Tag Archives: Writing

We could be heroes.

I’ve been watching Sebastian Faulks’ series on the development of character in the British novel, the first episode of which was about the “hero”. Taking us from the resourceful, self-sufficient Robinson Crusoe to the slobbish anti-hero John Self, Faulks’ series is an entertaining, if not very deep, exploration of some of the central themes in British fiction. It’s worth watching, and the second episode (about the figure of “the lover”) is on BBC2 tonight.

Of more interest for me was the short interview with Martin Amis towards the end of the first episode. (Amis is probably my favourite writer, living or dead, although he has been overtaken recently by WH Auden. I need to think about it some more before I come to a firm conclusion.) Faulks was talking about his belief that the heroic character had disappeared from “literary” fiction and was now only to be found within children’s fiction – Harry Potter was the new Robinson Crusoe, in resourceful temperament if not in his circumstances. Asked if he would ever consider writing a children’s novel, Amis responded flippantly by saying that he only would if he’d suffered a brain injury and could no longer write to his highest capabilities – for him, writing was absolute freedom, and he wouldn’t want to constrain himself by aiming his tone and register downwards. So far, so uncontroversial, you might think. But Amis clearly didn’t take into consideration the Guardian newspaper’s Rapid Reaction Amis Response Force, which exists seemingly for the sole purpose of scouring all media for any utterance the man might make in the course of an interview, and then, with positive intent, whipping up a shit-storm over his supposedly “controversial” remarks. The appropriate authorities (who are probably on speed-dial) are invited to make a spittle-flecked rebuttal, denouncing Amis for his sneering bad taste, then usually continuing with something about his teeth, his father, his declining book sales etc etc etc. Here is the link to the article. The comments below the line are particularly vicious. (And fair play to the Guardian for finding someone to respond who is not only a children’s author but also brain damaged.)

There are two things to note about this. One: the Guardian is weirdly obsessed with Martin Amis. Two: if you watch the interview, which takes up all of five minutes in an hour-long programme, you will note that Amis does not say at any time that you have to be brain damaged to write for children, that all children’s writers are suffering from irreversible brain injuries, that children themselves are somehow irreparably brain damaged through their exposure to children’s fiction. All he says is that the stylistic compromises that he personally would have to make in order to write for children would not allow him to do it. The massively disingenuous quote towards the end of the article, “Controversial remarks from Amis … remain a regular occurrence” is a gross distortion of fact. The “controversy” doesn’t exist until the newspaper phones round a raft of people to make a predictable response, then labels and prints the “story” as a controversy.

If you are the kind of person pre-programmed and poised to take “offence” (a word that is increasingly losing any of its original meaning) at the way in which Amis expressed this opinion, then I don’t think anything can be done for you. All sense has left you, and irony is a distant memory. You can hate Amis the writer and his books as much as you like, but this kind of thing should be beneath anyone’s dignity. (Except mine, obviously.)

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Writing in residence

Today I met up with Louise Welsh, author of “The Cutting Room”, “The Bullet Trick”, “Tamburlaine Must Die” and, most recently, “Naming the Bones”. Louise has just been appointed the writer in residence for the University of Glasgow, and in this capacity I had sent her the opening section of my first novel, “Most Wicked Speed”.

I used to know Louise slightly, many years ago, when she ran the excellent second hand bookshop Dowanside Books, first in Dowanside Lane, then latterly on Gibson Street, in Glasgow. I mentioned in an earlier post about the vast influence Henry Miller had on me when I was 18 – it was in Louise’s shop that I bought most of his work, and where I picked up (at knock down prices) the bulk of my early literary education. We had lost touch since around 2002, when I first moved away from Glasgow (I always seem to end up back here though … ), so i was quite nervous to see her again, especially as in the intervening period she has become such an important part of contemporary Scottish literature. I shouldn’t have been though; she has always been very approachable and encouraging, and it was good to talk to someone about my own writing.

I admit that I didn’t have much of an idea of what a writer in residence actually did until the position was announced on the University’s intranet. Now, I found it extraordinary that so much potential work is expected to fit into one day a week. As well as reading the work of students and staff at the University, Louise is going to be running workshops and is generally meant to act as a sort of literary point of call for anyone who would like to talk to her about their writing. It’s not only a lot of work, but it looks as if it might include a fair amount of responsibility too. I’m not sure it’s something I would be able to do anyway.

