Tuesday, 31 May 2011

My Month in Novels (May)

A slower reading month due to personal difficulties involving ovipositors and gynaecologists. Reviews from Goodreads.

1. Geoff Nicholson — Flesh Guitar

A novel for rockophiles that isn’t shit! Hurrah! Nicholson writes about the guitar as a phallic object, then reclaims it as a tool for empowering experimental art among the women. (Kinda). This is a difficult novel to describe: it follows the career of Jenny, an avant-garde composer present in a series of parodic musical experiments (naked acupuncture stage shows, smashing eggs against fretboards, etc), until her final performance in a dive bar.

She also finds herself talking to a teenage Frank Zappa and a deathbed Robert Johnson (and Kobain and Hendrix) in a series of hilarious scenes, while helping the careers of wayward male musicians by playing long distorted solos. It’s one of the most original fiction books about music I’ve read, despite a few lapses into cheese. Makes You Don’t Love Me Yet look like the Slipknot reunion.

2. Andrew Miller — Oxygen

One of those novels where the reader is kept bobbing on the surface of interest, an empathetic reaction, or real excitement, for the entire duration, without ever experiencing interest, an empathetic reaction or real excitement for the entire duration. Miller is a good craftsman: a carpenter who gets the words in the right order, without the allusions to Jesus or Owen Wilson. No messing.

The book weaves three narratives together with an overly descriptive prose style, depressingly inept middle-aged males, and an incongruous Balkan conflict plot to give the novel ‘interest’ and heft. All in all, it will pass the time if you aren’t thinking too hard, or if cancer novels are your bag. See also Erasure (for a novel on a similar theme). (The author also has a pierced ear in his bio shot. Says a great deal).

3. Dubravka Ugrešić — Thank You For Not Reading

These be charming and hilarious attacks on the publishing world, writers and their tics, and the laughable state of Croatian culture. These also be serious academic essays on East European writers, with ‘The Writer in Exile’ as its centrepiece: a lacerating display of egghead invective laced with personal sorrow and frustration.

Ugrešić has suffered the indifference of her chauvinist peers, the turned backs of a fiercely nationalist state, and the folly of trying to sell East European issues in the western marketplace. I can’t think of a writer up against such odds who writes with such warmth, intelligence, irony and genius. This collection is a challenging feast of lighter magazine pieces and some substantial four-course socio-cultural investigations.

For writers who are readers, readers who want to be writers, and readers who love reading.

4. Emilio Lascano Tegui — On Elegance While Sleeping

A glorious little book, told in elegant poetic chapters, tinier than a thimbleful of sand, but wittier than four Javier Maríases and smarter than one Fernando Pessoa. Written in an undated diary format, the narrator recounts his experiences as a man of leisure, from his manicured beginnings, his syphilitic middles, to his murderous ends. Wondrous little intro, too, and the translation is smooth, perfect: captures the voice nicely. (P.S. The author was a self-appointed Viscount. Megacool).


5. Jean-Philippe Toussaint — Camera

A novel in which nothing significant happens on purpose, to draw attention to the insignificant things that comprise 90% of our lives. Toussaint calls this the ‘infinitesimal novel’ and his entire canon could be read in an afternoon. That’s how infinitesimal these novels are.

There is a richness here, a more philosophical flavour to the second half of the novel, so it isn’t merely about a man hanging around a DMV office trying to shack up with a single mum. But mainly it is, and there’s nothing wrong with that: it’s funny and incisive. Très bon.


6. Raymond Queneau — Saint Glinglin

This is a strange one, even by Queneau’s standards. A full-blown Oulipo workout with extended monologues on fishes, spoof biblical verse, portentous literary ponderings and screwball farces, all written as a lipogram (missing the letter X, except in character names).

That about covers it. Except to express some disappointment. The novel is insanely creative, but the monologue chapters tend to the mundane, and the usual Queneau multi-character frolic-making grows tiresome, despite the manic plot about Pierre ousting his father as Mayor, his brother ousting him as Mayor, and the endless rainfall of the finale.

The cover is so glorious it’s still one to recommend, for readers comfortable in the arms of Perec and Mathews.

7. Rebecca Gowers — When to Walk

One thing I resent about chick-lit is there is no male equivalent, no dick-lit. Sure, there’s Andy McNab and the action thriller, but where are the clumsy males seeking handsome girl suitors, the wacky adventures of hapless guys going on shopping sprees to Dixons? One thing that’s bereft in trashy male lit is humour. Kathy Lette may be as funny as a drowning kitten but at least she tries. Andy McNab couldn’t raise a titter in a laughing gas factory.

