Thursday, January 31, 2008

How Powerful Can Words Be?

In an excellent article in this month's Prospect magazine Tom Chatfield reviews Martin Amis's new book of essays (and two short stories), The Second Plane: September 11: 2001-2007.

It's a lucid and compelling piece in which Chatfield pinpoints an issue which was skirted over (as he says) in the December Manchester University debate in which Amis took part:
...if words were rendered irrelevant by 11th September, they were also in some sense crucial to it. For this was an act performed in the name of holy words. If literature is nursed by the hope that the right words are morally awakening, experience qualifies this by suggesting that in books we can find a rationale for any and every kind of act.
Discussing Amis's book, Chatfield anatomizes the ways in which Amis struggles in these essays but ultimately fails in the task of using language either to transcend the divisions of terrorism or to disarm its proponents, and shows how his polemical pronouncements ultimately lack the understanding of evil which his novels display.

Only subscribers can get the full article online, so if you'd don't subscribe I urge you to buy a copy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Our Treasured Fourth Estate - Again

So Joan Brady didn't after all say that she'd had to abandon her literary novel and could 'only' write thrillers because fumes from a next-door shoemaking workshop had made her stupid - as Mark Lawson appeared to accept, and as I discussed in an earlier post.

In an interview with the Guardian today she tells Stuart Jeffries what really happened: that when the shoemaker moved in next door, first the noise stopped her working, and then she became very ill with the fumes (which turned out to be extremely poisonous and which have affected her health permanently), so she stopped working altogether. She then spent eight years fighting the situation and the council, who, far from supporting her, issued 15 court summonses against her for building a wall on a listed building to try and keep out the noise and fumes.

When she was able to begin writing again the novel she wrote was the result of these years of struggle - fuelled by anger and a terrible understanding of what it is like to be powerless, themes which were perfect for the thriller form.

That's exactly how it is for a novelist: if it's to have any pulse, what you write must come from your current obsessions, and any radical change in your life while you're writing a novel can mean you simply have to abandon it. When you start again it will be from a very different place, and often the work you were forced to abandon will no longer have meaning for you, and you must write something different altogether.

Brady sounds pretty angry, too, about the current misrepresentation:
"I haven't dumbed down. I never said it. That's the pure invention of the Times. They have decided that this effete literary woman has become so stupid that she can no longer write boring literary fiction and writes poorly selling thrillers instead. My mental faculties haven't deteriorated. And anyway, what an insult it would be to thriller writers to suggest that you need to be stupid to write them. It seems to me so irritating that you would denigrate a remarkable genre where much of the best writing is done. I'm a great admirer of writers like John Grisham and Scott Turow."
Newspapers, eh?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Where Have All the Words Gone? Long Time Passing...

Did you know that if you drive on the M6 toll road you are spinning along on a road of dreams? I could put it a different way: you are driving right over dashed romantic passions. Jo Moran tells us that pulped books are used to make pellets to bind blacktop aggregate, that 45,000 of them are required for one mile of road, and this particular stretch (still magically empty when I drove on it last summer) used up two-and-a-half-million Mills and Boon novels.

I'm not quite sure from this article what Moran's attitude is to the overproduction of books. He begins by attributing it to a 'sacralization' of books (Pierre Bayard's term) - 'from reading groups to bibliotherapy' to Gordon Brown's National Year of Reading which champions reading as a social force for good, although he notes in passing that 'because books are so cheap to make, and the rewards of bestsellerdom so huge ... overproduction makes economic sense'. He seems to imply that schemes like Brown's contribute to the wastefulness: 'Since such campaigns are largely aimed at people who do not read, it is quite a leap to expect them suddenly to be passionate about it.'

Yet when he says, 'We are too sentimental about the physical entity of the book' he is referring to those who express horror at the idea of pulping books, and it becomes an argument for pulping, and potentially by extension for the system which leads to it. And as an author he purports to be quite sanguine and indeed sees a kind of romance in it:
There is something pleasingly melancholic about converting unread books into the wordless anonymity of a road, like having your ashes scattered in a vast ocean. If I can't be a road, I would settle for artificial snow (also made of fibre pellets) falling gently in a Christmas film. At least being shredded is clean and conclusive.

