Saturday, April 30, 2011

Royal Fiction

The current Royal Family have often been portrayed in fiction, though they hardly need it, given how soap operaish its been over the years. I particularly liked Sue Townsend's "The Queen and I", and the gin-drinking Queen Mother in Spitting Image. But nobody actually does fiction like the British aristocracy. For those of us who've never seen a Debrett's or think the "season" relates to football or racing, there's probably a vague sense that this country is run according to ancient precedent, fixed forever and unchangeable like something predestined from Lord of the Rings. What yesterday proved yet again, is how risible this view of history is. The Royal Family are arch writers and re-writers of the so-called "traditions" that are then utilised for retaining the family firm.

Two items from the wedding yesterday struck me as the kind of loose ends we're getting used to in Stephen Moffat's version of Dr. Who, but if you delve a little too deep unravel. I'm sure that soldiers and sailors and airmen frequently get married in their dress uniform, however inappropriate that might seem to the rest of us who don't want our work gear in our wedding photos - what's wrong with Moss Bros? - but they announced with all gravitas that William was going to wear an Irish Guards' Colonel outfit rather than his own outfit. It turns out he's an honorary colonel in the guards since February. What happened? Did he look through a set of uniforms with Kate and go "that one looks good, I'll ring granny and see if she can sort me out a commission?" I have no idea; but if the dressing up box of military uniforms can be used so arbitrarily then maybe the rest of us should look for a nice uniform next time we get married. We wouldn't, of course, because it would be seen as crass in the extreme; but given that his brother was wearing his own appropriate uniform, where on earth does this fiction come from?

Secondly, this Duke and Duchess of Cambridge nonsense. I'm sure there's some logic to the titles that the Royal Family dish out - its one of the perks of their job, of course - but the Dukedom (if that's the word) has a patchy heritage as it is, and has been in disuse for years. So, our King in waiting gets married in someone else's uniform and now, with his new wife, sports an imaginary title - both things having been conferred since the start of the year. The 19th century business men who would buy a stately pile to get hold of a title had nothing on the family who run this ridiculous pyramid scheme. One of the many pleasures of reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" was her shining a light on the pork barrel politics of the day; a time when royal patronage and political power were so clearly linked - in 2011, we have Labour Prime Ministers missed off the guest list because they are not "privy councillors" (whatever that is), and new titles for the 2nd in line to the throne and his wife which may as well been ordered up mail order from the United States.

Of course, if the Queen cannot create such trinkets and baubles, then who in the country can? But it highlights the absurdity of the British class system (which I referred to in a recent poem as "a repeating lie") in a way that would make the most florid of romantic novelists blush. Simon Schama, on the BBC yesterday, made the interesting point that the troubles in the Middle East are all about getting rid of family dynasties. The fascinating history of the British Monarchy is that the family has remained potent, even as its been rightly stripped of more and more of its power. Without belittling yesterday's marriage in any way, these "grace and favour" powers - whether creating a new Dukedom, or turning a small Wiltshire town "Royal", seem to me to have little place in a modern country. I'm not sure whether I felt sad for him, or vaguely proud of his chutzpah, that David Beckham proudly wore his OBE on his dress suit; not everyone can be a soldier, and the gongs they get are one symbol of a nation's gratefulness that one should never disparage, but surely our most famous footballer missed a trick by not dressing himself up in all his winning medals from his illustrious playing career - he'd have looked more like a pearly Queen than Elton John in his heyday.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Bad books, bad writing

Are bad books and bad writing necessarily the same thing? And does context matter? There are plenty of poorly written books in the world that have become bestsellers; and plenty of well written ones that are torrid; yet are we even talking about the same thing? Sometimes a writers' style doesn't gell with the reader. I remember recommending Anne Micheals' "Fugitive Pieces" years ago, and someone being disappointed, finding the poet's style too intrusive for its subject. There are "marmite" writers that you can love or hate; but there are books which given space and time I'd happily give a rationalised trashing too. (One example from way back: the much lauded late Carol Shields. I hated "The Stone Diaries" but was intrigued by its success and critical acclaim, and read her later novel "Larry's Diary." If anything it was worse, but whereas with "The Stone Diaries" I could perhaps say it was a "marmite" book - and probably not written for a male audience at all - "Larry's Party" protagonist was male, but Shields' didn't get anywhere close to the male psyche, and the book was both boring and unbelievable.)

