Monday, April 28, 2008

The Life and the Work

Bless Lionel Shriver's little old-fashioned socks. 'I find contemporary absorption in authorial tittle-tattle perplexing', she says, commenting in the Observer on Harvard University's purchase of the papers of Norman Mailer's lover. (Can't find a link, I'm afraid.) She goes on:
As a reader, I do not care what sort of rogue or philanderer wrote the books I love ...In fact, I do not especially care to know anything about the novelists whose work I admire for I've found that meeting most writers distracts, if not detracts, from their work ...the whole concept of publishing - I thought- was to draw a hard line between the public and the private.
She's dead right, in my view, but I do wonder if she's being a little disingenuous: in the real world of publishing to which as a HarperCollins author she most definitely belongs, it's de rigeur now for authors to present themselves as part of the publishing package. She does confess this:
When I mentioned idly to my publicist recently that I'd kept a journal from age 12, she asked if I'd like that archive accessed posthumously, and I blenched. Had I known what was good for me I'd have scurried home and burnt every last notebook in the back garden.
but the implication that she has not done it undercuts her somewhat heartfelt plea: 'Can we return to the days when writers had mystiques?'

Not that it isn't already blatantly undercut by her editors who apparently know better and illustrate her piece with headshots of Mailer himself and the glamorous mistress Shriver would rather not know about (not to mention the obligatory headshot of Ms Shriver herself). It was the same for Melissa Benn whose recent Guardian article complaining about autobiographical readings of her novels was illustrated by pics of the family she was trying to convince us weren't the one in her fiction.

I'm with these authorial complaints, though, and just because the system's got you in its grip doesn't mean you can't shout out. Here's Mark Ravenhill today reacting to an audience member's assumption that 'he must be so unhappy to write about such a horrible world' and to university teaching course moves to counsel students in whose writing violence emerges. I was more annoyed than Ravenhill admits to being when a reviewer said that the execution of one of my novels suffered 'because of my own pain'. Okay, I thought, my teeth grinding: if the novel doesn't work it doesn't work, but you have to be able to prove it by reference to the novel itself, not to my life (especially if, as in my case, you know nothing about it), and don't go criticizing a closeness between the work and the life which you manufactured in the first place!

Meanwhile, none of these worries affect Michel Houellebecq who, like Mailer, knows a good route to publicity when he sees one and has happily publicized the links between his life and fiction. Thing is, though, as ever, the 'facts' can be disputed, in life as well as in art, and today he and his mother make the front page in a spat which sadly bypasses the real matter of fiction: the language, the structure, and the emotional truth they convey.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Technology and Literature

In reviewing Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night for The Observer, Peter Conrad ponders the effect of the internet revolution on literature, and seems to accept Manguel's premise that the effect of ebooks will be negative:
A book read on a screen has dematerialised; we can neither own nor love it, and if we can't hold it in our hands how can we absorb it into our minds?
It's an interesting point which connects with Will Self's recent rejection of the computer as a tool for writing. Earlier this week I made fun of the way Self talked about this, but there's some serious matter here: Self was saying, I think, that the computer and the manual typewriter make for different ways of thinking, and that the latter, more physical tool makes for a more rigorous way and one that he can better 'own'. Personally, I can't even use a typewriter for a first draft of fiction: rightly or wrongly I feel like many writers that those dreams in my head can only come out first through my wrist and my fountain pen onto those lovely smooth Pukka pads.

But it's not true for all writers. And though it's true that historically as readers our experience of books and their contents has been inextricably bound up with the physical - with their feel and look and smell - how can we say with any certainty that things can't change, that we won't find a new way of 'owning' and loving and absorbing books?

I've written before about the potential for the web - in particular digitization - to prolong the life of books and revive those which may have been forgotten, but this book sounds a note of warning:
Manguel is old, wise and sad enough to know that the future belongs to the users of the Kindle reading device and to oafish librarians who discard books as landfill after transferring their contents to disks or CD-Roms that may be illegible in a decade.
Funny, only yesterday my eye happened to land on the stacks of cassettes in my study, my own plays for Radio 4, and it hit me forcibly me that that technology is now so out of date that my plays, some of them prize-winning, a body of several years' busy work, are in danger of fading away for ever. I have no idea whether the BBC has converted its archive into new technology - I stopped writing radio plays when 'heart-warming' became a prime commissioning requirement - but it wouldn't surprise me if it hasn't.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Will Self Is an Alien

Not of course that that's a bad thing. Maybe I'm wrong (I did get interrupted) but I got this impression from BBC's Open Book yesterday: while perfectly happy with his commendable novelistic ability to stand apart like a Martian from our crazy society and see it for what it is, Self has become dissatisfied with his new-found way of thinking 'on the screen' and has decided to return to the manual typewriter and the more human method of thinking: 'in the head'.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Test or Taste?

On the occasion of the anouncement of the Orange prize shortlist, Kirsty Lang, chair of the judges, sums up the dubious nature of literary prizes:
Kirsty Lang ... described the shortlisting process as "arbitrary". "Once you've whittled the books down and got rid of the obvious crap it becomes a question of taste, and books affect people differently ... there are books on this list that some judges hated."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Women: Stick to Your Knitting

While Tim Lott cries into his milk about perceived female hegemony in our literary culture, this week a male magazine staffer declines an offer of a short story of mine by addressing me as 'Mrs Baines.'

