Archive | Books RSS feed for this section

The New Literalism

2 Oct

It’s a fairly general trait of encroaching middle age that the world makes less sense and everything becomes more annoying, but I can’t be alone in thinking it’s been a terrible couple of weeks for common sense here in the UK, at least as far as the arts are concerned.

First there was Mantelgate Part 2. I’m calling it “Mantelgate”. I don’t think anyone else did. Mantelgate Part 1 came when Hilary Mantel, author of the amazing Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, wrote a piece in the London Review of Books about Royal women that was misconstrued as an attack on the Duchess of Cambridge by a media desperate to chase the latest storm in a teacup, like Bill Paxton in a shit remake of Twister. Part 2 involved Mantel’s short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Set in 1983 it depicts an incident in which an unnamed narrator – presumably based on Mantel herself – meets an IRA assassin hell-bent on killing the then Prime Minister.

Hilary Mantel (picture from the Telegraph)

Hilary Mantel (picture from the Telegraph)

The story is a fairly whimsical one, and explores the anger Thatcher inspired (and after last year’s hagiography-fest, it’s worth remembering that many people hated her), but which also cocks a snoop at her more comfortably off, suburban critics. It is not a textbook for how one might go about assassinating the late Prime Minister, and yet Tory peer Lord Bell thinks Mantel should be investigated by the police for writing the (fictional) story.

No sooner had that minor brouhaha died down than the Barbican chose to cancel Brett Bailey’s show Exhibit B (pictured at the top), a kind of theatrical installation featuring live performers, about the ugly 19th and early-20th Century practice of so-called “human zoos”, in which black Africans were paraded in front of white spectators as if they were animals. Birmingham-based blogger Sara Myers (who hadn’t seen the work) spearheaded a protest against Exhibit B, claiming it was “racist”, and the Barbican halted the show before it had begun.

Picture from the BBC

Picture from the BBC

Now, in the latest sorry chapter of idiots winning the day, Clacton-On-Sea council have destroyed some graffiti by Banksy (pictured above), because it was deemed potentially offensive and – yet again – racist. That the painting is taking the piss out of the anti-immigration lobby apparently flew over the council’s heads, and it’s worth emphasizing here that they didn’t say it was destroyed because it was graffiti, but because it might cause offense.

While Lord Bell has – so far- proven unsuccessful in getting the police to pay a visit to Chez Mantel, and while both the Banksy work and Exhibit B strike me as a little trite (though, in the case of the latter, it’s hard to form a judgment if you haven’t actually seen it), the three cases all speak of a wider problem; one of idiotic literalism.

It’s one of the hallmarks of a complete clod that he or she can’t tell the difference between art and life. Salman Rushdie learned this the hard way when the Ayatollah Khomeini couldn’t differentiate between a novel and a philosophical tract (not that the latter would have justified a death sentence). If Mantel can be grateful for one thing, it’s that the closest a British conservative (or Conservative) will get to issuing a deadly fatwah is writing an irate column for the Telegraph. 

If they're really pissed off, they'll set Simon Heffer on you.

If they’re really pissed off, they’ll set Simon Heffer on you.

As for the Banksy story, well… it’s graffiti. He must know by now – and hopefully has always known – that the majority of his works are ephemeral, and I always find it galling when some local authority expresses regret at painting over one by saying, “Well, if we’d known it was a Banksy…” An insult to other (and often better) graffiti artists, if ever I heard one.

The Exhibit B case is more concerning, but it once again demonstrates how an uninformed mob can silence artistic expression.

And how the word "privilege" has become the rhetorical equivalent of "no backsies". (Picture from the Guardian.)

And how the word “privilege” has become the rhetorical equivalent of “no backsies”. (Picture from the Guardian.)

The decision to cancel the show may have been the Barbican’s, but that decision was made under pressure and the fear of violent protest, disruption and worse, and all because Myers & Co can’t tell the difference between a work about racism, and racism itself.

If this is the way things are going to be, where do we stop? Do we ban Schindler’s List for its antisemitism, or Nabakov’s Lolita for its hebephilia? In the Mantel case enough people called bullshit for it to come to nothing, but if she had been a conservative author, would she have enjoyed the same level of support? The counter-argument for Exhibit B only came, in the pages of the Guardian and Independent after the show was cancelled. Unless the Left learns to defend freedom of expression, even when it disagrees with what’s being expressed, the literalists will win, and that means everyone else will lose.

“No offence, but…”

14 Aug

No offence

Professional atheist Richard Dawkins was in the news last week, after comments he made regarding the number of Muslim Nobel laureates (10) compared with the number of Nobel laureates to have graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge (32). In typical diplomatic style, Dawkins tweeted, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Now, there are plenty of things that are a little off with this statement. For one thing, limited by 140 characters, it doesn’t go much beyond the level of “snarky dig”. Dawkins didn’t ask why this is, or offer an explanation of why this is. Given his agenda – and he does have one – it’s clear he was suggesting the religion itself holds back scientific research and learning, thus affecting the number of Muslims ever likely to win a Nobel prize. He was also acknowledging, albeit in a way that sounds a little bitchy (again – that 140 character limit affects tone), that Islam’s contribution to science during the Middle Ages was significant.

