Thursday, 28 October 2010

Befriending Bruce Chatwin

My best friend and I met at university; or more accurately we met in the bars and clubs of the city where we were supposed to be studying. He cut, as he would later say, quite an extraordinary figure: especially on the dance floor where his exuberance and enthusiasm for everything from Pavement to the Pet Shop Boys was exhausting even to watch. I did not like him; nor he me. We barely ever spoke to each other, and would eye each other suspiciously when in small groups.

It was, however, a lazy enmity: later we would tell the story of our friendship as though in those early years we had hated each other. We didn’t. We circled each other, shared friends and tended to admire the same kind of girls, but we were standoffish rather than rude. My perception of him – loud, attention-seeking, a little childish – was both absolutely on the money and hopelessly off mark. I had rushed to judgement, and regret those years of antipathy: they are lost to us now, and though well over a decade has passed, I do wish that I had got to know him sooner, rather than the later we subsequently found ourselves in.

The experience of this friendship has made me somewhat tardier to make judgements on people I meet; less inclined to form an opinion and stick to it. But in terms of reading, I am stuck – like my nineteen-year-old self – with trenchant beliefs about writers and their works. This I seem unable to shake. There are two pillars to my snap judgements: writers I have read and disliked, and writers I have heard about and feel certain I would dislike.

The first is a difficult one to get over. Like spending a dreadful, soul-sapping evening with a newly found acquaintance, reading an author for the first time and hating their work is hard to forget. My distrust and violent reaction to Martin Amis is forged in my experience of Money – a book that should have come protected in rubber, the amount of times I threw it to the floor. No matter how many people tell me that London Fields or Dead Babies is worth reading, no matter how many times I read one of his essays (particularly his early work) I just can’t get past that first introduction. Money has its moments, but only in the same way that a date seems to be warming to you, or you to them, only for your companion to call you a fat, worthless bellend as the coffee’s poured.

The second category is much the worse however. These are writers whose reputation precedes them and before even touching one of their books, I feel I know what’s going on inside. Hearing academics, critics and writers talk about the genius of Henry James has made it impossible for me to even imagine picking up one of his novels; Howard Jacobson’s public persona has put me off his work so much that I couldn't even get past 40 pages of The Finkler Question; Norman Mailer’s wearying masculinity proved a block to ever getting to grips with Harlot’s Ghost or The Executioner's Song., Hemingway, ditto.

Up until about a month ago, the first name on that list of pre-judged authors would have been Bruce Chatwin: a writer, so it always seemed to me, so linked to his untimely death, so pored over and prodded in biographies and letters, so aesthetically concerned and cold, so full of the privileged musings travel bores inflict on interminable parties, that I could never countenance reading any of his slim output. How that changed is, like the start of all good friendships, hard to pinpoint.

I was having one of those moments where reading had become taxing. There was a stack of new and seemingly interesting books piled up in the living room, but nothing really stood out. I had a debut novel to review, but had plenty of time to file, so I spent a few minutes before setting out for work scanning shelves, picking out titles and putting them back. My bookcases are still confused after a recent move, so things were not aligned as usual. In one of the haphazard piles on the shelf, I noticed Utz, Chatwin’s last novel, published in 1988. It was a Picador copy that I barely remembered owning, and the jacket was old-fashioned and somewhat nicotine stained. But it seemed to fit with what I was looking for: something elegant, slim and hopefully diverting.

I read most of Utz on a steely, rain-suggestive afternoon outside of a pub in Hull. Unlike the northern weather, it came as something as a surprise. This was a novel of rare grace and skill, of precise descriptions, of Jewish folklore, Communist state control and the mania for collecting. There is humour too, a wry eye for the absurdities of people’s lives both hidden and lived in the collective gaze of the world. It was bewitching in a way that I had not expected, effortless in its literary chicanery, and crowned with a conclusion steeped in mystery. There is little in the way of plot – it essentially boils down to the attempted discovery of the location of the eponymous Utz's cache of rare porcelain figurines – but that is immaterial when the quality of the prose is as refined as Chatwin’s.

For so many years, to me Chatwin belonged to a group of writers I just felt were not for me – Naipaul for one, Paul Theroux another. But Utz put me more in mind of Sebald; a sense that the novelistic form just wasn’t quite enough for Chatwin. The first impression was, as with my best friend, the wrong one: but with books, time is more forgiving. They always give you a second chance.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Why sick jokes matter

Over at the Guardian there’s one of those predictably contentious blogs about language and its uses. Kira Cochrane’s article – eloquent and well-written, if too anecdotal to really prove her thesis – charts the supposed rise in the use of rape allusions, metaphors and jokes, citing boxers, gym members and comedians as evidence of this pernicious linguistic trend. You probably don’t have to bother reading the comments below the line to imagine the kind of responses it’s generating: handwringers on one side, oh-just-get-over-its on the other; misogynistic comments followed by men-hating responses, both providing pretty good reasons to hate men and women with true equality. The one thing that did surprise me, however, was this reaction to it from Virago books’ twitter stream: “Sexual violence needs our attention, it's NOT to be made light of, thus detracting from its horrifying true nature”

Yesterday I met my friend Nikesh Shukla for a quick, post-work beer. I’d recently read his smart and funny debut novel, Coconut Unlimited, and we quickly got down to talking about humour and jokes and why they were important. Nikesh’s writing brims with gags, with puns word play and self-deprecation, and in the book he lets his inner 14-year-old run riot over invented rap lyrics that are both hilarious and also full of gangsta violence clichĂ©. I can’t recall any rape gags in there, but it wouldn’t be entirely out of place if there were, considering there are references to Fred West and various other types of violence. As a satire both of teenage exuberance and rap's strut and posture, these sections of the book are spot on: according to those that share Virago’s midset however, they should not be allowed.

