Friday, 23 May 2008

Tosh and piffle

Susan Hill’s always interesting, thought-provoking and opinionated blog lives up to all these epithets in her latest post on what Roland Barthes would have called ‘the death of the author’.

She’s talking about Terry Eagleton, a lit-crit professor whose work has also been exercising Emma Darwin recently, so I thought I would ruminate on all this stuff and leave you to think about it while I’m away in the Peak District. (Turned out we didn’t have enough money to go to Italy without dipping into the boys’ college fund. Couldn’t do that, obviously… so Derbyshire it is. Keep your fingers crossed for nice weather…)

Ms Hill extracts various quotations from a review by Terry Eagleton in the latest London Review of Books. Because I don’t have a LRB handy (tsk!) I shall quote her quotations, with the due acknowledgement to her blog:

TE in LRB: 'Writing, unlike speech, is meaning that has come adrift from its source.'

Me: So far, so good. Can’t argue with that.

TE in LRB: 'Literary works are peculiarly portable. They can be lifted from one interpretative situation to another and may change their meaning in the course of this migration.'

Me: Beginning to argue now. How can things change their meaning. Sure, you can give them another interpretation, but meaning? I don’t think so.

TE in LRB: 'Works of literature are to some extent cut free from those who engender them, wandering through the world to accumulate new meanings in different situations.'

Me: Beginning to think Prof Eagleton and I don’t agree about the meaning of the word ‘meaning’.

TE in LRB: 'Never trust the teller trust the tale. Literary works have intentions of their own of which their producers know little or nothing.'

Me: Well this if frankly tosh and piffle isn’t it? Literary works have intentions of their own? Is he seriously ascribing conscious agency to a ‘tale’ outside the mind of the author?

Eagleton was one of the literary theorists who lectured to undergraduates when I was at Oxford (he was very good, favoured denim, was witty and worth listening to; he even made up a song summarising a whole term’s worth of lectures at one stage which was fun) and I went to all his lectures. This may not sound like much but, given that there were terms when I attended no lectures at all, going to listen to somebody whilst I could have been ploughing through endless texts for one of that week’s two essays was a Big Deal. Despite Eagleton’s amusement value I found this whole ‘death of the author’ thing the most utter drivel. I know it’s not pc and may be thought arrogant to be so dismissive of something which lots of extremely clever people believe in, dismiss it I do as utterly ridiculous.
My view is even more entrenched now that I am a published writer. The thought that people out there would presume to say that their interpretation of Testament is just as valid as what I was trying to say - indeed, that what I thought I was doing is irrelevant - is frankly annoying.

Am I alone in this?

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

A rediscovery

American writer Laurie R. King – author of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice amongst other things – has a great blog here.
A post she put up a day or two ago about Michael Chabon really intrigued me. Not only is he a writer of off-beat sci-fi crime (inter alia) he is also a cultural critic. I read the article Laurie mentioned (from the LA Times) and, when I subsequently googled Michael Chabon, I was reminded that I had read his first novel - The Mysteries of Pittsburgh - almost twenty years ago and really enjoyed it. Why hadn’t I followed it up with his other stuff? I suspect it’s because his work is published in the US and not necessarily available or flagged up over here – with the internet little more than a twinkle in Tim Berners Lee’s eye in 1988 there was no Amazon to chase books up, so Mr Chabon dropped off my radar.

I said a quite ‘hooray’ when reading the LA Times article because MC is basically saying ‘hey people, let’s not be so uptight about the whole high-brow, low-brow thing’. As somebody who is on record as saying that I am not an automatic fan of ‘literary’ novels, that I never watch art-house films and like rock music just as much – often more, because I’m more often in the mood – as classical, this message is liable to appeal to me. But he’s not just asking us to get off our high horses about what’s worthwhile and what’s not, he’s actually making a very real point about the function and source of entertainment, a point which we ignore to our own detriment, I think.

So, read the article and check out Michael Chabon’s work. I can’t resist the sound of his The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – nearly as good as The Herring Seller’s Apprentice in the ‘buy me, I’m different and funny and literate’ stakes. I shall be acquiring it as soon as funds allow.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Creative Writing Courses

An author I know who also teaches creative writing (CW) is currently engaged in a bit of reflective practice on the whole business of teaching and is asking friends, acquaintances and anybody connected with CW if they’d to help.

