Monday, November 29, 2010

Readers - You've Never Had it So Good

I jolted upright on the train reading Robert McCrum's column this week. Over the last year his two most familiar tropes have been about e-books and literary generations, and it was all doom and gloom. Yet something's cheered him up this week. Just read this -:

"The world of pulling itself together....Even in hard times, there is always a literary marketplace, and this one remains extraordinarily robust. So I, for one, do not repine. From some points of view there is a literary bonanza going on. You may not like it, but it is indisputable."

Literary culture is not teetering on the brink of the abyss, as any regular reader of his column might have thought, but is actually doing okay, thank you. If even a literary insider is now optimistic about the future - and particularly e-books as being an opportunity rather than a threat - then maybe there has been a sea change lately. It might just be a flash in the pan of course; just as there was never much of a market for paid downloads before there were enough broadband connections in average homes to turn MP3 downloads into a consumer product, the availability of iPads, iPhones and now, the just-over-£100 new Kindle means there is finally a market for e-books, that includes the average book buyer. Whether publishers, agents or writers will cope with the £2.99 e-book is another matter, of course!

"Its hardly been a vintage year for prose," he writes, clearly not as impressed by Jonathan Frantzen as the majority of his Guardian colleagues. (And distinct from Blake Morrison's assertion that it has been "a very good year for books"). Yet, I'm puzzled by his wondering about a next generation of writers "to follow Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru." If he's looking for 20-somethings writing novels there are plenty around; but surely Smith and Kunzru are the very writers we should be looking at to write the good novels of this millennium? Yet Smith seems to have withdrawn into the comfort of essays, and I know Kunzru more from his TV appearances and pronouncements than his novels. I'd argue that there have been some signs of a new generation of novelists this year, writers like Tom McCarthy, David Peace, David Mitchell and Jon McGregor, who are, several books in, coming into their stride - never mind the continuing excellence of someone like the ever-underrated Nicola Barker or Magnus Mills. Perhaps none of these books has had a "White Teeth"/"Brick Lane" style ubiquity, but maybe that in itself is a new generational thing. Subsequent books by writers like Kunzru, Ali and Adam Thirlwell have not created the buzz of their debuts - though one doesn't discount them from doing so, as I have a feeling that the writer left to work his or her way to the next plateau through a number of books, is the writer we want to wait for.

What's pleased me about this year, as well as having my own poems published for the first time, is the profusion of small presses doing interesting things and producing lovely editions. That, and the continuing vibrancy of the literary scene, both in Manchester and elsewhere, means that I'm far from wringing my hands about what McEwan or whoever is going to do next, but interested in the small pleasures that seem to be spilling out on an almost weekly basis. If there's something of a conservatism at the heart of much contemporary writing, I'm confident that it's also temporary. Readers, look hard enough, and you'll find you've never had it so good.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Literary Advent Calendar

With the literary festivals in the autumn, you could be forgiven for thinking things go quiet in the winter, but no, there's plenty of Mancunian literary action on. I enjoyed the launch of the new Hidden Gem press on Thursday, with readings by Emma Unsworth, Zoe Lambert and Claire Massey, as well as an impassioned manifesto on behalf of northern fiction from Sherry Ashworth, co-founder of the press. Their first novel, Unsworth's "Hungry, the Stars and Everything" is out in 2011, and has that most un-northern of characters as a lead, the metropolitan food critic. (The night's reviewed by Clare Conlon here, and since I was sitting next to have very little to add.)

Next week is the latest instalment of the Other Room, including Neil Addison, soon to be published in the same Salt Modern Voices series as myself, and, on Friday, the reissue of some of Anthony Burgess's novels, with a discussion featuring Jonathan Meades and Roger Lewis. Two other regular nights, Inn Verse and Counting Backwards compete for your attention between these two events, next Thursday.

Finally, though its not primarily literary, I'm involved in the running of Play Space, a free day of events for anyone interested in how art and digital meet, including workshops, performances, installations and an "unconference". That's next Saturday 4th December at the Contact Theatre and all are welcome, just register at the link above.

