Deadly Women (with Matt Fullerty)

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

A trick question for Raymond Carver?

Raymond Carver

The master of minimal storytelling loathed experimentation in fiction, but his hated 'licence to be silly' is vital to the life of short stories

Conventional reading ... Raymond Carver in 1984. Photograph: Bob Adelman/Corbis

Speaking at the Manchester Literary Festival, James Lasdun – probably the closest in recent years this country has come to a genuinely great practitioner of the short story – expressed dismay at the publication of Beginners; the original, more expansive version of Raymond Carver's minimalist masterpiece What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Unlike Blake Morrison, who saw it as a revelation, Lasdun suggested that this was muddying Carver's great legacy. Reading the two volumes side by side, I found it hard not to agree with Lasdun; in all too many cases it's like looking at a Edward Hopper painting to which someone has added graphic-novel-style thought bubbles.

The rights and wrongs of publishing these stories before editor Gordon Lish took a scalpel to them can be debated, but there's no doubt that this publication has once again put Carver in the limelight – if he'd ever really been in the shadows. Carver is, I suppose, the ultimate modern short story writer. His fiction has a resonance that is attractive to both readers and writers. How he achieves this mesmerising effect is set out in his essay "On Writing", published in the same year as his much shortened version of Beginners.

"On Writing" is Carver's vision for fiction; his blue-collar blueprint. It's a fine and persuasive piece, full of insight into the creative process and the obligations of the writer. There are moments of personal confession, coupled with elegantly quotable sentences – "Get in, get out. Don't linger" for example. But as with his very best writing, there is a darker, less palatable truth lurking within its pages.

The lessons that Carver provides are second hand ones, derived from creative writing teachers and authors he admires. This is no criticism when you consider his mentors are Chekhov, Isak Dinesen, Isaac Babel and Flannery O'Connor. The advice, it seems to me, is well chosen. Trusting your instincts, while also being open to new discoveries; to write a little each day without despair; to revel in the mysteries of revelations.

All good – if slightly non-specific – advice, told in a considered, conversational tone. But then, Carver hits you with a curve ball. "No tricks." He says. "Period. I hate tricks." Experimentation, as Carver goes on to say, is too often "a licence to be careless, silly or imitative." Which in amongst the homilies and creative class wisdom changes his essay from a fascinating insight into his working practices, into a manifesto. A sort of write-in-a-day-the-Raymond-Carver-way.

I like tricks. I like formal invention; not for its own sake, but in the sense that it gives the reader something to think about, to look at from another angle. To be told that this is wrong, somehow mistreating the reader, made me suddenly quite angry. What about Barthelme, I thought, Sterne, BS Johnson, Angela Carter? And what about perhaps this year's most feted story collection, David Vann's Legend of a Suicide?

Vann's book seems initially to conform to all Carver's edicts. It is polished, elegant and beautifully written; fitting into an American lineage that encompasses Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff. But then halfway through, Vann does something transformative, something that you simply don't see coming and nothing is the same again. You could call this a "trick", but to me it's something approaching genius.

When people talk negatively about creative writing classes and the kind of fiction they produce, it's precisely Carver's prejudice against invention and tricks to which they are usually alluding. New voices are stifled behind rules and conventions, like Carver's, that should be challenged and bent and railed against. Innovation – as Vann and his fellow countryman Wells Tower prove – is what keeps the short form vital and alive, despite its status as a commercial pariah for publishers.

For all Carver's disdain for experimentation, even Donald Barthelme and BS Johnson would look on admiringly at the effect of Beginners. How much would they have enjoyed readers holding two versions of the same stories, reading them side by side? And how ironic that a writer who said that he "ran for cover" at the sight of a trick, has now become the newest trick in town.

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Stuart Evers
Wednesday 28 October 2009
The Guardian

(c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2009

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Martin Amis v Katie Price - on the bookshelves!

Martin Amis and Katie Price

On and off the shelf ... Martin Amis and Katie Price. (Photograph: Rex)

It's always a little bit astonishing in these relatively enlightened times when someone who would like to be regarded as an important contributor to the cultural agenda relies on lazy, casual misogyny to attempt a critique. But it's the approach that Martin Amis has taken in adding his thoughts to the current (somewhat tired) debate about celebrity writers creaming off the profits of talented ones, when he remarked of Katie Price (widely recognised as his key literary rival) that "She has no waist, no arse ... an interesting face ... but all we are really worshipping is two bags of silicone."

