In the Library…

The library is pretty much the only place I entertain existential thoughts. Working or reading in a library for seven hours awakens in my mind the possibility that there is a very strong chance I don’t exist… at least not outside its four walls.

I was thinking this as I emerged, no doubt bleary-eyed, from a morning in Leeds City Library for my lunch break. I didn’t feel at one with the Saturday shoppers, but rather looked upon their seemingly hysterical shopping and socialising with a confused but benevolent eye. Still wrapped in my library cocoon, I viewed everyone curiously, wolfed down my horrible sandwich, and rushed back gratefully to the calm repressive order of la bibliothèque.

After all, that is the appeal of the library – the repression, the rules, the order that is imposed upon you, but which, in reality, you have willingly submitted to. It is for these reasons that it frees up your mind – you don’t feel resentful of the constraint, like you would if you were at school, yet observe the rules carefully and respectfully, and glean enjoyment from doing so.

My two favourite libraries are Leeds City Library and Hornsey Library in Crouch End, London. The former I can’t find out much about, but it is, I would guess, a mid-to-late Victorian civic building that appears subtle in its architecture due to its proximity to the heavy stone wedding cake of Leeds City Hall.

Inside, the most notable features are the beautiful mosaics that cover the main staircases and lower half of the stairwell walls. On the second floor, my favourite spot for working is a huge galleried room which holds a steady peace and offers glimpses out over the city. You hear voices echoing up the stairs and shoes occasionally squeaking down the corridors, sounds which never irritate, but rather comfort. I can happily be ensconced in there for many hours at a time.

Hornsey Library, by contrast, is a sixties north London dream of modernism for nice people. Built between 1963-5 by Ley & Jarvis, it is a flat roofed, concrete-bound, plate-glassed construction, open-plan, full of light, with a grand sweeping staircase as its centrepiece that floats half-elegantly above the fiction section. It’s not so good for working for very long hours, but there is something friendly and calm about the space and you often have good ideas there.

Both libraries have their resident oddballs. I don’t visit Hornsey so much nowadays, but when I went there a lot there was one guy who went round chuckling to himself and saying interesting phrases very loudly. My favourite being when he incanted for about ten minutes ‘Boxing champ; boxing, boxing champ.’ Then moved on to ‘Card sharp, card sharp’ for another ten. I used to write down what he said.

In Leeds there are often what I assume to be obsessive Bible readers on the second floor who pore over the good book and mumble. When I went there a lot there was one man in particular who was always in the same spot. He carried a lot of empty plastic bags around and used to sit hunched over his tome mumbling to himself and never looking up. But when I went over to see what he was reading when he left the room for a moment, it was a book about JRTolkein… so maybe they’re all Middle Earth obsessives?

There is also, without fail, someone slightly pervy in any library worth it’s, er salt. But somehow their perviness seems to take on a quaint charm amidst all of that soothing paper and print. I don’t know if they come in normal, and then the silence and the dust and all those musty pages lining the shelves making the tick of each second seem deliriously long turns them to it, but you often look up from reading your chosen tome to find one of them staring down your top with a conspiratorial yet strangely blank expression. (After all, they don’t want you to remember what they look like when you’re back in the real world.)

& there is something illicit about the library. Surrounded by the safety net of categorizing systems and methodical study or administrative tasks, everything seems to move on a different timescale, as if you have tricked normal life and escaped to a slow moving haven.

I was unaware that Jorge Luis Borges was of the librarian fraternity, but I like his comment, ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’. To me, especially after eight hours in there, this comment equally suggests that Paradise, like the depiction of Heaven, can be a little too grindingly perfect at times and that after a full day of it you’re ready to talk to all the sinners on the outside again, that is if your mouth can remember how to form words… Or maybe it can help you get it together:

‘I’ve been drunk for about a week now and I thought it might sober me up to sit in the library.’– The Great Gatsby.

I also recommend you take a look at this youtube clip where the Islington librarian discusses Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s defacing of library books – the librarian’s tone is a completely brilliant mix of censure and admiration.

If anyone has particular recommendations for libraries, do comment and let us know where your favourite library is and why… Bit like our My Favourite Bookshop feature, perhaps…? Or good fiction references to libraries… Get in touch!

***

I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth repeating: I really recommend a look at the ‘Literary Review’ pages of Private Eye. Always hilarious, plus these pages provide welcome relief from the acres of literary journalism you can wade through over the course of a week, and it usually hits the nail on the head in a critical sense, especially in its main feature review.

This issue [No.1246] it is Dan Brown who comes in for a friendly if complete drubbing. At one point the article asks: ‘But is the writing really so bad? Brown’s sentences rarely sing, but only a few actually scream in pain.’ And despite his reputation for writing action-driven page-turners, PE’s literary expert also points out that DB’s professor hero Robert Langdon ‘often takes […] two or three pages to walk across a foyer,’ and that ‘At one point, while the lunatic [the bad guy] is escaping across town, cackling evilly, Langdon and other characters stand around talking for several chapters.’ The article concludes cheerfully that the book’s, ‘… lack of sophistication is absolute: it can’t be faked’.

