Swim, you bugger. Swim.

So I finally finished listening to Radio 4’s adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and totally loved it. Why haven’t I read this book?!

Seaton is terrible, and prejudiced, and wants to believe he’s entitled to everything, but in the arrogant, mistake-riddled way he carries on – he’s kind of lovable. My favourite scenes by far were those in which he was fishing – suddenly he became philosophical, thoughtful, calm. I thought these scenes were very well done; quiet, with Seaton’s voice taking centre stage in contrast to the clatter of the pubs he so often frequents, and the clamouring of other voices alongside his own. These quiet moments, and the scene in which he buys Doreen chocolate and finally admits to be courting, are lovely interludes that would be nowhere near as interesting if it weren’t for the rest of the play.

In absolute contrast to this, my second favourite moment – if I can call it that – was the haphazard abortion enacted by Arthur on his married girlfriend Brenda, alongside her angry and loyal friend, whose name I helpfully can’t remember. I listened to this at work, and had the distinct feeling of the walls closing in on me, as Arthur continued filling the bath with hot water, and Brenda threatened to throw up the pint of gin she was forced to swallow neat. As she sobbed, and Arthur raged, the scene built to a saddening crescendo, and after it was over the silence was, to be cliche, deafening. It’s a scene I both look forward to reading, and wish I wasn’t already aware of.

While listening to these scenes the contrast between Seaton in public and Seaton in private really struck me. In my currently-failing attempt at a novel, I’m falling victim to self-censorship. The protagonist is too plain, too boring, and won’t contradict herself. Or rather, I won’t let her. I noticed (stupidly) that Seaton is two very different people, and that made him more, rather than less interesting. So I was indeed being quite dense and obstructive by failing to admit that my protagonist could also have this sort of flaw.  Obviously, now the problem is that I have to work out what her flaws are (SO many problems, where to begin), but at least this was something.

In other news, I was pleasantly surprised to find that two lovely humans had commented on my old review of another R4 radioplay: A Special Kind of Dark. Many thanks! And thank you for reminding me that I have a blog…

I’ll leave it to the excellent Timwilldestroyyou to explain:

In other other news, I am seriously considering getting a Tumblr account. But then what will this blog be for, I hear none of you ask? Well, indeed. I don’t know. But given that in the past 6 months I’ve written two draft posts that never got published, it looks like PGP is dying a death. And don’t I need a place to reblog gifs and angry rantings?

As ever, thoughts and comments appreciated. Although I might go behind your back and do it anyway. No offence, duck.



I just watched this, and you all should too:

In all seriousness, I wanted to cry/cheer. Once when she said ‘fuckable’ and once when she said ‘no.’ I’m not sure I have much more to say on this, other than I really needed a kick up the arse and this might be it.

Oh no, Poetry

This is note for me as much as for anyone reading this that April is National Poetry Month.

And as such, I will be participating in NaPoWriMo. After last year’s NaNoWriMo defeat (acknowledged and decided upon to make myself feel better) I vowed to participate in NaPoWriMo this coming month instead.


I’ve always considered myself to be more a poet than a fiction-writer. The reasons for this are probably more complicated then I have yet realised, but when asked I tell people it’s because I don’t have the intellectual capacity nor grand ideas to Write A Novel.
This may be true.
What is also true is that I like poetry. I like taking little wordy snapshots of what I see and/or feel or what I make up for others (often fictional) to see and/or feel. I like to play around with words and shapes, and sometimes sounds, in a way that fiction can let you, but which my brand of fiction doesn’t. I want to be self-indulgent, and with poetry I feel that I can do just that. And I don’t even care whether it’s read or liked! Fiction wants readers to inhabit and get lost in its world, poetry stands alone and asks you questions. I like that.

In addition to NaPoWriMo, April is also the month of Finishing LIS Assignments and Going on Holiday – so I picked a good time to write a poem every single day. However, I guess that’s the aim of the thing: overcome adversity and keep swimming.

So, if you’re so inclined, please do check back over April where I will hopefully be posting the products of my NaPoWriMo challenge every day. (Apart from the last week, during which I will be abroad. I’m telling you now so you know I’m not cheating.)

