Category Archives: writers

Dead Letters

A little under two years ago, I received an email from Conrad Williams inviting me to submit a story for a new project he was involved with:

“I’m putting together a themed anthology (working title DEAD LETTERS) dealing with all the parcels and post cards and love letters we send but never arrive, or end up at the wrong address or sometimes come back to us, slashed open and changed somehow… 

Each contributor will be sent a mystery parcel from the dead letter zone: a trinket or photograph, an aide-memoire, a promise… or a threat… of fidelity. How you respond to this visual stimulus is up to you, but I’m looking forward to shaping a very dark, very inventive cluster of stories…”

I love anything to do with stamps and letters and the post in general, so this was an irresistible challenge, to which I agreed immediately. The project was only in the planning stage at that point, and I understood that it would be a while before my package arrived. As I was deep into final edits and revisions on The Race, I put all thoughts of Dead Letters on hold until after the London Worldcon.

At that point, something odd happened. Conrad was pretty amazing in the way he put the ‘dead letter’ packages together. When mine arrived, the whole thing was just so weirdly convincing that for a couple of minutes I found myself wondering what the hell the thing was, even though Conrad had pre-warned everyone the day he sent them out. Once I twigged, I found myself so instantly captivated by the story possibilities on offer it was difficult to decide which one to go with.

Nina Dead letter 96

 

And then I started writing and couldn’t stop. I’m not good at writing ‘short’ short fiction at the best of times, but it wasn’t long before I had 30,000 words and no end in sight. It was at this point I realised that what I was writing wasn’t a short story at all, but my next novel. An exciting discovery, except for the fact that I believed my Dead Letters story was doomed, that I was going to have to write to Conrad and withdraw from the project.

I hated the thought of doing that – the anthology had been part of my thought process for quite some time by then, I didn’t want to let Conrad down, and I loved the idea of Dead Letters as much as ever. I wanted to be a part of it. I carried on drafting the novel – a loose initial draft that would soon become the bedrock of The Rift – and hoping that I’d find a way to perform a detour, go back and complete the Dead Letters story – a different story – after all.

I used the Christmas/New Year hiatus as a springboard to do that. By then, I knew so much about the characters in my novel and the problems they were facing that I thought I could take a risk, write a story that ran off at a tangent from them but that was not itself part of that main theatre of action. I am not the kind of writer who thrives on having several projects on the go simultaneously – in order to write to my strengths I need to be totally immersed in whatever it is I’m currently working on. One workaround that does seem productive for me though is to write linked stories. That way, I keep the mental connection with the main project whilst giving myself the freedom to work in territories adjacent to it.

This is how ‘Astray’ was written. One of the main characters from The Rift does make an appearance, but ‘Astray’ is not her story.

I was pleased (and extremely relieved) to be able to deliver the story to Conrad before the deadline…

The full table of contents for Dead Letters has now been released. You can see why I’m pretty chuffed to be a part of it:

 

The Green Letter                          Steven Hall

Over to You                                   Michael Marshall Smith

In Memoriam                                Joanne Harris

Ausland                                         Alison Moore

Wonders to Come                       Christopher Fowler

Cancer Dancer                             Pat Cadigan

The Wrong Game                        Ramsey Campbell

Is-and                                            Claire Dean

Buyer’s Remorse                         Andrew Lane

Gone Away                                  Muriel Gray

Astray                                           Nina Allan

The Days of Our Lives               Adam LG Nevill

The Hungry Hotel                      Lisa Tuttle

L0ND0N                                      Nicholas Royle

Change Management              Angela Slatter

Ledge Bants                              Maria Dahvana Headley & China Miéville 

And We, Spectators Always, Everywhere           Kirsten Kaschock

 

Dead Letters: an anthology of the undelievered, the missing, the returned will be unleashed upon the world in April 2016 by Titan Books.

The World Before Us

When Jane sits back down to her files and notes, we gather around her again, though sometimes she reads too fast for us to follow because even a quick glance at a word like button seller can call to mind a shop with a wall of oak drawers along its length; the smell of the wood polish applied every morning before the doors were opened for business. We see teacher or joiner or clock repairer and suddenly some of us can feel the grit of chalk dust, see holes bored into wood, hear a broken chime drag its heels across the hour – some version of our selves appearing in these notices, a hint of relation, though the details are so scant they don’t make room for the person we were starting to feel we were; someone who may have taken delight in snowfall or a child’s curtsey, the canter of a horse or the efficiency of stamps, or the rough ardour of a washerwoman. These files say nothing of generosity, playfulness, the wing-collared jacket one of us believes he preferred, the bowl of ripe fruit one of us remembers painting in art class, a fly sitting on the leaf of the strawberry. (The World Before Us p 195)

hunter 2The act of remembering, the action of time upon memory – twin subjects, twin preoccupations, and the central concern of my new novel The Rift, not to mention pretty much everything else I’ve ever written.

I remember when my own memory changed. Not the exact day or even the year, but at some point during my thirties I realised that my own past wasn’t available to me the way it once had been. Up until that point, my life appeared to me as a continuous passage, in both the literal and metaphorical senses of that word. I was walking along the passage, occupying the ever-shifting end-point and with only a fraction of a moment’s glimpse into the space beyond the space I currently occupied. But at any time I could, if I chose, turn around and look back down the passage, opening up a vista that encompassed an almost infinite number of moments, all equally fresh, all equally real. In the manner of H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller, I could travel in time through the action of memory. It was an ability I took entirely for granted.

