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the outsider

The Outsider is another thrilling read from one of Britain’s best known, best selling authors. It’s filled with intrigue, betrayal and danger. It’s also his autobiography, and as such is especially interesting to other writers. Even writers like me.

I mean – how the hell did he do it?

He wrote his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, because he was down on his luck and needed the money. I was once in a similar bind, stuck in a job that was shedding its workforce year on year. It was only a matter of time before I was potted. I needed an exit, and fast. So I wrote the Singing Loch and posted it off in naive expectation. It was rejected at every turn and has never made a bean.

The story of how the Jackal was published illustrates how getting picked up by the big-boys takes more than just a good manuscript. All writers come to this conclusion eventually. What we do about it comes down to sheer grit and self belief, or we decide not to bother and do something else. Me? I avoided the potting, and have never needed the money. Fair dos.

Fluent in five languages, he was flying Vampire jets with the RAF at 19. He began a career in journalism, got mixed up in the Nigerian civil war, at odds with the official pro Nigerian line. He’s been shot at, mortared, strafed by a Mig, and more than once fired by the BBC. He’s been an occasional odd job man for HM’s security services, and was once seduced by an amorous Stasi agent who was supposed to be tailing him. Politically well to the right of centre, outspokenly traditionalist, Conservative, and euro-sceptic, Freddie and I are clearly not natural bedfellows but, through his stories at least, I find him good company.

So anyway,… the day of the Jackal was hacked out under pressing financial circumstances, then did the rounds, but like the Singing Loch it got nowhere. Unlike me, Forsyth weighed up the situation and reckoned you had to skip the publisher’s slush pile and find a direct way to the top otherwise you were stuffed. Through his circle of contacts, he established nodding terms with an editor, sufficient to bluster into the guy’s office one day on pretext of a social visit, oh and – while I’m here what do you think of this? The result was a three book deal. The Odessa File, and The Dogs of War made up the other two. Forsyth was suddenly a professional novelist making a lot of money.

The lesson for other would-be writers here is obvious. Simply dropping your manuscript through a publisher’s letterbox, the odds of it getting far enough up the chain of command to make a difference are about the same as coming up on the lottery. You  need good contacts and a lot of brass neck. For those with both the talent and the connections, it’s still possible to make money from your writing, but for those without, the choice is smashing your head against a brick wall, or self publishing.

The title, “The Outisder” refers to a particular frame of mind that always puts one outside events, makes us an observer of life and a withdrawer to the silence of a closed room, and the space to think, to write. That’s me too, but not all writers are known as writers, our outsiderly ways forgiven on account of the tangible goal of the next best-seller. Some of us aren’t even known as writers at all.

My life’s path rarely takes me out of Lancashire, let alone Britain. My vision is macroscopic, seeking a life and interest in the parochial details of the humdrum. No guns, no knives, no steely eyed assassins, nor beautiful Stasi agents. Yet I am a writer. I can’t help it. More than that I am a novelist, in so far as I am a person who writes novels, though I’d never say so out loud. I suppose it’s that “success” thing, and how you measure it. No sense calling yourself a writer to people’s faces without anything tangible to show for it, like maybe be a best seller or two, and a Jag on the drive to prove your net worth.

But life is also about understanding what you’ve got, changing what you can if you feel you must, and making peace with whatever you feel you cannot. I think few men would object to being seduced by a greater number of beautiful women than has been the case, but being strafed by a Mig? That would probably have been the last straw for me, followed by a one way ticket back home to the quiet and comfort of my Lancashire bolt-hole. Nope. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What’s most striking, throughout reading Forsyth’s life story, is his confidence, his courage and his total self belief. In addition to his obvious talents as a writer, that’s how the hell he did it.

 

 

 

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100 year old manA quirky title for a quirky book.

Set in Sweden, the story opens with Allan Karlsson on the eve of his hundredth birthday. He’s recently moved into an old folks home, having blown his own place up with a stick of dynamite – it was an accident and a long story, which we get to eventually, but for now Allan can’t abide the thought of attending the party that’s being organised in his honour, so with moments to spare, he climbs out of the window and heads for the bus station.

