Sunday, September 29, 2013

Strangeness and Poetry

There's a paradox about most successful poets and successful poetry, in that the yardstick is often one that we can measure accurately, but that the best poets will ignore the yardstick totally. For though the art form is ancient, its future depends (as it always has) on what comes next. That's not to say that at any point in time there isn't a consensus of some sorts; and old forms and old measures refuse to die, but become relegated to a kind of pleasant drawing room at the back of the poetry house. The action is elsewhere; though whether its in the poetry bedroom, where strangeness is held in private, or in the lounge, where all are welcome, depends on the times.

For new poets are asked to be both familiar and strange. Familiarity is what provides a ready-audience, and a sense of the tradition which they are making; whilst strangemess is what the reader often wants. Sometimes that can be a socio-cultural strangeness; so a Linton Kwesi Johnson or Benjamin Zephaniah can spellbind with a new language that reflects their own cultural backgrounds; or a William Letford can be plucked out for his working class subject matter. In informal times, a perfectly formed rhymer like Sophie Hannah, can express a strangeness through formality.

Considering their reputation as outliers, poets are often quite a conventional bunch in one way or another, though its a hard act to offer up a strangeness in life, art and content; one or more of these is likely to be enough. And as few poets have landed directly from planet Zog, there's a likely apprenticeship - often with other more established poets as official or unofficial tutors - that will shape the wilder strangenesses into something more regular. Like Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, a tempting world can corrupt even the most innocent; and poetry has its temptations.

And if you've been writing for a while, the only strangeness that you might be looking for is against your own familiarity - its why poets like form, I think, new wine in old bottles, but distinctly drinkable when done with care. Yet its important to keep something of a strangeness; even if its a personal take or two on that. After all, love poems, death poems, nature poems may well still fill quite a bit of the repertoire, and then its how you say it rather than what you are saying that needs to be said newly minted. Often, a new poet's success is based on saying old things in a new way (Alice Oswald's pseudo-documentary nature poetry in "Dart" for instance) or using the old way to say new things (the freshness that Simon Armitage brought with his subject matter of northern lower middle class every day life in "Kid" and "Zoom").

I've noticed that the poetry scene is particularly censorious to those who do not show willingness to join in the club; regardless to the style of their poetry, and therefore's there's rarely a benchmark of agreement amongst the profession. Twas ever thus, I think; though new poets often find older models that work well for them. I'm unfashionably interested in Robert Browning at the moment, previously it was Thom Gunn and before that Robert Lowell.

I've actually expressed surprise when a decent poem has won one of the national poetry prizes - as there have been years when I've thought the winners are appalling. Without a lack of any real benchmark other than our own tastes and reading its inevitable that you don't always read poets that don't appeal, and, paradoxically can overstate the brilliance of ones that you do. This, I think is the real tragedy around contemporary criticism which frequently starts from the point that a particular well-known poet is brilliant without actually making a viable case for either them or their new book. For newer poets opportunities are there, but are to be fought for, and more, I think, through persistence than any innate qualities. Fair enough, for one wants, I think, a hearing, which is the hardest thing to get. Other poets are the best friends you can have in terms of increasing a profile - as they're the ones most likely to recommend you to read or contribute.

There's been a spate of "projects" over the last year or so - some of which I've contributed to - Poems for Pussy Riot; Mark E. Smith night - some which I haven't; which are pleasant indulgences, if nothing much more. As long as I've something to say, then I'll try and come up with something goodd.

But strangeness is an odd thing, so to speak. There are some great "strange" poets - maybe Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop - writers who, however much I read them I'm not sure whether I've assimilated what they are doing. Critics tend to make a fool of themselves with such poets. For the usual tools of criticism - identifying technical facility, for instance, surely fall down when faced with Dickinson's uncompromisingly fully-formed style. There are other poets who are rarely strange, but might have the greater influence. Larkin perhaps, Heaney. I guess that both informed and uninformed readers get what these poets are doing on a first glance, but the poems remain strong enough to stand constant looking.

