Saturday, March 30, 2013

Entertaining Strangers by Jonathan Taylor

There's an unnamed subgenre of English literature which revels in the quirky, and centres itself on flawed and fascinating characters - there's something of the music hall about it, a memory of Punch and Judy, as much as the 18th century archetypes you find in Fielding and (especially) Sterne. There's always something quite theatrical about it, and not surprisingly the actor Paul Bailey and the wonderful Angela Carter come to mind when thinking of more recent precedents. I'm reminded of this picking up Jonathan Taylor's recent debut novel "Entertaining Strangers," which throws us into the life of Edwin Prince at the moment when the mysterious narrator, "Jules", arrives unannounced on his doorstep.

Jules is welcomed - if that's the right word - into the house that Prince shares with his Landlady, a virtually squat-like hovel where the main characters come and go in a twilight world of hangovers, confused sexual liaisons and personal obsessions. For Prince is an eccentric of the first order. Obsessed with the cultural significance of ants, a Withnail-like auto-didact reading out half-remembered tracts of philosophy whilst listening at great volume to the far watermarks of 20th century experimental music. As Jules relates life in the Prince household the cast of characters expands, with Prince only reluctantly giving any explanation of how he relates to an ex-wife (never named), a psychologically disturbed brother, a hated and downtrodden mother, and other "strangers" such as the pub's poet laureate, Edwin's only friend. Taylor's novel hints at something broader beneath its comic monologues, for Jules is haunted by impossible memories of smoke and fire relating to the sacking of Smyrna in 1922, when the allied ships looked on from the bay as the Armenians and Greeks on the shoreline were left to burn with the city.

Prince is a modern grotesque, an out-of-place loner who, nonetheless, is attractive enough in his erudite obsessions to gather round him a group of (mainly) women who either want to bed or mother him or both. Set in a highly specified 1997, but in a non-specific East Midlands town (presumably Loughborough), the novel's a mostly funny, but occasionally sombre fable of curtailed and unstable lives. There's a grubby sadness to Prince - a recognisable model of the highly-strung obsessive who would probably be a Professor of something or other had he managed to scrape through his degree, but instead ends up running a pre-internet chat line called "Encyclodial" answering callers randomw general knowledge questions. All of this is seen through the eyes of Jules, who slowly but surely turns into an unlikely "guardian angel" for Edwin. This mysterious waif has her own secrets, that are at the heart of the books unravelling mysteries; but despite her mysterious nature she is a welcome narrator, giving us Edwin's life unadorned, but sympathetically. The chapters are often prefaced by "ant facts" for Edwin's obsession is with ants and how much better they are than humans. In a drab small-town world that rarely goes beyond the cramped littered living room or the far-from-gastro local pub this is a book of light comic magical realism set in the unpromising terrain of mid-90s Britain.

At times, the riffs go on a bit too much, with large extracts from "ant" literature or verbatim conversations, and you realise that the stuff of this somewhat theatrical novel is mostly to be found elsewhere in our cultural life these days - in the lodging house absurdities of "Spaced" or before that "Rising Damp." Set in the first days of the Tony Blair government, the characters are oblivious to the world around them, struggling with the dank everyday nothingness of British provincial life, where casual sex, familial violence and constant alcohol are the only drivers. Taylor, who has previously published a family memoir, is at his best when describing this drab tableaux, whilst whisking the reader along with a promise of something deeper - relating back to the horrors of the Armenian genocide? How does the past impinge on the present? There's darkness here, but its told with an eye on the audience, I think, so has some of the surface brio of Zadie Smith's "White Teeth", whisking us through its non-events, rather than wanting to go too deeply into the world he's describing. The tight cast and use of a narrator who is not so much disinterested as distant from the world she's describing make it an easy novel to read though there are times when the scenes are a little too drab or too repetitive to really engage the reader, and I found myself skipping  a few sections. Though Edwin is a great creation, the other supporting characters are ciphers in a way - there is good reason for this I think, since it is through their relationship to Edwin that Jules sees them all - and for a book so heavy on dialogue, some of it is a little stock, a little sitcom - again, something that occasionally marred "White Teeth."

That said, Taylor successfully gives us a British family saga of sorts that is viable without a cast of thousands or the upper (or even middle) classes. If there's something kitchen-sink drama about its setting, the higher aims, and the links to the massacre at Smyrna are skilfully entwined, so that the book is elevated somewhat above its domestic setting. The title "entertaining strangers" is an accurate one, for that is what Edwin does in both ways - he lets Jules into his house, but he also "entertains" her and us.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Coming up...

