Sunday, November 29, 2009

Is the short story female?

This year's Short Story prize shortlist is an all female affair, which prompts the question "is the short story female?" I don't want to answer it particularly, but I have been struck that whether its a prize list, the new publications announcement from a small press, or even the much talked about new novel, let alone the cream of the blogging crop, the longstanding gender imbalance in favour of male writers seems, finally, to have tilted. Of course, gender is no symbol of quality or otherwise, but I do seem to have encountered quite a bit of art recently that could only be female. "Angels of Anarchy" at the Manchester Art Gallery I blogged about earlier, but yesterday, on blogger Katherine Woodfine's suggestion I went to the Whitechapel to see Sophie Calle's exhibition. The centrepiece exhibit is "Take Care of Yourself" where over a hundred females are asked to interpret a "Dear John" email that the artist had received following the end of the relationship. Highlights include a female shooter using it for target practice, and a female parrot tearing it apart with her beak. However its a textual work, and many of the responses are textual, analyses of the act. In a packed room, the constant repetition of this one small piece of personal history gets louder in the retelling. It would be impossible to take in all the responses, and as a result, what begins as a playful exploration becomes increasingly unnerving. The original letter from an unnamed man "X" can't really cope with the weight of the explication. This "going over" of why a relationship has ended is disconcerting, like an outtakes reel from a particularly intense episode "Sex and the City." I'm reminded of the approbation Robert Lowell received for incorporating personal letters in his later poetry - and this using of something real and personal, but depersonalising it, then amplifying it, creates a sense of discomfort. The exhibition is a retrospective, though this piece is recent, and this discomfort comes through in many of the other pieces. I think its a remarkable show, but I can't exactly say I liked it.

But going back to that original question - I think in an age where "feminism" doesn't speak with one voice, its fascinating to see a certain female colonising of spaces that were once seen as more male. The writers on the national short story prize shortlist are no more speaking with one voice than a group of male writers would - and Hilary Mantel won the Booker with a book about a very traditionally male subject - yet I do wonder whether what we are seeing, as no particular generation comes up to challenge the alpha male postures of Amis, Boyd et al, there's a gap in the market for a particular type of robust masculinity. I read and enjoy a lot of female authors, but the ones that I don't like tend to be the ones who are clearly not speaking to me. For instance, I can appreciate that Carole Ann Duffy is a good poet, but she's not for me. Her poetry seems directed elsewhere - not necessarily just to a female audience, but certainly, not at me personally. If a poet or story writer has an ideal reader, we have to sometimes be aware that it's not us. (I'd say the same for Salman Rushdie or Seamus Heaney, so its not just a gender thing.)

I can't find the link but there was an article in the paper last week that certain universities, I think Oxford and Manchester were mentioned, where there are now "male support groups" being set up to conquer a "crisis in masculinity." In typical newspaper fashion they asked the editor of Loaded magazine what he thought of it, and you can probably guess the rest. Yet, given that men are still routinely criticised for not being communicative enough or not sharing their feelings, perhaps we should applaud any thing that is not quite so either/or. The "X" of Sophie Calle's exhibition wrote a long, sometimes self-justifying, sometimes awkward letter - a communication that ended with the somewhat unfair request that she "take care of yourself" - the artistic response seems an amplification of "talking it over with your girl friends". At the same time Martin Amis has fanned a few flames (flames that weren't actually there, until he brought the subject up), around his new novel, where he blames feminism and the sixties for his sister's early death. These gender divides remain unhelpful, yet we play at erecting the barricades, "Sex and the City" to the left, football and beer to the right. Social media, Twitter and the iPhone seem to have, in a way that's been somewhat unheralded, broken down a few barriers between technology (that male obsession) and communicating (that female one), so the two are intertwined.

The short story, I'm sure, is neither one gender or another; yet there remains a challenge for publishers - and writers - in that male readers, that small, vanishing group, tend not to read books by female authors. Partly its marketing (just look at the typography on Kate Atkinson's back catalogue, for instance, or Salt's "for mothers and lovers bundle"), but it might also be about intention. J.K. Rowling chose to go by her initials to encourage male readers of her boy wizard books; I'm sure "Wolf Hall" will break out of the book groups to male readers. (After all there's a wolf in the title.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"To fling his soul upon the growing gloom."

