Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Year

And following on from the posts below about my favourite books and records of 2008 - what about my year? It's gone quickly, that's for sure, and I'm sure I've fitted a lot in.

According to my horoscope, Saturn in opposition since 2003 "has made any successes hard won" and 2008 "has doubtless been no joyride," both of which I can nod along with. But, let's be honest, hard won, is still a victory, and I've never been of the joyriding persuasion anyway.

Creatively, I think I've spent my time equally between music, writing, and digital stuff, with sometimes the three coming together. My first full length album in years, "Vertical Integration" was completed in the spring, and I'm still really pleased with it. Inevitably, after that, I didn't quite record so intensively for a while, but have found time to write/record songs every now and then (including this week). Having ummed and aahed about making music for a number of years, let's just say its a very positive hobby to have, in that I enjoy both the process and the result.

Its not that writing took a backseat, because of the music, but that I've been so busy at work etc. that I've not had the extended time that's really necessary to write long fiction. I've been writing a few stories, now and then, and I'm pleased with them. Interesting that my stories are increasingly that - narrative led - though the only story I had published this year (in Parameter Magazine) was anything but. I've been trying to write some science fiction as well, which has been fun.

I am working on a longer thing, but I do find it difficult to just pick up and drop - and I think I'm going to need to have an extended time at it next year if its going to be finished, we'll have to see.

The one thing that has fallen off a little, is my poetry writing. Perhaps songwriting has taken its place - I'm not sure. I'll always write poetry, but not all the time.

More recently I've been thinking about all this "social media"/web 2.0/blogging stuff that I do. It falls in a bit of a middle ground between work and play, I guess.

I've got a few projects that I'm looking to move on with/finish over the next few weeks - one musical one, a couple of written ones - a year end is a "taking stock", rather than a "finishing off"; last year I recorded a song on New Years Day.

The number of blog posts I've made this year, year on year, is down on the last couple of years, but its still over a couple a week, so I guess it remains a viable forum. We'll have to see.

2009 then... what might you have in store for me?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books of the Year

Its always difficult to sum up a year's literature, after all, much of what one reads will have been first published last year, or years before, particularly if its a new writer that one comes across.

If one book bestrode the year it has to be Cormac MacCarthy's 2006 novel "The Road". It got mentioned by Martin Amis in his debate on literature and religion in Manchester, and before then, by C.K. Williams at the New Writing Worlds symposia in Norwich. That debate, a 3rd panel discussion, which I had the pleasure to blog away at, looked at how writers were responding to nature, and, in particular the threat of global warming. "The Road", a writers' response to after-the-catastrophe is so clearcut in its disaster, so biblical in both its language and its themes, that it seems the clear book du jour. If the apocalyptic has been there in recent semi sci-fi novels from Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro, its also there in the mutually excellent "This Book can Save Your Life" by A.M. Homes and "The Book of Dave" by Will Self. A further hangover from the previous year, and the most enjoyable book I read all year, was David Peace's "The Damned United", without a doubt the best football novel ever - and, next year, hopefully the best football film ever as well.
I read last years prizewinner "What Was Lost" by Catherine O'Flynn, and enjoyed it immensely - more than Anne Enright's intrigueingly complex "The Gathering." Those books by new authors that do get published - a little like first albums these days - are highly competent works, well structured, well written, but not necessarily that exciting. Its a long time since we saw the shock of the new. This year's Booker list looked very readable, without being particularly exciting. I'm a fifth through Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" - an immense state-of-the-nation novel, and so far its excellent. One novel I failed to finish this year, and had bought after glowing pre-release reviews, was Hanif Kureishi's latest, "Something to Tell You". With quite a number of good books to read, I can't quite see me finding the time to go back to a novel I was finding to be poorly written, linguistically baggy and emotionally overblown. In this Christmas period I am back to reading, and a real find has to be Roberto Bolano's "The Savage Detectives" which I'm enjoying immensely. Many people's book of the year, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz, was one of the year's most readable, seeing the horror of the Dominican Republic's history during the Trujillo dictatorship through the most unlikely of filters, that of a transplanted Dominican sci-fi geek. If it had a fault, it was that these contemporary characters felt two-dimensional compared with the richness of the rest of the novel.

Bolano I discovered through his poetry, and the late poets' recently translated collected "The Romantic Dogs" is a pleasure throughout. Its been an interesting year for poetry in the sense that the mainstream has lost any interest to me. I think the rise in small presses such as Eggbox and ifpthenq, let alone the juggernaut that is Salt, means that good looking, readily accessible books are being made available outside of the majors - often concentrating on their existing list of poets. Seren, of all the small presses, has had major showings in the prizes, but there's a feeling that the prizes/majors have quite a bit of a symbiotic relationship if only because there's a need for the "big names" to continue getting a mention. What seems to be the case is that the vibrancy previously seen only in the "performance poetry" scene is spilling over into more interesting and experimental poetic arenas. With no major retrospectives/anthologies since the millennium, it will be interested to see what the scope of Roddy Lumsden's forthcoming anthology encompasses. My best poetry of the year has been particular poems, either in collections or in magazines, and I'll see if I get a chance to look at these in the new year.

I've read very little non-fiction - 'cept on blogs and in papers - but Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise" I discovered about halfway through its year or success - and it remains a wonder, even if, after about 3 months of devouring 20th century classical music I reverted to type (e.g. hip hop, electronica and indie.) I also read Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" so there we have it - the most relevant critical essay of the year, and it was written in 1936! On the back of a remarkable essay in "Poetry" I bought Adam Kirsch's collection of essays on contemporary poetry, "The Modern Element" which I fully expect to be one of the best reads of 2009.

Monday, December 29, 2008

First, music of the year....

...I will get on to books of the year in a day or two, I hope, but music's a little easier. I've listened to so much this year, and I do feel its been a bit of a good one, with a wide range of new talent, mostly American, coming into the open. My singles/tracks of the year are mirrored in my favourite albums, but would probably finish off as 1. Time to Pretend - MGMT 2. Love Lockdown - Kanye West and 3. Paper Planes - M.I.A. 4. Ready for the Floor - Hot Chip 5. Piece of Me - Britney Spears

Albums of the year then... (to be rearranged no doubt!)
1. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes; like Midlake a couple of years ago, it almost defines what Americana is, an instant classic, based on the past, but also very now. Beautiful songs, beautifully sung and arranged. For me, its the combination of the album and their "Sun Giant" EP rather than the album on its own, as I downloaded both from Emusic to make a debut album +.
2. Third - Portishead; reviews and the album passed me by, but a couple of recommendations from friends made me pick it up. I was never a big fan, too ubiquitous, too sedate; but this new album reinvents their sound marvellously, taking in all sorts of new-retro devices yet remaining their mystique and magic.
3. What Does it all mean? - Steinski; a long overdue compilation of the original mashup expert - utterly wonderful, and remarkably contemporary.
4. Stay Positive - the Hold Steady; remarkably their 3rd great album in a row, and with songs as good as on their previous two, but with a fuller, more rock sound. In a year when landfill indie and tired old metallers were the best that rock music could give us, the Hold Steady went from being the best band that should have been around in 1978 to the best rock band of the day.
5. Supreme Balloon - Matmos; synthy Californian experimentalists surpassed themselves on this album, all recorded on golden age synths, the elongated title track in particular is a masterpiece
6. Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp; a real grower, and yet again Goldfrapp seemed to understand the zeitgeist better than anyone; perhaps all the songs weren't as good as on previous outings, but the overall feel, subdued and pastoral was a wonderufl listen and singles "A&E" and "Happiness" were standouts.
7. Oracular Spectacular - MGMT; best single of the year in the ubiquitous "Time to Pretend" but the album almost lived up to it. Like much of the best music from Bowie to Prince it thrived in its inauthenticity - you felt that they were having fun, but there's none of the cynicism of the Killers.
8. Beat Box - Glass Candy; best of a new wave of electronic acts - a short poppy album full of unexpected gems including a great version of Kraftwerk's "Computer Love"
9. Feed the Animals - Girltalk; not an awful lot different or better than their earlier "Night Ripper" but the year's ultimate party album. A stars on 45 for the iPod generation and probably the last word in sampling.
10. For Emma, Forever Ago - Bon Iver; more Americana, and a universally acclaimed record; but it deserves it; a thing of unexpected beauty and poignancy
11. Arena - Todd Rundgren; a surprising mix of all that's good about Rundgren - great guitars, wonderful tunes, and fascinating arrangements. Live, the subtlety was lost a little, but otherwise, a real surprise in a year when the big names and old favourites weren't that much around.
12. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles; an exciting adventurous all-over-the-place debut that didn't always reach the heights of their astonishing singles and live performances but was always interesting.
13. In Ghost Colours - Cut Copy; more electronica, but this time with an unmistakable pop edge to it - a bright shiny, pop album that just nicks a place ahead of Ladyhawke and Nick Cave as antipodean album of the year.
14. Dig Lazarus Dig - Nick Cave; not a bad track on it, not a bad album - yet so familiar are we with Nick that if it doesn't reach the heights of say, Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus it almost seems like an also ran of an album.
15. Pacific Ocean Blue - Dennis Wilson; reissue of the year and a top 20 hit as a result; a wonderful late seventies piece of Beach Boys magic
16. Made in the Dark - Hot Chip; more electronic-pop, but with lead track "Ready for the floor" one of the year's finest, and surely showing them to be fans of OMD, the album, a mixed bag, remains highly listenable.
17. Imperial Wax Solvent - the Fall; not their best even after a recent run of form, but with enough high points to remain highly relevant.
18. Fourth - Verve; surprisingly excellent return album that ditches the more introspective moments from their past and goes straight for the jugular with powerful guitar
19. One of the Boys - Kate Perry; unashamed pop record guilty pleasure of the year was her "I kissed a girl" but the anthem heavy album has its gems as well.
20= Jukebox - Cat Power; not as great a record as "The Greatest" but her total reworking of diverse songs such as "New York, New York", let alone her self-written Dylan tribute make this a good, if not stunning album.
20= We Started Nothing - The Ting Tings; (I knew I'd forget one...)... pop as anything but it should have been infuriating, and was actually great fun for longer than it should have been. I hear "Great DJ" is on the soundtrack of the new Danny Boyle as well...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