Time for one of my round ups... as its another busy literary week coming up....

Monday, Lead Poets regular meet up in Chorlton, with Lindsey Holland as one of the guests

Wednesday, Rosie Garland's debut novel, the Palace of Curiosities, winner of the Mslexia prize, is being launched at Manchester Waterstones at 7PM.  Also that evening, Bad Language returns at the Castle. 

Thursday, launch of BOMP 3 (AKA Best of Manchester Poets 3) with myself and a cast of thousands.

Friday...time to head to Liverpool if you're around on Good Friday, where Lindsey Holland and Angela Topping support the award-winning Whistle, a poetic performance by Martin Figura. 

And Saturday, the Cornerhouse hosts Enemies of the North - a brilliant line up of experimentalists. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

On Thom Gunn

"Around 1960, it sometimes seemed as if all the poetry being written in England was being produced by a triple-headed creature called the "Larkin-Hughes-Gunn" " said Edward Lucie-Smith in British Poetry Since 1945, " is Gunn whose reputation has worn least well." With all three dead, the distinction between the reputations of the first two and the third is pronounced. There is no biography for Gunn, and his books seem out of stock, yet "The Man with the Night Sweats", published in 1992 was, along with "Angels in America" and the movie "And the Band Played On" one of the earliest key pieces about the AIDS epidemic. Here we have a writer who, dying in 2004, was still writing valid work half a century after he'd burst onto the scene with the undergraduate work of "Fighting Terms", yet less than a decade after his death he seems to be unread or unvalued. It's time I think for a reappraisal, for of the three poets mentioned, he may well not have had the greater gift than Larkin but he certainly had a greater range, and the emotional hole at the centre of much of Hughes' work (until "Birthday Letters" at least) is not an accusation that you can level at Gunn, though like both these poets he was meticulous in keeping a distance between the self and the poem.

Reading various bits of critical analysis it appears that Gunn did the unforgivable sin of British writers, by moving to America early, and then staying there. Its an interesting variation on the cultural cringe. We accept Eliot, Pound, Plath as American writers who have become British and enhanced our poetry; yet when Auden or Gunn or Spender goes the other way, the critical consensus is that their work is less important. Yet how can this be? The second half of the century was determinedly American. Moreover, whereas as other British poets either embraced the lessons of Eliot and Pound (Sweeney, Bunting, Raworth) or created their own limited acceptance of free verse forms (Heaney, Hughes, Raine) fed through their own personal mythos, Gunn only slowly moved away from the metrics that he'd discovered in the Elizabethans, and which rung in his own head. Going to America, didn't make him American, at least not immediately.

"I admired a lot of American poetry in free verse, but I couldn’t write free verse. The free verse I tried to write was chopped-up prose, and I could see that was no good. Then I thought of ways in which I could learn how to write in something that was not metrical, that did not have the tune of meter going through it. Once you’ve got the tune in your head it’s very difficult to get it out," he told the Paris Review in 1994.

That Gunn felt happier personally in America, I don't think there's any doubt, he went not just for love (his partner was American) but also security - being gay in the UK in the the 1950s wasn't easy. Yet also here was a young, vibrant writer who could embrace all America had to offer - seeing in the Beats a kindred spirit even if his own poetry was far more formal and had a muscularity (or stiffness, depending on taste) that there's often lacked. A biography of Gunn would be useful in many ways, but not least to understand how the various tribes of poets interacted during those three decades of change, the 50s, 60s and 70s. I feel there's a partial picture - New York Poets, travelling Beats, Ginsberg at the Poetry International, St. Mark's Poetry Project etc. How does Gunn, an out gay man, an academic, a careful writer and a careful reader who would later choose an exemplary selection of Pound for Faber, despite them being so very different as writers, fit into this world?

I go back to the poems. The Collected goes up to and includes "The Man With the Night Sweats."  more judicious selection chosen by August Kleinzhaler shows no falling off a quality. It seems right to start with that late work.

"I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet"

There's the formal structure, the light rhymes, yet Gunn never seems stymied by form, it's always malleable in his hands, the rhymes are under emphasised. In just a few words he sets up the short poem brilliantly, the narrating "I" both in the past and the presence - the present reality of waking up cold contrasted with a vivid life, and the plague of AIDS is put to bed in just a few sharp phrases, for few diseases attack the body quite so visibly as AIDS, with the breaking down of the immune system leading to diseases such as cat flu, and sarcomas that would be highly unusual in young men. This is recent history, and Gunn was one of the earliest writers to address the plague from seeing so many men he knew succumb to it. Here as well, Gunn's methods serve him well, I think, for in many ways his poetry echoes pre-19th century forms and writers - and a medieval disaster such as the AIDS epidemic requires a slightly wearier form. 