Predictably enough, there was a backlash. Predominantly left wing pundits the length and breadth of Britain, were up in arms, with Chavs author Owen Jones leading the charge. Dawkins was accused of racism, he responded by pointing out that Islam isn’t a race, the pundits were even more outraged, nothing was resolved, and everyone stomped off home in a sulk, like the aftermath of a particularly fractious game of tag.

What was interesting, however, at least in my time line, was that the majority of those telling Dawkins to shut up weren’t Muslims. The Muslims I follow on Twitter, including the Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hassan and Radical author Maajid Nawaz, may have had a chuckle about Dawkins’s comments, and shared the odd tweet about how the world’s Muslims still hold more Nobel prizes than Richard Dawkins, but they all seemed to agree that within his badly-worded, clumsy tweet there was a grain of truth.

Two, if you include the bit about Medieval Islamic science being awesome.

Two, if you include the bit about Medieval Islamic science being awesome.

It is interesting that with a world population of over 1 billion there have been only ten Nobel laureates, and that only two of those were in the sciences. Of course, there could be many reasons for this. A Euro-American bias, for instance. Or the relative poverty of many predominantly Muslim countries. A scientist would – or at least should – factor all that in before co-opting the bare statistic to make a point. But even when we do factor that in, two Nobel prizes in science seems awfully low, given that some predominantly Muslim countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates) are so insanely wealthy, and their economies so dependent on science and technology.

Of course, it would be slightly odd if only Richard Dawkins were making this point, but the fact is, he’s not. In his excellent book Islam and its Discontents, the Islamic scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb asks more or less the exact same question. Of course, unlike Dawkins, Meddeb gives his argument room to breathe, and makes the point more clearly, but his tone is still one of anger and dismay – not at the Nobel committee, but at his own religion – or, at least, some schools of it – for stifling the sciences. Over on the other side of the Atlantic, the Canadian author Irshad Manji asks similar questions in her book The Trouble With Islam Today. And Meddeb and Manji aren’t alone.

Meddeb and Manji

Meddeb and Manji

It’s predictable that pundits such as Owen Jones should choose to ignore those voices, as they sought to paint Dawkins as a frothing-at-the-mouth Islamophobe. For some on the Left, any non-Muslim criticism of the contemporary practices of Islam counts as Islamophobia, and even when those practices (female circumcision, stoning, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny etc) are so clearly barbaric, they can’t quite bring themselves to condemn them with the same fervour with which they would condemn the troglodytes of the EDL and BNP.

Not long after the Dawkins brouhaha had died down, UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom caused another storm in a similarly-sized teacup when he criticised the UK government for sending billions in aid to “Bongo Bongo Land”. Again, people were “offended”. Bloom himself, looking like Victor Meldrew and almost literally swivel-eyed with bellicose indignation, popped up on Channel 4 News, for an hilariously stroppy interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Buried somewhere inside his pomposity, Bloom actually made one valid point.

Godfrey "Bongo Bongo Land" Bloom, about to storm out of an interview because his interviewer isn't taking the subject of foreign aid seriously.

Godfrey “Bongo Bongo Land” Bloom, about to storm out of an interview because his interviewer isn’t taking the subject of foreign aid seriously.

When told that the Labour MP Rushanara Ali was offended by his use of the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land”, Bloom replied, “She’s a political opponent. We all know the political game.”

Now, ignoring for one moment the fact that Bloom is a bigoted old prick, we should acknowledge that he has a point. Only seconds earlier Guru-Murthy had pointed out to Bloom that “Bongo Bongo Land” invariably refers to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Ali is of Bengali descent. Whatever offence she took couldn’t have been personal; a sleight against her family or her ancestors. And she is an opponent. In effect, she was taking offence – like Owen Jones et al – on somebody else’s behalf.

I would ask, was anyone genuinely offended by Bloom’s remarks? On hearing them, was anyone genuinely upset? Or rather, does his use of the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land” simply confirm what we already know; that UKIP’s members are mostly stuffy Daily Mail readers who play to the gallery, and whose cultural reference points and whose vision of an ideal Britain are all cemented somewhere in the mid-1930s? 

"Things were going swimmingly until this happened..."

“Things were going swimmingly until this happened…”

The point I’m trying to make is that in taking offence on behalf of the people of “Bongo Bongo Land” (and not just ridiculing those who say it) you’re practically admitting that there is such a place, and lending the phrase (and its user) far more validity than they deserve. In defending Islam against any criticism from a non-Muslim, you’re treating Muslims, and the different schools of Islam, as homogeneously and simplistically as the likes of Richard Dawkins and – at the far end of that particular spectrum – Tommy Robinson.

