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