"As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off."

The final two lines are almost Biblical, but are also direct and powerful. Its an important poem that is the start of this sequence of poems, an In Memoriam, not just for one man, but for a generation. Here he has learnt from his American counterparts, for these intimate poems are also public poems, these are the "best minds" of Gunn's generation, and they are suffering.  

"Qualities in his verse which once seemed to exist in an asethetic vacuum now serve an urgent purpose," writes Alvarez in the New Yorker in 1994, "...the restraint has something difficult to restrain - pity (for his friends), fear for himself."  

So is this the case and if so how did we get here? His first collection "Fighting Terms" was the only one written whilst he lived in Britain. They are dynamic, purposeful poems but it is his second collect "The Sense of Movement" written whilst on a Creative writing scholarship in America, where he comes into his own. The opener, "On the Move" (aka "Man, you gotta go") is an observational nature poem about biker gangs. He manages to evoke a spectacle with its dust, its smell and its noise, whilst remaining a distance. This is a poem about Hells Angels that begins with "The blue jay scuffling in the bushes..."

"On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt - by hiding it, robust - 
And almost hear a a meaning in their noise." 

This is written in the late 1950s. Gunn is 30. "Blackboard Jungle" "Heartbreak Hotel" and "On the Waterfront" have assailed British and American youth;  "On the Road" and "Howl" have only recently been published. Or look it another way: the bestselling records in Britain in 1958 are by the Everly Brothers and Connie Francis, Larkin is writing "the Whitsun Weddings" and John Masefield is poet laureate. What a strange world to land these poems in. Several years before Larkin mentions, sardonically, the Beatles, there is a poem called "Elvis Presley." 

Each book after "The Sense of a Movement" gives a slightly different Gunn, progressing, but loosening only so far. By "Moly" he is talking about LSD trips in poems like "At the Centre," "What is this steady pouring that/Oh, wonder/ The blue line bleeds and on the gold one draws..." and going to see Jefferson Airplane at the Golden Gate Bridge ("The music comes and goes on the wind/ Comes and goes on the brain." Maybe, we think, Gunn is the wrong poet to be writing about this, though it's his experience. After all, its not quite as strong as "Remember what the doormouse said;"Feed YOUR HEAD..." Poetry was beginning to find a way to write this way.

He seems to have continued to write at a similar pace throughout his life - "Jack Straw's Castle" is something of an attempt to create a mythos that is part-British, part-American. Jack Straw as remembered leader in the Peasant's revolt, as English pub name, as Grateful Dead song, and as the phrase more common to Americans, "man of straw." He would release only two collections in between 1971's "Moly" and 1992's "The Man with the Night Sweats" so may well have been both absent and somewhat forgotten. He was more than likely living his life, in what was a very new age for a gay man. In the Paris Review interview he explains that  "I live with some other men in a house in San Francisco. Somebody once said, Oh, you’ve got a gay commune. I said, No, it’s a queer household!—which I think was a satisfactory answer. Right now there’s only three of us there. There were five—one of them left and one of them died of AIDS. But we really fit in well together. We really do work as a family; we cook in turn, stuff like that."  It was that different life that fed the heartbreak of "The Man with the Night Sweats."

I brought up Gunn in a discussion at my North West Poets meeting, and perhaps for the first time at these meetings, there was some dissension about a poet's worth, though I hopefully encouraged people to read him again. I think what it is is that the prevailing "I am" of late 20th century verse is still there in the system of people's reading and we can't yet read the period historically. I think in 50 years it might seem less puzzling that a writer born in the late 1920s, harked back to early forms, wrote formally, used rhyme, and yet could find time for both the tutorship of the anti-modernist Yvor Winters and the beat poet Alan Ginsberg. For, in Britain at least, there has been a reluctance to go down a purely modernist route - so that we can have well-loved rhymers like Wendy Cope; and formal free versers like Heaney or Armitage; yet Gunn - in his forties at the time of his LSD experimentation with "Moly" - was somewhat out of time, his own poetic structures struggling a little with the freedom of the times, even though his approach was certainly a valid one. Larkin had virtually given up writing verse, (and would certainly have disdained LSD, Jefferson Airplane and the bath houses of San Francisco as he disdained everything else about the modern world), whilst Hughes was at the height of a personal mythos that created the bleak misanthropic "Crow" before reversing into the underwhelming poetry of his Laureate years, before the final triumph of "Birthday Letters."  

