Friday, March 30, 2012

National Poetry Lottery

As ever there's been a bit of comment about the winners of the National Poetry competition. It is prestigious and usually finds a decent winner. I'm not sure I quite like Allison McVety's "To the Lighthouse" as much as Helen Dunmore's "The Malarkey" the superb 2010 winner; its a fine poem (particularly in the 3rd stanza) but depends heavily on its source material. The shortlist is interesting of course, and I smiled at Liz Berry's entry, as its written in Black Country vernacular; something I've done myself - years ago - but always felt was a bit faux; that she does it so well may make me try again!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Music 2012

Looking after 3 websites and similar number of social media channels requires a little planning. I occasionally mention my music here, and will do again today.

I'm recording a downloadable "single" each month during 2012 - free to listen or £1 to own - so if you like lo-fi experimental electronic pop kind of stuff then give it a go. The 3rd monthly single is now online and you can download them as follows.

JAN - For All These Days

FEB - The Armenian
MAR - Clap Your Hands!/Red Deer Cave People

The picture is a montage of my equally lo-fi cut and paste tape and CD covers over the years.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Poetry of the Decade(s)

Decades - like Centuries - are useful temporal borders. We can talk about the 19th century novel or the 1930s poet - and I think, within reason, we can use them with some validity. Just as terms such as "Victorian" or "Edwardian" are shorthands for a specific generation or more. In music we buy compilations entitled hits of the 70s or attend an 80s night. At some point there becomes a bit of a convergence of time and association so that - say, "the sixties" means something specific to do with the Beatles, the King's Road, Woodstock and the Vietnam War.

In reading "Poetry of the 1930s" one is struck by two things - the lack of women poets; and the specificity of the poetry chosen. Auden, a poet who wrote well for longer than most, is reduced by his appearance here, Spender and others are possibly improved. Yet as we not only live longer, but our public writers have longer public lives, I think we would be wrong to dismiss this "generational" sense. There are gaps in the record. The various Millennium anthologies (Bloodaxe, Penguin, The Firebox) close with poets younger than myself. Yet you would think my generation be poets of the "nineties" if at all? Possibly things take longer now. The Next Generation list published in 2004, included quite a few poets born in the 50s and early 60s as well as the late 60s and early 70s; Alice Oswald, I was surprised to see, being about the closest in age. (I'd probably thought her younger if anything.) It does seem to me difficult to imagine a poet who had been a teenager when the Beatles were still together, (as Jane Draycott and Pascale Petit were), being classed as the same "generation" - anymore than writers much younger than me who had debut pamphlets in 2010 as a generation that I belong to.

Mere age is no signifier of course: the homogeny of the 30s poets was more similar than their sex; it often followed that they had the same education; often the same sexuality; and certainly similar careers and backgrounds. Yet, at the same time I think that if we don't necessarily think of the poets of a particular decade being all born within a few months of each other, there is still something about the poetry of that decade being of and from that time. Though Seamus Heaney or Christopher Reid or John Ashbery still win prizes it would seem a little absurd to include any of them in any "post-2000" poetry anthology - has their best work happened since then? I somehow doubt it, yet they've clearly remained an impact. There's unlikely to be a "poetry of the 00s" now and one kind of thinks that if anything there is a certain uneasy modern poetry that was written before and after the millennium a little uncertain of where it actually stood. Oswald's an interesting example; easily one of the most successful poets of the last few years; yet "a nature poet" - one of the oldest and most popular strands of English writing.

There are plenty of poets who have been retrospectively placed in their age - whether Emily Dickinson, Gerald Manley Hopkins or Edwin Morgan; the latter being revered towards the end of a long productive life in a way that simply insists in his place in the canon going back forty or more years. Other poets, one realises, may become as historically forgotten as so many then renowned, now unremarked, Victorian poets.

