Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just Doing It

Anne Enright is another established writer adding weight to the argument (a good one, in my opinion) that writing can't be taught in any crude sense, that you learn how to do it by, well, doing it.
Writing is learned from the inside out; it is not a subject like geography, that can be doled out in parcels of information. Writing is a discipline and, as with any discipline, whether spiritual or physical, the doing is everything. No one can do it for you.
Nevertheless, she still refers to her 'teachers' (Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury), and suggests that the role they played (at UEA) was a nurturing one:
The job of the teacher in these hazy, dangerous circumstances, is to feed the student and to keep her safe. Angela Carter did the first, with a scattering of photocopies, musings and anecdotes (she never mentioned my work, I think) and Malcolm Bradbury did the second, by smiling a lot, and liking books, and keeping quiet (I don't think he ever mentioned my work either. I might be wrong). The other students did mention my work; they had various opinions about it, but that was fine, because Malcolm was there to like us all, and keep us safe.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

As If Non-Readers Care Anyway

Seems we don't need publishers pushing us into making our novels more 'accessible' for non-readers when we've got Lionel Shriver.
Literature is not very popular these days, to put it mildly. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half of Americans do not read books at all, and those who do average a mere six a year. You'd think literary writers would be bending over backwards to ingratiate themselves to readers -- to make their work maximally accessible, straightforward and inviting. But no.
Dan Green and his commenters explain why her argument, which focuses on speech punctuation, is outrageous.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Misery Realized

Danuta Kean suggests that the misery memoir cult has paved the way for the graphic details recounted in newspaper and TV reports about Baby P, a development she condemns. In a comment on the post, however, Kay Lacey sounds a warning about freedom of speech.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Toughness and the Impersonal Personality of Poetry

Jeanette Winterson, writing in today's Guardian about TS Eliot, argues (from her own experience) that poetry, far from being 'merely a luxury for the educated middle classes' offers tough language for tough lives (and indeed suggests that those who argue otherwise must have 'had things pretty easy'.)

As usual her thoughts are very quotable, including this passage which struck me particularly:
Eliot himself liked to talk about "impersonality" as a necessary virtue in a poet, but we should not misunderstand him. In his 1927 essay "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca", he muses on Shakespeare's "struggle to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, universal and impersonal".

In the land of reality TV and confessional talk shows, Eliot's wish to withdraw the personal from his poetry - from any poetry - is easy to misread. But the paradox of the best writing is that while the writer's voice is unmistakable, the writer has somehow performed the Indian rope trick and disappeared [my italics]. Celebrity culture can't imagine anyone wanting to disappear, or that such a thing might be necessary. Now, when we are told that everything depends on our "personality", it seems strange to hear Eliot saying, as he does in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent", that "poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Split Personality of the Writer-Blogger

Over at Dan Green's The Reading Experience, there's a debate about what is seen as the increasing tendency of literary bloggers to be coralled into publishers' marketing systems rather than to retain critical independence. Since I have championed the idea of critical independence on this blog, on one occasion pouring scorn on a publisher's enthusiasm for the virtual book tour, and yet today am hosting with happy enthusiasm such a tour on my author blog - Charles Lambert's The Scent of Cinnamon - I should perhaps say some words about my own position within what Dan sees as the evolving function or nature of 'lit-bloggers', and about the conflicting allegiances which we literary bloggers who are also writers need to negotiate.

Norm once asked me with a genuinely puzzled air why I had two blogs. Now Norm is of course an academic, with an academic's happy insulation from commercial demands (though he may disagree with me about that last), but others, including literary bloggers, have seemed as puzzled. The way it happened is very much to the point.

This was the blog with which I began blogging. I began it with the specific intention of discussing the increasing commercialization of publishing and its implictions for 'literary fiction', an agenda which inevitably included discussions on the nature of fiction. Since 'literary fiction', for want of a better word, is what I write myself - or at least what other people seem to have decided I write - and since I'd experienced this increasing commercialization at first hand, I can't claim that my aims were impartial, but I hoped to approach the matter in as rational a way as possible, and in order to focus attention on my arguments I made the blog pseudonymous (about which Susan Hill complained on Scott Pack's blog: she felt I should have the courage of my convictions and stand up and be counted rather than hide behind a pseudonym, and indeed seemed to feel that my views were less valid while they weren't contextualized by my identity). But there was of course another reason for assuming a blogging name: as I've discussed before, writers can be extremely vulnerable: after all, what writer in their right mind looking for a publisher (as I was at the time) would be seen as going round criticizing the publishing industry? Not that I was doing that; I understand that publishers too can be the victims of an increasingly commercial culture, but you never know... The joke was, though, that in the end Blogger outed me anyway, by combining the blog with the other, author blog I had started in the meantime.