In Praise of Pauses

Christmas often gives us time to pause, so its sadly fitting that Harold Pinter, the laureate of the pause, died over the season. There are, of course, many, many obituaries of the man, and reminisces of him, and reminders of his work. The ever estimable Arts and Letters Daily collects them in one place. His Nobel speech was reprinted in part in the Independent and summed up that key contradiction: between a literary life that was deliberate in not nailing things down, and a political life that insisted it was necessary. We can leave the nailing to others, particularly at this time of year, but its the work of course, rather than the political views or the contradictions, that will last. In the land of Shakespeare its perhaps not that surprising that our latest Nobel laureate should be a playwright, yet its instructive to think how much his work hangs over our time - in perhaps a way that no playwright ever will again. I saw a fringe production of the "The Dumb Waiter" a few years ago at Edinburgh, and it was in every way brilliant; it also felt endlessly relevant - and, contradictorily, of its time. There's something about the setting of those early plays that only just remains in England, the echo of the fifties austerity, the provincial towns, the grimey bedsits and b&bs. Whereas post-war America (say, like you'd see in Miller's "All My Sons") has material wealth, in which it sets a sometime spiritual poverty, Britain even up to the seventies and eighties remains drab. Pinter, in his willingness to shine a light on that drabness, will always seem of his time, even if his themes, and his writing transcends it. An early play like "The Dumb Waiter" is set in a single room, always recognisable, I guess, in any age, but its prop - the dumb waiter of the title is something that had gone into memory thirty years ago. I came to Pinter more through those two fascinating works: his screenplay of "the French Lieutenant's Woman" and, particularly, "Betrayal", an adult drama in every way. I'm not a particularly regular theatre goer, and there are only a few writers for theatre whose words seem particularly vital, but Pinter was one of those. The pauses of legend, are, I think, the spaces that he left where we could hear the words echo. To understand, to reflect.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Poetry Prizes

My uncharacteristic silence the last week or two has its usual reasons...alcohol and Christmas. After managing around half a dozen parties since my last post, its amazing I've still got any of the braincells required for writing this occasional blog. Poetry prizes come in all shapes and sizes and I'm generally no fan of them, after all its hardly a competitive sport is it?

Yet I have to say I can only applaud the innovation of the online poetry slam that Poetry Republic have set up in support of the Mines Advisory Group charity. Judging is by the entrants - and the winner will be announced as part of the "not part of" Manchester International Festival fringe next summer.

And although, as an unsuccessful entrant, I should be a little down today after not making the shortlist for Salt Publishing's inaugural Crashaw Prize, I'm far more intrigued by the six shortlisted writers, who'll have their books published internationally, and knowing Salt, very handsomely, in the next few months. A quick Google search shows that these are all poets with a little bit of a track record; a sign perhaps that the "slush pile" is not made up the mad and hopeless, but the hardworking, the worthy, the progressive, the comming. From my own perspective, even the discipline to enter the competition - i.e. putting together a 70 page collection - was a valuable one.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Staying In v. Going Out

The pre-xmas events season kicks in big time this week. Everything from regular nights, to one offs, from Xmas parties to informal catch ups with friends. The 2nd Social Media Cafe in Manchester is this evening at the Northern, with Heather Corcoran, curator of FACT in Liverpool as the speaker. I'm hoping to be there, let's see how the day goes!

Frustratingly I'll miss Nicholas Royle reading very locally at Didsbury Library on Wednesday, from 7.00, as I'm in London, and pondering whether I'll have time to get along to Openned reading at the Foundry, Old Street - Openned are good friends with Manchester's The Other Room, so it would be good to take advantage of being there at that time. Then back to Manchester for a choice of two Christmas parties!

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Spirit of the Age

With 2009 just around the corner it seems about the right time to think about this decade, and see if any themes have emerged in literature, or elsewhere, to define the spirit of the age. Post 9/11, and a week after Mumbai, you can say that "terror" could be seen as that spirit, but as no doubt someone else has said, terror is the spirit of all our ages, not just this one. If there is one literary work that seems to be evoked more often than any other at the moment its Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", which must say something about our view of the times - the last time post-apocalyptic nightmares took hold of our imagination were in the decade after the 2nd world war, as the threat of the cold war began to grip where the terror of Nazi Germany was only just subsiding ("Lord of the Flies" - 1954, "1984" - 1949).

Yet, I think its some other works of that late 40s/early 50s period we need to look to. "Waiting for Godot" (1953) has been revived a couple of times lately, and there's something about its ennui, its resignation, its passivity that seems particularly key to the current world. Look around the world, and what you see, whether thuggery, barbarism, militarism or imperialism, is at a state or semi-official level. We live in repressive times, where the sheer force of the state, or the immense reach of globalisation seems to quell anything other than feelings of resignation. This is no 1968, with a youth rebellion reeling round the world with contempt at their elders, nor 77, with punk rock, working class rebellion and race riots beginning to form a heady brew of discontent. This is the age when a shop assistant gets killed on the first day of the Walmart Sale, as the angry consumers trample over him; or when the decision on whether a cricket tour should continue in India is more about what's in the contract, than what is morally right or sensible.

Art reflects, doesn't lead - and yet I don't think the spirit of the age is an angry one, or even a collective one. Even in parts of the world where there is much more reason for rebellion and protest than in the west, the differential between the might of the state and the organising power of the people is too great; collectively there is ennui, resignation, even acceptance. (The destruction of value that the banks have given us over the last year or more, and the willingness of the population to almost reward the architects of this failure.) Much is talked about the internet and "social media" but a Facebook group seems a poor replacement for a union meeting. That other book of the age, A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" seems every bit as appropriate as "The Road"; they both deal in dread, but whereas the dread in "The Road" is very real, in the Homes book its almost existential.

I've been reading a few poems recently that seem to have something of this quality as well - a quietitude, a non-expectation of solving things. So back to Beckett, "I can't go on, I'll go on."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Elizabeth Gaskell news...

Following on from the news that Gaskell's house in Plymouth Grove is going to be renovated, this story on the BBC's website piqued my attention...

Apparently Mrs. Gaskell is "is best known for Cranford", well, only since the BBC's version of it is she. More quality reporting from our national broadcaster.

Lessons in Poetry

Its worth watching this week's Culture Show, on iPlayer or the net to see the piece on Mick Imlah who's 2nd collection, "The Lost Leader" won the Forward Prize and is being gerrymandered into winning the T.S. Eliot. Observers of poetry prizes know that with the odd exception of a "Birthday Letters", there's hardly any consensus between the awards, so it was interesting to see a full piece on one of the contenders, with reading from figures as estimable as Andrew Motion and James Fenton reading Imlah's poems. I was alerted to an article by a bookseller friend who said he'd been inundated with requests for the book after the piece went out. I've nothing for or against Imlah's poetry; I've not read them; and there's obviously a human interest story there - in that he was recently diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease - but I'm interested that a prize where the judging is led by Motion (a Faber author) has two Faber authors (Motion and Fenton) on the Culture Show giving such a powerful plug for another Faber author (Imlah) for that same major prize. Because, however worthy a winner the book is, this is, of course, how its done in poetry. I wonder if the other contender publishers on the list have been badgering the BBC for airtime? Perhaps anything that draws a new name into the public sphere is a good thing, though with the major poetry houses having so little to do with any newer, more vibrant poets out there (as the success of Salt, Seren and others has testified over the last couple of years), the poetry establishment remains as rigid in its ways as ever.

I guess, I'm interested in this, more - in a media studies sense - of how work gets out there, than any other way. It may well be that the other Eliot judges, Lavinia Greenlaw and Tobias Hill amongst them, have other things to say about the winning collection; it may well be that The Lost Leader is a very good book.

Poets, in particular, seem to relish scarcity, so a quick search of the web shows that Imlah is himself a bit of a "lost leader", his 2nd book rumoured but never delivered till now. I loved this page from the LRB, where it announces that "Mick Imlah's The Lost Leader will be published in 2002." Thinking of him not as a poet cum literary editor with friends in high places, and more as the Axl Rose of the Scottish literary scene, appeals to me. And it goes without saying, one wishes him well fighting his disease.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Freelance Writers, a Moment....