There are some debates that seem to have been going from the first time I was aware of contemporary poetry. Where are the black and Asian poets, I wonder? whenever I see a grouping of young poets they seem absent - has marginalisation re-occurred? Or has the relative success of the "performance" poem created its own separate world? Possibly the same goes for explicitly gay and lesbian poets? Then again, the British and Irish poem of the millenial window seems primarily concerned with self, but not in a confessional way, more in the anecdotal or the observational. In a globalised world, one sees poetry that is often as narrow as Larkin's or Heaney's - the flipside being that the narrowness is a trick, that the poem's universality can be found in the localism of subject, as it can be in the poetry of a recluse from Amherst. In terms of form, a certain formal free verse has been de rigeur for so long now, that one is almost surprised when something tighter or looser strays into the pages of "Poetry Review." Then again, now is the first time - in the UK at least - we're seeing poets who have consistently been through the workshopping of the BA or MA programs - often run by that previous generation's poets; a process that started a decade or so earlier with MA fiction courses.

Social media, poetry festivals, readings and magazine launches provide platforms that bring poets of different groups and different ages together - the group of NW poets I'm part of stretches across the decades, location and willingness to share being the thing we have in common - and perhaps it needs something else: a world event or a poetic schism perhaps, to define a "generation." And for those of us who've been writing poems forever, one can see the connections between a poem written in the 80s, 90s, or more recently, but one also sees the differences - sometimes of world-view, but more often of capability. One doesn't necessarily get better; but one hopefully doesn't get any worse.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Five Stories High: Citizen Kane

Film is undoubtedly the most remarkable artform of the 20th century and cinema history now rivals literary and art history in any discussion of that receding period. If film has supplanted theatre in many ways, it is not quite as simple a relationship as that. We've recently seen a play become a film become a play again ("The King's Speech"), films adapted for the stage ("Ghost", "Flashdance") and films and plays with similar source material. Like a written play the original version is often sacrosant, yet films are our contemporary myths - and as such - are as likely to be reversioned or parodied or re-interpreted as Shakespeare has been. There is the user "remake" of Star Wars for instance.

A few weeks ago I heard about an intrigueing project in Birmingham as part of the Flatpack Festival. YARN were asking for artists, writers and performers to help them recreate "Citizen Kane" live with each artist given a small section of the film to reinvent in their own way. It immediately appealed, not because "Citizen Kane" is one of my favourite films, but because its one of the most iconic and multi-layered stories that cinema has given us. A "drama documentary" about the fictional Kane, but based on a number of rich men, including Randolph Hearst. The American oligarch is one of the key figures of the 20th century and in Orson Welle's masterful movie it becomes his subject as much as Lear or Hamlet was Shakespeare's. Beautiful shot in black and white I last saw it at the Cornerhouse a few years ago and was shocked to realise it was filmed before cinemascope - so used are we to film's now being widescreen.

All the artists, myself included were given a timecoded section of the film to interpret with 7 days to prepare, and came together at the Custard Factory in Birmingham last Sunday - where we met each other and the organisers for the first time. Lined up in the rehearsal space all we shared were our cues for coming on and off stage. The finished work - a remarkable two hours with over a dozen artists - covered so much ground, interspersed with some small sections of the original film. Beginning and ending with the self explanatory "paper cinema" the story was retold in song, performance, art and digital media. Some performers took a particular tiny nugget and expanded on it; others told the full story but in an unusual way. I'd seen the film again only last week, but I'm sure even a casual memory of the film wouldn't have hindered understanding. I particularly liked the inventiveness of the digital interventions - a Twitter feed for the editorial meeting at Kane's newspaper; and a "live webcast" interview with Facebook and other interventions for the quizzing of Jed Leland. Special mention has to go to Deadly Serious Productions who managed to write, act and direct a short film in the mere 7 days since they got the commission - a Spaced-like spoof of Susan Alexander's opera career that had the audience in stitches.

My own section was at the very end - Kane and Susan in Xanadu as their marriage breaks up. I interspersed text from the film with half a dozen other sources - including information about the actress Dorothy Comingore (who played Kane's wife) refusing to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities committee and being blacklisted. It seemed to fit with the whole spirit of the event.

