Friday, 30 July 2010

My Month in Novels (July), or Evil John Nylon’s Tummy

This month is an anagram special. Why? Anagrams are great. Garage Narrates Ma. Seaman Ragtag Rear. See? Plus, it’s never been easier to anagrammize with online generators, like this one.

I read six Gilbert Sorrentino novels this month. Or, I read six Belt Rig Snorter Ion novels this month. The first, Blue Pastoral (Lube Opal Rats), was the first misstep I’ve read from this author. Usually, his novels are tightly written concepts, executed with style and élan. This one felt like an indulgent piss-take of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (Defecate Short Tow).

Other novels included Odd Number (Dod Burn Me), Rose Theatre (Sore At Three), and Misterioso (Roses I Omit). This trio of novels are the best experimental writing I have read so far. Snorter Ion interrogates his own characters, exploring the potential truth and lies in his earlier works and questioning the very nature of narrative composition. Also hilarious.

The others, Under The Shadow (Dead Whore Hunts), and Gold Fools (Doll Goofs) were also delicious. The latter is written entirely in the interrogative, pushing it into the Oulipan canon of constraint genius, even though Sorrentino was never in the Oulipo. (In fact, he hadn’t even heard of the Oulipo until the mid-90s, which seems incredible).

I read the following too. Hopefully, the chosen anagram sums up the author and work:

Stacy Richter – My Date With Satan (Scratchy Tire – Ashamed Natty Wit)
Nicola BarkerBurley Cross Postbox Theft (Cranial Broke – Obscurer Sly Both Texts Fop)
Stuart KellyThe Book of Lost Books (Stall Turkey – Boobs Heft Kook Stool)
Alasdair GrayUnlikely Stories, Mostly (Disarray Gala – Noiselessly Milky Trout)
Gilbert Adair – The Key of the Tower (A Ribald Tiger – Teeth Twofer Hokey)
Will SelfPsycho Too (Elf Swill – Pooch Toys)
Various – McSweeney’s Issue 22 (Saviour – Ice Nemeses Wussy 22)
Mikhail Bulgakov – The Fatal Eggs (Koala Big Hulk Vim – Stage Gal Heft)

I’ve spent the last nine months sifting through Finnegans Wake, and finished this month. More on that later.* Oddly, James Joyce is the only author to break the anagram machine. Hmm. ‘James Joyce, Finnegans Wake’ comes out as ‘A Jackass Fee Meowing Jenny,’ a phrase used somewhere in Part III, I think.

See you next month! Seethe Mount Onyx! Exhume Sonnet Toy!

* Review:

Cockahoop! The widdly-winkie thought McSorley was a growho-ho-ho but the loveapoop went schematrip and a hole opened in the horsaloell that ran over the tumpedumpepump!

See: it’s not as easy as it looks.

There are two responses to Finnegans Wake:

1. Throw it in the trash and dismiss it as gibberish from a man who couldn’t care less about his readers.

2. Admire it for its sheer brass and balls, how it exploded the possibilities of what was possible in literature. Read a few pages then put it on the shelf and look clever in front of professors, citing it in essays on (post)modernism.

If you read even one page, you will vacillate between these two responses the entire time. Promise.

In the end, it might not be the best use of seventeen years, but by God it’s one sick fucker of a book. Joyce had the kind of madness you can't buy in alleyways. And it was his. All his.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Anaphora For Anna Fourier

So I might have left the milk out overnight. So what?

So I might have developed hay fever symptoms over the week. Doesn’t mean I have to replace the milk.

So I might have participated in the Forge of the Wordsmiths event on Saturday. It might have went well, or it might have been a disaster. In fact – it did go well – apart from the disasters.

So I might have a friend called Anna Fourier. Or maybe she’s more of an acquaintance. Or face from the distant past. Maybe I never knew her at all, and she now has kids and stuff.

So I might have found the Season 7 finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm the pinnacle of metanarrative in television.

So I might have phoned your sister at 2AM in a drunken rage. Or maybe I don’t drink at all. Maybe I am a perpetual teenager addicted to carbonated beverages.

So I might have to explain that anaphora are successive phrases with identical beginnings. Maybe that’s obvious now.

So I might have to say that reading in public wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Maybe I even liked it. No, that’s ridiculous. Maybe I would do it again – though maybe (probably) not.

