literature

Writers’ imposter syndrome

I’m no longer a new writer, I think I mostly come under the ’emerging’ heading. I’ve had a fair few successes, I’m doing ok. I’ve even taken over running the local writing group. Yet I still sometimes end up at writers’ gatherings feeling thick, left out, and like I shouldn’t really be there.

Some of this comes from not knowing the jargon. Surrounded by people with a BA in Eng Lit, or an MA in Creative Writing, they say things like ‘of course that’s a metaphor for…’ and my mind swings back to the pre-GCSE English class where we learnt that a simile is where you’re saying it’s similar to and metaphors are the other one. By which time I’ve missed the rest of the sentence anyway. Or they use some terminology I’m completely unfamiliar with, and since everyone else is nodding and looking serious, I don’t like to interrupt matters by asking what the blazes they’re on about. For the most part, I don’t need to know the technical terms – there are lots of bits of grammar I don’t know the rules for, let alone the names, but years of reading other people’s books, and absorbing the rhythm and typical ways of phrasing things means I can use them in context.

Sometimes they’ve seen themes in my work that aren’t there. I get suggestions to mine this a bit more, or go further with my exploration of that. It was just a story about a teapot, I want to say. I am not as deep and multi-layered as you think I am. The teapot is not symbolic, it’s certainly not a metaphor for whatever it is you just said that I missed while I was remembering what metaphor means, and I don’t want her to shatter it at the end. It’s a teapot, it’s for making tea in. She’d only have to sweep it up afterwards.

At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.

On Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme about working class writers last year, someone said working class stories are rock n roll to the literary novel’s classical music. I don’t think it’s purely class-based snobbery though, it’s genre as well (look at the lack of genre novels winning mainstream prizes). Most of the fiction I read is SF, crime or a mixture of the two. I read recently that a writer needs to keep up with the literary world. Listen to Front Row, the advice went. Read the books pages. Now The Guardian has good SF reviews, I often add things to my To Read list from there, but whenever I’ve inadvertently caught bits of Front Row (Radio 4 arts review programme) it’s always struck me as people being pretentious about books I don’t want to read, and events in London. The musical analogy caught up with me though and I had a (minor) revelation.

I like listening to music and I know a fair bit about it. The stuff I like, that is. Get me on glam metal, NWOBHM, certain strands of British indie, and I can bore for Britain. However, I neither know nor care what’s on Radio 3 or Radio 1, who’s on the proms this year or who’s just won a Brit award. Why should I, when the radio station I’m most likely to listen to is La Grosse Radio Metal? If I want to listen to old music it’ll be Benny Goodman not Beethoven. I don’t recognise anything I hear emanating from the flat of my opera-singer neighbour, but I can guarantee he doesn’t recognise my Bon Jovi tapes either. It doesn’t mean I’m less intelligent than an opera buff, just that we have different tastes.

Note that different doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Nobody has any business saying that someone ‘should’ have read any book outside their favoured genre, and I need to remember that just because everyone else around the table has read Muriel Spark or Ian Rankin there’s no need for me to do so. I’m not going to tell people who don’t like SF that they should read Tad Williams, just like I’m not going to tell people who like hip hop that they should listen to Black Sabbath. That doesn’t stop me from wearing my Sabbath hoodie, and while I’m not about to buy a Tad Williams T-shirt I may bolster myself at writer’s gatherings by cultivating the secure separateness of the metaller in a crowd of Radio 1 listeners.

Literary fiction and why I avoid it

I can be something of a snob sometimes, particularly the inverse snobbery of the chippy northerner. I dismiss entire author lists as a bunch of poncy southerners and expect to leave it at that – why would I need to provide further explanation or analysis? I’m not saying it’s a great character trait, but I do admit to having it. However, listening to Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme Where Are All The Working Class Writers? some of the people she spoke to talked about middle class literary novelists having a different mindset from someone with a working class background, and also about the concept of not seeing your own life reflected in fiction in bookshops and thus being put off reading it. I wondered if some of my antipathy towards literary fiction was grounded in that feeling.

I have never read any Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Will Self or Julian Barnes. Not because of the author (well, maybe in the case of Will Self) but because none of their books have appealed to me. It’s not just old white men though, the same goes for Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy. In fact I had a look at the Booker Prize longlists 2010-2017 and I have only read one of the books on them; for the other 103 books I hadn’t even read any books by the author. That one book was surprising, it was Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, shortlisted in 2011. A novel by a Canadian author, with characters and settings from America, France, Germany and mainly set in the late 1930s and the second world war, it could be argued that Half Blood Blues is less connected with my mindset or reality than anything by McEwan et al, yet not only did I choose to read it but I really enjoyed it. Is it just that the usual suspects are neither familiar nor exotic enough?

