So Long, 2009



Everybody reckons it's the end of the decade, though it seems to me that you'd want to have started counting at Year 0 for that to really be the case - but never mind, I'll gag and restrain my inner (well, quite outer) nerd and we'll carry on.  I'll be thirty in 2010, which means I'll have my own decade to assess soon enough, so for now I'll stick to peering back at just this year.  It's been rather insane - quitting my job, moving to Manchester, starting the MA - and though it's probably been the worst year I've had, financially speaking, since I began work, and therefore rather stressful,  it's been a fantastic one for evaluating priorities and goals and ambitions. I haven't done as much writing as I'd like, but I've still done way more than before.  There's the MA, which has been an excellent experience so far; I've had several publications, been a finalist in a competition and had my first public reading; I've had drinks with Martin Amis!  I've gained a brother-in-law and become an aunt:



I've gotten a gig reviewing books for Bookmunch, and I've secured a work-experience position in a Manchester arts organisation starting in the New Year.  I've read 108 books, and I'm hoping to finish number 109 by midnight. (Nerdiness clearly creeping back in...)  I've been to the cinema considerably less than I would normally, but that's a consequence of the job-quitting and student-becoming; we did however manage to bring my sister's niece on her very first trip to the movies.  She seemed to like it:



The crappier aspects of the year (illness in the family, lack of cash, moronic tenants who can barely turn on the cooker without filing a complaint, my own insane landlord) - well, these have been overshadowed by the better things, though I can't imagine 2010 will be as turbulent.  I'm finishing off 2009 in a ridiculous down-key bedridden mess, having followed up a cosy family Christmas with a bastard of a flu/cold/unidentified virus, to quote my GP, who of course wouldn't see me, but gave me this very specific diagnosis over the phone along with an authorisation code for anti-viral medication.  Happy New Year, from me and my pal, Tamiflu.

Happy Christmas!

I'm back in Dublin for a week; it's my nephew's first Christmas, and though he's not old enough to get worked up about Santa, the excitement over my glasses knows no bounds:





We've been doing the rounds of relations over the past week, and last Friday we went with my partner's parents on a day trip to Oxford, where we witnessed the ransacking of Borders a few days before the final closure:



I bought a couple of books (Generation A and Glover's Mistake, at half-price) but it was a really depressing experience, and I wonder how many of the people raking through the leftovers were regular customers of the store before it went under?  But maybe I'm being too cynical.  Regardless, I hope all the ex-Borders employees manage to enjoy the holidays despite everything.

Over in my own corner, I've got quite a bit of university work to get done over Christmas, and Santa's also bringing lots of books - Wolf Hall, After The Fire, A Still Small Voice, some Paris Review interviews, The Year of the Flood, Remainder, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and more.  So the work will struggle to make itself seen over the parapet of reading, and there's also babysitting, bringing my niece on her first cinema trip, and the usual glut of eating, drinking, and festive Doctor Who. 

Happy Christmas Eve, internet!

MA Week Twelve

A week late, again; well, never mind.  Here's my last MA post of 2009!  Get ready for my versions of: the final seminar of our Forms of Fiction course, our last Martin Amis session (we didn't kidnap him, more's the pity, I could have brought him over to Dublin for Christmas and it would have been ace, he could have dressed up as Santa and everything, the dude's missing out), and our last workshop with one of the tutors, who's not around next semester.  Plenty of finality to go round, eh?

So, Forms of Fiction was all about Muriel Spark, and The Girls of Slender Means.  I'd read a couple of her novels before, and I get a real kick out of her style - so acerbic and insightful and funny.  Not everybody was as impressed - I think there was something of a girl/boy divide here, with the boys coming down against poor old Muriel, but hey, I could be misrepresenting them.  I loved it anyway.  Things we talked about in relation to the novel were time (objective time versus subjective time, and anachrony, or flash-backs and flash-forwards), the effects on people of closed communities (she does this in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie too - fantastic book!), the doubling of characters throughout the text (Selina, Joanna; Joanna, Nicholas; Nicholas, Rudie, etc), the use of poetry and recitation, notions of love (romantic or pragmatic), private lives and trivial events in the context of history and world events (1945 setting), how the author changes the reader's perspective on a character as the novel progresses (Selina, Joanna), idea of evil and virtue with the backdrop of religion (bearing Spark's own Catholicism in mind).  It was a pretty full-on seminar, now that I revisit my notes.  I've got an essay to hand in at the end of the Christmas break for this course, and I'm writing it on this novel, so I'm somewhat bogged down in Spark right now, though not as much as I ought to be, perhaps - but, dudes - CHRISTMAS!   And it's snowing, snowing more than I've seen it snow in this country before, so essay-writing is getting shunted a little to the left as I'm distracted by trying to wrap myself around the radiator.

Okay.  The workshop was good; we looked at a short story and a novel extract, both very different from one another, and it was a good session.  We did a writing exercise based on John Cheever's style, and our tutor, who'll be away next semester, but returning in the summer to supervise some people's dissertations, wished us luck and a merry Christmas.  So merry Christmas, tutor, and we'll see you as and when the fates dictate!  (Well, in my case, that'll be in January, hopefully, for a delayed post-workshop one-on-one session, and I'm looking forward to it.)

On Tuesday, we had out very last seminar with Martin Amis.  We'll be just like normal punters next semester, without our shockingly impressive writer sitting up there at the front, rolling his fags and telling us stories about Nabokov and Burgess and Kingsley.  Boo.  He'll be back during the year for another couple of public talks, including the launch of his new book in February, but it just won't be the same.  For this last session, we read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Alan Sillitoe, a book I originally read almost eight years ago while camping in Avignon in the stone-splitting heat, and though I enjoyed it then, it didn't blow me away so much this time - perhaps reading it in an actual Northern town, in the rain, in the dark, in the cold, made it all a little too grim and mundane, when from a French campsite it had all seemed good and imaginative.  Anyway, there were aspects I still liked - it's a very funny book, for instance, more so than I remembered - and others that I didn't - the one-dimensional female characters were especially frustrating.  I haven't seen the film, so I don't have that basis of comparison, but Martin Amis seemed to recommend it.  He was a big fan of the book; mostly, this term, we've all been heaping praise on novels that he's then ripped to pieces, but this time we were all giving it six or six-and-a-half out of ten, and he gave it, I think, an eight, which was high praise indeed.  So he talked about how it was the first real working class novel, and how Sillitoe's use of dialect (it's set in Nottingham) was noteworthy when it was originally published.  He reckoned it should really be called Saturday Night and Monday Morning, seeing as Sundays don't feature so heavily in the story, and we talked about how, according to the blurb inside some people's copies, Sillitoe had composed much of it out of of old short stories and poetry, so it's a wonder, really, that the novel has much of a structure to it at all.  We all reckoned the Christmas scene didn't really fit into the narrative flow.  Amis said that it wasn't a protest novel, but almost a celebratory hymn to the life of a factory worker, as Arthur, the protagonist, doesn't try to escape his job or his life, and in fact sings its praises, comparing it to the privations of the war years that preceded it.

We got on to talking about the writer's life - not Sillitoe, but the writer, generally - and Amis repeated what he'd told us before - as a writer, your subject is yourself and the world, and your job is to be supremely individual.  He said that growing up as the child of two writers (Kingsley and his wife, Martin's stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard) completely deglamourised the profession; nothing, he said, is more banal than what your parents do.  He said that the result of that was in his remaining somewhat immune to the egotistical ups and downs of the typical writing life. Novels lay you bare, he said, and he quoted Ballard, who claimed that the act of writing a novel was more intimate than climbing into bed with somebody.  Amis described it as the peeling off of one's head.  He asked if we had any questions for him, and one girl pointed out that our group's reading list hadn't featured any female writers, and the other group had only one (Jane Austen, in their first session), so who would Amis consider his favourite female writer?  He answered George Eliot (he'd said the previous week that he think Hilary Mantel is extremely talented), and then he spoke about male and female writers.  He didn't (sadly? happily?) make any soundbite-worthy sweeping statement on the topic (sorry, Daily Mail), and really just compared Jane Howard's writing habits to Kingsley's - and I'd argue, as might you, oh reader! that you can't carry that across to apply to Men and Women, but he wasn't making a considered argument, just chatting about his parents' work habits, so I'll let it slide.  He finished up by telling us to write for nobody except ourselves, to ignore the market, and to write what we want to read.

And that was that.  Bye, Martin.  We love you.

Right.  Um.  Well, I guess I should do my essay now.

Tracey, Tracey.

Just a quickie.

I'm not a fan of Tracey Emin, neither of her art, nor the avowed working-class pretensions that run happily alongside her plans to skip the country because the bastards want her to pay her full quota of tax (though Jonathan Jones would disagree with me).  Anyway, this made me smile. (via)

Fiona Robyn's Blogsplash




Here's an interesting take on the virtual book tour; the book itself will be on tour! Fiona Robyn is going to blog her next novel, Thaw, starting on the 1st of March next year. The novel follows 32 year old Ruth’s diary over three months as she decides whether or not to carry on living.

