Sunday, February 27, 2011

Generation Fill?

These things come unannounced. An idea in a TV planning meeting perhaps. The BBC seems to have gone overboard on books at the start of 2011, something to "fill" the gaping book-shaped hole in the BBC's cultural coverage. Having missed out on Richard and Judy Book Club, they're clearly trying to make up for last time. The disappointment of clip show Faulks on Fiction now behind us, the next initiative (and that feels like the right word) is for World Book Day, when the Culture Show profiles 12 first time novelists. The Guardian's John Mullan chaired the panel, but is obviously allowed no obvious spoilers, as his piece in the Guardian is more ponderous than that - looking somewhat unevenly at the idea of "literary fiction."

I've no real opinions on the writers on the list, as I've read only one of the books on there (Jen Ashworth's promising and dark-funny debut "A Kind of Intimacy") though I heard Evie Wyld read in Norwich last year. Lee Rourke, Neel Mukherjee, James Scudamore and Catherine O'Flynn are recent new novelists I've read and enjoyed that are not included*, but that will always be the case with lists. The Twitterer who was aghast at the lack of cultural diversity on the list surely has a point, but maybe its just an anomaly of the selection criteria. Hard to know if any of these twelve would feel comfortable with the term "literary fiction" or not.

The Guardian, I seem to remember, did a similar thing a few years ago, and just chose half a dozen "first time" novelists. I can only remember that Gwendoline Riley was one of them, and if the question is "where are they now?" all I can say is that in Gwendoline's case she was sitting having a coffee with a friend in Manchester on Friday lunch time. A 4th novel, one hopes, is on its way.

In other words, its a little TV-led idea that will probably make an interestingly bookish episode of the Culture Show. "People have been talking of "literary fiction" since the 1960s, but it was in the early 80s that it became established" - writes Mullan, and its an absurd assertion, people have been talking about literary fiction for ever (see the Henry James essay that this blog is named after) even if it was not always called that. What he means, I think, is that it was in the 80s that it was necessary to distinguish between literary fiction and "popular fiction." (Its also a very British view, for where are the great late 20th century American novelists in this?). My own view is that distinction is now a little unecessary; there is little taste it seems (from readers or publishers) for books that are deliberately "difficult" or "experimental", or even "serious." Books he mentions, like Ishiguro, Mitchell and Mantell, can of course, be all of these things - yet Mitchell's gloriously readable and elegantly plotted "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" was deemed inaccessible by the Booker judges and others.

Mullan, a good enough literary educator, seems a little out of his depth in casting an eye over the development of literary fiction. His conclusion - that contemporary writers have assimilated literary experiment into their work - I find especially suspect. Contemporary tropes of first person narratives, false endings, and literary pastiche may be du jour, but they also seem far from being only literary ones. That bestseller "Shadow of the Wind" plunders Borges wholesale, after all. And, then again, Mullan also says some of this "crop" of books don't use any literary trickery at all.

There does seem a preponderance of first-person narratives or single character perspectives from the thumbnail sketches of the 12 novels given in the piece, and this might dovetail somewhat with the rise of creative writing courses (and their role in writer's development.) Its not just that first-time writers given themselves a single voice to play with (something I've always found incredibly hard to sustain), but they often put them in impossible situations (they are a child, or imprisoned, or there is an early death); the getting over these formidable obstacles - which most published novels will have to have done (with or without the help of a workshop peer group)- is a kind of literary rite of passage. Next time, you hope the hole you've dug yourself in, is not so deep, not so hard to escape.

I hope the exposure on the culture show helps rather than hinders the dozen novelists on the list; luckily, most writers I meet these days are under no illusions about the marketing requirements of the profession; they will just be happy to be there, its a crowded market after all, and (again an issue), you are only a "new voice" once.

