Saturday, December 29, 2007

Not that I've Read His Book

We can only suppose and hope that Pierre Bayard, author of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is having a laugh in Saturday Guardian Review commentary:

I have often found myself in the delicate situation of having to express my thoughts on books I haven't read. Because I teach literature at university level, there is, in fact, no way to avoid commenting on books that I haven't even opened. It's true that this is also the case for the majority of my students, but if even one of them has read the text I'm discussing, there is a risk that at any moment my class will be disrupted and I will find myself humiliated
implying as he does with those words 'a delicate situation' and 'humiliation' that it's all a matter of personal status and dignity rather intellectual honesty and inquiry, and who cares if in the process none of us really knows what we're discussing?

We really shouldn't let the three 'repressive' 'internalized constraints' he lists stop us in our 'non-reading': firstly, 'the [social] obligation to read', which he says (god forbid) 'remains [like all unthinking practices] the object of a kind of worship', secondly, 'the obligation to read thoroughly', and thirdly the 'understanding that one must read a book in order to talk about it with any precision'.

After all, as he says, 'it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven't read it in its entirety - or even opened it.'

Pity then that his later, more coherent argument for a wider understanding of the different ways we read gets submerged in such a spoof...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Christmas Carol for Waterstone's

With apologies to C Dickens.

Old Waterstone's is as dead as a doornail.

Bill knew it was dead. How could it be otherwise? Bill's friend Liz worked at Deansgate Waterstone's for I don't know how many years. Yet - so Bill told me yesterday at a playwrights' Christmas gathering (where half of Manc, it seemed, was wearing Santa hats and yelling their heads off in the Duke's down in Castlefield) - when Bill went into Waterstone's recently for books for research, he had to spend one and a half hours looking for them because the staff had no idea where they were, and it was only after that time that they were discovered in the stock room.

Well, it's Christmas, and I didn't like to be negative, so I didn't add my story: that some time ago I began arranging a reading there for myself and some fellow Salt authors. Then in October I got a regretful email: unfortunately the reading couldn't go ahead because the reading room was to be used to store Christmas stock!

Well, we had our drink and then we all said Merry Christmas and goodbye and, undaunted, I went off to Waterstone's to do some Christmas shopping. I looked for a display of the Booker shortlist. I couldn't find one anywhere. I asked an assistant. She looked startled (as if she rarely gets that kind of question) and a little ashamed (as if she'd she'd always been dreading it). She said, 'Oh, no we don't have one of those. It's all Christmas stock at the moment.' (Note that: booksellers do not expect anyone to give Booker books for Christmas: only the 'Christmas Stock'.) Trying to be helpful, she told me: 'They'll be dotted about on the shelves.'

I couldn't remember all of them offhand - and I was interested in the long list, too - so I asked if she could remind me. No, of course she couldn't. She had to look them up on the internet.

You will, therefore, permit me to repeat emphatically that old Waterstone's is as dead as a doornail.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dressed-Up Theatre

What do you conclude when everyone comes out of a play and says, 'Weren't the costumes fantastic?' (as so many people said to me on Monday night after the Royal Exchange production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband)?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Production Line Novelists

Matthew Wright investigates UK Creative Writing courses for Education Guardian. This bit struck me:
Novels by faculty members count as publications towards a department's research exercise. [Philip] Hensher [professor at Exeter] says there "may be some awareness in departments that employing a busy novelist, publishing a book every two years or so, is not going to do their RAE scores any harm."
Well now. Some prolific novelists are great. But not all great novelists are prolific.

Can you see where this could be leading?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Politics and the Writer

If only Martin Amis had watched his language. Now we have the latest in Terry Eagleton's reaction to Amis's connotational errors. He says this to the Observer's Tim Adams:
I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on such matters [as terrorism] any more than we should listen to window cleaners.
Well, all I can say then is that Marxist literary theory has come a heck of a long way from the Soviet concept of literature as politically useful, because, although he doesn't actually say it, this is coming very close to saying that fiction itself has nothing politically useful to say, or at least is likely to be interpreted as saying this, without the careful distinction being made between novelists' public pronouncements and their novels. And such a notion dovetails dangerously with those of a publishing world largely intent on 'entertainment' rather than thoughtful or politically-committed literature.

No wonder that, as Tom Chatfield says in a comment on my post about the recent Manchester University debate on Literature and Terrorism, 'literature' that evening was a very little word. In the intervening days it has become clearer to me that that 'debate' not only pushed literature aside for the issues themselves, but actively and in process privileged public discourse over literature - and worse, colluded in the cult of personality - by allowing Amis's predicament and defence of his public pronouncements to be the focus.

