Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why We Don't Like the Unexpected

Here's an interesting post by Dan Green at The Reading Experience on 'innovative' fiction, and why there is such resistance to it. I urge you to read it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Guest post at The Spectator

Here's a link to a guest post I was kindly invited to write by the The Spectator's book blog editor David Blackburn, on the publishing history of my novel The Birth Machine and the way it illustrates the extent to which factors other than literary merit can make or break books and writers.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

When is a book not a book?

Novel immersion, article-writing, starting to clean dust-filled house for Christmas guests: I can't believe it's nine days since I tended to this blog. One thing I was moved to write about last week but simply didn't get time for was John Harris's article for the Guardian, in which he reports on his serious effort to read several of this year's Christmas celebrity-memoir bestsellers to 'take the national pulse', presumably to find out why they are so popular. It's a witty and enlightening article which comes to the conclusion that these books are generally infantile. However, the response he gets when he questions Waterstone's John Howells indicates that he was wasting his time, since these are not books for reading:
...he suggests I stop thinking about all this stuff in the same context as what industry types call "range" – ie the books racked in the back of the shop – and realise what I'm dealing with.

"These books are a part of mainstream entertainment," he says. "Cheryl Cole has got a book out this Christmas, she's also got a new album out, and she's all over the telly. The book is one part of a general programme for somebody like that. You could make the same argument about Gok Wan, or Paul O'Grady. Or Michael McIntyre. It's all part of a brand. These are people with a huge amount of fans, and they want to buy product." [my italics]

Friday, December 10, 2010

Units gone stale

Today I was standing in a bookshop queue behind a man who was asking if they stocked a particular title (I didn't catch which). The assistant looked it up on the computer and found that there was one copy in the warehouse, but none in the store. So far so helpful. And then he said these immortal words: 'It's ten years since that book was published. You won't find a book that old on our shelves.'

I trust he was exempting the works of great literature that are over 10 years old...

Monday, December 06, 2010

Soapbox Guest at Help! I Need a Publisher: 'Talent Will Out'?

Today I'm on the soapbox at Nicola Morgan's excellent blog, Help I Need a Publisher! explaining why claims that 'talent will out' get me so steamed up, and illustrating with a publishing scandal in which I got caught up, and which involved partially successful attempts to silence me as a writer.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Is There a Literary Boys' Club?

An amusing and/or depressing spat last week between Robert McCrum and novelist Amanda Craig. The trigger was a piece by Craig on the website of the excellent Fiction Uncovered (which I really should have blogged about and would have done so had I not been so tied up with promoting my latest publication, and you probably already know about it but if not then I shall trust you to jump on the link and speed on over there and find out about a Really Good Thing.)

Anyway, one wonders what McCrum thinks about Fiction Uncovered - an Arts-Council aided idea to seek out and promote good writers who haven't so far received the attention they deserve - since his objection to Craig's article seems out of all proportion, and indeed he seems wilfully to misinterpret her. Craig's argument is that none of her own generation has received the kind of acclaim that some in the generations either side of it have done. Here's the central paragraph in which she makes it:
Those younger than us, such as Sarah Waters, Maggie O’Farrell, Zadie Smith, Philip Hensher and Monica Ali, rose to prominence earlier and faster, fanned by national prosperity; my generation has had a long struggle to be seen at all. We have worked in the shadow of the Amis-McEwan-Barnes-Rushdie generation, and the recession of the 1980s, and by the time we published, usually in our mid-thirties, a second wave of younger talent had risen up and overtaken us.
Craig's chief point here is that the generations of writers either side of her avoided the recession which hit the generation to which she belongs, and there is an implied premise that national prosperity is good for writers' reputations and recession isn't. It's true that she also refers to the 'shadow' of the 'Amis-McEwan-Barnes-Rushdie generation' as an impediment, and it's this which McCrum jumps on, and here's how he interprets it:
Craig's complaint ... is that Amis et al have somehow prevented a generation of writers from getting their due recognition... If this boys' club had not sucked all the oxygen out of the literary ecosphere, says Craig – with no real evidence for her assertion – we would now speak of Chambers, Jensen etc in the same breath as ...
Whoa...! That's a whole load of extrapolation from one brief phrase. Maybe, since Craig goes on to point out that it is above all the women of her generation who have been most overlooked, she is implying the existence of a 'boys' club', but she accuses Amis, McEwan, Barnes and Rushdie themselves of nothing (where's the evidence for that?). Now McCrum, one of those with the power to overlook or champion talents and provide or deny the oxygen of newspaper publicity, is of course the great champion of this quartet, and his reaction seems knee-jerk enough to imply a sorely hit nerve.

He even gets insulting:
Really good writers are not troubled by brilliant contemporaries [See, Craig, he seems to be saying, if you were any good you wouldn't be moaning]... Strong talents are galvanised by rival artists not crushed by them. Or they go their own way, making their own good fortune. They are not cowed by top dogs.
Ah, those 'top dogs'! So there are top dogs - those who have somehow managed to 'suck all the oxygen out of the literary ecosphere' in spite of there being other strong talents! In resorting to the language of elitism, McCrum only brings down on himself the very suspicions he's so anxious to avoid. He goes on to object 'that there are also (among reviewers) many experts in tall-poppy syndrome, knives poised'. Tall poppies too, eh - those who have gained all the nutrients/cash and consequent attention? (Though the only example of tall-poppy-slashing he comes up with is Tibor Fischer's hatchet job on Amis's Yellow Dog.)

'If Craig and her disappointed contemporaries have had such a hard time,' he asks with a tone that smacks shockingly of playground in-crowds, 'why has it been (apparently) so easy for Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Monica Ali and Philip Hensher? Could it be that these literary arrivistes are, er, actually better?' but concludes in the very language of the pompous gentleman's club he'd like to disprove: 'Maybe posterity will be kinder to Ms Craig and her contemporaries. For the moment, the jury is still out. Harsh, but true.'


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Reading Roots

If you're interested in the formative reading of a Fiction Bitch, today I'm in the Reading Roots spot on Carina's Reading Through Life blog.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thinking Not Allowed

Well, here is perhaps the most depressing sign yet of the dumbing down of our literary culture by those in charge of its wellbeing, and of their utter patronisation of readers. According to an article in Wednesday's Independent, Costa judge Jonathan Ruppin, who is the web editor at Foyles bookshop, stated that it was not a strong year for fiction this year, adding that the omission of Howard Jacobson and David Mitchell from the shortlist was due to the fact that 'their work was too cerebral to recommend to the masses'.

And there we have it, folks: out-and-out proof that in this brave new world of ours, intellect is seen as weakness and something to be kept well away from us, the 'masses'.

Thanks to Lynne Hatwell via Facebook

Friday, November 12, 2010

How to have a book launch in London when you don't even live there

First, you will have had one already, the previous year, for a different book, which was successful. For the current book you will have already had one in Manchester which was packed out, and where you sold all of the books the bookshop ordered, and more besides. This will give you confidence - although you are very aware of the unpredictability of these things, so maybe you are not so confident after all. Gird up your loins, though. First of all, be prepared to SPEND MONEY. This may seem to you crazy, ie to wipe out any profit on the books, and far more besides, before you begin, but remember: the point of the exercise is not so much to make money - something which is nowadays pretty much beside the point unless your initials are DB, eg - but to SPREAD WORD ABOUT THE BOOK. Book your return train journey. Book a hotel. Ask the bookshop to order in wine and nibbles, which you will pay for.

Begin inviting people. Start a month beforehand, in order to give plenty of notice. Send personal invitations to the following people: your personal friends and relatives who live within travelling distance of central London (this is not many), your writer and publisher friends: the two or three you have known for years, the ones you have met more recently via blogging and Facebook or on a writing course you went on once, and the several writers you know through currently having the same publisher, as well as the one or two you once published in a short-story magazine and with whom you are still in touch - altogether a good number. Be brave enough also to ask two very well-known writers you have also had dealings with in the last year or so, and don't forget your ex- but very nice agent who sold the book (which is a reissue) the first time round, and is thus part of its publishing history. Since the subject of the book is of particular interest to women (though not exclusively), contact a long list of London women's groups, and, since it has been studied on university courses contact a slightly shorter list of relevant London-based academics. And while you're at it, although it seems a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (but then the object of the exercise is spreading word about the book), contact a ginormous list of London-based reading groups. Get the event on Time Out listings.

