Monday, April 26, 2010

Tips for Writers

There's been a surfeit of tips for writers recently including the Guardian's feature, which followed on from Elmore Leonard's book "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction" - and nearer to home, Jen Ashworth's blogging of writing tips. She was looking for pithy, I think, and I haven't really been up for soundbites recently, so I didn't offer any of mine. But it did make me think...

It all goes back to reading with me. A writer, even (or especially?) a trainee one, reads books with a keen magpie eye for tricks of the trade. Does the average reader notice that Anne Enright's Booker winning "The Gathering" hides the revelation towards the end, yet could have revealed it on the first page? Perhaps not, but the writer might. If you're going to create a hostage to fortune - a death, a coma, a rape - whatever make sure you know how you're going to deal with it. My M.A. course was more bloodthirsty than Oxford during Morse's heyday - with just about half of the novels having a death in the first chapter. That's a lot for a first time novelist to have to deal with. (And believe you me, you have to deal with it.) I groan a bit in a soap opera or similar when there's a real tragedy affecting a major character as you know, just like in real life, time will stop. Making time stop is the worst thing you can do in a novel. Unless that's the point, of course... the novel I wrote in 1995 "Lineage" begins with a death, but of a pet dog. What it does is resurrect memory and send the character back to where he grew up, and back to his past.

In short stories I tend to undertake a "slow reveal" - and you notice that short story writer novelists like Enright, like McEwan - often do the same thing. The kernel of the story is there, known to the writer, an unchanging spot in time and space, and the story is a construct around it, revealing it little by little. Often, of course, the real story is not the death or the other big thing, but the reason for it. It is the absence of the thing that the novel is about, which creates the novel. Not all novels are quests, admittedly, but enough are. I always ask the question: why have I decided to introduce these characters at this time and place. Has something happened? Is something about to happen? Has a stranger come to town?

But as the years go by I read other books for style as much as structure. The two should be intimately linked. I'm not a great one for the first person because its so hard to structure a novel when it is always in the first person. Yet I appreciate the urgency of it and have - in novels and short stories - alternated between first and third person. We often speak about the unreliable narrator - and its there in Jen Ashworth's "A Kind of Intimacy" or Rachel Cusk's "The Country Life" - but there's its opposite, the reliable narrator. A storyteller/observer like Carraway in "The Great Gatsby", for instance, or our guide to the world such as Holden Caulfield. Read these books, and see what they get away with, what works, what doesn't. There's probably a model for your story out there somewhere. Just because your building your own unique house, doesn't mean that you have to invent the bricks, and can't use an architect.

Perfection's overrated. Competence is boring. Sloppiness is stupid. In other words, you can quite easily keep writing and re-writing, but the bane of fiction over the last few years has been competent writing. Even an excellent novel like "The Life of Pi" suffers from it's language being prosaic. It's been a while since I read it, but you'll be pushed to find a memorable sentence in the whole book. There's a kind of global style that's the literary equivalent of the transatlantic accent in singing - it's utterly competent, but lacks originality. Kill your darlings, all the courses say. Fair enough. There's purple prose or literary pyrotechnics that add little to a novel or a story, but if you're going to kill your darlings, make sure you don't strangle the life out of the thing. Perfection's overrated, and looks, to my tired eyes, like competence squared. That's no excuse for sloppiness, of course. Novels are full of contradictions (though hopefully not in the plot), and that's why we read the best of them.

Because I write contemporary fiction I don't do much in the way of research, but I am a stickler for authenticity. British novels remain scared of detail, scared of brand names, terrified of proper nouns. A character in a British novel will have a sandwich for lunch, in an American novel, the character will have pastrami on rye, with O.K. sauce. I hate how stories set in the near past tend to use a shorthand of signifiers. There was even a Space Hopper on the lawn in the 70s set movie "Cemetary Junction" - I hope they were just being ironic - in a novel a Space Hopper is generic window-dressing; think of something else; remember something different. If your characters are listening to music/reading books/going to films/using gadgets don't just say Lady Gaga/Dan Brown/Avatar/iPod - you've just created a marketing segment not a flesh and blood character. If in doubt. Then don't.

I find settings quite hard. I'm in constant admiration of writers who can move characters swiftly between rooms, locations and place and time. My first novel took place over 24 hours, I've written others that are equally real time: a week, six months etc. If I'm happy describing where they live, I feel I have to describe where they work. Remember "Friends". I don't think we ever saw where Ross lived in the first few series. Did it matter? If your Tolstoy or Georg Eliot you might map out every part of the town or village; but for the rest of us, novels are like film sets - they have a few detailed interiors, and the rest is just a facade, like in the movie "Westworld." (But without the homicidal robots.)

And whatever you do: don't write a long blog post when you were trying to spend a couple of hours on your fiction. That would just be prevaricating.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Last Art Rock Band

Tomorrow sees the release of "Your Future, Our Clutter" the new album from the Fall. Signed now to Domino records, there's more buzz about this one than for a number of years. Absence, with the Fall, makes the art grow stronger - as its a couple of years since the (excellent) last album "Imperial Wax Solvent" - and live they've been, by most accounts, towards the unreliable end of their scale. After spending most of the last decade changing his whole band round every album or so, making recent line-ups of the Fall quite limited in its scope as they grapple with the new songs and don't know the old, Mark E. Smith seems to be happy with the latest lot. Let's hope it stays that way. For on first listen, (you can listen to it free here) "Your Future, Our Clutter" is a sharper, more focussed work that should appeal to new fans as well as old. You always used to be able to road test Fall songs via Peel sessions, but I've heard quite a few of these tracks live over the last couple of years - though they've changed massively on record. The Fall are never poor, of course; there's only one terrible album in their large catalogue ("Are you are missing winner") though since the mid-90s albums have tended to have a bit of flab as well as  few killer tracks.

For me, who was relatively late to the party ("Perverted by Language" in 1983), I've been pleased that the last few albums - and the new one in particular - have seen an expansion of the Fall's sonic possibilities. Going back at least as far as "Extricate" the Fall have been as much an electronic band as a guitar band - and it is this soundclash that has, in my view, given them a longevity beyond any number of guitar-bass-drums outfits. The five albums from 2003's "The Real New Fall LP" onwards give credence to my view that they're the last art rock band, rather than the last of the punk survivors, or as wikipedia would have it, a long-lived "post-punk" band. You'd be hard-pressed to find a punk song in their back catalogue; though they were pushing gothic psychedelia as early as "Frightened" on their debut album; wayward rockabilly on "Dragnet's" "Psykick Dancehall" (recently resurrected in their live sets) and art rock repetition on Grotesque's centrepiece "The NWRA." All of that before the drenched avant-blues that saw the early career peaks of "Slates" and "Hex Enduction Hour." Forming in 1976, they were simply too young to be seventies pre-punk experimentalists like Pere Ubu or even Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle.  But if you'd look for precedents then it is the feral invention of 70s art rock, as much as late 50s rockabilly and late 60s garage psychedelia that defines the Fall. Success would have destroyed them in some ways, I guess, though it's hard to see how Smith's peculiar vocal could have ever been responsible for a real turntable hit. Notably, their constant appearances on Final Score and the Vauxhall car advert with "Sparta FC" and "Touch Sensitive" respectively relegate Smith's vocals to a few yelps.

