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.