I have read and enjoyed five AS Byatt novels, and there’s no getting away from their classification as literary fiction. Does the fact that she’s originally from Yorkshire, and each of those books is partially set in Yorkshire, make that much of a difference to me? (Probably, though I’ve enjoyed plenty of Ben Aaronovitch and Robert Rankin books set in London)

It can’t be a complete aversion to a stratum of life: I’ve read plenty of upper/middle class novels by PG Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Trollope. Each of those has humour though, often laugh-out-loud, and even though Trollope is Victorian Literature now, he was a popular novelist in his day. None of them are highbrow.

I don’t want to read the same kind of book all the time (hence Anthony Trollope, sci-fi, crime, fantasy, PG Wodehouse, historical fiction, etc) so even if some of it had some connection to my life, most of it wouldn’t and it can’t be that reflection of life that I’m looking for. Most of what I read, however, has what you might call plot.

I’m reaching the conclusion that what puts me off literary fiction is the label as much as anything else. I see a novel under that heading and I expect it to be full of dull wealthy people, sighing and arguing and having affairs and mid-life crises, probably in a place they don’t describe because Everyone has been there (except I probably haven’t), and really nothing much happens and nobody laughs. I read the synopsis with all that at the back of my mind and a description I might be half-interested in without that bias puts me off immediately. So yes, it’s mainly personal prejudice, and it’s yet another argument for not splitting the fiction in bookshops and libraries into all the fiddly sub-categories.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

One of the nineteenth century novels I read in 2014 and am now trying to get away from, New Grub Street was a book I’d heard of but knew very little about, except some vague connection to the Radio 4 comedy Ed Reardon’s Week. I have a feeling it was a Guardian article that finally nudged me into downloading the ebook and diving in.

As an entertaining character study, Jasper the ambitious carefree hack (he will essentially write anything for anyone as long as they pay him well and/or provide useful connections) is amusing in a thoughtless, I’m alright Jack sort of a way. Edwin Reardon, his contrasting best friend, is a wonderful caricature of the moody, introspective, ‘artistic’ writer, waiting for his muse and harping back to a critically-acclaimed novel or two that he wrote in his youth. Beyond that, however, lies just another Victorian romance, and I felt it descended rather towards melodrama as it neared the end.

There is, naturally, the loyal girl who gets thrown over – a doormat of the first order who exasperated me quite early on. There is also Edwin’s heartless, selfish, entirely unsympathetic wife (can you tell I wasn’t keen on her either?), though she at least was interestingly modern in her musings on the idea of a woman leaving her husband and starting a new life. There is noble poverty, and desperate illness, and the odd death and wedding.

If you are a writer, or live among writers, New Grub Street will amuse you with its observations about tit-for-tat reviewing, the triumph of luck and networking over talent, and various other features of the life that every generation of writers seems to think it’s the first to experience. If you’re looking for a good Victorian romance, however, you’d do better to pick yourself a random Anthony Trollope instead.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Yiddish Policemen's Union

Imagine a world where Israel didn’t become a state in 1948, and where the largest Jewish community is a North American backwater tolerated (mostly) by the local Tlingit people on the understanding that it’s purely a temporary measure. Now imagine an unidentified Jewish junkie is found dead in his room in the same fleapit hotel that the area’s premier homicide detective currently calls home, on the eve of mass eviction. You have the beginnings of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an unusual novel that I enjoyed a great deal.

Sitka, in Michael Chabon’s world, is a small Yiddish-speaking homeland in the heart of Alaska on a 60-year lease starting in 1948. It’s now autumn 2007, 2 months from Reversion when the population of displaced European Jews and their descendents will be displaced again, this time by their American landlords. The novel apparently comes from the author having found a Yiddish travellers’ phrase-book from the 1950s and imagined what kind of place it might be useful, and heard about a failed 1940s plan to resettle displaced European Jews in Alaska. Laced with ornately mournful humour, the book was reminiscent of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth noir  in its alternate history and almost surreal setting, though it seemed less tongue in cheek (then again, I’ve never been to Alaska or a Jewish enclave, so I could have missed the overtly silly parts).

Meyer Landsman, a middle-aged alcoholic detective who’s falling apart at the seams, is nevertheless a sympathetic main character. I was rooting for him, I warmed to him, and I felt for him. First and foremost he is a policeman, and when Reversion comes the Sitka police force will be disbanded. What then? And what will happen to his neighbours, friends and family? There is an interesting theme of chess throughout the story – the ritual of playing it, the shame of not enjoying it when everyone else does, its puzzles as an allegory of life.

