Monday, 31 August 2009

B and Me

Nicholson Baker had ordered me a coffee; it was steaming on the table as I arrived slightly harried from yet another panicked dash across London. I thanked him and apologised for both my lateness and my unfortunate reaction to caffeine. His voice was calming, his beard white against his blushed skin, as he suggested I sat down and poured myself some water. It wasn’t quite enough to steady my nerves.

We were sequestered in a chintzy private room, the kind I imagined being used for interviewing supporting actors in action movies. The sounds from Wigmore Street wafted through an open window and I worried that the sound recording function on my mobile phone would prove to be no match for the atmospherics. I had visions of getting home to find that Baker’s rich, sonorous voice was as clear as mulch at the bottom of a well. But it was all I had, so it had to be okay.

We relaxed into a long conversation about technology, dirty realism, David Foster Wallace, Winston Churchill, European literature, modern American literature, poetry, meter and rhyme, and the importance of voice. I would have liked to have talked longer, such was his erudition and interest; but we’d already had two hours and I had already made him late for a lunch date with his agent. I could have listened to him for another two hours without even realising it.

Nicholson Baker’s prose is exacting, personal and distinct: it is his alone. It seems to me that there is a tiny part of literature to which only Baker has access. Take A Box of Matches. Who else could get away with beginning a novel: “Good Morning, it’s January and it’s 4.17 a.m.”? Who else would want to begin a novel this way? The Anthologist begins in the same manner “Hello, this is Paul Chowder and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” Such simplicity is both deceptive and a hallmark of Baker’s writing: as soon as you open one of his books you are immediately into the action, into the meat of the book. U&I begins with a specific time and a specific image (Baker propped up on blood dotted pillow cases, writing on his keyboard). Each one is a study in what it means to be here now.

When I asked him about this, Baker talked fulsomely, self-deprecatingly about how he writes, and how he struggles with plot and suspense, two key elements of all books, especially in these exalted times when story is utterly key to a book’s commercial viability. Baker’s approach is that of an American channelling the formal and textual inventiveness of European Literature. The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, in particular, are the kind of books one could well imagine Perec and Queneau nodding along to, appreciating their structural limitations and Baker’s ducks and feints to keep the prose alive.

But while Perec and Queneau are rightly lauded for their Oulipo games, Baker remains a marginal figure in American letters. His taste of fame came in the early nineties, when his two “sex” books, Vox and The Fermata, steamed up the bestseller lists. He could easily have turned out similar novels for the rest of the decade, become known as America’s pornographer in chief and as the Updike of Generation X. But instead he turned an increasingly strange corner.

Writing first about the life of a nine-year-old girl, then about a middle-aged writer, then an almost comic-book-style novel-in-voices about a planned assassination of George W Bush, Baker’s novels since 1994 have been diverse creatures, but they retain his slightly unbalanced view of the world, one that can take your breath away with the precision of a sentence, or a phrase’s unusual placement. There is a great moment in The Anthologist when Paul Chowder is talking about Longfellow or another dead poet and after a long descriptive passage he adds, “I miss my mum and dad.” It is so simple; so heartbreaking and it’s entirely typical of a writer who appears not to be trying so hard, but is in fact straining to get to some kind of truth. Perhaps not one he can fathom, but one that it is being hunted out nonetheless.

As we sat in that softly furnished room, I mentioned of my love for Richard Yates, and Nicholson Baker nodded and mentioned how he had fallen under the spell of Revolutionary Road some time in the mid-1980s. A few months after he read it, he found out that Yates drank at this one bar in Boston. Baker plucked up the courage to go to the bar to see him. Yates was drunk and surrounded by a crowd of people. Baker sat with a tonic water watching them, then saw Yates stagger towards the door.

Realising this might be his only chance to speak to him, Baker followed Yates out and a short conversation ensued, one of those fan-to-hero exchanges that are both awkward and strangely beautiful. Yates went off into the night, Baker back to his place. “It’s not much of a story,” Baker said, “but there you go.” To me though, the idea that these two authors, both of whom mean so much, meeting for that one occasion is quite a lot of a story, quite a delightful anecdote. Not because, as you might think, that there was an element of passing on the baton, but of the opposite.