Who needs an advent calendar with so many events going on?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Scene That Celebrates Itself

In the good old days (aka pre-Pitchfork) the music press was the home for the neologistic. Bored NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror (and especially) Sounds hacks would listen to the godawful six records that had been sent them that week and give the scene a new name. Dance music probably destroyed the scene-makers, as it reinvented (or at least renamed) itself so often that you'd have 2-steppers and hyperdubbers never even crossing the floor to say hello, never mind dancing to the tinily bit different records that self-defined them. Best of all those silly made up scene names was The Scene That Celebrates Itself, which was basically a way of taking the p*** out of the po-faced.

I'm more than pleased that such bored journalistic name calling has found its way into the literary firmament, and post-blog awards, post-something else, the self proclaimed Beatoff Generation (Hashtag, natch, #beatoff) has coalesced around Common bar in the Northern Quarter, and other (un)seemly drinking establishments. (Yes, The Castle, I mean you.) A new wave of blog-writers who are not sure if what they write if fiction, or friction (nod there to Joe Stretch), and with the ADD attention span of a wire-haired teen high on vodka redbull cocktails, the #beatoff writers are not so much a scene as a movement. They are not so much a movement as a scene. Such is the complexity. Bloggers (Fat Roland, Lady Levenshulme, Words N Fixtures, Who the Fudge is Benjamin Fudge?), online zine editors (330 Words, B&N Magazine). In years to come people may (or may not) say, "Hmmm, never heard of them," or "whose round is it?" but for now hail the new revolutionaries, the hashtag heretics, the irreverent sons and daughters of Bez, Ren and Stimpy and Black Books, I give you the...#beatoff generation. Much more information from scenester Fat Roland is here.

(And next time you invent a drunken literary movement , make sure it's a night when I'm out!)

The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Wind Up Girl is an SF book published in the US last year. I wouldn't have even heard of it if it hadn't been recommended as part of the Manchester SF Book Club - though its been highly acclaimed, winning best novel at the Hugos this year, alongside China Mieville's The City and the City.

The world of the Wind Up Girl has too main components. It is our future, where sea levels have risen, and our petro-culture is over. As well, feeding the world is now a culmination of the Monsanto dream/nightmare, where giant agri-genetics businesses feed those parts of the world not destroyed by flood or pestilence. This genetically altered world is rife with disease, each new genetic modification leading to a range of mutating diseases.

Against all of this, is the Thai Kingdom, stubbornly fighting off both flood and pestilence. The kingdom is protected by massive dykes keeping out the waters, and an army of "White Shirts" hunting down and destroying any genetically modified materials being smuggled into the kingdom, in a pseudo-religious fight against disease. Ironically, the kingdom reminds me greatly of David Mitchell's depiction of 1799 Japan in "Thousand Autumns." Like that novel, here is a closed country that has turned its back on the rest of the world, and wishes to do things its own way, for fear of what the outside world will bring - and here as well, there is the smallest enclave allowed, where an experimental facility exists. The novel starts with Anderson, the "calorie man" from the agri-gen business, finding in the Thai markets new foods that have no connection to GM foods. The "ngaw" - a kind of lychee - hints at the existence of a secret Thai seedbank, untainted by modern genetics.

The book starts awkwardly, with three or four parallel stories. We see Anderson, his Chinese foreman Hock Seng, the white shirts on a raid of the "landing pods", and finally, the Wind-up Girl herself - a genetically modified "new person" developed by the Japanese as a perfect geisha. Bacigalupi's vision is confusing at first, he's not fully sketched out the world. Despite being a first novel, the world he's writing about has been there already in short stories. Then there's his prose, echoes of Ballard, but full with technocratic of detail. Yet much of the novel is dialogue, and the various characters, though convincingly drawn, haven't got convincing voices. In the Thai kingdom he gives us outsiders: wind-up, Chinese refugee, Americans, gangsters.