Whether its a Moleskine in the Cornerhouse, a laptop in Cafe Nero, or an exercise pad in Central Library, the freelance writer isn't always stuck at home in their garrett. In fact, the writer is as likely to be a nomad as any other freelancer; have battery power (and wifi) will travel. There's a move in the city towards providing cheap, available appropriate spaces for freelancers across the creative industries - and though the focus has been on digital and new media types to date - its clear that artists, writers, freelance journalists, bloggers, film makers and musicians are all part of that community. So if you think you fit into any of those, would like a bit more elbow room than Starbucks gives you, or find the lure of the Krombacher a big disincentive to setting up base in a bar, please have a look at this article and fill in the accompanying survey.

Credit Crunch Christmas

I can mention the C-word nows its December. May need to pick up an advent calendar this afternoon. I'm going to try and avoid going to town this week, it was so manic on Saturday, so local shops for local people, and - perhaps more importantly t'internet. I'm not usually one to "plug" books, but I'm pleased that small publishers and magazines are trying to entice you all to buy some unusual xmas presents. Short fiction magazine Transmission has a competition and a Christmas bundle, perfect for the short story writer amongst your relations; Salt publishing has both a poetry and short story book club and Facebook members of its group can get a third off all Salt books, which should be enough to give your postman a hernia. Interesting post from Chris Hamilton-Emery at his Facebook page last week, giving a great overview of the perils and pleasures of running a small press - and also indicating that Salt's going to move to London shortly. I saw Nathan Hamilton from Norwich based Eggbox last week, and this small press's books are lovely hardbacks - whilst if I do manage to force myself out of the house, there will no doubt be tables laden with goodies at this week's The Other Room, in Manchester and at the launch of the latest Comma title on Friday in Liverpool. I'm also thinking Tim Wright's "Oldton" "pack of cards" is too beautiful an artefact not to buy after meeting him and seeing it last week.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Blind Leading the Blind

The news that there is criticism of the film "Blindness" because of its portrayal of blind people beggars belief. The film hasn't opened yet, so I'm talking in the general sense. "Blindness", the novel by Saramago, a major factor in his winning the Nobel Prize for literature, is, to my mind, one of the great novels of the last 20 years. It is, of course, an allegory. Here blindness is a contagion that passes from one to another, and creates a new, disastrous society. It references the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, but also speaks clearly of our contemporary world, where community is often so disconnected. I don't think, reading the book, I even once thought of it referring to the naturally blind. After all, its a regular trope of dystopian sci-fi - "Day of the Triffids" from 1951 using it - and, more than that, its one of the most moral novels you could ever read. I'm sure the film - which has received very mixed reviews - may have its problems, after all its a highly philosophical novel, yet it can only depress one that the rare occasion of a European art novel being made into a film with a reasonable wide distribution, receives criticism. As someone with an eye problem myself, I'm very sensitive to the needs of the blind and partially sighted, but I'm puzzled where this has come from. In his Guardian piece, it appears that its David Cox who is making the criticism, not the RNIB or anyone else, yet it doesn't say anywhere if Cox is a journalist, an activist or just plain stupid. Apparently the criticism began in America, that country of such universal tolerance, but again it seems like it was opportunistic. If it makes a few more people read the book then perhaps it is just a storm in a teacup, but, I just feel a little wearier having to even respond to this drivel.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Future of Literature is Debatable...

I'm in Norwich for an event that I've been arranging for a while with New Writing Partnership. When we talk about how "digital technology" is effecting literature it's too often couched in terms of the industry - eReaders and Amazon; downloads and podcasts - and not enough is said about the writing. It seems a legitimate conversation for writing development agencies and projects to think not just about the industry but how the "digital world" impacts on writers and readers as well as publishers. Using Chris Meade's Future of the book report Read:Write as a starting point - today's debate has a real opportunity to tease out some of the issues. It may seem hard to believe, with so many bloggers-with-book-deals and writers-who-blog, but literature remains, on the whole, with its head in the sand about all of this. Not, I'd hasten to add, necessarily a bad thing. There's a distinction between using digital tools to market yourself, and changing a way of working that is already successful for you...

Except I'm not convinced that everything's fine and dandy in the world of literature. Whereas the turnover of authors remains high, and possibly disastrous, the industry itself moves at a glacial speed. Only last week I was hearing about another young author, this time Cecilia Aherne, who proudly writes using a pen; a boast that I still find hard to believe in this day and age where people put their shopping lists on their iPhone. Yet Aherne is a massmarket writer as well; one of the things I hope we get out of today is a sense of how the writing itself needs to develop with the medium. If the recent Bond movie Quantum of Solace showed not only the influence of video game narrative, but also of HBO style series such as "24", then its a wonder that fiction and poetry can remain stubbornly linear in an age of the digital. The challenges are there as well of course... a novel written entirely as a Twitter stream is almost certain to come out in the next six months, but will Twitter, or microblogging in general, survive the restlessness of the digital audience?

There's different definitions about "progress" in writing - the 20 book strong longlist for the £50,000 Warwick Prize is a case in point. Throwing up philosophy, fiction and reportage in one big stew, it aims to reward how writing "evolves" - though with Naomi Klein, Alex Ross, John Burnside and "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill, alongside more wayward names, it may take a few years to get into its stride.

I'm going to be blogging today's event - I hope, internet connection willing - so come back from 1.30 if you're interested.

Set up a LIVE BLOG for the event:

The Essay and the Book

I remember reading Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" essay and thinking it was brilliant - but then reading the book of the same name realised that he was stretching a good idea, a little too far, and even, that his examples weren't actually that good at proving his thesis. The sense that however readable, and however original his ideas, he's better in small doses than large ones remains. His recent essay about "genius" seemed particularly curious. As interesting as ever, he was making the case that the idea of genius being something that doesn't need working at may well be a lie - that there are two types of artist, the apparent prodigy and the grafter, and that its the latter who is the experimentalist (trying to find out what works by incremental means) seemed curiously wrong-headed. I'm on a train so can't quite find the links without some difficulty - but he's everywhere at the moment with his new book "Outliers". Literary genius is a particularly difficult subject - as literary "success" seems a totally different thing. I guess we can all accept Shakespeare as a genius, but below that level, where do we rate our writers? Being published and winning prizes in this culture doesn't seem to equate to genius, whether its taken ten years to write a novel or ten days. Genius if it has any meaning has to be applied sparingly, and, I would think, to the unique, the unrepeatable, the uncloneable. A Coetzee, or a Carey, or a Rushdie for instance would seem to fall far short, and I'm not sure they'd like the label anyway. And where to put a Pound, when faced with an Eliot? A Lowell and a Bishop? An Amis K. and Amis M.? Yet if we only allow our innovators to be geniuses we have only room for a flawed Joyce, and less room for a (differently) flawed Fitzgerald.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Slow Reveal

I'm sure there's a typology of short stories - the surprise ending etc. - but I'm not sure if the one that I particular specialise in is there. I guess what I write tends to be "the slow reveal". The story has always been there, or the point of the story, and what I've done in writing it is to put a cloak around it, but then I slowly reveal it all. The slow reveal seems to have three distinct parts - the first is scene describing, the set up, nothing particular to do with the story itself, but you meet a character or a place, or several characters and they're doing something that may or may not be relevant to the story. So thats not what the story's about. Then, half way through, two thirds through something happens, a jolt, an event, a chance meeting. But thats not what the story's about either. And then, in the end, it could be a page, a word, a paragraph, a sentence, but the story that's been there all along. I don't think its a twist. I think a twist is sometimes from another story completely, whilst the slow reveal shows something that's always been there, the thing that the story's about. I guess you find it alot in Sherwood Anderson, quite a bit in Fitzgerald, in Cheever, even in Salinger. For me it has both "truth" and "artifice" - truth because everything in the story has to be a fitting cloak, and artifice because, clearly you could have said, in a line, "this man abuses children", or "this person's fortune is based on a lie." In a novel I think the "slow reveal" feels like a cheat - you find it in "The Gathering" or "Atonement" - but in the short story, I think it has all the elements of tension I'm asking for, mainly because its not about our secrets, but about what we'd rather hide, which is a different thing entirely. (Clearest example from my stories online: "A Cold Night For Drowning")

Friday, November 14, 2008

Object of Desire

On the front desk at Fopp records earlier in the week was the ultimate Christmas gift object of desire for these jaded times: a stylophone with MP3 connectivity. Its always interesting with such things to wonder how many were sold, and how few were actually used on records. Retro wise we had "Style" by Orbital, but that's about the best I can think of. I had a Casio VL-Tone, which was, to my knowledge, only ever used on "Da da da" by Trio and "The Man Whose Head Expanded" by the Fall, (even I never used it on my own songs!)

Makes one think: these iconic instruments are "iconic" not for their use, but for their uselessness. I'm wondering what is the most ubiquitous of electronic instruments (it would be too hard to do the same thing for guitars!) - the DX7? Roland Jupiter? Mini Moog? Or something unheralded, an every day workhorse drum machine that appears on 1 out of 2 records you'll hear in a particular year?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Faith Restored

A few weeks ago, the Daily Mail had this promotion giving a free CD from the eighties every day. I like the Daily Mail, because it gives you a really clear sense of who your enemy is... but its free CD promotions are quite good, and clearly aimed at the people I knew at university who weren't me! I couldn't be arsed to go to WH Smiths every day, so I sent off for the whole set - which means I'm now listening to "pelican west" by Haircut 100, and wondering how much more growing my hair needs to become a mullet. So for - I think about seven quid - I've got 10 albums from the glorious dayglo decade that was the 80s. So fuck credibility - I've got Terence Trent D'arby.

