Monday, December 14, 2009

How Can You Be Dissident?

Robert McCrum asserts that our contemporary market-driven culture has no room for the dissident writer, and that ' "the habit of art" has become the "addiction of charm" '. His heart's in the right place, and in my view he's absolutely right about the general trend, but the thrust of his argument is to blame writers themselves - he accuses them of 'want[ing] to join the system, not keep it at arm's length', and refers to 'artistic vanity' and 'complacency and an appetite for entertaining' which leads to a 'sapping [of] the instinct to ask awkward questions of the status quo.'

But this overlooks the power of a system within which it is just not possible for the dissident or avant-garde author to operate. If authors are 'fearful of risk', as he says they are, it is only because in this day and age your agent or editor will simply turn you down if you're 'not commercial enough'. McCrum says authors nowadays just wanna belong, but maybe it's more a case of not belonging meaning not being published at all.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Women and Writing

I have more than I can possibly settle down to say about Rachel Cusk's Guardian article on women and writing, and the way it relates to my own writing experience - on a weekend, that is, when I'm gearing up for builders, meetings, another trip to London, pre-Christmas and Christmas visitors and, ironically, trying to find time even to get back into my room of my own to actually write (and realizing that December, which I had planned to set aside for a new story, is in all practical ways nearly over). Maybe I'll write about the article soon (on the train, perhaps, though laptopping on those Pendolinos makes me trainsick). Suffice for the present to say that she rang a lot of bells for me, and I'm still ringing...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ten Awful Truths About Publishing.

Enough to make you give up writing altogether. Thanks (or not) to Eva Ulian.

Women Writers and the Short Story

Sarah Crown ponders the recent successes of female writers with the short story, and concludes:
Whatever the reason, their current success has the welcome effect of reminding us that great writing doesn't have to be set on the grand scale.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Selling lit fic to Waterstone's

As I write I am in Waterstone's Gower St again, where on November 16th Verona kindly ordered a copy of my novel Too Many Magpies. When I wrote about this , Salt's Chris Hamilton-Emery explained that bookshops rarely re-order even if they do sell such writer-motored orders, and David Knowles of Two Ravens Press questioned that they were even really ordered in the first place:
But the real value of your experiment will come if you ever manage to find out how many of those 'Magpies' actually got ordered after you left - and, more importantly, how many have come home to roost in 3 or 4 month's time.
Well, I have to report that there is no copy of Too Many Magpies here on the fiction shelves. So was it not really ordered? Or did they send it back double-quick, or did it sell, and it hasn't been replaced?

Do you know, I feel too weary to ask...

The BBC National Short Story Award

Yesterday afternoon I managed to catch up with the BBC National Short Short Award on the BBC website, where podcasts of four of the five selected stories remained. Kate Clanchy's winning story, The Not-Dead and the Saved was certainly very impressive and extremely moving, and I'm not surprised that it won both this and the V S Pritchett awards. It's interesting that the press-release story stresses the wonder of the winner being a poet with only the third short story she has written (the implication being that she is not practised at the form). It seems to me that that's no wonder at all: short stories, as I'm frequently saying, are closer to poetry than novels, and this short story bears all the hallmarks of that: a linguistic attention and the structural and verbal patterning at which Clanchy as a poet is supremely practised, and it is these elements which create the control of emotion and tone for which this story has been rightly praised, and make it so moving.

The other stories were prosey by comparison, I thought. Sara Maitland's Moss Witch was an interesting choice as runner-up: it's typical of Maitland's oevre - ecological and feminist with a good dollop of fairytale quality. The judging panel were of course female, which might explain this, though I do wonder if it was the ecological theme that did it. It felt a little forced, even clunky, at times, I thought, but was certainly a most interesting concept, and memorable as so much of Maitland's writing is. Lionel Shriver's Exchange Rates was competent, indeed extremely well-oiled, but pretty much a traditional New-Yorker type story, I thought, and Jane Rogers' Hitting Trees With Sticks betrayed her drama background by being a dramatic monologue narrated by a woman beginning to suffer senility - a difficult feat to pull off with psychological authenticity, as the authorial voice was more knowing than the narrative voice, and I have to say I wasn't absolutely sure it worked - or maybe I was just put off by Julia McKenzie's reading which rendered the narrator rather irritating.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Physical Act of Writing and the Psychological Problem

Tim Adams asks whether the art of great writing can survive the advent of the e-book. He works towards an argument (I think) that computers and our constant on-line status have created a kind of solipsistic self-centred mentality which may make us unable to appreciate extended arguments or concentrate on the great social novels which are at this moment being loaded onto e-books.

Well, maybe my head has already been turned to mush via all this stuff, because for much of this article I don't find his logic easy to follow. Adams begins by suggesting that the problem is based in 'different understandings of the physicality of the act of writing and the act of reading'. One assumes - or I did - that he is referring to different understandings about each of these things. However, he goes on to contrast an act of writing with an act of reading [* added: or to be more precise, elements surrounding an act of reading]: the fact that Don DeLillo still writes his novels on a manual typewriter with the fact of the new Classic Book Collection created for the Nintendo DS - and it's not clear to me from his argument what is the precise nature of this contrast or what it signifies. DeLillo, he reports, needs the physicality of his manual typewriter because he thinks of writing as sculpting: "I have a sculptor's sense of the words I'm making." This I can understand - as a writer I know that sense of a physical, bodily relationship with words in general and with the sentences you're making - and thus far I can follow. But then Adams says that in describing Shakespeare 'as an "iconic author" of "must-read novels" ... [the Nintendo makers] betray some of the side-effects of their product - it treats all writing as if it were simply text, content, something else to scroll on a screen to suit your mood'.

This begs so many questions I hardly know where to begin. Firstly, although by describing Shakespeare as the author of novels the makers or their copywriters are betraying a pretty general cultural ignorance, I'm not sure that they are betraying anything whatever about an attitude to the physical act of writing or any other aspect of it, and this is hardly their concern. Their concern is quite properly with 'writing' in the sense of text - that product which is the goal to be reached via the physical act of writing and which even writers like DeLillo will acknowledge as separate from it - and I'm not clear what there is to complain about in this. Apart from which, text and content are never simple, they are complexly cultural. Perhaps in the last phrase -'something else to scroll onto a screen to suit your mood' - Adams' objection becomes clearer: he feels that the medium of the e-book diminishes the cultural character and impact of the text. However, it seems to me that this is a question not of how we write, but how we read.

He goes on to discuss interestingly our developing relationship with the computer, and the writing we do use it for in the form of blogging and social networking, which he sees, as I say, as increasingly solipsistic rather than truly social. (We can be fundamentally anonymous on the internet, and we are not subject to editorial correction, so that our writing on the internet can, I think he is saying, create a form of inward-looking self-aggrandisement.) He then asks: 'What effect might that have on writing itself?' adding that writing on the internet is not subject to the 'rationalities of syntax or argument', and that, constantly logged on, we are losing our capacity the 'think in the real world'.

But social networking on the internet is not the same as the writing of novels any more than writing letters to your friends has ever been the same as writing novels; it's not as if novelists are unable to shift between registers as necessary. Adams' final question gets nearer the nub of the problem for both readers and writers: 'Will anyone who is "always on" have the concentration to read the great social novels?... Will anyone be able to see far enough beyond themselves to write one?' It's a psychological problem, as I discussed earlier this year.