Friday, 27 April 2012

White sheets, bruised men

This week’s new arrivals include Beverley Bie Brahic’s White Sheets, a PBS Recommendation, collected in boxes from the printer this afternoon, and I wasn’t sure how the peachy orange was going to sit on the brown card but it’s fine, oh yes. Then home, a little fiddle with the website, and it’s available from there NOW.

And earlier in the week, the book I’d asked for last December for Christmas in this post, which is about Alfred Hayes, who died in 1985 and was my discovery of last year and probably this year too: after reading The End of Me a couple of days ago, I’m still feeling knocked sideways. Paul Bailey: ‘Hayes has done for bruised men what Jean Rhys does for bruised women, and they both write heartbreakingly beautiful sentences.’

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Plus and minus

The plus was that yesterday eve I was paid to go to Chichester to speak on a ‘Publishing Panel Event’ and that despite the rain the room was packed and it was all impeccably organised by Karen Stevens, who teaches creative writing there, with taxis from the station and wine and sandwiches provided, and who am I to complain.

I’m not exactly complaining. Nor was anyone else. But there was something awry. The panel: one London literary agent and two representatives from other London agencies; one editor from Hamish Hamilton/Penguin; Debbie Taylor, founder and editor of Mslexia (she was great); me (the oldest). The audience, as far as I could tell: some students, some ‘general public’, many of the latter over a certain age. The Q&A session: some inconclusive waffle about self-publishing (with questioners being reassured that no, self-publishing didn’t disqualify them from possible later ‘proper’ publication); a silly amount of time spent on the ‘covering letter’ to agents, wordcounts or no wordcounts, synopses ditto, how much to send, etc.* Because of the make-up of the panel (I was token small press, Debbie, I think, was token ‘alternative’) the whole thing reinforced the traditional model: write, send to agents, then – even if you’re taken on – wait around for two years (the period given by one of the agents present) to be placed, or not. The publishing industry (a word used yesterday without any irony) professionals brought down from London to speak from on high: this felt, to me, inappropriate to the audience.

There are now many other publishing models than the one involving agents. And for those in yesterday’s audience who had perhaps thought of self-publishing but didn’t know where to start, the know-how is becoming more widely available. See, for example, this service, started by Bobby Nayyar of Limehouse Books.

* There is no ‘submissions guidelines’ button on the CBe site because there are no guidelines. If anyone wants to send material, just send. You’re a grown-up; you don’t need me to tell you how to make a cup of tea, how to start talking to another person.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Settling down to write (2): reading into writing

Among the letters I sent home from boarding school in the early 1960s and that my mother kept in shoe boxes, there is a list of ‘books read in the last year’. It’s not dated, but from the chronology of the shoe boxes I think I was eleven or twelve when I wrote it. There are 46 titles. Shakespeare scores three, and so do Jack London, Conan Doyle and John Buchan; Dickens, Rider Haggard and H. G. Wells score two each. Alastair MacLean and Hammond Innes score only one apiece (though another year, when I was in the sick room with mumps, I binged on Hammond Innes). There are two titles featuring dogs and three about the war. Easily the winner is C. S. Forester, with ten.

I started on Forester early. When, aged eight, I unpacked my trunk on my very first day at that school, there was a copy of Lieutenant Hornblower, hidden by my mother among the bundles of name-taped socks and underwear to distract me from any soppy homesickness. I started coming with out with naval expressions such as ‘Damn your eyes’, and the next term I got the Bobbsey Twins, but it was already too late for them.

In part this was a numbers game. The Shakespeares were, I think, a cheat – we probably read them in class – and the Dickens were not the big ones. But for the latter, I was spoilt: the experience of reading him on the page has never matched up to James Birdsall, the English and Art master (and brother of the cartoonist Timothy Birdsall, who died in his early twenties), reading Dickens aloud in Saturday morning lessons, doing all the voices.