And, agreeing with Pierre Bayard that reading is not always easy or pleasurable, he concludes pragmatically that 'it is perfectly understandable that so many books remain unread'.

Before the end, though, he says this: 'I steer clear of bookshops at this time of year - the chaotic piles of discounted titles depress me. They are where unwanted words go to die.'

Lurking in those two fraught sentences is the real reason for overproduction (glanced at in his earlier reference to bestsellerdom): not the overvaluing of books as a social and educative force but the overvaluing of books as money-making commodities (they are those throwaway Mills and Boons in the M6 toll road blacktop, after all).

Next time you take a spin down the motorway, give a thought to what's beneath the wheels: dead words.

Character in Fiction

On Friday I posted about the false dichotomy which sets 'literary' fiction up against 'populist' or genre fiction. Yesterday the Guardian Review published an extract from a new book on fiction by James Wood, challenging yet another false literary dichotomy. He takes issue with E M Forster's concept of 'flat' and 'rounded' characters in fiction, pointing out that sometimes the most briefly sketched characters can be the liveliest and the most 'real'.

To insist on 'rounded' characters is both to misunderstand the nature of fiction, he implies (fiction characters can never in fact be rounded, since they're not real!), and to require from all fiction the characteristics of only one kind of fiction (E M Forster, for instance, claimed that short stories could not provided rounded characters, by which he meant, presumably, psychologically realistic ones).

Different types of fiction employ different ways of making characters emotionally significant to us, not all of them detailed or lengthy. Wood says:
I think novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or not "deep" enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level. In such cases our appetite is quickly disappointed, and surges wildly in excess of what we are provided, and we tend to blame the author, unfairly, for not giving us enough - the characters, we complain, are not alive or round or free enough.
Personally, talk of 'creating characters' in writing handbooks - as if they're things to be created, somehow consciously, in their own right, and according to rules, perhaps - always makes me feel uneasy, and dreary. For we writers know, don't we, that even when we base them on real people, even when we sometimes feel that they are 'speaking to us' as we write, and even though they often surprise us, we know, don't we, that they're constructs, elements not only of our own psyches, one one aspect only of the whole construct which is a novel or story.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Best in What Way, Though?

Earlier this week A L Kennedy complained about publishers' discrimination against literary fiction, today Mark Lawson grumbles about snobbish literary prejudices against crime fiction (Joan Brady has won a settlement after claiming that fumes from a nearby cobbler's so affected her brain she was 'only' capable of writing a crime novel.)

But there's no discrepancy, really. The real trouble lies, as Lawson says, in a false dichotomy which can make either 'literary' or 'populist' a dirty word in the world of books. He has a solution: there are, after all, he says, good and bad books in both 'camps', and instead of condemning all crime books or thrillers through the prism of The Da Vinci Code or all literary fiction for those which are 'plotless and proseless', 'we should make our generalisations only from the best'.

Well, it sounds good in theory. But whose best are we talking about? There are plenty of people who'll tell you that The Da Vinci Code is brilliant. And there must be people who admire those 'plotless, proseless' novels he says he's encountered as a Booker judge.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Three Cheers for A L Kennedy

I am thrilled that A L Kennedy's 'structurally sophisticated' novel Day (Stuart Jeffries, Guardian) has won the Costa, I am thrilled too that independent literary press Tindal Street's Cathryn O'Flynn was such a close runner, and I am thrilled to bits by A L's acceptance speech and some of the things she says in an interview with Stuart Jeffries in today's Guardian.

A L said in her acceptance speech that she 'felt a sense of impending doom surrounding British culture and said if she was starting out as a writer today she probably would not get picked up' (Mark Brown, Guardian). And she tells Stuart Jeffries something so important about culture and fiction that I replicate it here:
I've been reading about Raphael Lemkin [the Polish-Jewish lawyer who in 1944 sought to define the term genocide and whose work led to the UN's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide]. He talked about the precursors to genocide, which are about preventing a population from expressing itself and from having an imagination, preventing a population from seeing themselves as human, redefining themselves as things. Coming across that was important for me. Then you look at the average day on British television - one big reality show... Fiction is participative. When you get into it, it's about you exercising your imagination. And if you can no longer exercise your imagination because it has atrophied... But use of the imagination means that you can make your life or someone else's life better... It means you have the imagination to change the government, to know when you're being lied to.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Anonymity as Obscurity

