look, the other responsibility here is to nominate five others, and the following (although I know some have already received the award) demonstrate to me the three most important qualities of powerful writing: seriousness of intent, wit in execution and economy and/or vividness with language:

Jenny Diski
The Age of Uncertainty
That's So Pants
Baroque in Hackney

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Terrorism of Intellectual Repression

It's an indication of the pass we have come to that, I'm ashamed to say, I needed to think about doing on this blog what Hari Kunzru also does in the Guardian today: respond to the conviction of amateur poet Samina Malik for the possession of "records likely to be used for terrorism" by confessing, in the name of freedom of thought, to one's own similar records, research for writing.

Kunzru points out that
we seem to have accepted the principle that it should be illegal to think, read and write certain things. Incitement to violence is rightly criminalised, but what about imagining violence? It's hard not to link Malik's poems to other trends - the push for ever-widening hate speech laws, the calls for writers like Monica Ali to be "careful" about how they represent the world. We are being taught to be circumspect. How long before it's suggested we should shut up altogether?
In fact my records look pretty weedy besides Kunzru's: I downloaded instructions on how to make a bomb when I was researching the IRA for my latest, unpublished novel. I have to say though that even as I downloaded them, a couple of years ago now, I had a sense of doing something incriminating - mainly perhaps because the novel is very much about such matters (persecution and the need to hide 'incriminating' evidence) , but also because I feel this atmosphere of intellectual repression has been building for some time. And I can't even prove my purpose: I never actually used the instructions for the novel in the end.

Last week I stood in the rooms where Anne Frank hid with her family from the Nazis. How long, as Kunzru says, before we need to hide our thoughts, if not our bodies, altogether?

The Writing or the Writer?

In the wake of Norman Mailer's death, a slightly shocking 'good riddance' from Joan Smith on the Guardian Books Blog, which gives rise to a long debate about whether we should judge a writer's work in the light of his or her life.

As so often, on the whole the commenters fall into two extreme camps, but it seems to me the issue is more complex than they allow. I've said often enough that I deplore the cult of personality in the contemporary literary world, which does indeed distort our perceptions of writing. On the other hand, as Zadie Smith pointed out earlier this year (the Guardian link seems to have disappeared, I'm afraid), a writers' writing is inevitably coloured or indeed motored by his or her personality - insights, attitudes, perceptions - and thus can't be seen as 'separate' in quite the way some of Joan Smith's commenters claim.

As John Morton says (last post), it's important to concentrate on the writing rather than the writer, but sensitive readers must be alert to the sensibility behind any piece of writing, regardless of fine sentences or clever structure etc. Great writing is always a combination of the two - linguistic facility and sharp sensibility. In fact, it's the writing that will tell you the real truth about an author's character, rather than any self-made or publisher-generated reputation.

As for Mailer, well, I haven't read enough of him, or recently enough, to comment on his writing, but I do know that long ago something about it put me way off. Whether that was his reputation colouring my perception or his sensibility leaking through the prose, I'll have to look again to find out.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Teach Yourself to Read

A good post, in my view, by John Morton on the Guardian books blog, in which he considers the general response to Anne Enright's London Review of Books article on the McCanns, and the wider implications of the superficial or wilful way in which people read.

Doesn't stop the commenting jokers getting the boot into Enright all over again though...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Short break

I'm taking a break for the next few days - back next Tuesday or Wednesday.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lucy Honeychurch, the Wanton

Here's an excellent post by Daniel Green at the Reading Experience on adapting classic novels for TV.

The thrust of his argument as I read it is that however faithfully a filmmaker tries to replicate a novel, a film can never be a true substitute:
'A good film requires careful attention, just as does a good novel, but the kind of attention being paid is not the kind required by fiction'
and the two forms inevitably produce different creatures.

However it seems that now the adapters aren't even trying for replication. I have to admit I found interesting Andrew Davies's highlighting of the suppressed homosexual theme in A Room With a View (last Sunday night's adaptation) - but surely that suppression is part of the essence of the novel, a novel about suppression with its own meta-suppression. And as for the reversal of the novel's ending with the WWI addition, well please tell me why this was necessary. And another thing: the way these contemporary interpreters of Victorian and Edwardian middle-class female protagonists leave their mouths hanging OPEN! Is no one in the media old enough, or well enough (or sensitively enough) read to know that even in the early sixties girls were constantly expected to hold their mouths closed as a sign of breeding and virtue? And especially when it comes to Miss Lucy Honeychurch! Oh, I know that Lucy's got a wild soul, but remember it's a wild soul in conflict with her breeding, and it's her PIANO PLAYING which betrays this, not hanging lips and glittering teeth on show. Did they feel they had to 'modernise' her to make modern audiences identify? Or do they just not care?

All of this works towards a dilution of Lucy's suppression and eventual rebellion: not only would that piano playing be so much more shocking coming from a girl with all the historically-correct physical social manners, and her rebellion that much more dynamic (even - or especially - to modern eyes), but the explicitness of the homosexuality in the film dilutes the theme of Lucy's suppression which in the novel has to stand for it as well as for itself.

