Wednesday, 7 December 2011

How to be a Sensitive Poet

You've probably already seen this elsewhere, but just in case...

by Matt Groening

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Wizard Nobel Sentiments

I've not been blogging lately because I've been busy working on a novel (i.e. having a lazy summer doing nothing). But I was browsing a literary gossip site earlier and I read something I wanted to share. The 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced soon - on a Thursday (yet to be revealed) in October, in fact. And there's a degree of speculation about who the winner might be. A fair amount of money seems to be being bet on Cormac McCarthy getting the prize this year, or perhaps Don deLillo, but Benjamin Black's alter ego John Banville has also been mentioned. ["Dear GOD! Not Banville!" said one contributor. "If that arrogant prick ever got the Nobel his ego would transform into a "giant Adenoid" blob fit to consume all of Dublin!"] But the suggested winner that really fired my imagination was.... J K Rowling. Really?? Hmm. Apparently, the mother of Harry Potter is "a superb writer by any standard" and "the ... universe she created is unparalleled in modern literature. Once the dust settles on Potterdom, Rowling might be a writer worthy of consideration for the Nobel."

At first, it was assumed this contributor was joking. But there was a minor furore when someone said the Harry Pooter books were "poorly written, ill conceived and trite", drawing this impressive rationalisation:

"Being overly fond of adverbs isn't enough to totally condemn her as an author. I do believe she is of unparalleled importance, especially in what her books have done to bring not just more children into reading, but to jump-start the publishing industry into publishing more children's books. In a similar way to how Tolkien redefined high fantasy and has his spot in history for it, Rowling redefined magical fantasy and children's literature to a large degree. 40 years from now I doubt an author like Don DeLillo will be much discussed outside of 20th Century American Literature classes, but Rowling will still be eagerly looked over by young readers in 40 languages. Critical opinion will become more favorable to her as time goes on."

An interesting argument. Harry Potter - "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction ...”?

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Art of Text

There’s an article in today’s Independent about ‘Written Works of Art’ which, while looking specifically at the novel, looks at the emerging interest in the form – rather than the content – of the book. With the arrival of the Kindle and other electronic readers there has been a lot of debate in the publishing world over the fundamental nature of the book. The universally acknowledged truth seems to be that Content is King, that the author’s text is more important than the packaging it comes bound in, electronic or otherwise. But comparing today’s mass-produced paperbacks to medieval illuminated tomes, the article points to the re-emergence of the book as a hand-crafted work of art, with several publishing ventures aiming to make books as visually interesting as the stories they tell. The timing of this article is interesting, in that just yesterday I received information about an open art exhibition at The Horsebridge Centre Galleries in Whitstable. The theme is the ‘posted nude’, and artists are invited to send (by post) a piece of artwork featuring the nude on the back of a postcard. What makes it intriguing is that the organisers have also asked for ‘written nudes’.

‘We think it is time to bring the writing into the exhibition space, we know how powerful these nudes could be! Please take part, it is free to enter.’
You can find full information on how to take part here.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Longlist for the CWA Dagger in the Library, 2011

The Crime Writers’ Association has announced the longlist for the CWA Dagger in the Library 2011.

Authors are nominated for this award by UK libraries and Readers’ Groups and judged by a panel of librarians, all of whom work with the public. The Dagger is awarded to an author for a body of work, rather than a single title. As well as the Dagger, the winning author receives a cheque for £1500.

The full longlist is:

S J Bolton ( Bantam Press, Transworld)

William Brodrick (Little, Brown Book Group)

R J Ellory (Orion)

Jason Goodwin (Faber)

Elly Griffiths (Quercus)

Sophie Hannah (Hodder & Stoughton)

John Harvey (William Heinemann)

Mo Hayder (Bantam Press, Transworld)

Susan Hill (Vintage)

Graham Hurley (Orion)

Peter James (Macmillan)

Philip Kerr (Quercus)

Phil Rickman (Quercus/Corvus)

C J Sansom (Macmillan)

Andrew Taylor (Penguin)

L C Tyler (Macmillan)

The shortlist will be announced at Crimefest on 20 May. The winner will be announced, along with other Daggers, during the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate, on 22 July.

