Urbis, dresses, and OCD reading

Today is closing day for Urbis, Manchester's museum of pop culture; it'll be replaced in eighteen months or so by the National Football Museum, and I can't imagine I'll be spending any Saturday mornings wandering idly around there.  I've got nothing against football, but I'd much rather go and watch a game than look at a display case devoted to one.  I've only been in Manchester six months, but it seems a real bastard shame to lose Urbis, and the city centre will be the poorer for it.  So that's where I've spent my morning, today; paying my last respects.

In more cheerful and probably less interesting news, I found a dress that actually had my name on it - the Valerie dress!  So of course I had to buy it, and a pair of shoes to match, and there goes my food budget for, oh, a month and a half, or so.  I'd supply a link, but apparently Topshop Online is denying that my poor namesake ever graced their shelves. 

Here's a great article in the Guardian about the compulsion to finish books.  This is me, in all my obsessive tragic stubborn glory.  In the last six years, I can only think of three books I've failed to finish (not counting story anthologies that I dip in and out of over time): A Glastonbury Romance, Ludmilla's Broken English, and a physics book.  Only Ludmilla was thrown over because the actual prose irritated me too much to carry on; the Powys coincided with a death in the family, and it just seemed tainted afterwards; and the physics book (the name escapes me) had considerably more calculations in it than I had expected, and after a break of a couple of weeks mid-read, I really couldn't make head not tail of it when I picked it back up.  I felt like a total failure, but I couldn't face starting again - it was, in my defence, massive.  I've read some awful tripe in my time, but my usual mission is to finish it even if it feels like every turn of the page is ripping parts of my brain out.  I think this is partly a 'know thine enemy' technique (at least I can defend my loathing by saying, well, I have in fact read it cover to cover) and partly the fear of giving up too soon (what if the last page is the best page?  The best page ever??).  And what if it comes up in a pub quiz?  Or some other list of 'things you ought to have read', and I haven't slogged through?  Heaven forfend.  It's probably a terrible waste of my time, but I'm quite fond of my pointless tenacity.  Thomas Pynchon should be glad of it; it's the only reason I ever got through V.  Well, that, and like my new dress, I felt a personal connection to its spelling.  I feel more positive about the dress, though.      


you might win a book next week!

Yes, indeed - tune in on Monday for my very first BLOG BOOK GIVEAWAY!  Exciting, huh?  Not to give too much away, but it's to do with Fiona Robyn's Blogsplash extravaganza, which kicks off on the first of March. Consider this an advance warning.

DBC Pierre & Bewilderbliss

We had an hour long workshop with DBC Pierre on Tuesday morning; he chatted to us about writing Vernon God Little, the abysmal state of the publishing industry, his attempts to get an agent back in the day, and his working process.  He says he looks at it as a two-step thing: getting the words down, the events, the story, and then adding the craft and structure and polish to it.  He wrote the first draft of Vernon in a few weeks, blasting it out, and then spent about twenty months sorting it out, giving it 'architecture' is how he put it.  He was a really engaging speaker, funny but serious, and he said he envied us, getting a writing education - then again, we envy him, with his Booker and his agent and his publisher at Faber.  Bah.  He talked a lot about structure - he says that commercial fiction has a structure that's easy to break down - plot-points, rising tension, etc - and that this is reflected in every chapter, not just in the book as a whole.  He reckons it's easier to sell a book if it's written in this way; he structured Vernon like a TV play, seeing as it's a satire of that culture.  I do recall it was a galloping read, so he's onto something.  Anyway, I ended up sitting in the library afterwards making diagrams of my chapters and getting a little worried about where parts of it are heading - but never mind, and it was a morning incredibly well-spent.

(The afternoon involved me sneaking home and eating leftovers, resisting the temptation to have a nap, and reading chunks of The Night Watch, next week's Contemporary Fiction text - I'm finished it now, and I really enjoyed it, it's my first Sarah Waters.)

Then at seven o'clock - drum roll - the Bewilderbliss Launch!

Thanks to everybody who turned up; it was really well-attended and great fun.  Matt and Jon, editorial team extraordinaire, did a fine job as MCs and cupcake-makers, and all the readers - nine of them - were fantastic.  The bar itself, Cord, in the Northen Quarter, just off Tib St, was very impressive - a red neon sign outside (how I love neon) and very plush upholstered chairs on the inside.  Rather creepily, part of the floor in front of the bar is made of glass bricks, so that if you're in the basement room, like we were, and you look up, you could catch a glimpse of sights uncalled-for.  Be warned, ladies. But a good night was had by all, and Issue Three of Bewilderbliss is now available to purchase; it costs four English pounds, and will be available from fine Mancunian establishments such as The Cornerhouse and Blackwells on Oxford Rd.