It's a wintry morning, after a cold night. There were specs of snow seen in Manchester, the sudden drop in temperature bringing with it a certain gloom. A friend on twitter sees a song thrush in the garden, and you realise it's exactly the kind of day that had Thomas Hardy thinking of "every spirit upon earth/seemed fervourless as I" until he heard the darkling thrush that had "chosen thus to fling his soul upon the growing gloom."

Travelling south I've been feeling a little Hardyesque myself this morning, the darkness of the daytime sky not helping my mood. I'm tired, I think, as the year draws in, yet haven't time for a rest - not a proper one anyway, with a full calendar, work, social, and work-social. I've been cramming in experience as well, and it tends to frazzle one's innocence sometimes. Amongst the books I found in Morecambe and Lancaster last week was one by Andre Malraux where he writes about "museums without walls" - which seemed so appropriate to the discussion at "The Art of With" at the Cornerhouse on Wednesday that one is amazed by the serendipity. Malraux, writing after the second world war, talks about our galleries and museums as a recent ordering of things. As an active participant in the French resistance he had more reason than most to think about these institutions as signs of our "civilisation", but also, to question a little, the patterns that are made from art without purpose other than to be shown, collected and preserved. At the Art of With, following up his thoughtful essay on curators as gatekeepers, Michael Connor spoke about the idea of curation from a non-collecting perspective; yet the art gallery as "keeper" of our cultural flame has another role, which is not only to preserve, but to commission, to show, to purchase, to collect, to value - and perhaps, finally to "judge", not in the present, but for the future.

What is it that we keep? What is it that we discard? And what's our reasoning behind each? The BBC famously wiped old Dr. Whos and Top of the Pops yet kept endless news broadcasts. Perhaps it was right - maybe as this archive becomes available on line we can see some new narratives emerging from a history that can be revisited as it was perceived at the time. The "lost music" or "lost performance" sometimes seems almost tangible. Yet, without the Man from Porlock, perhaps Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" would have ended not as a fragment but as an overwrought, overlong epic? The accident of history that somehow preserved Beowulf seems almost magical, like something from Borges, a document that is only partially there, its history obscure, a tantalising teaser of all the lost epics that we haven't found.

Back to Connor's essay, he made an interesting contrast between Clay Shirky's book "Here comes everybody" which hardly mentions art, and the Whitechapel's recent Manual for a 21st Century Arts Institution  - which rarely mentions the web. I'm struck by this. for its clear that the arts, at present, through events like Art of With, is wanting to bring in "thinkers" from other spheres like Shirky, like Charles Leadbetter, like Malcolm Gladwell, like Andrew Keen. Yet is this in itself a crisis of definition - where the discourse has to be filtered not just through other thinkers, but in a language which seems mutually exclusive? Its like the arts hasn't begun to have a language around which it can sensibly talk about the future - yet its deeply felt thoughts on praxis, on aesthetics, could surely colour the somewhat drab debating points of the flash 21st century thinkers? Perhaps its not Malraux and Walter Benjamin who we should be in dialogue with, but linguistic thinkers such as Levi-Strauss and Pierre Bordieu? "Here Comes Everybody" as I'm not sure everybody realises, is from Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake", of course.

These thoughts of curation, collecting, saving, preserving, came to mind again on Thursday at the two excellent exhibitions I visited in Manchester. "Homegrown" at URBIS is a celebration of 30 years of UK Hip Hop. I realised, looking at the earliest exhibits that I was there near the beginning of UK Hip Hop, listening to my Streetsounds Crucial Electro albums, and obscure b-boy tracks heard late at night on John Peel. "Buffalo Gals" and "The Message" were like bombs sent from the future. That the few UK tracks at that time couldn't really find a way round the American slang language of hip hop, meant that it perhaps never had the same success as house music, another black American form, remember, which, being primarily instrumental, didn't cause the same tongue-twisting trouble for home counties homeboys. UK Hip Hop in many ways doesn't seem to be particular genre in itself, but some kind of wire looping back and forth across the Atlantic - and then further afield - and twisting itself around techno, house, triphop, drum 'n' bass, dubstep and grime - all of which, in one way or another owed a debt to hip hop culture. Walking round the gallery, shards of half remembered electro and rap interrupted one's flow, like some cultural hip hop jam.

