Friday, November 30, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Galactic Patrol

E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, 1937-38

Last time, we looked at Italo Calvino, one of the most playful and intelligent writers of the 20th century; now we move to E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, which the uncharitable might regard as the sublime to the ridiculous. Certainly Smith’s writings are humour-free zones, and his undoubted intellect (he is reputed to be the man who worked out how to get icing sugar to stick to doughnuts) is not always on display in his fiction: but his Lensman series, of which Galactic Patrol is the best, has been immensely influential on generations of young, invariably male, readers—including this one.

The Lensman series is one of the first space operas. As the seven books unfold, ever larger space battles (sometimes involving millions of ships) occur, harnessing ever more potent technologies. Smith gives us action, and plenty of it. There are strong-jawed incorruptible heroes, intelligent and beautiful heroines who nevertheless recognise that their role is essentially subservient to the men. You couldn’t write it today, and you probably wouldn’t want to. But what Smith loses in nuanced characterisation—which, let’s face it, is just about everything—he gains in sheer sweep of imagination. It’s hard to imagine the infinitely richer space operas of writers like Iain M. Banks without Smith.

Smith’s prose is overheated, as the extract below shows:

"You are wrong, Conway; all wrong," Clio was saying, very seriously. "I know how you feel, but it's false chivalry."

"That isn't it, at all," he insisted, stubbornly. "It isn't only that I've got you out here in space, in danger and alone, that's stopping me. I know you and I know myself well enough to know that what we start now we'll go through with for life. It doesn't make any difference, that way, whether I start making love to you now or whether I wait until we're back on Tellus--I've been telling you for half an hour that for your own good you'd better pass me up entirely. I've got enough horsepower to keep away from you if you tell me to--not otherwise."

"I know it, both ways, dear, but...."

"But nothing!" he interrupted. "Can't you get it into your skull what you'll be letting yourself in for if you marry me? Assume that we get back, which isn't sure, by any means. But even if we do, some day—and maybe soon, too, you can't tell--somebody is going to collect fifty grams of radium for my head."

Triplanetary, 1934

It’s hard to imagine an adult modern reader failing to find the passage unintentionally amusing—even at the age of thirteen I suspect I found it pretty risible (although oddly engaging nonetheless – and the fifty grams of radium is cracking). But no doubt I was thrilled with:

The Nevian vessel--the sister-ship, the craft which Costigan had seen in mid-space as it hurtled earthward in response to Nerado's summons—hung poised in full visibility, high above the metropolis. Scornful of the pitiful weapons wielded by man she hung there, her sinister beauty of line sharply defined against the cloudless sky. From her shining hull there reached down a tenuous but rigid rod of crimson energy; a rod which slowly swept hither and thither as the detectors of the amphibians searched out the richest deposits of the precious iron for which the inhuman visitors had come so far. Iron, once solid, now a viscous red liquid, was sluggishly flowing in an ever-thickening stream up that intangible crimson duct and into the capacious storage tanks of the Nevian raider; and wherever that flaming beam went there went also ruin, destruction, and death. Office buildings, skyscrapers towering majestically in their architectural symmetry and beauty, collapsed into heaps of debris as their steel skeletons were abstracted. Deep into the ground the beam bored; flood, fire, and explosion following in its wake as the mazes of underground piping disappeared. And the humanity of the buildings died: instantaneously and painlessly, never knowing what struck them, as the life-bearing iron of their bodies went to swell the Nevian stream.

Triplanetary, 1934

That’s the end of Pittsburgh, and it’s what Smith does best: space opera in its undiluted form. The prose may be purple but it’s not inappropriate in the context. As I said earlier, you couldn’t write this stuff today. Part of me can’t help thinking that’s not altogether a good thing.

How has it influenced me?