Other highlights include the ‘Books & Bookmen’ column where you can catch up with the publishing world’s latest news… Often very cutting and hilarious, the literary pages do admit when something’s good, and the satire can be absolutely spot on. PP recommends.

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How do you read yours?

Pen Pusher had a good day out at the Publish & Be Damned fair on Sunday (27th September). It’s always a pleasure meeting and talking to people about PP, selling some magazines and seeing what other publishers are up to. Though the venue couldn’t really match the sun-soaked gloriousness of the Rochelle School in Arnold Circus where the fair has been held in previous years, it was all good clean publishing fun.

It’s an interesting experience sitting behind the table while people come and browse. Rules: don’t stare at them else you’ll make them feel uncomfortable; then again don’t ignore them as it’s rude and also they’re less likely to take an interest. So you generally boil the social interaction down to an enthusiastic smile and ‘Hi’ as they first approach, then you leave them to it, trying to stay alert in case they want to speak to you unexpectedly.

I act in exactly the same way when I go to have a look round at the other stalls – browse, try not to make eye contact, or if you do, only the most fleeting kind if you’re fairly certain you don’t want to buy anything, then smoothly glide on where another couple of sets of expectant eyes greet you from behind a table laden with fanzines, art books, comics and badges. Repeat action until you reach the relative safety of a non-tabled area.

From a certain point of view you could see the publishing fair as one socially awkward situation after another… From the vendor’s point of view, it’s rather like watching animals behind a glass as they react to some unknown quantity that has been placed unexpectedly into their habitat. All are initially curious and at the same time cautious – they want to have a look but not to commit to the act of having a look.

At this year’s P&BD we had some serious speed-readers – Rain Man types, who intensively studied the magazine for about ten minutes before politely returning it to the stand, leaving you with the distinct impression that they had read the whole thing and stored it to memory. Then there were the panic browsers, those who pick up the magazine from a shopping reflex, then realise they’re not interested but give a show of looking through anyway, their brains feverishly flitting through escape routes rather than reading words. There are the purchase bluffers who have an interested read, and then start talking to their companion whilst still holding the magazine, making the stall vendor think – ah ha! possessive of the item – this is a sale, dudes! Then after five minutes of talking to their friend, they put the magazine back with a polite smile. Bah! And of course, every stall holder’s no.1 browser – those who read a few things, admire the design, ask you a few interesting question, then buy a copy to enjoy later! (Or you can just skip to the last part… that’s fine too.)

It’s a funny feeling looking up from the Everyman crossword and seeing four or five people facing in your direction, engrossed in reading, right in front of you. It makes you realise that reading is a private affair, even when done in public, and it’s sort of strange to be given license to stare at people while they’re doing it…

Away from the intense social scrutiny of the publishing fair, you can spy many species of reader around you. The free papers, in particular, reveals your reading personality: some, especially neat and well-turned out girls on their way home from the office, turn the pages very precisely, carefully folding each page down with carefully manicured hands before proceeding to methodically read its contents; or you might, like I do, rush through scouring the page for any titbit of information that immediately takes your interest, looking at the pictures, and then throwing it down feeling slightly travel sick and dissatisfied. Then there is a curious new breed of reader or, I suspect, half-reader: the mp3-er. They sit on a bus or tube listening to music … and apparently reading a novel at the same time… Is this a more highly developed sub-species we haven’t been told about?

But when people read, however they read, if they are able to concentrate fully on the page, their eyes take on a particular look: one that is quite clear, very focused, illuminated by comprehension, but also gives that sense of being a million miles away.

I mentioned the power of paper and through it, reading from the printed page, in my previous blog about William Powers’ essay on paper – ‘Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal’. A brilliant piece, it discusses why paper is still relevant when surely, as Tomorrow’s World no doubt predicted in 1985, we should have discarded paper long ago. We shouldn’t need paper anymore in 2009, the twenty-first century, for goodness sakes! (As well as only needing to take one pill a day for all our meals and nutritional needs, and wearing identical Lycra outfits for no apparent reason.)

In the essay, Powers suggests paper’s slogan could be: ‘Just this one thing’. Doesn’t that just make you feel better already? No messaging, no communication with people, over half of whom you don’t even like, no music, no images, no emails, no updates. Just reading. Aaaaah.

