Friday, December 29, 2017

A Working Class Writer is Something to Be

In the twenty or so years that I’ve been trying seriously to get published I’ve seen schemes for writers aimed at a range of different constituencies: women, BAME, LGBT, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Northern, under-40s, over-40s… yet the reality of British fiction has always been how class-obsessed it is. If American society’s fault line is race, in Britain – and particularly now in post-Brexit Britain – its class. The achilles heel of British writing, fiction and poetry, has always been class; both in the subjects and characters that are written about and the industry itself – it’s publishers, agents and writers.

Somewhere I’ve a rejection letter or a reader’s note, from when I sent off my novel “Lineage” – which was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize in 1995, a prize for unpublished fiction – to a London based agency. It basically says, “why should be interested in these characters?” My novel was set in the Midlands where I grew up, in the same working-cum-lower-middle-class milieu that I had grown up in. This was not the working class of Lowry’s smoke-belching factories or of Lawrence’s mining communities (the mine had been closed twenty years before I was born) or the inner city street novelist, but bland, suburban England, run down towns, where the only jobs after 1979 would be in retail and logistics, and where everyone’s dad that I knew worked in a small factory or warehouse, and everyone’s mum worked in the NHS or as a school cleaner or dinner lady. Normal, every day England, comprehensive schools, and indoor markets; WMCs and caravan holidays. Of the 120 kids on my year less than 20 went onto 6th form, and only a handful (including myself) went directly to University. 

There’s nothing to glory in this life – it’s recognisable to many of my friends, and only the location will be different. I find myself envious of those who lived nearer to towns (Birmingham was a good twenty miles away), or had a university nearby, or who had the option of a Grammar or other “special” school rather than the bog standard comp, or who lived in a seaside resort, or in the real countryside. Yet in many ways, “smalltown England”, to refer to the New Model Army song, was where I grew up, and where the locus of my writing comes from – however many years of urban and urbane life I’ve had since. What is worse now than then, in these places, is not so much the poverty of everyday life – more the poverty of ambition. It manifested itself in Brexit - and where I grew up is the heartland of Brexit England. A visit to the wonderful New Art Gallery in Walsall a few months ago reminded me of the limits of cultural regeneration - inside a thriving community glad for the opportunity - but outside, nothing had changed, if anything had gotten worse as recession and austerity had hit the town hard. 

English fiction rarely writes about such places – or rather rarely publishes them. LGBT writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Sara Walters set their novels in the upper classes or in a colourful urban past; BAME writers like Salman Rushdie are able to give us a global canvas; the traditionally middle class male writer gives us characters who are Professors or Lawyers or Colonels or Fashion Designers or Composers, not toolmakers, or factory workers, or clerks.

But of course, the idea that one should just write “what we know” when “what we know” is of so little interest to the London-based publishing trade is also an affront. The provincial writer – or at least this one – is fascinated by power structures, by the rich and successful, and by the hustle of the city. Yet even in my London-based novel “High Wire”, which I completed nearly twenty years ago, the urbane metropolitan scene of art openings, dot com companies, political crookedness, and the like, is interrupted at some point as my protagonist returns to the Midlands to see his dying grandfather in his nursing home. Moving forward to the present, and the last few stories I’ve had published have been about characters far removed from myself – yet, I feel there’s always a groundedness to what I want to write, not too far from the surface.

It’s great to hear that there's a new crowd-sourced initiative has been started by Kit de Waal, a book of new writing that looks to find new voices from working class communities – and will pair newer writers with writers who have come from those backgrounds. You can fund it here - though whether this is the right model for this sort of anthology we'll find out I guess  - surely it would have been good for one of those class-bound London publishing houses to commission such an initiative? Perhaps this became the only route. There are writers I know, such as Paul McVeigh and Lisa Blower, involved with it, and it will surely help shift the dial a little. 

Anyway, its got some way to go until it gets funding - but lets hope it has a galvanising effect on an industry that has been for far too long ambivalent about how many people in this country live. 

Let's also hope - since being "working class" isn't a static state, that it doesn't just become a platform for gritty urban voices, but can also reflect the sort of ordinary background that I came from (the 1930s semi I grew up in is on the left hand side of picture at the start of this article) and that those new voices don't have to just write autobiography - the BBC and the Northern writing agency seem particularly prone to want "northern" writers to write about "northern" subjects - but can write experimental fiction, genre fiction, literary fiction whatever they like. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

1974 by David Peace

Reading David Peace's debut novel "1974" in 2017 - after "The Damned United" book and film, after the "Red Riding Quartet" that this was the first part of was completed and filmed, after "GB1984", his novel about the Miner's strike - is interesting, because you think on the one hand that you know what to expect - Yorkshire noir, clipped verb-less sentences reminiscent of James Ellroy - but on the other hand, the novel has to be considered on its own merits.