Mr Baines was unavailable to comment on behalf of his wife since he doesn't exist any more than she does, but Ms Baines was feeling pretty put out by the thought of some toffee-nosed male Oxford grad (who no doubt believes himself done down by the women in publishing) deciding, like one of the Telegraph commenters, that she ought to go back to her knitting like a good married woman. (See, two can play at that stereotyping game.)

Monday, April 07, 2008

Words Failed Me

Blogging: what's that all about? Literature? Oh yes, literature, funny how you saw it as all-important. There you were in a safe bubble, viewing words as precious stones you could smugly juggle, or as oxygen you breathed, but the bubble has burst and the vacuum's rushing in and there's the real stuff, in a canister on the ambulance wall and a mask across your partner's face, and the words dry pebbles scattering as the ambulance door slams and the wheels begin to turn.

And then the night in Casualty, and the needles and blood tests and drips, and your partner drifting in and out of consciousness, and all the green and blue uniforms coming and going, and the same questions and answers over and over, words drifting like grass seeds on a river of unknowing because no-one knows what's wrong. And then the move to the acute admissions ward, and the cheery young male staff nurse who explains all about the drips and cannulas and the rationale behind the testing, and the young male consultant in jeans who talks like a joker and tells you his suspicions (gall bladder, kidneys or a blockage in the gut, Squire), and the male orderly, if that's what they still call them, bringing you cups of tea and calling you love. And you can't believe you once published a novel condemning the formal and inhumane male hegemony of the medical profession and thought BBC's Casualty was unrealistic and quite sickeningly sentimental, because here they are bending over backwards to give you words like gifts, to give you comfort and what knowledge they have, but the trouble is it isn't much.

And then the days falling into a pattern, a routine of unknowing, the getting up in the morning still exhausted and collecting stuff together to take to the hospital, and talking on the phone to worried relatives, the journey on the bus with all the other visitors with their plastic bags of food and clean laundry, most of them old: you're in a kind of half-world of dependants, hopeful yet passive and resigned; and back at night on the last bus in the dark, with everyone else with their plastic bags of dirty laundry, and some of the hospital workers, and the bus driver, a dissolute-looking fella who drives one-handed while talking on his mobile phone, beginning a running joke with all the old codgers about you and him meeting like this every night while your partner's laid up. And still nothing new: the antibiotics still not working, the seat of the infection not found, and it's all you've talked and thought about all day, though you are reading a book, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, but because it's all about death you keep having to put it down. You begin to understand why books can be too much, and why so many people say they don't have time to read.

And then after three days the young consultant whips the curtain, a conjurer, and tells you they've found it, the cause. There it is, the knowledge, in a picture, not a word: a bright black diamond on the CT scan, a stone, a sharp crystal blocking the ureter and preventing the kidney from draining so that it's massively, life-threateningly infected.

And now the battle to save the kidney: the emergency operation to drain it, the catheter, the urostomy bag for the blocked-off kidney to drain into, more drips, the ongoing search for the right antibiotic, the move to the urology ward. There's a garden here where the patients can wander, and the four blokes in this bay - your partner, a young animator, two chaps in their eighties, all waiting to see if their prostates and kidneys will recover - have set up some unlikely male bonding. Things are calmer. You begin to read the paper more, now and then you listen better to the radio when it's on. One morning you're having breakfast and John Mullen and Mark Thwaite are being interviewed about blog versus newspaper reviewing, and you have the space to be hooked. John Mullen's argument that newspaper reviewers are judicious while bloggers are merely emotional ranters is destroyed not only by Mark Thwaite's reasonableness and logicality, but by Mullen's own wilful misinterpretation: Thwaite explains that one can find worthwhile blogs by following the links from 'one to others like it' (meaning of course equally thoughtful) and Mullen jumps on this gleefully, taking it to mean that such bloggers on the contrary lack intellectual independence and echo one another's opinions. And annoyingly, the interview is ended on this note. You would write a quick sharp blog about this if you still lived in a world in which you blogged.

But you don't: you're rushing around getting stuff together again, and as you do you hear items on Start the Week on subjects you've blogged about before, and which might be worth blogging again - Mark Ravenhill on his series of short plays which yet build to an epic, Maggie Gee on teaching creative writing. But that would be in a different life from the one you're in now, and you only half-heard the items anyway.

But you do look at your email, and this day there's one from a blogger who's reviewed your latest book, and it's your job as a writer, after all, to blog about this, and before you have to run for the once-hourly bus you dash to the computer, and by the time you've done the links you're almost too late out of the door.

And then one day you open the paper and there's a big spread on a subject your blog has often revolved around: Melissa Benn writing, on the occasion of her new novel, about people's insistence on reading her fiction, and fiction in general, as autobiographical, alongside a brilliant piece by Linda Grant on the subject. But this is a day you have a big scare: the bad kidney isn't draining as much, which could mean that it's dying, and although you read the two articles avidly, talking about them on your blog is the last thing on your mind.

Next day there's an article on the semicolon, a subject close to your heart and over which you have waxed lyrical to A-level and Creative Writing students. You don't even read the article. You look at the huge semicolon on the front of G2: a stop, a hint of death, undercut by a comma, a shape a little like a kidney, a link to the future, a start again.

You start again. A CT scan shows that the release of pressure in the kidney has shifted the stop, the stone, which is now allowing some flow around it: this is why there's less drainage into the bag, and the kidney is not dying after all.

In fact, your partner can come home. In fact, the world that afternoon is a glittering place of mineral surfaces - sun on the glass of the hospital, on the top of the taxi zooming up to take you home together - and of words, solid yet shimmering with meaning once more. Maybe you will start blogging again.