Category Archives: writing

The Harvestman by Alison Moore

moore.harvestmanI recently read ‘The Harvestman’, the latest in Nightjar Press‘s ongoing series of standalone short stories, published as chapbooks. I’ve been an admirer of Alison Moore’s stories for years – she’s one of a breed of writers I have to list as my favourite, those whose fiction lurks disconsolately on the threshold of horror fiction, even sidling through the back door every once in a while but always fighting shy of becoming a fully paid-up member of the horror club. I thought Moore’s Booker-shortlisted debut, The Lighthouse, was pretty sensational, a masterclass in the short novel form so beloved of Ian McEwan (and way better than On Chesil Beach, in fact). More than that, it grows in the imagination, the kind of novel (less common than you might think) that will deliver an equal and in all likelihood greater measure of enjoyment on a second reading.

I have Moore’s second novel, He Wants, here on my shelf, and I’m looking forward to reading that, but I thought I’d sample ‘The Harvestman’ in the meantime, to whet my appetite. The story is only a few pages long, but it’s a beauty. During the short time it takes to read it, it is impossible not to become aware of how well made it is. The motifs – long-legged creatures that lurk in the shadows, broken legs, hammers, accidents, repeating patterns of injury, fires, unlucky escapes – are sewn artfully into the narrative like diamonds on velvet, each perfectly placed to maximise its refractive qualities. There is enough detail and insight, in these few thousand words,  to make us feel we know the three main characters – Eliot, Abbey and Big Pete – well enough to recognise them on the street. And yet there is not a single extraneous detail in this story. Authorial control lies uppermost. You could even call ‘The Harvestman’ radically concise.

It occurred to me while I was reading ‘The Harvestman’ that when I say (as I frequently do) that I’m not actually very good at writing ‘real’ short stories, it’s stories like Moore’s that I’m thinking of: stories that fit naturally and comfortably into a few thousand words, stories whose imagery and action are tied together so perfectly that it feels as if one simply could not exist without the other, stories in which nothing happens that does not need to happen and where there are no untethered threads.

You frequently find people describing stories like this as being like jewels: worth more than its size might suggest and perfect from every angle. One of the most notable features of a story like ‘The Harvestman’ is that it has the marvellous natural alignment of a piece of found art, so right within its own skin you can’t imagine it any other way. Which of course belies the horrendous difficulty of writing a thing like that, the endless weighing and polishing to get those facets – the cut – just right.

One of the most important factors in developing your voice as a writer is discovering, by experimenting, by trial and error, in other words, what kind of writer you are. For me, the past couple of years have been about coming to understand that I am a naturally discursive writer, that I am obsessed with creating stories that ‘bag out’, that run off at tangents, and that my main task as this kind of writer is not to eliminate that tendency by streamlining my writing but to bring a sense of cohesion and logical progression to the various loose ends. To attach them to each other to make something that, while it is an intricate collation of minutiae, is also subject to an overarching order.

Rather like a spider’s web, I guess.

In her use of language and in particular the subject matter she chooses, I feel a great affinity with Alison Moore. I feel I understand instinctively why these stories were made, and even some of the how. I’m drawn to a character like Eliot immediately – I totally get that he’s afraid of harvestmen, which is why he notices every detail about them, and even, ironically, looks a little bit like one.

What I could never, ever do though is write his story in the way that Alison Moore has. She, unlike me, can write short stories. She is a master of the form.

Why not treat yourself and buy a copy of ‘The Harvestman’ here? And hurry – this is a limited edition of 200 copies, so they won’t hang about.

The tyranny of plot

“I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Rachel Cusk in an interview for The Guardian, August 2014.

For Levy, the line to tread lies between needing facts ‘to tune the reality levels of my books so I can do a deal with the reader and subvert that reality’, and veering away from ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing that has tragically died in the crib’… As a steely, soft-spoken critic of literary orthodoxy, Levy has a gift for languidly dismissive metaphors. Coherence is ‘the bloody, mauled fox’ of the writing process, while rigid narrative convention is ‘a sort of painkiller’ resulting all too often in the ‘sacrifice of poetry on the altar of plot’.

Laura Garmeson, reporting on a seminar given by Deborah Levy on Form and Content in the 21st-century Novel at Birkbeck College.

 

I recently read Rachel Cusk’s Baileys- and Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Outline, in which a writer travels to Athens to teach a creative writing workshop. She describes the flight, the apartment in which she is staying and its immediate environs in unfussy yet precise, quietly harmonious prose. She recounts in detail her conversations with those she encounters – the businessman who happens to be sitting next to her on the plane, two writers she has dinner with, the students on the course – and her internalised thought processes relating to those conversations. Nothing at all happens, apart from what happens. There is nothing in this novel that might be analogous with ‘narrative tension’. There is no such thing as plot. The book is what it is. It makes no claims for itself. It has the feel and texture of a found document.

The eschewing of plot elements is a very deliberate decision on Cusk’s part, of course, and whether Outline is a thinly fictionalised work of autobiography is beside the point. What Cusk is doing here is something other than ‘telling a story’. She is replicating the fabric of lived experience through the incompatible medium of words.

Cusk’s prose is certainly flawless, an act of mimesis so perfect that as a writer it is almost impossible not to admire it. Such moment-by-moment evocation of ordinary occurrences is notoriously difficult to achieve, the kind of writing that can only succeed through, as Cusk describes it, an ‘annihilated perspective’, a willed invisibility on the part of the writer, style that moves beyond style and into a kind of verbal photo-realism.

But to paraphrase Jerry Leiber, is that all there is to a novel? This question has been preoccupying me ever since I reread Cusk’s interview in the context of having read Outline, and the article about Deborah Levy only added to my feelings of fascination and unease. The warning bell began ringing for me, I think, when I realised why my reaction to Outline was so divided: as a writer, I found the book admirable, an experiment in form and fiction well worth pursuing. As a reader, I couldn’t think of a single reason to continue the book to its end. As a reader, you can learn everything there is to know about Outline in fifty pages (or even fewer, if you feel like being callous about it). As a reader, once you have grasped Cusk’s take on the tyranny of plot, there is nothing here for you. You will exit the narrative in the same semi-passive, semi enervated state in which you entered it.

I find it ironic that in a novel which seeks to annihilate authorial perspective, what you end up with, finally, is a novel that is wholly, tirelessly, overbearingly about authorial perspective: this is how it feels to be a writer, this is how we see, this is what we do, this is how we never switch off because everything is work, everything is live meat, everything must be exterminated captured and descrrrribed. Yes, fine – as a writer I’m kind of down with that. But as a reader? God, it’s tiresome.

I’m aware even as I write this that I may no longer be properly qualified to speak as a reader, to offer my opinions on what a reader may desire or find provoking. One of the unspoken penalties of being a writer (I’m not going to do a Cusk here, I promise) is that you give up your reader privileges. Everything you read, you read as a writer: what is the author doing, how did they do it, do I like it/hate it/agree with it/find it relevant or irrelevant to what I, as a writer, am trying to do myself? Those moments when you’re completely swept away, when you find yourself so lost in the narrative and your reaction to it – the very feeling that made you want to be a writer in the first place – become vanishingly few. Far more often you find yourself distracted by that crushing sense of yes OK I get it, so what now?

Which makes it all the more rewarding when it does happen. If a novel can succeed in not bugging you, if you find you’ve read 200 pages and not thought once about the next book you absolutely have to read before the month is out, you know you’re on to something amazing.

Need I add that this did not happen for me with Rachel Cusk’s Outline. My two top reads of the year so far have been Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, which is pretty much all description and character (so much for them being dead, then) and Sara Taylor’s The Shore, an act of mimesis every bit as convincing as Cusk’s, yet combined with elements of mystery and speculation that gave that mimesis – yes! – a narrative engine, a sense of urgency and relevance that felt almost entirely lacking in Cusk’s novel.