Most of the poetry world was very sad at Heaney's passing this summer, myself included; unexpected and somewhat sudden despite his age and previous ill health - I think this was a sign of how many people he had touched one way or another; but also of his longevity - for suddenly we're aware that this a life (and poetry repertoire) finally brooked. As someone who's never been particularly attuned to his poetry (though I like his essays, well enough), I haven't really wanted to say much about his passing - but I was surprised by the obituaries how rarely they managed to convince about his work; concentrating on those too well known early poems like "Digging" or giving examples from later on that didn't seem to convince. Heaney it seems, doesn't easily extract. Was Heaney strange when he arrived? Undoubtedly so, though I think, recognisably, comfortably so, and maybe he never strayed that far from that place where he started.

During the last few months the poetry world has been up in arms over various plagiarism cases, well described here on Katy Evans-Bush's blog. It has brought into focus a conversation about the way that poetry - and especially contemporary poetry practice, with its workshops, its courses, its teacher-poet practitioners, its collage and collaboration - actually approaches appropriation. I think my trouble with the plagiarist poets (as well as not understanding why they'd want to "pass off") is that whatever is good or bad about my own work comes from an appreciable wrestling with how "strange" or otherwise my writing might be. I'm not drawn to nature poems, sonnets, obituaries or sestinas, though have written all at various times: and whatever is good about my own work comes from a synthesis of hard-won craft and a personal mythos that doesn't always disassemble into neat poetic forms. And if I have a model for writing that would be it. Taking on other people's forms (sonnets, rhymes etc.) or other people's subject and word-sets simply sits uncomfortably with my finished results. Basically I will always be much better at being Adrian Slatcher than trying to be Simon Armitage or Don Paterson. A poem like "Late Love" from "Playing Solitaire for Money" seems to me immensely strange,  when I try and unpick its meanings and origins, yet its written with a lyricism that tempers that, and on re-reading Browning's "Two in the Campagna" recently, it doesn't seem that far removed from his use of "persona" and personal myth.

I think that anyone who writes poetry with any kind of seriousness has to embrace both their own strangeness and a more balanced approach that grows out of whatever they have read. The Dickinson that hid her poetry away grew, like some strange creature on the Galapagos isles, in a uniquely strange way. I wouldn't be surprised to find that in twenty or thirty years we are talking of similar poets writing today; yet contemporary poetry is broad enough a church that most strangenesses may find a certain place - though whether the distinctions between performance poetry, page poetry, mainstream poetry, experimental poetry, conceptual poetry etc. are in their own way irons to the folds of strangeness is another matter.

Young poets finding their voice may often impress older editors through having an obvious facility, but also a sensibility that is in itself new. Poetry, as one of the oldest art forms, can sometimes seem stuck in endless old battles, yet its tenacity is through its ability to embrace the strange. I imagine that though the generic poets of any age will tend to survive as historical markers, its the stranger ones, the outliers, the oddballs, who will still be read; then as now, now as then.

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

It is October on Tuesday; a little unbelievably given the late summer sunshine this weekend. Manchester changes in the autumn as fifty thousand or more students are landed on the city; it transforms the place in many ways. The city is a small place and though it never seems quite as packed as London or other capitals, the amount of people stands out during the autumn months.

You'll find new bars opening; and a wide range of festivals and other events taking place to take advantage of the potential audience: food and drink festival this week, literature one to follow. I always have a busy autumn as working on European projects there's a seasonal element to our work and in reality we have just 13 or 14 weeks between summer and Christmas to complete a wide rang of actvities. But this was always the case. Keats' "mellow fruitfulness" glories in the autumn; as a child the harvest festival was the religious feast that seemed most real in many ways - though its pagan in origin.

