Musing on Amusement

Why am I so suspicious of laughter?  Not that spontaneous kind that bubbles up from a lively conversation or a shared observation of life in its many tricky forms.  No, not that kind.  I’m thinking of the canned variety, the forced ho ho ho of a dodgy looking Santa, or a comedian laughing at his own jokes.  Maybe it’s too many hearings of The Laughing Policeman on Two Way Family Favourites as a child?  Too many occasions of not seeing the joke and sitting stony faced in a room filled with empty hilarity?  Or more often seeing the joke coming a mile off and knowing that it won’t be funny when it lands like a dead bird in my lap?

Why is the analysis of comedy much more entertaining than the comedy itself; the intellectual endeavour more engaging than the damp squib silliness that results?

Why, when someone asks me to explain that piece of unhelpful writing advice show don’t tell, do I always use humour as my example?  If I read a description of something as ‘hilarious’ (or that theatrical review cliché ‘rolling in the aisles with laughter’), that’s an example of ineffective telling, as my automatic assumption is that something entirely unamusing except to an idiot has occurred, and I am bounced out of whatever world the writer was attempting to create.  In contrast, if I read a scene which brings a twitch to the corner of my mouth, then that is genuinely amusing, and the author has shown me something funny, and I have stayed in their world.

Is ‘funny’ even an objective measure?  Why do so many people insist so doggedly that X and Y are funny, apparently allowing no room for a different opinion, brooking no debate?

Maybe I could do a PhD on why comedy isn’t funny.  Would there be a market for that, I wonder?  I could have lots of good arguments along the way – so long as I didn’t have to go to any stand up comedy gigs. The last one of those was less than successful for all concerned.  It really wasn’t my fault the compere interpreted my hard fought for ‘neutral face’ as antagonistic.  I should just have relaxed into looking as bored as I felt.

I’m working hard here to avoid falling into another rant against the conformity of so called alternative comedy, canned laughter and the herd mentality…… Just so long as no-one tells me I simply have to see XYZ as ‘they’re really funny, honestly’.

Life might be so much easier if I were easily amused.  There would be so much more to watch on television for a start.  I might have to confess, though, that I spent six days at the Edinburgh Festival and didn’t see a single comedy act; apart from the fat fellow off one of those boys clubs TV shows who took the taxi we got out of at Bristo Square.  He was wearing a surprising amount of eye liner for a big bloke at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, Edinburgh notwithstanding.

Is that funny?  Interesting, incongruous perhaps, but no, not a titter, not even a twitch.

Let’s think instead of times that I have laughed, or had to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself…… that wedding of two young lawyers where the vicar progressed slowly, sliding inexorably, no way to stop him, from talking about how well they would have been trained in resolving disputes towards the topic of divorce.  Even when I gained control of my own suppressed laughter, I could feel the wooden pew shaking where someone further up the row was failing in their own attempts.

Or that Russian production of Anne of a Thousand Days where Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey dressed in tight lycra, striped to the waist and fought each other with whips….over the future of the Church of England.

But then, neither of these were comedies.

I always sound like a real misery.  Can’t tell a joke; doesn’t like comedy; gets bad tempered in a farce.  Just so long as no-one starts to counsel me about the fact that I do have a sense of humour.  We’ve been down that road before, when I had to endure a whole week of effective communication training being positively encouraged any time I said something remotely amusing.  It’s hard to tell someone so seriously sincere and yet so lacking in basic intuition that you were joking.

Every Shelf Tells a Story

2013-07-18 17.09.57There is something endlessly fascinating about those collections of books that accrete in public places, in the bars of small hotels or in rented houses.  If you’re in one of those places there’s always something to read, but I can never avoid wondering on who thought to leave the books there, and why they left the books behind.  Were they such favourites that the donor wanted to share the experience, or did they dislike them so much that they couldn’t be bothered to take the thing away?

This shelf was particularly satisfying in terms of wonder; it’s in a healthcare facility in Scotland.  Of the 17 books, I’d heard of two of them, the Saul Bellow, although given its environs a bit unfortunately named More Die of Heartbreak, and Madame Bovary by Flaubert.  Of the remaining ones, only one author’s name was familiar, Dean Koontz, although I’ve never read anything by him.  All the others are completely unknown to me.

