Saturday, May 31, 2008

Culture & Creativity

I've had a divebombing mood this week, just a lot of things going on in my head, and around me, and without the time to really do what I needed to do, which was to have a break, get away, see friends, clear head etc. Yet, not for the first time, waking with a dark cloud over me, sometimes allows me to get down to writing something after too long prevaricating. It's with some astonishment that I've written two short stories this morning, and it's not even 3 in the afternoon yet. One's a sci-fi story, the other was meant to be, but ended up a little more grounded. The latter was an idea I'd had for a while, but the former, follows on from my thoughts about how the internet requires "water" and "electricity" to survive. I'm trying to write a range of so-called sci-fi/slipstream fictions to explore ideas like this.

And a good job I've done something this weekend, since next week's looking a little hectic. I'm hoping to get to the 2nd night of experimental poetry night The Other Room, at the Old Abbey on Wednesday, for instance.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Still the book...

I met the Guardian's games blogger Aleks Krotoski at Futuresonic a few weeks ago, and she was far more than just a "games blogger." In today's paper she turns her thoughts to fiction, and says: "there's a shift afoot in storytelling, one unavoidably inspired by computer games and new technologies." And well, there might be, but as she also indicates, you won't find it at Hay-on-Wye or in the literary pages. Hanif Kureishi was dismissive of her question regarding interactive literature, which would all be well and good, if I wasn't still trying to get through his latest highly disappointing novel (more of which when I've finished it). I've long bemoaned the fact that the web hasn't really thrown up much interesting in the way of literature, even if the critical culture of which I hope this blog is part, has benefited from the move to cyberspace; but perhaps it's just taking time. As a mass medium, I'm sure that the big web writing successes, interactive or otherwise, are likely to be at the populist end of the spectrum, at least for some time. Part of the problem is technological of course: it's only now that the average writer can do something with all the Web 2.0 tools available, without furrowing his/her brow over HTML (not usually a writers' primary skill); and though writers have always been asked to Hollywood I'm not sure they're as welcome in the plot development rooms of Grand Theft Auto IV. Yet, I agree with Aleks, that games offer quite a few useful tricks for would be innovative writers. I've a number of projects I've half tried over the years, but without a specific audience for them - I've never really invested the necessary time (and it is time) - to make them happen. As for collaboration, I've a book of Jerry Cornelius stories before me, "The New Nature of the Catastrophe", very few of which are written by his maker, Michael Moorcock. Nothing new under the sun it seems. Over the page (and I'd advise all literary types to stray to the Guardian's technology section now and then), Victor Keegan points out that "books are thriving on the internet." Which is one way of saying that the nature of the catastrophe facing the publishing industry isn't necessarily the same as that which the music industry has failed so badly to deal with. The reading experience - i.e. the book - has both "first mover" advantage and is, I'd suggest, still a "killer app;" though "Kindles" etc. are likely - eventually to have some kind of niche. Keegan mentions audio books and the success of and wonders about rivals - there's quite a range at eMusic, he might want to try. A few years ago I was roped into a project that Tony Wilson was planning, allowing downloads of stories (as well as music) for a few pence, and I even went as far as writing and recording a first "episode" of a continuing narrative . It's an idea whose time may well have come... yet, like everything on the web, the time it takes to make it good, is something that a writer needs to be paid for, just as much as a software engineer. All of this comes a few days after Robert McCrum's farewell soliloquy from 10 years at the helm of the Observer's literary pages. At least 3 of his 10 "highlights" were technological, and yet I wonder about that. Blogs, Amazon and ebook readers don't any kind of revolution make. It's hardly, Picasso, Stravinsky and Joyce, is it? If you're still calling it technology, I guess, you're still scared to use it. Aleks point, extrapolated, is that these are tools, and writer, use them. One final point, that came to mind reading another article in the Guardian, saying that the Olympics' need for power is going to limit the economic growth of the city of London, particularly in relation to data centres (i.e. banks of computers). We are so blissfully unaware of the real cost of "cyberspace" - all those servers running our blogs, eShops and videos - are served by water and electricity; and in the future, as those costs rise, then just as people are beginning to question the diversion of land to biofuels instead of wheat; what happens if we are more concerned with keeping our web servers running than our water and electricity? I'm going to go stock up on the candles.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Sad Passing