Nicholson Baker’s fiction owes little to Yates, nor indeed to Updike, but these writers inspire him to write – just not like them. This is something important, I feel. Just because you admire or even revere a writer, doesn’t mean that you should feel like you have to follow their lead. What Baker has managed to do – despite, or perhaps because of his clutchbag of influences – over the years is to cultivate a style that could only come from his keyboard.

Baker’s lasting legacy will not be the use of footnotes in fiction – though through the prism of David Foster Wallace’s death, this might be a short term effect – but the importance of finding an identifying, clear and natural voice. No one aims to ape his style, because it would be such obvious theft if a writer attempted it. In his fiction, Baker sets the bar for new writers. You might not appreciate his language, or his strictures, or the characters he writes, but each world he creates is his own, very own. It’s a lesson that all writers should consider, and why Nicholson Baker should become every bit as important and influential as Updike, Roth, Bellow and all the rest of those grand-daddies of American letters.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

What McSweeny's didn't want

A month or so ago, McSweeny's ran a competition to find some new regular columns and columnists. This was my entry, which did not make the top 33 out of 800 or so submissions.

Exit Interviews with People at Culturally Significant Events by Stuart Evers

1. Brief description of the proposed column

Exit Interviews with People at Culturally Significant Events is a series of fictionalised monologues from people present at subsequently important happenings. Without the benefit of hindsight and cultural baggage, we discover the real stories of those who bore witness. All of them made-up, obviously, but authentic to their time.

In length they vary from the longish to the very short – one, for example is just a single sentence – and they would span the twentieth century, taking place in different cities and towns around the world.

2. Exit interviews with people at culturally significant events – full example

Jim Miller, 31.Office Clerk.

The march on Washington for jobs and freedom, August 28, 1963.

It’s not that I didn’t want to go on the march. Marching’s something I’ve been doing a while now and being part of that crowd and making my voice heard, yeah; that’s something that’s important to me, but if I’m honest I was only there because Anita got in a snit with me about it. She told me all about the march, but we’d been invited over to Phil and Janie’s and, well, we don’t get to see those guys quite so much these days. Not since Janie said those things about the Jews and Anita got all tense about it.

Not that I’m saying we only went on the march because of Phil and Janie. I bet Anita would have wanted to go anyway. All’s I’m saying is she seemed far more keen on Dr King once she found out what the alternatives were. And she always manages to talk me round. “We can see your friends any time,” she says to me. “How many chances are we going to get to hear Martin Luther King?” She always sounds logical, even when she’s just trying to get her own way.

We got here by bus. Anita wanted to drive, but I put my foot down. There was no way I was driving with all these people heading downtown. And anyway, there were buses going from a few blocks up anyway, so it made sense. Anita couldn’t argue with that.

The bus was hot as all hell and when it pulled off this man in front of us turned to talk to Anita. He talked to her the whole way to the memorial.


When we got to the meeting point, we both had a sweat on. I was using my hat to fan myself, while Anita stood on her tippy-toes looking out on all the crowds. She made a noise like she’d been thrown a surprise party and all the people she’d ever known had shown up.


Eventually we got to march. The man in front of me had the strongest body odour I’ve ever smelled. He stank like something had died in his shirt. I kept trying to guide us away from him, but no matter what I did, the guy just stayed right there in front of us. Anita was getting annoyed with me for trying to move her away from him, so I gave up and just smoked a bunch of cigarettes to mask the man’s stink.


When we made it to the Lincoln Memorial, Anita started talking to a bunch of guys dressed in faded denims. Beatniks, you could call them I guess, I’ve never really seen a beatnik up close before. I thought they were supposed to be dangerous. The only dangerous thing about those guys was that their shoe laces were untied.

When the speeches started we were a way from the stage and Anita was pretty much totally ignoring me; she was just talking to the beatniks. Once they all turned round and looked at me, then laughed. I tried to front it out, but it was pretty hard with them all smiling and nudging at each other. I got to thinking that if I left now I could probably get over to Phil and Janie’s for a few beers.