Thursday, 24 March 2011


In his recent Paris Review interview, Jonathan Franzen talks about masks, quoting Nietzsche: ‘Everything that is deep loves the mask’. According to Franzen, ‘The amorphous, unconscious, naked soul is a horror.’ He says the most terrifying scene in Rilke’s Malte Lauride Brigge involves a woman on a park bench puts her face in her hands and then looks up with a naked face, a horrifying Nothing, having left the mask in her hands.

'Rilke anticipated the postmodern insight that there is no personality, there are just these various intersecting fields: that personality is socially constructed, genetically constructed, linguistically constructed, constructed by upbringing. Where the postmoderns go wrong is in positing a nullity behind all that. It’s not a nullity, it’s something raw and frightening and bottomless. It’s what Murakami goes looking for in the well in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. To ignore it is to deny your humanity.'
There are four German books – Malte, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Magic Mountain and above all The Trial – that Franzen describes as ‘primal’.

‘In each of these books the fundamental story is the same. There are these superficial arrangements; there is the life we think we have, this very much socially constructed life that is comfortable or uncomfortable but nonetheless what we think of as “our life”. And there’s something else underneath it, which was represented by all those German-language writers as Death. There’s this awful truth, this maskless self, underlying everything. And what was striking about all four of those great books was that each of them found the drama in blowing the cover off a life. You start with an individual who is in some way defended, and you strip away or just explode the surface and force that character into confrontation with what’s underneath.’
What I found particularly interesting in this is the recognition that this is exactly what my WiP has been trying to (literally) pull off, although I hadn’t been thinking of in terms of a mask. I was aiming to reveal something ‘true’ about my principal character by metaphorically stripping him bare, but it doesn’t quite work. Perhaps that’s because nakedness isn’t enough. I need to go deeper than that, and strip him of his mask too.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Creative Writing MAs and MFAs

The latest edition of the Paris Review has been lying unread on my desk for a couple of months and yesterday I decided to finally find the time to read it. I was particularly interested in the interview with Jonathan Franzen, especially after my post yesterday about the creative writing MA I’m taking. Franzen says he very nearly took a creative writing MFA himself but didn’t in the end, mainly due to financial considerations.

However, he and his then-wife had their ‘own little round-the-clock MFA programme’ (she was a writer, too). Franzen’s personal MFA programme lasted six years, three times longer than the usual programme. During this time, as well as writing, he says he read fiction four or five hours a night every night for five years. Plus, he didn’t have to deal with ‘all the stupid responses to writing that workshops generate’.

I can certainly relate to that sentiment. There was a classic example of it at in my MA workshop last week. One of my fellow students had submitted a short story that was pretty much perfect – well-rounded characters, interesting story, great pace, an inevitable-yet-surprising ending – and yet because we had 40 minutes set aside to discuss it people began to get picky over minor plot points in the story and by the end of the session they were suggesting some major rewrites.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have brought such a polished piece of work to the workshop, but I do think the whole episode is indicative of what can be a downside of the dreaded workshop. Billy Collins got it spot-on, I think. It may even be indicative of the MA as a whole.

Jonathan Franzen says that, in retrospect, he is now glad he didn’t take the MFA programme he was offered. It might have smoothed out of his work some of the kinks that were better not smoothed out. He says: ‘As a journalist, I’m always trying to become more professional, but as a fiction writer I’d rather remain an amateur.’

Sunday, 13 March 2011

I haven't posted for a while...

...I’ve been writing a novel. I’ve also been taking a creative writing MA. I decided to take the course because I wanted to move away from what began to seem to be the almost magnetic pull of genre fiction. Although my limited success as a writer has usually involved crime stories I really wanted to write a serious novel. I’d always been told you should ‘write what you read’, and I read mostly literary fiction. I thought taking the MA would help. But the magnetic pull back to crime fiction is still there. What has surprised me most though is that, although our reading list contains absolutely no genre fiction, some of the tutors are pushing me back towards a life of crime. After all, it’s the sort of novel that sells.

But is it the purpose of a creative writing MA to concern themselves with markets? I’m not sure. I decided to take the MA because I wanted to focus on the art of fiction rather than the business of it. I also had half an eye on the American trend in which the route to publication is now typically via a university MFA programme. It’s a growing trend here in the UK, too. It’s just that some universities here don’t appear to be sure of what their version of the MFA is intended to achieve.