Two have made me laugh out loud; although probably not in a good way.

Trampled by Lilies is by the wonderfully named The Honourable Lady Fortescue.  That of itself dates it; now an Honourable would go out of her gilded way to demonstrate her ‘ordinariness’.  I had to look inside to find out her name: Winifred, who delightfully, gave up her stage career to marry in 1914, and enjoyed an unprecedentedly happy marriage in spite of the large disparity between her age and that of her husband.  Hmmmm.

Matron Knows Best gave me a lesson in the importance of the first sentence in a novel.  My mother picked up the book, chuckled at the title, and then opened it to the first page.  She read very briefly, ‘It was 1966 when I first found myself standing outside Matron’s office..’

‘Boff, I don’t think so,’ she said before closing it and returning it to the shelf.

I’ve not asked her what she found so off putting about the opening, but the speed with which it made her dismiss the book was impressive.

Have you heard of any of the other books?  Can you ever resist studying a shelf of books and making up stories about the people who have created the collection?

Give Me a Sign!

Just behave.  OK?

Just behave. OK?

Once you start looking, the world is full of signs, information, exhortations and prohibitions.  Usually my eye would just skim over them as part of the noise in the city that it’s simply easier to filter out.  I was fascinated by the number of different demands that were affixed to the gates of this otherwise very modest building site in Southwark.  Especially odd, when you take a moment to think about it, is the ambition to improve the ‘image of construction’.  Really?  Like this?

Later that week, with my temporarily heightened awareness of signs, I saw this one on the Regent’s Canal

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Now this one is interesting for the fact that the words are essential to the comprehension of the instruction – the pictograms seem too capable of alternative interpretation: only people in pairs?  Only men’s cycles? Only adults with an appended child?  The evidence of the behaviour of most cyclists we encountered that day suggests that literacy is not well established in their community, so really, the sign-makers should reconsider the visible attributes that make a cycle ‘considerate’.  And perhaps an audible prompt to remind them of the ‘two tings’ concept?

Jim Crace at Foyles

IMG00769-20130219-1931There is endless fascination in listening to writers talk about writing and their personal approach to it.

Every one is different; for each who extols the necessity of ‘writing what you know’, there are ten who insist that you must make stuff up, and for the ten who insist on years of research before setting pen to paper, there’s one who insists that you should just make stuff up.  There are the planners, setting out the skeleton of each chapter before writing anything, and then there are those who collect bits of pieces of writing together in files before they can work out what story it is they’re telling.  There are gushers and miniaturists, hand writers and iPad-ers.  For whatever aspect of character and approach you can find, it is also possible to find the polar opposite.

Maybe I’m just looking for reassurance that my own rather haphazard approach is as valid as any other.

Jim Crace (JC) is a writer whose work I admire, and as I have just read his new novel ‘Harvest‘, when a friend told me that he would be speaking at Foyles bookshop, I booked a place straight away.

He is a speaker to whom is very easy to listen, and was thought provoking in his analysis  of his own writing style.  He explained that while he might have tried to write according to what others might regard as a better way, he always returned to his own voice, which he described as the writing voice I have been given.  This voice is rhythmic, moralistic and serious, but not autobiographical .

JC suggested that his happy life is antithetical to the production of fiction inspired by the ‘use what you know’ principal, as fiction doesn’t like happiness, long contended marriages and well adjusted children.  Readers want to experience drama through fiction rather than experience it in life.

An attempt at a novel inspired by autobiography was abandoned, on the advice of his agent, after 30,000 words.  A couple of days after taking the decision to stop writing, despondent, he and his wife took a journey from their home in Birmingham to an art exhibition in London.  On the train, near Watford Gap, a generally unprepossessing space between two tiny hillocks, run through by a motorway, railway lines, home to a service station the butt of many jokes, and two rivers, one of which flows to the sea on the east coast and the other to the west, he noticed the ridge and furrow patterns in the surrounding fields.

