Archive for the ‘Commentary’ category

Is Ian Rankin all that?

August 22, 2008

This will probably come across as a sour grapes rant, and to hell with it, I don’t care. I’ve just watched a documentary in a series on ITV3 about British crime writers. This one was about Ian Rankin, the Scottish author of books about Inspector Rebus.

Now I’ve just read a Rebus novel while on holiday, and I have to say that in all honesty I wasn’t that impressed. It was the second Rebus novel I’ve read. Maybe I’ve surfeited too much on a heady diet of American crime writing, but I thought it was heavy, dour and not that well-written. The plot moved along at a lick, but it was littered with coincidences and incidents that were really incidental – that is, they were not central to the storyline and were left hanging. They were there to add ‘colour’ to the main story but had no life of their own. For example, Rebus’ ne’er do well brother had come out of prison and was staying at the house that Rebus owned but had been renting out to students. One night, the brother answered the door and was kidnapped, later to be found hanging upside down hanging from a bridge. This was intended as a ‘warning’ to Rebus about the case he was investigating. The problem for me was that the state of the brother afterwards was not believable in the slightest. He hung around the house in a state of shock, reading books on hypnotherapy – a complete change in his character. It seemed that Rankin liked the idea of the incident, but then didn’t know how to deal with the brother afterwards.

Similarly, at the end of the book, one of the chief villains threw himself into a huge vat of beer rather than face the criminal investigation coming his way. Again, this was an event that was simply not credible.

Of course all books – let alone crime novels – have to include events that are beyond the norm, otherwise they become documentaries. But there were too many of them here. They went beyond ‘local colour’ into the realm of pure incredibility.

What’s more, the writing wasn’t that good. I don’t have the book to hand, so I can’t quote examples, but I noted many instances where the similes and metaphors he used were tired clichés. He created a couple of interesting characters – Rebus amongst them – but the claims that were made for him by other participants in the TV program were ludicrous when you put him against the real giants of American crime writing. The main tone was ‘He’s a great writer who just happens to write crime novels.’ Well, no. When you put him against someone like Ian McEwan, or Martin Amis, or Cormac McCarthy, that boat just doesn’t float.

Interestingly, Rankin claimed to have learned from the American crime writers that he read. He recognised that when he looked at British writers they usually wrote ‘cosies’ set in country houses where amateur detectives solved the crimes and put the world back to rights. He didn’t want to be part of that world, which was fair enough. But I hardly think that a high-ranking British copper – which is what Rebus is – fits into the same category as anti-heroes like Sam Spade or The Continental Detective of Dashiell Hammett. However much he kicks against the system, he’s still in the system. And he fits into the current British dedication to the police procedural – whether it be Dalglish or Morse or Jane Tennison or – God help us – Dixon of Dock Green (no relation).

So I just don’t get it. Val McDermid made the point during the show that ‘genre’ writing like crime writing is derided by the literary establishment because it doesn’t understand what’s really going on in the genre these days. That’s true. But you won’t find out what’s really going on by looking at British crime writing. If it’s not a police procedural, it’s a forensic pathologist solving the crime. You need to look at the Americans – James Lee Burke, Jefferson Parker, George Pelecanos, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley. These are established names of the same vintage as Rankin, if not a little older. But they’re still writing books that are more vital and connected to the modern world. And are much, much better written.

Sorry, Ian.

How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?

July 5, 2007

… Two. One to change it, and the other to offer a well-reasoned critique as to how it could have been done better.

Writers are a strange bunch. On the one hand we’re often self-critical, worrisome, uncertain and as apt to cross out a line as to write one.

On the other, we can be very dogmatic about what is right or wrong about any given piece of prose – especially when it’s written by someone working in the same area or genre as ourselves.

I guess I’m writing this in a state of apprehension, because I’ve sent out copies of my latest book to a group of beta-readers (a phrase I found on a Lulu forum) and soon I’ll be getting the feedback. All but one of them writes extensively themselves, and the one who doesn’t keeps a very active and entertaining blog, so is used to putting virtual pen to paper albeit in a different form.

I have mingled with writers a little – after all, I did a degree in Creative Arts, including creative writing, and I’ve been to a few writers’ workshops elsewhere – and my impression is that we can be quite cagey. My sense is that unlike the general impression of writers as larger-than-life Hemingway-esque characters, who grab life in a bear-hug and don’t let go, many of us are quiet, inward-looking folk who use words to explain how we’re feeling. Writing is, after all, a solitary experience for the most part. I’m still haunted by Isaac Asimov’s description of himself sitting in a small room facing a blank wall for most of 40 years – including weekends – while he produced his 400+ books … And I think, is that how I envisage myself? Well, I don’t sit facing a wall. But I am in a small room facing a screen …

Also, we veer between confidence in our belief in what we’re doing, and fear that it’s not up to snuff and other people are doing it much, much better, so why would anyone listen to little ole us … ?