Usually, if you can't say something good, you possibly shouldn't say anything at all - it might just be "marmite" after all, but I wrote a negative review of Sean O'Brien's debut novel "The Afterlife" last year, because the reviews I'd read seemed to be skirting around how poorly written it was; and I half feel that I should do the same for Adam Roberts' "Swiftly" which is one of the poorest books I've read in a long time. A piece of "steampunk" (rather than SF) where Gulliver's discoveries are now protagonists in 19th century European history, the idea is a grand one, but Roberts' soon loses interest in it - preferring an extrapolation of the idea (what if the Lilliputians were giants compared to some other organism? etc.) which is frankly unecessary. Worse, the wild goose chase of an unlikely set of protagonists is punctuated by the worst kind of historical novel purple prose, and for reasons that - having not read Roberts before - I'm assuming are meant to be humorous, an obsession with the scatalogical. The blurbs on the cover, the interesting premise, the homage to the great Swift, would indicate that you are in the company of a modern master; but the end result is over-long, poorly structured, and written in an indigestible prose style that may be an effective mid-19th century parody, or may simply be rubbish. Not a full review, I'm afraid, but I did struggle to the end, hating the book more and more as I skipped through its unengaging picaresque, with characters I neither liked nor had any sympathy for. Having read a few SF or related novels over the last year or two, I've become used to a sort of clagginess of contemporary SF prose that aims, I think, to be almost "literary", but its usually been redeemed by both the scope of the imagination, or the sympathy with the characters. "Swiftly" provided neither of these comforts.

So is there a connection between bad books and bad writing? A well written book will let you excuse a lot, a badly written one - one's patience quickly wears thin. I know that Carol Shields being a good writer couldn't rescue "Larry's Party" - in many ways, her "good" writing, mitigated against it. I know that Sean O'Brien is a deft critic and capable poet; but "The Afterlife" despite being an original idea, is scuppered by the writing. Adam Roberts is no hack, but "Swiftly" is no honour to Swift.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer

Despite Britain being home to a bewildering range of working class subcultures, the British novel only occasionally dips its toe into these. Whether its Colin Macinnes "Absolute Beginners", Sillitoe's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning", Richard Allen's bovver boy novels, or John King's "The Football Factory" the visceral nature of young, violent working class Britain has rarely been a mainstream strand of contemporary literature. To that list we can now add Max Schaefer's debut novel "Children of the Sun", which mines a powerful vein of material through exploring four decades of British Nationalist movements. Whereas viewers of Shane Meadows' "This is England" might come away with the sense that the skinhead is essentially harmless, a self-realising club of working class inclusion, in Schaefer's novel, the skinhead is placed firmly in his historical reality, as the symbolic look of the far right.

"Children of the Sun" runs two stories in parallel. In contemporary London, middle class, homosexual James is looking for material for a screenplay, whilst living with his black skinhead boyfriend Adam. Discovering that one of the most violent sociopaths of the 70s and 80s far right movement, Nicky Crane, was also gay, he gets drawn to researching this story. In parallel, we meet Tony, a working class east end boy, who has his first gay experience at 14, and continues his experimentation in parallel with an increasing identification with skinhead culture and the far right millieu in which it thrives. We follow Tony from the late 70s right through to the early 90s, through punk NF band Skrewdriver concerts, Rock Against Communism festivals and race riots in Brixton. Tony's story sees him becoming close to the major fascist names of the period, and is a potted history of the far right's multiple reinventions, from the National Front, through the British Movement, the paramilitary Combat 18 and the early days of the BNP, including walk on parts for a young Nick Griffin. Schaefer assiduously weaves Tony into the narrative of the far right, finding room for Nazi occultism, gay skinheads, and even the AIDS epidemic.

In the contemporary story, James' own fascinations start to go beyond his research, and he becomes obsessed with the obscure material he's researching, logging on late at night to a gay dating site to have risky conversations with an anonymous gay nazi. If at times Schaefer's own research lies too heavy on the page - its leavened by set pieces such as the elderly Nazi who invites the young skinheads round his house to toast the Fuhrer. Never afraid to delve deep into the violence, the sex, and the violent sex of the world about which he's writing, the overwhelming sordidness of this world is handled deftly, and with some humour. James own attempts to dress as a skinhead are playacting, and when he finds the "skinhead" night that he and Adam goes to, is just a pose, rather than some unchanging subcultural scene, his own fantasies crash into the reality of his life. One of the few women in the novel, his sister, is a key character, as though she is only there in brief moments, she provides a counterbalance to his increasingly dysfunctional quest for the truth about the eighties gay nazis he's frantically searching for.