Conspicuously, only two titles in the list are by women: Baroness Orczy and Rosemary Sutcliffe. And Sutcliffe’s The Eagles of the Ninth is the only book that was specifically written for my age-group. ‘Young adults’ hadn’t been invented. Nor, of course, had PlayStations and Xboxes, which left a lot of time to fill, and reading was one of the things you did. In the holidays, a mobile library van – two-tone: cream and sort of beige – parked once a week at the end of the road. At school, the library was there every day. One book in that library that stands out in memory is a red hardback edition of Notebook of Anton Chekhov, edited by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf. It’s full of snatches of dialogue, ideas for stories, random observations. ‘The dog walked in the street and was ashamed of its crooked legs.’ ‘A lady looking like a fish standing on its head; her mouth like a slit, one longs to put a penny in it.’ It’s exactly the kind of book I now enjoy publishing.

At the next school, I began forcing the pace. I read Under the Volcano before knowing what it is to be drunk. With a resigned sigh, my mother posted to me, wrapped in plain brown paper, the Updike novel I’d asked for, with a picture of a naked female on the cover. Back at home, we sat together on the sofa watching a Pinter play on television, and during one of his trademark pauses she remarked, looking at her watch and having decided she wasn’t getting enough words per minute, ‘You know, he’s being paid for this.’ So playwrights earned money even for the bits when no one is actually speaking? This was worth knowing.

I began writing plays. (Chekhov: ‘Anyone can write a play which might be produced.’) One of them was about a boy who ran away from school; the part was played by a boy who, on the day of the first (and only) performance, ran away from school. The authorities weren’t sure what to make of this – was I aiding and abetting? – and nor was I. Shortly afterwards I ran away from school myself, but only as far as my cousin’s house a few miles away. I remember my cousin’s partner, who had been to Oxford, telling me that part of the culture shock of going there had been this: realising that people who wrote books were not that different, to look at them and even to listen to them, from everyone else. At university my interest in drama briefly continued – with a megaphone, I played Aeneas in a production of Troilus and Cressida in which the Greeks were dressed as businessmen and the Trojans as hippies, and the battle scenes were filmed in a local quarry – but then I went through an anti-social phase and holed up in my room with fat black Penguin Classics in translation.

I came relatively late to poetry, but not too late for the Penguin Modern European Poets and the Fulcrum Press (still an overwhelmingly masculine landscape, Lorine Niedecker the only woman on a list of twenty-four Fulcrum poets). Across and down, across and down: the eyes track in the same way, but with poetry at a different speed and with a different kind of attention – this was like learning to read all over again. Shapes and sound and rhythm stepped forward, story took a well-earned break. The tricky words were there not just to be read but pronounced, not like the names of characters in Russian novels. And if I wanted to have a go myself, the attractions were obvious: you don’t have to fill the whole page; and poems are sprints (they’re not, actually, but they look as though they might be) rather than marathons, which means you should be able to carry on with the other things you like doing too. Such as reading.

More recently I’ve been attempting to write fiction. Not in the manner of Buchan and Forester, et al – with poetry, I’ve enjoyed writing only those lines that I’ve wanted to write, and I’m not now going to embark on paragraphs describing the scenery or what people are wearing. But something from the old boys – whose company has expanded over the years to include at least as many old girls too, possibly more – will be in there. Flowing the words from one page on to another, and then another and maybe another, feels like a release, but it’s a struggle too and I often pause over the syllabuses of the creative writing courses that offer me help with point of view, with first-person or third-person narration, with when and why and how to switch between narrative and dialogue. But the private ones are prohibitively expensive (Chekhov: ‘What? Writers? For a shilling I’ll make a writer of you’), and when I look at the prices of the Faber Academy courses and the Guardian Masterclasses I always translate those sums into the number of books I could buy and read.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Settling down to write (1): playing truant

The girl is my mother, the dapper man is her father (who died long before I came along). The photo was taken in the 1920s in Bridlington by, I think, a beach photographer. They’re on holiday. She’s as happy as can be; he, though he’s keeping it under his hat, is no less proud.