Earlier I was at Manchester's earlier social media cafe listening and discussing this whole new world etc. The whole new world etc. The whole new world etc. It's the old world that's the problem, let's sort it.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Milestones & Millstones

I've spent the morning tarting up stories. It's harder than writing them in many ways. Whereas to write a story you open everything up, and let the thing pour out; to rewrite and revise, you have to concentrate on the detail, on the language, on the things that you're sometimes blind to in your own style. What always astonishes me at this re-write phase is how often I go to put something additional in - either a phrase or a verb - only to find it's there already a few lines down. Astonishing, because I'm terrible at remembering the detail of my stories, particularly when I've just written them.

So, for someone who always felt he was more at home in longer fiction - occasionally in poetry - I reached a milestone of sorts with my latest story. It's my 100th. Or rather since I started handing out stories in a little photocopied zine back in 1996 - it's the 100th I've "published" in this format. Less than a 10th of those have been published elsewhere, more's the pity, but it's quite a collection one way or another. I realise that over the last couple of years I've gone back to writing stories with a little more consistency and regularity than I had done for a while - and the last seven or eight would hang relatively well together. Such productivity over the years can seem equally a "millstone" in that how can I ever expect anyone to read them all? I'd like to think I've got better...but I'm not sure that art always works in the direction of obvious improvement - sometimes it's about doing things differently, or writing about different things, as much as honing a regular style.

By the way, I sorted out the problem I had with my latest story, detailed earlier, I decided the paragraph looking back on events was unecessary - partly because it turned out to be a bit medically suspect. Even in the small universe of the short story, there's a determination to not get things deliberately or factually wrong.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Artists Only

I was in Bristol earlier in the week, with work; quickly following a few days in Whitley Bay with family, so felt a little disorientated by the time I went to see Todd Rundgren at the Academy 2 last night. He was fine, a little on the rocky side, but I'm glad I'd got his new album so some of those songs were familiar. You've got to go see the legends when they come to town. Travel is sometimes something I don't do well, but at least this week I somehow managed to fit in writing a short story. I rarely write about my childhood, and sometimes wonder if my reluctance to mine some of the more personal aspects of memory is one of the things that inhibits it's acceptance. I'm not overly interested in "me", I guess, but we live in a sentimental, autobiographically-obsessed age, so perhaps I should let out a bit more. I'm Scorpio rising, of course, so if my writing appears cold or stern, its also putting a brave face on the tumult underneath. And of course, the story I've just written isn't any more "true" or any less "false" just because I've garnished it with memories of my old school!

I sometimes think visual artists have it easier, in that their work can defy the autobiographical far easier than writers. In Bristol, I was introduced to the German artist Mariele Neudecker, and it was fascinating to see some of what she's working on in her studio - a reinvention of landscape in many ways, she sculpts intricate lifesize forests out of fibreglass, and in her making sculptures of both natural and made objects, I guess I recognised something of my own preference for surfaces.

Back to my story: and there's an interesting technical challenge I've got - which is that there's a section of the story that takes place much later and offers an "explanation" of sorts, of the rest of the story. I'm minded to take it out, but wondering if its "echo" will still be there? I might see about giving out two versions of the story and see whether there's a different reaction depending on whether its included or not.

Monday, November 03, 2008

America and other contemporary mysteries

I am a great believer in the contemporary novel, the contemporary setting - but I wonder what it actually means. Speaking about this the other night, I don't think the blow-by-blow accounts you get on blogs are really what I'm talking about - and god help the blogger who turns real-time rant into a novel. What's left there? It's why, despite his hope and protestations, Tom Wolfe's New Journalism never became the literature he'd envisaged. "In Cold Blood" aside - was there a classic that came out of it? Wolfe's own masterpiece, "Bonfire of the Vanities", as acute a tale of the 80s as you could wish for, was, like "Wall Street", a product of 1987, and, of course, a fiction. There's a piece in today's Times wondering how an Obama presidency will affect the arts. The arts, in my mind, it seems, is most affected by 3 things: money (some kind of patronage), opposition (something to rail against), and, the zeitgeist (which can just as easily be described demographically.)

A contemporary novel about 2008? I'm lost as to what the subject might be. America looks large, but in a way, as someone who only visited once, in 1995, I can't begin to contemplate. If the evangelical Christian America seemed mysterious, I'm not sure that an America of "change" will provide any less so to this outsider. The use of the word "socialism" by both McCain and Obama seems to come from an entirely different lexicon than my own. Yet, the America of "The Wire" or "Sopranos" is - if not recognisable, is certainly not mysterious. In some ways, the pseudo-religious aspects of "Battlestar Galactica" are the more mysterious.

Yet, what would an English novel cover? It's a strange year, isn't it? Sport, long an obsession, yet so often one that we're so bad at, sees us now, with Lewis Hamilton, Andy Murray and our Olympians in a "golden age" - but its interesting that its a golden age of individuals or at least of the individualistic. What Hamilton and Murray have avoided is the dead hand of the establishment, of institutitions. And even the cycling success of Team GB - though pubblicly funded - has come from isolation of the successful from the institutional. We are the land of innovators, explorers, individuals... and with a dollop of outside influence (Hamilton's Grenadan antecedents, Murray's Caledonian bullishness)... success becomes something that we shouldn't be afraid of. The contrast with the institutionalised bumbling of the ill-advised 20/20 disaster couldn't be the more so.

Perhaps we are moving beyond the age of "apology" - the Englishman (or rather, British citizen), as David Brent or Frank Spencer. Our new heroes are winners, ruthless, internationalised, and... not universally loved. So be it. Perhaps the new Bond is a sign of this. Yet, the boorishness of the age - (Mssrs. Ross and Brand, stand up) - has never seemed so out of step as a result. Which is real? Perhaps its the renewed respect for our soldiers returning from what still seem like endless conflicts...and a reminder that, like America, the military dead and injured, aren't necessarily the products of the British public school system, but the ordinary man and woman, accepting the odds, taking the chance.

A week - a month - a year in which all our contradictions have been thrown about (and continue to be thrown about: look at how many of the powers-that-be responsible for the banking disaster want us to return, as soon as possible, to some business as usual), I'm concerned less about "what place art" as the revolving morals of the age. Where the BBC becomes a victim of the Mail on Sunday; where we dislike our winning sportsmen and women for having a character that is so unlike our own. America, one hopes, will have a new start on Wednesday morning - even if in many ways Obama is a conservative candidate for a conservative country - for us, our egalitarianism is celebrated by Anthony Gormley's parade of ordinary Britains on the 4th plinth, yet our sense of what's next is entirely uncertain.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Hymns Ancient and Modern

Its rare for me to be in a church, and so I've always got a mixture of vague familiarity and slightly quizzical novelty about me when I do find myself in one - as today, for a christening. I enjoyed the hymns - Sing Hosanna and All Creatures Great and Small - both ones I know, and (in the first case at least) love. Theres a lovely amount of literary history embedded in church hymns, ceremonies and readings. I lost concentration a bit during the reading but thought as the priest gave his interpretation that vicars and priests would probably make good bloggers in some ways. Isn't the weekly sermon an extemporised commentary in just the same way?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The cost of tuition

Its eleven years since I started on my MA in novel writing at University of Manchester. I can't remember what it cost - between £2-3000 I guess. There's been a proliferation of courses since, long and short, BA and MA, even the odd PhD. Theres alot of writers I know who teach as well as write, so what goes around comes around. And if you do a week's Arvon course or something similar like Faber's recent writers weekend that Elizabeth Baines recounts, having attended it in Paris (Paris!), or even a weekend course with the Poetry School, or others, it costs less but is over in a blink of an eye. As someone who organises events I know how difficult it is to ever reclaim the "real costs" - yet writers are rarely wealthy, and an "investment", whether for a weekend or a year, is probably much, much more than the ££££s themselves. I gave up a £25k a year job (in 97!) to do the course, so it probably cost me much, much more in some ways than the headline cost (and the biggest cost was that when I came back into work house prices had gone through the roof and I've been paying that price ever since.) But this is just stupid - accountancy masquerading as opportunity. Someone once said to me that they saw running their poetry magazine at a cost of a few hundred pounds a year, nothing more or less than their equivalent to "the golf club membership."

I've always said, when people have asked about going on a course, what they want to get out of it. In 1997 I didn't know any writers, had no time to write, and was unhappy in my job and living in Croydon. Moving back to Manchester for my masters was the best thing I ever did. I was buying time, a peer group, friendship... and if I'd hoped to get a few contacts that would help me get published as well, that was perhaps my naivety. I bumped into Elizabeth Baines last night in Didsbury and was fascinated by the Paris trip - a long way to go I thought for a couple of days tutoring, I wondered when she got time to write, never mind blog... She lifted her eyes to the ceiling, "late into the night", she said.