Chabon has written such lyrical prose that despite the relatively short chapters and the tension of the murder investigation (not to mention the headlong flight towards Reversion), I found myself putting the novel aside frequently to savour the images. At one point he described Landsman as walking ‘with a kink in his back and an ache in his head and a sharp throbbing pain in his dignity’. It was a book that deserved to be read slowly.

Fans of the hard-boiled detective story might need to be patient with this novel, it’s probably not as spare as they’re used to. If you’re not a detective fan, don’t be put off – like the rugby in This Sporting Life it’s a key part of the setting but not the only point to the story. I would recommend this widely to lovers of lyrical literature of wide open country, like The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.

#Bookaday, volume the third

I’ll make this the last outing for #bookaday and I’ll cherry-pick, in a vain attempt to avoid boredom. So, where were we..?

BOOKADAY_JuneAt the risk of sounding pretentious (I know, not like me at all) I can’t believe more people haven’t read Remembrance of Things Past. Lots of people have heard of Proust, they may even use the word Proustian in relation to sensation-triggered memories, but I’ve yet to find anyone else who admits to having made it past the first part (if you have, leave a comment and end my solitude). Maybe the fact that I read epic fantasy novels conditioned me for it, but I loved the total immersion and also the ability to (if I remember correctly) write a few thousand pages without actually naming your main character. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read twice (see number 29, below) and it’s left such vivid images in my mind that I can step into the setting of the novel at will. Marvellous stuff.

If I say I’m moving on to number 19 now, I guess regulars will groan, and chorus The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart. It might get overtaken by The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel at some point, but I haven’t finished reading that yet. What can I say? I get fired up about inequality, education, working class opportunities and any mixture thereof.

I’ve got a lot of out of print books, that’s part of the fun of second-hand bookshops.

23 and 25 kind of go hand in hand. Any book we were made to read at school, I’m unlikely to have finished. I definitely didn’t finish Jane Eyre, Far From the Madding Crowd or a world war 2 book which may have been The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall. I vaguely remember asking friend T what happened in The Lord of the Flies so I suspect I didn’t get to the end of that one either. I probably finished Animal Farm because it was George Orwell, and I know I read The Hobbit but I’m pretty sure I’d already done so before it was flung at us in the classroom. As you might guess, 23 and 24 are diametrically opposed. Thankfully I was enthused about reading long before school started to try and spoil it, and my earliest memory isn’t early enough to capture it (though Spot the Dog will have been part of it, so a brief nod to his creator Eric Hill, who died recently).

Should have sold more copies? Clearly that’s The Little Book of Northern Women by JY Saville, a rewarding collection of short stories that’s not just for girls, and a snip at only 99p…

I’m not going to admit here which bookload of characters I’d want to be among (although I probably have done already, there’s a lot of posts on this blog now). Those who know me, in real life or through long readership, could probably have a good guess. Answers on a postcard (or a comment box, if you feel like it).

Which brings me to re-reading. A few years ago I explained why I rarely re-read books (I do re-read blog posts, and you can do the same here), so I’m not sure there are any books (except children’s books, books I’ve written, or books I’ve proof-read for other people) that I’ve read more than twice. Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every festive season (Dickens and I don’t get on, so I had a hard enough time getting through it the once). I know someone who rarely reads anything but Jane Austen and has to buy new copies as the old ones wear out. Honestly, my most-read book is almost certainly A Bear Called Paddington. If you’ve ever seen me in a situation where a hard stare is called for, that might explain a lot.

Putting faces to names at the Ilkley litfest

It’s that time of year again, both the Morley and Ilkley literature festivals are on and West Yorkshire is abuzz with writers and their fans. In these days of media saturation when everyone has their photo on the web or at the top of their newspaper column (whose silly idea was that? It’s like DJs, my mental image is often more suited to their style so a photo of them looking too young, old, cheerful, grumpy, fashionable or tweedy only spoils things) I suppose I’m not literally putting faces to names. Seeing people in person is quite different though.

So far the famous names I’ve been to see are Jonathan Dimbleby (at Any Questions, a marvellous experience which left me bemoaning the lack of a modern-day William Cobbett. Again), Peter Snow (the enthusiasm of the man! An hour of him waving his arms around on stage could make me interested in almost anything) and on Wednesday, Louise Doughty.

Regular readers will have seen that name before, as she heads the fun (occasionally bonkers) community that is the Telegraph Short Story Club. Having been semi-regular there for over a year, when I introduced myself at the signing table she greeted me like she knew me, thus turning the tables on the sort of familiarity from strangers she must experience all the time. Having been to panel talks before when I’ve only had something (probably second-hand) for one person to sign, and having said to someone at another signing table ‘I read your book out of the library, it was good’ before moving on leaving us both slightly embarrassed, this time I excelled myself. Apple Tree Yard, the novel Louise was promoting, having only come out in hardback this summer, I’d joined the queue for the solitary library copy at the start of August, finally collecting it two days before the talk. Not only did I not have the book for her to sign, I’d only read the first 20 pages.