Our narrator, Edward Dunford, is a crime reporter on the Yorkshire Post, recently returned to his hometown after a spell in London. Such airs and graces as the capital have given him are hard to shake off amongst the hard drinking journalists and policemen who are now his regular companions. Yet, he is in a hurry to get somewhere. His first front page byline has come too late - his father has just passed away - and besides the Post's main crime correspondent always seems to be given the bigger stories. Yet, there's a big story that has just landed, the only problem is he's only just coming to terms with his father's death. The abduction of a young girl brings a big story his way. At first there's the usual pleas from parents, but the cynical hacks and coppers think - know - she must be dead. When she is found, the brutality of the killing shocks them all. Some of this makes the front pages - but so much is kept away - held back and shared amongst the professionals. A good relationship between the local paper and the local cop shop is critical to both professions yet the Yorkshire police are a law unto themselves in 1974.  Like so many city forces in the early seventies getting a confession, by whatever means, and by whomsoever, is their main stock in trade. This is the Christmas of the IRA's Harrods bombing. The police hate the Irish, they hate the gypsies who are camped on the edge of Leeds and in a surreal piece of horror early in the novel Dunford is invited along to see the clearance of the camp - gypsies being beaten up, tents and caravans set alight. None of this makes the newspapers.

Trying to get his head in front of the existing Post crime correspondent, Dunford does background checks - links back the murder to other child abductions - goes to see those parents, to get some background. When the body is found, and a local simpleton confesses to the murder, the big story has gone - or so it seems. This is all in the week's leading up to Christmas, and the dark, cold weather is a strong feature of the novel. Peace shows early on how he can create an atmosphere that is more than just dropping period song titles. The choppy Ellroy-esque prose is perfect for this. After all, Ellroy's L.A. Noir books set in the febrile Hollywood fifties, do exactly the same thing. By transposing it to a gritty, grimy Yorkshire Peace shows a keen eye for a period of history that - in 1999 - was just receding into myth.

The plot itself is complex and frenetic, with a massive cast of characters - with everything being connected in a labrynthine way - so that local politicians and property developers will do anything to get approval for property deals - not caring who stands in their way - and in this moral cesspool, their own predilictions - child pornography, rent boys, violence - become as connected as everything else. Everyone has a secret. For Dunford, the chase of the story soon becomes personal - but the frenetic pace makes you wonder how exactly? He ends up fighting his own newspaper editors who only want so much scandal - not so much that it will break the bonds they have with the local cops and poltiicians.

Dunford is no angel - even as he keeps getting warned off and beaten up - he's quite happy to use the dubious methods of his profession to get access to witnesses, to get an angle. When he gets sexually involved with the mother of one of the missing children, its like he crosses a line - even though hes been, up to that point, seeing a girl on the paper. Untethered since his father's death he quickly loses sense of perspective as things spiral out of control. Its a breathless novel - and one horror and atrocity is soon replaced with another - as the moral turpitude seems to seep into everything.

The historical back story is given some space - reflecting on a real child murderer - the Cannock Chase murderer  - from a few years before, and hinting at the political machinations of this year with its two general elections and its strikes. But Peace is not fully committed to that just yet - in this book it's a larger than life, if somewhat generic crime story that is being spun out. In some ways this would have been a familiar book landing in 1999 - there had been Jake Arnott's "The Long Firm" series for a start, and British crime writing had recently got more brutal and grisly, having to compete with their American counterparts. Yet I also think the sheer nastiness of the book would have seemed less shocking then. The scene where Dunford has violent sex with his girlfriend seems over the top and visceral even as it contains some of the novel's most lurid writing. Peace doesn't skimp on describing the violence but he's also observant and sometimes lyrical

With its breakneck speed, period setting, and mix of the real with the fictional,"1974" seems an important debut. I know from the TV series that the Yorkshire Ripper becomes a subject of later volumes in the quartet. Perhaps the only telling omission, is that in this violent paedophiliac ring that he describes, it is politicians, policemen and property developers who are keeping the secrets - not the larger-than-life TV personalities of Operation Yewtree, which would soon become real-world news following the death of Saville. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Cat Person and Reality Fiction

I finally got around to reading "Cat Person" ,  the Kristen Roupenian story thats gone viral after appearing in the "New Yorker".  It's a good story. Suggest you read it first, before reading this.

