Saturday, March 31, 2007

That Library Thing

You may notice a little dialogue box to the left with the words "See my books" on it. I've just been having a look at Librarything again, and it seems better than when I first came across it. A chance to catalogue your collection online. I've not done that, not all of it, not yet! But who knows, over time...type Kathy Acker or William Burroughs in the box, for now, and get a sense of what it can do. Neat. I think. Amazing how many books I've got that nobody else has (type in: Icelandic.)

Now Listening

Friday, March 30, 2007

No relation

I've said below that I've lost a bit of faith in Amazon, but I'm beginning to think it's now going slightly insane. (Yes, I know its not a real person, but even websites have personalities). Just look at its latest recommendation...

We've noticed that customers who have expressed interest in Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell have also ordered Black Swan Green by D. Mitchell.

How strange, two authors with such a similar name! And so ubiquitous had "Black Swan Green" seemed (though I've not yet read it), that I assumed it had already been released in cheap paperback. £3.99 though; that's ridiculous - they have gone insane.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reading bad novels

Orange judge Kathryn Hughes makes the point that to get to the good longlist for this year's prize, they first had to wade through too many bad novels. "The rural teacher syndrome" of scarcely concealed autobiography being a particular problem. (Which does make you ask, why do the publishers publish them then?) However, although I can well see that a prize judge might never want to read another bad novel again, I wonder about her point that even bad non-fiction teaches you something; whilst a bad novel feels just like time wasted. Obviously there's different layers of bad; I don't think I would willingly suffer a Reader Digest' condensed version of a Dick Francis novel again; (I was miles from anywhere - there were no other books in the house...), but, and maybe this is my own contrariness, I've often learned more from bad novels than good ones. For a start, as a writer, it makes you want to react against them; and second, there's something about a bad novel that clearly gets the blood running. Successful novels that I've disliked are a particular favourite - nothing would ever get me to read Ondaatje's "Anil's Ghost" or Jane Smiley's "Moo" again, yet I remember hating Carol Shield's "The Stone Diaries" so much that I had to read her equally ghastly "Larry's Party" just to see if I'd got it wrong. Perhaps I've been lucky - and avoiding novels about rural teachers might be where I've got lucky - or, more likely, any fiction has something going for it: the long, hard process of creating it in the first place.

And I was going to abolish them...

They may be unelected twerps, but every now and then the House of Lords comes up with the goods, rejecting the Manchester supercasino (and throwing out the other new casinos to boot.) Its highly likely that this little piece of contentious legislation, having now caused the government such problems, good disappear for good. The spurious arguments about "regeneration" (also, if you remember, Tessa Jowell's justification for any and every overspend on the Olympics) have clearly not worked in this case; since anyone with half a brain would at least question the logic of creating a gambling maelstrom in one of the most socially disadvantaged boroughs in the country.

Under submission

I'm never quite sure what to say about "rejected submissions." It's one of those things I guess. When we were running Lamport Court, because it was mostly poetry, fiction came in but rarely. Most of the things we rejected were obviously wrong for the magazine. What we didn't find was a wealth of good writers out there waiting to be published. Our range wasn't particularly wide, it's true, but the fiction we did publish was generally good, although it took about 5 issues before this was as good as the poetry. There aren't many outlets for fiction, its true, and I've a lot of respect for those literary magazines that trawl through that particular slushpile. Personally, though, it's really hard. I think most of my best writing is in my short stories, but, over the last few years, I'd have found it easier to get into the England team (hey, I'm left-footed), than to get a story published. I've sent a few stories to a particular magazine, and got rejected; but the latest thing I sent, I genuinely class as amongst the finest things I've written. I was giddy with excitement when I got the idea; giddier still when I finished executing it. In this particular case, I've somewhere else lined up to send it, but I think its true that a good story does lose a bit of its lustre when, like a kid at school, its had its confidence undermined a bit. As the writer of it, its very hard to see it for what it is. Publication gives a story justification: proves that "yes, it's a good story."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

You Should be Ashamed - in praise of Toyin Agbetu

Is there anything more symbolic, in an event to recognise 200 years of slavery, attended by the main beneficiaries of that, the Queen and her ministers, to see a black man being manhandled away from the event by security guards. Toyin Agbetu, you are my new hero. A brave man in a cowardly world. (Nide handbag by the way.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Obscurantist Raging

