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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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the masterOkay, let’s be careful with our terms here. When we say ‘crisis’, what we really mean is even celebrity authors can’t make money writing literary fiction any more. Book buying is in decline generally, but literature especially. What’s literary fiction? Well, roughly speaking it’s what’s left when you take out all the other stuff people generally prefer reading – the genre stuff: thrillers, chick-lit, crime, horror, sci-fi,… whatever. It’s the kind of stuff written against the odds of anyone actually being interested in it. Sounds a bit grim, and it can be, but on the plus side ‘research’ suggest literary fiction is the genre most likely to improve a reader’s soul. But who cares about that these days?

I hesitate to say it’s the kind of stuff I write because that would grant me airs I’m not sure I’m due, but since my stuff won’t fit into any other genre I suppose that’s what I must call it. And that’s a pity because according those who supposedly know – all those book publishy types – literary fiction is finished. Kaput! It’s really so ‘over‘ darling.

Hmm, story of my life.

Except:

What saves me from oblivion is the fact I already don’t make my living at it, and never have so it’s a bit of a moot point to me. I’ve always had a day job, though to be frank for as long as I’ve had it – some forty years now – all I’ve ever wanted to do is quit it and write. Thank heavens for common sense then.

So, bottom line, it’s harder now for those who used to scrape a living at writing high-brow fiction – facts of life catching up and all that. But it doesn’t mean that kind of fiction’s dead. It just means you won’t find it in Waterstones any more. And at fifteen quid a pop guys, I mean, come on. There are some  who have to feed themselves all week off that. Oh, yes, seriously. So you need to get out of London and go visit some provincial towns. Maybe then you’ll be surprised to learn hardly any of them can muster a bookshop any more. They’re all Pound-land and charity shops, and thank God. Me? I get my literature from places like Age Concern and the Heart Foundation. So it’s no wonder the bottom’s dropped out of the market.

The starving artist in his garret? Yes, that old Romantic trope still exists. He might have a Masters’ degree in creative writing or literature now, or some other highbrow thing, but if he wants to live he works sixty hours a week in shop, or a warehouse earning £7.25 an hour, slaving for a grumpy old philistine who makes his life a misery. Then he goes home to his mouldy old flat, the rent on which takes most of what he earns, and he pens a literary line or two before he passes out. Then he submits them blind to a publisher who hasn’t a clue who he is. And you know what happens? Well, let’s just say he finds out soon enough there’s no money in literature, that indeed there never was for the likes of him, which is a pity because his story is the story of our times and worth listening to.

So that’s not to say there’s no need for it. It’s just a question of who needs it most and since the influential are deaf as a post to the cries of suffering heard all about us these days I still maintain the person most served by such work is the writer himself. Readers are a bonus, but hardly to be guaranteed, and not necessary anyway. So stick it online and be damned. If there’s no money in it you might as well, then move on and write something else because that’s what writers do. Isn’t it?

Can’t make a living at it? I know, it’s sad. But if stories are important, and the writers really mean it when they say they’re writers, rather  than posers in tweed jackets, the stories will get written anyway by someone not so proud. And this internet thing will disseminate all the unprofitable literary stuff and preserve it for eternity – unless of course this net-neutrality business gets a look in and then we’re all stuffed.

But that’s a story of a different kind, possibly much worse, and I’ve yet to get my head around it.

Maybe next time.

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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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miceThe more literary kind of story has a habit of fluffing its conclusion, of building you up through a series of struggles, pointing to one final decisive conflict, but just as one is hopeful of a whizz-bang ending, it veers off the mark and cuts to the credits without having resolved anything at all. Critics do effusive somersaults over the subtlety of this sort of thing and provide a multitude of their own subjective interpretations based on impenetrable literary theory as espoused by someone you’ve never heard of. As for the rest of us, we can only trust the whole thing was not a deceit, that the author simply didn’t know how to finish things other than by saying it was all a dream, so he trails off instead, fades away like a ghost.

In similar vein I swear I did not dream of mice last week. I saw them, heard them, chased them, tried in vain to trap them. But I’ve not seen one since, nor been disturbed by one in the night. My house is now bristling with traps, baited with all manner of treats – currently pieces of KitKat stuck in tasty splodges of peanut butter. Yum!

Nothing. No bites. No dead mice.

I’ve been round the outside of the house looking for any means of mousy ingress – tiny holes in the corners of walls and where the drains poke out. I have applied cement here, there and everywhere, just to be sure. I know they’ve definitely been around and where they’ve lingered longest because there’s an eye watering smell of ammonia coming from behind the cupboards in the conservatory. For weeks we thought it was a pair of my son’s trainers, and grumbled for them to be stored elsewhere. But the more savvy visitors tell us this pungent signature scent is actually mouse-wee. The cupboards are fitted and it will take a week to dismantle them, remove them, check for ingress, clean up, put back. Understandably I’m resisting the trial, hoping instead the mice have gone and the smell will fade if we keep the windows open.