Of course, being a pro she happily signed my Wallace and Gromit notebook where I’d written the first draft of my response to this week’s SSC Friday Challenge. Next stop, Melvyn Bragg. I haven’t got anything for him to sign, either.

Choosing books with a Yorkshire theme

As I’ve said many times before: so many books, so little time. Leaving aside for the moment the deeper question of why I’m adding to the problem by publishing my own, the main question is how to narrow the field. A slightly arbitrary and parochial way of doing it is to seek out books with some relevance to where you live, or were born, or spent the happiest years of your life, or… You get the idea.

Regular readers will have spotted that I’m a proud Yorkshireman (Yorkshirewoman just doesn’t sound right) so what better way to navigate through the overcrowded bibliographic waters than to look for books with a Yorkshire connection.

Friend T has assisted on this front several times, introducing me to the delights of AS Byatt via Possession (“you’ll like it, it’s partly set in Whitby”), and Kate Atkinson via Behind the Scenes at the Museum (read my review here). I mentioned these gifts on Twitter recently and Pamela Hartshorne pointed out this website of York authors which I’ll need to look into further. (Incidentally, has anyone done a similar site for Bradford yet?)

Please don’t imagine that I only ever read books with some connection to the county of my birth; that would just be weird. However, in the packed genre of crime for example, I like a helping hand, a nudge in some direction because there are just so many books out there to choose from, and I’m not alone in this. My mum started reading Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels because of their Yorkshire setting, and I recently started her off on Peter Robinson’s books for the same reason.

As a child I had a couple of bad experiences of Yorkshire-related works, but thankfully it didn’t put me off. I remember The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett being recommended as it was set in Yorkshire but I can’t remember if I got to the end. I seem to recall (bearing in mind I haven’t touched it in twenty-five years or more) Yorkshire dialect written in a way that almost seemed like a caricature, and only for characters you were supposed to look down on (see my earlier post on written dialect). Jane Eyre (the Brontes usually being classed as Yorkshire writers) was a book we had to read at school, and I know I didn’t get very far with that, in fact I didn’t know what happened after Jane’s friend dies of TB, till I looked up the plot online this evening. Some of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books make a bit more sense now.

Even now, choosing a book on this basis isn’t a guarantee of success (see my reviews of Saville and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) but if you don’t know where next to turn in your quest for literary satisfaction, it’s a way of taking a step in a new direction. You might find some surprising gems.

Oh, and Happy Yorkshire Day.

Thomas More’s Utopia

I’ll refer to it as Thomas More’s Utopia because, despite the modern meaning of the word, it wouldn’t be for everyone. For a start, they have slavery. However, given it was written in the 16th century there’s still a lot in there to learn from, and if you replace the word ‘prince’ with ‘prime minister’ I would endorse a big chunk of his advice to anyone ruling a nation (Messrs Cameron and Osborne, please take note. Or perhaps someone could give Ed Miliband a copy).

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s couched as a conversation taking place between More and a well-traveled man who has found through vast experience that the most contented and best-governed nation in the world is the (fictional) nation of Utopia. He then explains to More and his friend why it is that Utopia is so great, and how it differs from England or other European nations of the time. This includes its justice system, foreign policy and welfare system, parts of which are now in place, parts sound ludicrously old-fashioned, and most of it I’m sure would have been thought mad (or subversive, or both) in the 19th century, let alone the 16th.

I believe it may have been written in Latin, so possibly depends on the English edition you get hold of, but I found it surprisingly easy to read, of great historical interest, and it shone a light on the great constants of socialist thought (for Utopia is a recognisably socialist nation, for all its oddities of antiquity).

Utopia is a book I vaguely intended to read in my late teens, but put off by the idea that it might be hard to read because of its age, and potentially long and dry (it turned out to be neither), I never got round to it. Being of Yorkshire birth and ancestry, naturally the prospect of free e-books piqued my interest so when I did get my e-reader a couple of months ago, I went straight to the online repositories of out of copyright books. A combination of resurgent interest thanks to Jonathan Rose’s book (The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes), and the ease of carrying several long books at once, plus a novel for light relief, means that I’ve been reading all sorts of books I never quite got round to at nineteen, as well as ones that weren’t on my radar back then. I’ve particularly been enjoying John Ruskin lately, and for that alone I salute the rise (but never the domination) of the e-reader.