Smith is not by any standards a literary writer. What he does have, though, is an imagination on the grand scale and prose of a fiery energy. In the decade when my reading tastes were formed, the Lensman series was a consistent favourite, and for a long time I yearned, in a pretty callow way, to write space operas. Soon after, I discovered Jack Vance, and the realisation that these stories are even better if you can control the language you use to write them. But in the same way I would not have become the writer I am without Vance, neither would I without Smith. He is in every sense a dinosaur, left behind by literary evolution, but a part of all our pasts, and a source of fascination and wonder to this day.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

If your imagination has sufficient scope, it will cover a multitude of stylistic sins

No matter how futuristic your plots, you are always a child of your times

Sometimes purple prose works…

…but almost certainly not in love scenes

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Difficult Loves

Italo Calvino, 1948-58

Calvino is one the quirkiest and most distinctive authors of the 20th century. A member of the experimental Oulipo group and one of the defining voices of magic realism, Calvino’s intellectual, playful amusing fictions are at once profound and stylish. Works like Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities and The Castle of Crossed Destinies have influenced a generation.

My favourite Calvino comes from much earlier in his career, in the series of short stories written in his twenties and collected as Difficult Loves. These stories are influenced not so much by magic realism as the Italian postwar cinematic movement, neorealism. Calvino’s beautiful short stories are set in urban Italy in the years after World War II, and focus on the wild and wonderful field of male and female relations. Each story takes a tiny incident, describes it in heightened detail, and implies in that detail a whole hidden world (in this, perhaps, we see the root of Calvino’s later magical realism).

In one magnificent story, The Adventure of a Clerk¸ a humble bureaucrat enjoys a one-night stand with a great lady. Calvino is uninterested in the act itself: his focus is the mood of the fortunate Enrico Gnei the next morning, as he slinks into his office without going home, and applies himself to the tedium of his work, a man transformed. The delight is in the detail, restrained yet telling, working always indirectly. In another story, a married woman slips out early and takes coffee in a working man’s café, an adultery of the spirit. Calvino has the happy knack of nailing a mood, a moment, a transformation, with elegance and brevity.

Why do I prefer these seemingly slight early stories to Calvino’s later mastery? For my tastes, Calvino’s mature fiction is perhaps over-intellectualised: the all too apparent cleverness is at the expense of warmth, of sustained characterisation, and of human relationships. That’s not because Calvino can’t do those things—Difficult Loves shows everything except sustained characterisation—but because his interests as a writer moved elsewhere. Difficult Loves is minor Calvino; but it’s major fiction nonetheless.

How has it influenced me?

Calvino is a writer I’ve admired for over twenty years. His magic realism has consistently entertained, amused and piqued my imagination; Difficult Loves has long been a touchstone of how much can be done with seemingly insignificant incidental detail. My work is entertainment, pure and simple: I make none of the claims for it which can easily be advanced for Calvino. If Calvino has influenced me at all, it’s been through those early neorealist fictions, and their underlying assumptions that all stories, if you boil them down enough, usually come down to a man and a woman.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

The voice you master in your youth is not necessarily the one you will retain for life

All details have a wider significance if they are examined closely enough

Not all loves may be difficult, but easy ones don’t make good fiction

Not for the first time in Why Should I Read?, less is more.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

“Flowers for Algernon”

Daniel Keyes, 1959

Perfection, in any walk of life, is rarely achieved. Once in a lifetime is enough, and Keyes, whose fame rests on this single story, elevated himself among the greats in under 12,000 words. Keyes later expanded the story into a fine award-winning novel: but somehow it works better at the shorter length. The expansion adds nothing fundamental, and by detailing in subplot what was only hinted at before, serves only to dilute and coarsen the purity of the original.

“Flowers for Algernon” is the story of Charlie Gordon, an adult with an IQ of 68 who undergoes a revolutionary and highly dangerous medical procedure which triples his intelligence—an operation previously performed only on Algernon, the mouse who gives his name to the story. In an emotional but beautifully controlled first-person narrative, Keyes tracks Charlie’s ascent to genius, and then, as Algernon sickens and dies, his equally rapid decline.

As Charlie’s intelligence grows, he comes to realise that he has been the oblivious butt of his colleagues’ jokes, and comes to see Dr Nemur and Dr Strauss, the scientists who operated on him, not as gods, but as flawed human beings. When Algernon’s decline foreshadows his own, Charlie knows Nemur and Strauss cannot save him. He can no longer understand the limitations of those whose intellect he has surpassed, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Charlie was both happier and morally superior before his operation—a position that would be both trite and patronising if it were not articulated with such sure-footed élan.