So here's a thought...I gained a lot from my masters, but even more from having the time to create, the time to think - and the time to read. If it could cost you up to a £1000 for a week away somewhere on a "working holiday" or thousands of pounds to do a masters, what about for £25... the best tutors I've found are other writers - not the ones you might on a course, but the ones you actually like. F. Scott Fitzgerald's letters, Henry James Selected Essays, The Paris Review Interviews, Jeanette Winterson's "Art Objects", Kafka's diary... these are half of the tuition I needed - the other half, that should be obvious: the books themselves, "Franny and Zooey", "Men Without Women", "Women in Love", "Middlemarch" - make your own list

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Four Story Day

I've felt particularly uncreative of late. Sat down at the weekend looking at a blank screen, writing a few words. Nothing seemed to come. I've been so busy this week, as well, having organised an event introducing the arts to the best in digital stuff on Monday - and think that maybe having no headspace for anything else has just let the ideas line up in there. Anyway this morning I woke up with a great little idea for a short story, and I'd hardly come up with more than a skeleton in my head (well it is nearly Halloween!) when three more story ideas scrunched up behind it. A four story day, then. All I have to do now is write them...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Blog Life

Last night, was at the Manchester Blog Awards, which I've written about here, in a piece called "when bloggers become writers" so won't repeat that here. Had a great time, though it was one of those nights when I got tired from saying "hiya" to too many people. Lovely as all those people are!

Retreated to Common and had a wonderful chat with the alluring Coco Laverne. All this blog stuff is great, but I'm painfully aware how crowded a space it's getting!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

When Worlds Collide

Everything seems very frenetic in Manchester at present. There's the literature festival for a start - which I'm going to finally make acquaintance with tomorrow at the Manchester Blog Awards at Matt and Phreds. I would have gone to more but have found myself with a range of other commitments - work and otherwise - as well as having a bad cold which knocked me out for most of last week. Thinking ahead, I'm key organiser of a range of events for the arts over the next few weeks, starting with an event around "Digital Content" in Manchester next week, and culminating, in Norwich with an event with New Writing Partnership looking at how the art of writing is changed by technologies. All exciting stuff, of course, but feel the various strands of my life are hurtling around like something thrown together by the Large Hadron Collider! And again, sitting squarely between my different worlds - as blogger, literati, and technology advisor to the arts - I'm quite excited that a group is forming that it would make some sense to be part of - namely a "social media cafe" for Manchester. I'm pretty sure that even my avatar is exhausted by all of this.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Worth Every Penny of the License Fee

Congratulations to Aravind Adiga winner of the Booker Prize; not read it, not particularly interested in reading it, but same for the rest of this year's shortlist, so who knows? They may have found a gem. There's been plenty of meaningless discussion on the Guardian's book blogs, and various tit-for-tats. But my favourite comment was the one that said "of course it won, he's Indian, and it's got a tiger in it, one or the other improves your chance - but both..." (I paraphrase, but I thought it funny.)

I've been down and out with a cold these last few days, and so had the attention span of a ribena addict, so had forced myself to stay up at least till the Booker winner was announced. I've always enjoyed the pantomime of the Booker however hoary the plots and characterisation, yet the BBC long ago gave up on it. And last night they were worse than ever. Turning to the live performance on the 10.00 news, they stayed with it for 3 minutes, had an embarrassing cock-up when they got no sound from their reporter in the Guild Hall, ran the VT tape of the 6 books, and only just caught the announcement of the winner, before telling us to "catch more of the ceremony on BBC4"... they meant BBC News 24. And we pay the license fee for this?

Life, as they say goes on, though doubt I'll now make the opening of the literature festival tomorrow, even if I make it back on my feet. It's took me about two days to write this blog entry as it is - the soporific power of lemsip!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Booker for our times?

Just a quick one. We know that Booker judges only choose their winner on the night, and so one wonders whether the credit crunch will have helped the chances of Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs - its story loosely based on the slum landlord Peter Rachman. As a 7-1 outsider, it might be worth a few quid!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Where to start?

Where is one to start? With National Poetry Day, perhaps. Yes, it's here - and yet hardly here at all. Or with Jean-Marie Gustave Le Cl├ęzio, a writer I've never heard of, I'm ashamed to say, winning the Nobel. How can it be that a writer of such stature in our cultural neighbours should be so unknown in England? Or what about the Forward Prize, won by Mick Imlah after a 20 year silence. If only other poets would take that hint! Only joking of course. The poetry prizes in this country are notoriously catholic in their that its rare for one book to even get nominated for more than one, or for one writer to consistently be listed. One has to be a little amused that the poem of the year was Don Paterson's homage to an obscure techno artist, "Love Poem for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze," since its rare for modern culture to make more than a fleeting appearance in the poetry prizes. My Ellen Allien homage will be finished by bedtime.

Where will one end? With William Skidelsky's cry in the Guardian about the lack of contemporary novels wrestling with the corrupt wealth of the last few years. It's always "where's our Balzac/Dickens?" of course. It always both amuses and annoys me - all I can say is that when I wrote a somewhat disdainful novel "High Wire" set partly on election night 1997, and encompassing greed, IT and modern art, it wasn't what the publishers were wanting not at all, but in one of its character's Eric Mansion, a politician and a businessman, I like to think I came close to the spirit of the age...

"Sat around the table, expectantly, were the money men. The new company was being financed by a firm of venture capitalists, Innovision, whose portfolio concentrated on fast growth, high risk companies in the areas of bio-technology and information technology...

Amongst them was Eric Mansion.

...Digests of Hansard painted a picture of an economic libertarian with an off-the-peg set of right-wing social views. Eric Mansion believed in God, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and possibly even the bit about needles and camels, but it hadn't hindered him in making millions out of property deals with the church commissioners. He hated the E.U. but picked up European subsidies for both farming and urban renewal, so no hard feelings there. He was pro-America, Saudi, Indonesia and Beijing and would perhaps even find a good word for Castro if cigars became his next cash cow. His was the profile of a businessman through and through who cut his ideological cloth accordingly. It was Mansion's unswerving pragmatism that most frightened Adam, and he realised that the man might just as easily sit in the current cabinet as the last, a veritable Talleyrand of today."

I wrote that in 1998 - I think I might come back to Mansion, as a character, see what he's been up to!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Death of the Critical Essay

The Reading Experience has articulated a point that I've been thinking for a while; that blogs should be doing far more than just commenting on the this and that of contemporary literature, but acting as a more reliable critical guide. It has always seemed to me that without a critical culture, its hard to agree that we have a culture.

"I would like this site to focus not on new books but on books from the recent past (post-1980) that deserve additional close reading beyond the attention they received in their initial reviews, by writers who deserve careful consideration (perhaps more careful consideration than they've previously received) as writers whose work may last", he writes.

It's a more than laudable aim. It strikes me that the instant review isn't so helpful - particularly if it doesn't find room to contextualise both within the writer's other books and within the cultural framework in which it was written and received. It's a given, these days, that "success" is enough, whether its Phillip Pullman or Nick Hornby or Alan Hollinghurst. School teacher friends tell me that the "reading list" at secondary schools is hardly changed from the seventies, perhaps with the odd Carole Ann Duffy or Simon Armitage poem to lighten the mood after a good dose of "Lord of the Flies." Yet there's plenty of questions here, already. Wouldn't now - with the film version of "Blindness" about to go on release - be a good time for making the case for Saramago's novel as the key text of the late twentieth century? Or, having time to consider "American Psycho" with the reflection of the years - and with the somewhat diminishing returns of Ellis's later books - can we now place it properly as a historical artefact, rather than a contemporary classic? (And in doing so, make the case for the linked short stories of "The Informers" as his truly radical work.)

I'd like to rise to this - as I'm sure a few other writers would - but there's a fear - all the work that a considered essay requires - is their a readership? I've found critical works as critical to my reading as more primary texts over the years as a good critic can be a light leading a pathway through the darkest of literary undergrowths. We have, here with our bloggers and wordpresses, the tools. Have we the intelligence to use them?

(With thanks to This Space for pointing me in the right direction.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

I told you so...

It is the job of a writer to prod at the complacencies of the society we live in... and I do believe I always do this. On a day that we saw the last of Thatcher's demutualised building societies disappear into oblivion; when the pound had its biggest fall for more than a decade; and when it was the Republicans who baulked at bailing out the failed model of early 21st century century American capitalism, it is worth saying that there have been cassandras talking about this for a while, and I was one. I hid under a pseudonym for this particular experiment - mainly because my name would take up too much of a cartoon strip - but I'm indebted to the wonderful Parameter Magazine for giving me the space for my jaundiced - and it appears, prophetic - view of late twentieth century capitalism; otherwise known as TREEVILLE.

Pome for Paulson

The dance continues
Even though the musicians haven’t been paid for weeks.
I believe there’s something special in our fear,
That we do not know where it leads.
Our stupidity makes us reckless.
There’s a love of strange rhythms,
Even though the music’s stopped.
And no-one knows
Where it will end.
The slight feeling of discontent
Is nothing to what we felt before
When whole streets lost their jobs
At an instant, because Margaret said,
They had no market for their wares.
Well, see this, Dear Market,
How well you cope with wares to sell
More pricey than anyone could want
And nobody stupid enough to buy today.

