Thursday, November 30, 2006

Take a walk on the Sharp Side

"Azar Nafisi writes about the current crackdown by the crackpot Iranian regime on what can be published in Iran", says The Literary Saloon, supplying a link to her article in the Guardian Review. Crackpot compared to what?, one might ask.
Unfortunately, Ellis Sharp's pertinent question won't be heard by anything like as many as those who read The Literary Saloon or the Guardian because his blog is inexplicably under-recognised. I notice it has only 15 Bloglines subscriptions to its RSS feed. Crazy! It's one of the few literary blogs (along with the Literary Saloon's) to whose every post I pay attention. Yet many others will not read of his necessary qualification of Nafisi's deceptively uncontroversial call for solidarity with Iranians against censorship.
With an American fleet and hospital ships in position near the Iranian coast, I can’t help thinking that perhaps the best way of supporting Iranians is to say that we don’t feel that they should be bombed.
Sharp then provides the equally necessary literary insight (i.e. for a literary blog) with a quotation from the unusually prescient analysis of Western policy in the Middle East by a great writer, an analysis published in an American newspaper.

A generous instinct

"I've begun to think that [public performance of poetry] forges an unnaturally close relationship between you and the work," he says. "It is important that the work leaves the house and makes its way in the world. But when you read this stuff you have to take responsibility for it in a way that you don't want. The work isn't you. It's supposed to proceed from a more generous instinct than that."
He being Don Paterson in a recent Guardian feature. And so proceeds blogging on poetry too. Mark Thwaite uses the same quotation introducing the Birmingham poet Roy Fisher to a larger audience during his weeklong residence on the Journal of the Poetry Foundation. See also the following day's discussion of the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer in light of Richard Dawkins' latest wrongheadedness.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Zombies and consciousness

From Philip Goff's TLS review of Robert Kirk's new book.
A philosophical zombie, as opposed to its undead namesake, is an atom-for-atom physical duplicate of a human being ... which lacks any kind of conscious experience. If you put a knife in it, it will scream and try to escape. If you give it a cup of tea, it will thanks you politely and sip it with a smile. It can do your job and chat to your colleagues as cleverly or as ineptly as you yourself can. And yet there is nothing that it is like to be your zombie twin. Its screams are not accompanied by the feeling of pain. Its tea drinking is not accompanied by the taste of tea, or the feeling of warmth and pleasure. It does not have any sensory experience of the three-dimensional world with which it interacts so well. The lights are on but nobody is at home.

Nobody thinks zombies are real, but some philosophers - a sizeable minority - think that zombies are possible.
Yes, I've also been to one too many philosophy seminars.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Library legacy

(The now-defunct blog) Petrona kindly points me in the direction of the (also defunct) Good Library Blog. Apparently it contains "a set of ideas about how good libraries could and should be run for the benefit of their local communities". Good stuff. This seems very worthy, yet what are these benefits? It's difficult to demonstrate in the abstract. So let's get personal (in the next but one paragraph).

The blog links to a letter to the Portsmouth Evening News "written by a resident of Gosport in Hampshire". It tells the grim story of Hampshire's library chiefs cutting funding for Gosport's Discovery Centre (the appalling new name for the library). According to the correspondent, it means there will be no new books for months. He or she advises the chiefs to "take a look at Portsmouth library, a model of excellence. But then, Portsmouth ... opted out of Hampshire's administration some years ago".

This means something very personal to me. Before I started to read, I was unemployed, without qualifications, going nowhere, not likely to go anywhere, except Fratton Park. Then I started using Gosport library, the one now under a pseudonym. This was inspired by the great Miners' Strike of 1984-85, during which deep disillusionment was bred in me (the ridiculous Falklands War two years earlier, something much closer to home, had had a preparatory effect). I read Michael Crick's book Scargill and the Miners and then a few more, including some novels, notably Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But then in March 1987 I crossed the Rubicon (or Portsmouth Harbour as it's more widely known) to discover the three floors of Portsmouth Central Library. Before long I had a job and was taking a couple of courses. These led to university, a BA and an MA, a full-time job, (now moribund) Spike Magazine, this blog and the great friends it and a new life has brought me.