Another cultural jam, melange, medley or melting pot, was there to be seen on the other side of the side in the hallowed halls of Manchester Art Gallery. "Angels of Anarchy", a look at 3 generations of female surrealists is a superb exhibition in every way but one; it showed art that I had never seen before, much of it good, some of it excellent; it was a long overdue retelling of a familiar story - surrealism through its women artists; and as a piece of art history/art research it was exemplary. I felt the space somehow didn't work that well - perhaps the small, delicate nature of many of the artworks became a little overawed in such a large hall. I wanted, I think some of the fun of surrealism recreated in the gallery space. The pictures of Dali at the International Surrealist exhibition in London in 1937, in a diving suit that almost suffocated him, had the playfulness that surrealism always seemed to have to me. Like Fluxus or situationism, a formal historical "walk through" seems a little wrong. It was only a shame I'd missed some of the events - talks, and films - that accompanied the exhibition.

Why did I like the "Angels of Anarchy" so much? Perhaps the same as with "Homegrown", it felt like it meant something to me. The reason there were so many surrealist women painters, even as the males remained as patriarchal as ever about it, was surely because the favoured subjects of surrealism; re-imagined still lifes, self-portraits; dream and fantasy; were subjects that hadn't been totally owned by male artists. By allowing art to be about domestic objects turned unreal, or about fantasy or dreams, surrealism allowed people to talk about things that in another context would be seen as negative, "hysterical" objects rather than art objects. One thing I noticed, which didn't seem to get a mention in the exhibition, was the strong use of colour in the paintings and particularly the exhibits. 20th century art sometimes seems a battle in extremis to control both form and colour; "Angels of Anarchy" revelled in both.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

novel-nausea AND essay-ennui

Writing in the Guardian Zadie Smith speaks of her own novel-nausea, a recognisable imaginative writers block, in response to a polemic that has just come out in America asking that novels should be more full of the "real" and less of the made-up. A novelist who has been having a sabbatical reading other peoples' novels, and writing essays about them, Smith, as so often in her non-fiction is easy to both agree and disagree with. (A fine essayist, she's not one for inclusive conclusions.) As someone who has most recently had published three essays, two that are kind-of memoirs in Mostly Truthful, and one, an essay about the contemporary novelist's choices, in Horizon Review, perhaps I'm sharing some of that novel-nausea.

Yet it's actually an argument like this, as Smith indicates, which sends you back to the wonders (and truths) of imaginative fictions. Rather, she says, than a good novel being a predictable thing, it always surprises us, in a way that good non-fiction rarely does. But it is the word "good" that matters here, of course. Bad novels are everything that can give you novel-nausea. What she doesn't mention - and I'm not sure if the source book by David Shields (that will be the well known David Shields then?) mentions either - is the role of "style"; for it is surely style as much as plot or character that gives a fictional or imaginative work its enviable strangeness. David Foster Wallace, who, like Smith, I have alot of time for, writes memorably strange fiction and non-fiction; the latter, using the toolkit of the novelist, of the imaginist. In America the long essay flourishes in magazines, and, to a lesser degree, here as well, in "Prospect" and (most recently) Manchester's "Corridor8." These essays have made stars of Malcolm Gladwell, John Gray and other thinkers (or re-thinkers, I know their ideas are not uniquely theirs). In a world that craves certainty and explanation; yet at the same time asks for celebrity and opinion; the essayist probably has a stronger foothold than at any time since Matthew Arnold. Reading, as I did on my degree, his "Everlasting Yeah", or Ruskin or Mills, I couldn't help but think how much more fun it was to read George Eliot's fiction, hewn from the same raw materials, but fed through the intimately real characters of Dorothea Brooke or Daniel Deronda. It is Orwell's last 2 novel-polemics we read now, rather than "Under the Whale".