It was that pattern in the landscape which started him thinking about the centuries of agricultural activity in England; that one of the important things about the country is that it has been occupied for so many years that there are layers of human habitation and history everywhere.  It is not possible to walk anywhere where no-one has walked before you; and that we are surrounded by the signs of history if we care to notice them; it’s all drenched in narrative.

At the watercolour exhibition the picture which jumped out at him was one of a bird’s eye view of field enclosures. This, together with his ‘Watford Gap Moment’, started him thinking about land clearances and the people affected; and that even if he wrote something ‘historical’ it could still have contemporary relevance as there have always been, and still are, people being turned off land.

He quoted Hilary Mantel’s ‘rule’ that in historical fiction if you are going to include a fact, then you must ensure that it is correct.  JC said he didn’t adhere to that tenet.  For him, facts create constraints on narrative imagination – the less you know, the more you can imagine.

The questions from the audience after he had read from Harvest, focussed on his stated intent that this would be his last novel.  Some people were worried about how he would express his creativity without fiction to write(!).  He assured us that he still has plans to write some natural history books, (which, with his love for making things up may not be entirely based on science), and that, after many years of sitting alone in his work room in his garage, he has other creative plans outside….and there’s always the possibility that he will change his mind and find the right ‘autobiographical’ book to write.

So, here’s to a Watford Gap Moment for us all today.

Lots of Little Bits and Pieces

IMG_2938I’ve spent the last couple of days going through all the scenes I have written for my new writing project.  I’ve characters and, forgive me for the cliché, the concept of the piece, but I’ve yet to find the over arching narrative.  It’s all just bits and pieces, some are possibly chapter length, but many are short sketches.

For a while I’d been thinking of it as the beginning of a patchwork quilt, an off-cut here, a few stitches there, cutting up a couple of old garments that have worn through and saving the usable bits, and matching them up with other little scraps from the back of the cupboard.

It’s all displacement activity, but my motivating metaphor for today is that of the mosaic, tiny bits of coloured stone all arranged meticulously to create complex patterns; in the days when this floor was being made, there would have been piles of tesserae, some wet concrete and people on their hands and knees, slowly, inch by inch creating an orderly pattern out of the mess.  That.  That’s the stage I’m at, I just don’t quite have the diagrammatic map yet.

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The Bottom of the Pile

IMG00718-20130111-1137What do these two books have in common?  I’d almost forgotten I had them, but now I’ve rediscovered them, they have made me feel a little guilty because these are but a couple of the books that I have started, but never finished reading.

It’s not really apparent from the photo but both volumes are water damaged – they were at the bottom of the piles of books on the floor by my bed and were the badly affected when I had a water problem in the flat.  In a way, these are the sacrificial ones, by soaking up so much they protected the stacks above them; so even though there were 20 or so piled up handy for bedtime reading, only these two were damaged.

But the fact remains, I’ve never finished them.  Now that they have resurfaced, should I attempt to read them again?  Can I even read the water damaged pages, some of which are a little stuck together; or should I replace them and try again?  They have a war theme in common, but I’m fairly sure I bought them several years apart.

I bought Stalingrad because I had talked, or rather, encouraged my Russian teacher to talk about, the siege of the city in the Second World War, as it was his home town and he had family stories to tell.  It’s a dramatic story, but somehow I couldn’t stick with the book.

The Kindly Ones originally published in France, was a celebrated there as a literary phenomenon, and a number of my French colleagues recommended it to me.  I didn’t feel up to reading it in French, but when I saw it had been translated I bought it fairly quickly, and I tried really quite hard to persevere, but abandoned it after about 100 pages, which as you can see didn’t make much of an impression on the whole thing.

I’ll let you know if I do go back to them…..

So, what books have you never managed to finish, worthy or otherwise?

‘Hawthorne & Child’ by Keith Ridgway – A Review

I got this book on the basis of a recommendation from Isabel Costello and her literary sofa, and after hearing the author read some extracts at an event a couple of weeks ago.  He read very well, in a beautifully mellifluous tone which accentuated both the pathos and humour in an extract about one character’s obsession with the death  of a racing driver and the evil of Tony Blair, and I wanted to know more.