This novel isn’t chick-lit but it’s written in a style exclusive, it seems, to women writers. Sure, we have our Sam Lipsytes, our George Saunderses, but these gents are more preoccupied with broader, universal explanations for the culture and its behaviour. Where are the despairing men in overheated flats musing on etymology? Telling dreadful Victorian jokes? A crazy neighbour, anyone?

This book concerns an eccentric hack with a spinal condition whose husband leaves her at the weekend. Over seven days, she ambles around chatting to her Cockernee neighbour, her senile mother and her bisexual best friend, while trying to complete an article on an icy holiday resort. The writer puts digression to the test, pulling the reader into the protagonist’s fertile history and knowledge of Victorian trivia. Some dialogue is a tad ropey, but the prose sings lie SuBo on steroids.

8. Danuta De Rhodes — The Little White Car

A brief cartoon romp imagining the life of the white Fiat Uno driver the night of Princess Diana’s crash. In this book she’s Veronique, a probably very talented photographer whose break up with her boyfriend leads to a drunken ride home and the unfortunate accident. The rest of the story is about her attempt to dismantle the car and avoid the coppers, while being generally rather French in that way the Brits assume all French women are, i.e. glamorous femme fatales.

Dan Rhodes’s Anthropology is some of the warmest wittiest flash fiction out there, but this feels like it was written in two weeks during a stay in Paris. For a comic novel, it isn’t nearly as risky or dark enough to rise above its cloying tweeness, its cute-funny-boyfriend tone, its half-chewed ideas. A longer book satirising a zany French movement like the Oulipo might’ve been funnier, and he could’ve gone mad with the form and style.

Shame. Feels like it’s for a younger audience, too, maybe twelve-to-fifteen-year-olds.

9. Deborah Levy — The Unloved

The two previous DL books I sampled were triumphs, most notably the dark comedy Billy & Girl. This one was closer to Ophelia & the Great Idea in style, but given scope to roam outside the short form, this style becomes an overblown flan of staggering pretention.

The book opens in a French chateau with a vague drawing-room murder setup. We’re then introduced to a range of characters worse than Big Brother contestants for sheer violent weirdo backward madness. These are the Unloved of the title: representatives from America and Europe brought together to pervert each other in this wherever-the-fuck location.

Woven through this non-story are long diaries of a violent marriage in Deep South USA and some sort of East European conflict narrative. The novel is pathologically hard to follow, so feels more like a series of dreamlike, violent set pieces. The characters speak in a form of poetic lit-speak, even those with heavily accented dialogue, making them little more than ideas strung together with arch, arrogant language.

Dark sexual abuse and graphic violence punctuates the narrative, which is uncompromising and incomprehensible.

10. Kurt Vonnegut — Timequake

Timequake is billed as Vonnegut’s last “novel” but it’s neither his last, nor a novel. Hocus Pocus was the final novel from the Master, and A Man Without a Country his last book. This is almost entirely autobiographical, with a few digressions on the career of Kilgore Trout to keep the fictional proceedings going.

No complaints from me. Kurt is on fine form, wisecracking and wise, settling into his batty old grandfather role with ease. What is surprising about this volume is the candour he displays when talking about his own family, a matter of contention among the Vonnegut clan. But his personal life was always entwined with his writing: from way back to his early 70s novels, when he began to write personally detailed prefaces.

This book’s catchword: Ting-a-Ling!

11. David Foster Wallace — Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

Outstanding. The closest one can get to triple penetration in essay form.

Each one is a stunner, from the grotesquerie of the Adult Video Awards in ‘Big Red Son,’ the magniloquent ass-handing of John Updike, the sublime pedantry of the modern classic ‘Authority and American Usage,’ the obsessive campaign chronicling of ‘Up, Simba,’ to the staggeringly researched meta-bubbling John Ziegler profile ‘Host.’

All the essays succeed at tying razor-sharp exegeses of American culture to a holy clarity of insight, showing how acutely attuned to the nuances of the human mind Mr. Wallace was. Even among the shorter pieces here: the Bergman-like silence of ‘The View From Mrs Thompson’s’ to the dazzling dissection of Dostoevsky, this is super-stellar belles-lettrism from outer space.

And to top it all, I now feel deeply for lobsters.

12. Vladimir Nabokov — The Luzhin Defense

Hands-up: I read some of this at bullet-train speed because I had to return it to the library. Yes, I could have withdrawn it again, but there were only fifty-odd pages left and some new Foster Wallace was in that set my hands a-twitchin’ and my brain a-spinnin’.

So I didn’t let the sumptuous prose slowly unfold, I didn’t delicately caress his sentences with the same narcissistic mania the author bestowed upon his own works. But there wasn’t much sumptuousness here, anyway. His third novel is a more straightforward work, plump with overlong descriptions and meandering scenes between unconvincing characters.