I say all this not as an apologia for Dawkins or Bloom, because neither deserves it. Dawkins has a habit of retweeting anything against Islam without checking who said it, thereby forming a rather queasy alliance with some genuinely unpleasant people, while Bloom is just a fucking idiot. Rather, this is an argument against the far too predictable Twitter mob, which leaps into action, ready to shut the door on a debate, when sometimes those it’s seeking to defend would like that discussion to go further.

The Dangers of Cosy Consensus

7 Jun
Photo from the Guardian.

Photo from the Guardian.

One of the more pathetic arguments bandied about by the far right whenever we’re discussing immigration is that you’re “not allowed” to discuss immigration, that the “liberal, left-wing media” have shut the debate down completely, which is daft because it often seems like our pundits, politicians and think tanks do little else but discuss immigration on a never-ending loop. That said, every so often us lefties will do something that feeds right into that argument, and doesn’t so much give the other side ammunition as hand it the key codes to a nuclear arsenal.

Case in point: The author David Goodhart (that stony-faced chap above). Now, David Goodhart comes across as a bit of an attention seeking git (he’s essentially the thinking man’s Jeremy Clarkson that A.A. Gill clearly wishes he was), but when he was snubbed this year by Hay-on-Wye, I found myself feeling a bit queasy.

Goodhart, you see, is the author of a book, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration, which is apparently largely critical of the UK’s immigration policy in the last 60-odd years. I say “apparently” because I haven’t read it, so can’t comment on the book itself, but it’s been attacked from some quarters and praised in others. Fair enough… Immigration is a contentious and divisive topic. It’ll happen.

If they could read, there's every chance they would love it.

If they could read there’s a good chance these men would love it.

What left me feeling uncomfortable were the reasons Goodhart claims he was snubbed. According to him (and I should point out, this is all coming from Goodhart himself), Hay’s organiser Peter Florence didn’t invite him to the festival because he – that is, Florence – “stands for pluralism and multiculturalism”. Now, leaving aside the fact that “standing for pluralism” suggests one might support the right of views that contradict your own to be heard, the first reason this struck me as a little odd is that the festival is sponsored by The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that isn’t exactly renowned for its Kumbayah stance on immigration.  Here, for example, from last month is an editorial piece claiming immigration has left the UK with “an alarming legacy”. Or here‘s Telegraph blogger (and author of the similarly-themed The Diversity Illusion) Ed West, warning us that taxpayers are funding charities that support immigration. Heaven forbid!

And let’s not even get started on the comments their readers post beneath said articles…

But if we must, this is a pretty good place to get started, right here.

But if we must, this is a pretty good place to get started, right here.

Now I should point out, I have nothing against the Telegraph. The newspaper, its writers and readers are all entitled to their opinions. I actually wrote a blog for the Telegraph back when the internet was still in black and white, and for a while was one of their pet lefties, appointed mainly to piss off their regular readers and rack up plenty of comments.

Writing those blogs and reading the comments people left behind was, more often than not, like peering into a Lovecraftian abyss of insanity, but sometimes, sometimes, someone would disagree with me in terms that were polite, reasonable and considered. I still came away thinking they were wrong, or at least that I was more right than they were, but I could at least believe that they had come to their conclusions after a great deal of thought.

The other thing that struck me was that for many readers having someone spout anything that was pro-immigration, pro-gay rights or pro-welfare state was terrifying. They were used to commenting on articles that were anti-immigration, anti-gay rights and anti-welfare state, and all agreeing with one another in increasingly vitriolic soundbites. To anything else, they had only these words of advice:

“Why don’t you f**k off to the Guardian?”

We later traced 90% of those comments to a PC belonging to this man.

We later traced 90% of those comments to a PC belonging to this man.

They had reached, in their own crazy little way, a point of cosy consensus. In the comments section of the Telegraph they went unchallenged. Is it any wonder so many of them believe the equal marriage bill is undemocratic when, as far as they’re concerned, just about everyone in the country is against it? (In fact, the most recent polls suggest at least 3 out of 5 people in the UK are in favour.)

What bothers me, then, about David Goodhart’s snub is that it seems to imply that there is – or should be – a consensus on topics such as immigration among Britain’s intelligentsia, and that anyone who disagrees should feel the bitter, Siberian winds of exile until they’ve learnt their lesson. What exacerbated this was how little reaction there was from anyone on the Left. Too many seemed to see Goodhart’s inherent gittishness as reason enough for the snub, and his very vocal protests as nothing but sales-savvy attention grabbing.