If some of this sounds like a manufactured structure, it is, but it never gets in the way of a story that runs in two directions - switching between the past and the present. Tony's episodic life gets less interesting as it reaches the late 80s and early 90s, when there is no longer the mainstream acceptance of violent racism that still pervaded the late 70s and early 80s. The confused gender-race politics of the period is summed up by the using of Nicky Crane on the "Strength Through Oi!" album cover. I remember reading Sounds, and Oi scene propagandist Gary Bushell, in the early 80s, and finding it difficult to separate the violent, monodimensional music of those bands from the violent, racist skinheads who lurked round the subways of every provincial town. Schaefer, who was born in 1974, does a remarkable job in painting a world that he can only ever have known second hand.

If the book has a failing, its that its reliance on historical sources, rather than being purely a story set in the period, means that the characters, even Tony, remain distant. It has something of David Peace's veracity, or even echoes of Jake Arnott's sixties true crime novels, without the characterisation that a more fictionalised version might have given it. There's little chance of sympathy for characters who are addicted to warped ideology, mindless violence and ever riskier sexual behaviour, yet there remains a pathos at the end, when the two stories finally come together. The book's structure serves it well, and the powerful use of contemporary cuttings from a wide range of far-right publications, which intersperse the chapters, gives a genuine context which Schaefer successfully matches in his own text.

I haven't seen much about "Children of the Sun", and picked it up on spec from WH Smiths a couple of months ago; like those earlier "subculture" novels, and with fellow travellers China Mieville and Stewart Home namechecked in the credits, its certainly likely to garner its own cult. The material that he has unearthed is remarkable, even if the story doesn't quite match the research, and in getting under the psychology of the "skinhead" - its a novel that will probably have more resonance than any number of sociological "white studies" texts.

There's an illuminating interview with Max Schaefer in 3AM Magazine, which is also well worth reading.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lets Talk About Text

Next weekend is the Bury Text Festival. Although more compressed than previous BTFs it is still a weekend full of delights, from the opening at Bury Art Gallery on Saturday morning, to readings/events at a local church and Bury Met during the day. Sunday continues with the NW's current obsession with all things Schwitters, with a full day seminar, before another reading/performance in the evening. Worth a trip out on the tram for some or all of this. Given how many contemporary artists use text in their work, its good to see an exhibition that gives equal voice to writers who use visuals in theirs. From Fluxus, through to the Concrete Poets, through to the YBAs, through to flarf, writing and art fuse together from both different directions, and Greater Manchester is there at the intersection.

Part of that intersection, of course, is The Other Room, and Knives Forks and Spoons Press. The latter had a poetry garden party of sorts yesterday afternoon in Newton-Le-Willows, where along with over a dozen other KFS poets I read a short piece of work to the invited audience. I've missed the Other Room's last couple of events, but with Tom Jenks, James Davies and Scott Thurston amongst the readers yesterday, was able to pick up their latest lovely looking yearly anthology, amongst a few other books and pamphlets. Zoe*, our hosts' Jack Russell ran around the garden making judicious interventions on the reading, turning Matt Dalby's sound art into virtually a duet (he coped admirably, as he describes here), and suddenly disappearing at the point when Robert Sheppard read about a "dog running around in circles." Dogs were present in a few of the works, as was Cornelius Cardew, which probably sums up the experimental poets' juxtaposition of the everyday with the esoteric.

Knives Forks and Spoons have just been justly shortlisted for the Michael Marks Pamphlet Publisher of the year award, a sign of how far they've come in just 18 months or so.

* I originally wrote Zod, rather than Zoe, our hosts' Jack Russell. What a great name for a dog that would be!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Not Cruel April

For once the end of April is benign. The weather is lovely, and in the slightly mysterious way that Britain is run these days, the Royal Wedding coincides with three other bank holidays to make this a genuine break, like Christmas, only warmer. On the one hand - its put a break on things at a time of year when, schools aside, things usually go at breakneck speed. Europe goes on as normal, probably a little confused by the slightly arbitrary way we British arrange things (after all, they have a month closedown in the summer), and the football season and other sporting things are in full effect. God knows (and I'm sure he doesn't care) what this does to the faltering economy; but, like when the snow slowed us down, I'm a believer that we're the better for these breaks. Modern life is far too manic at the best of times and this slightly enforced break (which not everyone's making a week of, the fools!)also comes at just the right time. Forget about that date in January that is "blue monday", the endless British winter can sometimes seem everpresent. A bit of sunshine, bluebells and crocuses, and we're suddenly full speed ahead with the effervescance of nature overflowing. Hell, the BBC even give us "Lambing Live."