Some of the early chapters - such as the white shirts blowing up the dirigible on the landing pods are confusing at first - its only later you realise that we're in the midst of a power struggle between "trade" and "environment" - though potentially crass, this takes us deep into Bacigalupi's overall vision. Yes, its an ecological fable, a horrible parable, but he's thought through the various scenarios of his new world, and as the novel unfolds, the beauty is not in the story itself, but in the fleshing out our understanding of this world. The plot itself isn't quite so strong. The search for the "ngaw" seems to get lost. I'm still at a loss to know what Anderson's factory was trying to achieve - and the Thai seedbank, and its rogue geneticist creator (Gibson - a deformed, dying American), with his echoes of Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" seems part of a greater narrative - rather than central to the novel. If "The City and the City" suffered a little from being a police procedural, so "The Wind Up Girl" suffers from its narrative drive. For trade and environment become involved in an open civil war for the heart of the kingdom, the Wind Up Girl of the title becoming the accidental catalyst for the war. Emiko, the wind up, is a sex slave, but she's also a "new person", but has been designed sterile and with an obvious gait that differentiates them from humans - as a previous experiment with cats had led to grinning "cheshires" taking over from the humble moggy.

The second half of the book, with its impending doom, has a real drive to it, and the book's real strength is that it gives the reader an exciting thriller, whilst still letting us into a highly imagined future world. Whereas Ballard and even Gibson would have spent the majority of time on defining their world, perhaps the modern reader requires less of that, and more action. Bacigalupi delivers, but it creates a strange hybrid of a novel, awkward in places, and with no obvious centre. Neither the Wind Up Girl of the title or the search for the "ngaws" and the seedbank becomes the centre of the novel, and some of the subplots - for instance the time we spend with the "white shirts" - are far less interesting. That said, the novel's reach is astonishing, and you can imagine that there are as many future stories in the world he has created as you might find in Iain M. Banks' "The Culture" or Mieville's fantasies.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Favourite Beatles Covers

It was Beatles night on X-factor, which made me think, that despite their songs being covered almost endlessly there aren't that many cover versions that I actually like. I'm sure there's more, but after a bit of thought, I came up with this list.

1. With a Little Help from My Friends - Joe Cocker
2. We Can Work it Out - Stevie Wonder
3. I Want You (She's so Heavy) - Eddie Hazel
4. Helter Skelter - Siouxsie and the Banshees
5. Happiness is a Warm Gun - The Breeders
6. Ticket to Ride - Husker Du
7. Something - Booker T. and the MGs*
8. Drive My Car - Cristina
9. A Day in the Life - The Fall
10. Here, there and Everywhere - Emmylou Harris

* Booker T and the MGs covered most of "Abbey Road" on "McElmore Avenue" mostly in 2 long medleys. The whole album is excellent.

The Poem / The Poet

I've been thinking about "the poem" and how it relates to "the poet." I'm part of an online poetry exchange with a number of other writers, where we share poems that we like. It's been an extremely enjoyable experience, only the odd poem or poet being one that I already know well. Yet, when it came to my turn last week, I went to a few books that I was considering, and looked through them increasingly in vain for a shareable poem. And these are books, and therefore poets, I like. There was the contemporary first collection which has some highly enjoyable sequences, but nothing smaller; then there was the selected poems by an award-winner now on her fourth or fifth award-winning book, and the poetry seemed flippant, flimsy. Then again the experimental poet, whose work builds up over pages, but doesn't easily reduce to a single poem.

Yet, when I think about poetry, when I think about poets, I think about poems. It is a particular poem that usually draws me to a poet, and makes me read deeper into their work, and it is the particular poem I go back to. As a writer, I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of writing poetry every day, or even regularly. The best poems are compressed (even when they are expansive), an idea explored fully and intensely in a small space. There are highly enjoyable stylists out there, who seem to write for fun, and if I enjoy some aspects of their work I'll probably enjoy it all, yet it is because they have written individual poems that still appear fresh to me, that I give them my time. Writing a poem, after all, always begins with a blank page, always starts "new", even if the tools you use might be well-worn, the ideas familiar tropes being explored by you, or someone else, for the umpteenth time.

