It’s World Book Day, apparently. But only in the UK. And though various book-related twitter accounts are asking everyone what they’re reading (In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard, since you ask), the event itself seems to be aimed at children and to be run through schools. Though most of the parents I’ve spoken to today (not that many, admittedly) have children who weren’t taking part.
Nonetheless, any encouragement to read, particularly for children who are bombarded by the competing distractions of the modern world (cue the headshake and ‘it weren’t like that in my day’) has to be a good thing. Niche as it seems to be, there is no reason not to take World Book Day at something more like face value and use it as an excuse to read a book from a different country. It could be in translation (or, if you’re multilingual, in a foreign language) or you could dive into the world of English language books from other places like Canada, New Zealand, Ireland.
I have to admit, I don’t always know (or indeed care) where the author hails from, when I read a book. If it’s set in the south of England, like In Pale Battalions, I’ll probably assume the author’s English (having just looked it up, Goddard is indeed from the south of England), and maybe it’s the setting that’s the key, not the author’s nationality. You can go anywhere in the pages of a book, experience other cultures and viewpoints, other priorities and ways of whiling away the day. You could go around the world in 80 books. Maybe that could be an aim for the next World Book Day.
Let’s assume you’re thinking of buying a short story collection, then you notice it’s a mixture of SF (science fiction, fantasy and the like) and what you might call mainstream, general, non-genre fiction.
Why do I ask? you ask (pretend you asked).Two reasons, one to do with writing and the other to do with reading. To take the latter first, I’ve recently read a Brian Aldiss collection, The Moment of Eclipse, and though it’s labelled as science fiction and most of the stories in it do fall firmly in that category, I’d say at least one doesn’t and a couple of others are tenuous. If the author hadn’t been ‘a science fiction writer’ I doubt anyone would have thought to label them that way. I enjoyed them, but it reminded me of when I read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (as discussed here), shelved as sci-fi despite being nothing of the sort, which brought disappointment to my reading corner.
Which brings me to my vague thoughts of compiling another short story collection. When I put The Little Book of Northern Women together there was a story I toyed with including, but since it was strictly revolving round a northern female android I left it out (it’s since been published in Kzine issue 6). Undoubtedly there will be a crossover audience for my SF and non-genre stories but I figured people are often in the mood for one but not the other, and besides it would have been an unbalanced mix. Now I’ve accumulated a mass of SF, plus non-genre stories that don’t have a strong theme running through them. Should I consider blending them in the same publication, or keep to the segregation?
For those of you with a passing interest in Northern working class culture and writings thereon (and let’s face it, on this blog it’s a definite benefit) there are a couple of rather interesting radio programmes on the BBC iplayer and they look like they’re available for quite some time yet.
The first is Beyond the Kitchen Sink, which I must have missed last year when it was on as part of the British New Wave season. It does make the occasional reference to other programmes from the season, which I don’t think are still available, but it’s an enjoyable documentary in its own right. For just short of an hour, Paul Allen talks about the plays and novels of the mid-fifties to sixties which brought working class voices to the fore. There are archive contributions from the likes of John Osborne, David Storey, Stan Barstow, and clips from the film and radio adaptations of their work. A much more intelligent treatment than the BBC TV documentary from September 2010 with an overlapping focus (which I reviewed here) it asks questions like why were the writers mainly northern, mainly men, and why did it appear to be a brief trend. A suggestion for part of the answer to the last question is that writers following in their footsteps went into TV rather than writing plays or novels, which brings me neatly to the next programme.
Bingo, Barbie and Barthes: 50 Years of Cultural Studies is a dreadful title for a thought-provoking two-part documentary on the origins and legacy of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies which Richard Hoggart founded in 1964 after he’d written The Uses of Literacy (which I’ve written about before). It features interviews with co-founder Stuart Hall who died recently, as well as other cultural studies academics past and present. It’s interesting to note how far removed cultural studies now seems to be (particularly in the popular imagination) from Hoggart’s intention but I do think that at its most incisive it can tell us a lot about the state of our society, for instance by examining the prevalence and format of TV talent shows or Downton Abbey or celebrity gossip magazines.
If any of that’s put you in the mood for some Northern writing and you haven’t sampled it already, you could try my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women. Some of it even has a working class setting…
Our first graphic novel, Boys Don’t Cry, now has a life of its own. Last year a student from Edinburgh contacted us to ask about using BDC as the basis for a project, he wanted to produce an animated version of some sort. Being generally agreeable sorts in favour of educational pursuits, we said yes. I hadn’t mentioned it here because I didn’t know if it would work out and didn’t know if he’d want it broadcast in advance (piling on the pressure, perhaps) but I’ve recently found out he has a blog about the project, which you can read
(he does say nice things about us, but that’s not the only reason I’m telling you. Honest). Interesting to see the thought processes behind it all as it progresses, and the enthusiasm. Also quite entertaining to realise I was wrong when I thought he’d partly chosen BDC because of where it was set (apparently the Edinburgh connection didn’t occur to him till later). I will keep you posted on how it all goes.
