Obsolescence

This morning I happened upon this superbly articulate and, I would say, essential essay by McKenzie Wark, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. Quite apart from the admiration one would obviously feel for the way it is written – such an engaging and dynamic arrangement of arguments – it seems to me that this piece presents one of the most cogent defences of science fiction I have ever read. Wark shows SF to be not just radical but necessary as a means of exposing the derangement of our present age:

Ghosh thinks that this strategy of introducing chance or the strange or the weird or the freaky into the novel is to risk banishment. But from what? Polite bourgeois society? The middle-brow world of the New York Review of Books? Perhaps it’s not the end of the world to end up exiled in genre fiction, with horror, fantasy, romance, melodrama, gothic, or science fiction. Frankly, I think there’s far more interesting readers to be found reading there.”

The essay seemed to come as an answer to the question of why I feel an almost inevitable unease – discomfort even – in the presence of a novel like Ben Lerner’s 10:04, one of the most perfectly realised studies of interiority I have encountered recently with not a word out of place or superfluous, and yet there is that dis-ease, all the same. It seemed to chime with feelings of sadness at the death of Brian Aldiss, one of our most insatiably curious writers, and devoted to SF almost at his own peril. Along with others whose comments I’ve seen in response to the various online memorials, I could come close to arguing that my intellectual life was kick-started by Aldiss’s great Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, and the vision it presented of SF as a distinct literature, a movement almost.

I feel fortunate in reading Wark’s essay precisely now, as I contemplate new work, new directions. I have a pile of notes already for the next book and I think it would be fair to say that I’m excited about it but even more so after today, with all these new thoughts about what the novel is for still in my mind.

Most of the book industry conspires against such a vision but that only makes it more exciting, more necessary.

*

Currently reading: Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, which is spare, chilling and excellent. It is also on the shortlist for the Gordon Burn Prize, which by accident rather than design I happen to have read most of, as well as several other titles that appeared on the longlist.  I’ve been so impressed by the Gordon Burn Prize – its ethos, its juries’ choices – that I am seriously considering reading and reviewing the full longlist next year, as a planned reading project. As for this year, I was lucky enough to hear Denise Mina talk about The Long Drop at the recent Bute Noir crime writing festival right here in Rothesay, an event that has proved to be one of the highlights of our first summer here, a miniature Bloody Scotland with every seat taken and everyone already looking forward to more of the same in 2018.

“In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.”

*

The summer is well advanced, but still so full of things. Chris and I will be guests of Fantasticon, in Copenhagen, at the end of this month. At the end of next month there’s FantasyCon, and after that I’ll be in Paris on a writing residency, and hopefully writing. The new book will be set in Rothesay, or rather versions of Rothesay, with the novel that brought me on my first visit here more than a decade ago now – Andrew O’Hagan’s ravishing Personality – standing over me like an admonishment…

Eibonvale chapbooks alert – call for submissions!

I had dinner with David Rix of Eibonvale Press when I was in London last week, and we spent a pleasurable couple of hours catching up on book news. David has been busy hatching plans as usual, and I was particularly delighted to hear that he’s going to be publishing a new line of chapbooks, and that he’s opening for submissions right now.

There’s something beautifully satisfying about a chapbook. Their small size makes them easily portable, their generally lower cover price means you can take a chance on a writer you might not have come across before, and their restricted word count makes for an intense and satisfying reading experience, a total immersion in story that isn’t always possible with a novel, where you usually have to keep breaking off to do other things. A chapbook can be consumed in a single sitting, and can often resonate more powerfully as a result.

Possibly my most memorable chapbook reads of recent years have been Alison Moore’s ‘The Harvestman’, and M. John Harrison’s ‘Getting Out of There’, both from Nightjar Press, who have been putting out wonderful chapbooks for a number of years now.

With the new Eibonvale chapbooks line, David is particularly keen to hear from new voices, so anyone who’s been holding back a story, not quite sure where to send it, this could be the ideal place! David loves dark, strange fiction with an experimental edge, the weirder the better. He’s looking for individual, standalone stories of around 10,000 words in length, so plenty of room for things to get interesting.