Looking forward to a busy April!

(Re)Learning to Write

I realised some time ago that I stopped writing poetry at about the same time that my first major relationship broke down. At the time I didn’t know whether to feel sad about it, or that it was too melodramatic. Did it even matter that I had stopped writing? And what did it say that without him I had nothing to write about?

For a long while, when I was much younger I hasten to add, all I wrote about was him: how he made me feel, what he was like, where we were going etc etc. and if I had stopped writing when we broke up, surely I wasn’t really Writing anyway, I was just being indulgent.

In the two years since realising this, I’ve written on and off, and started this blog as an attempt to get used to writing and sharing writing again. I thought that with an audience I might want to write more, and differently, and that mythical ‘inspiration’ might strike and make me into a Poet at any given moment and that you would all be pleased for me.

As you can see, it hasn’t really gone that way. However, today I think I have learned something about Myself as a Writer – and something about what that means.

I took an hour out from my sick bed this afternoon (once I stopped wondering if I was going to throw up every 20 minutes) and walked around the nature reserve across the road. I sat on the bench by the pond, perched on tree stumps, logs, fallen trees, took detours, ran – for the hell of it – and found myself writing. And the thing is, I know I couldn’t have done that if I’d have been with someone else.

This is, of course, not a slight on the people I spend my time with. They’re lovely and wonderful and keep me busy and stop all the introspection that has always caused me to write poetry in the first place. But today it was comforting to realise that writing these little snippets might actually be something that I do, and not just a product of indulgence and suggestion. And that I don’t need a personal trigger, I’m not just a person who write about Things That Have Happened To Her, I can think outside of the box.

I’ve realised that I can write on my own, in fact, I’m much better at this sort of thing alone. I can forget other people long enough to be myself, as the postcard in my bedroom says.

I fact, I could be learning, or re-learning depending on your point of view, how to write the sort of thing that could be read, and the kind of thing that reflects me. I’ve always said I’m no good at photography, and I can’t draw to save my life. So I was a little surprised today to find that what I was writing were little pictures caused by the things around me. Back in the day when I was writing about Feelings and the like, I would have laughed at the thought of myself writing poems about nature, and the world. “I’m not William fucking Wordsworth”, I would have thought. And I’m not!. So while the things I penned today are still Things That Happened, they’re (hopefully) more accessible, and more reflective of where I’ve gone with this. There is more to write about than Feelings, and I always knew that. It’s just nice to know that I can do that sort of writing – or at least, I have the potential to, as dangerous as potential is.

Learning to write again is a slow process, and it looks as though it will involve a lot of time spent on my own. But I kind of like that. I think I can work out how it’s done on my own. For the past eighteen months I’ve been hopefully carrying a notebook and pen around with my when friends and I go to visit nice places. Turns out, the nice places are irrelevant. It’s the being on my own that helps. Which explains why I always think of something to write when I’m doing something unconsciously; like driving, or washing up, or taking a shower – and not when I’m trying to do something complicated like remember how to co-ordinate all my limbs and breathing at the same time while at the gym.

Also, this means that NaPoWriMo may not be the terrible, painful, woeful struggle I expected it to be! But let’s not count the chickens yet…

Books I Wish I Had Written

No matter how much you read or write, there are always some stories you wish you had thought to tell first, or metaphors you wished you’d come up with. Below are a list of the top five books I wish I had written.

1. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban

“Walker is my name
and I am the same.
Riddley Walker.
Walking my riddels
where ever theyve took me
and walking them now
on this paper the same.”

In Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban tells the tale of post-apocalyptic England through the mangled and re-written voice of its inhabitants, specifically the titular protagonist Riddley. In his search for knowledge, Riddley dissolves the myths which have sprung-up in this post-nuclear dystopia and uncovers the secret of mankind’s downfall.
I studied this book as part of a third-year English Lit half-unit on the Male Bildungsroman. I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I turned the first page, and it’s safe to say that this completely blew me away. This book is a revelation. Hoban imagines a world without history so convincingly that the novel is compelling from the first sentence and I really found that I could not put this down until I had worked it out. From the post-apocalyptic dialect to the somehow-familiar myths and rules of the new society, I was challenged throughout and as a result of my perseverance I was rewarded with a totally original and haunting world. I’ve never come across anything so foreign, yet uncanny, and if there is one book you must take on trust, it’s this one. I won’t tell you anything more as it really ought to be a surprise, but please read Riddley Walker! (And then come back and talk to me about it.)

2. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…”

Portrait of the Artist tells the story of Stephan Dedalus’ (of Ulysses fame) youth – from birth to his teenage years. Joyce reflects almost exactly Dedalus’ thoughts, even in his personal dialect as a baby, and the book is a rollercoaster of scenes and internal monologue that I’m sure you only truly understand once you’ve finished.
I remember reading this when I was at secondary school, and after the first chapter I remember being amazed at the audacity Joyce displayed in writing something which plainly made no sense at a first reading. Since then, I’ve wanted to write something this confident. I’m not there yet, so this is still on the list of wishful thinking.

3. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin

“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”

George R. R. Martin’s undeniably ambitious saga begins with A Game of Thrones, in which the fictional land of Westeros and its difficult and dangerous politics is introduced. Beginning at the end of a multiple-year ‘Summer’, the saga charts the stories of a number of characters; all of whom, it emerges, have claims to the Iron Throne.
I’m currently only on Book Two, A Clash of Kings, but so  far I’m jealous. Martin’s books are immensely long, and immensely detailed. At the end of Book One I was so engaged I had to keep reading, and now I’m reading on I’m amazed at the ease with which Martin introduces new characters. And here lies my envy: every character is complex. There are no real stereotypes, and everyone changes their mind or experiences a genuine conflict of interests at some point. This really keeps a reader on their toes. That and Martin’s lack of fear when it comes to killing off his darlings: there are points at which you know where this book should go – if only it were another book. With A Song of Ice and Fire, you can never be sure what will happen…

4. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

“This is not for you.”

Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a beautiful, ambitious hypertext that teaches you what ‘hypertext’ really means. A potentially fictional, tortured protagonist uncovers and reassembles the work of a potentially fictional blind man, who is reviewing a film that cannot be found created by a filmaker who seems not to exist. The book covers the lives of all three main characters, looping and twisting through their lives while all the time exposing the real protagonist, the House. It is the setting of the film, the academic focus of the essay, and it too may not even be real.
This book is filled with metaphor, clues, and contradictions to keep you on your toes and occasionally scare you half to death. I loved it. It can be read in a number of ways, it’s visually appealing, and it is guaranteed to get you thinking. I only wish I had the brain power to contemplate writing something of this scale.

5. Rapture, Carol Ann Duffy

“I want to call you thou, the sound
of the shape of the start
of a kiss

Rapture is a collection of love poems charting an affair from the first brilliant shock of attraction to the final resignation and complacency that comes with time. As ever, Duffy’s writing is bright, vivid and unique, and the poems range from odes of love to short and snappy declarations that stick in your mind. A particular favourite of mine is Syntax, and I really could read it aloud again and again.
The reason I wish I had written it: Duffy manages to capture these fleeting moments in a manner that makes them almost understandable. Whenever I write poetry I want to do the same; to make something undefinable real for just the length of that page. It’s a real skill, and I firmly believe there’s beauty to her writing.

So, that’s enough of me waxing lyrical!
What are your top five? Which books do you just wish you’d written?

How to make time for NaNoWriMo 2011 (or not)

I just read this post* and asked myself “So, am I doing NaNoWriMo this year?”

My immediate reaction: *laughsnort* As if.

I’m busy. I have a full time job. I’m studying for my MSc on the side. I have to visit my parents and boyfriend at the weekends. I’m trying to remember to go swimming once a week. I have to buy food for the house and then quite often cook it as well. And I’d like to be able to read a normal book once in a while as well!

At the same time, however, I want to keep writing. It’s one of the few things I feel I really ought to put the effort into. It’s my own thing. No-one else is checking up on me, and it’s a thing I feel I can do (as vain as that sounds). But it’s equally a thing that requires a ton of practice. But not necessarily a ton of time.