Reading can give us a sense, albeit an illusion, of personal power – not just because knowledge and understanding is power, but because reading a book gives us the power to escape normal life. You can feel as if you have beaten the mundanity of the everyday when you emerge from reading fifty pages, and realise you’ve been completely unaware of what has been happening around you, you have ignored all other distraction and have been taken far, far away – sometimes all the way to Barnet on the 43 bus…

I sometimes find it hard to let go of the intense sense of other reality that a really good novel provides: most memorable recent examples, feeling drunk whilst reading The Sopranos, checking out guys on the Tube as if I was a gay man whilst reading The Swimming-Pool Library, and having to leave American Psycho on a bus because, despite the fact I though it was an incredible book, I also kept imagining my fellow passengers taking out large knives and breaking into acts of extreme violence… and it was starting to bother me.

When a book gets you like that, even if you’re scared, it’s a good feeling – not like when a blast of disturbing imagery in a film freaks you out and you want to turn away. That is just about forgetting and blocking. An engaging, even if disturbing book, is far more powerful than that.

At which point I turn to my favourite of my not especially extensive collection of reference books: 20th Century Quotations – compiled by that quotations hoarder, Mr Frank S Pepper. (Not to be confused with Dr Pepper.) It is a very useful tome as it has most of the famous quotes, along with some very random and often very funny individually collected gems. It is also very simply ordered by subject, and Mr Pepper does not baulk at allowing such subjects as ‘Income Tax’, ‘Chamber Pots’, ‘Virginia Woolf’, and ‘Unemployment’ to be fully explored. Here are some of the gems dear Pepper has collected on the subject of ‘Reading’:

‘I would sooner read a timetable or a catalogue than nothing at all. They are much more entertaining that half the novels that are written.’ – Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, 1938.

‘All my good reading, you might say, was done on the toilet.’ – Henry Miller, Black Spring, 1936.

‘I have only read one book in my life and that is White Fang. It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.’ – Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit Of Love, 1945.

‘Give me a bed and a book and I am happy.’ Logan Pearsall Smith. Afterthoughts, 1931.

And what must be the hands-down winner, Michael Caine talking in an exclusive interview with Woman’s Own, date unknown (or undisclosed at any rate):

‘I read books like mad, but I am careful not to let anything I read influence me.’

Though perhaps we should end with something a bit better? I think so. I hastily rifle to the ‘Books’ section of Pepper’s tome and find this typically opaque yet enlightening quote from the Notes on Life and Letters by Joseph Conrad, 1921: ‘Books most resemble us in their precarious hold on life.’

***

Just a short footnote to John Banville’s comments in the Paris Review, which I quoted, regarding narrative / characterisation & why those who claim their characters just ‘take over’ as they write are to be mistrusted. James Ellroy, also being interviewed by the Paris Review in the current issue, puts a stop to any further speculation on this issue:

‘It’s disingenuous when writers say they have no control over their characters, that they have a life of their own. Here’s what happens: you create the characters rigorously, and make clear choices about their behaviour. You reach junctures in your stories and are confronted with dramatic options. You choose one or the other.’

Don’t think we need to talk about that anymore, then. It’s another great interview, and some classic quotes as you would expect from Ellroy.

My favourite has to be when the interviewer asks him how well read he is. The response is typically direct and hilarious:

‘[…] I tried to read a Cormac McCarthy book and thought, Why doesn’t this cocksucker use quotation marks? I picked up another Cormac McCarthy book and saw that there were six or seven consecutive pages in Spanish. I didn’t know what it meant. My name isn’t Juan Ellroy, OK?’

OK.

Why the Dickens?

In every Dickens novel there is always at least one Angel of the House, and, amidst the cruel masters, deceitful avaricious lawyers and crazed reverends, lots of goodly folk hanging about ready to good deeds without a thought for themselves. The novels are heavy with what could be termed as melodrama, farce, improbable and at times wildly exaggerated situations, all underpinned by strong Christian morality. So why are the novels of Charles Dickens so endlessly engaging, such masterworks? (I sometimes wonder this when I’m actually reading the novels… why am I enjoying this so much? But I am all the same.) The reason I started thinking about this at all was that I stumbled upon a blog on the Guardian website entitled, ‘Why are we still reading Dickens?’ (In a sense, it’s a silly question – why shouldn’t we all carry on reading the best works of English literature? Is there a best before date? But it’s one of those questions that is asked a lot, and is always interesting to consider.)
The author of this particular blog, Jon Michael Varese, is a Dickens scholar and must be incredibly knowledgeable about the man, but the reasons he came up with for why we still read Dickens were somewhat disappointing. Various clichéd reasons and talk of us all being Oliver, David and Esther, etc eventually culminated in this epiphanic realisation: ‘I began to understand more about why I was who I was because Dickens had told me so much about human beings and human interaction.’
I would refrain from calling Dickens sentimental, but I find the reasons Varese gives for reading Dickens sentimental. What Varese’s comments lack – and in fact what a lot of modern-day journalism and fiction-writing lacks – yet what can be found in all Dickens’ works, and in any work by a great writer of fiction or non-fiction, is wit, satire, a sense of the ridiculous… That is, humour of the most sharply observant kind must be at the heart of everything.
Such sincere talk also ignores how strange and unsettling Dickens’s writing is. How even when all ends of the narrative are seemingly tied up, like a ribbon atop a Victorian chocolate box, the reader – or at least this reader – does not feel exactly comforted. There is always unease, anxiety, guilt, ill-advised hope, happiness that is too perfect to give comfort.
Dickens likes to start his books with something startling – he grips his readers at once and will not let them go. One of my favourites is the scene at the start of Our Mutual Friend – the man and girl trawling the Thames for dead, her face fixed by horror and fear. Or take the famous introduction to Bleak House:

‘London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’

Or the ridiculous introduction to Pip on the first page of GE:

‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.’