What this standpoint seems to ignore is that humour is one of the very most important parts of being human. Laughter, whether in the dark or not, is vital for successful human interaction; the ability to see the funny side a pre-requisite for surviving the modern world (just as it was for the ancient). Watch any group of people for long enough and sooner rather than later there will be laughter. Observe a bunch of strangers gathered together for the first time and wait as they lurch towards their first joke or humorous anecdote. It is the absolute default position: laughter is a facilitator of communication, a shared experience that can create a bond almost instantly. Without it, our basic humanity is incomplete.

The attempt to limit the palate of what is acceptable to joke about and what isn’t is doomed to failure because of this. The need, the compulsion to laugh means that the only real limitation is what others consider to be funny. To this current generation, weaned on Little Britain and Catherine Tate and not party to the political correctness that necessarily informed my childhood in the mid-eighties, words simply don’t have the same power. In Coconut Unlimited, the narrator Amit can’t bring himself to use the ‘N-bomb’ when rapping along to a Nas record; I can’t imagine a 14-year-old having the same reticence these days. Lenny Bruce has got his wish, but whether he’d be pleased at devolving the meaning of every word rather than just that one racial epithet is rather moot.

We seem to like our jokes cancer black. This is a relatively recent sea-change, and one that will no doubt move on in time. Mock the Week is probably the biggest British comedy show on television and exists solely to give a light studio ambience to nasty, mean-spirited jokes about any given subject. Frankie Boyle can sell out stadia across the country with jokes about Downs Syndrome and alcoholism and haunted vaginas; Jimmy Carr with his rapid fire, Bob-Monkhouse’s-evil-twin schtick does likewise. They have an audience who wants to be shocked, who wants to be able to laugh at anything and everything. The sense that they can go too far at any one point is what makes their acts tick.

Neil Hamburger, whom I saw recently, takes this to an even further extreme. Drink soused, greasy haired and hiding behind thick spectacles, he appears as a relic from a bygone age: the old-fashioned comedian, the middle act on a bill of several. But through a subtle and initially imperceptible sleight of hand, he shows you a man on the edge of serious breakdown. His delivery is a perfect shouted drawl, his one liners crude and surreal. But though the jokes are funny in their own right (assuming that you find his brand of savagery funny, which is by no means assured) it is the between-gag tics that become increasingly interesting. Hamburger seems to weep as he lurches from one celebrity baiting quip to another, checks the note-cards in his pocket and grimaces as he reads the next joke he has queued up, sometimes even saying ‘oh my god’ as he reads them. The inference is clear; Hamburger’s only way of surviving is to adapt to what the audiences want – and what they want is his sickest, most depraved imaginings. He is sickened by himself, but he is more sickened by a culture that actually wants to listen to this stuff.

Pushing the boundaries of taste is hardly a new thing, and neither is it a problem. The very fact that we shouldn’t be joking about rape is what gives it the ability to be funny. There is a great moment in the film The Aristocrats where the comedian Gilbert Gottfried attempts to do a routine about 9/11 a few weeks after the towers fell. The audience shout him down with the immortal line: ‘Too soon’. The reaction is interesting. They are not saying never, but quickly proving Woody Allen’s equation, Tragedy + Time = Comedy. If an audience of New Yorkers can reach a consensus that there is a point in which jokes about the biggest terrorist attack on their shores becomes acceptable, it surely proves that jokes about rape – or anything else for that matter – should only be censored internally, based on the reaction of those to whom you are trying to make laugh.

This can lead to misunderstandings, however. You could use this, for example, to explain away the telling of racists gags to bigots. Except there is a big difference between rape or child abuse jokes and that of a systematic put down of a race of people based on their skin colour. No one who tells a joke that actively encourages rape or sexual abuse of children is ever going to get a laugh. It’s not possible to raise a smile from that, there is no point in telling it. It’s almost as if these jokes come with their own in-built parameters: this far and no further. Racist or homophobic jokes, however, play into a more deep seated line of behaviour. There are enough people in this country who are casually racist, or even vocationally so, to laugh along and be on the side of the comedian. A racist joke plays on stereotypes and on the innate suspicion of the other; a sick joke like Jimmy Carr’s 'I bought a rape alarm because I kept on forgetting when to rape people’ is based around taking a taboo subject and making it sound ridiculous.

Confining comedy to subjects fit for jokes is an act of both societal and cultural vandalism. What would Macbeth be without the dark jokes about brewers droop? Philip Roth’s finest hour, Sabbath’s Theater, would be a limp dick without the brutality of his humour; American Psycho would run to about fifty pages of brand names and soft rock tributes. Like life, truly great works of fiction need humour; not necessarily belly laughs, but an understanding that humour underpins our existence. Beckett understood this; Orwell, despite all his many gifts, did not.