If you are on a CW course, if you have ever taken one or if you CW courses and you have a few moments, it would be great if you could have a look at the questions below. Any answers would – I know – be very much appreciated.
Just pop them in the comments box and it will be scanned daily… I’ve kicked off with my own responses.

1. Have you ever participated in writing workshops? If so, did you find them useful? How and why or why not?

2. If you teach, do you use the workshop format? Why or why not?

3. In your experience, is the workshop a good use of time on a course?

4. To your knowledge, are there creative writing programmes that do not utilise the workshop?

5. In your opinion, are workshops a necessary part of any undergraduate or postgraduate programme?

[PS - In response to Tim's question in the comments section about what 'workshop' means, I elicited the following answer:

Yes, 'workshop' is a weird word in that people use it differently. But a practical bias is right, specifically toward 'peer critique', e.g. members of a class looking at each other's work, guided by the leader... Hope that helps!]

Friday, 16 May 2008

Making money from writing 2

Continuing the response to the questions posed in the last post…(If you haven’t read it, just scroll down, otherwise you won’t know what the hell I’m going on about.)

If not [ie if you don’t think a writer can make enough to live on from writing alone] what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him?

I’m not going to go all feminist and take issue with that ‘for him’ as these questions were originally asked in the 1940s. As everybody knows, no women wrote books before 1960.

A suitable second occupation… I think both Matt and Tim have covered this adequately so I don’t need to rehash the same stuff. What I did think about was the person who has always wanted to write, who has the odd first or novel outline squirrelled away in a bottom drawer, but has developed a very lucratiave career meanwhile.
What does that person do – particularly if he or she has a mortgage and a family to support – when the urge to write begins to dominate their life? How easy is it for any family to downsize so that one member can fulfil his or her dream? Should there be evidence of talent before the family moves to a smaller house, stops going on holiday and starts subsisting on lentils? Or simply evidence of determination? Or desperation? Should the person be required to have burned the midnight oil in a garret to prove to him/herself and their family that this is a real and burning ambition without which they can no longer be happy?

I think this is an infinitely tougher situation than that which the prospective author finds him/herself at the beginning of their writing + subsidiary career. .

Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?

Speaking personally, my writing suffers from the diversion of my energy, but all writers are different. I expect this is partly determined by whether the person concerned is introvert or extrovert. Extroverts get energy from being with people, therefore an occupation which involves spending the day with others may possibly help this kind of author. Introverts (I am one) expend energy in being with people and need solitude to build up their energies again, so spending all day interacting with other people would not leave people like me with much energy to write.

Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?

Given that the state doesn’t support me in my self-employed status as a speech and language therapist, I’m not sure I see any reason why they should support my self-employed author status. Both are my choice, nobody’s forcing me to do either.

Given that books basically exist to entertain people (I’m being reductive, but if they fail to entertain then I don’t think people will want to read them and any other laudable aims of literature will, therefore, be irrelevant) if they succeed in that aim, then they will sell and make money. I’m always slightly at a loss to know in what sense novels which sell in very small numbers (like under 200) are ‘good’. How is a book which startlingly few people wish to read ‘good’? Are we genuinely saying that only a tiny, tiny proportion of the reading public has the judgement to determine whether a book is ‘good’ and that the vast numbers to whom this particular book does not appeal and who do not, therefore, read it are not only wrong but somehow deeply lowbrow and philistine?

People routinely denigrate authors like Dan Brown (don’t suppose he cares) and even the output of a whole publishing house in the case of Mills and Boon. ‘Oh, they’re rubbish’, people say, ‘I don’t know why anybody would want to read them.’
What ludicrously arrogant nonsense! These books are brilliant on their own terms. They tell page-turning stories which people want to read. I read the Da Vinci Code and enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s Dan Brown’s best book but it’s not a bad book. It’s well paced, the story is interesting, you want to find out what happens at the end. Which of those facts makes it a bad book? It may not have the most psychologically convincing characters ever – who cares? They entertain. Misery memoirs have horribly psychologically real characters and I don’t want to read beyond page one of any of them. Maybe Dan Brown’s prose style deosn’t make you gasp and re-read sentences to savour them – but then I don’t suppose he set out to write a prose masterpiece; he set out to write a thriller.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, no I don’t think authors should be state subsidised. If people want to read your books, they will buy them. If they don’t then they won’t. If you want people to read your books, make them readable. It is possible to write beautiful prose in the service of a compelling story without compromising your artistic integrity – Owen Sheers, whose book I reviewed last week and whose work is, therefore, fresh in my mind, shows that this is true. I hope his book sells in the hundreds of thousands, it deserves to.

Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?

I am astonishingly fortunate to have a partner who is prepared to support our family so that I can write but I am loath to advise young people to choose their life-partner on the basis of their earning capacity.

If a young person I knew wished to be a novelist I would give them the following advice.
Don’t. Not unless you absolutely must. If you think it’s the way to make money, you’re a badly-informed fool – no basis from which to write books. If you think it's a romantic, bohemian lifestyle, you've believed somebody else's publicity. It's neither.

If they were still determined then I would say this. Find yourself an undemanding job which will leave you time to write. Do not develop expensive tastes. Do not aspire to having holidays. Do not allow yourself to become interested in fashion of any kind. Find out where all the local second hand shops are. Develop a tendency towards resourcefulness and shun going out to eat. Cultivate a total disregard for society’s views on success. Write every day in a disciplined manner. Do not on any account wait for inspiration. If you want it to be your job, treat it like a job and have proper hours when you do it. Then you might just make it. But you have to be prepared for the fact that you probably won’t.

In the end, it has to be admitted that, should you have the astonishingly good fortune to find one, a supportive partner’s your best bet.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Writing for a Living

On the Macmillan New Writers blog at the moment, Matt Curran has put up a post about the 10th anniversary of a “lost” book The Cost of Letters. This was a Waterstone’s publication, setting the record straight both for consumer and potential writer, around the finances of writing. For this they plundered the opinions of writers such as Will Self, Sebastian Faulks, Jane Rogers, Fay Weldon and Melvyn Bragg, and compared them to 1948 authors such as George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Cyril Connolly – authors that were approached in 1946 to answer a post-war questionnaire on the big issue: “How much do you think a writer needs to live on?”Matt has challenged all of us MNW authors to answer Connolly’s questions and he has done so on his blog here.

The following is my attempt to answer the same qustions. I’m going to divide this up into two or three posts because it takes some thought and I’m v. busy on the wip at the moment.

Anyway, Connolly’s questions are in bold type, my answers (in case you hadn’t guessed, are what follows…)

How much do you think a writer needs to live on?
This, surely, is one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions. How much does anyone need to live on? it depends where you live, whether you own (or whether the bank/building society owns) your own house and how many, if any, dependents you have. Also, whether you are lucky enough to have somebody who is prepared to share, or even take on the bulk, of providing for the family.
The Other Half and I believe that two people working full time is a recipe for a stressed family/nervous breakdown/a lot of money expended in getting your house cleaned, your ironing done etc.
So, insofar as we have been able to afford it, one of us has always worked part time. For the last few years it has been me. Prior to MNW offering to publish Testament, I was working half-time as an independent Speech and Language Therapist in schools. This was both more lucrative and considerably less stressful than working for the NHS. When MNW made my day (week, month, year, life…) in January 2007 by saying that they would like to publish my book, we looked at my writing time and decided, as from September 2007, I would cut down my working time to one day’s consultancy a week and write the other four days. This keeps a certain amount of money coming in to save for holidays, the boys’ university fund, keeping two cars going (with three, about to be four, drivers in the house, two cars doesn’t seem too many) funding the boys’ musical and ultimate frisbee aspirations etc). But, essentially, I, the boys and my writing exist thanks to the full time work of the Other Half.
If I was on my own with the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist I would have to work full time and writing would be next to impossible.
All this is a roundabout answer…
But there is no easy answer to this question. Every family needs to work out what its own needs are. We don’t go much for foreign holidays in our family but we do think it’s important that the boys don’t leave university with huge debts. We don’t spend much on clothes but we do think that driving is a life skill so we’re prepared to put our money into keeping a second car which the boys monopolise. Etc.
Suffice it to say that my writing would not – in any way - keep us in this lifestyle.

Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing and if so, how?
See previous answer.
However, Testament was only published in January of this year, so I’m not sure how much I’m going to make from it yet. It goes into paperback next January but, so far, royalties have amounted to just over eight quid as the March royalty cheque only covered sales made before Jan 1st. As the book came out on Jan 18th, you may imagine (and you’d be correct) that sales were not great before this date. In fact I’m surprised there were any.
However, the royalty cheque due in September will be a different kettle of fish, covering sales up to the end of June 08. As German and Spanish language rights have been sold, just the proceeds from this will (over time) compensate almost entirely for the one and a half days’ work I have given up to writing this year. Then there’s the money which will accrue from actual sales of the book. September should be reasonable. But then I’m expecting very little next March as, between June and the end of December, there will be very few sales given that the hardback is selling out and the paperback is only due to be published in January 09.
As this will indicate, quite apart from how much writers earn from their wriiting, there’s the whole sporadic nature of the earnings. I’m sure, over time, if one gets the books out quickly enough and they stay in print, these things will even out but, at the early stages when one is likely only to have an income from one – or at most two – books, things could be considerably more hand-to-mouth if one was trying to live on the proceeds.