Mrs Luzhin in particular (Emily Watson in the film—delicious) doesn’t seem a convincing spouse, nor does her attraction to the über-tortured chess-whizz Luzhin (John Turturro in the film—delicious) seem particularly well-rationalised, outside his general weird-genius aura. Luzhin stumbles through the novel like Rain Man, driven mad by trying to solve an impossible chess problem and his general uselessness as a human being.

Surprising how people cite Luzhin as a ‘warmer’ Nabokov character: I couldn’t stand his drivelling idiocy, and the intrigue for me fell to the way he was going to crush Mrs Luzhin’s heart. The title also seems to refer to how Mrs L defends Luzhin in the eyes of her parents, how she keeps him in expensive mini-breaks with scenic greenery. Lucky for some.

If you happen to be a chess genius, however, this is probably the greatest book you’ll ever read. (Chess memoirs excluded—that’s cheating).

13. Paul Morley — Nothing

I was thinking about this book in relation to B.S. Johnson and his suicide. Morley’s father, from a similar poorish background, committed suicide when his life was going nowhere. Johnson seems the antithesis to this: a man with a promising career in fiction, unpopular in his lifetime, but building a reputation among peers and critics. Despite his impressive achievements and high successes, he too ends his life with a whoosh of melodrama.

There’s something about the children of WW2, something about that generation that lead to unfortunate daddies. Raised by parents with one foot in the 19th century and the other in a more liberal post-war age, the sons are brought up in harsh and demanding regimes. As a result, the sons then flail around trying to meet these demands and impose the same on their brood, struggling to keep up with the modern world. This need for success, notions of manhood, pride and so on, if not achieved, lead to capital F failure.

Paul Morley, Best Rock Writer in UK, explores his own father’s suicide in this exhilarating memoir by taking the reader through his complex relationship to dead bodies (he saw Ian Curtis laid out on a stretcher), his waning relations with his dad, and the mindset that lead Mr Morley to end himself in a car somewhere outside Gloucester.

There’s a dedication to B.S. Johnson afterwards, and Morley’s approach to telling the story is as stubbornly non-linear: the first section is about his aborted attempts to write the book (or imaginary versions of the book), there’s a straightforward memoir section about his school life, a series of little vox pops on various themes, and transcribed interviews. His style is maximal, indulgent even, but always warm and witty.

14. Dag Solstad — Shyness & Dignity

A bunch of so-so ideas barely stapled together in novel-form. Elias Rukla (fore- and surname used throughout the whole novel) is a teacher who has a moment of realisation about a peripheral character in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. His pupils couldn’t give a hoot, and he smashes an umbrella to bits in the playground as a kind of rebellion.

Flashback, then, to his time at university, his friendship with an eminent philosopher, and his subsequent marriage to an “indescribably beautiful” woman, who is described thus so often it would be more truthful just to call her “male fantasy femmebot 2.0.” (Or abbreviated: MFF 2.0).

Other bits of social comment, literary opinion and existential musing are dotted throughout, but none of this matters, since the style is so dreary and digressional there isn’t anything close to an interesting storyline or 3D character. It isn’t formally interesting enough to make these elements irrelevant, and most of the writing is repetitive and amateurish. It is translated from the Norwegian, of course, so we could always blame the translator.

15. David Foster Wallace — Girl With Curious Hair

My main response to reading Wallace is that I’m not clever enough to read Wallace. I go through long periods in his fiction not knowing what the hell is happening and what the narrator is narrating. My second response is that Wallace wrote fiction with a universal appeal, inscrutable at times, but with a heart and a mind built by NASA. Despite this, despite his intention to strike a basic human chord, his fiction is largely the domain of the hyper-literate, or folks like me, straining to be hyper-literate. Wallace’s intellect both attracts and repels potential readers, for both good and bad reasons.

This collection is largely free from such anxieties, however. Stories like ‘Little Expressionless Animals’ and ‘My Appearance’ explore Wallace’s contempt for TV over higher art forms, ‘Lyndon’ and ‘Girl With Curious Hair’ are hilarious satires on American success and wealth, and ‘Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR’ and ‘Everything is Green’ are shorter examples of the infinite interpretability of his work.

These selections demonstrate his flair for aggressive comedy, intensely felt language, experimental forms, and Pynchonesque wordplay.