The critical nature of humour is underplayed both in life and in fiction; but most especially in fiction. There are always laughs, no matter how bleak the situation and it’s the novelist’s responsibility to recreate life in its entirety. To ignore the human need for laughter is to present a purely partial view of human life – and to ringfence aspects of life from this process, as Virago suggests, is both wrong-headed and hugely restrictive.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Proof of the Novel

The first advanced reading copy of a book I was ever given was Tourist by Matt Thorne. It was a flimsy blue thing, thin and the text still had the editor’s annotations in the margins. I liked the fact that a decision had been taken to change a character’s name and it was there for all to see; I liked the fact that I was reading something before anyone else had a chance more, however. It was the beginning of not quite a love affair, not quite an obsession: but still proof copies do something to me that even the most beautiful of books can’t quite muster.

Yesterday, the proofs arrived for Ten Stories About Smoking. A pair of them arriving on a bike from North to South West London. I held the parcel for a while and suppressed the urge to rip open the package right there. This was something that required some reverence, some quality time. So I headed to a bar which I knew would be empty and ordered a beer before opening the jiffy bag.

The proofs came in a red jacket, the usual Picador style of Times New Roman title and author. They were stunning; astonishing. I read one forgetting that I’d actually written the words inside. I thought about my bookshelf at home, the shelf which holds all the Picador proofs I’ve accumulated over the years. The uniform design meant that my book would not look out of place next to Don Delillo or John Banville, Cormac McCarthy or Tim Winton. It would fit right in, part of a strange kind of set.

The best proof copies are the ones that are designed this way. Jonathan Cape has been doing the same thing for years. Jacket images, finishes, unusual fonts are great ways to hook people, but with advance copies you get to see those books naked: there are no clues to be gleaned. The only thing you’re left with is a blurb and the text itself and that is oddly liberating. The decision to read is based therefore only on your reaction to the text itself. It’s a great leveller, and one that has made me read writers I perhaps would ordinarily have dismissed on account of my reaction to the positioning of the book.

Proofs are for geeks: though they are the true first editions most of the time, they don’t have the same kind of value as the finished article. And yet this is the text that the reviewers have read, the text that those early buyers may have skimmed through. They are often poorly made, throw-away items, but that just increases my passion for them – and the thrill of their arrival has not diminished over the years. In fact when I look at the ARCs of the new Jonathan Franzen, the new Will Self and the new Paul Auster it’s hard not to want to wade right in and read them straight away; though if they were the finished versions I would find it easier to wait. It’s still that feeling of reading before everyone else, I guess, that feeling of being there first – and knowing that what you might be reading is the next great novel.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

For those left behind. . .

Now that the longlist for the Booker Prize has been announced two things will happen with grim, tortuous inevitability. Firstly, newspaper articles will appear comparing the sales of the 13 novels with Katie Price or Dan Brown’s latest paperback; secondly, possibly in the same article, someone will express surprise that a favourite (McEwan, Amis, Rushdie) didn’t make the cut. Both are as irritating as each other. The first is simply spurious and pointless – and something I've mentioned before – the second just as frustrating, for a number of reasons.

McEwan, Amis and Rushdie do not need the publicity to sell copies of their books, so why there seems to be a need to mention the ‘surprise’ of them not being on the list is beyond me. It is no shock to me that McEwan and Amis didn’t get further; this is a strong year and even their most fierce proponents must concede that these are books unlikely to unite a body of judges. The real story, for me at least, is the ones left behind. Those writers who don’t have the platform that these three writers have, but must have had high hopes of making it onto the list. It’s for them I really feel; I can’t imagine how galling it must be to think you’re in with a shout only to fall at the first hurdle.

Of course awards are imperfect; they are only the opinions of four disparate people, yet when it comes down to it, what greater barometer for the enthusiastic reader is the Booker list? Bitch, moan and piss about it all you like, that list gives a book a massive base to go at. Sales will inevitably increase; a writer’s profile will be already heightened. The problem is, however, if you don’t make the list. What happens then?

One of the books I tipped to make it on the list was The Canal by Lee Rourke. It felt to me like the kind of novel that the Booker prize was invented to recognise and champion. That it didn’t is disappointing, but not a disaster. It is a novel that will find its own audience – perhaps not in the mass-market, but an audience all the same. It’s more of an issue for established names, with huge publisher expectations, where a longlisting is realistically the only way to guarantee a return on the investment.

Gerard Woodward’s superb Nourishment is the kind of book I’m talking about. Deft, brilliant and astute, it is to be published slap bang in the middle of Booker season, which means it’s going to have to get some pretty special reviews and get huge promotion to get any kind of sales. For all the joy that the longlist brings to someone like Lisa Moore, it spells pretty dire news for novelists such as Woodward – especially as he’ll be vying for attention not only with the 13 but the non-eligible big, literary books of the autumn such as To The End of the Land by David Grossman, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Nemesis by Philip Roth.

