Thursday, December 22, 2011

National short Story Day and Words for Christmas

The shortest day today and what better way to fill it with light than to celebrate National Short Story Day, and what better way to wish my readers Happy Christmas than to direct you to the website, where there's a feast of stories, and many short story recommendations. My own favourites (here) are Grace Paley's 'A Conversation With My Father' and 'The Universal Story' by Ali Smith: click the recommendations link on the home page to see choices of a host of others.

Speaking of recommendations, I was going to recommend to you Mark Forsyth's Etymologicon, the book from his erudite and witty blog on etymology - I'm a sucker for such things and I'm putting it in stockings - but it's clear I don't need to: it's book of the Week on Radio 4 and currently Amazon's best-selling book - pretty amazing for a book from a small publisher. Meerkats one year, the origins of words the next - there's no accounting for the British!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Crossposted with my author blog, Elizabeth Baines

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The trouble with lists

Love Robert McCrum's postmodern playfulness in making a list ('Fifty things I've learned about the literary life') which includes the item: 34. Lists are the curse of the age. 

Some of the items are tongue-in-cheek - 5. Writers who get divorced usually sack their agents - but some are apparently deadly serious (and I tend to agree with them): 1. Less is more. Or, "the only art is to omit" (Robert Louis Stevenson); 6. Christopher Marlowe did not write Shakespeare. Nor did Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It's a no-brainer. Just read the First Folio. Though as an author published by a small literary press, I'm not sure what to make of his number 39: Small publishers are small for a very good reason (what reason? Because they publish excellence or because they publish rubbish?), especially in view of his number 27: Words and money go together like bacon and eggs. Words written for nothing are usually what you'd expect: flavourless.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The pseudo-scholar and the pigeon hole

I'm re-reading E M Forster's Aspects of the Novel and thought I'd share some words from the Introductory lecture which seem apposite to our times. The 'pseudo-scholar', he says
...classes books before he has understood or read them; that is his first crime. Classification by chronology. Books written before 1847, books written after it, books written before or after 1848. The novel in the reign of Queen Anne, the pre-novel, the ur-novel, the novel of the future. Classification by subject matter - sillier still. The literature of Inns, beginning with Tom Jones; the literature of the Women's Movement, beginning with Shirley; the literature of Desert Islands, from Robinson Crusoe to The Blue Lagoon; the literature of Rogues - dreariest of all, though the Open Road runs it pretty close; the literature of Sussex ... improper books ... novels relating to industrialism, aviation, chiropody, the weather...
It strikes me that this is the chief way that books are viewed and received now in our culture: it's how they are marketed, it's how they are frequently written about on the web or, in particular, in newspapers. It's how stories are often published in anthologies, and filtered in competitions, ie thematically. A novel or a story is seen through the walls of some pigeon hole or other, and no one looks at it - really reads it - for what it is in itself or on its own terms. As Forster goes on to say, this is
moving round books instead of through them... Books have to be read; it is the only way of discovering what they contain. ...reading is the only method of assimilation... The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of the author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The more reading formats the merrier

Very interested to see that something I speculated about in an interview seems to have happened: in today's Guardian Review Kathryn Hughes reports that, in the year in which sales of e-books outstripped those of hardbacks, a new industry in the production of beautiful physical books has arisen.

This strikes a resounding chord with me. In the very week that I have asked with great excitement for a Kindle for Christmas, I have also sent off for book-mending materials to mend (among others) the cherished copy of David Copperfield I got for Christmas the year I was eight. In fact it's a very cheap  mass-market copy from Woolworth's, but as I wrote recently its physicality carries important associations for me (and as you can see suffered somewhat during my recent re-reading!)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Too simple for words?

Interesting juxtaposition in today's Guardian.

First, there's a very interesting four-page interview with Umberto Eco by Stephen Moss. The great semiotician opines that ' "you [ie the author] are not responsible for perverse readings of your book" ' which might seem like poststructuralist orthodoxy - a text is what the reader/cultural context makes of it, etc - but it's obvious that he thinks his books are misunderstood by what he calls "weak readers". He feels that books are best judged 10 years after publication after reading and re-reading [my italics], an interesting comment in the light of our current quick-fix literary culture, and the way that books drop right out of the public consciousness if they don't have an instant hit. He isn't precious about the film of The Name of the Rose; he is tickled by the fact that a girl went into a bookshop and saw it and said "Oh, they have already made a book out of it [ie the film]." He has a iPad for travelling, but he doesn't think that printed books will die, and puts it nicely: "Not just Peter Pan but my Peter Pan". Above all, he explains the huge success of the erudite The Name of the Rose, which just goes on and on selling, by the fact that "It's only publishers and journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged."

Then there's a piece by Laura Barnett on the fact that this year the Christmas literary market is awash with 'women's fiction' about Christmas. As Barnett points out, Dickens wrote Christmas books, but one has to doubt that these books will still be being read, like A Christmas Carol, 170 years after publication (leave alone in Eco's 10-year time frame), since the quote from Hodder and Stoughton editor Isobel Akenhead makes pretty clear that the thematic push is intended as ephemeral, and the books are being sold as ephemeral commodities: "It makes sense to publish for Christmas – that's the one time of year that doesn't seem to have been affected by the general drop-off in sales of women's fiction. In supermarkets, these books cost little more than a Paperchase Christmas card; people often seem to buy two of them, one for themselves and one for their mother, sister or friend. That doesn't happen at any other time of year." So they're bought like Christmas cards, for the rituals of Christmas (which we all know can be a chore, but hey, we've got to do it), and like Christmas cards, they are a cause of brief delight before being thrown away.

Of course, there's nothing wrong whatsoever with reading purely for entertainment. But it's interesting that Isobel Akenhead says that sales of 'women's fiction' have dropped off generally. Are we simply talking comparative numbers in a market that is nevertheless a major source of income for publishers, or can Eco be right about people wanting other kinds of literature, too?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The critic, the artist and the ego

I love the Guardian extract, concerning critics and prizes, from Stephen Sondheim's forthcoming book, Look I Made a Hat. He's pretty much on about the artists's ego, which might seem self-centred,  but it's a serious point that artists and writers need buoyant egos to go on working. Here are the bits I really like:

On critics:
A good critic is someone who recognises and acknowledges the artist's intentions and the work's aspirations, and judges the work by them, not by what his own objectives would have been.
On prizes:
What sours my grapes is the principle of reducing artists to contestants. Competitive awards boost the egos of the winners (until they lose) and damage the egos of the losers (until they win), while feeding the egos of the voters (all the time). Just as there are people who claim to be immune to public criticism, so there are those who claim to be unaffected by being passed over for an award from their supposed peers. But, as in the case of the critic-immune, I've not met any who have convinced me. It isn't so much that you want to be deemed the best; it's more that you don't want to be deemed second best. No matter who the voters are, and whether you accept them as worthy of judging you, winning means they like you more than your competitors.
In conclusion:
...the only meaningful recognition is recognition by your peers or, more accurately, people you consider your peers, and peer recognition is a very personal matter. An artist's peers are other artists, not necessarily in the same field – ie, musicians for musicians, painters for painters – but people who understand what you're trying to do simply because they're trying to do a similar thing.
On the first point, I'd add that a favourable review that nevertheless entirely misses the point of your work can be almost as bad as an unfavourable review - or, well, pretty dismaying. On the second, I'd add that the pernicious thing about prizes is that the also-rans become second-best in the eyes of the public as well as the judges.
On the last, I'd heartily agree, as far as an artist's ego goes, but then we have the matter, don't we, of sales...?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The uselessness of novels?

