Monday, July 29, 2013

My Struggles With Realism

Over a period of around ten years, from about 1995-2005, give or take six months, I wrote six very different novels and a novella. (Not that the novels were all that long, but the novella clocked in at less than thirty thousand words.) In one sense my writing hurtled back and forth between genres and styles and between the comic and serious, and had this motley collection of books found publishers (I came close), then who knows whether I would have still have written in such a variety.

Since then I've struggled a bit to write a longer piece of fiction, caught, I think, a little between the need to tell  a story and the desire to write something good. Rather than gain confidence over time, I feel I've lost some. It makes me think that all writing is hard won, at the end of the day.

Yet for all my "variety" of tone and style, I think that fiction is essentially a struggle with realism; and increasingly I begin to think that the nature of that struggle is actually more meaningful than any split between the experimental and the naturalistic, or between the commercial and the literary. There's a default setting, it seems, in contemporary fiction (but perhaps going back further), that is very recognisable in its tropes. In the 80s and 90s, there was some talk about a "return to the Victorian novel." This mostly meant the "realist" novel or even the "socio-realist" novel; yet as time winnows the field, and the canon of books we remember from fifties, sixties and seventies becomes smaller, I wonder if the key "struggle" in literature is not between the modernist and the realist, or the linear novel and the postmodern, or even between the storyteller and the existentialist, but between those writers who acknowledge their struggle in their work and those that don't.

For all novels are untruths attempting to tell a truth in some ways. They are "fictions", "constructs", and yet want us to believe in them. The fantasias of Tolkein or Rowling, even of Mieville and Asimov, are rooted in our realities: they have to be in some ways, to engage us however alien their settings are. Our default setting is a somewhat dreary realism, which is why the books that began as cults, but remain popular, "Catcher in the Rye", "1984", "The Naked Lunch", "A Clockwork Orange" remain with us.

Going back to when Zadie Smith compared Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" with Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" as different paths for the modern novelist, the difference, now I think about it, is to some degree one of the admittance of artifice. "Netherland" purports to tell a real story, McCarthy's novel, though it plays it deadpan, never does. Yet its something that we see in Smith's latest, "NW", where the most realist parts of the novel are shown in a kind of snippet-shorthand, whereas the one truly imagined story is given a straight treatment. It is all artifice and yet we are trying to make the reader believe in this world, these characters. We struggle with this - so its not surprising that the default setting is to just set things down. In this sense its possible to believe that the possibilities of the novel have all been done, are so limited that all we can do is just tell the story straight, even when its the Russian doll-like stories of "Cloud Atlas" or the chopped up narrative of "A Visit from the Goon Squad." Inventive novelists like Mitchell and Egan are enjoying the struggle; but lets not kid ourselves, the stories included here are realistic vignettes.

There was a time when writers were more explicit about what they were doing  though sometimes this comes down to the admittance that this is a "writer" doing it, rather than a story being told. In Roth's "The Ghost Writer" we are in no doubt that we are reading a contrivance, yet by "American Pastoral", an unbelievable story is told with the straight-up panache of the on-the-scene reporter. Roth hadn't abandoned the artifice, the later novel just required readerly connivance. In "The Ghost Writer" he's playing with us, as Amis is in "London Fields," Fowles in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and Ellis in "Lunar Park." Plonking the writer in the very text is less, I think now, a postmodern trope, as an admittance - maybe a baton passed down writer to writer - that they are at least engaged with the struggle with realism. At its most explicit, we get B.S. Johnson telling us the whole novel is bullshit; at its most ironic, Salinger's Holden Caulfield giving the game away by not wanting to tell us any of that David Copperfield crap.

So, here we go, making something up that is very like life, and we want it to tell a truth; and because we've moved into prose, rather than poetry, where the artifice is less on the page, we either have to go the whole hog and say, "this is the saddest story" (but its still a story) or find another way round the struggle. Because, whether we ignore the description of the street down which our character walks, or make the description of the street the most important bit, we are engaging in that struggle. Contemporary fictions like "Remainder", like Lee Rourke's "The Canal", like Nicola Barker's "Clear", are explicit about the place they are writing of: name, postcode even. Zadie Smith's London is the same; yet its her most realist novel, "On Beauty" that she actually pretends the more: I'm not sure these places are real, even as she apes the pseudonymous sense of place of "Howard's End". In "NW" you are expected to take the same amount of time to walk from A to explicit B as her named character. Sometimes the struggle with realism is to given in to it, and play around with something else: with form, with y, with structure.