So while I’m happy for David Mitchell, Tom McCarthy and Damon Galgut, I’m also feeling for the ones that could so easily have joined them. I just really hope that the Booker noise and bluster doesn’t push out books like Nourishment or even the new DBC Pierre (which is much better than you might think). It’d be good to see those books keep afloat even without the Booker life raft.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

For what it's worth

My Booker Longlist predictions

1. Thousand Autumns – David Mitchell
2. C – Tom McCarthy
3. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray
4. The Long Song – Andrea Levy
5. The Canal – Lee Rourke
6. Nourishment – Gerard Woodward
7. Trespass – Rose Tremain
8. Solar – Ian McEwan
9. Even the Dogs – Jon McGregor
10. And this is True – Emily Mackie
11. The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
12. Room – Emma Donague
13. The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

Friday, 9 July 2010

Death of a Dream

In the summer of 1997, sandwiched at some point between the grinning, overwhelming optimism of Blair’s Britain and the outpouring of self-imposed grief for a dead princess, I was forced to sell my guitar. It was a black Gibson copy; cream scratch-plate, caramel coloured tone dials, a pair of scuffed humbucker pick-ups. The strings whiskered out from the tuning pegs and the black Ernie Ball strap held it comfortably low around my groin. I played it through a miniature Marshall amp, the sound muffled and fuzzed, and tried to master the chords to songs I loved, the results a messy, halting squall of atonal, arrhythmic noise. I was, and remain, a shockingly unmusical person, and a shitty guitarist.

Even though I’d long been aware of my staggering ineptitude at plank spanking, selling that guitar was no less painful. I put an advert in the Liverpool Echo and a kid called me up the same day. That evening his mother drove him to my flat and we both watched as he picked up the guitar, tuned it without the aid of an electronic contraption and adjusted the bass and treble. He sat on the edge of the bed and played Blackbird with a confidence and aptitude bordering on the precocious. He said that he liked the guitar’s look and sound, but that the amp was a bit underpowered. He paid in cash; his mother looked sort of proud. I bet he slept with that guitar in his bed that night.

An imaginary life ended with that transaction; a parallel existence of tour buses and drunkenness, willing girls and sweaty clubs. It was as hopeful a notion as becoming world speedway champion or having a major retrospective at the Tate. The delusion, however, worked because of its own entirely fictive basis. I could have the dreams of singing a post-punk inspired cover of Neil Diamond’s "Beautiful Noise" at the Manchester Academy, or smashing up a guitar at CBGBs precisely because they were impossible. Had there been any chance at all of it happening, I’m not sure it would have been quite so much fun.

I thought about this a lot as I read Tim Thornton’s all-too-painfully-recognisable Death of an Unsigned Band. Over the last decade I’ve spent a lot of time with good friends in good, unsigned bands. Being on the periphery allows you to share in their world, but such vicarious dreaming is tempered by the fact you’re not at its centre – it’s your poor friends who are checking the prison-wall style notches against their bands’ name as people enter the gig; it’s them who are treated like shit at sound check; and them who ultimately end up chasing promoters for a few quid after providing the drums for yet another four-band show. For all the excitement of playing and recording, I’ve always thought the pay back was somewhat slight.

Death of an Unsigned Band captures this tension with acuity, and in doing so creates a set of characters who are at once engaging, flawed and utterly recognisable. The episodic, interview-style approach perfectly suits his subject and Thornton cleverly keeps their personal stories in the background – the effect suggesting that Russell, Ash, Karen and Jake are only really living when they’re being the band. The consuming nature of such ambition is well drawn, and the drab period of musical history in which it takes place – the 2000/1 of Coldplay, Travis and Turin Brakes – only serves to make their hopes and dreams appear so much more cruelly dashed.

What marks Death of an Unsigned Band out is its refusal to pander to obvious narrative arcs, there are no tedious explorations of the nature of fame, nor is there a token drug problem or a thinly disguised Yoko. It’s an honest depiction of the way thousands of people spend their weekends and week nights – playing clubs and bars, thinking that this time it might happen, that the A&R guy might chuck his chequebook their way – and is pitched just right for a summer read for anyone who’s spent their money to see their friends play, or been one of the ones doing the playing. Despite that memory of the guitar, I know which side of the stage I’d rather be on.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The worst sentence in world literature

I recently wrote my first negative review in a national newspaper. It was a for a book that I didn’t exactly hold out much hope for – it concerned the problems of a white, middle-class writer on the verge of turning forty – but I was determined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Within the first fifteen lines, however, the author had used a sentence that to me remains a kind of literary bĂȘte noir; a turn of phrase which without fail causes me to shudder. What upsets me about it is its prevalence, despite its utter redundancy: a sequence of words easily found in airport pulp novels, aspirational literature and everything in between. The book was bad enough, thank you all the same, without this abhorrant sentence, and its close cousins, being repeated several times.

Now I do have some bugbears when it comes to literary fiction. I groan if rivers are brackish, I wince if sunlight slants through a window, and harrumph loudly at salt and pepper hair. These are words and descriptions that exist only in one medium, in much the same way that the words pooch, bonk and fury are only used in tabloid newspapers. But I can forgive these for many authors, but what I can’t accept is the following sentence, and it should be struck from any script ever. Okay. Loud exhalation of breath . . .