Once I was one, now I am many

I am pre-blog, and post-blog; I had a blog - online diary - before blogs existed, and now, I feel I'm vaguely post-blog in that I blog about things elsewhere, for work and other reasons. I'm probably just a link regurgitator in that sense - or, if I'm more positive about it, a communicator! Anyway you can find my thoughts on literature at the Mancunian Way at the MEN . Which tells you, you should all come along to the Old Abbey Inn on Manchester Science Park for the latest Other Room.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


I was at the Friends Meeting House in Manchester yesterday afternoon for a very welcome event celebrating the short story. Organised by Manchester Libraries and the National Short Story Campaign, it was an event for writers and readers of the short story. There's something always potentially a little compromising about such things but luckily Manchester has a bit of sense about such things. Three writers and a publisher - now there's a pitch for a Hollywood movie - talked about their favourite short stories, before we split into smaller groups for a couple of hour long workshops. The highlight of the day for me was just being in a stimulating environment, where the subject itself didn't require any particular case to be made for it. I've sometimes been to poetry events where there's been so much emphasis on encouraging people not to be scared by the subject, that there's been little time left for those of us who are anything but scared.

I'm not sure the short story requires a campaign, or a national prize - the BBC's support of short stories is welcome, but I fear, always on their own terms, i.e. what they consider will work on radio in a particular way - rather, what it needs is readers, and opportunities for writers, preferably on a reasonably local basis. It's after all, the model that has made American literature so strong in these area over the years. For once, magazines like "Transmission" weren't present, but it was important to have local story specialists Comma here, and the attempt to show us a film of a David Constantine story on the break was a good example of how stories can transcend the page.

I suppose some of our peculiarity over the short story is that its too much of a catch all, finding room for Grimm's fairy tales, alongside sci-fi, the BBC's short story spot, alongside both the nascent writer and the overly venerable. Yet, as a reader, its the place the story has in the development of the main literary trends of the 20th century that interest me. Modernism is best served in the short story, and novella; as are the post-modernist tributaries that flowed after the 2nd world war, and even contemporary greats such as the recently deceased David Foster Wallace, are, I think, likely to be remembered as much - or more - for their shorter form than the longer. In this sense, the short story remains something of the heartbeat of literature. Whatever comes next, you can be assured, will more than likely exhibit itself here first rather than in the novel.

Friday, September 26, 2008

eLit for the illiterate

Interestingly provocative piece on the Guardian book blogs a few days ago from Andrew Gallix, asking if e-literature is a big anti-climax? I've definitely been disappointed at the way the web has gone in terms of literature - and I'm part of the problem - commentary rather than creativity. In fact, like the music business, its often the conventional rather than the experimental who have made the web their own. If in music its bands like King Crimson and Marillion communing with their fans, then on the web its writers like Susan Hill giving access to her readers. Where are the new, the young, the experimental? The web as a medium for all of those things is certainly that - but perhaps not in literature.

Certainly there are a million writers on the web. A few years ago I was part of an online writing community - and the one thing all the stories had in common was there utter lack of experimentation. In many ways the ideas of "hypertext" fiction and poetry remains a valid and vivid one - but many of these "techniques" are hardly new to the web, as a trawl through the wonderful Ubu.web reminds one. A newish avant garde magazine/publisher such as Manchester's ifpthenq or Norwich's Landfill appears to prefer the traditional book/pamphlet for their non-traditional work.

Just as a lot of visual poetry is more properly seen as being part of contemporary artistic practice than standing on the shoulders of literary giants, much of the more innovative web writing is hardly writing at all, in that sense, but multimedia, like Kate Pullinger's Inanimate Alice. "Media arts" is a cross genre label that can be spectacular - but where the literary component is crowded out by everything else.

I think the problems around developing a truly innovative web writing are many. For though the web itself is non-linear, so much writing on the web, from this blog outwards, is entirely linear. When Elizabeth Baines wrote last year's Manchester "blog story" the tendency towards the conventional was perhaps more pronounced than in her written work - for the linear pull of the blog, episode by episode, is in itself reductionist. Its a few years since I had a few stories as part of - which has only lately gone offline. Yet here's part of the problem. The web is both there forever (thanks Google), and gone as soon as the domain name or the hosting expires.

In about 2000 I wrote a somewhat experimental, episodic story about the internet called "Where do you want to go today?" and put it on the web with a vague attempt to make it as one with the medium (see image at the top - I've hunted it down off my hard disk.) The page seems terribly dated, quaint in its way. Pre-wikipedia, the idea was that things referenced in the story would be linked to. Yet, as soon as one goes out onto the internet the links start fraying, becoming dead over time.

I'm fascinated as a writer, with this idea of the incomplete - and I think that the idea of "permanence" around e-lit doesn't particularly worry me. Yet there remains the question: how can the words exist when the medium no longer does? Laurence Sterne and B.S. Johnson rely on their book origins - and neither would gain from being available as text files. Yet, surely a facsimile of "On the Road" would be a wonderful blog?

In the end, of course, it comes down to the writing - and very few of our best writers have made their work available on the web, at the expense of the print - and as for the others, who'll remember them anyway?

I'm thinking back to what I was trying to do with "Where do you want to go today?" and some other work I'd done at that time - I was into "exploding" the short story. Yet, as its recent partial renaissance has shown, the story doesn't want to be exploded. It is Carver, Mansfield, Chekhov who are more often than not the models, less so Borges. Those stories I've made available on the web are not always linear (see The Personals, for instance) but they are page-bound. For me, at least, the difficulty with doing something else - something more appropriate to the medium - is twofold; one, where is the audience? and two, have I the skills. Compared with a media artist or some digital production team, the increased sophistication of much media art these days means that the lone writer is no longer able to get away with something as simplistic as a hypertext story; whilst with a few honourable exceptions, such as Great Works, many web magazines are highly traditional.

Its perhaps time - as Gallix implies, in his comments if not in the initial article - for us to look at the possibilities of eLit with new eyes: an underexplored arm of contemporary literature - and it has to be literature, not anima, or podcasts, or media art - that is still waiting for a writer or two to make it their own.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Adrian's on Authonomy

I've been keeping a north eye on Harper Collins' "online slushpile" experiment - Authonomy - and have now made available the last longer piece of fiction I wrote, the novella "For the Want of a Gas Barbecue."

I'll be interested to see if it finds a readership - or what sort of comments it gets. I was involved a few years ago with an online writing community which went from being very positive, to being somewhat negative (not just for myself), in a short period, and there's been quite a few other experiments over the years. This does at least seem to have a sensible "model" - it was easy to upload the chapters, and immediately you've got a "shop front".

As for the novella, its the perfect one to test this out - since its a novella, which I think is a difficult length to sell, but probably quite fun to read on the web - and its also contemporary, lively and humorous.

You can read it for yourself at Authonomy.

Credit Crunch Fictions

Economics is rarely the stuff of literature, more, I think, because very few writers have more than a basic understanding of economics, rather than there being something inherently unliterary about it. I say its rarely the stuff of literature, but I guess it depends on definition. George Eliot's novels were steeped in the socio-economics of the day, and even Jane Austen's novels were routed in the economics of her day (think of Rochester's history in the plantations, or the "entail" that is the cause of so much worry in "Pride and Prejudice.") Of course, Ezra Pound's attempts to leverage a particular economic theory into the cantos was doomed as much for literary reasons as for the dubious politics underpinning those economics; and Ayn Rand's mammoth "Atlas Shrugged" shows that though its possible to write a novel about capitalism, its possibly not that wise. Science fiction has often done it better of course - a particular favourite is "Monument" by Lloyd Biggle about a man who crash lands on a beautiful planet and gives them a plan for their development in preparation for the day when the planet gets found and exploited. Jim Crace's "Arcadia", is my favourite of his novels, telling the story of a multi-millionaire who begins with nothing.

But faced with the "credit crunch", the dissolution of investment banks, the merger of high street names, the nationalisation of financial institutions and the banning of "short selling", its no wonder that fiction holds up its hands. Merchant bankers make poor heroes, though Sherman McCoy in "Bonfire of the Vanities" is an honourable exception. Yet financial crises are classic pieces of real life plotting - "black swans" if you like, or unknown unknowns - that can turn the impossible to the inevitable with a speed that is breathtaking. It will have to be seen whether some future novelist finds a gem of a story in the current "credit crunch," but two very honourable mentions of past financial crises turned into art are Jay McInerney's stunning "Brightness Falls" and Michael Bracewell's English equivalent, "The Conclave." An enterprising publisher should bring the latter back into print.