A Joycean will rejoice in the mapping of time and place so exactly in "Ulysses" and we've been a bit spoilt I think by these modernist titans - who had a slightly different battle: to tell a truth rather than fictionalise the truth. Its why contemporary writers seem drawn to Proust or Joyce when they can't write half as well as them; there's something about such comprehensive "telling" that seems to have the whiff of truth - of a struggle won. Was Fitzgerald's allegorical take on the Jazz Age in "The Great Gatsby" so unsuccessful at the time because it was winning that struggle with realism - for we now see that period through Gatsby, through Fitzgerald's prose (and the prose becomes the main tool the best writers have, for telling this story anew).

So I'm trying to write something new; and to come to terms with the five or six or seven novels I've written previously, and think that maybe they were just too explicitly "turns" trying to be unified in their take on reality and I should loosen up more, admit I'm making it up, or pretend its all true, whatever works best. Its about learning that what is real in fiction is not mere ventroliquism; though ventriliquism (say, "Wolf Hall") can be seductive at its best. If contemporary poetry sometimes tears itself apart with the need to find a new way of writing about feeling (or honesty, or the self, or any of those interior things that poetry is mostly struggling to describe) then fiction has the same battles with the realistic. A Foster Wallace (or a Brett Easton Ellis or even a Tao Lin) may go down the symbolic or the ironic or the plain clever route, but they're still at heart, describing a thing in all its thinginess; whilst Frantzen may pretend that he's nailed realism with his unspun sentences; yet I'm beginning to think that there's not so much difference. There's good and bad of course, and there's the level of engagement; but the novel's an infinitely simple thing. We should perhaps not expect to rewrite the very rules of it this late in the day; at least not when we're all trying to do the same thing.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

Connected stories. A Los Angeles setting. Broken families. We could be talking about Brett Easton Ellis's "The Informers", but Molly Ringwald's debut fiction (and second book) is a very different beast. In an interview at the end of the paperback edition she talks of the influence of Carver and Lorrie Moore, and that's almost a given; but Ringwald sensibly avoids the blue collar lives of the former and the disorientated loners of the latter, and weaves a web of stories around a modern family's slow, but predictable breakdown.

Ostensibly a collection of stories, the majority focus on the relationship of Phillip and Greta, together from college, but drifting apart as his consultancy job takes him away and she struggles with the fertility treatment that she hopes will give them a sibling for 6-year old Charlotte. In Ringwald's modern day Los Angeles the lives are as flat as the landscape and we rarely get a specific sense of place - which seems at one with our common fictional depiction of that west coast city's sprawl. Yet the lack of specificity, with malls, restaurants, doctors' waiting rooms and airport lounge being the public places where the drama plays out, seems appropriate for a book that is far more forensic about the little things that define who we love and whom. The opener, "The Harvest Moon", may well be the book's strongest story as - and here we do see an echo of Carver's sense of the beautiful moment - Greta and Phillip rush to get Charlotte in the car so they can catch sight of the harvest moon of the title. They fail to see it, and have to get back for Charlotte's violin lesson. When, later in the evening he takes the young violin teacher home, returning much later, waking his wife when he gets back in, the sense of a moment of domestic crisis is subtley handled.

But Ringwald has written a collection of stories rather than a novel - and though basically in chronological order - this allows a selecting of which parts of the story she wants to tell. We see the aftermath's of a couple's separation and the story of how they got there is told obliquely. Greta and Phillip were both high fliers, but he was the one who went for the career and she played down her ambitions to stay with him, first by following him to the same college, then through becoming a homemaker. Somewhere along the way, the 44-year old Greta seems to have lost a decade; and declining fertility, and the various treatments that mean the couple have six embryos stored in a clinic somewhere, are a stark reminder of how marriage breakdown is also about life and death.

Along the way, we are introduced to other characters whose lives intersect with Phillip, Greta and Charlotte's : Peter, a youngish vain actor who found a paycheck for a dozen years in a children's TV show, but is now lost and out of work in an adult world he's been somewhat avoiding; and Oliver, a little boy who wants to be a girl, and how his single mother deals with this. It is a book that deliberately eschews the showy or the over-the-top, instead finding its centre in the little (melo)dramas off what are on the surface comfortable lives.