For the essay has its own achilles heel, its lack of imagination. Whereas the novel can smuggle in any kind of truth - even if the more it takes on journalism or the moral essay, the less successful it usually is - the essay can only use the tricks of the novelist, not the imaginative heft. Smith's listing of "perhaps 10 great novels a decade" seems about right, but that's her ten great novels, mine would be different, as would be yours; and it is their strangeness and their messiness that makes them great. For instance, the flaws that an unsympathetic reader might find in Barbara Kingsolver's highly politically charged tale of western malpractice in the Congo, "The Poisonwood Bible", are as nothing to it's many wonders.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Secondhand Book Shortage in Morecambe and Lancaster!

there may well be a secondhand book shortage in Morecambe and Lancaster after my visit yesterday. Here was my impressive haul...

Lovely afternoon in Morecambe though it's still quite rundown, as this picture of fondly-remembered Frontierland shows.

Enjoyed the Art Deco grandeur of the Midland Hotel, overlooking the bay from the bar area,

...and here's another picture taken a little earlier in the afternoon.

The Art has Left the Building

When Urbis was designed and built, following the 1996 IRA bomb which ripped the heart out of the city, it was as part of a new visioning of that part of the city. Public space was transformed, with that part of the city, ravaged by sixties town planners and soulless shopping centres, opened out again so that the great buildings of Chethams, the Corn Exchange and the Cathedral became integrated back into the heart of the city. Urbis, an ultra-modern design, became a key part of that transformation, refusing the easy lure of heritage, in favour of something that in shape and style could be an architectural icon for Manchester. Alongside the Hilton, the Lowry and Imperial War Museum North, it added a highly recognisable piece of architecture to the city.

The planners and the city leaders who led on this, were rightly lauded for their vision - after that 1996 disaster. Good architecture in a city context is not an easy thing to do, and their are plenty of examples around UK that prove that. Lottery and other funding made this easier, of course, but it is the "vision" that was important. Yet, inside Urbis, there was none of that same vision. A half-baked collection of unconsidered interactive exhibits; a pristine, and soulless corporate vision of a city, less ambitious and engaging than a 3D Ladybird book of the city would have been. Those same visionaries, had no vision for the space, or what it should be. I went round (paid a fiver, as it was in those days), with my friend from Liverpool, and said "this is stupid, it's not about urban life at all, it should be an art gallery..." I'd been to a wonderfully bustling exhibition about Hong Kong city life at the Hayward a year before, and seen how it could and should be done.

Amazingly, over the last few years, Urbis has looked outward, and through a series of temporary exhibitions that reflected and contributed to the urban experience that is everywhere around in Manchester, a vision emerged - one that was not so dissimilar to what I'd seen at the Hayward a bit earlier, the idea of an art gallery as a dynamic, fast-paced experience. The excitement of the iconic building, reflected in a throbbing, exciting interior.

There was no vision at the beginning for what Urbis was all about, other than a piece of a regneration jigsaw, a plastic square on a Mancunian Monopoly board. Job done, the planners moved on, and presumably, the city pretty much forgot about Urbis, and, clearly, let artists and curators get on with the job of making it a key component of Manchester's official city vision, original and modern.

The art has not quite left the building, but is about to. The decision to move the National Football Museum from Preston to Manchester makes sense only in the sense of "numbers" - yes, it will get more people through the door in Manchester than Preston, but see what has been lost? The art, and with it, any vision of Manchester as taking cultural seriously. For though we have our high culture citadels (the Bridgwater, the Lowry, the Royal Exchange, Manchester Art Gallery), and our low culture ones (M.E.N, Eastlands, Old Trafford), neither are really creations of our age. I didn't and don't expect our current bureaucracies to have the power and vision of the Victorians, but I do expect them to create a space where those who might have a vision could make it happen. In retrospect, Urbis's empty interior was something that nobody thought about until the cost of running it, year in, year out, became clear. A museum, worse, a museum of football, is nostalgia run riot. No more chances for Mancunians to laugh at Liverpool's Beatles obsession, when we choose the past ahead of the future. Buildings are often no more than Rachel Whiteread's concrete filled interior spaces imply they are, "holders" without particular meaning. Churches become pubs and old mills become apartment blocks.