I think there are other kinds of harvest as well - creative ones. There is abundance out there. I sometimes wonder, in the modern world, when people find the time to actually do the work. At one end of the spectrum you'll have celebrity biographies rushed out for Christmas, at the other end, an autumn publishing schedule as even small publishers and local bookshops make much of their money in the lead up to Christmas. Mercury Prize and Booker Prize are announced to give a fillip to the winners; in art, the Frieze fair is one of the two biggest events for London hotel occupation (after the Farnborough air show!) The Oscar pretenders are on display; the TV programmers are sharing their jewels, whether old favourites like Downton or X-Factor or new shows like Peaky Blinders and By Any Means.

I'm overwhelmed by it to be honest: I hardly had a normal summer with my eye operation taking me out for much of June and July; and getting back to normal the last month has been exhausting, including two weeks abroad. Inevitably I'm now poleaxed by the office cold. In the real world the Conservative Party conference starts in Manchester today; and the bad policies of this unrepresentative leadership (thanks Nick Clegg) multiply as they try and slip out their corruptions before forced to face the country again. Royal Mail sell off joins pathetically contradictory policies on bedroom tax, married couples tax allowance and bungs to home buyers, alongside the fuck ups of private sector service provision  such as the NHS computer system. A march in Manchester today against their divisive policies will probably be hardly noticed by the chinless home counties party faithful.

A farmer or a poet reflects on the abundance of autumn for two good reasons; firstly because it is the end result of the hard work of the harvest during the summer; and secondly because this abundance has to last for several seasons. I think as artists we need to reflect on our own seasons - there is a time to grow, a time to reap, a time to store, and a time to live off our work. There's a busyness about some aspects of creative life which seem to be a bit too urgent at times: as if we constantly need to be producing. The last few days I've been a bit overwhelmed by the amount of material on show. The Manchester Contemporary at the Buy Art Fair showcases contemporary art practice - its on at Spinningfields today and well worth a look; in contrast an audience-curated exhibition at the Lowry "Defining Me: musical adventures in Manchester" collects together personal histories of Manchester.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Misfiring Canons

In the fast-changing world of newspapers its amazing that anyone would commit to a two year programme of articles, but that's what the Guardian/Observer has done. Having realised the popular linkbait of their 100 Best Novels feature a few years ago, the redoubtable Robert McCrum announced a weekly canon-forming exercise on the "best novels in English" since time began. Everyone  (myself included) likes a list but I have to say there feels something a little dispiriting about  this latest piece of canon forming. Beginning as far back as the 17th century's "Pilgrim's Progress" I wonder what more can be said about pre-twentieth century fiction? And, here, more than anywhere, the restricting of the list to novels (rather than fiction) and those written in English seems a depressing ordinance.                                                                                                    

McCrum can be an engaging columnist but I find him a depressing taste maker; his opinions are well telegraphed, predictably and repeatedly shown. I'm sure he won't be writing all hundred essays, but the real interesting bit will be when they get to scything through the 20th century. There's a sense, to my mind, that in schools and universities that our great literature is being fossilised to some extent. Hearing that Lawrence is neglected for instance, either because he's too difficult or doesn't fit a particular political viewpoint, should depress more than just heirs of Leavis; yet I don't read much sensible commentary on the key trends of post-sixties literature. Partly, its because our writers are mostly so long-lived these days - a Roth, or the lately departed Heaney can be a major writer across four or five decades; we seem far less willing to shake off the venerable than in the past (and perhaps rightly so, as late flowerings like "American Pastoral" prove); partly it is the role of literature in our culture - as one of several competing art forms - often only really encountered when attached to a movie tie-in or TV serialisation. The "brand" of literature is such that even little remembered characters like Burroughs' John Carter can get a remake; and the infantilisation of so much of our popular culture means that children's books and children's authors like Rowling and Pullman are not only the most famous writers of the day, but the most frequently encountered in the comments pages. There's also the sense of the global writer - or "world literature" - a kind of literature without borders that in its search for enduring travelogues and big stories loses something of the distinctiveness you might once have found in Narayan's India or Bellow's Chicago. (I'll come back to this - there's a great essay on it in the latest N+1)