To help spread the word she’s organising a Blogsplash, where blogs will publish the first page of Ruth’s diary simultaneously (and a link to the blog).

She’s aiming to get 1000 blogs involved – if you’d be interested in joining in, email her at fiona@fionarobyn.com or find out more information at http://www.fionarobyn.com/thawblogsplash.htm.

I'm taking part, why don't you?  It's an interesting experiment, kind of like the free taster stands in the supermarket, and gives a larger sample of the book than Amazon's 'search inside' facility.  I know Shya Scanlon's been serialising his novel, Forecast, over a variety of online litmags, and I think it's been a great success, but this seems like a more personal touch - the rest of the chapters will all be on Fiona's own site, but the first chapter will reach so many more people via this saturation technique.  Hopefully people will still buy the physical book, though!


Nick Flynn review

My review of Nick Flynn's The Ticking is The Bomb is now live at Bookmunch.  Excellent book, though I now know more about torture than might be considered normal.

ps

The University of Manchester website has an article up about the Amis/James aging debate that I sort of blogged about last week - have a look here.

MA Week Eleven

Somebody arrived at this blog yesterday by googling 'neutrally calm'.  I'm pleased the internet advertises me by playing down the partisan panic. I hope the visitor was pleased and will return.

Anyway, this post is coming to you a week late.  I'm getting more slack with the posting as the semester comes to an end, and the next lot of submissions nears - 6000 words of fiction and another 3000 word essay, due after the break.  This is week twelve, now, and with Christmas looming, I'll update these last few sessions as quick as I can before I get all tied up in travel and packing and wrapping and, er,  writing those submissions.

So - week eleven, in Forms of Fiction, was all about Roberto Bolano's By Night In Chile and the conflict between aesthetic and ethical thinking in our response to writing.  We looked at Bolano as a post-national writer, in the same way as Borges was; they saw nationalism as an excuse for bad writing.  Death and time are appropriate themes for a writer (echoing Joyce) and Bolano fictionalises various 'national' writers in the novel, parodying the pointlessness of that kind of success.  A writer should be representative only of his art, Bolano thought, not his country.       

With the ethics/aesthetics thing, we looked at the way art seems to thrive in oppressive right-wing dictatorships - our tutor pointed out Yeats, Pound and Eliot.  He asked of any of us would refuse to read somebody based on their politics - somebody mentioned Kipling, but most of us struggled to think of an example.  I remembered how Jake and Dinos Chapman have re-appropriated Hitler's watercolours in various of their pieces (they had an exhibition of these at the White Cube last year, it was excellent) but I couldn't think of any kind of literary thing.  Our tutor then told us that Lionel Shriver is openly associated with unionist groups in Northern Ireland and he said that based on interviews with her in which she's been very insulting of the Irish people, he's never been able to read her fiction.  He's Irish, as am I.  I've read Kevin (thought it was okay), the Post Birthday World (loved it) and Double Fault (awful crap) - I googled Shriver after class and read some quotes of hers about the Catholics in Northern Ireland, and I was seriously unimpressed.  She was so arrogant and dismissive of the other side of  the argument and insinuated that everyvody non-Unionist was pretty much likely to blow up England.  I'm not especially affiliated to one side or the other in that debate, but I can say now that I won't be following her career with bated breath from now on.

Anyway, back to Bolano - we talked about  his unreliable narrator, the idea of satirizing testimonial literature, the importance and meaning of art (art above politics?  So back to the ethics/aesthetics thing) and the idea of writing history - how do you  impose a hierarchy, decide what's more important in the account?  Phew, all the big issues.  Next time, it's Muriel Spark and The Girls Of Slender Means.

In the afternoon, we had three pieces to workshop - two novel extracts and a short story - and in the evening, there was a public discussion between Martin Amis and Clive James about literature and ageing.  Mainly, Amis was a little pessimistic about the whole thing, talking about how writers lose their ear as they get older (Updike is his favourite example, being not so keen on Updike's final story collection) and James was far more cheerful.  We all left the hall wanting his to be our collective grandfather.  I didn't take any notes, so this is a rather useless account (see my friend Daisy's blog for more detail) and then next morning I have to say I was less than wide awake for our fortnightly Amis seminar.  We were looking at Roth's Goodbye Columbus, which I really enjoyed, and though Martin did get a little nit-picky about Roth's sentences at times, and criticised the character's intentions and the sub-plot about the kid in the library, it was still a pretty upbeat session, though looking at my notes, I'm not sure what we talked about for almost two hours.  He did go around the room asking about our reading habits, and I remember blabbering on about how reading is, like, THE BEST THING EVER (I do really believe this, it's by far my favourite pastime, but I probably sounded like a suck-up prat) and then I think I went home and had a nap.  I'd normally do a separate post about these Amis sessions, but I was very negligent about the note-taking, and it'd be a very short account to put out on its own.  This week we've got our final session, on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and then it's farewell to our private Martin Amis groups.  So I guess if we're going to kidnap him or hold him to ransom or whatever, it'll be done by the time I post again.  You'll have to wait and see. 

Do I sound like I know what I'm talking about?

Tom Vowler, over at How To Write A Novel, has interviewed me about the MA - have a look

And I swear to the flying spaghetti monster, I'll do some actual MA posting here soon - just as soon as I get the Christmas shopping, next week's reading, and all the laundry done, and watch several more episodes of True Blood.  I'm totally on it. 

publication bits and pieces

I've got a piece of flash fiction in the winter 2009 issue of The Battered Suitcase, out now - hurray!  Check it out.

My story 'Ready, Set', originally published in the Northville Review (thanks Erin!) was reprinted in November's Decongested Tales - print!

My review of Jose Saramago's new memoir, Small Memories, went live on Bookmunch a little while back.

Plus, I found out that a tiny piece of flash fiction I wrote ages ago has made it into the forthcoming Cinnamon Press Microfiction anthology.  It won't be published until September 2010, but that'll give you all time to get very excited.

MA Week Ten - guest lectures

Last Thursday we had two guest lectures, one after the other.  I'd cleared this day of day-job stuff, so I felt almost on holiday, and it was all very exciting.  Kate McCoy, who runs writing workshops in HMP Styal, came to talk to us about an internship programme they'll be running next semester with students from our course.  Three students (or six, if they do a second round during the summer) will get to jointly run a six-week long workshop course in Styal, which is a women's prison out by Manchester airport.  So they'd come up with a lesson-plan, a series of projects, or one extended projected to deliver over six three-hour workshops with a group of women prisoners in April/May 2010.  I've put my name down, it sounds really interesting.  I haven't really done any teaching since I was an undergraduate and I was one of four students who ran a literacy centre to help mature and underprivileged students on access courses to develop their writing and essay planning skills in preparation for university.  Still, because it's a team effort, we'll be able to help each other out, and we'd have Kate there too, as support and back-up.  Anyway, I might not get selected, so we'll have to wait and see.

Afterwards, two representatives from Mulcahy-Conway, a literary agency, came and chatted to us. They sponsor a manuscript contest each year for the fiction strand of our course - they read our dissertations (15,000 words of prose) and shortlist three - the winner gets £1000 and an agent.  They were announcing the winner after a reading of the finalists' work that evening, so came in to do a Q&A with us beforehand.  It was interesting stuff, and they were very friendly and informative people, and it turns out that one of them is the agent for Evie Wyld, whose book After The Fire, A Still Small Voice I've just this week asked my mum to get me for Christmas, after it won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize, beating off people like Chimamanda Adichie, no less.  So she's a sharp agent!  The readings later were in the committee room of Manchester Central Library, a lovely room that I keep wandering back to for various events, and the winner for the money and agents was Marli Roode, who I've mentioned before, and who read a very intriguing extract from her novel.  Go, Marli!  The other two finalists were also offered contracts with the agents, as it happened, so that was cool, and got us all very fired up and determined to get stuck into our own manuscripts.    

So a good and busy and writerly day was had by all.

MA Week Ten

Last Monday, the tenth week of the course, we looked at The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger.  I say 'we', but I actually looked at By Night In Chile, by Roberto Bolano, getting my weeks all mixed up; everybody else turned up to class with the Salinger, I turned up swearing, and tried to dig out all my teenage impressions of Catcher, while reading over somebody else's shoulder.