Perhaps the next J.K. Rowling novel will be about economics - or politics. There's certainly some useful dramatic timing in her £1 million donation to the Labour Party being announced on the eve of the Labour Party Conference. I'll be popping into town later, to see what gridlock for Gordon is like this year. Last time the conference came to Manchester, it was nearly impossible to get into work, with half the city centre cordoned off for security purposes.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bloggers and Journalists

I've never wanted to be a journalist, so it's perhaps hardly surprising that I've never stepped into a newsroom - at least not until Wednesday, when, along with over a dozen other Manchester bloggers I was invited by Sarah Hartley to the new Manchester Evening News offices. Its a fascinating sign of the times to be ushered into the heart of Manchester's "old media", albeit a rather state-of-the-art heart. After all, isn't this the year that the blogging community and the cult of the amateur has been most derided? A friend used to work for London's News Network, and ten years ago I went into their offices a number of times - what struck me here was that print media is still a people-business, rows and rows of them, (though not that many there at 6.00 on a Wednesday), designers, writers, reporters, subs, editors. For every page of a paper still needs to be sourced, written, designed, published, and this is in every way a 24-hour news operation, with that almost-a-video-blog Channel M, and Manchester Online broadcast from the same offices. And like every journalist I've ever spoken to, they're not too proud where they get the story from - readers comments and blogs being part of their feedback loop.

And most of Wednesday's bloggers were anything but amateur - as anyone who has kept up with Manchester Blog Awards over the last couple of years would be sure of. It felt like a rare opportunity for two conflicting worlds to get to understand each other a little more. With City Life, so summarily dismissed by Guardian Media Group a few years back, about to be relaunched as a flagship online brand its clear that the media landscape has changed to the extent that anyone interested in the city's more edgy side will be bookmarking blogs, rather than checking out a clunky corporate, and City Life's need to negotiate the two will be fascinating to see.


Work - as well as technical incompetency (I know, I know) - might prevent me from listening to Elizabeth Baines short story being read on Radio 4 later today, and may well prevent me from attending a very exciting sounding "other room" the week after next, but I will try. I'm certainly in Cambridge the following day when the next of Martin Amis's public lectures, about old family friend Philip Larkin, takes place.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


It is to other blogs I direct you today. First to Ready Steady Book, who break the news, via the Associated Press, that the great American writer and essayist David Foster Wallace has committed suicide at 46. There are few contemporary writers who have consistently proved their exception talent, and even though I've not read his massive "Infinite Jest". A very sad day, a great loss.

I know Lee Rourke at Scarecrow will be shocked by the news. His comment on the Booker Prize list this year is one that I would probably echo. The judges appear to like well-written stories, preferably historical. I can't comment on the books themselves having not read any of them, but I'd agree with Lee that the prize is becoming ever more an irrelevance - if, as you'd expect, its role was to identify the best contemporary fiction.

Its only a month to the Manchester Literature Festival and as ever, I'll try and go to a thing or two, but know full well that I won't get to more than a few things. Bumping into MMU's Andrew Biswell earlier in the week, he mentioned the opening event, a poetry reading at the RNCM, including the awarding of the first Manchester Poetry Prize.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Good and the Great

I hardly know where to start in talking about Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier". Having read two contemporary prize winners in the week before, it wasn't that this novel was necessarily better, older, or more venerable than them - in fact, at times its language and style was a little tiresome - yet, when push came to shove I felt I'd read something of real substance, and its been a while since a contemporary novel has that to be said about it. We live in an age of froth and I think that it spills over into most contemporary fiction. It's hard, I know, since the first quarter of the 20th century provided more than its fair share of literary thrills - turning the Victorian novel personal in many ways. How can one deal with such archetypes?

Enough. Back to "The Good Soldier." It starts as "Wuthering Heights" does, with an apologetic narrator, but whereas that story is framed, this is told from experience. It's the most enigmatic of novels, not just the "saddest story" of that famous first paragraph. Where is the sadness in the novel? For those who haven't read it - it's the story of two couples, one American, one English, who have met for a number of years at a German spa. Each couple has an "invalid", and it these invalids who are the book's tragic love story. Yet, it is their caring partners - one of whom is our narrator - who are more intriguing. This is a story of passion, told through a prism of weakness. It unfolds slowly, as a story told around a fire. I don't believe our narrator is the key figure of the novel, nor the affair. It is - primarily - a tragedy - of emotions either smouldering or snuffed out on the anvil of a particular time in history. It is new America beholden to old Europe at the start of the conflagration - the Great War - that will then swap over those roles for a hundred years.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Ford Madox Ford

Having just read Ford Madox Ford's remarkable novel "The Good Soldier" (more of which later) I wondered if I had a biography of him. He seems not to have been "done" for a while; but I did find this picture from John Tytell's "Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano" with Ford to the left of Joyce, Pound and John Quinn in 1922. "The Good Soldier" is nothing if not a novel about and for adults, so, even if this picture is seven years after its publication, its quite nice to see he was a man of some substance.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Art is in the eye of the Stakeholder

Tony Trehy, who curated the excellent Text festival at Bury Art Gallery, makes a very valid point about the problems of curation in our public galleries, particularly bemoaning Manchester Art Gallery's current, and popular exhibition of Lauren Child. He makes the point that Manchester can't ever be seen to be a world class city unless it has a world class gallery. It's certainly true that Manchester - despite being a hotbed of the visual arts - is always going to find it difficult to compete, not just with London, but with Liverpool and even parts of Yorkshire. The city art gallery suffers from being a civic amenity, which although it makes for a well-used space, with a "lovely cafe", has quite a schizophrenia when it comes to the shows it puts on. I suppose, that in the wider scheme of things, as one of the few sizeable public viewing spaces in the city centre, it has to double up as Manchester's V&A, it's Walker, it's Tate Modern. Remember, the popular, and utterly risible Kylie show came here from the V&A, a space that can get away with murder in the name of "design." I was disappointed in the Klimt exhibition at Liverpool Tate, because of it being too much about design and not enough about art, and I think this is more at the heart of the problem than anything else. Where else would you have put the Kylie-fest on, for instance? I rarely visit the gallery myself, at least partly because of these reasons, but also because of its very local authority opening hours. Its an absurdity that it closes at 5.00 each evening. In many ways, Manchester Art Gallery's primary function is not the travelling shows, but the permanent collection and the glorious building. I don't believe every town, every city can be a "centre of excellence" in everything, and with the Tate, the Walker and the Biennial, we should perhaps admit that Liverpool is the NW's centre of visual arts, with Manchester having other strengths, such as in literature and music.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Late Review(er)

Since its still raining in Manchester, (you'll be surprised to hear), I've got on with some reading. Coincidentally, two female-authored prizewinners, Catherine O'Flynn's "What Was Lost" and Anne Enright's "The Gathering." They're both very readable books, and couldn't be more different, of course, except, like McEwan's "Atonement" beforehand, they revolve somewhat around childhood secrets. I'm wondering whether this is a contemporary trend, or is simply a recurring literary device? Children, I suppose, are almost always unreliable narrators, or unwilling witnesses to adult life. I'm wondering if the trend for memoir - particularly the "misery memoir" - is influencing the kind of subjects that get written about? Perhaps more accurately, in contemporary Britain, there aren't quite the same social mores that existed in the past. Both "The Gathering" and "What Was Lost" delve into the past, but in very different ways. I don't think its really possible to review either book in any depth without giving too much away. I enjoyed them both - and again, just as I'd heard Enright read from her novel last year, I also saw Catherine O'Flynn at Manchester Library.

"What Was Lost" is the 2nd book I've read recently - after "Black Swan Green" - to mine a Midlands eighties childhood and its recognisability, as well as its humour make it a very enjoyable read. However, I wasn't expecting it to be anything more than amiable. What impressed me was how well structured the novel is, and how even the smallest of characters are given a believability. There's always a temptation, I think, for new writers, to write from life, and yet I think O'Flynn takes her raw material and creates something very powerful from it. Ostensibly the story of a young girl who goes missing in the early 80s, it is the more adult sections which give the novel weight. It might have groaned a little under the weight of its coincidences (but no more than "White Teeth" for instance), but what is really impressive is that beyond the plot and characterisation, the real star of the novel is the gigantic shopping centre where the majority of the action takes place. Not since George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" has a shopping centre seemed so sinister. The novel is humorous, well-paced, and written with a nice economy that is far harder to pull off than it appears.

"The Gathering" is all about its language - for Enright writes beautifully, with a real physicality that can occasionally seem a little too insistent - and its slim premise, the gathering of a large Irish family following the death of one of them, is skilfully clothed in layer after layer of memory. It should be a grim novel - but it never is - and I think its partly her voice (or the voice of Veronica, the novel's narrator), but also partly because its a very indulgent novel - not self-indulgent, that would be wrong - but indulgent in the way that its narrator is indulgent. Grief and anger and breakdown are all intertwined in her telling of the story - and of her imaginings of how her grandparents met - and as a reader you either have to go with it, or run away from such intimacy.

What struck me about both books was that they without the "prizes" I doubt I'd have been interested in picking them up, they both - in very different ways - are unappealing in precis. Also, though very different in style, subject, and intention, they are both constructed with such skill and care, that I can only applaud. The idea of these two novels head-to-head in any prize seems absurd, since they are such different beasts. Let's hope this year's prize season unearths some equivalent gems.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hellboy, Epstein & Enright

Seeing family has limited my cultural happenings. It's not that the things are mutually exclusive, just that they don't always coincide. For instance, Alnwick Gardens, is a very modern compromise. A new garden, but with public money replacing what would have been previously the landowners - and with it a new set of obligations - to let the people in, to make it ecological, to make it family friendly. A pleasant day out, with children, and on a mostly warm day last week, but I'm not sure I'd go back. Much less compromised, in some ways, was the New Art Gallery in Walsall. Shockingly, this was my first visit, but then my trips back to the Midlands tend to be short, and seeing the family. It's a great space, with any compromise between being a repository for superb collection of modern art, an exhibition space, and a community facility, being minimised by the design of the building providing room enough for all. On Saturday, it was particularly busy, which goes some way to justify why we should have art galleries not just in our minor towns, but when we do, that they should be close to the city centre, allowing easy drop-in. There's something inspiring about the story here: that the Garman Ryan collection was donated to Walsall since that was where Kathleen Garman, lover and wife of Jacob Epstein was born. Inspiring, because, almost unbelievably, Walsall, that least impressive of industrial towns, is connected by her, to the very heart of 20th century Modernism.

