Thursday rant

So some unbelievably cuntish motherfucker stole my bike yesterday.  This is as polite as I get on the topic.  And I'd just kitted it out with a new basket - I cycled all the way to Trafford Park in the rain to get that last weekend.  On the bright side, the robber didn't get my lights, because some other cockfaced turd stole them a while back.  Oh, I do lead a charmed life.

The result is I'm perusing bicycle racks all over Manchester ready to tear strips out of some fucker if I find my poor lost pet chained up somewhere.  Also I've got a disturbing urge to push other people off their bike onto the ground, and preferably into a puddle, because they're all sailing past me with leisurely ease, whilst I'm tramping the pavements like a surly hobo.  I'll be damned if the bus companies are getting my money.  Every £2.40 counts towards a replacement bike, you know.  My feet hurt.  Since yesterday evening I've walked from the Northern Quarter to Whalley Range; Whalley Range to the university; university to Chorlton (to look at a dismal selection of secondhand bikes); back to Whalley Range.  Walking, I've concluded, is for chumps, and I'll be damned if I'll do much more of it.  If I haven't got a new bike by this time next week, you've got permission to come round and put me out of my misery.  Seriously.

Also, before the bike was robbed, yesterday morning, I'd had a takeaway cup of coffee and accidentally spilled the dregs of it in my bicycle helmet (yeah, I'm not sure how that happened, either) and then put the helmet on my head, so I ended up with an unexpected and not very pleasant coffee-shower.

Karma, you absolute retard, what did I do

David Shields review

My review of David Shields' Reality Hunger is live at Bookmunch.

Paolo Giordano review

My review of Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers is live at Bookmunch.

(This guy's a physicist by day and a novelist by night.  I really, really, hope he puts on a superhero costume for the changeover.)

Sunday postscript

The boiler-man arrived; hot water has been restored; hair will be washed.  Relief all round.

I'm three-quarters of the way through How Late It Was, How Late, and beginning to think in foul-mouthed Glaswegian about my own blindness and prison terms and too-small trainers and lack of a guide dog. 

Annie Clarkson's doing a giveaway on her blog of Jenn Ashworth's brilliant A Kind Of Intimacy

And Jenn's reading in Manchester tomorrow, so get your asses over here.

Finally, my friend Daisy went on an anti-fascist protest march in Bolton yesterday and didn't get arrested.  She's henceforth to be referred to as my 'hardcore friend' Daisy. Word.

brief Saturday miscellany

Words I've taught the word processor today:  'gobbed', 'minging'.

Incompatible books I'm reading this weekend: The Inheritance of Loss; How Late It Was, How Late.

Hours we've been waiting for the boiler man to restore our heating and water: ten eleven eleven-and-a-half (and counting).  Rage-o-meter indicator quivering at the peak of the scale.

Emily Mackie review

My review of Emily Mackie's And This Is True is live at Bookmunch.

MA Semester Two, Week Seven

Week seven?  Seriously?  Oh, sweet spaghetti monster.  This year is sliding by stupidly fast.  I thought I'd have much more of the novel written by now, but it seems that institutions of higher education, though they may make me think more clearly and deeply about my work, don't have the miraculous ability make me write any faster.  I've written probably over 30,000 words since December, but I'll only keep about 10,000 of them.  Write three chapters and then archive two of them in the 'what was I thinking' folder - that's the pattern.  I envy people who work quickly.  I dither constantly.  I hover and delete and rewrite obsessively.  I should make my peace with that and not worry that I'm doing it wrong.  On to the next chapter today.