A combination of things. I seem to have quite a kaliedoscope of things flashing by me at the moment and I can only see the flash, not make out the shapes or the colours. People and places, first of all. Went to Lancaster, the city, on Saturday; the university was my alma mater; and though I've been back a couple of times in the last 5 years, this was the first time I've really walked around the city for over a decade. Everything was familiar, but nothing was exact. I walked up the Ashton Memorial, a glorious folly, overlooking the city, and was shocked by how few times - a couple? - I'd done that in my 3 years there. Then today, bumped into 2 people I've not seen for a while, in incongruous but utterly predictable places; a meeting, a bus stop. Yet, whereas I approached Lancaster like an old friend I'd not seen for so long, and could take it all in again, I realise how fragmented my friendships are these days; strangers who briefly become less than that, before, perhaps becoming it again. Yet, I sense other things - sometimes a massive empathy with someone I've only really seen in the street. In our fragmentary life, that's what passes for intimacy, I guess. It seems I'm having a heightened sense of emotions about things, people, places at the moment, in a world that is pragmatically opposed to this. It collapses in on itself. I got home tonight after a tiresome set of work-related annoyances, and the friend at the bus stop; a much-needed Cote du Rhone on getting back home; and the recently downloaded awesomely thrilling visceral punk of Nation of Ulysses' "13 point program to destroy America" seem to have done the bit for me. Anger is an energy, as John Lydon once sung. I was thinking about contemporary writing, and it struck me, as it has before, that we shouldn't limit our "writers" to poets, playwrights and novelists. Any review of British letters since 1980 has to include Richey Edwards, Mark E. Smith, Morrissey and Ian Curtis amongst its poets; screenplays for "Trainspotting", "GBH" and "This Life" amongst its drama; and Steven Bell's "If...", Alan Moore's "Watchman" and "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" amongst its fiction; perhaps Fiona Banner, Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin amongst our avant garde writers. Take the literary artefacts of the last 25 years and its richer if you reach wider. A phenomenal task to think through all that (to watch, and hear all that...) but perhaps the only way to wander beyond the sterility found elsewhere. I'm at that point. Staring down the sterility. I once wrote this lyric whose chorus went "I don't want to be missed by inches," and it took me years to realise what I meant was that I didn't want the measure of my life to be so short, so easily measured. What now then? I see a need for a hyper-realism, a less-than-mundane, a dream of the absurd, and a willingness to burn...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The New McEwan

In a tradition that goes back at least as far as "Enduring Love", Ian McEwan's new novel, "On Chesil Beach" is trailed in the Guardian. How to review the extract? - so just a couple of points. I've felt for a while that McEwan is turning into Iris Murdoch, writing about the lovelives and other detritus of rich folk, and this seems even more in that territory, set on a wedding night in 1962 - pure Murdoch territory (though she was writing it as contemporary fiction then.) Yet, its a worrying model, since at her worst she can seem little more than Mills & Boon with a first class degree, and as we accompany Florence on her wedding night, McEwan duly gives us her "husband's enchanted gaze" - and later he's "nauseous with desire and indecision." You already feel that, pastiche or not, this isn't going to be a typical first night, or a typical marriage, with the husband's violent tendencies already telegraphed. This hidden dread is of course McEwan's primary skill, and the flat, methodical build up of prose detail is how he keeps hiding it; yet the writing in this first piece seems anachronistic, the detail's complacent. I'm only mentioning this because Ellis Sharp has expanded on his piece about the recent Josipovici talk, to speak of how the modern novel doesn't try hard enough. To illustrate this he uses a piece that James Woods did several years ago about "Enduring Love" as being an "efficient fictional engine" not a "true novel." McEwan, I think, has since perfected that engine, yet what I thought was exceptional about "Enduring Love" was that it did take some risks, in its structure, form and content (even its title with its dual meaning, of lasting and suffering.) We will have to wait and see if "On Chesil Beach" is another "efficient fictional engine" - I suspect it will be - but I feel that the more complex structures that McEwan attempted, partially successfully in "Enduring Love" are ones he has since shied away from. Notably, "Enduring Love" missed out the prizes, his work since, safer, less risky, has done far better.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Have I fallen out of love with Amazon?