Issues that we examined in relation to the book: first, our impressions of Holden - did we find him sympathetic or irritating?  The consensus was that as young teenagers we'd mostly found him sympathetic; as older teenagers, or in our early twenties, we'd found him a pain in the ass; and as older adults, we'd felt sorry for him again.  We looked at his reliability as a narrator, his admission that he's a liar, his hyperbole and embellishments of the truth; his motivations as a narrator, including the way he might be seen to use those embellishments as a psychological tactic  to protect  himself in a world he sees as hostile. We examined his use of role-playing, and escape as a repeated tactic throughout the narrative; Holden's emotional state, his second-guessing of himself, his conflicted reactions to other people and their motivations, the internal contradictions of his feelings about himself and others and the situations in which he finds himself.  We looked at how the easy-going laid-back narrative voice masks moments of real darkness, and how Holden wants to remain a child (and idolizes his young sister, who embodies that easy childhood innocence he feels that he has lost) and yet he is attracted to the adult  world of sexuality, although it scares him.  He seems to be afraid that adulthood will force him to play a role, to not 'be himself', even though he spends his time enacting movie roles, taking on new identities, and he fantasises about living out in the woods and pretending to be a deaf-mute.   His wants and fears are very closely entwined.  The novel debated ideas of existentialism and authenticity - we talked about reactions to Holden's stance against phonies, a catch-all term that seems to encompass most  conventional adult posturing and role-playing; he's been seen as both heroic in his refusal to participate, and ethically admirable, and also as an immature fantasist in his refusal to accept the world, and his own stake in it.  Are his ethical stances flawed because of his privileged background?  It can be easier to protest and rebel when there's a safety net of parents who'll bail you out, send you to the doctor, and enable your self-expression (the telling of the narrative, as the implied reader would appear, at times, to be Holden's psychiatrist).  We spoke about the alternative moralities presented by the novel - the teacher, Mr Antolini; Holden's older brother in Hollywood - and  notions of change and stasis.  Moving towards adulthood is a change that Holden clearly fears, but he also distinguishes himself from small children, and doesn't want everything to freeze around him.  We looked at a couple of key scenes (the one with Antolini, the carousel scene with Pheobe) and we finished up by discussing whether in this case there's much difference/distance between Holden the narrator, and Holden the character.  There's so little distance between the events of the story and the time of the telling, that I think the difference is negligible, though you can probably pick out a sense of Holden having leanred from some of his actions and mistakes.

The workshop in the afternoon was a short session as one of the students got snarled up in horrible traffic for hours and couldn't get to class on time, so we talked about the other girl's novel-in-progress, and wrapped up early.  Next week we'll be looking at the Bolano (I'm sure about it this time) and we'll have Martin Amis talking about Philip Roth.

excuses

I've been a lazy blogger this week.  I accepted my Kreativ Blogger award and passed it on, and then fell silent, internet-wise.  I wasn't even in work this week, so I have no excuse.  I've been writing and reading and going to class and to a couple of talks (more of which in upcoming posts) and contemplating cinema trips but then failing to leave the house.  I might go as far as Didsbury on Sunday morning, and visit The Art of Tea, where I hear they have a good bookshop.  Despite my student budget, my book-buying habit increases week by week.  One day the piles of Things To Read will collapse on me, wicked-witch-style, and I probably won't even be wearing flashy shoes.  The boiler broke in our flat for two days, but our new best friend, the British Gas Man, fixed it, and lo! we have heat again.  Yesterday my boyfriend brought me on a surprise ice-skating trip in town, in Spinningfields, and then to a beautiful Armenian restaurant in Albert Square; today we're eating dinner at quarter to one in the morning.  WILD LIVES.  That's about it.  I'll do MA posting asap. 

Kreativ Blogger award!

Ages and ages ago, the lovely Diane Becker, aka DotSeven, over at http://notdesignedtojuggle.wordpress.com/, nominated me for a Kreativ Blogger award.  Look at this shiny thing:




Now, I think it was Spider-man's uncle who said that with power comes with great responsibility, and it seems this also applies to Kreativ Blogger awards.  There's a list of conditions - check them out:

* 1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
* 2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
* 3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
* 4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
* 5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
* 6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
* 7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.


So!  Thanks Diane, I'm very honoured!  Seven things about me.... I'd rather be reading than doing almost any other thing at any given time, but I'd settle for a good loud gig; I hate cooking; I can't drive; I grew up on a farm and almost became a vet; I've moved house seven times in five years; I'm always thinking of other places I could move to in the future and currently have my eye on Berlin; I want to be Karen O when I grow up.   

And nominations!  Well, there's a danger that I'll be tagging people who are already established Kreativ Bloggers, coming late to the party like I am, but nevertheless, here we go:

Kim McGowan at Just Testing, another creative writing MA blogger who knows much about neanderthals.
Daisy Baldwin at What Daisy Did Next, my classmate and one of the bloggers for the Central Lancashire Writing Hub.
Richard 'Vivmeister' Hirst at I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car, for revealing the seedy underbelly.
Fiona over at Superfiona, for doing the job/parent thing so very entertainingly.
Emily at My Shitty Twenties, for the same thing, and for being such a dedicated Elbow fan.
Kerry at Writing At The Window for travelling and novelling so successfully at the same time!
And Jessica at Writers Little Helper, for being so inspiringly motivated with her writing and her Wordcount Wednesdays!

Thanks again, Diane; and I'll try to be all Kreativ as I go.

MA Week Nine - Amis

We read A Clockwork Orange this week - one of my favourite books from my teenage years, and one I still love.  I read it and then I find myself thinking in Nadsat; people on the street become horrorshow malenky malchicks, and I'm a starry ptista (that one kicked in when we went to a club on Saturday night and realised we were all almost twice as old as everybody else there.  We went home and had cups of tea and hung our ancient heads.) Anyway, the class generally really liked the novel, and when Prof Amis did his usual trick of going round the room and asking us all to give it a mark out of ten and a one-word summary (I said nine and ultra-violent, taking a cheeky hyphen there) it mostly got eights and nines, and nothing under six.  Amis himself gave it an eight and called it funny, and then chastised us for saying nine, claiming that hardly any nines exist at all, and he's probably right, but when I love a book I do tend to love it a lot, so I'll stand by my superlative.

He talked then about dystopias, said that speculative novelists are always satirists because they look at what's around already, and make it worse, and quoted Burgess, who said that you shouldn't write directly from an idea (the notion of free will in A Clockwork Orange, for instance), that novels are always made out of sense data. (I've just been reading a collection of essays by Flannery O'Connor that repeatedly makes the same point; use your eyes, she says, that's where it all comes from.)  He pointed out how structured the novel is - three parts, of seven chapters each, with repeated motifs like the sandwiching device of the milk bar and the phrase 'what's it going to be then, eh?'  He emphasised that structure and patterns should be integrated into the novel, not something awkward or artificial.  Looking at the character of Alex, he quoted Updike, who said that the people we like in fiction aren't the people we like in real life, and that what we like in fiction is life itself: if the characters really live, we'll like them, or at least want to follow them around.  This definitely fits Alex; he's so compelling.

We then had a bit of a class discussion about whether the writer has a duty to deal with the issues of his/her age - Burgess's issue being the rise of youth culture - and we were all agreed that it wasn't a duty, but a choice that could be exercised.  Amis reckons it's best to wait about three years to let an issue close to your heart settle into you, before writing about it; I think he's probably right, if the work isn't to be polemical.  An Australian student in our class spoke about politics regarding Aboriginal people in her country, and how she'd like to eventually deal with that; some people wondered if the youth in Britain today, or people in their twenties anyway, weren't increasingly apolitical, and I disagreed with that, saying I have a huge number of friends and acquaintances of that age group in England who are very politically active, especially with climate change and environmental issues.  Amis said that Rushdie says  it's impossible to be apolitical, you're in the sea of politics whether you like it or not; I agree, it's just a matter of awareness or willingness to recognise that fact. Nabokov said that you shouldn't deal with the issues of the day directly, because the work will then resemble bloated topicalities with no wider application. 

So that was all very lively, and we also had a bit of a rant about Sarah Palin before heading to the pub.  Normally my Martin Amis seminar is on Tuesdays mornings, but they swapped the schedule this week so that the Tuesday group had our session on Monday evening and could go down to the local with Martin afterwards for a pint, like the Monday group usually do.  I ended up sitting beside him for a while and we talked about the cinema and it turns out he's a Mel Gibson fan; he thinks Mel's a raving racist loon, but enjoys the movies.  And we agreed that the first forty-five minutes of The Day After Tomorrow was an excellent spectacle, and wondered what 2012 is like.  Then he went back to his hotel and we proceeded to the Corner house where we came seventh out of twenty-one in the pub quiz; not great, but not bad.  A good night was had!

(Tuesday was spend reading in bed and dozing and pissing about online. Ace day.)

update

I've added an 'about me' section just in case anybody's wondering.  Click over there on the sidebar, under the photo.  That's all.  Back to it, slackers. Shoo.

MA Week Nine

So on Monday this week we were reading Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths.  Well, specifically, we were looking at a few particular stories from Fictions, but Labyrinths is the book that we all had, though the tutor had a different translation than the rest of us, and he reckoned his was better - but that's by the by.