At some point, that changed. Although I was still able to travel back in time, the passage was not continuous, as it had been before. It was as if I’d turned some kind of corner, and now when I looked behind me there was a wall. There was still a door in that wall through which I could pass, but I had to think about it, make a decision, turn a key. The memories behind the door were no longer part of a continuum, but instead had transformed themselves into something else: something more distant, something behind glass, something that could definitively be labelled ‘the past’.

I found this frightening and I still do. More than any physical signs of ageing imposed by time upon my body, it is my most concrete, constant reminder of getting older.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter is one of the most beautifully achieved and penetrating examinations of memory that I have read. Its protagonist, Jane, is a museum archivist who begins to research the disappearance of a young woman, N. from a Victorian mental asylum in the 1870s. This story would be fascinating enough on its own, but Hunter has provided her readers with a delicate tracery of interlinked narratives, threads of memory weaving in and out of one another, a tapestry of knowing. Jane’s interest in the asylum reaches beyond the academic and deep into the personal, for the adjoining woodland where N. went missing was also the site of the traumatic event that defined Jane’s adolescence. Jane is accompanied on her quest by a chorus of ghosts, inmates of the asylum and others closer in time, all bent on recapturing, through Jane’s enquiry, their own memories of who they were and how they came to be there.

I thought at first that I would find Hunter’s ‘ghost chorus’ annoying, an over-ambitious affectation, an imposition of whimsy upon a narrative that would have been just as compelling – and better conceived – without it. I was wrong, though. Hunter handles her ghosts beautifully. They add to, rather than detracting from, the story in hand – their memories form an inextricable part of what is happening to Jane, and one quickly grows used to and looks forward to their presence. Their whispered confidences fuse the novel to a seamless whole.

I would probably never have encountered this novel, were it not for thishunter 1 insightful review at Strange Horizons. I loved the sound of the book, and ordered a copy more or less immediately. The copy I ordered was second hand, and turned out to be an advance proof. The cover image is formed by the 1877 letter sent by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to the governor of a local lunatic asylum and Hunter’s original inspiration for the novel. I found the idea of this proof cover quite beautiful, and wish the publishers had retained it for the final version.

Hunter’s writing in the book about objects, and specific or special objects as touchstones of memory, is especially insightful and to me, driven as I am by similar obsessions, beautiful and moving. Needless to say, my own copy of the book has now become an object-memory in its own right: nearing the end of the novel, I thought I’d go outside to read the last few chapters. I placed the book on the area of concrete hardstanding near our back door while I went to make a cup of tea. While I was doing this, Chris mock-threatened one of our cats with the length of hosepipe attached to the cold water tap next to our log store. The game over, he laid the hosepipe down, and unbeknown to him, a residue of water left in the hose crept out on to the concrete. By the time I returned to my book a few moments later, the water had snaked up to it, soaking the back cover and the last thirty pages right through.

It dried out fine, and the accident was no one’s fault, but it left the book marked, the back cover slightly torn from where it came up off the concrete, the last sixth of the book permanently wrinkled in a wave pattern. I find it sad to look at this damage to what was a beautiful object, but at the same time there’s something magical and almost lucky about it – part of that time, the specific details of that afternoon, captured within a physical object for as long as that physical object itself exists.

I’m kind of glad it happened. I’m very glad I discovered the work of Aislinn Hunter, a writer of true insight and powerful vision. Her prose is quiet but it cuts deep. I loved this book.

(You can read an interview with Aislinn Hunter here. Recommended.)

Man Booker Longlist 2015

Awards again, and after days of heady anticipation at what might be on there, I found myself scanning this year’s Booker Prize longlist as it was revealed yesterday with something approaching gloom. The more I looked the more disappointed I felt, and yet I found it difficult to articulate clearly why this might be. There was no book (well, perhaps one) I could point to that I felt shouldn’t be on the list. The line-up was, as some commentators have pointed out, one of the most encouraging in terms of diversity and gender parity that we have so far seen from the Booker. So why did the longlist leave me underwhelmed?

I could of course point to the list’s very low speculative fiction quotient as a source of dissatisfaction. There is only one novel of SFF interest in evidence, and that novel, Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, is one of the most disappointing I’ve read all year. Smaill is clearly a gifted and sensitive writer but as a novel The Chimes is as weak as water, a book that is completely overshadowed by its derivative second half. What with the exceptional novels of literary SF that could have been chosen instead – Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me, Sara Taylor’s The Shore to name but three – I couldn’t help asking myself which of the judges had insisted on pushing The Chimes. One who loved the use of musical terminology and who by some fluke happened never to have read a single dystopia or YA novel? Some readers will know what it costs me to say this, but I would rather have seen Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things on the Booker longlist than The Chimes. I couldn’t stand the Faber but I couldn’t mistake its ambition either. The Chimes is just bland.

