Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dressed to Kill the Market?

A year ago we were commenting on the tendency of publishers to 'brand' 'chicklit' novels with outrageously similar covers. Now Diane Shipley writes of an even more troubling move: having established that 'chicklit' books are the hot sellers, publishers are now dressing up very different novels to look like them. Shipley comments:
I hope publishers will soon realise that their tactic isn't working and could, in fact, backfire badly. If all book covers look the same, then none stand out. And if we know that how a book looks is no indication of its content, we might just become so dispirited that we bypass the bookstore and rent a DVD instead.
Indeed, Suzanabrams, commenting on Shipley's post, says that she has been avoiding this apparent influx of the genre into the bookshops, unaware of this new practice.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Every so often - though not all that often once childhood is over, I think - you read a book which you know is going to affect your mental landscape forever. This, for me, is such a book. It's the story of Oscar de Leon, a New Jersey ghetto nerd struggling with the curse imposed by his family's history of entanglement with the cruel Dominican regime. It's a heartbreaking yet uplifting story, and the thing which will imprint it for me is the voice.

The overall narrative voice is that of Oscar's university friend Yunior (though two sections are narrated by Lola, Oscar's sister and ex-girlfriend to Yunior). It's a wonderful voice, colloquial, feisty and combative yet generous and humane. And direct, addressing the reader on familiar terms. Here's Yunior describing an episode from Oscar's teenage years (a passage which holds a subtle prefiguring of Oscar's destiny):
Those were some fucking lonely weeks when all he had were his games, his books, and his words. So now I have a hermit for a son, his mother complained bitterly. At night, unable to sleep, he watched a lot of bad TV, became obsessed with two movies in particular: Zardoz (which he'd seen with his uncle before they put him away for the second time) and Virus (the Japanese end-of-the-world movie with the hot chick from Romeo and Juliet). Virus especially he could not watch to the end without crying, the Japanese hero arriving at the South Pole base, having walked from Washington, D.C., down the whole spine of the Andes, for the woman of his dreams. I've been working on my fifth novel, he told the boys when they asked about his absences. It's amazing.

See? What did I tell you? Mr Collegeboy.
There's a special kind of authenticity about this voice. While it conveys a very particular character - Yunior, with his own shortcomings and blindspots as well as his warm heart - one suspects, as with the voices in Diaz's story collection Drown, that it is not too far removed from the author's own voice: there's an overriding tone and an energy which inform the sections related by both Yunior and Lola. The impression of authenticity is further reinforced by the piecemeal and non-linear way the story unfolds, as Yunior weaves together the information he has gathered from the de Leon family members, provides a retrospective introduction and footnotes (in his own inimitable style) on the historical background and lays bare the workings of his written tale:
Footnote 15: A favourite hangout of Trujillo's, my mother tells me when the manuscript is almost complete.
Indeed, the book itself is dedicated to Elizabeth de Leon. But it would be far too reductive to say that what Diaz has achieved here is a magical and explosive mix of historical fact and imagination: this book is something more magnificant than that. It goes beyond fact, it goes beyond fiction: it's a true voice, it's the searing dream and deep new knowledge that stays with you for good.

Oh, and I cried buckets.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Of Books and Beetles

Sorry about the gap on this blog which was due to internet problems. (How weird is that, not to be blogging?)

A couple of myths being shattered in the pages of The Guardian - firstly, the idea that the fact that we buy so many books means that we're all committed and omnivorous readers. Of the nine authors interviewed, though, only two, Lionel Shriver and Alain de Botton, confess as I do that it is writing their own work which sometimes makes it hard for them to read the work of others.

And I feel totally vindicated today by a 'Week in Books' piece by Kafka scholar James Hawes exposing the author as not 'the middle-European Nostradamus, almost unknown in his lifetime, trapped in a dead-end job, whose mysterious, endlessly interpretable works somehow foresaw the Holocaust (and so on)' but 'a millionaire's son ... a writer backed by an influential clique ... who had no more inkling of the Holocaust than anyone else' and thus whose writing was not 'the gloomy stuff we Anglo-Saxons received via post Auschwitz French existentialists, but wonderful black comedies written by a man soaked in the writings of his predecessors and of his own day'. Vindicated because the last time I read Metamorphosis I laughed out loud: Gregor the dung beetle stuck up in his room was the spitting image of a teenager not too many miles from under my own nose.