Sofia Tolstoy review

My review of The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy is live at Bookmunch.

MA Semester Two, Week Four

Week four!  So - in Contemporary Fiction this week, we looked at history, memory and trauma in fiction.  Yeah, that made for an upbeat start to the day.  The set text was Sebald's Austerlitz; like most of the novels this semester, this is one I'd read before, though unlike The Sea a couple of weeks ago, I think I got more out of this book the second time around.  I couldn't say I liked it, but I was impressed by it, and it definitely fitted the topic - history and memory and trauma bursting from the seams.  Not an easy read, though; there's only three (I think) paragraph breaks in the entire book, which makes it difficult to pace yourself as a reader.  I also found one sentence that was thirteen pages long - now there's syntax control for you.  Fancy.

Anyway, history, memory, trauma.  We looked first at the turn towards historical fiction in contemporary literature.  We thought perhaps this tendency might be something to do with new mythologies - a way of turning to the past in order to understand a fragmented or schizophrenic present in the absence of religion in our society (though clearly there's still may religious people out there, so that might indicate more about our social groupings than anything else).  So, the past as a lesson, a warning, an explanation.  The constant return to particular narratives (the Tudors, the World Wars, the British Empire) indicating an obsession with certain resonant points in the past, events or fissures that might help us understand how our society has developed in the way it has.  We talked about the relationship between the past and the present; how the two seem to coexist because we understand the present through the lens of the past.

The discussion about Austerlitz itself was pretty short, but that issue about the con-temporality of the past and the present was one of the main topics - the book constantly talks about overlapping time, and ghosts and veils being lifted between one period and another.  We talked about trauma, and how buried/forgotten/repressed memories affect our relationship with the past and thus with our personal identity.  The eponymous protagonist of Austerlitz suffers from amnesia because of repressed trauma, and the book looks at history and memory as constructs that are altered by how we choose to narrate them.  Earlier we'd talked about the prevalence of trauma narratives in contemporary fiction and culture - misery memoirs, survivor stories, recovered memories, alien abduction stories, and, of course, the current national preoccupation/hysteria over child abuse.  Austerlitz deals with the Holocaust.  We also looked at Sebald's use of photographs, which contributes to the whole objective history / personal narrative conjunction.   

After lunch we had our workshop (a short story and a novel chapter, both very interesting, and very different from one another) and then we did a writing exercise which I haven;t come across before, and which was pretty revealing, I thought.  Our tutor read us a short story that was a sort of metafictional take on reading and writing and the interpretive experience, written in the second person - This Is Where The Title Goes, by Scott Edelman.  The narrator describes what each line of the story is doing, rather than giving us the (imaginary) line itself; it's very clever and knowing, but also very lyrical and absorbing in a way I didn't expect it to be.  Anyway, he read this aloud, and then got us to go through one of our own stories, line by line, describing what each sentence and paragraph is doing.  I used a piece of flash fiction that I quite like, and with the line-by-line analysis I spotted quite a few redundancies - sentences performing the same function as one another.  I still like my story, and of course lines and sections can share a function, but the exercise was really good at pinpointing bits that aren't pulling their weight.    

Then, after a much-needed cherry beer in the pub down the road, we headed over to the Martin Harris Centre to hear DBC Pierre read from his as-yet unpublished third novel.  I quite liked Vernon God Little when it first came out, but I couldn't get on with Ludmilla's Broken English at all; I'm masochistic with my reading, and I'll plough on to the bitter end even if I'm really disliking a book, but I had give up on that one.  The new one, though, sounded good, and I'll keep an eye out for it.  He only sent it to the publishers on Friday, he said, and he got a call from his editor just an hour before the reading - he got the thumbs up on it, so I guess we'll see it in the shops in the next year or so.  He's running a Q&A, or a workshop, or something, for our class Tuesday morning (this morning, if my blog scheduling thingy behaves), so I'll write about it soon.

And again, one last plug:  issue three of Bewilderbliss magazine is being launched this evening in Cord Bar in Manchester's Northern Quarter.  7pm, readings, music, and (possibly) cakes/flapjack!  Come, listen, buy the magazine, validate us.