Even so, I'd like to question that distinction between the importance of a novelist's work and that of his or her public pronouncements. 'I don't know where [novelists'] status comes from,' says Eagleton (by which he means the status which gives them a right to make public political statements). This is another statement implying a reductive attitude to literature and an underestimation of its potential cultural power. If novels matter to people, if they have been affected by them emotionally and politically, then it is natural for people to want to hear what novelists have to say on matters of political urgency. Well-known novelists, in other words, already have a voice. Of course they need to be careful how they use it, and in my view Amis should have been far more circumspect (and dropped his fictive tropes of irony and exaggerated rhetoric) before he spoke publicly and outside the accustomed parameters of fictive expression.

For me this comes at a weekend when fiction and political action have collided with tear-wrenching urgency. Recently, quite out of the blue, I was asked to contribute to 'Fragments from the Dark', an anthology of fiction pieces and poetry about exile and home, which will appear in the summer from the publishing arm of Hafan (Haven), the Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group. This week coordinating editor Jeni Williams alerts me to a heartbreaking article in the New Statesman about the plight of children being imprisoned in UK deportation holding centres, in breach of a key UN Convention. Easy pickings for a government with deportation targets to achieve, many of the families are simply lone mothers and children who have fled domestic or political violence, taken suddenly at dawn from their UK homes - and settled and ordered lives in the community which can include GCSEs - to be kept in the centres without adequate clothes or food. Even if they are eventually returned to their UK homes, most of these children will be seriously emotionally damaged. Jeni also copies me the email she has sent to the Children's Commissioner, Prof Aynsley-Green, who is trying to combat this situation, in which she describes with heart-rending vividness families she is working with in these situations.

Personally, on political issues I always feel happiest sticking to what I do best, ie saying it through fiction, but you know, sometimes there just isn't the time.

Email to support The Children's Commissioner, Prof Aynsley-Green at

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Uses of Prizes

Maya Jaggi defends the apparently 'non-literary' choice of pop singer Lily Allen for inclusion on the judging panel of next year's Orange Prize. Maggie Gee, chair of the Royal Society of Literature has complained about the lack of 'serious writers' on the panel, but Jaggi supports the claim made by the prize's co-founder and director Kate Mosse that the members of such a jury need to be 'readers' more than they need to be writers: people able to judge accessibility as well as excellence.

The danger with a highly literary jury, says Jaggi, is that 'experts end up only talking to each other', and 'the ultimate aim is to serve not just writers but readers.'

Well, maybe. It is after all an author's job, in my view, to reach out to readers. Just as long as Mosse's aim to 'entice as many readers as possible to sample not just the winner but the longlist' doesn't mean excellence is pushed off the agenda....

Monday, December 10, 2007

Short Stories Reviewed

Tania Hershman alerts me to Issue 2 of her great new website The Short Review, devoted to reviews of short story collections:

On the menu this month are:

  • debut collections by: a Brit living in Prague, a Canadian, and a Panamanian- American (The Loudest Sound and Nothing; Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction; Come Together, Fall Apart)
  • anthologies from Britain and Australia (You Are Here; The Sleepers Almanac)
  • classics of different shades (Katherine Mansfield's Collected Stories; Self Help by Lorrie Moore)
  • the English translation of a Polish collection (Tales from Galicia)
  • a zombie-filled second collection (Magic for Beginners)
  • an award-winning flash fiction collection from a small press (The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Further Thoughts on the Branding of Authors

Further thoughts about the issues raised in my last post (can't you tell I'm blogging in a hurry at the moment - it's because I've started writing again!):

Comparing our lack of seriousness about books to the attitude of the poverty-stricken but book-desiring inhabitants of Zimbabwe, Doris Lessing also said this:
There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: "Is she good-looking?" If this is a man: "Charismatic? Handsome?" We joke, but it is not a joke.
Now Dominic Proctor's notion of 'branding' authors, as he describes it to Danuta Kean, seems essentially a good one. His idea, if I read it correctly, is that at present publishing is geared to retail structures which treat books as commodities to be sold alongside other similar commodities, (3 for 2s etc). This means that each book loses its individuality and becomes divorced from a writer's oeuvre and turns into a 'one-off' product. Such a system, as so many writers have found to their cost, places no investment in either an author's career or in the long-term life of a book (authors dropped when their first books don't 'sell', books shifted back to the warehouse and pulped after a very short shelf life) and ignores the potential of word-of-mouth build. Instead, he says, publishers should be building what he calls a 'brand' to attract a community of readers around an author's entire oeuvre.

So far so good - great, in fact. And here's Joanna Prior, marketing and publicity director at Penguin, on how Penguin helped Zadie Smith to break out of what Danuta Kean calls 'one hit wonderland':
“A lot of what it comes from is an unshakable belief that you have the ‘real thing’ on your hands, that you have an author who is going to write for a career not just one book.” Such belief, she believes, should fuel publishers’ confidence to create distinct identities that set authors apart. In the case of Smith this meant an emphasis on her distinctive name using bold cover design and tactical publicity that showcased her as a voice for a new generation.