More along the lines of the following, in a day or two. Those of you who are also writers might like to answer the questions on your own blog. The remainder follow below.

If not, what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him?

Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?

Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?

Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?

Sunday, 11 May 2008


I honestly thought that nothing would beat Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders for the best book I would read this year. But it’s only May and already there is a contender – Owen Sheers’ Resistance.

The premise of the book is simple – the D Day landings in Normandy in 1944 failed and a resurgent German army has invaded Britain.

On the opening page of the book we learn that Sarah Lewis’ husband, Tom, has left in the night. It soon becomes apparent that all the other men in the Olchon valley (this is not a large number – the husbands and sons of a handful of farms) have left too. Plans long in the preparation have swung into action with the Wehrmacht’s arrival and the British Reistance is underway, the farmers forming Active Service Units like thousands of other previously non-combatant men all over the country.
But the book is not about these men; it focuses entirely on the consequences of their desertion on the women of the Olchon, farmers’ wives, daughters and mothers.
What will happen to them? In other areas where the men have left, it is made clear, their families are used as bait to lure them home or killed as punishment for the men’s resistance.

The other set of characters in the book is a small German army unit, handpicked (the reasons he picks them are little gems of serendipity) by their Captain, Allbrecht Wolfram. We are told fairly early on in the book that Wolfram has been given a special mission, that he is not in the Olchon simply to subdue and subjugate the locals; the unit even spends several days in Oxford so he can undertake research which will help him in his unspecified missin. But, despite the blurb on the back of the book we do not find out til nearly the end of the book what this special mission is. It hardly matters, however, it’s just a device to get Wolfram into the valley so the real action – the growth of his attraction towards Sarah Lewis and his determination to survive the war and have a life with her – can take place.

It is all beautifully done. Sheers is a poet as well as a novelist and, boy, it shows. There isn’t a word out of place in the entire book; the valley and its changing seasons (the action takes place over the period of a year and more) are wonderfully depicted; characters are perfectly drawn from telling details. Everything is rooted in the landscape and metaphors, similes and reminiscence root the characters very firmly as part of their surroundings. These people do not simply live in this valley, they are a moving, breathing part of it, as essential to its nature as the bilberries and the ponies, the steep-sided hills and the snows which cover them in winter.

We see most of the action – and, therefore, the other characters – through the eyes of Sarah and Albrecht and the shifting nature of old friendships and new allegiances is beautifully done and psychologically convincing. Sheers shows, with pitiless accuracy, why – though the Germans are just men, little different to the husbands and sons who have deserted them – they can never be just men to the women of the Olchon. War makes enemies of us because there are always victors and vanquished; even those who do not align themselves with the rhetoric and methods of the victors, or do take part in the violence of the vanquishing, are still of the same nationality and, therefore, cannnot be seen simply as human beings with the same loves and hates, fears and joys as us.

I’m not going to say any more about the book because the plot is simple and to give any more details would be to spoil it. But if you love true, sympathetically-drawn characters who are living in a fictional landscape so real you can touch, feel and smell it in the words on the page, then this is the book for you.

Incidentally, part of the reason the Olchon is so well drawn is that it is a real place. Many of the events in the book really happened and, had D Day not gone as planned, one can only imagine that the rest would inexorably have fallen into place just as Owen Sheers describes.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Green of Canterbury

I am green with envy. In fact I am so green with envy that it’s a wonder the Other Half hasn’t planted me in the new bits of garden we have clawed back by removing the two-foot-thick hedge between us and next door. (This has added something like 15% to the width of the garden) She has been having great fun moving things (all the shrubs are in the wrong place, now, stranded in mid-bed) and buying things with garden tokens carefully saved since Christmas.
But it’s not the garden I’m green with envy over, it’s a book. One of those books you wish you’d written yourself and are sick with envy that somebody else wrote instead.