Though accepting that Gunn's work is not always as strong as my favourite poems, overall he seems to be a more than minor poet, with a consistency of method and content across several decades that - as if often the case - was both in and out of fashion. Michael Schmidt, in his "Lives of the Poets" quoting Gunn's Winters poem talks about how "Rule or Energy Gunn later recasts as definition and flow. Rule provides a structure or system in or through which the enegy can can't have one without the other."
And it is this, I think, which makes Gunn a poet worthy of rediscovering for a contemporary poet, because he was both a poet of the Movement, and distant from it; both British and American; liberated (in both his love life and poetry) and restrained (ditto). In negotiating the need to find an individual voice we also have to be willing to learn from extant models. Easy to do bad Heaney or bad Pound, less easy to identify the models from the 20th century and earlier which can help that individual voice.

Gunn was an important and well-regarded figure for much of his life time, but if someone with a Faber collected running to hundreds of pages can be seen as "neglected" he does seem to be, a little. I can also see why, in some ways, as his particular style doesn't fit with prevailing winds. The late twentieth century has so often been defined by decades and styles, rather than a continuum. Generational change was measured in half-decades rather than longer; yet I think that may have changed now - we are longer-lived, we are global. The transmission mechanisms (whether for infectious diseases like HIV or for ideas) are much quicker in a global world - but that also, paradoxically limits this idea of "generational change" for everything is here at once - sometimes in the same city. The idea of a "poetry of a decade" - Spender/Auden/Macniece in the thirties, the Movement poets in the fifties - seems a little redundant in careers that span forty years, and where the reception of, say, a Heaney collection, hasn't changed much in that time. Gunn was a fifties poet that didn't fit in even then, and his best work may have been scattered over four decades or more, culminating with that 1992 collection. Seen from this perspective we have to look at poets outside of their times, outside of their movements, as historical figures now, rather than memories. In this sense he stands up; the lineage with much older poetries seems clearer; and the possible connections with future poets and poetry - though never certain - is at least plausible.

Was he a public poet, like the Elizabethan's he admired, reporting on a scene like in "On the Move" or a personal poet post-Lowell, describing his own feelings? Both and neither of course - for "On the Move" has, to my mind a distilled energy - not the deep immersion of "the New Journalism", whilst the poems in "Man with the Night Sweats" is the better for its forensic nature. In the notes at the end of the collected Gunn gives the names of the men whom these poems are about. It is "for my record if for no-one else's because they were not famous people." Such fastidiousness is at one with his writing, and I feel we are the better for it.

I'd suggest you read the Paris Review interview here.
You can read some of his work here
And August Kleinzahler's Selected is a cheap and well chosen collection, with a useful introduction here which includes poetry that appeared after the "Collected Poems". 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Week that Was

Its been a busy week in Manchester, with a fair share of exciting events I got along to. Having been away half a dozen times since Christmas it was good last weekend to spend it in Manchester; with a record fair at Sachas providing me with a number of late birthday presents ("Songs for Drella", a John Cale live LP etc.) followed by a house party/soiree in Old Trafford.

Sunday was the return of My Bloody Valentine, who played to a packed Apollo as if the last twenty years hadn't happened; swathed in darkness, playing in front of chimerical projections, and with their trademark deafening melodies it was an astonishing set. Like Kraftwerk, here are a band who don't seem to exist inside normal frames of rock reference - what they have is a particular take on music that they have somehow managed to keep fresh even after that remarkably long hiatus; without any of the nostalgia of the Stone Roses (though a couple of their more well known songs still had an anachronistic "baggy" beat.) New songs from "mbv" fitted in equally as well, and after the usual sonic mayhem of "You Made Me Realise"'s extended crescendoing noise, we all left in some kind of euphoric fog.

At times, My Bloody Valentine seem much closer to non-rock artists, and the fact that they use guitars and ostensibly play "indie" music is merely an affectation, for musically they seem a byproduct of the 20th century avant garde. Whether Shostakovitch is classed as avant garde I've never been quite sure, but seeing the Halle perform his remarkable 5th symphony on Thursday at the Bridgewater Hall I was reminded how music that is octogenarian can still be complex and unfathomable. As the 20th century resides into history rather than memory it was still a shock to find that the conductor, Polish maestro Stanisław Skrowaczewski knew the Russian personally. I was less convinced by the opening piece Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra. It reminded me a lot of Bernstein, especially "On the Waterfront", and indeed, it was written almost contemporaneously. The 5th though is and was a monumental piece of music that remarkably manages to be both tender and thrilling. I felt the Halle and conductor were at their best on the quiet pieces, which, sat close to the stage were almost unbearably fragile, yet by the time it came to the climactic fourth movement, the Halle had risen admirably to the thrilling power of this remarkably evocative piece of music.