Many thanks to Gemma and her colleagues at YARN who did such a good job not only in putting such a thing together - but having the confidence in such a diverse range of performers, some, like me, they'd never met. I could well imagine a Manchester equivalent - anyone for "A Taste of Honey" or "A Clockwork Orange?"

Photographs from the event and list of performers can be found here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

NEW Magazine

I'm starting a NEW magazine...

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Capital by John Lanchester

Includes some spoilers - but tried to not give too much away

The pre-release hyperbole for "Capital" by John Lanchester is to hail it as a novel for our times - finally a contemporary novelist getting his teeth into the cause and reasons for the credit crunch. Lanchester wrote a highly acclaimed book about the crash - "Whoops!" - but perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise, that on finishing this curiously old fashioned novel, that it is "capital" as in London, rather than "capital" as in money, that is Lanchester's fascination. Certainly a novelist who has kept his powder dry since 2002's "Fragrant Harbour" has clearly not been desperate to write a fiction for the age.

The structure of "Capital" is a clever one - but that's the old fashioned element as well - for it takes one street, Pepys Road, in London, where middling houses have become multi-million assets, and goes down the road focussing on a small number of the inhabitants. An "ordinary street" in the capital (I'm guessing Wandsworth but may be a little out), there is an old lady who has lived there all her life, an Asian family with a corner shop on the ground floor, a football agent who is renting out to visiting foreign footballers, and the Younts, a new money family - Roger works in the city, Arabella spends the money he earns. "Capital" is a satire, or at least, Lanchester's tone is satirical. The short chapters take us carefully through these lives, but also in a secondary selection of characters that are connected to the street - an optimistic Zimbabwean traffic warden, a taciturn Polish builder, a beautiful Hungarian au pair, a secretive performance artist. Yes, Lanchester doesn't go far in his hunting for stereotypes. When one of the Asian brothers turns out to have been involved with a terrorist group in Chechnya the only surprise is that Iqbal, who he knew back then, is a Belgian.

There are attempts at a broader humour in the novel, but that's not Lanchester's strong suit, he's far better at the minutiae of his character's lives. Like other recent big "state of the nation" books by Jonathan Frantzen and Philip Hensher, there's a lack of discrimination about what to include. Rather than being about the characters in Pepys road, it soon becomes about this wider cast - no bad thing, perhaps - but a lessening of the impact. We get to know far more about some of the peripheral characters (such as the policeman Mills) than the main ones. The linking thread is not the credit crunch, but a postcard campaign that starts mysterious and ends up sinister, "We want what you have" say the postcards. This is a MacGuffin of the first order, and once he's started with it, Lanchester doesn't really know what to do with it. We assume its an art prank - but then it becomes a confusion. Far stronger on character than plot, the novel has some of the disconcerting enjambements that are so common in contemporary novels, plot lines petering out, or tending to not be about that much. Iqbal disappears and never reappears and we only have the dealings of what happens in its wake; the police - more plod-like than you'd believe possible - chase one hare and end up with another one; the performance artist has his anonymity stripped from him just when its convenient to do so.

The central characters in some ways are the Younts - but the scenes at the bank and at their home don't endear them to the readers. Rich beyond everyone's dreams, they are still financially stretched, and relying on this year's bonus. When that doesn't come you think "oh", and when the bank itself collapses Lehman-like, it happens offstage and no longer matters (as Roger has already lost his job.) In "Bonfire of the Vanities" a "master of the universe" accidentally runs into the real world that his privilege helps him avoid with disastrous consequence. In "Money" Martin Amis talks of money as a force of nature - that is just there, regardless, until of course, his John Self finds himself as the victim of a giant scam - yet in "Capital" there is no jeopardy - one family sells their mother's home and become "rich", another has to sell up and downsize. Or rather there is no jeopardy for the middle classes. In the best bits of the novel Lanchester sides himself with the Zimbabwean, the Pole, the Asian shopkeepers. In the arbitrary cruelty of modern life it is the weakest who fall and fail.