In terms of its form, there is nothing in the slightest bit revolutionary about The Wolf Border – and yet the power and urgency of the writing, the conviction Hall brings to her narrative, together with a plot hook (the importance of conservation and rewilding) I’m passionate about and (YES, I ADMIT IT!) a protagonist I loved and was totally rooting for, makes this novel a keeper, the kind of book people will still be reading and loving decades from now. The Wolf Border feels like a book Sarah Hall really needed to write and perhaps that’s the entire point.

Sarah Taylor’s The Shore is fired with that same passion for communication, the same depth of resonance – with a landscape, with its people. The Shore is a fractured narrative (my favourite kind) a multiplicity of mini-narratives that build a greater whole. Taylor is not afraid of being elliptical, in other words, she is not afraid to dispense with the concept of linear, mimetic narrative in favour of something more wayward, that owes as much to the imagination as to the author’s inner documentary maker. Yet this is also a novel that feels comfortable with the idea of story, not only as a vehicle for self expression but equally as a necessary and vital component of human experience. It is almost impossible, as a writer, to not bring an element of autobiography into your work. What you bring to the page is yourself, after all – not just your opinions and passions, but the amalgamated sum of your personal experience. This is bound to seep out somehow, no matter what area of literature you choose to work in. And this investment of self in the unlikeliest of places and characters – this is what makes a novel feel true, even if it happens to be set three hundred years in the future (or in sixteenth century London).

I said in an interview recently that as a writer and as a reader I am mostly allergic to linear narrative. I love the idea of ‘the novel’, not simply as a words-on-paper version of a drama or narrative that might just as well be played out on TV (and perhaps more compellingly so) but as a construct, an abstract idea – a symbol of intimate communication between one human mind and another. The novels I enjoy most are novels that play with the idea of what a novel should be – in the characters and events they describe, but mostly in the way they are constructed. I like to be in dialogue with the writer I am reading – I like to feel I am a part of the process, in other words. It doesn’t bother me at all if I’m not always one hundred percent sure of what is going on, or if the novel has loose ends that are never tied up, or if the protagonist is an absolute arse. So long as I feel compelled to discover more about what the writer had in mind.

For the most part, this means there has to be a story, a mystery, a reason for reading. This does not mean eschewing autobiographical or non-fiction techniques – if in doubt, read Emmanuel Carrere or Gordon Burn. It certainly does not mean adhering rigidly to nineteenth century models of narrative realism. But to deliberately withhold all forms of narrative tension, to deny story its importance or its seriousness, seems not only self-aggrandising but also selfish. I’ve ploughed through ‘stories’ that seem so wilful in denying the reader anything approaching ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing’ to quote Levy – so clever, so self-aware, so pedagogic in their pursuit of obscurity they have made me want to go away and read – I don’t know, Jeffrey Archer in retaliation.

I suppose that what I am saying is that as a writer I happen to believe I owe the reader something in return for their investment of time and patience, not to mention money. A reason to go on reading, in other words. A story they can care about, or even love.

 

Crime blog #8

What She Left by T. R. Richmondwhat she left.richmond

The books that annoy me most are usually those I feel most let down by. When I first heard about What She Left I couldn’t wait to read it. The novel was billed as a crime story with a difference, an account of a death and the solution to a mystery, pieced together from emails, letters, diary extracts, online forums and newspaper reports. I like found documents, I like mosaic novels, I like non-linear narratives. I was expecting to like this novel very much. In fact, the experience of reading it was like watching Broadchurch or Missing. You know that point about half way through the series when you know you’ve been duped into thinking this would be good (less pointless, more strongly characterised and better written than all the other crime dramas you’ve become unwillingly addicted to over the years) when it patently isn’t, when you wish you had the willpower to end your relationship with the programme right now but you can’t quite do it? Reading What She Left feels just like that.

The plot is pretty simple: on an icy February morning in 2012, the body of a young journalist, Alice Salmon, is found floating in a river in Southampton. Alice, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Southampton some eight years before, was by all accounts a lovely person: adored by her friends, admired by her colleagues, cherished by her family and boyfriend. Who could possibly have wanted to kill Alice? And surely her life had too much going for it for her to consider suicide? Her death must have been an accident – she was drunk, the bridge was icy, she slipped and fell… But of course there are secrets in Alice’s past, as there are in everyone’s. Enter Professor Jeremy Cooke, a TV anthropologist, lecturer at Southampton University, ex-mentor of Alice. We soon learn that Cooke was once intimately acquainted with Alice’s mother, Liz, and has more than a passing interest in the case. Newly diagnosed with prostate cancer, he sees it as his final mission to discover what really happened to Alice, to set the truth on record in the form of a written account. The book he eventually publishes, compiled from the various documents Cooke has gathered together and its conclusions a secret until now, is ostensibly the book that you are holding in your hands.

Which would all be great, if only, well, so many things. If only Richmond had taken more care in the creation of his various found documents, for a start. As it is, we have letters and diary entries that read pretty much like standard narrative prose, complete with conventionally formatted dialogue and extended flashbacks. Of course it would be OK for the writer to take some liberties here, it would be impossible not to, but no one writes letters like this, it just doesn’t happen. It’s as if Richmond enjoyed the idea of constructing an epistolary novel, then found out how difficult it would be to convey a whole story in that way and decided that no one would notice if he cheated. The blog entries and emails are, if anything, worse. The blog posts are nothing like the kind of blog posts anyone would actually publish. Richmond tries to get around this problem by having the point of view character (in this case Alice’s best friend Megan) make self deprecating remarks along the lines of ‘only six people read this blog anyway, so who cares what I write here?’ which do nothing to mitigate the unfitness of said entries for stated purpose. Indeed, Richmond’s conception of ‘internet language’ is a problem generally. The novel contains numerous self conscious instances of young people making jokes about the cluelessness of old people on the internet, couched in language that already sounds like old people on the internet. Does anyone use the term ‘bestie’ except ironically? Did they ever? When employed by those writers with a decent ear for it, the language of the internet (like any other spoken or written language variant) can take on the characteristics of poetry. In What She Left it is tepid at best and more often a matter for squirming embarrassment. This book was already dated before the publisher hit ‘print’.

But there are other problems, too. If you’re writing a thriller, you need either an amazing plot or compelling characters. Ideally you’ll have both, but all writers have their different strengths and if you skew more naturally towards one of these key ingredients that need not matter. If you write your favoured key ingredient well enough, your reader may well not notice that the other is lacking. But they are certainly going to notice if you people your completely banal standard-issue yuppie thriller plot with completely banal standard-issue yuppies. Professor Cooke is your typical kind of lecherous middle-aged lecturer, still ogling his students, still looking back nostalgically to the days when his ogling actually got him somewhere, still regretting that he was never as brilliant as his (off-page) brilliant best friend. He reminisces about roaring around the Hampshire lanes in his TR7. (Who ever heard of a university lecturer driving a TR7? A beat-up Fiat Uno was more par for the course when I was at uni.)  He’s a dick, in other words, but he doesn’t even have the consideration to be a dick in an interesting way. His narrative is egregious, self-serving, and above all dull. The character of Alice fares no better in Richmond’s hands. She too is dull, and Richmond gives us no reason to care about her or be interested in her, save for the fact that she is dead. Her narrative voice veers excitably all over the dial from too-young to too-old, she’s meant to be into hard-line vigilante crime journalism but her portions of the narrative – the unconvincing diary entries, mostly – give us no sense of this other than her feeling sorry for old ladies on the tube or whatever. Her much-vaunted interest in Sylvia Plath is a clichéd not to say lazy touch, put there for the sole purpose of advancing the plot (in a really corny way – but you’ll get to that).