In between these two not entirely dissimilar musical highlights I went to the 3 Minute Theatre in Afflecks for the first time, where my friend Leanne Bridgewater was performing at Word Up, a spoken work night organised by Steph Pike, with all women performers recognising the series of events put on to celebrate International Women's Day last Friday. Good venue and convivial evening; after being out for six nights in a row I ended up slumped in front of the television last night.

It doesn't let up though: I'm speaking about Thom Gunn this afternoon at my regularly poetry group, NW Poets, and then next week its the FutureEverything festival, where I'm involved with a number of events as we host over 50 European partners visiting Manchester.  No time for blogging, reading or writing until that's all out of the way. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

What I'd Like to See from the Folio Prize

Given the Booker's long-time hegemony, I think its great that there's a new kid on the block with the Folio Prize for fiction. Literary fiction is increasingly in need of all the help it can get; and part of that, I think, is the way, over the years there's been a gap that's become a gaping chasm between the most interesting novels being published and "Booker books." I've mentioned before that any survey of 21st Century Brit-lit would surely include Nicola Barker, Magnus Mills, David Peace, David Mitchell, A.L. Kennedy, Will Self and China Mieville amongst its highlights, yet they've only occasionally been thought of for Booker long and shortlists. Any "list" of names or books is going to be partial; but I think though you could make a case that the Booker of the 80s and 90s was pretty close to the best that's been published, its for a long time lurched between various uncertainties - an underperforming old guard; a lurch to the new and shiny one off; and a penchant for either the predictably exotic, or (through Canadian and Australian nominees) a pseudo-American fiction that would otherwise be ineligible.

So what should a new prize do?

- Some consistency would be nice: recent Booker panels have lurched from populist to patrician
- Book bloggers are some of our best critics: not myself here, I barely read a dozen novels a year, but there's plenty of good book bloggers out there who are perceptive and, increasingly, taste formers for their readership. Are any in the new Folio academy?
- Small presses: here the Booker's been good of late, but partly because of the failure of the majors to publish even well known writers or excellent books by newcomers
- Novellas are nice - it seems that fiction is best served when its not in similar sized containers all the time - small books can be brilliant books (as can long books, as can sequences, as can connected-stories, as can fictional memoirs)
- Old writers are sometimes writing their best books: yes, its true - always a bit surprised by the writers consistently ignored by prizes
- Genre is sometimes okay - imagine if Stephen King's 11.22.63 was by a British writer - surely would have been worth a Booker listing. But same goes for China Mieville's The City and The City for instance, or one of Kate Atkinson's detective novels.
- Privilege the unusual: the Booker's tended to like quirky one-offs (DBC Pierre, Yann Martel) but hasn't been so kind to genuinely original constructions such as "Remainder" or "Spurious". A prediliction in favour of language and the unusual might increase the likelihood of publishers looking out for more of these.
- History is over. Well, not quite, but one of my bug-bears about the Booker is that any weighty historical novel seems to have a head start over the opposition. Seems odd to say that after the double from Mantel - but her books have a contemporary relevance as well as historical subject - some years the Booker has been like the history channel
- Ditch the commonwealth - difficult one this - literary identity and national identity are often different - but some shortlists have included a number of books that are American in all but the nuance of birth - if thats the case - then let American writers in. (I've not checked what the rules are)
- Make sure the books are available: there's an insanity about the Booker that big names and small names alike have sometimes been on the longlist before they've even published. What may have been a quirk initially seems to have lost its usefulness, with books read on Kindle or manuscript by the judges before they've made the shops.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sex in Literature

Ah, sex and literature. Given how long the first was not allowed in the latter, its surprising, now that it is, how often it comes up as a debate. Julian Barnes is the latest to stir the pot. "Modern authors feels commercial obligation" to write about sex according to the reports of his piece. I've not been able to find the piece online (its apparently published in the Radio Times) but actually from what I can gather is he's talking about him and his contemporaries - or even older writers - going back to Kingsley Amis deciding against writing a gay character in case it would be misconstrued as him. I found that a bit hard to believe, somehow, as Amis, despite all his macho bluster, always seemed a writer that would write what he damn well wanted to. I'm sure there are gay characters in his novels, though its a while since I've read them. There is certainly sex....