It's perhaps why I still prefer to read poetry magazines than collections, as individual poems are likely to attract me, but then you buy the collection by the poet, and what stood out amongst the mass of voices, can sometimes seem quietened when placed amongst similar peers. I've never had to judge a poetry competition, but imagine it's a nightmare. A good poem can be many things, but it can never be generic. Something: the language, the idea, the execution, a turn of phrase, has to stand out, and as the one literary form that can toy with the abstract, the whole thing can be more than the sum of its parts.

The other difficulty I found in choosing a poem to share, was how little poetry is readable on the internet. Even (especially?) well-known poets, have ony a few verses available freely. I can understand the desire to promote the book, and to protect copyright, particularly for those poets taught in schools, but at the same time, the audience for a particular poet is so small, that I do wish more was available. Perhaps we should have an iTunes or online jukebox for poems, with an honest box, for each poem you download, or print a copy of.

Luckily, my turn on the poetry exchange won't come round for a couple more months, so I've time to keep my eye out for poems that I like enough to share.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Not a Moose in Sight

What I know about Canadian poetry and poets can probably be written on the back of a (very small) Maple Leaf, but ignorance isn't always bliss of course. I attended the launch of the new Carcanet Modern Canadian Poets anthology at the Anthony Burgess foundation , with Joni Mitchell songs wafting through my head, but not a lot else in the way of preconceptions.

Editors Todd Swift (he of the Eyewear blog) and Evan Jones read in turns from an anthology that, perhaps surprisingly, covers the whole of the 20th century - with the youngest poet born in 1962. No new generation then, more a re-appraisal, for a British and worldwide audience of a neglected canon. Anne Carson aside, few of the names will be familiar to a British audience, yet from the poems they read, this seems a matter for some regret. The poets may not be that well known here, but the poems that the editors chose to read were strong, immediate - and perhaps more surprising than anything to me, rooted in 20th Century Modernism. In choosing their selection the editors had realised that they had not a single dominant figure - a Les Murray, an Auden, a Heaney, a Walcott - around which a national poetry could be hung. A.M. Klein, a Jewish, Ukrainian whose family moved to Montreal, became that figure for them.

Other poets in the collection also had an internationalism to them, particularly British connections. It has always seemed a paradox to me, that Canada, through its Commonwealth connections, should remain so close to Britain, when physically it is so close to America. As he himself is a Canadian poet based in London, Swift felt those connections were important.

A quick search of Amazon sees that there have been other Canadian anthologies, and it will be interesting to read the introduction of this latest one, to see to what extent a canon unknown to me is being refreshed or rejected. There wasn't really time - or inclination - for questions, but one inevitable one came up. Where was Margaret Atwood? A poet before she was a novelist. "Read the introduction," said Evan, "but with Atwood and Ondaatje, their poetry wouldn't be in bookshops if it wasn't for their novels." I can hardly imagine a British anthology being brave enough to leave out its biggest names. Those other "poets", Young, Mitchell and Cohen are perhaps easily excusable omissions, yet I'm always intrigued by how so many of the best North American songwriters were actually Canadian. (A trend continued by Arcade Fire.)

But this was about the poetry - and the poems they read out sounded fresh, accessible, and with a certain sensibility that a closer reading may well define as Canadian. I have a little quibble with the use of the word "modern" in a book with writers born in the 19th century in it - they are clearly not "contemporary", but it was fascinating to hear a little bit of social history alongside the poems themselves. The Great War as a particularly monumental event for Canadians; or the love of "ice hockey", their national sport, finding its way into verse, just as cricket (rather than football) often has in England.

I didn't have much time to stay and chat, but there was a good crowd, of forty so people attending, and I'm sure the book will be a useful counterpoint to other national narratives. After all, Canada's another country with a fair share of English-speaking poets. It's literature remains both a pride, and a puzzle - having never won the Nobel for Literature, yet regularly appearing in Booker lists - and I look forward to looking more deeply into the anthology itself.

Another take on the night and the anthology is here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Value of Nothing

Three things today gave an ample reminder of how our culture and our universities over the last dozen years or so have made Britain a better place in many ways, but also, crucially, a more successful place.