Sadly, there are stories that demonstrate the less appealing facet of his work, namely the almost pathological indulgence. Wallace arrived on the scene when postmoderism was in its death throes, yet became a compulsive reader of these texts: Pynchon, Barth, et al. His work, to me, does partly belong to a postmodern tradition, filtered through a more ironic lens, one knowingly beyond such a passé form, though still besotted. Like how I feel about Michelle Obama. I know she is a useless presence in my life, though I still crave her uxorious attentions in the oval office, despite loving my current spouse.

‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’ is something I should have loved—I respect metafiction and have a higher tolerance for its “exhaustion” than most. But this was sheer exhaustive indulgence, some incomprehensible homage to John Barth with cringe-inducing self-comment and more showboating grandiloquence than four Joyces. It reads like the kind of fiction Wallace himself would later lampoon, the dry academic work from campus writers, albeit stamped with more wit, ideas and general impressiveness. Metafiction about metafiction is really a niche genre.

‘John Billy,’ ‘Here and There’ and ‘Say Never’ were inscrutable to me, but this was only my first reading. If there’s one thing Wallace demands, it’s more than one reading.

16. B.S. Johnson — See the Old Lady Decently

The more mass-market drivel that gets churned out on production lines, the more stuffed bookstores are with nine-book series on teenage vampires, the more absurd B.S. Johnson’s suicide seems. Today, Johnson’s books would struggle to find their way into print. No publishing house would take House Mother Normal from an unknown. Nor have the sense of adventure and reckless fiscal guts to bind The Unfortunates. In the sixties and seventies all his work (poems and plays too) were in print.

So if he were alive today, he’d probably have to kill himself.

See the Old Lady Decently
was part of the proposed Matrix Trilogy, a biographical account of his mother’s life and a rumination on the state of the British Empire since the WWI battles at Ypres. This is his final final book and remains out of print and in the shadow of Christie Malry’s Own Double-entry, which many (including me) mistake as his last. (And which is clearly the superior work).

As a book it isn’t Johnson at his best: the experiment doesn’t have the same exuberance, skill or humour as his other novels. There are no clues as to Johnson’s own mental decline here, despite the usual fourth wall moments—if anything this book is lighter and more heartfelt than his spikier efforts. What shines through is a love for his mother, his London home, and his country. And, inevitably, Laurence Sterne.

17. B.S. Johnson & Julia Trevelyan Oman — Street Children

Johnson provided charming captions for this book of B&W photographs from film and television designer Julia Trevelyan Oman. The shots are of 1960s London street urchins, and Johnson’s text is formatted to set the scene of each shot, some bits witty, some bits moving. One shot in particular, of a blonde girl sitting on her doorstep gazing forlornly into space, her face pulled taut with worry, melds with the text—where Johnson imagines an abusive father—beautifully.

Oman
designed the sets for Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and was given a CBE in 1986. This is one of many interesting collaborations involving Johnson in the sixties: the others include a collection of stories with Indian poet Zulfikar Ghose and four themed fiction anthologies.

18. Will Self & David Gamble — Perfidious Man

This book combines an essay by top-flight satirist Will Self and the male odalisques of David Gamble with a long transcript of an interview with a female-to-male transgender, whose story becomes the centrepiece of the book. The focus is somewhat skewed: this is supposed to be a book on maleness, what maleness means, though is more a look at trans problems. Still, the off-kilter approach to maleness—maleness as experienced by someone in a female body—fits into the Self world of grotesque mirrors and strange inversions.

Warning: contains two or three penises.

Monday, 30 May 2011

MP Squared (Blogger Doesn't Allow Superscript in Titles Because Blogger is Hateful)

Question: What is your MP?

Me: My MP is 20,000 words of a creative (narrative?) nonfiction book about video game addiction among kids and teens.

Question: Why?

Me: Because I was a gaming addict and the topic is phat. In fact, since discovering KCRW’s Bookworm I’ve been addicted to a certain map in the war game Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun. In this game you build army bases to defend yourself against enemy opponents, usually situated at opposite ends of large maps. It’s a game I’ve been playing on and off for yonks now, mainly for mindless amusement, to escape the heck that is me. The game had grown stale until I discovered a new method of playing.

On the random map generator screen, I toggle the settings so all three computer opponents and myself are scrunched up tight inside a map, thus:

This proximity of enemy bases leads to pandemonium. The fastest person to build their base, churn out soldiers and tanks, and so on, wins, and the sheer sensory overload gets me more buzzed up than four vats of Red Bull. I recruit engineers to steal the enemies’ buildings, I erect grenade turrets to tear through streams of soldiers, I steal and build and steal and build then win or lose. It’s not as though this method generates an infinite number of options: usually I repeat the same tactic over and over again.

