Thursday, February 28, 2008

Is Literature Art?

I'm not sure what started me on this line of thought: perhaps a mixture of envy at other art forms that seem to embody so much more innate talent than writing; music, painting, film and photography even. I can just about take a photograph, but any "eye" I had lost its sight a dozen years ago; and I can bash out a few chords or a bassline on a keyboard, but nothing more sophisticated than that; as for painting and drawing, I wasn't good enough to do an Art CSE back when I was thirteen, and I'd be even less able now. I've watched myself on film, and though I've never tried acting, I stand up in front of an audience enough to know that I don't ever really take the room with me - and that's being myself, never mind trying to be someone else. Enough flagellation though, for the one thing I can do is put one word after the other, and make something new from those raw materials. Yet, so, it seems can everyone else. Is literature art then? Taking another tack, I read the literary pages a little depressed at either the adulation of genuis (this week: the "rediscovery" of Richard Yates or the curiousity about Nabakov's unseen last work), or the hyperbole of the popular (most prize lists, the bestseller lists, J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman.) And then there's the argument going on elsewhere on the blog pages about whether literary bloggers are just envious fanboys (and girls), and shouldn't be confused with the great minds of the literary pages. Is literature art then? I'm intrigued and appalled by the various mediastorms around Martin Amis's ideas as opposed to his literary worth - the nothingness, I guess, of so much current literary discourse. And we're here again, in that whereas writing about music or art might add a side-dish to the meal, writing about writing might well be considered a reheating of the food we've just ate. So, is literature art? Whether the Arts Council's decisions over, say, the London Magazine or Dedalus press, are a sign of discomfort around the artform, or simply a concern over literature's audience, is a moot point. There's little enough money in literature, in that sense, yet there's plenty of books pouring out, even if its Delia Smith's coffee table latest that sells like the proverbial hotcakes. And, however many paperbacks are made with paper from "sustainable" trees, there's a sense that an object that is so poorly bound, or so carelessly edited, isn't receiving the same care as even the blandest of CD covers or the whitest of exhibition catalogues. Is literature art or have we done it the biggest of disservice's by badging it with that label? Were the storytellers, the troubadours, the poets artists or were they something else - fashionable men of their day, secular priest perhaps? I'm sitting here unable to draw or sing or act or play an instrument and calling myself an artist, and yes, there's artistry in what I do, a little craft, too, but far more - I think - in terms of the intellect than the heart. Perhaps the heart's just for poets - though I'd like to think that Fitzgerald, a bad poet, was the most poetic of men - though was it Gatsby or Carraway who was the artist? I don't think Scott had much time for artists. He was a good looking, well-dressed man, and his possibly stopped there. What he was doing for something less - and something more? So is literature art? Is it possible that we've mistaken it, wrapped it up wrong, given it a mistaken rule-book, a dubious assessment criteria, a self-deluded critical apparatus; and made it mean less as a result. It's an entertainment, a story, a fabrication. It tells the truth, yet no truth at all. (It sounds like one of those riddles, already.) Jeanette Winterson might think what she's doing is art. But Junot Diaz? Or come to that, Richard Yates? The best literatures are legislative, purposeful, moral, I guess (or with moral purpose), but is literature art? I only ask.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Of Poetry and conferences...

I've had a week away from Manchester. I didn't mention it here, since you never know what enterprising book thieves might be reading; and also, it was with work mostly, so not necessarily exciting. It involved London, Cambridge, Lichfield and London again and more meetings than is strictly good for you, or, for that matter, productive. In between times I found time for a curry in soho, a bottle of wine at Gordons, 4 secondhand books - all scifi (China Mieville, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson), a visit to the Poetry School and today, at the conference there was even a poet in residence. In other words there was quite a bit of slippage between my various life roles. and quite a sense of dislocation as I ran from one prearrangement to another. Amidst it all I found myself catching up with a few old friends, as well as meeting some new people. Most of these was first life, rather than second life or any other virtual life - my email inbox had gone to sleep in my absence. After doing a presentation this morning I was very glad to take some time out this afternoon, where the Arts Council conference offered a number of more holistic options including a "magic space" where we were able to use books, pictures and music to reflect and tell our own stories. Usually, I guess this touchy-feelly stuff would annoy me inordinately, so far from the day-to-day reality of one's working life, but today it gave me an excuse to move away from projecting about ones project, and take a more holistic approach to the day. What will you take away from today? they asked. I chose a picture of a mosaic: sometimes I find myself concentrating so much on the individual pieces - the mundane, if you like - that I begin to lose sight of the bigger picture and today had reminded me that however broken off and uninspiring were the individual pieces, that I should go back to thinking about the picture. I was pleased to see the conference had a poet in residence, Jackie Wills, and I got to thinking (not for the first time) that every conference should have a poet in residence, perhaps it would create some interesting dialogues.