So, another year, another Fall album, and the template that Smith developed - probably around the time of their second or third album - has served him well. Like past-albums "Your Future, Our Clutter" finds room for rockabilly, an oddly appropriate cover version, the Fall's own primal hard rock and warped Germanic electronica. That the final track echoes the rare heart-on-sleeve balladry of "Bill is Dead" is a reminder of how much remains in the Smith locker.

In a blog post about the Fall, what can one really say - other than recommend that you listen to them? They remain a singular pleasure: as tired and jaundiced as one can get about the abomination that "indie" rock has become, the existence of an alternative band that has never tired of a more primal sound (even on their plusher dance-orientated Fontana albums), yet is a million times more ambitious than any garage band has the right to be, has to be a good thing. It's usually a bad that  music is in a bad way when the Fall are getting noticed again: after all, they're an ever present. I'm still intending to write a much longer piece about their long career - but every time I get down to it, there's another album to think about. It's four albums since long-term champion John Peel died, which given their depth and quality, would be more than many bands entire careers.

Friday, April 23, 2010

My Cultural Week

I'm back to "normal" of sorts, after a long period of recuperation, though like a footballer, I'm not quite match fit yet - that will take a few games to sort me out. I had bought a few tickets to have something to look forward to whilst I was unwell, and inevitably two of those concerts were this week.

It was my first time at Band on the Wall for a gig since it reopened, and you can see why there was so much time, effort and money spent on regenerating the venue. There's rarely such a connection between venue, bands and audience as you find there. That said, it's quirks are as much an irritant as they are charming. At a packed gig for Candi Staton, I'd arrived a little late, seeing the doors opened at 8pm assumed there would be a support or a long wait before she came on. I'll know for next time - so coming in at 8.45pm I missed the first couple of songs. Annoying though. The sound of the gig was great - she's got an amazing voice still, a brilliant stage persona that clearly has a new lease of life since she's been "rediscovered", songs to die for, and a top notch band who can equally do country, southern soul or funk with aplomb. As I say, the gig was packed, and the historical architecture of the building includes too intrusive poles that restrict views for a substantial part of the venue. If you want to see the band, get there early in other words. Though I wasn't quite in the mood for southern soul after my first day back at work, there's no denying that I was foot-tapping, hip-moving, and smiling by the end. I'd have paid the price of admission just to hear her sing her wonderful "I'd rather be an old man's sweetheart than a young man's fool", never mind "Young Hearts Run Free", "Suspicious Minds" and the rest.

My musical taste is nothing if its not diverse and though I attended Chris Cunningham on a whim, I was looking forward to the show. Another old venue - this time the Opera House, which has a crumbling grandeur similar to places of its type and age which I liked alot. I think we'll regret it when we've renovated all such places. A video maker turned perfomer, the Chris Cunningham Live show is a choreographed piece of live video mixing featuring three large screens and a deafening musical assemblage. Its been successfully shown at a number of "digital" arts events over the last year, and the good sized crowd was clearly relishing the opportunity to be next. First up were the band Beak>,  local support Lonelady unfortunately laid low by illness. My friends gave them little time before retiring to the bar, but I was quite impressed by their quiet austerity. A band featuring Portishead's Geoff Barrow, they are an immobile post-rock trio, fundamentally serious in their non-showy intent; but as a prelude, and in their own right, I enjoyed the dynamics, of their Can-lite pieces, more early 70s King Crimson (though without Fripp's pulsating guitar work) than another Mogwai. Nice. Cunningham's show began without much fanfare. A corruscating avalanche of images across three screens with a musical accompaniment that ran from video game bleeps to hard hat techno chunks, accompanied by occasional off screen lights and lasers. I hadn't known what to expect and was pretty transfixed for the whole hour. In it's way it was a predictable montage, of a horrorshow imagination that had clear David Lynch influences (Eraserhead, Dune), though also wouldn't have been that dissimilar to fans of "Freaks" and "Hollywood Babylon", whilst the whole show had a love of sounds and images that would otherwise be seen as distasteful or ugly that owes alot to experimentalists like Throbbing Gristle.

Yet, there's a unique sensibility to Cunningham's work as well, which could only be of the current time, it's fast edited viscerality being as much as spectacle as Cirque Du Soleil or "The Hurt Locker." The audience was quite young - young than me and Cunningham in the main - but I recognised the artistic sensibilities, and could only admire the confident execution. If there was a hollowness, then I think this reflects the work's origins - much of Cunningham's audio-visual gymnastics coming from an advertising/pop culture aesthetic. A video for "Windowlicker" by Aphex Twin, is, at the end of the day, just a video. The deafening techno was equally as bombastic, industrial in scale, but also a little meaningless. The show was exceptional in many ways, highly enjoyable, but also, in its own way, as predictable as a rock concert, playing the hits to an appreciative audience. I'm not saying I was expecting Polynesian dancers (though why not? one should always expect Polynesian dancers), but something a little more spontaneous would have lifted it a level. Was it a film? A gig? A recital? A performance? A little of all of these.


Last week I went to the cinema for the first time in ages, not because there was a "must see" film but because a friend asked if I wanted to go and see Ricky Gervais's and Stephen Merchant's "Cemetary Junction." I put aside my "All British films are Crap" prejudices and went along. Set in the 70s (for no apparent reason) once it decides that its not "Mean Streets" or "The Grimleys" - i.e. whether to be gritty realism or comedy kitsch - it actually turns into quite a heartwarming coming of age film. The misanthropy that seems there in Gervais's live work seems to disappear when he directs and writes. Gervais is a keen observer of British life, so the seventies setting seems a little lazy (T.Rex check, David Bowie check, Slade check, Elton John check) and more as a way of providing a bit of "knowing" distance than necessary to the plot; yet I think its probably the last time that you could easily delineate between the bosses, white collar and blue collar workers - and the easy stereotypes allow a simple story of 3 teenage friends deciding what to do with their life in a suburb of Reading to develop quietly and effectively.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Quietest Chaos

Look up. See the blue sky, untramelled by vapour trails. A hundred years since this unique view. The Icelandic volcanic ash explosion, a rare reminder of how even in the west we can feel the effect of primal nature, and, more importantly, do very little about it. What we can do - choose not to live on quake faults or build houses on flood plains or settlements on the side of dormant volcanos - has kept us safer than other more volatile parts of the world. In a sense this unexpected entry of nature into our daily life should be a relief as well as an annoyance. I don't know what % of the UK population fly each year but it must be quite small; and there's a sizeable minority who never fly, have never flown, possibly haven't even got passports. In trying to cut down on "air travel" for environmental purposes we enter a world of absurd assumptions: that we can't do without the airplane. There was an interesting article on international trade a year or so ago where it pointed out that many items that we "import" we also "export" an equal number. This is made possible not just by container ships but by freight travel. Our interconnectedness for business and pleasure reasons is real, but it can be overplayed. For instance, it is tiny Ireland that is our biggest export market, not massive growing China.

