Thursday, 25 October 2007

Transports of Delight

One of the bonuses of feeling under the weather is that you can give yourself permission to read, solely for pleasure and indulgence - and that's what I've been doing. Last night I finished Stef Penney's 'The Tenderness of Wolves' (superb title, superb cover),which won the Costa Book of the Year award a few months back. All too often novels which win the big literary prizes can be a disappointment, but not this one. I was absolutely gripped and read it all in one day. It works both as a murder mystery and as a poignant and satirical examination of the lives and interactions of a collection of characters in 19th century Canada, who've gravitated to the far north for many reasons and who have to take stock of their lives and the meaning of their lives. It's beautifully written and observed, elegaic, often dramatic and is one of those books that sucks you into its internally-consistent world and utterly convinces you. My only problem with it was that as the final page approached at a scary rate, I wondered how she was going to tie up so many loose ends - and felt, in the end, that she didn't. I took such an interest in so many of the characters I felt cheated not to know how they would go on, how their stories would resolve. She could easily have made a trilogy out of her material.

You may well have read about this book already, not just because of the quality of its writing but because of the landscape in which it is set: isolated communities, bleak snowfields, silent woods and wilderness, ice, frozen rivers and bogs, under a sky which is a lure and a threat. It is wonderfully evocative and all the more striking because Stef Penney has never gone there: she did all her research in the library. This says a great deal for the power of her imagination.

Looking back at recent books I've read, I'm aware of how much store I set by location and atmosphere. I recently read Kate Atkinson's 'One Good Turn' which takes you on a witty and detailed tour of Edinburgh and its environs (is Edinburgh ahead of Oxford yet as a setting for novels both literary and detective?), and last week I read Nick Drake's 'Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead' which is set in ancient Egypt at Thebes and Akhetaten (modern Amarna) at the time of Akhenaten and, well, Nefertiti. Also a few months ago, Jason Goodwin's 'The Janissary Tree', set in 19th century Istanbul. And you've heard me mention C.J. Sansom's Tudor detective novels set in the time of Henry VIII. What all these writers have in common is the power to evoke through imagery - and that means all the senses - the aura of the place and the time. Goodwin and Sansom are particularly good at smell, actually - and they don't beat about the bush: the past stank to high heaven.

There's a danger, though: the writer may be so in love with this aspect of writing, with conjuring up markets and slaughterhouses, ritual processions, the rank odour of a wolf's breath, the banks of oars on a golden ship, the gleam of light in a shadowed harem, that the story itself gets lost. I found this the case with 'Nefertiti', which at times read as grippingly as any thriller, but then meandered self-indulgently through the reeds of poetic philosophy, as if it couldn't quite decide what kind of book it was trying to be. The Goodwin book was fun but also confusing and frantic and overloaded with factual information because the writer really knows his stuff and wants us to know that he really knows it. Sansom's books are excellent but you couldn't call them pacey. Only in Stef Penney's book did I feel unsatiated - every detail served the meaning of the story. Even though descriptions were detailed and frequent, they never felt redundant.

For the rest of us would-bees, remember this: although Annie Proulx, another mistress of bleak scenery, says 'Place is paramount', that little thing called Plot matters too.

Friday, 12 October 2007

It was a Dark and Stormy Night

I've got a real backlog of things I want to discuss, but it's been a mad week. And I've decided to shelve those other worthy topics I had lined up - I think that, as we slide into autumn, relentlessly to be followed by my least favourite season, we should have some fun. You may have heard of the Victorian novelist Lord Bulwer-Lytton, who has gone down in history for writing what has been called the worst opeing line ever (you may argue he's up against some pretty stiff competition) in a novel called Paul Clifford. It starts 'It was a dark and stormy night ..' and it goes on. And on. And on. With non sequiturs, pomposity, padding and irrelevancy and too much exposition: the flaws we in the creative writing trade advise our students to avoid at all costs. So famous is this opening line that an annual competition for the Bulwer-Lytton Prize has been going on for more than a couple of decades, run by the University of San Jose. As you would expect, entrants have to compose awful opening sentences and the contest is so popular there are various genre categories such as Westerns, Romance and Science Fiction (is that a line of sitting ducks I see before me?) I keep a choice selection at hand for illustrative light relief when I'm teaching students the techniques of writing an effective opening.