So, what of the whole book?  Hawthorne and Child are a couple of police detectives apparently straight out of the central casting mould of buddy cops, different from each other, but complimentary, who’ve worked together so long, they know all of each others foibles.  We first meet them as they embark on the investigation of a random early morning drive by shooting in a street in north London.  A standard opening chapter for any detective novel, a murder, the preliminary gathering together of the obvious clues.  But that is the only thing about this book which resembles standard detective fiction.

We never return to this murder, as each subsequent chapter focusses on a different set of protagonists; sometimes Hawthorne and Child are central, sometimes peripheral.  It feels like a loosely connected collection of short stories, as there is no central narrative thrust which runs through the book.

Maybe it’s about the impossibility of always being able to know a complete narrative of anything in real life, and of turning on its head the expectation that a novel will present a coherent story arc, and the mystery of other people and their stories; or maybe it’s challenging us to try to make sense of the unrelated fragments, making us aware of our need to make up or complete partial stories.  Or maybe it’s all taking place in Child’s imagination.  I’m not sure, and I suspect that is at least part of the point.

The writing is very clever and beautifully done, with wonderful phrasing and rhythm which worked so well at the reading, and it is this which kept me going towards finishing the book.  The sense of place, of the peripheral areas of north London is also recognisable and fully realised; but I couldn’t help but feel a bit let down at the end when the book simply stopped.

The main gift it gave me was to make me think about what I find satisfying in a book; yes, it’s about language inventiveness, vocabulary and rhythm; and yes, it’s about place and rounded characterisation, but I also want narrative tension, because without that itch to know what will happen next, it is far too easy to put the book to one side and to read something else instead.  As with any collection of stories, I don’t think it would matter what order you read the chapters in Hawthorne & Child, as one does not follow on from the other; it’s just that together they build up a picture of time and place.

I might be imagining it, but is there a mini trend at the moment for books of loosely connected stories to be published as novels?  I’m thinking of  Girl Reading by Katie Ward, which I enjoyed, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkos, neither of which I managed to finish.  Could this be because the commercial market for short fiction is so weak?  What do you think?

Conversation as Currency

There is an anecdote in Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde which has been in my mind a fair bit recently; at least, I think that’s where I remember it from.  and even if the story isn’t true, or I have not recalled it correctly, it still has a peculiar and compelling relevance.

Graham Greene recalled meeting Oscar Wilde in Paris when Greene was a very young man and Wilde was near broken and in exile after his release from prison.  They spent a congenial time together in a café bar, and Greene was gratified, but very surprised, at how Wilde entertaining was, that such an eminent man would be so gracious and engaging in conversation with young strangers; until he realised that Wilde was paying for the drinks Greene bought him in conversation, the only currency at his disposal.

A fair exchange.

Reading or Studying?

I often listen to Radio 4’s A Good Read on a Friday night as I’m getting ready for bed, and so sometimes, I admit, I fall asleep before it’s got quite to the end.  But last week I heard it all the way through, more alert than usual perhaps because of a comment made by one of the contributors which set me wondering.

The format of the programme is very simple.  Two guests are invited to recommend a paperback book as ‘a good read’ and, together with the host, who has also nominated a book, they come together and discuss them.  Generally, as with so many discussions, the most interesting programmes are the one during which the contributors disagree.  Where one person fails to see the charms of the others all time favourite volume from childhood, or where another admits to not being able to finish something because they hated it so much.

Last week had some elements of that when opinions differed on Anne Enright’s The Gathering, and The Box of Delights by John Masefield. But it was the work that united them that generated the most thought provoking comment, which each of them repeated in their own way.

TS Eliot’s Four Quartets was selected by historian Ruth Richardson.  It is unusual in itself for a book of poetry to feature on the programme, which mostly focusses on fiction, with a dash of history and popular science, so it was not unexpected that this would be a point of note.  Ruth Richardson explained why she loved the poetry, picking out lines that meant something particular to her, or which had struck a chord with her on different times.  She also confessed that although she didn’t understand it all, she loved it none the less.