Exhibit A: He's currently Nos 2 and 3 in Amazon's chart of "Books Popular With People Who Are A Little Bit Racist"

Exhibit A: He’s currently Nos 2 and 3 in Amazon’s chart of “Books Popular With People Who Are A Little Bit Racist”

Now, I can’t really argue with that last point. It’s likely more people have learned Goodhart’s name in the last couple of weeks than ever knew it before, so in that respect he’s pulled something of a coup. But whatever we think of him, his book or his views, somebody should have said something, shouldn’t they? Certainly, if a world-renowned literary event turned away someone with left-wing views simply because they held left-wing views, we would be up in arms, wouldn’t we?

I worry that a liberal way of thinking has become a lazy, default consensus for far too many people; in much the same way that bellicose, ruddy-faced imperialism was Britain’s default system of thought 100 years ago. I worry that whenever that way of thinking is challenged, rather than meet it head on and take it apart – which, let’s face it, isn’t usually that difficult – we’ve begun slamming the door in our opponents’ faces, or sticking our fingers in our ears and singing, “La la la… I can’t hear you… la la la…”

Too often we mistake the fact that our opponents’ concerns shouldn’t matter with the idea that they don’t, and dismiss them accordingly. If someone complains to you that they were “the only white person on (their) bus” the other day (as one of my aunties once did), rather than tell them to shut up and stop being so bloody racist (which, admittedly, is tempting), ask them why it matters, and keep asking them until they either a) Give you a decent answer or b) Realise they’re being a bit silly. I can guarantee, they will almost always work their way around to B eventually, but in doing so they might just have allowed you to see the world through their eyes, and learn a little about why they freak out about that sort of thing. The pair of you will also have entered into a meaningful – and hopefully fruitful – dialogue. What you won’t have done is shut that dialogue down from the word go.

The immigration debate is one without end, and so it should be. The UK’s ability to take in newcomers will never be a constant, and so it’s likely our immigration policy will, like my belt size, forever be in flux, waxing and waning to meet demand. It’s my opinion that the “immigration debate” is actually three different – though interconnected – debates that both the far right and far left confuse with one, i.e. “Race”. In my view, any debate on immigration should at some point splinter off into separate discussions about economics, resources, and social cohesion, and the people having that debate shouldn’t be the likes of us, the ill-informed and hot-headed, but economists, civil servants and sociologists.

That said, if some newspaper columnist, stand-up comedian or telly pundit wants to stick their oar in, that’s their right; but they should all be allowed that platform, when that platform is meant to be one without a political agenda, and not just those whose views match our own. That kind of lazy consensus, in which our opinions go unchallenged, is a one-way ticket to stagnation.

Having said all that, if this was The Sunday Times’ Rod Liddle we were talking about, I’d fully support his being tied to a rocket and fired into the fucking sun.

Death of the Author – ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ by John Kennedy Toole

11 May

Ignatius P. Reilly

It’s taken 4 years since it was first recommended to me, but I finally got round to reading John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I think the reason it took so long is that I’m one of those people who doesn’t respond well to recommendations, particularly with books, and the minute anything becomes a runaway or cult success (Cloud Atlas, The Curious Incident of  the Dog in the Night-Time etc), I react against it as if suffering from some sort of allergy, terrified I might find it over-hyped, or get caught up in the hype and lose all critical objectivity.

As such, A Confederacy of Dunces came to me with an intimidating pedigree. Recommended to me by people, including my partner and fellow writers, whose opinions I value, it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is, by almost all accounts, an American classic.

For the uninitiated, Confederacy tells the story of 30-year-old Ignatius P. Reilly of New Orleans, a corpulent and flatulent behemoth who lives with his long-suffering mother, and when not sponging off her spends much of his time shouting at cinema screens, eating, farting, masturbating, farting and eating. Inspired by the 6th Century philosopher Boethius, Ignatius rages against what he sees as the decadence of modern culture, and in the course of the novel we meet the eccentrics who get caught up in Ignatius’s farcical attempts to turn even the most mundane of jobs into a revolutionary movement; first using his post as admin officer for a trouser manufacturer to stir up civil unrest among the black factory workers, then using his hotdog stand as the linchpin of an attempt to infiltrate the US Army and government with gay men.

"So... Are we doing Y.Y.M.C.A.A. or something?"

“So… Are we doing Y.Y.M.C.A.A. or something?”

Toole wrote the novel while serving in the United States Army in the early 1960s, and spent the remainder of his short life struggling fruitlessly to get it published before his suicide, at the age of 31, in 1969. It was Toole’s mother Thelma who took up the baton and spent the next 10 years sending her son’s manuscript to publishers, agents and authors, finally gaining the attention of Louisiana writer Walker Percy, who was instrumental in getting Confederacy published in 1980. It became a cult hit, and has enjoyed a loyal, committed fan base ever since. But what of the novel itself?

I should point out that before reading it last week, I’d made one other attempt2 or 3 years back, but gave up, finding it just too misanthropic. Friends had told me this was one of the funniest books I would ever read, but between the over-the-top dialogue and hyperactive slapstick I sensed a deep and bitter hatred, something angry and unpleasant, that overshadowed the comedy. As genuinely funny and broadly comic as Confederacy often is, knowing its author committed suicide in despair stained the comedy with something much more tragic.