While we’re observing the BDC-shaped ripples in the wider world, I’ll mention this review that was pointed out to me fairly recently, from April 2013. Gratifying to know that someone has spotted the ‘Hunter has no face’ idea and the link to depression and social expectations/stigma (it may well be that everyone who’s ever read it has spotted these, but I don’t recall anyone mentioning it before. If you have, whether in writing or when meeting one of us, point it out and I’ll happily correct myself here…)
If you haven’t read BDC and have no idea what I’m talking about, you can download the pdf for free by clicking here. In the past you could have bought a printed copy from us but we’ve run out, sorry.
If you’re trying to get into a regular writing habit but you keep running into the ‘yes but what do I write about?’ problem, you need a few prompts up your sleeve. Colour doesn’t work for everyone, but you could give it a try. Specifically, try writing on a rainbow.
Conveniently, there are the same number of colours in the rainbow as there are days in the week, so you can match one with the other and never have to think too hard about a prompt again. You might go with:
Monday – the red light district
Tuesday – orange squash at a church fete
Wednesday – the lemon sweets that always get left till last
Thursday – the smell of fresh-mown grass
Friday – bluetits jostling on a garden feeder
Saturday – a school exercise book with deep purple sugar-paper covers
Sunday – crystallised violets on a birthday cake
Or another week might be:
Monday – scarlet stilletos
Tuesday – a vibrant sunset
Wednesday – washing-up gloves
Thursday – a green velvet ribbon
Friday – a lake on a calm sunny day
Saturday – someone coming home with a black eye
Sunday – a purple front door on a street of white uPVC
Either try 5 minutes’ uninterrupted writing and see where it takes you, or jot down all the ideas each thing makes you think of. You might get a colourful surprise.
Metal and fiction: two of my favourite things, so you can imagine my delight when I chanced upon Despumation Press. This is a new venture that ‘seeks to champion writing that explores the diverse themes metal customarily addresses using language in such a way as to evoke the feeling of listening to the music’. Sounds cool, and they’re seeking submissions based on your favourite metal song.
It turns out their favoured end of metal isn’t mine (you may recall all that talk of ‘hair metal’ in the past, not a term I’d ever used but it seems to cover a big chunk of what I like. That and NWOBHM of course), so I guess I won’t be offering them my efforts but I did want to have a go for my own entertainment. Or maybe even education.
Capturing the rhythm of a song sounds quite hard and I’m not absolutely sure how to go about it. I’ve read poetry with a definite driving beat to it, so maybe that could be replicated in prose. Could you vary the sentence length, the types of words; get all flowing and lyrical for the guitar solo? Even if you’re not keen on metal you could get a piece of flash fiction from your favourite song (or a novella, if you’re into Dream Theater). One to try I think, and if you have wide-ranging musical tastes the variety of styles could be interesting – maybe you’d have to detail the soundtrack in the introduction, if you released them as a collection. Of course, this assumes you can listen and write at the same time.
Some people have decided to spend 2014 reading only books by women, so The Guardian tells us. Fine, they can do what they like, but they needn’t expect me to join them.
I wrote a few years ago about the (largely accidental) male bias in my reading matter, and I said then that reading only sci-fi written by women would be just as bad as reading only sci-fi written by men. I stand by that now, notwithstanding my more recent post about reading Yorkshire-related books (and I did say then that if I only read Yorkshire-related books it would be weird); an individual choosing to guide their own reading habits by the name of the author, the colour of the cover or whatever other arbitrary criterion is basically harmless, if we assume they’re not maintaining that those books they’ve chosen are intrinsically superior. However, when a group, a journal, a public movement picks up on something like gender, it quickly becomes political.
Back when I was a postgrad I refused on principle to join any female physicist/female STEM network. My gender shouldn’t matter, whether as a scientist or as a writer. I find the idea patronising, as though I might need special treatment, as though I can’t get by on merit. The same goes for writing: what happened to reading the synopsis and giving the book a whirl?
As it happens, I’m reading a book by a female author at the moment (and it’s Yorkshire-related). It is Shirley by Charlotte Bronte and I wouldn’t recommend it; I’m reading it for the machine-breaking (Luddite) theme but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. There are all the sins against Yorkshire accents that I accused Frances Hodgson Burnett of in that earlier Yorkshire books post, plus interminable sentences, seemingly inconsequential asides, French passages my rusty GCSE can’t cope with, and unexplained quotations of whole songs and poems. For a gender-balanced view, I should point out that I abandoned my attempt at reading some Dickens again last year for similar reasons (except the accent thing).
One book by a female author I did enjoy last year was Domestic Manners of the Americans by Fanny Trollope (mother of Anthony). She travelled widely in the USA in (I think) the 1820s, when many large cities we’re used to hearing about were still small towns, and she wrote this fascinating and entertaining account of her travels. She comes across as a strong woman I wouldn’t have wanted to get on the wrong side of. Not recommended for any American readers who happen to be easily-offended, however.