And as it has suddenly occurred to me that I have never yet seen my work published in chapbook form, I might very well be submitting something myself…

You can read the Eibonvale press release here, and download the full submissions guidelines, including information on format and payment, here.

I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of stories this call brings forth!

Sharke-infested waters!

Paul Kincaid, Nick Hubble, Victoria Hoyle, me, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Helen Marshall. Photo by Will Ellwood – thanks, Will!

Just back from two days in London, where among other things I enjoyed a fabulous evening at the Clarke Award ceremony, where a sizeable Sharke contingent was strongly in evidence (see above). The conversation at dinner afterwards was – as I’m sure you can imagine – pretty lively. We were only sorry that Vajra, Jonathan, and Megan were unable to join us.

I’m still mulling over the whole Sharke experience, trying to get my thoughts in order not about the books in contention – I think we pretty much covered those – so much as the insights gained into the state of critical discourse within SFF, not to mention my own priorities as a critic and as a novelist. Being involved with the Sharke has affected me on many levels, and I hope to write about that at greater length in the not-too-distant future.

For now, I just want to thank my fellow Sharkes for their commitment, their enthusiasm, their passion, their insights and their company these past seven months. It’s been a privilege and the greatest of pleasures. Swim on.

Why it matters

“The big one, though, is that representation matters: a female Doctor will tell little girls they can play the lead, just as Wonder Woman told them they could be a superhero. There’s a video going round Twitter at the moment of a girl, perhaps nine years old, watching the BBC as the casting is revealed, completely silent until the very end. Only then does she turn to the camera with the biggest grin you’ve ever seen and scream, “The new Doctor’s a girl!” That is why this is a great day, right there.”

(Jonn Elledge, New Statesman.)

Thought for the day

“An intellectual is someone who challenges binary oppositions, bridges cultural gaps, has the cognitive flexibility to connect various disciplines and passionately defends a nuanced way of thinking.

Intellectuals should be bold and loud and yes, offensive. It is high time to stop denigrating the term. At least out of respect for those people who pay a heavy price in other parts of the world just to be a public intellectual.”

(Elif Safak on the Denigration of the Public Intellectual.)

The Rift is open!

My second novel The Rift is published today. Huge thanks to the team at Titan for taking such sensitive care of the manuscript and for bringing the book out into the world – you are wonderful people.

For those in the Glasgow area, I shall be launching The Rift formally at Waterstone’s Argyle Street this Thursday, July 13th at 18:30 pm.  Neil Williamson (The Moon King) has very kindly agreed to act as questionmaster? interrogator? and there will be a chance to ask your own questions afterwards.

For those not lucky enough to live in Scotland, I will also be signing copies in London at Forbidden Planet, Friday July 28th 6 – 7 pm.

Once again, a huge thank you to the many wonderful friends and colleagues who have offered their unstinting encouragement and support as The Rift journeyed towards publication.  No book ever happens in a vacuum, and the discussions, deliberations and free-ranging book-chats that happen along the way are often among the most rewarding parts of the process. Thank you all.

Our Pavilion

Last Friday, we had the excitement and privilege of being able to participate in a ‘hard hat tour’ of Rothesay Pavilion, which is currently undergoing a major programme of redevelopment – read rescue project – prior to its scheduled reopening in July 2019. 

The pavilion was designed in the 1930s by James Andrew Carrick, son of Ayr architect James Carrick, a noted practitioner of Arts and Crafts style. The pavilion opened in 1938, its clean Art Deco lines providing a startling and significant addition to Rothesay’s traditionally Victorian seafront architecture.  Carrick’s design is thought to have been inspired by the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, which opened in 1935 as one of the very first Modernist buildings in Britain. An art exhibition space, cinema and seafront cafe, the magnificently refurbished De La Warr was a venue we visited often and with great pleasure when we lived in Hastings. When we discovered she had a ‘cousin’ in Rothesay we were delighted.

Carrick went on to design two more iconic buildings on Scotland’s west coast: the Cragburn Pavilion in Gourock and the ice rink in Ayr. Sadly both of these are already lost to us, making Rothesay Pavilion three times more precious and worthy of preservation.

