I hadn’t read any Sally Rooney until a couple of days ago when I was reminded on Twitter that there was a story in a back issue of The White Review that features the two characters – Marianne and Connell – from Normal People, Rooney’s Booker-longlisted and roundly lauded second novel. (Interestingly, this is from 2016, before the publication of her debut, Conversations with Friends.)
I read it, and loved it.
Then this morning I decided to take the latest Granta magazine (‘Generic Love Story’) into the bath with me for a lazy Sunday morning read, and there she was again, in the form of an actual extract from the book. (You can read it online.)
I read it, and loved it too, and finished with teary eyes.
Although this isn’t the main point of this post, I’ll say briefly that my reasons for loving it are more or less the same reasons other people have mentioned in reviews and online: that Rooney makes you care about the characters, which is perhaps an unfashionable thing; but also she seems utterly contemporary. This comes partly in the depiction of contemporary attitudes – to relationships, to sex – or rather of the contemporary ways of conceptualizing attitudes that themselves are probably as old as the hills; and also partly in the smooth integration of contemporary technology etc into the narrative, but also in the way the prose seems alive to the texture of life today.
One example: in the Granta extract, teenage Connell’s mother puts the kettle on, something that has happened countless times in realist prose fiction since the invention of kettles, or realism, whichever came first, but this time we get this: “She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch.” And I realise that’s the first time I’ve had a writer notice that that’s how kettles work these days. (Perhaps someone else has used it, but I missed it.) And if Rooney is noticing that, then what else is she noticing about modern life? The kettle moment is like a concrete token offered to reader that encourages them to believe that the more intangible things she’s noticing (do young people really think like that about sex?) are credible also.
Now as it happens I’m off out to my local bookshop shortly to buy a book as a present (in fact it may well be a copy of Conversations with Friends) and so I’m asking myself: should I get Normal People? I’m sure I’ll like it. There is also a definite thrill to buying a new book to read straightaway when I’m not exactly short of other books that I either want to read or feel I should.
But… here’s the thing: it’s hardback, and I don’t want to read Normal People in hardback. Nor do I want to have the hardback of Normal People on my shelves.
Why is this?
Well, there are bad and shallow reasons why I might feel this. She’s a female writer is the most obvious one, and I don’t want to accord her the status of hardback author. She’s a paperback writer, to quote George Harrison out of context. Do I think this? I hope not. Or rather: the status thing is true. Not everything is worth buying in hardback. But I hope that my measuring of her worth doesn’t involve sexism.
Let’s take a step back. Continue reading
Okay, so here’s my pile of books from April. Some can be dispensed with quickly: the Knausgaard I wrote about here; the Tim Parks was mentioned in my March reading, about pockets of time and site-specific reading; the Jonathan Buckley (Nostalgia) was for a review, forthcoming from The Independent; the White Review, though I read it, stands in for the shortlist of the White Review Short Story Prize, which had my story ‘The Story I’m Thinking Of’ on it.
In fact, a fair amount of April was spent fretting about that, and I came up with an ingenious way of not fretting: I read all the other stories once, quickly, so as to pick up their good points, but I read mine a dozen times or more, obsessively, until all meaning and possible good qualities had leached from it entirely, and I was convinced I wouldn’t win. Correctly, as it turned out, though I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the winner, Claire-Louise Bennett’s ‘The Lady of the House‘, the best qualities of which absolutely don’t give themselves up to skim reading online. It’s very good, on rereading, and will I think be even better when it’s read, in print, in the next issue of the journal.
That leaves Jay Griffiths and Edith Pearlman. Giffiths’ Kith, which I have only read some of, I found – as with many of the reviews that I’ve seen – disappointing. Where her previous book, Wild, seemed to vibrate with passion, this seems merely indignant, and the writing too quickly evaporates into abstractions. In Wild, Griffiths’ passion about her subject grew directly out of her first-hand experience of it – the places she had been, the things she had seen, lived and done – and the glorious baggage (the incisive and scintillating philosophical and literary reference and analysis) seemed to settle in effortlessly amongst it. Here, the first-hand experience – her memories her childhood – are too distant, too bound up in myth.
The Pearlman – her new and selected stories, Binocular Vision, I will reserve judgement on. It’s sitting by my bed, and I’m reading a story every now and then. The three that I’ve read (‘Fidelity’, ‘If Love Were All’ and ‘The Story’) have convinced me that she is a very strange writer indeed, and perhaps not best served by a collected stories like this one.
Those three stories are all very different, almost sui generis, and each carries within itself a decisive element of idiosyncrasy that it’s hard not to think of as a being close to a gimmick. They all do something very different to what they seemed to set out to do. They seem to start out like John Updike, and end up like Lydia Davis. Which makes reading them a disconcerting experience, especially when they live all together in a book like this. It makes the book seem unwieldy and inappropriate. I’d rather have them individually bound, so I can take them on one-on-one. Then they’d come with the sense that each one needs individual consideration. More on Pearlman, I hope.
