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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

A lone tree falls

Chapter One

Marsh Avenue, Marsden

This is the last garden in Marsh Avenue with a privet hedge, the last with a piece of lawn at the front, and flowering borders. It used to be like that from top to bottom. You could see the seasons change through the cherries in early spring, the laburnums in late May, and the deep greens of high summer. Now it’s all concrete, cracked pavers and white vans.

There were neighbours, too: Mr Williams, next door, a retired gentleman who, in my memory at least, always wore a white jacket and a bow tie. Sometimes he’d have dungarees underneath the jacket, if he was repairing bicycles. He liked old maps and cameras. Weekends would see him in a trilby hat, a second-hand Voightlander over his shoulder, setting through Durleston Wood. He smelled of pipe tobacco, and mushrooms.

His wife, a portly dame of indeterminate shape would arrive unannounced to camp my mother, and help out with the housework. Nowadays, this would be seen as an unspeakable intrusion. Back then it was more a kind of solidarity.

Then there was Mr Simpson, on the other side. His back garden was a wild profusion of blackberries and rhubarb, but he kept his front manicured. He had three mature cherry trees to mark the apexes of a triangle of lawn. When they blossomed, they were the pride and the envy of the neighbourhood. The lawn has gone now, and the trees were felled to make way for a pick-up truck. Loud music thumps out from the house all day, and late into the night.

The occupant is now a scar-faced man, who wears camo. He keeps a pair of barking bull-lurchers which, the story goes, he trains to kill badgers, and foxes. I don’t know if this is true, but he has dead eyes, like black pebbles. I have studied his sort before, and I can easily imagine it is so. When we are ruled in a more unambiguously totalitarian manner, he will be appointed the local chief of police, pulling out the fingernails of leftist dissenters until they too scream out their love for Big Brother. I have never spoken to him, so cannot call him a neighbour. His music is – well – decidedly unmusical, consisting at my end purely of beats. It jams my brain, so I cannot write when I am there.

Thump. Thump. Thumpety.

I did not intend coming back to Marsden, but I don’t regret it now, nor the circumstance that forced me. It granted time to see my father out, with grace and honour. It also eased his mind, knowing there was someone around to keep on top of the garden, keep it respectable, this being in the manner of his generation, who took pains to ease the minds of passersby that here at least, they were safe from assault and robbery.

“Remember to sharpen the edging shears before you clip round.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“The India Stone’s in the shed. I showed you how. Remember?”

I do remember. I was eighteen when we had that conversation. How long ago is that? Forty years? Except I swear it was Mr Williams who showed me how to sharpen things with an India Stone. It was also his India Stone I was always borrowing, because ours had grown concave with use. I am on the cusp of old age myself now, or late middle, or whatever they call it, but in my father’s eyes I was always a lad. I didn’t mind that. He always meant well, even when he was wrong, which, looking back, was often. It’s an important step along the path to maturity, I think, realizing your father could be wrong, and forgiving him for it.

Thump. Thump. Wackety. Thump. Thump.

He’d gone a little deaf towards the end, so he wasn’t as disturbed by the noise from next door as I am. Or if he was, he never said. He never complained about anything, even when he had much to complain about, like how the doctor hadn’t a clue what was wrong with him, until it was too late. Then his only apology was: well, Mr Swift, you’ve had a good innings.

The night he died, there was heavy metal coming through the walls as I sat with him. I’d not the courage to go round and tell the scar-faced man there was this old gentleman, my father, with a magnificent story of life behind him, a man blessed by his obscurity and his inoffensiveness, dying on the other side of the wall, and could you not for once turn the music down, let him pass into the next world in peace, and not be chased there by Banshees?

Funny, the things you feel ashamed about.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

He was a craftsman, my father, worked magic on a lathe, making valves, and far away fortunes for the oil and gas industry, yet a pittance for himself. Mr Williams was a labourer at the rubber works, Mr Simpson a retired collier with emphysema who hid black stuff he coughed up, in a clean while handkerchief which he kept there for said purpose. All were gentlemen, their wives, decent, resilient women. Their solidarity was like glue to us throughout the leaner years of growing up.

Oh,… you get the picture. Things just aren’t the same now. And perhaps there has always been this sense of decline, certainly in the north of my country, and since the Thatcher years, but lately it has taken on a more unabashed appearance, smelling of a thing more brazenly corrupt. And it’s my fault because I looked away, and let it happen.