Given that the online booksellers are seen to "blame" for the fall in High Street book sales, its strange how nobody really talks about the problems they are having. I have to say I've been happy with Amazon as long as I've been using it - and I've stuck with books and CDs rather than buying other things from there - yet, there have been signs over the last year or so that we're not as compatible as we used to be. Some time ago they changed their database and search - I think to be in line with their American site - but something went a bit wrong, and you'd search for, say New Order, and get a list of Bruce Springsteen albums; or, looking down a long list what you wanted was there, but if you typed it in by name it was. Then, there's Supersaver delivery. Over a certain amount, if you go for this option, you can get free delivery. Great. Although it takes longer to arrive, that's not a problem - I've just used it for back catalogue - but of course Amazon has to pay for this somehow, and that's by using a wider range of couriers. So, despite the fact that my address has not changed, and I've had literally hundreds of Amazon parcels make it to my door, the Home Delivery Network, which they were using, returned my order to base with a note that "incorrect address." This is the equivalent of a paper boy going round the corner and dumping his papers, rather than delivering them. And I know what's happened - some address software gets confused because although I live in a flat, the block itself has got a number, not that I know it or its part of my address, but it means that when they ask for your postcode and number their software doesn't register. But, although they got back to my query really quickly, being an automated system, there's not a lot I can do other than reorder the items. Yet, guess what? two of the items have gone up in price since then - one considerably. I noticed this before Xmas, when everything in my "save for later" box went up one week, then after Xmas, went down again. I could reorder but it does seem hard work. Whereas Parcelforce would always leave it at my door or allow easy collection, these new "cheaper" services have so far left me in the lurch, arranging a Saturday morning delivery, or collecting it from the delivery person's house! Its not that it's bad, its just not that convenient. No such thing as a free (lunch) delivery I'm afraid. I'm sanguine about it. I used to love Waterstones before it started treating me like all its other lovers, and though Amazon was a distant relationship I thought we'd never fall out. Never mind, I'm already flirting with download services for music; having occasional triestes with Fopp when I want to get physical; and can't see much wrong with buying direct from publishers for books that I really can't get elsewhere. I'll pay Amazon the proper postage from now on, since like any separation, I like to keep things civilised between us; after all, they used to give me something I couldn't easily get elsewhere. (And, don't tell, but I've been whispering in the ear of for some while yet, something about that American accent, that makes you fall for the transatlantic cousin...)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Thanks Jim Jarmusch

I found the film "Broken Flowers" a little too languid for its own good, but the seventies Ethiopian funk music used on the soundtrack stayed with me , long after the film was forgotten. Amongst the various things on my emusic wants list, waiting for my downloads to refresh, the series of Ethiopiques albums has been a real priority - and having listened to the volume that contains the "Broken Flowers" tracks, I feel like I've just discovered a new obsession. Volume 4, which is full of the music of Mulatu Astatke is destined to dominate my stereo for weeks I think. Utterly remarkable music, exotic, funky, stylish, fervent, freeform, composed; thanks Jim Jarmusch.

Good Things

Its been a goodweek. I enjoyed the Matchbox launch in the darkness of the upstairs room of The Thirsty Scholar, with the trains pelting by overhead as accompaniment to the rhythms of the 2 poets. (See Steven Waling's blog for a fuller review.) There was a good crowd, and the literati were well in evidence, at least the more discerning end of that crowd. Last time I saw something in Thirsty Scholar it was some disturbingly loud post-rock band. The hush of poetry was, I think, better all round. The new Parameter Magazine was hot off the presses - and a good range of material in it on a first sampling. Next literary session is at the Central Library this coming Friday at 1.00, where new Salt authors Neil Campbell and David Gaffney read from their respective new short story collections.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Boxin' Match: Allen Fisher v Scott Thurston