I could:

  • get up early and write before breakfast
  • watch less TV in the evenings (apart from Sunday nights at 9pm) and write before bed
  • lock myself in a room at work and write during my lunchbreak
  • dictate to my phone in the car on the way to work, parents’ and boyfriend’s houses

I probably will:

  • end up doing none of the above
  • think about what I want to write while driving, swimming, making dinner
  • take half an hour each day and try to plan something
  • take another half hour the day after and type and type until that plan is on paper
  • forget until November 17th… and start again

And at the end of it, I won’t have a novel. But I’ll have worked on this idea that’s been in my head for a while and dedicated some sort of attention to it. Then, one day, when I don’t have study/job/driving/cooking/eating to do – I’ll write the novel!

But not this month. Sorry, November. Besides, I always liked writing poetry better. Bring on April!

Good luck to everyone working on NaNoWriMo this year! May you be organised, prolific and successful.

*You should read this post if nothing else but for the beautiful calendar! This is such a good idea.

Day One at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

So today I was near my hometown visiting the Literature Festival ’11 in Cheltenham. Each year this takes place in the second week of October and so falls quite happily over my birthday. Hence, a nice birthday weekend of books, food and thinking.

Instead of keeping my notes to myself, I though that this year I’d share them with whichever people still happened to be reading this.

Today we saw David Lodge discussing his fictional biography on the life of H. G. Wells; A Man of Many Parts. Turns out Wells had a rather scandalous life of politics, sex, interviewing people like Stalin and sometimes squeezing in enough time to write successful novels such as The Time Machine.
Lodge read out a section in which Wells considers a flirtation with children’s author Edith Nesbitt, and apparently it’s the only time in the novel that Wells does not succumb to temptation. In Lodge’s typical style it’s quite unique, plain-speaking and understated; adjectives are used sparsely and to effect, meaning that their message comes across loud, clear and the prose is vivid. I’m considering reading it, and at the very least I want to read all of Well’s major fiction first so that I can make my opinions of him as a writer before philanderer.

Points of interest:

  • Lodge’s suggestion that Paradise Lost is Science Fiction: in particular the suggestion that the first line of The War of the Worlds is reminiscent of Milton’s Satan. “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s…”
  • Wells was too busy having sex to fully edit his novels. Apparently it’s a good thing he was a quick writer!
  • Wells’ novels are of interest to people such as myself, with a “secular and scientific bent”.

After lunch, we saw Tony Benn being his usual hilarious and quotable self. We had already decided that Benn’s politics are not in line with our own, but that as a character he is worth listening to. Case in point being that regarding a question about the provision of jobs, homes etc for debt-worried graduates – Benn’s answer was that education was a human right and that graduates would have high-paying jobs… missing the point entirely. An idealist, a humorous man, but not entirely practical.
This session also provided the Most Mad Question of the Day: a lady somewhere at the back waited for some time to ask whether Benn knew that Harold Wilson was considering assassinating a Ghanian in the 1970s, and was this discussed in cabinet, as a Radio 4 programme she had listened to last year had suggested.
Benn’s reply: “I’m sorry, I’m a little deaf, I didn’t quite catch that.”

The final session of the day was a discussion on Lives of the Novelists (i.e. literary biography and biographical fiction) between David Lodge and John Sutherland, author of the new Lives of the Novelists, a chronological literary history of 294 writers’ lives. It looks like a beautiful encyclopedia, and I want it for Christmas.