There's very few externalities in these stories, but you do get a sense of the contemporary middle American experience at a time of recession and uncertainty; where lives can sometimes be thrown apart through the simple lonelinesses of modernity - of which Los Angeles remains the supreme capital. The old lady next door to Charlotte who befriends the six-year-old as she strays into first her garden, then her house, remains utterly unknown to Charlotte's mother - who only knows something has happened when the moving van arrives outside. In what is probably the weakest story, Phillip, having been served with divorce papers by his wife, goes to see his brother - a recovering alcoholic who now runs the family diner. Ringwald writes that she struggles with the male perspective yet its not this so much as the lack of centre to the story. Too much is hinted at and brought in with the introduction of Phillip's brother, without being fully resolved.

Family is therefore seen as both the cause and solution - and Ringwald is adept at the little details of familiarity that exist between siblings, husbands and wives, parents and their children; at equal parts knowing and unknowing. At times there is not enough to keep the longer stories going, and Ringwald resorts to too much exposition, yet skip these longeurs and you can forgive these lesser parts, as the stories become a more satisfying whole. Its no more a novel than or "Cathedral" or "Birds of America" or less one than "A Visit from the Goon Squad" or "Hawthorn and Child" with Ringwald's characters given an inter-locking narrative which strengthens rather than weakens the parts. I'm reminded more of our English chronicler of the middle class, Helen Simpson, in the way Ringwald finds the points of interest in what might otherwise be somewhat uninteresting lives.

Ringwald is, of course, better known as an actress, and though I think she brings a confidence to these stories which is somewhat cinematic, the collection is almost deliberately about people outside the movie industry, only the story of Peter, "Ursa Minor" being set in that celebrity world. The title story is more of an interlude, written in the second person, addressed from the wronged woman to the younger woman who took her husband, and its foregrounding as a title is, I think, an attempt to unify these stories which it probably helps achieve. Much quieter a book than you might imagine to come from our contemporary America, Ringwald's debut is in some ways far more realistic in its portrayals of women and family than the similarly middle-class family in Frantzen's "Freedom." It will be interesting to see if she expands her ambitions following this well-received debut.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Booker 2013

Its Booker longlist day, which despite been drowned out a little by the r***l b***h, is still one of my favourite days of the year. I love the Booker, its longevity, its primacy - they make it fun even when you quibble with the results. But though I usually read the winner and always buy the shortlist, funnily enough its since they've started announcing the longlist that things have got really interesting. Amongst the "who is on" or "who is off", this year there doesn't seem to be any outcrying about big names missing; and maybe that's because its quite hard to know who are the big names these days. The older generation aren't exactly novel-a-year types these days after all. I was surprised to read that Jim Crace (on the list for the intriguely sounding "Harvest") has talked about this as his last novel. Remarkably he's 67 - the same age as Julian Barnes and four years older than Martin Amis. Somehow I'd thought him the next generation... always an interesting writer, his "Arcadia" remains one of my favourite late 20th century novels.  Crace, alongside Colm Toibin is probably the best known writer on the list this year.

The judges have proclaimed the list the most "diverse" ever - which you'd probably only know if you'd read all the books. As usual there's a mix of the contemporary and the historical; the very British and the very commonwealth, with at least one pseudo-American writer on the list. (The quirk of Booker qualification means that most years we seem to have one writer who is eligible through birth or passport whilst being to all intents and purposes an American novelist.) None of the Best of Young British Granta list have made this years Booker longlist, surprisingly, I'd have said in the case of at least a couple, but it may be that not that many had novels published in this years "window." I like the snapshot the Booker gives of fiction each year, and its usually the longlist that furnishes the books that I really treasure - perhaps something about the need to create a consensual shortlist means the more quirky or individualistic books often drop off before that point. I'm particularly fascinated by the sound of Richard House's "1000 page" "The Kills".

It wouldn't be the Booker without a gripe or two of course - there are at least five of the books on this years longlist that you can't get in the shops yet. Given that a few of these books will drop off the longlist in early September I kind of hope that good books don't lose their brief moment in the sun through tardy publishing dates.

And of course, if its Booker time, its also "Not the Booker" time - the Guardian's always fun, always chaotic attempt to find an alternate list to the real one.