So I might have to give Anna Fourier a call, ask her to read this blog post. Maybe she would find it cute. Maybe she’d find me cute, and we could replace the milk together. Is that a euphemism?

So I might have to stop now. Maybe anaphora is a type of spreadable cheese in another universe. Maybe Georges Perec is black in that universe. Maybe I am still white, but talented on harp.

So I might have to declare that I use too much toilet paper. Three sheets instead of two folded over. Even the quilted stuff. I am an eco-nightmare.

So I might have to apologise for that. Though I gather the observation has a certain universality.

So I might have to say that my story "Breathe In, Breathe Out" is in the Caught By Darkness anthology. Maybe that link goes to Amazon. Or maybe Amazon goes to that link.

So I might have to say goodnight and good luck, whatever that means.

So I might have to ask, do you have any milk I can borrow?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Interview With Alice Becker

My interview with the fêted author, taken from The Fuzzbox Pangina (June 2010):

Tell us about your latest book,
My Crazy Family.

It is a tale of families, I suppose. Families and how they screw us up! Ha-ha-ha! In my last book, Auntie Janet’s Gallstone, I drew heavily from my experiences with my Auntie Janet. She is such a brave woman and I felt I had to tell her story, you know? I didn’t even think about it, I just wrote it down. In this book, I took a different approach. I looked at my family and thought God, what a bunch of crazies! This would make for such a funny book, and people could so relate. And judging from the feedback so far, I think they have!

Could you outline the plot for us?

Well, there isn’t a plot as such. I know, crazy right! I just sort of wrote down some of the anecdotes my family tells, or just snippets of conversation. Like one part of the book is just my dad, who is crazy, talking about the time he lost a sock behind the bed, then couldn’t find it for weeks. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you where it ended up! But this book is really, um . . . experimental. It has more in common with really great writers like B.S. Johnson or Gilbert Sorrentino. It’s like a more accessible take on those guys.

Do you have a good relationship with your readers?

Oh, totally. With my last book, I got so many letters from people saying things like ‘my aunt had her gallstones out too, I can sympathise’ and ‘your characters were almost believable.’ I was really moved by some of the feedback I got from you guys! I’m successful ‘cause I’m just like everyone else, you know, writing about regular people I suppose. I’m easy to read. I was discussing this with Mike [husband] by the pool yesterday. ‘Cept he wasn’t listening AS USUAL! He’d lost the keys to the Ferrari, AGAIN!

What advice would you offer young writers?

Write from the heart. Write from experience. Write down the day-to-day details of your life. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Just express yourself. Keep an ear tuned to the problems in your family, and write them down. Nothing is sacred. People love reading stuff they can relate to! No detail is boring or irrelevant. We are lucky in this country to have a print culture that encourages people to write the first thing that comes into their head and print it, almost without exception! As long as it is real. And about families. And real. You have to feel it. Did I mention that it has to be real? Ha-ha-ha!

How did you react to your almost immediate success?

I was totally blown away. I’d just starting writing when people were flinging awards at me. I mean, literally – agents came to my house and threw money at me when I was trying to write! It was little distracting to be honest. I mean, it can’t have hurt being married to the man who owns Penguin Books, and having a dad that owns Random House, and performing oral sex on every book reviewer in America, but I’d like to think it’s my talent that carried me to the top. That and the guy I paid to write my books for me.

Thank you, Alice.

Hey, no problem. I read some of your stuff, by the way. Couldn’t really get into it. Too many ten-dollar words. And it’s like you won’t let yourself open up. Just let it out, man! Don’t be shy, let it out! Stop hiding behind the dictionary, speak your soul and readers will come.


OK. Don’t be rude. I don't see you winning any prizes, mister.


Alice Becker has published forty-five novels and three non-fiction books on writing. Her 1997 novel, The Mopey Girl With PMT, won the Picoult Prize for Page-Turning Brilliance That Appeals to Normal Readers with Regular Jobs That Don’t Have the Time to Read Books, What With Looking After the Kids and Doing the Housework and Trying to Maintain a Social Life.

M.J. Nicholls writes this blog. A short story he wrote a year ago and thought was too pants for publication,
The Legend of Liz Armhole, appears in the latest issue of the Rose & Thorn Journal.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Manifesting Ourselves

As a side project on my Napier MA Course, and what a pleasant course it is, if you want that £3750 removed from your bank account, six part-time students wrote manifestos to be produced in print and ‘manifested’ at a local venue. The experience has been an interesting lesson in patience, collaboration and writing-in-the-real-world-to-deadlines-and-such.

