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.)


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!