It should also be noted that the novel is sexist in a dozen unthinking, low-level, predictably depressing ways. Alice is there to be ogled and stalked, Megan is there to be treacherous and crazy, Liz is there to be alcoholic and unbalanced. Professor Cock, sorry Cooke is there to analyse these scintillating facts for us, to patronise literally every single woman who walks into the narrative and to normalise the ogling and objectification. I don’t automatically go around checking whether works of fiction pass the Bechdel test, but does this one? No, of course it doesn’t.

Do I even need to add that the eventual denouement is preposterous?

This novel made me want to weep for the opportunities lost. It doesn’t have to be this way, I wanted to say. Take the time to make this book how you imagined it would be, I wanted to say. I suppose what this all boils down to is that characters in thrillers are people too, and the thriller writer should take the trouble to reveal them as such. To give them interests and passions and character traits rather than spurious motives and annoying quirks. To portray them in language that reveals a hinterland and not just a surface. Give them something to say, in other words. It gives me no pleasure to state this, but this book had nothing to say.

dirty weekend.zahaviFor a crime novel with plenty to say and some to spare, might I suggest you turn instead to Dirty Weekend, by Helen Zahavi. This novel, first published in 1992, caused something of a stir in its day. The Observer called it ‘more offensive than pornography’. Salman Rushdie, writing for the Independent on Sunday, called Dirty Weekend a ‘hideous, kinky little revenge-novel of violence done to men’. Unfortunately the book came out just before the days of universal internet archiving, and so I haven’t been able to source Rushdie’s review in its entirety. Which is a shame, because I’d have liked to have pulled it apart more. As it is, I feel confident in saying that his words reveal far more about Rushdie and his attitudes than about Helen Zahavi’s barnstorming debut.

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

Thus the novel’s opening lines encapsulate the entirety of what is to come. To put it simply, Bella goes on a killing spree. Her targets are not random. We as readers are made a party to everything that happens. I should warn you that this book is violent. It’s right out there. What it is not is gratuitous, pointless, exploitative, hideous or kinky. It is dark, powerful, angry, brutal, piercingly intelligent and brilliant. Most of all, there is the language. Helen Zahavi writes with such thrilling assurance it leaves you breathless. Being trapped inside Dirty Weekend is like being on a roller coaster – you scream as you laugh, laugh as you scream. The rhythmic potency of Zahavi’s language – like rap, like hip-hop – had me wanting to read whole pages aloud. Her dialogue is exceptional, and hilarious. Kathy Acker puts it best:

Above all Dirty Weekend is a novel composed of language so gorgeous, so precise and witty, that I found myself laughing and thought, I should be crying instead.  Nothing pleases me more than to be surprised into consciousness.

Dirty Weekend made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions. It also had me wanting to hide my face from what was going on on the page. A novel like this does not come along every day. What it says about the world we live in needs to be read. What it does in terms of language and structure needs to be shouted about. It also has a brilliant sense of place – this is Brighton after lights out, make no mistake. It’s a tough book but absolutely worth your time. I would also recommend you read Helen Zahavi’s essay, written for The Guardian, on answering the critics.

 

Ghost in the machine?

“The Familiar is a sprawling mess of a book, and it’s hard to find anything positive to say about it besides that it’s printed beautifully,” says Michael Schaub in his review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s long-awaited new novel for The Guardian. “But a novel that appeals chiefly to people who like to look at books rather than read them isn’t a meaningful contribution to the world of literature, and it’s hard to imagine why Danielewski would release a book so impenetrable and willfully obtuse.

I’ve not read The Familiar – I don’t even own a copy (yet) – but reading Schaub’s highly entertaining and voluble review yesterday evening reminded me of what I did already own: a copy of Danielewski’s novella The Fifty Year Sword, purchased on impulse on my first visit to the new Foyles last year and as yet unread. It’s a fat little book – 284 pages in all – but there aren’t many words on each page (or even on all of the pages) and Mr Schaub’s review made me feel like sampling some Danielewski there and then. (Negative reviews are like that sometimes, especially when they’re as well constructed as Schaub’s and present a contentious argument – they egg me on.)

If you glance at the online reader reviews you’ll see that The Fifty Year Sword divides opinion (as it divides everything else, apparently) which is pretty much par for the course with Danielewski. Some have loved the book, revelling in Danielewski’s obsession with innovative formats (as well as the ‘stitched’ illustrations, The Fifty Year Sword utilizes a system of differently coloured quotation marks to differentiate between the – allegedly – five distinct narrators of this single story) and his everywhere-evident love of the book-as-object. Others have thrown it aside in disgust, dismissing it as a gimmick and a con, a mostly uninteresting short story tortuously stretched to ten times its natural length.

It took me a little under half an hour to read The Fifty Year Sword. Here are the notes I made (I’ve taken to doing that this year) immediately after finishing it:

I know I shouldn’t, but I loved this. So much depends on the book-as-object, that is clear, but this is also a perfect and gorgeous piece of poetry as it stands. A book from a true original. Wonderful story!

Thinking about the book again this morning – well, there you go, I’m still thinking about it. Pared back to its basics as a horror story, The Fifty Year Sword is short and simple and packs a fair punch: a woman unwillingly attends a Hallowe’en party where, to her horror, someone from her past is also present, someone she very much does not want to see. She is tempted to leave right away, but stays on out of politeness, and so as not to disappoint the children, five orphans under the care of the very old and, one supposes, very rich host. A story teller arrives, ostensibly a Hallowe’en entertainment for the children. Ancient-Mariner-like, the bard recounts his tale. The adults are sceptical, the children enthralled. A horrific, and touching, and persuasive denouement ensues.

‘Here,’ he blinked quickly at a blade at least four feet long tapering to a blunt tip. ‘This one took me three winters to make. It kills the taste of salt. The one next to it kills the smell of Wild Lupine, Blackberry Lily and lush Evening Primrose. There’ – turning to a fat blade suspended in the buzzing grey – ‘that one kills the colour green.’ 

Shorn of the unusual formatting and intricate illustrations, this would still be a great little story, a tale with a classic feel, rather like ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ or something similar.  But it wouldn’t particularly stand out. What makes The Fifty Year Sword into something special is Danielewski’s transformation of the text into an art installation. And like most conceptual art, its success or failure depends on how far the reader – the viewer – is prepared to enter into a personal relationship with it. This is how all art functions, of course – a work that leaves you unmoved (whether to joy or to anger or to perplexity is of lesser importance) has fallen short. But in the case of Danielewski, it is not just his words you must fall in love with, but the way he has chosen to arrange them. Those coloured quotation marks – do they tempt you, even slightly, to go back through the text and read each strand of narrative in isolation, as the author has hinted you should? I’m tempted, but I haven’t done it yet – if I were writing a paper on Danielewski I suppose I’d have to. For the moment – and because the narrative works perfectly well without having to dissect it in this way – I’m content to feel intrigued that the option is there.

It should perhaps be noted at this point that The Fifty Year Sword the physical book is a beautiful artefact. It is gorgeous to hold, to weigh in your hand. The paper is of a refined and lovely quality. The illustrations – all taken from actual embroideries designed by Danielewski and stitched by Regine Gonzalez, Claire Kohne and Michele Reverte of Atelier Z – are stunning to behold. The book even has a red stitching in the binding, glimpsed periodically as you turn the pages. This book is a privilege to own, and I don’t know precisely how I feel about that. My own tendency is to believe that text should stand without adornment, that a book could and should make as much of an impression as a plainly bound ARC as it does in its sleekly jacketed finished state. But there’s also no doubt in my mind that The Fifty Year Sword the book does something to you. It reminds you of what a ‘book’ actually is, metaphorically, symbolically. It reminds you of the unique magic of turning pages. It reminds me, in particular, of how I felt when I was eight years old, turning the pages of a beautifully illustrated pop-up book of The Arabian Nights my gran used to own. Of how the book was a treasure chest, of how the stories inside were more than just the text, they were the text plus my own questions and wondering about it, the acceleration of my heartbeat when I came to the fold-out illustration of the elephant and the tiger.

