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