He has no clear plan, but then such is the story of Allan’s long life – no clear plan, yet a series of outrageous events that has seen him at the pivotal moments of twentieth century history, often on the wrong side of it, and armed only with his native wits and a happy-go-lucky optimism to see him through. The story is at times darkly humorous, at times absurd, Allen’s engagingly quirky insights into the true workings of the world providing the punchlines along the way.

The story has been likened to Forest Gump and the fortunes of a naive simpleton similarly turning up at iconic moments of (American) history. But although Allan’s outlook on life is refreshingly uncomplicated, and completely accepting of whatever simply is, he’s definitely no simpleton and is at times ingenious in his understanding and outwitting of authority. Also, unlike Gump, his adventures take in the entire sweep of world history, gathering the globe together and presenting it to the reader as a complete basket case.

Following his escape and arrival at the bus station, Allan, by a mixture of outrageous chance and mild indignation, manages to relieve an incompetent motorcycle gangster of a suitcase containing a small fortune in cash, then makes off with it on a bus. He doesn’t know about the money yet and is rather hoping to find instead a decent pair of shoes to replace the carpet slippers he’s currently wearing. What follows is an incompetent chase given by both the bad guys and the supposed good guys, Allen managing always to keep one step ahead, though mostly without trying and leaving an unwitting trail of mayhem in his wake. Along the way he picks up an eclectic mix of friends, accomplices, and an elephant!

But this is just one side of the story. The other side is the story of Allen’s life-long adventures in the world where he has been instrumental in The Chinese Revolution, the Russian Revolution, helping to invent the atomic bomb (for both the Americans and the Russians), in the death of Stalin (a stroke brought on by exasperation), saving the life of Winston Churchill (unintended consequences) in the complete destruction of Vladivostok (a diversion that went better than expected), and in the Korean war. He has befriended presidents and dictators, escaped torture and execution and all without a passion for anything except an occasional drop of the hard-stuff.

Allen’s romp through history presents the world’s leaders as incompetents, poseurs, megalomaniacs and fools, in pretty much the same light as Allen’s contemporary encounters during his flight from more petty scoundrels, self important officials and violent motor-cycle gangsters – all of this I suspect only half in jest. The plot is utterly insane, but magically engaging, the story as a whole suggesting the world itself, its pivotal moments and its key players cannot be described in any other way than utterly absurd.

One of Allen’s few penetrating observation on power and politics, to his one time companion, Einstein’s lesser known look-alike half sibling, the eternally dim Herbert (don’t ask): “the nearer you get to the top, my friend, the better the food and drink!”

Endearingly mad. And very glad to have discovered it.

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man writingInteresting article, here, about the “highbrow” literary genre and a lament that writers of this kind of stuff are abandoning the basics of story writing in favour of a kind of avant garde expressionism. By basics we mean any semblance of plot structure.

It’s a vulnerable niche, this highbrow stuff, it being economically worthless, but there are Arts’ Council grants to support it, I presume because it’s still considered culturally important. This amazes me – I mean that grants for any sort of writing exist at all, and how the hell do I apply for one? But why should we subsidise stuff hardly anybody reads, and aren’t those arty writers all just taking the Mickey anyway?

Being an amateur hack this is all well above my pay grade of course, but it does seem to be expecting a lot of the poor reader. Tackling a book void of plot is like ploughing through heavy seas without sail or tiller. It has me wondering if actually reading such stuff is no longer the goal, that the target market is the more the kind of person who prefers simply to own a work by an edgy writer so they can say so at posh parties.

I prefer a story myself to a mere assault of words. If a writer has a “literary” point to make, better they do so by sneaking it in under the radar, so to speak, than hitting the poor reader over the head with it. Stories rest on a framework we call the plot. A plot simply means we have some characters, and they start out in one place, then set out to get somewhere else, but things happen along the way to prevent them. Success is thwarted, calamity drawing ever nearer until it seems all but impossible we shall ever have our denouement. Psychologically speaking, plots rise from the archetypal bedrock of humanity, a phenomenon that gives rise to mythic culture, which is why stories have a universal resonance, so they shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s also why machines will never write good stories.

The plot rules, as I learned them in the long ago, are simple enough: get things going in a certain direction, then set up the conflicts and have the characters fall into them. How the characters handle themselves, how they resolve the conflicts and get on with the story is where a writer gets to say whatever else they have to say – the moral, the literary points, whatever; they are also the hook that keeps the reader turning the pages.