I should have felt bad for thinking about leaving my wife like that, but I was mad with her and it wasn’t like I’d done anything wrong save for trying to see my friends and get out the way of a man who stank like roadkill.

I asked her if she wanted to come and get a soda with me and she just said: “Dr King’s on soon. Nelson here says so.”

And then the kid nodded at me, so I told her I needed a drink and walked off.


I did catch some of Dr King's speech, but it was hard to make out all what he was saying. I heard, the “I have a dream” parts and one of the times he said it, under my breath I said “and that’s to find a goddamn soda.” It cracked me up for a moment, but people were looking at me kind of funny. They were all hanging on his every word, and the words drifted left to right on the wind so the people looked a little like crowds at a tennis match. And that just cracked me up even more.

I guess I’ll see Anita back at home. I mean it’s taken me a whole hour to get this far, and I’m still miles away from the buses. And there’s been no sight of any sodas. You know where I can get one?

Thursday, 20 August 2009

When bad reviews are just plain bad

I love reading bad reviews; it’s a guilty pleasure in the truest sense of the word. I don’t for example feel guilty or wrong-headed for enjoying such artistically questionable fare as I-see-dead-people-cop-show Medium, the albums of Take That and the films of Richard Curtis; I do, however, feel ashamed that I enjoy reading someone kicking seven shades of batshit out of someone else’s long sweated-over creative endeavour.

Of those god-awful reviews I’ve enjoyed over the years, the vast majority have concerned books I have either hated or not read. The only book I loved that got a real good pummelling was Being Dead by Jim Crace. And I laughed that off because it was written by hatchet man, Dale Peck, a huffy old queen whose essays on the sacred cows of modern fiction are a sublime, bitchy joy. His reviews are often so hysterical it’s sometimes hard to take them seriously. Which leads us neatly to George Walden’s review of David Peace’s Occupied City.

Let me begin by stating that I am a huge fan of David Peace; but am far from a zealot. He can be confusing, irritating, pretentious, overblown and relentless; what he isn’t, however, is shit. Which is pretty much what George Walden says in his review. He needn’t have gone into 800 words to say it either. He could simply have daubed Occupied Shitty onto a piece of paper using a shitty stick dipped in shit and then faxed it through. Had he done that, I suspect it would have made a far more cogent and far less bitter argument than his eventual piece.

Walden starts by laying into Peace’s “textual tricks and pseudo-metaphysical mannerisms”. So far, so obvious: they can, after all, be wearying and you certainly have to be in the mood for them. If he’d have expressed why he believed these tricks didn’t work, or why they ruined the book for him, I wouldn’t have bothered commenting on it. But he doesn’t, and this is where the problems begin.

What Walden wants is Peace to deliver “the goods on the hallucinatory horrors of postwar Japan”. Which is, I would argue, the precise reason why Peace uses “textual tricks and pseudo-metaphysical mannerisms” in the first place. The fact that the novel has multiple narrators, that events are replayed from different perspectives, that each chapter is written in its own style, using its own textual variants creates a believable world full of those hallucinatory horrors Walden seems to crave. Take away the repetition, the tics and styles and the very atmosphere, tone and feel of this book is destroyed.

Ignoring this seeming contradiction in his argument, Walden – with all the fusty self-importance of an old man at the Saatchi Gallery – sums up Peace’s style by grumbling that “large parts of the book are scarcely readable”. I don’t know what he found so hard about it, to be honest.

Of Peace’s recent books, this is remarkably easy to follow. Compared to Tokyo Year Zero, which had me baffled for the majority of its pages, it is a doddle. But, confusingly, Walden sees TYZ as an easier read, with Occupied City being built on “ponce-worthy proclivities” (just cutting and pasting that phrase makes me somewhat bilious) which were only hinted at in the earlier book. This either suggests to me that he hasn’t actually read Tokyo Year Zero. Or, most likely, he has and he’s hoping that the readers of the review haven’t.

Because the problem with this review is that it’s not really a review at all. It is an 800-word essay on why the modern British cultural world is a moribund, foul and self-regarding morass of drek and garbage. It’s telling that Walden does not even blame Peace for the faults he finds in Occupied City; instead Walden finds fault in our “bloated culture, with its perpetual need for wunderkin­der.”