Not on the Booker list, but surely a contender for Not the Booker, Manchester-based Socrates Adams' 2nd novel is being launched this week in at Blackwells this Thursday.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Order of Things

If you are lucky enough to get a novel published then mostly that's the way it stays: an unchangeable and unchanging book; maybe part of your "backlist". Different editions come and go, but if the cover or introduction or font changes the chances are its the same thing. When we read "Wuthering Heights" or "The Great Gatsby" its pretty close to the same book that its first readers would have seen - the odd proofing error aside. There are exceptions of course - the two versions of "Tender is the Night" comes to mind; then there are books in translation where we can only hope that new translations are improvement - or closer to the original.

Its the same in music of course - where since "Rubber Soul" at least, the album has been a "thing". That my cassette copy of "Diamond Dogs" changed the tracklisting (to make the sides equal length - absurd for what is a concept album) or that the vinyl of "Defnitely Maybe" features a track that's not on the CD, are not so uncommon; and there are a few albums over the years which have appeared in multiple versions.

Yet the album compiler is making some decisions: about what to include and what not. "What's the new Mary Jane?" was left off "The White Album" and was no great loss; and one wonders what "Sgt. Pepper" would have been like if "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" hadn't been pulled from the sessions as a single. Compilations tend to slice and dice albums, or, for those that remain popular years later, do we lose the original context? Forgetting perhaps that this or that song first appeared as a single.

Not all novels appear fully formed. "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" was a long story issued along time before the Diaz turned it into the novel; "Finnegan's Wake" and "Ulysses" were first read in fragments and chapters. Its always interesting to come across poems or stories in their original context. SF writers have a long history of reworking work across different medium: the magazine version being almost a first draft of the idea. Poetry has many different lives: from magazine, to anthology, to collection, to selection. Sometimes the poem survives these changes, sometimes not.

I'm less wondering about the minor changes that take place between different versions of work - more about the way we as creatives decide to write and order things. The "themed" collection seems all the rage in poetry these days - whether a long "in memoriam" or inspired by a historical figure or particular place. When we first saw "Birthday Letters" by Ted Hughes, the "ordering" was pretty much chronological - though of when the events happened, rather than when the poems were written. I know that writers, artists, songwriters do often come back to themes or characters - and I guess we make our own rules as we go along. Maybe Hughes consciously or unconsciously realised that he was writing another "Sylvia" poem and developed a "house style" even if they weren't published for years later.

I've recently been recording some more music, and as usual, after a few tracks, I begin to realise that I'm not just recording one off pieces, but begin to think about how I can present these to the world. I've always done this: whether its poems, stories or songs; and whether or not they are getting published wider. Its partly a need to box off projects, rather than continue without any overarching structure; sometimes its just to give me a way of listening to my songs or letting other people read my stories or poems. I don't think there's any right or wrong - certainly outside of commercial considerations - but there's hopefully some artistic considerations going on. Half way through recording these new songs I suddenly got the idea to make a medley, Abbey Road-style, of some of those songs that I've been humming away in my head for years, but for some reason haven't ever made into songs. Often there's just been a chorus or a melody line, and so its hard to say when the song was actually written: several years ago - or now when I've got to flesh out the verses?

And I think there's always a bit of a difficulty - outside of novels at least - about the different orderings that we do. There's the order of things being written, the order of things being "published" or recorded, the order that we decide to put things into in a collection or an album. There's also the order with which people might come across what we write. At our NW Poets group yesterday, we had a nice discussion about Stevie Smith, one of our quirkier "minor poets". Smith is one of those writers most famous for a single poem, "Not Waving, but Drowning" and it strikes me that there will be thos who encountered it as it originally appeared in the collection of the same name in the late 1950s. (And as a popular reader of her work, maybe it was tested out on audiences before then.)

To what extent does it matter? There are plenty of songs that are best listened to on their own rather than in their parent album - and sometimes its quite bizarre where particularly lasting pieces turn up. Then there's the works that gain a reputation outside of the time they are written. Posthumous publication of Shelley's "The Masque of Anarchy", his poem about the Peterloo Massacre, revisited at the Manchester International Festival last week, makes one wonder about its impact - though it appearing in 1832, at the time of the Reform Act, can't be that coincidental. Political poems, of which I've written a few, need to be aired at the time of writing, I think, and do well to last.