(Sorry, but the search on the Guardian site gives up on me when I look for the link.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Whose Feast Is the Lit Fest?

Susan Hill gives us the lowdown on lit fests. Will you ever feel quite so privileged to be at one again?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What's Happening to Short Stories?

Anyone who ever read Metropolitan, the short-story mag I co-edited with Ailsa Cox, will know that I am no hater of conventional short stories. When it comes to form I am open to all comers - conventional or experimental, stories written within a recognizable tradition or wildly innovative: as long as a story work on its own terms, as long as it makes exciting use of language and I like what it's saying it'll please me. I've written both ways myself - and both kinds of story find their way into my recent collection - though I suppose I have to confess to leaning in ambition towards the more off-the-wall, to needing ultimately to stretch the form for what I really want to say, and that when I have written more conventionally it has sometimes (though not always) been because of the pressures of the market.

Which is why my pleasure at the recent rash of high-profile short-story competitions - and the seeming resurgence of the short story which it seems to indicate - is somewhat tempered by a fear that it is the conventional short story alone which is being endorsed and that innovation is being given the thumbs down, inadvertently or not. If so, it's especially disheartening when one would expect competitions to provide a counter to market forces, but perhaps expecting competitions to be immune from market forces is naive. Others have commented on the classical nature of Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories (winner of the Frank O'Connor Award), and the same could be said for the stories in Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields, winner of the Edge Hill Prize. Keegan's are wonderful stories in an Irish tradition I love and indeed feel a great affinity with, and I would urge everyone to read them. They are, though, very firmly within that tradition - elegaic yet wry, lyrical yet controlled - and Keegan's writing has been compared to that of William Trevor, John McGahern and indeed Chekhov.

I am especially thrilled that Clare Wigfall has won the BBC National Short Story Award. I have been recommending her book since I discovered it and what judge Martha Kearney calls her amazing 'ventriloquism': she seems able to inhabit any voice, any psyche and any world or historical period, and the stories are nothing if not moving. Her winning story, 'The Numbers', is marked by this chameleon-like ability and by a striking, original and deeply resonant motif. I defy you to read it without ending in tears. However. Personally, I wouldn't call this story conventional, yet superficially it displays conventional elements, and one wonders if without them it would have got so far in this competition. Although there are subtle foreshadowings the story is basically linear, and the narrator tells her tale in the time-honoured mode of intimate and homely recollection. Above all there's a (wholly admirable) classical authorial restraint. And here's Martha Kearney, writing about judging the competition:
The perfect short story arrests the reader’s attention immediately and then goes on to illuminate an entire life through one scene or a few actions.
Me, I would say that that's one type of short story. And that idea of the 'perfect short story' worries me dreadfully, both within this sentence, where it implies that there's only one kind of excellence, and generally, implying possibly a certain kind of stasis, a stylistic impasse. Yet surely the short story is precisely the place where we can tear down our traditional expectations of prose. Really, the last thing I want to write is a 'perfect' short story, and whenever people describe any of my stories as 'perfect', while I'm always pathetically flattered, I have a sneaky feeling I've failed.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Rushdie Avoids Literary Oblivion

It may seem a bit mean to pick on one hapless original publisher's reader for Midnight's Children (announced yesterday as the winner of the Best of the Bookers), but I can't resist it, and anyway it's a serious matter:

'The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form,' The Guardian tells us he/she reported.

OK, it's a long time ago, and I'm not even sure if publishers have readers any more - by most accounts, nowadays they generally rely on agents to do the reading for them - but in spite of Midnight's Children's phenomenal success (fortunately another reader, Susannah Clapp thought differently, though what if it hadn't fallen into her hands?) - I wonder how many potential works of fiction still founder on the knot of literary prejudice, conservatism, ignorant misconception and illogicality wrapped up in that sentence?