All of this will take you several mornings and afternoons glued to the computer (you will need to reply to responses, remember). You will long ago have suspended work on your novel-in-progress or given up, for the present, any idea of writing .

A fortnight before the event, set up a Facebook event. Luckily, your publisher sets one up for you as well, because he has so many more Facebook friends.

What happens? Half of your very small number of relatives say they can't make it (you don't even invite your miles-from-London relatives as they would never travel). In spite of your having invited them so early, many of your writer friends write back to say that they too are already committed that evening - mostly to teaching: it seems that most creative writing tuition takes place on Wednesday evenings! Still, some say they'll come, but, frankly, you are counting on the fingers of two people's hands, and not using all of those fingers, either.

Your old agent sends you a very nice email to say that he, too, is already committed that evening, as do your old writing friends, one of whom will be embarked that night on an American tour. Neither of the famous writers with whom you are newly acquainted replies. Squash the horrible feeling that they are laughing up their sleeves at the thought of going to your launch, and remind yourself that they are probably extremely busy. About twenty people say on your publisher's Facebook event that they'll come (hardly any say so on yours), but you know that it's just so easy to click a button to look willing, and it doesn't really guarantee that any of them will come, and one of them lives in Colombia, you notice...

By now you are panicking. Your close friends and relatives tell you that it'll be all right, people always turn up, but you are not so sure. You stop sleeping properly at night. But then, you tell yourself, there are those 15 or so people who have said they're coming. And then there are those who haven't replied: maybe they'll come in the end... Though your gut feeling is that, actually, it means the opposite.

In the days coming up to the event, you spend time Facebooking and Tweeting the event, even though you are worried about breaking the code and being just too damn self-promotional and possibly therefore counterproductive. Also you write again to those who haven't replied, just in case they have forgotten all about it because you invited them so early - squashing the worry that they will just feel hassled, which will put them right off you and your book. Some of them do write back this time, to confirm your worst fears. Then several of the people who have said they're coming write to say that now they can't. The number of definites is dwindling.

But then you get a positive response from the University of East London who will circulate details, and from representatives of three of the women's groups who say they are sure their members will be interested. And to your delight, Beverley Beech, Chair of AIMS (the Association for the Improvement of Maternity Services) writes to say she'd love to come.

You pack up your bags. Should you take some books? In Manchester the bookshop sold out, as did the bookshop at your last London launch, and on both occasions you ended up selling extra books out of your bag. It seems ridiculous this time. But then you never know: what if crowds of people off those mailing lists - and the bookshop's mailing list, and the Time Out listing - turned up? Every writer has to be prepared... So you do, you take a bag full of books as well as your other bags, and lug it on the train and the tube and up the steps of your hotel. As you are hauling it through your hotel room doorway the handle comes off, and on the way to the launch you have to buy another, and since this time you think you'd better get a stronger one, that's £50 added to the cost of the launch...

You're a little early, so you retire to Starbucks opposite the bookshop and transfer the books from your knackered bag into your new one. While you're sitting down, you look at your email. One of the writers you are expecting is not going to make it after all, as her babysitter has not turned up.

In the bookshop (Blackwell) the very nice Marcus has gone to a lot of trouble getting in the wine and nibbles and thoughtfully setting up for you in the medical section, most apt for the subject of the novel. Your heart is sinking at the thought that you will not make his efforts worthwhile.

This is what happens in the end: a few of the people who said they would come fail to do so, but a few others who said they couldn't, or didn't even reply, turn up out of the blue. Your lovely publisher comes (all the way from Cambridge in the freezing cold, her hands like ice), which makes all the difference, of course. And some of your oldest friends are there, including those who supported you all those years ago during the fraught history of the book. Although not a single other person from those mailing lists (or the events listings) is there, Beverley Beech comes, and is at the centre of intense discussions about the issues both before and after the reading. She tells you, both privately and openly during the reading, that the book is extremely current because the situation it deals with - that of the over-control of the obstetric profession - has got worse in the years since the first edition was published.

It's a small gathering, but it's a keen and involved one, and you are most surprised when at the end of the evening Marcus tells you that he is pleased with the number of books sold.

You even sell one copy out of your bag, because a dear writing friend arrives too late (and out of breath) to buy one from the shop!

And you are just arriving back at your hotel when your phone goes, and your son whose birth inspired the novel wants to know if you're all right, and you are all right, but so relieved of all the tension that you burst into tears...

(Pics here.)

*Crossposted to Elizabeth Baines blog.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Good and Bad Editing

On the occasion of the announcement of the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award, the BBC News Magazine resurrects the debate around an earlier comment by Claire Armitstead, chair of the judging panel and literary editor of the Guardian, that the books submitted for the prize had shown a general lack of editing in today's publishing processes.

I must say, far too many times now when I read novels the spell of the story is broken for me by some howler or other: for instance, in two books recently (one of them Andrea Levy's Small Island) I came across the non-ironic assertion that in Britain the leaves on the trees in autumn turn first red then yellow, and on both occasions the story of the novel was immediately displaced for me by speculation about the editors involved, and an image of them sitting at their desks, or maybe, no, chatting on their iphones: had they not really read the book properly? Or were they so young and urban that they didn't even know that this was a mistake? Or care? But don't they have trees in London? Don't they ever look up from their cappuccinos? OK, OK, I know it's an unfair image, but it's the one that came...

But then rooting out such factual/mechanical errors was traditionally the role of the copyeditor, (a figure whom I understand is rapidly disappearing from publishing), and what Armitstead is more importantly concerned with is the dying role of the editor as a mentor in storytelling:
Writers set out wanting to tell their story in their way. Sometimes they don't think about what it's going to be like actually reading it. The editor's job is to point out where they're going off track… what I felt is that editors are not intervening.
This hits the nail on the head. Writers worth their salt should always write with a sense of how their writing is going to be read, but there needs to be someone with a more objective eye judging whether or not a piece works, and if not suggesting how it would work better. Proper editing takes time, as is pointed out in the BBC article, and it's not difficult to see therefore how the role of the editor can suffer due to marketing restraints. As is also pointed out, writer and editor need to develop the kind of long-term working relationship unavailable in a culture of publisher-hopping in search of better deals.

Above all, though, radical editing requires sensitivity, and a commitment to the author's - or at least the story's - aims. This has been very much on my mind recently, as my first novel is currently being reissued with the original structure - radically changed by the first publisher - reinstated. The editing that that book was given by a feminist publisher the first time round was quite simple, but extreme: chapter 4 was moved to the beginning and changed from past to present tense, destroying, as far as I was concerned, my careful seduction of the reader via a gradual change of tone and perspective into sharing the experience presented in that chapter. This may have made it a better book for that particular publisher's market - a book with which they judged women readers could instantly identify - but I had never intended it as such a book, and the story I wanted to tell was different from the one which this simple but drastic measure created. (You can read about it in more detail on my author blog here.)

But then that's the thing with editing. It's such a powerful tool, it's such a role of responsibility. It's a distinguished profession with important skills we'd be the poorer to lose...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Signs of the Times

...or rather, of the industry? W H Smith in Manchester Arndale centre this afternoon:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jonathan Franzen and The Great American Novelist

Here's a picture of - what? A man pouring himself a glass of water. Or no, a man hiding from the camera. Or maybe a man who knows he can't hide from the camera. (Is that why he is grinning?) (Or is that why, in the end, he seemed to get a bit irritated with the camera?) He will say in the next few moments that he knows he needs to be careful what he says because next thing it'll turn up on a blog. And here it is, the picture anyway. Of a man who has just read to a great crowd in the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester and knows he's about to be quizzed on the fact that he has been designated the Great American Novelist and on the Author as Personality and Cultural Phenomenon, and all he really wants to talk about is his novel, and if his novel could only just wing its way into the world without him he'd be a damn sight happier. I think.