Points of interest:

  • books are “little time machines” – on each re-reading you are taken back to how life was when you first read each page
  • “literary criticism is fun because ultimately there is no consensus”
  • drawing on her own life, the novelist uses aesthetics and tactics to combine fantasy/plot with reality to make something which moves us all. And so, biography is dangerous as it unpicks this creation (and shines light onto areas kept dark for a reason). The work is therefore no longer original and whole.
  • Speculation in biography is fine, but in fiction it is a killer. In Lodge’s words “a novelist cannot produce a character who’s not sure if he’s had sex or not”.
  • The poet is at the disposal of the reader? What does this mean? In T. S. Eliot‘s words, poetry is an escape from personality, whereas fiction draws on personality and experience. (Could this have been a tactic on Eliot’s part to keep critics from using biography to ‘understand’ his writing?)
  • Using biography to make sense of poetry is reductive
  • Through non-specificity, poetry means more and touches more people – it can stand for itself where it is not explicitly the confessional device of the poet.
  • “the poem is a statue” “in clinical isolation” – in studying poetry there is no context, just text. Sutherland suggested that this might be unsatisfying; there is always a human element to poetry, surely biography can illuminate this? Lodge countered this by bringing up the case of Philip Larkin, a darling poet of the nation until letters were released exposing his ‘distasteful’ private natures, which caused outrage and for him to be potentially dropped from some UoL curriculums.
  • How can poetry make us identify with things with which we have no experience? Good poetry will do this; you do not need to know what the poet has experienced to feel something also e.g. students can identify with Ted Hughes but not Sylvia Plath – I think this is because students have preconceptions about Plath and so make judgements on her poetry, thinking that they cannot identify. Yet, they understand The Bell Jar
  • Why does context help us to understand fiction but inhibit our understanding of poetry?
  • The poet has two selves.
  • “Great novelists are bisexual” in being able to write convincingly from the point of view of both sexes.
  • “the novel is obviously fiction” – is it?!

And finally, The Second Most Mad Question of the Day: two people who lived in one house were ‘homosexually-inclined’. “Was there something in the brickwork that made them homosexually-inclined?”

So with that thought to play on your mind, I’ll leave you. Bring on tomorrow!

Strange (Re)Invention: Recycling Poetry as Song

Mike Scott reads aloud from a book during a Wa...

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I was listening to Radio 4’s Front Row last week (<– showing off) and discovered that the singer/songwriter of The WaterboysMike Scott, has created a new album using the poetry of W. B. Yeats. It’s called “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” and while I only heard snippets, they were interesting for a number of reasons. I’ve been trying to form an opinion on this ever since.

What I found particulary interesting was that Mike Scott had waited particularly for W. B. Yeats poetry to come out of copyright before he made the record. This was on account of the fact that he was re-arranging the lines in Yeats’ poems to suit his verse. Which in itself begs the question of whether it was right, or fair, to do so. My gut tells me this was a little bit sneaky, but then in order to stick to his creative vision there was no other way to go about it without risking a lawsuit. But equally, I can see where the Yeats estate is coming from: the words of W.B. Yeats were protected from tampering and suchlike, and they obviously want to protect what is obviously considered to be very valuable intellectual property – but there is nothing they can do once the work is out of copyright. Like it or not, Scott is completely within his rights to edit Yeats poetry.

And so: is Mike Scott’s work original or is at an adaptation?

As I’ve said above, ‘An Appointment with Mr Yeats’ is Mike Scott’s creative vision. It is his hard work which has produced the melodies, arrangements and all other production that goes into making an album. The words, though, are – certainly were – Yeats’. In this way, Scott’s work is similar to that of musicians such as Keith James, whose efforts to re-imagine the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca include setting it to music. The music is, of course, James’ own imagining, and the lyrics that he chooses (both Spanish and English) are Lorca’s.

By rearranging the words of W.B. Yeats, though, Scott is doing something quite different, and it is this that the Yeats estate objected to and the reason Scott had to wait so long before he could complete (and significantly; release) his work. If Scott recycles Yeats’ words and re-arranges them, they are no longer the works of Yeats in the form that they were written – although they may still be recognisable. In fact, given that Scott makes no attempt to hide his creative efforts as a combination of his and Yeats’ creative influence, it is almost impossible for a listener to not pick out Yeats’ words.