Don't get me wrong, "Capital", despite its length is an enjoyable enough read, but it wouldn't be unfair to call it slightly cosey. Chapters end abruptly as soon as there's an action point, and often these happen off-stage. Our narrator is an omniscient one and seems to be content on adopting a wry tone as if telling an after dinner speech. There's clearly been quite a lot of research gone into the novel, but as much about the strangenesses of the asylum system as the financial mechanisms of the city. At times it feels like the ordinary people and their ordinary lives have been equally researched. The cultural signifiers seem dropped in, as if researched by an alien who is just checking out Earth-life for the first time. In many ways, its an accessible read - that weird thing, the literary blockbuster - I can imagine that the BBC or C4 has already optioned it for a 3-part series, probably using one of their producers' houses as a backdrop. It tells something of contemporary London life, but hasn't anything of the artistic or storytelling bravado of "London Fields" or Micheal Bracewell's excellent "The Conclave." There is much enjoyment to be had in Lanchester's cast of characters, but also something "upstairs downstairs" about the rich and the poor in their lives they hardly see (except when they're an attractive au pair.) The real clue to the book's purpose I think is in the name of the road he writes about - "Pepys Road" - for Lanchester, like Pepys, is at his best when he is being an interested chronicler of everyday London life.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Novel or the Novelist?

The Poorhouse Fair, Goodbye Columbus, Dangling Man.

What have these in common?

Of course - these are first novels (a novella in Roth's case) - by three writers who are amongst the most celebrated of American novelists. A book or three later you'd have...

Rabbit, Run; Portnoy's Complaint; The Adventures of Augie Marsh...

three novels which were profoundly influential on American literature.

Try again...

Metroland, the Rachel Papers, Grimus...

maybe a bit easier...of course, you'll soon have Flaubert's Parrot; Money and Midnight's Children.

Lets play the game slightly differently...

Alentejo Blue; The Autograph Man; Ludmila's Broken English; Us.

Second novels following highly successful or much hyped debuts by Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, DBC Pierre and Richard Mason.

Whereas I did know the early novels by Updike et al, I had to Google the latter list (with the exception of Zadie).

Though its inevitably selective, it does make me wonder about the first novel syndrome - the big book that launches a career. In music its also well known (it might almost be called Stone Roses syndrome) where a band appears fully-formed with a debut that everything that comes after is a mere shadow of. For a novelist it can be disastrous. After all, though there are some great one-offs (To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye) the level of fame that those books brought was possibly partially responsible for the lack of a follow-up. Whereas a rock band might spend five to ten years working on a debut - with all manner of false starts (the equivalent of the "bottom drawer" novel) often finding their way into the public domain after the "hit", you could argue that music is still a young person's game.

No novelist, I would think, would hope to have written their best work at 22 or whatever - and even those getting published a little later might hope that they get better with the 2nd or 3rd book. I wonder when Grimus or Dangling Man were delivered whether the publisher was bowled over, or rather, discerned promise that this book wasn't going to necessarily fulfil? Its not the whole story of course - Updike already had a bit of a name for short stories; Rushdie was a successful copywriter; Amis was already an enfant terrible. Yet there does seem a sense that writers were being published not because this was "the book" but because this was "the writer." In other words, old hands in the publishing industry felt that the 2nd, 3rd or later novel would be the one that went beyond the respectable reviews and small sales of a well-regarded debut. I don't know if you could actually predict the actual books from those debuts? Reading pre-Money Amis for instance I've always found disappointing as that was the book of his I've first read. I can see that they are decent enough books, but their ambition seems so much less.

As for the debut sensations they're all cautionary tales. Zadie Smith's debut brimmed with confidence - and yet the follow-up The Autograph Man seemed to be struggling to keep up with the young American writers she so admired. There's some doubt now, it seems, whether she wants to be a novelist at all - and though successful, her third, On Beauty, looked back to Howard's End for its inspiration. Monica Ali's post-Brick Lane books have confused her publisher and audience by taking place outside of the millieu which she'd mined in that debut; whilst Richard Mason had a backlash virtually from the moment The Drowning People was published. (Not surprisingly, it wasn't a good book.)