Now that I’ve read the thing cover to cover, I’m unshaken in my belief that Confederacy is a tragic work. Tragic because of its situation – Ignatius is a parasitic and grotesque man-child who leaves a trail of chaos in his wake. But tragic too, because it feels unfinished. The story I often hear of its publication history is that here was a case in which those who read Toole’s novel before his death clearly got it all wrong. It’s a work of genius, and they were fools not to see it the first time around. If only they had recognised his talent while he was still alive etc…

"Also... Why is there no justice in this world?"

“Also… Why is there no justice in this world?”

My feeling is that each and every person who rejected Toole’s novel, as it stands, was right to do so. The tragedy of A Confederacy of Dunces is not that publishers failed to recognise its genius, but that the author didn’t live to work with an editor bossy and skillful enough to whip the thing into better shape. Instead what we have is a novel with many colourful and well-realised characters, funny situations and the occasional gem of dialogue, all-but-buried beneath mountains of meandering plot, needless repetition, and grindingly clumsy changes in point of view that make it feel more like a polished and very promising first draft than a finished novel.

If there was ever a book that challenges the whole Barthesian concept of the “Death of the Author” (i.e. the principle that we should separate a work completely from its author’s biography) it’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Here, it’s impossible to separate author and work. The work exists in its current state precisely because of its author’s depressive personality and his premature death. A less anxious, less depressive writer may have gone back to the drawing board and either reworked his unpublished novel or begun something else. An author less dead would have had the opportunity to do both.

Harsh, but true.

Harsh, but true.

Having said all this, we can’t and shouldn’t dismiss A Confederacy of Dunces as something over-hyped, because there is still so much to love about it. The characters, as already mentioned, often leap off the page. The novel’s opening and climactic chapters are fine examples of prose farce, so much tauter and more finely tuned than its flabby midriff, proving that Toole was more than capable of disciplined and carefully-structured storytelling. It is a shame, then, that his death (and again, we have to keep coming back to it) all but ruled out anyone going in there and hauling out the padding; all those dialogues that go nowhereor the supporting characters who feel sketchy and half-formed compared to so many of their co-stars.

As enjoyable as A Confederacy of Dunces undoubtedly is, it seems to me unlikely a novel in this state by a living but previously unpublished author would have seen publication; even more so that it would have won the Pulitzer. If we read A Confederacy of Dunces without bearing any of this in mind, we’re left with something very interesting and very funny but also very, very flawed.

The Art of Recycling

1 Apr

Shining Typewriter

There’s a kind of hubris that can kick in when you’ve had something published, and when a publisher asks you for a second or even third book, whereby you assume you’ll never produce an unpublished manuscript ever again. Gone, you think, are the days when you’ll toil away at something for weeks or even months, and nothing will come of it. Those days are consigned to the dustbin of The Difficult Years.

"Weirdly, though I'd grown up my life was still narrated by the guy who narrated my 1960s childhood..."

“Weirdly, though I’d grown up my life was still narrated by the guy who narrated my 1960s childhood…”

Well, to put it bluntly, bollocks.

I’m sure there are probably full time writers out there who don’t throw away or abandon as much work as I have in the last couple of years, the ones lucky enough to have too many commitments and deadlines to waste time on anything that isn’t going anywhere, and when I’ve been at my busiest I’ve thrown very little away, but the more time and freedom you have, I can almost guarantee the more scrapped and abandoned work you’ll accumulate.

"Hmph. This pirate porn is going *nowhere*."

“Hmph. This pirate porn is going nowhere.”

It isn’t fashionable, among writers – or among anyone who works freelance – to admit you’re in a fallow patch, or that you’re not all that busy. Like Peter Gallagher’s character in American Beauty, we believe that in order to be successful we must project an image of success, so for pity’s sake DON’T ADMIT YOU SPENT THE WHOLE OF YESTERDAY IN A ONESIE, WANKING AND EATING CHEERIOS FROM THE BOX.

It's tough producing that tricky second album.

It’s tough producing that tricky second album.

But I’m pretty sure most people get them. The quiet spells. In fact, those quiet spells are probably the luxury (and they are a kind of luxury) of two types of writer: The ones who are doing okay (I fall into that bracket), and the ones who are ridiculously successful and only have to write a book every three or four years to keep afloat. If you fall into either group, you have time, and having time means you have the time to make mistakes.

"Wait, I've got it. Pride & Prejudice 2: More Proud, More Prejudiced."

“Wait, I’ve got it. Pride & Prejudice 2: More Proud, More Prejudiced.”