For art, it won't make much difference, for the art can still happen outside of the agreed spaces, unofficially, like the now-venerated Tony Wilson once did with Factory Records and the Hacienda. But imagine what might have been. If the city had set up Urbis with a Charter or a vision, to be a new kind of "institute of contemporary arts" for the 21st century. Take your children to that, make it a place for vibrant thought, discussion, and creativity. Let the mediated experience become the unmediated future.

So, in a political climate where the money for both football museum and art gallery comes from a department that manages to mix "culture, media and sport" in a single acronym, I only wonder what's next for the city? We talk about echoing the Victorians, by wanting the Palace to become an Opera House. Well it's only an echo. This too is nostalgia, high brow thought it might be. Then again, Charlotte House opposite the Central Library is now empty, the Odeon remains closed; the BBC building will have to find a new usage. If we're willing to give Urbis away to the most prosaic idea that comes to town, then let's forget about vision. Turn all of these into shopping centres; northern Trocadero's; outposts of Arndales; or, let's make them into a museum is applicable to the age, welcome to the Oxford Road Museum of Reality Television, welcome to the Truman Show.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Decade Talk

The Times' list of best hundred books of the decade, is a journalists' list, a news list. There's quality in there; Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" is the number one choice, but there's also the books that defined the decade, hang the quality; Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code amongst them. When the Guardian does this sort of thing they tend to do a better presentation job of it (you'll have to crawl through 17 pages of the Times unhelpful website to get to the number one).What's most noticeable is the amount of non-fiction, from "No Logo" to the report on 9/11 that make the list. Books about globalisation, terror and financial meltdown seem to define the decade in some ways. We have problems with nomenclature during the first 20 years of the century. The "noughties" will do as a joke. In talking about the 20th century we use our Kings as markers, houses are Edwardian or Georgian; but with a long-lived monarch where do we go? Whereas the years up to 1914 can seem now as "prelude to war" we can't predict any futures, so this decade surely begins, really, psychologically, with the "twin towers", even if, as a number of documentaries, and writers like Robert Fisk have indicated, this may well have been the end-act of a certain kind of appeased terror. After 9/11 the west was not going to remain non-interventionist, at least where its interests were at stake - and as globalisation shows, those interests are intertwined, and everywhere. But back to that list; the Booker prize winners have already been winnowed away, only Martel, Hollinghurst and (bizarrely) Adiga, by my reckoning, making the cut, though a number of short and long list titles are included. A list that finds room for competent but unremarkable books like "The Powerbook", "The Accidental" and "Fingersmith", makes one wonder if Virago's champions are alive and well and writing for the Times; whilst the choice of non-fiction from Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood seems a little perverse. There's little left-field fiction in the the list; no Magnus Mills (2001's "Three to see the king"), no Will Self ("The Book of Dave"), and little American writing, (no "Netherland" and no "This Book Can Save Your Life"); and the poetry selection is safe and uninvolving. (I would have Bolano's "The Romantic Dogs", translated by Laura Healy). All lists are arbitrary of course, but what's interesting is that the previous week's list of the decades top 100 films, shows the "noughties", if not quite a golden decade, to be at far more worth celebrating than you might have imagined; the high number of non British-American films, being a sign of where the quality lay - though the top 10, with 8 out of 10 being British or American seems absurd. I imagine their top 100 albums of the decade will be an absolute hoot however.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I had a helluva week. Theatre in Oldham last Thursday, the youth play "Heaven Spot" developed by Oldham Coliseum; music at the academy on Saturday, a sold out Yo La Tengo; and literature on Monday, Elizabeth Baines reading in Chorlton at the Book Festival. Knuckling down since then, working hard, cold nights, a certain waiting-for-the-weekend angst. Now its here, and I need to slow down, and then speed up. Ideas flashed by me all week, are those stories? or concepts? or am I too unobservant to see? I spent a while working through the back catalogue on Monday, getting back as far as 2002, in my writing, (a year when I seemed to write primarily about the internet and paranoia), and listened to a cassette I'd recorded as long ago as 1985, putting it on a second time as I struggled to recognise who it was that I was then.