This is why I am so bitter about people who blithely refer to "elitist" literature and tell us that we should all read trash because that's really what we want to read isn't it and to deny otherwise is pretentious. Rather than appealing to democratic accessibility, this smacks of the elitism it claims to resist. It was my good fortune that Portsmouth library workers stocked books by writers these inverted snobs scorn and refuse to read, discuss and learn from for fear of opening minds and actually changing anything. But it wasn't only my good fortune.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why read book reviews?

Scott Pack responds at length to Rachel Cooke's bizarre (if predictable) avoidance of the genuine literary blogosphere by turning to his real complaint about broadsheet book coverage: My moan is that they review too many books that no one really wants to read.

As Waterstone's former book buyer, that's what interests him, and many others apparently. And while I too don't want to read most books reviewed in newspapers, that's mainly why I read them.

I open those precious few pages to see what I might be missing. Otherwise, how do I find out about books I might otherwise ignore? It's something the self-satisfied populists might do well to learn. Of course one must learn to filter. Rather than rushing for the latest Booker winner and assume that stands for literary fiction (it doesn't), one reads between the lines to see if it presses those obscure buttons. Even a negative review can now excite my interest.

A positive example was in the TLS this week. It has a full page review by Mark Crees of a novel by the late Anna Kavan. I'd only vaguely heard of her before but the review suggests her novels might be worth seeking out. Where would I have discovered this in Scott Pack's reader's republic? The latest mercenary populist publication can surely look after itself. Book reviews should be there to induct a work into the whole of literature, not to provide uniformed assistance toward the 3 for 2 stalls.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

No Shyness and Dignity

Four months ago today, I read this review by Paul Binding in the TLS:
Dag Solstad's eminence in Norway is abundantly justified by this profound and courageous study of solitude in society, and despair within enviable security. [...] There are no dramatic scenes in Shyness and Dignity, no emotional exchanges, no dialogue, only the very occasional recorded remark to illustrate some observation about Elias's unsatisfactory progress. Inevitably - not least because paragraphs go buttonholingly on for pages - the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard comes to mind and, for all his gentleness of manner and his humane standpoint, Solstad ... shares Bernhard's galvanic anger.
So much to recommend this novel to me! Except the price. £13 for a thin paperback. A couple of months later I saw it listed in the local library's catalogue. The availability field advised me to "Check Shelves". But there was nothing there. Then the field changed to "On Loan", the return date as 21/10. Being terminally patient, I waited. However, exactly a month on from that date, i.e. today, that's still the return date. Who the hell is so selfish to keep the book for that long? Will they ever bother to return it? Will the local council allow me to erect a gallows in the library square?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Broadsheet ban

After reading your Blog about Book Review pages, I would like you to know that no book either published or written by you will in future be reviewed on our Literary Pages.
So goes an email to Susan Hill apparently from a literary editor of a mainstream British newspaper. The Guardian book blog reports that so far his identity is unclear, though Scott Pack believes the editor is both 'a buffoon and 'a wanker'. Well that narrows it down.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Stephen King on a desert island

Stephen King was on Desert Island Discs this morning. I always like listening to writers and artists on that show. In this case I just hoped, for a change, that the straw man about his work and literary snobs would not be wheeled out. Within the first few minutes Kirsty Young edged toward the barn by asking King if he resented the "horror" label which might "stop people who might otherwise enjoy" his books from reading them. He did, kinda. Of course "book" is also a label. That might put off even more people.

Then she rushed for the straw by wondering why unnamed snobs should resent him getting a national book award even though he'd sold millions and (so it follows) got more people reading. I can't remember King's reply. He may have just shrugged. Anyway, it occurred to me then, more than ever, that such wondering is based on the assumption that reading is an incontrovertibly good thing, and that those who disapprove of Stephen King's work hold that opinion too (thereby appearing hypocritical and churlish). What this good is exactly is never addressed. Yet as I've pointed out before, it's quite simple to show how reading just anything isn't necessarily a good thing.

