Thursday, July 26, 2007

Boy Wonders & Small Publishers

When asked to name a forgotten classic that nobody else ever mentions, I tend to say "Boy Wonder" by Robert James Baker. It usually falls on deaf ears, so imagine how pleased I was to see Baker as the recommended obscure writer on Scott Pack's Me and My Big Mouth Blog by writer Sebastian Beaumont. I've generally been a fan of Wikipedia, but its limitations are seen here. I'd read two of Baker's books but never in a million years thought he was a writer of "gay-themed transgressional fiction," but then I never do. I've got the opposite of a gaydar - it just never seems to occur to me. In fact, I never expect to find anything about an author from their writing, and I'm mildly shocked when I find out is all about them! Though had I picked up Baker's posthumous "Testerosterone", the title might have given me a clue. I'm now in a quandary - do I try and adapt Wikipedia's entry on the basis that I once read two of this obscure writers books, or am I just glad that he's there at all?


Sebastian Beaumont is published by a small publisher, and Scott works for a small publisher, and friend of mine has just been published by a small publisher. Ruth Estevez's debut novel "Meeting Coty" is just coming out from Kings Hart Books. A number of friends have got books out this year, and this one's particularly pleasing, since Ruth read it as a work in progress to my small, select writing group, not that it needed much help. Its a historical novel, based around a large London-based Spanish family in the early 20th century, the Coty of the title, being the perfume manufacturer Francois Coty.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Small subjects, small chances

I've been so out of the loop of what publishers are looking for over the last few years, that on the couple of times recently where I've sent a story or a manuscript out, I've found myself a bit non-plussed by the response. I've had a couple of things read recently which have been liked for the writing, but have been seen as being too "small" a subject. In both of these cases, there's a character who works in an office and is stultified by bureaucractic idiocy. Work, in other words, as a background, and one that has always been a bit under-represented in fiction (so many protagonists not er...working.) I guess I was a bit surprised that it was the scenario, the "smallness", for want of better word, of the story that was pointed out as a flaw. Female writers used to complain that they were undervalued for writing about the domestic rather than the global. I wonder if nowadays there's a tendency to want either the exotic location, the tormented background, or the ostensibly rich and interesting? With the latest letter, I also thought, echoing points that Elizabeth Baines has made in the past on her blog(s), that my work might be being undervalued for being humorous. Thing is, I thought I was writing about the big subjects (growing old, divorce, childlessness, modern life) and was deadly serious in the way I was doing it! I've recently started on a longer project - and in many ways it appears "bigger" than my recent novella and stories. I'll have to reflect carefully on how I get the point over (and probably cut the jokes.)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Books vs. Wizards

Much has been written about how the book trade won't make much out of the new Harry Potter book; well today it lost a few sales, I'm sure. I couldn't be bothered queueing behind a load of people clutching their Deathly Hallows.And that was after I'd managed to find 3 for 2 in the Waterstones holiday reads. Oh well, it's not like I'm short of reading matter. Interested to see Salt publishing so well represented on this years' Forward list, much being made of the youth of Luke Kennard, shortlisted for The Harbour Beyond the Movie at a callow 26; though on a 2nd collection, with various prizes behind him and a PhD in motion he's clearly an experienced hand in many ways. Liking the poems I read on the Salt site, I went to buy it from their online shop - but after several frustrated attempts, (e.g. it insists I gave a county, but doesn't list Greater Manchester as an option), I bought it from Amazon instead, where it was cheaper anyway. Oh well. Kennard's poems seem to be sparky and surreal, like a more playful Mark Ford. I look forward to reading the book. It seems to have come from a different direction than other heralded young poets - his work championed by more experimental magazines such as Succour, for which he's an editor.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A sign of no time