I’ve never studied it, she said at one point, rather defensively, as if failure to have ‘studied’ it might disqualify her from liking it.  Later, when giving her reaction to reading it, Harriet Gilbert, the host, also said that while she had read the book many years ago, she too had not studied it.

And I wondered what they meant.  Are there things that have to be studied rather than just read? Is reading a lesser activity than studying?  Which novels that you love might you have to qualify your enjoyment of by admitting a failure of study?

Is it about understanding every inter textual/mythological/ historical/ philosophical/ biographical reference contained in the text, or enjoying the rhythm and richness of the words; rather like understanding all the allegorical references in the bits and pieces around the edges of a Renaissance painting without actually looking at the rich colours or the sweep of the drapery?

Or does study imply that you have both read the thing itself, and read what other people have had to say about it?  My first thought was the idea of studying something at school or university, where the act of being taught it, revising it, and writing an essay about it, drained most things of any kind of excitement or enjoyment.

Are there any novels that you’ve enjoyed but which, if you were to recommend them, you feel you’d have to confess that you’d never studied?  I’ve certainly never done so, therefore for one day only, I’m going to give it a go…. looking back through the 19th century canon……

I read War and Peace (*)when I was a teenager, and loved it.  I don’t think I understood all the philosophy bits because I’ve never studied it, but it’s a great story.

* Insert as appropriate

Anna Karenina

Madame Bovary

Crime and Punishment

Cousin Bette

Tale of Two Cities

‘The Writer in the Digital Age’ – The Writer’s View

I wrote yesterday about my observations of a discussion on the proliferation of independent publishers hosted by TLC at the Free Word Centre last week, from my perspective as a reader.  Today I thought I’d reflect a little on what  I learnt from a writers point of view.

I think there are many, like me, who continue to strive to achieve publication by the ‘traditional’ route.  I’d like to engage an agent to sell my novel to a mainstream publisher.  I’d like to receive an advance (no matter how modest) and I’d like to be able to walk into a book shop on a High Street in a town I’ve never visited before and see my beautifully printed novel on the shelves.  I’d like to know that people I’ve never met have read it and connected with it in some way, and that they could appreciate it as a piece of work into which I had poured a great deal of time and effort.  If they wanted to buy it in digital form, that would be OK too, but deep down, it wouldn’t give me the same visceral thrill.

Even as I type this, I know it’s a romantic dream from a time that is nearly over; and I know the likelihood is that I will have to compromise on some, if not all, of it.

Many of you may be thinking  just get on with it.  It’s so easy to publish it yourself.  But I hesitate at that advice.  I’ve worked very hard to write it, and invested a great deal of time and effort in it, and so I want it to go out into the world as well dressed and as well presented as I can possibly achieve.  No matter how much I believe in it, it will still need copy editing, proof reading, and then, when it is finally ready to go, it will need the engine of publicity to make sure that it doesn’t disappear amongst the piles of other books being pumped out into the world.

Listening to the discussion last week about the growth of small independent publishers in the UK, confirmed to me that, while the business models are changing, broadly the same steps in the process of publishing a quality novel remain.  What is changing is the allocation of the risks and rewards.

Under the ‘traditional’ model, broadly, the agent handled all the business affairs, negotiated contracts and advances and royalty rates.  The publisher invested in the author, buying the rights to the book, having it edited and proofed, and then printed and marketed.

In the new world of Independents and Self Publishing all of those elements, the contracts, the money, editing and publicity are still all there, it’s just much more likely that it is the writer who will have to bear most of the upfront costs, hopefully, in return for a greater share of the sales revenue.  But without an agent, or any business savvy, the scope for losing out has increased exponentially.

It is in this environment that people are trying to form their own networks of skilled practitioners, of freelance editors and designers, to work directly with writers.  Byte the Book, which was represented at the talk, is one such example, running networking events for people interested in the new publishing universe.

But at the end of the day it’s a business, and if you want to succeed you have to adopt appropriate business strategies, which, you’ve guessed it, include working out what is the right way to brand yourself in the market…….. I’m just going to have to rid myself of that mental image of a lassoed calf squealing as the smoking branding iron is applied to its rump.

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