When you’re with a bunch of writers a kind of friendly distance can settle around the table … people assessing and weighing up others. Gore Vidal nailed it, I suppose, with that famous line of his: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” That edge of competition I suspect is there in all of us who are competing for readers.

Which is not to say that writers can’t be enormously generous, too. The Lulu forums – and other writing websites – are full of people generously giving advice and energy – and even free reading-time! – to other writers. There are some folk who are just gregarious, I guess, and want to be part of a group that does well.

So pardon me while I dip in and out of these two modes: self-imposed solitary confinement, complete with deep-circled eyes and a snappy dismissal of books I dislike; and open-hearted, friendly, concerned and interested fellow traveler down the writing path, willing to critique and offer a helping hand where possible …

Don’t try to work out which one I’ll be at any given time, because I’m damned if I know.

Vonnegut’s legacy

April 15, 2007

Like many people, I guess, I’ve felt a special attachment to Kurt Vonnegut since the first time I read anything by him. That first book was probably Slaughterhouse 5, and I read it because they made a film in the early seventies that looked interesting and vaguely science-fiction-ish. Which was a plus.

So that was about 1972, and over here in Britain they started publishing or republishing all of his early works. So I was able to scarf up The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night, Player Piano … all leading to the publication of his ‘birthday present to [him]self’ – Breakfast of Champions, in 1973.

So what was it that attracted people to him? What did he do, as a writer, that made the books resonate?

Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan are, to some extent, fairly straightforward science-fiction. Except that the latter is very funny, cleverly structured, and speaks with an individual voice practically unheard in 1950s science-fiction. By that I mean that you have a sense of a real person writing the words. It’s there in the first few paragraphs, and if you look closely you can see how he does it: simple phrases, homely words, familiar metaphors. Like this:

“Gimcrack religions were big business.” …
“Mankind flung its advance agents ever outward … It flung them like stones.”

The use of “gimcrack”, “big business” and “like stones” tell us that this language is going to be the kind of language we all use. It’s not “literary” or difficult. It’s slightly ironic in tone but the irony of the common person, the person who regards large institutions with suspicion and who uses language to describe exactly what he or she sees, without fancy metaphors: “like stones.”

Reading The Sirens of Titan now, it actually feels quite literary compared to the later books. There are long sentences, quite a few descriptive passages, and lots of characters and situations. Later, Vonnegut refined his technique further – fewer characters, shorter sentences, less description. It was as if we began to understand Vonnegut-world and he didn’t have to describe it to us any more. What became important was the depth of his insights and the simplicity with which he began to express them.

At one level, this is perhaps why his novels became less successful even as his essays and other writings became more popular. He no longer needed the excuse of fiction to talk to us – he could use his essays and recorded speeches. I was sorry about that, because reading The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle for the first time is a lesson in how to have your head expanded to take in new fictional possibilites. For example, the use of drawings – created by himself – to punctuate and illustrate his books; or the introduction of himself as a character in Breakfast of Champions, pre-dating similar tactics by Martin Amis, Philip Roth and Douglas Coupland by a few decades. (He actually introduced himself as a character, though briefly, in Slaughterhouse 5, as someone excreting his brains … always the comedian!)

I spent a couple of years studying Vonnegut for a Ph.D. thesis, and later went on to teach Cat’s Cradle to college students. Despite these circumstances that are guaranteed to cool your ardour for any author, I ended up admiring him even more as a writer. To the extent that I found my own writing was beginning to lurch towards sub-Vonnegutian aphorisms and brevity. Unfortunately for me – or perhaps fortunately – I hadn’t suffered the same way he had: his mother committed suicide on the eve of Mother’s Day, the day Vonnegut returned home prior to being shipped abroad to fight in WW2; and his sister, Alice, and her husband, both died in one week in 1958 – she of cancer, he in a railroad accident two days before. All of these events, together with the well-publicised circumstances he endured during the fire-bombing of Dresden, gave him a perspective on the brevity of human life that was hard earned.