The book that I was intending to write more on, this month, was the Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, which I read quickly (overquickly) in an over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived fug in the days after not winning the White Review prize, which also involved a pretty big night’s drinking.
But my thoughts about Lerner are very much bound up in a problem which is ably represented by the book standing upright at the side of my pile: Elaine Showalter’s history of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers. This was a birthday present from my darling sister, who, if I didn’t know her better, might have meant it as an ironic rebuke that I don’t read enough women writers. Continue reading
The launch of The White Review, the redesign of The Drawbridge, Areté still going strong, not to mention Ambit. With the sense that Granta, although perhaps a stronger magazine than it was a few years ago, is becoming more international, less distinctly British, the gap is there in the market for a replacement. If I want a literary journal to subscribe to, there is no shortage of options, so which should it be?
It turns out that over the last couple of years I’ve been buying single issues of literary and cultural journals, or magazines, or reviews, or quarterlies, or whatever they happen to call themselves, as if, consciously or unconsciously, I’ve been auditioning them for that very role. It’s time to get off the pot and sign on the direct debit dotted line.
Thinking about the precise elements that I’m looking for leads me to think, too, about what role, more generally, journals play in a reading life. You could go back to Puffin Post, or the NME, or 2000AD, but I suppose the moment that a journal really spoke to me with a genuine intellectual thrill was when in my late teens my parents gave me a subscription to Sight & Sound.
Cinema and I have since had a parting of the ways (it is an estrangement too complicated and bitter to go into here – suffice it to say that I look at a magazine like Little White Lies and wish, wish, wish that cinema and I were still friends) but the memory persists. Today, what I want, what I really, really want is a literary/cultural journal that does what Sight & Sound did then; that makes me feel engaged and informed in a way less parti pris than the cultural sections of the newspapers, and less dissipated and frenzied than the internet-based information channels.
I currently subscribe to Granta and McSweeney’s, and they both still get read, if not cover to cover. They are, though, a resource. (The TLS and LRB get read, from time to time, but I can’t store them – I want a journal that can sit on the shelves, and deserves its space on them; that is a usable resource, in short.) And the McSweeney’s are, of course, fantastically designed – distractingly so, even (as I blogged here). But these are essentially journals pushing new fiction (and, to a lesser extent, reportage and memoir.) Both make a point of excluding critical work. Which is fine, that’s their decision, but for my journal – my dream journal, the journal I want to call home – it is a fault. It somehow loosens them from the thread of history. Granta’s themed issues are often impressively urgent, but issue by issue it doesn’t answer to what I would portentously call ‘the spirit of the age.’
That’s what I’m after: the portentously-called spirit of the age.
So here are the magazines/journals/reviews I’ve bought recently, that I felt might fit the bill: Ambit (#203), Drawbridge (#19), Teller (#1), The Moth (#3), Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives (#4) and now The White Review (#1), to which I’ll also add Areté, although I don’t have a recent issue.
Let’s rattle though them:
Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives – this is a poetry magazine, from Norwich, thus I know one or two of the poets. It is impressively though simply designed, with some intriguing black and white illustrations made in response to the poetry. What it does, it does very well, but poetry is not my core interest or concern. So I pass on.
Teller – I blogged about this previously. It is certainly excellent value, especially considering the wealth of colour images, but the balance of text and image isn’t what I want – there is a comparative lack of weight to the prose selections. Moreover, it doesn’t have a spine, so disappears on the shelf. My ideal journal will call out to me as I pass, demand a second glance. A resource must be accessible, retrievable.
The Moth – I had high hopes of this; again it was inexpensive, but again it was stapled, so hard to keep track of on the shelves – in fact I can’t find my copy to write about it now. From memory, though, the fiction, of which there was plenty, was interesting rather than mind-blowing, and the non-fiction was limited to one interview.
Ambit – Ambit comes with a significant pedigree (look at that issue number – it’s been going for over fifty years!) and still upholds its support for the new and untried by refusing to commission anything. Everything it prints is unsolicited. Ambit looks good and feels good in the hand, with some b&w illustration. #203 has one thrillingly good short story (‘The Way We Live Now’ by Paul Goddard) and some equally good poetry, but really it’s the poetry/prose balance that put its out of my sweet spot, plus the only critical pieces are short poetry reviews. A remarkable and admirable publication, to be applauded for so doggedly carrying the torch for experimentation, but it doesn’t tick enough of the boxes for me, right now.
The Drawbridge – Although this is #19 in some ways it’s #1, as this intellectually out-looking journal has just relaunched in a new book-ish format. Previously, it came as a broadsheet newspaper and, I have to say, I preferred it that way. There was something exotic about reading short pieces of fiction and sometimes provocative non-fiction in this format: their length seemed to fit the constraints of the page layout. The new-look Drawbridge is, by contrast, an all-out luxury item – one issue of it costs as much as a year’s subscription to the old – and the artwork is now given proper space, not pressed into proximity with the text like photos and adverts in a newspaper, as previously.