What raises the story into the realms of greatness is Keyes’ narrative strategy. The story is told through Charlie’s ‘progris riports’ which he submits as part of the medical experiment. The prose therefore follows Charlie’s intellectual expansion, and the sections at the beginning and end of the story, where Charlie is barely literate, are handled with particular narrative skill. Simply looking at the pages’ typography allows the reader to sense Charlie's journey, and the emotional power of some of the simple passages is heartbreaking, as here where a bandaged Charlie returns to work:

We had a lot of fun at the factory today. Joe Carp said hey look where Charlie had his operashun what did they do Charlie put some brains in. I was going to tell him but I remembered Dr Strauss said no. Then Frank Reilly said what did you do Charlie forget your key and open your door the hard way. That made me laff. Their really my friends and they like me.

“Flowers for Algernon” is a subtle and moving illustration that intelligence does not automatically confer happiness or moral improvement. Of its kind, I don’t think it has ever been bettered.

How has it influenced me?

My response as a writer to “Flowers for Algernon” is amazement and awe. I have never attempted to copy its techniques, and don’t think I could if I tried. In that sense, it has had no influence at all; but in the other, grander, sense, it is one of the most significant pieces I have ever read. It was one of the first things I read which showed me how glorious the written word can be, and that how you write is as important as what you write about. Even today, a quarter of a century after I first read it, its power over me is undiminished.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

A good short story will not necessarily be improved by expansion to novel length

Truly original ideas come perhaps once in a lifetime…

…but a single good one can make your reputation

Perfection is a mixture of form and content

The "right" ending is not always a happy ending

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Macmillan New Writing focus

Cover the Mirrors
Faye L. Booth

OK, I know I said I wasn't going to do any more Macmillan New Writers for a while. I am happy to reverse myself for Faye L. Booth's Cover the Mirrors, because it's a book the discerning reader will read with pleasure and profit.

Cover the Mirrors is the story of Molly, a fraudulent spiritualist in 1850s Preston. The spiritualism is a nice idea, but less central to the novel than the blurb would have the reader believe: what Cover the Mirrors is really about is the position of women in nineteenth century England. The conventional Victorian romance novel has women yearning for a chaste fulfilment with husband and children. Molly, on the other hand, wants nothing of the sort. Her desires most certainly do not run in the direction of chastity, and she sees a husband as nothing more than the man who will legally steal the house her aunt has left her. Any son will grow up to own the house and Molly will have to live in her own home on sufferance. In any event, childbirth is messy, painful and dangerous.

Molly nonetheless finds herself married and pregnant as she struggles to reconcile her cold-eyed view of life with her attraction to men. The plot plays out with skill and neatness, and some vivid, if bloody, setpiece scenes.

It's a take on the nineteenth century which may surprise some readers, but ironically would not have seemed strange to contemporaries. Jane Austen may not be so direct in her subject matter, but reading any of her novels we see that for a young woman marriage is not just--or even primarily--about love: it's business.

As well as this unusual but clear-eyed perspective, Cover the Mirrors does the bread and butter extremely well. The characterisation is first-rate, not just the engaging Molly but her childhood friend Jenny, her unsentimental Aunt Florrie and William, the husband for whom Molly has such equivocal feelings. Booth is steeped in the period and readers of nineteenth century novels will not find themselves raging at anachronisms. In addition, the prose is always well-judged and shot through with a wry humour.

Faye L. Booth is already a writer with a distinctive voice. I hope we will be hearing plenty more of it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

The Talented Mr Ripley

Patricia Highsmith, 1955

If you’ve been following this series so far, you will have formed a picture of my reading tastes. You will have noticed that I enjoy books with a cool narrative tone, that I often come back to the thriller format, and that a morally-compromised protagonist is often appealing. It is not from this point a great leap to find Patricia Highsmith on the list. The Talented Mr Ripley is the first and best in a series of five novels exploring the career of Tom Ripley, con-man, art-swindler and unrepentant murderer. Best of all, he gets away with it.

Highsmith is in many ways reminiscent of Richard Stark. Ripley, like Parker, does what he needs to do without any kind of commentary by the author. Unlike Stark, though, Highsmith gives us much more of her protagonist’s inner life. We don’t just see what Ripley does, we see why he does it. Most of his crimes are for financial gain, or self-preservation, but his first murder, of idle rich Dickie Greenleaf, whose identity Ripley assumes, is triggered at least in part by pique at Dickie’s rejection of his friendship. Ripley being Ripley, he also manages to turn the situation to his financial advantage.