Writers are defined not so much by what they write, but how they publish it and when. Poetry tends to happen in a certain silence anyway, a "news that remains news" if we are lucky. Even the successful poet will soon come to rely on his or her anthology appearances. Some works simply have a life of their own.

Yet I'm still struck by the artistic statement involved in "ordering", whether its a private collection, a live "set", or something grander. If we're successful then chances are that everything we write that makes a certain standard may come out at some time - but I think its interesting how writers and musicians (and artists as well no doubt) are canny enough not to forget their dribs and drabs. Rock historians will find songs by David Bowie or Brian Wilson cropping up out of time; and I'm sure poets and story writers might do the same. I've had stories that have took years to write one way or another - either from an idea or title I've long had, or something that's been abandoned and returned to.

Then of course there are the memories and the other material that come into our work. Do we order these chronologically? Of course we don't. I'm just writing a poem about the second world war, not my obvious subject, but based squarely in things I remembered my grandparents mentioning about their experience of it. Showing the first draft to my poetry group I had the unusual advice that maybe the poem's got too much stuff in it - and needs to be longer, or a series of poems - I realise that without realising it I was pouring memories into this small piece. Whether this is recycled (because they are so familiar to me) or new (because I've not used them before) hardly matters.

And when we look back on what we've done we also have some ordering to do: missing out weaker work or things that reflect a different mindset. I'm struck by how often I've adopted a persona in my music or my writing and yet now, stripped of an alias, I'd almost certainly have to have it directly under my own name. The work somehow changes in its new context.

It is, I think, as much part of being a creative as the thinking, as the writing. Even novels, those long and immutable works are only another way that we order things.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Great Crash

Sadly, the only time literature makes the news these days is when the story is about the marketing. A book is not news, the marketing of a book is. J.K. Rowling (a writer I've never read more than a few pages of, but of whom I probably know more about than most writers) has written a crime novel under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. We've not been given chapter and verse on this - other than that she wanted to have a book out without any of the usual hoopla of a new novel - but of course, now that its known that she is the writer, it has moved from selling a few copies to being top of the sales list.

I've a few thoughts: though more about the response to this than the idea itself. First of all, that name: the other famous J.K. is the left-wing economist Galbraith, writer of "The Great Crash." I've not seen anyone else mention this, but I can't imagine that the left-leaning Rowling did this accidentally. It's a nice touch.

Secondly, I'm confused a little by what the gameplan was here - surely as soon as the book's real author was known, it was going to sell - after all, Rowling is not just another author, but almost uniquely famous. (Dan Brown and a few others may be almost as successful, but they remain relatively anonymous - whereas Rowling has used her public profile for many different purposes.) I have a vision of a warehouse of copies of the new Galbraith book ready to be let out into the shops. The book is listed as "in stock" on Amazon - yet the "unveiling" of Galbraith only happened at the weekend - and I would imagine sales would be in the hundreds of thousands, not the tens. I know that with digital printing this is possible - but this seems a little surprising. (I think the real signifier will be when the book appears in the Supermarket and at what price.) Apparently the book WAS sent out anonymously; with at least one publisher admitting to her Dick James moment (the Decca executive who rejected the Beatles), and having turned the book down as being nothing exceptional. Yet, somehow Rowling's existing publisher took it on (so questions there), and also, its blurb features endorsements by top crime writers. Hard to know what's going on here - was everyone in the dark?

Thirdly, there's something important here about Rowling's future plans. "The Casual Vacancy", her first adult novel received a respectful response from critics and audience alike. Yet a local government/small town fiction hardly seems likely to be a "genre" or a future cash-cow. Crime fiction on the other hands is almost predicated on the idea of "series." When articles have been making the point that "The Cuckoo's Calling" (her titles remain dreadful!) had only sold a few hundred copies I'm hardly surprised: crime fiction is about building a reputation; first books in an overcrowded genre, I'm assuming, are often only as successful as what comes next. The poet Sophie Hannah and the novelists Kate Atkinson and John Banville both moved into the genre and started sequences of books rather than one-offs. I'm thinking that "The Casual Vacancy" was probably an important book for her to get out of her system - a bit like Grisham's non-crime novel "A Painted House" - a story she wanted to tell but which was not going to be what she continues writing. Notably, predictably, the new Rowling has a lead character, Cormoran Strike (!) who has presumably another book or more in him.