Hers wasn’t a particularly churchy family, but they were Methodists, and she always jokingly, but half-seriously, blamed her strong sense of duty – work before pleasure, even though this meant the latter might be endlessly deferred, and putting others’ needs before her own – on her Methodist upbringing. For good or ill (both, probably), I’ve inherited some of that. Others who’ve known me at certain times will laugh, but it feels to be so, and it has coloured, even shaped, my own habits of writing.

Between the time I left university, early 1970s, and 2005 I was in full-time 9-to-5 employment. Writing was something that got done in the interstices, in the small hours – an activity that took place in despite of the official timetable. I’ve been freelance since 2005 but even now never a whole day, rarely a half-day, is given over to writing, which still gets itself done in the gaps – between the hackwork jobs that pay the bills, between the shopping and the cooking and the regular putting of food on the table. The latter (thank you, mum) is the real work, and comes first.

Writing has been a way of playing truant from the work of the world, or the way the world works. Other than the very occasional book review, I’ve never written anything to commission, certainly not poems or stories, nor do I think I could do so – it would be a job, which is what writing isn’t. Last year I went to a writers’ place on an island in the Baltic where I had nothing to do for a whole month but write, and I came home with a few paragraphs, no more; the rest was walks by the sea, saunas, talking, watching films – in other words, in a situation where I’m supposed to be writing, I play truant even from that.

At the time I started, writing-as-playing-truant was the only way on offer. Painting, sculpture, the other arts, were different: there were art colleges, a support network built into the system. Writing has now caught up: you can do BA degrees, MAs, PhDs, in creative writing, and then you can go on and teach others. Writing, you could say, is now a profession. This isn’t a wholly bad thing. I missed out on a lot of good things that writing students now get: exposure to a wider range of literature, chances to play around and mess up, influences, inspiring teachers, the daily company of others for whom this thing, writing, is pretty damn central. But for me the term ‘professional writer’ remains a contradiction in terms.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

What’s in a name?

A friend mentioned the writer Helen Garner to me a week ago, and on Saturday I picked up a book of her stories in a second-hand bookshop and what have I been doing, not reading this lady? She is seriously, liberatingly good.

Clearly, my radar hasn’t been operating properly. It’s a cheap model and it gets confused by similarity of names. Helen Gardner, of course, even though a different thing and now deceased, but also Helen Simpson, also short stories. And then Mona Simpson, let alone Louis Simpson. Tim Lott, Toby Litt. Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Monica Ali. All the Penelopes – Fitzgerald, Mortimer, Gilliatt. Alistair Elliot, Andrew Elliott. I did once, at a party, and an hour or so into that party, congratulate a certain author on a book that he’d written and then, as by fits and starts a conversation proceeded, realise that the book had been written by someone else, of roughly the same gender and age and size, but that’s a different thing. This is just about names. It does help, I think, to factor in a high-scoring Scrabble letter or two. K, Z: August Kleinzahler, inimitable.

(But titles too. Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín. The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster. Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem. A Tree Grows in, Last Exit to, of course, and others. A Night in Brooklyn, D. Nurkse, published in the US in July. There is no copyright on titles; you could call your next book King Lear.)

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Denis Johnson

A couple of years ago I sat down one evening to read Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World and a few hours later put down the book and just sat for a while in a state of both exhaustion and elation: how did he do that? 128 pages, first-person narration by an academic whose wife and daughter have been killed in an accident. Spare, uncomplicated prose, masking and making appear utterly natural the sophistication of the tale-telling, the interweaving of the episodes in a manner that includes, or implies, far more than most longer novels. Today, same again, with Train Dreams, not much over 100 pages, this time third-person narration of the life of a logger and haulier, a frontiersman almost, born in around 1880.

Other things by Johnson: Tree of Smoke, Vietnam, vast, 700+ pages; Nobody Shoot, noir, pure genre, with wit but no pretensions; Jesus’ Son, the book of stories for which he’s probably best known, mayhem and addiction and random violence. Also other novels, also poetry. There are continuities (‘Johnson’s fiction has always turned on questions of vision,’ says James Wood in a review of Train Dreams), but not much in the way of brand identity.

Granta are publishing a UK edition of Train Dreams in hardback in September, and also a paperback reissue of Jesus’ Son. Beg, borrow or buy.