It looks like a Guardian conspiracy to stir up a controversy. Here's the ever-clever Zoe Williams commissioned to write an article claiming to have given up reading novels because it's irresponsible (or that's the impression given by the sub-editors of the print and online versions respectively) when the political and economic facts of the world need our attention and understanding. And there's Viv Groskop on Twitter disagreeing and claiming that it's in fiction you find the truth. Still, if it focuses attention on the issues, so much the better.

'When the news is so apocalyptic, and there is so much to understand,' Williams says, ' feels more than frivolous to read about made-up people. It feels unpatriotic. Or, to put it another way, it is like watching the telly when you have homework.'

Hm. Well, that reference to patriotism makes me think from the outset she ain't so serious or committed to her argument. There is indeed an urgent truth in her declaration that we need to engage more, through reading, with the political issues of our day. She quotes from John Lanchester's Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, the nonfiction book he wrote as a result of research for his forthcoming novel, Capital. He sums up the way we have become politically-intellectually disenfranchised : 'We'd all rather be in the back seat of the car, with our parents in the front, driving. But now we've woken up doing 90.'

But it turns out that Williams' argument concerning novels is subtler than would at first seem. She appears in the end not to be talking about the novel per se but chiefly to be complaining that contemporary novels, rather than engaging with the issues of the day, are backward looking, 're-sit[ing] your large themes in the past, where they are more attractive and less political.' This needs unpacking. Is it a bad thing to make an issue more attractive to contemplate? Or is she right in her implication that the veneer of the past stops us seeing or caring about the modern parallels, so that any novel doing this lacks political dynamism?  But as Faber editorial director Hannah Griffiths, whom she quotes, says: 'You'd have to write a very ambitious contemporary novel, because they take so long to come out'. It's not only that, though: as we've discussed on this blog before, the time is in the digesting of issues: as we've noted before, most nineteenth-century novels that we now think of as addressing the hot issues of the day were written restrospectively.

Of course, though, Williams is using this as fuel for her argument that novels are beside the point in our urgent search for an understanding of our contemporary world, and in any case she quotes Damien Barr, who runs the Shoreditch House Literary Salon, as accusing contemporary novels of failing to engage with big/political issues in any form whatever: 'There is this false idea that fiction has no particular stance because it is made up, as a result of which it doesn't have to be informed, and it doesn't have to inform. I think we desperately need to be informed about our times, and our history, and our human condition, and at the moment, the novel is really only good for the latter.'

But who ever said that because a novel is 'made up', it shouldn't have a particular stance? And when did a good novel never inform us, provide a searing insight? Ah, but what are we talking about here, of course, are things like the understanding of economics, the things about which we've become intellectually disenfranchised. And novels just aren't cutting it in that regard, they are - tut tut - only telling us about the human condition! There is something, though, I'd say, in what Williams quotes  Lanchester as saying: 'In general, the literary novel has turned slightly too far away from the things that press on people. It is an utterly bizarre place to have ended up, but if the subject of a novel is too interesting, that's not literary enough.'

It is at the end of the article that Williams' true attitude to fiction emerges, an appreciation of its power:
 A novel that does take on big contemporary questions, even if it then hinges on an understanding of complex warfare, or politics, or industry, or finance, if it can do that and not be boring, not be full of what science fiction calls the "tell me, Professor" moments, that will be more use to you, probably, than any amount of explication delivered in factual, readable, lay terms. "If I've learnt anything real," Griffiths concludes, "I've learnt it through fiction."
Assuring us that Lanchester's novel does just this, Williams tells us: 'That's when you fully comprehend something, when you can see its face.'

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Loglines and fiction

This week Robert McCrum is onto something that, as regular readers here will know, has been causing me to gnash my teeth for a while. He quotes a prominent US literary agent: 'A new novel should be summarised in a single sentence, and should stop dinner conversation for at least 10 minutes', and goes on to point out that his own favourite novels, Heart of Darkness and Portrait of a Lady, wouldn't stand that test.

Of course not: the province of the novel is complexity and subtlety, which can never be represented in a single sentence or 'log-line' as it's known in the film industry. The province of the novel is the human psyche and the human heart, yet the second part of this agent's stricture - the ability to stop dinner-party conversations - leads one away from the subtleties of that to mere sensation, the single, striking, if possible unusual but readily graspable (and if possible sensational) idea, the marketer's 'High Concept' which in artistic or philosophical terms is anything but conceptually high.

I don't quite agree with McCrum's apparent implication that any novel that is summed up in this way is necessarily shallow - 'flatpack fiction' as he calls it: it's quite possible of course to concentrate in marketing on the more sensational aspects of a novel and gloss over the more subtle characteristics - a kind of misrepresentation of expedience that the cultural recession must be forcing marketers into. Of the non-winning Booker shortlistees, whose books he characterises as 'flatpack', the one that I've read, Jane Rogers' The Testament of Jessie Lamb, is billed chiefly as science fiction about biological terrorism, but also, and more importantly, it's a study of the power relations between parents and teenage children. [Edited in: whoops, sorry, that's my mistake: The Testament of J L was not shortlisted, but longlisted.]

However, it must also be true that this marketing philosophy is affecting the kinds of books that get published, that novels will be chosen for publication on 'concept' rather than content, and sold that way. So in turn people are sold, and buy, a ready-made idea rather than a text with which to engage on an exploratory and interactive level. And if you don't expect the book to yield more than the idea you've bought - if the physical (or digital) book is merely its symbol, why bother to actually read it, or at any rate to read it with any critical intelligence? It's the ultimate commodification.

I see it everywhere: it filters down to the non-commercial areas of literature. There's always, in my view, been a problem with short-story competitions: it's bound to be easier to catch the eye of a judge trawling through hundreds of stories with a striking, rather than the most artistically apt, first sentence. But the problem seems to be getting worse: now that short-story competitions have proliferated, and have become a chief way to get noticed in the short-story world, zombies and spooks and quirky Murakami-style aberrations abound, often without much thematic meaning that I can see beyond those sensationalist 'concepts'.

