Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In the beginnings

One of the aspects of The Meaning of Night that was strongly played up in all the publicity noise is its opening sentence:

"After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper."

As opening sentences go, it's not half bad. It sets a tone, creates suspense, hooks the idle browser and sets their mind a-spinning with breathless questions: "What does the narrator have against red hair on a man?" Pant. "Did he have a ginger moustache?" Pant. "Is Quinn's really the best place for an oyster supper?" Pant. "Did the month have a 'Y' in it?" Slow, rhythmic breathing.

Some fairly casual, unscientific meandering through sites of a writerly bent indicates that a killer opening line is worth its weight in shellfish to some writers. So maybe I'm a bit perverse, because to me, an opening like this fairly shrieks, "Look at ME! I'm Dark, Spooky And Mysterious! You Will Read More! You Cannot Resist The Power Of The Mysterious Murder And The Bivalves Of Doom!" And all this shouting and waving just puts me on edge. It makes me nervous.

Maybe when I was young and innocent, this sort of kick-off to a big weighty novel would have brought on the desired frostbite-of-the-spine and opening-of-the-wallet effect. In spades. But now I am more likely to greet such sensational openings with an attitude as bilious as an undercooked poached egg. I'm into a novel for the long-haul, not a flighty few pages of sensationalism.

Why so jaded? Why is all not sweetness and light in readerland (local branch)? In my case, I can trace this back to the Dallas-shower phenomenon that plagued novels of the early nineties. The introductory pages of books would be doused in smut, blood and intrigue, only to drop the ball spectacularly by chapter 2 or earlier, when All Was Revealed To Be Only A Dream. Words cannot express precisely how medieval this particular cliché makes me feel.

Worse still, perhaps, was when it was all a Cunning Play On Words With A Fake French Accent And A Thin Moustache Designed To Dupe Those With Grubby Minds. I mean the type that around page eight whips off its mask and announces, chillingly, "Ahahahaaa! Yeu readers. So naïve and fooleesh!"

Tosses head in time to sinister accordian music.

"Could yeu not tell zat zee Murder Most 'Orrible was only Metaphoricale? Eeet was a Ruse! A Tease! And so was zee ozzer teasing scene of mine! Eeet was only a foxy-foxy RENARD watching 'er bathe in zee stream! And so, I have lured you and caught you, my leetle fishy reader! She was only playeeeng wiz a SEAL! And catcheeng 'er DINNER! Zee animal kind! Fooled you! Ahahahaha!"

Twirls moustache.

"And now, mon ami… Now, yeu are caught! Caught I tell yeu! Caught in zee toils of zee prose deathless. Zere eez no escape for yeu now! Even in zee middle of a pile of books on zee top of your shelves de livres, yeu will eventually read me! And all ze while, you weell fear deep in your soul zat zee rest will be even meure fromagey until le fin, when dieu-sur-un-crane weell descend to tie up zee endings loose. Ahahahahaha!!!"

I think this may have affected me at a deeper level than I had previously believed. Which begs the question, can hope be saved?

Saturday, January 27, 2007


While winter winds blow snowy through the dawning of the year (it's January - it counts), a young(ish) procrastinator's fancy turns to matters calendrical. As in the careful selection of a piece of wall furniture that illuminates the furthest reaches of the soul; that encompasses the shy hopes and dreams of the coming year. Or at least doesn't bring on allergic reactions to the calendar's subject matter by mid-July when the only alternative is the dreaded leatherette-and-gilt corporate promotional calendar:

Monthly Data Storage Solutions! - featuring Mr. November's technician coyly peeking out from behind a server, or perhaps discreetly concealing his manly attributes behind an extra-large memory stick?

After all, it's not every year that a person gets a copy of Dieux du Stade, «Un jour de match», or can stumble upon a tiny shop in the backstreets of Venice and pick up a few discount copies of Seminarian of the Month.

The variety is endless. The decision, vital. This year, I've opted for "Antique Maps" thereby cunningly alluding to my fondness for antique maps. Also vellum.

But how to choose when there are so many?

Tropical Islands.
Half-Naked Air-Brushed Women.
Half-Naked Air-Brushed Women on Tropical Islands.
Half-Naked Air-Brushed Women In Waters Near Tropical Islands
Half-Naked Air-Brushed Women In Temperate Oceans.
Completely Naked with Strategically Hair-Brushed Women.
Great Art.
Bad Art.
Scary Art.
For the Love of Shih Tsus.
Many, many, many Animals. Some uglier than others.
Many, many, many Famous People. Ditto.
Hot Buns.
Hot Cross Buns.
Hot Mildly Annoyed Buns.
A Very Tiny Paper Aeroplane A Day.
Staplers of the World!
(Could this be the most desperate exclamation mark ever?)
More Beer.
Houses Without Doors Or Windows.
(Or houses, for that matter)
Castles. (Some of these were once houses)
Foggy Prague.
Luminous Glittery Technicolour Sunsets of Prague
(Some editing and castles).

But the calendar that really says it all for this year? The calendar that I shall regret passing over in times to come? The calendar that speaks to generations and gives deeper meaning to the modern obsession with carving the banana of time into ever-more-precise slices and then mooshing it up with a fork and eating it on toast with butter and brown sugar (yum)?