Well, again, that sounds smashing. But didn't you notice all those journalists commenting, as Doris Lessing intimates, on Zadie's youth and beauty, and didn't they put plenty of stress on her personal background?

It's one thing when an author's work is the brand, it's another when the brand is the person of the author. It's dangerous, actually, as Zadie was clearly indicating when not so long ago she pointed out wryly that she'll be old 'and ugly' soon.

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Oh, hey, Doris has said it: when the internet was invented we never asked, did we, whether even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find that a whole day has passed in blogging etc. (From Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech.)

Doris Lessing dismisses the internet as 'inane' so her comment above may well be dismissed in turn as uninformed, but actually for writers - and about writers - she is expressing a horrible truth. Last week Grumpy Old Bookman gave up because there were 'better things to do' he said, by which I guess he means write. The fact which most people skirt around is that blogging is time-consuming, and can use up huge dollops of precious creativity. And this week, just as I was having similar thoughts myself, Julian Gough expressed a different sense of his blog as a trap: he's fed up with his own blog persona - a natural experience, I think, for creators, who thrive on chameleon-like renewal and innovation.

Yet now here's an excellent piece by Danuta Kean on advertising mogul Dominic Proctor's idea that authors should be created as brands (rather than books being treated as one-off products, as currently happens). And in the comments that follow, guess what emerges as the best way for authors to do this for themselves if their publishers don't do it for them? Why, the internet, of course! As Roger Morris, who has done this most successfully, says there, it's a hard slog.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Judging the Competition

The BBC National Short Story Award has at last been announced, later than the two previous years, and renamed (it was previously called the National Short Story Prize).

Here's a sentence from the Terms and Conditions:
In order to establish a manageable long list all entries will initially be read by at least two (2) sifters from mixed teams chosen by the BBC, Booktrust and Scottish Book Trust.
Hmm. Fellow writers have pointed out to me that you can't expect anything else, given the numbers that will be involved. But I wonder: the numbers won't be that great, surely, since one of the conditions of entry is that a writer must have been published, and the kind of publication they've got in mind is implied by the fact that there's a space in the application form to name your publisher - and indeed a space for publishers to sign if they're submitting their authors.

As far as I'm concerned one of the greatest skills of judging or editing is the ability to recognize the innovative and creatively odd-ball which conventional expections would pass over. It surely follows that it's at that very early stage that the greatest and most expert judging skill is required. It's why, when Ailsa Cox and I were editing metropolitan, we would never let our workers do the initial sifting in spite of the fact that we were swamped with manuscripts, and it's why of course they wanted to do it and were furious that we wouldn't let them (as indeed I'd have been in their situation).

So what does this mean? That the so-called judges of this competition are not the real ones, they're just figureheads, and the real groundwork is being done by more expert but anonymous people? Or does it mean that the whole thing is geared from the start towards conventionality - as one has to suspect when the BBC, with its strangulating charter (and the formal restrictions on stories suitable for broadcast), is now so heavily involved?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Must-Have Book

I've been so busy (and worn out) that I've only just got around to looking at Sunday's papers (before throwing them out), so I've only just caught up with Rachel Cooke's reaction to that talked-about book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read:
...yet another product of a world that commodifies everything, that regards books pretty much as if they were status handbags. It sees reading only as a social indicator, as a way of getting on or looking cool, ignoring the fact that, at bottom, it is a private pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake.
The first time it ever occurred to me that people bought books just to be cool - and not to read them - was, I'm afraid, on the publication of Trainspotting which people seemed to have a habit of wearing sticking out their back pockets or handbags. I hasten to say that I think the book's brilliant, but how could so many people read it so easily? As anyone who's done psychology or any actor will tell you the phonetic transcription of speech sounds is one the most difficult things to read, because of the component of expectation in the psychological process of perception and therefore of reading: the prior connections we make in our heads between the sounds of a dialect and any written form involve the standard forms and not those phonetic ones. Even the kids in Dundee I taught had problems with Rabbie Burns, so used were they to reading standard English.

It's this idea 'that reading is a private pleasure for it's own sake' which Rachel Cooke uses to challenges author Pierre Bayard's justifications, including his assertion that we forget half the books we read anyway. Call me an old sobersides, but I'd go further: beyond the pleasure principle, books can affect us, affect our world view and even, I would claim, the way we behave in the world - even if we do forget them on the conscious level.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The End of Romance?

