Category: A short screed

May Reading: Heti, Forna, Harris, Chabon – or ‘Autofiction vs the novel’ and ‘Value for money in bookbuying’

img_1130.jpgThis is not my usual monthly reading post. Instead, I’m using four books I read this month as a springboard into a pair of barely-thought-through meander/rants.

Autofiction vs ‘the novel’, followed by Value for money in bookbuying. If you fancy that, please read on:

Here are two interesting novels that seem, to me, to epitomise the two dominant modes of being for the novel at the moment, rather as Netherland and Remainder did for Zadie Smith in her much-discussed ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ essay, which you can also read in Changing My Mind. For Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, used by Smith to represent the way things used to be, may I suggest Happiness by Aminatta Forna, a writer I’d never read till now, and maybe never would have if I hadn’t been given the book by my parents as a birthday present. Smith set in opposition to O’Neill’s Franzen-esque ‘well-made novel’ Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a more difficult and dicey proposition that, now, I’d be tempted to call ‘neo-postmodern’. In place of that, how about Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, as good a representative of the ‘autofiction’ genre as you can imagine, outside of Rachel Cusk’s Outline/Transit/Kudos trilogy.

I won’t say too much about the Heti, as I have a review of it forthcoming in the excellent Brixton Review of Books, but I will say that, although I am a big fan of autofiction as a genre, I am becoming annoyed with its willingness to play fast and loose with the title ‘novel’ – even if it’s not the writers themselves who do so, but rather than nebulous publishing-promotional-journalistic apparatus that surrounds them. When I think of the books that have most impressed me so far this year, I think of Esther Kinsky’s River, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight and Heti’s Motherhood – and that’s not counting the latest Cusk, which I haven’t read yet, but which if it is as good as Outline and Transit, will certainly be up there too. All of those are books that seem to come under the autofiction bracket – though Kinsky’s blue Fitzcarraldo livery would seem to mark it as fiction rather than non-, and Sight gets called a novel on the blurb.

Now, what I like about autofiction is that it problematises the very notion of what a ‘novel’ is, but what I don’t like is that in doing so it seems to sideline the very worthy, if unfashionable idea of what a novel used to be. It seems at time to equate the view that the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred, and in fact more of a zone than a line with a wholesale annexation of the fictional landscape. As if autofiction wants to be what a novel should be. This doubtless reads like some kind of awful exaggeration, but it does seem to suggest to me rather where we headed – which is a place where to write a good old-fashioned novel, with rounded characters, and realist description, and manufactured plots, is, oh dear me yes, something that is beyond the bounds of tastefulness. As if to write a traditional novel is akin to producing ‘likeable’ characters. Continue reading


A short screed: Anita Brookner and the writing ‘House Rules’

Something I often say in Creative Writing classes is this: a story (or poem, or novel, or essay) should contain the rules for its own reading. If you have intentions for a piece of writing, then those intentions should be embedded, or encoded in the piece. You should establish your own house rules, give clues as to what you’re trying to do. A dead body and a detective will tend to suggest the likelihood of a crime novel. But it goes beyond this. Take irony. You can’t be ironical without establishing that you’re being ironical. The regular use of the comma splice could be a stylistic choice, or it could be editorial sloppiness or grammatical ineptitude. If it is a choice, I want some implicit indication of this, perhaps in the relationship between content and form, or between narrative voice and character. I want to know you know what you’re doing.

This works well enough inside the Creative Writing course, where the idea of authorial intention is not only viable, but necessary. You can’t mark anything without objective criteria. In Creative Writing courses the universities set out the (quite broad) definitions of what ‘good writing’ is, and students are encouraged to present work that makes sense within that rubric. Make sure I know what it is you’re trying to do, and I’ll mark you accordingly. Embed your own house rules in your writing. Goethe’s three questions of constructive criticism very much apply:

What was the author trying to do?

Did they succeed?

Was it worth doing?

