Sunday, 28 September 2008

Art and Craft

Clearly, I have no thoughts of my own at the moment. This post, like the last, was sparked off by one of Emma Darwin’s on her excellent blog (if you haven’t read it, I recommend it, one of the best writers’ blogs around).
And, while I’m in confidential mode, posts may be even thinner on the ground than of late in the near future as my family is embarking on the hazardous enterprise of changing internet service provider… I know I need say no more. To paraphrase Captain Oates, I may be some time…
Anyway, on with the post.

What’s the difference between art and craft? And which is novel writing? Or is it possible to do it as either?

Personally, I’ve always felt that unless art has shedloads of craft behind it that it’s just a clever idea (like half a cow in formalin – not even necessarily a clever idea, just a novel one) and not art at all, but that’s just me. Think of the craft which went into the Mona Lisa, Canterbury Cathedral, Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Swan Lake.

Obviously, novels have to have craft – nobody produces in excess of 80 000 words that people want to publish and others want to read without demonstrating quite a lot of it – but where is the boundary between workmanlike, knowledgeable application of one’s craft and the extra something which makes a book into a work of art?

I always come back to furniture whenever I find myself having this kind of conversation with anybody.

Making decent furniture requires a lot of craft – you’ve got to know what the basic principles behind any sofa, chair, table or cupboard are. What are the accepted dimensions, how do you make joints which are going to stay joined, what is the best wood for a particular task, how do you finish surfaces….etc
And, if a person who has some natural feeling for making things with wood puts all that knowledge into operation in an intelligent and intuitive fashion, they will produce something which is functional, well built and pleasing to look at in the way that things which perfectly suit their purpose (think Shaker) are pleasing.

So, where does art come in?

OK, let’s narrow our field of vision and think about chairs.

Craft produces a chair that is wonderfully comfortable to sit in, a chair you sink into with a sigh and can remain in indefinitely without fidgetting, a chair which supports, envelops or displays you according to your taste.
But, bring art into the equation and your heart does a little leap every time you see the chair, it makes you think of beauty and timelessness and aspiration, it makes you glad on a level which isn’t just to do with comfortable sitting for weary limbs.

So what’s the analogy with novels?
Craft produces novels which people can immerse themselves in and enjoy for what they offer – plot, character, setting. The reader may forget themselves for a while and finish with a satisfied ‘yes, I enjoyed that’. But craft alone doesn’t produce a book which people will keep thinking about, which will make a reader stop at the end of a paragraph and think about what they’ve just read, which will cause people to re-read sentences, paragraphs – even the whole book, again and again because of the beauty of the words or the perfect encapsulation of the idea they contain.
Art produces books which make people see the world differently, if only for a while; which cause their readers to view their own life in a slightly different way.

So I ask the readers amongst you – do you have a different view of the difference between art and craft?

And as for the writers – do you see yourself as a craftsman/woman or an artist. Or are you both?

I’ll be back when our broadband’s migrated….

Monday, 22 September 2008

Voyeurism and The Mathematics of Love

Goodness, I feel so very dilatory at the moment as far as the blog’s concerned. Nearly every bit of creativity, effort and focus I possess is being poured into the work in progress and, if there are any scraps left, it goes into being a halfway decent person for my family to live with.

But something has made me want to post. A couple of days ago, Emma Darwin put up this intriguing post on her blog and it got me thinking, both about her book, The Mathematics of Love, and my own writing.

Having explained far more cogently than I have ever been able to (go on, read the post) why it’s easier to achieve the distance necessary to lift a story out of the morass of detail and on to a more abstract plane when dealing with historical narratives rather than with an all-too-familiar contemporary world, Emma goes on to say:

Fiction.. doesn't always want to be either abstract and eternal, or contemporary and particular: I don't think I'm unique in demanding of myself that it should be not either-or, but both-and.
I want to write particularities so that something - often I don't know quite what - emerges, is sensed and felt, which goes beyond the particular.