So I'm delighted to see that Scott Pack of The Friday Project (see link to his blog Me and My Big Mouth opposite) is going to publish a gift book of the best winners over the past twenty years, entitled, unsurprisingly, It was a Dark and Stormy Night - he gives some examples on his blog post of October 8 and hopes the book will do well in the Christmas book market (why wouldn't it?) - amazingly, though, it seems that of the big chains, Borders is interested, Waterstones and W.H. Smith not. Probably because it doesn't have the word 'Shit' on the cover.

So put the book on your Christmas list or buy it for your (writing?) friends. You can also check out the contest website, (, especially if you want to enter!

In the meantime, for your delectation on a dismal autumnal day, here's a small selection (it would be a very big selection if I let it). If you're a would-be writer, be afraid - be very afraid. Even if you don't open your stories like this at present, you may become addicted to the delights of bathetic, parodic no-holds-barred verbifaction ...

Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum of the sky, Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery where his wife, sister, brother, and three children were all buried, and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life.

Sex with Rachel after she turned fifty was like driving the last-place team on the last day of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race, the point no longer the ride but the finish, the difficulty not the speed but keeping all the parts moving in the right direction, not to mention all that irritating barking.

Butch glared balefully across the saloon at Tex, who had been stone dead since the scorpion he had unwittingly sat on had bitten him on the butt some half an hour or so ago, little suspecting that this was going to be his toughest staring contest since the one against old Glass-eyed Juan, during the great sand-storm of '42, at the height of the Arizona conjunctivitis epidemic.

And (resisting the urge to post loads more of the things), here's my favourite, highly relevant to a literary blog:

"I know what you're thinking, punk," hissed Wordy Harry to his new editor, "you're thinking, 'Did he use six superfluous adjectives or only five?' - and to tell the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement; but being as this is English, the most powerful language in the world, whose subtle nuances will blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel loquacious?' - well do you, punk?"

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Egosurfer? Moi?

A few days ago The Guardian blog was debating the rise of the literary blog - with some cruel quotes in it, such as Rachel Cooke's opinion that bloggers are 'latter-day Pooters' - and not for the first time I started thinking about why I blog. I started because one of my creative writing students suggested I did and it seemed an easier option than trying to create a website, which is something still on my To Do list. I must admit I was quite tentative at first but it wasn't long before I found myself really enjoying it.

At the time I was coming to the end of my third year of teaching a twenty week evening class course on novel-writing. Afterwards, I made the difficult decision not to offer a course this year, although I am still involved in the University's summer school programme. I did this quite simply because it was taking up too much of my time and attention, and there was a level of bureaucracy involved which was disproportionate, I felt, to the nature of the course as an evening class.

The decision wasn't easy, because I had actually enjoyed the teaching itself and for three years had been lucky enough to have had lively, interesting and talented people attending. Apart from the teaching of techniques and so on, I did feel it was important to share news of competitions, recent writing articles and what was going on in the publishing world, so I was always keeping an eye out for snippets and anecdotes and news items which we could discuss. Then the class ended and I found myself missing that kind of interaction - the blog, therefore, is a way of maintaining contact with my ex-students and my writing friends. Writing, after all, can be a lonely business - it's always good to feel part of a community.

The next reason is the reason one has for any kind of writing - it's communication of thought, idea, opinion, feeling. It's finding your voice, making your mark. It's saying 'Here I am'. It is, as someone said, egosurfing (the term for Googling your own name - hands up all those of you who've done it. Yes, you at the back - that includes you). It's expression of your own individuality in the hope that someone out there will hear and respond. Of course, now that blogging is so incredibly popular, you're calling out your name in a huge stadium of competing voices ('I'm Spartacus!' 'No, I'm Spartacus!') - how can you be heard? Well, initially you're heard by one or two, and if you're lucky, they tell one or two others who listen in, and so on and so on.

This brings me to the relation of the blog to publishing - and yes, there are 'blooks' - the blogs which mainstream publishers have bought, such as those by Belle de Jour and Wife in the North. Can't say I'm holding my breath to be discovered like that - there are simply too many lit blogs out there. Still, what's positive is the sense of growing a readership, some of whom post comments, of building a minor literary community, and knowing that, should I publish again anytime soon, there will be people out there who'll be rooting for me. Also, given the enormous time-delays one faces when waiting for responses from agents and editors, where the torments of Tantalus are as nothing compared to the endless on-tenterhooks state of wondering if today will be the day when ... - well, I'd say that for me the biggest pleasure of all in this blogging lark is to be able to say whatever I like at whatever length I please in whatever style I choose - and to have it published INSTANTLY! Joy!