First, the illogicality: what, you master one form by concentrating on another? How does that work, exactly? Ah, I see, because (here's the misconception) short stories are just mini-novels, limbering-up things. I don't know about you, but I think that any reader ignorant enough to believe this about short stories should not be trusted on his/her view of anything much literary, including novels. And so it proves, and here's the lethal conservative prejudice: Rushdie has not 'mastered' the novel form, apparently, because mastering the form here means by definition fulfilling the conventional parameters he specifically set out to flout.

But this tendency - for those judging fiction to look for the recognizable and tried in fiction, and to shun the different and strange - is no longer even a hapless error but is institutionalized by the cult of the market and a cynical ploy.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Just Not Good Enough

Hm. Not really sure what to say about the furore - well, furore by short-story standards - over the decision by the Frank O'Connor Award judges to skip a shortlist and announce the winner early: Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth. My first decision was to say nothing: my own book was on the long list and so I felt it would be hard to be or at any rate appear objective, and the matter would be better left for others to discuss. Nicholas Lezard quickly posted his disgust on the Guardian books blog and the commenters agreed pretty unanimously, and today Susan Hill expresses hers and quotes from her experience as a Booker judge when her fellow judge Roy Fuller also wanted to omit a shortlist.

A main objection has been that, however much a judging panel knew who their eventual winner was going to be, it was mean to deprive those who would have been on the shortlist their hour in the sun and the increased sales (and, I would add, reputation) which would have followed. People have noted that it seems especially perverse when the Frank O'Connor Award was specifically set up to draw attention to the short story collections published yearly (and which usually get scant attention), and in the service of this aim its long list is generous (39 books this year). Some, including a previous Frank O'Connor judge, have commented that to decide on a winner so soon is arrogant and that the purpose of a short list is to allow judges time for reflection and reconsideration via closer reading and rereading, and a Guardian blogs commenter points out that innovative or subtle short stories are more likely to rise to the surface at such a stage (the general consensus seeming to be that Lahiri's stories, while excellent, conform to conventional expectations). (I haven't read them myself.) Some have seen the choice as pandering to extraneous authority, since Jhumpa Lahiri's book, her second collection, is already an American bestseller and she won a Pultizer for her first, especially in view of the fact that member of this year's judging panel Eileen Battersby complained after last year's off-the-wall choice of Miranda July that the prize was not doing enough to acknowledge internationally acclaimed writers of short stories.

Actually, I think the meanest bit is this section of their statement:
"Not only were the jury unanimous in their choice of Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth as the winner, they were unanimous in their belief that so outstanding was Lahiri's achievement in this book that no other title was a serious contender."
So the rest were crap, eh?

Regular readers of this blog will know of my reservations about literary competitions per se (or any ruddy competitions for that matter). And you know what, these judges have only gone and put into words what I keep saying is the unspoken implication of all competitions. It's great for the winners, but for those who don't win there's that other judgement: Less good.

But you know what, too? OK, so four or so people were deprived of being on the short list. But guess what, 34 others of us were saved having been labelled not good enough for the short list and, more to the point, being dropped immediately from the collective literary consciousness. Quite the contrary: look how it's all still being discussed.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Martin Amis, Literature and Religion

Literature and Terrorism in December, and now in July our celebrity professor tackles Literature and Religion. On Tuesday of last week Martin Amis talked about this subject with critic James Wood in Manchester University's Whitworth Hall.

I was late - a bus and a little car had collided on Princess Parkway and the traffic was at a standstill. When I finally arrived outside the hall with my two companions, running, there was no one about, everyone else had gone in. Two stewards standing there said - with something of an excited air of occasion - 'Martin Amis?' and pointed to the door. Inside the building a huge guy like a bouncer said rather sternly, 'Martin Amis?' and pointed the way down the corridor. An Evening News photographer followed on our heels. Up the blue-carpeted stairs and then into the back of the huge hall which was unbelievably, out of term time, crowded, and where the speakers were being introduced.

Who were all these people who had given up a warm early evening to hear a debate on such a serious subject? From where we found seats near the back all I could see were strangers. Straight ahead of me was a woman in a straw Sunday hat.