So.  Week seven's Contemporary Fiction class was about realism and experimentalism and JM Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year.  I think I've been pronouncing 'Coetzee' wrong.  It'll have to be added to the list of Words To Avoid Saying Out Loud in case I make a tit of myself.  Donald Barthelme went on that list recently too; I thought it was obvious how you said that one, but it seems, again, that I was wrong, if the New Yorker podcasts are to be believed.  Henceforth he's The Guy Who Wrote That Story About The Balloon And Other Stuff.  Coetzee will be That Nobel Guy.  You Know The One.  Anyway.  Diary of a Bad Year.  We discussed the mixing of fictional and non-fictional modes; contemporary fiction's orientation towards the 'real', or otherwise; the flexibility of the novel form.  Then we talked about David Shield's new book, Reality Hunger (which I've recently reviewed for Bookmunch, link coming soon), though since hardly anyone had actually read it, it was more of a discussion about the reception the book has had in the media and the blogosphere.  Shields terms it a manifesto about the direction that literature ought to take, claiming that people want 'the real', but his definition of the real isn't very well-defined, and the debate (the death of the novel, the end of realism) is a very old and tired one, and as a manifesto it's more than a little woolly.  Still, I found it a really interesting read, and the collage aspect of it was pretty invigorating, but we didn't get into much of a serious discussion because, again, people hadn't read it (it's only been out a few weeks, in fairness, and it's an expensive hardback).  So then back to Coetzee - Diary of a Bad Year has a pretty unusual tripartite structure with one essay-like part, and two fictional storylines with two purported narrators.  We talked about narratives infecting each other, the permeable boundaries between the three parts, the disruptions in tension that this creates, Coetzee's foregrounding of the workings of the narrative, his intensification of textuality, the different versions of authority that the novel creates and questions, authority as a rhetorical construction.  And then there was some talk about politics, but you know, my notes seem to have fizzled out at that point, so it'll have to remain mysterious.

The workshop in the afternoon was a short story and a novel chapter, and we talked about two Grace Paley stories that we'd read.  Next week is the last week before the Easter break, and after that we'll only have a few weeks left before the summer and the dissertation .  Scary.  In the meantime, next Monday we've got the lovely Jenn Ashworth and the no-doubt-also-lovely Jen Hadfield reading and doing workshops with us.  The workshops are just for students, but the readings are open to the public, Monday the 22nd at 18:30 in the Whitworth Gallery.  Be there.
 

Sara's where it's at this week

Sara Crowley (rhymes with holy!) has sparked quite the debate over on her blog, A Salted.  She posted the other day about 'cultural tourism' and I read it at the time and thought, hmmm, interesting topic.  I've since gone back and there's (at the moment) fifty-two comments in a very animated discussion about facts and truth and fiction and non-fiction and lies and accuracy and offence and imagination and all sorts.  You'll all probably seen it already, but if you haven't, check it out.  Come on, everybody loves a scrap.   

Jayne Anne Phillips review

My review of Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark & Termite is live at Bookmunch.

Craft: flashbacks

Our workshop tutor gave us a handout on flashbacks as we finished up on Monday afternoon - it's a leaflet he's done up for his undergraduates, so it's fairly basic stuff, but there's never any harm in revision, so here it is in summary.  All credit not to me, but to him.

Your story shouldn't rely entirely on flashbacks or explanations of the past.  Readers want to live through experience alongside their main characters. On the whole, the most impactful material in your story will be shown in a scene that happens in the story's present.  If too much of your story is in flashback, it will feel like it's all explanation, and nothing is actually happening 'now' in the story.

You can use flashback for setting the scene in the beginning. 
  • This is an explanation used to orient the reader.   Don't let it drag on or you'll find yourself in info-dump territory, and you'll ruin the flow of the story.
  • The way you write this explanatory set-up can establish the tone of voice of the story - witty, scary, etc.
  • It lets you set up hooks or questions in the readers' minds that make them keep on reading.
Flashbacks are also good for explaining key decisions in the 'now' of the story.
  • Only use this when the reader needs it - when the present prompts it.
  • These flashbacks shows us why the hero behaves as he does - the present decision or action wouldn't make any sense if we didn't have the context of the flashback.  The flashback is necessary here.
Things to avoid when you're using flashbacks:
  • Overdoing it.  You'll end up with a story that's all memories and pondering past events and no real present action - dull.
  • Constantly going back to the flashback, or making it too long. You'll labour the point or get repetitive.  Especially in a short story, be spare.
  • Flashbacks within flashbacks.  Very hard to get right, confusing, and it can seem like you're deferring the 'real' story.
The gist, really, is to ask yourself if the flashback or summary is necessary.  What would happen if you showed the story in chronological order instead - developed the flashback event as a fully imagined scene in chronological order?  Make sure your decision to mess with the time-scale - or to leave it alone - is justified, and that each section of your story is working as hard as it can to tell the best possible version of that story.   