...anyway, I was surprised by that headline as one of the things that seems quite absent from contemporary novels compared with the books I read when I was a teenager, is the shoehorning in of sex, or even novels which are deliberately erotic. Alot of recent books have left the action at the bedroom door, or been pretty matter of fact about the act. The "Bad Sex Prize" has had quite an effect. Chloe Hooper's "The Engagement" was the last book I read, and is actually all about a sexual relationship, but its far from prurient, the eroticism in the novel comes from her description of things, rather than the sex between the two characters. And this seems common to a lot of younger novelists I've read. There might be the occasional comic sex scene but sex is dealt with pretty unembarassingly on the whole. Sex is seen as far less complicated than the other stuff a novelist (and their characters) have to deal with in "NW" by Zadie Smith or "Capital" by John Lanchester, for example. I've almost got the feeling with contemporary novels that rather than "add in" a sex scene at the bequest of the publisher, books are leaving them out. Once sex isn't the big issue then it just becomes more padding.

The one group of novelists who still do seem obsessed with sex regardless what the book is actually about, are Barnes' contemporaries. Sex is at the beating heart of Martin Amis's "The Pregnant Widow", Jacobsen's "The Finkler Question" and (worst of all) Hanif Kureishi's dreadful "Something to tell you." There's a little bit about old men trying to address the issue of sex for them at their age; something that you find done well occasionally (such as Roth's "The Human Stain") but generally badly. These writers have made a career out of novels that are male-centred and involve chasing girls, and like the old devils in Kingsley's excellent "The Old Devils" they are still at it; yet without a concomitant willingness to admit that they're a bit old for all that. From what I've read of Barnes' essay its more nuanced than that; and I'd hope so; as of that generation he's often written best about relationships ("Love etc." and "Talking it Over") whilst being far more interested in the psychological tenor of sex than its physical side.

And I can't quite believe that publishers are clamouring for our great writers to overdo the sexual content anyway. For sex in McEwan provides one of the most horrific scenes of violence in his whole back catalogue in the otherwise controlled "The Innocent" for instance. Part of it's intent, I think. Kureishi's best work may well be the brutally honest divorce novel "Intimacy". Sex is best in books, it seems, when its not particularly good or funny.

Rather than "50 Shades of Grey" leading to more sexual content in literary fictions I reckon it will probably lead to less. Literary novelists have always had to compete with both their more pornographic peers, whereas up until the mid-60s it was probably only the literary writer who could get away with being explicity. Cue Harold Robbins, James Hadley Chase, Jackie Collins and others and the Henry Millers of the world were outflanked.

Gay fiction continues to revel in the physical, perhaps necessarily to keep with the audience (just as gay-friendly pop artists stray too far from the disco at their peril). Though its noticeable that in recent novels by Neel Mukherjee, Max Schaeffer and Alan Hollinghurst that it is casual sex with strangers that provides the erotic charge; I'm yet to read a post-civil-partnership novel of marital lust. From what I've heard of Sarah Waters novels, they don't shy away from the bedroom, but having struggled a bit with her rather mainstream style I've never made it through a complete novel.

I kind of miss the dark sexual adventure that often lurked behind the pristine white spine of some European or American avant garde Picador writer: and Kathy Acker or Milan Kundera still seem to have more of a sexual edge than those writers who have placed sex at the margins of their story; but both of those were politically as well as artistically marginalised. Does sex in novels reflect the times? I don't think we'd be shocked any more by stories of teenage sex - even though there was still a bit of moral outrage when "Skins" first aired a few years ago. Oddly enough, in my own writing, it has receded as a subject as I've gotten older, and I've even wondered why that it. Perhaps because just like everything else in a novel or a story it has to earn its keep. There are, I'm sure, stories that sex still has to tell, but between the old men writing of chasing girls half their age, and the pulp fiction bestsellers of the supermarket shelf - between wish-fulfilment and fantasy in other words - the space to write meaningfully isn't that obvious.

(And just as a reminder, I contributed to a collection of short short stories for adults, "Quickies" with other mainly NW writers, still available as an e-book here.) 


Saturday, March 09, 2013

In Praise of...Literary Fiction

"Literary fiction" is a genre like any other; invented in the 80s as a marketing ruse to sell more serious/more difficult books. It is this that Paul Magrs, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, lashes out at in his perceptive blog post yesterday. "Many years of reading, teaching, workshopping, writing, studying and more reading have given me a kind of checklist of the cliched features that Bad Literary Fiction often boasts" he says before giving us a list of 13 pet hates. Its all good fun, especially in the weeks leading up to Granta's next set of "best 20 novelists" under 40.