I seem swamped in memories at the moment, echoing in my dreams alongside more troublesome thoughts. I'm thinking of myself as a little boy again, the age of innocence, and it's hard to do that without a certain pain. You remember the awkwardness rather than the innocence, I Think. I don't think I could write about my childhood - isn't it too generic? Yet I can smell the classroom, and there's something ineffably modern about my life, even as far back as 1972, a five year old in a hospital being saved by "modern medicine." Images of the hospital ward as I convalesced are some of my earliest memories. I didn't want to get out of the dream anaesthesia state; I remember a white hotel room surrounded by cards, and as I recovered, the squirrels - my totems - on the hospital lawns coming up to the window.

Memories are almost like the impressions left over from the stamp of life, they are inert, and unchangeable, but you can, like an archivist, find something more, go deeper into the canvas, go "oh, yes, that was why." Watching a drama of Margaret Thatcher's last days in power on the television it treats it - perhaps as it should - as a Shakespearean political drama - yet the life outside the commons, led by that disastrous administration, is absent. We only see the Conservative party as a comic creation, more Dickensian than Shakespearean. 1990 I was unhappy in my first job, or was I, at that stage, at least happy in it? I'd just bought a house, moved in, set up home, cut the lawn, filled the fridge. The unhappiness grew over the next couple of years; no political responsibility for that, I guess. There's a photograph somewhere of me at the Labour party winning party during that year's local elections. Thatcherism had no answers to the questions that it raised. Scorch earth policy, and the north has not yet quite recovered; yet they talk of this recession as the "longest" or the "deepest" - it doesn't feel anywhere near as disastrous? The social contract has held; but for how long? Next year we will see.

I half feel I should start another blog for my thoughts on politics, technology and the like; yet I distrust the truthfulness of commentary; of think tanks. I still have the higher respect for the truth that fiction can articulate. I need to have a read through the Times' "Best hundred books" of this underwhelming decade, to see if we are still managing it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

"We are a corrupt people involved in a collective lie"

I take the title from a recent blog post by the Guardian arts critic Jonathan Jones. What he actually says is "We are a corrupt people, apparently, involved in a collective lie." I'm interested in that "apparently" surrounded on each side by a comma. It's a brilliant line, and I'll come back to it's meaning in a little while, but first that "apparently." Does he mean "we are a corrupt people apparently" or that we are "apparently involved in a collective lie" or both? It's important. The sentence, I feel should read, "Apparently, we are a corrupt people involved in a collective lie", since he's using the phrase with some irony. It would not work otherwise - for he is not talking about our politics, or our ethics, but about our art.

There's comedy in the phrase, and it's asking the unaskable question. If, (to remember Pangloss in "Candide") we are living in the best of all possible times (for art) then how come the art isn't greater than it is? And though Jones is talking about the UK contemporary art scene he could, one extrapolates, be talking of art in this country (or this English-speaking culture, to be more accurate) in its entirety. It was a question I began to ask at the recent AND Festival in Liverpool: I was intrigued by this idea of a new art that sits between cinema-digital technology-games and visual art; but does it actually exist? More importantly, is it any good? I can well believe that we are living in a golden age for technology, but does this translate to art?

To go back to Jones, it's clear that contemporary art, in the echoing chamber of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, and in the slipstream of the YBA's, Sensation, and the Frieze fare, does exist as a phenomenal commercial success, but as an artistic success? Those agent provocateurs, Hirst and Emin, seem increasingly likely to be remembered for their historical rather than artistic role; whilst the artists that I rated highest, Gillian Wearing, Rachel Whiteread, and Anthony Gormley, are at interesting points in their careers, their best works already iconic, and part of the language, and a question remaining over whether what they do next can extend their reputations, or risk cliche.