So though there's nothing wrong with the Guardian's literary pass notes series there's a sense that its more about creating sticky content than anything more. There was a time, in the eighties, when the cultural discussion felt defiantly counter-cultural; taking in Russian films, African novels, Brazilian music alongside beats, bohemes, and avant-gardists. Discussions on whether "Emma" is a better novel than "Pride and Prejudice" are surely meant for Facebook not the books pages of the Guardian. Yet, the idea of any kind of alternate canon is one that is steadfastly opposed: whether its in our veneration of prize winning novels, our literary festival culture, or review pages that rarely find room for new names.

I actually think - and occasionally articulate on this blog - that there are some burning questions around contemporary or 20th century literature that are still ripe for consideration: the blurring of avant garde and mainstreams; the role of less commercially successful formats such as the short story or novella; and the way that we consider the ideas of modernism and post-modernism in literature now we are far beyond their historical window. "Pilgrim's Progress" may well be one of the formative texts; but surely should be looked at as the end of a tradition that includes Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and Milton's "Paradise Lost" rather than a precursor novel? The canon before the 20th century is pretty fixed - though publishers and readers might investigate more minor works by prolific authors like Defoe; yet the 20th century canon seems increasingly relevant to how we think about our contemporary work. Surely we need to be considering the role of books written in the 60s, 70s and 80s and what has lasted, what reads dated? The contemporary imagination requires us to sift and resift the canon; yet I can well see that there's a resistance to this, because it would make us think more hyper-critically of the books being published nowadays; and the commentariat (of which, I have to say, this blog forms a tiny part) that informs the critical framing.

I shall return to the Guardian's series with a mixture of weariness and occasional piqued interest; I'm sure. Lists are fun, after all; but if I want a canon, I'll list my own.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

September Update

I've been to two poetry readings in the last two weekends; the 2nd Peter Barlow's Cigarette last Saturday and Poets & Players today. Today was Carcanet poet Jane Yeh reading from her two collections at Manchester' Chinese Arts Centre. Yeh's stock-in-trade is a certain kind of tempered irony where the humour of her pieces - often full of pop-cultural references - sugars more serious messages. In some of the poems she read today, she takes on a ventriloquist role, writing in character. Poets and Players afternoon sessions mix up music and poetry and usually I tend to prefer one to the other, but today, Yeh's reading was matched with Li Lu's violin-cello duo tackling a rarely played Ravel piece. Last week, 4 poets read at Peter Barlow's Cigarette's 2nd outing, the highlight being Melissa Lee Houghton reading from her forthcoming Penned in the Margins collection "Beautiful Girls." Other readers Lauren Bolger, Andrew Taylor and Luke Samuel Yates completed a good evening.

I've needed a bit of poetry as an interlude as I've been away with work for most of the last fortnight, first to Lisbon and then to Brussels and Amsterdam. A productive fortnight, but inevitably tiring. Lisbon was a new city to me and I instantly fell in love with the city; Brussels and Amsterdam I know well, but never disappoint.

This coming week is more about art than literature as there's the Buy Art Fair and especially the Manchester Contemporary next weekend.  This is a great chance to experience some sample artists from some of the region's best and most critically acclaimed galleries. There's also "open studios" at Manchester's Rogue Studios from next Friday night.

The following week is the 2013 Manchester Literature Festival - as ever there are so many events that I can't really single one or two things out as yet, though Sarah Churchwell on Gatsby must be one highlight. Not part of the festival, but equally compelling, will be the next episode of the Other Room, where The Dark Would, a massive anthology of visual poetry, is being featured. 