But are they still Yeats’ words? Once re-arranged, the poetry is not Yeats’ own. It is implausible to suggest that the words cannot be used by Scott because Yeats used them first; if that were the case we would need to invent a new language every time any of us spoke or wrote anything – from a tiny text message to a epic ballad. We are re-using and recycling language all the time; language that famous dead poets and writers used, and language that our friends have used casually. We copy what others say, and we modify and rephrase so often, that we can never lay claim to that words that we use when out of context. By re-arranging Yeats’ poems, I would argue therefore that Scott’s work is merely that: a recycling of language that has already been used many times before.

So Scott’s work is clearly not plagiarism. But is it fair? Legally, yes. But perhaps morally, from the point of view of the Yeats estate, it is not. The words out of order are merely words, it is the creative effort put into creating the order of those words as poetry which is the intellectual property protected by copyright. And yet, Scott makes no claim to own the words or the poetry – this is clear by the title of the album ‘An Appointment with Mr. Yeats’ does nothing to disguise the fact that these are Yeats’ words set to Scott’s music. Sometime out of order, yes, but firmly contextualised as a modern revival or re-imagining of classic texts. Scott lays claim, as he should, to the music he has put the poetry to – and in this way his work is entirely fair. It could be argued that morally Scott is being very fair, he has waited until he is able to make his changes without damaging Yeats’ estate – and that’s as fair as you can get under the copyright law.

I would still argue that Scott has done much more than merely set Yeats’ poetry to music, but I think that he is still very much within his legal and moral rights to do so. His work is considered, the music is compelling, and he has broadly acknowledged the source of his lyrics. In fact, it is almost refreshing to see the creative influence that a poet such as Yeats’ is still having. Scott is not merely discussing Yeats’ influence on him, but displaying it in a manner befitting of the creative arts: he is letting us experience it.

On a personal level, as someone who attempts to write, I think recycling of language is something I have trouble coming to terms with. Of course, I am widely influenced, and I want to borrow a certain turn of phrase from time to time – but the desire to be totally original often stops me. I think what’s interesting for me in this case is that I couldn’t decide whether Scott was being totally original. His music is certainly original. But the lyrics not. They are re-worked, but nonetheless they have been heard before.

But saying that, haven’t we all heard things before. I think the work of a writer is to make these familiar thing unfamiliar again, and stay at arm’s length from cliche, but in this case Scott is not claiming to be a writer, he is claiming to be a musician and so his work is valid and original. If I were to re-order John Donne‘s words (for example), that wouldn’t be original, but if I were to use the language in a way that is relevant to me, then that would.

What do you think? Is Scott’s work original? Is it valid? Can writer’s feasibly re-use the words of other writers and make them their own?

Writing and Researching

The Great Books of the Western World is an att...

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After a talk at the Kultivate Project Conference that I recently attended in London, I’ve been thinking about the process of creative writing and why it is so difficult to archive creative works.

Professor Kersten Mey spoke an awful lot of sense on Friday, and for a while it was like being back in my Creative Writing lectures at university. I hope that nobody in the room stopped paying attention to what she was saying as I know would have happened if the speech had been a university lecture, because it genuinely got across some really vital points regarding how artists create art.

Of course, I only have limited experience in this area, and it’s to do with how writers write rather than the visual arts – but there was a lot that struck me as true. This is partly because I studied writing as an academic subject, and as such guidelines had to be put into place to make sure that we could be properly and fairly assessed. This is similar to the way that academic research is assessed and graded by the REF and is something that we all need to think about when presenting the institution’s research in a public domain. For us as students, therefore, it was frequently drilled into us that we had to consider what we were writing, why we were writing it, and how it fitted into the literary canon.

All big things. But nothing that any good artist won’t do anyway?

There are those who sit down and write whatever comes into their heads. Stories and characters seize them and don’t let go until they’ve finished telling their tale. (I’m not one of these people. Not often, anyway.)
But, these writers will – I believe- tell you that after two or three novels, short stories, poems etc themes begin to emerge. And it’s these themes that help you to work out what you are writing, and with further analysis why you are writing it. Your cares and worries emerge cathartically through your work.

The other way to consider what you’re writing (or want to write) is to think about something which you’re passionate about. This was some of the best advice I was given (as I’m not one of those people who often spontaneously sit and write until the idea has run dry). You can’t just write about things which you’ve never experienced or don’t care about. You have to be moved, annoyed, emotionally invested – otherwise you won’t produce convincing art.