“I can remember it just like it was yesterday.”

It makes my arm itch just looking at it.

You see, the problem with it is that one of redundancy. This sentence is normally either appended to the end of a description, or prefixes one. Either way it is unnecessary. In a first-person narrative, one can only narrate what you remember: so what is the point in telling the reader that they remember it like it was yesterday? What is gained by this? Apart from a sense of over-arching importance, obviously. It means nothing, it’s just marking time: authors surely should have a bit more confidence in the reader's ability to work out that the narrator remembers something pretty well, considering they fucking wrote about it.

Perhaps it’s a device to ensure that readers aren’t panicked into thinking half way through that the narrator might just stop and say “Actually, I can’t really remember where I was going with this. A young girl? Picnic, lightening? It rings a bell. Have I told you the one about the university professor?” In sales, they call these dog words; the things you say while you’re working out what to say next to close the deal. In literature it’s the most empty way of feeding the page.

Not only that, it’s misleading. We understand that remembering something as though it was yesterday, is to suggest that it is still livid in the mind. Except, this is complete balls and piss. I can recall things from fifteen years ago with far greater clarity than the events of yesterday (pub? Football? I can’t even remembered who scored). Ask any old giffer what they had for dinner yesterday and the quality of life during rationing and you’ll get chapter and verse on using chipfat for Brylcream and the delights of powdered egg along with a shrug and a guess that they had pie and mash for dinner the night before.

I propose the phrase be outlawed in literature. Is there anything worse? I mean, really?

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Lionel makes a Messy

I suspect only a prize-winning novelist who has sold over a million copies of her novel can really grouse about being awarded another literary prize. Anyone else would see it as an accomplishment, another bauble to place on the bookshelf; perhaps even wonder if there might be some cash attached to the prestige. Not Lionel Shriver – the most shrinking of literary violets – who has protested, or more precisely whinged, about being crowned the Orange/Waterstone’s Winner of Winners. To her it’s a “dumb” award – her choice of word interestingly juvenile and sulky – and one that dilutes the Orange prize’s standing.

Her reaction is at once blithely refreshing and stupendously foolhardy. Refreshing because Shriver seems utterly indifferent to the fact that this is a prize voted for by the general public; and foolhardy for precisely the same reason. Criticizing such an award these days is tantamount to punching a stoat live on television: you just don’t do it.

What you say is that the prize means more because the readers voted for it. What you don’t say is, however tangentially, that you preferred it when a collection of writers and journalists (and probably a token celebrity, thrown in so the literary media can get an erection) decided your book was worthy of merit. Shriver, whether intentionally or not, has questioned the orthodoxy of modern Britain: everyone’s opinion, no matter how ill-informed, is equally valid.

Where books are concerned this is something of an issue. As soon as you get the general public involved, you’re narrowing your field. Whereas the Booker judges are expected to wade through well over a hundred novels to get to their considered opinion, your voter for the Orange/Waterstone’s Winner of Winners can have read the blurb and decided from there. There is no rigour, no critical faculty necessary: you could even vote based solely on the fact that you like the name Lionel. You’re never asked why you voted for something, neither do you have to provide proof of having read it (If only all books ended like The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler!). But your opinion and vote is precisely weighted the same as someone who perhaps has read all 15.

Ever since Belle and Sebastian fans hijacked the Brit Awards by flooding in votes from their internet-enabled bedrooms, the notion of a public voted award has become circumspect. Award givers want to be inclusive, want to have the great unwashed on board, but have yet to find an adequate way to do this without running into either vote loading – as happened in the Not-Booker on the Guardian Blog last year – or over-zealous personality based campaigns.

Which leaves an industry, desperate to be inclusive, clutching at straws. The problem is that reading books takes time, and casual readers will always outnumber those who read widely and are willing to take chances on new authors, ignored writers and those that don’t trouble the bestseller lists. Which means the likes of Ian McEwan, Ishiguro and those other brand name literary institutions will always win by default in any kind of popularity contest. Ultimately, the reason for Shriver’s success in this competition has more to do with the fact that more people have read it than the others than it has because of its literary merit. Perhaps Shriver realises this.

To a greater or lesser extent, prizes are all about consensus – little more than posh bingo, as Julian Barnes had it – but asking people to vote based on having read just ten books in a year seems rather tough on the authors themselves. I think we have to remember that prizes provoke debate, make writers’ names and really give a media presence to an industry that struggles in the wake of television, music, film, and even art for publicity. The Booker, The Orange and The Costas always throw up fascinating curve ball titles, defy the odds by awarding the prize to outside bets and give literary fiction a lifeline. A public vote, even at shortlist stage, would probably never give the underdog its day in the sun. And had that been the case in 2005, there is little chance We Need to Talk About Kevin would have prevailed. Perhaps this is the real reason Shriver is so sceptical about this award – “dumb” or otherwise . . .

Friday, 4 June 2010

A week of reading

With the exception of having the freedom to drink in the mornings, the most exciting part of going on holiday is the joy of having a week in which to do little else but read. It is a perfect indulgence and, for me, a unique literary opportunity: the only time I get to read a book in one sitting, the one chance when a long novel can be experienced in long, immersive sittings. There are no tube stops to interrupt a chapter, no hissing thump from cheap commuter headphones to distract from the prose, no lunch break to disappear quicker than every other hour of the day. It’s just me, my book, and hopefully an ice-cold glass of wine sweating on a table beside a swimming pool.