[EDIT: someone has very kindly pointed me towards this fascinating review at Locus, in which Paul di Filippo (very convincingly I might add) compares Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island with PKD and particularly with Ballard, which reminds me that I really should have mentioned Tom McCarthy in this discussion. Booker junkies will well remember 2010, when McCarthy’s C made the shortlist and was hailed as a great modernist gamechanger for doing so. I remember C with great affection – the prose is superb, refined and clear and pure as Caithness crystal – and looking back on that 2010 shortlist now it seems the best book on there by a marathon’s distance and obviously should have won. Which brings me to the point about Tom McCarthy and the Booker, and the reason I subconsciously sidelined him in my thinking: Satin Island is clearly the sacrificial lamb on this longlist, the single curt nod to modernism the judges felt compelled to deliver or else fall foul of the usual criticisms about the Booker being hidebound and conservative. Satin Island stands proud from the overall tone and tenor of the shortlist as a whole like a pulled stitch in an elaborate tapestry. McCarthy will not be allowed to win any more than he was in 2010. I doubt he will even be allowed to progress to the shortlist this time. Still, the prompting towards di Philippo’s review has reminded me that I need to read Satin Island – in fact I’ve just ordered it – and here’s hoping I’ve been totally wrong and unfair in prejudging the judges!]

It would be wrong to put my disappointment down to SF-related disgruntlement alone though, especially given that the Booker could hardly be described as a prize that centres its attention on speculative fiction. The more I thought about it, the more I realised the main reason I felt disappointed was simply because the longlist was not the longlist I would have chosen. It was the same with the Clarke earlier this year. Plenty of people loved that list. I found it stolidly centrist, a representation not of the hardscrabble edgelands of the genre but of its commercial heartland. The progressive edge of that heartland, to be sure, but still nothing you could point to (except, ironically, the Faber!) as actively adventurous. I suppose my feelings about this particular Booker longlist are somewhat similar, compounded by the fact that the Booker submissions process is now so tortuous and preferential that we cannot even be sure which novels were allowed to be in contention in the first place. I know that Clarke Award chairman Tom Hunter has sometimes agonized over publishing the Clarke Award submissions list: does anyone really gain anything from seeing this list, or does it just open another big can of worms? I assure you, Tom, the transparency surrounding the Clarke’s award process is one of its strongest attributes and should not be compromised.

My disappointment with the Booker longlist list is certainly no more valid than anyone else’s excitement. It does, however, serve as a reminder that all juried prize selections are a compromise at some level, the sum of a small number of personal proclivities and a healthy dose of mutual horse-trading. It has often occurred to me that most prize selections are probably more instructive in retrospect, offering an overview of a literary scene whose trends and peculiarities become properly visible only with distance. Within the context of its given year, the Booker longlist is always going to look pretty random.

Which is all the more reason to get as many random snapshots as we possibly can. Rather than be depressed by a prize selection, how much more interesting and productive to use it is a starting point for exploration and discussion. As ordinary readers we don’t have the resources to award writers the lucrative prize monies that the Booker, for example, is able to offer. What we can do though is share our passion for the books and writers that excite us. Which is why I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and put up my own personal preferred Booker longlist just for the fun of it, as selected from those of the eligible novels I’ve read, those I have sampled and others that I’ve heard about and can’t wait to get stuck into.

1) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. One from the official longlist, one I think will almost certainly make the shortlist, and one I definitely intend to read before the winner is announced. ‘I don’t think it was a book that anyone loved’, said Yanagihara in a recent interview of her first novel, The People in the Trees. Well, she’s wrong in at least one instance, because I did love that novel. I loved the form it took – fictional (auto)biographies are a favourite of mine, especially when combined with fictitious footnotes by a fictitious editor, and recounted by an unreliable narrator as superbly drawn as Yanagihara’s odious Norton Perina. For me The People in the Trees remains firmly on my favourites list for 2014. Yanagihara’s follow-up, A Little Life has had some of the most rapturous reader reviews I’ve seen in 2015 and with the excellence of Yanagihara’s writing in mind I can’t say I’m surprised. The premise doesn’t grab me nearly as much, I have to say – from where I’m sitting now, the novel seems to have a little too much of The Goldfinch about it for my liking, a baggy-monster-y, Franzen-y, conventional-narrative-y kind of a novel, the kind that all too often has me thinking:  this is great to read but what’s the point?? My curiosity has the better of me, though, and I’m going to have to read it just so I can make up my own mind. We’ve already pre-ordered it, so watch this space.

2) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Another from the official longlist, and a book that grabbed my attention from the moment I first started reading about it, when was it, around March time? This takes me back to 2013, when the two books from the Booker longlist I felt most determined to read also happened to be the two longest: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Richard House’s (utterly superb and still under-appreciated) The Kills. I emerged enriched by the experience, though, and I’m hoping and expecting I will do so again this year.

3) The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. As a reader, you can never predict with absolute certainly what books you’re going to love the most, and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border is the proof of that for me. As I become more and more enmeshed in my own weird little corner of literature, the more difficult I find it (much to my regret) to become ensnared by what might be described as a ‘straightforward’ linear narrative. Which makes it all the more magical when it does happen, and I can honestly say that I haven’t loved a book as much as I loved The Wolf Border in the way I loved The Wolf Border in quite some time. I identified strongly with the protagonist, I cared passionately about the outcome, I found the sense of place exquisite and hugely important, with Hall’s writing flawless to the point of invisibility. Hall missed out on a Baileys listing and her non-appearance on the Booker longlist is incomprehensible to me. Please read this book.

4) Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg. I have a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons, which I don’t want to pre-empt too much by saying: go out and buy this stunning debut novel right now!