Milton Hatoum review

My review of Milton Hatoum's Orphans of Eldorado is live at Bookmunch.

MA Semester Two, Week Three.

Hot on the heels of week two comes week three; thrills aplenty here, I promise, before week four comes along to trip me up.

First, as usual, we had Contemporary Fiction on Monday morning; in week three we looked at bestsellers, authorship, and celebrity culture, and the novel we focused on was Zadie Smith's third book, On Beauty.  I'll be honest - as many of you know, I'm not a huge fan of Ms Smith's fiction.  I do like her non-fiction - her essay in the New York Review of Books in 2008 on Tom McCarthy and Joseph O'Neill was superb, and I fully intend to get her recent book of criticism, Changing My Mind.  But the novels - meh.  On Beauty is very readable, but the style - the authorial winks to the reader, the over-intricate dialogue, the constant italics - it doesn't press my buttons.  Most of the class, though, liked it fine, and it was a really good launch-pad for the discussion.

So, bestsellers: we started by looking at what defines a bestseller (other than sales) - media coverage, genre, prize-winning status, and so on.  I'm not sure about the terms of the debate: genre/coverage/prizes won't necessarily result in a title shooting onto the best-seller lists, though they certainly help.  These things don't define a bestseller - only the lists can do that.  Everything else is contingent and unpredictable.  Then we talked about the convergence of bestsellers and famous authors; we agreed that not only do the two not always go together, but that the notion of a 'famous' author is a debatable concept.  There's fame, as in a recognisable name, brand, or even face, and then there's celebrity, which is how we'd normally think about fame - where the life and doings of the author are as well-known, or even better known, that their works.  This is where we might place Zadie Smith - the story of her early signing is perhaps more well-known than some of her actual writing.  The likes of Martin Amis and Will Self are recognisable media figures, and Amis's personal life is well-documented, but they enjoy middling sales, so it seems that fame doesn't necessarily equal bestsellers.  On the other side of the fence are bestsellers like Nora Roberts and John Grisham - instantly recognisable names, but they could walk past me on the street and I'd miss them, and I know nothing about their lives.  Interestingly, our lecturer revealed that the shortlisted authors for last year's Booker won membership to London's exclusive Groucho Club, indicating that writers are being actively encouraged to become more 'celebrified', as she put it.  Weird.

We talked a little then about reading groups; why people join then, what they get out of them, whether or not they work against what might be termed the 'solitary pleasures' of reading itself.  On that last point, we all disagreed: as literature students, we could hardly fault people for wanting to congregate to discuss books.  Also, as one guy pointed out, you still read the book on your own, no matter how many people you then discuss it with.  The consensus seemed to be that the social aspect of reading groups was the most important aspect: of those of our class members who've been in reading groups, most of them had joined to make friends when moving to a new area.  Others felt that it helped them stay in touch with literature, post-university.  I pointed out that the social aspect alone could be usurped by fashion: in my old neighbourhood in Birmingham, I knew nobody in a book club, but plenty in a knitting club, and the demographics matched, I think, that of the book clubs of which my classmates had, in the past, been a part - 20s to 40s, educated, predominantly female.

We ran out of time before we could really get into On Beauty in any detail, but the issues we touched upon were Smith's use of the American setting; the multiple characters, may of which could be seen as the 'main' voice; the role of the title of the novel; her use of Rembrandt; her use/homage/copying of EM Forster's Howard's End.  Um - discuss amongst yourselves....

In the early afternoon, I'd scheduled a meeting with our new writer in residence, Nick Laird.  I'd sent him a chapter of my work in progress, and I was really delighted to discover that he liked it.  I'm still rather up in the air regarding the structure of the novel, but he thought my writing, in itself, was good, and that's the most encouraging thing, because it's easer to fix the rest.  I think.

Then, to make sure I had the most draining day of my MA career to date, I got workshopped and got back some of my marks from last semester.  (One essay still outstanding.)  The workshop went well - the other girl went first, with a short story which was really well recieved, despite her doubts, and the tutor loved it - and the class were very positive about my chapter, though the tutor said to me afterwards that it was somewhat lacking in tension.  I think I can add tension later (fingers crossed) - I just want to plough on and get the first draft hammered out now.

