Saturday, 19 December 2009

Books & Christmas

I have been mostly reading recently. All good stuff.

First Paul Auster: he is my kind of author, engaging, intelligent, enquiring and playful.

I have read his The New York Trilogy and The Book of Illusions.

The New York Trilogy starts with City of Glass in which a writer, Daniel Quinn, once a promising poet, now a hack writing under a nom du plume, has successfully created a popular crime fiction character. Quinn, who has all but lost a sense of self, identifies most strongly with the detective, the creation of his alter ego. Quinn's isolation is disturbed when he receives urgent calls that insist he is Paul Auster, private investigator. And so the road to madness is laid.

I have to admit I giggled as I read the beautifully witty way in which Auster, the author, unapologetically announces his intent: 'I,' he says, 'am going to play around with notions of identity. Yours as reader, mine as author.' [My quote.]

The second in the trilogy, Ghosts, scrubs all notion of personal identity by referring to individuals purely by colour, as Quentin Tarantino does in Reservoir Dogs. (I presume much comment must already exist as to whether or not Tarantino appropriated the idea from Auster.) The plot could not be simpler, one anonymous individual is commissioned by another anonymous individual to watch a third. Echoes of events that occur in City of Glass are faintly heard but their source is hard to pinpoint.

The final is The Locked Room, a reference to those mysteries where the victim is found dead in a room locked from the inside. In this context, it refers to the relationship of the reader and the text. Who is locked in, the reader to the text, the text to the reader? The plot follows the moral dilemma of a reasonably successful writer who becomes the literary executor of the as yet unpublished work of an old school friend, Fanshawe, an exceptional author, someone who has long vanished and is presumed dead. The writer identifies so strongly with his former friend, he marries his former wife and adopts his child as his own - he even allows the rumour that he is the author of Fanshawe's work to float unchallenged.

Fanshawe re-emerges - he is not dead - and asserts that he had long planned for his friend to follow the route he has taken. In this work, Auster rides his usual hobbyhorse of identity but spurs it with his other interest, one that examines the issue of coincidence. How are we to read coincidence? In the novel, coincidence is a useful device to move the story on; in life we apportion it a worth beyond its value - or do we? Is it another straw we grasp at to make sense of the senseless? Dependent on our view is how we deploy it in our writing.

Auster, to my mind, like Coetzee, and Hemingway or Camus of an earlier era, is a bare-bones writer. He explores the issues in the best fictive manner; one that is stripped of hyperbole; of over-manipulation of emotion through misuse of adjective, adverb, metaphor or simile; he treats the reader as an intelligent subject of an on-going debate through the medium of an engaging story.

Under strict instructions of Nicola Morgan, I bought Stephen King's On Writing. I am not one to buy do-it-yourself books. Ninety-nine point nine percent are crap. If you cannot work it out for yourself you do not have the interest, so save your money.

On Writing is the point nought point one percent.

I have never read Stephen King. He writes of stuff of which I am not interested. That said, I have watched many of the films that have spun off from his work - mostly because I admire the directors.

I was not immediately impressed by On Writing. King writes, at least here, in a folksy manner that annoys me intensely. It is a particular nuance of American writing, one that traces its attitude back to Mark Twain, another author I rejected at a young age for assuming, through its avuncular style, that we are all one big, happy family based on chummy Christian values. Bollocks, I say.

To be contrary, King's style allows you to skip through the first half of the book, a percentage devoted to the reasons why he chose to write - am I interested, no. It is a form of self-abuse where he, on the basis of his huge success, tells us how he managed an orgasm. Of more interest, would be an account of how he had failed. Of course, there are many writers who have failed; but who hears of them? The famous exception is John Kennedy Toole, who, sadly, killed himself because of his failure to get his work, A Confederacy of Dunces, published. With his mother's graft, it went on to win the Pulizer Prize for Literature after his demise. His drive I would be interested in.

The second half, King devotes to what he has learnt, or, for US readers, learned. This is interesting. Not that, if you happen to be someone who has written for years, you will learn much, but because it affirms what you have learnt/learned. Either way, it crystallises your thoughts. You are not alone in this strange business of ascribing words to page.

Stieg Larsson: I have just finished reading the first two in his Millenium Trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

The first is so much better than the second.

Both are designed to be block-busters, but in Dragon Tattoo, Larsson concentrates on the story, one, which of its genre, is full of twists and turns and wholly page-turning.

In the second, Larsson resorts to the tricks of the genre to such a degree that they become interfering; the backstory of every minor character is spelt out over pages to pad out the novel. It is clumsy, which is not to say the plot itself is not engaging. However, I shall not read the final of the trilogy. It has had mixed reviews and Rebecca, my daughter and doma matrix of book reviewers, tongue-lashed it.

In between, I have been reading various anthologies of short stories. I am writing - sounds too positive - have been writing a story that I know is good, but can I write it? No. It WILL happen.

Love and Happy Christmas to all my subscribers.

You can each, individually, win $1billion if you can identify the bank and code in Switzerland of my personal account and secretly transfer the monies to your PayPal account.