5) Rawblood by Catriona Ward. So excited for this, as the grammatically mangled but colloquially compelling saying goes. It’s set on Dartmoor, it has intertwined narratives, it has a haunted house vibe. The opening pages are wonderful and I can’t wait to read it.

6) The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Another book that caught my attention earlier in the year. Another one from the official longlist, too, so maybe that official longlist wasn’t so bad after all…

7) Green Glowing Skull by Gavin Corbett. I bought this on the strength of John Self’s review and the Kindle preview. I adored what I read and this may very well be next up on my TBR.

8) The Making of Zombie Wars by Alexandar Hemon. I love and admire everything Hemon writes, and his new novel features ideas for imaginary zombie movies. How could I not want this right now? Pre-ordered.

9) The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’m choosing Atwood for my ‘big hitter/previous shortlistee’ spot, because she’s a personal hero of mine, because this novel is full-blown SF (seriously, when are people going to stop saying that Atwood is a dabbler? Most of her output for over a decade has been science fiction) and because the word on the street is that it’s her best novel in years. Seriously excited for this.

10) The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips. An intertwining of narratives featuring Emily Bronte, the character of Heathcliff and a woman in the twentieth century struggling with issues of sanity, family and identity. I read reviews of this and loved the premise immediately. The prose is mouthwateringly good. TBR asap.

11) Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. A woman on death row in Harare writes an account of what brought her there. Petina Gappah is one hell of a writer, as evidenced by her first book, the story collection An Elegy for Easterly. This is her first novel and I can’t wait.

12) The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. This novel fills my ‘devil’s advocate’ slot (or the Wil[Sel]f Slot as we call it in this house – perhaps we should start calling it the Tom slot instead…) Cohen’s novel has divided opinion pretty much equally between those who say it’s the funniest, cleverest book of the year and those who say that everyone in it is a dick and that the author must be a dick to have written it, and a pretentious dick, too. Certainly everyone in the book seems to be an absolute arsehole, but since when has that put me off reading anything? I love metafiction, and I can’t help feeling intrigued and attracted by what Cohen is doing here. In spite of myself, I want to read it. Only time will tell if I come to regret that desire.

13) The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan. Coming in on the indie ticket we have a novel from Galley Beggar, who brought us Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing in 2013. Galley Beggar have published some remarkable books already, and I have heard such wonderful things about Trevelyan’s debut. It comes with a fantastic speculative conceit, too.

So that’s the fantasy longlist out of my system. And my on-the-spot predictions for the actual Booker shortlist? Based purely on personal hunches, I’m going with:

A Little Life

Lila

The Year of the Runaways

The Fishermen

The Illuminations

The Green Road

We’ll find out what the judges thought on September 15th.

The Weight of History

I’ve been thinking for much of this week about a recent essay in Strange Horizons, ‘Weight of History’ by Renay, in which she grapples with the question of what it is that makes a science fiction fan and, more precisely, what is it that a fan should have to know about science fiction. Is there such a thing as ‘the science fiction canon’ and if there is, who gets to say what’s in it? How much of it, if any, do you need to be familiar with before you can legitimately call yourself a fan of SF?SpecFic.2014

I’ve been enjoying Renay’s posts ever since she became a regular columnist at Strange Horizons and together with Shaun Duke she’s just finished putting together a particularly imaginative table of contents for Speculative Fiction 2014, an overview of online SFF criticism. I love the way Renay writes, the passion and open-mindedness of her approach. She is articulate, thoughtful and inclusive, and this essay in particular moved me because although I have a keen interest in science fiction history I often find myself dismayed by the attitudes on display in some of the more, shall we say entrenched segments of fandom, attitudes which seem to be more about a preening display of knowledge (in the manner of a peacock displaying its tail feathers) than the enthusiastic sharing and communication of love for science fiction literature. “How you’re introduced to something matters a lot,” writes Renay, “and if your introduction is a list of decades’ worth of writing and history that you’re subtly shamed for not knowing, that’s going to leave a mark.” Of course it is. A large part of the reason I’m writing this now is because of the frustration and anger I feel, that anyone should be made to feel they don’t know enough of the (frequently excruciating) backlist to be able to make a valid or useful contribution to the conversation.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Renay’s essay is the feeling she describes as the ‘cultural pressure to read stories by men':

It’s hard to really feel dedicated to a communal storytelling space when the history of it is so steeped in one perspective that people outside the genre only see what floats to the top—those classics by men that everyone knows and that a quick google will help you find. And so that very limited vision is regurgitated over and over, pressing at you, reminding you there’s a history you don’t know and that not knowing it might be considered a failing.

So what exactly is going on here? Are the issues of historicity and sexism distinct, or are they inextricably a part of the same problem? I think it’s worthwhile to note here that SF is by no means alone in having this kind of baggage. In the exalted realm of mainstream literary fiction, ‘the canon’ is if anything even more restrictive, the power bases and cabals even more entrenched and aggressively protective of territory. From this we might infer that the canon as it currently operates within the field of science fiction is an almost entirely artificial construct, its main purpose to act as a kind of barrier to more progressive or divergent opinion: you don’t like our canon, we don’t want you in our discussion, end of.

heinlein moon is a harsh mistressAt the same time, nothing exists in a vacuum and history happened. We need to study history, to an extent, to come to a proper understanding of the present. Is it not particularly important that we make ourselves aware of the least savoury aspects of that history in order for it not to be perpetuated?