One of the reasons I don't have much time for contemporary poets who write about nature is that it seems in denial of the world that we live in. Thomas Hardy would certainly have written vapour trails into his poems if his sky had been filled with them constantly, yet the modern nature poem wants to take us back to a world without technology (despite probably driving there.)Well, today and yesterday and tomorrow are theirs. Here is the bright sky without the roar or the dispersed fumes of the constant air travel. I feel genuinely sorry for people who are stuck abroad or stuck here - but if they're on holiday, well it's surely a chance to extend it? and if it's business, then find an internet cafe and carry on as normal. It will be interesting, assuming this continues for a little while longer, to see what effect it does have. We know that Eurostar is full, but the ferries still have places. In other words, air travel isn't maybe as "essential" as we thought it was. Nature, I feel, is just being a little inconvenient for once.

The airline industry, of course, could go bankrupt, but in reality, I'm not entirely sure that without a low to no-tax regime the airline industry wouldn't always be bankrupt or close to bankrupt. Perhaps, like the banks, we should nationalise it, and see how much of it is necessary for the greater good, and how much is socially (and environmentally) useless. If you look at Victoria Station in Manchester, the outside wall has a list of destinations, including a number in continental Europe. The old railway systems were able to deposit us on the continent without too much difficulty. In "Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin, set in the 50s, the poor Irish heroine has to travel from Liverpool to New York, it takes a week in each direction. It is our addiction to things happening "now" that addicts us to air travel. I've worked on cross-European projects for the last few years, and travelled more abroad with work, than ever before. You still travel for a day in each direction for a meeting or a conference. I always enjoy the experience of seeing somewhere new, and think that Britain's insularism needs more European interaction rather than less, yet rarely think it's actually "necessary" in the scheme of things. A man from Cisco, at a conference last year, said that after the economic chaos, they'd cut their foreign travel by 80%. Of course, as the company who makes the pipes that connects up the technology for video conferencing and the like, they should be able to. But 80%, that's a hell of a lot of unnecessary travel beforehand.

I wonder how long the news will be making this main story. The human interest - people being stuck in a place, and their families worried - is one thing; but beyond that, beyond the wedding's delayed and the concert's cancelled it's actually something that doesn't affect most people that much . There will be BBC reporters in far flung locations unable to travel to their next assignment; and we've already had a few sporting fixtures cancelled. Had the volcano blown the week before the World Cup we'd have had a few problems - though it would have been the media, rather than the teams who'd almost certainly already be out there.

I like most of all the headline writers. "Airport Chaos" they say. Well, it's the quietest chaos. Airplanes on the ground; empty terminals; people bundling themselves onto buses or queueing for ferry tickets. Though in the original Greek myths chaos was "the original dark void from which everything else appeared." Perhaps, after all, the headline writers have got it right. Only in our contemporary myths we call it Stansted.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Not Just Nostalgia

There was plenty of irony in the nostalgia that Malcolm Mclaren's sad death brought out. The punk generation are, unfortunately, now the most nostalgic generation. Old bands who weren't even that good in the first place, are still touring their small back catalogues. Maclaren was no fan of nostalgia, but his death brought out the nostalgic - it was punk rock, the Pistols, Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow, and "Buffalo Gals" which filled his obituary, not the stuff of his last 25 years.

Today is Record Store Day, which is the indie rock equivalent of the Farmers market. This year it seems to have gone up a notch, with national news coverage. Pleasingly though it has a heady nostalgia for vinyl, rather than CDs (or god forbid, downloads), the USP of Record Store Day is new releases on the medium. I love vinyl, but don't fetishise it. After all, the majority of LPs, 7"s and 12"s I've got aren't particularly the works of art one would hope for. My Bowie albums are the cheap mid-price 80s reissues; the average major label 7" picture cover is far from being a thing of beauty. It is only with scarcity that vinyl has returned to it's early 70s heyday; with a premium price, hand-crafted sleeves, and thicker vinyl.

The NME asked "will we ever feel nostalgic for the compact disc?" after all, we can rip a CD-R for 10p or so, they're disposable coasters. I've more CDs than LPs now; after all I bought my first ("Brotherhood" by New Order) in the mid-80s, an "early adopter." In those days the CD-rack was in the hi-fi shop not the record store, apart from in the bigger shops. I'd actually craved a CD player for the year before I could afford one because of some of the CDs that were being released. There was the Durutti Column's CD only compilation "Valuable Passages", the extra tracks of the Cure's "Staring at the sea - the singles". Getting a £10.99 CD home and finding it had the 35 minutes or so of a vinyl album felt like a real disappointment. Before they were ubiquitous they did appear modern, futuristic - but the 5" CD single, the poor remastering of old albums, and the million sales or more for the diabolical "Brothers in Arms" took away any sense of cool. My favourite band were the Cocteau Twins, and the first of their albums I bought on CD rather than vinyl was 1988's "Blue Bell Knoll". The sound quality, particularly for such ethereal music, as well as the convenience was what I liked about the CD - and still do.

Yet, I can't help but thinking that because the CD is just a container - it's hard to love the medium. Yet, maybe, as everything becomes a download, we remember the first time we bought a particular album on CD. As albums became more bloated in length, the vinyl wasn't long enough to hold them - and if you're a vinyl fetishist these days you can be paying twice or more the cost for that format rather than the CD - and with double CD compilations and the like, you need a virtual boxset to fit all the tracks in. I can't say that I've ever been a fan of the CD-single, though I've hundred of those as well, though I do feel that with the download, I'll  miss the passing of the six remixes or whatever. But I do miss the 12" (or 10") single. The E.P. or extended mix seems a great little format that has drifted into irrelevance. I've got loads of 12" records from the early 80s which see a band expanding their repertoire with longer tracks (such as Psychic TV's "Unclean" or Unknown Cases' "Masimbabele") or with carefully crafted E.P.s.