The Cult of the Classics

Working men making their own exploration into culture in the 19th century were often stuck in the past as far as their reading material went. They looked to Pope, Milton, Shakespeare, Carlyle etc. All of which I as a teenager, beginning to explore literature for myself, read or attempted to read, or felt guilty for not reading. The kind of books that featured on Sir John Lubbock’s Victorian list of books you ‘should’ have read in order to be considered cultured. Although for working men in the 19th century, reading the whole lot wouldn’t guarantee that. But I digress…

More than 100 years later, for GCSE in the early 1990s, I studied Shakespeare and Wordsworth. We have stagnated, or worse, we are regressing because every year that goes by takes us a year further from the time when any of those works was fresh and new. And as the list is added to (very slowly) the chances of anyone getting through the lot at a reasonably young age grow slimmer.

It is important to know what foundations your culture was built on, but at what cost? If you have to struggle with the language, delve into sideroads of history to understand what was at the time a passing reference to a contemporary person or event, doesn’t that lose some of the pleasure? Which is not to say you shouldn’t do that if you want to – overcoming the challenge may lead to a depth of enjoyment hitherto unknown – but I don’t think it should be expected.

These books or authors were held up at their own times and those just after as the best example of, in Dickens for instance, social conscience in literature. Haven’t we got any other examples yet? If not, we must be doing something wrong.

Cheap editions and the end of perpetual copyright in 1774

I am a writer, but I’m also a socialist and as such a great advocate of universal education to as high a level and in whatever form possible. Perpetual copyright, while ensuring that you and your descendants retain control of your work in perpetuity (and of course continue to rake in the royalties), precludes the kind of cheap editions that allow someone on low pay to read freely and, by extension, educate themselves outside of school. In 1774 when perpetual copyright ended in Britain there wasn’t a network of free lending libraries in every town (of course, that’s ceasing to be the case now, but that’s another story) and for a worker to read a book, they or one of their circle had to have bought it.  The cheap editions of older works that were suddenly possible due to the change in copyright law allowed that to happen.

When I was in my teens, the Wordsworth Classics range was launched: a pound for works of Dickens, Tolstoy, and a host of other, mainly 19th century, authors. At the time I’m sure I could have borrowed any of them from the library but for less than the cost of a return bus fare into town I could have my own copy to keep coming back to. Most of them still grace my shelves. The paper may have been thin and the spines plain grey but the words inside were the same as if I’d inherited a copy with a tooled leather binding. Back in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries that revolutionary cheapening of old books would, if any formally educated man was willing to engage, have enabled me to debate those contents with my supposed betters. It would have let me creep into the citadel of learning.

Size isn’t everything

Over at the Telegraph Short Story Club, Louise Doughty has been talking about short novels and novellas. Various works have been mentioned and measured, but what makes something a novella rather than a short novel? And what is a novelette (I long for it to involve eggs and a frying pan. And paper napkins)? It can’t all be down to length – I have read short stories by Stephen King longer than some people’s novels. I have seen novellas as short as a (long) short story. Someone suggested it’s down to marketing – if a publisher’s happy to promote it on its own, it’s a novel. Which leads to two questions.

The first is: What happens with self-published e-books? It can be as short as you like, and as long as the story feels satisfying and the reader doesn’t feel like they’ve been overcharged, does it matter how it’s classified? Will there be more ‘short novels’ where once they may have been padded to reach some acceptable wordcount, or cast aside as too short to bother with? And might we find the time to read more, from a wider pool of authors, that way?

The second is: Is there something about a story, its structure or content that makes it a novella rather than a novel? If you read two books of 125 pages, could you confidently say one was a novel that was a touch on the short side, and the other was a full-blown novella? I ventured (knowing next to nothing about it) that subplots or the lack thereof may come into it. I wondered if the novella may be intermediate in complexity and cast-list, between the short story and the novel (again, what about that novelette?).

I wonder further if any of this matters, to the writer? Unless you’re an author with an agent, who has to think in terms of pitching your new work to an audience, do you (should you?) think about the length of a story before you sit down to begin? Do you sit at your desk thinking ‘I fancy a novella this time’ or do you conjure a world, a character, a scene and find within that the kernel of the story that will let you know how long it needs to be? Perhaps that’s only an insight into my chaotic creativity.

Thoughts on the topic would be most welcome. Or if anyone has a recipe for a nourishing novelette.

Epitaphs, lasting legacies and the spec-fic pigeon

What would you want to be remembered for, if you had a choice? If you’re artistic at all, chances are you want your creations to live on after you, physically or in memory. If you make the distinction, would you want it to be your ‘serious’ work or the commercial output that pays the bills (or gives you pocket-money treats, depending how successful you are)? Would you rather the product of your frivolous youth was lost to the ravages of time, or do you think your best work is years behind you?