We talked mostly about how metafictional the texts are, how the postmodernists were influenced by Borges, and how he was influenced by Kafka, though he also cited Kipling as an influence, which surprised me.  Our tutor explained how Argentinian literature was at one point the product of a very Anglophile and  Hispanophile culture, before the postcolonial movement turned things in on themselves, and a new, local tradition was encouraged - but Borges preferred not to affiliate himself with either camp, not to be seen as a representative; he avoided simple issues of Nationalism in his prose.  (Apparently in later years he accepted an award or a medal from Pinochet, thus scuppering his chances at a Nobel prize -- d'oh.)  He was a professor of English and a translator as well as a writer, and his work is massively erudite; as a writer, he considered himself a poet first, and a writer of fiction second.  His work is very self-reflexive, dealing with issues of authorship and the relationship of the author to the audience; his narrators are an unreliable bunch.  He was very interested in time and perception, and he grounds the fantastic in the logical and the ordinary, often confusing or tricking the reader the first time round (unless it's just me...).

We looked at 'Pierre Menard', 'Tlon', and The Garden of Forking Paths', focusing on the unreliability of the narrators, Borges' use of language to play with semantics and meanings in his sentences, his use of Gothic conventions (the dark and stormy nights!), his dismissal of structuralism in the way he calls attention to the impossibility of accuracy and authority in language, his humour, his interest in the transmission of information through texts.  Plenty to absorb this week.   Next week we're onto Bolano, and By Night In Chile; I've read 2666 and The Savage Detectives (loved that!) so I'm looking forward to that session.

In the afternoon we had the fiction workshop; this week it was me again, and two others, all three of us submitting novel extracts.  One was a continuation of what we'd seen last time, one was a new thing, and mine was a reworked version of my last submission, albeit a pretty unrecognisable reworking.  It went well - plenty of useful feedback, and I guess I'll have to press onto subsequent chapters now, because the next thing to hand in (other than my next essay) will be the first graded piece of fiction of the year - 6000 words of prose due after the Christmas break.  We've only got three weeks left of term - how scary is that?
 
But in the meantime, Amis update tomorrow!

Oh, PS:  Kim, for lunch I had a latte and a pecan pastry thingy; it was yummy and not nutritious at all, and I felt like a proper student, disregarding my greens and heading to the pub for beer right after class instead of getting a good night's sleep like a sensible adult!

My First Reading

Last Tuesday night I read my own work in front of an audience for the first time at Word Soup 7, a live-lit night in Preston, run by the Preston Writing Network and They Eat Culture, an arts organisation for the Preston area. 

Some of the students on my MA have taken over the running of Bewilderbliss magazine, and Jenn Ashworth, compère extraordinaire, give Bewilderbliss a fifteen minute spot at the November Word Soup to promote the magazine (speaking of which, submissions for issue three are open until the first of December, prose up to 2000 words, or up to three poems, check out the website for more details!)  Anyway, I'm not hugely involved in the magazine, other than some occasional blogging on the site, but I was one of four students on our course who read pieces during the Bewilderbliss slot.  I was something of a trembling wreck up on the stage, but I didn't trip over the words, and my piece, a rather macabre bit of flash fiction (as yet unpublished, though I shall persevere) got a few laughs, and two of the other readers (proper novelists and poets, no less!) came up to me afterwards and told me they enjoyed my piece.  So it went really well, and that's a life-hurdle-thingy to tick off the list - talking to a crowd and not dying or falling over. 

The other readers were excellent - I was particularly taken by Mollie Baxter, whose poem about her flat and its mould and dodgy windows elicited a sigh of recognition from our table, Carol Fenlon, whose extract from Consider the Lillies, a novel about a feral child in the Morecambe area, made me buy the book during the interval, and Thomas Fletcher, whose creepy story and mesmerising reading, really, really creeped me out.

PS: God only know why I'm doing this, but here's a video of me reading.  Not that you'll make out a word I'm saying, with the uselessness of my delivery.  The lessons I've learned from watching the video are (a) my voice DOES sound ridiculous, (b) I seem to stand in a bizarre way that makes me look pregnant or weirdly belly-heavy, and (c) slow the fuck down, woman.  The other people on video are all way better, so watch them instead, and we'll all be happy.

MA Week Eight

(Christ on a bike, I don't know how eight weeks have passed. Two months; that's a shocking portion of the year gone already.)

This week, in Forms of Fiction, we were talking about Hemingway, but only about three stories - Hills Like White Elephants, The Killers (both in Men Without Women) and Big Two-Hearted River (In Our Time).  We looked at Hemingway's famous external focalization, his flat, minimalist style - in Big Two-Hearted River we examined his use of repetition (influenced by Gertrude Stein) combined with this flatness, the short, journalistic, declarative sentences - we came to two opposing conclusion, one being that he writes like this in direct opposition to the notion of 'elegant' writing, going for a simple, unpolished effect, pointing us towards theme rather than towards the language itself; the other was that he uses the rhymes and incantatory rhythms of poetry.  In this story we looked at how he works the past and the present together, how we can read elements of the story symbolically (the swamp as the subconscious), depth versus surface meanings, the greater context of the other Nick Adams stories (including The Killers), the character's relationship with nature and society, the anachrony and change of register in the part where he discusses his old friend Hopkins, the humour in this section (Hemingway's otherwise pretty humourless, I think), and the idea of happiness expressed through physical detail (the processes of fishing, of camping) -  contentment surrounded by the possibility of misery.

We then moved on to 'Hills Like White Elephants', which is, I think, the epitome of his blank, flat, style, and we talked about how the very intense subject matter (a possible abortion) is a perfect vehicle for this minimal presentation, because perhaps, to discuss it more openly would be to reduce the power and the enormity of the situation, and to leave it hidden below the surface makes it seem even more significant.  The idea is that at the heart of  the story is a mystery that can't be articulated without reducing it.  In opposition to that, we felt that 'The Killers', though equally famous for the same stylistic conventions, is far less effective, because here, the form doesn't suit the content:  the surface details do in fact tell the story quite effectively, and the depths aren't there to be plumbed.  It reads more like a simple screenplay - quite funny, but without great resonance.  We also said that the two location shifts in the story ruin the dramatic unity, without any particular justification - the story loses some if its concision as we move about from place to place.

Next week we've got Borges, and I'm working my way through Labyrinths - for me, it's one of those 'damn, I should have read this years ago' texts, so I'm glad somebody's forced my hand.  I really see where some of the postmodernists, like Barthelme, get it  from.

After lunch we had the workshop - as well as discussing the two texts (a first chapter and a second chapter) we talked about Alice Munro's method of working - she says she gets very frustrated when something isn't working and it sends her into a great depression.  Some of the class thought this was a very negative way to look at it, and if you get so frustrated, then why bother?  I really empathise with her, though; it's difficult get things expressed the way you want, and it can be a struggle, and, in a way, shouldn't it be a struggle to get to something really worthwhile?  If it was too easy, I'm not sure I'd maintain my interest - I'm very easily bored!

Next workshop it's my turn again, along with two others.  I've reworked my last submission almost from scratch, having rethought the plot of the novel, so we'll see how it goes down.

Dimitri Verhulst review

My review of Dimitri Verhulst's 'Madame Verona Comes Down The Hill' is up at Bookmunch; check it out.

MA Week Seven - Amis

Last week with Martin Amis we looked at Graham Greene's The End of the Affair.  I read most of this sitting in Birmingham New St train station.  I'd finished work early, so I sat in the waiting room of the station for two hours with a coffee and a huge bar of chocolate, my headphones on, and the book in my hand.  I was pleased I got through the whole thing - not because I didn't enjoy it (I really like it) but because a crazy old drunk guy talked at me almost continuously for over an hour - he's not a fan of bicycles, I learned, but he thinks trains are just super, and he didn't see why I'd want to read a book the whole way through, or have a helmet for my bicycle, or want to travel to Manchester.  He didn't understand why I'd be in Birmingham if I wasn't actually from Birmingham, or why I'd want to leave now that I'd found myself there in New St Station (glorious place that it is), and he insisted that I was a college student rather than a university student, which was funny, given I'm going on thirty. (Non-UK people - 'college' here doesn't mean a third level institution, like it does in Ireland and the US, but rather the last two years of school, when you sit your A-Level exams or some other equivalent.  Dead confusing.)  I did ask him to stop talking to me several times, held the book right up to my face and turned the volume on the mp3 player up, but it didn't deter him at all; he was one hell of a determined conversationalist.  I eventually went down the the platform half an hour early and crouched on the ground there just to get some peace. Mentalists flock to me; I need some sort of repellent device. 

Anyway, the seminar with Amis on Greene wasn't ever going to top the actual reading of the book for sheer weirdness, but it was entertaining in its own way. He didn't like the book - like quite a few of my classmates, he found it unconvincing, particularly regarding the female character's religious fervour, and the narrator's eventual succumbing to belief himself.  So we spoke for a while about that - he told us that Flaubert described  the religious impulse in people as 'lovable', and that Conrad saw it as a 'sorry contrivance', an 'outrage on our freedom'.  Amis wondered if, in dealing with religion, it is possible to avoid cliché, because a cliché is an inherited formulation, and so is organised religion, because to the religious mind, originality is heretical, and the world of the believer is a ready-made moral place.  He said that writing is a god-like thing to do; the author has no limits, no restraints, but religious schemes are full of rules, and are therefore distorting to the would-be writer.  I'm not sure this is a particularly tenable position - I'm not a religious person (far from it!) but freedom from religious belief doesn't mean that  the writer is un-indoctrinated - countless ideologies inform people's view of the world, and hence their morality and their writing.  I would think there's no such thing as an undistorted position from which to inscribe an image of the world - and writers such as Flannery O'Connor work from a deeply religious position, but that doesn't make her work any less important or astounding.  She would argue that it makes it more universal.  Also, with Greene's novel, I think it's a mistake to conflate the character's conversion with the author's beliefs; and I don't think that a character who displays an ideological affiliation that differs extremely from that of the reader is therefore incomprehensible or irrelevant - it's always cheering to see one's own beliefs reflected back from a fictional perspective, but it's also enriching to be granted insight into how other minds work.  I think that's one of the greatest pleasures of reading.