So Kurt has been there somewhere in the background for me for the last 35 years or so. Even as I read his later works with less and less enthusiasm, my admiration for the man as a humanist and someone who saw things clearly grew. Now it seems like there isn’t anyone out there who’s going to call us to account. My other favourite living author, Gore Vidal, is declining as a literary force, and his playful, if biting, comments more often sound left-field rather than right-minded. Too many disappointments seem to have clouded his judgement.

In these days of Bush, Blair and Bin Laden, we needed Kurt Vonnegut. Shame he had to go.

RIP

Your instrument …

March 25, 2007

At the same time as I’m working on my second novel, I’m also learning to play the guitar. I started about a year ago and progress is slow, largely because I’m teaching myself in a very haphazard fashion.

It struck me the other day that one of the reasons it’s hard to learn an instrument (at least a stringed instrument) is because there are several things you have to learn at the same time.

First, you have to train your body to complete manoeuvres it has no intention of completing of its own accord: fingers need to stretch to reach a span of notes on a fretboard; arms need to bend over the guitar body and under the frets, leaving you with aching shoulders; your back needs to be held upright even as you’re sitting on the edge of a chair.

Secondly, you have to do different things with your hands at the same time – fret chords with the left, pluck or strum strings with the right.

Thirdly, you may have to learn to read music – or at least the tablature that guitarists mostly read.

Fourth, there’s pain! Your fingers have to build calluses, and this can take months. Until they’re hard, your finger tips are grooved with painful lines, meaning you can only play for minutes at a time before having to shake your hand and utter a few choice words.

Fifth, if you play an electric guitar (which I don’t), you have to build a body of knowledge about electronics and amplification.

Why am I listing all these? Well, using one of those far-fetched analogies of which preachers are fond, it suddenly seemed to me that learning to play the guitar is a little like writing a book …

First, you have to train your mind to complete manoevres it has no intention of completing of its own accord: for example, you probably have to be more organised than might be usual for you – for instance, keeping track of the colour of characters’ eyes, or the timeline of events in your book, or the past history of your heroine. You also have to have the discipline to write, sitting at that table for hours every day, developing carpal tunnel syndrome, short-sight and (if you’re unfortunate) haemarrhoids.

Secondly, you have to do different things with the right and left parts of your brain – the creative and the structured. You have to follow a plan, an outline, a rough mental sketch – whatever system you’ve found suits you – but at the same time be open to the unexpected flash of intuition that takes you along a completely different path. Many writers seem to have nailed one but have trouble with the other!

Thirdly, you may have to learn grammar and spelling. Don’t be fooled that these will be fixed by an editor. Your work won’t even reach an editor if these two systems of notation aren’t reasonably well mastered.

Fourth, there’s pain! Mental anguish as you begin to believe you can’t do it, the words won’t come, the characters aren’t really alive, the plot is dull … why did you bother starting in the first place? You just have to build the mental calluses, the tough-mindedness that says, Write it, then Re-write it. You can’t do the second without the first, so just get it down on paper.

Fifth, if you use a computer (which I do!), you have to build a body of knowledge about word processing, filing, back-ups, formatting and printing.

Maybe these elements just happen to be part of the act of creation. Maybe for anything good to be formed out of thin air, you need to have developed mental and physical toughness, creativity and organisation. Maybe to use your instrument to the best of its abilities, you have to suffer pain, too. What a comforting thought!

Keith
Author of Altered Life

On or off the bus?

March 11, 2007

In the early 60s, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters toured America in an old bus, promoting the use of LSD as a way of revolutionising society. People who thought of themselves as ‘Pranksters’ were considered to be ‘on the bus’; if not, you were ‘off the bus’.

I feel somewhat the same about Print on Demand publishing. I have a novel that I’ve self-published, Altered Life, and I’m proud that it’s out there and being bought, gradually, by people I don’t know.

By the same token, I know that I’m off the bus – I haven’t gone through a process of being chosen by an agent, sold to a publishing house, edited by a professional editor, proof-read by a person wearing thick glasses … I’ve done all these things myself. So part of me feels slightly like a second-class citizen, faking it, pretending to be an author when I’m actually someone with a lot of persistence and chutzpah.

Yet out there in POD-land, I come across many folk who consider themselves writers because they’ve put themselves in print, and people are buying their books. And I can’t decide what I think about this – and about their claims (and my claims) to be published authors. They show diligence, self-belief, marketing awareness and the ability to project manage. Some of them can even write a bit. But if you’ve not gone through the commercial publishing process, are you really a writer – or just a self-publicist?