Not spending much time in high street bookshops, or even the Guardian's book pages, these days, I realise I've no idea what people are actually reading - or, rather than when I have, say, Suite Francais or that book about Tractors, I haven't the faintest idea what they're about. I think that's what we might start to lose (have started to lose?), the sense of the bookshop, the first few pages, not the sticker on the front saying "Beach read." Speaking to a tutor from MMU's writing school last week, got a sense that they're having a fantastic year, with regards to students getting published - perhaps useful, as its rival down the road gears up for Martin Amisisation - and, as if the world needs more, a real influx of poets... Ah, poets, there's so many of them, honest. I'm still enjoying my regular fix of America's "Poetry" magazine - lively, exciting poetry, and equally vibrant essays. In comparison, Steven Waling whose new book Travelator is out from Salt, makes the point about our Poetry Review"that since its recent flirtation with avant-gardism has gone scuttling back to its nice little suburban garden of verse." Which was the impression I'd got, but I thought I might just be disliking a few of its featured poets. I can't help but note that in a recent poem it had (non-ironically, I think) a verse called "How to Knit a Poem." More enjoyably, I've just received (it feels like a gift anyway), Ian Duhig's latest, "The Speed of Dark," - always a fan of his work, there's everything in here, from explicit George Bush-bating to medieval pastiche to Johnny Cash. Its on nice thick paper and makes a nice solid block despite being only around 70 pages, like one of those first collections you occasionally find in 2nd hand bookshops from the early-70s.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Live Albums

Its been wall-to-wall TV coverage of "rock music" the last few weeks, with Glastonbury, Concert for Diana, T in the Park and Live Earth. And, you know that these days, anything filmed will eventually end up on YouTube anyway.So if you missed Arctic Monkeys doing "Diamonds are forever", no worries. Last night's Glastonbury highlights did a better job of covering the festival than watching it live on multi-channel, picking out unique items like that one, and Lily Allen singing "Gangsters" with the Specials; which somehow made perfect sense - great to see Terry Hall again, and Lily seems a perfect addition to the pop landscape here. Amy Winehouse was remarkably good, of course, and I've liked what I've seen of the Pigeon Detectives, as well as the Artic Monkeys. In other words, there does seem a genuine crop of good young artists who've not only all arrived on the scene at once, but look like they might have a bit of longevity. It's all a matter of taste, of course, I could do without Rufus Wainwright as Judy Garland, and the Fratelli's pub singalongs. But, I digress. On the day that the Prince CD came free with the Mail on Sunday (not a patch on his previous two albums, but with a number of okay songs on a first couple of listens), I'm wondering if another "casualty" of the internet's ubiquity (joining Fopp records, Ash's album career, physical CDs and Saturday morning TV pop shows) will be the live album. Why on earth would anyone want to buy one when so much stuff is available on Youtube et all to download? And, I'm not even sure, that artists will keep releasing them - or rather, you'll be as likely to be able to get a "souvenir" of the show. I know the "live album" isn't always seen as one of the highlights of most discographies, but over the last few years I've got quite a taste for them - particularly those 70s double albums - if only to hear familiar songs in a different way, or to experience a band live I'd never had a chance of seeing. I'm just listening to Jeff Buckley's (excellent) Live at L'Olimpia and this morning had enjoyed Pearl Jam's Live at Beyanora Hall take on "Masters of War"; so here's 20 great(ish) live albums...

1. Live 1969 - Velvet Underground
2. Kick Out the Jams - MC5
3. Miles of Aisles - Joni Mitchell
4. Live at L'Olimpia - Jeff Buckley
5. Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape - Bauhaus
6. The 27 Points - The Fall
7. Live - War
8. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads - Talking Heads
9. Live at Rajis - Dream Syndicate
10. Live & Direct - Aswad
11. Live at the Counter Eurovision 79 - Misty in Roots
12. Live in Berlin - Au Pairs
13. Weld - Neil Young
14. Earth Tour Live - Parliament
15. Floating Anarchy - Gong and Here and Now Band
16. MTV Unplugged - Nirvana
17. Commodores Live - The Commodores
18. Live 87 - Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers
19. Hai! (Live Album) - Cabaret Voltaire
20. He Who Dares Wins - Theatre of Hate

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Will Self's Surprising Masterpiece?