All interesting questions, and questions that got me thinking about my own experience as a science fiction reader. How did I first come to the genre, and what did I find there? What do I think of the canon, then and now?

I was an obsessive reader from a young age but I honestly cannot say what first brought me to science fiction. My mum reads a lot, and quite widely, but to this day she has no interest in science fiction in any medium (she likes my stuff, by and large, but is still less than comfortable with any of its more overt horror or fantasy elements). My dad prefers spy stories and thrillers. So aside from a couple of Penguin edition John Wyndham novels (which needless to say I devoured avidly as soon as I was old enough to read them) there was no science fiction or fantasy on the shelves in our house.

Perhaps these things are hardwired into our DNA somehow, because I imprinted on Doctor Who from the first episode I saw (at the age of six) and by the time I was old enough to go to the library by myself I was heading straight for the science fiction section, a habit that continued pretty much until I went to university.

The SF section in our local library consisted almost entirely of the now-gollancz best sffamous Gollancz ‘yellowjackets’ – very useful for anyone new to the genre because the books were so instantly recognisable. I used to browse the section happily for hours, eagerly looking for titles I’d not seen yet and knowing in advance that I’d be taking away stories crammed with all the stuff I was most into: weirdness, aliens, space travel, time travel, defiant rebels and renegade scientists, governments gone bad, deadly plagues, ideas and images and landscapes that were new to me and yet already so much ‘my thing’.

I read a lot of Golden Age science fiction, back in the day. I know I read quite a bit of Heinlein, shedloads of Asimov, Frederick Pohl was a particular favourite. I read Dune, I adored the ironical tone of Bob Shaw and Ian Watson – I read everything by Ian Watson I could get my hands on, although at the time I didn’t know he was British, I just presumed he and Shaw were American, like all the others. I loved anything dystopian or post-apoc – there was no bespoke YA back then, so after I’d read Brave New World and 1984 a couple of times I dug around and found bizarre and now totally forgotten books like Arthur Herzog’s Heat and IQ83 (‘Beans, beans, good for your heart…’) and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day. I had an inexplicable fondness for a novel by Edmund Cooper called The Tenth Planet, which I read at least five times. There was nothing systematic about my reading. I had no idea really that there was a semi-cohesive genre called science fiction that people were fans of or had conversations about, much less argued and started decades-long feuds over. What did I know? I just loved reading it.

You may have noticed that none of the above titles are by women. Did I avoid SF by women? Did I not like SF by women? Nope. There just wasn’t any on the shelves for me to read. At some point during my early teens I came across Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books and discovered a sense of wonder and identification that felt quite different from anything I’d found in any of the other, male-dominated science fiction I’d been reading. But I did not identify Le Guin with the Gollancz yellowjackets, and I had no idea she’d written other novels. The experience of reading Earthsea felt very private, a one-off. I did not explore further because I did not know how. (It’s sometimes difficult to remember how much harder it was before the internet, especially for young people, to zone in on the information they needed. Mostly you’d rely on teachers, or what was on the library shelves – if it wasn’t there it didn’t exist.)

I did not notice the lack of science fiction novels by women. Questions like this were never discussed, least of all in school. It didn’t bother me. I was too busy reading. I was certainly aware that many of the female characters in the science fiction I was reading did not appeal to me but I didn’t let that bother me overmuch either – I found sympathetic favourites among the male protagonists instead.

This is exactly how cycles of patriarchal reinforcement work, of course. But I didn’t know that then.

penguin sf omnibusI suppose the first time I started to become aware of science fiction as ‘different’ from other literature, a literature that not everyone automatically liked or understood came when my ‘O’ Level English class was assigned The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus as one of our set texts (we had an amazing teacher, Jean Stupple, who was studying for her MA at the time and was passionate about literature in all its aspects – I owe my whole approach to twentieth century poetry to her), I was rubbing my hands in glee – I couldn’t wait to get stuck into that great big book of science fiction stories – and felt completely bemused when, as it turned out, pretty much half the class didn’t like what they read. Some people felt the stories weren’t ‘serious’ or that they were ‘weird’. Others clearly felt confused about how they should begin to write about them. Quite a few of my classmates opted out of the book and chose another text instead.

I retain a huge fondness for the Penguin Omnibus because it was such a big deal to me at the time. There are stories in it I still remember as being rather good (‘Lot’ by Ward Moore, ‘The End of Summer’ by Algis Budrys, ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ by Frederik Pohl, ‘The Country of the Kind’ by Damon Knight) and other curiosities that I’ll always remember because I read them here first (‘Grandpa’ by James H. Schmitz, ‘The Greater Thing’ by Tom Godwin, ‘Skirmish’ by Clifford Simak). But here’s the thing: looking again at that table of contents this week, I find it utterly heartbreaking to see and to realise, thirty years after I first encountered the book, that out of the thirty-six stories presented, only one (‘The Snowball Effect’ by Katherine MacLean) is by a woman.