So - onto week four soon!  On Monday we've got DBC Pierre coming to do a reading, and, on Tuesday, a workshop.  My classmate Matt has written a damn good preview of the event for Creative Tourist.  Tuesday night also brings the launch of issue three of Bewilderbliss magazine (I'm the fiction editor) - if you're in Manchester, it's in Cord Bar in the Northern Quarter, kicking off at 20:00.  Exciting times.  

MA Semester Two, Week Two.

This is spectacularly late - almost two whole weeks late, in fact, and I don't even have an excuse, so I'm just going to skip quickly ahead to the nitty-gritty.

Contemporary Fiction.  In week two, we looked at John Banville's Booker Prize winner, The Sea, in the context of literary prizes and book reviews.  Split into small discussion groups, we looked at issues including whether or not we need literary prizes, the functions such prizes might serve, and the types of books that tend to win particular prizes.  We wondered to what extent literary prizes are symptomatic of a wider cultural fascination with scandal, celebrity, critical disagreement and judgements of taste.  We talked about the fashions of the Booker - its rush to incorporate the margins (homosexuality, post-colonialism) - and the notion of sponsorship - Booker as a suspect colonial company claiming back some cultural currency, and also the prize as a new form of patronage. 

One issue that didn't really get raised is the value of the prize to the individual writer - as a solitary occupation, without pay-scales of promotions of bonuses or corporate retreats, the prize does act as a carrot, especially for those 'literary writers' who probably wouldn't ever otherwise achieve huge sales.  But this particular seminar course is split between the creative writing students, like myself, and people studying contemporary literature and culture, a more traditional lit-crit degree, and so the balance seems to go to the reader/critic rather than the writer. Ho hum.

When we turned specifically to Banville's work, the class was divided - many found it overwritten, verbose, and pompous, while some liked the lyrical wordiness of it all.  I found myself straddling both camps.  I read The Sea before it won the Booker, and I remember really enjoying it, and I even bought my mother a copy, which indicates that I must have considered it a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.  Typically, though, when I reread it, I found I had little recollection of the actual language, though I knew that had been what impressed me in the past (seeing as the plot is pretty flimsy).  This time, I found it somewhat overbearing.  I think a judgement like that is often dependent on what else one is reading at the time, and perhaps I'd been immersed in Hemingway for months and loved the change, whereas I'd just finished reading some pretty wordy stuff this time round, and maybe needed a breather.  Who knows?  I can't remember what else I was reading back in '05; I didn't, at the time, keep a note of my reading.  Anyway, we'd been told to research reviews of the book, and I'd pulled two from the New York Times, reckoning that the Irish and British press would probably have erred on the sycophantic side.  Of my two reviewers, one was full of praise, and the other thought it was overrated and wordy.  (This was the wickedly scathing Michiko Kakutani. She's brilliant.  It's worth reading the NYT book pages for her reviews alone.)  The selection of reviews was interesting from the standpoint of what our lecturer termed 'the markers of literariness' - the aspects that the reviews focus on indicated the elements of the text considered serious or worthy or important in a work of 'literature', or a prize contender.  Reading the book with the knowledge of its mostly favourable reception and the Booker logo stamped on the cover must effect how people approach the text.  I was more critical the second time around: is that because the intervening five years have made me a better or more critical reader (and I read plenty back then at twenty-five) or because the Booker stamp of approval gets my hackles up and I want to be contrary in my response?   

In the afternoon, we had our fiction workshop, where we looked at two people's work - a novel chapter and a short story, which was in fact the first piece of historical fiction anyone in our group has submitted.  That sparked off a discussion about language and anachronisms, not to mention the ins and outs of dancing plagues.  Ahem.  Later on we had the launch of Martin Amis' latest book, and I've already gone on about that; the podcast of the event, as promised, is available here, part of the excellent Manchester Review.  I haven't read the book yet (God forbid I get my mucky paw-prints on its lovely crisp pages) but I'm reliably informed that I'll recognise large chunks of it from the seminars we had with Martin last semester.

Coming, ALMOST AMAZINGLY SOON - week three! 

Jon McGregor

My review of Jon McGregor's Even The Dogs is live at Bookmunch now, and so is my interview with the author.

contemporary fiction & Ireland

I'm studying contemporary fiction this semester, though the notion of contemporary seems limited to texts that have, over the last ten years, slotted into a provisional canon; nothing that's come out in the last couple of years feature, and the texts that we do study are all rather 'safe' and acknowledged to be worth a gander.  These issues of canonicity, value judgements, prize culture and so on, are, however, part of what we're looking at in the course, which builds in a certain amount of questioning and adaptability into the way the discussions unfold, and we're encouraged to read widely, both in fiction and in publishing publications like The Bookseller - though the texts themselves, as I say, are in many cases, obvious enough choices, like The Sea, or The Inheritance of Loss.