The obvious thing to do, now my father has gone, is to sell the house, but a part of me is saying that would be to close the door on what I still believe to be a thing worth rescuing from the past. If only I could define the shape of it. But I cannot stay either, because the insult of that music, and the loss of gentleness, and the richness of colour is full of hurt for me. All I do when I’m here is scroll my phone for crass novelty, and wait for a change in tempo.

Boom. Whackety. Boom. Boom. Boom.

___________________________________________

I think this works as an opener. It sets the mood, anyway. We’re ten thousand words in, and it’s still giving, still connecting. I’ve done the cover, too. We may be on to something. Coming to a bookshop no time soon and never to be seen on Amazon, except possibly as a pirated version.

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Sweet_Tooth_(novel)By a process that is both conscious and subliminal we form a picture and an opinion of the world from the images presented to us, and from the stories we are told. We pick them up from culture, both popular and highbrow, from the print media, and from the movies we see. Whilst inevitable and obvious, it also renders us vulnerable to manipulation, because what if the world isn’t really like that? And how do we form a truly independent opinion of reality anyway? Is it even possible?

We accept that oppressive regimes will censor the media in order to control a population and to manage its image abroad, but what if we in the west are also subject to a subversive manipulation of the media so that everything we see, read and hear possesses a slant that tips our thoughts in a particular direction? What if, say, even certain authors of high-brow fiction gain prominence and publication for having political views considered favourable, while others are forced to languish in obscurity? What if the very bedrock of intellectual thought itself is tilted by design to enourage a certain line of thinking?

This is the plot of McEwans “Sweet Tooth”, so named after the security operation to recruit unwitting authors into a propaganda machine, to fund them through an apparently bona-fide arts foundation so they might quit their day-jobs and focus on their writing, unaware they are in fact serving other interests.

Our writer Tom Haley, struggling literary author and lecturer at the University of Sussex, is duped by low-level secret service minion Serena Frome into signing up, and the pair become lovers. Set in the early 1970’s McEwan plunges us into a world of power cuts, fuel shortages, the three day week, striking miners and hunger-striking IRA prisoners, all of which serves to remind us that while we think we live in politically perilous times, they are as nothing to what has gone before. But that’s just something else I took from the book, probably because I’m a little late coming to the postmodern party and realising that, as a cultural movement, it’s not completely bonkers – that it’s never wise to accept uncritically the prevailing Zeitgeist as being the only truth there is.

Serena is herself subject to scrutiny by the “service”, result of a past affair with a disgraced officer, and this lends further intrigue, as does the tension caused when operation “Sweet Tooth” begins to fall apart. Worse, Serena is no cold-hearted career-spy; her love for Haley is genuine, but this can only mean two things: the future of their relationship is doomed when she’s finally exposed, as are her prospects for advancement within the service due to her percieved incompetence by her mysoginistic male colleagues. But then all is not quite as it seems,…

Written in the first person, from Serena’s viewpoint, McEwan is convincing as a woman, but is this story really McEwan writing as Serena Frome? Or is he writing as someone else, writing as Serena, and if so, how did this “someone else” come by all the material of Serena’s life including her recruitment to the secret service?

Although ostensibly a spy story, the spy stuff and the political shenanigans of the times, provide only the background music to Serena’s otherwise unglamorous and poorly paid life as a low-ranking officer in what could have been any other drably routine Civil Service department. Instead McEwan steers us into a different territory and tells us something interesting about the times, about the nature and the power of fictional narratives, and the world of the literary intelligentsia. On top of that, he weaves us a cunning love-story while the spies themselves, as drab as they are sinister, display the same petty jealousies and banal office-intrigues as the rest of us.

To finish, he pulls off a satisfyingly crafty twist when we finally get to know just whose story this really is.

 

 

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secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.

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long long wayIn this centenary of the first world war we’ve not been short of moving commemorations, and then there’s always a wealth of literature to remind us as well, and for me there’s been no more powerful and insightful an evocation of those awful years than Sebastian Barry’s 2005 novel “A Long Long Way”. Unlike other Great War fiction, which tends to treat the United Kingdom as a uniquely Anglo-centric affair, this story follows the life of Willy Dunne, a young Irishman who enters the war by way of volunteering for the Dublin Fusiliers.