In Amsterdam I picked up the new Salinger biography by David Shields and Shane Salerno. I'm always a little ambivalent about biographies; since on the one hand I believe that it is the writing, not the writer that matters (and surely Salinger must be the ultimate of that), I'm also fascinated by the lives of writers - the mistake, I think, is to equate the work with the man (or woman) as autobiography, and "Reality Hunger" author Shields has form here; but at the same time as a writer myself, I've found reading about the writers I love, being an important part of my literary education. There's inevitably a fascination in knowing what was the crucible in which "Catcher in the Rye" or other great works was formed.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Yankee Doodle Booker

You write one post about the Booker Prize, and then something comes along that makes you have to write another. It was reported in the Sunday Times (behind its paywall) that the Booker will accept American fiction from next year. Still no official word, but the other papers have got behind it. For years I bemoaned the Booker's irrelevance; not just because of its self-serving denial of the vibrancy of American fiction, but its reluctance to list any novels that had a hint of Americanisation about them. At least that's what it seemed as Martin Amis found only his untypical time travel novel "Time's Arrow" making the shortlist. Booker books were set in the Raj, or Hampstead drawing room; anywhere it seemed other than the contemporary world as described by American fiction.

For much of the 80s and 90s, love it or hate it, the Booker had some kind of relevance, even despite the anti-American stance meaning it had one hand behind its back. There were enough contemporary giants in Canada, Australian, UK, Ireland, and increasingly India, to make its quirky qualification not really a problem. It may have to avoid Philip Roth's sublime "American Pastoral" (it made up for it with giving him the international Booker award a few years later), but in its last purple patch - 1997-2002 - it could award Atwood, Carey, McEwan and Coetzee the awards in subsequent years, if not (in the case of McEwan) for one of their better books; but also find startling one-offs such as Arundhati Roy and Yann Martel, the sort of books whose uniqueness would shine through a prize competition like this.

Since then, its often seemed that every year's panel is struggling with a range of broadly similar quality books, by broadly similar writers; occasionally going for the left field choice (DBC Pierre's excellent "Vernon God Little") but more often finding lesser books from the oft-mentioned, such as Julian Barnes' playful but slight "Sense of an Ending" and Howard Jabobsen's underwhelming "The Finkler Question."

There have been good, important books the last 15 years: A. L. Kennedy's "Day", David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" and "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet", Will Self's "Book of Dave", Tom McCarthy's "Remainder", Coetzee's "Summertime", Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life", China Mieville's "The City and the City", David Peace's "The Damned United", Magnus Mills' "Three to see the King", Nicola Barker's "Five Miles from Outer Hope", "Wide Open" and "Darkmans", Martin Amis's "Night Train", Sebastian Barry's "A Long, Long Way", Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" among others, and occasionally they've made the Booker short and longlists - that list strikes me as the equivalent of an American list I could make from the same period - yet there's been a hopelessness about the Booker over the last few years: no longer certain who the big names are (and often over-indulging a generation that has been publishing since the seventies and early eighties), nor sure what the lines are between genre fiction, popular fiction and the more interesting work that often excites other young and upcoming writers.

The irony is that American fiction has its own issues of late: that the "big guns" are one by one becoming irrelevant or dying; so that late career peaks by DeLillo and Roth are matched only by late career troughs from Updike or Wolfe. The next generation (or next but one generation) of McInerney, Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, Denis Johnson, Foster Wallis have sometimes looked unable to match the fireworks of their earlier work.

Reading the Granta "Best of Young American novelists" there seemed to be a consolidation into a kind of middle-brow, world-spanning but world-weary fiction that would seem recognisable to anyone familiar with British fiction since at least the seventies: well written books that were conservative and consensual, even when their subject matter was ostensibly vast. One can still go to America for confidence and style (think A.M. Homes, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Safran Foer, David Eggars, Junot Diaz) but whether its the lack of specific identity (so many writers seem to have a CV that reads born in X, educated in Y, post-grad in Z, writer-in-residence in A, B and C) or a shrinking of ambition, my sense is that the US is no longer dominant in the way it once was.