MA Semester Two, Week Six

Contemporary Fiction this week was all about realism, experimentalism and the 'new postmodernism', or post-postmodernism, and the set text was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  We started off talking about what we reckoned might be the key characteristics of postmodern literature, who might be considered postmodern authors, and whether we might now have moved beyond regular postmodernism into a phase of post-postmodern literature/authors.  That makes it sound all calm and rational-like - in fact it was more of a ranting debate about whether there's any purpose to labelling anything postmodernist at all, whether it was too vague, too difficult to distinguish from modernism, whether calling something 'postmodern' meant it got analysed at a 'playful' surface level to the detriment of other aspects of the prose.  I thought there were some decent points raised, but that although any labelling is reductive in part, it's useful to be able to lassoo texts or theories together for purposes of comparison or assessment, and you're never married to such a designation - you can always re-examine it and re-analyze it from whatever perspective you choose.  Of course then I had to ask the tutor what she meant by post-postmodernism, which seems to be a nebulous category they've invented in the interval between my BA and MA, and all she could tell me was that it hadn't been properly defined, which didn't especially help.

Next up was the notion of realism versus experimentalism - we asked what was meant by each, whether a distinction can be made between the two and if such a distinction is or would be useful, and what the advantages of each approach might be.  The discussion revolved around verisimilitude, lyric realism, mimesis, and experimentalism as a structural technique; the key point we focussed on was that experimentalism is often used to further the cause of realism - finding new ways to better portray the human experience. Then to Cloud Atlas, and the group was divided between those who thought it was a master-stroke of parody and structural innovation, and those of us who found it gimmicky, contrived and condescending.  I'm half afraid to admit I'm in the second camp, given how people adore this book, but it's my least favourite of Mitchell's novels and I fail to be convinced that his linked stories thing here is especially innovative, that his use of genre is all that clever, or that many of the individual sections, analysed independently, are anything but mediocre.

(Now I'm ducking to avoid the hailstorm of Mitchell fan mail whilst screeching, dudes, seriously, I still like number9dream and Black Swan Green...)

The workshop in the afternoon was two novel extracts - a world-war two tale and a fantasy novel - and then our tutor talked for a while about Robert McKee, we looked at the opening chapter of a sci-fi novel about carpets (!) and talked about how to reveal information to the reader, and we got a handout on the dos and don'ts of flashbacks.

Afterwards we went to the pub and had a very intellectual shouting debate about healthcare, the minimum wage and immigration.  It was like our very own Question Time; I wanted to run out and find an election to vote in straight away, but I settled for dinner and a double-bill of Six Feet Under.

MA Semester Two, Week Five

Our Contemporary Fiction class in week five was about history, homosexuality and literature; the core text was Sarah Water's The Night Watch.  I'd never read any Waters before, partly, I think, because when she started to become hugely popular (around the time of the TV serialisation of Tipping the Velvet) I'd already overdosed on Jeanette Winterson and Emma Donoghue, and my GLBT reading had moved onto Alan Hollinghurst; also, I suspect, she was so fashionable that I ignored her on purpose.  In the context of our course, Waters has come straight after the heavyweight Sebald, and I have to say, I did find the book something of a lightweight.  It didn't have a whole lot more to say about the lesbian experience than WInterson et al, and the WWII scenario is a familiar one, so nothing new there; the structure of the novel is peculiar and, I think, attempts to make the book seem a weightier, more 'interesting' tome than the actual contents would merit.  Despite that, though, I did enjoy it; I wouldn't, myself, argue in favour of cementing its place in the university's reading list, but it was a quick and absorbing read nonetheless.