And the effect goes deeper - into the psyches of writers, and this feeds back into our culture. McCrum sees this as 'the desperate conditions in which the contemporary writer must operate'. I thank him for that insight, and can vouch for its accuracy: now when I conceive a short story or a novel I find myself immediately thinking: but would it stand any chance in this cultural situation? Could I give it a good log-line? And if I feel that I can't - that it's too subtle and complex -  I wonder whether I should write it at all.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Guardian First Book Award shortlist

The Guardian's move to open up their First Book Award this year to readers' suggestions, in order to catch books not entered, has come up trumps: a book nominated by Guardian readers has now been chosen by judges as one of the final five contenders for the £10,000 prize: Juan Pablo Villalobos's Down the Rabbit Hole from enterprising new independent publisher And Other Stories.

You can read my article  about my own search for missed books, along with my own nominations here on the Guardian books blog.

Four novels and an oncologist's biography of cancer make up the shortlist:

Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury)
The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee (Fourth Estate)
Down The Rabbit Hole, Juan Pablo Villalobos (And Other Stories)
The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed (Viking)
The Submission, Amy Waldman (William Heinemann)

Friday, November 04, 2011

What do we read when we read?

I'm re-reading David Copperfield. I've read it more than once before, but I don't think I've read it since I was a child, and I first read it when I was eight years old. I'm reading the copy my parents gave me for Christmas that year (which is the only copy I've ever had) - we weren't well off, and it's one of those cheap red hardback Regency Classics you used to get from Woolworth's. Even though it was so cheap, it's stood up well - the spine's only a little frayed at the top right-hand corner, and I'm having to get used again to the fact that I don't need to put it face down in order to keep my place, or be careful not to press too hard while it's open in case the pages come apart, and remembering that I never did have to, even when the book was new, since the pages are properly sewn.

It's a strange experience. Firstly, although I'm appreciating the ironic authorial stance towards the child David in a way I couldn't have done as a child myself, or at least don't remember doing, it's all so very familiar, although I read it so long ago, far more familiar to me than many books I first read much more recently and re-read after far fewer years. A good part of the reason for this must be the ubiquitous nature of the story in our culture - all those film versions - but I do wonder too if it's testimony to Dickens' genius, or maybe the power of books over a young impressionable mind. More importantly, though, it's not just the book I'm reading. There's a palimpsest - more than one: as I follow David through the death of his mother and the marriage of Peggotty, there are images in my head too of the bedroom in our rented flat in an old Victorian building where I woke to find the book in my stocking that Christmas morning, and of the blazing coal fire beside which I sat reading it in the winter evenings following. I had my own feelings of loss and longing at that time with which the book chimed, and reading it now, they are brought back to me. Even then, the first time, when I read of David's visit to Yarmouth and the inside of the boathouse, my grandparents' cottage by the sea rose up before me with similar feelings of refuge, and so it does again now, along with that memory of its doing so before. As narrator Copperfield muses that while he recalls his childhood the early image of his mother's face overlays all later memories of her, I am struck by how far the youthful image of my mother's face at the time of that first reading has been with me as I read now. As well as the book, I am reading my own childhood, and not just that: I am reading my own first reading of that book.

I wonder how much of this is invested in the physicality of the book, the fact that I am reading the very same physical copy with its associations of that time and place, and how much is down to the actual text? How much of my own feelings and sensations of that time long ago are permanently imbued for me in the text, so that I can never again come to it 'clean'?

Whenever people have asked me if I've read David Copperfield I've always said yes, but never felt easy about doing so: it feels like part of my psyche - especially my writing psyche - but it's so long since I read it, and I was only a child, surely it can hardly count; surely if I read it again I'd find it a completely different experience from the one I remember?

Not so. But I do also wonder: how different an experience would this book be if I were reading it now for the first time ever - on a Kindle, to boot?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Giveaway: signed copies

If anyone is interested in a giveaway draw for one of my books, details over on my author blog.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Jeanette Winterson at the Royal Exchange

Going to a Jeanette Winterson reading is like going to a religious rally. Here are the kinds of crowds you don't often see at at a literary reading, people you've never seen before and those you haven't seen for years: a man with a beard comes up to me and says 'Hello! ... Oh dear, you don't recognise me!' and I say, 'Yes, I do, you're X!' (from long ago) and he says, 'No, no, I'm Y!' He's a man I knew in a time even before that, when Jeanette Winterson published Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And they're all here, the people who read that book then and have read it since, and this is what the whole thing's about, because this is an event for Winterson's  new book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? which her publishers call a memoir but which she will tell us is a new 'cover' of the same story.

I turns out that though we are here to hear Carol Ann Duffy discuss the book with her in the 'Carol Ann Duffy and Friends' series of events, this isn't going to happen. Duffy won't be here and Winterson will simply read and talk to us and take questions. The theatre fills up and there's an expectant hush as through the glass beyond the auditorium capsule we see her approach with her minders, and Winterson enters, all in preacher's black with white shirt and a touch of snakeoil saleman's gold on her brogues, and the whole place erupts in a kind of mass relief and excitement of applause. You almost expect her to bow or make the sign of the cross. And there are the acolytes speaking in the Q & A as if the Spirit has moved them: the first person to speak is a girl on the front row, who tells us in a voice trembling with emotion that she comes from Accrington (as Winterson does) and, honestly, it's like a kind of miracle, but she had never heard of Winterson before but this morning she opened the Guardian and read the article about her and it so moved her, so chimed with her own experience, that she came into town and bought Oranges, and - this is the honest truth - she was sitting reading it in Cornerhouse and someone commented to her that this event was on and here she is, and honestly, she feels it's changed her life... And another woman speaks from up in the balcony and says that as a gay writer Oranges simply saved her life... And at the end the applause goes on and on, and the queue for the book signing snakes round and round the Exchange foyer.

It's quite clear to the cynical observer that Winterson's great subject is herself and her own psyche, about which in fact she's quite upfront: so harsh was her upbringing that, she tells us, she had to go under or make herself the hero of her own life. And a hero is certainly how her fans see her, both in the glamorous superhero sense (which is indeed how she depicts herself), but also because by some alchemy of that apparent self-absorption transmuted into fiction, they find themselves spoken to and confirmed and strengthened by her books (or by Oranges at any rate).

I have a few amused quibbles with what we heard of the new book, and from what Winterson read, I think I prefer the fiction version ('Oranges'). She read a passage in which her adoptive mother accuses her of coming from 'the wrong crib', a crib guarded the Devil, and makes fun of the literalness of such a notion. Yet Winterson's depiction of 'Mrs Winterson', which strains for comedy that lots of the audience appreciated but I couldn't, in fact presents her as some kind of devil, which here seems like a mistake but is richly ambiguous in the fiction version.