Anyway, the most interesting moment for me in all that talk was what he said before he even began reading, which was that his intention in writing The Corrections and Freedom (both door-stoppers) was to write a sustained narrative in a time of atomised narratives. It's the kind of statement that hits you between the eyes as the statement, the most relevant and interesting for now, and in my opinion its unpackaging could have filled the whole evening, but there we were hearing Franzen, head down and his eyes shielded by those horn-rimmed specs, asked for his reaction to the GAN thing (no fun, he said, to land in a country where that's being flagged about you: the only way is down), how he felt about all the publicity (it's such a contrast to the privacy of the writing experience, he told us drily, that it was helpfully unreal. It's just a novel, he said, as he has on other occasions, he just hopes you enjoy it and don't take it too seriously). He was asked what he thought about the fact that the writer is expected to be a nice person (which to me seemed rather a strange question: nice? rather than glamorous etc?, and I don't even remember his answer: my notes, which I can't read, seem to include 'sometimes irritable'). For me the whole event was imbued with a strange sense of dislocation which I think was the dislocation between the general thrust of the questioning and the novelist's own interest.

In one moment when the attention did turn to the novelist's art, Franzen was asked about his use of multiple viewpoints, and his answer was very interesting. He himself had multiple viewpoints on all sorts of issues, he said, and the thing that is great about the novel as a form is that it is able to give full life to irreconcilable contradictions.

And as far as I'm concerned the extract he read was fabulous.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

More on the 'Present'

A letter from Peter McDonald in yesterday's Guardian articulates some of the issues that have lain pretty well unstirred in the recent debate about the use of 'present tense' in novels. (I can't find it online, so no link I'm afraid.)

'Why is so much literary talk in the English-speaking world so facile and unambitious?' he begins by asking, and points out that while John Mullan ostensibly took issue with Philip Pullman's objections to the current uses of PT, Mullan nevertheless concurred that it's 'an evasion of narrative responsibility'. McDonald remarks of this: 'It is difficult to imagine a more finely balanced blend of late-Victorian aestheticism and moralism... We are back in the gas-lit critical climate of the 1980s.'

He goes on:
Compare all this with what Roland Barthes wrote about narrative time in the late 1940s... He saw the present as a way of escaping the easy sense-making allure of traditional past tense modes... [The past tense] constitutes a direct affront to the "unreal time of cosmogonies, myths, history and novels".
I think that's the whole point: that fiction is released from worldly time, and that to talk in terms of 'present' and 'past' tenses in fiction can be reductive and beside the point.

Ironically, in view of the fact that he writes fantasy novels, Pullman's comments do seem to stem from an outdated sense of there always being a real, true story behind all the other possible stories, the one for which the author 'takes narrative responsibility', a sense which is closely linked to the realist concept of the story as fact. As Barthes pointed out, the traditional use of the past tense is that which can best create this illusion, the sense that what we are reading here is the authoritative version. (Perhaps it's significant that Pullman writes for children.)

Personally, I'm interested in fictions that challenge this notion of narrative authority, and try to write them, and quite frankly find unauthorative narratives that don't. As Pullman himself acknowledged, there are many versions of the past, and therefore of any story, located in the different perceptions and memories of those who experienced it. Each of those persons has their own (often very different) 'past tense' story, after all, and novels can be great at showing up their contingency - just look at past-tense first-person multiviewpoint novels or a past-tense intimate third novel like The Corrections.

As for the 'present' tense: Vanessa Gebbie explains in the comments thread on my previous post that Philip Hensher objects to the use of the 'casual anecdote' mode of present tense in contemporary novels. In fact this precise mode was used brilliantly in Trainspotting, but the voice was that of a narrator not the author; far from abdicating narrative responsibility, via this voice the author was portraying and anatomizing the particular social and psychic (and thus temporal) entrapment of his characters. No doubt there is an army of poor imitators, but I can't say I've come across many published ones. Furthermore, the 'present' tense can be used in other sophisticated ways. I'm not a linguist so I don't know the terms, but I can imagine that linguists describe the various uses as distinct tenses in themselves (rather than the simple/simplistic 'present'). The 'casual anecdote' mode is only one form of the historic present in which it's unequivocally acknowledged that the events being described happened in the past (for the characters) but they are related in the present tense in a way that 're-lives' them and thus makes them especially vivid. But there are subtle ways in which you can use it - to show that such 're-creation' can be suspect, for instance. Present-tense portrayal of memory is even less simply 'historic', creating a more continuous temporal reality, since memories are indeed 'present', always with us, even while the events memorized are 'past', in fact continuously recreating the past (Pullman himself refers to an especially vivid instance of this use in Jane Eyre). Not to mention the possible use of the present tense to describe either an unavoidable or a putative future ('We go to the train at four-thirty' or 'we watch the sea swallow the continent') ('future present'?).

In other words, the ways to which such modes can be put are the ways that novels can free us from the straitjacket of obvious 'fact' and bring us onto the more magical and dynamic levels of possibility...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Richard and Judy, the Expensive Couple

The new costs of entering prizes, and now the new costs of a Richard and Judy recommendation:

I've now been brought the paper copy of the article by Tom Baldwin in Saturday's Times about the the new Richard and Judy book club (which I wasn't prepared to pay to see online). The article is occasioned by a complaint lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority over TV commercials linking the new book club - which the Times says it has discovered requires a payment to W H Smith of £25,000 for a recommendation - with the earlier Channel 4 book club which producer Amanda Ross says never asked for money. Ross is quoted as saying: 'In the past we have certainly picked publishers who could not afford £25,000 or anything like that.' Commitment to the £25,000 fee and to supplying chosen books to W H Smith at a 'substantial discount' as well as paying 'a further 50p for every sale at one of its stores' are conditions of inclusion on the R & J list. A spokeswoman for W H Smith is quoted as saying: 'This is a standard arrangement.'

Yes, I guess that sadly now it is, and it won't surprise me if the standard of the R & J list plummets...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Present Tense.

Gratified to see that, further to my post re the present tense, yesterday John Mullan outlined some of the sophisticated and dynamic uses to which the historic present can be put in novels - which I'd have liked to have done myself but was too involved in my own partly present-tense novel.

Stories about Stories and the Cost of Storytelling

Hilarious - and telling - that the current interviews with Jonathan Franzen trot out the story that while writing 'The Corrections', as well as using earplugs he wore a blindfold and touch-typed, when to my knowledge he has denied this as the literal truth.

I was in the audience when he came to Waterstone's Deansgate in Manchester with The Corrections and someone asked him point-blank if it were true about the blindfold. Franzen explained that he had been talking metaphorically about the need for a writer (or his need anyway) to shut off the outside world in order to write, and that the journalist he'd been talking to at that time had taken it literally and others had run with it.

And they're still running with it. Does Franzen go on allowing them to take it literally when they mention it, or is it now just now set in stone in the records they look up? Either way, it's an indication of the importance nowadays of colourful meta-stories in the marketing of books.

Or else I'm remembering wrongly what he said that time in Waterstone's and someone can correct me (ahem).

On another note, I've been informed that The Times yesterday had an interesting article on the cost nowadays to any publisher entering books for the new Richard and Judy book club. I'm not prepared to pay to check it out online, but others may be if they haven't already read it...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Present Rules

Sometimes when you're writing you just think: for God's sake, will people stop talking about how to do it! Because a) as Charlie Brooker has recently indicated, sometimes thinking about it too much it is just not conducive to actually doing it which can require huge dollops of intuition rather than intellect and b) because too often the talk implies rules and too many rules end up in proscription, and another thing you need in huge dollops is confidence and a sense of freedom. And before you object that there are rules and that writing is a craft as much as an art, with techniques to be learnt: I know, I know: I agree!! But the way I see it is that you learn the rules so well you take them for granted, in fact can start to break them, and after that what every writer, however experienced, really needs, are (mainly psychic) stratagems for freeing up their imagination and achieving originality in their writing.

And there's a third problem, c), with all this rule-bound chatter, especially when it's indulged in by well-known writers: what they're often doing is simply banging the drum for their own kind of writing and (by implication) denigrating other modes of writing from a standpoint which is hardly impartial (though too often taken as such).

When the news broke last week that Philip Pullman had condemned the current use of the present tense in novels, my stomach gave a lurch, I can tell you, as I'm using the present tense in my WIP, though not exclusively. I was tempted to join the debate and point out some of the subtle and wholly dynamic uses to which the present tense can be put in novels (and which as far as I could see were being overlooked), but, putting my duty to my work first, I decided to refrain from analysis and preserve the more intuitive frame of mind I needed for the writing, and to keep up my confidence in what I was doing by tuning out the critical voices.