I sound very curmudgeonly, don't I?

On to the academics of it.  Mainly, we talked about how Waters uses history as a tool or vehicle for her own interests, the emergence of queer fiction as a mainstream area in literature, and identity politics. We looked at how queerness is represented in the novel; how Waters effects a relationship between present attitudes to homosexuality and past historical specificities (her use of the word 'queer' for instance, which is very loaded with theoretical and cultural signification these days, though it wouldn't have been, so much, in the time of her characters); the idea of queer fiction, and Waters' historical queer fiction in particular, as consolatory or compensatory; whether Waters' portrayal reinforces the notion of lesbianism as 'everywhere and nowhere' / culturally invisible / fragmentary, or whether it contradicts that view, pushing lesbianism defiantly into the public consciousness.  Thinking about the structure of the novel (for those who haven't read it, it comprises three sections moving backwards in time - we encounter the same set of characters first in 1947, then 1944, then 1941) we asked how it effected issues of plot, causality, linearity and progress; how it dealt with memory and nostalgia; and how the notion of an 'ending' is constructed, if the ending is, in effect, simultaneously the beginning.

More generally, we talked about historical fiction, how it's often considered middlebrow (I'd place The Night Watch in the middlebrow camp), and whether Waters is attempting to give us an authentic (or as authentic as it's possible to get) depiction of the period.  Our tutor asked if any of us had read it as a historical pastiche, or a postmodern historical novel.  I can't say that thought crossed my mind at all while reading it, and though, sure, Waters does throw in the odd anachronistic detail (the word 'queer'), Hillary Mantel did that last year with the language in Wolf Hall, and I didn't read that as a pastiche either.  Maybe I like a more unsubtle pastiche, or maybe, as I thought at the time, it's just straight-up historical lesbian fiction, and there's nothing wrong with that.

In the afternoon, the workshop:  we had a satirical short story, the first full-blown piece of satire anyone's submitted to date, and a novel chapter that brought us round to the same issue of memory and history that we talked about in the previous week's seminar on Austerlitz.  Good stuff.

The next day, the Tuesday, we had a visit from another literary agent - Anthony Harwood - and he tried to assure us that it wasn't all doom and gloom in publishing, and if you can get an agent to love your work, then you're onto a winner.  We loved him.      

And the winner is....


SUPERFIONA!!

Fi, email or DM me your address (if you're not homeless already) and I'll get Fiona Robyn to send you on the book.  Hurray!

Well, that was fun.  Sorry, other entry dudes; let's try and do this again sometime, though.

Siri Hustvedt review

My review of Siri Hustvedt's The Shaking Woman is live at Bookmunch.

And also, happy birthday to Bookmunch, nine years old today! 

Fiona Robyn review

So, my review of Fiona Robyn's Thaw is up at Bookmunch.  Hope you liked the Blogsplash yesterday; don't forget, drop me a comment here to be in with a chance of winning the paperback.

Thaw - Fiona Robyn's Blogsplash! And a giveaway - FREE BOOK, people!


Ruth's diary is the new novel by Fiona Robyn, called Thaw.  She's decided to blog the novel in its entirety over the next few months, so you can read it for free.  There's two hundred and fifty blogs participating in this first day extravaganza, so before you carry on, here 's a big thanks from me that you're reading it here.  Hooray!  
My review of Thaw should be up on Bookmunch today, so do check that out.  If you like this first extract, you'll be able to read the whole novel online over the next three months, but, if you like paper and glue, and if Ruth's first diary entry (below!) snags your interest, well!  Why not enter my VERY FIRST BLOG BOOK GIVE-AWAY??  Oh, yes.  Fiona's been kind enough to give me a paperback copy of Thaw for the first name out of the hat.  So, leave a comment below  - tell me you want it! - and there'll be a random draw on Thursday.  Perhaps even a celebrity guest judge.  You've got until midnight on Wednesday.