This is not to say reading King is a bad thing. Not at all. What I'm saying is that those who defend novels on such non-literary grounds are more preoccupied with appealing to "a higher platitude of, supposed, superior existence through Literature or Art" - an appeal loathed by Lee Rourke in a recent interview - than those who want simply to explain why writers like Stephen King cannot be compared with certain other great writers; a purely literary explanation. The moment one presents reading novels as more worthwhile than staring blankly at a wall, one has to define that worth, perhaps particularly if at the same time you proudly decline the "literary" worth of any particular (bestselling) novelist.

If you're like me and it's only enjoyment you seek from books (no, I'm not kidding), you might assume Stephen King's novels are right up your street. Millions seem to enjoy them. But "enjoyment" is just a label. To be shared, it has to be unpacked. Otherwise it remains a cliché, the sort of thing you'll find filling Stephen King novels.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A kind of narcolepsy

On and off for the last few weeks, I've been working and not working on a long review. I wish it would end. Always an impulse to round off what appear to rambling, impressionistic paragraphs with a conclusive judgment and have done with it. Move on. Instead, I let the writing lie for a few days. Then it stews. Ideas and sentences simmer. Finally, when the discrepancy between idea and its expression seems to be at its most unbreachable, something happens. It happens in a moment, a kind of narcolepsy. And that's actually what I write for. Not the writing. When I hear about writers complaining that they don't have time to write, I think: not me. Not that I have time. I don't write after all. Just that it doesn't matter. What matters to me are those stewings and simmerings and narcoleptic moments. Then it's a matter of carrying on, on and on, to end it all.

Lazarus fuelling crisis in death

Also in the news, "web 'fuelling crisis in politics'"

Time that is intolerant

I don't have time to read this. Nor write this.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Gentleman litbloggers

From a wonderful Paris Review interview with Henry Green, the interviewer Terry Southern says to the author:
No one, it seems, has been able to satisfactorily relate your work to any source of influence. I recall that Mr. Pritchett has tried to place it in the tradition of Sterne, Carroll, Firbank, and Virginia Woolf — whereas Mr. Toynbee wished to relate it to Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, and Henry Miller.
Interesting how the critics are the gentlemen, not the writers. Not even Virginia. I think we should be revive such respect, don't you?

Green isn't a bad critic himself. In his introduction, Mr. Southern quotes him on writing:
Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone . . .
Thanks for the link to newly-redesigned Mr. Spurious. Awe at his narcissitic resistance to narcissism.

"Lovely library but where are the books?"

In January I complained about the lack of books in my local library. Actually, the fiction selection is very good. It's just that the building - a cross between a departure lounge and an out-patients - dwarfs the shelves. However, the non-fiction, up two flights of stairs or a dismally slow lift, is inadequate. It seems I'm not the only one who feels this way.
Councillor Kevin Allen said: "People feel the Jubilee Library is a lovely building but say where are the books?'.
A survey of city library staff revealed their number one priority was to "improve collections". Staff are also demanding more books on the shelves and longer opening hours.
Power to the workers staff!

Pillock of Arabia

Mark Lawson reviews the English al-Jazeera news channel:
The lead headline in all the debut bulletins was a "humanitarian crisis in Gaza", with reports from a hospital in the Palestinian territory. Views rather than news - this report could have run at any point in the last few years, and especially as it was soon followed by a "first-person testimony" from a Palestinian ambulance driver - will confirm British and American fears that al-Jazeera intends to be a polemical network.
Fears, he means, that it will report without spin what British and American broadcasters systematically ignores or plays down.
Other parts of the coverage seemed to anticipate the most likely criticism of the service: an Arab bias.
Well obviously they're missing a massive hole in the market for solipsistic coverage of US views - I mean "news". Still, it will make a change from the cultural cringe before all things American out of which Mark Lawson has made a career.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Against the pay

In regard of the free for all over review copies, payments and book blogging credibility, I'd like to say I'm open to "invitations" to not review a book.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

German poetry anthology oddity

The latest LRB, the contributor's notes: "Michael Hofmann’s anthology of 20th-century German poetry is out next month".