Ripley is not without a conscience, but it’s a rudimentary one, and he doesn’t pay it a lot of attention. It comes to the fore when he feels in danger of being caught, and if his dreams are troubled at night, it’s because he always feel the authorities on his tail, not because he’s really troubled by what he’s done.

Highsmith does not set out to make Ripley sympathetic. She does not elaborate on his difficult childhood (although there are hints) or justify his actions. The prose is cool and uncluttered, even when Highsmith is revealing Ripley’s inner thoughts. He acts as he acts, and the reader must take him or leave him. Given the continuing success of the novels, readers seem to have been happy with that bargain.

How has it influenced me?

Highsmith is a comparatively recent discovery for me: she is not in my DNA in the way of Jack Vance, for instance. Nonetheless, The Dog of the North is in one sense an anti-hero novel, and Highsmith is up there with the best of them. In deciding to write a novel in which the protagonist unapologetically makes a living from crime, gets away with it, and whose thoughts and emotions are retailed without stage-villain mugging, then The Talented Mr Ripley, which I read soon before starting my own book, can certainly be seen as a distant cousin.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

The reader will identify more readily with a strong rogue as a protagonist than a feeble hero (the latter device really only being effective in comedy)

Criminals need not be caught at the end of the novel (especially if you plan a sequel…)

When exploring the mind of the amoral or sociopathic, a cool narrative tone works best

Overt moralising does not lead to good fiction

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Why Should I Read...?" Takes Stock

Our second list of books has come to an end. On the sidebar to the left is an entirely subjective list of eighteen books which have changed my life, and each has a mini-essay about why I think it's so good, how each has helped make me the writer I am today, and what others can learn from them.

Such a list is never-ending. As writers we are - or should be - the most voracious of readers. Some of the books on my list have been part of my life for over twenty years, some for only a year or so. We never stop learning, and nor should we. Somewhere out there is the next great book in our lives. (Somewhere out there is The Dog of the North, waiting to belong to someone other than me).

"Why Should I Read...?" is not going to stop at eighteen books. I've spent some time over the past few days thinking of other books and writers I want to share. In no order of merit, over the next few months you can expect to read about: Sherwood Anderson, Honore de Balzac, Alfred Bester, Italo Calvino (trust me on this one), Wilkie Collins, Edmund Cooper, Greg Egan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Highsmith, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Foot, Daniel Keyes, Paul Kimmage, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, Richard Matheson, Philip Pullman, Robert Silverberg, Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance (again), Barbara Vine, Alison Weir and Emile Zola. I may even chuck in a couple of others. The list is deliberately eclectic, and reflects nothing more than books I've enjoyed. There's a mixture of nationalities, periods and genres. For the first time, we have some short stories on the list. Some of these books have had less obvious influence on me than others, and l'm looking forward to exploring those as I come to them.

::Acquired Taste is not a democracy; blogs are, by their nature, monuments to the ego and vanity of their creators. Any service they provide to the public is far outweighed by that they provide to themselves. That said, if one of your favourite - or indeed least favourite - authors is on the list, why not let me know. I am happy to allow queue-jumping at my readers' request. The new "Why Should I Read...?" will begin next week.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Lucky Jim

Kingsley Amis, 1954

Ironically, given Amis' reputation as an "Angry Young Man", Lucky Jim is the funniest book I've ever read. No other book has reduced me literally to weeping with laughter on a (fortunately largely deserted) train. Anger and humour are not incompatible, of course, but Amis' great gift is primarily comic.

Lucky Jim tells the story of Jim Dixon, a monumentally lazy lecturer in a 1950s redbrick university, as he attempts to hold on to his job despite his utter contempt for his colleagues and his marked preference for drinking and chasing women. Its focus on contemporary academic institutions made it seem a groundbreaking work in its day, but it follows an archetypal pattern. Dixon is the outsider who never fully assimilates the world of the novel - a world on which he acts as a window for the reader. Dixon is by no means an admirable character, but he is refreshingly free of hypocrisy and pretension, vices which his colleagues embody to excess. Like Jack Vance's Cugel stories or Richard Stark's Parker novels, in Lucky Jim we identify with a flawed protagonist. Amis, in using humour as his primary technique, has rather more in common with Vance than Stark.

