Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Second Planes and Falling Men

Martin Amis's "The Second Plane" collects together his journalism and stories that are broadly related to 9/11 and "the war on terror" that followed. I cannot remember another event that had such an instant, and wide-ranging literary (and more than that, cultural, response), even if, in Amis's famously wide-of-the-mark (and highly solipsistic) remark, that he thought all novelists were now out of a job after 9/11. This was the most visual of news stories of course, with "the second plane" itself what no novelist could or would have made up, with us all watching, and seeing it hit in both real time, and forever after, Groundhog day style in repeat footage. I found myself numbed and sleepless and terrified for weeks after, and it was that sensory overload, more than anything, which increased the sense that this was a unique – and closely felt – tragedy. A certain type of writer seems to have made a decision – somewhere between the first and second plane crashing – that this was now their next subject. A newly discovered interest in the “war on terror” and Islamic fundamentalism (both of which long pre-dated the September 11th bombings) seems to have been kickstarted by the pure graphic “horrorism” (to useAmis’s graphic, but tasteless word of choice) of this “live on CNN” tragedy. Yet, despite being photographed and filmed in real-time, the real stories, the genuine horror that destroyed so many lives that day, has required a novelist, a film maker, a poet to imaginise (rather than visualise) that awful day. For what are the real stories? For Amis it’s the Islamic terrorist, for Paul Greengrass it’s the ordinary passengers of United 93, and for Simon Armitage its an office worker in the World Trade Center. The roll-call of 9/11 literature casts quite a shadow, yet its hard to see how words can do more than the pictures – either of the falling man, or the second plane – and given this, the novelist increasingly needs to do what only they can – move from the narrowcasting of the visual moment, and to begin to contextualise 9/11 rather than dwell on its insistent imprint. I’m looking forward to reading “The Second Plane”, a collection of essays and stories (in itself a sign of the unusual problems that 9/11 provides for the novelist), but wonder whether the obsession of a certain type of (usually male, predominantly American) writer with this event itself, above and beyond all other subjects, is a dereliction of duty? In the days after 7/7 - such a less hysterically received event, even if its localised fanaticism it remains less comprehensible - my mind kept going back to the cartoon Monkey Dust, where its Black Country based potential terrorists couldn't do their leader's billing because "the baggies are at home on Thursday."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Art & Commerce

I'm not sure what Mark Lawson is trying to get at with his piece on crime writing vs. literary fiction. "There is little doubt that if PD James, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin and the late Michael Dibdin had not made the mistake of publishing sequences of fiction featuring the same policeman, they would have achieved at least a Man Booker shortlisting", he says. But oh yes, I think there is a little doubt. I've not read Dibdin, but as for the others, however good a particular book might be, they rarely stand alone as discreet works of art. James, for instance, is stylistically stodgy, however authentic her procedurals are; whilst Rankin's great creation, his Rebus, has his character (that important, but hard-to-define quality that James Woods wrote about in yesterday's Guardian) delineated not in a one book, but in a series, across a wide range of books. It would be hard, I think for any reader (or critic or judge) to come in at one point in that sequence and appreciate the overwhelming power of his creation. Perhaps its a matter of taste - like so many things. It's usually Le Carre who gets mentioned as being the great populist writer who should have been better loved by the critics, yet I've not managed to get past his brusque tone, and the cold war sensibilities of his subject matter. And yes, there are a number of writers - I'm thinking Pat Barker or Doris Lessing or Anthony Powell - who've received shortlistings for one book from a series, perhaps in recognition of the series rather than the book - but it does seem that here there's a different story arc. There's probably not a crime writer alive who's books don't follow a formula from book to book, which - read 2 or 3 in a row - the perceptive reader will be invited to recognise. The other side of the coin of course is the non-genre writer working on their next project. I saw Catherine O'Flynn read from "What was lost" in Manchester last year, just before it got so garlanded, and when asked the question of "what are you working on now?" she admitted (I paraphrase from memory): nothing, fragments, I don't know, something that might become a book; and that she thought it would be easier this time, but she guessed this was just the way she worked, starting with something that may or may not become a book. Rebus, would always have another case, and Rankin, now he's finished the sequence, what will he do next? That, I think, is the critical authorial question, and, though not denying the inventiveness that goes into creating a good thriller, the crime series provides the writer with a ready answher.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Titanic Deckchairs?

The wisdom, or otherwise, of investing too much in a particular politician or their words, is seen from today's reshuffle, where James Purnell, briefly culture secretary, and one who seemed to understand and like his brief, has now been the beneficiary of Peter Hain's fall from grace, so lasting a mere 8 months at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Clearly getting over "photogate" (where his image was superimposed over a picture even though he turned up late) it does make one wonder where culture (including the arts) stands in government's list of priorities. Unlucky for culture that a young, ambitious minister was in the brief; Tony Blair managing just two culture secretaries, Tessa Jowell and Chris Smith; and Gordon Brown has already matched that. That another young, ambitious north west MP, Andy Burnham, takes his place, may make one wonder if he'll still be there come the Olympic games, though perhaps in a year when Liverpool is city of culture, having a Liverpool born MP as culture secretary has a certain charm to it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Every A.L. Has Her Day

Hello again, its been a while. Well, I've been busy, busy doing nothing, admittedly, but give an idle man a job etc. Anyway, I had to find time out to say "well done" to A. L. Kennedy for winning the Costa prize for her novel "Day." If it sometimes seems odd that we have all these different prizes named after coffee chains and wholesalers and the like, every now and then a winner pops up that kind of makes you glad they exist at all. "Day" hadn't appeared anywhere on my radar at all until it was named Costa's novel of the year, and now its won the main prize, ahead of small-press darling Catherine O'Flynn's "What was lost." In both ways they illustrate the nice thing about prizes - Kennedy, long feted, and one of contemporary literature's few intriguing characters in her own right (what other serious writer would have started doing stand up comedy?) on the one hand; and on the other O'Flynn, a debutant whose debut novel (set in the ever unfashionable West Midlands)has become such a word of mouth hit this year. So well done, Costa, though I doubt if even this will lure me away from Cafe Nero.