So why had I started another, author blog? Whether we like it or not, whether we are ideologically opposed to it or not, any published author must nowadays take an active part in the publicity machine, and the blog is clearly the prime tool for this. I hadn't at that point found my short-story publisher, but it's instructive to read this in their current submissions guidelines: You should be prepared to assist in a wide range of marketing practices, including social networking sites and blogs. As a publisher or a writer, it's only sensible, after all, to embrace the marketing opportunities of the web. We writers want to sell our books because - apart from the odd purist who claims otherwise - we want people to read them, and we want our publishers take our next book (and not turn us down as someone who doesn't sell). Not that selling my work is all I'm doing on my author blog; what I'm doing is far more complex, and I hope has more integrity, than that - I'm engaging in thoughtful discussions with readers and other writers, mostly about the writing process and the writing life. But there is that necessary element of promotion which I'd like to keep separate from this blog as far as possible, and which does therefore result in something of a split personality.

Though, I know, I know, I've felt compelled to advertise my writing on this page too...

Monday, November 10, 2008

How to Talk About Writing and How to Write About Thinking

Is it me? I sometimes don't quite follow the Author, Author pieces in Saturday's Guardian Review, those articles in which authors talk about their own take on the writing process. Maybe it's something to do with the essentially idiosyncratic nature of the writing process for each writer: either those authors are talking to themselves in their own private language, using their own private short-cut associations, or I'm so caught up in my own that I can't always relate to the whole of their arguments. On Saturday Adam Thirwell wrote about the difficulty of representing thoughts and psychology truthfully in novels, but if you can sort out the difference between the description in the first paragraph here and the intimate third person, or between the two modes in the two separate paragraphs, then you're brighter (or more patient, or less hung up on your own writing obsessions) than I:
In an essay, I once wrote about how Franz Kafka invented a strange style in his novels about this man he called K: where, although it looks like a third-person narrative, it is in fact a disguised first-person narrative, belonging to K. And suddenly I thought that I understood more precisely why Kafka wanted to do this. It was a way of inventing a subterfuge, so that he could be true to the cloudiness of thoughts. In a diary entry, on January 12 1911, Kafka noted how he hadn't been writing much, partly because he was lazy, true, but also "because of the fear of betraying my self-perception". Because, he continued, if a thought cannot be written down "with the greatest completeness, with the incidental consequences, as well as with entire truthfulness" - which it couldn't - then what was written down would replace the vague thought "in such a way that the real feeling will disappear while the worthlessness of what has been noted down will be recognised too late". This is why Kafka needed to write in the third person, while really describing the personal contours of a character's thoughts: it was a way of outwitting the imprecise solidity of language.

This is one technique in the art of the novel. Another, however, is to use the completeness and truthfulness of the third person, while still talking as if it's really you.
Even so, there was something that seemed to chime with my own current thinking about the matter. Thirwell describes a thought of his own:
...there could be a way of describing reality which was both true to the seriousness of the world and yet also true to its absolute flippancy, because even the most passionate of experiences, especially the most passionate, were weightless.
That seemed akin to my current struggle to find narrative modes which don't deny the complexity of the emotional reality I want to convey or subtly change it.

Or was it? And is this last statement of mine too obtuse for anywhere but my private writing journal?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Why the Loss of Ross Matters

Scott Pack and Danuta Kean point out that the loss of the Jonathan Ross show means the loss of the main publicity opportunity for celeb Christmas books, and that their sales will suffer. Danuta spells out why this matters for less commercial books:
...the celebs scheduled for Ross will be hustled to the next shows in line – BBC’s One Show, Paul O’Grady, Graham Norton and Alan Titchmarsh. In turn the B List celebs previously scheduled for these shows will be bumped down to the next level and down and down they all go
until even the local radio stations will no longer be open to such books.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Littleness of Big Ideas

I quite like this article by Germaine Greer in which she denounces 'big idea' books as missing the real point. I guess I feel that to put such stress on the notion that 'big idea' thinking is basically male (Greer's springboard is the recent debate about such books and gender) is also to miss the main point a little, or at least to distract from it (and arguably to be in danger of inadvertently condoning such thinking), but as a writer trying to write a literature addressing the fluidity and multiplicity of reality, it gives me a kick to read Greer's argument that 'there is no answer to everything'.