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.

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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.