And this is a prime example of why writers are more prone to gaming addiction than sane attractive people who like granola bars. We crave procrastinations. Quick, addictive, exhilarating games are what we need to stop us writing. So far I’ve spent a little too much time playing this instead of researching my MP and I’ve even asked Mrs Q to hide the disc. I fear a return of the sort of die-hard life-consuming mayhem I’m trying to write about.

Question: Isn’t that ironic? Dontcha think?

Me: A little too ironic?

Question: But yeah, I really do think. It’s like rayayaaaaaain on your wedding day! It’s a free ride, when ya—


Me: Shut it, Alanis.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Decoding Music Criticism


As a non-musician it can be daunting to write album reviews where you don’t a) come across as an ignorant tosspot, b) offend musicians by failing to appreciate their nine-inch cocks, c) offend fans by slamming their favourite artists, d) offend bands by slamming their talents, e) offend the friends of bands by slamming their friends’ talents, f) pissing off critics-of-critics who know how to write a much better review than you.

So what is the point of the music reviewer? What separates the Lester Bangses from the Tony Blackburns? Here are some posits.

WHAT A REVIEW SHOULDN’T BE

1) A poorly disguised PR exercise, where the reviewer quotes the bumlicky spiel found in press releases.

2) An info pump where the whole review repeats facts from an artist’s website or boring band trivia.

3) An excuse to discuss oneself at length and the crap new haemorrhoid cream that doesn’t really do much except make the cheeks squeak. *

4) An excuse to demonstrate the writer’s brilliance for future work at Pop Bitch and a stint buffing Alex Petridis’s shoes. **

5) Centred around the band, not the album or single up for review.

WHAT A REVIEW SHOULD BE

1) It should try and evoke the music’s nuances, bring sounds to life with words.

2) It should present a fair assessment of the record as a whole, dwelling on the peaks and lows in particular, with as much precise musical and lyrical analysis as possible (or tolerable).

3) It should describe an immediate personal reaction to a record. You can tell within a few songs whether an album will kick arse or flop into mediocrity, and the reader will have a similar reaction.

4) It should be a good piece of writing. If you love an album, you become a salesman, you want people to share the bliss. If you loathe it, you want to make people shed tears of pain. To do this, you need to rope the reader in, shake them out their indifferent stupor and get some reaction. God knows there’s too much dreck out there to wade through.

5) Opinionated. Or definite. Criticism is an highwire emotional act. The critic pronounces judgement on another’s artistic talents, up there for all to see. They must stand their ground. Like Tom Petty, or a Pictish King.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MUSIC CRITICS AND EVERYONE ELSE

Music criticism isn’t viewed as a legitimate form of artistic expression. It’s viewed as a means of psychically sucking the brilliance from musicians who are the proper artists and geniuses. No one reads reviews for aesthetic pleasure, except in the cases of journos who’ve graduated from hacks to personalities. So for the humble online critic, it breaks down like this:

Bands don’t respect critics unless they give them a good review, but they don’t want to be seen to care about the reviews, so they don’t make a point of acknowledging that review or reviewer, but allow the praise to puff up their egos all the same. In the case of bad reviews, bands will add reviewers to their mental shitlists, recruit friends to troll them in comments, and pretend the reviews mean nothing to them because they’re like struggling artists, man. (Unlike reviewers, who aren’t, like, struggling writers or anything).

In the case of readers, they want reviews that reflect their personal feelings about the music, and if they don’t, the reviewer is at fault, and they become critics-of-the-critics. They will make a point of returning again and again to troll the reviewer, even on reviews they agree with, since the law of internet is no one is ever wrong and the individual is always right.

Reviewers are people who love music who are bursting with opinions no one cares about. They like music most sane people wouldn’t listen to with their ears lobbed off. They need somewhere to go to share this passion that the world shrugs with bored shoulders. They may well be hostile towards musicians, but musicians are the ones getting laid on a semi-regular basis, so you can understand the conflict.

A FEW PERSONAL FAVOURITE JARGON TERMS:

Dylanesque – This is music that either involves a) electric guitars, b) acoustic guitars, c) folk songs, d) clever words, e) blues licks, f) surreal words, or g) anything else to do with music. It’s a great catch-all placeholder when nothing else springs to mind.

Sonics – No one really knows what sonics are, but it does have a proper meaning in music theory, so it’s another great bluff word. The general OED definition is “relating to audible sound,” meaning it could refer to absolutely anything at all in a song. (Maybe not lyrics).

Tour de force – A classic. A much beloved cliché in all forms of journalism. It means, essentially, “very good—no, like, really good,” but in French and stuff.

Fresh from . . . such-and-such tour – Great way to begin a review when the brain isn’t working. Name the tour, followed by the album number, something vaguely interesting about the lead singer, then get on with the blah-blah.