Though I'm usually perplexed when overly popular artists/writers are lauded, the news that Beryl Cook has died proves an exception. Whenever I see her work, I can't do anything but smile. Her burly grotesques have more humanity than you'd find in a Lowry for instance, and I kind of think theres an affinity with the kitsch of Jeff Koons; though no doubt no art critic would deign to make the link. Koons is an interesting comparison, because although there's a sense that he must be "ironic" his work, when it works, works without irony - Michael Jackson and Bubbles; the glorious "Puppy". Cook's work is both instantly identifiable as hers, and also not that far removed from her contemporaries - and the humanity of her characters, scenes and the unstereotypical nature of her stereotypes puts her head and shoulders above similarly stylised painters. "The best that can be said is that Cook celebrates ordinariness," says the Guardian, quoting Adrian Searle, which, I have to say, misses the point of her paintings. There's nothing ordinary about her crowded tableaus - the very crowding is surrealist in instinct - and nothing ordinary about her grotesques either. All human life is there.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Zadie in Middlemarch

On my way to the Tatton Park Biennial art exhibition yesterday, I enjoyed reading a long essay by Zadie Smith on "Middlemarch" in the Guardian. I've long been of the opinion that Middlemarch is not only the peak of Victorian novel-writing, but a major innovative work in itself, every bit as radical in the possibilities that it gives a novelist as "Ulysses" or other later works. Smith agrees, and, given the length of a masters essay she gives it close reading, historical context, and a certain quirky take on it. I imagine its the first time David Foster Wallace has been mentioned in an essay on George Eliot, for instance. Reading the essay made me want to go back to the book again, not least because Smith concentrates some of her attention on the least showy of the books 3 main romantic relationships, that of Fred and Mary. She admits it would seem the least important of the 3 - but that Eliot gives it equal value. I'm not so sure, but its a long time since I read the novel. What is certain is that Eliot was always demotic in her approach to her characters - even more so in "Daniel Deronda" where the egalitarianism leads to some occasionally bizarre concentrations (less Gwendolyn, more Mordechai, as the novel progresses) - so that it is the ultra-serious Casaubon who becomes ridiculous, not because Eliot has told us, but because he has shown us; whilst the comic Mr. Brooke becomes a little tragic. That Eliot took as much from life as she did from philosophy, a point that Smith labours a little, should be self-evident - and its perhaps important that the most formidable of our Victorian novelists remains with a little of the reputation as an intellectual's favourite; when any reader will know that her light touch makes even her more lavish novelistic schema, a page-turner. George Eliot, Smith reminds us, reminds us about life lived, as well as life studied, and in Dorothea she is making fun of her younger self. Smith, despite her own celebrity status, sometimes, you feel, revels in a little Dorothea-envy herself. There's something seductive about the life of books; though, as Eliot knew, and Smith reminds us, nothing is as seductive of the book of life. It's surprising to read an essay on "Middlemarch" that hardly mentions Casaubon and his "Key to all mythologies", one of Eliot's more cautionary tales, and, by pressing so hard for the book's humanism, Smith almost entirely misses - or, perhaps, as someone less interested in history and politics, than in people and novels, doesn't see as important - that the novel came out after - and was written during the 1870 reform act; yet is set at the time of the more momentous 1832 act. Our greatest chronicler of the 19th century's age of political reform, and how it affected the average man and woman in every town, was, it should be remembered, never permitted the vote because of her gender. "Middlemarch"'s radicalism - and its challenge for future writers impressed by its range and depth - is at least partly because it was, and is, a political novel.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cinema of the Damned

