Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rabbit at Rest

So sad to hear that John Updike, the wonderful American novelist and poet has died. Like many of his generation of American novelists, their sheer lifespan almost defies criticism - writers are supposed to write, be successful, be forgotten, and then be remembered again; not to be still writing, creating book after book. I can't pretend to have read more than half a dozen - the wonderful Rabbit novels (particularly the immortal "Rabbit Redux"), the seventies erotica du jour of "Couples", the scabrously funny "Witches of Eastwick", the obvious ones, in other words - but I also love his poetry, it was funny, slight, anecdotal, clever. I hope he's remembered for both. God likes his storytellers, and I think, tonight, he'll be staying up very late.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Coming Soon :-
No Point in Not Being Friends 7 27th Jan
Edwin Morgan, a Celebration - 30th Jan
Philip Davenport Book Launch - 30th Jan
The Other Room - 4th Feb
Manchester Social Media Cafe - 3rd Feb

See you there...?

Monday, January 19, 2009

New Songs Are Better Than Old Songs

Popular Songs is a new 6-track EP by Bonbon Experiment (AKA Adrian Slatcher) recorded in 2008.

01 A Sad Affair
02 Wonderful Products
03 Big Pink Ship
04 Sympathy for a Drowned World
05 Mariachi of the Mersey
06 Sea Thing

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Literary Jealousy

I caught the noir thriller DOA ("Dead on Arrival") last night. Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan star in a fast paced story about a university professor of literature who has been given a slow acting poison, and who spends his final hours unravelling who his own killer is. A remake of a 50s noir, its interesting that in this version it is a tale of literary jealousy that has been implanted in the plot. For Quaid was a hot shot writer who stopped at some point in his success, because of his fear of failure, and in doing so lets down his students, his wife and himself. His faculty colleagues and idolise despise and idolise him - the talent that he had which they haven't got or hope to discover, and his running away from it. Its rare to have a literary theme for a thriller (though Stephen King's "Misery" and "The Dead Zone" have covered it) but I thoroughly enjoyed the film, which is a very creditable noir, touched with now-kitsch 80s fashions (bad hair, "Timbuk 3" playing on stage in a bar). A recent piece by Adam Kirsch in Poetry posited that all writing is competitive, because there's not enough praise to go round; and Malcolm Gladwell's latest book talks at length about whether genius is instant or worked at. Outside of lyric poetry, I think "genius" in writing is a maturing art, despite the occasional young debut that seems to contradict this - after all, the "meat" of a novel is life itself, lived or imagined. We don't live in a time of great prose style, and I wonder if we ever will again?, but where "DOA" does totally get it right is in showing that however we get it, "literary talent" whether worked at, innate, or discovered by bitter chance (Anne Frank's diary for instance...) is something real, that can't be faked. Literary success, well, that's another matter.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The New Genre Writers

I've noticed a new-ish trend, whereby a number of fiction writers, who'd probably have been classed as "literary" writers, if they'd been classed as anything have become genre writers - with series of detective or historical novels, rather than the one-offs they'd previously written. It's interesting...since this particular street used to be one-way in the other direction, with, say, a detective fiction writer trying to drum up interest in a novel that was about something else. Kate Atkinson and Sophie Hannah both seem to have had a new lease of (commercial) life by writing detective fiction series, whilst Suzannah Dunn's latest historical fiction is everywhere at the moment. None of these writers, of course, were writing novels beforehand that were overly literary, but they weren't necessary writing work that was overtly commercial - Atkinson was shortlisted for prizes for her debut "Behind the Scenes at the Museum", Hannah remains an award-winning poet, and Dunn was a lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester for a number of years after I studied there. Of their new direction, I've only read one of Atkinson's (excellent) mystery stories, but I think I'd be more interested, in some way, in their genre novels, than the somewhat undefined novels of their past. There might well be some other examples (and some male examples perhaps? Iain M. Banks's sci-fi or John Banville's pseudonym-using Benjamin Black novels). Genre's never an easy thing to do, and reading Atkinson's "One Good Turn", what I found refreshing - its not so much a detective story, as a puzzle that unveils itself - might be frustrating to a genuine mystery fan, however much of the genre paraphernalia remains. Whether, once embarked on a series, with a well-loved character (or a particular time period in the case of Dunn), these writers will find is as easy to break out of it, remains to be seen - but for the moment, it seems a refreshing development, decent writers writing the kind of books that people want to read. Now what was so hard in that?