In the meantime, Ruth's first entry is below, and you can continue reading tomorrow at http://read-thaw.blogspot.com. 
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These hands are ninety-three years old. They belong to Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. She was so frail that her grand-daughter had to carry her onto the set to take this photo. It's a close-up. Her emaciated arms emerge from the top corners of the photo and the background is black, maybe velvet, as if we're being protected from seeing the strings. One wrist rests on the other, and her fingers hang loose, close together, a pair of folded wings. And you can see her insides.


The bones of her knuckles bulge out of the skin, which sags like plastic that has melted in the sun and is dripping off her, wrinkling and folding. Her veins look as though they're stuck to the outside of her hands. They're a colour that's difficult to describe: blue, but also silver, green; her blood runs through them, close to the surface. The book says she died shortly after they took this picture. Did she even get to see it? Maybe it was the last beautiful thing she left in the world.


I'm trying to decide whether or not I want to carry on living. I'm giving myself three months of this journal to decide. You might think that sounds melodramatic, but I don't think I'm alone in wondering whether it's all worth it. I've seen the look in people's eyes. Stiff suits travelling to work, morning after morning, on the cramped and humid tube. Tarted-up girls and gangs of boys reeking of aftershave, reeling on the pavements on a Friday night, trying to mop up the dreariness of their week with one desperate, fake-happy night. I've heard the weary grief in my dad's voice.


So where do I start with all this? What do you want to know about me? I'm Ruth White, thirty-two years old, going on a hundred. I live alone with no boyfriend and no cat in a tiny flat in central London. In fact, I had a non-relationship with a man at work, Dan, for seven years. I'm sitting in my bedroom-cum-living room right now, looking up every so often at the thin rain slanting across a flat grey sky. I work in a city hospital lab as a microbiologist. My dad is an accountant and lives with his sensible second wife Julie, in a sensible second home. Mother finished dying when I was fourteen, three years after her first diagnosis. What else? What else is there?


Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. I looked at her hands for twelve minutes. It was odd describing what I was seeing in words. Usually the picture just sits inside my head and I swish it around like tasting wine. I have huge books all over my flat - books you have to take in both hands to lift. I've had the photo habit for years. Mother bought me my first book, black and white landscapes by Ansel Adams. When she got really ill, I used to take it to bed with me and look at it for hours, concentrating on the huge trees, the still water, the never-ending skies. I suppose it helped me think about something other than what was happening. I learned to focus on one photo at a time rather than flicking from scene to scene in search of something to hold me. If I concentrate, then everything stands still. Although I use them to escape the world, I also think they bring me closer to it. I've still got that book. When I take it out, I handle the pages as though they might flake into dust.


Mother used to write a journal. When I was small, I sat by her bed in the early mornings on a hard chair and looked at her face as her pen spat out sentences in short bursts. I imagined what she might have been writing about - princesses dressed in star-patterned silk, talking horses, adventures with pirates. More likely she was writing about what she was going to cook for dinner and how irritating Dad's snoring was.


I've always wanted to write my own journal, and this is my chance. Maybe my last chance. The idea is that every night for three months, I'll take one of these heavy sheets of pure white paper, rough under my fingertips, and fill it up on both sides. If my suicide note is nearly a hundred pages long, then no-one can accuse me of not thinking it through. No-one can say, 'It makes no sense; she was a polite, cheerful girl, had everything to live for,' before adding that I did keep myself to myself. It'll all be here. I'm using a silver fountain pen with purple ink. A bit flamboyant for me, I know. I need these idiosyncratic rituals; they hold things in place. Like the way I make tea, squeezing the tea-bag three times, the exact amount of milk, seven stirs. My writing is small and neat; I'm striping the paper. I'm near the bottom of the page now. Only ninety-one more days to go before I'm allowed to make my decision. That's it for today. It's begun.


Continue reading at http://read-thaw.blogspot.com.

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And leave a comment below if you want to WIN the paperback!