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus was assembled from the three Penguin science fiction anthologies edited by Brian Aldiss in the early 1960s and containing stories written over a roughly twenty-year period between 1941 and 1962. It was compiled under the guiding principle of presenting an overview of where science fiction was at, what had been achieved, who was writing the most interesting and original and intelligent work. A book to demonstrate to the uninitiated reader, maybe, why they should consider reading science fiction. Clearly for Aldiss at that time, the most intelligent, original and interesting science fiction was being written almost exclusively by men. Clearly it did not matter to him in the least that his ‘comprehensive’ omnibus excluded women writers. I’d be tempted to say it almost looks like a point of principle, the imbalance is so stark, only I don’t believe that’s the case. I think it is more likely that the imbalance happened because Aldiss simply did not notice it, or consider it to be important.

This too is heartbreaking to me. Seeing women’s writing, women’s contribution to science fiction erased in this way – that it is erased unintentionally almost makes it worse – makes me feel furious, and tired, and sad all at once. What we have in the Penguin Omnibus, I see now, is ‘the canon’ writ large, the closed circle being perpetuated, ever onward. Given the writers from that time period Aldiss could have included – C.L. Moore, L. Taylor Hansen, Carol Emshwiller, Kit Reed, Zenna Henderson, Leigh Brackett, Kate Wilhelm, Andre Norton, Naomi Mitchison to name but a handful – had he been bothered or so inclined to seek them out, makes this all the more galling. The inclusion of writers like these would have shifted the tone and emphasis of the anthology substantially towards a more fully formed, multi-faceted vision of the genre, perhaps attracting more readers, more women readers even towards SF. Maybe some of these women, seeing themselves reflected in the table of contents, might even – shock, horror! – have thought about writing some science fiction themselves…

The tired, establishment rejoinder to such observations is that we shouldn’t let issues of gender affect our choice of the best stories. The obvious flaw in that argument is how do we know we’re getting anything like the best stories, if the criteria for selection are pre-set and those who are doing the selecting either refuse or can’t be arsed to look beyond them? I think one of the biggest problems for people unfamiliar with or uneasy about the rhetoric surrounding questions of industry or cultural bias occurs at a level of basic misunderstanding. ‘Where are the active impediments to women writing, submitting, publishing?’ they ask. ‘Where are the editors and commentators and critics deviously working to keep women out of science fiction?’ In the majority of cases, of course, such active impediments and devious editors do not exist, or at least have not existed for some time. No one is arguing that they do. That does not mean that there is not a problem. The problem is systemic, a system of passive reinforcement of the status quo that is so long and deeply established that for large numbers of people – both men and women – living inside it, it is invisible. You only have to look at this sample list of ‘The Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books’ to see how effectively the same-old same-old continues to be given the nod at a grassroots level. Unlike the Penguin Omnibus from the 1960s, this selection was compiled just five years ago. Of the hundred books listed, only twelve women writers. Surely even those who insist there isn’t a problem can see that’s pathetic? That is far from the only list with a similar imbalance, either – just Google and see. Some of them are even worse.

So, getting back to Renay’s original conundrum: is there a continuing cultural pressure to read stories by men, and if there is, what should we do about it?

I think we’ve established that the answer to the first part of the question is yes there is, if only because the vast majority of so-called canonical science fiction that is presented for us to read – in anthologies, in SF Masterworks series, in best-of lists – is by men.  As readers we naturally gravitate towards what is readily available, the names made familiar by repetition, the books people keep insisting that we need to read. In an area where we might feel a bit at sea and especially in need of guidance – Golden Age science fiction, for example – that effect will be doubled. Which is exactly how the system perpetuates itself.

As for what to do, there are various approaches. One of the comments on Renay’s post, from Tansy Rayner Roberts, provides both a superb analysis of the problem and a brilliant solution:

The thing is, the terrible/wonderful truth, is that you can’t catch up. No one can. What you also can’t do is compete on “contextualised reading” because you can’t replicate the experiences that many older SF fans have in common. You can never go back and read Heinlein in the 1970’s or Asimov as a twelve year old (boy) if they didn’t do it already. Just like my elder daughter read Harry Potter differently to me, and my younger daughter will read it differently agains.

But this LITERAL IMPOSSIBILITY to have the same experience with someone else’s canon is quite freeing because you get to make your own history. Your own essential canon. And if you really want “proper context” well, that’s what history books are for.

I can highly recommend finding your own classics. For every “but have you read Heinlein” or “Asimov had a great female character,” you can holler back with “But have you read all of Joanna Russ? I would tackle Heinlein but I’m starting with Delaney. I TRUMP YOU OCTAVIA BUTLER.”

I absolutely love this idea of finding your own classics, of making your own canon, if you will. I have become so dissatisfied with the popular, male-biased consensus view of science fiction history that I’m more than ever inclined to spend extra time researching those lesser known but equally important works that tell a different story of what science fiction is about and where it came from. Or that alter our perspective on the story as it stands. Or that simply give us some other names to think about, for God’s sake. (I’m not massive on Golden Age SF in any case but I’m particularly interested in what started happening with women and science fiction in the 1970s – see Jeanne Gomoll.)