A reminder: this Wednesday, the estimable Matchbox hosts its first "event", not in a matchbox, but in somewhere (slightly) bigger. Allen Fisher and Scott Thurston will be reading at the Thirsty Scholar on Oxford Road in Manchester on Wednesday 21st March at 6.30. And its free. I will get over my allergy to literary events to attend this one, I promise. Elsewhere, Scarecrow has returned from hibernation with an offbeat generation/brutalist online anthology. Here be monsters, methinks. And the equally offbeat, Unquiet Desperation, is expanding into cities in America and elsewhere - distributed free in locations around the world since 2005 - its editor tells me that new editions are sprouting up in various US cities, and wonders why the Americans seem to get it, but the British don't. (See earlier posts about Waterstones etc. for a duh, yeah about that.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Enduring Modernists

I'm envious of my fellow Brit Lit bloggers who made what sounded like an excellent event in London, with Gabriel Josipovici, entitled "Whatever Happened to Modernism?" Good precis of the event from the Sharp Side and This Space. I went to the V&A's "Modernism" exhibition last year and was interested how modernism has many facets - the V&A, naturally, concentrating on architecture and design, rather than literature, music and painting. This is where the problems lie of course. For on the one hand modernism is a distinct movement at a distinct time, and the modernist impulse, could, one thinks, be seen as being almost entirely related to that time; and that if we are now in a period where none of that impulse or influence is still there - or, if its so dissipated by assimilation - then with time passing that's hardly a surprise. I've written before that I consider "Finnegan's Wake" or "The Making of the Americans" a cul-de-sac from which there is no return; for unlike the visual arts, abstraction in the written arts is almost always a negative. In fact, the best modernist writing would be against abstraction - would be about a determined clarity. That clarity in the visual is about releasing paint from it being a representative art, and making it explicit for its own sake. But just as modernism never really took hold in English architecture, design or painting, it didn't really take hold in English literature either; sometimes for very good political reasons. (In architecture and design the conflation of modernism with a certain type of systemic oppression is where the English, for all our faults, find a distinction - is the modernist impulse illiberal? might be the question that is implicit in an English rejection of it.) But from what I can gather from this lecture - and the comments on it - what is in play now is the issue of artistic complacency, where a form is appropriated without consideration of the birth pains of that form. I suppose the "breaking of the pentameter" of free verse would be a good example; Pound certainly never meant it to mean free, as in without responsibility. Like a Stuckist painter, unable to comprehend that the failure of their argument is not Painting vs. other artforms, a contemporary novelist/short story writer/poet who is simply filling a particularly shaped box (named: novel, poem, story) without considering why that box is in any way appropriate (or not), IS essentially complacent. Importantly, modernist writing is not necessarily better than a non-modernist one; (a minor imagist vs. Tennyson for instance), but the intent will have an effect over time. I wouldn't disagree if it is that Josipovici still thinks that English literature is "narrow, provincial and smug" - though I'd be interested to know how the word "Provincial" is used. It is a long time since British writing has had the confidence of authority (perhaps the sense of a "great" country passing on to its literature), yet I would doubt whether it has ever had a sense of radicalism. Those of us who appreciate its wider merits realise, regrettably, that we're working in an inherently conservative artform. Yet English writing is peculiar as well in that it is not tentative - how can it be? with such a long lineage - and this is where the smugness can come from I think. I was talking with a friend about "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith, and we can neither of us understand the level of acclaim given the book. Whereas its source material, "Howard's End", has a particular historical moment behind its structure, Smith's reworking is merely a convenient trope, no more than "Bridget Jones' Diary" reworking "Pride and Prejudice." Yet, Smith is a writer who certainly appreciates modernism, even if she doesn't aspire to more than its range of ideas. Confidence without responsibility is the often hollow centre of the English novel or poem.