What benefits the visual, however, harms the textual. The size of the page (19x26cm) simply doesn’t suit single column print – there’s too much white space; double column text might work better – and the exuberance of the colour images jumping out between each short stretch of prose seems to dominate proceedings, and suck energy from the words. The great benefit of the photo essay in Granta, by contrast, is that it keeps the visual element strictly constrained.
As for content, The Drawbridge is ambitiously international, with names like David Means, Mario Vargas Llosa, Italo Calvino and Julio Cortázar on the cover of this issue (together with others that I felt I ought to know but didn’t), though two of those are dead, and the Vargas Llosa piece is a squib about fear of flying that would certainly never have got published without his name attached. Such cosmopolitanism does, however, mean that it doesn’t feel particularly British or English – which is not a criticism, just that I’m after something that feels like it’s looking at the world from a particular cultural-geographic standpoint.
The final comment on the journal is that, like Granta, it gives each issue a theme, which to my mind is a demerit. Granta, at least, refuses to limit its themes to a single category (the last four are ‘Aliens’, ‘Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists’, ‘Pakistan’, ‘Going Back’). The Drawbridge sticks to nouns, often abstract (‘Flight’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Action’, ‘Money’) which often seems like a way of hedging their bets – appearing to be adventurous in their editorial process while keeping things vague enough to let any old thing in.
Areté – Another serious contender for the ideal journal, which I occasionally buy and often consider subscribing to. It is intellectually rigorous, with a pleasing balance between fiction and criticism; definitely British in outlook, though hardly parochial; featuring an impressive list of contributors; and elegantly presented, with a defiant lack of qualms about having no visual element whatsoever. If something has stopped me signing on the direct debit dotted line, it is the occasional snarky tone, with its combative ‘Our Bold’ sections and willingness to enter into internecine literary warfare that, though admirable in some respects, can be tiresome for the general reader.
By now I think I’ve worked out the criteria for my perfect literary quarterly:
- content should be largely divided between new fiction and new critical/non-fiction writing.
- visual art and poetry are secondary, and neither is indispensable.
- good design is more important than artwork.
- finally, it should situate itself historically and geographically, should look forwards and backwards in equal measure, should consider the portentously-named spirit of the age, and should do all of this from somewhere that feels rooted in the British intellectual heritage.
All of which is a preamble to the announcement that I have found what I hope will be the journal of my dreams, although, as it’s only at the first issue, that declaration of love could turn out to be drastically premature.
The White Review is a new British-based journal that fulfils all of these personal requirements. The first issue (170pp, 17x24cm – just that crucial bit smaller than The Drawbridge) contains three interviews (Tom McCarthy, Paula Rego and publisher André Schiffrin – whose name they misspell at one critical point) plus an illuminating discussion about cut-up innovator Brion Gysin, two stories, a handful of poems and prose-poems, one photo section with accompanying essay, and five further essays ranging from the critical to the reportage. That balance feels almost perfect to me.
The artwork, of which there is not too much, is all black and white, which I think in the end is preferable to the distraction of colour. The design is superb, with a marbled bookmark carrying the table of contents and an ingenious cover that folds out to form a poster (though its very origami-like beauty means it’s sadly at risk of damage over time, as it gets put in and out of bags, pulled on and off the shelf). At £14 – roughly the same as The Drawbridge but significantly more than £8 Areté – it’s expensive, but feels worth the money.
I haven’t read all of it yet, but everything that I have read was stimulating and felt like it belonged together with the other pieces. The interview with Tom McCarthy, especially, was a pleasant surprise; he came across as less arch than he has in other contexts, and set me happily scribbling notes and graphs into response to his comments about character and narrative. It’s neat, too, that one of the magazine’s two stories, ‘Beyond The Horizon’ by Patrick Langley, gives a nice echo of ‘C’, with its anonymous short-wave radio transmissions pulsing out through a fractured contemporary world.
The editors of The White Review set out their stall by referring to La Revue Blanche, a Parisian review of a century ago that rode the rising wave of Modernism, which epoque they honour with translations of two poems by Rimbaud contemporary Charles Cros (the translations presented, as they should be, alongside the originals). The names popping up in the other essays – George Steiner, Milan Kundera, Primo Levi – and the views taken on post-War German architecture and contemporary uprisings in India, show a cosmopolitan view, though certainly nothing to frighten the horses. Areté perhaps gives a stronger sense of its own, as opposed to a borrowed, or received identity.
Enough. I want to get back to reading, and to writing, which is the point after all. The upshot of my search? Reader, I subscribed to The White Review – though with a definite intention to do the same to Areté when funds become available.