And indeed it is humour which sets Amis among the greats. Again like Vance, Amis is a precise verbal humourist, and the amusement arises not so much from the situation as the way in which it is retailed. Have you ever woken up with foul taste in your mouth and a hangover? Me too. Ever thought of describing it like this? Me neither.

His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

In another episode, Dixon writes a deliberately illiterate poison-pen letter.

He read it through, thinking how admirably consistent were the style and the orthography. Both derived, in large part, from the essays of some of his less proficient pupils.

Such a style is a pearl without price and it cannot be taught. Amis' subsequent work never improved upon Lucky Jim; but what a benchmark he had set.

How has it influenced me?

I discovered Amis at a time -- the late 1980s -- when I was becoming very interested in matters of literary style. I could not have been less interested in 1950s' university life, but I devoured Lucky Jim. Amis is one of the very few writers I had discovered (Vance and Austen being the other obvious examples) who managed to impart humour to a situation solely by the way they described it. By divorcing the comedy from the situation, it is possible to find humour in circumstances which are not inherently amusing. At its best, this technique can make us look afresh at the situation, sometimes to feel guiltily complicit with an aggressor, sometimes to counterpoint an underlying poignancy. It's one of the things I try to do most often in my own writing, and Kingsley Amis is one of my touchstones.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

If you really do want to be angry in your writing, you need humour to avoid didacticism or ranting

Genuinely funny writing is a marriage of situation and style

If you are of the "write what you know" school, you almost certainly need to add something else: thematic depth and comedy are good places to start

Your first novel doesn't have to be crap...

Monday, November 12, 2007

More on the Chichester Writing Festival

As I mentioned last week, I spent the past weekend at the Chichester Writing Festival. This was every bit as good as expected. There were some fascinating panel discussions, ranging from debates on the publishing industry to in-depth explorations of individual writers' creative processes (and perhaps the most hilarious discussion of cookery books imaginable...).

I had my own moment in the limelight when I outlined my own experiences with self-publication and being picked up by Macmillan New Writing. It was strange to go from working in utter obscurity to a situation where my own experiences were not only of interest, but in some cases inspirational, to others. If there is a lesson in all this, it's that persistence pays -- not just in the business of keeping writing, but in always looking for new ways to learn and improve. It's one thing (and very praiseworthy) to keep writing year after year, but without applying some kind of analytical process to what's coming out of the sausage machine, sustained improvement is unlikely. I certainly see it as more than coincidence that The Dog of the North was successful in finding a publisher immediately after I'd been on Greg Mosse's course at West Dean last year: there is always someone with something to teach you, and I was lucky enough to encounter Greg at the right time.

Gratifying as my own minor celebrity proved to be, the Festival was really about the views of writers with sustained records of success. There were enough different approaches to writing on display to dispel any notions of there being a "magic bullet" secret for success. All of these professional writers had evolved methods which worked for them, but those approaches had nothing in common beyond a willingness to put in the hours. As writers we all have to find out our own methods.

There was something of interest in all of the participants' views, and all were generous with their time and expertise. It's unfair to single out individuals, so I'll settle for commending William Broderick and Jason Goodwin because I've read and enjoyed their work as well as their panel contributions, and Rachel Holmes for writing the book I came away from the Festival most wanting to read (The Hottentot Venus, a biography of Saartjie Baartman). Particular thanks are due to Greg Mosse for marshalling proceedings with an unobtrusive and good-humoured efficiency, and Kate Mosse for continuing to show writers of all abilities how to deal with success with grace and humility (let's hope this particular piece of knowledge comes in useful...).

On top of that, I got to make some new friends. I'm looking forward to next year already.

Why Should I Read?...

Bleak House

Charles Dickens, 1852-3

An earlier “Why Should I Read…?” looked at Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, a very 20th century take on the 19th century novel. Bleak House is the book which most influenced it, a huge plot covering all social classes with a protracted legal case at its centre.

While Palliser is concerned with deconstructing the Victorian novel, Dickens uses his story as a powerful vehicle for social criticism. Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the legal action at the core of the book, consumes the lives of all the characters who seek to profit from it, and in a final irony, the estate over which the plaintiffs had fought is shown to have been bankrupted by the legal fees.