No doubt a big early "success" brings with it its own pressure. Monica Ali (who was in her thirties when "Brick Lane" was published) has written a diversity of books since her debut - but one imagines that they've not done anywhere near as well as her debut. It seems that the investment in a big "book" does no favours to writer or publisher - and, inevitably, few writers have "big books" in them every time. A writer such as Nicola Barker, for instance, seems to be consistently close to a breakthrough book - Wide Open did very well, and Darkmans was highly regarded - and David Mitchell has achieved something critically and/or artistically with each book. The idea of a "midlist" author always seems a particularly British phenomenon - but in the US, its worth noting that Frantzen had books out before The Corrections, for instance.

I'd like to say to publishers, invest in the novel and you may well have a big book, but invest in the novelist and you might have something much more. I'm sure it still happens, but I'm not sure to what extent. I've met quite a few writers over the years who are clearly "one book" authors. Everything they have is invested in this first novel - and (often because of its personal nature), one can't quite see where they'll dig another one for. Then there are other writers who live for the word, who have an idea a day, and, if they have a fault, its in not being able to get the ideas out quick enough - or in the right way.

And part of this is about the quality of the writing. My disappointment on reading The Drowning People was partly the flatness of its prose. Surely, a young writer should be brimming with something new? This was a polite, middle-brow debut. The Rachel Papers brims with the brio that we'd find in later Amis. Amis's reputation, one feels, will rest on a couple of books (Money and London Fields) and his prose style and persona, much as Anthony Burgess's does. Another successful debutant, DBC Pierre has failed to live up to his debut, (as, arguably did Irvine Welsh). Flashy writing can be as impotent as the workmanlike, (think of Henry Miller, for instance.)

Monday, March 05, 2012

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I wonder if we are re-entering an age of ghosts and spectres. Human history has rarely been without its supernatural element. At times, that belief in God has been palpable, and found physical form in the nature of churches, books, and - as counterpoint - the murder of non-believers and sending them to an equally physically imagined Hell. In the 20th century a different kind of paranoid supernature seemed to emerge. Regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and others - (and though less murderous, McCarthyism in the USA, the deference to the British monarchy, Stasi-led East Germany) - had their own supernatural apparatus, even if the bogeymen here were very human. Perhaps our stories of ghosts and spectres are exactly this, a way that we dehumanise what some of our fellow citizens have done undertaken. One of my favourite paintings is Caravaggio's of the taking of Christ by the Roman soldiers in Gethsemene.

Here, Caravaggio reimagines the Biblical-historical scene as it must have happened. These are obviously men (as is Christ) but he gives them a sheen of the other world through the hard black shells of their uniform. This is a painting that we see echoes of in Epstein's monolithic "Rock Drill" or George Lucas's Darth Vader.

The supernatural is not just the belief of the ignorant, but may be a far more subtle way of passing on myths and warnings through history. There were the islanders who went to high ground because the colour of the sky had changed, and escaped some of the worst of the Indonesian tsunami for instance. And our nursery rhymes and fairy tales are often warnings about very human interlocutors.

It is not that the information age is an obvious candidate for "superstition" - surely everything is there to be checked and verified? But of course, as spurious Twitter deaths and social media witchhunts show, the transmission mechanism is what has changed, not the propensity of humankind to think the worst. There are two ways I think in which superstition will continue in this age of information. The one is one in which primitive cultures faced with new inventions have always responded - with suspicion about the magic of it all. The "machine" is full of ghosts now, and fewer and fewer of us know how it works. Could, in a few years time, it be impossible to find an averagely educated person who actually understands what this magic of ubiquitous information is? But second, I think, is the distinction between the physical and the virtual. Already some history is becoming unavailable (or appearing so) because it is not showing up in a Google search. I can well imagine a future where physical artefacts could be as impenetrable to the future citizen as certain things are for us. Part of the joy of Antiques Roadshow and other shows is how "things" give an insight into "how we lived."