There are, I think a genuine trend or two in contemporary British fiction; I'd describe a kind of neurotic realism, where ordinary people are no longer the protagonists of their own life in the complexities of the modern world, but victims. You see it in Tom McCarthy's "Remainder", Magnus Mill's "Restraint of Beasts", Nicola Barker's "Clear" or David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green", small characters inadvertently swept up in something life changing. The world's depicted are realistic, but somehow turned inside-out, their responses to it neurotic or paranoid. Think of Dave Rudman in Will Self's "The Book of Dave", the young boy in James Scudamore's fabular "The Amnesia Clinic", or the lonely characters of Catherine O'Flynn's "What Was Lost". All contemporary morality tales of a sort. This trend - of personal jeopardy - clearly takes from the psychodramas of early McEwan, but also, I think, from the "personal story" literatures and memoirs that has so frequently been on the bestseller list over the last decade or more, whether misery memoir, or survivor story. Faced with an uncertain world, young (or new) novelists look inwards for their stories, their gaze is on the miniature, rather than the external and all-encompassing.

Back to next week's Culture Show, and I'm sure it will be a well-made and interesting feature. The writers themselves are probably exactly the sort of people you want in the limelight, the couple I've met (and the one's missing from the list that I mention) are articulate, thoughtful and generous, good readers, good writers. Those of us who feared the next literary show would be a kind of Celebrity Lit Idol in Big Brother's Library, can rest a little calmer in our beds. One can't ignore the influence of things like Richard & Judy and book clubs in general on the format of these shows after all; and, with e-readers coming of age, the "click 'n' buy" model of books may require a new form of browsing, different than the few minutes we spend in the bookshop. Writers and publishers will have to find different ways of raising awareness than the pretty cover, or the cover blurb. I enjoy reading first novels for many reasons, not least being invited to meet a new sensibility for the first time, but we shouldn't overestimate their role. A literary culture that only mentions first time novelists on the one hand, and the Rushdie-Amis-McEwan generation on the other, lacks balance.

*I realise a couple of these already have second books out, but still, that just highlights the daftness of this list's criteria.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Writing

Robert McCrum's column at the weekend was an interesting one. "Can you teach writing?" he asks. Note he doesn't say "creative writing", and I think it's an interesting distinction. He does mention style guides, and books such as Fowler's English Usage and a new guide from Stanley Fish.

But the main thrust of the piece is how reading the greats can help you with your writing. I'm not sure if he's ever sat in on a creative writing course but certainly at Masters level, I don't think the aim is that you are being "taught writing", though the proliferation of courses these days may mean that there's an element of that. Certainly when I studied on one, there was an expectation that you could already write; the course - workshop led - was more about enabling you to write. I suppose I was quite surprised that there weren't some formal lessons on style and structure, and I'm sure a poetry course would include more of this kind of instruction than a fiction one. However, based within the Academy, creative writing courses are also creative reading courses, and this I found invaluable. We read classic novels, interesting novels, and novels that had recently been successful. Even from bad novels you can learn good lessons.

McCrum's list of good exemplars is a fascinating one, though every writer will have their own. Struggling with a particular issue on my novel, my tutor Richard Francis suggested I read Don DeLillo's "White Noise", and it was a fantastic suggestion. It wouldn't have been appropriate for most of the writers on my course, but that's the beauty of such examples. I'm always a little suspicious of the "extract" school of reading, where an extract from a well-known novel is given as an example of how to do something; writing isn't like quadratic equations where you can remodel based on a particular example - you need to read the whole work, and from that you can take what resonates.

For me, what I learn most from studying novels are more to do with structure and style than particular formal approaches. Fitzgerald remains supreme for me in setting a scene and visualising a world, yet he's not the writer to go to for structure (in a novel), or rather his novels are pieces of experimental architecture, that are not entirely satisfactory - writers who followed his example completed the building. I'm fascinated by more unusual approaches to telling a story. I love how Philip Roth tells the story of Levov the Swede in "American Pastoral" through his regular narrator Zuckerman; reminds me of the Russian doll structure of "Wuthering Heights" with a story within a story. And what about Thornton Wilder's wonderful "Bridges of San Luis Rey" where a series of character stories use a framing device? More recently, Michael Cunningham and David Mitchell have layered their stories deliberately. For short stories, I love the connected collections of Brett Easton Ellis's "The Informers" or Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg Ohio." These are all deliberately structured books, but its fascinating reading more traditional narratives and seeing how the narrative drive takes place. I remember (and would recommend) John Grisham's "The Firm" for not missing a beat. Its interesting reading his earlier "A Time to Kill", how his structure is messier, and hasn't quite got the narrative pace of his breakthrough book. Other books are deliberately slower, sometimes frustratingly so. Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" or Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" are sometimes glacial in their pace, and rely on the accumulation of detail; the pay-off coming much later in the books. With so many books being published every year, its rare that you come across something entirely new, but the best books, the ones that last, rarely seem to follow a simple template.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Out of Town