"So who are you working for?"
"I've got IBM this week, PriceWaterhouseCoopers next."
"They pay well I guess?"
"Yes, but its soulless stuff...what about you?"
"Some arts council gig."
"How's that?"
"Oh you know, all touchy feely, and everyone's so young..."

I was reminded, again not for the first time, how impossible it is to keep all the UK's poets in one's head. Reading a couple of her poems as part of the "magic spaces" part of the day, I remembered how good Arc books often were, and maybe I should explore their list much more. Poetry is like something out of Alice in Wonderland, with each publisher having their own little fiefdom, jealously guarded, sometimes unknown outside of itself. Not that I'm writing any poetry at the moment; though I did manage half of two stories during the last week - which will be fine and dandy as long as I find time to write the other half before I forget how they end!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The New Novel

Its perhaps not that surprising that there has never been a literary movement of "the new novel" but there has been "le nouveau roman" - literary modernism being more often sneered at by the British, and perhaps leading to its relative withering here compared with other cultures. Gilbert Adair laments the passing of Alain Robbe-Grille in Guardian Review today, remembering the excitement of a movement in art that could meant that an artwork could be as controversial for its form and style as for its comment. You can see why the British would (and does) sneer at such arch experimentation. But "on the whole, the British literary establishment is indifferent, when not downright hostile, to authentically innovatory fiction." Without a doubt, that's true - and its continually depressing how our lauded fiction - and poetry - remains so unwilling - (and "hostile" - thats a good word for it) to be more than just a story, just a book. It's too late in the day now, I think, to expect anything more; we want our writers not to step out of line, to give us stories that fit the prevailing cliches of our time; and certainly not to be provocative with such primitive tools as words themselves. Adair, of course, has been a cheerleader, fanboy and writer of innovative fictions, and I suspect he has long since given up expecting the literary scene to surprise him or us. Its hard to know who is even writing "the new novel" - its certainly not flavour of the month on any of the creative writing courses I've come across; and possibly won't be until a book or range of books finds an audience that is more than just awestruck by the inventiveness of those Europeans for whom English isn't the mother tongue.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Burning Books

I've probably missed a bit of the debate about whether his son should burn Nabakov's "last manuscript". I think Tom Stoppard's response that it should be burnt, because that was Nabakov's wish, is a little out of order. Writers aren't necessarily the best judge of these things - what they are the best judge of, I think, is how they want a work to be presented. A writer should always have the final cut, not the editor or publisher. Yet, there's a difference with the posthumous work. I'd say that over the last twenty or thirty years the lack of a new generation of literary superstars (particularly in what was once called "modernism"), combined with the growth in the academic establishment, has made us far keener to over-preserve our geniuses, in that we might understand them more. As I look over at my wall of literary biographies, I realise that this insight into their process, their development, is as key in our understanding - and appreciation - of literary figures as it in us poring over Blake's notebooks, Beethoven's manuscripts or Turners sketches, in their art forms. Though Nabakov didn't sanction the "final cut" of "The Original of Laura", he did, I think we can agree, wish that his (body of) work would live beyond his life, not be taken to the grave with him. Writers don't build statues to their lives, they write books and poems and plays; but just as Ozymandias's might statue was buried in the sand after the culture around him withered and died, so does a masterpiece require a culture to protect it. In the case of Nabakov - and I would say all of the modernists of the 20th century - there's a sense that their innovation, their "project" if you like, risks being lost once the generation of readers who found them whilst they were still alive, disappears. Even in the Times article there's a reminder of this, Princeton students finding Nabakov "too literary" for them. Remember, the Metaphysical poets, were forgotten for years - even Shakespeare had a trough after his death. What shouldn't be done is the publishing of "The Original of Laura" as a complete work, a fragmentary "new book by Nabakov". I felt very queasy about the issuing of Larkin's juvenilia for instance, yet found it valuable to read about in Motion's biography or in the letters. In this case, I think Nabakov's last work, like his working papers, or his drafts of finished novels, or any other unfinished work, has the same status. Some of the most inspiring experiences of my life have been in seeing an artist's work presented in full, from early promise, through their great period(s), to the decline - or perhaps, given a young death, a Keats or a Pollock for instance, a dip as they begin on a new phase or project. Whether or not it was Nabakov's wish that his final work was destroyed or not; I tend to agree that enough time has gone now to see that his wish was respected. A writer, has regret for those things that are missing - in other words, had Nabakov lived, or had "The Original of Laura" been the writing of a younger man, it would, in all likelihood have fed into his other works, a source text - even if it was never complete.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Gordon Brown and wasted talent