However, as always, I loved what she said about fiction. That fact that this 'memoir' is in fact just another version rather than the 'truth', because for one thing memory is selective and for another were are all, in life, invented and made up, creating fictions about ourselves the whole time. The fact that the great thing about fiction is its ability to avoid the linear, and that the truth is often best depicted by the non-linear. In illustration she related how this book leaves out 25 years, which her American publishers didn't like: they wanted her to fill in the 25 years for the sake of linearity. But she stuck to her guns because it was the two things each side of those 25 years that were connnected, on the one hand her adoptive mother and the absence of her biological mother  and on the other her discovery of her biological mother. The fact that books can be a sanctuary, and can give you an inner life that can make you strong whatever - something that many people there clearly felt that her books had done for them. The fact that writers need silence and solitude, and that in the age of the internet it's harder than ever for writers to create that essential balance between being out in the world and retiring to that inner space.

Finally, asked about tips for writing, she made it clear that she didn't really feel you can teach writing, because each time you embark on a book you don't really know how to do it, or how it's going to turn out. It's something unseen or dim, a beast that you have to struggle with alone..

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Real Thing

My latest piece on The View From Here: a comment on Susan Hill's implication that experimentation in fiction is not 'the real thing'.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Manchester Literature Festival discussion on prize culture

Last night, Booker announcement night, Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester University's Centre for New Writing held a very interesting panel discussion on the subject of Prize Culture, chaired by journalist Michael Taylor, and presenting some very different angles on the subject.

Manchester University literature lecturer Jerome de Groot opened, making it clear that he was approaching the matter as an academic and was interested in (if my notes have it right)  'conceptualising what the Booker Prize has achieved.' He referred to Richard Todd's 1996 study of the Booker,  Consuming Fictions, which argues that the Booker and prize culture in general have created and sustained a market for literary fiction that it might otherwise not have received, that it has enfranchised audiences by taking judgement away from critics and academics and created a modern Booker canon. Though De Groot questioned this last point: how many people in the audience knew who won the first Booker in 1969? No one besides me put up their hand, and I only know because I've been thinking about these things and looking into them. (It was P H Newby for Something to Answer For - and no, I've not read it.) On the whole, though, De Groot was in agreement with Todd that prizes 'create a space for new negotiations of cultural worth'. He thought in addition that they give us an insight into publishing as an industry, allowing us to see the ways that cultural capital is peddled and the way books are sold to us. Above all, it allows us to reflect on what we have allowed publishing to become.

The other four panelists were writer-teachers in the Centre for New Writing, and next came poet Vona Groarke taking a poetry prize perspective. Having been a winner, loser (she said) and judge of poetry prizes, she gave us a blackly funny list of tips for winning which included 'Suffer bereavement or die,' 'If you're not suffering enough be young and beautiful,' and be politically aware but not so much as to frighten the horses. Next she gave us a breakdown of the typical judging panel which included: the villain, ie the panel member who hasn't read the books, usually a celeb; the hung jury which is so split that it's fundamentally incapable of functioning or results in a mediocre acceptable winner; the over-enthusiastic panel member who is incapable of making a detached decision; and the king maker who prizes youth and promise over achievement. This last she saw as a big problem: too many judges want to be in at the beginning of writers' careers; they want to feel that they have found someone. Mostly she felt that decisions end in compromise, and that in order to win, a collection has to be either outstandingly irreproachably wonderful or outstandingly irreproachably mediocre. On the whole, she thought it was astounding that prize juries ever get it right, and acknowledged that sometimes they do.

Novelist M J Hyland, speaking next, commented that Groarke was lucky, as a poet, to be able to speak her mind so freely, and that as a prize-winning novelist she felt less able. She read to us from John McGahern's essay on being shortlisted for the Booker in 1990 in which he relates that he found the razzamatazz far from enjoyable and comments that sometimes it takes years for the worth of a book to be seen, yet the judges need to make a decision in such a short time. My notes got a bit muddled here and I'm not sure whether the following experiences were those of McGahern, or of Hyland herself, both of whom have judged prizes, but I'll repeat them for their interest: no two judges on a panel having the same opinion, and at one stage all rejected books having been admired by someone on the panel while the winner limps into the shortlist unopposed but championed by no one.

Novelist Ian McGuire then spoke briefly but very thoughtfully about literary value judgements and where the power to make them lies now. Noting that lit crit is not a science, and that even in a good situation it's hard to make value judgements, he said that it's nevertheless not all just a matter of taste. However, the introduction of literary theory into Britain in the seventies, undermining the whole notion of literary value and hierarchy, had, he felt, diminished the ability of English Departments to take part in debates about value. Newspaper criticism has decreased, and the power of judgement has largely devolved to literary prizes and online commentators.

Poet John McAuliffe then laid roundly but with characteristic good humour into the Booker.  He recalled the Booker in what he called its heyday, mentioning among others Midnight's Children,  The God of Small Things and Vernon God Little, books which he said administered shocks to British literary culture. In recent years, though, he felt, Booker winners have been echoes, imitations of those earlier books rather than making new noises of their own. This year authors whose books could have administered such shocks - Patrick McGuinness, Dermot Healy, Kevin Barry - had been left off *, the last two even from the longlist, and the problem with them having been left off is that they have already more or less disappeared. Altogether, in his view, while British poetry prizes are closer to the pulse of the form, the Booker is now a publishers' prize for the Christmas market.

A few interesting points that came up in the following Q & A: Someone suggested that the sales of shortlisted books are not always good, but M J Hyland said that sales of her shortlisted book far outstrip that of her others, and keep doing so. In response to the idea that the best books stand the test of time and rise to the top anyway, she said that getting a prize is a great thing for an author, though, because authors need to eat and can very rarely make a living out of writing.  On the idea that many winners don't stand the test of time, Vona Groarke made the point that we can hardly expect them to: in fact, we would be very lucky to get a truly remarkable book each decade, leave alone each year.  Someone, Ian McGuire I think, commented that to invest in just two or three writers a year (which results from the prize culture) does not make for a healthy literature culture. Writers need to be given a chance to develop their careers, to produce non-prizewinning books at the start, and I think the implication was that a literary conversation dominated by prizes pushes publishers away from that. On the other hand (my notes tell me someone said), prizes could contribute to such a different kind of culture, but I don't recall anyone saying how. De Groot suggested that literary festivals bespeak a public desire to have the kind of conversation about books that was generally felt to be squeezed. Finally Festival Director Cathy Bolton asked what the panel felt about the online platform to which Ian McGuire saw that the literary discussion had moved. M J Hyland said she found it scary - she could be devastated by a bad Amazon review - but such democratisation and widening of the discussion had to be a good thing. Ian McGuire said that some of it was excellent, more objective than newspaper criticism which often consisted of writers reviewing each others' books, and one had to view it as part of the changing world of books.

* In an earlier published version of this post an elision of mine had Patrick McGuinness left off the longlist. Thanks to Dan Holloway for pointing out the error, which was mine and not John McAuliffe's, and apologies to John and the judging panel.