We’re reminded that the Ireland that entered the war, was not the same Ireland at the end of it. At the beginning, largely Catholic Nationalists from the South were encouraged to join up, the thinking being their fighting alongside Ulster Protestant Loyalists from the North would speed Ireland towards a more harmonious transition to Home Rule. But then came the 1916 uprising when Nationalist ambitions took a more aggressive turn with an uprising that was put down by brutal force of arms. So, while Willie Dunne and his fellows were away fighting for King and Country, and dying in vast numbers, news was reaching them of the same King sending gunboats up the Liffey to bombard the Hell out of Dublin, and executing fellow Irishmen as traitors.

Thus, on top of the horrors they face on account of the war itself, they must now come to terms with the bewildering loss of all certainties at home. They enter the war as part of the United Kingdom and the Empire, are waved off by their countrymen as heroes, but end up despised by many of those same countrymen for their service to a uniform that is suddenly seen as an oppressive force against Irish freedoms. As the war grinds on, and the troubles deepen, they also lose the trust of their fellow (non-Irish)comrades-in-arms, facing casual racism and suspicion as well as the more familiar horrors of war hurled at them by the Germans.

At home on leave, Willie witnesses the shooting of a young rebel, and in a letter to his father, expresses his confused sympathies for the boy’s needless death. He’s looking to his father for comfort and reassurance that all will be well in the end, but his father, a police superintendent and a staunch Loyalist, considers the rebels to be traitors, and disowns Willie on account of his sympathy. So Willie has the sense of having lost his father’s love, as well as all he has come to think of as home, that even if he survives the war, there is nothing for him to return to.

While the turbulent history of Anglo-Irish relations is a story in itself here, Barry holds us to the view of the world through Willy Dunne’s bewildered innocence and its gradual loss – loss of love and homeland, and all in a cause that grows more opaque and futile as the years wear on, so that in the end all that’s certain is the terror of the war itself, a dwindling number of surviving comrades, and memories of intense friendships born of war in the flicker of an eye, then lost in moments of horrific violence. Meanwhile, the enemy, though certainly feared for their ferocity, are blurred out to an almost abstract concept, rarely encountered face to face, and spared even the venom levelled at Willy and his mates by their own side.

This is not an easy read, in part because we know Willy is doomed, that the manner of his death is merely an event in the future we must work towards, and largely irrelevant anyway because Willie has been dead from the moment he joined up, the story of his brief young life thereafter being more a foreshadowing, an account of the slow hollowing out of his soul. The imagery of this most brutal war is as vividly portrayed here as any I’ve read elsewhere, but I felt its grotesqueries were brought to a more painfully sharp relief by the incongruous lyrical beauty of Barry’s prose, also that additional layer of the almost unbearable shredding of Willy’s inner being as everything that grounded him as a boy sinks into the mud as surely as his mates sink one by one into the mud of an obliterated Belgium.

As war fiction of the cautionary kind, this novel scores very highly indeed, bringing humanity front and centre and cherishing its innocence in the face of the unspeakable evils and the sheer stupidity that we all know stalks the world still. Also, coming at us as it does from such an unusual angle, it highlights all the more the futility and the tragedy of those years. I found it an awe-inspiring, deeply moving read.

May the ghost of Willy Dunne for ever haunt us all.

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history of loneliness

A History of Loneliness is a novel about the abuse of children in the Catholic Church in Ireland. It’s an important and unflinching work exploring the corruption of power on a vast scale, its systematic cover-up, and the devastating effect the scandal had upon the psyche of a nation when it woke up to the truth of its betrayal.

Odran Yates, is a good man, sent for the priesthood by his mother at the age of 17. He’s not sure if he has a true calling. It was simply the done thing and, in common with many other lads of his age, he simply went along with it. But he finds he enjoys the seminary life and excels at his studies. Scarred by tragic childhood events, and abused by the parish Priest – a thing he’s long suppressed – Odran is more damaged than he seems. Is the Church to be his rehabilitation back into  life, or an escape from it?