The destruction of Manchester's past continues, even on a weekend when Martin Parr's photographs of the city graced the Guardian; this time with yesterday's half-demolition of Cine City in Withington. Not sure when it started; always a little suspicious when they start demolishing something on a Saturday - so all that's there at the moment is the outershell of the ground floor, and the sign "Cine City." It's been closed, as has the next door White Lion, for some time, and though no reprieve was ever likely, it's more than sad to see it go. In a sane world, this would have been redeveloped as a South Manchester arts centre, but no, I'm sure we'll see it replaced with some bland residential shed, that will offer nothing distinctive to the local urban landscape. "Cine City" was a wonderful place to see a film - they used to have to change the reel half way through - me and my friend used to always smuggle a few cans of lager in to the late night showings - and I saw plenty of great films there, most notably that most modern of movies, "Natural Born Killers." Whenever anyone on Coronation Street went to the cinema they seemed to film it outside Cine City, since in the warped nostalgic logic of the show, the idea that Wetherfield residents would go to the multiplex like anyone else, simply defied belief. It's added to a certain melancholic anger I've had all week; not so much the hoards of Rangers fans drinking all day on Wednesday, but the inevitability of both the violence, and the public handwringing afterward, as the city indulges football, yet remains timid in the face of art. I've always liked Martin Parr's photographs, but the collection in the Guardian, though all well-composed, had an inevitable aurra of the tourist, up in Manchester for a week, almost a total opposite of the immersive technique that has made so much of his work classic. Yet, as the city continues its veneration of my beloved Joy Division/Factory Records/Tony Wilson (this week alone: the Tony Wilson experience in honour of his memory, Joy Division the documentary, and, Man Utd fans in O'Sheas singing "Giggs, Giggs will tear you apart again" during their league winning game against Wigan) its fascinating that Salford's the Ting Tings have just entered the UK charts at number one; probably the first genuine breakout act to really make it big from Manchester since Badly Drawn Boy. I didn't get tickets, but one of his - and Twisted Nerve's - iconic gigs was in Cine City. The Ting Tings grew out of the hotpot of artistic endeavour happening in the "other" city of Salford's Islington Mill. If the city had really wanted to honour Tony Wilson, then perhaps developing Cine City - a step away from the original Factory records address in Palatine Road - in some creative way, would have been applicable. It joins the list of ghostly venues in the city, alongside the Hacienda, the Boardwalk, the Banshee and many more before my time. I sometimes think of the ghosts that have been released by this destruction/regeneration as not being freed, more dissipated - into the air - and the spirit with them sent elsewhere, perhaps to Salford's Islington Mill, or another place, where the true possibilities of a creative city can make itself known. In the seventies Martin Parr decamped to Hebden Bridge where the cheap accomodation and mystical landscape led to it becoming a bohemian enclave away from the urban sprawl. These architectural deaths are totems, yet the modern creative spur - its X-factors, its "Mamma Mias", its international festivals - obscures any real renaissance. The city continues of course, with talk of Carol Ann Duffy or Simon Armitage - both some time of this parish - as the next Poet Laureate, and with a 12-year old from Chethams music school, the youngest ever BBC young musician of the year.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ideas 0 Poetry 1

Baroque in Hackney, as ever, pulling out the better nuggets, mentions a lovely quote from Robert Rauschenberg, in response to the question "don't you ever run out of ideas?" he says he finds them limiting - and they don't go that far. There's quite a discussion in response to the post that I was going to enter, but realised, it was becoming a "post" in itself. I'm a little concerned that in the dismissal of "ideas" - not by Katy, but in some of the comments that follow - there's a confusion between an "idea for a poem" (which is kind of what Rauschenberg's questioner was asking, in relation to his paintings), and the "idea expressed by a poem." You can, of course, have hundreds (thousands?) of ideas for poems, and still never write a good one, yet, I think if your poetry (or painting or fiction or music) is trying to express an idea, then if the idea is good (or at least, important enough to you to be expressed), then the likelihood of the artwork being good is increased. This is not to say that I'm advocating an art of ideology, but that I feel we could do with more writers, artists, poets, musicians etc. expressing rather than just having an idea. One of the (many) reasons I like Robert Lowell is that his poems both have a strong "idea" for the poem, and, importantly, a larger idea that he is trying to express; "For the Union Dead" being one supreme example.

Kingdom of the Blind

One of my favourite novels of the last few years was Jose Saramago's "Blindness", and I'd always thought it would make a brilliant, if difficult film. Telling the story of a blindness contagion that passes from person to person; leading to the blind being quarantined, and then left, as the world outside becomes equally sightless, it's obviously rich in metaphor. Yet, the novel is also a thriller, and a philosophical novel about what it is to be human. I am very much looking forward to seeing it in the cinema, now that it has opened at Cannes to good reviews.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Rare Football Post

So, can't say I'm disappointed that Birmingham City are relegated; being a Villa fan it's not bitterness, more a sense that I've never quite seen what Birmingham City were about - half owned by a porn baron, never done anything etc etc - and the real rivalry returns with West Brom back in the top league; all we need now is Wolves. Missed the "South Bank Show" on football fiction because it clashed with the end of season match of the day - apparently, half David Peace and his excellent "The Damned United" - half "why aren't there (m)any good football novels?" I've got a good football novel in me, same as I've got a good music novel - but doubt they're really the calling card for a new novelist, more's the shame. I see that the Booker of Bookers list has been announced - all very colonial - and I've written before that you'd get a better list from the shortlist than the winner. Yet again, Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" is there, I've still got a copy unread, and I really should one day; yet the only Rushdie I ever read - "The ground beneath her feet" - was not just a very poor novel, but awfully written, and seriously in need of decent editing, that I've bene put off ever since. Sure, shouldn't judge a writer by his lows; but without any real interest in Rushdie's subject, it may remain bottom of my pile for a while yet. Can I add, that I'm disappointed, though not surprised, that Coetzee is in there for "Disgrace" rather than "The Life and Times of Michael K." Both books are good, but I feel the earlier novel is remarkable.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Post-Amisian Misogyny in Female Characterisation