____

* This makes me a Tony Blackburn, since I often discuss both my haemorrhoids and bunions in reviews.

** I also do this. Call me Tony.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

MP

stands for…

Member of Parliament

Who is my MP? I don’t know his name. Or her name. I should know his/her name because political parties can benefit from voter apathy to enslave the poor, but I don’t. What do I see when I picture my MP? I picture a perfectly nice person not very concerned about things in general.

Melting Point

The melting point of a snowman is about thirty-six degrees centigrade. Minimum. I spell this out in case any snowmen are reading. They only understand numbers and don’t care about the power of language to unite us lumps of bone, blood and bitterness together in temporary harmony.

Mooring Post

Or, in another word, bollards. Have you noticed how people never touch bollards? Have you also noticed how few people hold onto the railings on public staircases? Am I the only one to grip on tightly as I climb the capital’s peaks? I often feel people are privy to some horrible truths about germs, and everyone views me as a filth-monger, fingering those dirty rails.

Metropolitan Police

The police stand for two things: fear and death. If a policeman arrived at my door I would faint in fear of imminent arrest or family slaughter. I trust them to keep me safe from vagabonds, but I want no dealings with them, I want a world free from terrifying little squares and yellow cagoules.

Major Project

Our briefing yesterday was laced with the usual slammings of former students (the subtle approach) and general nods and winks not to fuckitallup, please. In fairness, there were also positive ex-grad remarks, and the slammings were a deterrent against any unneeded humiliation before being sent into the great beyond of post-postgrad life. All my prep work in the creative (or is it narrative?) nonfiction module has been leading up to this moment, so I don’t face a gaping void of ideas and worries. But still, they’ll come.

MP also stands for Mumbai Police, Machine Pistol and Missionary Position.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A Note to All Those Who Laptop in Public


Listen: it’s not easy carting a laptop around town. Trudging through the marble streets of Auld Reekie (where the rain is made from liquid gold) and finding a café without four packs of student humbuggers discussing the latest developments in the heady world of sleeping on Dave’s sofa after a night of top-notch revelry and world-class devilry. Then you have to find a plug (unless you have a wireless one—how modern!), hook it in and whomp it on.

Then there’s that thing you do—we’ve seen, we see, we have seen!—where you angle your screen so we can SEE YOUR GREAT WORDS, words you type in large font and CAPS, SO WE CAN SEE YOUR AWESOMENESS! It may well be you are Joyce Carol Oates on your 198th novel about families and the conflicts between them and don’t-families-have-conflicts and think-deeper-think-of-the-deepness-of-conflicts, but WE DON’T CARE!

If we’re writers, we hate you because you are leaking your product prematurely to the masses. You are selling your wares as you write your wares, and no one wants to read wares that haven’t undergone four drafts of ware-correction and what’s-it-for ware-agonising sessions and other ware problems that characterise the writer’s wareisome life.

Having said that, I am writing this in public. Behind me, four envious writers are scribbling down these words to incorporate into their novels. I can hear one fainting from the refreshing originality of the family conflict idea, and another is planning a post about annoying twats who write on their laptops in public. One person loves the wareisome pun.

But what is this post really about? Is it more about a guy killing time instead of writing his non-fiction book on gaming addiction? Is it more about a guy home alone for a few days, going silently mad? Is it more about a guy who wants a bath now? Yes, indeedy, it may well be.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Why You Should Write in Complete Silence — A Post With a Tennis-Based Numerical Grouping System and Sly Attacks on Music Spammers


The problem with listening to music when writing can be unpacked via the following numerical volleys:

Serve 1: MUSIC IS MOVING.

Music tickles the parts of our emotional receptors we don’t have the time to understand. We don’t know why Billy Joel makes us weep with pleasure or why Bananarama make us break out in hotflushes of tears and love when that soaring chorus kicks in. But it does, and that doesn’t help us write a sentence. All we’d ever write is OMG I LUV YOU BILLY JOEL LICK ME LICK ME LICK ME, OH BILLY!

Serve 2: MUSIC HAS WORDS.

When we write we need words, as a rule. It’s a good idea on the whole to use words, and not, say, numbers or invisible words, like blank spaces. We could use symbols, like →→→→→→→→→→←←←←←←←←←← but that’s not going to outclass Javier Marias, is it? So we end up putting song lyrics papa don’t preach subliminally into our like a virgin text. And BMG will kill us music makes the people come together for that!

Serve 3: YOUR MUSIC IS NOT AS GOOD AS MINE.