Prizes, literature and language

Wonderful article in today's Guardian by the ever-inspirational Jeanette Winterson, on the recent Booker debate. Here are the bits I love: 'Novels that last are language-based novels - the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story.' Like Maths, she says, literature is another kind of language, not 'obscure or rarified precious - that's no test of a book - rather it is operating on a different level to our everyday exchanges of information and conversation ...There is such a thing as art and there is such a thing as literature.' And she doesn't mince her words: 'I did try to read Stella Rimington's own spy series, but ... began to wonder if we would choose an enthusiastic member of a painting-by-numbers club to judge the Turner prize.'

But don't rely on my cherry-picking, go and read the whole article if you haven't already.

Last night - before coming back to Rimington's extraordinary Booker speech, in which she spent most of the time defending herself and her fellow judges from criticism, dissed those who had offered their own choices, and failed to follow what I remember as a tradition of using the moment to give some limelight to each of the shortlisted books - I attended a very interesting Manchester Lit Fest debate on Prize Culture by staff of the Manchester University Centre for New Writing. I took notes and I'll write them up here if I get time later today.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

But what do we MEAN by readability?

It's a pity, as Vanessa Gebbie commented on a recent post here, that this year's Booker judges didn't say what they meant by 'readability' when they announced that it was their main criterion, as some of the ensuing discussion seems to have wobbled on cross purposes. However, several of their comments give some indication.

Chris Mullin announced that he wanted books that 'zipped along'. Both he, in a Radio Times article answering criticism and torn to shreds by the New Statesman's Leo Robson, and Chair of the judges Stella Rimington have spoken as if, in championing 'readability', they were setting themselves up against a literary establishment for which such a quality would be anathema. There is contempt in Mullin's reference to 'London literati' 'huffing and puffing' about the matter and sarcasm in his description of them as 'those who know best'. At one point, as I remember, Rimington told The Guardian that the judges were looking for books that people would read rather than admire. There has been a chorus of protest from serious literary practitioners that, actually, no one advocates unreadability; the judges, Leo Robson comments, are striking at an enemy that doesn't exist: readability, it seems universally agreed, is a quality that makes for great literature.

All of this needs unpacking. Rimington's statement implies that books admired by the literary establishment are not in fact much read. Possibly in response to Robson's call for proof of this, judge Susan Hill tweeted last week a list of classic books which she finds 'unreadable', beginning with James Joyce's formally and linguistically innovative Ulysses and including War and Peace and Woolf's The Waves. Now it has to be said that only last week a serious literary thinker and innovator of the stature of Will Self commented that nowadays hardly anyone reads Ulysses. The judges are onto a certain contemporary truth which it would be foolish to deny, and which Self characterises thus: '...the novel, instead of moving on, lies there in the dark summoning up past pleasures while playing with itself in a masturbatory orgy of populism'.

An argument which accepts the simple terms of 'readability' versus 'unreadability' seems to me to sidestep the real issue: it accepts books as fixed by one or the other of two immutable (opposed) characteristics. But this is clearly nonsense. We all like different books. Books some of us find boring others don't. A book I might find difficult to read you perhaps won't. Reading is a dynamic process in which a complex array of things come into play: the reader's taste, mood, expectation and, above all, education - by which I don't mean formal schooling but cultural immersion. We can learn to like and understand books or the kinds of books we may not previously have liked or understood. Of course there are different kinds of books: we can also read in different ways, simply for enjoyment and comfort or to be challenged and made to think and have our perceptions overturned, and different books cater for those different experiences.

And this last, it seems to me, is the crux of the matter. By 'readability' I and I think many commentators really mean 'the power to engage'. And the books that have the power to engage me are indeed those that are challenging (linguistically, structurally, morally and politically etc): I like to be made to think, I like to have my perceptions overturned, I am thrilled by writers doing interesting things with language. I am dissatisfied by books that fail to do these things (and which happen to be the books that sell best) - actually, I find them unreadable - and I don't think it makes me the snob Mullin and Rimington imply. I'm doing exactly the same as those people who like mass market fiction in that I'm reading books I enjoy.

I don't think that Mullin with his search for books that 'zip' along, Rimington or Hill (if her tweets aren't ironic) mean this kind of engagement, however.  The implication is that by 'readability' they mean the other readerly impulse - the need to let a book wash over you, to read passively rather than actively, to not be challenged. But isn't it the role of literary arbiters and taste makers - and what else are Booker prize judges? - to do more than endorse this kind of reading, thus fuelling Self's 'orgy of populism' (leave alone to avoid casting aspersions on the other kind)? As Leo Robson says, 'literary history shows that certain readers have been able to recognise the value of writers that in time many others came to accept'. But as Alex Clark puts it in today's Observer: 'the problem is that this year's hoo-ha suggests that the Booker is happy to be seen as a marketing strategy than as an exercise – however flawed – in choosing and celebrating literary and artistic achievement'.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Guest post: (What's the Story) Fiction as Art?

Today I'm delighted to host Mike French, Senior Editor of The View from Here, and author of the daringly unusual novel The Ascent of Isaac Steward, with a guest post continuing yesterday's theme of innovation versus convention.

(What's the Story) Fiction as Art?

 “Works of art often tell stories. Artists can present narrative in many ways—by using a series of images representing moments in a story, or by selecting a central moment to stand for the whole story.  These lessons will build students' awareness of how stories can be told visually and how artists use color, line, gesture, composition, and symbolism to tell a story. Students will interpret and create narratives based upon a work of art and apply what they have learned to create works of art that tell a story.”   The J. Paul Getty Museum 

People are usually happy with the concept of a painting telling a story that can be interrupted in a number of ways and accept that a quick glance isn’t enough – you have to stand in front of it for a while whilst you personalise the meaning.  So why then do we struggle when a novel works in the same way, when the writer uses words to paint images directly into a reader’s head to tell a story in a way that needs time to sit within their mind?

You can fall in love with a piece of music even if you don’t fully understand the lyrics – and again this seems acceptable, yet again when fiction does the same often people are left floundering, not sure what to think unless they understand everything. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a song that picked me out of my day in wonder and then thought …. Nar, nice tune and it jump started my emotions but I don’t understand all the lines, so no.  Even Oasis’ massively successful album (What’s the story) Morning Glory? had fans arguing over if that meant a nice sunny day in Manchester or morning erections.

Poetry doesn’t seem to encounter this thirst for instant recognition and complete comprehension. So I’m left puzzling, what’s the story with fiction as art?

I wonder if our western mindset demanding everything make sense on an intellectual level twinned with our pace of life means we have little patience for things that require time to appreciate. We read in bed in snatches when we’re tired, we read on the train. We read in the spaces in our lives and therefore we require a quick injection, a brief escape from reality and when we do have time to unwind we switch on the TV. 

