Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Review - Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

I have been a fan of Kurt Vonnegut since the early 1970s. I still have the old paperbacks – Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse 5. There was something about his style, and especially about the things he had to say, that was refreshing and new. But he began to go off the boil, or fell out of style, and I stopped reading his books around about the time I stopped buying Crosby, Stills and Nash LPs. For me, Breakfast of Champions was both the last decent book he wrote, and the first of the stream of below-par books that followed. I just checked my bookcase – Slapstick in 1976 was the last Vonnegut book I bought, and the ancient bookmark stuffed midway through shows I never managed to finish it. And I had problems trying to finish his ‘new’ collection, too.

Armageddon in Retrospect is a collection of twelve previously unpublished short stories and articles. The collection has been compiled posthumously by his son Mark Vonnegut, ostensibly as a tribute to his late father and to commemorate the first anniversary of the author’s death. But these stories are a poor epitaph for a man who was once a great writer. The further I read, the weaker the stories became. Maybe it was because I had already got the point right at the start, but the stories seemed to become increasingly predictable and, well, a little embarrassing. There is a reason why these stories could not be published during Kurt’s lifetime.

In his introduction, Mark Vonnegut asks of his father, ‘How could he get away with it?’ A question he might well redirect towards himself for bringing out a collection that, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, should have remained unpublished.

For a fuller review of this book, go to The Bookbag website.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Cadenza Magazine

I've mentioned (in passing) the excellent Cadenza magazine elsewhere on here, and it seems to be going from strength to strength under its new(ish) editor Zoe King (who took over from John Ravenscroft a year or so ago). You may think I'm only saying that because two of my stories have been long-listed in Cadenza's latest short story competition (hurrah!). But take a look at their new blog. It's worth it just to read Zoe's feedback on the sifting process for the short story competition. She makes three specific points about the stories that she and her fellow judges felt didn't make the grade. First, there were some good stories that didn't quite work because they were let down by their endings. Second, there were well-written pieces that didn't have any forward momentum (what Zoe calls a 'motor') - there was, she said, no rising and falling action. And third, there were stories where the idea was good but the execution let them down.

This seems to reflect my own experiences (and my own rant here a few weeks back). It also, to a certain extent, supports my view expressed last week that these are technical issues that can be taught and learnt. Zoe referred to good stories and well-written pieces that failed for technical reasons relating to the craft of creative writing, not the element of creativity itself.

Which is one of the reasons why one of my writing buddies and I have set up a new enterprise, Word Fountain. Our aim is to help writers improve their craft in an informal, fun way. We don't promise they will acheive fame and fortune - we have no plans to become one of the 'new mental hospitals' that Hanif Kureishi railed against recently. We're running our first event in August - and we're accepting self referrals!

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Teaching Creative Writing

I used to believe that writing was an innate talent and that good writers were born, not made. I also used to believe, encouraged by my grammar school English teacher, that I was a good writer. I dreamt of being the next George Orwell.

But when I left school I was discouraged from airy-fairy dreams of being a writer by my level-headed careers master, who gently pushed me towards ‘office work’.

I was taught a lot of different ways of writing during my office-based career:

- I was taught how to write business letters and internal memos.

- I was taught how to conduct an interview and how to write case notes.

- I was taught how to write minutes of meetings and briefing notes and reports.

- I was taught how to write policy documents and guidance notes and official directives.

I was taught well, yet if I did all these things well it surely wasn’t because of my training. It was simply because I was a natural-born writer.

Wasn’t it?

All the while I was working at my day job I was scribbling away at appallingly bad one-draft novels that deservedly never saw the light of day. They were terrible. I knew they were terrible, but try as I might I couldn’t put them right.

I began to become despondent. If I was such a good writer, how come my fiction writing was so bad?

Then four years ago I bit the bullet and enrolled on a creative writing class at my local university. I was taught to actually do the things I already ‘knew’.

- I was taught to shape and plot a story.

- I was taught to create realistic characters.

- I was taught to make these characters speak believable dialogue.

- In short, I was taught the craft of creative writing.

Even before the course was finished I’d had my first short story published.

I’m not suggesting the course taught me to be more creative or inventive as a writer. No more than a painter is made more of an artist by being taught to mix colour or which type of brush suits which type of paint.

But I am suggesting that teaching the craft of writing can help unlock innate creativity.

So I guess to that extent I should disagree with Hanif Kureishi when he said last week that such writing courses are 'the new mental hospitals'. Having worked in mental health care, I was intrigued by this analogy. It seems the reason for this headline-catching assertion was his belief that ‘creative writing courses set up false expectations that a literary career would inevitably follow’.

To that extent, I think he has a point.