Offer open only to those over eighteen. People who are very clever at maths are ineligible. Those who have a weakness for red wine may suffer from a lack of concentration. Anyone who tries to seduce the judges will be looked at again, provided they are a) female b) hopelessly sex-obsessed. Entries from MPs and MEPs will be closely examined for flaws in their personal accounting systems - though we will accept it perfectly reasonable to claim £23,000 p.a. to feed the squirrels. Published authors are not eligible on grounds of total envy. Any agent who offers a contract, no matter how corrupt, bankrupting or feeble, will immediately be granted the code. The cost of posting this missive was half my brain; however, we do expect it to raise several brain cells in the interests of the Labour Government over the next decade.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Writing Right. Right?

I plan to run a creative writing course in the New Year.

It's a bold step for one who is, as yet, unpublished but one I am looking forward to. I already have five people who are interested in joining. And having given the idea much thought, I am reasonably confident I can make a success of it.

My intention is to run it much like a seminar as I expect to learn as much as anyone who attends. The plan is to split the sessions, an hour and a half to two hours long, into three parts.

The first third will concentrate on the development of literature for the reason I believe it important a writer knows the place from which s/he is writing, historically and philosophically. So we will discuss a given text to determine what the attitudes of the period were and what the author believed was then possible to achieve in their writing. Thus we will move from the omnipotent narrator through modernism to post-modernism and on to contemporary genres of writing.

The second third will focus on their own writing. Each week I will set a technical exercise on some aspect of writing, which we will have discussed in the last third of the previous week's seminar. I will be attempting to stretch their understanding of how they can create different effects with words. Later we will look at all the components that make a good story; openings, conflict, rhythm, structure, et cetera.

It is a little loose at the moment but I have yet to work through the detail of the complete course. I also want to be flexible and allow them to dictate - to a degree - how the course develops.

I was going to blog of this later; however, I was prompted to write of it now by Nicola Morgan's post on The Really Very Simple Theory of Being Published; more specifically by her mention of Stephen King's On Writing, a book I have been looking for and have finally been forced to buy from Amazon (which annoys me given the percentage they take and the threat they represent to independent book shops).

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

News Round

Let me begin by clarifying my earlier response to Lethe in his post, On Genius:

At heart, my argument is language is not transparent as in a glass doorway that opens directly to the thinking or feeling of the speaker. If it were, lawyers would be out of a job as there would be no debate over meaning.

One consequence is the transcendent, in other words, any value that can be described as belonging to us all, an absolute truth for instance, is compromised immediately one tries to define it. We necessarily can only talk of it from a time and place and, therefore, from a set of attitudes and assumptions that, for the most part, remain hidden from us. We are not gods and cannot take a god-like view of our world. We may feel we share common feelings, like love and a love of beauty, but to assert directly such feelings are common is beyond our scope; or, more accurately, beyond the scope of language.

So, my main criticism is the encompassing 'we' with which you make your observations of what appeals to you, in the singular. Yes, I may nod my head in recognition of your appreciation of a particular work of art; but, no, I shake my head when you infer there is 'a higher state of mind', some transcendental, Olympian viewpoint from where we can sit in common agreement of what constitutes beauty.

I hope, given I am forced to use words, that makes my position clear.


(I am listening to Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps while writing this, and Hannay has just confessed, "I did some savage thinking." Savage thinking! Deconstruct that.)

My Future is Being Charted

I have a plan, a plan so cunning Baldrick would lay claim to it as one of his own. The first part of the plan must needs be remain cloaked in mystery; however, if it succeeds it will mean I need not work for the next nine/twelve months while I research my next book. (The plan does not have to remain hidden in the Chenille weave of mystery but I do not wish to tempt fate by exposing it at such an early stage.)

The second part of my future lies at a university, yet to be determined. I have decided to read for an MA or DPhil in Creative Writing. My preference is for the doctorate as I would then be Dr. D R O'Connor Thompson and I believe the Thompson Twins had a hit with Doctor Doctor - it could become my anthem. (Besides, I have an MA and, looking at what is on offer, I would be repeating much of what I have learnt.) This second part is dependent on funding though I am so poor at present I doubt I would notice the difference.

Book, Thursday To Thursday

On the subject of impecuniousness, I am frustrated by the fact I can do nothing with my novel at the moment. Most agents demand you send a s.a.e. with your submission and I cannot afford to do so. I can barely afford the postage to send the ms in the first place.

Indeed, the more I look at the world of publishing, the more it appears there is an assumption that you must be an individual of means to attend the party. I am happy to earn little from my scribblings, that is my fault for choosing to write the material I do; however, to get a foot in the door, to attend conferences, to submit material requires an income over subsistence, one I do not possess because I prefer to write rather than do more hours at the mindless work I do, the only sort a person of my age can find.

Gripe over.

And In Case…

you thought from my previous post I was the ugliest baby a mother ever had to suffer, I confuse you with pictures of me mere months later. All together now, a heartfelt ahhh!

PS Today is my birthday.