Soap opera plotlines are an endless chain of conflict and resolution, almost comically so – every long awaited wedding morphing seamlessly into adultery, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve missed a dozen episodes or drop out after the next one because there’s never going to be a conclusion – the psychology of the plot drives the whole thing endlessly. Soaps are, literally, pointless, yet still manage to hook millions of viewers for a couple of hours every night. Such is the power of the plot!

Unlike Soap however, with a piece of fiction, a reader expects a conclusion, so we give them one, the conflict/resolution thing having a sort of trajectory, aimed towards a climactic moment when all seems lost and then,… bang! The murderer is revealed, the baddie gets their comeuppance and the good-guy/gal either gets the good-girl/guy,… or they don’t.

I suppose the counter argument is that plot rules make for formulaic fiction, that it’s a dumb way to write, and allows for little by way of airy fairyness. But they’re only guidelines, not really rules, and while I make no claims for possessing sufficient intellect to handle the airy fairy heights of contemporary “edgy” literature, I’ve found traditional plotting allows for endless subtle interpretation, enabling any means of expression while still respecting the reader, leading them in with guile, even shamelessly seducing them with a bit of romance and adventure, rather than standing there for two hundred thousand words, roaring like a lion and hurling bricks. The latter approach might lend us a fearsome reputation among literary critics for a while, but it only takes one of them to call us out as a pretentious old windbag and we’re sunk.

I don’t know what passes for high-brow fiction these days, but I can certainly understand some of the stuff I’ve read in the past struggling to get a look in when most of us would rather fiddle with our phones of an evening. But if it’s culturally important something is written it shouldn’t matter that it’s no longer economically viable in print form, and the obvious place for it is online. Publication is guaranteed, but an audience is less certain because it’s a sea of words out there and easy to find yourself becalmed.

It doesn’t have the same author-in-a-tweed-jacket vibe, I know, but the times they are a-changing, and if attention is switching from books to smartphones – that’s where the words should follow because that’s where the readers have gone. We abandoned papyrus scrolls and vellum, and typewriters each in their turn, long ago. Perhaps we should not be so squeamish about abandoning paper too.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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enduring-love.jpgI find Ian McEwan’s novels accessible on a number of levels, like the skins of an onion. You can read him superficially as the writer of intriguing and imaginative stories peopled by entirely believable characters, or you can peel back a few layers and read more deeply about the whys and wherefores of the human condition. And you can keep on peeling back as deep as you like, or in some cases as deep as you dare.

With Enduring Love though I stepped in a puddle early on, was completely wrong footed, possibly because of my own inner workings, but partly also on account of some quite deliberately laid plot red herrings that had me thinking too deeply, or not,.. maybe.

The opening is dramatic enough – innocent strangers drawn suddenly together by a bizarre ballooning accident in which the protagonists leap onto the ropes of a fast ascending balloon in order to save the lives of the balloonist and a child tossed senseless by freak winds. The balloon passengers escape but the would be rescuers hang on to the ropes a moment too long and are carried upwards, each then letting go as the ground falls away and their nerve fails, landing shaken but unhurt – all except for one man carried too high and hanging on until the last, when he falls to his death.

Had all rescuers hung on, the death might have been prevented, or they might all have died. Who knows? But with this opening scene McEwan raises questions about our fallibility and how the every day actions of innocent people can have profoundly disturbing consequences for both themselves and others.

The main protagonist – one of the would-be rescuers – Joe Rose, is a science writer and a deeply rational man. He’s also conflicted, not just by the incident and his involvement in it and his feelings of guilt at the man’s death, but by his job which he has come to see as a parasitic profession when what he really wants is to be a scientist doing real pioneering work instead of just writing up the discoveries of others. After the accident, another of the rescuers, Jed Parry, a young man of almost messianic religious beliefs, begins to stalk Joe, speaking of loving him and wanting to bring Joe to God.