So: to consider what you’re writing and why, you need to look into your motives. Perhaps this happens organically, an idea or news story sparks your imagination and you run with it. Or perhaps you work the other way around: you want to create something which explores a particular (contemporary) issue that you care about and so you build your story around what you read or learn in the real world.

Both of these methods of writing include research as well as experience and personality. You are influenced by what you experience, and this includes the things you read in the paper and see on the news. It also includes the research you carry out to flesh out your characters experiences, and it includes the theories you read to flesh out the philosophy you want to get across.

The second part of producing art/writing is to think about where it fits into the literary canon. This sounds scary, but it’s not really. It can be as simple as recognising your literary (or musical, or televisual, or whatever cultural thing floats your boat) influences, or it can be an active attempt to recreate a past movement, or invent something entirely original.

I’d like to think that most of us do this anyway. A lot of what we write is subconscious, but we can all tell you who we’d like to emulate, or which things we’d never do. This is what considering your place in the literary canon means. Are you a chick lit writer, a science fiction writer, or do you want to break the mould?

And in order to do all of these things you need to read books, read the paper, watch films, listen to music and engage. As part of my degree, we were taught to think about where our influences came from and document them. This was because we were not just marked on the originality of our piece, but the thought that went into producing it. We were taught to consider the ideas that went into producing something because often, with art, the output is not the sum of its parts – it is influenced by a great many things which come out as subleties in the work and so are not always obvious. So we were taught to contextualise our work in relation to what we had researched, and we had to write an accompanying essay to each creative piece which detailed our considerations. This meant that our examiners (and readers) could consider what we were producing in the same way that we had, and so our meaning was shared in this way.

Obviously, it’s impossible to get all of your influences across in the output itself – you’d be there forever explaining why Dune was such an important book and why you spent two weeks reading about the construction of religion and the importance of charismatic leaders when you produced this minor character who controls the fate of the protagonist. So documenting the process of how you got to the output is important – especially if anybody else is going to see the work as you meant it, and as more than just its words/images. For assessment, they need to see the work that went into the production of your piece.

Of course, I won’t argue that all art happens this way, as I’m not all artists. But, as I’ve mentioned above, there are ways to work back through your portfolio and pick apart the influences that lead you there. As subconscious as they were, once you recognise how you got somewhere, you are able to share that process with those who need to consider it in order to grade it.
And, of course, I won’t argue that this is necessary for all art or writing. The beauty of creative work is that it invites interpretation, and I don’t want to spoil that by contextualising everything. In fact, I think it’s one of the most restrictive things an artist can do to her audience. But in this case I am talking about assessment – assessment of the quality of your research process as well as of the output itself. And this is something which is becoming increasingly important, what with the cuts to the arts we are experiencing here at the moment. It’s not a case of justifying what we do, but explaining more clearly how we go about it, and that it’s not so difficult to assess after all.

The most important point that I’m trying to get across here, and it’s one that Professor Mey made at the Conference, is that research and art are inextricably linked. You cannot have one without the other. The work that goes into producing artistic outputs is often equally empirically based, but the need to represent the research process as well as the output (so as do document the path to this single conclusion) is what causes repositories a problem.It’s just a case of learning how to record what is significant, and for librarians and repository managers (and software developers) to find ways to accommodate this way of working.


Murakami Strikes Again

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Image by Pip via Flickr

Last night I finished Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Courtesy of Wikipedia, here is a plot summary COMPLETE WITH SPOILERS:

“The story is split between parallel narratives. The odd-numbered chapters take place in ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland’, although the phrase is not used anywhere in the text, only in page headers. The narrator is a “Calcutec,” a human data processor/encryption system who has been trained to use his subconscious as an encryption key.

The even-numbered chapters deal with a newcomer to ‘the End of the World’, a strange, isolated walled Town depicted in the frontispiece map as being surrounded by a perfect and impenetrable wall.”