Narratively Bleak House is also interesting. It has two parallel narratives, the first related in the first person by the unreliably reticent Esther Summerson, the other an omniscient—but savage—authorial voice. It is never entirely clear how the two strands interact, but each enhances the other.

The true brilliance of Dickens, and the reason we still read him today, is his characterisation. His cast is slightly—in some cases much—larger than life. It’s hard to imagine that anyone has ever done humorous grotesques better—and nobody, anywhere, ever, has surpassed Dickens in the naming of characters. Where Jane Austen creates an illusion of everyday life, Dickens’ characters could never live anywhere but in the author’s imagination. What we end up with is an exaggerated version of the ‘real’ world, but it’s an exaggeration which illuminates our own.

With its powerful satire, compelling portrait of 19th century urban life and range of brilliant and socially diverse characterisation, Bleak House is an astoundingly ambitious novel. Dickens’ trademark energy and pace abound—across the whole 1,000 pages. It defies ready summary: if you have a couple of weeks to spare, read it instead.

How has it influenced me?

Dickens is a writer of extraordinary emotional range. He is master of an overblown sentimentalism which is difficult to appreciate today, but he also commands an angry satire and humour on many levels. One thing I’ve always admired in his work is his ability to mix the tragic and comic in a way that enhances both. I try for a similar effect in my own work, but few writers can pull it off with aplomb: Dickens is one of the best.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Don’t be afraid to write a long story…

…but if you do it will need to compel on several levels to sustain interest (the weakness of many of today’s enormous fantasy novels is that don’t have sufficient variety of tone and theme to warrant the length)

Strong characterisation can overcome plot deficiencies; but a strong plot will not bail out inadequate characterisation

The editorialising authorial voice may be out of fashion but handled skilfully it can add power and direction

Fossilised social institutions make excellent satirical targets

Characters' names are worth taking trouble over

Friday, November 09, 2007

Chichester Writing Festival

::Acquired Taste is taking a short break to visit the Chichester Writing Festival at West Dean. Hosted by Kate and Greg Mosse, this promises to be a stimulating weekend. It’s also dipping my toe in the waters of being a “real writer”: as well as going along to listen to the panel discussions, I’m involved with one of the panels in talking about my experiences of being published by Macmillan New Writing. This feels somewhat bizarre; I’ll report on this minor foray into the world of literary celebrity next week.

It’s also a chance to catch up with some of my writing friends. Last year, when I was putting the finishing touches to The Dog of the North¸ I went on a week-long creative writing course at West Dean run by Greg and Kate (highly recommended if you want to spend time really immersed in the craft of writing). Several of us from the course have stayed in touch so it will be good to meet up again (hi Davy, Graham and Jean if you’re reading!). It was on this course that I first heard about MNW, which Kate recommended as a good way into print for the aspiring novelist.

So all in all, West Dean has some good associations for me. I’m looking forward to the weekend.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Beyond a Boundary

CLR James, 1963

“Why Should I Read…?” has only looked at one sports book before, and that was as much for its narrative interest as its sporting theme. Beyond a Boundary is very different: unlike The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, this is a remarkably self-aware book.

Beyond a Boundary is nonetheless a complex and subtle work. James was a Trinidadian political activist – a Communist for much of his life—who spent many years in the US and Britain. A prominent journalist and writer, he was at the forefront of the campaign for West Indian independence from British colonial rule.

James was also—and here’s where the seeming contradictions start to arise—a passionate cricket lover. There is an immediate irony in James’ attraction to the most British of games even while his political consciousness was reacting against British rule.

Beyond a Boundary is a remarkable meditation. James dwells lovingly on the cricketing heroes of his youth, but always through the lens of the West Indies’ struggle for independence. In one moving chapter he writes of Wilton St. Hill, a black Trinidadian and hero to many, who was selected to tour England with the West Indies. Here he was an abject failure, and James can see this as a blow in sporting terms, but a tragedy in the political environment. “It was the instinct of an oppressed people that spoke”, he said, reflecting on West Indians’ dismay at his failure.

As late as the 1950s, it was inconceivable that a black man could captain the West Indies cricket team, even when—as was the case at this time—there was no white player worthy of a place. James campaigned ceaselessly for the appointment of Frank Worrell as captain, a black West Indian who commanded universal respect. In due course, Worrell was made captain, a role he filled with distinction for several years.