This is where I was legged up by the story, suspecting Joe Rose of being that most sneaky of plot devices, the unreliable narrator, and Parry’s obsessive stalking as basically an invention of Joe’s, that Parry’s coming was in effect a manifestation of Joe’s unresolved inner spirituality come to break his rational materialism which was souring his life. Anything else and the story would for me have simply been a thriller – about an unhinged stalker and how nobody believes his victim until it’s too late. This seemed a little too prosaic, so I congratulated myself on spotting the deceit early on.

More fool me!

Parry leaves frantic messages on Joe’s answer machine – but Joe deletes them so he cannot offer them as proof of Parry’s maniacal fervour. Parry writes long letters to Joe, but Joe’s wife remarks the handwriting is similar to Joe’s. Parry waits, rain and shine outside Joe’s apartment, but always slinks away when there is a chance Joe’s wife might spot him. Joe complains to the police but, like his wife, they think he’s deluded – no one else has seen Parry.

In this light we view Joe’s dogged pursuit of the facts only as an accumulation of evidence of his own dangerous unravelling. As his paranoia deepens, the cracks begun to show in his marriage – he irrationally suspects his wife of an affair, they argue, fall apart. Finally, convinced of the possibly imaginary Parry’s malign intent, Joe acquires a gun.

But then it turns out Joe was right all along, the we, the reader, Joe’s wife and the police were all wrong, that Parry was outrageously – though not altogether convincingly – real and dangerous, taking Joe’s wife hostage and ushering in a tense thriller-like finale.

Hmmm,… weird!

You’ll find lots of revision notes and crib sheets online about Enduring Love. This suggests it’s been pored over quite a bit by critics and lit students over the years. They’ve turned it inside out torn it apart line by line for its essential meaning but I can’t find any that work with the premise Parry’s stalking was imaginary. The Enduring love of the title, the notes tell me, can be seen as the enduring love of Joe and his wife who eventually muddle through to a happy ending, also the love that Parry professes for Joe, but I’m confused by both of these since the former pretty much fell apart except for a rather unconvincing end-notes denouement, while the latter was clearly delusional.

What would have made more sense to me was for the enduring love to have been that of the love of God Parry professed to be bringing to Joe, that in spite of Joe’s hard headed rationalism, there was something of the spirit abiding all the while in him, in all of us waiting, enduring, attempting all the while to temper his egoic materialism, which his wife described at one point as the “new fundamentalism”. This was a novel about the conflict for the soul of mankind, the fight between materialism and spirit, however you want to define it, and then suddenly,… it wasn’t. Joe’s ego, his materialism, scientific materilaism won out to an altogether more bleakly trite conclusion.

Okay, I was wrong about much of what I read, but then there’s a lot about literature I never got, at least according to the Spark Notes and my grade D “O” Level in the subject (Ha! The fools). Still, should we always accept verbatim what others think? It depends who they are, I suppose. It can be useful as a guide when mulling over a piece of work, but I find the critiques are better read afterwards, in case they colour our expectations too much and render us blind to what our own minds are capable of taking away. I can only say there’s something deeply strange about Enduring Love, but that’s no bad thing.

A terrifically engaging book that really made me think! I got a lot out of reading it, even though it turns out most of that, like Parry’s fervour, was delusional in the end.

 

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tmp_2017072309511689647November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo – and though it’s only September, there’s already a buzz among online writers who are getting ready for it. It’s now no longer a national (USA) thing of course, and has swept up vast hoards of wannabe authors from around the globe. I admit to never having bothered with it, mainly because at the rate I write, it seems unrealistic I could produce a novel in just four weeks. But that’s not really the point.

The point of NaNoWriMo is fifty thousand words in thirty days. We’re not talking about quality of writing or a well plotted story here, more a significant quantity of words that hang together in some form of narrative. The point is not to ponder the details but to blast out the words, producing if necessary nothing more than a stream of consciousness. The end result might be implausible, poorly written, even unintelligible, but we can always go back and revise.

So, we can perhaps guess that many of the varied outputs of NaNoWriMo, frantically hacked out in those thirty days are unlikely to produce a Booker prize, at least not without significant revision, and so long as that’s understood we can see the constructive nature of the effort: you’ll never have something worth revising if you can’t get the words out in the first place. NaNoWriMo is a way of encouraging writers to get down to it. It’s also useful in that it allows us to gain energy for the task from like-minded members of an online group. Think of it as a vast writer’s workshop and supporting network.