Friday, January 09, 2009

New Year, no Revolutions

I'm not a great one for New Year's Resolutions - but this year I'm going to try and do something creative (either making something, or consuming something creative) every day. I'm not exactly going to beat myself up if I miss a day. The main thing is to think creatively, create some creative space - yes, I'm busy, but I'm surely not that busy...

...not sure how I'm doing this week. On Wednesday was in the lovely city of Lancaster, but got back in time to meet up with a few Other Room types, who were out in town. The next Other Room is in February, in its usual place of the Old Abbey Inn. Looking forward to it, as ever. Before then theres the next lit night at the Deaf Institute, which I've kept missing as I always seem to be away. Nice to have a few things in the diary, however vaguely.

I'm not sure if yesterday was creative as such, yet I met up with a friend from my college days in the Cambridge Blue pub just off Mill Road, in Cambridge. We certainly covered plenty of topics throughout the evening - so let's cound that as a yes! And today I'm not only writing my blog, but spent the morning at a seminar about Motion capture for the arts - which was all very exciting, if only to meet a few interesting "hyphenates" (A hyphenate being someone with more than one role - writer-bloggers, musician-academics etc.)

I've got a bit of Work to do at the weekend polishing some writing that I need to send off; so I'm hoping for an early night tonight, and a clear head tomorrow. You never know, it might happen.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

2 out of 10 is bad

I was pushed towards the Weblog Awards Lit category by Ready Steady Book, one of the shortlist - and, along with the ever estimable, (but hardly bloggy at all, its a DIGEST) Arts and Letters Daily, the only one on the list I'm a regular visitor to. Both do a really admirable job at pointing me to other stuff, and I'm always grateful, but aren't blogs supposed to be a little more... er... personal.

I looked at the others on the list - clearly put together by a person who never reads blogs, and probably works for a newspaper. The dullest selection of semi-corporate (or wanting to be semi-corporate) properties I've ever read. I'll leave Neil Gaiman and Samuel Pepys out as they're kind of niche rather than general, but the others are so dull, and dullest of the lot was the NY Times "Papercuts." Of the others, Maud Newton can at least write (and read) and I might come back, but otherwise, per-lease. Ready Steady Book as shoe-in, I'm afraid, (and I don't really think, with all due respect, that RSB is really a blog, it just has a blog kind of integrated with its other stuff.)

Yeah, I know I write a literary blog, but its not sour grapes, its just, well, is this the best there is? Of course not - its an old-school type of "prize culture" that's very old media itself. Actually, I'm bored with myself now, already. To quote David Eggars, here's a picture of a stapler.

And given that its the first one off the block in Google images, its probably the most staplingist of staplers ever.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The novel as a filter for history

The last two novels I've read, Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" and Junot Diaz's "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" both filter the history of our times through their characters. This is not to compare the two novels, which other than being published in 2008, are very different beasts, but to think about this technique. It's not new of course - the novel can always step away from the action of history, or insert an actor into that history. As long as the reader believes in the intervention, then the history can come alive. What interests me is what this does for the novel - in other words, what is the artistic pay off?