Ok, where were we. The protagonist of the story is a student, 20 years old (this is an important plot point), who works at a concession stand at a cinema. A guy comes in - in his thirties - but we only get that later - and buys some liquorice.  She makes a witty comment. The story is self-aware. "Flirting with her customers was a habit she'd picked up back when she worked as a barista, and it helped with tips. She didn't earn tips at the movie theatre, but the job was boring otherwise, and she think that Robert was cute."  It's not first person, but it may as well be. The reader is told she is flirting though - the line wasnt that funny so it needed telling - and importantly "Robert was cute." This is almost old fashioned - pre-Tinder dating if you like. It's also contentious - of course the pretty young girl makes nice with the customers - but isn't it the older man's arrogance and entitlement that expects a nice remark to move on to something else? Robert makes the next move and gets her number - but the relationship is then a text one. (I get the feeling its an old story - or maybe the social media interactions of today wouldn't be so easy to create a tension about.) One thing leads to another, but of course the story has a twist or two - he's a bad kisser; and not put off by that; she finds out he's bad in bed as well - at the time they're having sex and she really doesn't want to do this anymore. He, on the other hand is not quite the slightly awkward older man (in his thirties, so not that old) he starts out as, but keeps going on about her breasts. Its part funny, part cringeworthy, but it reads like a missive from the dating frontline.

This, I think, is why its been so popular (Roupenian has now just inked a massive deal - good luck on her, its a rare talent to communicate to a mass audience via a short story.) Yet its also a very New Yorker story. It's not hard to think of Margot as being one of Lorrie Moore's small town heroine's from the eighties, lonely in a strange town. The relationship story is a commonplace - but ever more so with more celebrity writers. The breezy style is part Helen Fielding, part Candace Bushell. I've read similar in Molly Ringwald's collection, or with a weirder slant in May-Lan Tan's "Things to Make or Break." Those stories though, felt more fictional than this one. In some way's this story is being read as if it is non-fiction. This is perhaps David Shields' view in "Reality Hunger" - that fiction has had its day - breaking through.

Like I said, I liked the story. I'm impressed it got picked out for the New Yorker, though its not exactly an outlier for them, and presume that the writer had already some track record, or backing. It almost reads like its precision-tuned for the age, but like I said its kind of old fashioned as well. To British ears, Margot's naivety is what comes to mind. She doesn't seem to have friends - at least not whilst she's dating Robert - later, her friends steer her away from him, when he appears in the student bar. She imagines telling a future boyfriend about this "urgh" experience. Robert has two cats - but we don't see them on the one time she visits his place. That sexual experience comes out of them being turned away from a bar because she hasn't got an ID on her. One forgets the American weirdness around alcohol. (Don't think anyone at my university would have had sex,if there was no alcohol before 21.)

I've always felt the best stories have the ring of truth but may not be true. I'm sure this is more than just a diary item memorialised, but there is an bit of prurience about the story's popularity. It's been used as if - in the days of Harvey Weinstein et al - this, which is after all a story about consensual, but unsatisfactory sex, which the girl then chooses to use as an end to their relationship. I was reminded of a couple of stories I wrote a few years ago which were similar missives from the dating frontline. Maybe I should send them off again....

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Literary decline

Its rare for Arts Council announcements to get everyone in a lather, but last week's report that they fewer writers have enough to live on, and that the decline in sales of literary fiction is to blame, seems to have caused a bit of a fuss. "Literary fiction in crisis as sales drop dramatically" is reported in the Guardian.  ACE's literature director is Sarah Crown, ex-of the Guardian, and so it seems like there's been a bit of a step change in the way that ACE looks at literature. It's always been the Cinderella of funded arts, as their was an understanding that the "market" looked after itself and that funded intervention went for poetry, or fiction in translation.

With over 1000 comments and 5000 shares, the article has clearly struck a chord - but I'm guessing, like when someone comments about faults in a story, its easy to see what's wrong, more difficult to see what needs fixing.

I've always found it annoying that here, in "the land of Dickens and Shakespeare", our arts funding goes so proportionately to other art forms that we act as mere receiving houses for. I've nothing against opera or the classical repertoire or dance, and recognise the high costs of staging such things; but amongst the small pot of money that subsidises the arts literature has always got crumbs off the table. In twenty years of trying seriously to be a writer, my public subsidy is probably in the hundreds of pounds, and then more accidental then anything.

But I'm not really that bothered about public subsidy for literature per se - for that needs to come out of some kind of coherent approach. Its forgotten now, but when Tony Blair established Nesta, as the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts it gave a yearly stipend to "fellows" - I think it was £25,000 a year for three years. It was a great ideal but of course those who received it, in the arts at least, were consummate insiders, primarily.