(There is a further complication produced by the current system of teaching, which is that often you already have an idea of what a particular student is trying to do, from discussions in the seminar, and so the encoded intentions, the house rules, go by the bye. This can cloud the marking – and shows the need for second marking, and moderation. Rewarding a piece of work primarily for its intention is clearly academically unsound, no matter that it is, critically speaking, unsounder still.)

Things get more tricky outside of academia, where the critical paradigms are more varied and confused. Two months ago I read my first novel by Anita Brookner, and yesterday I finished my second. The first was her debut, A Start in Life (1981), the second her eleventh, A Closed Eye (1991). I was struck by both books having the same narrative construction, one that I found frustrating, and I found myself asking myself: is this what she intended? It must be, if she did it twice. (I’ll explain what it is in a moment.) But why?

I’m afraid that, if I’d been ‘marking’ it, I’d have marked her down.

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Blue/Green: A short screed on nature writing and the general election

field of wheat

Photo: Jim Champion. Used under Creative Commons license

I have an ambivalent attitude towards nature writing. Yet when I had a message from Joanna Walsh yesterday morning – as the full impact of the Conservative victory in the British general election began to sink in – asking me if I wanted to contribute to a series of fictional and creative responses to the news in 3am Magazine, it was landscape that suggested itself to me. This is how it started:

The fields are blue, the woods are blue, the hills are blue, the meadows and fens and floodplains are blue. Open your window and the chances are that what lies before you, as far as the eye can see, is blue. The grass is blue, the trees are blue, the lanes and motorway verges are blue, the hedges and edgelands blue, the greenbelt and brownfield blue. The view is blue. Click here to read the whole thing (it’s not long!)

election mapIt was the political map that did it. So blue, and such an ugly, saturated, inexorable blue at that. At the time of writing the piece, the very tip of Cornwall (the St Ives constituency) hadn’t declared, as it has to wait for votes to be flown in from the Scilly Isles before it can start counting. But still it occurred to me that you could start in Cornwall and walk a long, long way through the country before you saw any red, or yellow, or green. I voted Green, in the city, and of course we think of England as green – the hedges and fields, the full-to-bursting meadows and cool rolling hills, when in fact much of that blue map, that should be the countryside – should be green, if not Green – is nothing of the sort, is an arable wasteland.

It was that disjunction that set me writing, my revulsion at the blue of the country I should love, and the fact that, truly, the countryside is being de-greened, de-countryfied, de-natured, year on year. The tight little bursts of red on the political map of England are alive, vivid, angry; the vast swathes of blue are empty, dead, sprayed with the pesticide of conformity, industrialisation and conservatism. So I wrote an angry piece of nature writing, coating everything that should be vivid, individual, dappled and various with a thick slick of monotone blue. And this got me wondering about what it is about nature writing that I find problematic. Continue reading

Kate Bush live: The theatre’s already in the music (a short screed)

On Wednesday evening I was at the penultimate Kate Bush gig. I went without expectations, hoping only to experience whatever it was that Bush, whose songs I used to play obsessively on the piano as a teenager, chose to present to us. To give myself over to the moment.

But, of course, five minutes in, found myself blindly scrawling notes all over the book I happened to have with me.

At times the show was immensely powerful, immensely moving, *punch*-moving. It’s not just that you’re in tears; it’s that the contortions your face conspires to achieve seem to involve new combinations of muscle groups, and leave you grimacing like a gargoyle.

At times it was just bad.

Let me try and explain myself.

(By the way, the novel I’m writing now, to follow up ‘Randall’, which was about contemporary art, is about pop music, and so this idea is very much on my mind: of what expectations an audience might have of a live show, and what duty the artist might feel they have towards those expectations. Was it Bush’s job to give us what we want? Or our job to accept what she creates/offers? Or some compromise between them?)

Bush’s voice, the music, were everything you might have hoped. It’s not that she was in the room; it was being in the room with the music.