One reason the 30 Day Song Challenge on Facebook irked me was that music love is (and should be) a selfish thing. No one really “shares” a playlist. People post links to the music they like and expect people to listen and congratulate them on their fine aesthetic standards and melodic ear. Nope! We hate it! All your music sucks! When you give a friend a CD of your favourite band, they will put this CD behind the microwave for fourteen years unless you ring them up every hour asking them HAVE YOU LISTENED YET? This has nothing to do with writing, I only wanted to make that point.

Serve 4: MUSIC DISTRACTS.

This is mainly an extension of the first two points, but it’s true. Music wants to be listened to and analysed like a poem or Lydia Davis. Or, at least, the annoying serious literate rock stuff does. The Smiths and co. They are “poets” and want their words to be studied in tandem with the music. So you can’t write and listen as they will bitch about you not paying attention, not understanding them, then sue you for accidental plagiarism.

Serve 5: HOW CAN YOU ACCESS YOUR BRAIN WITH THAT RACKET GOING ON?

Unless you write entirely from the subconscious like some robotic Joyce Carol Oates android baby mother child doctor creature thing android monkey caravan, you’ll need to think about the order which in place you words. You’ll need to spend twenty minutes choosing between screamed or shrieked, then delete the whole sentence and story, then read an AL Kennedy blog and want to punch her smug prize-gobbling gub in (kidding—I like AL, but you have to bitch-slap the best from time to time), then have nine baths and smack your kids. (Why don’t they just shut UP?) You can’t think straight if Mick Hucknall is prancing around your perineum trying to juice the sluice.*

Serve 6: YOU LIKE TO SING!

Listen to you! Golden tonsils! Listen to you belt out that Queen number when you should be writing a paragraph of description about how Kerry feels abstaining from alcohol after her cousin Jim forced her to drink her body weight in Hooch that night in Invergordon. You can’t stop yourself, you little diva! Given the chance, you’d do a SuBo and light up the sky with your money lungs, even though you sound like a cat smashing a violin against a piano in a room full of people being stabbed outside Kelis’s recording studio.**

Serve 7: THE CHAIN OF SONG NEVER ENDS.

With song comes memory, and with memory comes more songs and more memories. You should listen to music that has no effect on you whatsoever. Background fuzz. This is why people write in cafes. Coldplay in the background and that numbing DJ prattle. The numbness of FM radio has probably lead to some moments of real clarity and artistic accomplishment.

Your serve. Game, set and match, silence!

_________

* I have no idea what this means.

** Think again when you say ‘I like Kelis,’ because you’ve probably been conditioned by Ingsoc’s Ministry of Shit Pop.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Tug-of-War Between Great Fatty Sentences Stuffed With Mustard and Mayo, and Slim Ones


What do we talk about when we talk about concision? How does a clipped sentence acquire the complexity of a page-fattening assault of semicolons and digressions? Is this a genuine artform or a logical editing and writing process? Can we make everything significant?

When I write, I set out to craft each line with care and precision, tweaking and trimming those supersized lines, those paunches on the svelte waistline of my paragraphs. Usually this approach lasts four minutes and I suck up words like a fatso gobbling burgers at the onset of famine. Afterwards, I retch out carbs until my story struts along the catwalk with the buffed elegance of a supermodel. The end product: a sort of unsteady toddle-wobble. Like a finding one’s balance after deep-gut liposuction.

It seems to me two accordions are being squeezed in the same direction. The first accordion, style, wants to show its flair and pizzazz, wants to make its mark on the page, waggling those buns of skill. The second accordion, the inner editor, knows the value of concision, how stories thrive on packing as much meaning into one sentence as possible, not cling-filming it over the whole piece. We want the freedom to write without the pressure of this micro-burden, without having to think on a line-by-line basis. But want our works lean. Sharp.

So what are benefits of sentence-by-sentence agony? Will spending an hour on one line lead to a sentence strung together by a dozen contrasting ideas, fighting for attention, or a shining little profound lovely? For me, too much chopping and changing can lead to post-op face-freaks. The process can be torturous if we take an example:

The man sat on the chair.

We take a boring a little sentence (which we shouldn’t be writing anyway), then we set at with our callipers. We want the tone to be humorous, to reveal a little character, and add description:

The plump little humbug plopped his buttocks on the hard-backed hot-seat.

We step away from this puffed-up sentence, then tinker. We argue to ourselves that the rhythm falters at ‘buttocks,’ where there should be a similar descriptive to match the multi-syllable counterparts for the man and the seat. So we torture the sentence further:

The plump little humbug plopped his big blue buttocks on the hard-backed hot-seat.