If The Fifty Year Sword the book allows me to feel those things again, can that be a bad thing? Absolutely not.

I picked up Danielewski’s House of Leaves (in the old Oxford Circus branch of Borders, if you want to know) completely by chance shortly after it was published, not because I was aware of the hype surrounding it – I wasn’t online much in those days and had literally no idea the book even existed – but because it looked to me like a big fat horror novel of the kind I might enjoy and because the cover quote from Brett Easton Ellis lured me in. Since then, I have made three separate attempts to read it. each time grinding to a halt about half way through, not because I’m not enjoying it (I love what I’ve read), but because I find the book so uncomfortable to read. Not psychologically uncomfortable, but physically. The sheer heft of the volume, combined with pages and pages of text that’s too small for me to read without magnification, acres of Courier New and other fonts I find difficult, make House of Leaves something of a visual assault course. I am committed to completing it, though – next time I set out on this journey I am determined to see it through to the end. Not just because I’m stubborn, but because the imaginative landscape of this novel – lost letters, embedded texts, faded polaroid photographs, Johnny Truant, the Navidson Record, Zampano and his insane footnotes – has remained in my mind, important to me even in this, its incomplete state, a book I wish I’d thought of and dared to compile and that I feel glad exists.

There’s this thing with the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Some people look at the smears and splashes and fountains of raw colour and say: that’s just paint flung at a wall. A child could do that.  They say the same of late Picasso also and it just isn’t true. To create works such as these, which appear to have been flung together in moments, Pollock and Picasso (and Joan Mitchell and wonderful Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, who is a much better painter than her husband Jackson Pollock, in my view) had first to develop a relationship with paint, with light, with composition, that was so flexible, so felt, so much an embedded part of them that it allowed them to throw all their shit at the wall (that’s paint I’m talking about here, not literal excrement, although I’m sure some artists have conducted experiments in that direction) and make something new.

Writing demands exactitude, intent, perhaps more so than painting even. And yet so much of writing is feeling, in spite of that. Danielewski has legions of fans, readers prepared to follow him anywhere, who expend pages of thought and deductive effort trying to untangle what it is he really meant by such-and-such, what his novels stand for. He has, I would think, an equal number of anti-fans, perhaps more, people who dismiss him as an unbearable pseud and his books as so much MFA bullshit.

I feel that Danielewski has a relationship with words – with text – that lifts him beyond that. When I read his sentences I get a charge from them, the same charge I get from poetry, the sense that this writer has personally selected this or that word for a reason, that he has placed it next to another, equally specific word for a reason. That I might not immediately be able to discern that reason, or that the reason I imagine for myself is not the same reason as the artist’s, is of lesser importance.

Danielewski has his imitators, of course, and if many of the works that aspire to ‘be’ House of Leaves fall short of that ambition, it is because they are so busy in trying to imitate its surface textures that they entirely fail to grasp the most essential thing: the centrality of the author’s relationship with words. The JJ Abrams/Doug Dorst construct, ‘S’, was just that – a construct, a bunch of surface, Lost in book form. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes was just plain annoying (can’t be bothered to write anything new this year? Why not cut up one of Bruno Schulz’s books instead?) Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, a novel I had high hopes for, turned out to be all surface also, a poor copy of Danielewski’s tropes without any of his genuine weirdness or imaginative reach. Night Film does the imaginative equivalent of leading you down the rabbit hole into a shopping precinct. Dressed up in post-po-mo clothes, the actual story in Night Film is as banal and retrodden as any Monday night ITV crime drama.  Night Film angered me deeply, not so much because I felt I’d been conned as because the novel broke my heart in not living up to its potential. Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Tests on the other hand I loved very much. It also has the advantage of being a novel you can read without recourse to a magnifying glass. Hall loses his nerve a bit towards the end though, doesn’t he? Putting it bluntly, Raw Shark could have done with being weirder.

I love what Danielewski does, because it is clear to me that he loves words. The weight and heft of them, the way they look on paper, the resonances they set up with the objects and feelings they represent, the harsh intimacy of their relationship with memory. The thing is, I think he means it, which makes his work, and what it’s doing, interesting to me. Am I planning to read The Familiar? I haven’t decided – there’s twenty-seven volumes of the thing, for goodness’ sake. But I do know I’m glad it’s out there. When Schaub quotes from The Familiar in his review he seeks to mock it as being sub-Joycean, rip-off Joyce, in fact:

“How to get at the whole pluvial thing, another Anwar beaut, which Xanther remembered, pluvial, because it was like this … rainstorm going Plooey! to a town, a ville, a … Plooooooeyville!”

I’m sorry, Mr Schaub, but I kind of like it. I like the idea of a rainstorm going Plooey! to a town. It’s something I can feel, and hear. It’s the sound of a downpour, and a character’s feelings about a downpour, expressed in words I’ve not seen used before, and I like that a lot. In a recent interview for The Atlantic, Danielewski said the following:

It’s easy for any mode of writing to calcify into received tradition. When we come across something that works, we repeat it, and ultimately institutionalize it—even though it might come at the expense of other things that might be witnessed or participated in. But one of the joys of literature is that we can always push back against established ways of speaking and seeing—and nothing has to be blown up. No one has to be dispensed with. Huge tracts of land don’t have to be obliterated. By means of these fragile panes of paper, or lighted technological tablets, we start to mingle with other possibilities.

I like that, too. You can read the rest of this very interesting interview here.

Crime blog #7

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ngeverything.ng

If there’s one sub-section within the crime genre that I have a particular fondness for, it’s crime novels in which no actual crime takes place. Ng’s novel opens not with a death, but with the knowledge of a death – Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. A family sit together having breakfast, filled with their own concerns and immersed in routines so familiar they perform them on autopilot with no idea that these moments of normality are about to end. This feels so familiar, the opening of so many crime novels and TV series. A body will be discovered, the family, devastated, will be plunged into a new routine of suspicion and counter-suspicion, dark secrets will be uncovered as we, along with them, seek insight into the identity of the murderer.

This novel is different, however. Ng selects an omniscient third person point of view to tell her story, a choice that is not only unusual these days, but – to my mind at least – the most difficult to engineer successfully. I felt discomfited by it at first – multiple viewpoints in a single paragraph, I thought, ugh – but it wasn’t long before I was entirely seduced by Ng’s storytelling. Her writing has an honest, unfettered quality that is compelling. She tells instead of shows whenever she damn well feels like it, and I was cheering her on. It would seem that what matters most to Ng is not to appear clever, to demonstrate virtuosity or fireworks or how much she knows about how to write, but to tell this story about these five (six, if you count Jack, which you should) characters, to allow us access to the hidden corners of their lives.

Other readers have spoken about this book as a social novel, a novel about racism, about women’s emancipation, about the 1970s, about family. It is all of those things. The feminist and race issues are sensitively handled – one experiences sympathy for both Marilyn and James as a dull ache, an echo of their own isolations and anxieties – and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about family that so wonderfully evokes the tangled skein of relationships and resentments, fears and conflicting loyalties that exist between people who have become estranged but who nonetheless are bound together, indivisibly, by love. But there’s more than that here, and there’s nothing even remotely ‘worthy’ about this novel, which is, fundamentally, a story about individual people struggling to find their way.

It’s a book about mistakes, and regret, and accommodation. There are moments of pure linguistic wonder, observations and feelings so perfectly, so effortlessly caught, it’s like watching a film.

the fever. abbottWhile I was reading I couldn’t help comparing this novel with The Fever, by Megan Abbott, another ‘odd’ crime novel (my favourite kind) that I read last month. Abbott’s mastery of the teenage mind is amazing – I’ve not read so accurate a transcription of the madness and malice and vulnerability of schoolgirls in a long time – and her use of language is superb. I’d say that The Fever is ‘better written’ than Everything You Never Told Me – Abbott’s turns of phrase are sublime, disturbing, and difficult to ignore – but that it is Ng’s book you will best remember, and enjoy, and recommend to others. In spite of everything, it ends well, it ends beautifully. A quietly resounding success.