I did my first "out of town" reading on Wednesday with Angela Topping, who organised the night, Blaze, and JT Welsch, in a pub in Northwich. It was a long night as the last train is after 11, and so wasn't home to nearly one. Good to see a cultural evening so well attended. Sometimes in the big city you can get blase about the opportunities. The night after I was at CUBE Gallery for Merzman, and exhibition (also on at Castlefield Gallery, to which I moved later), in response to Kurt Schwitters' concept of the "Merz" (itself a "found" word). Saw a few old friends, and impressed by the turnout at both galleries. There was also a fantastic performance of Schwitters' sound art, by accomplished performer Florian Kaplik. However, the art opening crowd wouldn't shut up for long enough to let the performance continue. That aside, a fascinating evening and good to speak with Ian Hunter, of Littoral arts, who are doing all they can to restore Schwitters' Merzbarn in Cumbria. More details of their projects are here. Over the next 18 months they hope for artists, musicians and writers to be able to visit the Merzbarn.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What do we read about when we read about love?

A nice quote I picked up yesterday from somewhere (the Guardian?), Kurt Vonnegut said he didn't write about love because it takes over; as in fiction, in real life. Do men even read love stories?

The best love songs are often either the hope of love ("I'm Still Waiting") or its aftermath ("Band of Gold") and its the same in fiction. Feminist critics long ago identified that in the Victorian novel the girl only got the guy at some cost. George Eliot, her own life experience giving her a particular perspective on how low love was valued as a reason for marriage, peoples her books with couples in various degrees of disarray; marriage only ever becoming truly happy when its beyond the pressures and pleasures of youth. Come to think of it, Middlemarch, which is a book about politics and society, is also very much a book about love and marriage. But if they go together like a horse and carriage, the carriage is often rotten and the horse is lame.

The great "love stories" are anything but. Daisy and Gatsby, as told by Fitzgerald, is a story remembered. The re-kindling of the relationship briefly in West Egg is no replacement for the crass riches of the class to which Daisy belongs. Tom and Daisy Buchanan is the "love" that endures...not the other varieties. If men are drawn to love stories its probably those that are heroic in some way. A love that lasts through the years. Yet rarely is there a satisfactory ending. Someone usually has to die, or worse, lacks the courage to come back. No wonder films have been made of "The English Patient", "The Age of Innocence", "Brideshead Revisited" and "The End of the Affair." If movies usually prefer happy endings, in movies the happy ending can be a brief reconciliation. Love has survived, its protagonists will not.

Despite its somewhat purple prose I always liked "The Bridges of Madison County", which again fits into this pattern of love denied. In this case, they part for the sanctity of each other's families. That is the generation that stayed together for the good of the family. Tragedy haunts most fictional love stories, and its there on nearly every page of "Revolutionary Road", a portrait of a marriage that makes "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" look like an advert for

You could see this as part of fiction's innate conservatism. In real life people meet, marry, divorce, deal with the multiple families that have resulted, with more decorum than you'll find in any number of Iris Murdoch's. Love, in books, is rarely allowed to fade; in life it can and does. Reality gets in the way. Although novels reflect our world, they also exist in their own world, and this is a compact with the reader which usually requires some sort of resolution. Novels were once all called "romances" after all, and some of that lingers. Impressionable English students are likely to remain a fondness for Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness of Being", for love seems more important under repressive regimes, (and isn't "1984" more of a love story than anything else Orwell ever wrote?)