No firm conclusion, you see? We trail off into the literary never-land. No bang, no snap of the trap and a clear indication of the saga’s end. It goes on until memory fades, hopefully along with the smell, and some other slice of life takes centre stage. So for now the mice have become ghosts to manifest at every creak or sigh in the night, but without actually materialising in tangible reality at all. Only their smell remains.

I hope.

Goodnight all.

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OWith Fifty Shades the Movie opening at cinemas in time for Valentine’s Day, one might be tempted to think it’s now okay for a man to physically restrain a woman and have his way with her any way he chooses, and that there’s something wrong with the woman if she doesn’t enjoy it. So let me begin on a cautionary note and say to all the men out there who might be thinking along these lines, I suggest you discuss the matter first very carefully with your lady, because she may not share your views. Bondage and sadomasochism are among the darker paths in human relations; the psychology is complex, arguably pathological but, in simpler terms, the emotions it arouses, while reportedly powerful, are not to be confused with love.

Let me pause for breath here and say I have not read Fifty Shades, nor will I be taking the good Lady Graeme to watch the movie. I have, however, read the Story of O, the 1955 novel by Pauline Reage, and from which all semi-pornographic bondage bonk-busters are derived.

It tells the tale of a young woman, known to us simply as “O”, a lovely ingénue who is drawn by her posh boyfriend into a secret circle of wealthy men whose sadomasochistic mores see O reduced to the status of a mere possession. O is at first horrified to find herself abducted, then inducted into all manner of degrading sexual practice, punctuated by frequent whippings, as anything resembling an independence of spirit is beaten out of her. The story persuades us she eventually sees the light, becomes a submissive chattel, and begins to take pleasure, indeed to see the very meaning of her life in sexually compliant slavery and regular whippings. The power of the story, and I did find it a powerfully compelling read, is that Reage achieves all of this without the use of a single naughty word. (would-be erotic authors take note)

sexygirlThe story of O is not pornography, in the same way Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly is not pornography, though both these works were ground-breaking in their time to the extent of finding themselves in the courts on charges of obscenity. Of the two, in my opinion, Lady Chatterly is easily the more literary, though O, winner of the French Prix de Deux Magots, cannot be dismissed as mere smut.

The paradox of O is the depiction of a woman sexually liberated by masculine domination, a liberation that can only come through her willingness to submit to anything her master(s) desire, and to revel in their punishments. The men are depicted as unrelentingly repulsive, and the women, including O, I’m afraid, as impenetrably dim. The men take the women however and whenever they choose, they remodel the shape of them to better suit their idea of a sexually desirable object, then brand their bottoms with a mark of ownership when the women “graduate” as fully fledged chattels.

When O meets an ordinary Joe who falls embarrassingly in love with her, she is incapable of responding in the normal way, and her dismissive treatment of him highlights the dramatic change that has been wrought in this former ingénue by her new lifestyle. The suggestion is that she now operates at a higher level of her being, emotionally and sexually, and that an ordinary man, one who would treat her kindly, is too tame and incapable of handling or even arousing the passions she is now familiar with. All this thanks to the wealthy male predators who own her.

But all of this is fantasy, and Reage doesn’t shy away from hitting you over the head with the darker implications of the endgame of any relationship built on such murky foundations. In short, the story of O does not end well. It’s a tale that can be read in many ways, but if you’re only in it for the titillation you’re seriously missing out. I found it rather a cautionary tale, for when the men tire of O, as all possessions are eventually tired of, she is unable to contemplate a return to the banality of her former life as a free woman and a human being, and the suggestion is that in one version of the ending, her then master, in a last act of gross masochism, grants her the wish that she be relieved of the necessity.

Any sufficiently sensitive man reading the Story of O cannot help but examine his own self for traces of the abominable chauvinism Reage depicts, and question any culture, closed or open, that would reduce its women to the status of objects, sexual or otherwise.

sexygirl2I have at times been in the company of men whose vulgar talk regarding the opposite sex has left me in no doubt as to their primitive attitudes. Whether they also share these views with their wives is anyone’s guess, but – and I speak as a man here – there is definitely a tendency in men that would sooner simplify women to the status of compliant sexual vessels, without the inconvenience of having to treat them as fellow human beings, with thoughts and fears and feelings. But again we must remind ourselves it is a fantasy, one we should take care not to let out of the box for too long, nor take too seriously, because, to paraphrase Alice, Nicole Kidman’s character, at the end of Stanley Kubrics “Eyes wide shut” the best we can hope, where sexual fantasies are concerned, is that we survive them.

Sex of course is one of life’s great pleasures, but by far the more valuable is the companionship of another human being whom you love and respect, and whose mere presence makes you feel bigger than you do when you are alone. I don’t want to pour scorn upon Fifty Shades the movie – there’ll be plenty of people doing that no doubt, as they did with the books – but I cannot help feeling a sneaking admiration for its author, a fellow indie, and a rare example of our breed who made good, made the crossover to the big time. So do read the books and go to the cinema and revel in the fantasy, if you think it might be your bag, but don’t lose sight of what’s real in human relations; remember it’s rather the exception to make love using ropes and whips and sticky tape, than the rule. So guys, don’t make your girl do what she’s not naturally inclined to do. That she wants to be with you at all is a prize in itself, so don’t push your luck.

