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. 


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?

countdown to Amis.

So tonight I've got a ticket to see Martin Amis talk to Will Self about sex in literature; I'm hoping it's a purely theoretical discussion, but I'm willing to take the chance nonetheless.  I've got my seminar with Prof Amis tomorrow morning; this'll be an ice-breaker, I guess, and maybe the HOLY CRAP IT'S MARTIN AMIS fog will have lifted by 9am, and I'll be able to make a coherent comment.  (I doubt that.)  He's actually giving two separate seminars to our class, each with a different reading list.  I chose the Tuesday group because DeLillo and Burgess feature on that list, and because the Monday group involved reading Hard Times, and that's something I've been avoiding most of my adult life, so I'm not giving in now.  The Tuesday class turned out to be considerably more popluar than the Monday group, which is a shame, because the intimacy of the smaller group would be very cool.  Still, I'll be able to get the low-down from my classmates tonight.

Martin bloody Amis, dudes.

MA Week Two

Okay, another miniature week down.  Although this is a full-time course, the way the contact hours are all shoved into the first half of the week makes it feel a little like I'm getting away with something here - sitting about at home on a Wednesday eating toast when somewhere there's a classroom with an empty chair and a pissed-off lecturer crossing my name off a list.  Ah, paranoia.

Anyway, today, in the morning, we discussed a couple of Chekhov stories, The Bishop and The Lady With A Lap Dog (full texts available if you click, for anyone who's got so little else to do that they want to investigate further).  We examined them in relation to Chekov's use of time - acceleration or deceleration of time, the use of memory as a mode of flashback or way of expressing a theme, the ordering of events within a narrative, etc - and also examined when he 'tells' us something, or summarises action, and when he 'shows' us events, or describing the scene.  It was an interesting class, though none of it was especially revelatory - the show/tell distinction is one I've looked at before, a familar mantra in writing circles, and one I'm already pretty alert to in my own writing (I hope).  The time stuff I'd covered to some extent back as an undergraduate, looking at Woolf in particular, but the Chekhov stories were good examples of the phenomena under discussion, so it was a worthwhile couple of hours.  It's interesting, though, that in these first two weeks of analysing other writers' crafts, we've been looking exclusively at translated texts - the variety in sentence structure and choice of words was immense today, between the four or five different editions we had between us.  Next week's Henry James, though, so we'll all be on the level.  I'm glad I got this one out of the way a few weeks ago, because I'm back working in Birmingham most of this week and I think I'd have strugggled to get it finished in time.

The workshop in the afternoon was taken by a different tutor than last week; they're alternating sessions.  It was fascinating to see how the workshop played out according to the teaching style of each individual.  Last week, the tutor was vey quiet, nudging the discussion in certain directions but staying out of it for the most part, while this week's tutor was much more participatory and talkative.  Plus, this week we also briefly checked out an interview with Hemingway and discussed his style, and then had a writing exercise to complete during the class - we had to write a short scene, a couple of paragraphs, mimicking the setting and style of 'A Clean Well-Lighted Place', using three characters and no adverbs or adjectives.  I'm not a huge fan of writing on the spot or with other people in the room at all (god forbid somebody sees what I'm doing), but it was an interesting mini-challenge.

So next week we've got tickets to see Martin Amis talk to Will Self about sex and literature (saucy) on Monday evening, and in Tuesday I've got my first seminar with Mr Amis - it's on Don DeLillo's White Noise, which I love, and I'm rereading it at the moment.  I've got a whole week to think of something intelligent or witty to say.  Suggestions welcome below!

lazy day

As this is the only week until late November when I won't be working at my old job as well as studying, I've been trying to take advantage of the free time to get plenty of work done in the University Library.   That quest hit a high point yesterday, when I discovered a cafe hidden deep within the bowels of the library itself.  Internet access, coffee and a sweet machine - you could stay in there all day and not notice the time, especially since the clock in the library was stopped at 9:15, and the whole place is so big you could wander around for months without finding the door.  (It did take me the best part of a week to find the cafe, and I do have something of a nose for sweet machines.) Anyway, today, I've blown it off and am 'working' from home, back to The Gilmore Girls and pyjamas until early afternoon.  I'll pick up the pace again tomorrow, I swear.

In the meantime, congratulations to My Shitty Twenties, I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car, Just Testing, and all the other people shortlisted for the Manchester Blog AwardsI don't think there is such a thing as the Birmingham Blog Awards, but maybe they tried to keep it well hidden so I didn't infiltrate the gang and ruin it for everyone else with my talk of pyjamas and the Gilmore Girls.  I'll set Emily Gilmore on their secretive asses.  Anyway, good luck, Northern blogger folk.