Speaking of language: I wonder if it was really necessary for the Guardian to line up for and against arguments about whether Mills and Boon books perpetuate a patriarchal sexual ideology? Just look at the titles quoted and on display in the pic, and the power relations they express:

The Italian's Captive Virgin
The Desert Shiek's Captive Wife
The Greek Tycoon's Inn[ocent?].... [rest of title hidden]
The Spanish Prince's....
His Christmas Bride
The Prince's Forbidden V[irgin?]

Apart from this, one of the biggest criticisms came inadvertently from my one-time mother-in-law, who loved the things. She would sit with her feet up and read non-stop for a whole afternoon, and then when she'd got to the end she would look suddenly shocked and say in wonder and disappointment: 'Oh, I think I've read that one before!'

Literature, Language and Speech in the Age of Terrorism

Halfway through the Q & A at Monday's Manchester University sell-out debate between Martin Amis, Ed Husain and Maureen Freely on Literature and Terrorism, a questioner asked: 'Do you think we can get back to Literature?'

I think this must have been Tom Chatfield who writes about the event on the Prospect Magazine blog. Can literature tackle the subject of terrorism, he asked, or must it buckle and be sidelined in the face of it - as, he was implying, was indeed happening in this debate?

Only Maureen Freely tackled with any urgency the subject of the responsibility of the writer, while Amis and Husain concentrated in their opening speeches on reiterating their distinctions between Islam and Islamism and on condemning jihadist terrorism, and like Tom Chatfield I found her contribution moving. Apart from that, and a few angry reiterations of familiar political positions from the floor, there was no real debate, as Maureen Freely says on the Guardian Books blog. Instead there was a disconcerting sense, in that vast hall packed with 500 people, of issues being skirted around.

'What do you expect a novelist to do, deny his feelings?' asked Martin Amis, when finally, towards the end, a questioner challenged him outright about what Maureen Freely calls The Controversy, reiterating the point he made in Saturday's Guardian.

Whoa, Martin, stop there. OK, yes, novelists, unlike politicians and Amis's 'post-historical automata', deal in feelings, and this is why I'm always saying that, contrary to current belief, fiction has potentially greater persuasive power than any political tract. But a novel is complex and subtle, it's not just a knee-jerk response, and we are not, after all, writing novels when we are speaking in public - briefly, and without the emotional investment a novel earns from an audience - on political issues. Indeed, Amis himself (in his own defence) makes a distinction between the status of the two forms of expression: What you say about something is never your last word on any subject. But what you write should aspire to be just that: your last word. The trouble is, though, what you say to a journalist, or even on telly, gets written down and can be, and mostly is, presented as your last word.

To me there is no doubting Amis's sincerity, but he does seem to have some confusions and he really needs to watch his language. I do agree with him that there's a mistaken and dangerous 'liberal' inability to condemn horrors perceived to be confined to other cultures, but perhaps the 60% of an audience who failed to put up their hands when he asked how many would call themselves 'morally superior' to suicide bombers were simply shocked by his diction? It's one thing to condemn an action, but it's another to bring the focus back onto oneself and bathe in moral righteousness. Much of Amis's diction is hierarchical in this way: we in the west are more 'evolved' than Islamic states, he says (it's no good Amis claiming as he has that by 'evolved' he simply means 'more civilized': the word has inescapable Darwinian connotations of progression and hierarchy); Muslims need (and want) 'to put their house in order', he says, calling on Biblical and western-political notions of division and patriarchal hierarchy (and in danger of conflating Islam and Islamism once again.)

It's a mindset that doesn't help. Maureen Freely, who grew up in Turkey, where East and West most graphically meet, put her finger on this at one point, calling on everyone to stop thinking, in this age of mass immigration and global communication, in divisive terms of East and West. She got a clap, I think.

But she's right: through no fault of her own, she failed really to challenge, and in spite of her best efforts, the subject of literature, its political responsibility and its power in the face of terrorism trickled away. Meanwhile, today a Turkish publisher goes on trial for publishing a book 'insulting Turkishness'...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Whose Carver?

James Campbell considers the planned re-issue of Carver's collection What We talk About When We Talk About Love (with Carver's original title Beginners), in the light of the comparative endings of the story One More Thing which have now been made available. It's clear that Gordon Lish's so-called 'edit' amounted to a breathtaking rewrite which, as Campbell says, changed utterly the character of the protagonist, turning him away from verbosity and towards the taciturnity we have come to associate with both Carver's characters and his prose. The Lish treatment gives the story that resonant and ambiguous combination of full stop yet lack of closure which is common to Carver's stories as published, but which is missing from the original version of this one.

Campbell points out one factor which will make any well-known author with similar plans of redress quail: it matters not a jot which version is better; in the most significant sense, the well-known versions of an author's characters (and his or her prose) no longer belong to him, his executors or his publishers. They are emotionally owned by the reading public, and it is therefore the well-known versions which are most likely to survive.