Yet, outside of the gallery, there are few art forms that have had a renaisance over the last 20 years. Theatre's new trick, first showcased in David Hare's "The Permanent Way", - the documentary drama - seems to show that television has taken over the theatre in more ways than one; whilst it would be a brave critic who argued that the latt decade in pop music or film was up there with the highlights of the past. A cliche it maybe to laud its achievement, but the American TV drama of the The Wire, The West Wing, 24 and the Sopranos, may well be the leading cultural achievement of the last dozen years - that and reality TV, which at least has the benefit of not aspiring to high art.

For literature a close reading of the prize shortlists, whether for poetry or the novel, indicates that there has been no presiding spirit or leading group of writers; that Martin Amis and Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes remain the big hitters of fiction, and poetry hasn't had a new "star" for 20 years or more, yet literature like art, remains in a constant state of cheerleading. There have been some good books over the last decade or so, even if by long-established authors, yet it's clear that the new century, a decade in has not seen a narrative or lyrical surge to match our technological advancement. You won't read this anywhere in the critical infrastructure, which speaks of each Booker shortlist as "a very good one", or our annual poetry crop as "a very good year for poetry". The hundreds, now thousands, like myself, who've been through the creative writing courses; the every-town-has-one literary festivals; none of this seems to have created, as yet, a new golden age for literature. In fact, what seems most apparent, is the intolerance shown to voices that are not firmly in the mainstream, or writing with the values and aims of the commercial fiction writer. Here as elsewhere one can only ask. Are we a corrupt people involved in a collective lie? Apparently.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Manchester's Literary Renaissance

I couldn't help smiling at this posting in the Guardian about Manchester's Literary Renaissance, if only because of its somewhat haphazard nature. The Manchester literary scene ebbs and flows over the years, with magazines, readings, writers falling in and out of the city as life and literature changes for all of them. At this point in time, there's certainly a critical mass of writers based in Manchester, with courses at all 4 Greater Manchester Universities (Manchester, MMU, Salford and Bolton), and rarely a week goes by without a reading night.

Yet the city remains a little stubbornly unliterary in some ways. Though the critical mass of writers will no doubt look locally on occasion for their subject matter, it is usually its underbelly that makes it into fictions such as those by Joe Stretch and Chris Killen. Though for every Cracker, there's always a Cold Feet, and Didsbury suburbs feature in the work of a number of Manchester writers.

The Manchester Fiction Prize was won by an established writer with few connections with the city, Toby Litt, whilst Carole Ann Duffy's poetry, though it sometimes references the city, is anything but Mancunian, if that means anything. Even our most famous literary son, Anthony Burgess, only really wrote about the city in his memoirs, though he had enough of a chip on his shoulder to state that "the novelist is Mancunian."

Many of those writers linked with the city, involved in the city, myself included, are emigres, and I still rarely see the city that I know, usually love, and occasionally despair of, depicted realistically - or even with the definition that you find in the songs of Mark E. Smith and Morrissey, or in great TV like Cracker and Queer as Folk. The great Mancunian novel remains stubbornly unwritten - and it is Gwendoline Riley's slim vignettes (not mentioned in the article), "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes" that would be key texts in any "writing about Manchester."

Jerome De Groot, who writes the article, is based at the University, and on the board of the festival, so its nice that he balances the institutions with the literary underground, and good to see Jeff Noon's Manc classic "Vurt" remembered in despatches. For me, writing in the city since 1995, its only recently that I feel that I have enough perspective to write substantially about the city.

My own favourite story is of Borges, visiting England with his mother, having won the inaugural International Publishers Prize in 1961 visiting Manchester to pay homage to De Quincey. I like to think Borges sprinkled a bit of his magic in the waters of the Irwell, and we occasionally catch a glimpse in the Mancunian rain.