Just as well: in today's Guardian Philip Pullman is at pains to explain that the reports had oversimplified his remarks. And in spite of myself I did read his article, and here are my pathetically writing-immersed responses:

He does begin by admitting that he said that 'the present tense in fiction has been getting more and more common in fiction, and I didn't like it.' (Stomach wrench from me.) But then he goes on to say: 'Like any other literary effect, the present tense is an expressive device; but expression works by contrast'. (Me: Yess! That's how I'm using it: as a contrast! Phew.) Pullman goes on to quote from a present-tense passage in Jane Eyre, which he says 'works beautifully because it emerges from the context of a narrative told in the past tense' and 'conveys as nothing else could the pressure of her feelings as she recalls the intensity of that summer evening.' (Me: yes, exactly: this is one of the best ways we can write about both intensity of feeling and memory. By this point in the article I'm feeling affirmed...)

But what happens then? Pullman goes on the attack. What he's attacking are novels written entirely in the present tense, which he compares with the (also reprehensible) increasing use of the hand-held camera. He says, 'I want all the young present-tense storytellers ... to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective.' He understands why so many don't: the postmodern (though he doesn't call it that) concern with lack of certainty, with the worry 'Who are we to say that this happened and then that happened? Maybe it didn't ... there are other points of view, truth is always provisional, knowledge is always partial.' But while he understands it, he doesn't accept it: he calls it 'an abdication of narrative responsibility' and states that 'the storyteller ... should take charge of the story and not feel shifty about it.'

Well, my response to that is to wonder: isn't it an abdication of authorial responsibility NOT to want to address those uncertainties? And isn't Pullman just saying he doesn't like writing that's not like his own? And what's he doing making proscriptive rules for those who don't write as he does? And I'm trying really hard not to let it knock me off balance, as I'm writing about those very uncertainties...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Another Bites the Dust

Now it's Charlie Brooker's turn to decide that the internet has been destroying both his writing time and his attention span, and that he must retrain himself and cut down his time online.

(If anyone here is interested, on my other blog I'm charting my progress at trying to do the same while very much needing to use the internet for publicity for a new publication.)

Gotta love Charlie Brooker: recently he dared to say what very few writers would, but what I suspect most writers secretly think: that he doesn't want to advise anyone else about their writing beause a) he doesn't really know how he does it, it's like riding a bike, really and b) why would any writer trying to make it in a literary world where there's only room for the few go and help others to turn out potentially better than himself?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

It Takes a Man to Say These Things

When Jodi Picoult and Lionel Shriver (or any other women writers) say it, it's too likely to look like sour grapes, but today in the Guardian Pankaj Mishra argues thoughtfully that for the establishment 'great' only ever signifies 'the passionate ambition of white men, never women.'

Mishra is also concerned with other prejudices beside gender: for arbiters like Time magazine, he says, 'literature is summed up by the big, panoptic novel about the American, usually suburban condition, not the formally resourceful poem and short story or intellectually rigorous essay.'

It's interesting, too, that he points out the often suburban concerns of the 'great' male American novel, since the general perception is that 'suburban' is one of the sub-characteristics for which women's literature is deemed generally lesser.

Also in the Guardian today, in the same edition in which Andrew Motion, chair of this year's Booker panel, complains about the poor editing the judges encountered (as did Claire Armitstead recently regarding the Guardian First Book Award), there's a very interesting letter from Chris Parker which I think is worth quoting:
...falling editorial standards is shared by editors themselves. As well as having to correct the most basic spelling and punctuation mistakes made by authors "educated" since the mid-70s, editors are frequently asked by publishers to copyedit and proofread (two distinct processes) at the same time. Before the 1990s, a typescript would be subjected, before typesetting, to a rigorous copyediting process, then proofread (often by two people) to ensure that all the copyeditor's changes had been implemented. We are now asked by most publishers to "cast a quick eye" over proofs which have been set straight from authors' disks, bypassing the editorial process altogether.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Self-promotion and Underpromotion

The Not the Booker Prize over on the Guardian books blog has raised the very interesting question of the role of social networking in making books known. (Must say, stuck in my literary purdah in the Welsh hills I hadn't even caught that the Prize was going on in the first place - the Guardian blog page takes five minutes to load up in the mountain, if it loads up at all, that is - leave alone had the ability to rally my mates and fans to nominate my book, if I could bring myself to do such a thing, so I guess that tells you something.)

And Lionel Shriver gets her teeth into the issue of male versus female novelists and gives it a good shake, arguing that female writers never receive the kind of accolades awarded to their male counterparts, and suffer from an infantilizing 'prettification' by marketing departments:
...trussing up my novels as sweet, girly and soft is like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Latest on Memoirs

I'm far too immersed in my own novel to be able to begin to comment on this Guardian Books blog article by Charlotte Higgins about the issues raised by Candia McWilliam's recent memoir and AS Byatt's comments thereon, but since the issues of memoir/autobiography/fiction have been such a preoccupation of this blog, I direct you towards it.

(If you want to read some of my comments on the issues, click the MEMOIRS V NOVELS label)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Silence and the Writer

Tucked away at the moment up a mountain with my writing and without good internet access, I'm not having many thoughts beyond the images and ideas of my WIP. It's interesting that, in these days when an author's job increasingly involves promotion, I feel a certain guilt about this, rather than the immense satisfaction I'd probably have felt once upon a time at being fortunate enough to have a solid period of concentration. Actually, no, I think, once a upon a time - even, or maybe especially, when I had small children - I thought it my duty to my art (if that doesn't sound too pretentious) to bend over backwards to carve the time and peace to give it proper attention.

And isn't that what true art needs? Not that I'm claiming to be producing the greatest art here or anything, but here in the mountains, where there is only the sound of the wind and the stream and the buzzards calling overhead, I am sinking into my work in a way I haven't managed for a good while, seeing the scenes with new richness and clarity and making new connections, the latter often coming to me in the evenings when I'm walking by the sea (and when in Manchester I'd be catching up on internet stuff). Silence and peace. Isn't that what we need for deep thought? And isn't that why libraries were always places of silence?

But don't we now despise libraries as places of silence, and fill them instead with activities? Aren't we now, via the internet, developing a culture of buzz and quick response which militate against deep contemplation? And what will this do to our literature?

A poet I know lives permanently in mountains where he can't get broadband. He is one of the most thoughtful and talented poets I know. But will his work get lost because he can't - or chooses not to - gain visibility for his work via the web? Will all such writers be silenced? And what kind of literature will we have then?

Friday, August 13, 2010

The New Conundrum for Authors

At the moment this blog feels like a house plant that's not being watered while I'm off on my travels. Well, here I am popping back home from the geographies of my novel to give it a quick splash - inspired by a relevant article in the Guardian today.

Ray Conolly writes about the fact that he is publishing his latest novel, The Sandman, in serial form online and for free, although it will be possible in the meantime to buy a download of the entire manuscript, and later a printed form will be available from Amazon. His enthusiasm is catching, and his argument that publishing is changing in such a way that, contrary to predictions, the web is returning power to authors, seems persuasive.

I wonder, though. Power always comes with responsibility, and in this case the responsibility for marketing. Connolly talks about the fact that there will be Facebook and Twitter links (not to mention the ipod audio version he'll be preparing). And we all know how much time Facebook and Twitter can take up... One can't help asking the question: where will he get the time to write his next book? It's not only my blogs that have been suffering recently from the fact that my novel has been absorbing all my time, attention and creativity, but my Facebook and Twitter accounts via which I should be doing the marketing for my published books, necessarily required by my small publisher.

The old (new) conundrum, eh?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wide Choice = Narrowed Options

An interesting article on Alternet yesterday, in which it is argued that Amazon's policies of price-cutting and making as many books as possible available lead in fact to a narrowing of choice for the consumer (not to mention a squeezing of literary opportunities for the writer).

Thanks to Vanessa Gebbie via Facebook.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Question of Attention

Apologies for my absence from this blog recently. I'm working on a substantial novel, and find that when I can give it the attention it needs it can take up my whole day, or at least my whole focus: I write in the mornings, in the afternoons I type up and edit what I've written in the morning, and the rest of the day is needed for digesting what I've done and thinking about the next day's writing, as well as necessary research. It's easier to write a quick blog post about my writing activities for my author blog than to start getting my head around more general publishing and fiction issues. In the last week I have had to interrupt my novel's rhythm to help publicise my publisher's Just One Book campaign, so the possibility of feeding this blog with useful content has slipped even further away.