Now, I doubt that Amis has flickered across Price's radar; nor, if he has, that she cares much about his opinion since it would appear that she is currently preoccupied with her romance with her cage-fighting boyfriend and not much with writing books, which she employs someone to do on her behalf. But while Price may not be troubled by Amis's remarks on a personal level, I am: because they speak to the continued endurance of a surprising tolerance for misogyny from vaunted men of letters who came of age as writers in an era when the loathing of women for being women – rather than for being crap writers, or unkind people, or whatever – was still legitimate.

It may be diverting for Amis to imagine that legions of his would-be readers have been distracted from his work by Katie Price's cleavage: perhaps he thinks at the sight of her latest pony book, people on the verge of purchasing The Rachel Papers or London Fields think, "ooh! Breasts!" and toss his work aside. But this apparent anxiety is misplaced: Amis and Price's target markets do not intersect. It is risible to suggest that they do, but no matter: it's much easier, and simpler, for him to blame her décolletage for his decreasing sales and critical acclaim than to entertain the terrifying thought that his writing may no longer be quite as firmly on the pulse as it once was.

When writers like Amis, or Philip Roth – who declared this week that novel-reading would be a fringe activity in 25 years – make their apocalyptic proclamations about the state of publishing, it seems apparent that their pessimism may in fact be rather strongly influenced by anxiety that their new work no longer carries the kind of cultural clout they have grown used to, not because people aren't reading novels, but because people aren't reading their novels. And part of the reason for that may be that with the bulk of modern consumers of fiction being women, the particular brand of literary writing in which a particular aptitude for fellatio suffices as characterisation for a woman is less interesting, or resonant, than it once was.

I very much doubt that Amis is going to change at this stage – I do admire some of his immense skills as a writer, but remarks like this underscore my lack of interest in him as a cultural commentator. But I'm heartened, at the same time, by a new generation of male writers – David Vann and Joshua Ferris are two who I've recently read who come to mind – who are producing ground-breaking work that addresses issues of masculinity in fresh ways without relying on lazy misogyny; who are too busy to bother with worrying that anything that fails to preserve the long-expired literary status quo of the 70s and 80s is a sign of an apocalypse.

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Jean Hannah Edelstein
Wednesday 28 October 2009
The Guardian

(c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2009

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Man Booker Prize 2009 winners, including Hilary Mantel

Man Booker Prize 2009: Hilary Mantel poses with her book Wolf Hall

Does winning the Booker mean a boost in sales? And which of the previous winners has sold the most?

Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, but will sales match those of previous winners? Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Hilary Mantel won the £50,000 Man Booker Prize yesterday for her historical novel Wolf Hall, which examines the life of Thomas Cromwell, an advisor to Henry VIII.

But does winning the Booker guarantee an author a boom in sales? Here at the Datablog we've pulled together Nielsen BookScan's sales figures of all 43 winners of the title since its inception in 1969 (the prize was a tie in 1974 and again in 1992).

Nielsen's data runs from 1998 onwards, so sales of older books aren't directly comparable, but the runaway winner of recent years is Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which won in 2002 and has taken over £9m and sold 1.3m copies so far, more than twice as many as Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things in second place.

A look at the spreadsheet also reveals that Jonathan Cape is the publisher to sign to if you want to improve your chances of winning the Booker - seven of the previous winning novels have come from them, closely followed by Faber & Faber with six.

And if you really have your heart set on a Booker, the words to include in the title of your novel are Sea, Ha, God, Tiger and Road, as our Wordle shows.

Click on the link to access the full list of winners, their sales figures and a link to the Guardian review of each book (many courtesy of Sam Jordison's Booker Club blog). Let's see what you can do with the data.

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Katy Stoddard
Wednesday 7 October 2009
The Guardian

(c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2009

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Why has John Le Carré left his publisher out in the cold?

Divorces everywhere. First Peter and Jordan, now John Le Carré and Hodder.

Why should the fact that a novelist changes the merchandiser of his books be of more headline interest than, say, Martin Amis changing his dentist? Who cares? When the book trade was a cottage industry we did; it's questionable if we do any more. You can remember the title but can you recall, from the top of your head, who published Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall? (Answer below.)

Why do authors stay loyal to publishers? Gratitude is one reason. After 20-odd rejections it was Faber that finally plucked William Golding's grubby Lord of the Flies from the slush pile. Grateful comradeship with his editor, Charles Monteith, kept Golding at Faber for the whole of his long career.