Poetry, always a marginal commodity, has thrived over the last few years as a kind of participatory art - fuelled by individual passions, small presses (some with subsidy), live readings, and a generational shift that has opened up the artform considerably. It ranges from the performance poets like George the Poet and Kate Tempest, to the mainstream literary festival favourites like Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, to a more interesting experimental side - now coming to the fore with editor-poets like Emily Berry. Something has gone right here - and oddly enough, I don't think its the "dumbed down" idea of themed poetry days, or Instagram poetry; but a slow inexorable building of a networked culture of individuals putting on their nights and running their own magazines. Even if the BBC and the main newspapers are still reluctant to feature anything that's not published by Cape or Picador, poetry seems in reasonably good health. (The sales of individual poetry volumes might be another issue entirely.)

What is "literary fiction?" I guess it has become a "genre" in its own right - but really it should just be referred to as "fiction". For as soon as you tie it down - individual novels, rather than series, (well what about the Melrose novels?); non-genre (well what about Hilary Mantel's historical fiction) the definition fails.  Yet, I actually guess we know what we mean - literature that might last, that has some kind of serious intent, and is not purely market driven.

When I started writing I'd have probably said the writers I most wanted to emulate were writers who were not really classed as either literary or not - but were certainly popular, and, importantly, good. Stephen King, Iain Banks, Douglas Adams. As I got a bit older I began to appreciate prose style as a prerequisite so Martin Amis, Angela Carter, Ian McEwan, Brett Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Douglas Copland and others became favourites. It's odd that some - all? - of these wouldn't necessarily have been classed as "literary fiction" in the past - they were all tyros of one form or another. Yet by the late 1990s, unashamedly commercial writers like Alex Garland, Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding, as well as children's writers like J.K.Rowling and Philip Pulman were repeatedly being referred to as "literary". That stretching of definition means that quite mainstream bestsellers are routinely touted as literary fiction.

The reality is that we are talking about two different things here. There's a desire for "literary fiction" to hold its own in the market place, but by including bestselling authors in the list, is it the equivalent of including Rupi Kaur, Pam Ayres and Spike Milligan in the poetry figures?

I'm thinking there are three sides to this - readership; publishing; and critical culture.

I have no doubt that appetite for literary fiction has gone down. But it's not so simple to say why that is. I suspect that the percentage of people buying books is not that different, but that the numbers of books we have time to read is coming down. I'm astonished by the diversity of things I find in my local charity shops - often unread. People are buying, but not reading. Over time, that "unnecessary" or additional purchase probably gets replaced. Books take space (despite the Kindles etc.) and the prime new audiences - college educated graduates, cultural engaged non-graduates - are, I suspect, space as well as time short. Looking for houses last year, hardly any new places looked as if "books furnish a room". The "habit" of book buying, reading, and keeping is one that can be hit at both ends - the recession no doubt reduced disposable incomes, and new audiences are increasingly not finding the habit. Our utilitarian schools and university system might be partly to blame. I work with a large number of bright, intelligent, articulate people in their twenties, thirties and forties, but their cultural consumption is largely blockbuster films and Netflix. A book becomes well known when it becomes a film - yet even though those book-to-film adaptions seem to get faster, I rarely hear a cultural conversation about it (whereas there would be for "Black Mirror" or "The Wire.")  Yet, it seems to me that in the UK we have a growing population. My generation are more literary than my parents thats for sure if only because more of us stayed on at school, or through the cultural exchanges between literature and pop music of the sixties, seventies and eighties. Are there books out there for us? You'd be hard pressed to find books aimed at male fifty somethings outside of non-fiction and old favourites, for instance. With a population of closing in on seventy million, there should be an ample appetite for good books - but here, the issue that Kit de Waal has recently raised about diverse voices comes into play - who are the poets and storytellers chronicling Brexit Britain?