We went on to talk about why we write, how the novel seems to follow the structures of power (the English novel during the Empire, the rise of the American novel in the twentieth century), and how writers work on a different level of preoccupation to other people; I guess that's a matter of opinion, but it made us feel important!   Next time we'll be looking at A Clockwork Orange - haven't read that since I was about sixteen, so I can't wait to get stuck in.  

new work online

Quick update: I've got a piece in this month's Northville Review - thanks, Erin!  I always really enjoy this litmag - check out the rest of the issue too, it's excellent!

MA Week Seven

Okay, catch-up posting begins NOW.  So this relates to the classes we had last week, which was week seven of the MA, week six being reading week, during which I did bugger-all reading, but managed to cobble together an essay on Virginia Woolf.  Week seven was mostly devoted to finishing said essay, and though it was due in on the Friday, I had to submit it on the Wednesday instead, because I'm still being dumb enough to spend two days of my week working in another city, halfway down the country.

So, last Monday we had a seminar on James Joyce's Dubliners.  Our tutor was dismayed to discover that of those of us that have had dealings with Joyce in the past, we weren't massive fans.  I've read Dubliners, which I liked, and I liked it even more this time round than I did as an undergraduate back in the dark ages; Ulysses which I found arduous but with moments of sheer joy, though I doubt I'll ever plough through from start to finish again; and Portrait of an Artist, which I really disliked.  I read that one in secondary school - it wasn't on the curriculum, I was just a nerd, and I found it very heavy, particularly on the religious side of things.  This was more or less the uniform opinion of our class - there wasn't a Portrait fan amongst us, though I can't speak for the other seminar group - maybe they all loved it. Our tutor, though, had some good points which made me look at it slightly differently (though I doubt I'll go back to it - sorry, John!) - he said that Joyce thought that language was a powerful tool and that priests manipulate that to control the people, and that he used language in his own writing to make that manifest.  You do associate Joyce with language, but I hadn't thought about it quite like that before.  Anyway, Dubliners: the stories we examined were Two Gallants, Clay, Ivy Day, Araby, Eveline, A Little Cloud, and The Dead. We looked at Joyce as a modernist, but also as a product of the Victorian era (Dubliners is his least experimental work); we talked about epiphanies, inertia, Joyce's 'scrupulous meanness' in the way he deals with his characters (I love that!), and his use of repetition both within each stories and throughout the collection, and how this adds more layers of meaning to each story.  (This came up the next week with Hemingway's Nick Adams' stories too.)  All in all, a good class, and it made me look at aspects of Joyce's writing that hadn't occurred to me previously.

Then we had that week's workshop, looking at two short stories - one very minimal, and one monologue in a local vernacular - both very interesting texts, and very different from one another.  The tutor had us do an exercise in which we had to mimic Ian McEwan's style - specifically, the sentence structures and rhythms of the opening paragraph of The Cement Garden.  I enjoyed it; I'm not a fan of on-the-spot writing, but McEwan's style isn't so far from the way I sometimes write, that it wasn't too difficult - and that type of exercise is one I haven't tried before, and I think I'll return to it. At the end of the class the tutor hinted knowledge of this blog.  So here's a shout-out to said tutor. (Picture me waving...)

Okay!  That was Monday.  Stay tuned for Tuesday. 

   

Bear with me...

The NaNoWriMo project is almost beginning to make a small amount of sense; or, as I go along, I'm realizing where sections of it ought to be going, which makes vast swathes of it redundant already, but never mind.  The point is to get the thing off the ground and into some sort of workable mess, and I think that might be working.

I'll write up this week's MA posts as soon as I can; I've been essay-ing all week, and the essay is handed in now, so, other than NaNoWriMo, the workload will sink back to normal levels of ill-managed chaos very soon. 

NaNoWriMo mofo hobo

Well, it's reading week, and I've nothing much to report except that we're now four days into NaNoWriMo and it hasn't killed me yet.  I've been trying to fit the 1667 words-a-day around an essay that's due in a couple of weeks, so it's been a bit hectic, and the NaNoWriMo words are definitely not the finest bunch of syllables I've ever produced.  Nevertheless, they are words, and I'm pleased I haven't fallen behind yet.  Mostly I've been belting out out the word-count in very short sessions without any editing as I go, and I don't want to imagine the horrors that await me when I eventually reread.  Today I had the day off, so I devoted the afternoon to my daily chunk of prose. I've got another workshop submission due in about ten days and I thought I could kill two birds with one stone if I concentrated. I ended up with 1700 fairly usable words, and if I can do that again over the weekend, that'll be my workshop sorted, and at least 3000 of the 50000 won't be garbled nonsense.  I'm back to Birmingham tomorrow and Friday for work, so I suppose I'll be NaNo'ing on the train while half-asleep.  Well, serves me right for signing up to this in the first place.  Now for some ice-cream before bed!
 

Spooky Rapping Amis

Happy Halloween, Internet!  Now, I promised you a Martin Amis post, and dammit, I'll give you one.  It's thematic too, because Martin scared the pants off us all last Tuesday morning in a pre-Halloween surprise tactic, by, well, performing an impromptu rap.  Have a watch of this, and imagine the song at the end performed in a very posh voice by a sixty-year old white man, who would ordinarily be spouting Shakespeare in sonorous tones.  Brilliant.

Anyway, he started off this week by talking about  genre, and asking us whether we each felt our writing was an example of realism, science-fiction, magical realism, etc..  There was quite a wide range of responses - I'd definitely say my own prose is in the realist tradition, though I do love to read some good SF.  He talked more about Don DeLillo and postmodernism - he called it an 'evolutionary genre', with the potential for huge boredom.  He added that literature doesn't, in his opinion, improve; it just evolves.  I liked that.  He referred to the postmodern elements in his novel, Money, and quoted Kingsley Amis as saying 'you shouldn't bugger about with the reader.'  Back to the notion of realism - he said that Nabokov advised writers to 'caress the details', meaning that you should write what you know, but in the way that you, as an individual, know it - and that with this, you would be imprinting yourself on the world.  He told us that Rushdie reckons writers have an inbuilt bullshit detector - you'll feel physically ill if you're going wrong in your work.  He said this happened to him, writing London Fields and trying to get a character to move in a direction that he later abandoned.  He's a big believer in the physicality of writing; more than once he's said that if you feel stuck, just get away from the work and do something else, and your body and brain will fix it up without your conscious intervention.  He talked a little about satire; writing as exaggeration, mockery through ridicule - and claimed that people feel mockery as much as they do pain, that this is present in all great tragedy - the hero's exposure to the ridicule of the crowd, or the other.

We talked about the 'units' of writing - the phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter - which echoed a similar discussion we'd had our tutor the previous day.  Amis spoke about the importance of having as 'aesthetic sense of the paragraph' and emphasised that the writer has to show that s/he is in control of the text at all times.  He spoke for a while about our set text for the week - Bradbury's The History Man, which I found very funny, but which other people didn't like at all.  I'm not sure Amis himself liked it; he seemed to assign it merely so he could use it to exemplify a selection of practices that he thought writers would be better off avoiding - following a dialogue scene with another dialogue scene, and using long, dense, dialogue-filled paragraphs.

Then he told us all how he dislikes drama and doesn't rate it as an art-form; poetry is highest, on his scale, followed by prose, and the poor old theatre barely gets a look-in, with the exception of Shakespeare, whom he categorises as a poet rather than a dramatist, anyway.  He called drama, 'collaboration through dialogue', referred to Moliere and his contemporaries as '19th century wasters', and said that setting drama up against prose was the equivalent to letting Scunthorpe play Manchester United. We all must have looked a little agape, because our tutor was quick to leap in with the qualification that this was 'a view that not everybody shares.'  But he does like a controversy, does our Prof. Amis, and this is the week that he had a rant in the media against Katie Price.  So there you go.

I'm tardy and idiotic

Okay, I owe you a post about Mr. Amis.  It's not written yet, but in my head, it's massively entertaining.  Sorry.  You'll have it by the weekend, I swear.

In surpising other news (I really have very little other news; between this course and my job, I'm forgetting what it is other people do between periods of sleep), a story of mine is going to be in the next Every Day Fiction Anthology.  The story's called 'A House, A Home', and you should be able to click on it over there in the sidebar.  So that's excellent; I haven't really had much luck with print before, and I'll even get paid a dollar!