I admired and enjoyed The Mathematic of Love very much so, having read this post, I asked myself what she was using the particularities of the two narrative strands in her novel to say. What emerges from the particular circumstances of Napoleonic war veteran-turned landowner, Stephen Fairhurst and the naïve, worldly-wise 1970s teenager, Anna Ware?

Though it’s a little while since I read the book the word ‘voyeurism’ springs to mind. I was struck by how many times the word itself – or one of its grammatical relations – is used in the text and it is the concept of the voyeur that is the most definite ‘something’ that I felt behind the particularities of the text.

There is some blatant voyeurism (though I’m using the term somewhat loosely here to mean anything which gives the viewer a kind of illicit or societally shocking thrill rather than anything explicitly sexual) in that Stephen Fairhurst supports himself in the immediate aftermath of the war with France by doing battleground tours for parties of curious English tourists. These people have heard about the war from afar but now – now that it’s safe – they want to see the places that they’ve only heard about in the newspapers. Some want to see where loved ones died, others just want to see the place where unimaginable carnage took place, to get a safe echo of it.

But The Mathematics of Love also concerns itself with a kind of voyeurism which is nearer to the novel-writing bone and I found myself asking whether all artists (and, by extension, those who consume art) might be seen to a greater or lesser extent as voyeurs - as those who watch but don’t engage.

Lucy, a young woman frustrated by and intolerant of the social conventions of early nineteenth century gentility, is an artist; she hides behind her sketchbook and pencil, using them as a socially acceptable buffer between her and the censure of the world. Her art gives legitimacy to her need to look at things, however societally shocking, and to see them for what they are.
But, for whom is Lucy drawing? Whatever her stated reasons, whatever society’s complacent nod, it seems to me that she is drawing for herself, as a way of both seeing the world in a more objective way and of engaging with it in one of the few ways which is open to her.
So much, I suspect, is familiar to most novelists – isn’t that what we do – watch, interpret, produce something new as a way of communicating a vision of the world?

Is Lucy a voyeur – feeding on other people’s lives because she isn’t allowed to choose one of her own - or a clear-seer, someone for whom her sketchbook is not just a buffer but a lens?

In the twentieth century strand of TMOL, during the famously desiccated summer of 1976, fifeen year old Anna is also seeing things differently. During an enforced stay in what was once Stephen Fairhurst’s house and is now a struggling boarding school owned by her uncle, she becomes involved with photographers Theo and Eva. They introduce her to photography – both theirs and, as the novel progresses, her own – and, as Anna learns to look, to see, her excitement at watching things and people form before her in the red darkness of the developing room is the thrill of observing those who have been unaware of being watched. They come into view, coaxed by enlarger, developer and fixer and suddenly exist – the little strips of time represented by the negatives now a positive version of what the photographer has seen; her own take on the world and the people in it. And all seen from the anonymity which exists behind the lens.
The artist as watcher rather than participator.

But does the camera ever lie? More importantly, can a photograph ever tell more than a tiny part of the truth?
When Anna asks Theo what became of the Spanish woman he photographed during the Civil War, he is forced to tell her that he doesn’t know, that it was the moment that counted, he needed to capture that moment, the truth of it, the story of it.

But snapshots – though they tell a kind of story – can never give us the whole thing, can never tell us what came next.

Do novels, I wonder, do better or just differently?

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Back Story

Long ago, says David Isaak, at least as time is measured in the blogosphere, I posted on the subject of unpublished works and the number of unpublished novels many well-known writers had piled up before they published their debut novel.

What, he asks his readers, do we have in our trunks, or our drawers? And, yes, he does acknowledge that unsold writing is ‘apparently always stored somewhere synonymous with points south of your navel.’

So, what’s in my nether regions?

Novel one – Making History – a non-murder crime story featuring a police officer protagonist and a historical element based in the Rebecca Riots (a theme I’ve returned to in the wip, see below). The agent who read it said that she wasn’t sure I was really a crime writer and that the book was more concerned with other things. I think that was very astute of her.