Phillip Pirrip is thus introduced, one of the great literary creations and most powerful first-person voices. And he is virtually introduced as a joke!
Dickens can tell you everything in a very short few sentences, and almost every sentence is as good as the last. I love this description of Pip’s first visit to Satis House when Miss Havisham asks him to call Estella: ‘To stand in the dark in a mysterious passage of an unknown house, bawling Estella to a scornful young lady neither visible nor responsive, and feeling it a dreadful liberty so to roar out her name, was almost as bad as playing to order. But, she answered at last, and her light came along the dark passage like a star.’
On the same afternoon I read the Dickens article, I read an interesting article about Roald Dahl in the Times and it was asking a similar question: why is Roald Dahl getting more and more popular… shouldn’t he have gone out of date by now? The answer was given that readers – adults and children alike – love the ‘cruelty, misanthropy and mischievous fun’ of Dahl’s storylines and his characters. That rather reminded me of Dickens, and I think there are certain comparisons between the two men’s fearsome energy and aggression both on and off the page, as well as their idiosyncratic styles: you could pick passages from both Dickens and Dahl out of an anonymous literary line-up without too much trouble. The key is their distinctive use of language – their voice – but also their ability to understand their readers perfectly and thus to engage them utterly.
To return to Varese’s reason for reading Dickens, I would turn it on its head. We don’t understand ourselves better by reading Dickens, we read Dickens because he understands us too well. This possibly has the same results as Varese suggests – a greater understanding of humanity’s lot – but to me it’s a necessarily different way of looking at it. And just like Dahl’s Mr and Mrs Twit, the most memorable characters from Dickens are the really bad eggs – 1 out of 10 in the morality stakes – like Uriah Heep and Fagin and Silas Wegg. Do people really like reading these characters because they’re consciously learning something about themselves?
I reread the introduction to an old Penguin edition of Great Expectations by Angus Calder and found some more interesting ideas to the question of what makes Dickens great. Regarding the audacious energy of his prose, and his extensive output Lionel Trilling is quoted as remarking that ‘“the mere record of his conviviality is exhausting”’, and you can feel the energy of Dickens’s pen on paper ricocheting off the pages of his novels. (One thinks, for eg, of the talking chair in The Pickwick Papers! One of my favourite moments.) Calder goes on to mention that Dickens sported ‘flamboyant dress and a hint of vulgarity in his manners, but he had powerful, magnetizing eyes and overwhelming charm.’ In some crude way, that description gets to the heart of his novels. And I love Graham Greene’s insightful comment about Great Expectations; that there is a ‘sense of a mind speaking to itself with no one there to listen’, and that the novel is constructed from ‘delicate and exact poetic cadences’.
There is so much to consider in Dickens, and I’m only scratching the surface like a restless child, so I will let George Orwell end, as he more successfully gets to the heart of Dickens’s enduring appeal from his essay on the author: ‘Dickens’s imagination overwhelms everything, like a weed.’

Back to Noir

PP readers may already know of my obsession with Erle Stanley Gardner, in particular his Perry Mason books. I really need to try out some other stuff like Raymond Chandler (who, was influenced by Erle Stanley Gardner as it happens) – I’ve had The High Window (1942) on my table for about six months – Elmore Leonard, and James Cain, et al, but I just keep buying more good-looking ESG titles and devouring them in approximately four hours.

It’s true that when I emerge from one of these mysteries, be it The Case of the Dangerous Dowager, or my first ESG, and still my favourite, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink, I would struggle to explain out-loud the exact plot details. This is usually because it all gets a bit silly towards the end, but also because I don’t concentrate that hard – the plot is not as important to me as the brilliance of the writing.

I know that’s slightly odd, as the plot is all in these things, and the reason you race towards the end is to find out what happened. But I’ve realised that essentially I really don’t care whodunit or whatever. It’s just the thrill of narrative chase, as it were, the thrill that ESG creates with the forward movement of the sentences and words, more than whether it was that dame or that disowned oil scion wot did it.

I found a quote on crime writer Duane Swierczynski’s cheerfully named blog: Secret Dead Blog on which he quotes the editor of Gallimard’s famous Série noire Marcel Duhamel’s advice to novelist Chester Himes:

Get an idea. Start with action, somebody does something – a man raches out a hand and opens a door, light shines in his eyes, a body lies on the floor, he turns, looks up and down the hall.. Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No stream of consciousness at all. We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what – only what they’re doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense. That’s for the end. Give me 220 typed pages.