I'd missed the film Hellboy when it was on Five a couple of weeks ago, so watched the DVD last night. It wasn't bad, if you like that kind of thing, with a nice line in humour, but I kind of remembered, half way through, that I don't really like that kind of thing, not much anyhow - and, as I get back to reading Anne Enright's Booker winning "The Gathering", I'm pleased I heard her read from it at the Manchester Literature Festival, since I've got her Irish accent keeping me company throughout. The book's probably not my kind of thing either, but I'm enjoying the company at least.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Time Capsules

I was quite taken by Brian Appleyard's feature on "time capsules" in the Sunday Times. Commenting on Warhol's habit of creating various time capsules to tell the truth of his life - many of which remain unopened - he asks quite a few luminaries what they'd save for the future. An interesting side-point he takes from James Lovelock, that we should be creating a "bible" for our times, also made me think. I'm not sure that " a year of Radio 4" buried on a memory-stick would be quite the thing the future wants or needs. It struck me that one of the problems about what is deemed to survive is the famous, the already mediated. There's been a few fascinating programmes recently around old colour films and photographs and what's perhaps most interesting is that in the days before mass media, there was less of a consensus about what should be filmed or recorded.

My own time capsule would be - as I think all should be - a bit of a personal thing. I'd probably include some of my writings - some of my stories set in contemporary Manchester perhaps, or "High Wire", the novel that I wrote starting with election night 1997. Although fictional - I was trying to write the truth as I remembered it, not something re-discovered through research or artefacts. It's what spoils books like David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" for me; too many cultural signifiers. I reckon our own cultural signifiers are personal, perverse, non-universal. I'd probably include a CD of my favourite songs of say, last year, which already seems out of date, but the future probably needs to hear "With Every Heartbeat" by Robyn next to something by Thurston Moore. One of the NOW series would only tell a quarter of a story. I'd also include half a dozen literary magazines of the last few years that I've read or had something to do with - and more importantly, kept around. Again, I'd probably include some of my own poems rather than someone else's - they have a particular truth about them, that I find hard to uncover in much contemporary poetry. I don't think I'd include this blog - or any other for that matter - though perhaps this is the ephemera that one should be looking to preserve. Perhaps a few YouTube videos. I'd also find room for the Aldi brochure or an Argos catalogue. Surely more historical truth in there than in any official statistics or the like? Brian Appleyard includes series 4 of "The Wire" and the iPhone. I guess if the box was big enough you might put this Dell computer in it - I think the future will probably think we all sat there with our laptops and our tiny devices, it might come as a surprise to see the hulking beasts that still dominate the home and the office. As for "The Wire," love it as I do, I don't think its anyone in this country's job to try and "get" America. I'd probably choose a DVD of something relatively unloved; BBC3's "Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps" perhaps, alongside probably the best satire of the last few years, the first Christopher Ecclestone-led series of "Dr. Who." As for novels of the last few years, I'd probably pick Will Self's "The Book of Dave" if only because it has a buried time capsule at its own centre - and, something by Magnus Mills, probably "All Quiet on the Orient Express."

Now all I need is a tin box....

Sunday, August 17, 2008

World enough and time...

Its been interesting to see how many fellow literary bloggers have normal summer holidays, as if its a given. Perhaps its when you've a family, or work in education. I've a fortnight off, soon, but its a moveable feast in terms of what I'll be doing. Of course, chances are, I'll spend at least half of it doing my real "work", writing, reading etc. - and, I have to say, the easiest place to do that is here, at home. Particularly given that I'm going to be buzzing off quite a lot from mid-September in my day job. I marvel at the piles of books that people take away with them, but guess, I've my perfect library here. Last weekend - was it so long ago? - I read 2 novels. Unheard of. They were short which helped. But that means I should easily get myself going with a few others that are waiting me. Yet, in Liverpool on Thursday, on the way to see the Klimt exhibition, I picked up "Terrorist" by John Updike and "Then we came to the end" by Joshua Ferris, as well as "The Black Swan", by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, all remaindered hardbacks for £2.99 each. The Updike I want to read as part of my ongoing (and somewhat pyrhhic) attempt to read all the 9/11 fictions that have come out; the Ferris was a recommendation, whilst "Black Swan" theory - i.e. using evidence of what has happened in the past is a flawed way of predicting the future, since just one "black swan" can blow away the idea that all swans are white - fits in with a few ideas I've had/got myself. Add to those a belated purchase of Gwendoline Riley's 3rd novel, "Joshua Spassky", and the must-read but haven't books by Catherine O'Flynn, Junot Diaz, Anne Enright and Ian McEwan (yep, still haven't gone "On Chesil Beach"), never mind a number of poetry books, and I might as well give up now. I would almost pray for rain, except that yesterday's heavy skies gave me the foggiest of heads. And of course, you only have to step off the steps of your treadmill for a minute, and you've all these other ideas swimming around - I felt that there wasn't enough context in the Klimt exhibition, and I want to know more about the history, about Vienna at the end of the 19th century, about the Viennese "Secession". (Surely, there's some connection with Richard Strauss's "Salome" in there?) I re-watched the lovely movie "Ghost World" last night, and wikipediaing both the film and the comic book, realise I want to know what the original comic was like, and that reminds me of all the other comics I've either got and haven't read, or haven't got, but feel I ought to - given its such a productive strand of the modern literary/artistic firmament. And then there's "Hellboy" on Five tonight, which if I'm going to ever watch the sequel, I need to get my head around... We live in rich times, no doubt about it, with all of artistic, literary, and musical history lying around just waiting to be picked up and run with. And I've not even mentioned the Olympics or the new football season...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

An Author's Entitlement

I'm not sure whether to laugh, cry, or just despair at the news that the chick lit author Jenny Colgan, was advised to change the title of her new novel, from the rather excellent "Cinderella of the Old Kent Road", to the rather terrible, "Diamond's are a girls best friend," partly because it won't play well in Australia (clearly their Monopoly is full of Wagga Waggas and Ayre's Rocks) and partly because Tesco preferred it. Yes, Tesco! We all know that authors get very little say in their covers, their marketing campaigns etc, but you kind of think you can get a say in your title. Poor Toby Litt, up to "I" in his alphabetical titles, imagine, if the supermarket gets iffy about his "J" or "K"? Authors - being - like - the people who write the words would, you think be able to claim an entitlement to er...titling those works. Mind you, Fitzgerald's titles for "The Great Gatsby" included "Trimalchio at West Egg" which sounds more like an album track by the Hold Steady than one of the classics of American literature. I'm a great fan of titles, whether writing a song, a story, a poem or a novel, and can't imagine giving them up to a 3rd party, though I've changed a number of story titles where the original gave too much away. Put that down to laziness. When you nail a title, I sometimes think you nail the piece, or at least tie it a little less precariously to the earth. Anyway, I reckon Shane Macgowan could write a great song called "Cinderella of the Old Kent Road," - Jenny should give him a call.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Why the Gulag Speaks to Us

Ashamed to say I'd never read Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died this week. So, with a free morning, I realised I'd a copy of his short novel "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". I'm a great fan of shorter novels - it's a format that seems perfect to certain subjects. Everything in the novel was familiar, I guess, though whether its a case that all prison camps are to some extent the same, or because over the years I've imbibed enough Russian history to recognise what the novel, when it was first published, exposed to the world for the first time. You wonder whether a Guantanamo Bay novel would have a similar effect today - particularly, as the Olympics starts in Beijing, with George Bush, talking about the right to speak freely. Ivan Denisovich is an everyman, and the detailing of his day, with only the briefest of passages about his past life, is a highly effective vehicle to talk about a regime - about our humanity. I recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and it is the survival of humanity amidst simply staying alive, which connects the two books. Denisovich, at least in this translation, is a particular type of European literary figure - recognisable from Hamsun's "Hunger" to the workers in Magnus Mills' "The Restraint of Beasts." Even in the straits of his condition there is some dignity in labour - yet at the same time, the worker has to deal with the Kafkaesque absurdities of their bosses. Apparently, it was the dignity of Denisovich's labour that convinced Krushchev of the novel's worth. It seems strange in the modern world, in our advanced, and recently deracinated version of capitalism, how "work" remains such a problematic subject for a novel. I'm not so sure about the dignity of labour; for Solzhenitsyn, I think, in this short novel, its more a case of where work is all there is to keep mind, body and soul together, then it becomes a metaphor for life itself. Denisovich ponders how he, who once provided for his whole family, can now hardly provide for himself. Every step he takes in the novel exposes another absurdity, another compromise.