Although the exterior of the building looks rather the worse for wear at present, a sizeable amount of important work has already taken place inside – removing hazardous materials, securing the structure – in preparation for the major second phase of building works that are due to begin in the autumn.

The new Rothesay Pavilion will be a vital community space as well as a major arts and music venue, a youth training facility, an important source of inspiration and revenue for the island, a slice of the town’s history reborn. It’s a thrilling project and a thrilling prospect, and huge thanks are due to the Rothesay Pavilion registered charity‘s artistic director and CEO Julia Twomlow and to project manager Peter McDonald for hosting such an instructive and hands-on tour.

You can even see some live footage of our explorations at the Rothesay Pavilion Facebook page!

An intermission

A tourist – almost by definition, a person immersed in prejudice, whose interest was circumscribed, who admired the weathered faces and rustic manners of the local inhabitants, a perspective entirely contemptible but nonetheless difficult to avoid. I would have irritated myself in their position. By my presence alone, I reduced their home to a backdrop for my leisure, it became picturesque, quaint, charming, words on the back of a postcard or a brochure. Perhaps, as a tourist, I even congratulated myself on my taste, my ability to perceive this charm, certainly Christopher would have done so, it was not Monaco, it was not Saint-Tropez, this delightful rural village was something more sophisticated, unexpected.

(Katie Kitamura, A Separation)

Feeling desperately in need of a different kind of reading experience after a surfeit of Sharke reading, I sneaked a brief but delicious forty-eight hours with Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation. I’ve been meaning to read Kitamura for a while and goodness, what a writer. I found A Separation to be pretty much a perfect novel, if there is such a thing.  By sheer coincidence it also forms a fascinating dialogue with Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground.

Reading some of the reaction to Kitamura’s novel, I was struck by how often the question of inappropriate marketing raised its head. A sizeable constituency of readers seem aggrieved by having bought the book under what they consider to be false pretences: marketing blurbs suggested that A Separation might be described as ‘the literary Gone Girl‘. They were expecting a thriller, in other words – a mysterious disappearance, an investigation, twists, turns and revelations. They didn’t get them, or at least not in the way they had been led to believe.

Whilst I would find it churlish to blame readers for feeling disappointed – whatever A Separation is, the literary Gone Girl is not it – I always feel a particular admiration for those who, in spite of finding the novel they read to be substantially different from the novel they imagined, were prepared to give that novel its head and wound up liking it anyway.

Even while I would never describe A Separation as a thriller, I did find it thrilling, simply at the level of its prose, its adventurousness in disdaining ordinary adventure, its cutting honesty. It has all the poise and elegance of Rachel Cusk’s Outline combined with – yes – the mystery of Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, which makes it the ideal book for me.

Add to that the personal weirdness of it being set in Gerolimenas, a remote fishing village in the Mani I happened to spend time in a couple of years ago while visiting my father, and my satisfaction was complete.

I especially appreciated Kitamura’s enquiry into the nature of the female narrator – what she should do, how she should be. How refreshing and what a relief, to encounter a woman protagonist whose intellect, above all, is allowed centre stage. Though I enjoyed reading Alexandra Schwartz’s review in The New Yorker – it’s a good piece of criticism – I disagree strongly with its conclusions. Kitamura’s narrator may be unnamed but she is certainly not nothing. Like so many male narrators before her, she guards her privacy. If she overturns reader expectations of how a woman should react – how she should think, even – then that is just one more glittering facet of a solid gold book.

Highly recommended.

It’s a long way to Inverary

‘The Sharkes Discuss.’ With Helen Marshall, Inverary Castle, May 27th 2017.

“But the more we talked the more I sensed that DeWitt’s greatest heartbreak had come from the place that had first changed her life: Oxford. After a decade as a student and lecturer with no end to her distinctions and a thesis completed on the concept of propriety in ancient criticism, she had hoped Oxford would give her the sort of freedom that had allowed historians like Ronald Syme to write an epic work like The Roman Revolution. But Oxford had changed: Thatcherization, credentialization, Americanization, i.e., the pursuit of narrow specialties in the name of job-seeking. She realized she wasn’t interested in writing about writers writing about writers writing about Euripides. She wanted to be Euripides.”