On the side of the ogres and pixies

Ishiguro.buriedgiantMost people with even a passing interest in what we care to call the politics of genre will have been aware of the recent pseudo-spat between Ursula Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro. I say pseudo-spat because that’s exactly what it was. Le Guin reacted to something Ishiguro never said, or rather, he didn’t say it in quite the way she thought he meant it (he explains himself here). Two days later she apologises for any offence she might have caused, and then admonishes Ishiguro for taking her own words in vain. “Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc,” she says. “They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?”

Le Guin may have been a little hasty in ‘flying off the handle’, as she herself put it, but she is certainly justified in her assessment and condemnation of internet blood-lust. As Le Guin suggests, these kind of clickbait articles are annoying and pointless and increasingly tedious precisely because they polarise opinion so swiftly and so absolutely they shut off the opportunity for a more in-depth debate. Read what they’ve actually said and it’s quite obvious that Le Guin and Ishiguro have far more in common than divides them, and I for one would love to see a conversation between them in which they could discuss, as Le Guin suggested, the fictional validity of dragons versus pixies (and I’d lay money on Ishiguro being up for it, too). But then, so far as the internets is concerned at least, informed and reasoned discussion isn’t anywhere near as thrilling as gladiatorial combat.

Far from being dismissive, Ishiguro’s views on the uses of fantasy would appear to be cogent, inclusive and sophisticated.  In the original New York Times interview that sparked all the fuss, Ishiguro states the ‘barren, weird England’ of his fictional Dark Ages provides an ideal metaphorical landscape for the story of moral evasion and wilful forgetting he wanted to explore. In another interview for The Guardian, he explains his own magic system straightforwardly and without prevarication: “I didn’t want a fantasy world where anything weird could happen. I went along with what happened in the Samurai tales I grew up on. If it’s conceivable that the people of the time had these superstitions or beliefs, then I would allow it.”

I would say Ishiguro totally gets what fantasy is for and what it can do. So why the disinclination, in certain quarters, to admit that, even as a possibility?

The longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night. It’s an odd one. It includes a number of books – historical, social-realist fiction – of the kind that I find least interesting, at least in outline. (Personally I much preferred Naomi Frisby’s hypothetical line-up at The Writes of Woman which, just in case you haven’t discovered it yet, is one of the best book blogs around.) But the list does include some outstanding writers (Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Grace McCleen) and it also includes six novels that are either blatantly speculative, or that contain strong speculative elements. Looking down the longlist for the first time, I found myself wondering whether novels such as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laline Paull’s The Bees, or Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star (I’m a big Station Eleven fan, but seeing The Bees and Ice Cream Star here pleases me especially because these two books have been excluded from SFF discussions more or less entirely) would have stood a chance of being selected even a decade ago. Does the appearance of such books here now signal a genuine shift in literary attitudes towards the leitmotifs (see, I’m deliberately eschewing the word ‘tropes’) and preoccupations of science fiction and fantasy, as Ishiguro seems to suggest, as Le Guin appears so reluctant to believe?

I don’t know if this question has an answer yet. But it’s worth putting out there.

Only forward

We’ve reached that time of year when everyone is posting their best-of-year lists. I feel a bit ambivalent about doing this in 2014, because although I’ve read plenty of interesting stuff, no one book seemed to proclaim itself ‘overall winner’ for me. So I thought I’d do something a bit different, and post a summary of all the SFF novels I’ve read over the past 12 months that will be eligible for awards in 2015. This should hopefully get me in the mood to start thinking about my nominations ballots. So in the order of reading:

1) Wolves by Simon Ings

I wrote a bit about Wolves here at my blog. I loved this novel. Even if I can see objectively that the plot is a bit woolly in parts (could a teenage boy really get an adult dead body into the boot of a car unaided and unobserved?) I didn’t honestly care, because the style and ambience of the novel, together with what it had to say about unsustainable development and the destructive power of future-consumerism for its own sake, resonated so deeply with me that I was won over more or less from page one. If Wolves doesn’t make it on to a shortlist or two, I’d be severely disappointed.  And a shout-out to Jeffrey Alan Love for the cover also, which has to be the best of the year bar none.

2) The Moon King by Neil Williamson

I’ve known Neil practically from the first con I ever went to, and so I felt particularly eager to see what he’d come up with for this, his first novel. I actually read The Moon King at the back end of last year, in ARC format, and was pleased to provide a blurb for it just prior to publication.

“Part dream, part nightmare, part memory, Neil Williamson’s Glassholm is a city that hovers on the brink of violent change. Through the intertwined stories of a cop fleeing his dark past, a young artist in rebellion against the social order, and an engineer who would most certainly not be king, Williamson has woven a story that teems with ideas and imaginative power. There is beauty in it, and strangeness, and page-turning adventure. The marvellous conceit at The Moon King’s core also conveys a powerful message about man’s relationship with nature and with his environment. The commitment shown to the characters by their creator is intense, and palpable. An intricately constructed, heartfelt novel that does its author proud.”

This feels like a worthy British Fantasy Award shortlistee to me.

3) Wake by Elizabeth Knox

I reviewed Wake for Strange Horizons back in February, and what an intriguing, original horror novel it is. I would love to see it on some shortlists, because it’s different, because it’s thought-provoking, because it stays with you. This is a book that still hasn’t had anywhere near enough exposure.

4) Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan

I wrote about Shadowboxer at my blog here. This novel presents as cogent an argument as any for why we need separate award categories in SFF for YA novels. As a subgenre, YA is important, increasing and with its own unique dynamic, and it’s high time it was granted this distinction at award level. Shadowboxer is a little too sparsely plotted in the final third, and it could have done with a bit more fleshing out in the sections set in Thailand, but as a portrait of a young woman in search of her destiny this is an engaging, emotional read for all ages. The material about women martial artists, and the martial arts writing in general, is superb.

And just to add that I’ve read a draft of Tricia’s forthcoming (adult) SF novel from Gollancz, Occupy Me, and it is amazing…

5) Cataveiro by E. J. Swift

I reviewed Cataveiro at my blog here. The thing that delighted me most about this novel – and there is plenty to delight – was the clear progress, in terms of narrative structure, in terms of emotional engagement, in terms of a maturing approach to the genre, that Swift has made since writing the first part of her trilogy, Osiris. If she’s made a similar leap forward in the third part, Tamaruq, to be published in January, then watch out, everyone, we have a major talent on our hands. Actually, I think we know that already. Cataveiro is skilfully written, energetically plotted and is a compelling reading experience. It will be fascinating to see where Swift goes next as a writer. I have the feeling she can achieve anything she wants to.

6) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I wrote a little about Annihilation here, but not nearly enough. For something approaching a proper appreciation of the Southern Reach trilogy, go read Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons. This is a landmark work, and if it wins all the awards next year you won’t find any complaints here. None at all.

7) Maze by J. M. McDermott

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I found this novel really hard going at first. Indeed, if I hadn’t been commissioned to review it, I might well have abandoned it. I am so glad I was reviewing it, and that I didn’t, because Maze is seriously good shit. For a good half of the novel you won’t have any idea what you’re reading – science fiction, fantasy, horror, new weird, wtf? But keep going and you’ll find that this is one of the most original and most daring novels of science fiction you’ll have read in months, if not years. It has things in common with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but if anything it’s even weirder than that. The writing, the execution, is flawless. We seriously need more writers with this kind of creative and intellectual audacity. I would love to see it get something approaching proper recognition.