Truth is, just as its sometimes revealing to re-read poetry in the format in which it originally appeared rather than in the selected or collected, its also important to see how great music first came into my life. You'd hear a track once or twice on the radio, and unless you then went out and bought it, it would become just a memory. I can't imagine that many of the Record Store Day special editions will be for much more than the collector, but I do hope that one or two offer something more than just nostalgia.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Miniaturist

I've enjoyed a couple of Colm Toibin's short stories set in rural Ireland, but his acclaimed last novel "Brooklyn" is the first novel I've read. It's not really possible to give it a full review without providing "spoilers" and I'd certainly not discourage anyone from reading what is an elegant miniature. Toibin has previously, in "The Master", written about Henry James, and this book is utterly Jamesian, in tone, in subject and in pace. It tells the story of young Irish girl in the 1950s (early 50s I'd guess, though this is never made explicit), who is given an opportunity to travel to America, where she gets a job in a department store. Transplanting the Jamesian story of a transatlantic displacement to the 1950s, Toibin maps out Eilis Lacey's life in minute detail. The pace, in the first half of the book, is deliberate, langorous, and at times, quite boring. You need to stick in there for the pay off, but it's a short book. I'm not sure whether the accumulation of detail - which seems a common technique in contemporary fiction, particularly when it is looking back (I'm thinking of Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency as much as Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall) - is really necessary, though through it, Toibin provides the books comic moments as well as sketching his heroine's personality. Zoe Heller refers to the novel as "the most compelling and moving portrait of a young woman I have read in a long time", yet Lacey rarely, for me, comes alive as a living, breathing creature. Her whole life is dominated by external forces, which though essentially benign, seem to leave this quiet young woman almost incapable of independent action. It seems hardly believable that it's set in the same decade as Richard Yates's "Revolutionary Road" for instance. Toibin seems to have wanted to write a novel echoing not just James, but Edith Wharton, about a young life that is totally constrained by both her upbringing and temperament. Though it is Charlotte Bronte's Lucy Snowe in "Vilette" who Eilis brings most to mind. It is perhaps the last moment in history, and in location (rural Ireland), that such a heroine seems entirely believable. As I've said, its a "miniature", and its his triumph that he gives us a life not through a deep exploration of her inner thoughts, but from the accumulation of small moments, small actions. At the end, we are left with a lingering disquiet as we try and untangle what has actually happened in a very quiet book. That I'm willing to accept this means that Toibin finally brings me round, even if I still don't quite believe in either Eilis or her situation. It won the 2009 Costa novel award, and some were disappointed that it didn't do better in the Booker. It's a very old fashioned novel, written in an overly plain style, an elegant, but underwhelming English. The smalltown Irish community must be one of the most over-worked subjects in literature, and Toibin simply describes (and describes simply), rather than giving us the verbal joys, of, say, Anne Enright's "The Gathering." Its a solid work, but don't expect any literary fireworks.

(BTW Toibin is spelt Tóibín but can't get Blogger to spell it correctly except going into italics...)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Pathology of a Bad Idea

You can see how it happened. Channel 4's incomprehensible funding scheme "4iP" which I've heard described by its promoters as "wanting content" and "not about content, its about platforms" depending on whether the audience was a creative or digital one. Then you get one of national institutions, the RSC, who, to Channel 4 and Screen WM and probably everyone else involved is absolutely desperate to get involved with the scheme, because they are the RSC. Then there's this Twitter thing, which probably nobody involved in the decision making is actually involved with, but which everyone seems to be talking about. Then there's that underlying policy document in the bowels of the RSC which means that they need to do this much each year, blah blah blah, to engage young people with Shakespeare. And there's probably a new media officer or department who they simply don't let near the main stage productions, and who works mostly with the marketing or education department. Then there's the excellent Tim Wright, a well-respected figure who makes the link between literature and digital media, and he's worked for the BBC don't you know? and he works for Mudlark, a "cross platform production company" who will presumably make all this difficult stuff happen.

Like a disease you can trace back the spread - but this isn't a disease, this is the much publicised (naturally) bad idea that is a Twitter version of Romeo & Juliet by, yes, the RSC.  With a real cast tweeting over several weeks - improvising for heavens sake! - it's called "Such Tweet Sorrow" and will, I'm sure, be a romp - and given the pedigree of those involved will, I'm sure, be as good as these things can possibly be.

But someone should have stopped this before it even left the ideas floor. What is it about "Romeo & Juliet" that makes it the most malleable of Shakespeare's plays? Perhaps its because the plot is familiar to everyone who has never been near Shakespeare's words - which you probably can't say for Cymbeline. It's a play about young people in love as well - in other words, its the one play that you can take young people to in an unadulterated form and be pretty sure that they'll not only "get" but actually like. But there's something more fundamental here - which was raised when there were some TV adaptions "in modern language" a while back (can't remember if BBC or C4 was to blame for that one) - and that is that without the language, "Romeo & Juliet" is just a plot, and quite a hackneyed one at that; almost certainly one that Shakespeare pillaged from elsewhere. Without the language the tragedy of the story - absurdly melodramatic as it is - would be too much for the most sensationalist of daytime soaps. One assumes that in the odd medium of Twitter, which people will see happening at the same time as everything else going on in your twitter stream, that a "real time" element will have to stick very closely to the Shakespeare plotline, otherwise why even call it Romeo & Juliet? Perhaps its just a hackneyed love story, a teenage romance fired across the digital platforms with no thought to whether this is the right medium, or the right audience - for if its aimed at teens, there aren't that many of them within Twitter's slightly older demographic; and if its aimed at the rest of us - the ex-teens who perhaps left Shakespeare behind when they left school - then what does it give us? In his version, Baz Luhrmann gave us a kicking soundtrack, Danes and DeCaprio, and more importantly, Shakespeare's language. "Such Tweet Sorrow" only seems to exist because there are companies out there who are trying to create dramatic content via social media. It's not even that the Twitter narrative is an innovative idea; Manchester had its own realtime love story, "November in Manchester" which Tom Mason put together last year without a pot of innovation funding, just imagination and some compliant friends.

Its not that I'm against new forms of writing and performance and the incorporation of digital technologies in the medium, it's just the idiocy of this particular idea - and, of course, I only know about it through old media, since despite following most arts organisations in the country who are on Twitter, it was the Guardian who alerted me to it, not the RSC, not Mudlark, not 4iP. And all that press has done it good - there's 3000 or so following the drama already - though I wonder whether you'd be better off catching up in the story via their website than  polluting your usually polite twitter stream with "Are redheads good in beds. Ginger minge or ginger cringe?" (@Mercuteio) or "Hotel breakfast,early but got to be done,especially with this hangover, bit f****d last night" (@LaurenceFriar).