I first realised this when I went from working full time for an Evil Bank (coughcoughcoughLloydscough) to part time, back in 2009. Before then I’d written everything I’ve had published (which at the time consisted of four novels) in the evenings and on weekends. If I had a particularly challenging deadline I might book a week off work and write the bulk of it then. In 2009, much to my enormous relief, I was awarded a bursary that enabled me to work on a single project for half the week, while still keeping one foot in the Evil Corporate Puddle.

The resulting novel was a 150,000 word behemoth; bloated and patchy and not particularly well written. I took the writing of it very seriously, but put all my effort into the wrong things, like research (I even travelled to New York to research some of it), rather than character and story. I sent it off to a few agents far too early when it was still very much a work in progress, and got nothing but (perfectly justified) rejections in return.

I say "rejections". Some weren't so kind.

I say “rejections”. Some weren’t so kind.

Feeling a little wounded, I filed that manuscript away, and in the summer of 2010 began work on something else, and that “something else” ended up being Ibrahim & Reenie, which is published by Seren Press this autumn. (Yes… The shameless self-promotion starts here.) Though the first draft was written in a couple of months, I spent maybe 18 months reworking it until I was happy, my confidence a little shaken by having previously produced 150,000 words of almost pure rubbish.

Since then, and having found a publisher for Ibrahim & Reenie, I’ve written two more novels, one fairly long and the other very short, and it’s doubtful either of them will ever see the light of day, because they – like that 150,000 behemoth – just aren’t very good. They’re better than the behemoth, but both too flawed. They were more writing exercises than serious projects; me trying out a few new things and challenging myself. In between writing those abortive novels I’ve also written a few short stories, and they too will never be published, because they’re just not good enough.

Oh, Robin Hood 2086AD... One day your time will come.

Oh, Robin Hood 2086AD… One day your time will come.

In total, since 2009 I must have written close to 400,000 words that will never be published, at least not in their current form, and that would be the most depressing thing I have ever heard (other than, you know, stuff about plagues and war) if it weren’t for the fact that I didn’t throw those manuscripts away or burn them, because there never was a manuscript, at least not physically. Those unpublishable novels and short stories are saved on the hard drive of my PC, just sitting there like so many rusting Ford Cortinas in a junkyard. And the thing is, even though the engines may be shot and the wheels are missing, there are still parts that can be reused.

One of the short stories, for instance, has formed the basis of a novel that I’m working on right now, a project I’m quietly confident about and which is going very well so far (he said, touching wood-effect formica). There are whole chunks of it that I can copy and paste into the new work, amending character names where necessary, and polishing it up a little. It feels weirdly fraudulent (almost like plagiarism, even though it’s my own work), but also insanely satisfying, knowing that the time and effort didn’t go to waste, and I suppose if there’s a moral to this story for any struggling writers out there, it’s just that:

The time you spend working on the stuff that goes nowhere is never wasted.

If something didn’t work, ask yourself why it didn’t work, and bear it in mind next time. If something only works in part, remember it exists, file it away, and strip it down for parts at a later date. Maybe there’s a scene you really liked, or a character who was great, or even just a sentence or a description that was a diamond in a hill of dung. Either way, if it wasn’t published you can use it again and no-one will ever know.

Wait just one goddamn minute...

Wait just one goddamn minute…

Stuff I Love – 4: Short Novels

30 Jan

Animal Farm

I’ve just finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, having received it as a Christmas present in 2011 and started reading it in November of last year. I’m neither ashamed nor embarrassed to admit it’s been a slog. An eight-hundred-and-eighty-nine page slog. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great moments, and beautiful observations but fucking hell… Eliot doesn’t half fall in love with the sound of her own voice sometimes.

At one point the heroine, Dorothea Casaubon, is meeting Rosalind Lydgate, the doctor’s wife. They shake hands and size each other up, and this lasts a page and a half. No dialogue, no action (other than the handshake), and yet it drags on, and on. And it’s not the only time she does this. The whole novel is padded out with page-long paragraph after page-long paragraph of waffle in which characters stand around in rooms not doing anything.

"How much longer can this continue?" "For at least another three pages, I imagine."

“How much longer can this continue?”
“For at least another three pages, I imagine.”

Still, enduring reading Middlemarch made me realise how much I enjoy short novels and novellas. For one thing, by definition the writer has to practice restraint, selecting carefully what he or she chooses to put in. There’s no room in the novella for a handshake that lasts a page-and-a-fucking-half (caustic sideways glance in the direction of George Eliot). You have to cut to the chase.

Here, then, are five great short novels. They’re not necessarily my top 5 (I’ll probably think of another five the minute I’ve posted this) but they are all wonderful, and demonstrate just how much can be achieved in 30-40,000 words.

1) Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

This one needs little or no introduction, as it’s been adapted and riffed on so many times it’s become a kind of cultural shorthand for a certain kind of story, but it’s really worth revisiting the original novella. For one thing, of all the 19th Century gothic mysteries and romances that went on to become big screen horror movies, Jekyll and Hyde is without a doubt the best written; tighter and more atmospheric than Frankenstein, and infinitely more edgy than the occasionally leaden Dracula.