Eventually, as you might guess, these stories converge in that the End of the World is part of the coded subconcious of the protagonist of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Other than that, though, I won’t go into what actually happens.

I found this book mostly disappointing. I hate to say this, because I’m still convinced I like Murakami. I loved Kafka on the Shore so much. But Norwegian Wood, while pretty, was disappointing in plot. Although it did make me engage and it did make me think and when I got to the ending I forgave it completely.

The problem with Hard-Boiled Wonderland, though, was that it was the language that was disappointing. I’m not trying to place blame, but I do wonder how much this has to do with translation. Perhaps something was lost? Reading the plot summary in Wikipedia, I think I might have a point.

In the original Japanese, the narrator uses the more formal first-person pronoun watashi to refer to himself in the ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland’ narrative and the more intimate boku in the ‘End of the World’. Translator Alfred Birnbaum achieved a similar effect in English by putting the ‘End of the World’ sections in the present tense.

I can’t say I agree with that. I can see where it’s going, but present tense by no means suggests the same intimacy. I suddenly get why I felt disappointed when I found out how the two parts interact, it was because I wasn’t sure I had seen it coming whereas if I had known this intimacy perhaps there would have known that the End of the World was in the narrator’s head.

Overall, though, this book feels to me a lot more like clumsy from the off, and that’s in part due to its attempt to include quite so many genres in so few pages and with such little characterisation. It is hard to suggest film noir/detective fiction subtley, when you are also trying to subvert the norms by chucking in a load of science fiction, and writing a mythical side piece. I get that. But from reading the blurb, I kind of thought Murakami was the man to do it.

The tone, I thought, was flat from the very beginning. The narrator does not suggest film noir – for which I expect disdain, cynicism, analysis and propensity towards alcohol. What I got was a dull, uninterested, lacking-in-personality narrator and while he did have a fine collection of whiskeys, this seemed mostly a nod in the right direction, something to tick the box of Detective Character rather than add to the characterisation at hand. Again, he fits the bill as a divorcee, but this he takes with the same disinterest and pragmatism as everything else. There seems to be no emotion to this character, and as such I found it difficult to engage not only with him, but as the others as my sole method of getting to know them was through his tiresome descriptions.  The best way of describing the failure to produce characters I could engage with I am stealing from this review: ” The book’s chock full of pop-culture references, most of them Western, that attempt to stand in for a personality but fail”. And it’s true! While there are some beautiful passages and thoughts; Bob Dylan’s voice described as “a kid standing at the window watching the rain”, most of the book jumps from event to event without much room for reader-engagement.

As well as the tone, the narration itself was uninteresting. I imagine this is because our nameless narrator is so uncaring for the world he is living in and unwilling to engage with it. But again, the descriptions of the science fiction aspect – which, frankly, is brilliant – were rushed and forced to the point where I didn’t understand and then didn’t much care. It seemed that the plot was going to carry on without me, and as the protagonist himself was entirely passive about the situation, I didn’t see why I should be upset either.

I’m going to say this again, because I think it’s worth saying, the idea of having a code produced by a cipher which is totally unique and indistinguishable to the person producing it is brilliant.  I just think it’s a shame it was all so rushed and clumsily exposed.

I have read reviews since which suggest that there is something more to the book, that it is a consideration of the internal space we inhabit versus the external world where everything else happens, and I can kind of see that. But I don’t want to read the book again to look into this further. However, it’s an interesting line of thought, and I’d be interested to talk about this further, should the opportunity arise.

Having said all that, I don’t want to be entirely negative, so. The last four chapters were beautiful, exactly the kind of Murakami I had expected. The narrator engaged, I knew what was going on, I found myself reading passages again and not just to try to remember what they were all talking about. Perhaps the sense of inevitability helped at this point, the narrator was less restrained and taking more care of his thoughts, and it was this (along with the culmination of the second part of the novel) that I really enjoyed. So, if you get that far, it’s lovely. But it by no means makes up for the clumsy writing beforehand.

Incase you would like to read a more favourable review of this book: http://mywordlyobsessions.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/book-review-hard-boiled-wonderland-and-the-end-of-the-world-by-haruki-murakami/