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!)