In today's Observer, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, writes about wasted talent.

"British literature is full of laments for talent wasted, potential unfulfilled and opportunities forgone. Just think of Thomas Gray in his 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' reflecting sadly on the unfulfilled, unnoticed fate of a 'mute inglorious Milton'."

Whereas you sometimes felt Blair's literary references (e.g. Thornton Wilder in his 9/11 speech) must have been handed to him; Brown's references - Gray and Milton - aren't the stuff of spin doctors. I'm interested in that lament for "talent wasted, potential unfufulfilled and opportunities forgone." In last week's paper the new Granta editor, Jason Cowley, wrote a brilliant piece on Charles Hills, the writer who ordered a hit on his mother's lover. It's a terribly sad story of literary failure, of - indeed - that "potential unfulfilled", yet despite the extremity of Hill's crime (a particularly sordid piece of tragedy - but read the piece) he was a very recognisable figure; the literary outsider; the self-annointed bohemian; the creative egotist even, believing in the break that never comes. It's Knut Hamsun's narrator in "Hunger", or Henry Miller in so many of his books, or Trocchi in "Young Adam." Those works of autobiographical fiction given the bohemian outsider some of its allure; after all - wasn't the life and the work so clearly entwined? I'm sometimes asked why I don't give up my "day job" to be a writer - though its sometimes forgotten that I did do, once, for a good two years. The answer is complex: but its a mix of things; I've never had much time for bohemia, too ordinary to be an outsider; but also I don't think I've ever had the true "drive" of the creative egotist - there's a certain madness in the self belief that you can create about yourself, as a "writer", particularly an unsuccessful one, that - it seems in the case of Hills, was genuinely delusional. If you like, I looked into the water, and remembered I couldn't swim. Perhaps a braver (not necessarily a better) writer, would have jumped anyway, wondering if the water itself was delusional. But there's something else that Cowley touches on. He met Hills, liked him, very occasionally commissioned him. I'd imagine that his fee for this story in the Observer magazine was probably more than Hills ever received; the journalist - even the literary journalist, being far more valuable a commodity than the majority of imaginative writers. Back to Gordon Brown, and its instructive that he uses a literary example to better describe how he wants our society to offer opportunity; after all literature is the Cinderella of the funded arts; the British Council is under threat; and the "space" for literature seems small compared with the space for fame (I would imagine that Martin Amis would swap all the recent column inches for a more favourable view of his last novel, "Yellow Dog", for instance). As someone who did my creative writing MA at what now appears to be the early days of the boom (1997-9), I'm not wsure here in the mix of talent, potential and opportunities I fell down - or even if I did? The three writers on my year who got published are, respectively, no longer writing; a creative writing lecturer (but they were already), and a literary scenester, doing a bit of this, a bit of that. We were all fiction writers, not poets - but there's been a surfeit of both ever since coming out of course after course; yet, despite all this activity, I'm sure we're not living through a literary golden age.

My concern, I guess, is that there's little that government can do to stop the "waste" of talent - whatever that means (pay artists to create? that would be nice...that would be a pipe dream...) - but that it could do a lot more to support potential, or provide opportunities, yet it can't be target-based, it can't be single-track, a poet might write a screenplay for instance, or an artist become a singer in a band. One's disgust at the public money that disgraced Tory MP Derek Conway gave his son for doing nothing is that sense of entitlement. As Carole Cadwalladr says in the Magazine, "while it's possible Fernanda Amis might have a facility for words given who her daddy is and her granddaddy was, I suspect she won't have too many problems getting published." Aye, there's the rub.