(And of course, this is highly personal – and yet also not: if you took a straw poll of what people wanted to hear, you’d get what? One: ‘Wuthering Heights’ (bad luck) and Two: As much of Hounds of Love as possible (lucky you).)

Hearing/seeing/experiencing her sing ‘Running Up That Hill’ and ‘Hounds of Love’ was like being hit like bullets that had been racing towards you for years, decades. Certain lines jumped down off the stage and rampaged across the heads of the audience: lyrics I’d heard thousands of times, made vivid, made crucial.

“Tell me we both matter, don’t we”

That, in particular, was a dagger blow to the body. What she put into it, added to her intuitive understanding of what the music (her music) was doing behind her, drove the song to new depths – or heights – of expressiveness.

(She sang barefoot. She only played piano for one song, a solo encore. ‘Among Angels’ from Fifty Words for Snow. It was lovely to hear.  It’s a terrible song.)

I’m listening to ‘Running Up That Hill’ now, on headphones, as I type, and it’s nothing, nothing like as powerful as it was in that room. It sounds insipid. It may never have the power it had before. It’s a song made to be played live. There it was living, growling, thumping. She whipped it up, whipped it into shape. It took over the room. There was no room for the room in the room. It was all song.

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November Reading: A medium-sized screed against ‘S.’, plus Quin, Barry, Szirtes, Tartt

november 2013
This will be the third time I have written about JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., a metafictional puzzle book that comes in the form of a faux-retro hardback of a novel, Ship of Theseus, purportedly written by one JM Straka, and that carries further sub- and supra-narratives in its editorial notes, and in the marginalia scrawled on its pages, and inserted between them, by a pair of obsessed students who, improbably, conduct a flirtation using the book as a dead letter office, even as come to fear for their lives.

First I wrote about it on my Friday Book Design Blog, where I commented on its exquisite presentation and sense of fun, and noted its debt to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, before ending with the slightly sniffy enquiry:

What is at the heart of S? I’m not sure anyone knows, yet. Would the first person to solve it please report back and let us know if the destination’s worth the journey?

Left to my own devices, I would probably not have continued the journey. However, I was then asked to review it, for The Independent, and happily took back up the gauntlet, reading through to the very last page (something I wasn’t entirely sure Mark Lawson did for his rather general review in The Guardian).

This time I concluded that, though I was sure I had penetrated only partway to its mysteries, the journey was rewarding nevertheless. Sure, some aspects of the project remain hard to accept:

  • in practical terms, that Jen and Eric would keep scribbling in the margins of the book rather than, y’know, texting each other, especially when THEIR LIVES WERE IN DANGER because of it;
  • in conceptual terms, that the narrative of their relationship ran more or less chronologically through the book, from front to back, whereas any fule postgrad knows that the text is a two-dimensional space, rather than a temporal continuum, and their notes should have been a lot more confusing to read in tandem with the plot of the novel;
  • and, in literary terms, that we were actually supposed to believe there was a clan of dissident-writers fighting evil throughout history in our ‘universe’, whatever we were willing to believe about the ‘universe’ of Straka’ fiction.

Despite all this, then, the ‘novel’ (not a novel-within-a-novel, as some have said, but the opposite: a novel-around-a-novel, over-a-novel, above-a-novel) was kept alive by two things: the positively charming romance that grows in the margins between the two students, Jen and Eric, and the quality of the pastiche of ‘Ship of Theseus’, which reads like a sort of tough existentialist take on the Conrad/ Hemingway tradition, though it keeps slipping towards the fantastical.

If the underlying, background text hadn’t been worth reading – despite the fact that you know its primary, surface meaning is not what you’re supposed to be there for at all – then I’d have had a hard time keeping on with it.

Looking back on my reading experience, now, though, what occurs to me is this: that while Dorst is pastiching a certain strain of mid-century hardboiled quasi-philosophical literature, Abrams (as conceiver-in-chief) is pastiching something else entirely.