It couldn’t sound more like a Perry Mason novel if it tried. These are normally about 220 pages, or, in fact, a little shorter. Enter some vintage ESG and the to give an example, and to show how to get a plot moving in 3 pages from the opening of The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde:

Perry Mason drew his secretary to one side. ‘A blonde with a black eye, Della, is intriguing to say the least – unless she’s the type who would have been in a brawl. Is she?’

‘Definitely not; but she’s frightened to death about something. I can’t quite make her out. Her voice is unusual – almost as though it had been trained.’

‘And you’ve put her in the law library?’

‘Yes. She’s waiting there.’

‘How’s she dressed?’

‘Black shoes, no stockings, a fur coat, and I caught a glimpse of something under the fur coat that I think may be a black house coat, or a robe of some sort, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if that was all she had on.’

‘And a black eye?’

‘A beauty.’

[…]

‘What’s her name?’

‘Diana Regis.’

‘Sounds phony.’

‘She insists it’s her real name. She’s terribly excited and nervous. Altogether, I’d say she was pretty unstrung.’

‘Been crying?’

‘I don’t think she has. She seems nervous and frightened, but isn’t doing any weeping.’

[…]

‘That,’ Mason said, ‘settles it. We’re going to see her, at least long enough to find out what it’s all about. Bring her in, Della.’

Those doling out advice to fiction-writing hopefuls often recommend reading other fiction and non-fiction that is very different from the ‘literary’ novel. To read as much and as diversely as possible is a common suggestion to struggling writers. And I think the advice from Duhamel could be applied to writing in general: if in doubt, don’t over-explain and analyse; drive the narrative forward with the language, rather than pontificating or speculating about character – action, by its very nature, can explain later, and by the constraints of the novel’s form, will normally be compelled to.

A recent BBC 4 documentary, The Rules of Film Noir, explored why the genre was so popular in the forties and then why the hardboiled style became unpopular in the following decade when colour and optimism was the chosen tonic, and the black and white shadowy and uncertain underworlds represented by noir were not the antidote to post-war life the cinemagoers were seeking.

When I was watching this programme I kept scribbling down quotes from the various aficionados and experts who were on the show as it seemed like the stuff of great short stories or novels. For a start the names of the books/films are brilliant: Stranger on the Third Floor; Murder My Sweet; Sunset Boulevard; Double Indemnity; Kiss Me Deadly.

Disconnection seems the most overpowering theme. The ‘American Dream’ is skewed and the characters tainted before they start – the dream is to get whatever you want without cost, the fall out is the bitter resentment when this is not achieved: ‘In rooms, bars, nightclubs – they’re trapped; they can’t get out. They’re trying to rip their way out, but they can’t’; ‘Don’t go to bed feeling comfortable, because there’s nothing to be comfortable about.’ Apologies, I can’t remember who said this stuff on the programme… but they were good whoever they were.]

It sounds like the subject matter of the domestic novel in a way: the sense of disquiet in apparently mundane settings. Yes, here possibly because someone’s holding a gun beneath that suspicious overcoat, but the sense of foreboding and of being unavoidably and inescapably trapped by location and circumstance is the stuff of many narratives.

Watching the programme also made me think I should go a little darker from the relatively clean and nicely sorted-out nature of Perry’s mysteries and investigations. I was reading an interview – and a very good one at that – with John Banville, again in the The Paris Review (which it is becoming clear I am also obsessed with!). He writes crime thrillers under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. I have to say I’ve never been a fan of Banville’s novels but he comes across as rather amusing and pleasingly arrogant in this interview from earlier this year.

He mentions a writer I have never heard of: ‘The impetus for Black came from my having begun to read Georges Simenon […] what he calls his romans dur, his hard novels: Dirty Snow, Monsiuer Monde Vanishes, Tropic Moon, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. I think they are extraordinary, masterpieces of twentieth-century – I hesitate to use the word, but I will – existentialist literature.’

He even compares these works favourably to Camus and Satre, which is pretty extraordinary. I think perhaps these should be next on my list, ahead of old Chandler and Himes. But I like to hear someone praising noir as a serious literary form. I’m not sure ESG’s novels ever achieve the status of ‘art’, but Banville goes on to say that, ‘One can, with skill and perseverance, give a sense of life’s richness and complexity in noir fiction’, and that ‘High art can happen in any medium.’ And I think that’s worth remembering.