This from a fantastic article by Christian Lorentzen in Vulture on the writer Helen DeWitt. The piece resonated on several levels, reminding me simultaneously of myself a quarter-century ago, thinking about Nabokov in the library at Corpus, the passage I quoted in my review of Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality for the shadow Clarke, the often embattled situation of women modernists and post-modernists in general.

Oxford didn’t break my heart – I was too preoccupied with other matters to let it get sufficiently into my head and under my skin. I do remember very clearly though a discussion I had with some American students in the Dome on Little Clarendon Street immediately after a lecture, in which I stated the theories of Bakhtin and Saussure were all very interesting, but they had nothing to do with how a text actually came into being.

“The text is all that matters,” I said, to shocked expressions. That the text is paramount is something I still believe, more or less, although I barely grasped what I was trying to articulate back then, the tensions such a view might excite.

Perhaps that’s one of the qualifications you most need to be a writer: to understand that a particular view might be controversial, but to write it down anyway, or at least try to. The better part of writing is instinct, gut feeling, abiding by the truth of what drew you to setting words on paper in the first place. Intellectual justification and brinkmanship, a more precise academic understanding of your position vis a vis your detractors (I almost wrote ‘distractors’ there, which seems very telling) – these things can come later, if they’re important to you. The text is the thing.

I saw a blog post the other day adjuring writers to ‘write responsibly’. I understand what that person meant and that they meant it well but seriously, writers, don’t. Write responsibly, I mean. That way mediocrity lies.

*

Passing through into the second phase of the shadow Clarke project has been a fascinating, exhilarating and often perplexing experience. The narrowing of our focus – just the six officially shortlisted texts now to discuss between us – has led us into some intense and hugely exciting discussions on criticism in general, its value and aims. No two Sharkes think exactly alike, but our mutual passion for the subject and our general agreement regarding its importance has tended to unite us far more strongly than any individual difference in emphasis has had the potential to divide. For myself, what I am coming away with most of all is an increased awareness of my own approach as but one point on a spectrum and a point that is by no means static at that. As always, the unflagging support and enthusiasm my fellow Sharkes continue to show for this project is a powerful source of inspiration and insight and I cannot even begin to express the gratitude I feel for their marvellous company on this occasionally precarious voyage of discovery.

*

The investment of time, not to mention energy both intellectual and emotional that has been necessary to keep the Sharke swimming has meant less time for this blog, for which I apologise, although plenty has been going on behind the scenes. I have recently – just two weeks ago in fact – completed work on what I hope will be the final draft of a new novel, a work I’m very excited about and will post more about here in due course. I also have a brand new novelette just up at Clarkesworld magazine. ‘Neptune’s Trident‘ is the first story I’ve written with a specific connection to the west coast of Argyll and I’m delighted to see it in print. This story began life in the weeks immediately following the US elections, and I think those scars are visible – in fact I think they’re what ‘Neptune’s Trident’ is mostly about.

We are continuing to relish and draw strength from our new surroundings. We love Rothesay, we love our island, we’re happy and proud to make our home and our life in Scotland. The skies are incredible here – like nowhere I’ve been. For most of the past month I’ve had to drop everything I’m doing at the requisite time just to watch the sunset. Eleven-thirty pm and there is still a fugitive, slate-blue light in the sky. I gaze out over the firth and I worry about the upcoming election and I plan my next book, which will be all about here. This is what I’m doing right now.

Free Willy!

Delighted to announce that my weird cosmic London story, Maggots, has been nominated in the novella category of this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards. This is hugely exciting for me, firstly because I’m very fond of this story (published as part of the Solaris haunted house anthology Five Stories High) and secondly because, as always, the Shirley Jackson shortlists form a veritable showcase of what is new, interesting and excellent in dark and weird fiction. I am especially pleased to see stories by Irenosen Okojie and Camilla Grudova nominated, and the novel shortlist – including works by Emma Cline, Eleanor Wasserberg and Iain Reid – is particularly strong and imaginative this year. Well done, judges!

You can see the full line-up of nominees here – do yourself a favour and order something from it this weekend.