I don't think anyone who reads/buys books regularly will be surprised at the news that Waterstones (aka HMV) has got caught napping by the nation's book/CD buying habits and is having to look at its business again. I used to go to Waterstones all the time, but what would be the point nowadays? An example. Although I'd already bought it from Amazon, when I was in the slick new Arndale Waterstones a week or two ago, I looked through their poetry shelf to see if they had the new Faber collected Louis Macniece. Bear in mind this is a well-reviewed book, by a respected publisher, in the anniversary year of the poet. Nowhere to be seen. But of course, I wasn't surprised, and it hardly mattered, because I'd already got it from Amazon at a discount. This was a book I'd heard about through the usual ways - the books pages of the Times and Guardian (in articles on Macneice rather than a review per se), and which Amazon had kindly pointed me to. Imagine that scenario happening with every other book lover - no wonder Waterstones etc. finds its sales down. HMV would be the same. Whereas I will still make a date with Fopp, because you simply never know what you'll find there (and you always find something), HMV and Waterstones are as dull and predictable as the Tesco vegetable counter. Apparently, Robert Topping, who used to run Waterstones in Manchester in his glory days, is opening a new bookshop in Bath. That will no doubt be worth going to next time you're in that town; whilst I read with interest (albeit with a little amazement, given how complex it used to be to actually buy a book there!) that Foyles is opening a branch at the new St. Pancras. We are, perhaps, developing "Intellectual markets" to join our "Farmers Markets", and the venerable corporates are left to become bookslops, where only the endless mediocre detritus of the mainstream publishing industries will find a ready market.

Friday, March 16, 2007


I'm thoroughly enjoying Colin Wilson's autobiography "Dreaming to Some Purpose." I've never read anything he's written before but he's a very engaging host through England of the 50s and 60s. The 50s London of scarey landladies and clandestine affairs, against a backdrop of little money, and snobbishness against anyone from the provinces is wonderfully evoked. Yet, if in the first few chapters he's living a British "On the Road", sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, hitchhiking round Paris, the litany of mundane jobs - dishwashing, factory work etc - and the need for a provincial morality and security gives it an entirely different cut. Like other upwardly mobile provincial writers of the 50s, like Burgess and Amis, he's more at home in the British Library than in the literary parties. His candidness is refreshing, and there's a general puzzlement that so many of the people he liked and thought he got on with, so disliked him in return. An incredibly prolific author - there was a bit of a flurry of interest last year on the 50th anniversary of the Outsider - his interests in a certain type of philosophy as well as any sort of ephemara - mean that I'm probably getting the best of him in this book; but so what? It's gripping, gossipy, (meetings with John Braine and Albert Camus are particularly good) self-mythologising, anecdotal, all-over-the-place and good fun. I rarely read of "men of letters" who you'd actually like to meet in the flesh, but you get the feeling that Wilson would be good company.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Five Short Stories

I've read 5 short stories in the last few days. "The Misogamist" by Andre Dubus (from "Finding a Girl in America") was an unsettling story about a soldier at the end of the second world war, and his fiancee waiting for him back home. Unsettling, as always with Dubus, in that you're put straight there in front of the emotions, without more than the vaguest hint of a back story. I then read "Under the Dam" by David Constantine (from the collection of the same name), and was frustrated by its deliberate avoidance of telling. It's a slippery story that I never quite got hold of, though maybe I'll go back to it. Then, China Mieville's "Familiar" and Jonathan Lethem's "The Dystopianist" (both from Conjunctions 39: the New Fabulists.) Both were bravado pieces that left me a little disappointed at the end. Mieville really grabs you from the start, in the nastiest possible way, and like watching something terrible happen, you can't pull your eyes away; but there's perhaps too much "difference" in the story - a witch, an old woman, a familiar - that means you can never rediscover the ground on which the story began. Lethem's is much more humorous - its like something out of "Heroes", the new Sci-Fi Channel series I've been watching, crossed with a bit of Terry Pratchett - but a sloppy ending. Then, from the last Transmission magazine, Rozalinda Buyong's "The Fragrant Farewell". It was strongly written with good characters, but felt it wasn't so much a short story as part of a longer piece. I've loads of short story books/collections/magazines around here, and I think this is the way to approach them; story at a time, dipping in and out.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Beautiful McSweeneys

Unswayed as I have been by recent Mcsweeneys, the latest - issue 22 - is a beautiful gem. In a lovely hardback cover, 3 "mini" books are collected together and held there by magnets. Of course! A selection by the wonderful OuLiPo; stories inspired by a list of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unused story ideas; and most intrigueing of all for McSweeneys, a poetry collection - which, admirably (and somewhat OuLiPo-like) creates "poetry chains" by choosing 10 poems by 10 poets, getting them to choose one of their own poems and then to choose another poet, creating an anthology (keep with me) of 100 poems by 50 poets linked in 10 chains. The sheer beauty of it all is breathtaking, and makes me wonder again, how come the Americans can do this sort of stuff, and we can't? Go on, I'll start...