8) Descent by Ken MacLeod

This is an odd novel, but I have a sneaking fondness for it and wish there were more writers willing to employ this kind of thoughtful ambiguity and quietness in their approach to SF. It’s the story of two childhood friends who may or may not have experienced a first contact with aliens. The moment has far-reaching effects on both their lives, but in differing ways. Set in a deftly, minimally realised future Scotland, Descent is the story of one man’s tortured search for the truth, with added Men in Black. It’s very much worth noting that no unknown first novelist would be able to get away with such meandering almost-plotlessness these days and still land a book deal, which, given the very real and very solid intellectual and political value of this novel should be a matter of keen regret and self-questioning within the publishing industry. Read it – we need more like it.

9) Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta

With its flavour of weak tea, this YA-ish debut just wasn’t for me. I reviewed it for Arc here.

10) The Way Inn by Will Wiles

I reviewed The Way Inn for Strange Horizons and found it good. Very good, in fact.  It’s cosmic horror, but that part of it doesn’t become apparent until near the end. For the most part, it’s a blisteringly deadpan (if that makes sense) unmasking of the horror we’re letting into our lives on a daily and increasing basis, the horror of corporate enterprise, of limitless car parks, of infinite Ballardian motorways. I would love to see The Way Inn on the World Fantasy Award shortlist, not least because it’s such a magnificent illustration of the versatility of the fantastic genres. Recommended.

11) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I wrote something about The Bone Clocks here. I was very disappointed by this novel, which might best be summed up as kind of like Cloud Atlas, only not nearly as good.

12) J by Howard Jacobson

I wrote a bit about J here, too. If The Bone Clocks was my disappointment of the season, J was my unexpected find. One of those books that resoundingly repays the effort you (have to) put into it. It’s not science fiction though, not really. I’d be amazed to see this making it on to any awards shortlists, not least because Jacobson himself is so problematic. Do read it, though. There are so many interesting ideas here. And the way the novel actually manages to become involving and – nay! – emotional defies all logic.

13) All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

I reviewed this for Strange Horizons here. I love this book very much, and if it doesn’t sound contradictory I’d say I admire it even more than I love it. I also can’t help feeling an odd kind of affinity with ATVE, because it seems to me that Park was playing a similar game here to the game I tried to play in The Race, only playing it harder and fast enough to leave me puffing in his wake.  I would hazard that ATVE is in fact harder to read – tough by virtue of its ironclad commitment to its own cause, sparing in its use of actual story, dense with allusion to the point of opacity. But God, it’s just so good. Seamless in its fusing of the real and the unreal, playful and knowing, yet absolutely serious in its use of science fiction, flawless in its construction, which is unassailably superb.

I guess it’s here that I do that thing they do at Wimbledon, where the loser shakes hands with the winner across the net. Park wins, three sets to one. Allan outclassed and outplayed.

14) The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

I reviewed this book for Strange Horizons here. Falls very definitely into the interesting but flawed category. For me, the interesting quotient far outweighed the flaws, but sadly I think this novel will divide opinion too severely to end up on many awards shortlists. I would love to be proved wrong.

15) The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

I’ve written an article about this book which should hopefully be appearing in the next issue of Interzone. I found it to be far more a novel set in the future rather than a novel of science fiction, but there’s no crime in that, and I would recommend this original, beautiful and superbly executed novel to anyone and everyone. Even though I feel it dodges the issue science fictionally speaking, I still wouldn’t mind seeing it on some awards shortlists, for the outstanding quality of the writing and for the heartfelt honesty of its expression. I loved reading it. I still can’t help regretting that Byrne didn’t make more of the actual science fiction though, because the stuff that’s there – her vision of the future – is compelling, convincing and so economically conveyed there’s a lesson in there for all of us. For more on this outstanding debut, read Richard Larson’s insightful review at Strange Horizons here.

16) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

‘Friends’ did not mean what it meant between adults, a balance of selves and strengths. It meant setting standards your children could not maintain, because if they could you wouldn’t need to set standards for them. It meant child-rearing by remote and by phone. It was an abdication, for parents who never wanted to admit they were grown-ups, who dressed from shops which were too young for them and listened to the new music to stay in the swim.

To do the job right was something else, older and different and patient and endlessly enduring, something which got stronger the more it was clawed and scratched, which bounded and uplifted and waited delightedly to be surpassed. Which knew and understood and did not shy away from the understanding that there would be pain. Which could accept shattering, could reassemble itself, could stand taller than before.

Tigerman isn’t a science fiction novel at all, but it is about genre, and it does use the materials of fantastika to tell its story. That story takes on the nature of heroism, fatherhood, and more specifically the dilemma of an ordinary man forced into being a hero for the sake of his son. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films attempted to show the man behind the mask, the truth of what being a superhero might actually involve. For me at least, they fail in this objective – they remain stolidly what they are, which is Batman movies. Tigerman, fascinatingly, moves one hell of a lot closer to Nolan’s objective. Sergeant Lester Ferris has seen service in Helmand and Baghdad, but he talks and thinks more like a wistful Colonial retainer from the late 1940s (and perhaps unsurprisingly displays a similarly casual, similarly unintended sexism). There is a lot about tea, and past mistakes, and muddling through. This book is so British it’s almost a parody, but it is saved from being that – just – by the author’s clear commitment to and passion for what he’s set out to do. The glacial pacing over the first third of the book is a real problem – I can imagine a casual reader giving up out of sheer boredom – but as the novel reveals more of its cards even that begins to make sense. I kept wanting to groan ‘oh no!’ at the novel’s Bond-film structure and plot arc, but of course that structure has been worked at and put in place, quite consciously, by the writer, and so I found myself grunting ‘hmm, clever’ instead. There’s not enough here about what must surely be the historical inspiration for the core story – the catastrophic desecration of Bikini Atoll through US nuclear testing and the forced resettlement of its inhabitants – and if I’d been writing the book myself I would probably have been more interested in the xenobiologist Kaiko Inoue than doughty Lester Ferris. But no novel can contain everything, and what Tigerman does contain is interesting enough on its own merits. I salute the author’s bravery in giving the reader only one half of the ending they might have wanted, and in writing a novel which is so clearly an expression of what he wanted to say at this point in his career. Tigerman is trying to do something, which is really one of the highest compliments a novel can be paid.

For a more in-depth and articulate discussion of Tigerman, see the recent book club roundtable at Strange Horizons. At a tangent from that, I might mention Harkaway’s own recent article for the Independent, in which he expresses gratitude and relief that Tigerman landed itself a shortlist place in the ‘Fiction’ category of the 2014 Goodreads Readers’ Choice awards rather than the ‘Science Fiction’ category:

“Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll be on stage at the British Film Institute this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter at the words. Science fiction wasn’t properly serious to him.”

Writer, beware! If I’d been having that conversation with someone, and their eyes didn’t light up in a blaze of hero-worship at the very mention of the name William Gibson, it would be their taste and judgement I’d be questioning, not my own, and no matter what their establishment clout. I might add that the establishment mainstream is a very fickle and – more importantly – often a very blinkered and conservative arena to be fencing in. You won’t find many people in the mainstream discussing Tigerman with the insight, knowledge and enthusiasm of these SH guys. The so-called wider literary world won’t get half your references and will miss quite a bit of what you were trying to do with Tigerman. The science fiction community will get it, and they will see why it matters. They will be actively looking forward to reading what you write next. Think on that, is all I’m saying.

Books I very much intend to have finished by the end of January in time for my BSFA nominations include Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (I’ve just started this), A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (up next), and Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson,  Further reading to be completed by the time the Clarke starts flexing its muscles in March will include The Peripheral by William Gibson and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. I’m also intrigued by Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle and I really do need to read Bete by Adam Roberts, too.

This has been fun. Should I stick to a ‘genre only’ reading policy in 2015, or would that drive me nuts..?