I'm not someone who reads much crime fiction, but its a massive market, and readers are incredibly loyal. They love particular writers - and read them faster than their authors' can write them. Is this really the world that Rowling has now entered? She's clearly a prolific storyteller, and any story teller will tell you that its never a problem to find new ideas. The phenomenal sales of previous books would have followed her around for a while (with the possible frustration of disappointed readers missing the magic of the Harry Potters) so I'm wondering if the cleverest thing about this is that the ruse may actually help to puncture the phenomenon of Rowling: unlike her first adult novel or the last Potter, the release of the book hasn't been a major media event - though the unveiling of the true identity is a classic 21st century media story. Whether her millions of readers will follow her into the pragmatic problem solving of the contemporary detective story is anotther matter: any writer who can keep an audience is unlikely to disappoint her readers for long. Whether or not future Cormoran Strike stories will come out under the Galbraith name or some convolution ("J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith") we'll have to see - for now, its a nice summer story. I can't blame readers for choosing a familiar name rather than an unknown; but the publishing industry's reliance on these mega-writers is more worrying.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

High brow and low brow

I always swing a bit on this issue - between high brow and low brow art, yet I have an inkling its coming back into fashion as a (too) easy dualism. In  a world of "Fifty Shades of Grey"and Dan Brown it becomes easier, I guess, to use these bestsellers as a distinguishing mark: that literature is over there, and these are just entertainments for the masses. Then we have those writers like the very entertaining novelist-blogger Matt Haig who is wryly pithy about the writing life with posts like "literary fiction must go." I've not read his novel(s) so can't really comment, but lines like "Our minds aren’t VIP rooms that only allow Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence passed the velvet rope" play into this idea that there is high brow and low brow fiction. The choice of those two authors is interesting (after all Woolf was no fan of Lawrence), as somewhere along the line in the last 20 years or so, modernism has gained a label for being "difficult". I don't remember this being the case when I studied them. Perhaps its the case that nowadays with nearly 50% of people going to university, there's a kind of new inverse snobbishness, backed by the confidence that being a university student gives. I think in the past maybe only English graduates had an opinion on literature - these days being an English graduate seems almost a curious affectation, even for wannabe novelists.ere 

Until Joyce of course, it was relatively uncommon for novelists (or at least the ones we still read) to have gone to university. They were journalists, or working or lower-middle class, or women... auto didacts perhaps but not necessarily with a "classical education." Not so true of poets of course, but whatever the background the writers that we remember tend to not fit any kind of template. Yet at the same time its fair to say that's there's a literary culture that sits fair and square at some kind of top table; that if not quite "posh", is certainly not poor. On the few occasions I came into contact with literary London in the late 90s, I was almost always "put in my place" as an aspiring writer; I looked wrong, spoke wrong. Maybe now that literature is so internationalised (taking a look at the hybrid nationalities of the Granta Best of Young British novelists for instance), there does seem to be a little drawing of ranks around "high brow" literature that has little, I think, to do with the writing itself. We know that poetry doesn't sell, but neither, increasingly does literary fiction. How does a man (or woman) of letters exitist in this world? Clearly somewhere between the broadsheets and the BBC, or in the pages of the LRB/TLS or - increasingly - in the universities. This shouldn't be so bad, of course, but does there come a point where its not a university education that is the problem so much as the university berth? Like our political class rarely getting "real jobs", the winnowing of the press has clearly had an impact on writers' "other" incomes. In this world I guess there can be a sense that the "intellectual stamp" of an academic career becomes something that people must fight to keep. 

Yet I wonder if we end up with a strange kind of dualism where there is an out-and-out commercial fiction (it hardly stretches to poetry of course, but can include TV and film) on the one hand - a kind of well-heeled, and possibly complacent merchant class, with a tendency towards either the safe or the kitsch; and on the other academy-centred literary careerists, who, inevitably, need to subsidise their novels, stories and poems with a mix of research, teaching and media work.  Careerist - by the way - I'm not meaning to have a negative connotation here; in many ways I admire the portfolio lives that our university system makes possible. I think of the rich intertwining of an editor likemy old tutor Michael Schmidt at Carcanet, and how much his publishing career benefits from his academic career and vice versa; or the brilliant work that Writers' Centre Norwich does, bringing in great - but often mid-list - authors from round the world and their close links with the literary powerhouse that is UEA. (Where I stand on these initiatives should be clear enough: I've long thought the universities should do MORE rather than less for contemporary writing -  surely the raw material for future critical thinking?)