My problem is, as I mentioned on Twitter to him, is that such shooting of fish in a literary barrel can sometimes be mis-read as an anti-intellectualism that is, after all, pretty rife in British culture. It's not a long walk from saying we don't want pretentiousness to saying "just give us a story." It's there in the regular calls for genre fiction to be prize-shortlisted, from John Le Carre down; or the over-defensiveness of Booker judge Stella Remington in the year she presided over a "readable" shortlist and then gave the prize to the one(weak) purposefully literary novel on the list. Like the ill-advised New Puritans with their calls for a Dogma-like list of simple rules for fiction, the last thing English fiction needs is less pretentiousness. For if "literary fiction" is something more than middlebrow fiction (I'll come to that), a novel set in a post-Bloomsbury world of over-decorated drawing rooms, then of course it will occasionally leave itself open to ridicule.

Magrs, who teaches creative writing as well as writes for adults and teenagers, has probably seen "literary fiction" develop with a wry smile as his own books have increasingly embraced genre. The problem is with lists like this is that they could be equally applied to good or bad books: I quickly came up with a list of great books that does each thing on his list.

I'm actually puzzled - genuinely - as to what we now mean by "literary fiction" - and its interesting that an ex UEA lecturer should be questioning the genre, given that if there is a contemporary equivalent to Bloomsbury it is probably the UEA alumni list. I like novels that reach, and even occasionally over reach, as well as well-done genre books; whilst steering clear of novels that seem, on the surface, to be too much watered-down Virginia Woolf. Yet it's hard to know what the target is nowadays. The Barnes-Amis-McEwan-Rushdie generation have written some shockers, but with books as straightforwardly pleasurable as "Talking it Over", "The Innocent" and "Night Train" in their back catalogue are these our "literary" writers? For the record the only three terrible novels I've read over the last couple of years were, respectively, by a poet, an acclaimed SF writer and a peer of those middle-aged giants; and they suffered, but from bad writing and an adolescent prurience not from literary pretension.

For me, the Booker, as an example, has always had a bit of a prediliction for leaden histories, self-indulgent memoirs and over-written psychological novels but I've also found that books that wouldn't have appealed to me from their "literary fiction" description, such as "The Gathering" by Anne Enright or "A Long, Long Way" by Sebastian Barry, have turned out to be little marvels.

And, like Magrs, a lifetime of reading literary novels next to so-called pulp fiction means that I've never been too sure where the genre lines run anyway - a path that spans from Burroughs to Mieville and Peace. I do believe there's a tendency to (small c) conservatism in both the content and form of fiction, and it might be this that Magrs is circling, but that battle's mostly over, I think: or maybe I've just been lucky and reading for pleasure rather than for reviewing or similar, I've somehow managed to avoid, with a few exceptions (hello, "Anil's Ghost") the terrible literary novel.

It's perhaps a generational thing: for who of Magrs age and younger are we talking here? Bright sparks like Thirlwell perhaps? The Brookners and Byatts are of a different generation; and with the majority of bright young things coming through the university system and finding berths there, what surprises me is how little adventure we find in the contemporary novel - so that even a writer like Tom McCarthy is recognisably in a tradition of the well-written English novel.

My description of the literary novel would find room for acclaimed writers like Nicola Barker, James Scudamore, Gwendoline Riley and Joe Dunthorne and there's not much pretension there. I suspect the kind of overwritten "literary fiction" that Magrs is talking about is withering somewhere on a soon-to-be-axed midlist. This battle is already over, I think, and what we actually could do with are books as sparkily pretentious in their own way as Jennifer Egan, Michel Houllebecq and Joshua Cohen.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Golden Streets

London has mesmerised me all my life. As a child it was the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum and my first Wimpy, as a teenager art and music; in my early twenties I visited to see friends, occasionally applied for jobs there; finally living and working there for a brief period at the end of the 90s. Friends have come and gone but I've always found somewhere to stay or found some good reason to go. The year I lived there wasn't a particularly successful one, and I realised then that the visitor to London's golden streets sometimes had one up on the resident; staying centrally, spending freely, not returning to a bedsit at the end of a long night bus or Tube journey.

Having been down there for five or six days last week I realised this might be the longest spell I'd had in the city since I left in 1997, and that last year, amazingly, I never made it down there, perhaps the first year since I was 15.

There have been a number of provincial novels set in London over the last couple of years, NW, Hawthorn and Child, Capital, "provincial" in that they are set in highly specific locales; and that's part of London's attraction, it is still a city of villages. Drift towards one direction and chances are you'll stay there for life and unlike the hub-and-spoke transport of other cities which sees everyone channelling through a central location, London is more of a web of connections.