Of course, getting a new writer (rather than W. Shakespeare) to script this wouldn't have got any column inches; actually using Twitter as a normal communication channel (which it is) rather than a teenage-shriekathon (which it really isn't) would have involved genuinely engaging with what the medium is, rather than the media perceptions of it; and reducing teenage experience to the back pages of a a teenage magazine or the last bus home on a Friday night, seems a little cliched and derogatory. Compared to this, Skins is er... Shakespearean in its themes and language and much derided 2 Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps is a comic masterpiece.

As a social experiment, I'm still interested in it, of course, though think all the talent and money and time that has gone into what is a fundamentally bad idea may well have been better used elsewhere. There's plenty of user-created fun on Twitter as it is - whether you're following Samuel Johnson or Molesworth - and what always concerns me about things like this, is that if they succeed (presumably virtual bums on tweetdecks) there will be more of the same, and if they fail, it will stop anyone risking anything genuinely intelligent and creative. I read with interest this posting by Australian poet and theatre critic Alison Croggan where she addresses the vexatious issue of "plays as literature." 

I simply don't buy the argument that plays are not "literary": if there's a text, it exists as an autonomous script as well as a "blueprint for performance", and that text can be read on its own terms. Certainly, some of my favourite literary works are plays.

Most literary readers would agree with her - for me, as well as Shakespeare and Webster - its Churchill and Pinter, Albee and Miller - but theatre these days is apparently not just about the text its about the spectacle. The West End show, the Cirque Du Soleil, Les Miserables, Monkey - they often have literary texts underpinning them ("it's always the book" actors and directors spout out when a musical fails or succeeds beyond expectations), but you get the feeling that more and more people - who should know better - wish that theatre was more like the films, where the writer was dispensable, or could be replaced by a team of impovising actors coming up with text speak to tell the story. This is such a bad idea, because, despite the presence of at least two competent writers, Shakespeare for the source material, and Tim Wright behind the scenes, the writing seems to be what nobody cares about.

But I'll give it a go, nonetheless. I'm following the protagonists; will follow the story. How long before I switch off their babbling will be interesting? Perhaps it is using Twitter's social media capability after all - @julietcap16, stop being so childish, or I'll unfollow you before you can say "Romeo" (who, for some reason, appears not to tweet.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Lost Art of Reading

Perhaps I should have expected that following on from an eye operation it would be reading books that I found most difficult. It's only really the last few days, six weeks after the op, that I've been able to feel comfortable more than skim reading the newspaper. Watching TV and using the internet, perhaps because they are more passive, were less hard.

Anyway, having lost the art of reading over a period when I had plenty of time to read, if not energy, I've finally struggled through a complete book. I'd suggested we read J.G. Ballard at Manchester SF Book Club, and then, because of the op was not only not able to attend, but hadn't read the chosen book, "The Drowned World." Clare Conlon's blogged about the discussion here, so I expect a bit of a lynching next time I see everyone. Yet it's fascinating that a book that is genuinely lauded (as is Ballard) has left a large group of sympathetic readers cold.

In truth, I'd suggested Ballard for this very reason. I've had a number of his books on my shelf for years and each time I pick one up, I put it down again, primarily because I always find his prose peculiarly inert. In "The Drowned World", this inertia fits with the subject matter. In the blistering heat of a sunken London, with the characters holding out at the top floor of the Ritz, reality is not so much altered, as regressed to a previous way of being before man colonised the world. So effective has man's colonisation of nature been, that we forget how quickly nature returns - just see it in the lost cities of history. Yet though Ballard has pictured this world well, his writing, as I've found before, remains hard to plough through. Most SF books have some kind of forward tension, but not Ballard. There's a stiffness about both his descriptions and his (non) protagonists that seems awkward. I'd say as a first novel we might expect this - but the other books of his I've read, "Crash" and "Empire of the Sun" suffered as well. He's quite a lugubrious writer, but without the prose facility that might make you want to linger in his imagined spaces. In some ways it is science that seems to get in the way with "The Drowned World". Ballard seems most comfortable when talking about technical detail. The lingering feeling I've had about Ballard, that he is a poor stylist, but with big ideas, appears to be confirmed in this debut novel. The writing hasn't, I feel, lasted particularly well nearly 50 years after its publication. Yet the ideas are still strong enough to engage.

It's a short novel, and feels episodic - as one might expect from a short story writer. Yet the main points of the plot are thrown away quickly, with disinterest. It's perhaps why his main works have remained unfilmed - the novel is a painting with a few detailed brushstrokes, and a few broader dabs of paint. Ballard seems more comfortable with the broader dabs of paint - and the ennui of his characters and the stifling heat of his drowned world come back clearly. Like "Lord of the Flies" it feels like a post-war novel that is still intimately talking about the war; that sense of displacement. There's a constant struggle in this book with finding the right prose (and plot) to actually turn the ideas into a coherent novel, and mostly I think he fails, yet it's the honing of this awkward style in later books which probably accounts for his continued popularity as a "modern" writer when by instinct and background he's probably better read in the context of the writers of half a century before; particularly Conrad.

The debt's to "Heart of Darkness" are strong, particularly in the drifting south, but I'm perhaps as reminded of "The Secret Agent", where a small group of protagonists exists outside of the rest of society. For Conrad's murky underground, Ballard gives us a bunch of remaining survivors, hanging on to a land that they all have some attachment to but can hardly explain; staying there even as their protection leaves and a band of marauding brigands comes along to pillage what remains. Yet these plot machinations seem laboured; and it's the novel's subtext which is it's real subject. Ballard is not interested in humanity's travails in this hot and watery new world, he is more interested in nature as a character, coming back and reclaiming the human lands. In his protagonist Kerans he has a character who is visibly regressing into some kind of primal memory state. Rather than hangout in the unliveable city where he is based, or retreating to the arctic habitation where a small fraction of humanity now cowers, Kerans is drawn south to the ever hotter sun, his dreams and heatstroke-initiated hallucinations pulling him into a new mental state. This, we feel, in the age of LSD and marijuana, is Ballard's real subject. The past - characterised by his own internment in Shanghai during the Second World War - is lost, and can't be recreated; so the novel itself is a type of internment. Unlike "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", which celebrates humanity, and the small triumphs of the dreadful day, Ballard's characters are drawn into reverie and madness, like Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" or the dervish children in "Lord of the Flies." Without the underpinning of a recognisable reality, the reader may as well be in an SF landscape on another planet - it seems that Ballard has little interest in the knowing references to the Old London of Will Self's similarly flooded capital in "The Book of Dave", or the cultural signifiers that Burgess holds onto in his dystopic "A Clockwork Orange." Kerans certainly doesn't think he is living through a dystopia. After the chaos of the war, you get the feeling that nothing in the novel is quite as nightmarish to this writer as the real and the present.