Reticent and bookish, he begins his career teaching at the Catholic school, thinking to settle into the quiet cloistered life. For decades, he keeps the real world at bay, only to find himself suddenly sent to cover a parish for his old friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle who, after only a short tenure, has been quietly “moved on”. Although promised it’s only a temporary thing, Odran finds himself marooned in the position, a hapless pawn in a grand power-play as the first paedophile cases begin to break, and the church seeks to cover itself. We learn it’s not the first time Tom Cardle has been moved on, and though it’s obvious to us now in hindsight why, to Odran it remains a mystery.

To be a priest in Ireland at the outset of Odran’s career, was to be man highly regarded and trusted. People gave up their seats on trains for him, bought him food and drink and generally prostrated themselves in hope of currying favour with God. But when the scandal breaks, the priesthood becomes at once universally reviled, priests reluctant to go about in their collars for fear of attack. Odran is accused of attempting to kidnap a small boy when he was only trying to help the child who had lost its mother. Such is the paranoia and hatred of the public, he is set upon in the street, punched to the ground, then treated appallingly by the Garda who are quick assume him to be a paedophile “like all the rest”.

As the story shuttles back and forth in time, pieces of the puzzle and the all too human weaknesses in Odran’s character are revealed and we are forced to ask: how could such an intelligent man really have been so naive as not to know what was going on? Did Odran, and all the other good men of the Priesthood, simply turn a blind eye? Or were the good men themselves also victims of the institution they so loyally served?

Worse is to come with Odran discovering how the corruption goes to the core of the Church, that rather than work with the authorities in exposing and punishing rogue priests like Tom Cardle, the Church has defended them, covered for them, because the Church could not be seen to be anything less than omnipotent, having set itself above all other authority, save God – above the state, and the law – that Ireland had become up to the time of the crisis a virtual theocracy, the Church unchallenged in its domination over the lives of the Catholic population, and under the cover of which many an appalling abuse took place.

All Odran wants is a return to the quiet life of the school, but as the layers of deceit unfold he looks back and asks himself has he not wasted his life in devotion to an institution that is morally unworthy, indeed responsible for ruining the lives of so many innocents? And as an outraged public turns upon anyone wearing the collar, including Odran, are the good priests not equally culpable and deserving of the public’s anger? But if that’s the case, with so many wrongs in world, who among us is entirely without sin? Who among us has never turned a blind eye to a thing out of a sense of one’s own powerlessness to make any difference whatsoever to a rottenness so deep?

Read this book if you can bear it. Put yourself in Odran’s shoes, then ask yourself, honestly, what would, what could you have done?

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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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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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bookshopcoverAs a self publishing writer willing to give his work away in exchange for establishing a readership, Feedbooks is where it all began, back in 2007. You loaded your story up to the Feedbooks site, and it became available at once to a worldwide audience, downloadable directly to smartphones, tablet computers and kindles. If free fiction was your bag, reading it or writing it, Feedbooks is where you went.

In those early days, when the web was a little more anarchic with its dreams, Feedbooks was hot stuff, and I moved a lot of stories through them. But no longer. My Aldiko and Moonreader apps now link only to Feedbook’s paid content,  or legacy works that have entered the public domain due to copyright expiry. Contemporary, free, original titles are no longer accessible from the platforms they were aimed at.

You can still get at them from the non-mobile webpage version of the site, but the graphics are winking out one by one, and there’s a sense of something falling down, falling over and being left to rot.

There has been no announcement by Feedbooks, but this is not unexpected. Their support, indeed their interest in the free stuff we’ve given them over the years has been generally poor. In the early days independent authors provided a wealth of free content that got Feedbooks on the map, got their business model off the ground, and we’ve been ignored ever since the paid stuff came online. That they’ve finally ditched us comes as no surprise – my only real surprise being it’s taken so long.

I do feel a keen disappointment in this because their penetration of the market has always been really good. If you wanted readers Feedbooks found them for you. Smashwords couldn’t match it, and Wattpad was even worse. It’ll be a chillier place I fear in the search for readers from now on. But as authors we should not despair. Readers like free stuff, and they’ll get it wherever they can. Smashwords here they come?

I hope so.

Is Feedbooks dead?

For authors of free original content, sadly, yes it is.

 

 

 

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writer pasternakGoodreads is an online social meeting place for the bookish. You read a book and you tell the world what you thought about it. You score, you rate and pontificate to your heart’s content. You even get to list the books you’ve read, are reading, or intend to read. Thus, like all good social media, it affords one a means of showing off to people who really couldn’t care less.