A while ago I wrote a story starting with Herman Sligo was a bit actor who played Uncle Emil in three episodes of the popular television series The Five Sisters. He died peacefully on November 8th and is survived by his younger sister from The First Line, which ended up being about an old lady’s sadness that her brother’s obituary focused on what was essentially a part-time job in his youth, rather than the community work he’d dedicated most of his life to. Outside of that community, the only reason anyone had heard his name was through television, since that literally made him visible to the wider world. If a genre author is known outside of their particular literary community, it’s usually for something that wouldn’t be considered their best or most representative work, but it might be the one that the wider population has heard of. In a similar way, bands or singers end up being remembered in general for the thing that most people will have heard, the commercial success.

As far as writing goes, I’m not sure what I’d prefer people to notice. If I had to be pigeonholed (which I’d rather not be, but it does happen) I’d rather be a spec-fic pigeon than a literary one. If nothing else, I like the sound of it.

Valentine’s Day is over

Yet another day in the greetings card manufacturer list of approved spending times has gone by, but it seemed like a reasonable excuse to muse on literary love. That could mean a favourite relationship between characters, a character you wish was real so you could spend the rest of your life (or a romantic evening) with them, or even your love affair with a particular book.

Los Angeles Without a Map, by Richard Rayner, is quite a good book about mad impulsive infatuation (though the film may be better: it stars David Tennant and is partly filmed in Bradford, which is how come I went to see it at the pictures with Big Brother). Boy meets girl, girl goes home to Hollywood, boy follows bizarre whim and flies there to start a new life (girl not necessarily that impressed). It’s an amusing account of an Englishman out of place in a world where everyone wants to be in movies and nothing is quite as it seems.

Dare I mention Aragorn and Arwen, or is that too predictable? How about Magrat and the Fool, in the Discworld? I clearly don’t read the right sort of books for this, I can’t think of any characters suited to romantic evenings but I will give a special mention to Forral, from Maggie Furey’s Artefacts of Power quartet, who in my head was always more or less OneMonkey.

Anyone out there care to chip in?

Great view from here

My long-awaited contributor copy of  The View From Here arrived this week, to much excitement in the Monkey household.

Illustration credit: Conor Tarter, Gavin Schaefer.

I thought I’d share with you what it looks like (I’m quite pleased with the layout and illustration) but you’ll notice that the words have been tampered with in the gimp (that’s the gnu image manipulation program, for those that don’t follow me on deviantArt) so if you want to read it, you’ll still have to buy a copy.

As further enticements, there is an article about and interview with Booker-shortlisted Damon Galgut; an article about the changing nature of literary coverage by the literary editor of The Guardian (and Observer, and website); book reviews; poetry; and of course, short stories. I enjoyed (and would imagine anyone who likes Gwendoline Riley’s style will enjoy) Thanksgiving by Meredith Miller, a slow gaze across friendship, closeness and dreams; that was the other short story which was only available in the print edition (there is also part 2 of a serial by Kathleen Maher, which I confess I haven’t read yet).

The Well of Lost Plots

Having started with Something Rotten and been largely confused (partly because I didn’t know the plot of Hamlet), I’ve caught up with myself as far as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series goes. The Well of Lost Plots is the third in the series and I think the best I’ve read so far.

A complicated and quite thrilling plot (with very little in the way of those trying-too-hard character names that marred my enjoyment of the first two books), plenty of in-jokes, literary references, and some wonderful ideas and imagery. Unpublished novels where scenery disappears because the author’s decided to use it in his new book; a black market in plot devices; slightly steampunk-esque machinery that transmits images to the reader’s mind… Trying to write a coherent review of this novel is too hard, partly because it’s the third in a series and partly because so much goes on (and not all of it makes sense) so it would be very easy to give things away. As I said to OneMonkey earlier, while I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly, I would say that if you enjoy the works of Douglas Adams or Robert Rankin (leaving aside a Dog Called Demolition) this should probably be on your To Read list.

Women of words

Flicking through an old copy of Mslexia and wondering if I should submit to their One I Love feature (short piece about a book that’s important to you), it occurred to me that they only cover books by women. Before I go on, I should say I always have my misgivings about magazines that only allow women to write for them, apart from anything else I think most women associated with such a thing would fume at any men-only equivalent, but a (male) writer friend of mine once cautioned me (in this context) about cutting off my nose to spite my face (which I am prone to) so I tell myself that it’s no different from a magazine for Scottish writers or Northumbrian writers or whatever, and get on with it.