So what’s the solution for writers when their fiction aspires to be art? I think for me it’s not worrying about it. People change, cultures change and if we pander to the culture we find ourselves in, then how do we effectively communicate to it in a way that helps brings about that change?  Today’s challenge being demonstrating beauty and the frailty of humanity in a way that doesn’t wrap itself up as a two minute pop noodle cash cow.

And fiction I think suffers more than other art forms in this respect. Poems tend to be short, songs ask only for a few minutes of your time, even a painting feels quite good about itself if you spend five minutes in front of it.  But o the novel. Maybe your days are numbered and in a hundred years’ time the relation between short stories and novels will flip with the publishers.  A novel you say?  Well there’s little appetite for novels, short stories are where the money is, easily digested on your Kindle.  But a novel, nobody reads novels these days.

Maybe we need art galleries with books in.  Set the ambience, where time slows down and you allow yourself time to read without feeling guilty that you should be doing something else.  O yes they’re called libraries aren’t they – are there any left?

Mike is the owner and senior editor of The View From Here literary magazine, he also enjoys painting, watching Formula 1, eating Ben & Jerry's icecream and listening to Noah and the Whale. His second novel, Blue Friday is now completed and he is starting work on his third novel. For the last ten years Mike has been a “home dad” after giving up his job in optical engineering to look after the kids full time – much of his first novel,  The Ascent of Isaac Steward was written during their afternoon naps!
 The Ascent of Isaac Steward is available at Amazon. 
Visit Mike's Blog.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Self doubt

Some people seem to think Will Self had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote an article appearing in Saturday's Guardian in which he compares the novel to the musical symphony and concludes that music has moved on from modernism in a way the novel hasn't.

Maybe it was his joking intention (with our backs turned on innovation, we too much want 'cosy certainties'), but it took me two reads before I could begin to grasp his argument, and I'm still not sure I can. As commenter JohnNewport1 says,
He's rubbishing Franzen for not pushing back the boundaries even further than Joyce but instead returning to a pre-modernist view of the novel; but at the same time he admits that Joyce is now unreadable. He laments the way that novelists have not pursued innovation with the same fervour as modern composers of symphonies; yet he also suggests that composers gave up on symphonies altogether not long after Joyce's Ulyses came out.
Self claims that while we've given up on Ulysses, 'concert-goers still crowd out auditoria to listen raptly to ['postmodernist' Mahler]', and I'm thinking, Hang on: most of the people I know who go to music halls much prefer Beethoven and Mozart. And actually, I don't know as many people who go to concert halls as who have read Ulysses (or at least say they have)! Do sales of Ulysses really pale in comparison with the numbers of people going to Mahler concerts?

And while I am taken by Self's assessment that both forms, the novel and the symphony, seek to 'simultaneously enact the most complete possible world-in-words or world in notes, while also actualising the creative personality itself', in many other ways we're just not comparing like with like, as other commenters point out. Seems to me that the verbal nature of novels creates a cognitive relationship between the work and the reader fundamentally different from the relationship between music and the listener (although Self labours the point that music shares the novel's 'struggle for a narrative voice'). We can let music wash over us, we can receive it emotionally without feeling the simultaneous need to understand it intellectually.  Furthermore, the novel is hitched to commercialism in a way that contemporary music (I think) isn't. As Marion Miller points out in the Guardian comments, it is publishers, rather than authors, who determine which kinds of novels reach the light of day, and inevitably they respond to this readerly need for clarity.

However, there is a fundamental pulse in Self's article I do respond to. Because of the increased commercialism of literary production, this need for clarity appears to have tipped over into the need for 'cosy certainties'. As a writer I've always specifically wanted to avoid the cosy certainties, but as a former schoolteacher I've always felt the need to woo readers, to allow them to feel comfortable in the world of my writing, and indeed get them on my side, before pushing them on further than they may have expected. But as I've said before, this challenge is now all the greater.

Dan Holloway points out in the Guardian comments that the visual arts are crucially missing from Self's discussion, and it so happens that tomorrow a guest post on this blog by Mike French, Senior Editor of The View From Here, will address this issue of innovation and indeed make reference to the visual arts.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fiction and class

I quite like some of  what William Nicholson has to say in yesterday's Guardian on the issue of class and fiction. There is now a prejudice against middle-class characters and settings in novels, he says, and his anatomisation of how this came about seems to me about right:
A hundred years or so ago the language of idealism changed. As Christianity fractured, the imagination of those who wanted to make a better world was seized by a new idealism: socialism. In this new understanding of society the working class had virtue and was the future; the middle class had power and was the past. Bourgeois values came to be seen as vices. The middle-class consumers of art and literature gradually found themselves cast in negative terms, as exploitative, parasitic and reactionary.
As 'one of those' middle-class people and a novelist, he finds this troubling, and points out rightly that the proper pursuit of fiction is to see the humanity in all of us, not just a certain section of society, and he gives us the wonderful sentence: 'Everyone deserves to be the hero of a novel.'

What I don't like is the way that he feels bound to align himself with any particular 'class'. If the proper pursuit of novels is our common humanity (which I think it is) then we need to be able to get away, in the discussion of fiction, from even thinking in these terms.

Personally, I'm always pretty open-mouthed whenever someone manages to do that, identify with a particular class - but then in Wales, where I come from, we've never been so class conscious. As I think I may have said before, in my immediate Welsh forebears there are women in service and farm labourers with sisters and brothers who were schoolteachers, church ministers, and businessmen. So I've always felt pretty much connected to several levels of society, and it took me until the age of ten or so to realise that people thought of them as levels. I was stunned when one reviewer called one of my early short stories, based on my own background, a depiction of a 'working-class childhood'. The class of the characters simply hadn't been an issue for me (the issue of the story was actually religious prejudice), but here, it seemed, was a reviewer for whom class was the main issue; he was reading the story through a prism of class consciousness. And then, ironically, some people, feminists, complained, in precisely the way Nicholson describes, about the 'middle-class' viewpoint and milieu of my novel The Birth Machine: I had a definite feeling that had my protagonist been a 'working-class' woman, rather than a doctor's wife, then these educated (middle-class!) feminists would have been much more sympathetic to her predicament, and to me as a novelist.

Reading Group: A Clockwork Orange

Reading group discussion: Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Monday, September 19, 2011

With friends like these...