There's one preoccupation, however, I do want to air. I think I have said here in the past that when I'm writing intently I find it difficult to read: the language and psyche of another novel is disruptive to my own. However, during the last fortnight, in spite of being so very immersed in my own work, I have had to tackle Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for my reading group, and I'm now halfway through. I don't read crime fiction as a rule, and neither do most people in the group, but we decided to read this book in order to try and understand its success as a cultural phenomenon. It took me a long while to get into it - I found the first 100 pages or so immensely boring - but as most people told me I would, I found that it finally took off and was 'readable'. But what do I mean, in this instance, by 'readable'? I mean that it's like eating ice-cream, it slips down nicely. I don't care a fig about the characters, and so nothing's really at stake for me, and it's not psychologically disruptive. I know the author knows the answer (so why doesn't he just tell me?), and the language is bald and often cliched and there are structurally-erroneous repetitions. But there's enough action and human interest now to compensate and enough of a political theme to make it respectable, and the whole thing, including those things which initially irritated me and made me contemptuous, has become something like a comfort blanket. The main thing about it is that it hasn't interrupted my novel psyche one little bit. The experience is familiar: it's like nothing so much as reading Enid Blyton when I was a child, and then going off and immediately writing my own stories.

It does precisely the opposite of what, as a writer, I have always felt literature should ideally do. And I don't mind such literature existing, clearly it has its uses, but what I do mind is a general cultural squeezing of the sort that provokes and challenges and disturbs.

Well, I don't know, maybe some people do find The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo provocative and challenging...

Anyway, I leave you with the thoughts of a couple of other literary bloggers. Adrian Slatcher has some interesting things to say about the Sunday Time's online paywall and the marketing implications for books, and Peter Finch comments on ponderous lead-in times for print publications in the age of instant online response.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Margaret Atwood on Blogging and Twitter for authors

Further to yesterday's post I just came across this Margaret Atwood quote via Twitter, from a Literary Review interview (one good reason to have been on Twitter, ironically):
...people are trying to pile stuff onto authors, like you have to have a blog, you have to have this, you have to have that. Various party tricks. You actually don't. I would say that having done it, the blogging and Tweeting and so forth reaches possibly a different kind of reader than the kind you may have been used to hearing from. But an author's job is to concentrate on the writing, and once the writing is finished what you essentially do is throw it into a bottle and heave it into the sea, and that's the same for any method of dissemination. There's still a voyage between the text and the unknown reader; the book will still arrive at the door of some readers who don't understand it - who don't like it. It will still find some readers who hopefully do, and the process is still a scattergun approach.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Twittering and Ageing

Well, if I hadn't been so busy working on my current writing project I would have blogged about this - a Huffington Post article about the usefulness of Twitter for publishers - and the accompanying perceived need for authors to be on Twitter too, as well as online in all the other ways. (Hah! Nuff said).

I would also have taken up the current debate about age in fiction-writing (too afraid, though, of getting old and conking out before I finish writing the damn thing). I'd have mentioned the great news that an 82-year-old has just published her debut, and Robert McCrum's earlier half-retraction last week about old writers being useless. It's only half a retraction because he says that usually when older writers write something good it's just the one last flowering. This statement is rather undercut, though, by one of the writers he lists, Mary Wesley, since her offering at the age of 70-odd was her first flowering, and she went on to have several more blooms...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Suspension and Falling in Literature and Life

Latest stop on the virtual tour for Too Many Magpies is at the blog of Words from a Glass Bubble author, Vanessa Gebbie, who uses the fact that I recently had a bad fall down a flight of stairs as a thematic springboard for a pretty wide-ranging discussion about not only Magpies but my writing in general.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Guardian First Book Award Ruling

The Bookseller picks up on the dismay of small literary publishers at the introduction of an entry fee for the Guardian First Book Award. Katie Allen reports:
A number of smaller presses The Bookseller spoke to said they would not be entering. Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley, who scored a shortlisting for Matthew Hollis' Ground Water in 2004, said he could not afford to: ”All the smaller publishers are really concerned." He added: "It really affects poetry . . . For fiction [an entry fee] may be part of the promotional budget but not poetry."

Salt publishing director Jen Hamilton Emery said: ”I can understand why they have done it, but it's a lot of money. It's putting off a lot of people [from entering]. . . We always put in three entries. . . we may only put in one.” She added: ”It will exclude a lot of authors not published by big publishing houses."

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Voice in Fiction

On the latest of my virtual tour stops, at poet Barbara Smith's blog, I talk about the importance of voice in fiction, and the way that, as far as I am concerned, getting the right voice dispenses with any need to 'develop' or 'profile' characters.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Writing methods

For anyone interested in writing methods - and mine in particular - I'm interviewed on the subject today on the blog of writer Tom Vowler, as part of Flying with Magpies, the virtual tour I'm conducting for my novel Too Many Magpies.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Indies triumphant then?

Further news/thoughts on small and independent publishers and literary prizes:

Writing in the Guardian about the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, John Dugdale points out that it is dominated by books from independents, and that since its early years this prize has given due attention to independents. Noting also that the Costa, the Orwell and the Independent Foreign Fiction prizes were all won by independents this year, and that the Orange Prize was 'two-thirds indy', he concludes that favouring books from independents is a trend in this year's prizes.

Well, this does seem a reassuring picture of the chances for independents in our UK prizes. However, I suspect that several of these prizes create more of a level playing field than the Booker (or the Dylan Thomas prize) by not requiring a payment from publishers for publicity for chosen books. I couldn't ascertain this for sure with the Samuel Johnson prize (the rules don't appear to be published on the website), and I couldn't even find a website for the IFF, but there appear to be no such restrictions for the Orange Prize (though I'm not sure the rules are printed in full), and there are certainly none for the Orwell who do publish their rules in full.

Download the PDF entry rules for the Costa and you will see that, like the Booker and the Dylan Thomas, the Costa does require a commitment of money: last year £3,000 for the winner of a category, and a further £4,000 for an overall winner. But then I also suspect that Craig Raine was quite happy (and able) to fork out for a project which must be a personal labour of love - the winning book, Christopher Reid's A Scattering being the first and, I think, so far only book of Raine's newish publishing imprint Arete (which produces a literary journal). Not exactly a parallel situation to that of most small arts-council funded imprints...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Publicity Costs and Prizes

I was reminded yesterday by a visitor to this site of an article by Robert McCrum last October about trends which perhaps explain the move by UK prize administrators to charge winning publishers fees to cover publicity costs. The main thrust of McCrum's article is that globally fiction and fiction prizes are news which receive media coverage, but he presents this as a surprise (and something of a reassurance) in view of the UK situation. Once upon a time in the UK publicity for prizes was huge and free, he says, but now:
Yesterday, as I looked through the Sunday papers over breakfast, my thoughts began to turn to Tuesday's [Booker] prize-giving ceremony in London's Guildhall. Which TV channel would be covering it this year?

Flicking through the schedules, it's as if none of the terrestrial channels is prepared to touch it with a barge pole

and he finds the same situation with radio. Through this perspective, one can perhaps understand the move towards charging publishers, but this doesn't change the fact that the net effect is to discriminate against small publishers and to contribute to a squeezing of their (often groundbreaking) work from our culture.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Innovative Book Tour Hosting

Flying with Magpies, the virtual tour for my latest novel, receives innovative treatment today on the blog of Tania Hershman, who ingeniously portrays my novel and my aims by conducting a word association game with me.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Another Prize Problem for Small Publishers

Interestingly, since I posted yesterday about the Booker Prize rules which discriminate against smaller publishers, Neil Astley of poetry imprint Bloodaxe complained the same day on Facebook (to a chorus of dismay from other poetry publishers) that, for the first year ever, there is an entry fee for the Guardian First Book Award. The fee is £150, and if that seems derisory, then I would suggest a better acquaintance with the kind of shoestring budgets on which most poetry small publishers subsist, such as would make them think twice about submitting a new poet on the off-chance of their winning (longlisting, as someone on the Facebook thread points out, often not resulting in many sales).