But having said that I still won’t be taking part in it. It’s a serious commitment and for me at least would serve no purpose, since I’m not writing for anyone else. It also seems somewhat perverse encouraging writers of fiction when the market for our produce is in decline. Simply put: fewer people are reading stories. There are already too many words, and fiction is out of fashion. We would be better encouraging reading fiction instead.

The term “geek” should be outlawed as an abuse to intelligence, but it is regularly used to besmirch the bookish. And no one wants to be a geek. No one wants to be seen as anything other than fashionably sexy, even if that means pretending to be dumb as well. Amongst young males in particular reading is considered seriously un-cool. I know it’s a challenge with so many alternative forms of entertainment around – check your Facebook stuff, or spend and hour with a novel? Those who love reading will take the novel every time, but they’ll be mostly older people, like me who don’t know what Facebook is.

Does it matter? I think it does. I’m a long time writer of stories. I create characters, have them interact in ways I find intriguing, and I present ideas on the nature of relationships and our purpose in the world. I may be completely wrong in my views but that doesn’t matter. What matters, as with all art, is that it provokes a reaction because it’s through the reaction the beholder gains an intelligent independence of thought and an instinctive appreciation of what’s right and what’s wrong. Reading fiction is good for the soul.

Fiction is a peculiar thing, an elaborate lie, an account of something we’re all agreed never happened, and we happily step into the fantasy, become immersed in it far more than we could ever be immersed in a visual drama, say a film or a play, because with fiction we get inside heads where the business of thinking takes place and we see things as others see them. Reading fiction therefore can render us more sympathetic and empathic towards others. Such things are not strictly necessary of course if all we need as a species is to function at the unconscious level of a machine, but one day we’ll have robots for that and they’ll be far better at it than we are.

In spite of the concerted effort of materialists over the decades, human beings can never be adequately defined as machines. There’s always going to be more to us, and one of the things that sets us apart is our relationship with stories. The story teller has the skill of invention and the holding of attention by playing upon the archetypal substrate from which we all rise. This grants him a unique place in society. But if no one’s listening any more, the story teller might as well go chop wood. So by all means, do your fifty thousand words in November, but for your sins, you should then spend the whole of December reading a book – no, four books. And then, to show you were paying attention to them, write a blog telling us your impressions of each one.

 

 

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booksI’ve heard this question asked a lot over the years,  and several times just this week by professional writers plugging their upcoming novels in the national media. It’s about attention span, they say, the average reader no longer able to focus on anything for more than five minutes. We’re addicted instead to the click and swipe of instant gratification, shunning the immersive print experience in favour of the video game and the TV box-set. It makes us all sound quite dumb, actually, doesn’t it, with only the writers managing to retain their literary virtue.

It’s true, I do spend a lot of time clicking and swiping on my ‘phone – get all my news from there these days, also endless snippets of trivia that informs my world view. I’ve also spent a long time playing video games and bingeing on box-sets – nordic noir being a particular weakness. But I’m not reading fewer novels. In fact I think I’m reading more these days. The internet broadens our awareness of what books exist, tells us of the lives of writers, and the critical appeal of certain works, so when I encounter books in the wild, so to speak, I am more likely to buy them. But what I’m not doing is buying them new. I buy older fiction, and I wait for new fiction to become old before I take the plunge. In short, I have forsaken the bookshop for the charity shop where books are abundant and ever so cheap.

Assuming I’m a typical buyer, then, I suggest the main reason for the novel’s decline is simply how much it costs to buy a new one. Measured as a monetised commodity, and judged on sales, your new best-seller may well be in decline, but it’s wrong to assume this suggests reading is in decline as well. And then there’s always this class thing at work in writerly circles, where the aristocratic top one percent earn most of the money – the so called A-listers – while the rest can’t earn a living at it any more. The vast bulk of published material is no longer lucrative enough for your average artist to justify toiling at it. Fewer books are being written for money because, simply put: there’s no money in it now. So it is writers themselves who are losing their faith in the novel, and blaming its decline on the readers and a shrinking market that’s not our fault.

The last time I looked even a moderately successful also-ran author was earning less than minimum wage, so there would be no point giving up the day job. As for your amateur sending stuff in on spec, the financial rewards for beating the stupendous odds and gaining acceptance for your book are looking pretty shoddy now, not much better than giving it away online. Which brings us neatly to self publishing.