Later in the day, I had a phone call from someone at Black and White Publishing who regularly reads the blog and asked if I would be willing to review some of their titles on here. I said yes, of course, and what struck me most while I was talking to him was the confirmation that there are actually people out there reading this. I check my stats as obsessively as any other blogger, but somehow you tend not to relate to them to the real human beings who might be sitting down at their laptops (or their phones or iPads or whatever) and reading the words you have written. So, in the future, look out for some more reviews on here, and if any other publishers want to get in touch for a similar arrangement, then please do so.

It was a good day for writing.

… And hello 2011

I didn’t think it would take me a week to get round to the next post on this blog – the sense of urgency drops off during the festive season, especially if you’ve artificially extended it with a few days’ holiday. Still, here we are, back in business.

I’ve been reading William Gerhardie’s “Memoirs of a Polyglot” recently. Long out of print, I managed to get a second-hand 1990 edition online (it was originally published in 1931). Gerhardie, as anyone who has read this blog over the last month will know, was one of the main inspirations for Logan Mountstuart, the writer character at the centre of William Boyd’s “Any Human Heart”. So far, I can’t see much affinity between the real Gerhardie and the fictional Mountstuart. WG seems more frivolous, a bit too self-assured in the pages of his memoir, but then he was writing it when he still had a career to speak of, well before those long decades of silence and obscurity had descended on him. I’ll persevere with it in any case; WG’s life was almost absurdly fascinating and exotic, and he can certainly write.

On WordPress, blog authors can check their daily, weekly and monthly statistics, so they can see how much internet traffic their site is attracting. Some days you might get one hit or none; other days you can get dozens. Anyone who writes a blog will be familiar with the obsessive need to keep checking your stats, often to the detriment of the actual writing. WordPress also keeps track of the search engine terms used to find your blog – so, for example, if anyone arrives at my blog after typing in the phrase “richard w strachan”, WordPress will keep a record of the search term. With a few variations, the phrase that people have typed most often into Google in order to get to my blog has been “Logan Mountstuart”. Something resonates to an extraordinary degree about this character, with a huge number of people. William Boyd has said that although the book garnered middling reviews when it was published, he receives more letters about it from readers than he does about any of his other works. I think it must be Logan’s humility, his fortitude in the face of appalling tragedy, and the stoical acceptance of his luck both good and bad, that attracts readers to him. Form plays its part here; Boyd wrote the novel as a journal intime, and clearly this makes the reader feel that they have privileged access to Logan’s thoughts and feelings. I see the success of the book, and of the TV adaptation, and the affection that so many people seem to feel for the character, as one of the supreme vindications of the long-form realist novel. (See also the outpouring of admiration and affection for Jonathan Franzen’s recent “Freedom”.) It may be seen as a sentimental throwback, but sometimes character does matter in fiction as much as style. At the very least, it tends to make the difference between love and mere admiration.

Lit mag on its way.

Finished the first book I was to review for Gutter, and have sketched out a few notes towards it. This was the one by the respected Scottish writer that I was very much looking forward to reading, and it didn’t disappoint. Started the other book I was to review though, and, so far, it  could well be the worst thing I’ve ever read in my life. Truly appalling. Should make for an entertainingly balanced piece …

As my last, fairly cryptic post should have made obvious, me and Martin are now pretty much set with our journal. We have a title, “Free State” (inspired by the great VS Naipaul), and a website. If anyone wants to sign up to receive it (it’s free), please do so. If you want to submit anything, follow the instructions on the site. We’re going to be open to short fiction and novel extracts, essays (on more or less any subject we like), reportage, photography, artwork etc etc etc. Perhaps poetry as well (I don’t want to encourage it though – there’s a lot of bad poetry out there). We’re hoping to have the first issue out by March, perhaps earlier. More to follow.