As we each find our own classics, so we all make our own science fiction. How great is that? If someone – a new reader or writer – were to ask me whether they needed to read the canon to be taken seriously I’d say absolutely not (and go tell the person who told you otherwise to STFU). The truth is that all the tropes of Golden Age SF will be familiar to you already – from games, from movies, from the cultural air that you breathe without even thinking about it. In a very real sense, you won’t be missing anything, and so if you can’t stomach the thought of wading through Heinlein or Herbert then don’t. You’d be far better off expending your time in reading science fiction that does inspire your interest, that speaks to you now and is relevant to the genre as it is evolving. Anyone who tells you you need to have read Arthur C. Clarke before you can form an opinion on Jennifer Marie Brissett is just plain wrong. (Those people won’t be reading Brissett anyway, they’ll be too busy getting stuck into David Brin or Greg Bear, ha ha.) In a very real sense, life is too short.elysium.jmb

On the other hand, if you are genuinely interested in investigating how we got here from there, then there should be nothing to stop you sampling some of the Golden Age canon, even if simply out of morbid curiosity. Personally I find aspects of the canon fascinating. Very little of it is great literature – I frequently find myself dipping into something I might have read thirty years ago, only to give up in despair after a chapter or two, wondering what on Earth I used to see in this stuff first time round. I think I’d be right in saying that the only works that have made it into my personal canon from those early Gollancz yellowjacket days are the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic and Keith Roberts’s Pavane, both of which I’ve read at least three times since and so can confirm they hold up magnificently. But I love the SF conversation, the SF argument. I like knowing what’s in the canon so I can mess with it a bit. If anyone asked me where would be a good place to start with old school science fiction, I’d say they could do worse than to take a look at The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus. It’s a fascinating overview, both because and in spite of the fact that it’s so flawed. Also, short stories are going to take much less of your time than novels. You can learn a lot by reading anthologies, from any period. Much more fun than slogging your way through The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (In fact in this case I’d say just…don’t.)

triffids.wyndhamAs for my own science fiction, what does that look like? I think I can safely say that my time with Heinlein and Asimov is over now, although I will probably have a go at rereading Clarke at some point. In spite of their faults, I am always going to love and cherish the works of John Wyndham because they’re a part of who I am as a reader and as a writer (Wyndham made a real effort with his female characters too, which I like to think isn’t a coincidence). I tend to think of the eighties and nineties as a bit of a dead time for me in SF, although I continue to be very interested in especially the British science fiction of the 1970s (not Moorcock, who is overrated in my opinion, but people like Compton, Coney, Cowper, Holdstock, Bailey, Saxton). Ballard, especially the early novels and his genius-level oeuvre of short fiction, is a cornerstone of my belief. I want to read a lot more of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy and Thomas Disch. I’ve not yet read Octavia Butler and I need to remedy that. I would like to read all of Delany because I think he’s one of the most brilliant and original writers science fiction has ever produced.  I continue to feel frustrated by a lot of contemporary genre SF, excited by the ideas that thrum through them yet disappointed by the rushed or stodgy or merely adequate quality of the writing itself. I hang around on the margins of genre, ceaselessly searching for those precious works which excite and innovate at a science fictional level and make you want to pump the air at their literary quality. That’s my science fiction and I love it.

What I also love more than I can say is the way the genre is beginning to diversify. The proliferation of fin-de-siecle essays about the exhaustion of science fiction were, to my mind, a reflection of the state of a genre that had been drawing from the same well for way too long – that is, the canon, the same old, the pulps, the Gernsbackian tradition. What science fiction desperately needed was a transfusion of new blood, not just younger writers but different writers, writers drawing on influences, traditions and experiences that were not necessarily centred upon Heinlein and Silverberg and the American SF writing of the 1950s. Happily, that transfusion is now beginning to take place.

If I’m drawing my influence from anywhere now I would like it to be from thehossain.efb sincerity and conviction of some of these new writers, writers whose ability to imagine and communicate often leaves what we are doing in western science fiction looking stale and flabby and tired. I want to read books that feel as if they mattered to the writer, urgently. I am finding this quality, more and more often, in novels by writers who come from way outside the canon but who will, and thank God for that, inject new life into it. I think Nnedi Okorafor is writing some of the most interesting stuff around now and her linguistic and stylistic palette is just stunning. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria was one of the most accomplished debuts in recent memory and everything she writes is not only resplendent in its linguistic prowess but above all it feels meant. There’s a novel just recently come out by Saad Hossain called Escape from Baghdad! and it’s so bitingly funny, so original and so necessary I’d urge anyone and everyone to read it, science fiction fan or no. Especially in the field of short fiction, we are seeing a huge upsurge of work appearing from writers whose backgrounds and influences lie outside of the western mainstream, writers like Usman Malik who was recently nominated for a Nebula, writers like Kai Ashante Wilson and Alyssa Wong who have just been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, writers like Vandana Singh whose work would seem to be one of the perfect fusions of science and fiction out there at the moment, writers like Zen Cho, whose story collection Spirits Abroad is so original and so accomplished I was disappointed not to see it appearing on some of the mainstream literary prize shortlists. Of the short fiction I read last year, ‘Autodidact’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew lingers in my memory for its intensity of feeling and outstanding technical accomplishment. JY Yang’s ‘Storytelling for the Night Clerk’ has also stayed with me as the work of a powerful new voice with no fear of innovation. One of my favourite stories of this year so far, ‘Documentary’ by Vajra Chandrasekera, comes from a writer whose blog essays on science fiction and some of the issues surrounding it are also of a most superior quality – more, Vajra, please!

zen cho spiritsI hope we’ll be seeing novels from all these writers in due course – indeed Zen Cho already has one forthcoming. These writers and others like them are not just challenging the canon as it stands, they are beginning to reform it. They are making science fiction an exciting, innovative place to be again. As discussions of the Golden Age canon make little sense now without reference to the New Wave that challenged the old order and polarised opinion within it, so our discussions of ‘whither SF’ and the wearing out of genre materials make no sense at all if we don’t talk about what is happening in science fiction right now to reverse those predictions. A static canon is a dead canon. Fossils that are allowed to stay on the shelf simply because they’ve always been there are just that: fossils. We don’t have to throw them all out, necessarily, but surely we should re-examine them in the light of our thoughts, preferences and ambitions as they stand today, rather than leaving our evaluations under the sole control of memory, which is so often fickle, or tradition, which is so often stagnatory?