***

And just briefly… the reason I enjoyed Banville’s interview so much was due to his directness and unexpected dry wit. In particular his answer to the question: ‘Do you have sympathy for the characters you create?’ because it always annoys me, and I think it’s become the thing to say, when writers talk about the character ‘taking over’ and the author having no idea what’s coming next. Yes, it is Banville’s style not to be as concerned with character as other novelists, but I still love Banville’s reposte to this:

‘I suppose it’s possible that a writer would have feeling for his characters, but I can’t see how, because writing is such a meticulous, intricate, technical business. I wish I could say that I love my characters and that frequently they take over the book and run away with the plot and so on. But they don’t exist. They’re manikins made of words and they carry my rhythms. They have no autonomous life – surely that’s obvious? I distrust writers who claim to have feeling for their characters. They’re liars or fools.’

Be Better Than Yourself…

‘What I write is so inadequate … the worst trick God can play is to make you an artist, but only a mediocre artist.’

According to my NME rock annual (and frankly I don’t know how reliable it is as a source) David Bowie said this in September 1980.

I really like this quote, to the point that I have carefully copied it out and stuck it on my study door.

First of all I like it because it simply expresses what anyone trying to achieve something creative has probably come up against more than a few times. It suggests, and I’m thinking here purely in literary terms to suit my own purposes, the morning-after feeling in the bitterness of the word ‘trick’: that initial moment you get an idea, the giddy feeling of getting a rough draft down on the page, when you really believe you’re on to something, that you’re creating something outstandingly brilliant. And then there’s the bit where you reread what you’ve done, in what often seems to be the very cold light of day, and realise it’s not everything you had hoped. The difference between what you feel, the impetus for creativity… and the end result. The chasm can be, at least in the mind of the person who’s written it, all too vast.

It’s also a rather inspirational quote – for obvious reasons. If Dan Brown had said it, we’d all just be nodding our heads in tacit agreement, glad he recognised his own limitations – how refreshing! But it’s Bowie. I don’t know exactly how he meant it, but to me I like it because it seems unusually honest. A lot of successful people are happy to reveal anecdotally (and safely) how they struggled to produce what turns out to be a critically acclaimed work of art, but Bowie seems to suggest he will never achieve what he wants to, that he doesn’t rate himself much at all. Yet by 1980 he’d already written some of the greatest songs of all time.

I always harp on about it but The Paris Review Interviews – which can be found in each issue of this incredible magazine and in several collected volumes you can buy in bookshops – are goldmines of information to aspiring writers. William Faulker’s interview is one of my favourites. In it he comments:

‘He [the writer] must never be satisfied with what he does. It is never as good as it can be done. […] Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.’

There is that sense of struggle that all writers who have seriously applied themselves, whether to good or bad effect, will recognise. And anyone who has sent work to publishers or magazines or agents should recognise that feeling that the piece is never finished, is never quite right.

I also like it because it makes me consider, what is the value of writing, and by that I mean, just writing and the act of writing itself? Bowie’s words seem to suggest that not-often considered concept – that you can be born an artist with a true and real vocation, even if you’re not a very good one.

The oft-asked question: is it possible just to write for yourself? To me the answer is simple: no. There is always an audience whether it is imagined or real, or both. The act of writing is one of communication. But if no one ever reads it, does that mean it doesn’t mean anything? The answer, to my mind, is still the same.

Quite some time ago a friend mentioned that his father had written a memoir, a swinging-sixties-in-London affair, but that it had not been picked up by any publishers or agents. ‘Oh well,’ I remember saying, ‘at least he wrote it.’ To which my friend shook his head, implying that there was no point if it was not a success, if it was not published and recognised. I’m not suggesting this opinion isn’t valid – it is – but for some reason I’ve often thought about this instance. Was it a complete waste of time for this man to have written his memoirs, which he wrote with publication in mind, if no one would ever read and appreciate them? I go back to what Faulkner’s quote implies: that writing is a battle with yourself more than anything else, though you write for the world outside yourself.

Ana Silvera, a great songstress and writer (we published her excellent piece ‘Becket and Madness’ all the way back in PP2) recently sent me a piece about sentimentality, which might, in some form, be published in Pen Pusher in the future. In it, she considers how generic forms of expression are the mainstay of communication in the modern world. That people describe their deeply personal emotions and experiences in often near-identical and highly sentimental ways – a worrying and slightly creepy trend that belittles human experience.

Writing is a way of trying to find a means of expression, and the novel, short story or poem places human experience at its heart. If a writer has really applied him or herself to the writing, whether the note they receive six months later is in acceptance or rejection, they have gained something.

Writing can be seen as a way of trying to, often sub-consciously, fight against limits that are placed upon expression by category and trend. A way of fighting against the brain’s wish to adhere to habit and safety. And surely that is a good thing?

(And at the opposite end of the scale, when you read something that you consider to be a work of exceptional imagination, thought, etc, you get that uncanny feeling that the reader is unnecessary to the text: it exists as it is, without need of validation by the reader. I think, most recently, of Austerlitz by WG Sebald – an extraordinary book I’d recommend to all. And perhaps this applies to everything?)