I knew very little about the Dominican Republic or the despotic regime of Trujillo, until reading Junot Diaz's novel. His use of footnotes deftly provides a backstory that would probably intrude too much if its in the narrative. Diaz's main technique in this, his debut novel, is to filter the past through a family history. The main character, Oscar, is a fat, unpopular, sci fi geek in America of Dominican Republican extraction. He's the least likely of filters for history, in many ways, and indeed, he's not the narrator, its his only friend, Yunior, who takes on that role, Carraway to his Gatsby! Yet, there's something entirely appropriate - albeit satirical - about seeing the horrors of Dominican life as being almost like an SF/Fantasy world. We see, in Oscar, the end of line, the end of a line of trouble - "Fuku" as Diaz calls the curse that haunts Oscar's family (and is it just "Fuck you" in another language, we are left to wonder...)- yet there's also a sense that despite everything bad that has happened, something can survive, can live, even if its transplanted to an alien soil. The "filter" works; the Trujillo regime, and what follows it, is laid bare as a travesty, an aberration; and the scars still remain - in people's lives, in the land, and - it seems - mostly in the Dominican male psyche. For Oscar is an unusual Dominican, he has no success with the ladies. Yet, the Dominican male in this book is always seen as not just a womaniser, but a brutal one. Oscar, like Coetzee's Michael K, is somewhat the result of decades of brutality, and yet he remains a humanity to the end. But if the book has a fault, its that the contrast between the Dominican and American passages is so distinct. Diaz made his name as a short story writer, and this book is full of stories - mostly of the family history - in all of this, Oscar, filtered through his friend's testimony, seems hardly there at all - a useful fool, if you like; little more than a filter. The hip hop and geek speak is fun for a while, but Oscar is no Holden Caulfield; and when his sister takes up the narrative, there's little of the linguistic invention elsewhere. Interestingly the novel was originally a short story in the New Yorker in 2000. When I get the chance I'll try and read the shorter version.

In Philip Hensher's sizable Booker-shortlisted "The Northern Clemency", the timescale of the novel is from 1974-1994, undoubtedly a period of massive change in British provincial life; yet his protagonists, two sets of neighbours in a lower middle class suburb of Sheffield are hardly actors in their drama - unlike Oscar's family in the Diaz novel. When the Sellers move to Sheffield opposite the Glovers the families begin a dance of connectivity that sees their children change throughout the next twenty years even as the parents stay defnitely put. The key political event of the novel is the1984 miner's strike, particularly the Battle of Orgreave. Here's a history I do know something about, having lived through part of it, however tangentially. Where Hensher excels is in the minutiae of middle class life, even if, as if he's read too much Proust, he gives us every bit of detail however trivial. But somehow that triviality is the stuff of these people's lives, and there's such a richly drawn cast between the two families (and a whole load of minor characters as well), that you skip the occasionally page of hubristic description, to return to their lives. What succeeds as a "family saga" seems to fail as a "social history." Part of the problem is that by concentrating on the one class that was almost untouched by the horrors of Thatcherism, (and were, in the Midlands and the North, partly the reason for her electoral success), the main events of the age happen offstage. On the one occasion that this isn't the case - the battle of Orgreave - Hensher hardly does justice to this great affront to British civil liberties, by having a walk-on part for one of the Glover children, who has turned into a cartoonish Marxist agitator, presumably, one thinks, to enable him to turn up in this page of history.

I think it's fascinating that after a long period where novelists either hid in the distant past, or in a present unbothered by the political, there does seem to be a taste for something that is more relevant. I wonder how many readers of "The Northern Clemency" will Wikipedia the miners strike afterwards? Fewer, I imagine than readers of Diaz's novel will want to find out more about the history of the Dominican Republic. With the seventies and eighties now slipping into history themselves, for the first time I'm seeing my own memories crop up in fictionalised histories. It's probably a trite observation, but "The Northern Clemency" wouldn't have suffered much from ignoring the bigger picture, and concentrating on the domestic dramas; whilst although "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" continues to enthrall across all its timezones, Oscar, his sister, and our friendly narrator, remain unknown, unknowable, tied to their past.