Plus, because the MA-related exhaustion has warped my brain and caused me to act in ridiculous ways, I've signed up for this year's NaNoWriMo (say that ten times while drunk).  This may well be one of the more idiotic things I've ever done while sober, but perhaps it'll be productive and exhilarating.  Wait and see.  If I stop updating here, you can assume it's been the death of me.  I'll get that Amis post up on Saturday, before the madness kicks in.   

MA Week Five

Week Five?  It seems like many more weeks than five have passed; what kind of strange time-warpy university is this?  Unfortunately, though, I still seem to be aging at the same pace, and I can't manage to reach the giddy heights of beer-consumption that I recall scaling last time I had a student card with my leering mug on it.  Bah. So, Week Five it is; and next week is Reading Week, which actually translates as Reading 'Day', seeing as Monday will be the only one affected by the glorious lack of classes.  So, next Monday, I'll read Dubliners and Labyrinths and The End Of The Affair and then I'll have lunch and consult the list to see what's up for afternoon consumption.  Wonderful.

This Monday, though, we discussed Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.  I'd read plenty of Woolf as an undergraduate, so this was one of the more straightforward seminars - I felt extraordinarily well-prepared, dragging half-remembered theories and interpretations out of the depths of my knackered brain.  We talked about structure, shifting points of view, the interplay of past and present in the narrative, repeated motifs (clocks, birds, flowers), external events (like the chiming of Big Ben) as stabilising devices linking the different characters, internal and external time, mortality, and memory. We looked at the novel as an example of modernist literature; the way Woolf uses different narrative perspectives to illustrate a character or event, much in the same was the Cubist painters, like Picasso, sought to portray multiple angles simultaneously, to give a truer version of reality than the standard classic form of realism.  Contradiction is the more accurate approach, in this methodology, than affirmation or agreement.  We discussed the notion of 'stream of consciousness': whether Woolf's fairly consistent narrative voice truly presents that stream; if the third person narration presents an unavoidable mediation, an organising, external intelligence that prevents us from accessing the characters minds; whether pure stream of consciousness is ever possible, or whether the sheer act of narration always draws our attention to the construct of the prose.

Then, later - drum-roll! - I had my workshop.  Despite a blistering attack of last minute nerves, it turned out fine.  I reread my piece, a chapter of a projected novel, on Sunday night and identified a whole load of flaws.  It had been a week since I'd gone near the text and that slight distance helped me to isolate a bunch of structural issues.  By and large, these were exactly what the workshop group and the tutor picked up on - things to do with pacing and exposition that illustrated my background as a short story writer and the difficulties I was having in adjusting to a longer narrative form.  So I can see with more clarity now where I ought to space things out, add detail, give the story a greater sense of time and place - all in all, a very positive experience.  My next workshop submission and my first essay have to be submitted within three days of each other, so lord knows what I'll have fixed up or ironed out by that point, but we'll see.

Tomorrow I'll tell you all about Amis Seminar number two; are you fraying round the edges in anticipation?  You should be.

Spooky Soup and Science Fiction

I went back to Preston on Tuesday, to the Halloween edition of Word Soup - Spooky Soup!  Terrifying tales were told; spines were shivered.  Jenn Ashworth read from her as-yet-unpublished new novel, Cold Light, and you can read a different extract here, in the current volume of the Manchester Review.  Can't wait to get my paws on the real thing when  it comes out.  (Actually, now that I think of it, she should have finished the novel by yesterday, right Jenn?? ) Amongst other wonders, a local singer/songwriter performed several gory numbers, Richard Hirst gave us a multi-media history of zombies and their liberal-arts tendencies, and Rob Shearman read a story from his new collection, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical.  Rob's the writer behind the 'Dalek' episode of Doctor Who, a fact which got me and my boyfriend very excited altogether, and I got to bond with him in the pub afterwards by moaning about lots of different things - a fine way to get to know people, I reckon.  We got back to Manchester at about half one on the morning, just to make sure I was nicely brain-fried and hungover for some intense Woolf-reading in the university library all Wednesday.  Fun.

Today, Saturday, I went to another Manchester Literature Festival event, When It Changed, which was the launch of a new science-fiction anthology by Comma Press.  The book, also called When It Changed, is a selection of sceince-fiction stories written by a selection of writers working in collaboration with scientists.  In the anthology, each story has an afterword by the scientist who informed or guided the writer's work or inspiration.  The panel consisted of Geoff Ryman, who'll be one of my MA tutors after Christmas, Patricia Duncker, Adam Marek, who I saw reading at Tales of the Decongested in London last summer (I bought his book from him in the pub and drunkenly demanded he sign it; he was lovely), and two scientists, Dr. Tim O'Brien, an astrophysicist, and Professor Steve Furber, a computer scientist who's designed loads of fancy microprocessors.  Anyway, these two spoke about their research and their interest in science fiction, and the writers read from their anthologised stories.  It was very entertaining stuff; I bought the anthology afterwards and accosted Geoff Ryman to say hello, and then I met some fellow twitterers, Andrea and James, and I think I perhaps saw Elizabeth Baines in the crowd, though it could have been a looky-likey, and there's only so many internet/book people I can accost unexpectedly in one week without giving the world a hernia.

Then I thought that was enough high-fallutin' gallivanting for a while, so we went to Asda, where I ate (possibly) more than my fair share of free sample tubs of Cheerios.  And now I'm watching the Phantom Menace and thinking that it's still bloody awful, when I should be back to reading Woolf.  Procrastination is a fine thing.

Workshop in less than two days.  Gulp.

MA Week Four - poetry reading and workshop

I bet you're getting sick of me this week, right?  A post a day!  Well, rest assured it's not likely to happen again - it's all on account of letting crap accumulate until I had to blurt it all out in one messy, info-dump of a week.

So - on Monday evening, after our fiction workshop session, we had tickets to the first of the University's Literature Live events of the 2009/10 season - a poetry reading by Tom French and Michael Longley.  I have to hold up my hand at this point and confess that, though I'd happily read from dawn to dusk with ne'er a break for meals or washing, and though my flat is one big chaotic pile of books (with some help from him indoors who's got a set of teetering piles of his own, all art theory and philosophy, over in the intellectual end of the living room), my poetry knowledge is abominable.  I mean, seriously pathetic.  I've got a BA in English, three million tonnes of reading material, and barely a stanza in sight.  So of course I'd never heard of these guys, and I was a bit wary of sitting (in the front row, and that'll teach me for being tardy) for two hours in front of two people reading material I knew nothing about, surrounded by ardent fans.  (Plus I always worry I'll fall asleep at readings, plays, talks, lectures - anything public.  Church services is a big one, it's just not the done thing to start snoring  at a funeral.)  I'd normally resort to the internet to do some quite fact-checking, but the time ran away with me and it never happened; I walked in cold, a total impostor.

But of course, it was riveting.  It turns out Michael Longely is ridiculously famous; he's won everything, is mates with Seamus Heaney (I have heard of him - I once went to a classics lecture he gave, when I was an undergraduate, didn't understand a word, but felt very smart all the same) - and French is very well-known and respected. He's just got a new collection out.  They each read for about half an hour, chatted a little between poems, gave us the backstories and the contexts.  I didn't nod off at all.  At the end there were a few questions from the audience, and one stood out (there's always one, and never for a good reason).  A lady wanted to know (serious question as far as I could tell) whether they thought they had an unfair advantage, as poets, what with their lovely Irish accents.  (Longley's from Belfast, French from Meath, I think - very dissimilar accents!)  They both looked a little nonplussed; Longley talked about voices and words, and French shrugged and said that if he did have an unfair advantage, he was happy to have it, and wouldn't we all?  Damn straight.  Maybe I should turn to poetry; make use of the accidents of birth and pronunciation.

The following morning, Tuesday morning, I didn't have a scheduled class, but Longley was gong to be doing a poetry workshop with the poetry strand of my M.A., and our course coordinator had said that if any of the rest of us would like to attend, we were more than welcome.  I wasn't going to turn down the offer of free learning,, so I joined them.  I keep ending up at seminars where I'm not officially on the list, and then when they do a run-around introduction thing, I have to preface with, 'well, I really shouldn't be here, but...' Longley did ask everybody who their favourite poets were, and I floundered, going in the end with Allen Ginsberg, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, and thankfully he didn't ask me to elaborate. Win!

The first half of the session was Tom French reading Michael Longely's work with us, talking about Longley's move towards single sentence and then single line poems, the integrity of the stanza, the power of a couplet, his fondness for elegies, and found poems.  He passed out a handout so at least I had a vague idea what we were talking about. (Ha! I say 'we' - I didn't say a word.)  Somebody (a poetry PhD student) asked about the anxiety of influence that must affect Irish writers - the weight of history, the particular responsibility that nationality much bring.  Now, that got my goat, to use a rather unpoetical phrase.  I'm very edgy about essentialism, the bracketing of people according to birthplace, skin-colour, language - the idea that this ought to be your main concern as a writer.  I'm not going into a rant about it here, but surely, if you want to talk about the weight of history, there isn't a single writer or artist from any place on Earth who can say that they're free of that? And surely we're all free to ignore it or concentrate on it, or write about whatever the hell we chose? Even us Irish writers?  Tom French was very polite; I might have been a little more scathing.