Off the top of my head I couldn’t think of any personally important books I’d read by women, so out came the trusty notebook where I’ve logged my reading for nearly 20 years. Since the start of 2001 (roughly 10 years so that’ll do as a sample) I’ve read 353 books, of which 52 (less than 15%) were written by women – that’s 30 novels (including 5 Tracy Chevalier, 5 AS Byatt, a 4-volume fantasy series by Maggie Furey, 3 detective novels chosen at random in the library and 2 Margaret Atwoods given to me by a friend), a graphic novel, a short story collection, 9 books for children (basically Harry Potter, plus the ones I passed the time with when I worked in a charity shop and ‘junior fiction’ was next to the till), 7 history books and 4 other assorted non-fiction. Back in 1994 I didn’t read a single book by a female author, and in 1995 and 1996, no female-authored fiction. Surprising, interesting, but does it matter?

I noticed that (since I’m yet to start on the pile of second-hand CJ Cherryh novels I picked up recently) none of those 30 novels in the last 10 years were science fiction; 8 were fantasy, but the rest were mainly ‘literary’ (AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood – though she does write sci-fi as well, I believe) or historical (even all but one of the detective novels were historical). I suppose the traditional male-domination of science still largely applies (and unfortunately I’ve met a few academics who would prefer to keep it that way) so it seems logical that the science fiction audience could be mainly male and hence the subset of that audience that becomes the next generation of authors will be mainly male. The last thing I would want is a patronising leg-up for female sci-fi writers, as the editors and publishers try to shift the balance.

It did make me wonder about unconscious bias, though. CJ Cherryh – initials, hence gender neutral and I don’t think I realised until after I’d bought the pile of books that this was a female author. I do like to use my initials generally (Big Brother’s fault, he’s always called me JY) but when I started submitting sci-fi stories I made a deliberate decision not to use my full name. It wasn’t to hoodwink editors (I sort of assume, though I may be wrong, that these days there’s no conscious gender bias on their part, unless they’re running a gender-specific magazine) but to stop readers from passing my story over, or pre-judging it. I like to think I don’t notice the gender of authors when I pick up their books or flick through a magazine but I’m realising with some shame that I see a woman’s name and assume fantasy rather than sci-fi, and I’d probably guessed others would do the same, hence my use of initials. Of course some female authors go the whole hog and use a male pseudonym to circumvent this, so maybe I’ve read and enjoyed sci-fi short stories written by women, without realising it. I’m not about to deliberately seek out sci-fi by women (just as bad as deliberately reading sci-fi by men), but I’ll try harder to give it an equal chance. I’ll let you know how I get on.

The North: a Cultural Wasteland

Finally read This Sporting Life by David Storey, and I quite enjoyed it, much more than I enjoyed his later novel Saville (see my earlier comments on that). Maybe one of the reasons was that it was about a third of the length of Saville, and kept its focus. There were a couple of places (as with Saville) that violence or arguments apparently erupted from nowhere, making me think the characters were over-reacting or just unhinged, but maybe it’s a product of its era and I just don’t appreciate quite how controversial some of the dialogue or circumstances would have been at the time.

I’ve never seen the film despite its brief filming in my native village (Big Brother watched it for that reason earlier in the week, and suggested I should watch it sometime but warned me there’s a lot of grimness and rugby to sit through) but from what I gather it’s different from the book, even the main character’s name. In the book, Arthur Machin is a young factory worker who gets signed to the local rugby team for a fair sum. Though he could live on his rugby pay, he carries on working and remains in his cheap lodgings but buys a car and lives it up a bit, going to parties and greyhound races. He’s a bit full of himself, headstrong and self-centred, but not nearly as bad as some of those around him, or as bad as his parents seem to think. His love affair with his widowed landlady is hard to fathom but in many ways its successes and failures are what seems to drive him. Though his status as a rugby player is central to the novel, rugby itself isn’t, and if (like me) you neither understand nor care about rugby that shouldn’t take away from your appreciation of the book, which is a good example of the northern working class novel of the 60s.

This Sporting Life was first published in 1960, and Big Brother directed me to the iplayer when he’d watched the film, where I found a programme purporting to document the explosion of northern culture in 1960, including this novel. OneMonkey sometimes disputes (possibly in jest, though I’m never entirely sure) Yorkshire’s claim to be Northern. I guess if you’re a Geordie the only place more northern than you is Scotland, but at least we can both agree that Nottingham is not The North by any stretch of the imagination, unless perhaps you’re a BBC type who saw The North as an exotic country (starting around Watford) back in 1960. In other words, this was one of those ‘with friends like these…’ programmes where the BBC attempts to condemn patronising attitudes of the past, and in doing so patronises mightily. If I hadn’t have had a mouth full of omelette, I would have been shouting at the computer. It was as if they’d run out of examples early on, and brought in ‘northern writer’ DH Lawrence (from Nottinghamshire) to fill the gap (maybe they just wanted an excuse to bring up the trial, and use rude words on BBC4).