According to the Observer, despite the Harry Potter film series coming to an end, the studio where they were filmed is being bought by Warners. They are not particularly worried about the demise of the UK Film Council, but rather, are voting with their wallets in the UK film industry because of the talent pool that exists. At the end of the article it is pointed out that since Rowling's wizard first came into the public eye, £1.9 billion has been generated economically from the franchise.

In other news, Sebastian Vettel is the new F1 champion after steering his Red Bull to victory in Abu Dhabi. A German, in an oil state, for a team financed by an Austrian. What's British about it? The Red Bull team are based at Milton Keynes. F1 retains much of its engineering base in the UK. Though I'm sure their engineers come from round the world, its British base is not a coincidence. Though the franchising of F1 increasingly goes east to chase the money, the high end innovation and skills that makes the sport possible still has a prominent British base. I'm sure that our new government will say that our Universities' excellence in Engineering will be protected, but I wonder - I'm sure that it's not as simple as that; and that maybe a few future engineers will be put off by the high fees that will be coming in shortly. Certainly, those engineers I knew at college would have had to think twice before taking on such debt.

And, thirdly, long overdue, the designer Bill Moggridge just won the 2010 lifetime achievement award at the Prince Philip Design Awards. He designed the first laptop - the Grid Compass - in 1982, even being used on the space shuttle. Design is another British speciality, as Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod and is Apple's chief designer proves.

So, three examples where Britain's have been innovative and highly successful - all members of what Richard Florida defined as the "creative class." In the same week we hear that EMI, bought by the financial genius of Terra Firma, Guy Hands investment vehicle, with mostly borrowed money, is likely to finally be sold into foreign hands, its success as a company utterly compromised by the disaster of its business model.

The vision of the coalition seems to be that those who go to university study only utilitarian subjects - that they do not have access to the liberal arts. Sport, media, arts and culture all provide more than economic growth of course; yet they are also drivers for economic growth. If only finance had such a record of achievement. In the 1970s and 1980s there was dismay and despair as our "assets" seemed to get sold to America. I've a Rough Trade compilation called "Wanna buy a bridge?" - yet our real assets, the creativity, and innovation of our people - and the strong liberal education that they received in the UK, are what gives us a competitive advantage going forward into the future - not the complex financial models of casino bankers. At this rate, Guy Hands will go down in history as the man who sold the Beatles. Despite the best education money (and the state) can buy, our current crop of politicians seem to know the price of every piece of debt, and the value of nothing.

The value of creativity and innovation is not always as easily measured as these examples, yet surely they give reason enough for us to want to protect the institutions and environment that can lead to such innovation? Whereas a merchant bank can relocate elsewhere, and the graduates of India, China and elsewhere are queueing up to work for them anywhere in the world, our creativity is less easily poached, less easily emulated.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Writing a Poem

There's a new post about how I wrote the poem "Late Love" from my collection "Playing Solitaire for Money" over on my author website.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Slow Prose

I've written very little fiction this year; in between two months post-operation when reading and writing were hard, promoting "Playing Solitaire for Money", writing new poems, recording music, and getting back to reading fiction, I've not found it that easy to sit down at the computer for extended periods. I'm sometimes a writer for all seasons, and at various times my energies have been spent on stories, poetry, music, non-fiction and even drama; yet the truth is I've always written in different genres in parallel.

I've been speaking with a few novelist friends recently - who've spent months or years on the particular book - and been pleased to hear of books being published or about to be published, or with an agent, or stories winning competitions. Yet though fiction sometimes seems to be everywhere, compared to poetry, for instance, its also, strangely, less visible. There seem even less places to get short fiction published than ever - and though there are more and more presses experimenting with short novels and new fiction - they often seem to be even more obscure than poetry publishers.

Not that its lack of opportunities that has stopped me writing this year, rather that fiction requires a level of deep engagement that hasn't really fit with my life this year. I'm sure its just a passing phase, as I've certainly things I want to write, but perhaps, having such a back catalogue of fiction to look back on, I'm prioritising - and concentrating on poetry for a while seems an eminently sensible move.