The descriptions of a mist-enshrouded London at night (inspired, most likely, more by Stevenson’s native Edinburgh than London itself) are second-to-none, rivalling even Our Mutual Friend era Dickens.

2) The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886)

Ivan Ilyich

I read this a while back as a kind of taste test. Much of Tolstoy’s work (namely Anna Karenina and War and Peace) is so weighty, I didn’t want to embark on either novel without knowing if I’d actually like his style. As such, Ivan Ilyich is the perfect entry level text for anyone interested in reading him. All his major themes are here – bourgeois hypocrisy, the benefits of an ascetic life over one of money and possessions – but condensed down into this bitter little satire.

Tolstoy has a weakness for sadism with his characters at times, especially those he holds in contempt, and Ivan Ilyich is no exception. Though the title makes it sound morbid and depressing (and yes… it often is), there’s a vein of tar black humour running through it that makes it very readable and – if it’s the right word – entertaining.

3) The Spider’s Web by Joseph Roth (1923)

Hitler

Originally published as Das Spinnennetz, Roth’s short and terrifying novella was one of the first works of fiction to deal explicitly with the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the very first to mention Hitler by name. It tells the story of a young man’s rise to prominence within the Far Right, following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I.

The Spider’s Web gives an intense, and often hallucinatory insight into the mind of a paranoid and antisemitic fascist. It’s an incredible work which unsettled me for days after I’d finished it. One of those works that is so prescient it feels like it must have been written years after the fact, with the benefit of hindsight.

4) Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

Animal Farm

Often viewed as a kind of little brother (some pun intended) to Orwell’s later masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm is, I think, the more successful satire. Yes, his story of Winston Smith and Airstrip One is, perhaps, the more mature work (even if Orwell’s characters are still a little paper thin), but it’s big idea – that the political corruption of language is a dictatorship’s primary weapon – is often lost on contemporary audiences, who see it more as a piece about state voyeurism, or big government, or libertarianism, or the Nanny State, or whatever mast they want to nail it to.

It’s hard to mistake the message in Animal Farm, and okay so perhaps it’s a little on the nose, but that’s kind of the point. I first read it when I was about 12 or 13 and it was the first time I realised a book could make you think about things beyond the book itself, that even a story about a bunch of farmyard animals could make you look at the world a little differently.

The very fact that Nineteen Eighty-Four is now set in a past-that-didn’t-quite-happen hasn’t diminished it, exactly, but it has made it seem almost a period piece. Animal Farm, on the other hand, despite its allusions to Stalin and the mid-20th Century Soviet Union, is timeless, a parable to forever warn us against despots masquerading as freedom fighters.

5) On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)

On Chesil Beach

I read this one not long after reading another short novel of McEwan’s, the Booker-Prize-winning Amsterdam, and I’m glad I did. Amsterdam is pretty bloody dreadful. Well written, yes, but with a predictable, screwball farce plot, weak and unconvincing characters, and an ending that made me groan. As a result, I approached On Chesil Beach with caution, but I was blown away.

It’s set in the early 1960s (or, as Philip Larkin put it, “between the end of the Chatterley ban / And The Beatles’ first LP”), and details the nail-biting build up to a young couples’ honeymoon, in the days when many couples still had little intimate knowledge of one another until they were married.

I can’t really say much, because anything I do say is likely to rob the book of some of its power, but it’s very moving, very short and very sweet, and restored my faith in McEwan completely.

_____

So there you have it. Even now, I can think of another five I could have written about (The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Mist, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Death In Venice, A Clockwork Orange etc) but I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy any of the above.

In Praise of Editors

2 Jan

And so the supermarket shelves swap half-priced mince pies for Cadbury’s Cream Eggs, and the Quality Street tins of  Great Britain are down to the toffee fingers and coconut eclairs.

Seriously. You'd think they were made out of poo, or something.

Seriously. You’d think they were made out of poo, or something.

Yes… Christmas is over. The year is no longer quite so new. Everyone is back in work.

Well, almost everyone. I’d like to say I’m right back to the grindstone, hammering away at the keyboard like Jessica Fletcher on a cocktail of Sunny-D and blue Smarties, but the New Year finds me in that weird place between projects: All but finished on the novel that’s out in October, just finished a (very rough) first draft of another novel and in the planning stages of another novel (or possibly a play… haven’t decided yet) with an enormous  stack of reading to do as research.. Yes… January 2013 is off to a procrastinatory start, and as such I’m filling those hours when I should be working, or reading, or doing something, anything productive with far too much Facebook.

Kittens.

Pictured: Not work.