Selecting my holiday books is a rigorous process, one that conforms to a basic stratagem developed and honed over many years. Firstly, I work on the basis of one book per day. This may seem excessive, but one year I came perilously close to running out of reading, and that experience still gives me a little swell of fear. I’m going away for seven days, so seven books it is. Secondly, the books must sort of complement each other. This is a more nebulous concept and is often utterly irrational. While one can understand the logic of not wishing to read both Updike and Roth on holiday, quite why Updike does not sit comfortably with Ian Rankin I can’t explain. But trust me, he doesn’t.

Finally, I really need a balance between brand new fiction and novels that have sat on my shelf for years without having read. Selecting this lost classic is possibly the most pleasurable part of holiday anticipation: hours spent looking up and down shelves, picking up books at random, reading the blurbs, remembering where and when the book was bought, putting it back making a mental note to consider it later. For the most part these tend to be books that I’m ashamed not to have read – previous holiday rehabilitations have included Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer and Jealousy by Alan Robbe-Grillet – and this year is no exception: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor has made its gimlet eye towards me and flirted its way into my case.

Back in 1991 I bought a copy of Red Dragon to read by the pool in Florida, and that sort of became the benchmark for what a kind of traditional beach read should be. The problem is that very few people have Thomas Harris’s ability to shock, thrill and repulse, while giving you characters to believe in. After reading so many serial killer novels on holiday and being disappointed – especially by Jack Kerley’s Blood Brother, a novel so didactic and poorly written it made me feel like I was being intimidated by some pimple faced youths on a bus – I’ve given the genre a wide-berth. But a holiday without a good crime novel is just not a holiday, so this year’s place goes to Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth – a seamy, dirty, retro slab of London noir.

As for new books, this is perhaps the hardest of all categories – an opportunity to read a great new voice, or to have wasted a day of precious reading time on something really not worth your time. I’ve whittled down my list and am happy – for the moment – with my selection. First up is Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman, a book I know little about except its opening line: “In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and consider Joseph Goebbels’ fourty-fourth birthday.” Which is so wonderfully exact yet askance, I couldn’t help but add it to the pile.

Lee Rourke’s The Canal – a tale of boredom set in the hinterlands between Islington and Hackney – is one of the books I’ve most looked forward to this year, and from the opening few pages, I know is going to be a read in one hit novel that sticks around, whistling tunelessly in my head for months later. Despite Ludmilla’s Broken English provoking little more than a yawn, I’m sure that Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre will be a return to form (depending of course where you stand on Vernon God Little – a good book, but an odd Booker winner).

Which leaves me with just two more to go. Nourishment by Gerard Woodward looks like the kind of book that may just break him out of the “respected but modestly selling” category and into a wider, more appreciative audience. I heard him read from it recently and it sounded incredible: intimate yet with a scope and scale that allows his storytelling gifts to fly.

My final choice is the new Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. 4th Estate won’t send me an advance copy – something about wanting coverage nearer the time – but have found someone who can hook me up. It feels like a drug deal or something.

I go on holiday next week. I can’t wait to start reading.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Orwell Meets the Other Marx: on Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners

It’s taken me many years to finally get around to Sam Selvon’s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners. The problem was one of aesthetics; the only copy I’d ever seen was the nasty, cheap -looking Heinemann African Writers Series edition, which sported a horrendous illustration of men in zoot suits looking glum. Such minor reservations should not be enough to preclude one from picking up a book, but, with so much else to read, these small barriers are often more than enough to ignore a novel.

In fact, up until recently, I’d rather forgotten about The Lonely Londoners. It had become one of those books that I suspected was rather more taught than actually read: the token darkie in the ghost white face of post-war English fiction. It was only Hari Kunzru’s passionate championing of it at a recent event in Shoreditch that made me look at it differently. That and a handsome new edition from Penguin Modern Classics. For both, I am hugely grateful.

Written in an effortless patois, The Lonely Londoners is a collage of voices; a plotless, digressive, tangential novel that weaves between a series of West Indian immigrants, all linked in some way to Moses Aloetta: the wise owl of the book. Now an experienced Londoner, Moses sees the pitfalls the city has to offer, as well as its charms. As those fresh from the boat charge around town, it's Moses who spends a lot of time telling them to calm down; and perhaps with good reason.

London is as much a character in this novel as Sir Galahad, Five Past Midnight, Tolroy – even Moses himself. While it may be a partial picture, the London that Selvon describes feels wholly real. The slums and the flop houses of Bayswater, the blinding lights of Charing Cross and Piccadilly Circus, the corner shops of Brixton. Selvon highlights the city’s attractions and the temptations as well as its grim realities; the intoxicating nature of walking through the city – and the desperation of doing so without money in your pocket.