Novel Two – Hugo’s Words – a novel for teenagers about a boy (the eponymous Hugo) who has invented his own language and whose disaffected brother convinces a television celebrity that Hugo has – through some kind of spiritual contact – channeled a native American language lost to science in to the modern world.
Yes, I know…

Novel Three – Hearts and Minds – a homeless girl accuses a vicar of paying her for sex. The son of the psychiatrist who treats the vicar is, quite separately, drawn to spend time with a homeless youth, the best friend of the girl in question.
Much angst ensues. One of the publishers who read the novel (sent by an agent I had briefly persuaded to represent me) said that the psychiatrist (who I allowed to intrude into the action, erroneously as it turns out) emoted so much that if there was any more angst she would bite her own leg off, or words to that effect. She was right. Though I still think that the teenagers in the book were strong.

Novel Four – Testament. My MNW debut novel. Originally called Toby for reasons that will immediately be obvious to anybody who has read it.

Novel Five – the only novel I’ve ever abandoned unfinished. It’s also unnamed. Another children’s book, this time the beginning of a trilogy. Essentially a semi-supernatural quest novel but including a twins-separated-at-birth theme and a grandmother-granddaughter relationship which, I have realised (by reading my own writing) is a major preoccupation for me.

Novel Six – the work in progress. Details scattered here and there on the blog and on my website.

I’ve returned to the theme of book one in the work in progress in the sense that it concerns the Rebecca Riots in West Wales in the 1840s and an incoming entrepreneur in the present day who wants to set up a historical visitor attraction based on the riots. These two central ideas are the same, the rest of the book is totally different.

I’d quite like to return to the central premise of Hearts and Minds at some stage as I feel I’d do the idea more justice now, but we shall see.

As for Hugo’s Words. I really liked it but never attempted to get it published as everybody at the time told me that there was no market for teenage fiction.

Given the varied works outlined, it always feels weird referring to the wip as ‘my second novel’ and I sometimes qualify this with reference to the distinction between writing and publication.

Publication, unless you’re Faye L. Booth it's a long road.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Publication and Perseverance

Recently, on the Macmillan New Writers’ collective blog, David Isaak asked ‘How does it feel’? How does it feel, x amount of time on from your baby’s release into the world, to be a published writer?

My response at the time was:

‘I think being published has changed the way other people see what I do rather more than the way I see it. I've always taken my writing very seriously but other people would look at my days spent writing while I worked part time at the money-generating job and think 'Isn't this a bit sad? Doesn't she realise that publication is monumentally unlikely?' Now they just ask, meekly, where they can get a copy of my book and when the next one's coming out. Prior to MNW saying they'd like to publish Testament, I always said I wouldn't stop trying to be published until I stopped developing as a writer. That hasn't changed either!’

But, in the weeks since I posted that reply, I’ve realised that there is something more fundamental that being published has done for my writing – it’s given me more confidence in what I do, in my own abilities and, possibly, my own potential.

Had I not had Testament published, I wonder whether I would have persevered with the work in progress. It’s not proving an easy book to write and, without the confidence of having been accepted into the MNW fold, without Testament going into paperback, I wonder whether I would have had the confidence to weather the difficulties which writing the current novel has thrown up and simply persevere.

Interestingly, it’s not just having had Testament published which has made the difference but one of the consequences of that publication – being a blogger and a reader of blogs. Without the posts of other writers which make it clear that not only is writing a first draft monumentally hard, it is also likely to yield only a ‘shitty first draft’ which must then be crafted via second and third drafts into something presentable, I might well have thought that I was alone in my frustrations.

So, another benefit of being published – it makes you believe in yourself, in your writing, despite struggles.

I just hope it’s not a misplaced belief.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Location, location, location

Shoulder on the mend, edit got back into after enforced layoff of holiday and agony, blogging recommences…

Sometimes, I wonder why any novelists set their books in real places. It involves a huge amount of extra research and the fictional evocation of any given town, city or country area is likely to annoy as many people familiar with it as it delights.