I'm telling you, Lucy's mouth wasn't the only one hanging open.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Bravura Inconsistency

Gratifying that Saturday's Guardian Review led with an extract from The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, in which Richard Ford asserts the importance of the short story, 'the high-wire act of literature'. The great short story, he says, is an act of daring and audacity, a bravura performance - 'short stories are often good on the strength of sheer nerve' - and it is this which gives it its authority.

I like the thrust of this, but I have problems with the fact that Ford elides the notion of the authority of the short story with that of the 'writer's authority.' While he admits that 'Great stories are congeries of plan, vigour, will and application, but also of luck and error and intuition and even, God knows, sudden inspiration for all of which there is no key', (as I also said recently), the article privileges the notions of conscious writerly decision-making and of the writer's conscious project to exert authority over the reader, 'to subordinate our concerns to hers' (a motive which he says propelled him first into writing). There's something chauvinistic about this, in spite of Ford's self-conscious care to award the writer female gender, a tension which I think deprives the article of clarity. He talks about the 'miracle' of fictive creation, yet so much of his diction leans towards a different concept of the process: - 'what the writer deems important ... authorial decisions ... the story's manufacture' (my bolds).

Interesting that in the same paper Jeanette Winterson writes somewhat differently about the creative process. For Winterson, writing is on the contrary a wholly private matter: 'an explanation, in code, of myself to myself.' What's miraculous about it for Winterson is that 'what begins as private notation becomes language other people can use.' I'm with Winterson on this: it is in this way that fiction exerts its authority, an authority in which readers share - as she says, 'The books we love speak for us and speak to us. I am always in dialogue with books that have affected me.' (Ford agrees with this last, somewhat inconsistently) - and not, as Ford would have it, to which we 'submit'.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Simple Division

I've been pretty busy lately, too busy to get to grips before now with this fact which has been knocking about in the back of my head: the fact that while people can't seem to get enough of misery memoirs we can't as a culture seem to stand what are termed 'dark novels'.

It's the 'miserable' nature of Anne Enright's The Gathering which seems to be the focus of those who have reacted to it negatively, and I know I'm not the only author to have had to abandon a novel because it was termed 'too dark' for the current market. Last spring Julian Gough seemed to demur: his Prospect article took as its premise that it's comedy in literary fiction against which we are prejudiced, and that we privilege instead the 'serious' and, he seemed to be implying, the miserablist. Gough presumably had in mind those highly established literary authors, such as Ian McEwan, who are allowed to go on writing in their own vein, while others - even Doris Lessing, it seems - must conform to the 'market' or be turned down, but in any case Gough thus contributed, in an otherwise excellent article, to a false division and an oversimplification of the issues.

Firstly, what do we mean by these terms 'tragedy/comedy', 'serious', 'miserablist'?

Tragedy, in literary terms, is the serious representation of a tragic human situation, but as I have said before it can be uplifting and need not be be 'miserablist'. And comedy - as Gough agreed in a comment on one of my posts - can be the most serious of literary modes.The Greeks, whom Gough used as his model, did indeed subscribe to an unbridgeable gulf between tragedy and comedy, and, he avers, valued the positivity of comedy over tragedy - but, he says, because so many of the Greek comedies were lost, Western civilization subsequently picked up the wrong idea, that tragedy is the proper mode for serious fiction. I do certainly think Gough is onto something in this last, but I also think it's at the root of his own collusion in a cultural error of opposition. Even if we were to accept those oppositions between tragedy and comedy, we should remember that while the Greeks may have seen comedy as a higher form, they didn't exactly dismiss the cathartic usefulness of tragedy which Anne Enright appealed to at her recent Whitworth Gallery reading. But the fact is that since the Greeks we've have a whole lot of stuff going on - not least Freudian concepts of the doubleness of our human psyche which can't so easily be divided up into clear oppositions, and a whole literary history of dark comedy which fuses both aspects of our experience, the tragic and the hilarious. Yet our cultural responses do still seem rooted in those oppositions: Gough can dismiss our literary heavyweights as miserablist; people can overlook the comedy and wit in Anne Enright's novel.

Is this, I wonder, why people can take - no, crave for - miserablist memoirs, when they seem to have such a distaste for serious novels: the fact that such memoirs, as apparent 'fact', are psychologically simpler, and thus easier to read for a culture still rooted in that divisive psychological error; whereas novels, forcing human tragedy through the hopeful and redeeming tropes of fiction are more psychologically complex and demand something more complex from the reader?

Or is it that the miserablism of these memoirs is not after all fundamentally serious, tending towards a wallowing in human misery which borders on a distasteful kind of enjoyment?

(Or simply, as I have often suggested before, that the universality of novels forces readers to identify in a way that memoirs, which are after all only the experience of identifiable others, don't, whatever Oprah Winfrey may say?)