Eh? Wasn't this out last year? I can't be wrong because I bought it. It arrived, much to my disappointment and dissatisfaction, with a different cover to the one advertised.

But it seems I am wrong anyway. I have The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems that is a paperback and has 220 pages, while the new one is from Farrar Straus Giroux, is called Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology, is a hardcover and has 544 pages. However, it does have the same cover.

Opening every day

Vague thoughts about discontinuing this blog. Perhaps nothing more to say. No wish, at least, to go further in this direction. Then again, discontinuing the blog would be the same as carrying on. It isn't a book or a body of work. More like breath condensing on a pane. So, vague thoughts instead. Go with vague thoughts, the thoughts that lap like waves. Why, for example, was there a peculiar calm when I sailed into Portsmouth Harbour trapped in the bilges of HMS Victory? With the sea becoming shallower and the space between seabed and 3000 tons disappearing fast, I felt nothing. To die so close to home, I thought, after having survived the long mission (which didn't happen), wouldn't that be terrible? No, not really it seems. I didn't mind; not even then.

A vague answer arrived later when the Victory sailed into view again. Against all habit, I listened to BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime which, so far this month, has been Hardy's The Trumpet Major, read by Julian Rhind-Tutt. Great name. Despite being from Wessex, I didn't really know Hardy. So I listened with interest. Bob Loveday leaves Overcombe and his unrequited love to join Nelson's flagship. Is this really Great English Literature, this affected Mills & Boon tripe? I listened on. A Napoleonic love triangle. A 19th Century soap. One stilted sentence after another. A reticence in ten parts. Listening on, however, brought the indifferent calm, and sleep soon followed. Sentence upon sentence plumped up the pillow. Sheep and more sheep gliding over a gate. It's also why, I realise, that since beginning to read Thomas Bernhard's Frost in bed, I've been unable to read it anywhere else.
Today he admitted he had burned all his paintings. "I had to get rid of those things that were a perpetual reminder of my worthlessness." They had been like ulcers, opening every day and silencing him. "I did it quickly. One day I realized I'd never make it as a painter. But then, the way everyone does, I refused to believe it, and protracted the agony for years. And then, the day before I was due to leave, it struck me forcibly."
In not being able to read the book anywhere else, nor at any other time except before sleep, I recognised the need for a calm that only one sentence followed by another and then another can bring. It's also why I can't stop reading even to take notes, to remind myself later on, in daylight, what it was that moved me so much. Not one about the repetition of 'jab' on page eight, nor the intriguing mention two pages later that the narrator was reading "a book of Henry James's" (so unThomas Bernhard), or the valley (so Bernhard) on page eleven in which the painter says "you can walk back and forth for hours, without the least anxiety" and was "like walking centuries before human settlement". It would be like waking up to annotate a dream. All these thoughts about reading, however, all these wonderings about the peace of descending into sleep in spirals of sentences however dark they are in themselves, all these thoughts came to me as I read, they were part of the descent, they were what I sought and what I sought to end.

Friday, November 10, 2006


"Why isn't George Bush Snr being charged?
Why isn't Douglas Hurd being charged?
Why isn't Tony Newton being charged?
Why isn't Donald Rumsfeld being charged?
Why isn't Madeleine Albright being charged?
Why isn't Peter Hain being charged?
Why aren't Blair and Bush Jnr being charged?
Why aren't those who spread and amplified propaganda that led to such epic suffering being charged?"