Travelling to Europe a lot over the last few years, I realise that this time I treated London as a foreign city, a capital like Amsterdam or Brussels, and judged it accordingly. It held up well. My bane about British transport is, I realise, primarily a local one. One can only be impressed by the way London's buses, trains and underground pass so many people around, and the Oyster card makes it easy.

London gets seen as an economic powerhouse, that must be fed at all costs, but thinking about it as a European city, I realise that London, increasingly different than the rest of the UK is the equivalent of a prosperous Scandinavian country; highly taxed; and expensive to live - but with a vibrant public and private sector investment. Crossrail is hardly avoidable even in a city as big as London, as it cleaves across the city - and this immense public investment (on top of the Olympics) unlocks an equivalent private sector investment. What you notice in London is how ever-changing it is. Despite heritage concerns and planning restrictions, London continually finds new ways of unlocking its immense potential. Yet its also a high-tax city - more higher rate tax payers than elsewhere in the UK, the high cost of housing and transport (I spent £30 in 5 days on my Oyster card; convenience coming at a cost) - and with wages, hotels, and restaurants, equally pricey, there's a case to be made that what the rest of the country needs is not costs that are driven down, but prices being driven up - and here that mix of private-public investment comes into its own.

We had the opportunity to visit the Open Data Institute, which was set up partly from ideas from Tim Berners-Lee, and it was great to see what they are doing to encourage more openness in government and public services and to promote and build next generation businesses on top of that. Yet I was struck by the fact that most things they'd done to date had happened in some form or other in Manchester over the last years, from digital art commissions, to incubating data businesses, to providing drop-ins and lectures for visitors from round the world.

Manchester, on my return, was particularly unwelcoming; a greyest of March skies hung over Stockport, yet on the way from the train to the flat, I'd arranged an impromptu drink with two friends in Didsbury; one who had left Manchester a couple of years ago, another who might well leave shortly. Here is the rub, I think. For if London's streets are golden, that metal is not forged just within the M25, its goldsmiths come from elsewhere; from around the UK, Europe and the world. London's glitter is a reflected one. During the 80s and 90s when I visited, the city felt alternately flat and vibrant depending on the time of year. At times, like the rest of the country, it barely functioned. When I went back to Manchester it was with a certain relief, that here was a city where it was much easier to live your life.

Yet, that "ease" comes with a cost. There were briefly jobs in Manchester that made a difference, and I knew plenty of people who post-2000 stayed rather than looked elsewhere; yet the inevitable drip of talent to London has now become a bit of a torrent again; and few who leave for work come back, BBC or no BBC. Oddly enough, culture, which first attracted me to London, was less in evidence during my few days here. A jazz club in Streatham was a poor equivalent to Matt & Phreds, and I couldn't find any poetry events that coincided with my stay (though I noticed that Emily Berry is reading later in the week at Foyles). Of course, London's culture can pick and choose from the world, whether it was the ODI's excellent art commission; the Lichtenstein exhibition from the Tate or the musical programme at the South Bank.

Looking at London, one can't help but be confident for Britain and even for Europe. How could this vibrancy fail, you wonder? Yet, the coalition's ignorance of economics and their ideological attraction to the USA seems to ignore the reality: that from this direction London seems closer to a well-funded, high worth, well educated Scandinavian country than an American state or middle eastern tax haven. Inevitably, the "pull" in one's country is greater than the "pull" of the European or global economy, and there's little sense that London is failing (outside of the City, which has, in so many ways, already failed).

What this means is that just as the last 15 years have been a good place to be in Manchester, I'm not sure that if I was 15 years younger I would see much to tempt me to stay in a city outside of the capital Even the much much higher cost of living for renting and buying property is replicated, to a lesser extent, in the "nice" bits of Northern cities, and what you notice in London is how reinvention (rather than regeneration) actually happens, spurred on by an integrated transport system, vast public investment, a noticeably nicer climate, and the multicultural make-up of its citizens. If I'd fallen a little out of love with London it was because friends had moved on, or because my cultural centre was increasingly here; and I still think that there's more and more vibrant grass roots activity - whether its in my digital, artistic, musical or writing lives - here than in London; inevitable perhaps given how embedded I am here. Yet though Manchester allows us to incubate, it still lacks many of the things that would allow us to grow - publishers, record companies, even access to finance, audience and media. MIF is less a showcase of Manchester than a chance to showcase IN Manchester; good for us local culture fiends, but less relevant in the long term.

I've never entirely given up the thought that I might move somewhere else at some point if the opportunity arose, but for the first time in a long time, one of those "somewhere elses" could be London. If you're tired of London, you're tired of life, said Dr. Johnson. Well not yet, good doctor, not yet.