Tag Archives: The Paris Review

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.

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.