In 2011 UEA celebrated it (and the UKs) 40 years of creative writing with a lovely anthology "Body of Work." Philip Hensher's castigation of this in the Spectator felt churlish. Any "anniversary" will list as many good books as bad, failures as successes. Also, surely the long review of the weekly magazines is exactly the same kind of literary careerist move I'm talking about above? From my perspective - northern-based, small press published, blogger, writer-with-a-day-job - surely Hensher was part of that same "industry"? However, I do think, in retrospect he was touching on something....

...for if we look at the work that matters now, mattered then (and I'm going back as far as you care), literature is something that defies the career planner. This obviously causes a few problems. After all if I'm a writer based in an institution its not just my writing that is at risk, but the other elements of my portfolio. At the other end of things, how much easier for a journalist to get a book deal than someone who isn't in the "industry." This all feeds on itself of course. We all need a track record. Yet, I'm wondering if - going back to the "high brow" and "low brow" thing we're seeing a little bit of a cutting off between the two. You'll read a certain kind of poem in some of the "big" names - whether its the LRB, PN Review or one of Duffy's poetry spreads for the Guardian - and moreover, there's a certain kind of poem you won't ever see; even if its happening on the ground. Say the same for the big prizes and for the BBC and Times short story competitions. In these unpopular art forms, there's as much circling of the wagons as elsewhere; yet when someone a little bit new or different does breakthrough they are often embraced even more closely as it kind of proves the system is "working." Alice Oswald, say, one of our best-loved poets, or Daljit Nagra, one of our more original ones; I don't remember either of them being particularly lauded before their breakthrough. The poetry did the work.

And that's what we see with the Booker and other prizes. Its rare to find a totally untutored writers; and dig a little deep in the biog of a Magnus Mills or Jon McGregor or Gwendoline Riley or William Letford or Alison Moore or Chris McCabe and they're not so different than me or a hundred other "wannabe" writers - educated, self or university; driven to find the time, to finish the work, rarely "trust funded" or other sinecures - often successful after quite a period of not failure exactly but quiet, slow endeavour; and - and this is the curious thing: they've written something good. Not high brow or low brow, and that's what I think's quite important: that the work itself is what determines. What's next of course is dependent on the realities of the current literary world - do you take what work comes your way: judging competitions, running writing classes, joining a university department, working for the BBC or the Guardian in some capacity; or will the writing provide.... see the latter is what's in question now. Whereas a commercial author can, I guess, build a loyal audience on a thriller a year, and the high brow writer use their work as a calling card to be invited to literary festivals or whatever else is on offer - I do wonder whether we might lose something of the "high-low hybrid" that for me has almost always offered the best writing. Whether that's bohemian writers getting picked up by a changing literary establishment (Miller, Nin, Burroughs, Kerouac) and readership; storytellers stretching their art (Burgess, Fowles, Lessing, Orwell); or poets demanding a voice in the conversation (O'Hara, Ashbery, Ginsberg.) The "bold spirit" as Hensher mentioned is of course the only kind that literature should have time for. That means drawing some lines of connection that trash the assumptions of which literature is high brow and which is low brow. Writers sometimes do it themselves of course: the restrained police procedural that is Amis's "Night Train" for instance felt like a different writer than the wunderkind of "Money." Yet is there a book published this century that is as low brow as "Yellow Dog?"  

With poetry its the same, but perhaps even more vital. Its not that poets are so identical as the be indistinguishable, though there have been times in the not-so-distant past when that is the case. I'd say the "evidence" of "Identity Parade", recent Forward and Salt "best of" anthologies, and "Dear World" make the case for poetry being as wide as its ever been. Poetry seems able, in my mind, to make itself anew - there are so many good people writing it. Short fiction seems to be a little too identikit for my tastes at present - though I'm not sure if it lends itself to revolution.

I'm taken by the way that literature is itself an educator: that a writer who strives beyond the mere chase of audience is always going to be part of my high-brow conversation. Its a truism that men (mainly) who've never read a book will rave about Bukowski or Carver or Irvine Welsh; yet those writers have to different degrees rewritten our understanding of "literary fiction". If Salinger's Caulfield dismissed "all that David Copperfield crap", its something that all writer-narrators have to do at some point. 