After a break, we switched rooms and Longley himself took over; he chatted for an hour or so about his work, his grandchildren, his influences, his own thoughts on the issues that had been raised earlier.  He talked about compression and precision, saying that the importance of a poem doesn't depend upon its length.  He dislikes garrulity or long-windedness in poetry, and said the line ought to be an 'intricate machine', referring especially to Whitman as an example of that admirable intricacy, long though he may be.  He did a really good impression of Wallace Stevens doing a reading that had us all in stitches, like the nerds that we are.  And he finished by talking about the 'railroad excitement' of breaking the rules, of establishing an expectation and then thwarting it - but warned that you really need to know the rules first.  He insisted that every poet needs to spend special time on syntax and grammar, on the mechanics of sentences.  Every fiction writer too, I think.

There was another reading this week - M.J. Hyland and Nick Laird on Thursday, preceded by a fiction workshop from Nick Laird, but I couldn't attend either as I had to work.  Well, you can't win 'em all.  

My workshop's Monday. This is a scheduled post; I may have died from worry by now, so keep an eye on the news.

MA Week Four

This week in Forms of Fiction we read Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier.  Opinion in the class was divided; I thought it was great, and some others thought it was far too convoluted and frustrating.  It's one of the classics of the unreliable narrator, and that's mainly how we analysed it.  The structure of the novel and the way it deals with time and disclosure is complex; is the narrator deliberately manipulating the reader, witholding information, creating a false sense of himself to gain sympathy - or he is working it out as he goes alone?  Does the deferral of answers and resolutions mirror the way his human mind is working out events after the fact, a type of psychological realism, or is it an extremely controlled way of making sure the audience doesn't make particular judgements early on?  We looked at internal contradictions and the layering of narratives (Dowell's, Leonora's), and spoke about Wayne Booth's theory of unreliable narration, which focuses strongly on the morality of the text.  Booth would say that if the morality or value scheme that the narrator seems to articulate contradicts the assmed morality of the implied author, then the narrator is unreliable.  He's less conerned with gaps and contradictions relating to plot, etc.  I'm not sure how I'd classify Dowell here; I couldn't quite clarify what Henry James might have called Dowell's 'moral sense'  (Harking back to What Maisie Knew - see, I'm learning!) though there's certainly moments that point to a contradictory morality.

Then onto the workshop after a quick lunch (worst soup EVER) - two short stories; one in which the author was worried about her narrative structure, and one that wasn't finsihed - we read the first half of quite a long tale.  This week we had the other tutor - Tutor B, let's say, not to name names.  Tutor B's more interactive and talkative, as I mentioned before, and the discussion was pretty lively.  We also looked at a short story by Lorrie Moore and tried a quick writing exercise based on it; two characters in a clinical setting (hospital, doctor's surgery) who had to interact while keeping the serious tones as undertones - no sentimentality, no mawkishness, layers of meaning.  I managed about four sentences then stared at the ceiling for ten minutes.  There's a performative aspect to writing in front of other people that doesn't do it for me at all.  Give me a quiet space or a busy room, but as long as people aren't keeping an eye on me, or know what I'm doing, then it's fine. I can work online in a group, because nobody's actually looking, but the in-a-room-together situation jsut makes it all dry up.

Next week (Monday 26th) is my first workshop.  I emailed my submission to the group Monday night so they have a week to read and crit, and I'm quite glad (for once) that I work in Birmingham half the week, because at least I won't run into any of them during the week, knowing they've read it, unable to ask them what they think until the class itself.

Is There A Novelist In The House? MLF event

The Manchester Literature Festival continues apace, and last Saturday I went to an event called Is There A Novelist In The House?  I'd read about it on the MLF website, and one of our MA tutors emailed encouraging us to attend.  Two alumni of the course were presenting their work, so I thought I'd better check it out.  Here's the website blurb (I'm feeling lazy and now you don't have to click - I'm practically a labour-saving device):
Commonword and Manchester Literature Festival have been seeking out the most exciting new fiction voices in the North West and now six unpublished hopefuls (Rachel Connor, John Davenport, Gift Nyoni, Marli Roode, Pauline Rowe and Colette Snowden) will be pitching their novel to a panel of movers and shakers in the publishing world, including Dan Franklin (Canongate), Rebecca Swift (The Literary Consultancy) and novelist Sherry Ashworth. The panel's favourite will win £250 and the opportunity for more extensive feedback on their work.
I hadn't gotten a ticket in advance - wild and reckless chancer that I am - so I joined another seven hopefuls out in the hall and we watched with utter dismay as the room filled up before us.  This was a Saturday morning - a Saturday morning! - don't these people sleep?  I'd certainly weighed up the sleeping option, and besides, I have a suspicion that my attendance was really a sneaky way of deferring working on my own novel.  (Let's see how other people's careers are progressing, hahahaha, gulp.) A few ticket returns came in, and soon it was just me in the hall, trying to look nonchalant, like I'd placed myself there on purpuse, clutching my bicycle helmet and looking nervous, because that's just the way I roll, suckas.  They let me in eventually, the kind souls, and I got the last seat in the house, which was right near the lectern, so I had a very good view of the whole event.  It was held in some sort of committee room upstairs in the Manchester Central Library (beautiful building, great leather desks, makes you feel like you're learning when you're really just opening and closing documents in a panic) and I think the capacity was about eighty, with a few more packed in standing at the back, so there was a pretty large audience. 

Imagine pitching your unpublished novel to a panel of three and a room of ninety eager punters.  Gives me the shivers.

Each of the six entrants had already submitted their synopses and extracts to the panel of judges.  They then had five minutes each to give a public presentation, followed by a quick Q&A from the judges.  After a fifteen minute break when all ninety of us competed to get to the little refreshments table in the corner (I emerged triumphant with a polystyrene cup of tea and a Bourbon Cream - score!), they all trooped back in and the judges spent a while discussing the merits and flaws of each submission - the writing, the synopses, the pitches - before announcing the winner.

Now, my memory requires aides, like copious note-taking or a handout, if you want much precision in my reporting, and I went into this with nothing but the bike helmet and a cramp in my side from sprinting through the library at the last minute.  So apologies for the brevity of this section - the details of the actual entries are a little hazy in my mind.  On the other hand, I can unequivocally state that all six of them were brave and clear and passionate about their work, and that the range of works presented was fascinating. 

John Davenport's novel is about a young Manchester boy on the hunt for his missing mother, who has run away from a haunted house and may or may not have been murdered; Gift Nyoni, a performance poet from Zimbabwe, has written about the conflicts there and the fallout for a pair of childhood sweethearts, caught up in it as adults; Marli Roode, from South Africa, and a very recent graduate of my own MA, pitched a literary thriller about a journalist returning after a period of exile to South Africa, and embarking on a perilous road-trip with her estranged father.  Pauline Rowe, who's also a published poet, has written about a woman whose story begins in a psychiatric ward; Colette Snowden's novel deals with the interior life of a woman called Marion while asking the audience to question the reliability of Marion's narrative; and, finally, Rachel Connor, the other MA graduate on the line, presented her distopian-esque novel about polygamy, desire, and duty.

Got it?  There was a lot to take in, I have to say, and without access to the extracts, it was hard for the audience to second-guess the judges, X-Factor style.  Some of the six read from their work; others didn't, the judges read short extracts from one or two of the entries.  The panel explained their decision in some detail, telling the various entrants what they might want to work on in the future - structure, voice, the pitch itself, and issues such as the intended audience or market for the work.  All six had presented their work differently; having never attended a literary pitching session before, and being aware that this public session might not reflect the reality of an actual pitch to a publisher, I wonder which conformed most closely to the industry standard?  There's always an industry standard, whatever your industry, and a pitch must surely be one of the more business-like aspects to writing in this day and age.  I imagine it's possible to approach it very much like a job interview - each situation will be different, but there'll be acknowledged ways to approach it (I suspect Nicola Morgan probably has a post on it somewhere in her archives) and presentation is probably key.  It is a product, after all, your novel, and there's always professional hoops to jump through, and ways to get through unscathed.

Anyway; enough of my babbling; the winner was - ready? - the lovely Marli Roode!  The name of her novel, annoyingly, is one of the many details that totally escapes me. Oops.  But well done, Marli!  I can't wait to read her work - and I'm so impressed that both Marli and Rachel, having handed in their MA dissertations just last month, are at the point where they have good solid drafts of their novels, ready to pitch to real industry people.  I'm not sure I'll be in that position in a year's time, but I've now been set two very worthy precedents.  And congratulations to all six entrants - I'm sure we'll see every one of them on our shelves in time.      