My manifesto evolved from four children sitting in the café discussing various ways to torture monkeys and cats. The end result was a sect known as the Hattists, the gag being the ritual donning of hatwear at all times. Har-har. At the time we chortled at our strange humour, and the presentation went down well, but after a weeks, I got fed up of the thing.

My task, then, was to sustain enthusiasm for a project that basically took one night to write. The manifesto had been ready since I wrote a mock-up for a class presentation. So I would have to hold onto my fondness for this thing for the eight months it took to bleed it into print.

At first I was irked that it was our responsibility to design the manifestoes. There seemed to be an assumption that we were knowledgeable about how to format A5 documents, that we were also visual artists, and that we knew how publishing layouts worked. So, in a muddle of confusion, the project hid in the cellar for months until we were forced into action.

At this point, the few undergraduates who volunteered to help us dropped out, leaving us on our own. Now. I am not a natural leader. I don’t want to lead anything. Except leading my stories into print. Or leading cake into my mouth. Leaders are people willing to be called tosscocks, and have loins of steel. I take a slightly large phone bill as a personal insult. Not a good leader.

I am also, frankly, unhelpful in a group scenario. Generally, in groups, there are only a short number of logical suggestions to be posited, and they get posited by someone eventually. I limit my contributions to nodding and basking in the charm of others. So this group collaboration was a new experience for me, and I like to think I handled it with a certain flexibility. Though no sexual acts were required, apart from some mild fisting.

We were being tested on our autonomy as a group, and coping with the deadlines and demands. I also had to take on a second manifesto when one member of the group pulled out, so had to edit someone else’s work for publication. This was another daunting challenge, and I’m not sure I pulled off a first-rate editing job, but hopefully the manifesto speaks for itself. That is, after all, the purpose of a manifesto. That’s my excuse, anyway.

The biggest challenge for me is on Saturday, when we ‘manifest’ our manifestoes in little 10-min presentations, organised by Forge of the Wordsmiths. In front of people. I still can’t believe that I volunteered to speak. But I could use the experience at reading as – like it or not, and I don’t like it, not one little bit – public reading is part of the writer’s life. I will have my Hattist comrades for support, so fingers crossed it goes down well.

A big round of applause, then, for all the manifesters and their sterling work in putting the manifestos together. It has been a painfully jolly time for all.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Did I Mention I Hate Flash Fiction?

“I hate you.”

Mr. Flash regards his shoes.

“You speak in sentence fragments.”

There was once a love. An interest. Then things. Slowed. Down. Sentences were becoming so short, the comma was dying out. Then – a metaphor! Black skies? Blue seas? A lingering look? Something telling. Yes. It reveals character. Because. You. Can. Reveal. So. Much. With. So. Little.

“I still love you.”

No. It can never be. Oh, Mr. Flash! You say so little, but mean so much! How do you get so much meaning into one sentence! Those clipped phrases. It’s like . . . are you a poet or something? It’s like poetry, but it’s prose! What? Proem? Prosetry? No. No, I don’t like those words.

“Come to me.”

I mustn’t! I must present an emotional conflict. I must be real. I must relate to the reader! They only want to read about real things with meaning. Oh, the meaning! Yes, I must make them cry! Perhaps. I should. Slow. It. Down. For. Dramatic. Effect. A startling image? A baby, yes. A baby has been left behind. Where? Umm. In a concentration camp. Too much? This is not real. This is history. OK. A baby, yes. Is crying. Of course. Always crying. The mother is. She is. Umm. She is dying. Of a broken heart. No. Trite. Of cancer. No. We don’t know! Ha, yes! How cryptic. The reader must imagine great depth and feeling and intensity where there is none. The mother is dying. A leaf is falling outside. What a powerful image, oh, it speaks of such sadness. She is thinking. About her baby. She will be dead before her baby is. Yes. She will never know her. Uh-huh. What? More images? A squirrel is. No. A cat is. No. A photograph! Of course. Her baby. Or her husband. Or both. This is powerful. She cries again. The tears do something new. Roll down her cheeks? What a cliché! No. They go into her ears. Yes. She hears her tears. Oh, those tears. Those bitter tears. My baby, I will never see my baby again! My poor baby! Oh, my darling child, etc.