Now we’ve added ‘big blue,’ which doesn’t work since buttocks aren’t blue and it’s not clear enough to refer to his trousers (and who wears blue trousers, even in a ‘humorous’ sentence?), we’re adding to the carb content of this sentence. We’re adding detail, but we’re so fat we’re almost shut-ins. So, in a panic, we chop out some carb:

The plump humbug plopped his butt on the rickety old seat.

This sentence is still, quite clearly, a turd. Too much is being stuffed into the sentence to get across as much as possible while still retaining the humour (or style) and keeping it slim. So in a further panic, after staring at it for an hour, we trim it right down:

Mike sat down.

This tells us two things: his name and his physical state. It doesn’t show that the writer knows what he’s doing. (He isn’t, but good writing makes it look as though he does). Next we do a little word analysis of previous sentences. ‘Plump’ is a good comic word, with its pinging P sound. So plump stays. Yes. We don’t need ‘humbug’. It sounds a little forced, too carb next to plump. We don’t need ‘plopped’ either. Nor a funny word for the buttocks. The whole sentence reeks of trying too hard. And trying to hard is possibly the biggest hurdle of the writer seeking concision. Trying too hard to lard in info to make that golden sentence. How about:

Mike, plump and proud, sat on the crooked chair.*

I like this version since it reveals the comedic fatness and ‘proud’ (depending on the context), might refer to a moment of personal pride before he approaches the chair or his general demeanour. I like ‘crooked’ for chair as it’s literal and anthropomorphises the chair a wee bit. The double alliteration isn’t favourable, but can be overlooked for now.

So can we define concision as, essentially, a careful and precise word choice? Why not. When sentences get fat is when they have too many words signifying nothing. Or too many words with basic, simple meanings, giving the prose nothing but a surface. I think creating line-by-line depth involves making individual choices, weighing them against alternatives, then assessing their function in the sentences before and after. Which means the concision process, then, is probably better saved for draft number two.

This may sound basically obvious, but it’s simple to forget when faced with the blank page and apathy. Next time: how to bake a dolphin.

____

* Note this is supposed to be an example of an OK sentence, not a flabbergastingly good one.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Engorged Inboxes & Other Complaints

Ever get that complex where you have to finish the previous thing before starting the next thing? Where all attempts at starting the next thing are futile until the previous thing is deemed complete in your mind? I have that complex now. I’m waiting for people with inboxes the size of Gibraltar to respond to my requests, so I can quote them in a very enlightening chapter of my WiP.

Why do people allow their inboxes to balloon up? If you’re a mover and shaker, delegate the task of emptying the engorged daily inbox to a minion. Seriously. It used to be you phoned to speak to PersonsWithPower to be told to get lost and never phone again. Or, perhaps, they’d respond if they were ‘generous’ enough to squeeze you in. Now you can send emails to forty different PersonsWithPower and get no responses. The email has become the number one snubbing device. At least the phone was a personal get-stuffed-weirdo. Months of silence is more offensive than being told to shove it, as you don’t know where you stand.

PersonsWithPower use the ‘far too many emails’ defence too often. Put a limit on who receives your email address. Give an email that can be monitored by a minion who chooses which emails you receive, and who writes back to people. Don’t pull the apologetic face because you’ve been whoring your email address around like a self-serving pimp. I expect courteous responses to all correspondences, or at least auto-responses giving me a timeframe for when the PersonsWithPower will respond.

Imagine phoning someone and listening to the dialling tone for months on end. It’s the same.

In terms of email or message response etiquette, if I’ve asked a question, that means I require an answer. Too many people are flaky on the email front with dribbled out replies and slow response times. Not responding sends out two signals: a) you are so bored of this exchange, you really couldn’t be arsed continuing and so left the response, or b) you are a lazy and self-serving person too busy watching The Bill to engage with another human being.

Now, I sympathise with this, being a proper people-hater (most people who profess to hate people are smiley happy partygoers with hundreds of friends—I’m the real deal, dammit). But it’s really not hard to round off emails with little ‘thank you’ or ‘speak later’ replies. You wouldn’t end a phone call without saying goodbye, unless you’re in every movie ever made. You wouldn’t suddenly walk off halfway through a conversation.

Email observes its own rules, but the rules are bogus. From now on, I want proper exchanges with depth and meaning. I want information typed in proper sentences, not wispy lowercase. And I want speedy, pleasant responses to all requests. Too much to ask? Never.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Scenic Scotlands

Orkney Seventh Seal Deathwalk

New package tour from See Scotland, in association with Satan’s Party Tours. Ends with this lovely walk:


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Obese Man’s Edinburgh

A lovely little ‘walk’ to some top food places for the hungry tourist:


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My Childhood Home 100m Sprint

For those who like running like an eight-year-old:


View My Childhood Home 100m Sprint in a larger map