Science fiction is still the most radical literature alive. Radical means sticking two fingers up at the canon at least once a day. Don’t let anyone tell you what your experience of science fiction should be. This is something you should be deciding for yourself.

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.

 

Thought for the day

“People don’t tend to believe me, but our default mode in the east was scepticism towards the government, especially among those who still believed that socialism deserved a better chance. When we read a newspaper, the first question was always “What does that really mean?”. It gave us a much better training, an alertness to potential manipulation. Sometimes I think that people in the west were much more streamlined, much more easily manipulated with their 100% faith in democracy while remaining largely unquestioning of the economic system.

“I do believe it is still a valid starting point to say that the means of production as we have them under capitalism, the fixation with growth, will eventually lead to the end of the world, perhaps in our own lifetime. Hope in a more human society, where people are treated fairly independent of race, gender or appearance – I still take that very seriously. And when we look at what is happening with refugee boats in the Mediterranean, we see that the west doesn’t always take these things as seriously as it should.”

Jenny Erpenbeck, winner of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Read the whole of her marvellous interview with Philip Oltermann for The Guardian here.

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.

Ruth Rendell 1930 – 2015

I was first introduced to Ruth Rendell’s work in 1985 by Dr Lindsey Hughes, later to become Professor of Russian History at SSEES, then head of the soon-to-be defunct Russian department at the University of Reading. Lindsey was a great woman, a brilliant scholar, and a lasting inspiration. She died of cancer in 2007 and as I have just discovered I still find it difficult to talk or write about her without becoming upset at the ridiculously early age of her passing away. Lindsey first told me about Rendell in the front living room of her house in Donnington Road, the unofficial hub of Reading’s small but vibrant Russianist community and the site of many a late-night election debate (over vodka, of course) or folk singing session. “You have to read her,” she said to me of Rendell. “Her books are completely addictive.” She was certainly right about that, as she was about many things. I remember a couple of years afterwards, thanking Lindsey for her recommendation and enthusing over The Bridesmaid, Rendell’s then most recent novel and for me at least a continuing favourite. I must have listened to the 1995 Radio 4 adaptation a dozen times and more. I enjoyed Claude Chabrol’s 2004 film of the same book, but for me it lacked an essential something, that quality of eccentricity that made Rendell’s work such a vital and permanent cornerstone of the English crime canon.

I loved Rendell because I found her unputdownable but also enduring. Her keen literary sensibility, combined with her clear and obvious passion for telling stories, made many of her books classics even as they appeared.  I’ve raced through many Rendells two pages at a time on first reading in a fever of longing to know what happens, only to savour the novel at a more leisurely pace on a second or even third reading, discovering new details and – and just remind yourself at this point how rare this is with crime thrillers – a pleasure that is absolutely equal with that first enthralled encounter with the plot.

Among my favourites of Rendell’s work would have to be the Barbara Vine novels. “Nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer”, Rendell said of her own talent. Like PD James, I would have to disagree. In the superb Asta’s Book (1993), No Night is Too Long (1994) and The Brimstone Wedding (1995) Rendell did things with character, psychology and sense of place that make many contemporaneous so-called literary novels appear pallid and insubstantial by comparison. Her underappreciated 1987 novella Heartstones is a classic of the form. Her short stories are masterclasses of concision and suspense. I hope Rendell knew that her work will still be being read and enjoyed a hundred years from now, and counting.

Her legacy is evident equally in the inspiration she offered to other artists. I find it especially interesting that the most eloquent and startling film adaptations of Rendell’s work have come not from British but from European directors. I think Chabrol’s 1995 film La Ceremonie, an unnerving and visually stunning adaptation of A Judgement in Stone, is even better than his adaptation of The Bridesmaid. Almodovar’s 1997 movie Live Flesh is as idiosyncratic and watchable and brilliant as anything he’s done. Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001), a free adaptation of Rendell’s 1984 novel The Tree of Hands, is so good it’s a crime (ha!) that it’s not better known.  It’s strange that thus far British directors haven’t responded to Rendell’s oeuvre with anything approaching the same levels of originality and depth. The small-screen adaptations of the Wexford novels, whilst deservedly popular, do not offer anything beyond the usual run-of-the-mill TV entertainment, and I can only hope that in time, one of our many talented British film makers – Andrea Arnold or Ben Wheatley, for example, I could see doing great things – will take a look at the treasure trove of material Rendell has laid in store for them and make some magic of their own.

Whatever happens though, we have her books. Thank you, Ruth Rendell, for the perennial thrill we find in discovering and then rereading them.