Mark Ravenhill responds thus to John Mullan's new book on authorial anonymity (discussed below here and here):
I'd like to think my work has an inherent quality that will be recognised whatever name is on it, and that I'd be offered productions in all the same theatres. But then what if I slide right back down the literary ladders and receive a pile of rejection letters?
Mm, quite. If his play were even read, this is what might happen.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Poisoned Chalice

In today's Guardian Bookseller column Joel Rickett muses about the loss of Arts Council funding to translation specialists Arcadia and Dedalus:
...their plight underlines the dangers of factoring public subsidy into your business model; sooner or later, political priorities change and you'll be left stranded.
Well, it's true, public funding has always been a bit of a poisoned chalice in that way (and sometimes offered with a cavalier hand): we always had the most generous Arts Council grant for the short story mag metropolitan, but I'll never forget how depressed, and threatened, I felt the day the Literature Panel wrote to discourage us from publishing so many of 'that length' of story - and utterly puzzled (as the Bush Theatre has been on this occasion), since the stories we published varied in length from 1,000 to 12,000!

But there has to be a place for public funding in a climate of rampant commercialisation, and I feel as dismayed and confounded as anyone about the loss to Arcadia and Dedalus and theatres such as The Bush. However, as Rickett goes on:
A cannier approach is to win a one-off lump sum that will enable you to become self-sustaining. The feisty poetry specialist Salt Publishing, which convinced the Arts Council to invest £185,000 in its website and direct sales operation, is now on the road to profitability.
Well, I cheer this sentiment (not least because I've been sprinkled with Salt myself): as I've always said, you can sell anything if you find the right marketing strategy. This week Salt has been shortlisted for the Nielsen Innovation of the Year Award (a category of the UK's annual Independent Publishing Awards, 2008) for bucking the trend by increasing its sales via 'online marketing, partnerships and brand development'.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Books as Matters of Life or Death

Robert McCrum highlights an aspect of John Mullen's book on literary anonymity missing from the extract printed in yesterday's Guardian which I discussed yesterday (and thus gives a different impression of the stress of the book: see how important it is to read books properly and for yourself?)

McCrum describes how Mullan shows that initially anonymity was a response to the fact that 'books could be a matter of life or death' since
for the first three centuries after the introduction of the printing press, writers who challenged religious or political orthodoxy (and what is the use of a book that does not risk a contrary opinion?) were in mortal danger.
(And I really like that rhetorical question, slipped in so slyly between parentheses) : what is the use of a book that does not risk a contrary opinion?)

It was only when books, in particular novels, became 'entertainment for middle-class readers' that anonymity could become the kind of relished game described in yesterday's extract.

McCrum's conclusion, which seems to be his own rather than Mullen's (I guess we should read the book to see) is the same as mine (below). He says this:
In principle, anonymity, once a lifesaver, should guarantee a means of escape, a measure of privacy and some enhanced authenticity. Today, in the frenzy of hype and vanity that surrounds most book launches, there can be no privacy. Is this good for books? I rather doubt it.
In fact, in a world where the 'authenticity' of the author is at such a high premium, it's going anonymous or pseudonymous that can be the really scary thing, because of the general outrage at such a notion and the opprobrium when a masked author is unmasked, as Primary Colors author Joe Klein discovered, and as I also did myself.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Literary Anonymity

This week Guardian Review prints an extract from a new book by John Mullan on the long tradition of authorial anonymity. Mullan describes how many of our canonical authors such as Swift, Walter Scott, Fanny Burney and Austen had great fun from publishing anonymously or pseudonymously, and thus paradoxically whipping up interest in their identity and therefore their books.

He notes how this once accepted tradition has fallen out of favour, and that while Scott was lauded when he finally owned up (and thus stirred up even more attention for his books), Joe Klein was condemned when he was uncovered as the author of the 1996 anonymous Primary Colors, sacked by CBS News and (with shades of James Frey) declared by the New York Times to have 'violated the fundamental contract between journalists [the novel took his journalist's view of White House shenanigans], serious publications and their readers.'