This blog aside - which in itself seems like a dive into an unknown river, with goggles, not knowing who is watching - my own observation over the last ten years is how much further away from the opportunity I've gone - perhaps if I'd remained in London I would still be meeting Jason Cowley and the like at parties, as it is, the literary scene in Manchester is primarily populated by the creators; had I written something wonderful last night, or a week ago, who would know? who would read it? where would it show? I've other friends - writers, singers, artists - who, though perhaps more dedicated than me, to their particular path, are no nearer to making it work. Artists aren't meant to have the skills of accountants, project managers, coordinators, even teachers - yet those are the "roles" we end up playing. Yet the good work is not done in any of those roles - or even in writing this blog - it's done in the darkness, under difficult situations, in strife or in terror or in euphoria. Where, I ask, are the intermediaries who can shine the necessary light?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Jay McInerney's "The Good Life"

If push comes to shove, I would have to say that Jay McInerney is one of my favourite living authors - though his books tend to creep up on me - a few years after they've come out - perhaps a legacy of that early fame with "Bright Lights, Big City." Anyway, given that I think that "Brightness Falls" is his masterpiece, I'm surprised that I've only just gone and bought the follow-up, "The Good Life." Intriguely, he revisits book editor Russell, and his wife Corrine, in the days surrounding 9/11. Given that "Brightness Falls" was such a New York novel, revisiting the Carraways a decade and a half on, must have seemed an obvious way to responding to 9/11. If "Brightness Falls" found our characters carried away by their personal and professional lives in the high octane early 90s, a decade on, these are lives that have remained somewhat static since. Whereas Russell was then attempting to buy-out the publishing company, in the newer book he's more jaded, a mildly successful editor, looking enviously on the richer friends in their circle. In this book its Corrine who is the focus - where, on joining a soup kitchen to help the rescue workers - she meets Luke, a broker who has downsized. The plot is simplicity itself, and it avoids some of the more extravagance tropes that made "Brightness Falls" so dazzling, instead concentrating - with some success - on middle age love, and the choices that it forces you to make. Like an urban "Bridges of Madison County" Luke and Corrine have found their soulmate, but the social mores of the circles they move in - though far more forgiving of infidelities than you'd find in Edith Wharton, for instance - are no less constricting. It's style is inevitably less jokey than some of his earlier works, and sometimes the writing is more like reportage from the marital frontline than fiction, but it remains an admirable work. Perhaps when it came out there was some cynicism in its use of 9/11 as a hook; but I think it gets away with it - since even for those in the vicinity when it happened, life would soon go back to something approaching normal: the immensity of the event causes McInerney's characters to act out-of-character, but like Fitzgerald's Tom and Daisy Buchanan, their social world slowly heals itself, and "the good life" (always an ironic title) goes on.

The Manchester Poetry Prize

MMU's writing school has just announced a poetry prize, closing date in September, for which you submit a portfolio of poems - to be followed next year, and perhaps of more interest to me, by a fiction prize. Though laudable, and with a substantial prize, £10,000, I was intrigued reading the small print, that the "portfolio" is between 3 and 5 poems, up to a maximum of 120 lines. With an entrance fee of £15, I guess its all right for the sonneteer, not so for the balladeer; and the long poem I wrote this week breaks the limits all on its own. On poetry competitions generally, I've not much confidence, having never come close to being shortlisted. There's something of a lottery about them, a winner takes all mentality, that's perhaps a little too competitive, that seems almost antithetical to what makes a good poem. Worth a punt, but nothing more. In this instance, the international nature of the competition and the high profile institution awarding it, will no doubt lead to them being swamped with entries. When I've been choosing poems myself either to send somewhere or to include in a magazine, I'm a bit like Philip Larkin, who, when asked how he chose which poems of his own to include in an anthology, said he would pick 'n' mix, one funny, one sad, one long, one short; but I'd imagine here that the judges will be looking for the consistency of work, so send in your very best.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

best novelists

I was one of the contributors in Normblogs "best novelist" poll - - no surprise at the top, of course, but no Salinger, no Chatwin, no Burroughs (probably the biggest miss from my POV), and a very low position for E.M. Forster, who, in my humble opinion, is probably the best British novelist of the 20th century - get real people! I put my top 10 in and knew I'd forgot someone - it was D.H. Lawrence, and yes, he's not there in the top 40 and now I feel really guilty, because, if Lawrence isn't better than P.G. Wodehouse then we might as well give up! Maybe everyone else is the same, we've forgotten Lawrence, left him in our childhood memories. On a more pleasant note, no J.K. Rowling or Philip Pulman, a nice reminder that, however good children's fiction is, it's still children's fiction. There are a few surprises: Cormac Mccarthy so high for instance is probably a sign of a writer on the rise; and Ian McEwan at 5, is a little high for someone who has trouble writing novels; otherwise, I do think this is a poll that has more value than many others, probably because its mostly literary bloggers (a much maligned community!) who are having a say - though I'm still pissed off that I didn't include Lawrence!