He is pastiching, or otherwise playing on, the very postmodern take on meaning and interpretation that has grown up in the past half century, following on from the post-structuralists of the mid-late 60s, that sees intertextuality, marginality and undecidability as central to the literary-critical enterprise.

Postmodern literature loves to play with the possibility of extra- or meta-textual work dominating and even crushing the work-at-source (Pale Fire); it loves the idea of the reader as detective, set loose in the drifting, numinous, authorless world of novel (Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose); in fact it loves this so much it romanticises it to the point where, laughably, ferreting around in dusty libraries becomes a supremely heroic act, and even a dangerous one (Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum [a book I must re-read], Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club, and, eventually, as Eco loves pointing out, The Da Vinci Code).

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February Reading: Knausgaard, Marías, Vanderbeke, plus a short screed on ‘Cloud Atlas’

Seeing the hoohah surrounding the release of the Matrix Bros’ film adaptation of Cloud Atlas got me thinking back to that book, which I kind of enjoyed, while finding the Russian doll structure – with each story stopping halfway through, until you get to the middle one, the sixth, which runs in full, after which you get the endings, in reverse order – frankly annoying.

february reading 2013Not that I’m against narrative games, but that seemed very much for the sake of it an elegant refinement of an approach to structure that was beginning to look like a piece of schtick on Mitchell’s part. No question but that he can write, but the permanent hopping around in his first three books, the refusal to commit to or ground any of his well-appointed lit fic stories, to allow them to make a claim for their own psychological truths (or wherever it is you find your value), but instead disseminate his meanings throughout the various texts in rather nebulous forms of symbolism and connectivity (to quote myself from the review of another book, best forgotten, he “scatters his thematic overtones across the centuries and leaves it to the reader to pull them together into a single chord of meaning”)… all had me irked.

In fact, I’ve only read the first three of Mitchell’s books, the Narrative Gimmick Trilogy, you might call them, and of them I most enjoyed Number9Dream. I was big into Haruki Murakami at the time, and I loved it for its breathless (its Breathless) propulsion. Cloud Atlas just seemed like an attempt to get all grown-up over something that had worked fine as a young adult fireworks display. (And I mean ‘young adult’ entirely sincerely. I was 30-odd when I read Number9Dream and I wish I’d been able to read it earlier. That book is precisely what young adults should be reading.)

Thinking about Cloud Atlas produced two thoughts: one that Steve Aylett had used something like that very structure in his novel The Inflatable Volunteer. From memory, each chapter ended at a particularly cliff-hanging moment with a character beginning a further tall tale, which is then told in the next chapter, and so on. Then, halfway through, as in Cloud Atlas, the stories start winding up, sending you back up towards the surface, the original mise-en-scene. A simpler Chinese box format than Mitchell’s, but its headlong reverse chronology (like Heart of Darkness on the wrong drugs) was hugely compelling.

To extend this thought before I get to the second one, what I didn’t like about Cloud Atlas was that it didn’t have the guts to make me care about the characters, in that particularly hokey lit fic way, which was annoying, because I like doing that, and Mitchell so clearly has the talent to write a properly moving realist novel about proper, living breathing characters, that muscle in on your life (which happened with my favourite story of the novel, ‘Letters from Zedelghem’), but he backs away from doing so, instead offering up a glossy postmodern spin on some rather mushy Eastern philosophy that, to my mind, is absolutely not a step forward from dull old honest-to-goodness realist lit fic.

The second thought about Cloud Atlas is that the reason I resented that tricksy gimmick, of layering the stories like opened novellas laid one atop the other – and that makes all of this just a preamble to my real February Reading – is because that’s how I read anyway.
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Today’s sermon: A short screed against metaphor

Today’s text is taken from the new novel by Rupert Thomson, Secrecy, pg 80 in its Granta hardback.