“That paragraph is waaay too big.”

I know. Isn’t it wonderful?

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


Somehow, in between writing things for the student blog, struggling with novel rewrites, conscripting short stories for potential publication, reading far too much per month, household inanities and various outside activities, this blog has been NEGLECTED!

I was planning a post on the recent Stuart Kelly book launch, but
here is a more interesting one, and here is another more interesting one, and here is a further more interesting one. I suppose, then, I must turn to the topic du jour: swimming.

I have recently been reintroduced to swimming pools after a year-long absence. My feelings about swimming are mixed. Well, mostly I hate it. The Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh went and closed itself down for a whole two years, meaning
Mrs Quiddity and I had to use a nearer and cleaner pool instead. Fume!

The first complaint. Being a spectacle wearer, I resent having to remove my glasses to partake in watery larks. Pools have forever been a hazy blur to me, even darker beneath my goggles, and I am prone to bumping into people. I have no intention of wearing contact lenses, as two thin sheets of glass that close to my actual eye is a repulsive idea. Repulsive!

There are other causes for complaint. Parading around in a pair of swimming shorts in full view of the general public. Showering with the general public. Coming up against other people’s semi-naked bodies. Wearing locker keys on my wrist that chafe. Swimming itself: it is exhausting! Getting my hair wet. Getting into cold water that doesn’t get warmer. Having to get out of the way when athletic swimming Adonises barrel past. Getting splashed by rowdy children. Swallowing four pints of chlorine. Need I go on?

I have given Mrs Q an unfair ride with my complaints. I am unbearable to live with at best, but swimming has pushed me into the realms of the intolerable, and for this I apologise. (Both to Mrs Q and to the poor sods reading this). But swimming is a tough sell for me. When I was a nipper, I had fun retrieving items from the pool bottom, but as a grownup, you just look like a ten-dollar berk (which hasn’t stopped me, but this new pool has less room to toss in).

In the meantime, I plan to go along for relaxing paddles with my glasses ON, when there aren’t too many people around. The hope is that it centres me as human being and lifts me to a new plateau of understanding. Failing that, it will shrink my genitals to a more acceptable size.

Have a wet afternoon!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Leotard of Feeling

I am currently faced with the challenge (note the shade of positivity) of further rewrites on my novel, and questions of tone and character in the opening chapters. How my protagonist is written in these chapters will determine how the overall piece builds and develops, and will hopefully give the story greater unity, resonance and interest.

Reading back through these chapters, I tried placing myself in the position of the unsympathetic reader, stuck with nothing but my MS to read on a stuffy bus trip to Birmingham. The problem became apparent: the character lacks the instantaneous pull required from the off. That sounds rude, but I promise it was accidental. Honest. Anyway. It dawned on me that the approach I was taking was too obtuse, to roundabout.

The novel begins with bad news. I have written the character so she is put into a state of emotional statis, i.e. locked emotionally, and this is where the problem begins. It is not basic human nature to ‘unrespond’ to piece of terrible news. A reaction has to be centred around one core emotion, whether it is denial, rage, or hysterical shrieking in a closet. Since my character refuses to emote, she has become drained of interest, or sympathy.

This is where I feel I need to get down and grapple with the vipers. I am so afraid of coming up against cliché, I will lead my characters into cul-de-sacs (or culs-de-sac) of unrealistic action. In attempting to give my character an uncoventional response to ordinary horrors, she has become distant, unreachable. The problem is one of simple human empathy. I have to wear the leotard of feeling.

I have to remember that the novel itself, and how it develops, has been designed cliché-free, so stepping into a few cowpats of cliché in the beginning to create a more believeable protagonist is a risk worth taking. The plan is to trim some of the endless comment on her inaction, and to focus more on the wracked emotional state of the poor bleeder, while retaining her penchant for pointless analysis or inquiry, which provides a blob of mirth.

This has been a challenge for me, as I am used to treating characters as props, or marionettes, to be manipulated or tugged. I am not used to treating them as actual live beings.

OK. That’s all. Dismissed.

Monday, 5 July 2010


A few days ago, I met a plump woman on a traffic island in Marchmont. She told me about her two prize roosters, Elkie & Bournville. The former is due to perform in the Marchmont Poultry Slam this Friday, and the latter is more of a layabout, “like you students” she said.