.

 

Women in SF #5

The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan

What a gift of a book.

Kiernan’s novella The Dry Salvages was published as a standalone in 2004 by Subterranean. It won no awards, and so far as I’ve been able to ascertain, it wasn’t even nominated for any. I can only assume this was because its limited print run of 250 copies meant that it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, because this little work is as close to perfect as it is possible to come. If there was a better novella/long fiction published in that year I’d be hungry to read it.

The story takes place four hundred years in the future. Our narrator is Audrey Cathar, a palaeontologist specialising in alien fossils and last surviving crew member of a deep-space mission to investigate the remains of an abandoned alien mining operation on a moon named Piros. Now an old woman, she gathers her courage and her memories to finally put down in writing what happened to her and her colleagues when they set out to discover what became of those who landed on Piros before them. This is not a happy story. But it is deliciously compelling and joyous to behold in its formal accomplishment. It is also a page-turner. I was saying to Chris just the evening before I read Kiernan’s novella, how tiring and how tiresome it is sometimes, to be forever chipping away at other people’s fiction to find out what they’re doing, how they did it and where they went wrong. ‘What I’m looking for is the book,’ I said. ‘You know, the book that will make me forget I’m a writer, just for a bit, and have me chasing the story to the point where that’s all I want to be doing.’

You know, the way it used to be before you started writing for publication.

The Dry Salvages felt like exactly the book I’d been looking for. But the fact is, Kiernan’s fiction always makes me feel this way. She doesn’t make me forget I’m a writer, exactly – it’s more that I feel so instinctively in tune with what she’s doing that I don’t have to worry about it. I know the writing will be lovely, I know she will interrogate reality in a way that feels urgent, and real, that whichever direction she chooses to go in, I’m not going to be disappointed. I can leave all that stuff up to her. Me, I can just turn those pages and revel in a story that will remind me of the ambitions I nurtured when I decided I was going to take my writing seriously in the first place. And ‘revel’ is the word. It’s wonderful to be reading a writer this talented. It’s something to be cherished.

There’s nothing that you would call precisely ‘new’ in The Dry Salvages. You could point to the Alien tetralogy or even the inferior-to-Alien but highly watchable and sometimes hilarious (‘I don’t need eyes where I’m going’) Event Horizon as precursors of the ideas on display here. But what marks out Kiernan’s novella as exceptional is the superlative execution of those ideas, the economy and ease with which concurrent themes – posthumanism, gender stereotyping, environmental collapse – are interwoven and made a piece with the core narrative, the intricacy and beauty of its formal construction. This novella is ten years old now, yet it has not aged a day. There is nothing showy or ostentatiously ‘current’ about it, and in its exploration of contemporary themes it never makes the mistake of letting its guiding ideologies overbalance the story. Like all the best science fiction, The Dry Salvages is approachable by anyone, even if they’ve never read a word of SF in their life. Like all the most convincing science fiction, it takes its starting point as now: there’s no attempt to exoticise the future here, to give it strange accents or outlandish clothing. What we see here might be tomorrow, only with today’s certainties removed.

Kiernan is never afraid to let her literature grapple full-body-contact with genre – these stories are about monsters, they’re about otherworlds, they’re about the supernatural and they’re about people falling prey to powers beyond our realm. They don’t fanny about, these stories. They don’t hint at monstrosity, only to sidle away from the genre aspects at the last minute and afford us a ‘rational’ explanation for what has happened. Kiernan is quite prepared to speculate that sometimes the only rational explanation is that the monsters might really be out there. But equally and why the hell don’t more people try this? she is never afraid to let her genre be literature. She gives her monsters and the people that encounter them, the cities or lonely places or deep-space stations the literary weight such subjects demand to be convincing, the psychological insight that does them justice.

One of the unfortunate things about SF du jour is how quickly and how embarrassingly it dates – at least in part because it’s consciously speaking to a community of fans who are familiar with the issues, who know about the hierarchies, who kind of love the in-fighting. But when that particular cohort of fans and hangers-on moves on, or gets ousted by a new crowd, what are we to make of the fiction that ‘season’ engendered? All too often, not much.

The writers who tend to produce what we know as classics are usually a law unto themselves. I think The Dry Salvages could become a classic, the kind of story people will still be devouring with pleasure and amazement a hundred years from now, the way we still read The Time Machine, or The Yellow Wallpaper, or Frankenstein.

We read these stories because we are thrilled by them, and horrified. We return to them because in their language and their ideas there is always more to discover.

I happen to believe that Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of the greatest writers on the planet right now. I think it’s scandalous that she doesn’t get more recognition for that, and that few readers or writers outside of genre circles will even have heard of her.

Necessary drudgery

“Ninety years on from Virginia Woolf’s essay [Character in Fiction], the market into which novels get pitched is still deeply conservative: the choosing of what gets published, reviewed, wins prizes. But the novel is not ruled by the market. Kate Webb, reviewing Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS in July this year, suggested that Teju Cole’s work ‘occupies a now common ground of uncertainty in twenty-first-century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture’. Hari Kunzru, reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 in the New York Times earlier this month, suggested that the book ‘belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer’. The precedents for this date back decades, but there seems now to be momentum, and this too I find liberating.”

So writes Charles Boyle, founder and director of CB Editions (and publisher of Will Eaves’s Goldsmith’s-shortlisted novel The Absent Therapist). in an elegant and necessary blog post that speaks of the need some novelists feel to break away from traditional forms and assumptions about what a novel should be and to turn instead to a mode of expression that actually interests them.

I’ve found much to inspire me here, and at Charles’s blog generally. I’ve been making new reading lists, setting myself new goals in reading for the months ahead. As always when I’m making new discoveries, I find it profoundly exciting to realise how many good writers are out there, doing the kind of work that interests me.

All this feels very timely, because I’ve just started work on a new novel. Strikingly different from anything I’ve attempted before, it incorporates ideas and formal approaches I’ve felt increasingly drawn to but never quite dared try. It seems that’s about to change. I’m 12,000 words in already, just trying to get down a working first draft so I can get the basic drift of where it’s going.

The process feels very different from how it felt when I was drafting The Race. I can see this book’s outlines more clearly, and I know (more or less) how it ends. But that’s a long way ahead. For now it’s all about stretching my abilities to match the potential of the idea, which is daunting, but exciting. Mostly exciting.

Digging for gold

The shortlist for the Goldsmith’s Prize – inaugurated last year specifically for ‘fiction at its most novel’ – has just been announced:

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
J by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin)

Interesting perhaps that one-third of the Goldsmith’s shortlist happens to overlap with the Booker’s – does this mean that the Booker is actively striving to include more innovative fictions in its choices, or simply that the shortlist reflects, as all jury-selected shortlists must, the individual proclivities of a set of judges? The latter, probably. I’m beginning to think that the only way of getting around this problem lies in greater clarification of what any given prize is actually for. The Goldsmith’s jury is actively looking for novels that are interested in some kind of innovation, whether it be in the language, the form, the approach, the subject matter or all the above – an advancement in the novel project, in other words. Or to put it more simply, the Goldsmith’s Prize is interested in writers who are ‘genuinely inventive’, who are engaged to some degree in literary experiment. The Booker, on the other hand, is vaguely in pursuit of ‘the best’. ‘Best’ is notoriously difficult to define – indeed it is a word that can only be defined subjectively. Hence the more muddled, rag-bag kind of shortlists we have come to expect from it.

It’s the same with the Clarke versus the Kitschies, incidentally. The Clarke shambles off in pursuit of ‘the best’ science fiction novel of the year, whilst the Kitschies encourages its judges – and its wider readership – to think about speculative novels that are ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining’. A more definitive brief gives the judges something concrete to focus on, and in the years since the award’s inception has given the readership an increasingly purposeful-looking set of shortlists to investigate.