Finally, I'm cross-posting this on the new Bewilderbliss website, (though the entry probably isn't up yet), and also, if you want a different perspective on the event, do check out the MLF's own blog, where Benjamin Judge has written all about it.

MA Week Three - the non-Amis side of things

This is over a week late; I'm getting slack already.  If I carry on like this, you'll be hearing about the second semester sometime in 2020.  What I'm doing is a deferred narrative - thwarting reader expectation.  Hehe.

So!  Last Monday, we had the third of our Forms of Fiction seminars, and we examined Henry James' What Maisie Knew.  It wasn't a particularly popular book amongst the group - I know I found it difficult, and for the length (around three hundred pages, I think, though I don't have it to hand right now) it took considerably longer to read than I'd expected.  Anyway, our tutor remarked that James' later works are generally thought to be trickier than his earlier works; I'd only read The Turn Of The Screw before, so I was nodding along to that.  We examined the book with regard to Maisie as the focalising character - her child's perspective, what she does or doesn't understant; what the reader knows, or can glean, that Maisie herself may or may not understand.  It's a text that deals with the fallout of a divorce for a child who's shunted between her parents in a pretty sloppy joint custody agreement.  In James' time this was unexplored territory, and so the novel is an interesting psychological study of a child in what would have seemed a very modern situation.  Somebody brought up the impenatrability of the text as a certain type of psychological logic for the child's inability to clearly understand and articulate her peculiar lifestyle.  We talked about the notion of moral judgement in the book; how Maisie is a passive receptacle and messenger at first, an innocent, and how she later develops her own morailty - or seems to, anyway - she learns from negative example, and we see corruption struggle with that childish innocence.  She moves from objectivity to subjectivity over the course of the narrative. 

Phew.

Then on to the workshop; we had novel extracts from two of the girls in the group to analyse this time.  It's tricky doing a crit on an excerpt (she says, planning to make her class do exactly that two weeks later) - there isn't a complete arc; you've no idea how anything will develop, or has developed up until the given point.  These were both opening chapters, though, so that helped.  I'm not going to go into any detail about other people's work on here, just try to make general observations; this particular workshop was very smooth with useful feedback (I thought, anyway) and as usual, doing the critiques was very helpful for developing my own work-in-progress.

Next up, an event I attended as part of the Mancheter Literature Festival.  Expect a post tomorrow.  I'm staring down the barrel of a backlog of posts here, so I'm going to schedule them to pop up throughout the week.  I'm rather internetless on Thursdays and Fridays, so I'll let Blogger so the work for me.  Mwuahaha.

making excuses

I'm letting a backlog of posts build up here - you're due to hear all about last week's seminars, a fascinating talk I attended as part of the Manchester Literature Festival, and (very soon) next week's seminars... I'm frantically working on my first workshop submission, though, so you'll have to hang on a bit - muchos apologies.  If you need something to keep you entertained in the meantime, all I can say is FOR THE LOVE OF GOD AVOID THE NEW TERRY GILLIAM.  Seriously.  Heath Ledger notwithstanding.  Baaaaad.

MA Week Three - Martin Amis, dudes!

Okay, I'm pretty much Amis'd out at the moment.  But that's a temporary condition; by the end of the week, I'm sure I'll be getting excited about the next seminar, which is in two weeks time, on Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man.  Also, apologies for not posting this sooner; I've been trying to get work done for my upcoming workshop, so the blog has taken second place so far this week.  And double apologies - this is a long post.  Grab a cuppa now, while you still can.

So, like I said, we've got two separate seminar groups for our sessions with Martin Amis, and I'm in the Tuesday one.  However, I'm extraordinarily impatient, pretty greedy, very conscious of how much this course is costing me, and I can be goddamn pushy when I get going - so I blagged my way into Monday's seminar as well.  Just as a one-off, not for good - I don't think my powers of persuasion are that fancy, and not even MARTIN AMIS can make a whole extra reading list that appealing.  This week, though, they were doing Northanger Abbey, and I love that book, and since I was hanging around to see the Amis/Self talk afterwards, I thought, what the hell.

So we all sat around in a u-shape in the classroom, with one of our tutors and Prof Amis side-by-side up at the top.  Then Martin (listen to me - Martin!) talked.  Amongst anecdotes about Kingsley and Larkin and a boozy lunch with Anthony Burgess, he spoke about what it means to be a writer.  The phrase he used was 'lords and ladies of infinite space.'.  I love that.  If the blog didn't already have a name, that's what I'd call it.  (Note to self: business cards?)  He said that to be a writer, you have to be a master of words; to recognise and eradicate sloppy and erroneous usage, to avoid cliche at all costs, in speech as well as in text; to be, at all times, an original user of words. The reader must trust the writer, he said - there can be no inadvertencies, no toe-stub moments in the prose.  It was quite amazing to sit in a room with somebody of his skill and calibre, and to have him address you as if you sit somewhere on the same professional bench as him. 

Then he talked about a distinction that Burgess made between two sorts of writers; the first is all about plot and character, and the second is all about language.  Burgess said that a poet would be of the second type, and that's where he placed huimself, too.  Amis thought all good prose ought to combine the two.  I'm not so sure about that precise division, but as a simplification, it's workable - the 'airport novel', as Amis put it, would be entirely of the first type, with the Joyce of Finnegan's Wake typifying the extreme end of the second.  He then went around the room and asked us where we thought we each fell on that continuum.  Mostly the people on the fiction strand of the MA claimed to sit on the first side with pretensions to the second, while the poets said they struggled with narrative and characterisation.  Because this was a part of the seminar that was repeated during the Tuesday session, which I also attended, I had to answer this twice, and I can't quite remember what I said either time - I think it's pretty darn good that I didn't just mutter 'I love you, man', wave a copy of London Fields at him, and drool.  However, my answer right now, safely at home, would be along these lines: what gets me going, as a writer, tends to be a character in a situation, and the fallout from that situation, which would sit comfortably in the first side of Burgess's continuum; but, significantly, I think that you'll never bring that character zinging up off the page and into the reader's imagination (or that of the writer) if the language isn't powerful and exactly right.  So, I'm on the fence.  I do recall saying that though I'll start with a character and a rudimentary plot, I'll rewrite obessively becase I can't get to the next point unless it sounds right.  I do think that the language is the thing - not that it has to be Joycean and crazy, but that it has to be, at all times, right and appropriate, and that has to do with tone, and voice, and on a practical level, a bloody good grasp of basic grammar and language structure.   

Anyway; that's a whole other never-ending debate.  Mr. Amis went on, on Monday, to discuss Northanger Abbey, and Jane Austen's status as a feminist or proto-feminist; on Tuesday, we looked at White Noise, DeLillo's powerful grasp of the apocalyptic, the commercialisation of culture, his portrayal of characters, and particularly the child characters in White Noise.  Next week I'm not sure what the Monday group are up to, but we're looking at The History Men, so I'll have to get through that again soon.

The Centre for New Writing, here in the University of Manchester, runs a number of Live Literature events during the year, and this first one was the 'Sex in Literature' talk between Martin Amis and Will Self on Monday night.  An American art historian also joined the panel at the last minute, and I can't for the life of me recall her name, only that she teaches in Manchester and she talked about The Story of O and fairy tales.  I'm afraid my attention was squarely on the celebrity guests.  I have a sneaking suspicion (suggested by a classmate after the talk) that she was plonked in there at the last minute to give the thing a token female presence, seeing as she wasn't on the official billing; if that is the case, I think it was a ridiculous decision - tokenism never solved anything, and the existing panel was great, and what we all paid for.  It was a sell-out show. Anyway, Martin Amis talked mostly about Nabokov, and Will Self talked about a multitude of things, including homosexuality, his recent novel, Dorian, and Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong, after which I think I'll never be able to look at poor Mr. Faulks in the same light.  They were both insanely well-read and knowledable, and Will Self in particular was very, very funny, with a dry wit thad had me giggling for hours afterwards.  (I'd have loved to take him home and get him to talk to people as my spokesperson.  People might think I was suddenly much more masculine, but what I'd lose in femininity, I'd gain in perceived wit and height).

After they said their bits, the facilitator threw it open to the floor for questions, and though I know there were some really good topics raised and points made, I've forgotten almost all of them because the last question was so unfortunately memorable: a lady sitting not far from me in the audience wanted to know if, given the 'current climate', with all the 'terrorists and paedophiles about', did the panel think that some areas just ought to be out of bounds altogether, for writers and everyone else?  My second sneaking suspicion of the evening was that this woman was a little unclear whom she was addressing:  Martin 'I Love Nabokov' Amis and Will 'My Idea Of Fun' Self?  Well, oddly enough, they really weren't in favour of this proposed censorship.  Amis went into a long speech about freedom as the writer's privilege, and Self said that as fas as he was concerned, the issue isn't 'what can you talk about?' but, rather, 'how can you make yourself heard?'

So that was more or less that; seminar-talk-pub-sleep-seminar, and of course Monday's usual pair of classes - but that can wait for another post.  Don't go away, now, y'all hear?