Well. I took umbrage at this remark. Why do ‘grown-ups’ like portraying students as bone idle layabouts, too stoned on Rizzlas and pizza-bongs to so much as cough out a salutary hairball? And even worse, why do students indulge in this cliché, albeit with irony, but taking a genuine pride in thinking themselves immobile losers dripping with detached hipness?

This is an OUTRAGE! There are worse things to get riled up about, of course – the endless shirking of humanitarian laws by unscrupulous cunts hungry to taste western privilege; our slow descent into penury and suicide under the LibCon dictatorship; how our culture of conspicuous consumption has produced a generation of vacuous movie-quoting voids too obsessed with THINGS to form deep and meaningful spiritual unions with their fellow human beings.

However. I only have limited space on this blog. I’ll get to those later.

When I was first a student, I was profoundly miserable. Being the sort of sensitive emo type to find the deep sadness in the wilting of a petunia, the lost expression on an old man’s face, and so on, I took things very seriously indeed. Turning eighteen is NO LAUGHING MATTER. It is an exhausting transition period, when we shift from our cosseted naïve fantasia into the real world, with its snaking awfulness, its petulant horrors.

On top of this emotional whirligig, we are expected to be interested in our degrees. There isn’t TIME to be a lazy buffoon. If we sleep in to ten o’clock, it is because we are preparing ourselves to go OUT THERE, in that horrible shit-pit of a world, and do things with a modicum of success. The mistake here is confusing laziness with deep philosophical trauma. I explained this in great detail to the plump woman on the traffic island.

She apologised. She also added this illuminating point – perhaps workers are the true sloth of society. Perhaps those scowling philistines so quick to denigrate students are those sick with Sartrean nausea, their beings clenched with indecision and self-loathing. These people have grown embittered in their existential limbo – caught in the middle place between their obligation as British drones and people with hearts, passions, loves, hopes and dreams. You people are SICK with misery, and I PITY you.

At the moment, I am kept stable in my Napier MA, writing through the casual hellish nightmares that arise from being alive, and occasionally smiling at anyone who dares to send beams of light my way.

Be brave out there, and I will too.

P.S. I have totally pimped this mo'fo blog. If it ain't coup de la to your eyes, lemme know.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

A McMissive to Scots

Dear Writers of Scottish Literature,

It has come to my attention you are still portraying Scotland in the role of battered housewife in a leopard-print dressing gown. Although Scotland is a semi-interesting nation with a few good things going for it – clean(ish) public WCs, four or five crisp factories, Dougie Vipond – I would ask you to consider making a few amendments in your works.

a) Please do not refer to ‘Calvinists’ in a knowing and clever way, as though you are plugged into Scotland’s ye olde broadband and possess a turban-sized knowledge of history.

b) Please do not write about working class characters in dialect in an attempt to define a nation at any one particular time in history, as though this represents some significant shift in a cultural landscape.

c) Please stop treating Scotland as though it were an archipelago somewhere off the coast of Finland, and acknowledge that English & Irish & Aussie & Indian & Polish & Iranians live here too.

d) Please write something that doesn’t constantly draw attention to its own Scottishness, and drop your STEP ASIDE, SCUMBAG, I AM A SCOTTISH WRITER complex.

e) Please do not encourage Scottish arts funding bodies to tar original works with the brush of Scottishness by setting your homoerotic philately epic in Dundee, Paisley, or Ayr.

f) Stop writing poems in extinct Scottish dialects, and obsessively transcribing each tic and hiccup of existing dialects, as though that makes you more Scottish than the other guy.

g) Please do not chortle innocently at the destructive clichés that comprise our national identity. You should be grown up enough not to participate in this foolishness.

h) Stop writing reviews in the Sunday Herald for heartwarming Glaswegian dramas performed by the rich children of Morningside millionaires and Yanks.

i) Do not indulge the peasants in the Scottish parliament by supporting their schemes to turn Scotland into a global superpower powered by dead Picts & shit Spanish architects.

j) Do not pretend to like Celtic folk music, pipers, haggis, fish suppers, neeps and tatties, bunnets, when you eat couscous from M&S with peshwari naans and houmous butties.

I am guilty of some of these crimes, and have taken steps to amend my ways. I hope you will do the same. Together, we can free ourselves from the stigma of Scottishness and become writers, for real, as opposed to Scottish writers, which is no kind of life.

Yours lovingly,

A Concerned Jock