And all this is why I like to read Bowie’s quote. It validates the creative process and understands and represents its frustrations. It is a comforting and an encouraging quote for these reasons.

The Short and the Short of It: a review of two very different short story collections

Punk FictionAn Anthology of Short Stories Inspired By Punk
(Portico, London, 2009)

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories
edited by AS Byatt (OUP, Oxford, 1998)

 

When I was trying to get in touch with Johnny Marr to ask him to contribute to PP13, I was put in touch with his PR, who turned out to be Janice Bullman (née Warren) whose excellent short story ‘This is the Sound When a Dog Cries’ we published in PP8 in 2008. Strange, huh…?

She has also recently edited Punk Fiction, a collection of short stories by music journalists, writers and musicians each taking a song from the punk era as their starting point. The musical influences range from the Ramones, to Iggy Pop and The Stooges, to The Sex Pistols, to X-Ray Spex and much more. And it’s ultimately a joyful celebration of that era and an attempt to capture why it meant so much to a whole generation. As Marr himself puts it in the introduction to the book: ‘The punk movement began as a covert reaction to the uninspired drabness of the UK’s straight culture; it was sharp and funny and switched on. It was about excitement and subversion and being young. But mostly it was about ideas.

PF contributors include the newly appointed editor of the NME Krissi Murison, Kele Orereke (Bloc Party), Paul Smith (Maximo Park), and Kate Jackson (formerly of The Long Blondes).

It’s true that in part the collection demonstrates that being in a band or loving music doesn’t necessarily make you an exceptional fiction writer, but there’s a lot of interest and energy in the stories, even when they don’t quite hit the mark. (That boring old adage about writing about music, if not strictly meant in this sense, does hold water, and there’s a sort of inevitable self-consciousness to the writing at times.)

But there are notable exceptions. Billy Childish’s ‘action time and vision’ is a funny tale that captures those listless random happenings that are the mainstay of teenage life as you set out, ever-hopeful that something good will happen. It’s funny and the language flows along in an addictive, catchy way.

Cathi Unsworth’s ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’ is very plainly written, but that only serves to make the final horrific climax more terrible and unexpectedly moving, and she captures the narrator’s pity but desire to distance herself from her central character very well – the unalterable distance between the poor and abused, and those who are more fortunate.

The stand out contribution from the musos was definitely Alison Mosshart’s (she of The Kills, and now of The Dead Weathers) short, ‘Psycho Killer’. The tone is a familiar suburban mundane, but not even trying to be funny, which is the usual resort of this type of voice, and it’s strangely effective. Mosshart is tapping into the classic legend of middle-of-nowhere America: a couple, loners, aimless misfits with regular bouts of extreme and casual violence. Reading it, I considered that perhaps Mosshart was one of the few to really successfully bring together the two worlds of music and language. I don’t actually know if she writes lyrics or not, but after reading her story, I’m assuming she must do. At times it was like reading the words to a song on the record sleeve, before you know the tune:

‘He and I have our differences. We argue. Yes. We curse and we fight. We never apologise. But we used to. We used to.’

&

‘“I’m too bored now,” I says. “But even if you want me to take it out on you I won’t. I just can’t sit in this hotel with you, like this, any longer … I was talking to my boy.”’

Influences of Easton Ellis, and even Salinger, maybe, in some more obscure way.

Overall this is a really good collection, that’s also a bit of an education in punk, if you, like me, don’t know an awful lot about it. Plus buying it helps raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust, so doubly worth a purchase.

* * *

If Punk Fiction is a rebellious fiction party of school truants, AS Byatt’s selection of English short stories is more like a masterclass. I picked up this collection of short stories in Clerkenwell Tales (a new bookshop on Exmouth Market, that PP really recommends).

Almost everything in here has been written with what Sebald described as ‘acute, merciless observation’, and I also liked what Byatt had to say about the English short story in her introduction:

‘I found, reading in bulk, that I was developing a dislike for both the ‘well-made tale’ and the fleeting ‘impression’. Manuals on how to write short stories … stress unity of form, stress that only one thing should happen … Many of the stories in this collection break all the rules … The workmanlike English story is even-toned and neatly constructed. The great English story is shocking – even the sparest and driest – and hard to categorize.’

One is left nodding one’s editorial head vigorously at this. And Byatt’s choices live up to her introduction. I haven’t read the entire collection yet, but it’s hugely enjoyable and, as I said, something of a masterclass to anyone interested in fiction writing. Some favourites so far:

Aldoux Huxley; ‘Nuns at Luncheon’ – a consideration of the art of writing and storytelling as much as anything, but also social satire, grotesque and sharp.

Ronald Firbank; ‘Tragedy in Green’ – very funny and deliciously tongue-in-cheek

Thomas Hardy; ‘A Mere Interlude’ – a morality tale at its heart. Beautifully written, as if effortless.

Angela Carter; ‘The Kiss’ – a very short tale of exquisitely controlled writing.