Avoiding the R**** W******* will be the hard part, though nice to see that even non-royalists have taken it as an opportunity to have a party. It's not just that I don't care about whatsit and thingummybob getting married, I'm utterly perplexed as to why I even should care. The Queen's got plenty of life in her; Charles is forever in waiting; and in the modern world, we're know longer quite in awe of this particular family. In any other context William and Kate would seem like a typical middle class couple, bright enough, but a little dull, whose nuptials were of interest to their family and peer group from university. One imagines the surreality of the royal procession will seem even weirder by being foisted on a couple who, to outside eyes at least, seem hardly able to support the apparatus. Avoiding the whole shenanigans will involve banning the BBC from our house, as its events like this which don't confirm the broadcaster as the best in the world, but as the worst, with all sense of proportion out of the window. I suffered through a half hour discussion on whether David Cameron will wear a lounge suit or tails, the other day.

For me, this week is a rare time without any particular plans. After being away quite a bit, and then not being too well, I'm suddenly looking at an 11-day sojourn without any particular plans, and that alone, feels marvellous.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Literary Allergies

Admist all the media kerfuffle surrounding the posthumous David Foster Wallace book, Geoff Dyer has come out in hives: or rather he's admitted upfront his allergy to Wallace's writing. Its a nicely different take on the literary parlour game of what great books you have and haven't read; but it also struck a chord with this reader. There are some writers we know are good, some we know are bad, but there are some where it doesn't make a difference, as they bring us out in a rash.

As Dyer says, he even "likes" Wallace's writing, he just can't get on with it. Its interesting that Dyer says this, as I think he's a similarly rare food group. I've heard him read on a couple of occasions, and I've loved it, but trying to read his books, I start by enjoying his light, breezy style, his digressions, his authorial interruption, and then, I get annoyed by it. There's just too much Geoff Dyer in it, and my palate's not up to it.

But I think there are a couple of types of literary allergy. Dyer (as with Wallace for him) is in the "I like it, but can't stomach it" category - writing that's a little too rich, or too plain, or simply too "too", for our taste. And perhaps, like David Foster Wallace, Geoff Dyer is a writer who writes books which are almost guaranteed to bring out that reaction from some readers - they are books that are not easily pigeonholed. I might start reading expecting one thing, and then get another. One of these days I'll finish a Dyer book and can throw away my anti-histamines. On the other hand, other allergies are more severe. I get annoyed when I see the cover of the book; when I hear the writer's name; when I hear how brilliant they are. It's not just that I don't get it, it's that every time I try to get it (i.e. by reading them) I can feel the old panic attacks coming back. It's like they are written in a language that induces migraines. Beryl Bainbridge is one of these. She's a national treasure; she was the "best writer never to win the Booker"; she's loved by all and sundry; she wrote books on a range of subjects. Yes, yes, yes. But two pages in to "Master Georgie" or whatever, I'm in knots inside, my eyes are glassed over. Ali Smith's another one. I skipped pages of "Hotel World" in an attempt to get through it; I've even read a couple of her acclaimed short stories, and I've felt physical unwell at the end.

I noticed that when people started sharing their #literaryallergies on Twitter (thanks to the writer @sarahchurchwell) it was old dead writers like Trollope and Hardy; or bad experiences at school. There aren't, I think, allergies - some writers just aren't for you or there's a non-literary reason for liking them - but an allergic reaction is a personal one; books that you otherwise perhaps ought to like, and for one reason or another don't. Just accept it, and move on to the next author, there are plenty out there.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unfinished Works

Any scholar of unfinished works is advised to read the article on David Foster Wallace's last novel in yesterday's Guardian. "The Pale King", which is being published with agreement from his widow, Karen Green.

The first question about unfinished works she answers in her Observer interview:

"The notes that he took for the book and chapters that were complete, were left in a neat pile on his desk in the garage where he worked. And his lamps were on it, illuminating it. So I have no doubt in my mind this is what he wanted. It was in as organised a state as David ever left anything."