Monday, 9 April 2012

No blurbs, higher prices

Blurbless: last week a friend showed me a recent book by Hélène Cixous, published in France: good paper, plain white cover with flaps, name of author, title, name of publisher. No blurb, no quotes.

The rarer the books, the higher the prices: the Sybilline Books – ‘Centuries ago, concurrent with the 50th Olympiad, not long before the expulsion of Rome’s kings, an old woman “who was not a native of the country” (Dionysius) arrived incognita in Rome. She offered nine books of prophecies to King Tarquin; and as the king declined to purchase them, owing to the exorbitant price she demanded, she burned three and offered the remaining six to Tarquin at the same stiff price, which he again refused, whereupon she burned three more and repeated her offer. Tarquin then relented and purchased the last three at the full original price, whereupon she “disappeared from among men” (Dionysius).’

They’re operating with style, both the French publisher and the old woman. Would it work? I don’t think I’m brave enough to try.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Green Man

This is being a very long weekend, which began on Thursday evening with the reading by CBe authors Miha Mazzini and Beverley Bie Brahic at the greenhouse bookshop in Wapping, and many thanks to everyone who came along (there’d have been room in the greenhouse for perhaps one ear and half a leg more), and which has already included shifting paintings and books from one end of London to another and a long, languid afternoon tea on a rooftop terrace, and the Hockney exhibition at the RA on Friday . . .

Not for the first time, I’d got things wrong. I thought I’d got Hockney placed – I liked the spiky and witty early work, Royal College and maybe just after, and I liked the illustration work, but the larger work (I’d previously seen just one of the multi-parters, taking up a whole wall in one or other of the Tates) didn’t do anything for me (why so big, so brash, so many?), and besides, the media have swept him up, he’s become a commodity, the mildly eccentric Yorkshireman with strong views on art and smoking – and I wasn’t going to go. But I did.

It’s beautifully paced and organised, this exhibition. Some of the early, spiky work, and one or two California paintings. Then his lifelong friend Jonathan Silver, who bought Salt’s Mill near Bradford in 1987 and showed Hockney’s work there, becomes terminally ill, and Hockney, driving regularly from his mother’s house in Bridlington to visit him, becomes familiar with the north Yorskhire landscape and starts to paint it. At first in the same manner as the Los Angeles paintings. But then he gets out of the car and feels the wind and looks more closely (there’s a whole wall of smallish watercolours). He’s older now than he was, and he’s patient, but also, given that a lifetime is a finite thing, completely the opposite. And gradually – the flow of the seasons is important – he becomes immersed, and the landscape begins, almost literally, to take over; and as it does, weird, witchy shapes emerge, the stuff of folklore.

There are other things going on too – a surprise involving Claude Lorrain near the end; the iPad and other gadgetry, and a harking back to his theatre work; a finale to the sequence of film work that has people spontaneously applauding – but the above basic narrative, which involves a surrender to nature, negotiated with frantic energy, I found unexpectedly moving. And joyous.

All the reproductions I’ve seen of these paintings are reductive, of size obviously but of colour too and above all of process. And seen in isolation, many of these paintings might still leave me curmudgeonly, Yorshire-ish. Sequence, time, passing from one set of conditions to the next, or just passing on, is part of what they’re about, and the exhibition as a whole was a rare thing.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Two-way traffic

This week Miha Mazzini (above; author of The German Lottery) puts down his very long book, gets out of bed, has coffee and comes to London. And Beverley Bie Brahic (translator of Apollinaire, The Little Auto, and Francis Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud) gets on a plane in California and also comes to London. Both to read at the greenhouse bookshop at the Wapping Project this Thursday, the 5th.

Do come. I’m not expecting a stampede, but a gathering enthusiastic enough to show these writers that it’s worth their getting out of bed and on to planes, etc, would be good.

Travelling the other way is Dai Vaughan’s Sister of the artist – published by CBe in February this year and received so far with a resounding silence, but a French publisher has made a very welcome offer for translation rights. Maybe some things can be seen more clearly from a distance.