The next SF book club meeting is next Tuesday at Madlab - and the book is William Gibson's "Neuromancer."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

(juxtaposition #4)

A video of me reading the poem (juxtaposition #4) from "Extracts from Levona" is here. (Its a long poem and this reading takes just over 13 minutes).

(Juxtaposition #4) from Adrian Slatcher on Vimeo.

I will be reading from this and other poems on 8th May at a launch for "Extracts from Levona" where you sill be able to buy a copy.  There will also be music, wine, films etc. All are welcome.

Friday, April 09, 2010


Pamphleteering used to be the task of politicians, not poets - but the poetry pamphlet is in revival, perhaps inevitably, given the number of poets now practicing, needing a cheap and simple publication platform. A fascinating article here, which I was drawn to by Litfest (whose Flax books are in many ways online pamphlets) - in the article Paul Maddern surveys the contemporary pamphlet scene and gives a bit of its history. Pamphlets and pamphlet publishers seem to gather wherever there is a vibrant poetry scheme. There's an interesting list of presses at the bottom of the article - and there's some others in my sidebar.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

On Being A Political Writer

If pushed, I would always describe myself as a political writer, though it's a bit of a moot point - people only ask when you get published, and to be fair, most of the stories and poems I've had published aren't, on the surface, at all political, that's tended to come in my longer works. I was tempted to start a new blog to talk about the election, but one day in and I'm already a little bored and frustrated. ("Gordon? Is it fair to say the business leaders were deceived by the Tories?" "Yes, I think they were..." Headline: Gordon Brown says business was "Deceived" by the Tories (but only after the word was put in his mouth, and he won't make that mistake again.))

So I'll blog a little on this site about the politics, because it is intimately related to my artistic and creative practice. Stepping back in time a bit, my unpublished novel "High Wire", which I wrote from 1997-9 on my MA in Novel Writing at University of Manchester, begins on election night 1997. The first chapter sees the main character watching the election in a pub in Brixton, going to a post-election party, and ending up outside the Royal Festival Hall as Tony Blair's helicopter arrives for the Labour party victory celebration.

"High Wire" - written in the 18 months after the election began as a "state of the nation" novel - the obvious starting point being the new government. Despite my personal optimism, (optimistic enough to give up a well paid job and go back to university!), my novel is about exposing the cynicism of the times. Characters listen to Radiohead, go to see hyped shows by fashionable conceptual artists in Hoxton, plough all their money into internet startups that are being set up as shell companies, and politics has become the quick way to riches and influence. Meanwhile, the homeless, the poor, the dispossessed, are shifted to the margins, out of sight as not representing "cool Britannia." It's a London novel from someone who only lived there for a year - and though there was quite a bit of interest, in the end it didn't get me a publisher or an agent. Coming from and going back to Manchester, I wonder whether the "reality" that I saw, simply wasn't grasped by a London that benefitted greatly from "new Labour" after the grey years of John Major. My satirical take on those times wasn't yet a fashionable view.

I wasn't then, and aren't now a believer in David Cameron's "broken Britain", yet for the last 25 years, my political sensibilities having been forged in the unforgiving nastiness of the Thatcher era, I've perhaps always been frustrated at a failure of nerve in British politics - whether it was Thatcher's scorched earth policy, Major's pettyminded little England, or Tony Blair's empty technocracy - of opportunities missed, of pledges broken, and of promise unfulfilled. It is obviously fertile ground for a contemporary novelist. But writing "contemporary" fiction for two decades makes you also something of a modern historian - looking back and wondering whether your take was prescient or merely reactive. Looking around Britain, I have never been short of material, particularly when you look at the under-reported lives of ordinary people. In "High Wire" I invented a millionaire businessman-politician, but he was an invention; but he was not so hard to conjure into existence - for the sense of privilege, the greed, of our ruling classes has never been that hard to imagine.

Yet, I'm an optimist at heart, like I said, and one writes how one sees things as an antidote to the veneer that's often there in the modern media, where a truth is rarely allowed to interrupt the prevailing narrative. This, if anything, will be what gives Cameron, a marketing man by background and inclination, a parliamentary victory. The Labour party may well do better than was expected even weeks ago, but as the old saying goes, now is the time to regret what they haven't done, rather than what they have. Any promises for the future will be tinged with the 13 years where power was easy, and therefore, often frittered away.

Last year, in the midst of the expenses scandal and with job losses on the news every night reminding you of the worst of the Thatcher years, I saw in the hardening of the opinion polls something more worrying than a shift from Labour to Conservative. I'm always interested in the share of the vote. Whilst the socially democratic parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, poll more than 50% of the vote, you can have a hope for the progressive nature of politics in this country (and let us not forget the minimum wage, devolution, Surestart centres and civil partnerships as things that would never have happened under the other side) - but last year in the polls, the collapse in Labour support was seeing the right wing parties, Conservatives, UKIP, and yes, the extreme right, polling over half the electorate. This was potentially the cataclysm for Britain as a modern nation - a lurch to the right that was fuelled by economic meltdown. (Whilst being fully aware that the Conservative Party are as appalled by the 8% or so who regularly vote for far right parties as the left.)

Labour's handling of the economy, and as importantly, I think, the gravitas that Vince Cable's economic common sense has brought to the Liberal party, have done enough to make me think that I doubt whether Conservative, UKIP and far right parties will have any sort of overall majority % of the vote. It may well be that the more optimistic view on the economy will wither the vote for far right parties, without the Conservative party under Cameron having to concede policies to the right as the Michael Howard's party did. (Though their bugbear of Europe is never far away). But accepting that though we may still have a Social Democratic majority in the country, the Conservatives could still triumph. The seats they need to win do not seem naturally Labour in the way that a lot of Thatcher's 80s gains did; and the contemporary electorate - less tribal - may decide "the other guys" deserve a chance.