As for the writers among us, you don’t have to be a proper published author to be listed. Even self published ebooks, hastily cobbled and given away, are on there too, so it’s an inclusive, impartial and non-partisan catalogue, which has to be good.

But before signing up and contributing to the heaps of unsolicited critique already on there, remember Goodreads is an advertising platform aimed at selling you stuff you probably don’t need. It also, crucially, has a business model of which we, the bookish, are an integral part, providing a vast quantity of free content, both the commentary, and (in the case of us self published authors) even the stuff that’s commented upon. In return it allows us occasionally to “share” in the success of selected famous authors by engaging in online Q and A sessions with them, but again, remember, this sharing is a means of advertising the said author’s works, or at the very least maintaining their profile at our own unpaid expense.

In short, Goodreads is pure genius.

But it doesn’t quite work for me, and the main reason is this: I’ve never been comfortable critiquing the work of another author. True, I do have a Goodreads account and have “reviewed” books I’ve enjoyed, but it’s rare I’ll take out the hatchet, because I don’t feel qualified, and would rather not say anything if I cannot say something positive. To say a work is rubbish, as Goodreads’ army of unpaid reviewers often do, tells us more about the reviewer than the book. This is perhaps the reviewer’s intention anyway, though with the reviewer perhaps hoping it will make them appear more intelligent, when actually all it reveals is their ignorance.

There’s something crass about denigrating creativity, be it from the pen of a master, or a teenage amateur just starting out in college romances on Wattpad. We all have it in us to be creative, but it takes courage to expose one’s self to public scrutiny. Many are put off by fear of the snide intellect tearing their work to shreds, pointing out spelling mistakes, poor grasp of grammar, or generally berating them as a shrivelling worthless fraud.

My English teacher used to do it with great panache; but it was his job. His caustic red pen and his tartly encircled “see me’s” were intended (I hope) to raise my game, but we needn’t take criticism from anywhere else at all seriously, especially amateur criticism from the likes of Goodreads or Amazon, or any other public bookish forum where people basically think out loud without a care for who they hurt in the process. This is just noise. People like to moan, and the angrier and the more depressed they are by life, the more they will moan about everything else.

The creative sphere, becoming as it is, increasingly de-monetised, need no longer be a battle of Egos for market share. De-monetised – literally writing for free – it has become more a sea of ideas, reflective of the collective turmoil of human thought in which anyone with a genuine and sincerely felt point of view is of equal worth and quite frankly beyond criticism. What creatives are about is the expression of the deeper human condition, feeding a hunger that comes from so far beyond the usual pedestrian measure of these things as to be almost paranormal. To create is the finest and most satisfying thing a we can do. To sneer at another’s work is not, especially when you’ve not paid for that work, and your opinion has not been asked for.

I have no reason to complain of my ratings on Goodreads since my average is 3.5 out of 5, which I take to be the sunnier side of middling, but I also note my early works score more highly than my later ones – my later ones scoring nothing at all. Is this a question of advancing apathy on the reader’s part regarding the time-line of my bibliography, or is it more an advancing senility on my own? Am I, in short, losing it? I’d begun to wonder about that, especially as I struggle to find my way with the current work in progress, but there is no worthwhile analysis to be had from the noise, and for the writer such a plethora of opinion can only be, at best, distracting, at worst discouraging. And anything discouraging for the writer is best avoided altogether because we’ve got enough to worry about as it is.

Writing for free, we must not allow amateur “ratings” or even the lack of them to guide our hand, and we should remember at all times the only person we need to keep on board is our selves. Trust only that if we have connected deeply enough with a piece of our own work – sufficient at least to finish it – the chances are others will connect with it too – not everyone for sure, indeed probably very few, but enough to make it worth our efforts. By all means chatter away on Goodreads, list the books you’ve read to show your friends how bookish you are, but remember, at the end of the day, like all social media, it’s basically meaningless to those it purports to serve, and of tangible importance only to those who control it.