David Foster Wallace died in 2008, so in some ways, without the death, this would just be a normal publication process for a novel that an author had let go, sent to his publisher. As his editor Michael Pietsch makes clear in the Guardian piece, it is impossible to know how finished the novel was. Certainly some parts were complete, and even though the ending appears incomplete, this could also be part of his plan. Pietsch's job was to put together the novel in the best way that he could. Structure, in such a digressive writer as Wallace, proved one of the hardest things - and, also, the unknowable: what the writer would have changed as it went through the stages to publication.

The reason we have this novel, of course, is because Wallace matters. It is only his 3rd novel, but he wrote much more - essays and short stories that are amongst the best writing of the late 20th and early 21st century. Reading a Wallace essay or story can change your thoughts, even your thought processes. Suicide is always a tragedy, and Wallace's death is a reminder that it is not something that we have suddenly cured with all our modern pills and strategies.

That - and commercial imperative - are why "The Pale King" is being published. I think it should be. Yet, we are left, as ever with unfinished works, with more questions than answers. His was a thin, but substantial bibliography - and if anything, the logic of this publication must surely be because, of all contemporary writers, Wallace's work always feels - at the same time as its exemplary and measured - to some extent unfinished, a question, or series of questions rather than an answer.

We live in a world of "completion", where first albums appear fully formed, where debut novels are brimming with confidence, yet writing, as with all art, is a construction. Coincidentally, this week also saw a feature on the "director's cut" - and asks whether it is the holy grail of an auteurs vision or a marketing indulgence? As an individual, coming across a work of art for the first time, you accept it on those terms. I first heard "Diamond Dogs" on cassette, and the track listing was in a different order than the LP, even though it was a concept cassette! I will always have a softspot for the original "Blade Runner" with the voiceover, however many other versions Ridley Scott releases. I first bought the Pixies "Surfer Rosa" on CD where it was coupled with their previous mini album, "Come On Pilgrim", so for me, "Surfer Rosa" includes those tracks. Joy Division's posthumous "Still" is my favourite of their albums, as it was the first I heard and bought.

For writers, there is always some editing, but its rare, I think, that a "directors cut" has been published. (My friend Elizabeth Baines has done so with "The Birth Machine", and the reasons for it are fascinating. Partly I think this is because we encounter the work in its published form, and this gives it permanence, whatever the writer's intentions; but partly, its still the writers' words, the writers' version. The first time I saw "Hamlet" it was in a version based on the first published version of the play; which had been toured, then published without Shakespeare's permission. The play is shorter, simpler, less of Shakespeare's words, but still Shakespeare's words.

Wallace's death gives us an endpoint. He moves from being read, to being studied. There are these books and no more. Better, I think, that "The Pale King" is published as a book, so it can be enjoyed as that, rather than as an epitaph.


The Manchester poetry scene had sad news this week. Carcanet poet Linda Chase died on Friday after a short illness. She had run the dynamic "poets and players" series or readings, amongst other things, and never had any doubt that poetry could command a substantial audience. A new book of poems from Carcanet was completed before she passed away, and will be published later in the year.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Brief Notes

Its the "end of year" for anyone in the public sector, but starting a new year of any kind in April always seems a little silly, lambing season or not. The "cuts" begin to bite from now, and last week saw the Arts Council act as judge and jury on its flock. Its worth noting that the arts isn't all about "regularly funded" organisations, and literature, which receives much less than, say, theatre or orchestras, from this particular pot, also exists far more outside of the funding streams. That said, the small money that goes into literature can hardly be said to be wasted. A little seed money to fund a poetry press, magazine or festival seems the least that the state can do. A year ago, government was happily spending public money on "cash for bangers" remember... amongst the losers last week were some that I know well, and I was particularly sad to hear that Litfest in Lancaster didn't receive funding, given the wide range of activities they do to help writing and writers. We don't have a writing development agency or anything similar in the NW, and Litfest, in small ways act to help writers get published, and get better. I wish them well.

Next week, I'm away with work, notwithstanding a head cold that came on yesterday, so I'm unfortunately going to miss the 3rd anniversary of the exemplary "The Other Room" which takes place on Wednesday at the Old Abbey Inn, with readings from Ken Edwards, Alec Finlay, Carrie Etter & Derek Henderson. Its partner in avant garde crimes, Counting Backwards, is on at Fuel on Thursday as well. First weeks in months are not turning out to be that convenient for me, unfortunately.

I said I'd give a mention to Emma Newman's book launch which takes place at the Cornerhouse next Friday. The writer and blogger is launching her collection of spooky stories "Dark Places."

So, a week of literary opportunities, if you want something to take your mind off the "cuts."