Yet I'm not sure the parties quite recognise the still raw level of hatred for the expenses scandal, the duck houses, the 2nd homes etc. Watching Question Time from Wythenshawe the other week, the hatred was palpable. We are lucky - or rather the major parties are lucky - that their leaders at least are perhaps the least tainted by this. Brown may be disliked, but few will think him dishonest; Cameron may be mistrusted, but few will think him a liar. How that plays out: stay at home Labour voters, a chance for 3rd and 4th parties, a push for maverick independents or extremist viewpoints, we'll have to wait and see. The current vilification of the public sector by the CBI and others is more than ironic given that our debts were generated by the private sector (with, to be fair, government connivance) and that it is the offbalance sheet debt of Pfi projects as well as the vast monies spent on consultancy which is surely a bigger problem than having too many office clerks in East Kilbride. And though it may suit the agenda of the Sun and the millionaire bosses - I wonder whether alienating a large section of the workforce is good politics for anyone. (Public sector employees pay taxes, including National Insurance, as well, don't you know?) (If Justin King had to stand for democratic election at Sainsbury's he might be less quick to sign letters to the Telegraph.)

Beyond the share of the vote, I'd be less concerned about "historic" swings - I think 1997 showed us that there was a clear break in tribalism (and surely Thatcher's successes - particularly in working class areas - had shown that tribalism was already in decline). Clearly the election will be won and lost in the marginals - but local politics as well as the 3rd party joker of the Liberal Democrats (in England; the nationalist parties in the rest of the UK), may well stop any uniform swing. I doubt we'll see an election night of whole swathes of the country turning blue or red. Here, the duck houses will probably have an effect - though so many politicians are taking their money and not running, that there will be a bigger part for "personality" rather than "party" winners than any time that I can remember. Too many career politicians looking for an easy seat in a traditionally blue or red area, and there might be more surprises than you think; and, even from people I've spoken to, individual policies or personalities or prejudices may affect the vote of a larger than usual part of the electorate. Upset with your local council? Annoyed about a particular tax rise? Concerned about what a front bench politician has said about a moral issue? And you may well vote for the other guy...

I still think the Conservatives may just shade it - but for once, a lot does depend on the campaign, but if they do get in, either in a hung parliament or with a small majority, the details of their opposition will be what is important. A Conservative party without any representation in Scotland will surely do more for nationalism north of the border than anything else. Labour, with its heartland in Scotland and the North, has a vested interest in keeping Scotland happy, even when esconced in London. Cameron hasn't sealed the deal with the floating voter; in power - he would have a lot to do to make Labour areas listen to him. Break up of the union is not something he would want on his CV, yet it's not an impossibility.

How would you write about this? The doorstep issues of immigration, housing and jobs are surely ripe for any contemporary novelist - and, because they are so much part of our globalisation they are in no way parochial. British society seems to me ever more fluid than, say, French or Dutch or German society. The bigger issues; Afghanistan, devolution, climate change or our nuclear deterrent may not speak loud on the doorstep, but the chances are they may be the defining decisions of the next premiership.

...going back to "High Wire", it made a lot of sense to me to set a "state of the nation" novel at a time of both national and personal change (if not quite renewal). It was a statement about hope for the future (I'd just turned 30, and had it been published this would have been my "debut novel") as well as a commentary on the failings of the recent past. Like the electorate, I could imagine looking back ruefully on the last few years, but I don't think it's so easy to see what comes next. I can no more imagine a 4th Labour term than the thought of a revitalised Tory government, yet I know that both might be a disappointing mix of the managerial and presentational. I may be happy with Gordon Brown or Vince Cable or Alistair Darling at meeting of international finance ministers, I'm less sure of any of our politicians addressing the geopolitical and environmental challenges of the time - let alone them understanding the way forward for digital or the arts. If making a career out of writing was a pipedream in 1997, making money out of writing in 2010 seems even less solid a reality.

And, for all of the talk about this being an "internet election", I think I'd be wary of such a phrase. I'm very aware that the majority of my peers (I'm 43) are reluctant uses of social media at best; only those of my age and older who are involved in digital in a professional or semi-professional way really get it, like it, use it. For all my successful bids to eBay auctions, I've never been to a car boot sale; and it's the car boot sale attendees much more than the iPhone evangelists who the politicians need to convince. And an email to a Facebook group won't even come close.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Poetry Reading in May

I'll be reading from my new pamphlet "Extracts from Levona" on Saturday 8th May in Manchester's Northern Quarter, with hopefully a full supporting cast, and some wine.

More details here...

Monday, April 05, 2010

Religious Writing

I've been wanting to write a post in response to Ewan Maloney's Guardian Book Blog from Wednesday, but it's taken me a few days to process my thoughts. There have been a lot of stories in the papers this week about morality, as well, and I think they are pertinent to the discussion. A couple in Dubai have been jailed for a non-romantic kiss in a restuarant; whilst the shadow home secretary has expressed agreement with owners of a B&B who refused entry to a gay couple because of their religious beliefs. Between these two stories - both of which seem to be about intolerance rather than either religion or regulation - we've had the murder of the racist Terre'Blance, and the ongoing crises involving the Catholic church's institutional denial of abusive priests.

I mention these four news stories as they all in various degrees of seriousness touch upon "moral" issues - and religion and morality cannot, I think, be separated - at least not when you are talking about art, and, in particular, literature. Fiction has to be "about" something - it is rarely an avant garde abstract text - and good fiction, more so. Yes, fiction can just be about telling a story, but some of the oldest, best and simplest stories (whether you are thinking of Proverbs or fables) are moral ones. In J.M. Coetzee's masterful "Disgrace" there is a dissection of different moralities. Lurie's "disgrace" is the simple one of having sex with one of his students. It is an interesting choice - for it is morally ambiguous to the extent that the reaction to it will be determined depending on where and when it happens. Thus, in Dubai a man and a woman cannot have a friendly kiss in a bar; whilst in the Cotswolds or wherever a same-sex couple expect to be able to share a bed in a guest house. I would have added the word "rightly" to the latter, and the word "wrongly" to the former, but this would be my own moral viewpoint. In saying it is correct that any couple should be able to stay in a hotel or a guest house anywhere in the UK, I'm in accordance with a law - albeit one that is quite recent; and I'm  aware that the age of gay consent was only reduced from 21, sixteen years ago. If it is the law that we all agree to abide by as our arbiter, then Dubai's restrictive laws are perhaps equally as valid.

Morality, in other words, is not "set", yet that is exactly what religion attempts to do; and, though I am no supporter of organised religion, I would ask, if religion is not about morality then what else is it for? The paedophile Catholic priest has been an (unfortunately) comic staple for as long as I can remember. Though many of the cases of abuse go back along way, and are more common in places - such as Ireland - where the church has had a political as well as a religious powerbase, I think every English child of my age would have been wary of inappropriate male behaviour from quite a young age, even if we hadn't yet labelled it as "paedophilia."