I spent four years (sitting in an English classroom (not continuously, obviously, they did let me out to eat and go to the odd other lesson) looking at a quote from Coleridge about the difference between prose and poetry:

Prose – words in their best order
Poetry – the best words in the best order

Well, the author of the book I’m currently reading is both poet and novelist and it shows. His prose is most definitely the best words in the best order – you just wouldn’t want to change a single one.

What’s the book? I’m not telling you yet. I’m going to wait til I’ve finished it and do a proper paean of praise review then. But reading has slowed to bedtime only at the moment as I try and keep my mind on the WIP – no breakfast reading, no lunchtime reading as I forge on, so this lovely book is being read an hour at a time, which means about forty pages as I keep going back and re-reading beautiful paragraphs, or just a perfectly-turned sentence.

I’m halfway through, so expect a review a the weekend.

By the way, what do people think about the poetry/prose distinction made by S T Coleridge?

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Great review

I am a very happy novelist. I think you'll know why when you read the following review from the Church Times, which was kindly forwarded to me by Justin Lewis-Anthony of the 3 Minute Theologian blog.
Ta Justin. (If you click on the image, it gets bigger)

I think it's the most perceptive review I've read so far and to be compared to two of the most page-turning novelists I know... well, what more can I say?

David McLaurin, whom I discover to be a regular book reviewer for the CT and elsewhere, is also a novelist in his own right. In fact, his book The Bishop of San Fernando won the Daily Express book of the year award. I don't know about the rest of you writers out there, but it feels great to be congratulated by a reviewer who's also a novelist.

Happy weekend!

Thursday, 1 May 2008

What Was Lost

OK, so What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn was last night’s book group offering. I don’t generally read ‘prize’ books as I’m not a literary book lover on the whole but that’s book groups for you, they put gems in your way that you’d haver stepped over yourself.

So, what was lost? As well as a little girl, innocence is lost, illusions are lost, brothers are lost and years of life are lost to monotonous, joyless, dead-end jobs. All of which makes it sound depressing. And some of it is depressing, but there are also laugh-out-loud moments, particularly when we are seeing life through the viewpoint of ten-year-old Kate, intrepid private detective, accompanied by her faithful monkey companion and her ‘how to be a detective’ book.
Kate goes to the school from hell, populated by wonderful child characters and Mrs Finnegan, the kind of teacher we all hope never to encounter, even at one remove. She can’t stand children and seeks only to subjugate.

The Green Oaks shopping centre – both the setting and a character in the book in its own right - is a bit like Mrs Finnegan. If there is a presiding spirit of Green Oaks (such an ironic name for a sprawling city of concrete) it is malign, it does not view the people who flock through its doors benevolently, it sucks them in and drives them to despair. Even the glue-sniffers on the roof who are the least affected by what goes on inside are eventually undone by its malignant despair.

We are given occasional views into the inner worlds of those who wander around Green Oaks, little italicised slices of the lives of Sunday browsers buying what they don’t need, security guards wondering what it’s all about and mystery shoppers who are close to psychotic breakdown. These vignettes bring to mind Thoreau’s famous line about most men living lives of quiet desperation.

But the most mind-numbing and aspiration-sapping effects of Green Oaks are felt by those who work there. Everyone except Gavin, the very peculiar security guard who makes videos of the service tunnels, wants to leave and isn’t sure why they haven’t left already. It becomes one of the reader’s greatest wishes, whilst reading the book, that some, at least, will escape.

So if it’s so bleak, what was there to enjoy?
Catherine O’Flynn is a wonderful delineator of character – in a few well-chosen sentneces people are laid bare before the reader, their souls dissected, their past lives served up in a few well-chosen details. She is not afraid of grotesques and Green Oaks is full of them, but her best characters are the everyday ones, the people we could imagine being ourselves.

But best of all is Kate, little Kate Meaney with her dedication to her craft [‘Tuedsay 24th April. Nothing to report today. Man seen eating orange peel from brown paper bag. Followed him for 40 minutes but no further deviance observed. Spent two hours outside banks – no one looked wrong’] her monkey, Mickey [she’s the sort of ‘tell it like you see it’ child who really would have called him that] and her friendships with Adrian, indolent grown up son of the newsagent and Theresa, her class’s most deviant and cleverest member.

Don’t read this book if you’re feeling low. It is a critique of consumerism which will make any attempt to shop your way out of a blue mood seem not only futile but doomed. Ditto reading your way to happiness. Read it if you want characters so real you feel you have to go and ask them how they felt about being written about in this book and what they thought about what happened to young Kate Meaney.