Urbane as ever, even bored-seeming, Martin Amis spoke first. He was a confirmed secularist, he told us, but not an atheist. He told us that to be an atheist was an arrogant and illogical position since there is so much that we can't know, and yet I could swear that he used the word 'humiliating' rather than 'humbling' to describe this last fact. I thought he then said that religion may have solved the problem of death and evil (with the concept of heaven) but fails to solve the problem of panic - though Phillip Olterman, writing for The Guardian today (Saturday) has a different account of what Amis said on this precise point. Literature, Amis went on, has been a 'rearguard action' against this. He quoted smoothly from Milton' s great poem as the work of literature par excellence in this regard, and from some other classic English texts, I can't remember what.

James Wood sat semi-slumped over the table, leaning on his elbow and with his hand on his chin and almost over his mouth and said that his parents had become evangelical Christians, a background he had strongly rebelled against, which history had always informed his attitude to literature. He said that the rise of the novel in the nineteenth century had paralleled a decline in belief and the nineteenth-century novel was in this sense a slayer of belief - or well, maybe, he would need to think about it a lot more. There is something inherently secular about narrative, he said : a novel paradoxically requests belief (in itself, I think he meant - or maybe he meant in story) while being aware of its status as fiction. To make a narrative is to destabilize doctrine and the Bible begins with a totally unconvincing story, that of Adam and Eve and the serpent - well, I got a bit lost about his logic here. As far as Wood was concerned, it is not panic but evil which religion has failed to solve (well, this is what I heard anyway), and this has been the central theme of narrative.

And then Amis said that religion doesn't actually solve death with heaven anyway, and that heaven itself may be the real problem: the idea of it was 'repellent'. Where would the dramas and tensions be in such a bland world?

Both agreed that the debate surrounding Richard Dawkins' view of the universe was 'officially over', and theologian chair Graham Ward suggested with somewhat unctuous hopefulness that there was going to be a return to the 'sacred' in literature, whatever he meant by that.

Then there were questions from the floor. A woman stood up and spoke for a long time about her faith and how it had led her to write a novel which she hadn't yet had published and she wondered if Wood and Amis could imagine a heaven which we think of as heaven but which for the people inside it wasn't heaven at all - which seemed to be the subject of her novel; but it was hard to follow what she was saying and she realized it and finally said 'If you follow me,' and the people behind me started giggling, but Amis suavely said he followed her perfectly and gave an answer which in turn I couldn't follow since I couldn't fully work out how it related to her question before he had finished it and the next questioner was invited.

A man stood up and said he was a Pentecostal Christian and he wanted to write a religious novel, and would it be a good idea? Amis rudely told him to ask his 'heavenly father' for help, and Wood came in and in a conciliatory but tentative way suggested he write an allegory, like Tolkien or CS Lewis, who did actually write religious allegories, or well, sort of. And then a woman stood up and said Amis and Wood had been representing religious people wrongly, not all religious people just followed an institution and went to church on Sundays, but I had a funny feeling she was with the woman with the Sunday hat.

And then it was over, and we were told to sit in our seats till the panel had left because 'they had books to sell' and needed to be sitting with them at the bottom of the stairs before we filed down.

I'm sorry, but really I can't give you a good account of what was said. I was far too busy being gob-smacked and sitting there thinking how no one felt the need to couch their references to religion with the word Christian or to literature with the word Western, or mostly to the point, English and American. That in the age when religious fundamentalism should be of urgent interest to literature there was no acknowledgement of this or any sense of the need to address how literature might tackle this now. Indeed, there was only one reference to Islam: in his final condemnation of heaven Amis said he thought that the Muslim heaven was perhaps a good one, and some of the audience laughed. All I could think was that we were sitting there trapped in a Christiancentric universe, with a Christian theologian for a chairman, surrounded by Christian Neo-Gothic carving and soaring wooden arches, and overlooked by the massive organ which, on the occasion of the Literature and Terrorism debate, Tom Chatfield compared to the underside of a fighter plane, but which seemed to me on Tuesday like the towering bars of a gigantic prison.

I tell you, we couldn't get out of that place quick enough - once they let us - and we rushed down the stairs, my companion from UCL telling me in disgust that the open lectures at UCL never had such a low level of engagement or debate - and they didn't make you pay or try and make you buy their books, either.