I expect doddering old giffers to wring their hands about the modern world; it is their function, as important a job as their keeping garden centres in business and the post sacks at the Radio Times and the Daily Mail offices bulging. But what Walden puts forward is so risible that even the members of his local Conservative Club might raise a Denis Healy-sized eyebrow. His argument is that Peace only got praised for his last book because – and it still makes me laugh this – he is Northern, youngish and writes about class.

That’s right, things have changed so much now that young northern white men are the latest pet project of the left-wing media. They are praised to the heavens, patted on the back for their cleverness and in a few years someone will invent a prize for these poor northern men to run alongside the Orange Prize. When the shortlist for the Booker is announced, there will be plenty of Op Ed pieces about the distinct lack of white northern men who made the cut. It might not be a literary response, but come on, for fuck’s sake: what is Walden thinking?

According to Walden, Peace is the victim of his generation; an unthinking writer who only cares what the critics (or his “betters” as Walden lovingly describes them) think of his work. I’m sorry, George, but this is palpably ridiculous. This is the author of eight novels we’re talking about, not some jejune kid fresh out of UEA. He has developed a style, for better or for ill, from the processes in his own mind, from his experiences as a writer of fiction. He’s not some empty vessel waiting for his "betters" to tell him what to do, and to suggest that he is shows a fundamental lack of respect to a writer. A writer, I might add, who is capable of writing some of the most imaginative and innovative fiction of this or any other generation.

But Walden won’t agree with me on that. No. Because all of Peace’s formal invention has been done before. And according to Walden, if something has been done before any writer should not be allowed to do it again. Capital letters in a text – sorry, son, Hubert Selby did that in the 50s. next! Circular writing? Appolinaire, bitch! When Walden writes “Lines crossed out? Done two centuries ago, in Tristram Shandy," I can imagine him shouting “HA!” at a picture of Peace, "how you like that, experimental boy!”

This whole thing is so wilfully negative, so hectoring and smug that it’s easy to lose sight of how good Peace is. The fact is that the textual innovations of Occupied City exist to create a specific effect – not just to prove Peace’s post modern credentials. Walden, however, implies that this isn’t the case and Peace is little more than ticking po-mo boxes (capitals, check; italics, check . . .). Walden is being both disingenuous and unfair; but then he’s only ramping himself up for the final insult.

“Reading Peace," he writes, "can be dispiritingly like watching a naughty YBA lady putting fried eggs on her tits in the belief that it puts her up there with Tristan Tzara. Sad really, all the more because when Peace is not playing at being quirky and original, his work can be much more interesting than that of the YBAs.”

The comparison is unfair, unwarranted and utterly spurious. There is not the remotest link between Peace and the YBAs, But Walden groups them deliberately to suggest that they have similar aims and ambitions. For the second time in the article, Walden implies that Peace is a delusional airhead, his artistic merit fuelled by hyperbole. Which is objectively untrue. And if I was David Peace I would be fucking livid.

When I asked Peace at a recent event whether he ever thought he’d gone too far with the inventive nature of his prose, he said No. That if anything he hadn’t gone far enough. And all I can say is here, here. It is great news – if only so I can read another entertainingly ridiculous hatchet job from the baffling pen of George Walden.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Controversy, Assumptions and Benjamin Black

Controversy in the book trade is a clumsier, slightly grubbier cousin to its counterpart in the real world. It tends to come from something and nothing – a comment taken out of context, usually – and then obsessively rewritten, rehashed and replayed. Whipping up controversy is easy, but underneath there’s usually such a note of desperation that it tends to feel as manufactured as a five-piece boyband from Rotherham. This is where I find myself at the moment: in the midst of what has been described as “controversy”, but feels very little like it.

Last week I reported upon the Harrogate Crime Festival. There John Banville, aka Benjamin Black, explained the difference between writing his crime fiction and his literary work. From his comments, it was possible to infer that he perhaps didn’t take crime writing as seriously as his other work. I then quoted another writer who agreed with this viewpoint, claiming that Banville saw himself as slumming it in crime fiction.

