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.