The extract does not include any comment on some of the implications of this last: the contemporary tendency and indeed desire to read fiction through the prism of what we know of the author, to read fiction as 'autobiography', the way this leads to the real-life person of the author as an - maybe the - essential component of the publication package and then in turn to a privileging of authorial youth and beauty.

How easy is it to manage anonymity now, in a world which didn't exist even for Joe Klein in 1996, where publishers require authors to blog and do videos for 'Meet the Author?' As for no-longer-anonymous plain Jane - well, she's had to have a makeover.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bigger Fish to Fry

George Szirtes points out that it's not the Olympics which is draining subsidies from small arts organizations, but the Arts Council's new preference for larger organizations.

Thanks to Ms Baroque for the link.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Blogs Are So Traditional

An interesting thought which fellow-blogger Adrian Slatcher and I shared over a bottle of wine last week: while hypertext (funny, we don't seem much to call it that any more) has given us the most amazing possibilities for non-linearity - honeycomb connections in all directions - the literature which has chiefly emerged as a result of the web, blogs turned into books, has been strikingly linear in form, since the blog, a progressively time-linked journal, is essentially linear in the most conventional and time-honoured of ways.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Is Fiction Enough?

Fay Weldon thinks fiction is not enough. Her book Mantrapped is part fiction, part memoir, and she thinks that this is the 'way things are going to go.' She began it fully intending to write a work of pure fiction, but it started to feel invidious, dishonest to leave herself out of the book.

Interesting. That was always a big concern of feminist writers, of course: the ultimate fakery of the omniscient authorial viewpoint and the colonization involved in adopting a fictional narrative voice. And of course she's not the only one to play games with autobiography in fiction - look at Philip Roth, look at the serious mixings of Sebald in Austerlitz.

But I think these mixings make for a meta-reality - an exciting one - in which the whole concept of autobiography is brought into question, indeed at times consciously mocked, for essentially we read fiction differently from the way we read memoir. It's rather different, I think, when you start claiming bits of your book to be autobiography.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Issue 3 of the Short Review

Issue 3 of Tania Hershman's excellent Short Review is now up. There are reviews of debut, classic, crime and translated collections, interviews with authors and links to upcoming collections.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Cheering Nature of Tragedy

An important article, in my view, by Blake Morrison in Saturday's Guardian Review. He reports on a Merseyside scheme being run by Jean Davis of the Reader Centre at the University of Liverpool in which around fifty reading groups of ten or so have been created for people with physical or emotional health problems, learning disabilities and other problems, and in which the act of reading and discussing books or poetry is proving to be strikingly therapeutic.

The most interesting thing to me is a main point which emerges for Morrison: that it is those books dealing with tragic and serious human issues, and the 'difficult' classics, which are the most therapeutic, operating via catharsis:
As Thomas Hardy recognised, "If a way to the better there be it exacts a full look at the worst." Hence Davis's preference for classic texts which address existential concerns, not anodyne pep-ups.
(and he wryly notes that Hardy could be 'brought low by the excessive optimism of his peers').

Morrison goes on to point out that the therapy can extend beyond those suffering, and makes some points which have been expressed previously on this blog:
This is surely the other great therapeutic power of literature - it doesn't just echo our own experience, recognise, vindicate and validate it - it takes us places we hadn't imagined but which, once seen, we never forget. When literature is working - the right words in the right place - it offers an orderliness which can shore up readers against the disorder, or lack of control, that afflicts them. Most misery memoirs fail in this respect - they invite readers to be prurient rather than to identify, exaggerate where no exaggeration is necessary, and are too clamorous to grant the space to contemplate and withdraw.
Maybe someone should tell the publishers who find the 'dark' and 'difficult' stuff 'too uncommercial' that there's a whole market out there after all.

The Measure of It

On Thursday's Woman's Hour Catherine O'Flynn was asked how she reacted to the fact that the newspapers had focussed on her 'long haul' in getting an agent to take on her now Costa-winning first novel (fourteen agents turned it down). (Can't find the BBC link, I'm afraid.)

She laughed and replied that as far as she understood, the way things are now for novelists trying to get published, she got taken on pretty quickly.