What does that leave us for a British+ prize? The British literary scene has never been homogenous: a writing just of these Islands would leave out too much (or need to co-opt too many: Conrad, Ford/Hueffer, James, Mansfield... or later, Lessing, Gordimer, Coetzee, Atwood, Rushdie) but the absurdity of opening up to the Americans now is that the somewhat unique nature of the Booker prize - our only novel prize with genuine world standing - could easily lose its uniqueness. For if an American writer wins next year, then why on earth weren't we able to choose "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan last year, or any other number in the past. It almost feels like looking at those sporting records where there's an asterisk against the name as Ben Johnson or Lance Armstrong has been exiled from the record books. Winning the Booker might suddenly feel a bit like that; particularly if in the first flush of American entrants, we end up with a number of winners.

The funny thing is about the Booker that its always tried to sneak in a few Americans under the hood, and it might be that this year the Booker qualification of several writers is so tenuous that it would hardly make much difference. I think if this had been done 15, 20 or 25 years ago it would have made a lot of sense: but in a prize-rich world (and with the International Booker to boot) it seems an odd time to be devaluing the brand; never mind the logistics of letting in five, ten, fifty, a hundred American books to be read by the already over-stretched judges. The full story of the change isn't out yet, so let's wait and see... I kind of know that as a judge on an award you'll only ever go for the best books that are put in front of you; yet there must be a sense as well that you don't want to get it wrong and miss shortlisting the future classic.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Booker Musings

I was in Lisbon this week so have only just got round to looking at the Booker shortlist that was announced on Tuesday. Regular readers will know I'm a bit of connoisseur of the Booker, though I do treat it a little like similar entertainments such as the Eurovision Song Contest or the X-Factor rather than a serious barometer of our literature. The missing writers from Booker shortlists often reads like a who's who of the best contemporary novelists over the last 20 years, so its long ago, in my opinion, been divorced from the writers that matter. That said, and like the X-Factor or Eurovision Song Contest there's plenty of fun to be had in seeing an Englebert Humperdinck lumber into the winner's enclosure with a second rate novel, or the occasional mad entry from Albania (or in the Booker's case some new name from the Commonwealth.)

Maybe it was the furore (there's always a furore!) about the "accessible" Booker of 2 years ago; but everyone seems to be going over-the-top about this year's lists. The longlist was called the most diverse ever, and here's Sarah Churchwell in the Guardian today giving it a qualified "best" shortlist for years mention. (The Guardian's headline writer ignores her sensible "perhaps.") (Gaby Woods from the Telegraph - and one of the judges of that "accessible list" - absurdly, given that ALL Booker lists are in "living memory" thought it was the best in living memory.) From here its impossible to know of course, as I've not read the books yet - but its certainly a very Booker list; with historical novels (tick), commonwealth writers (tick), and pseudo-American writers (tick - I make 3 of the 6 as being basically American writers), being the make-up of every Booker list since I can remember.

Oddly, the excellent Jim Crace, has suddenly become this year's venerable writer who "deserves" the Booker, yet he's rarely been in contention in the past despite some excellent books. Yet Crace has always been one of those writers who seems to confirm the impression that British critics aren't comfortable with anything other than realist fictions.  (His "Arcadia" remains one of my favourite post-war novels, but that wasn't a Booker shortlistee.)

Crace, an early favourite, seems the most interesting sounding of the novels, from my point of view; but its always impossible to know. I'd have not guessed that "The Sisters Brothers" would have been my favourite two years ago from the blurb. Hardly surprising that there's an internationalism to a list where Robert Macfarlane is head of judges; but it does seem a shame that the most ambitious sounding of the longlist, Richard House's "The Kills" hasn't made the cut. I shall also keep a lookout for Alison Macleod's longlisted novel.