For the writer in this age - and not just the writer, but the artist, or the musician - we live in an age of immense over production. Or rather, there's less of gap now between the "professional" and the "amatuer". For in the novels of Jane Austen or Henry Fielding characters wrote copiously every day; a vast, lost archive of people's lives and creativity. Poetry, art, fiction, music all required (and require) some ability - but the ability, now, to make them available, is more than ever.

There seems a vast pool of contemporary poets for instance; or contemporary short story writers; or artists; or musicians. None of these groups is "amateur" in the old sense, yet in whatever way we contribute to the discourse of the day, the possibility for this art falling silently in the empty auditorium seems greater than ever. I came across the catalogue for Becks New Contemporaries 97 the other day its new enough to be archived on the internet by some of its artists, but I wondered how many are still practicing? (All, one would hope, and it does take time....Forsyth & Pollard's website says they had their first major London exhibition only last year!) And to what extent "practice" is a market activity. Just as publishers and magazines need writers to contribute to, record companies need bands to put out, so do galleries need artists to show.

This flourishing of artistic endeavour, should, of course, be one of our great achievements as a nation, as a culture - every bit as much as the churches that stand in every English village (each with their diligent, educated parson. But if empty pews speak clearly of over-production of religious experience, a left over from a previous age, what now? Youtube is an endless fascination. Every video uploaded - for instance - requires skills, with a camera, with a computer, that though "simple" aren't to be dismissed. Faced with this abundance, this longest, flattest of tails, there's a real risk that outside careful niches, art - this semi-professional art - falls silently. We all know of cult artists who did something a long time before the mainstream; we may be doing it ourselves; yet the contemporary critical culture is so linked to the marketing machine; so linked to the economic case for art (for instance, ALL the 6 "shortlisted" for the Ted Hughes prize this year are "commissions" - 4 of them for the BBC - surely, automatically excluding new, younger or less established poets?) In other words, just a few years after saying that the internet would democratize, hear we have more examples of how "gatekeepers" are back in a very clear way. If we've long wondered about the Turner Prize shortlist, for instance, it's partly because it's criteria is a professionals' one. Although I regularly go to contemporary art I don't think I've ever gone to Turner-shortlisted show. I don't even know if there has ever been a Manchester one that has been shortlisted? It is when the shortlist is announced - and we see them exhibited together - that the general public is let in to the newly annointed. The process is as cloudy to most people as the appointment of a Pope. Yet, we perhaps want to keep it that way, be provided with the menu and then taste the food, not be given the ingredients and asked to forage for ourselves.

For arts that require a certain amount of investment - the art show, the short film, the vinyl album - the artefact can still have a power of legitimacy. It's why poets still crave books after all. Yet, views on YouTube are no more an arbiter of a fanbase than free downloads. The internet has given us many good things, but I'm not sure Ed Sheeran's career is the one we were expecting. Valiant activities from small presses are stymied by two things - an over-production that is their main way of creating scale, and a fracturing of a small, possibly hardly-existent audience.
It's entirely possible of course that the "80%...90% of everything is crap" formulae is just getting higher - yet at the same time we are being asked to buy more, consume more to keep the economy going. "More" in this case can include culture - whether its DVDs, cinema tickets, CDs or poetry books.

We don't yet live in a new age of superstition, but there's a sense that something might break. Rather than seeing as the "Occupy" movement or the summer riots as signs of an angered, engaged population, what surprises is how, compared with previous ages, how little is going on. Visiting the Manchester Histories Festival in the Town Hall on Saturday I was amazed by the amount (and the nicheness) of the local history groups present. What would "success" mean to each of them? A new member? Three or four conversations? A book or an artefact sold? Who knows? Looking for something to eat I ended up in the shopping district. A crowd gathered as there was some freestyle kids dancing competition on a packed Market Street. Elsewhere, the Arndale centre was hardly negotiable, so many people were out and about. There is nothing supernatural about consumption - and here we are, trained to do it, continuing to do it, finding a small bit of spiritual release in doing it.