Women tend to write better about love, and more realistically. I'd recommend Louise Erdrich's "Tales of Burning Love", where four ex-wives accidentally get stuck in a blizzard on the way back from his funeral and tell their stories; or Nicola Barker's "Five Miles from Outer Hope", where an unlikely love blossoms despite the awkwardness of their personalities.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Heroes and Villains

There is a new BBC show called Faulks on Fiction which looks at the British novel through its characters, heroes, villains etc. Don't let me put you off watching it, but the first episode (Heroes) was one of the laziest pieces of television I've ever seen. Faulks is obviously a bright guy, (with an even brighter shirt), and has sold mountains of books, but really, this was the Ladybird book of the novel made into a film (and I'm being unfair to Ladybird there.) An odd line or two of Defoe or whoever aside it was Faulks in an exotic (or not so exotic) location, with some old film clips. Read the books.

Not that there's anything wrong in concentrating on certain characters - however great novels overturn archetypes not repeat them into cliche. The second episode is on villains, and I imagine Heathcliff* will get a run out. He's a great case in point, because he remains one of the most ambiguous characters in fiction. Loved by teenage girls pining for a dark stranger, whilst being one of the great psychopaths in English fiction. Whereas some dark characters are misunderstood, Heathcliff is rarely viewed with ambiguity. The two halves of the book give us the two Heathcliffs, the abused child, beloved of Cathy, and the pathological adult wreaking revenge on everyone. If the Brontes saw their brother Branwell in Heathcliff and Rochester they are somewhat frightening portraits. Yet, in Heathcliff there is motive, however extreme his revenge; whilst in Rochester we have a weak, broken man, who has made disastrous choices in his life, and hardly deserves the love of Jane Eyre to look after him after he has become blind. The other great man in the Bronte sisters life, their father, outlived all his family, and is a remarkable figure, rising from abject poverty in Ireland, to a position of importance in the Northern English church. As ever, thinking of their great creations, only sends one back to the books, the morality of the Bronte's characters never to be entirely quantified.

* apparently Heathcliff finds it into the "lovers" episode of Faulks on Fiction. My mistake.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Writers and Jobs

A friend said to me the other night that I was the only published poet he knew who didn't work in academia - and by that, he probably meant in literature/creative writing departments. It made me think: how come so many poets are lecturers and academics? There's clearly a monetary impulse, poetry not exactly being a "give up the day job" type of dream, but there's clearly something else as well. The academy seems to take contemporary poetry (or at least, contemporary poets) more seriously than it does fiction writers. There are plenty of novelists running creative writing courses, but they don't seem to dwell in Academia to the same extent. Perhaps its because writing a novel is as similarly overwhelming as writing a dissertation. (My novel WAS my dissertation.) But beyond that, there seems a disconnect in some ways. The majority of poets I've met aren't particularly interested in fiction (except when they turn to it themselves), and simply don't have an opinion on novels. Novelists read poetry but tend to be bewildered by the scene, sticking to a few poems or poets that they've encountered along the way. Generalisations of course. Perhaps the analytical tools that are used in poetry's construction have something of the same qualities as those used in literary criticism? For my part, I'm very comfortable about writing about fiction - its qualities, its structures, its history, its method - but I'm far more circumspect about poetry. I have opinions, likes and dislikes, rather than certainties - whilst with fiction I feel on solid ground.

Thinking back to when I finished my M.A. in novel writing at Manchester, nobody was in a hurry to offer me a university job (I got one, but in a different department); it was almost as if writing a novel was somehow déclassé. Perhaps if I walked into a university now brandishing "Playing Solitaire for Money" and "Extracts from Levona" I'd be expected to give a weekly course on Milton. It seems unlikely. Thinking about it, I've hardly ever attended anything that could be called a poetry "class", either studying poetry or writing it. That legacy of dull school afternoons takes along time to shake off. Talking about novels, however, I seem to come alive, English literature as social science incorporating politics, history, sociology, economics, philosophy.

Writing can co-exist with other jobs, I've proven that over the years. There's conflicts of time, of course, and as I said in a recent posting, the worry that your imagination is being squeezed into ever tighter corners of your day (and night); but as long as both jobs aren't spent entirely in front of a screen, they can co-exist. Given a choice, I'd probably prefer to teach literature, than creative writing, though to be honest, I don't see that there is that much difference - in my approach at least. You can learn by example; and the best critics I've read have tended to be writers - either in their non-fiction work, or their letters. I was at Anthony Burgess last night For Nicholas Royle meets Nicholas Royle, the first the Manchester-based fiction writer turned academic, the second the Sussex-based academic turned novelist. It was a full, fun evening, but I had to leave early. A less academic discourse I don't think you could have imagined; which again makes me wonder about writers in the academy. And, refuting what I'd earlier said, neither of them is a poet.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Memorable Poetry?