The Guardian move seems even more graphically to discriminate against small presses. In the FB thread, Salt publisher Jen Hamilton-Emery points out that this has always been an expensive prize for small presses to enter, as publishers of shortlisted books are required to provide 100 copies free for the reading groups involved, thus effectively wiping out the profits on that book for a small publisher. There are similar discouraging restrictions for the Booker, which I didn't mention yesterday: for the Booker the publisher must be prepared to have 1,000 copies available 10 days after longlisting, for which, as I indicated yesterday, many small presses, used to doing smaller print runs and even POD, won't have the upfront ready cash, and which cash, again, may not be recovered in sales. And the publisher must also undertake to retain two 'folded and collated' copies for binding by a named leather binder, another thing which, it seems possible to me, could militate against publishers using alternative technologies, though I'm not an expert on this stuff, so I could be wrong. The rule doesn't state who bears the cost of the binding, so maybe at least that's part of prize...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Best Novels or the Best-Off Publishers?

You know those vanity moments a writer gets? It's coming up to what I thought was the deadline for submitting books to the Booker, and I allowed myself to wonder: what if my publishers were thinking of putting my novel in for it? After all, my first novel was entered by the publisher I had then... I even went so far as to look up the rules. Well, the first thing I discovered was that although books have to be in by the end of June, publishers must submit an application form by the end of March, so now is too late anyway. But I also discovered this:

Any eligible book which is entered for the prize will only qualify for the award if its publisher agrees:

a) to contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist.

b) to contribute a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize.

I don't know if this rule has always existed, but I suspect not, and that it shows not only how far the prize has moved towards marketing and away from the pure principle of literary merit, but has come to discriminate against books from small publishers. I know it's generally recognized that, since certain winners - James Kelman, I think - failed to sell in the expected numbers even after winning, the prize has moved towards the principle of saleability, and one could argue that this applies to all publishers, large and small alike, and all publishers are thus likely to enter their more saleable literary books. One could argue about the rightness of this, in the broader literary-cultural terms, but, assuming that any prize is allowed to set its own principles, let's for the moment accept it. Yet it seems to me that plenty of books that look wildly saleable turn out to be mysteriously not so, and while that £5,000 payment for a shortlisting may look like chickenfeed to a large publisher, it's nothing of the sort to a small publisher on a shoestring. And even if shortlisting is going to bring them returns many times over they may simply not have the ready cash to make the payment upfront...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How Much Do We Owe Editors?

An interesting review by Maggie Gee of Robert Edric's latest book in today's Observer, in which she raises the issue of the decline of editing by publishers.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What Are Blogs for?

Daniel Green at The Reading Experience responds to the recent announcement that the US Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog is to abandon the "discussion model" and replace it with "a daily news feed with links and excerpts from other outlets around the world." I thoroughly agree with his view:

Is more "information" what we really need? ...does it just reduce the discussion of poetry to the same relentless focus on trivia that characterizes the coverage of movies, of celebrity culture in general? What seems to me to be motivating the Harriet change of approach--what seems to be motivating the Twitterization of online discourse in general--is precisely the desire to see what is posted disseminated "far and wide through various status updates, wall postings, and links," not a concern for the substance of the post. The mere accumulation of friends, followers, and hits, evidence of "interaction," is the end-in-itself.

The digest form of weblog has existed from the beginnings of the blogosphere, is probably the original, most recognizable form of blog. Plenty of them still exist and provide useful "news." If Twitter now performs this function more efficiently, so be it, but that doesn't seem to be a good reason to transform all blogs into versions of Twitter. Both poetry and fiction need more "discursive blogs" examining the news that stays news, not fewer.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Writer's Need for Silence

From a review by Kathryn Hughes of Maggie Gee's memoir My Animal Life in Saturday's Guardian Review:
In one of the most powerful parts of the book she lays bare an awful period in the mid-90s when her editor at HarperCollins turned her sixth book down flat. Part of the problem, he explained helpfully, was that lots of people hadn't really heard of her and, in an age when "profile" counted, this was proving tricky. Gee hadn't been in the habit of going to the right literary parties, preferring to stay at home with her husband and child and simply write. She'd always believed that the work was what mattered and now she was paying the price for her ignorance/arrogance.
I hope that's ironic, that 'ignorance/arrogance'. The trouble is, as Robert McCrum indicates this week, the writing of a novel can need the kind of immersion in solitude which Maggie Gee was cultivating, and with which all those other activities increasingly associated with the life of a writer - networking and marketing - can interfere.

It so happens that similar matters are touched on in my visit today to writer Nuala Ni Chonchuir's blog, for the virtual tour for my novel Too Many Magpies. She asks me about my typical day and how I fit other such things in with writing, and this is part of my answer:
I can only write well to my own satisfaction, I find, when I can become truly obsessed with what I'm working on and entirely adrift on its dream world... My ideal writing day ... is to write from nine in the morning until about half-one, after which time I'm pretty done in and need to stretch and get some exercise ... as well as, most importantly, have some pondering time for the next day's writing bout. Well, I wish! Now I so often spend the rest of the day into the evening on the web doing all the things we writers need to do nowadays to market our books - and end up with nothing else done and the next day's writing unpondered, and feeling really frazzled!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Is Colm Toibin the Greatest Living Prose Stylist?

The latest discussion of my reading group was on Costa-Award winning Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, and illustrates perfectly, I think (as Adele Geras notes in the comments) that no book can please everyone, and it takes all sorts...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Flying with Magpies: Stop 2

This week's stop on the virtual book tour for my novel Too Many Magpies is at the blog of the thoughtful and erudite John Baker, who reviews the book (very positively, I'm thrilled to say). He also asked me some searching questions about my aims in writing novels and, since this is a theme of the book, our present-day sense of ourselves in the world. You can find his questions and my answers in the comments section of his post.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Judged by Your Covers?

There's an extremely interesting article in yesterday's Observer about the different covers given to the same book in different countries - and a fabulous colour spread which, in the print edition, makes you so glad of the day our newspapers took to colour!

The difference in designs is staggering - Everything Is Illuminated represented in France by a man fondling a woman's breasts, for godssake (?!). Perhaps the most interesting point is that, according to designers interviewed, in both Europe and the US there's less of a sense of the need to hide 'literariness' - covers for literary fiction in Europe are plainer because literary fiction sells better than in the UK, and in the US 'literariness' is deliberately and proudly flagged. What a philistine lot we are in Britain, and no wonder Nick Clegg got it in the neck after claiming a fondness for Beckett!

On the other hand, one commentator believes that there's no real need for these geographical differences, and that it all comes down to 'bloody-mindedness' and pride.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Flying With Magpies

I'm beginning a blog tour today for my latest novel, Too Many Magpies (Salt). Sue Guiney asks me about the inspiration and impetus for the novel, and the experience of writing for different forms.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What do Writers Want?

Here's a great article by Kate Pullinger on the needs of writers that should be kept in mind as changes occur the publishing industry. And it's a measure of the way that those needs have been squeezed so far that it almost comes as a (ridiculous) shock to find her making such a statement of requirements.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Are Publishers Anti-Male?

Well, after the discussion under my last post, here's an interesting article on the Huffington Post claiming that there's anti-male bias in publishing. Thanks to Sam Jordison via Twitter.

Friday, April 23, 2010

It's a Man's World

Anyone who thinks that there is no need for the Orange Prize or any form of such positive discrimination for women, should read Bidisha's witty and excoriating assessment of the gender imbalance in the arts in today's Guardian. She presents an irrefutable list of instances (including review pages, arts events, festivals, theatre, literary prizes) which are overwhelmingly balanced in favour of men. She notes that
in 41 years of the Booker prize the jury has been male dominated 30 times. There have been 28 male winners and 15 female winners. That said, the one time there were four women and one man on the jury, in 1986, they chose Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils over Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. God. Why do women love misogynists so much? Is it Stockholm syndrome? [Yes, I'd say: women are always bending over backwards not to be thought feminists or even female.]
She comments that
it's all the more galling given that women equal or outnumber men as attendees of arts festivals, concerts, readings, discussions and debates, and as arts and humanities students at university. Women write, read, edit and publicise more fiction than men Women make up the majority of executive, PR and organisational staff in arts and cultural institutions. Women's ticket revenue, licence fees, book purchases and entrance fees are being used to fund events at which women artists and thinkers are marginalised with breathtaking obviousness.
She points out too how the perception of this situation is skewed - even for those with the truth most closely under their noses:
When I was judging the Orange prize last year we all noticed how major bookshops consistently stacked 10 men's books to every one woman's book on its "recommended read" tables – in whatever genre. In one bookshop, fellow judge Martha Lane Fox was told barefacedly by the sales guy that this was because men published 10 times as much fiction as women.
She's sick, she says, of being the token woman on panels, and she's no longer prepared 'to give my time and attention – and implicitly, my support – to any event, such as the debates at How The Light Gets In, that gives space to five times as many men as women.'