Fifty Shades does not pretend to be literature, but if  you want to take a more literary view of the erotic you could try the story of O. But be warned, like O, you may get more than you bargained for.

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because you write

You see this one a lot in the blogsphere, and it’s always worth a glance. Of course there are no rules to blogging. You can write whatever and however you like, but there are certain things that attract readers. Readers turn into followers, and bloggers like to have followers – even the ones who say they don’t.

I’ve clearly some way to go before The Rivendale Review becomes one of the touchstones of the global online community, but I accept my material doesn’t have mass appeal. Nor am I about to start writing on “popular” or “controversial” or “trending” topics just to attract more traffic, and I recommend you don’t either. As bloggers our uniqueness is our appeal to readers, so don’t try to write like everyone else. Above all be yourself. The blog is you. Your blog is where readers come to find the unsanitised view of the world through your eyes.

All right,…

You’re a voice in the wilderness, your topic of conversation might not have mass appeal, so, without sacrificing your virtue, how do you best present yourself and start picking up an audience?

Here are ten guidelines – in no particular order of merit:

1) Keep it short. In the early days of this blog I wrote long pieces – several thousand words long. They were careful analyses on issues that interested me. Long, long essays on this and that. They’ve sunk without trace. No one reads them.

When I was writing for print I knew that however long my first draft was, I could always reduce it by at least a third without losing the essential meaning. Unlike print, in blogging we can blather as much as we want, but it’s a bad habit, so economise, economise, economise. Keep it short, or even your most loyal follower is wondering if they have time to do you justice. They move on, they get distracted, and they don’t come back.

How short? Currently I aim for between five hundred and a thousand words.

2) Tag. Us the tag function to tag your piece with key words or phrases. These things have a ranking. Hit upon a popular key phrase, one that’s currently “trending” and your blog starts popping up on the front page of Google searches. You can get clues to trending tags by using google’s auto complete function. “Writing a good blog” autocompletes after the third word, plus the b of blog – so I know it’s a fairly popular search term. But don’t sacrifice your ideals on a popular tag. Write what you want to write, then think how you might widen its appeal with the judicious use of appropriate tagging.

3) Answer your comments. Make conversation. Let your readers know you’re a human being, and not one of those horrible web-farming machines. If someone follows you then consider following them. If someone likes you, have look at their blog. You may have something in common. Blogging is interactive. It’s also a community.

4) Pictures. I like interesting pictures to accompany a blog. They attract the eye, they encourage your clicker to settle in and linger. But keep it relevant, and tasteful, and legal.

5) Keep going. Update regularly. Once or twice a week is okay. If you’re down to less than once every couple of months and it’s becoming a chore, then maybe blogging’s not for you. On the other hand don’t update too regularly. If you have followers they don’t want to be hearing from you several times a day. You’re asking to get unfollowed.

6) Don’t blog because someone’s paying you to endorse a particular view or a product. And don’t blog as part of a multi level marketing scam because that just annoys the hell out of everyone. You’ll get found out, and then your name is mud. You lose your virtue – and remember that’s the only thing you have going for you.

7) Don’t be afraid of sounding like a fool. Express yourself. Marylin Monroe, that most iconic of muses, once said: Imperfection is beauty. Madness is genius. It is better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring. She could have been talking about blogging.

8) Important one this: don’t blog when drunk, or within 24 hours of an emotionally upsetting incident, and especially not to get back at someone. I know you can always delete the nonsense you wrote next morning, but by then the damage might already have been done.

9) Normal rules of libel apply to blogs. Be careful what you say and how you say it.

10) Last of all, don’t listen to me. The best part of blogging is the journey, finding your own way, and your own audience.

So in the spirit of interaction, let me ask you: How would you write a good blog?

Graeme out

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And speaking of plagiarism,…

It seems I’m still publishing on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace! An early non-fiction work titled: “The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes” keeps popping up on there. The miscreant is doggedly persistent. However, it’s not exactly a best seller  and the subject matter is esoteric to say the least so it’s unlikely many have been duped into downloading it for money. Just on the off chance, if you were in the market for such a thing, do beware – the Michael Graeme who pops up on there from time to time selling my books, is not the genuine Michael Graeme.

This is not to be confused with Michael Graham of course, the American talk show host who is a genuine author of several books on Amazon, and the other Michael Graham, genuine author of the novel “The Future Visible”, also available on the Kindle Marketplace.

I am, however, so far as I’m aware, the only genuine Michael Graeme and, unless my various alternate realities have got their wires crossed here, I do not publish on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace.

Well, that’s cleared that one up.

So, will the real Michael Graeme please stand up?

No.

It’s a lovely hot day today – too nice to be inside, blogging. He’s off for a walk.

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