I've been watching the sitcom "Peep Show" - it's now on its 5th series but somehow it had passed me by. Back in 1998, whilst studying on my MA, our tutors got one of the students from a previous year, Sam Bain, and his writing partner, Jesse Armstrong to come and talk to us. They were a "comedy duo" in the they finished each other sentences, and were writing together - with quite a clear sense of this as a career path. They had something in development or as a pilot. It was interesting, but a little offcentre given that ours was a novel writing course, but both of our tutors tended to prefer their students "funny". Anyway, that pilot (a Jane Austen spoof, if I remember rightly) may never have got them anywhere, but I'd hear mention of Sam now and then as the years rolled by. Then I read about the new series and there was a big feature with the writers. For despite starring Mitchell and Webb, its Bain and Alexander who write the majority of it. So I've been enjoying watching past "Peep Shows" these last couple of weeks; but its also been a little too much . These are definitely Men Behaving (a little bit) Badly, but its slightly darker, slightly more surreal, certainly more misanthropic. These are males in that great dysfunctional British comedy tradition; yet, with, I guess, a London-centric 21st century view of sex as something that's always on tap. And this is where I've felt a little soiled having watched the shows back-to-back. The female characters in the show, though well-acted and important foils for the dysfunctional males, are all, I realise, sex objects. There's not a single female on the show who is not primarily there as a possible shag for the boring Mark or lazy Jess. Whether its a fifteen year old at a party, the mother of your friend's fiancee, or the girl in the shoe shop, every woman in the series is a potential shag. And yes, I know that its a comedy, and the joke's so often on Mitchell and Webb, but I'm wondering if this is what we've ended up with, a certain post-Amisian misogyny in female characterisation. Compare with the much-derided "2 Pints of Lager and a packet of crisps" where the actresses are generally funny, have a voice, want sex on their terms, have relationships (and children), and aren't on a perpetual stag weekend, and there's something a little queasy about "Peep Show's" relentlessness. It's a little too dark to be generally funny - and though one has to admire the general tone of the show (it pioneered the idea of leaving large bits of the story out, so, for instance Mark and Sophie's relationship we only see in snippets), I'm reminded of meeting the writers all those years ago, and the jokey mateyness, the metropolitan self-confidence, the TV mentality, and feel a little saddened that what is in many ways a sophisticated sitcom has an inbuilt flaw similar to lads down the pub on a friday night; whilst at the same time knowing that in its portrayal of the contemporary male it may be overdone, but it's not entirely untrue. But then again, I never quite understood how Frank Spencer got Betty to marry him in the first place. And yes, I do know its a comedy.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Boredom & Intelligence

I don't know if it's an excess of excitement last weekend, or whether the warm weather has one hankering after better things to do, or just a combination of things, but this last week I've just been excruciatingly bored. And...given boredom, what else is there to do than go for a drink? Actually, what I should be doing of course, is write, since I guess one of the reasons one writes is to stave off boredom - or rather writing fiction at least is probably the most highly charged intellectual pursuit I've got. You don't have to be intelligent to be a writer, of course, but I think if you are intelligent, or shall we say, easily bored - then writing is a stimulation of that intellect. I'm not an academic or musician or scientist or craftsman, so without creativity I'm reduced to paperwork, administration, watching TV, sitting in bars. All well and good, of course, but not really doing anything for the intelligence quotient. Dilletante that I am, I do find quite a lot of things in my life at the moment, not "easy" as such, but eminently doable, and, more than that, not exactly stimulating me intellectually. Perhaps I could learn a language or develop a computer system or something equally absurd, but no, I'm not just bored, I'm a little jaded. I feel a need to stretch my wings, yet I'm feeling particularly grounded at the moment. Whereas I tend to write poetry to emotional order, fiction is primarily intellectual with me, not that I'm wanting to write something particularly complex, just that the whole job of writing fiction is like building a large house from scratch, with the writer as architect, surveyor, designer, bricklayer, roofer and labourer all in one; and, though there are plenty of Barratt books and Wimpey Stories, I'm probably more interested in a one-off, a building without a particular template; something that will give me the "wow" factor; which will stop me feeling this boredom.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Changing Times