Other times, I would visit the menagerie, where monkeys swung fluidly through the upper reaches of their cages, frowning like old men, and vultures shifted and sulked, their plumage the stiff dull black of widows’ weeds.

Ah, metaphor! Ah, simile! What’s not to like? Well – and this is no attack on Thomson, for whom metaphor and simile are a vital part of the project in hand. Secrecy is a historical novel, set in C17th Florence, and part of his job as author is to make the unfamiliar seem to us familiar, and the use of metaphor and simile is one clear way of doing that. By drawing links between what we could never have seen (though obviously my chosen extract is a bad example of this, seeing as monkey and vultures are pretty much the same today as they were then, but it’s the line that provoked the thought, so I’ve stuck with it) and what we do recognise as part of our life, he performs the illusion of bringing the past alive for us on the page.

Well, and. My problem isn’t with Thomson, nor really with the historical novel (though this well-written example seems clear evidence that historical literary fiction is, among other things, and perhaps first among them, an attempt to colonise the past), but with the reductive nature of metaphor and simile. Continue reading

A short screed against the ballet

We went to the ballet last night, to see the English National Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Coliseum. A family Christmas present to my wife from my sons and me. I bought the tickets. They agreed to go.

It was thoroughly enjoyable, but here are my brief observations on the form:

  • Dance is not a dramatic art. The human body in motion can be beautiful, but mime, even graceful mime (perhaps especially graceful mime) is naff in the extreme. All that hand curling around the face to show ‘woman’ or ‘beauty’ or whatever is just so unnecessary.
  • There is more not-dancing than I thought there would be, or remember. And a fair number of performers who don’t actually dance, but – in this show at least – merely walk elegantly across stage in ludicrous costumes and then stand and watch the real dancers do their stuff. Is there a name for these appendages, these eunuchs of the dance? Assuming they are dancers by training, or desire, can there be any more painful job? Continue reading

A short screed: When is a not-a-roman-à-clef a roman-à-clef after all?

I’d been meaning to post this up for a few days now but a brief Twitter conversation riffing on a Tweet from @nikeshshukla (Writers LOVE it when people ask how much of their work is based on their real life.”) has given me the impetus to quickly get it up there.

As part of an extended, second-half-of-the-year Javier Marías jag I recently read his early novel All Souls and immediately followed it with The Dark Back of Time, the memoir he wrote in response to the sort of scandal that arose following the novel’s publication, which many people read as being based on his two years spent teaching at Cambridge. The memoir/essay is fine reading (not as exquisite as the novels) and is sensitive and sensible on the subject of exactly what links it is possible, in the end, to draw between fiction and ‘real life’.

But when I came to this passage, I just had to laugh. In it, Marías is back in Cambridge, talking to some of his old friends about the novel, which is already the subject of gossip. This is the novelist himself speaking:

“Well, I still don’t know exactly what kind of novel it will be, I don’t know much about my books until I’m done with them, and even then. But of course it won’t be a roman à clef about all of you. I don’t think my colleagues should worry about that. Though a few may insist on seeing it that way, nevertheless, or believe they recognize descriptions of themselves.

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A short screed against boredom

I don’t know where @LeeRourke was yesterday when he tweeted ‘Photographs of writers’ rooms are boring.’ but I know where I was when I read it. I was on the train, absolutely the best place for Twitter – and the worst. (I wonder how many of those quickly-regretted footballer tweets we’re continually reading about are made on the coach home after the match, adrenaline still pumping, forced to sit still?)

I joined in the enjoyable flurry of tweets which followed, and which included, from @badaude, ‘boring is best’ and, again from Rourke, ‘I heart boring :-)’. Which were perhaps meant, if not exactly ironically, then at least lightheartedly. But they still got my goat.

Boring is not good. Boredom is the enemy, and I get antsy when I see it raised up as some kind of goal in life.

It is a very modern theme. Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, was blurbed as “a shocking tale about… boredom”, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, too, takes boredom as one of its subjects, Continue reading