P.S. Appropriate to mention here, Granta's new edition, Best Young American Novelists. I've felt for a while that just as we no longer read fiction in translation, we don't really take much interest in American fiction, and McSweeney's has at least created a reason to. Whether this new list of under 35-year-old writers will do so, is another question. There seem so many interchangeable writers nowadays. There are only 2 of these writers who featured in "The Burned Children of America" anthology a couple of years ago, perhaps on age alone. According to the Guardian lots of these writers haven't written a novel yet, so the whole premise is a bit flakey for a start. (Though I've always loved how Helen Simpson gets on every British list, deservedly, yet still refuses to write a novel!) More flakey, is that "class" is the great unspoken in American literature (and society), yet, at the same time a majority of these writers are "ivy league." Ho hum. I'm concerned now. It's a truth universally acknowledged by parents of a certain financial standing that paying for your kids to get into a posh school/college will give them a bit of a leg up. So, perhaps that's why we've got all these precocious under-35 year olds. That said, as always, I look forward to reading it. Every anthology has its moments.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

"This century's biggest art movement: Careerism"

Thanks to the always useful Arts & Letters Daily for highlighting this wonderful article from Dushko Petrovich calling for a practical avant garde. There's little point in me paraphrasing an essay that is so well written, and more importantly, addresses an important point - that whether you use the words "avant garde" or "reactionary", the aim of the game needs to be the same, to identify good work and then find a way of doing it. He takes the simple (but complex) artistic need for a "rectangle" and sketches (he's writing about visual art) its relationship to both past and contemporary art. The avant garde needs to be able to get beyond the word "interesting" and embrace "good", whilst the reactionaries won't get anywhere calling everything they don't understand "bad." For painting, perhaps also for literature, as we see ReadySteadyBook and This Space come out fighting in favour of quality. From National Poetry Day to the national curriculum, through the BBC's "great read" to your average Waterstone's, its not so much a dumbing down that we see, but an anti-intellectualism; a reluctance to envisage that anything that isn't instantly accessible is worth the effort. Its like the whole guilty pleasures thing seems to be a figleaf for those people who are often being paid to be intellectual (e.g. academics, reviewers, columnists) to elevate the mundane, rather than ignore it. I'm a lover of pop culture, whether its music, film or TV, but though I might proclaim greatness for Blondie, Goodfellas and "24", I wouldn't say the same, for, say, Take That, The Phantom Menace and Big Brother. It doesn't make them necessarily bad (though I'll argue with you about that), but it doesn't make them interesting. If all this pop-culture-as-high-art began with the Modern Review, we can probably see now, how ironic we must have been allowing Julie Burchill and Toby Young as our creative czars.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Isn't creativity great?

It's sometimes too easy to forget why you create what you do, why you spend so many hours doing it, trying to get things right. It would be no lie to say that over the last couple of years, I've felt a real tension between having always been creative, and, on the other hand, a reluctance to commit to doing anything. Partly its been time and energy (though I always found it in the past), and partly a genuine sense that I didn't know what I was doing it for anymore (dreams of fame and fortune, if I ever had them had long gone, and the "peer group" that had probably sustained me for a good few years, was looking a little thin on the ground). But also, its partly about what I've been creating. I've always enjoyed writing fiction, and endured writing poetry - the first requiring a different mindset than the latter - even if I take a lot of satisfaction from having continued to do both. I also think I'm a better fiction writer, though, it has to be said, without much evidence either way of late. So last year I finished the first draft of a novella, and wrote a couple of very strong stories, all of which I'm proud of; and collected another group of poems that I'm still wrestling with - uncertain about. But I don't think any of this could be classed as "fun." From when I was about 16 - for at least a decade - my main creative outlet was musical, and recently after a couple of years of doing nothing at all in this area, I decided to have another go. So the last month, any chance I've had, I've set up the new 8-track and started writing/recording a song. The 4 songs I've recorded are all very different, (though not necessarily that different from what I always used to record!), and more than that, I've really enjoyed writing them, singing them, listening to them, and now, putting them on a CD. It's so much fun! Versions of all 4 songs are now on my Myspace, if you're at all interested in this other persona. And it is a persona - since I think what I bring to songwriting is a sense of character, a sense of drama. I'm not trying to write generic songs for James Blunt, but create a little self-contained world in music, similar to what I would do in a story. Got to go, I've got some more recording to do!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A New Centre for New Writing