Monday, February 04, 2008

2008 Year of Disco?

Friday Project blogger Scott Pack has recently started a "music club" where half a dozen people share CDs. I was too late to join, but probably for the best, since looking at the tracklistings so far, its all a bit Uncut magazine for me. For like it or not, 2008 is turning out to to be the year of disco. There's four great disco records in this weeks top ten - Kelly Rowland's "Work", Britney Spear's "Piece of Me", Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music", and Hot Chip's "Ready for the Floor" (and doesn't it sound a bit like peak-era OMD?). And they're not just disco - they're that very New York-style electronic disco reminiscent of Arthur Russell's Loose Joints classic "Is it all over my face?" or Shannon's "Let the Music Play." Yet, disco remains a music that people turn up their noses at. My favourite record last year was Robyn's "With Every Heartbeat", and that and her 2 follow ups were disco through and through as well; yet I was at a party the other week for some slightly older friends, (who'd have been around during the disco heyday), and though they loved the reggae, soul, glam, pop and rock I'd put on the tape, they turned up their noses at Candi Staton's immense "Young Hearts Run Free." Perhaps too many disco records have been pulled down by the cheesiness of their use? Or maybe a music that's so obviously just about dancing won't ever be taken seriously. I remember reading the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock years ago, and the disco chapter is almost apologetic - so big a movement that it can't be missed out, but always slightly tongue-in-cheek, a little too gay, a little too black, a little too pop to be taken seriously. Yet in many ways disco - then, and now - is pop and soul and dance music and r&b when it gets it right on every front. Hot Chip are indie darlings, but could have stayed in their bedrooms playing obscure white labels for each other; Kelly Rowland's the other one out of Destiny's Child. Disco, primarily a producers music demands hits, not albums, and I think just as its heyday was in that uncertain period between opulence and decadence that was the mid-seventies, perhaps our current economic period - teetering on bust, whilst still gorging on boom - is a perfect time for disco to take us away from all our troubles; and whilst then it was the 12" maxisingle that threatened the life sapping hegemony of the concept album, perhaps its all the perfect music for the download/youtube era. Four records don't make a scene I guess - and the current number one, the rave-lite (or should that be disco?) of Basshunter is hardly great art - but the great thing about dance music is that it copies whatever's hit the month before, and right about now, its the best kind of electronic disco music we've heard since the golden days of house. Rave on.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

"Make you feel my love"

I've been listening to Adele's jaunty, but shallow debut album, "19". About two thirds through, the tone changes and melancholy piano ushers in a song I recognise. Here, on "Make you feel my love", the undoubted depth in her voice is matched by a song that is all depth. It took me a few minutes to remember where I'd heard it before, on Dylan's "Time Out of Mind", the album from 1997, that wrestles with "Blonde on Blonde" as my favourite. The 56-year old's voice, shot to pieces, sings this potent lovesong, that speaks of sexual power diminished, but of a late flowering desire for the song's object. It's a song purely about yearning for something that may have passed beyond you. It's strange hearing it in the sixth form context of Adele - yet I'm fascinated by the way that her version, whilst losing that subtext of an opportunity that may forever have gone, still manages to maintain a sense of powerlessness. In literary terms, the ageing man wanting one last chance at discovering happiness through love - even if his physical powers are waning - is as potent a subject as any; yet listening to the versions back to back, I'm wondering whether those thoughts - never noble anyway - are as solipsistic as a teenager. Of course, listening to Dylan's version, you hear the echo of the voice he once had - the potency he once had - and its the stripping down, like in Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around", of a male life by time, that gives the song such power. And though the young often write the best songs, one can't help comparing Dylan's lyrics, that "I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue, I'd go crawling down the avenue" with Adele "Chasing Pavements" to see where they might lead. If the difference between youth and middle age is between wondering what you might do, and regretting what you haven't done, then, strangely, these two versions of this lovely song manage to highlight it.