While Selvon has Orwell’s outsider eye for a telling detail and cultural tic – the way, for example, Tolroy dresses like an English gent with his copy of The Times prominently on show – he has a far sharper comic sensibility. In fact, The Lonely Londoners probably owes a significant debt to the Marx Brothers – especially Cap’s hilarious battles with London’s pigeons and seagulls. Orwell’s unremitting bleakness serves his political motivations, but his lack of humour has always suggested to me that we are being fed only some of the truth. Brit’n, after all, is a place where there is always humour, no matter how dark the situation.

And there is no doubt that the situation is bad for many of the characters who populate Selvon’s novel. It’s here that the novel is less successful as it struggles to shoehorn in some of the pressing realities of immigrant life. The newspaper reporter who asks why so many people are coming over from the West Indies at the beginning of the novel, for example, feels forced; as does some of the more overtly political conversations in which Moses exposes the truth behind the Welfare State or the recruitment of ethic workers. These clumsy episodes have the spice of polemic, but seem rather out of place in an otherwise naturalistic fictional world.

To me, The Lonely Londoners is one of the capital’s greatest literary creations; a novel of heart, humanity and understanding. It is resolutely not just about the Windrush generation’s experiences. It is about belonging and not belonging: about where one fits in the world and in society. It’s a testament to immigrant dreams, of casting off what’s gone before and reinventing oneself as a new and better person. And as such, it’s one of the most arresting and affecting pieces of fiction you’ll ever read – and one that deserves to be celebrated as a key novel of the twentieth century.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Reading Myself and Others

It’s been several months since I last wrote an entry here. This is due to laziness and excitement, and let’s be honest, probably too much wine. It’s also been a period of time where I haven’t managed to read or indeed write a great deal. When reading ducks to below one book a week, it’s normally not a good sign. Thankfully this has been restored over the last week with a healthy dose of short(ish) fiction.

Getting over a barren run like this requires a book that reinvigorates you; reminds you of why reading is important in the first place. It also needs to be somehow synchronous with whatever put you in the funk in the first place. It doesn’t have to tackle it straight on, it just needs to acknowledge it in some subtle way and move on. For some reason, re-reading books doesn’t help. I can’t, say, go back to Keep the Aspidistra Flying for comfort; Gordon Comstock would seem too bitter and not as I recall him; Portrait of the Artist similarly would just make me hate Stephen for being a pretentious, masturbating teenager; Underworld would just remind me that I can’t fucking write. So something new then, something to draw a line in the sand, and then something to surprise.

The book that provided all this for me – after a false start with the superb, meditative and curiously affecting All That Follows by Jim Crace – was Joe Meno’s The Great Perhaps, a novel that while comfortable as jogging bottoms, has a subtlety and ulterior motive that is quite devastating. His gift for dialogue is incredible, particularly the aggressive demotic of teenagers, and his unashamedly optimistic, yet guarded, world-view makes for a wholly different kind of read: not for Meno the hysterical realism or nihilism of many American writers of my generation.

That’s not to say there’s no rage here, just that the rage is contained as it is in all of us: ready to bubble up at times, just not as a constant. Meno’s is a political novel in a bi-curious political age: it engages with politics as many of us now do – at a distance, once removed. Our politics, as Crace’s book also points out, comes with a hint of nostalgia, a glowing thought that those that came before us fought the real fight, that we are nothing compared to them and their commitment. Meno turns that on its head, showing us the reality: we have always been cowards, cowardice is as important for the survival of the human race as bravery. After all, if all the warriors are killed in battle, how can the blood line continue?

This dialectic between doing and not doing, between action and inaction, is also at the heart of two other books I recently devoured. The first – In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut – is a quiet, stark and unsettling kind of meta-fiction. Reading like a cross between recent Coetzee and Sebald, these three travel narratives combine to create a startling whole – as well as a deliberate hole. We never quite get to the bottom of the crisis, the impetus the narrator, “Damon” feels for walking and journeying. He is cast in many roles as he wanders with others, placed in roles also by the author who never settles on a first or third person narration. This eddying can be distracting, but it also gets the heart of the issue: should one trust the self? Or should one just go right ahead and ignore its prevarications. The stasis that “Damon” finds himself in is never truly resolved or explained, yet it is instantly recognisable.

The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter, a debut collection which I finished in a flurry yesterday, follows a similar theme, but instead highlights the consequences of an action, or more specifically living with a specifically taken decision. In so many of these wonderfully precise, elegant and ultimately heartbreaking stories, we see young lovers turn into resentful adults, moments where another life presents itself but is ignored for safety’s sake, instances where everything seems right, but ultimately is bound to fuck up. These are raw stories, more jagged than one expects from the studied perfection of so many collections. One feels that this was conceived as book rather than as a grab-bag of all the output from a particular period of a writer’s life – even if this is highly unlikely.