I've still got three of last years and two of 2011's list to read, but with the Book People yet again doing its "package deal" on the shortlist I'm sure I'll get to read some of this year's list with interest. Like the Eurovision and X-Factor I quite enjoy the entertainment; even if I'm pretty sure that the best books remain as ever elusive to the judges of this particular literary beauty contest.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Abandoned Lands of Literature

A fascinating and honest piece from Mark Lawson in the Guardian, about "abandoned works". He's mostly talking about his own experience which I will come to in a second, but starts with asking around other novelists. I like the line that "Julian Barnes...had no missing fictions of his own" as it fits with the idea we have of him as a patrician aesthete; I don't particularly believe it. In the books that weren't pile, he mentions that Crace's last novel, longlisted for the Booker replaced an unpublished one, called "Archipelago". I seem to remember in James Atlas's biography of Saul Bellow that he'd uncovered a couple of unfinished novels early in the career that seem particularly un-Bellowesque, which Lawson might have mentioned. I know a number of contemporary novelists whose "second novel" has been quietly forgotten after negative thoughts from agent or publisher - possibly because it was too dissimilar to their first. Having been published for what they do well, writers often have a go at something they do less well, only return to the original well-spring. These abandoned lands will more than likely never see the light of day.

"Finished" is a funny word as well - "abandoned" does seem the better one. Though whether you ever full abandon the ideas is another matter. What interests me is how you can forget works that you never quite got on with, as they ran out of steam - alot depends on how you write. I imagine the writer who gets to the end regardless is as much a consummate craftsperson as anything else; and there's something to be said for that. Of the novels I've finished the only one I really don't rate was where I was trying to write something for a competition and I'd taken on criticism about a previous work. I got to the end, but the work was boring and hardly deserved the effort. It was a lesson I had to learn.

More puzzling are the reasons for Lawson's abandoned fictions. He's remarkably honest, given that he probably knows he'll attract a bit of derision for it; but one is struck by how a certain type of contemporary novelist is flailing around looking for a saleable idea: I suppose not being a commerical writer - or one who researches much - I've never thought of this. I'm reminded of the character in Tender is the Night who dedicates years to writing a particular scientific paper, only for it to be rejected when he submits it as they've just accepted one on the same subject. I always thought this was Fitzgerald's wry comment on "writing for the market".  The unforeseen moment when Lawson meets the child of one of the character's he's writing about is an obvious reason enough for stopping a particular work; though "faction" surely requires an Albert Goldman style steeliness. Lawson comes across the better for having stopped writing the work; though one wonders about why he'd started it in the first place? Perhaps his job as an arts journalist puts him in a uniquely difficult situation. I kind of imagine a pack of novelist-journalists circling round for the juiciest contemporary stories. His honesty to admit he was writing a book called "Di(e)" a fictional what if Princess Diana hadn't died is admirable, as it sounds a terrible book, a terrible idea - but I'm more worried where he abandons a novel because a book with similar themes has also come out at the same time. This is the area where the contemporary novelist runs the same risks as the historical one.

Certainly agents warn against following the latest trend, as chances are they've already excepted all the vampire books or whatever is in the shops now, and are actually looking for the next one.

What I think Lawson highlights is that the myth and mystery of writing is as likely to be influenced by the market for it as anything else. I had an unfinished internet novel rejected not because it was too similar to Matt Beaumont's "e the novel" but because the agent felt there wasn't room to sell it. (That internet was a fly by night thing wasn't it?)

I began thinking of my own unfinished works. There's "Sleeping Next to God" a millenial noir that I abandoned in 1997 to write the novel I wrote on my M.A. Had I not done the masters then surely I'd have finished it? Not much call for millenial novels (with a hint of the second coming) around 2013 I imagine. Then there's "All this Scenery" a novel that I read from as "in progress" as long ago as 1999 and really should finish some day. A novel about the Manchester music scene, it, at least, remains ever relevant!