I suppose this means that she'll no longer light up the discussions on Newsnight Review, or whatever it's called since it dumbed itself down, and on which, I've always noted, the men panelists outnumber the women. Shame.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Problems of Complexity

The latest discussion of my reading group, on Toni Morrison's Beloved, is here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this discussion is the difficulty the members had with the complex structure of the novel, a structure without which it seems to me Toni Morrison could not have conveyed her material with emotional and psychological truth - which raises some interesting questions about the tension between the cultural and political need for innovation/complexity and its problems.

Edge Hill Long List Announced

Good to see that this year the Edge Hill Short Story Prize has published a long list. It seems to me that if the aim of a prize is to draw attention to and indeed to promote a burgeoning short-story culture, then giving publicity to as many as possible of the high-calibre collections entered is a very good idea.

Congratulations to all on the long list, which includes A L Kennedy, previous shortlister Robert Shearman, and two of my fellow Salt authors, Nuala ni Chonchuir and Mark Illis.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Orange Prize Shortlist, Connections and Misery

The Orange Prize shortlist is announced, and the interesting story of Rosie Alison, the shortlister who didn't get a single national review, becomes even more interesting: turns out she had a prominent books industry connection she made a point of not using, and her now shortlisted novel was turned down over and over until independent Alma Books picked it up.

And Daisy Goodwin continues with her theme of too much misery in women's fiction: 'The Lovely Bones has a lot to answer for', we are told she says today.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

My Reading Group Archive

It's occurred to me to put links to my reading group discussions on this blog - I'm not really sure why it hasn't occurred to me before: maybe the fact that they seem so personal has meant that they seemed most suitable for my more personal, author blog, where I have been posting them in the last year or so (they've appeared on my website all along). But they are of course an interesting insight into the nature of reading and something of the cultural context into which we write and publish books.

We're a mixed sex group - quite often the men outnumber the women - and not a particularly overtly literary group: my partner John Ashbrook and I are writers (and earlier on we had another couple of writers), but the rest are a retired lecturer in criminal justice, a patent officer, a textile conservator, a furniture maker who once dropped out of an Engineering degree, a pharmacist, a counsellor and an accountant. (At one time we had a hospital doctor.) An eleventh member, who was originally a crew member for BA, left the group temporarily to study for a literature degree, and so he's jumped the divide. But it's not a divide, after all, I find: this mixed-sex group of people with non-literary professions is quite passionate about novels. As a writer, I've found this very heartening, but also very educative: while the group may not be exactly a representative demographic, one or two of the members are avid readers of populist fiction as well as the so-called 'literary', and to this writer it's a valuable lesson in reader-expectation and taste.

Our latest discussion was on J G Ballard's The Kindness of Women, which is on my other blog here, and recent discussions have included Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (John's take on it took us all aback) and very divided opinions about The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. All of our discussions for the past seven-plus years can be found on my website: a list of the books we've discussed (with links to the discussions) is here, and if you want to see how our discussions have developed, a chronological archive is here.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The 'Lost' Booker Prize

Although I am known here to be pretty dubious about competitions including the literary (and of course would be a marketing-literary fool not to be pleased to win one!), I'm giving two cheers for the 'Lost Booker Prize', precisely because it shows up the (often unacknowledged) arbitrary nature of such prizes: the books eligible for this one are those which fell between the two stools of eligibility the year that the deadline for submission for the Booker Prize was changed. Not so thrilled by the voting system, though: anyone can vote online, without having bothered to read all of the shortlisted books, presumably - or even any of them, I guess. Though on second thoughts, that makes a nice mockery of the whole idea of winners, doesn't it...?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Comedy versus Tragedy

Once again I haven't been blogging here. Partly it's because I've been working on a new publication, a reissue of my first novel The Birth Machine, which has taken up much of the time and headspace left over from any actual writing I've managed to do. But partly, too, I have to admit there's the loss of impetus which others have reported, connected to the rise of Facebook and Twitter. As Tania Hershman says, on social networking sites you can get instant feedback and have instant conversations - and without having to write whole mini-essays - and reach a wider audience than just the blogging fraternity. Another thing which has struck me is that by the time you get around to blogging about an issue, on Twitter or Fb things have moved on, and it's become old hat.

But that, precisely, is the value of blogs. The reason that sometimes one doesn't instantly get around to blogging about an issue is that blogs can take a commitment of time, and the reason they do us that is that they can also take a commitment of thought. A blog, it seems to me, is an excellent vehicle for contemplating nuances which can easily be submerged in instant discussions. Take for instance the recent issue of Orange Prize Chair Daisy Goodwin's plea for women writers to lighten up. I've been mulling this for some time, and wondering why I didn't want to join in the discussions, and why something about it all has worried me. Once I had a moment free from retrieving files from old computers and reading proofs, it struck me.

I know there were one or two more subtle voices, but the general thrust of the conversation on the web seemed to fall into bald either-or arguments: there were those who believed that women were too miserable and those who didn't and thought men were just as bad; there were those who were for comedy and those who weren't. Even the intelligent article by Erica Wagner in The Times arguing that comedy is harder to do than tragedy (comedy requires a particularly incisive verbal facility) seemed to imply that comedy is therefore better.

Why does one have to be better than the other? Aren't they simply different sides of the coin of human nature, expressions of different but equally valid individual and social states of mind? Sometimes comedy answers our emotional needs, sometimes tragedy does. Why, as artists, can't we do both? (I certainly like to.)

I'm troubled by this thrust towards either/or and black-and-white thinking, and not just as a writer fighting the culture of branding.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Author Blog Awards

I've been asked to let you know about the Author Blog Awards being run by CompletelyNovel in association with Quartet, Allison and Busby, Simon and Schuster and BookBrunch. Here's what they say they're all about:
There are over 10,000 published and unpublished authors blogging to readers, writers and industry professionals. Despite huge loyal followings and a remarkable wealth of new content, many readers remain unaware of these blogs.

The Author Blog Awards aim to honour the best blogs by both published and unpublished writers. They will recognise the writers who use their blogs to connect with readers in the most imaginative, engaging and inspiring ways. At the same time we hope to attract new audiences to these blogs and help readers find out more about the authors they love…and new authors too.

You can nominate your favourite author blog to win an award and will also have the chance to win something from a selection of prizes including free eReaders, new books, free eBooks, and book tokens. There are three categories: Best Published Author Blog, Best Unpublished Author Blog, and Best Author Microblog. The winners will be announced in April.

Go to the site here.

Crossposted with Elizabeth Baines.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Stationery Lust

I love Hilary Mantel's Guardian article about stationery and its relationship to our writing processes. I am so gratified by her praise for the loose leaf and the ring binder as the best media for writing novels, and her denunciation of the bound notebook, in particular the Moleskine, and its straitjacket of linearity, which I totally agree is not the way you write novels. (And I'm so glad she said it for me: 'Chatwin, Hemingway: has the earth ever held two greater posers?'). 'You must be able to loop back on yourself,' she says, 'and to be able to arrange the elements of which your story consists in an order that is entirely flexible.' And she's right: crossings out won't do: you need to be able to restore those bits you abandoned when you realize they are necessary after all.

Mantel says that 'at twilight' she starts dreaming about old-fashioned stationery: 'pink tape, for instance, that barristers use to tie up their bundles'. But I can go one better: I actually have it! (Don't ask me where to get it, someone gave it to me years ago, a huge cardboard roll of it, and I don't know where they got it.) I use it to tie up those old drafts which, you never know, I might loop back to for those bits I do need after all. And she wonders if you can still still get treasury tags. Well, I can tell her, yes you can, in Staples - or you could last time I needed them - and I use them all the time to bind plays, and yes, there's something really nice about threading those lovely dark-green strings with their sharp metals ends through the holes... Ah, stationery!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Jewish Book Week: A Beginner's Guide to Jews on the Edge

Billed as a discussion between novelists Will Self and Adam Thirwell about 'the many possible manifestations of Judaism - half-Jews, non-Jewish Jews, self-hating Jews, anti-semitic Jews et al - and whether any of these semitic permutations actually matters', this Sunday afternoon session could not have been more different in atmosphere from the Theresienstadt session I attended in the morning. Maybe it was the jokey billing, maybe it was the thought of Will Self's rebellious intellect, but long before it began there was a thrill of anarchy and rebellion in the air. Having been late for the morning session, I determined to be early for this one, entering as people were leaving from the last session, only to find myself, along with other early arrivers, turfed out for security reasons. Well, the woman in front of me and in the front row wasn't having that. She refused to move, she said she needed that seat, she was hard of hearing, and they would have to lift her bodily (and, as she pointed out, she wasn't exactly petite), and things were held up as they failed to remove her and the rest of us exiles watched the altercation from the door, highly entertained.