Obviously, those writing historical fiction concerning real people and events have no choice, they have to set their characters in their proper geographical context. But what about the rest of us? Does the portrayal of a specific place add an extra dimension to a novel that simply wouldn’t be there if its setting were fictional?

Apart from historical fiction, the genre which seems particularly keen on real locations is crime. Rankin’s Rebus, Brunetti’s Venice, Marcus Didius Falco’s Rome, Morse’s Oxford…Though I’m a crime fan, I’ll come clean and say that I’ve never read any of Colin Dexter’s Morse books though I have watched quite a number of the television adaptations. In the TV versions, the colleges and other locations are always fictional, though the game of ‘spot the college’, not to mention ‘spot the cut where the characters walk out of the main quad/library/lodge of one college into the garden/cloisters/hall of a totally different college’ is endemic amongst those who know Oxford well and accounts for at least half the fun of watching the programmes. But, on the page and away from the self-satisfied building spotting, would the Morse books be any less successful if they were set somewhere other than Oxford? Afer all, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford seems to troll around to his readers’ perfect satisfaction in the fictional town and environs of Kingsmarkham.

The question is, do people read novels – especially novel series – set in a recognisable location because the city is like another character, a known and loved one?
All I can say is that I don’t. Though the cities in all the crime series I’ve mentioned are splendidly realised, I would just as soon read about cities which came totally from the writers’ imagination.

And sometimes, your novel just demands that the place it’s set should have features and characteristics which mean that you have to invent, that no real place will quite fit what you’re trying to do.
That’s why Testament takes place in the fictitious city of Salster. It might have seemed that the more obvious setting would have been Oxford or Cambridge but so much happens in the book which – historically – couldn’t have happened in either of those cities because of their socio-political context that I had to set the novel in a place whose context I could manipulate and bend to my will.

Salster, though fictitious, is set in a very recognisably English context. I’ve invented a city, not a whole world. But what if the things you want to say in your fiction demand the creation not of a conveniently different city, but of a whole new world?

A book I recently read - Tim Stretton’s The Dog of the North - takes place in Mondia, a place not of our own world but which is recognisably northern european in terms of weather, custom and race. Similarly, its cities - Croad and Mettingloom - are sufficiently like medieval European cities to make the reader feel at home in them. In fact, the novel reads – as somebody more pithy than me has pointed out – like a historical novel based in a country you’ve never heard of.

But there’s more to the cities than just familiarity. In Mettingloom, Tim has created the most beautiful fictional city I’ve ever come across. It has the feel of a smaller, more intimate Stockholm, a frozen Venice, a city whose entire character changes between summer and winter, a change symbolised by the two palaces of Printempi and Hiverno with their own kings, courtiers and loyalties.
As a device for complicating a political situation, having two kings who each rule for half the year is wonderful but the winter and summer kings are also a fantastic metaphor for a city gripped in ice for half the year, warmed by the sun for the other half. People’s concerns about surviving the cold echo their difficulties in staying alive in the tricky political situation of a city divided. When characters obsess about being warm it’s both a mark of wealth and a metaphor for safety; keeping warm means not invoking the wrath of the Winter King and losing your comfortable appartments or the wealth with which you can clothe yourself in furs and provide yourself with the warmth of the mysterious dimonettoes.

I imagine it was the demands of plot which led Tim to set his book in an alternative world rather than the one we’re all more familiar with. It’s clear from his deft handling of political intrigue, his light touch with military strategy and single combat, his understanding of the way church and state lived symbiotically in the medieval period - not to mention his use of voice - that he would be a fine historical novelist if he so chose. But I’m glad that he chose to write under the fantasy banner – if he hadn’t, we would have been denied the creation of Mettingloom, a city which has the brittle beauty of a spun sugar swan, whose glassy surfaces mask the disturbing currents beneath and whose warming furs cannot quite keep out the chill of death.

Mettingloom has leapt over all other contenders to become my favourite city in fiction, somewhere I feel I’d recognise if I was transported there by some literary device and my blindfold taken off.

So how about everybody else? What are the other contenders for most memorable city in fiction, either real or imagined?