Two cheers only for Neil Gaiman's efforts on behalf of the campaign to save the short story on BBC's Radio 4. Short-story writer Claire Massey draws our attention to his foot-shooting defence of the form in the Guardian:
...short stories are the best place for young writers to learn their craft: to try out different voices and techniques, to experiment, to learn. And they're a wonderful place for old writers, when you have an idea that wouldn't make it to novel length, one simple, elegant thing that needs to be said.
No, no, Neil, and No again. Short stories are not just the training ground for novelists, and they are not just the repository for ideas that don't fit the (implied) better form of the novel. These are precisely the assumptions that lead to the cultural marginalisation of the short story, written off as the poor cousin of the novel. The short story at its best is a high art form. A good short story can be harder to write than a novel, involving linguistic and structural intensity yet delicacy that require supreme authorial control.  This is why we need to work to protect it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Guardian Book Swap

Today the Guardian launches a six-week-long 'book season' with a nation-wide book swap event. They say they have gathered 15,000 volumes from dozens of publishers and authors, to leave via a third-party company at various places - stations, coffee shops etc - for people to pick up for free. We can join in by similarly leaving books we would recommend for others to find, and inserting a bookplate sticker in each (free with the Guardian and Observer this weekend or downloaded online) saying why we recommend them. This is the kind of thing Bookcrossing has been doing over the past few years, but the mass book-drop, backed by the publicity muscle of a national newspaper, is of course of a different order. A really fabulous idea.   Read here about how to take part.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The crucial matter of diction

Must share this devastatingly immaculate comment from Nicholas Lezard's rave review of Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, chosen from readers' suggestions for the Guardian First Book Award, and which he says has 'no such slips':
Readers of Emma Donoghue's Room may have wondered how her five-year-old narrator fails to understand the word "stable" when applied to a patient's condition, yet is quite capable of transcribing words such as "catatonic". Readers tend to forgive this kind of thing these days – the slipping of authorial control, the fumbling of register. Well, I don't. If you're going to have an imprisoned child narrate a novel, then not so much as a word should be out of place. Otherwise it's like seeing a boom microphone in the frame, or a legionary wearing a wristwatch. (Sometimes, of course, such mistakes are deliberate, but not, I think, in this instance.) 

Dreams and reality: reading group discussion of In the Skin of a Lion

Reading group discussion of In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondatjee

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Psychology will do your head in

Authors beware.

Having spent a good deal of the summer up a mountain in Wales and away from decent internet (which explains the recent intermittent nature of this blog), I'm here again for a week for family reasons. Last night, sheltering from the wild weather in the pub, I got talking to a holidaying Canadian couple doing likewise. They were educated, thoughtful - in early middle age - and we soon got onto the subject of their national authors. Inevitably I mentioned Margaret Atwood.  The woman said, 'Oh no, I don't like Margaret Atwood at all! Oh no, no. What I like is a good story, and Margaret Atwood's books all take place inside people heads!' And she put her hands up to her head in a gesture not just of illustration but despair.

So, authors, remember: keep out of those damn heads. Emotion? Perspective? Point of view? The idea that the way a story unfolds depends on the insides of characters' heads? Who damn well cares? Ditch all that difficult stuff and stick to a simple notion of plot.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Reading group: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Recent discussion of my reading group, on a 'lost' book about a German act of resistance under the Nazi regime, which reveals the extent of the culture of fear at the time.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Guardian First Book Award longlist

The Guardian First Book Award longlist has been announced (list follows below).

From the press release: 

Commenting on the longlist Lisa Allardice, awards chair and editor of the Review, Guardian, said: "First novels are often accused of being overly autobiographical, but several of this year’s entries are audacious takes on topical subjects such as Amy Waldman’s The Submission, set in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, or Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, about gang warfare in a South London estate.”

“The non-fiction titles are equally strong and wide-ranging, including a memoir of a young writer’s love affair with Russian literature, to a magisterial ‘biography’ of cancer, to a polemical anatomy of British class hatred. And not forgetting Rachel Boast's truly luminous collection of poetry, Sidereal.”

“For the first time we opened up the judging process, inviting readers to nominate a title for the final place on the longlist: Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos takes us deep into the world of Mexican drug lord and is a lively addition to an extremely exciting longlist."

Click here for a picture gallery of the books on the list, with extracts and reviews.

The list:

The Possessed by Elif Batuman, Granta
Chavs by Owen Jones, Verso
Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Fourth Estate

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, Bloomsbury
The Submission by Amy Waldman, Heinemann
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Harvill
The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock, Canongate
The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed, Penguin
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, And Other Stories

Sidereal by Rachel Boast, Picador

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Books for a song

William Skidelsky writes of his surprise that hardbacks cost very little more to produce than paperbacks, since, it turns out according to a new book by American author Robert Levine, the biggest cost to a publisher in publishing a book is often the fee paid to an author and the marketing expense, that of letting the world know about it - a cost which shouldn't differ according to the format, whether hardback, paperback or ebook. Yet, he points out, Amazon, cushioned by ownership of the Kindle, have driven down the price of e-books to the extent that all publishers have had to accept that ebooks should now be cheaper than traditional formats. As someone pointed out recently - I'm afraid I don't remember where - at this rate authors will soon be writing for nothing, if they're not already doing so!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Are we becoming passive book buyers?

I was staying in London on Tuesday evening with an artist, and as always we ended up comparing notes about the art and the literary worlds. One thing she said to me was that she doesn't any longer go into bookshops to browse actively and look for new books, which she used to do all the time; nowadays she relies much more on recommendations from friends. She said too that her mother, an English teacher and huge reader, has also changed the way she acquires books: she's always taken a great pile of books for the annual family holiday (on which they were all due to embark), but nowadays it will be block deals, such as Richard and Judy recommendations, and in the gite in France she'll be handing out to others the ones she doesn't fancy...

I've written about this before, but the conversation strengthened for me the sense that we are becoming more passive in our book-buying, more subject to advertising and hype, and of the role that bookshops are being forced to play in this. I remembered that exciting sense I used to get on entering a bookshop, of entering a cave of delights, and which I rarely get now, instantly faced as I am with the three-for-two table and my choices ready-made for me. I know there are shelves and shelves of other books beyond it, but the psychology is quite different: I may previously have gone to only one section of a bookshop on any one occasion, but there was the sense that everything else was also on offer for later, or the next time, whereas now my focus is drawn to that central table, and there is the subtle sense, as in all advertising, that nothing else beyond it matters, or at least not as much...

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Soap and Opium

It's often said that if Dickens were alive today he'd be writing for 'Stenders or Corrie - the vivid chararacterisation, the rich tapestry of life, the stress on ordinary people's lives, the anatomisation of their community etc. There's a lot of alternative snobbery too, of course: my dad would leave the room when the soaps came on, despising the rest of us for watching them - far beneath him, they were, in his rarified cultural cloud.  I've always been a defender of soaps, and not just in reaction to my dad: for the past year I have been coming down at 1.30 pm from working on my (to me, anyway) deep (but highly accessible!) novel, and have happily - indeed greedily - watched Neighbours while chomping my lunch, without any sense of cultural jarring whatever. The psychology, it has seemed to me, is brilliant, particularly between parents and children, a lot of the dialogue is very sharp, and there is a nicely wry overall view which provides moments of good comedy while dealing seriously with serious matters.