1960 also saw Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving and of course Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse. Both novels were mentioned, but mainly in terms of the slightly later film versions. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning also featured (film 1960, novel 1958).

Robert Bolt (born just outside Manchester I think) had 2 new plays in 1960, one of which was A Man For All Seasons, and neither of which were mentioned. Tony Richardson (Shipley-born film director) was mentioned, but for A Taste of Honey which is a very good film but came out in 1961 (and the play debuted in 1958, so I’m not sure why they spent so much time on it in a programme about 1960). What they didn’t mention was The Entertainer, released in 1960, directed by Richardson, featuring Shirley Anne Field, Thora Hird, Albert Finney, Joan Plowright – all born north of the northernmost point of the Welsh-English border as far as I know (and that’s a good start for deciding what to designate the north of England, I’ve always thought). The 1960 Stanley Baker film Hell Is A City was set and filmed in Manchester, based on a novel by a Lancashire man.

I could go on, but I’m in danger of spilling tea on the keyboard in ranting gesticulation, and that would never do. It’s a shame that such a promising programme lost focus, spending quite a bit of its hour (so it seemed) on non-1960 output, non-northern output, and Coronation Street. With courage and research it could have been an informative look at the wealth of northern culture of the time, and a response to the all too frequent sneers turned our way from The South. I’ll let Big Brother have the last word: “What does he mean he likes the scene on the slag heap in Billy Liar? Slag heap? That’s Bradford Moor!”

Breathless update

Not necessarily breathless as in exciting (I’ve really got to work on this marketing thing…) but certainly breathless as in I haven’t written anything here in a while, lots has gone on and I’ll just take a big breath and pour it all out. I’ve had another (very short) story accepted, that’ll be appearing at Six Sentences tomorrow; I’ve already missed out on some of the events I wanted to go to at this October’s Ilkley Literature Festival (tickets had been on sale less than 48 hours at the time), I’ve been told about the Beverley Literature Festival but it’s a bit far away (and has quite an overlap with the Ilkley programme) and I keep forgetting to check the programme for the Morley Literature Festival (they’re all in October – why is that?); I’m partway through a week’s holiday from work, which encompassed a dry bank holiday (gasp!) and has included a fair bit of marching across moorland and along riverbanks with OneMonkey, as well as pottering around ruins and photographing buildings, hence (at least partly) the lack of time for writing; Big Brother has hit the half-century and I’ve had great fun making a cake (and eating leftover marzipan. And more jammie dodgers. Damn those special offers). Phew.

I hope you enjoy my contribution to Six Sentences, and if you’re likely to be northbound in October, sample a litfest – we seem to have a few these days.

Fantastic academics

A while ago, as I mentioned at the time, I read (some of) the Oxford book of fantasy. Because I’m nerdy like that, I read the weighty introduction as well and it amazed me, first because there are apparently academics out there who study sword and sorcery, and second because even while arguing that fantasy as a genre is worth studying, they still seem to dismiss it. With friends like that, etc.

Plenty of fantasy stories are what I would class as mawkish trash (even some that I’ve enjoyed as a guilty pleasure), but then I have similar views on Dickens and thankfully for the heterogeneity of the literary world many people think differently. I’ve never been entirely convinced that studying literature at universities is a worthwhile occupation, but if you’re going to do it then I don’t see what’s wrong with studying fantasy – popular entertainment, particularly when it’s revealing what people dream about when they’ve got totally free rein, detached from reality, has got to tell you something interesting about the collective psyche. The problem of defining fantasy came up as it always does, but the phrase ‘known to be impossible’ struck me as breath-takingly arrogant: there are plenty of things ‘known to be impossible’ a while ago which have turned out not to be, from remote communities to scientific advances.

Another one that got me was ‘I suspect that few if any people now believe in dragons, vampires…’ – fair enough, I’ve never met anyone over the age of about 6 who believed in dragons, but I’ve crossed paths with people who believed (or wanted to believe) in vampires, and here’s a quote from Private Eye just before Christmas 2009: “There are at least 1000 people in the vampire community in New York City alone” – Michelle Belanger, author and former head of the International Society of Vampires. The author of the introduction seemed to find belief in demons, God and the Devil far more acceptable, but I honestly can’t see much of a difference between believing in demons and believing in vampires (both equally incomprehensible to my scientifically-trained atheistic mind). Mind you, he also seemed to see sword and sorcery as the continual triumph of brute force over intelligence, and it didn’t horrify him that such a state of affairs should be put forward as the natural order of things; clearly his mind works in a very different way to mine.