Just asking

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Also, don't apply if you haven't read Blanchot

The Times and The Booktrust Teenage Prize have teamed up to launch a competition for budding book reviewers. Write us a review of any book (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc): it doesn’t matter whether you loved it or hated it. The only rules are that you can't have studied it at school and the review must not be more than 150 words.
Don't you just hate that word: budding?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A bursting unity of opposites

The Financial Times is a good source of quality book reviews. Yesterday it printed Mark Ford's of The Notebooks of Robert Frost.
[O]ne regularly comes across embryonic formulations that are both thought-provoking and pertinent to Frost’s poetics: “Metaphor may not be far but it is our farthest forth”; “The object of life is to feel curves”; “All a man’s art is a bursting unity of opposites”; “No surprise to author none to reader”.
All very interesting. So it's a shame that Ford (author of the wonderful Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams) should frame the review around the canard of "difficulty".
T.S. Eliot suggested that the complexities of contemporary civilisation meant that modern poetry in turn “must be difficult”. And, certainly, most American poets of the era - those we read today, anyway - subscribed to this view. The work of Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and of Eliot himself, is formidably difficult. Even after decades, it often still baffles its explicators.
"The great exception" he adds "was Robert Frost", no doubt to sighs of relief from stockbrokers seeking some light verse on their commute. But Eliot also said that "genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood", which might explain why those named poets are "those we read today".

That line of Eliot's comes from his long essay on Dante in which he admits to have been "passionately fond of certain French poetry long before I could have translated two verses of it correctly" and that obtaining "an immense amount of knowledge" about Dante before reading him "is positively undesirable". So Ford's contention that "Eliot and Stevens shivered with distaste at the idea of writing poetry that was intelligible to the masses" is a snotty misrepresentation of the meaning of difficulty. Their poetry might puzzle its explicators but it still gives me, a mere reader, immense reading pleasure. Maybe, I think now after reading the review, it's because their poetry contains (and uncontains) that "bursting unity of opposites". One has to read the words - leap aboard the roller coaster of language - to experience those complexities in all their reality. There are few poets who do this. So why are we being constantly warned off?

Friday, November 03, 2006

John Minihan's Beckett

Beckett ... was aware of himself as a photographic subject. "He had a great face for black-and-white and he certainly posed," says Minihan. "The first time I took out the camera in room 604, he posed. The way he held his glasses, for example, may look casual but was deliberate."

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The return of Paul Ableman

I used to have a clipping from the Sunday Times circa 1987. It was a one-off column by Paul Ableman (unknown to me then and since) in which he discussed his mammoth diary project. He wrote thousands of words about each day. I remember reading that he saw this as the future novel, one step on from Joyce. It wasn't very convincing. Yet I kept the clipping.

Only recently I wondered what had happened to him. Literary fame hadn't come to him. So much for so much work. I remember the hunched figure in the accompanying photograph.

Today, via Peter Stothard's blog, I discover that he died last week and that he wasn't the lonely failure I'd assumed.

Genre fiction and literary prizes (again)

Lindesay Irvine of The Guardian's books blog admits it's an old chestnut but asks it again anyway. Why do genre novels never win the literary prizes?

While she recognises that there is a distinction between literary and genre, a convincing definition is not offered, hence the demoralising parade of ventriloquist dummies in the comment section:
I can remember feeling very cross that Barbara Vine's 'A dark-adapted eye', and others of hers as well, were never on any literary prize shortlists. I think this kind of book is often so enjoyable that the fact that it can also be brilliantly written passes people by.
What passes by this reader is that brilliant genre writing enables one to pass it by. It's a shame the supposed guardians of literary culture continue to set up the straw man of "beautiful/brilliant writing = literary" for the yokels to burn down.

If there's one reason why this blog exists, it is to challenge the assumptions of British culture about the 'literary'. Over two years and longer, I've posted blogs defining literary fiction, and observed that it tends to be only genre writers and their fans who are perplexed about their exclusion from the literary prizes (which, I must say, aren't terribly literary anyway). I've even asked an apparently taboo question: why aren't literary writers given genre awards? But it seems I'm having no impact and the dummies are winning the day. At least in that respect I'm following in the finest literary tradition.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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