Carver and Cheever have been mentioned in relation to Porter’s stories, but this is just laziness. Both writers remain inspirations in the same way that Barth and Barthelme do to the more experimental end of fiction, but as a generation we are not simply replicating the pared down, adjectiveless prose of the dirty realists. Porter’s fiction is emotionally acute, resonant and alive in its own right; but it is his alone. His voice is delicate and elegant, and he sees things that other authors would miss. Reading him reminded me about why we read at all: to feel that there are stories out there that can make sense of our lives. As I look at the to be read pile, I’m thankful I’m back reading, back wanting to make sense of my life again.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Confidence Trick

In my bathroom, alongside an electronic air freshener and a scented candle there’s a series of books lined up on a green shelf. It’s a rag-tag assortment of titles, the constituents of which change periodically. At the moment there’s Simon Bradley’s evocative history of St Pancras Station; a surprisingly handsome mid-eighties edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination; a proof copy of Reality Hunger by David Shields, a book that will become the essential literary toilet book of this decade; The Day of the Match by Scott Murray and Rowan Walker, an anecdotal, joyful history of association football full of gem-like stories and at least one misplaced score line; and Due Considerations, John Updike’s final collection of criticism and essays.

Every bathroom, I believe, should have a collection of criticism close at hand. At various times I have subjected Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands, Anthony Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect and Will Self’s two collections Junk Mail and Feeding Frenzy (which are, perhaps, his best books) to the tiles and the humidity and found them to be exceptionally good company. I like reading about books in much the same way I like restaurant reviews: I never base my dining upon them, but I like their rigor and confidence.

Confidence in writing criticism, however, is quite different to confidence in writing fiction. When writing reviews or pieces on literature, one is always, to one degree or another, confident in what is written. Updike’s essays, for example, do not seem agonised over, their arguments sweated over, nor their conclusions dwelt upon. The confidence of a lifetime in letters, of being a pre-eminent critic, cultural guardian and author of some of the twentieth century’s key novels, means that Updike always knows whereof he speaks. But fiction is another story; and the part confidence plays in it is both nebulous and – to some degree – nefarious.
Recently I was sitting at my desk revising a story called “Real Work”. It’s one of the stories I like the most from my collection and I didn’t think I’d have to make too many changes to make it fit for publication. But around midnight it seemed to shift as I read it; the words suddenly lifeless. When I went back to it later that week, it was back the way it had been, the words rearranging themselves into something with which I was, again, happy. This happens to every writer, probably even Updike had it once or twice, and it proves what everyone knows about fiction – confidence in your writing is never constant. The question is, whether you think this is a bad thing or not.

Alan Rinzler – the discoverer of Toni Morrison and now “consulting editor” for aspiring writers – thinks it’s a bad thing. To him, “self-confidence is the single most essential ingredient an author needs to succeed”, which, leaving aside the wisdom of taking advice from a “consulting editor” who believes something can be more or less essential, is something of a shocking discovery. Talent, style, originality, dedication, voice would have been my top five guesses for “Most important ingredient needs to succeed”. I think self confidence would have been somewhere around seventy or so, right after “having cracking tits or a massive cock”.

It would be easy to dismiss Rinzler as a lone crank – particularly if you read his stultifyingly ill-informed and unintentionally hilarious piece “Why Publishers Love Short Stories” – but he is far from alone. The web is cluttered with handy hints, smart guides and top tips about boosting your confidence, as though believing in yourself was the only things stopping you getting a book deal. Let’s be quite upfront about it: this is rubbish. It is, for want of a better expression, a confidence trick.

Far from being the single most essential ingredient of a successful author, confidence can ruin writers, can send them down dark alleys never to return. If you’re so confident in your work, you’re more likely to blind yourself to its follies and not have the necessary objectivity to stand back and appraise it properly. Beckett’s “try again, fail again, fail better” – a favourite of writers and creative writing courses alike – is instructive: why so confident, it suggests, when you’re always going to fall short?

What really are the benefits of confidence? What does it really add to your work? Stubbornness, perhaps, an unwillingness to take advice, an attitude, like Martin Amis, that you don’t need an editor? A huge bag full of confidence just looks like hubris if your book, like Martin Amis’s, is panned. The industry that has grown up around writing – courses, seminars, literary coaches – needs writers to buy into this confidence trick because deep down most writers need someone to help them feel that their work is worth something. Raising the importance of confidence, therefore, keeps a steady stream of people signing up for such sessions.

And the product of that confidence is quite often nasty. While I was writing my first (unpublishable) novel, I worked as an editor at a well-known publishing house. For the most part, I would sit slack jawed at the submissions I received; not because of the quality of the writing, but the misplaced confidence of these would-be writers. When I wrote detailed rejection letters explaining why their manuscript was simply not good enough for publication, the response was often that I knew nothing, that publishers were cowards, that their book was a masterpiece and the fact that everyone else thought it was gash was some kind of conspiracy against them. These were not even the crazies; these were people who seemed utterly rational and normal until they were let loose on a word-processor.

The bedrock of television talent shows is the over-confident oik who think that he or she can sing/dance/wrestle bears but in fact can’t. Audiences never seem to tire of this ongoing joke, particularly because the over-confident oik is never in on the gag. In the literary equivalent, Rinzler’s like the cuddly boyfriend who threatens to deck the presenter: he’s not really helping matters.

I'm lucky. I have a good agent; a profile, however, meagre; and contacts in the industry. But am I confident? Christ no. Not in my stories, not in the fact that I will get published, not even in the title of the book. But I believe this is to be embraced, to be seen for the advantages it holds. Your own work is blind to you, which is why critics and commentators are so important. Their books, whether shelved in a bathroom or in a dusty library, don’t care whether you were confident or not – just whether you were any good.