Lit mag, further developments

A productive weekend – Martin came round from sunny Leith to talk over some ideas concerning the development of our journal, an enterprise which I have written about before. We (sort of) have a title, and, (almost) more importantly, we have some kind of idea of the tone and tendency of the journal itself – internationalist, mixing essays with fiction. Crucially, there’s going to be no editorial, no phoney “manifesto”, no self-aggrandising attempt to position ourselves as the last bastion of a declining culture or a corrective to an entrenched literary oligarchy blah blah blah, no performances or club nights or “poetry slams”, or any of the other puffed-up stunts adopted by most new lit mags. (I realise that this sounds suspiciously like a manifesto in itself. Let’s pass over that in silence for a moment … )

All the logistic details are pretty much worked out in theory, so it will just be a question of getting them in place and putting out a call for submissions. As I said in the earlier post, we’re going to go for the (free) subscriber quarterly PDF model, with the long term intention of producing an annual print issue (either a digest of the year or a themed issue). We’re both completely enthused by the idea anyway. It will clearly be the last bastion of a declining literary culture. We’re hoping to get all this up and running by January, with the first issue provisionally coming out in March. Keep watching this space.

Book reviewing

Quick post – I have updated the ‘About’ page on this blog, asking any publishers who may be reading to get in contact so they can forward on review titles. If it seems like something I would want to read, I’ll write a short review here on the blog. It seems to be doing pretty well at the moment in terms of the number of hits I’m getting per week/month, so you can be sure that *literally* dozens of people would read it.

Thanks

Any Human Heart, and writers-as-characters

Last night I watched the first part of “Any Human Heart” on Channel 4, adapted by William Boyd from his own novel (full disclosure – I haven’t read the novel). You can follow the link to 4OD to watch it here. Quite apart from the fact that it’s an encouraging sign that TV producers are turning away from the 19th century classics when planning their big-budget autumn schedule, this was bold, ambitious and entertaining television. Jim Broadbent, playing the main character, Logan Mountstuart in grim, uncertain old age, showed in his few brief scenes why he can still blow younger actors off the screen. Sam Claflin and Matthew Macfadyen played Logan in callow youth and unsettled maturity respectively, and the jump between the actors didn’t feel in the least jarring. I can’t compare it to the novel (which I will read in the future – it joins the list along with all the other teeming thousands), but I was very impressed, and it’s encouraged me to read more of Boyd’s work.

What intrigued me most about it though was the familiar way it portrayed “the writer” as a character. Logan Mountstuart uses his post-Oxford trip to Paris, and a brief meeting with Ernest Hemingway, as the inspiration for his scandalous first novel, “The Girl Factory”. Duly then, we see the character sit down at his typewriter, pause thoughtfully, and tap out the words of the title. The process is repeated for his second book, “The Cosmopolitans”. Other than that, the only writing we see Logan doing is in his journal, as he excoriates himself for his romantic failings, or explores the agonies of unfulfilled love. The rest of the time, he seems too busy living to get much writing done, and all the work must happen off-screen. (See also one of my favourite films, “Henry and June”, about Henry Miller and his attempts to write “Tropic of Cancer”.)

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. The whole point of the character is his drifting passivity, the good and bad luck that puts him in the way of historical figures and events (the scene, dialogue-free, where he shares a urinal with Churchill is priceless) and his concern at the unfocused direction of his work. The fact remains that writers as characters would be incredibly dull if filmmakers cared more for verisimilitude than dramatic pace. If you were to make a wholly realistic film about a writer in the midst of his or her creation, it would have to show hours of their blank, slack-jawed expression, much staring out of the window, sighing, brow-rubbing, occasional stabs at the notepad or the keyboard, trips to the kitchen for cups of tea etc etc etc. In my case, it would mostly show me at work, or cleaning up after a 16 month old toddler, or prevaricating by writing this blog. This might be realistic, but it would make for a Warholian level of boredom.

Artistic creation, that weird alchemy, is usually portrayed on screen as fevered inspiration. Ed Harris’ film about Jackson Pollock takes the “action” in “action painting” literally. Henry Miller, in the aforementioned “Henry and June”, finally gets down to his novel in a sleepless burst of energy, while the rest of the world whirls on around him. In one five minute montage, a 350 page novel is written.

There’s something encouraging, then, that the process is irreducible, and can’t be caught on-screen. Perhaps Logan Mountstuart, tapping out the title of his book and then going on to live his life, is the more realistic depiction after all?