I love the idea of the Goldsmith’s Prize, and I hope it will garner increasing critical and media attention in the coming years. So far as I’m concerned at least, this prize is already way ahead of the Booker in its attitudes and goals. And the one thing I notice immediately about this year’s Goldsmith’s shortlist is that all the books on it are of interest to me. Not just one or two, as with most prize shortlists, but all of them.

I note with interest that Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline, passed over by both the Booker and the Bailey’s, is here, which is pleasing to see. Cusk is a writer who has aroused hostility, frequently of the most appallingly sexist kind, and I was fascinated earlier this summer by an interview in which Cusk attempted to analyse the source of this:

“I think it is because I’m not interested in the group, only in the individual. What happens is my message enters the conflicted person reading it who is half self, half society but does not know where one begins and the other ends. I light up that conflict and it makes people angry.”

I have not always been a fan of Cusk’s work, but what I have always admired, unstintingly, is her bravery: her refusal to compromise, her commitment to absolute honesty as a writer. Personally I think it’s this – her honesty, which is not so much confessional as forensic – that makes people uncomfortable. Especially men. And here we are, back to it: when we think of the kinds of words often used to describe Cusk’s writing and even Cusk herself – excoriating, ruthless, furious, lacerating, brutal, self-obsessed – we inevitably rub up against the dictum that female writers aren’t really supposed to be like this.  And nor are their books. It’s interesting to wonder if Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novelistic memoirs would have been half so popular with both critics and (male) readers had their author been not Karl, but Kari. Are men allowed to be more daring, more progressive, more outspoken as writers (think Hemingway, Mailer, Bret Easton Ellis, Frey, Knausgaard, the list could go on forever) while those women who venture into similar territory (Plath, Sexton, Kavan, Frame, Zelda Fitzgerald) are only acceptable when there is a tragic and self-dooming aspect to their endeavour?

While male writers are encouraged to be innovative, outspoken, avant garde, are women writers still being told, either directly (through not having their books published) or indirectly (through an underhum of hostility in the press and in society at large) that they should stick to ‘women’s issues’ or shut the f**k up?

Is it harder to be a woman in the avant garde?

I overheard a fascinating conversation on Twitter the other day about women writers and the avant garde and how experimental or ‘cult’ writing is still largely seen by the industry as a male preserve. This led me in turn to a brilliant two-part essay by the writer Sam Mills (please do read this), examining the ways in which “cult female novelists are usually forgotten or ignored, whilst male cult authors, from Burroughs to Hunter S. Thompson, remain literary icons that are cherished by the public imagination.” Mills picks out the Women’s Prize for Fiction for particular censure, pointing out how although the prize has done plenty to promote ‘big themes’ in writing by women, it has still tended to shy away from writers who take a more experimental approach, whose work is not so readily assimilable by a mainstream audience:

“In recent years, whenever I have picked up a Women Fiction’s Prize winner, I have to come to expect a novel that will be brilliant but traditional. It seemed that the Women’s Fiction prize had settled into a pattern of celebrating our more conservative female writers and ignoring the avant-garde ones. This year, though, the revolution happened. Eimear McBride’s experimental A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, published by the very small press Galley Beggar after all the main publishing houses had turned it down, took the crown. That said, whilst the win is wonderful, I still fear it will be the exception rather than the norm, given the number of cult and avant-garde authors the prize has ignored over the years.”

Mills consolidates her argument in the second part of the essay, which shows (as mentioned above) how experimentalism in women’s writing has often been equated with madness. After reading Mills’s essay I took a look at the list of previous shortlistees for the Women’s Prize and was dismayed to see how right she is. It is a source of perennial disappointment to me that Nicola Barker is almost invariably passed over not only for the Booker, but for the Orange/Baileys Prize too. It’s not just Barker though. What about Helen Oyeyemi (how could Mr Fox not even have been longlisted)?  Janice Galloway? Scarlett Thomas? A. L. Kennedy? Even Jeanette Winterson, for goodness’ sake? And given that the Women’s Prize has allowed Americans in right from the start, it is inconceivable to me that neither Jennifer Egan nor Helen DeWitt has thus far made it on to the shortlist.

Even the Women’s Prize, it would seem, prefers to promote women as great storytellers rather than great thinkers. Whilst I would never argue that this problem is exclusive to women – persuading the industry that readers are open to fiction that does things other than ‘just’ telling a story is a devil’s bargain, whatever your gender – I think it is almost certainly harder for women writers who are perceived as ‘difficult’ in some way to get their work taken up and discussed in a manner befitting their literary and intellectual achievement. You only have to look back on the coverage of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries last year to see how quickly discussion of Catton’s masterpiece descended into remarks about her age, dress or appearance, barbed comments on the suitability of the zodiac as a formal template for a serious novel, or whether The Luminaries was in fact serious at all, as opposed to some sort of elaborate hoax, a tedious piece of nineteenth-century pastiche. Some of the press Catton received would have been laughable if it weren’t so shameful. “Male writers get asked what they think, women what they feel,” Catton affirmed in an interview for The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with writing a negative review (in fact literature would probably benefit from more of them) – it is the tone of derision that leaves one reeling. I don’t think there’s any mileage in pretending that any of this would have happened had Catton been a 27-year-old man.

2013 saw Canadian novelist and professor David Gilmour totally unapologetic about his exclusion of stories written by women from his university teaching schedule, the inference being that fiction by women could not possibly stand up to the kind of rigorous scrutiny Gilmour goes in for. This arrogant, almost cursory kind of sexism is a world away from the more hesitant, intricate soul-searching demonstrated by the British writer Jonathan Gibbs in a blog post he made this February, wondering why it is that he doesn’t read more women:

“Do I cut male writers more slack than women, or do I genuinely prefer male writers to women (my personal pantheon of contemporary writers, as I said before, starts with Geoff Dyer, Javier Marías, Knausgaard, Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker… and goes through a few more, probably, before it hits Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.”

Gibbs is a writer of huge talent (please read him). It would appear that he is also a writer who genuinely wants to understand his attitudes, and is taking active steps to change his perceptions. Both Gilmour’s stance and Gibbs’s though share a tone of mistrust, the sense that whilst novels written by women might be all right for some people to read – other women, probably – they are by definition never going to be able to compete – philosophically, intellectually – with work created by men. Gilmour’s grudging admiration for Virginia Woolf carries with it the hidden subtext that Woolf is a fluke, a quantity of one. Gibbs’s grappling towards an understanding of his ‘instinctive’ preference for male writers for the thing that it is – cultural brainwashing – still cannot quite bring itself to fully acknowledge how bizarre it is that he is still tending towards a view of women writers that lumps us all together as one group, with specific ‘concerns’ and ways of writing that inevitably reveal themselves as female and therefore less durable, less serious.

How peculiar it would seem to these men, how blinkered, if I were to write a blog post explaining how my favourite writers – the writers I most looked up to – all happened to be female (Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Ali Smith, Caitlin R. Kiernan) and that although I had read Nabokov and D. H. Lawrence and George Orwell and David Foster Wallace, I still found they didn’t really speak to my concerns.

As if the spectrum of ‘concerns’ and range of styles and approaches among male writers were not as diverse as exists among writers who happen to be female. Talking about ‘women writers’ in this way is as bizarre as automatically equating Dan Brown with Umberto Eco.

I would have thought that men who pride themselves on their intelligence and cultural refinement would feel a bit more uncomfortable in letting themselves be so readily prompted, guided and defined by a set of societal directives they would hotly deny allegiance to if presented to them in the abstract. “I don’t have a racist, sexist or homophobic bone in my body,” David Gilmour asserts, whilst still insisting the only writers he finds worthy of teaching are “guys – serious, heterosexual guys.”

It serves only to demonstrate the thoroughness of Gilmour’s brainwashing that he seems genuinely not to understand that he has a problem.