I loved "The Quantity Theory of Insanity", Will Self's 1991 debut collection, though it seems a long time ago now, and by 1998's "Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys", the pinpoint accuracy of his supremely imaginative conceits, had lost something of their sharpness. Initially, like Ian McEwan, he was a writer who struggled with the longer form, preferring novellas and short story collections to novels. I've passed on "Great Apes", "How the Dead Live" and "Dorian", high concept novels all, but may have to go back to them now, having spent the last few days enthralled by equally high concept "The Book of Dave." At well over 400 pages, its a long book, but rarely does it drag, and its conceit this time - a future London, virtually underwater except a few islands of high ground, where the religion is based upon "The Book of Dave", a buried tome written by a contemporary London cabby - was what drew me to the book. Alternating between different eras of that future, and the present and near-present, in choosing a cabby, Self has hit upon a near-perfect oracle for his satire. It is the London cabby's "knowledge", which Dave Rudman himself wants to pass down to his son, Carl ("the lost boy"), as he took it from his own Grandad, that becomes an immensely plausible psalter. Inhabitants of Nu London introduce each other with "Where2, guv?" and the various sequences of London streets as a litany. Like "A Clockwork Orange" the future sounds different, the inhabitants of Ham(pstead Heath) speaking Mockni, whilst the Nu Londoners speak Arpee. Self has great fun with his invented future, starbucks for drink and takeaway for food; the sacred texts of Dave's "book" - a scabrous rant written when he was going insane - providing a rule for all of life. But Dave is no benevolent carpenter, he's a man torn apart from divorce and tortured by the Child Support Agency. In the future, children are split between their mother's and father's as the natural state of being, half a week with each, as if adhering to the rigidity of a family court order. The Mockni, is initially hard to get used to, but its worth taking the effort, since it creates an otherwordliness that's also funny and familiar, Self's ear never deserting him. Sensibly going back and forth in time, the ideas pile up - this most fertile of minds having plenty of targets in his sights; from family breakdown to global warming. There are confusions - what are Daveworks? what, indeed are the half-human, half-animal motos? who is the Hack, the Driver, the Lawyer? Despite a glossary at the back (I found it half way through reading the book, and it might help - but only might) not everything works... yet enough does. You wouldn't want the book any shorter, even if some of the chapters seem written to confuse. Self's always been a popular writer, and I believe this book has done well - but I'm almost convinced that its a masterpiece, baggy and bloated in parts, and, perhaps its worse sin, occasionally sentimental for the broken contemporary man that is Dave, yet entirely convincing of its own satirical world. Self's own love of psychogeography pulses through the book, as well, the cabby's Knowledge a brilliant device: and yes, how would it be possible to create contemporary London from scratch hundreds of years from now? Not from Alastair Campbell's diaries, but from the ranting of a London cabby missing his estranged son. It is this sense of conviction - despite the buried book's "madness" - that gives the book its most pointed satire; for this future world is brutal, medieval, unforgiving, half Stasi-East Germany, half dark-ages fiefdom. Imagine, Self seems to be saying, a whole society basing itself on a fake doctrine of uncertain providence that even its author wanted to repudiate. Its the 2nd book I've read this year - after AM Homes "This Book Will Save Your Life" - where natural disaster is a key component; the global warming novel seeming to be a better genre than the post 9/11 novel; yet its decidedly contemporary in other ways: Fathers 4 Justice, the London Eye, even the wasting away of David Blaine in a box on the side of the Thames (surely an anachronism even so close to the event?)- given the sterility of so much contemporary English fiction, "The Book of Dave" is a brilliant poke in its sides, and far more appealing, in every way than the Booker lists of the last couple of years. One can only hope that one of our most interesting writers, is reaching some sort of peak.

Quiet for a reason

I've been quiet for a reason - or several reasons - (a) I'm reading a good book, a very good book, more of which when I've finished it (b) I've been writing, or thinking about writing the next bit of the thing I'm writing (c) work etc. In Manchester, the international festival has been slightly underwhelming, at least partially because of the rain. The one time I sat in the "tent" outside of G-Mex, it wasn't the minimalist avant garde sax quintet that drove us out, but the freezing cold. For an event that received quite a lot of public largesse, it was disappointingly private sector in its approach - Sell tickets and leave it at that. In my job, I talk alot about "added value", and MIF seemed to lack that. It did the PR bit really well, but nobody I knew was even aware that it was on. It palpably lacked the "street buzz" you'd find in the city at other times of year, for other festivals, for a lot less money. In fact, coincided with the smoking ban, pubs have seemed near empty - the annual student exodus taking its toll, just as much as the rain. Two years from now, they need to do a lot better. I'm sure some of the performances/events were impressive, but unless you'd booked in advance, I wonder if you'd even have noticed? More pleasing is the news that Gordon Brown has today set his face against Manchester's supercasino. I've been bewildered by our city fathers' continued addiction to this. I think if Manchester had supported Blackpool all along there might have been a "win", but this spurious municipal sparring has not been a pleasant sight. Back on literary message, there's a couple of interesting lit. events tomorrow - Fiona Campbell and Catherine O'Flynn at Manchester Library at 1.00 and Friday night at Islington Mill, an intriguing event with "sound poet" Phil Davenport.