Editors often mean more to an author than publishers. David Lodge seems to have remained attached to Secker because he got on so well with John Blackwell (a brilliant worker on manuscripts, and one of the heroic drinkers of his day). Look at the dedication to AS Byatt's latest novel – it is to her editor, Jenny Uglow. A dedication to "Chatto and Windus"? Absurd.

Nonetheless, for some authors, loyalty brings with it the nagging sense of being "owned". It breeds resentment. Thackeray suggested publishers' carpets should always be red, because – like the butchers in Smithfield market – they traded in authors' blood and brains.

Most authors, at the start of their careers, get snubbed or – in a few cases, robbed – by publishers. They can develop a deep-seated hatred of the publishing breed – "brigands" all of them, as Dickens (the least publisher-loyal of writers) called them.

Resentment is the most radioactive of emotions. Gratitude, like Golding's, usually has a much shorter half life. And then, of course, there are agents, those serpents in the literary garden (Le Carré has dumped that partner as well). It was the so-called "jackal", Andrew Wylie, who enticed Amis away from his long-standing literary agent, Pat Kavanagh. It resulted in a broken friendship with Kavanagh's husband, Julian Barnes, and a letter which, as Amis recalls, had a lot of fs in it. As in f-words.

So why has Le Carré divorced Hodder? More money? Prettier dustjackets? Artistic restlessness? Most likely, it's something else. Who, to answer the question above, is Mantel's publisher? Fourth Estate. Well, no, it isn't. Fourth Estate is these days part of the HarperCollins Anglo- American megacombine. Hodder? A division of the Anglo-French giant Hachette. Where publishers are concerned, there's no identifiable editorial friend to be loyal to any more. So why be loyal?

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John Sutherland
Thursday October 29 2009
The Guardian

(c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2009

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Nowhere Boy": new movie about the young John Lennon

Peter Bradshaw
Friday October 30 2009
The Guardian
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A man who has been the indisputable favourite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror," wrote Sigmund Freud - and Sigmund Freud was never twirled by his mum lasciviously around in a coffee bar to the novel sounds of rock'n'roll on the jukebox, and furthermore gigglingly taught by her that "rock'n'roll" actually means sex.

This was the dizzyingly erotic experience of the young John Lennon - played by 19-year-old newcomer Aaron Johnson - in this account of his painful, messy teenage years in 1950s Liverpool, written by Matt Greenhalgh (the author of Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis biopic, Control) and directed by Sam Taylor-Wood.

The mother in question is the legendary Julia, played by Anne-Marie Duff, a cheerful lover of good times and rock'n'roll in all senses, who had a mysterious breakdown after John's birth and surrendered parental control to her sister, the Tchaikovsky-loving and equally legendary Aunt Mimi, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who brought him up strictly with genteel, middle-class values.

As adulthood dawns, John's increasingly rebellious discontent manifests itself in re-establishing contact with the dangerous Julia, who passionately introduces him to his musical destiny. She and John begin a strange kind of Oedipal affair, with Julia as the mistress and Aunt Mimi the wronged wife. John's story is the story of the duel between these two women - an intolerable situation for which music is the only way out.

Taylor-Wood interestingly begins her film with the opening, jangling chord from A Hard Day's Night, left hanging in a protracted silence until its potential for implied menace and even tragedy has been allowed to float free. It's a witty opening, but apart from pointed references to "nowhere" in the script and in the title, to a glimpse of Strawberry Field children's home and to a schoolbook doodling of "Walrus", Greenhalgh notably avoids cute prophetic touches. However, it has to be said Julia does hang around a bit possessively backstage, to the unease of both John and the young Paul McCartney, played by Thomas Sangster. Heroically, Greenhalgh avoids gags about John letting a woman get between him and the band.

It's a handsomely made film, with a very game lead performance from Johnson, hampered perhaps only by the fact that Lennon is really a rather callow figure at this stage; unlike, say, the more interesting, more grownup Lennon that Ian Hart played in Iain Softley's 1994 film Backbeat. When John shows Julia an EP record of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, she asks where he got it, and John says he swapped it with a bloke at the docks. "Swapped it for what?" Julia asks sharply, and John has no idea what she's implying.

