Thursday, 30 June 2011

Veggiebooks: A Very Persistent Illusion

It's unkind of an author to make you doubt if you're actually reading their book. Maybe the book is an illusion. Maybe you're making up the holding of the book, the sitting in the favourite armchair, and you're responsible for the words on the page too. You made up that story, and all the other stories on your bookshelf. That bookshelf over there; the one that doesn't exist. It's all a figment of your imagination. Yes, you are responsible for imagining tofu and U2 and igloos. It's all you.

There are eloquent arguments, put forward by LC Tyler in A Very Persistent Illusion, as to why we are both real and imagined. I can't remember the arguments for reality. I'm left with this nagging feeling that this is all a dream. For this reason, I do not recommend reading A Very Persistent Illusion and watching Inception in the same week. It's not good for your head.

But hey, don't listen to my point of view. All you figments out there, go find your own reality. Have a good laugh while you're doing it. Read LC Tyler's books and don't get so sidetracked by the intellectual reductionist sleight of hand that you miss the excellent writing throughout:

It's not a good time of year for people who don't like blossom. The bush-packed cottage gardens and the flat, improbably green fields are full of apple blossom, pear blossom, horse chestnut blossom, May blossom. Rich cream, bridal white, baby pink, pastel blue and soft ephemeral yellow are all there somewhere. Everything says, "Rejoice! The winter is over." You have to go high up into the fells to escape the insistent colour, up into the lumpy brownness of the dead fern, where the odd purple-blue flower, peeping out shyly from the damp moss, can be trodden kindly but firmly under your size nine boots. It may be spring in the valley, but up here you know the glaciers could be back any time they choose. It's a reassuring place for pessimists to be.

LC Tyler also writes the Elsie and Ethelred mysteries that inevitably do not contain herrings (apart from red ones) even though they are advertised as such. Tyler likes to mess with your head. His head. Whatever head we're all in.

The new Elsie and Ethelred, Herring on the Nile, is out next week. But don't forget about A Very Persistent Illusion. I love it.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

We are the problem

So recently VS Naipaul said something about women not being very good writers because they're not masters of their house, and sentimentality overcomes their prose. Obviously this isn't a very wise or true thing to say. I don't find much sentimentality in Iris Murdoch, and I'd defy anyone to argue that Fay Welon and Hilary Mantel aren't in control of their own houses. Besides, who says that being either sentimental or feeling inferior in some aspects of life aren't useful traits for a novelist? It's not who you are, but how you translate your experiences on to the page, that makes you a great writer. Not all prose should be about running your own destiny and being hard as nails. I like Hemingway, but after a few of his novels I'm more than ready for Anne Tyler's take on the American experience.

As for being able to tell if a woman or a man wrote something - I'm amazed at the amount of romantic novels that are written by men. But they use pseudonyms because apparently the world of publishing thinks that we woman readers will be put off by male romance writers. So there we have identified the real problem: not women writers, but woman readers:

1. Women readers only like books about romantic stuff written by other women who are exactly like them.
2. Women readers hate it when space or cars or mechanical stuff intrudes into a novel. They'll spend the whole book club meeting moaning about it.
3. Women readers like it when front covers are pink. With dresses on.
4. Or they like covers that are black. This way they know whether they are reading a romantic novel or a crime novel. Women readers only read romantic novels or crime novels.
5. Women readers need their books to have a heroine with no undesirable character traits. It's best if they've been a bit of a victim at some point and are still feeling sentimental about it.

See? Sentimentality is the fault of the reader, not the writer. All those women writers, and even the male authors who are pretending to be women in order to get published, are writing this sentimental victimised claptrap in order to please us. We are truly the scum of the reading population.

Male readers are much better. You can write whatever you like to please a male reader as long as you put a sex scene in it.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Veggie Books: Mister Roberts

I'm a fan of Alexei Sayle. I read Barcelona Plates, his first collection of short stories, and felt it had a gleeful freedom that's often missing in modern writing. It didn't feel careful, or considered. It felt like splurges of ideas spread messily over the page. It didn't obey the unspoken laws of the written word. There wasn't a lot of character development at times, and plot would be sacrificed happily for a comic moment. It was a refreshing experience.

And then I loved his novel, The Weeping Women Hotel. That had plot and characterisation, and also the funniest reflection on martial arts I've ever read. And a ditty about soup. So Mister Roberts had a fair bit to live up to, and it didn't quite manage it. It felt a bit too contained, too structural. It stayed put in one place. It didn't feel as free.

That's not to say it wasn't still enjoyable, as any novel involving a young boy who comes across wreckage from a crashed alien craft might be. There's lot of general weirdness and that's lots of fun. And there's interesting stuff about the life of the ex-pat in Spain, too, and the guilt felt about muscling into a beautiful country and turning it into either touristic or industrial wastelands:

Huge swathes of the hills inland from the sea were ruined by a continuous canopy of plastic. It covered so much territory that it could easily be seen from space, the roofs of fifty thousand closely packed greenhouses. Just ten years ago this was largely uninhabited desert, rich in plant and animal life but arid. Now, under cover, tomatoes, lettuces, melons and peppers were grown all year round for the supermarkets of Europe.

And it's a short book, too. I know that shouldn't make a difference, but when you're reading a black comedy I think short is always better. You can certainly have too much despair cloaked in humour.

So, if you haven't read any Alexei Sayle, maybe start with the short stories first. If you're already a fan then Mister Roberts is certainly worth a read. And it won't take up too much of your time. Realistically, who's got time for Ancient Evenings? I keep saying I'm going to get round to it but there it is, on my bedside table, waiting for my attention. Hm.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Writing is Like... #3

Writing is just like having a baby for these reasons:

- gestation is definitely involved.
- to get the thing out there you need to give a really big push. or two. or six hundred. And, golly, that really hurts.
- you feel warmly towards your little WIP sometimes, and other times you wish it would just hurry up and be done with you.
- eating a lot of cake is mandatory.
- when it's over with you're left with something you want to show off to friends, family, and the entire of Facebook and Twitter.
- although it's probably not as perfect as you'd hoped, and since "publication" date you seem to be having trouble sleeping.
- public appearances are fraught with difficulty, you've definitely put on weight, and how come you suddenly have to put up with so much shit?

Writing is definitely not like having a baby because:
- you can forget about writing, have a day off, and go and sit in the garden instead.
- once you've finished your little WIP you can dispose of it if you so choose.
- and you definitely don't have to put it through university or pay for its wedding to another little WIP.
- writing hurts. it really does. but, trust me on this, it doesn't hurt as much as having a baby.
- although while having the baby you can get lots of lovely drugs for free. When you're writing a novel, you have to pay for them yourself.