I'm thinking that this blog might be changing shortly; both in format, and content. But a few thoughts for now, based upon a heady few days in the maelstrom of the Futuresonic Festival

Wire, punk band? art band? In conversation with John Robb, they were articulate, at least when allowed to get further than 1977. (Lesson to promoters: never get an old punk to interview old punks, you'll never make it to the 80s.) An interesting - if ultimately flawed career(or is that careers) - 3 albums in the late 70s, then a brief poppy-dancey comeback in the late 80s/early 90s, then a more recent flurry of more experimental material. I got the sense that Wire still are an art project version of what a rock band is. And hence: breaking up or reforming isn't really the point. They rocked, kind of. And were the sonic Future, as seen from, say, 1978. They never had a hit, either, unless you count Elastica's "Connection." By the way, I'd seen both Elastica and Oasis in the same venue, at the time when they'd seemed the future (or, in Oasis's case very much the instant present.) The future is, of course, overrated, or already here. Or gone. Anyway, what has a punk ever done for us?

Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, legend of software development (though GNU is not Linux, and Free Software is not Open Source; Google if you need to), spoke about the importance of freedom in terms of software. That battle's over of course. The network has destroyed it, in many ways. Our data is stored on massive servers, Google, Yahoo, wherever. This blog is probably now the property of Google corp. Like a lot of things: I guess a "trade" takes place; in our case convenience for freedom. If you are a software developer, freedom outweighs everything; for the rest of us, perhaps its convenience, perhaps its even the access to a medium that allows a voice (and can Google censor us? will it? can it?), perhaps its portability. Basically, Stallman's a hippy; and remember, what have hippies ever done for us?

Thomson & Craighead are exhibiting their latest works at the CUBE gallery as part of Futuresonic. They gave an interesting artist talk on Saturday, alongside other artists showcasing at Futuresonic. I like how they take existing data, content, ephemera even, from the web, and tame it, box it, coerce it, make it look pretty. Make art out of it, in other words. A criticism came from the floor: "but your work is closed, it doesn't allow interaction." They defended this. After all, it wasn't what they did. The interaction is in the response to the work, not in a participatory involvement with it. I was recently at the Tate Liverpool, and a lot of the international works were politically engaged; participatory; and I hated them all. I want work that is of a higher level. Also, by making something still, elegant, beautiful, and new out of the chaotic information flux of the internet, I think they are more useful commentators and artists. Without the internet they would, I felt, still be artists. But then, what have artists ever done for us?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

New Narratives

I'm so far away from literary matters this week, attending the Futuresonic conference/festival in Manchester. A celebration of art, music and ideas all with a "digital" side, I guess the one thing that does seem to be missing is the "literary" - or at the very least, a narrative strand, that could pull all this together. I'm sure there's a novel there somewhere based around a conference; though I kind of think there probably already is one - I just can't remember it. (Surely David Lodge's campus novels went there at some point?) The conference is about "social media", of which, dear reader, this blog is one. It's funny really, but inevitable, that writers have taken to blogs like fish to water, they are after all a written medium - but not for the first time, I'm quizzical about the absence of "literary matters" from any discussion of the digital future. Do writers just accept the new tools, and move on? Yes, there's plenty of hang-wringing around the Sony eReader or the Kindle, and I guess if I was an audiobook publisher I'd be wondering what the future was for their unabridged boxsets - yet the book remains an advanced storage and retrieval device, not easily replicable (at least not in fiction) digitally. Yet most of the discussions and events of the conference are stubbornly analogue anyway; people in a room (actually not interacting that much - the academics tend to dominate in a very traditional lecture theatre format - though this will be challenged a little this afternoon); gigs; clubs; art exhibitions; public art. Oh yes, there is, somewhere a blog, a Flickr group, a Twitter group, a wiki, a Second Life space; but I get the feeling that most people who wanted to be at the event would be at the event. Of course, one of the reasons why literature doesn't feature, or get involved, is how - with a few exceptions - "experimental" narrative or form is hidden within the stubbornly traditional literary scene. Yet I was there with colleagues from New Writing Partnership, and Lancaster Litfest, and we all feel, I think, that the nature of discourse is at least one thing that the "digital" agenda can address. But how to energise that discussion in the digital space - as opposed to the physical space of a symposium or similar - remains a question, that I don't think we'll answer until we at least make an attempt to. Whether writers, agents and publishers are wanting that - that's another question. I kind of think that we shouldn't be approaching discourse about writing in a linear way, journalistically, academically etc. but more dynamically, through some kind of narrative exposition.