This morning, while browsing idly through all those pictures of kittens and passive aggressive “If you don’t ‘like’ this you’re a heartless c**t” links, I saw that my fellow writer and I’ve-met-her-once-in-real-life acquaintance Sarah Pinborough posted a status update in praise of good editing. It reminded me of a conversation I had with another writer friend, Gary Russell back in November, in which this very subject came up.

You see, editors have been coming under a lot of flack lately. The boom in e-books and self-publishing and the insane success of Twilight-fan-fiction-turned-bonkbuster Fifty Shades has led some to question the traditional way in which novels are published. In an interview with The Daily Mail, children’s author G.P. Taylor claims that as well as cutting out the “middle man” financially, self-published authors, “(Can) really choose what to write and are not held back by the whims of (their) editors”.

Pictured: Writing that hasn't been subjected to an editor's "whims". (From 'Shadowmancer' by G.P. Taylor)

Pictured: Writing that hasn’t been “held back by an editor’s whims”. (From ‘Shadowmancer’ by G.P. Taylor)

Now, first of all, I should say this isn’t an attack on self-publishing. The publishing world can seem byzantine to a newcomer, and littered with all kinds of hoops you have to jump through. Thanks to the current economic climate many literary agents are a little risk averse and disinclined to give the time of day to anything that falls outside what’s tried and tested. (One agent told me a novel I’d written was “too gay”. Having since reread it, I can confirm it was actually “too shit”, so perhaps he meant “gay” in the way teenagers and Chris Moyles use it.)

What’s more, I know of self-published writers whose work is both successful and well-written. Though I’ve never quizzed them on it, I can only imagine they have incredible powers of self-criticism, or very shrewd and forthright friends who are more than willing to give them honest, detailed feedback.

Or tell them if they've been "dirty birdies".

Or tell them if they’ve been “dirty birdies”.

Ultimately, that’s all an editor is. If they’re doing their job properly, he or she will be the best friend your Project has. You are not your Project’s friend. You are its parent. Every writer I’ve spoken to goes through alternating stages of loving and loathing the latest thing they’ve written in the months after finishing a first draft, as if suffering from a kind of postnatal depression, even when they haven’t rewritten a single word.

"I hate you! I hate you! Oh, wait... Actually, Chapter 3 was pretty awesome. Crap."

“I hate you! I hate you! Oh, wait… Actually, Chapter 3 was pretty awesome. Crap.”

A second pair of eyes is invaluable, and not just for proof reading. A great editor will spot  the chapter which is exactly the same, in terms of plot development and purpose, as an earlier chapter. You didn’t see it, because you were really pleased with the writing in both. Perhaps one chapter contained a lovely metaphor while the other had cracking dialogue. Your editor will see that you could cut one chapter without losing a thing. And hey… Maybe that nice metaphor will fit nicely in the other chapter, in which case, all is saved.

Or how about the three pages in which you describe a storm-tossed sea so beautifully? Man, you were on fire that day. You’d drunk, like, 8 cups of coffee and you’d been reading Moby Dick lately, so… you know… that stuff is pretty intense. There’s no way your Project would work without it.

Except it totally would, and what’s more, when you’ve trimmed those 600 words about “surging hollow roars” and “jets of vapor”, you won’t come across like a pretentious sixth former aping Herman Melville.

"Except in my novel the whale is actually a metaphor."

“Except in my novel the whale is actually a metaphor.”

But hey… It’s not all about cutting. How about the scene in which your protagonist is left waiting at the train station by his or her beloved, and they realise they’ve been jilted? Right now it’s, what… 400 words? You thought it would be cool to do it with a minimum of fuss and decoration, like Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, but your editor reads it and thinks it lacks oomph. (And yes, “oomph” is a technical term.) You add another paragraph, and suddenly it’s amazing. And it wasn’t your editor who wrote that paragraph, it was you, it was in you the whole time; your editor just coaxed it out of you.

Much like this.

Much like this.

Of course, even if they’re brilliant there may be times when your editor is just plain wrong. The onus is then on you to demonstrate why they’ve misread or misinterpreted something, but that’s the very essence of the author-editor relationship. It’s a dialogue that’s carried out with one purpose and one purpose alone: To make your Project as good as it can possibly be. Your editor is not a thwarted, envious rival out to sabotage your work or make it their own; they wouldn’t forge much of a career for themselves if they were. If you’re serious about your work, that dialogue can actually be enormous fun. For one thing, it breathes new life into something you may have been working on for years. 

Anyway… I’ve a meeting with my editor in a couple of weeks, so I’m sure that I’ll have to reread all this when I get that first round of notes. Because, of course, your first reaction when reading an editor’s notes isn’t, “My, what fun!”, but “Why can’t these Philistines recognise inarguable genius when they see it?” That’s your first reaction. The trick is to go away, make a cup of tea, and come back to the notes about 30 minutes later. Suddenly, like Keanu Reeves seeing a world made out of little green zeros and ones, you’ll see through your “inarguable genius”, gobble up some humble pie, and get rewriting.