I read Irish novelist Julian Gough's first book, Juno & Juliet, over the past couple of days; it's one that I've been meaning to read for a very long time, and it was well worth the wait, and I heartily recommend it.  It's very witty.  I'll be getting hold of his second novel pretty soon.  Anyway, in the context of the contemporary fiction thing, Julian posted an entry on his blog about the state of contemporary Irish fiction.  The Guardian then picked it up, albeit with a pretty sensationalist headline, and they've posted responses from John Banville and Sebastian Barry, who mainly agree with Gough.  Where are the bright young Irish things?  I have to admit that I'm not that clued in about the debate.  The Roddy Doyles and the Banvilles grab my eye, but I know much more about new releases from young authors in the UK and the USA than I do their Irish equivalents.  It's a small country with a smaller output, perhaps; the writers get swallowed up in the London publishing mill, and I think the lit-blogging scene is focused more on bigger countries with a larger writing population.  Plus young Irish writers aren't necessarily based in Ireland - I'm not.  But still, reading Julian's post, I've found a few names to follow up, and I hope more will follow.  They've got to be out there.

good student!

Tonight was the official launch of Martin Amis's new book, The Pregnant Widow.  Lisa Allardice from the Guardian interviewed him at a live event run by the Centre for New Writing at the university, and he read excerpts from the book.  There'll be a podcast of the interview available very soon, so I'll link to that when it's up, and obviously Lisa's interview will more than likely be online too, so I won't subject you to my half-remembered version of events, except for two things.

First, and most insanely, I got interviewed by BBC North West Tonight about being taught by Martin.  I've spent the last five years working on the other side of the camera, so it was more than a little strange to sit in the spotlight and be asked for sound-bites.  I'm pretty sure I made at least the minimum amount of sense required for them to use the footage, and I even managed to brush my hair beforehand, so if anybody in the North West of England wants to see me, apparently the clip will be on tomorrow (Tuesday 9th February) at half six in the evening, and possibly in the lunch-time slot too.  There's two of us there - my classmate Sophie will be the one who looks calm and collected, and I'll be the rabbit-in-the-headlights creature in the yellow cardigan.


Second, I bought a copy of the book afterwards and got Mr Amis to sign it for me, so just to prove to you guys that I haven't been making it up all this time, CHECK IT OUT:

MA Semester Two, Week One.

Well, aside from all the essay-writing and fiction writing, we've had an enormous break from the MA over Christmas, so it was something of a shock to get back to the grindstone on Monday; a whole new seminar group, and a new tutor for the fiction workshops.  We started in the morning with Contemporary Fiction; this is a course that looks, shockingly, at contemporary fiction - it's split up into themed sets of seminars, and for the first few weeks we'll be looking at the publishing industry, criticism, book awards, book clubs, etc.  For this initial seminar we took a broad overview of the industry - what new books we read and why, publishing trends we might have noticed, the conglomeration of small family-run publishers into global multi-media corporations, the ascendency of marketing in book-selling.  The main focus was literature as a commodity that is produced, marketed and targeted at an audience; this led on to the celebrification of authors, to steal our tutor's phrase, and the increased power of retailers.  We finished off with a brief discussion about value, canonisation and authority - who decides what books are significant or culturally viable?  So, plenty to take in, and reams of reading to be done.  Next week we'll be looking at Banville's The Sea, and literary prize culture.

The fiction workshop went well, as usual - we had a short story and a novel chapter to discuss, and I got to be in charge of timing the discussions and cutting people off when they spoke too much.  The power!  We did an exercise on plotting, which I found useful - a way of setting out the chronology of your plot which lets you see if there are any gaps, etc - we all looked rather worried by the end.  Then we decamped to the pub and ended up having a loud debate about the iPad and e-readers and the Google book thing and all that, while drinking cherry beer.

The other interesting thing that happened was that we were introduced to Nick Laird, who's going to be the writer in residence in the Centre for New Writing this semester.  We'll get to have individual workshops with him throughout the term, and I'm very excited about that.

Right - back to writing/Facebook/Twitter/napping.  Ah, the life.

James Scudamore review

My review of James Scudamore's Heliopolis is live on Bookmunch.