Throughout the movie, I had the sense that Lennon was really a supporting turn and the stars were Julia and Mimi, but that, frustratingly, we were only ever allowed to see them from John's lairy and semi-comprehending point of view. John has to be the focus, and part of the movie's point is his youth, his poignant inability to appreciate how much these women love him.

And the film does contrive a tearful crisis in which the awful secret origins of the Mimi-John-Julia love triangle are laid bare. But for me, this finale was a little stagey, is resolved too easily and disconcertingly discloses a more intense story which has been happening, as it were, behind the movie's back.

None the less, this is an accomplished feature debut from Taylor-Wood, and a satisfying follow-up to her likeable short film Love You More.

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(c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2009

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Tony Blair's bid for EU presidency sinks

Nicholas Watt and Ian Traynor in Brussels
Friday October 30 2009
The Guardian
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Tony Blair's hopes of becoming Europe's first sitting president were receding fast tonightas Britain admitted his chances of success were "fading" after the continent's centre-right leaders made it clear one of their own must have the post.

Hours after Gordon Brown delivered his strongest statement of support for Blair - disclosing that he had spoken to him earlier this week - British sources indicated that the former prime minister was unlikely to assume the high-profile job.

"It would be right to describe Tony's chances as fading," one British source said. "Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are not terribly enthusiastic. Silvio Berlusconi remains his strongest backer."

Blair's expected failure to secure the post of president of the European Council meant that David Miliband was emerging as a serious contender to assume the new post of high representative for foreign policy. The foreign secretary insisted, however, that he was "not available".

Miliband spoke out as British sources said it had become clear in recent days that Blair would struggle to become president. The post is likely to be filled in the next month amid signs that the Czech Republic will become the last EU country to ratify the Lisbon treaty.

Sarkozy, the French president, and Merkel, the German chancellor, are understood to have agreed at a dinner at the Elysée Palace last night that the new president should be appointed from the main centre-right EPP grouping, which brings together the parties currently ruling most EU countries.

Brown gave a hint at a press conference that Blair's candidacy was fading when he qualified his strong backing for his predecessor by stating that there were also other candidates for the job. "Of course it may not happen and there are other candidates as well," he said.

The prime minister's remarks came after he attended an acrimonious meeting of the European centre-left leaders this afternoon, shortly before the EU summit in Brussels began.

Brown was understood to have had a tense exchange with Martin Schulz, the German leader of the Socialists in the European parliament, who wants the left to assume the new foreign policy post, leaving the presidency to the centre right.

Brown told the meeting: "You need to get real. This is a unique opportunity to get a progressive politician to be the president of the council."

But it soon became clear that Blair has no support on the left, let alone on the centre right. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain's centre-left prime minister, for the first time publicly queried the Blair candidacy by announcing that the centre left across the EU was more concerned with securing the other post of European foreign minister. Zapatero, who will have to work with the new European figureheads when Spain assumes the EU's six-month rotating presidency on 1 January, said the European socialists were clear that they want the post of the high representative. "There is a preference for the high representative," he said. "That is rather reasonable."

A senior Spanish official said this was the first time that Zapatero had "dropped Blair" and that the centre-left in the EU was seeking a deal with the centre-right, led by Merkel. The centre-right would get the job coveted by Blair, while the centre left would take the foreign minister post. The lack of support for Blair became clear when Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister, launched a strong attack on him as he emerged from the meeting of Socialist leaders. "It is not about the person of Tony Blair. Now in the United States, Obama is the president, it is no more Mr Bush. We have a new treaty, we have to reset Europe and we need to start with some new ideas. There is and will remain a link for the next generation between Iraq, Bush and Tony Blair."

Downing Street will resist criticism that it was wrong to mount such a strong campaign in favour of Blair when it had become clear earlier this week that his chances were fading.

Brown believes it was right - and in the national interest - to argue strongly for Blair when there was a chance to secure such a senior post for Britain. Blair, who had a tense relationship with Brown during his decade as prime minister, will be pleased by the strength of his successor's support.

Brown said today: "Let me say very clear that we, the British government, believe that Tony Blair would be an excellent candidate and an excellent person to hold the job of president of the council.

"His international experience is well known, his expertise on environmental, economic and security issues is well known to everybody throughout Europe as well as known throughout the world - If you have the chance for that to happen it is in Britain's national interest."

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(c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2009

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Quote of the Week, #1

"Don't loaf and invite inspiration, light out after it with a club, and if you don't get it you will nonetheless get get something that looks remarkably like it." Jack London
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