Well, I got my seat behind her back, and the huge hall filled up almost to capacity. Adam Thirwell kicked off by pointing out that he and Self hadn't chosen the title of the event, and, needless to say (and gratifyingly for me) the thrust of their interest turned out to be literary rather than sociological. They had had the idea, Self said, while at a literary festival in Lyon, and as a result of a talk in praise of the novelist Celine, a passionate anti-semite. Turning to examine the concepts of Jewishness held by Jews and others, he said that when he tells Gentiles that he is half-Jewish, they often ask which of his parents is Jewish, and when he says his mother they say, 'Oh, well, you're Jewish then!', and he found it interesting that Jews had managed to impose so successfully on Gentiles this matrilineal notion of Jewishness. For him, he said, such a notion simply doesn't add up: his mother wasn't observant, and he feels it ill behoves him to claim to be more than half Jewish.

Thirwell then said he was a matrilineal Jew (ie he wasn't claiming the matrilineal notion, just saying his mother is Jewish), but 'barely cultural', and he feels embattled when he is forced to 'be' more Jewish than he feels because of this matrilineal notion. Why was it not possible to have a two-part identity? Self referred to a piece he had written for the Jewish Quarterly, 'On Writing Half-Jewishly', which he said he had thought a sweet little piece, but had been attacked for it by the author Cynthia Ozik, who said that he may be famous but if he claims placelessness he can only be a blur; that people are born whole not half. Untrue, said Self (rightly): people are born multifarious.

In fairness, though, said Self, we have to look at it historically. Up until very recently it was possible to hear casually anti-semitic remarks (and older people are far more familiar with the experience). Self had memories of hearing them as late as the eighties, and each time he had had a choice in terms of identity: either to express a Jewish identity or deny it by remaining silent (implying that neither expressed the truth of his sense of identity). The state of half or demi can only be realized in the absence of anti-semitism.

There is an interesting category, he said, where Jewishness is often formed against anti-semitism, and I was reminded of Philipp Manes's growing espousal of Jewishness in the Theresienstadt ghetto, as discussed in the morning - which momentarily made me lose my grip on the current discussion, and the point that Self went on to make about Sartre (who wrote that 'if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him'). We have to look at it all, Self said, in terms of the diaspora and the 1880s and 1890s pogroms. One interesting thing is the reaction of indigenous Jews to that of 'stetl' Jews, as they called them; the ambivalence towards the latter, particularly from Sephardic aristocratic Jews. At this Thirwell commented that one strand of his family had been very established, but another strand had arrived from Lithuania in this era, and one of the things that interested him was this intermingling (by which I think he meant the interest of multifariousness within Jewishness.) Self said that at first there had been a repression of these newcomers, then acceptance and fast assimilation aided by a religious mission and the opening of numerous synagogues.

So where does that leave us as writers? Self asked, getting to (for me) the nub of the matter. Self-hating, said Thirwell, which people half-laughed at, but which actually sent off a ripple of shock. What is a Jewish writer? Self asked. Would we only be Jewish writers if we wrote in Hebrew or Yiddish? The two then discussed Kafka, a Jewish writer who wrote in German as a way of 'avoiding his fathers' (Self) but who wrote of being, in doing so, like a donkey with its back legs stuck in mud and its front legs flailing. Thirwell pointed out the similarities of this to the image of the cockroach on its back in Metamorphosis - the fact that Kafka was obsessed with the notion of the difficulties of linguistic assimilation and mutant forms. He also noted that Kafka had problems with the word 'Mutter' - he felt it was not his word, it seemed far too comical to describe a Jewish mother.

Self said, but as far as he knew Kafka's family were assimilated and didn't speak Yiddish in the home at all, and the fact that he wrote in a very Czech German wasn't commensurate with his having a Yiddish background. Thirwell said but the fact is that there was a there was a Yiddish theatre in Prague at the time which attracted Kafka as having a more sincere language. In any case, Self said, Kafka seems the paradigmatic example of the fact that you can't really speak of Jewish writers in relation to language. He is marked out for his quality of prescience of the coming Holocaust, and while you can say he is a paradigmatic Jewish writer, he is a world writer at the same time. Thirwell said though that he did think there was something in Kafka that was in danger of being lost: that he represents a way of thinking about what assimilation and identity mean, that he is concerned with complicated identity; and Self agreed that there was a dialectical process of assimilation taking place (analagous with what took place in the 1960s here) (and which the Shoah would replace with a different set of priorities) which involved anxieties about assimilation.

Thirwell now turned the conversation to the issue of the Jew as victim in literature. Roth admired Bellow, he said, but attacks Bellow for returning in his later fiction to a Gentile-imposed model of the Jew as victim. We must stop acting as victims, Roth said: it's not always 1933. (Though it felt very close this morning, I couldn't help thinking.) In Thirwell's opinion one strand in American fiction does think it's still 1933, that there is still a tragedy about to happen, and Israel has a role in this perception. Self agreed: Israel is made to stand as proxy for this historical memory. Both agreed that, in spite of his criticisms of Bellow, Roth himself has failed to come to terms with victimology and the trap of the self-hating Jew. Self now expressed the view that Roth, in his flight from humanism and his fear that it could drive him back to Judeo-Christianity, is a curiously cold, dessicated, arid writer. Thirwell noted that on the level of structure and form, Roth is an interesting writer, but on the sentence level he is indeed dessicated, bland, and here the conversation turned to an issue which was of greatest interest of all to me, the issue of Jewishness and literary style.

Self noted that Kafka wrote a kind of unornamented anti-style, whereas Proust could be placed at the other extreme, consisting of a highly stylised anxiety about Jewish assimilation. Thirwell said that, re Kafka, even so he creates a specific Kafka-language, which Self said was a microcosm of a pre-existant dialect, a crudescence of a certain kind of Czech German. In Proust, Thirwell said, it's a question of who you're allowed to desire, and the (unfettered) style is an expression of that - the problem of borders. Self referred to Otto Weininger's pre-WW1 book Sex and Character in which he characterizes the Jew as hermaphroditic, a book which was influential on both Proust and Joyce (who of course presented a positive non-victim portrait of a Jew).

This was all getting extremely interesting to me when the hard-of-hearing woman in front of me stood up and said Couldn't we ask questions? and started to ask one which appeared to be intended to bring the whole thing back to what she seemed to consider the matter in hand, the question of half- and quarter-Jewishness (maybe she hadn't heard their protestation that they weren't responsible for the thrust of the title).

There was now a bit of an altercation: the audience shouted out for discussion to continue rather as it had been doing, and the woman sat down, but accused Self of delaying the start of the session (and so running on too long) by taking too long eating his lunch, at which Self quipped, No, it was drugs. The thread of the argument was sadly lost. What we were trying to say, said Self, is that it's good to stand outside as a writer (to be half), and Thirwell got back to the issue of language/style by saying that every writer creates his or her own minor language anyway, and there are certain ways in which the issue of language gets inflected by identity, and there was a brief discussion about Bashevis Singer.

After that, the floor really was thrown open to questions. One of the most interesting was the first: a woman asked what they thought about Pinter who she felt lost by never declaring his Jewishness in his work. Self said that he liked her style! which caused laughter, but Thirwell defended Pinter by pointing out that Ashes to Ashes is a play about the Holocaust, and asked why anyone has to be Jewish in their writing. Self said, Yes, are we looking at him through identity politics he wouldn't have agreed with, or is there really a lack in his work? But then do we think Beckett paid attention to his Irishness in his writing? Yes, of course he did! Thirwell said, But does this have anything to do with whether or not these two are good writers? Self said perhaps all the silences in Pinter are really him saying, 'I'm Jewish! I'm Jewish'! which caused a good deal of laughter.

Jewish book Week runs until Sunday March 7th, and you can book for events here.