Nowadays anyone who has a story in them, and that’s most of us, can self-publish and be damned, and a lot of us are still doing it, damned or not. Yes, we’re a shambolic and eclectic bunch, us self publishers, careless of genre and spelling, and yes, we could probably do with the cut and trim of a professional editor behind us, but the novel, the short story, the novella, even the poem, as a means of artistic expression seems, from my perspective, a long way from dying out. It’s just that most of us doing it now aren’t even recognised as writers at all, and especially by those who think they still are.

It’s professionals then who are fleeing the field, leaving amateurs like me to man the barricades.

The novel is not dying, it’s just changing tack.

Be not afraid, oh you lucky people!

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onchesilbeachThe story opens in 1962 with a young couple, Florence and Edward, honeymooning in a hotel, near Chesil Beach, in Dorset. It’s their wedding night, and we first meet them at dinner, each privately contemplating the imminent consummation of their vows.

It’s clear they’re deeply in love, also clear there’s a conflict that bodes ill for their future. Edward is more sexually experienced and is almost swooning with desire at the prospect of completing himself with the woman he loves. However their courtship thus far has been rather chaste, but his love and his anticipation of their future lives together has made the waiting bearable, while at the same time stoking his expectations. Florence on the other hand is sexually repressed and secretly appalled by the idea of what’s to come, but through her love for Edward, she hopes she can manage sufficiently to at least get by.

The consummation is a disaster. Florence is left feeling disgusted, and Edward humiliated by her disgust. She rushes out of the hotel, runs along Chesil Beach, eventually huddling down in the fold of a smooth worn tree trunk that’s been washed up and here she considers her future. Meanwhile, Edward sets out to find her. This is the culmination of their story, the details of which are told in retrospect as we go along, finally to arrive at this critical moment when Edward catches up with her and they begin to talk.

Florence might easily be branded the guilty one here, but what crime is it, to be frigid? Yet it might also be said she deceived Edward over her distaste for intimacy throughout their courtship, that if she’d come clean with him he might reasonably have thought twice and married someone else. But at the opening of their foreplay we see she is not entirely disconnected from her carnal nature, that if Edward had only been more patient and, dare we say, a better lover, the night need not have ended so badly as it did.

His attempted rapprochement with Florence does not go well either, neither seeming able to say what they actually mean. The hurt gets in the way of their love, and the wrong words keep coming out. Finally, Florence, filled with self loathing and guilt, rejects her sexual nature, telling Edward they might still be together but he would have to find “that kind” of pleasure elsewhere, with other women, a suggestion Edward finds appalling. The marriage is over.

The story concludes with a brief flash forward to their futures, lives maturing along entirely separate lines. They do not see each other again after that fateful night, yet Florence still thinks of him, and he of her, both looking back over their lives from that moment in their youth, their love still invisibly binding them. The power of the story, for me at least, is the feeling that if only he had said this or she had said that, or both been more open, patient, understanding, their love would surely have led the way to a fulfilling life together. It was a prize worth the fighting for, but they allowed it to slip through their fingers.

The regret I felt on closing the book was palpable, and I am still thinking of it, wondering how I would have dealt with the situation, had I been in Edward’s place. How would I have viewed Florence’s frigidity and her eventual disgust? It’s seems churlish I would have rejected her out of disappointment at her lack of skill or even any vestige of apparent aptitude in that department. Surely, I would I have tried to find other ways of loving her, perhaps seeking to melt her over time into an appreciation of the desires she was clearly capable of, had I only been sensitive enough to realise it. Or maybe, like Edward, the humiliation I would have felt in that moment would have been too great a hurdle for my younger, Ego weighted self to overcome. But of course, neither of these characters actually existed and it’s a testament to McEwan’s prowess that he can so easily convince us that they did. I don’t know if that tree ever washed up on Chesil Beach, but I imagine it did, and I imagine Florence still sitting there, and I’m walking towards her, wondering what to say. And this time I’d better get it right.

Altogether, an emotionally powerful story of two very human characters, all the more poignant for not ending well, as is always the way I suppose.

But don’t let that put you off.

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