For example, I have an acquaintance who has published a book through a large and well-known publishing house. I’ve read the opening pages … and that’s as much as I’d care to read. The reviews on Amazon.com have been mixed – some poor, some good. Yet the book is still 270000th on the hardback sales list (compared to my humble 1.4 millionth in paperback), which will be almost entirely down to the marketing clout of the publisher and the fact that the book is on bookstores’ shelves. It’s not, I believe, down to quality.

So are we PODders deluding ourselves? Just because a book is nicely printed by our publishers, doesn’t mean it would cut it in the commercial world. Are those of us who call ourselves writers just people who can string a sentence together but don’t have anything to say that would interest a commercial editor or publisher? I guess it comes down to what criteria you’re using – commercial acceptance or personal achievement. I suppose I view ‘writers’ as those who’ve managed the first of these. To publish by POD is certainly the second, and not to be sneezed at. But is it enough? I’m not sure.

I want to be on the bus, but I have a feeling I’m actually off it.

The Future of Publishing

January 21, 2007

Wow, big topic title.

I’ve been moved to think about this because of the development of a new machine that takes Print on Demand to just about its limit. It’s called the Espresso, and it can print and bind a single copy of a book in 8 minutes. And it can hold 2.5 million books in its memory.

For an article and a video demonstrating the monster, go to this link. Once the video has started, fast forward about 25 minutes to see the thing working:

Espresso

I understand the machine is being set up in libraries in the US so that people can, presumably, buy books there as well as borrow them.

I don’t know how I feel about this. I think publishing is a noble and ancient profession, which incorporates a lot of checks and balances so that, generally speaking, bad writing is filtered out. If it becomes possible to take your pdf file down to the library and cheaply print out 50 copies of your masterpiece and sell them from a back of a truck, is that necessarily a good thing? Your unedited, ungrammatical, unstructured scribblings? Before we know it, the world could be flooded with so much writing no one would ever read again. Rather like TV today – there’s so much around, it’s hard to find the good stuff. 57 channels and nothing on, as the Boss said.

On the other hand, I completely understand this is an elitist and probably undemocratic stance to take. Why shouldn’t anyone be able to publish their writing? If Jo Schmo wants to see his cherished detective novel between covers, why shouldn’t he able to do it at little or no cost? (That, by the way, describes me and my effort on Lulu.com.) Of course, it has been possible to vanity publish for a long time – but at a greater cost, and only by printing in numbers that make it viable for the printers.

I guess I’m uneasy because I’ve seen a lot of writing on a lot of sites that is just plain bad and not likely to earn an audience. If you’ve persuaded a publisher to publish your work, you’ve done something that has gone through a quality control process of some kind, and your readers are guaranteed some level of literacy, design … hell, professionalism. Lots of self-publishers think these things are just obstacles put in the way of writers to prevent them expressing their God-given talent. They’re not. They’re what a paying customer has a right to expect in exchange for their hard-earned currency.

Print on Demand is a fantastic tool to help writers get involved in the publishing process. For me, it should complement, not replace, the traditional, commercial route to print. However, I fear that the future of publishing might be a clever machine that sits under your desk and prints out perfectly bound copies that have been seen by no other human eyes than your own. And even as a self-publishing author, that worries me.

Why the Idle Writer?

December 18, 2006

… well, because writing is hard work, so those of us who put (electronic) ink to (electronic) paper will find any excuse not to write. Especially if there are important admin jobs to do, like reformatting the page, counting the words in a chapter, or investigating the etymology of that new word we read last night in somebody else’s book.

So I’ll come to this page from time to time when I can’t just get those creative juices going on the novel. And it’ll feel like I’ve done something writerly, just not the one thing I’m supposed to be doing.

For those of you who are interested, my first book ‘Altered Life’ is published by Lulu and is available through lulu.com, amazon and a whole host of other online publishers. It’s a detective story set in the north of England, with a P.I. who is intended to be in the tradition of Marlowe and Spenser and Lew Archer. The fun for me is taking quite a domesticated and ordinary milieu (well, it is to me, because I live here!) and putting a Marlovian detective in the middle of it. Someone who’s tough, laconic, smart – and from Yorkshire.

I’m currently working on the second book, called The Secret Place, which I’m half-way through. I’m testing it out chapter by chapter on Critique Circle – which, for those of you who don’t know, is a site where you can upload your work to be critiqued, on the basis that you receive a crit if you give 3 crits. It’s a fair system and means you get quite a bit of feedback, some of it flaky but some of it pointing out stuff you perhaps missed. Find it at

http://www.critiquecircle.com.

Oh, and my book is here:


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