But its a strange market that complains because people are no longer buying its product without looking closely at itself. One of the phenomenon of the last few years is that the publishers with money have given up on long term development, relying on an ever growing number of "indies" to take on the A&R role. The music industry should offer a cautionary tale here. In the early 90s the success of bands like the Smiths and New Order had made record labels more open to new talent. They started up "fake indie" labels (publishing is doing the same: Fiona Mozley's Booker shortlisted novel was a JM Original, part of the multinational Hachette group) like Blanco y Negro. Yet so many "indie" bands were signed and then given big budgets, or different producers, and few of them made back their investment, as the "product" had been changed to such an extent that its original audience drifted away, and the new "pop" audiences weren't convinced.  In publishing, there was a bit of a new writer goldrush in the nineties, where it seemed books were as likely to be launched in night clubs as in bookshops and I think one shop even had a shelf of titles endorsed by Irvine Welsh or Nick Hornby. The "chemical generation" writers mostly disappeared as quick as they appeared - either because they weren't very good, or were moonlighting from journalism or film or TV. Any survey of 21st century British fiction would need at least a chapter on the phenomenon that is Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies" - yet the former was 10 novels into a career that had begun a quarter century before. The "midlist" from which such writers could hope to appear sometimes seems to have disappeared. My own surprise at the publishing industry is that you're really only as good as your current thing, and that often might not fit the zeitgeist. That lack of career development is even more damaging in literature than it is in music. Drop Blur after their difficult second album and you don't get "Park  Life", drop that awkward short story writer George Saunders and you lose the rights to "Lincoln in the Bardo."

Of course the latter example shows that talent is often supported. I'm sure that writers like Gwendoline Riley, Jon McGregor, Sarah Hall and A.L. Kennedy aren't big sellers, or best sellers, but I suspect any list would want writers of that calibre on them. Yet, its a hard call. If Riley's latest hadn't made prize shortlists, or McGregor's debut hadn't been so successful...would they have had the opportunity? It's a myth that writers will write regardless - my own example is a good one, imperfect as it is - I wrote half a dozen novels between 1995 and 2002, and then none - the difficulty of fitting such a large complex piece of work into a working life was too self evident. The novel I'm finishing at the moment was started in 2015 I think; I've a decade of lost novels (not lost writing: there are stories, poems etc.).  Eimear McBride whose indie-published debut "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" was such a phenomenal book, had put it in a drawer for a decade whilst she did other stuff.
So, writing is a long game, and the publishing industry used to recognise this. But of course, without an audience, even a low-advance book is a risk. With agents and editors changing jobs, imprints being bought out, its a bit like the Premiership - the "soul" of a club can easily be lost, with only the long suffering fans still caring; publishers are only as good as their list but would anyone outside the industry have any idea who a Random House author might be? Conglomerates have no institutional memory.  I guess its only fair to say that there are still plenty of good books published, but there are also far too many which are merely competent writers, doing something that fits in with the market as it is now. I don't pretend to be definitive on this - but I think you can tell from reading someone's work whether they have talent that needs nurturing, or are simply journeymen. Too many of the "talent spotters" in publishing rely on a very limited set of assumptions - about what a writer is, what a writer looks like, and worse still what a writer should write. The recession has no doubt not helped, and every publisher has writers they would like more people to read but simply haven't connected.

I guess this brings us to the third thing - the critical culture. Though I think Arts Council could and should do more about the first two above - there are many things that can be done to support and develop writers, and individual grants are no doubt one part of that; there are many good publishers out there who deserve some help in marketing and enabling them to develop a "critical mass"; the collapse in local government funding and subsequent loss of library sales is a national crime that the last administration wilfully perpetuated. But beyond that I can't help thinking that what we lack so much in the UK is a genuine critical culture. For if its no longer the "big boys" who are publishing literary work or getting it to the market place, then their privilege in terms of access to media, is one that seems increasingly worrying. We've all heard stories of how our major arts prizes are skewed in favour of large companies, through the "risk" involved in being shortlisted, or winning, sometimes beyond the resources of a small company; but there's also a horrifying conformity around our literary culture. The above article was in the Guardian, yet as the bastion of liberal media, it seems to have spent the last ten years or more ignoring the very indie scene that is now the main thing keeping literature alive. The BBC is even worse - with an absolute contempt for literature that you wouldn't find for any of the other art forms - everything populised, dumbed down, and without a whiff of innovation - and this an institution that relies on writing for so much of its successes over the years. Our universities are also to blame - the amount of creative writing graduates and postgraduates is a good thing in my mind - but how come this isn't also a keen audience for new literary work? Most university towns you'll struggle to find a single literary magazine on display near the campus and I doubt they are in the libraries either. In America, there still seems to be enough of an infrastructure - of critical magazines like Bookforum and N+1, short story magazines - from the New Yorker down to regional and college publication - to enable quality to rise. I'm sure they have their own problems. In Ireland, where literature is seen as a national treasure there remains a surprisingly strong pipeline of good - and often experimental - writers - who are somehow able to get published and sustain writing careers. I'm sure money is always an object - and as someone who has always worked, I'm not against writers having a day job.

Plenty that could be done: and I hope what is done is done with some imagination, rather than with just consultation, or a desire to "dumb things down". The dumbing, we have seen, rarely works.