“What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” asked James. Beyond a Boundary is the supreme exploration of how sport can reflect wider social questions—and all retailed in prose of lyrical beauty. A great book.

How has it influenced me?

This book was perhaps the first to make me realise that sport isn’t just about what happens on the field. That, indirectly, led to the galley-racing strand of Dragonchaser, but more importantly Beyond a Boundary opened my eyes.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Even the most trivial aspects of human existence have wider significance

If you want to write about weighty political issues, it helps to be able to write decent English

Sometimes the best way to tackle political themes is not to write directly about politics

Monday, November 05, 2007

Stretton admits "I don't write my own books"

Head on over to the Macmillan New Writers' blog for my shocking admission that I am not the author of the books which bear my name...

Why Should I Read?...


Thomas Mann, 1901

Subtitled “The Decline of a Family”, Buddenbrooks appears on the surface to be a traditional 19th century novel. It traces the lives of several generations of the Buddenbrook family as they collapse within two generations from the unquestioned merchant princes of Lubeck into complete extinction. This plot is handled deftly—the characterisation, particularly of Thomas Buddenbrook, the head of the family, is especially strong—but the book is considerably richer than a simple plot summary would suggest.

Buddenbrooks was Mann’s first novel (and many would consider it his best). It gains strength from its position on the cusp of the centuries: it reflects not only the traditional story-telling virtues of 19th century fiction, but looks ahead to the symbolic and allusive elements of the 20th. For many readers (including this one) Mann’s later work emphasised the latter at the expense of the former, upsetting the balance which makes Buddenbrooks so remarkable. There is a parallel with Muriel Spark magnificently balanced early work giving way to more overtly philosophical but less artistically satisfying later output.

The result in Buddenbrooks is that Mann is able to present a richly detailed picture of 19th century Lubeck, with characters whose invariably unhappy lives move us, while also presenting a thematically and symbolically nuanced whole. It is a mature perspective with no heroes (although there is at least one out-and-out villain): just recognisable people struggling with their own mediocrity. In its gloomy descent into death and obscurity we can see elements common to great 19th century realists like Zola and Hardy, although without their relentless sledge-hammering which can make reading them so wearing at times. At the same time Mann can remind us of modernists like Virginia Woolf with his interest in the creative process , the passage of time and his symbolic richness.

Buddenbrooks is unique on my list in that I’ve never read the text the author intended: I don’t read German and have had to rely on Helen Lowe-Porter’s rather twee Penguin translation. Since Mann has a reputation as a remarkable prose stylist, that’s my loss.

How has it influenced me?

Buddenbrooks is a novel I’ve admired without wanting to emulate. Mann is, as we’ve seen, perched between the 19th and 20th century, and as a writer I’ve always been much more attracted to the former.

In The Dog of the North¸ Lady Isola and Lady Cosetta act out two different strategies for surviving in a world which is at best indifferent to lone women (in Dragonchaser, Lady Catzendralle adopts yet another approach). In Buddenbrooks¸ Thomas’ sister Tony finds herself with similar difficulties—but I think this is less a case of direct influence and more a question of similar fictional interests.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

If your story is strong enough it can survive a God-awful translation…

Symbolic and thematic richness can add depth to your novel, but it needs to be buttressed by strong plotting and characterisation.

In any culture, social position is important…

…but without money it won’t get you very far. In creating an imaginary world it’s important to recognise these realities

Friday, November 02, 2007

On the Small Screen...

The Tudors

I am not, in general, a great TV watcher. Well, how else do you think I get time to read all these books?

Nonetheless, The Tudors¸ the first season of which is currently running on BBC2, has been capturing my attention ever since I caught the second episode. It has a kind of trashy grandeur I am finding utterly compelling. It focuses on what it describes as the early years of Henry VIII’s reign (although given the liberties with the chronology, it’s really more about his middle-age).

For anyone who knows anything about the real-life Tudors, there are plenty of historical inaccuracies. Most of these are conscious, designed for artistic effect, particularly the relative ages of the characters. Not content with conflating two of Henry VIII’s sisters into character, the series has her marrying the King of Portugal rather than the King of France (and then indeed murdering him). Shakespeare did the same in his history plays , so it’s rather anal to get sniffy about this kind of thing. But if you find meticulous historical accuracy important, The Tudors is probably not the programme for you.