I heartily recommend this to anyone interested in how to write short stories, or, more simply, anyone who values the most exceptional fiction writing. It’s a treat.

ACG

Jetlag and Determinism… !

Just got back from a short holiday in New York… What is it about that place? I just wander round taking pictures on rubbish disposable cameras not really doing anything much, and not wanting to go and see anything and I love it. My personal favourite parts of town are Lower East Side and down Tribeca way, via Canal Street with all the weird tacky shops. (Though a brief trip to Williamsburg this time suggested it was another really good place to hang around in for future trips.)

My best find this time was, I think, somewhere on Rivington. We were walking back from dinner and walked past this window on a lower ground bit, down below the street. Inside there were loads of cats in the window on various shelves, sprawled out, including some tiny, tiny little kittens.

I once saw this nasty pet shop uptown near the Whitney Museum, which had puppies for sale all asleep in the window and at first I thought it was one of those. But there was a sign explaining: it was a pet rescue centre. It was amazing: about twenty cats, some in the window, some in cages or on the floor all stretched out, warm and fast asleep, and beside the cats two or three dogs doing the same. No fighting or whining, just all sleeping peaceably together.

Anyway, I got back from NYC at 6am. Because I don’t travel a lot I always find the ensuing jetlag a curious thing. Sometimes I just feel plain sick; sometimes I get very over-emotional – in fact, I always get emotional on planes, most embarrassingly when I have openly wept over appalling films that aren’t even sad: the hideously dumb (whilst thinking it was clever) and terribly acted Match Point and that Jennifer Lopez classic, Angel Eyes spring to mind as my most shameful tearful episodes always next to bemused fellow travellers whom I don’t know. Sometimes, however, I get into this exhilarated hyperactive mood where everything seems ridiculously good, although I am dimly aware that this feeling balances precariously on feeling gloomy.

Landing in Heathrow this time, I really didn’t know which way it would go, having been kept awake all night by a screaming child whose parents refused to tell her to shut up out of misplaced politeness to a four-year-old rather than the 100s of sleepless people in the rest of the plane.

Turns out, and it was a surprising result, it was the last option & so I tripped giddily down to the Duke of York in St Martin’s Lane to see Arcadia the next evening. Heck, even a Piccadilly line full of Gooners couldn’t spoil my mood – see what I mean about hyperactive cheerfulness?

So perhaps it was my jetlag… but I don’t think so. It was one of the most enjoyable nights at the theatre for a long time. Beautiful set, fantastically cast, and the play is really the thing. Yes, it’s Stoppard, you have to concentrate… but it’s Stoppard without his voice booming in your ear going on about how wonderfully clever he is. It’s funny, it’s full of joie de vivre, and I find it moving. It’s a wonderful play.

The play is set in one location – at a large table in a room in the country estate of Sidley Park. The action takes place, however, at two different times, 180 years apart: 1809 and 1989. In 1809 we see a brilliant young tutor, Septimus Hodge, teaching his even more brilliant pupil, the precocious thirteen-year-old Thomasina. In 1989 we find Hannah Jarvis, an academic working on a book about the gardens and the hermit that lived and died there, having gone insane and only leaving reams and reams of calculations on paper, and the son of the house and maths whiz, Valentine, occupying the earlier characters’ places. A comedy of errors unfolds across the two eras, as well as an exploration of the nature of time, fate and history.

Lurking in the background in 1809, the figure that history and scholarship will remember, Lord Byron, is a school and university friend of Septimus’s though he never appears on stage. Ironically, he is the main topic in 1989 when an arrogant scholar Nightingale visits Sidley Park and creates an entirely logical academic “discovery” partly based on fact and partly on perfectly reasonable supposition. His folly, of course, constantly being underlined by the scenes from 1809 that comically reveal that all his ideas and assumptions are entirely wrong. Stoppard is always reminding us that truth is not a fixed ideal… it changes with every tiny nuance of human behaviour. An equation that works for one second of reality, must be changed for the next.

The play deals with some fairly big topics (!): sex & death; fate vs free will; innocence vs experience; chaos theory vs determinism; classicism vs romanticism. It is also a brilliant satire on scholarship and the futility of knowledge as well as, paradoxically, a celebration of the search and desire for knowledge.

It’s about structure – can you plot the shape of a leaf using equations and does it matter? Chaos seems to rule, yet the play itself is perfectly constructed and its own form demonstrates that it’s not necessarily what, but how, that ends up counting.

The cast includes Samantha Bond, Dan Stevens, and Neil Pearson, excellently cast as the slimy scholar, Bernard Nightingale, as well as an very good turn from Jesse Cave as Thomasina. If you can find the free will to tear yourself away from whatever it is you should be doing, I really recommend you go and see this…

Also, there’s just time for a big thank you to Nick Scott who took some amazing photos of the Pen Pusher party on July 23rdsee our website… Thanks, Nick!