In the wake of this, there have been comments, threads and other discussions about the piece I wrote, both on the Guardian and elsewhere. I should also point out that the piece was actually about how critics and awards need to take more of an interest in crime fiction, rather than sticking the knife into a writer I hugely admire. Either way, the level of articulate debate that mine and other people’s articles has provoked, was both entertaining and very informative.

But then John Banville waded in to set the record straight in the Guardian. Which is when I officially became part of a “controversy”. A rather small, tawdry and flat “controversy”, but one all the same.

In The Week in Books section of Saturday’s Guardian, Banville described Harrogate with the words of a man whose worst fears have recently been confirmed. “A sheep should not venture into a pen of wolves.” He began, clearly identifying himself as the victim of a savagery. It was hard, however, to tell what was so awful about people writing blogs discussing a bad joke he made about Benjamin Black's hopes of winning the Nobel prize. Then he went on to discuss my piece.

“Another blogger,” he wrote, “did a survey among attendees.”

Obviously I was a little bit put out that I was not mentioned by name, and simply referred to as “Another Blogger” – which I suspect means that I am held in the kind of contempt one usually reserves for ineffective cowpokes and cup-and-ball roadside charlatans. But it was Banville’s implication that I had somehow sought out controversy by door-stepping authors – presumably dressed like one of the tabloid pigs from Spitting Image – that really got my dukes up. Especially as I did no such thing.

Over the weekend, I asked a few authors and critics their opinion on his comments, sure; but I didn’t get my clipboard out and ask any passing writer if they had five minutes to share their opinions on downloading music, the extradition of Asperger’s-suffering computer hackers or the likely effects of Booker prize winners writing genre fiction. There was no survey, there never was, nor had I ever intended there to be, which makes Banville’s next sentence all the more needling.

“One of them, Ruth Dudley Edwards, a good writer who should have known better, allowed herself to be quoted as saying that I was slumming it as Benjamin Black.”

It’s the clause “a good writer who should have known better” that gets me. Presumably Banville means that Ruth should have known better than to consort with nefarious bloggers, desperate to find some kind of “controversy” for their next column. It even reads as though he’s forgiving her because she was somehow snared into making these comments. I wonder how Mr. Banville thought I got this marvellous, malevolent quote from Ruth. Perhaps I got her drunk? Maybe I flirted with her in some sort of attempted literary honeytrap? Or perhaps I simply goaded her into making a comment by pretending he’d called her a bad name?

It would have been far more glamorous had any of these been the case. In the end it was a lot easier than that: I simply attended an event called Emerald Noir.

Chaired by the aforementioned Ruth Dudley Edwards, Emerald Noir was a fascinating debate, one that explained how crime writing in Ireland has flourished over recent years and how a mixture of politics, financial meltdown and self deception conspired to make that possible.

During this discussion, Ruth Dudley Edwards turned to Declan Hughes – a crime novelist who once wrote a scathing review of Banville’s Black-branded novella The Lemur in the Irish Times – and somewhat impishly said, “John Banville is slumming it. He says he isn’t, but he is.” then asked him to comment. With the elegance of Chris Waddle in his Marseille-era pomp, Hughes effortlessly side-stepped the question. But it was still hanging in the air as a few hundred people filed out of the auditorium.

In defending his comments – which I have to say Banville has done magnificently well – he has nonetheless tried to make it sound like he was the victim of a targeted muck-raking; of a concerted effort to embroil him in a literary spat. This isn’t the case at all. Except now it is. Or would be if anyone really cared.

And that, to go back to my initial point, is what makes literary “controversy” so damn limp. Even when it’s got sex and suspicion – as the Oxford Professor of Poetry brouhaha earlier this year had in spades – there’s still a sense of so fucking what. I want real controversy. You know, Will Self calling Ian McEwan a talentless spastic. Jeanette Winterson changing her sexual orientation and obsessively stalking Jeremy Clarkson. Zadie Smith writing a wholly inappropriate erotic novel set in Belsen. That kind of thing. Scandal! Controversy! A side to take!
Until we get something like that, I suggest that we put literary controversy into dry dock and leave it there to rot.