You won't be surprised that I relish a programme which enacts all manner of bloody palace intrigues every week. Sam Neill’s surprisingly sympathetic Cardinal Wolsey would be at home in The Dog of the North¸ and the shifting alliances, the betrayals and machinations are all the stuff of my own fiction. Visually, the series is sumptuous, and the casting is consistently excellent. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is magnificent as King Henry, played with mad energy as a psychotic egotist with almost no redeeming features (this is probably one of the more historically accurate aspects of the show). It’s a commendable risk to make the central character so utterly malignant (albeit highly charismatic). Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn is simultaneously luminous and sly, and you feel that when she and Henry get together, they will deserve each other. The supporting cast is equally well-judged, particularly Sam Neill as Wolsey, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of Aragon, and Jeremy Northam as Thomas More. James Frain has hardly appeared as Thomas Cromwell but is already promising much.

The Tudors has been described as soap opera, and to a degree that’s understandable. But the insane melodrama which routinely strains credulity when deployed in Eastenders or Coronation Street is entirely appropriate here. This, after all, is the story of a man who executed two wives and numerous counsellors as well as disestablishing his country’s religion for the past thousand years. The Tudors is costume drama delivered with verve and brio. Ignore the details, settle back, and enjoy.

Notwithstanding my willingness to accept artistic licence with the facts, as a writer of fantasy I occasionally feel a sense of frustration. This is a series which would have worked equally well—if not better—as a fantasy of an imaginary land, where chronology and characters could have been manipulated without offending the pedants. In the same way, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is a deliberately ahistorical take on the Wars of the Roses. But written as a fantasy, The Tudors would never have secured the budget for a lavish production, or a prime-time slot on BBC2. Viewers would rather watch fantasy version of real history—a fantasy which dare not speak its name—rather than accept a fantasy in its own right.

But that’s not a criticism of The Tudors. It’s just the way of the world. And you can be damn sure I will be watching tonight’s episode.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Why Should I Read?...


Iain M. Banks, 1998

Inversions is a science-fiction novel masquerading as fantasy. It’s part of his “Culture” series in which a hyper-sophisticated civilisation intervenes in the development of less enlightened societies, sometimes with adverse consequences. Inversions is unique in the sequence in that the viewpoint is that of the quasi-medieval locale rather than the Culture.

The novel is structured around two narratives which support (while “inverting”) each other. In one of them, a female Culture agent, Vosill, acts as court physician to King Quience, all the while subtly influencing him towards a more enlightened rule. (She also covertly assassinates his enemies to ensure that her programme is not inconvenienced). In the second narrative, the other Culture agent DeWar, is the bodyguard to the regicidal Protector UrLeyn. The two Culture agents exhibit different philosophies: Vosill is highly, if subtly, interventionist, while DeWar is more aligned with Star Trek’s Prime Directive, largely allowing matters to take their course.

At the end of the novel, UrLeyn is assassinated by an agent of Quience, thus endorsing Vosill’s philosophy. By Banks’ standards the novel is low-key. There are neither stylistic nor narrative pyrotechnics, but the book is remarkable for the way in which the two stories inform each other, and for the indirection with which the plot unfolds: Banks never directly tells us that Vosill is the assassin, nor indeed that this is a Culture novel. Such sleights have always been the Banks way. Students of narrative technique will find much to enjoy.

How has it influenced me?

Of all the books we have looked at, none has been such an obvious influence on The Dog of the North as Inversions. There are many similarities: two linked narratives whose relationship is not immediately obvious, a central identity puzzle, a pre-industrial civilisation and lashings of court intrigues. I didn’t consciously have Inversions in mind when writing The Dog of the North—indeed my story originally had a very different structure—but it’s a book I’ve never forgotten. I use the structure for different purposes, but Banks is a fine example of how such a structure can be made to work.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Twin narratives can be difficult to handle but sometimes they are the best way to tell the story.

You don’t always have to tell the reader what’s going on directly: you can trust them to find their own way.

Setting a fantasy in a quasi-medieval society allows the writer to invoke the fictional world with very little explicit detail.

An ambiguous ending does not weaken a story.