I'm not sure what I'm saying - these posts are often first drafts of ideas - and I've conflated a couple here, without quite getting to the heart of either. The wondering where superstition will exist in an age where things become increasingly virtual (does the artefact become more important? Or do libraries become as empty as the church of an ancient sect?) - and the role of over-production of art in a culture that needs the over-production more than it needs the art?

In the last week, I've bought books by Laura Oldfield Ford, Philip Davenport, John Lanchester, Neil Campbell and others, yet not sure how much time I'll have to read them - or God forbid, write about them as well! Yet, I'm sitting here, with a week off, knowing that I need - for my own sanity; and because its what I do - to add to this stockpile of work, that at best might receive only a silent applause. I applaud those publishers, blogs and magazines that have carved out their own little coterie, their own little audience - its possible that that's enough; that it creates a shape and narrative around diverse work, and, in time, that will feed into the wider culture. Alternatively, it might be that we are all the followers of narrow sects, proclaimers of the true word, gathered together in dimly-lit basements, glad only that our solipsism is cast aside for a night a month, measuring out our achievements with other solipsists, always a little bit fearful (but possibly glad) that someone outside - some black-clad Roman will come and haul us from our self-designed cell and into the light of public testimony or punishment.

Friday, March 02, 2012

World Book Day in Bolton

Once upon a time bands would launch their new album in out-of-the-way places and fly or bus journalists in. Presumably the move away from the metropolis would aid concentration. I thought about that yesterday as I headed to Bolton Octagon to hear Gwendoline Riley read from her long-awaited 4th novel, Opposed Positions.

There, of course, the comparison ends - for I've seen her read at the Octagon before, and this wasn't a launch as such - and her and Jane Rogers were reading as part of the Octagon's admirable "Literature Live" series. Still, as one of the best writers to come out of Manchester's writing schools, Riley's absence over the last few years has been keenly felt.

I'm glad I made the short trip north. Compered by short story writer Zoe Lambert, it was a lovely event. Jane Rogers is a writer I've long admired, even if her critical star seems to have waned a little in recent years. Her latest novel, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, a futuristic dystopia was passed up by her long-term publisher Little, Brown, and published instead by the tiny Sandstone press, who were rewarded with good sales and a Booker longlisting. In a world where women die in childbirth ("maternal death syndrome") a young woman is determined to take control of her own destiny. Reading from both the start and end of the book, we get a sense of a very contemporary precariousness thrust into a possible future scenario that is both recognisable for its jeopardy, and imaginative. Keeping the mothers alive long enough to have their children, the women become "sleeping beauties".

If there's a connecting theme between the two writers its about generational shifts and complex relationships between children and parents. For Riley's 4th novel, the Carmel of "Cold Water", a heroine who mixed self-destructivenss with self-awareness, is replaced by a narrator who talks us through the multi-layered complexities of her family past. Speaking of weekends as a child spent with an estranged father, this extract from the start of the novel is a weave of complex emotional memories. The narrator is highly sensitive to the language and emotional landscape around her, mimicking her dad's scouse idiom. I'm reminded a little of the multiple memories of Natalie Ginzburg's "Things We Used to Say", but its also got some of the emotional maturity of American writers like Updike and Moore. Whereas we already know Riley's work for its poetic honesty, here there seems a new confidence in her depiction of complex emotional worlds - lives that are messy and unpredictable, families enclosed and repressive family lives.

A second half sees Rogers' read from the end of the novel - and Riley reads a long short story, a dramatic monologue of searing intensity that was recently published in the Edinburgh Review. Here "Gwendoline Riley" is a character in a story of a dysfunctional relationship with a feral, tactile brutal partner brought to life by the narrator's sardonic retelling of the tale. Great stuff, that one felt a little uncomfortable applauding at the end. Men don't come out of Riley's work well.

Fiction readings are sometimes hard to pull off - as a novel has to be reduced to a few lines - but last night was impressive stuff, at least partly because they are both novels I felt I wanted to read. Riley's is not out till May, but Jane Rogers can be picked up now - though she shared with us a new cover for the 2nd edition.