I was prescient that the University of Manchester would have to up its game a little with the appointment of Martin Amis as a "professor." Here's the meat - they've just advertised a 0.65 post as a Lecturer in Creative Writing to help develop the University's "Centre for New Writing," though at little more than 15k for the privilege, it probably rules out such literary heavyweights as, oh, me! The new centre has 2 other writers alongside Amis, Patricia Duncker, who was at UEA, and Vona Groarke, a poet. I'd not heard of the latter, though she appears to have come through the "irish studies" route, and not read either of them; but Amis apart it seems a quite typical department, probably 3 parts pragmatism to 1 part bohemian. The university will, I'm sure, make money. What interest me more is that use, again, of the term, "New Writing." This follows on from East Anglia's "New Writing Partnership", and, if you go back a bit, the British Council's "New Writing" anthology. When we started "Lamport Court" it was deliberately given a longer title, "Lamport Court New Writing." I felt then, as now, that "new" had 2 meanings -: new as in new voices, and new as in innovative. It's not something you can necessarily create as an editor, but you can foster it. The "new writing" phrase in Academia seems a lot less "new" than that. It's not merely age - Amis and Duncker were born a year either side of 1950 - but a sense that any cultural movement needs a changing-of-the-guard, a kicking over statues, where the previous generation simply don't understand. There's been quite a lot on the blogs recently about the meaning of "literary" - I've always felt the term is self evident - but even in the 20 years since I left university, the counter-cultural novel of the 50s and 60s, whether "Last Exit to Brooklyn", B.S. Johnson, or "The Dharma Bums" has risen in significance, from being seen as maybe something worthy of thematic study ("the beats", "modernism") - and certainly not literary - to being the only literary writing that has lasted. So, here's to new writing! (But not too much of it.)

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Secondhand Value of a Download

A very measured post from Scott Pack on digital downloads, and why he thinks whereas the music industry has seen "revolution" the publishing industry will see "evolution." A couple of points: although I can see that books might come with an "unlock key" so you buy the physical book and perhaps that gives you access to the e-version as well, this sort of hybrid, though good in principal never seems to work in practice, mainly because it tends to be marketing driven - and, actually too costly to maintain beyond the short term. I agree that books, by their very nature, will remain a little immune to being replaced by the download version. I keep asking friends "what's the second hand value of a download?" and the answer, of course, is nothing. The music industry seems a little oblivious to this (but then, it still insists on Digital Rights Management to restrict what you can do with what you've legitimately paid for.) I think - with the whole history of 1st editions, hardbacks, trade paperbacks etc. - this is a genuine loss - and would actually mean there wasn't, in reality, much of a publishing industry left. What intrigues me is whether the Print-on-demand option will create a market for bespoke books. I think the difficulties of doing this at the moment probably mean the answer is "no", but I could easily imagine a Faber or someone else with a good backlist, letting you choose your favourite poems to create your own personalised anthology and letting you pay a premium for it. I could imagine it, but don't think, as yet, there's anything like that level of inventiveness in the industry.