The worst thing we can do is see a solidifying of both commercial and career writers into their equally listless trajectories: a midlist writer like Hilary Mantel gained massively from what might not seem like a risk in retrospect, but may well have done at the time. A "one of the many" poets David Constantine, has a flourishing second career as one of our most consistent short story writers, because (at least partly) of the faith his small publisher put in him. There are a few hares in literature, of course, but its not quite untrue to say that before they were hares, they were often tortoises.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

When the Writing Stops

My relationship with writing poetry remains a complex one, though I'm not the only one. In an interesting White Review interview, Paul Muldoon says "I haven’t written a poem for a while and I think – as many people do – that maybe I won’t be writing another one." In a discussion mainly about poetry vs. lyrics (Muldoon has recently published a book of the latter) he talks about not kniwing what he is doing when he writes. Its fascinating, as Muldoon - almost ridiculously consistently acclaimed - seems an interesting poet to me not because everything he writes is good, but because it at least tries to be interesting. He also says that "I never know what I'm doing," and I wondered about this. Certainly I would say that Heaney, who gave him his first leg up, seems to be a poet that always knows what he's doing; and I wondered whether this is just the kind of thing one says to interviewers, particularly when you're talking about the delicate subject of publishing your lyrics. He makes the interesting point that he grew up with the inner sleeve, often festooned in lyrics, and that he thinks that's important - in other words these lyrics - Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne whoever - were meant to be read, and not just, I think, to enable you to karaoke along.

I've frequently "not written a poem for a while" - but its more often the case that I've not published a poem for a while, and I don't really understand, even after all this time, where to go with that. Reading a few poems recently I've gone back to my little book, because, three years down the line, they're still there, still in print. I have to acknowledge them. Thats not always the case with manuscript poems. I can certainly remember reading this poem or that poem out some time but nobody's keeping my set lists, so unless it was recorded, I guess those poems are ultimately "deniable."

In some ways it does seem a little absurd to keep writing poetry (or for that matter songs or stories) if they are going to remain in the bottom drawer. I envy those writers who have the confidence that all their work will get published; or find a place. My ambition stops a little with the most recent work: wondering if this is good enough and then wondering "for whom?" 

It does seem important to write poems that move on, somehow, rather than be versions of what's come before; yet also there's a sense that maybe if you've found a model or two that works then a few replicas wouldn't be such a good idea. Its that old rock and roll cliche again, we like a band's style so wish they'd give us more in that style: too similar and we're bored; too different and we're not convinced. Yet I've always been interested in little artistic projects as much as individual poems - and fusing the two is one of the difficulties. I can sometimes follow an idea and write a bad poem around it; other times write something pleasant enough but which lacks any sense of originality to itself.

Depends which way you look at these things whether that makes me a bad poet or a good poet - I'm certainly not convinced my every utterance is worth your time; but surely they are not all one-offs? We trust a poet to, say, contribute to an anthology, because they have a track record; they have some of the tools - yet isn't the best work the stuff that surprises? Its certainly not the case that an intense experience - say, an operation - leads to an intense poem: I kind of think this is where the art comes in; its in the execution of the idea that we give it our best shot. 

So here I am again, in a bit of a poetry limboland, not really sure if I've got some poems that I should send out into the world, yet knowing that if I don't do that - by whatever means - that there's no way of anyone finding out that little bit more about my writing. The writing sometimes stops, by which I mean the serious writing. It feels a bit like that at the moment, which probably means that something good is round the corner, or maybe not.

I was going to stop there, but realise I'd forgotten something. I'm a bit overwhelmed by the seriousness (that's the wrong word, but will have to do) of other poets I know. I'm here questioning the why of it all, and they're so often convinced that there's a method in the madness - and, equally as important, are getting their work out there. Not for the first time, I think that's its possible to have missed the boat - to be like Eliot's Magi, glad to see the Messiah, but wishing they were young enough to enjoy it. We all can't be Huxleys or Gunns taking advantage of the new world. I guess there's a time in your life when slings and arrows are good for you - I don't think your middle 40s is that time. There's time to do a few things I think but not to start again; and somehow - in a way that I'm finding difficult to  articulate at the moment - starting again seems to be where I'm up to; roads less travelled and all that.