I've come a little late to Philip Hensher's piece in the Telegraph about the current state of poetry. It's worth reading, for its more nuanced than a summary of it might make out.

In response to the Costa being won again by a poet, (Jo Shapcott's "Of Mutability" following on from Christopher Reid's "A Scattering") he wonders why, when poetry receives praise and profile, it still garners little interest, few sales. He makes the point that whilst Sean O'Brien's "The Drowned Book" won many prizes, (and earned much from those awards), it sold "sod all." Moreover, he makes the point that when poetry is elevated in our discourse, it is for its backstory rather than the words itself. Shapcott's book was written following her cancer treatment, Reid's was an elegy. Its a valid point, but whenever people talk about what poetry is for, then weddings and funerals are often given as an answer. Although he's right that the Booker doesn't tend to be awarded based on a writer's sufferings; perhaps that's the wrong tree he's barking up. The "misery memoir" and its fictional equivalent (and I'd include Anne Enright's dyspeptic "The Gathering" in that list) have been a phenomenon in recent years - with books like "The Lovely Bones" outselling many others. "Poetry as a highly wrought expression of a complex emotion, or as an exquisite opportunity for verbal play and wit, seems to struggle for a readership," and I don't think anyone involced in contemporary poetry would think any different. I'm relaxed about this. We live in a world of films, games, television and the internet, and poetry has to compete with those as well as others. It seems that poetry is addressing issues relating to the environment with vigour; though may find it more difficult to respond to the deficit - after all, poetry has always been more comfortable describing nature than money.

Hensher seems to be struggling with the problem, and I'd say its at least partly because he doesn't seem to be aware (or certainly doesn't mention) many poets other than those, such as Duffy, Armitage and Paterson, who are as famous for their poetic presence as their poetry. You may well find all human life in poetry, but possibly not in any particular poet. Every week it seems that a different poet wins a prize, here or in America, and half the time, they are a name new to me, never mind to the general public. But I'd say the same is true for contemporary art, or theatre.

Although Hensher doesn't seem to be wanting to open a debate on that old chestnut of whether poetry should rhyme or not, the Telegraph readership takes up the cudgel for him. Strangest of all is Sophie Hannah's comment (I'm reliably informed it is the Carcanet poet writing) "Contemporary poetry does not sell because it doesn't offer enough pleasure/enjoyment to the reader. Rhyme and metre - the things that make poetry musical and memorable* are hardly ever used these days in the way that they were by Housman, Larkin, Tennyson, etc, and so much of contemporary poetry does not stick in the mind in the way that pieces of music we love do." *(MY EMPHASIS)

Should poetry stick in the mind? When I think of poetry I love, it is not the simple lyric poem, but the more complex ideas of "The Wasteland" or Ezra Pound's "Cantos". There is nothing wrong with memorising verse, but clearly that though a regular rhyme and metre makes that easier, it doesn't make it better. There are memorable poems by contemporary writers - Ian Duhig's "Fundamentals" or Edwin Morgan's "The Coals", or Luke Kennard's "The Murderer" would be in my list - and probably no less than in previous ages. The dreadful Victoriana that Pound wanted rid of, (which inevitably rhymed, and followed meter) is as unmemorable as a random shard of the least memorable L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet.

To my mind, a poet should be less convinced about their formalism, and more concerned with having something to say. "The Wasteland" remains the most convincing piece of English language art from the devastated world immediately following the First World War, even though it remains notoriously difficult art. Clearly, there was an audience for this great work, at the moment the "audience" for poetry may well be at those times when we need it most, when in love, when we suffer, when we lose someone we care about; the world we live in is unlikey to be so kind as to leave us with only these fundamentals for long. Poetry, will, I have no doubt, respond. And it probably won't be in pentameters.