In "Disgrace" Coetzee chose a sin that was relatively slight - in itself deliberate, I think - to reflect the morality of the time that it is set in. In his earlier "Life and Times of Michael K" the sins are greater, the lead character has far less a distance to fall. Terre'Blanche, it seems, was killed not as any sort of race killing, but in a dispute over wages. When Tom Wolfe wanted to depict the fall of a man in "Bonfire of the Vanities" he chose as his master of the universe, a bond trader; and, his fall, in the America of the times, was the fault line of race.

Yet, these examples of morality in literature aren't necessarily the same as religious writing. I remember reading David Lodge's awkward "How far can you go?" which has its characters navigating the opposing moralities of being young in the sixties with the diktats of the Catholic church. It felt, reading it in the mid 80s, like an irrelevant philosophical discussion - but then, I wasn't brought up a Catholic. Certainly, in the quarter century of my adult life, many of the issues that seem to have only been slowly and painfully addressed by the Christian churches (not just the Catholic one) were always an irrelevance. I came from a moral background, but not from a proscriptive one. Contraception, abortion, sex before marriage and homosexuality were probably never mentioned at home or school, yet I've never been brought up to think any of them were bad. I caught an episode of the excellent TV dramatisation of Jeanette Winterson's "Oranges are not the only fruit" and though I could believe in its world; it's morality - the evangical Christianity that the protagonist grows up with - seems now, as probably then, as a weird cult. It is interesting to think of what we mean by a "religious writer", since, surely, Winterson should be classed as one - she was brought up in a devout faith, but because of her sexuality, independence and intelligence (not just the first of these), had to "navigate" between the realities of being a fully alive human being, and the faith which partially formed her.

It is this "navigation" that Maloney identifies in his Guardian piece as the problematic relationship between religion and writing. He notices early in the piece that the restrictions of religion are often in conflict with the independent mind of the best writers. I would say this has always been the case; yet the level of accomodation between writer and religion is a complex one. For T.S. Eliot, the Anglican church surely offered the stabilities that his personality and moral sensibilities demanded; for George Eliot, everything that was important to her in her life, was, at the time, anathemic to the organised church. Reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" I was struck most of all by the febrile nature of the times - and the birth of English Protestantism. The yoke of Rome was deliberately that, and an independent nation required it's removal. Yet, it is surely the translation of the Bible into English, firstly via Tyndale's Bible, then the remarkable literature of the authorised version, that joins English literature at the hip with it's recognised church. Yet, many of our best writers haven't even been English, (but Scottish, Irish, or futher afield). According to Wikipedia, the King James Version gradually became the de facto Bible in English for non-Protestants as well.

As someone born in the late sixties, I'm probably of the last generation that, religious or not, was brought up aware of the King James version. It remains, along with the works of Shakespeare, one of the two key works of English Literature, and if a writer has a dialogue with the language of any sort, then he or she is almost certainly also having a dialogue with the authorised version, and therefore, with morality and the Christian faith. Where is the religious writer today then? The more fervent forms of Christianity seem to require, as its influence wains, a closer - and perhaps more simplistic - relationship with the faith. A George Eliot or a James Joyce or a Graham Greene had to enter a dialogue with the Bible, the church and with contemporary morality, that were ever-changing and ambiguous. Sometimes the result was acceptance, sometimes rejection. Perhaps its why in Daniel Deronda, Eliot has a dialogue with the older Abrahamic faith of Judaism.

I can imagine a writer brought up in America's Bible belt reacting strongly to a faith upbringing as Eliot or Winterson did in their different times; yet that reaction requires an education that offers the chance of dialogue, and the understanding that there is another world out there. Perhaps, with TV, films and the internet, it is impossible to live in a moral straitjacket; but then again wasn't this always the case? Preaching against temptation, was an acknowledgement of that temptation, and often, a curiousity about what it was. When Martin Amis recently wrote that his sister might have been saved by Islam, it seemed an absurdity to me, as organised religion seems as cultural as moral.

Poets have perhaps found more solace in the church than novelists - as poetry, at its best, is the more ambiguous and nuanced art. It is also, not necessarily about the quotidian, whereas the novel, not always, but mostly, exists in a recognisably realistic rather than a metaphysical, landscape. The great achievements of religious art are many; and poetry can probably claim more than prose - there being close rhetorical links between the liturgical and the poetical, yet this is when religion has a cultural impact, and, more importantly, is a progressive force. It is where religion finds itself incompatible with progress where it is difficult to see what a religious writer might actually look like. A Christian rock band or whatever seems incompatible with the best art - yet at the same time, the biggest band in the world for many years, U2, were avowedly Christian. There audiences, plainly, weren't - and there's plenty of questioning and ambiguity in their songwriting.

I'll finish by saying that in the absence of religion, as well, the art may falter - if only because the need for some morality seems all too necessary in the best writing. The disinterested drug casualties of Brett Easton Ellis's work seem the inventions of a moral writer. Indeed, contemporary capitalism offers a secular "belief system" that has as many conflicts with morality as Christianity had for the slave owner. An English-born Islamic writer may well, at this minute, be questioning their faith as George Eliot questioned hers, as it conflicted with their life. The controversy over Monica Ali's "Brick Lane", for instance, shows the difficulties of any book that treads on cultural (and therefore religious) sensibilities. There is such thing as a religious writer, but whether the religion and the writing are always compatible is another matter. Yet, without the moral question, however ambiguous it may be asked or answered, literature loses one of it's strongest calls on our attention.

Friday, April 02, 2010

On Not Reading Novels

I've not been reading books much at all since my eye operation. It's not like I've always got a book on the go, anyhow, I tend to read intensely and fast when I'm in the mood, and not finding it that easy to read these last few weeks, the mood hasn't been there. It's only the last couple of days that I feel like I'm getting back to some sort of normal, though the vision is still a little fuzzy. Poetry has been all right, and the newspapers, and - to some extent - the internet.

When I was a kid, a week off sick was a signpost for voracious reading. Parents weren't going to be insisting I went and got some fresh air, when I was coughing and wheezing, so it's a little odd being off and not reading. More than the vision, though, I've found extended concentration hard - and I guess that's how I read novels; and probably why I rarely read what might be called "commercial fiction." As many readers of more literary writing will know, there's nothing "harder" than reading bad writing. I'm not sure one even reads it, rather than quickly photographs and moves on. It's why when you get a more than half-way decent writer like Kate Atkinson turning her hand to genre fiction, its such a win-win. Atkinson's earlier novels sometimes seemed a little too slapdash, a little too much like fun - both to read and write - as if, if she put a bit more effort into it she could be, oh, I don't know, A.L. Kennedy - but the slightly rushed enthusiasm of her writing comes into its own in thrillers. That's probably what I need to sit down with right now, something well written but engaging. The eyes, and the mind, both need to get back into training.