I have been a creator of things all my life, and in that time have noticed also how non-creatives are quick to assume positions of power over us, finding ways to exploit the creatives for gains they are unwilling to share, treating us as second class citizens, milking us as unpaid cash cows. Goodreads and its ilk are the product of two decades of internetification – an evolution of sorts. This goes for my work too, though we come from opposing ideologies. Goodreads is about making something out of nothing, while I and others like me, in all our nothingess, rise powerfully from something the non-creative critic or self styled amateur marketing copywriter has any concept of.

So remember, dear un(der)paid writer, if you’re still smarting after that last semi-literate review of your heart-felt autobiography, or the novel you were sure would change the world, but which has yet to score anything at all on Goodreads review system, or indeed anywhere else, write on regardless because it’s always been that way. Have faith only in what inspires you and never mind the rest. It’s not much encouragement, but it’s all you’re going to get, and as any writer of experience will tell you, looking for encouragement beyond oneself is to take the world of idle chatter far more seriously than it deserves.

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885Whenever we observe ourselves asking this question, of our selves, we can take it as a sign our energy is low and our brains so far out of our heads we’ve lost our vital perspective on life and begun to expect something back from the world other than what we’ve already got.

When we write online it means we have found the conduit to traditional publishing closed, so we direct the stream of our frenetic output to wherever the words will stick. We keep a blog, we put stories up on Wattpad, and Smashwords and Feedbooks. And the pressure that would arise in our hearts, were we denied any platform for our work, as in the old pre-Internet days, diminishes. We feel temporarily sated. Thus we answer our own question: we write primarily for ourselves.

Or rather we should.

The temptation with online media however is that we can all too easily get hung up on the statistics the media providers provide us with. How many people have read me today? How many followers do I have? How “influential” is my blog? How many messages/comments/likes? How many downloads of Langholm Avenue, of Push Hands, of Between the Tides? And how much more attention might I attract if I wrote one more essay/poem/blog-entry/novel?

Of course all these questions can be reinterpreted as meaning: does anybody know or care I’m here at all? Such existential angst is lurking pretty much at the bottom of us all, and whether we write or not, it is always through some form of expression, verbal or visual we test our status in the world. We push at the world and observe its reaction. And learn from it.

Before the advent of social media, we were restricted in our potential audience to the small circle of people whom we actually met day to day. And to this circle we would brag, and flirt and preen, and tell our anecdotes in order to feel liked and accepted by the degree of warmth and humour and friendship we received back. Now of course, our potential audience is global. We can brag and preen and flirt with the whole world if we so choose. And if we do so choose, it will drain us to a dried up husk. It will make us feel only the more stupid and small, the exact opposite of the dream to which we aspire; the dream of wholeness.

I do not use my Facebook account in spite of Facebook’s periodic nagging for me to do so. But I do not understand how anyone would think the minutia of my life worth keeping up with and see in Facebook only a mask that would allow me to present a side of myself that is fictional, aimed solely at attracting admirers, as a movie star attracts fans. I might post pictures of myself in aviator sunglasses perhaps, while driving my sport’s car, or while climbing a mountain , or while diving into an azure sea from the deck of a yacht while a blonde haired long legged girl looks on adoringly. But I would not post my morning face, my toilet habits, a picture of the cupboard under the sink where I keep my junk, nor of the hairs that habitually block the plughole of my bath, for these are not attractive things and add nothing to the fiction of the attractive, likeable, followable me.

In attracting admirers, we become temporarily reassured of our existence and our possible importance in a life that can seem otherwise empty and meaningless. Thus my three hundred followers can be interpreted as making me a more important person than the man with only fifty followers, while the man with ten thousand followers makes me feel rather inadequate to the extent that I must comfort myself with reassurances that he is somehow cheating.

The brain, the thinking organ, is a fickle creature, lost in a moment, gone like a whippet into the forest, chasing shadows. We think this, we think that, but there is no longer sufficient part of us remaining, residing in the presence of our bodies, to actually feel the fact of our existence at all, and whatever the obscure fact of it is, not to mind it in the least. Indeed the only person we really need seek the approval of is our selves. And by our selves I mean the greater part of our selves, the part who is the watcher of our thoughts. Only there will we find our rest, our peace, and our permission to simply be.

If you follow this blog, then of course I write in the knowledge of signed up listeners and I appreciate your company. But the most important listener for the writer is that inner part of himself, without whose approval nothing he wrote would possess the necessary sincerity to make it worth anyone else’s reading.

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