I am writing this at the same time as digitising some records - I'm not entirely sure why, but it is oddly satisfying, as one of the comments on Scott's blog makes clear. I use a little piece of software called Polderbits, a Dutch company, which is by far the best and easiest thing I've found for chopping up albums into tracks. I use a little pre-amp that cost me about £50, but I think you can get them from Maplin and places for about half that these days. At the time of writing: I've been listening to New Age Steppers, Royal Trux and the Dream Syndicate.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ownership of your art

Interesting post from Elizabeth Baines, post-Milan Kundera, about the artist's right to be in control of their work. It should go without saying that this is the case, but I know Elizabeth isn't the only writer I've met who has been advised/forced/encouraged by their intermediaries to change the book. What's astonishing is the extent of that change on some occasions, with editors (or increasingly agents) taking on an "executive producer" role on the novel. I often quote Martin Amis's literary fable "Career Move", since it hits so many of these things straight on. Here, poets are as Hollywood scriptwriters, and the "poem" is the property of a whole army of consultants, specialists, producers and actors. From this, of course, we don't necessarily get great art. Yet, in cinema, the "auteur"-led project has, I'd think, been no better or worse than the studio approach. I was amazed when I found out that Coppola was just a hired hand on the first "Godfather" movie, after many others had been touted - he, of course, with Puzo, made this story, particularly his own - but the film would have been made without him. (Something you couldn't say about Woody Allen's recent "Match Point" for instance.) I don't actually think there's much interest in the artist nowadays - at least not in literature. Writers seem to be increasingly malleable, or, to be more charitable, happy to go along with the realpolitik of their industry. Yet, unlike most other artforms, writers don't actually NEED the other people that might be necessary in music, theatre, cinema etc. In my own occasional jousts with the "real publishing industry" what has always shocked me has been the contrast between their view of the professionalism required in their part of the process, with that of me, as the writer. A writer, I always got the sense, was almost the disposable part. The idea of a personal vision, or an articulation of that, unheard of. In short, I don't think agents, publishers or these other intermediaries trust writers to do their part of the job. Yet ironically it seems the other way round - and that the marketing end of the business often fails to do the very few things that are asked of them. A friend who had an academic book published was perplexed to find that her publisher was asking her where it should be sent. One of the frustrating thing about any job of work is not your own part of the enterprise (which you're usually quite good at) but a sense that you end up doing everyone else's job for them. I can well imagine that a publisher would say that a book didn't sell because it wasn't available in enough shops/or because the cover didn't appeal/or because some piece of marketing didn't come up, and somehow blaming all these things on the author. "Oh, your book didn't sell." Yet look at it the other way - the author has fulfilled their part of the bargain, writing the damn thing. But I do sympathise with the compromises that everyone has to occasionally go through. I was annoyed a few years ago when an editor changed the last couple of lines of a story I'd written, and only told me when they were on the way into print. Annoyed, but not overly bothered - yet had the story been reprinted somewhere I'd have insisted on the original. I tend to write fiction that responds to the "idea" and does that with integrity. Sometimes, this means my short story is actually too long, or my novel is actually too long. If I was Zadie Smith I guess I'd probably be allowed to get away with this (at least the first time!), but as I'm not I'm somehow supposed to write something of a prescribed marketable length. The irony is, that having no publisher to please, I'm surely going to just write what I consider integral to the piece. Decoupled from the publishing world, as I am, the only pressure is the one that comes from inside: to own the piece of work. In this, I'm beginning to think, is where I really am an avant garde writer! Yet I can't help thinking that in a culture where productivity (and over-productivity) comes cheap, this distinction, about what a writer really wants to write, having some moral value, is one that the publishing industry has little interest in, and even less understanding of.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Strange Signs

I took the afternoon off, and found time to go to Paramount books, the secondhand shop on Shude Hill. Like other 2nd hand bookshops I've visited lately, the prices seem to have risen and the range gone down - the unintended consequences of internet selling, I guess. I bought two books, science fiction writer Bob Shaw's "A Wreath of Stars" and Stuart Home's "Tainted Love." Here's from the first page of "A Wreath of Stars" -: "Snook was determined to do much the same thing on his linear course from birth towards death, and - at the age of forty - was well on the way to achieving his aim." And here's the first line of Stuart Home's novel, "when I was 40 I decided I wanted to meet my (m)other." I didn't read either first pages in the shop, just they were books I was interested in having, I checked the price and condition, but that was all. Now what is the likelihood that I could pick up two books, of the many in the shop, which mentioned being "40/forty" on the first page? Never mind that I'm going to be 40 on Sunday. Strange signs indeed - but I always knew that Shude Hill and its bookshops exuded magic, and wrote about it in "The Four Hills of Manchester." That 4 again, as well...