I have just been away for a fortnight with no telly and have come back to a kind of earthquake shift in the storylines. When I left, a key character, a handsome (and thus easily identifiable with) policeman in a central storyline concerning a love affair, was about to be taken into protective custody, with potential dire consequences (the end of the love affair, hints of the children involved being in danger of kidnap) and another key character had been dramatically carted off in a coma with some mystery illness. What's the situation now? The policeman has disappeared off the face of the earth (the plot was clearly a device to allow the actor to bow out), and his housemates are looking for a replacement, and the character who was in a coma a fortnight ago is bouncing around full of health and providing comic relief by interfering with their plans. And I have no idea how any of this happened, because the script gives no clue, and the characters are acting as though none of it did ever happen. It's that old familiar thing: soap amnesia, inevitable I guess in decades-long-running series, with shifting actors and storyliners, but a fundamental denial of the long-term psychological consequences of the past which Dickens always tackles head-on.

It could be answered of course that we don't always want anything so deep, but soaps dominate the culture.  A culture of forgetting?

Monday, August 01, 2011

Short stories on Radio 4

Gwyneth Williams, controller of Radio 4  faced listeners on Friday's Feedback about her decision to cut short stories, still available on BBC iplayer. Maybe I was too busy decorating and then driving, but I listened twice and simply couldn't follow her argument that cutting stories from three to one a week meant cutting from 144 to 104. The new addition of stories on digital Radio 4 Extra might explain the figures, but didn't seem to be part of the equation in her statement, and in any case the stress there seemed to be on archive material. She insisted that she would be commissioning more writers than previously, but the statement was vague (she did not specify short story writers) and I wasn't convinced. Maybe it was simply unfortunate, but Williams' chipper manner and her initial insistence that talking to listeners in the slot was a 'treat' for her, and in the end that she'd 'really enjoyed it' didn't reassure that she was taking seriously the forthright complaints of those listeners ringing in and the groundswell of protest.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Booker longlist

The appearance of so many books by small presses on this year's Booker longlist (below) warms the cockles. In a comment on the Bookseller site Jane Rogers, whose futuristic Testament of Jessie Lamb was published this spring by the tiny Highland Sandstone press, and which now appears on the list, says: 'Until yesterday's longlist announcement, I thought it was likely to sink without trace, since it had only 3 reviews, and was barely visible in bookshops. This longlisting means it will be read.'  Wonderful, when  lately there has been the whiff of sell-out around some prizes, that this year the Booker has operated to allow great writing to triumph over market forces.

There is on the other hand a distinct lack of what one might call 'challenging' writing on the list, ie writing that doesn't fall into recognisable categories - Anne Enright and Ali Smith are conspicuous by their absence - and it has been noted elsewhere that for the first time genre writing makes up a good deal of the list, which last in itself is refreshing, but also indicates perhaps a leaning towards recognisable forms. In fact, I'd say that Jane Rogers, for instance, is a highly innovative writer who pushes the boundaries with voice, but her work is always at the same time admirably accessible, and this time she has gone further and opted for the sci-fi genre. This Booker list, it seems, demonstrates a turning away from writing that wears its challenge on its sleeve, and one wonders how far that reflects moves in the industry in general.

Here's the list:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)
• On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry (Faber)
• Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (Canongate Books)
• The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Granta)
• Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail)
• A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards (Oneworld)
• The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador)
• Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury)
• The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness (Seren Books)
• Snowdrops by AD Miller (Atlantic)
• Far to Go by Alison Pick (Headline Review)
• The Testament of Jessie Lambby Jane Rogers (Sandstone Press)
• Derby Day by DJ Taylor (Chatto & Windus - Random House)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dumber and dumber

Sarah Crown expresses eloquently the reaction of many of us to the shock news that the BBC, sponsor of the National Short Story Award and promoting itself there as 'the world's leading broadcaster of short stories and a staunch and long-time supporter of the form', is to reduce its Radio 4 output to one story a week. It's not so long ago that there was a story every single weekday afternoon, and it's depressing how quickly the contraction has taken place. Goodness knows what's behind the decision - it doesn't seem we need more news or current affairs (which will replace it), and I'd be surprised if the audience for the story slot has dwindled, given the the growing popularity of the form

Do sign the petition set up by author Susie Maguire and Ian Skillicorn, director of National Short Story Week, asking the BBC to reverse such an incomprehensible decision.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Down with the class war

In yesterday's Guardian Susanna Rustin discussed the issue of class in literature, in response to two opposing claims this week: the complaint by author William Nicholson that middle-class people were no longer considered legitimate subjects for literature (although he does qualify his remarks to Rustin), and Scottish writer Alan Warner's identification of a " 'sly, unspoken literary prejudice' against working-class lives and characters".

Honestly, it's enough to make you jump down the rabbit hole - not Rustin's thoughtful article, but this continuing English class war: the prejudices, and/or the perceived prejudices; in any case this whole never-ending and quite frankly Through-the-Looking-Glass English wish to categorise and pigeonhole, and (it seems) wilful blindness to the fact that few of us can truly claim dyed-in-the wool social status. Personally, coming from Wales, where the class system is historically less ingrained - and with ancestors closely related to each other but ranging from farm labourers and servants through shopkeepers to schoolteachers and chapel ministers - I find the whole thing quite confounding, and when I was a young person in England, pretty threatening (I didn't have any group to belong to, and felt subject to the sneers of them all!).

In the novel I've just finished, social mobility and the psychological effects of such categorisation are strong themes. Class is not the only thing confounding the protagonist, but when she is a Welsh child in England as I was, she  wonders about herself and her sister:
What were they, she and Kathy? They were poor, but the rough boys were poorer, and those boys punished Josie and Kathy for being what they called them when they jeered: posh.  So what were they? Poor girls or posh ones..? ...  The girl who sat next to Josie in the big wooden desk, Gillian, was posher ... Josie had been for tea to her house in a leafy older suburb. There were plump furnishings and thick carpets ...  They experienced themselves as strange ... The evening sun tipped away behind the house, tipping away the answers they didn’t ever have when they were asked to account for themselves.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Good of the Novel?

An excellent new book from Faber, The Good of the Novel, edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan, is a series of essays on the nature and current state of the novel, circling such questions as What kinds of truth can be told uniquely through novels? and taking in an examination of the role of the critic.  Each essay focuses on an individual novel, and the contents include Robert Macfarlane on Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty; Tessa Hadley on Coetzee's Disgrace and James Wood on Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  I have already gobbled up the excellent (and inspiring) introduction and James Wood's opening piece, which I'm not sure I agree with entirely - must read it again, more carefully - but which is exciting food for thought.  I'd say the book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the present-day novel. 

There's a discussion on the topic on the Faber blog, to which I was very kindly asked to contribute. In Part 1 Richard T Kelly, editor of Faber Finds and agent Clare Alexander contribute their views, and in Part 2 I have my say along with two other bloggers, Paperback Reader and Juxtabook. Do go on over and contribute your own views.

Cross-posted with Elizabeth Baines