Fruit. In Motion.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Something pour le weekend

Totally apropos of nothing, but an online chat about parental dysfunction in romances at SB's has given me the most insane urge to link to The Broken Family Band & Eddi Reader's completely twisted break-up (and make-up) duet. But I can't find Alone in the Make-Out Room anywhere remotely linkable and listenable... Aaarrgghh.

(Mrs. B., I'm trying to find a suitable occasion for which gifting you the album might be appropriate. It's definitely one for you.)

Anyhow, frustration has led me to jot down the versicles here. It's probably helpful to point out that in performance the gleeful darkness of the words (and they are darker than the darkest of national-grid-catastrophic-meltdown-not-even-emergency-strip-lighting nights) is mitigated by the band's use of the most twangy of stylee of stylees, music-wise.

They also exhibit a charming form of vocal production in which the tongue is firmly planted in the fleshy part of the mouth between the nasal cavity and the lower jaw. But not for the faint of heart, although there is a happy ending. Now, bring on the mandolin...

Him: I want you to die
With my hands round your throat
Or with me in the castle
And you in the moat
And everyone you know
Stood around laughing.

Her: I wanna watch you swing from a tree
Or fry on a chair
When you're lookin' at me
And everyone in the world will be glad
When you're gone.

Oh it's silly
To say we were never happy
All those nights we spent
Kissin' under the moon
But I died inside
When you ran out with my pride
Why did you leave me alone
In the make-out room?

Her: I wanna watch you drown in a lake
Or get stabbed by a bull
Or bit by a snake
And there's not a single doctor
Who would come and help you.

Him: Hey, I want you to move to Australia
With me a success
And you facing failure
And all of the friends that you had
Ignorin' your calls.


Twangy guitar instrumental
With harmonica overlay

Him: I wanna leave you
By the side of a road
Or out in a field
In the rain and the snow
And people walking past (tenderly, now...)
Could come and take pictures.

Bom bom bom

Her: I'm gonna treat you the best that I can
'Cos I'm your girl
And you're my man
We'll make 'em jealous
With our laughin' and our carryin' on.

See? It's not so bad. As promised, a happy ending!

Twiddly harmonising by her (wa-wa-wah, mmm mmm mmm)
Slow to end


As ever, rpc's wish is my command: photographic evidence of weather.

Today was lovely and clear, but only had a minute or two to pop out at lunch for this effort. If it's nice this weekend, I may manage some pictures of icicles and other exciting frozen-water phenomena. Hold me back.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Peril in the Snow

Or, The snow falleth on the mussed and the unmussed.

Hours of continuous snowfall: 33 (a personal record).

Flake size: miniscule – to me they felt like sleet, apart from the cold.

Depth of snow on roof of sandwich shop awning: 6 inches.

Degree of woooohhhnder felt while walking through the Old Town at night, emptied of people and sound by the white stuff sifting down: Ginormous.

Percentage of Prague residents who don’t use snow tyres (anecdotal from lifelong Praguer - apparently there's no law): about 30%.

Astonishment that at the first sign of frost in Czechland, they don’t grit the major roads and pavements: 76%.

Consequent amazement at the sight of major roads thickly covered in white, becoming rapidly brown, stuff: 82%.

Proportion of body bruising as a consequence of the giddy decision to hurtle downhill, bouncing major organs on the scenic cobblestones authentically encased in ice walk to work in the snow: 64%.

Puzzled examinations of soles of supposedly rugged walking boots that inexplicably failed to shoot out sharp, snow-grabbing crampons upon contact with ice: 8.

Stupid woolly hat rating: 9.

Warmth of stupid woolly hat rating: 11/10. Pointy head or not, I will never make a mockery of ear flaps again.

Brief digression into what the well-dressed worker wears in the office in inclement weather.

Very stylish lady: clingy long underwear (black, top and bottom) accessorised with a little black fur-trimmed waistcoat and brown, embroidered, fur-lined, suede boots.

Other very stylish lady from Serbia via Monaco and the Côte d'Azur: gold jewellery and a tartan picnic blanket as a skirt.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On Literachure, Part Deux

A day, well actually, 3 days late, to be fair.

Yes, Zadie Smith's done the rest of it. Have a look over here for details. The writing's still wonderful, and worth a few reads...

I think I liked the first part better though. Not sure if it's my mood, bias or just my expectations, but at a gut level, I connected more easily with the first section. To me it seemed more vivid and real. It's about experiences and process whereas the second half is a bit more prescriptive. At its core is a plea for people to drop the literary safety goggles and engage with novels on an individual, personal level.

Her case takes some subtle turns - although there are shades of the "different strokes" argument, the way she talks about ethics in writing leaves room for some objective judgement. Since the basis of any criticism, in her view, should be how well the author's personality makes the transition from writer to reader, this can be used to explore the workings of a novel. So in some senses, it's actually more rigorous, perhaps. But the nice thing about her argument is the way synthesises both personal and aesthetic judgement on this level.

I still think there's a bit of danger that her views on criticism could be taken to imply that reviewers should only say nice things. Smith explicitly states this isn't the case, but I worry about the wiggle room here, perhaps because I haven't read nearly enough Iris Murdoch. I will ponder more.

Questions, questions. And some more clichés, mixed metaphors and so on...

Mainly because I finally read through the whole thing with my bolshy-genre-reader hat on, I do have a few questions/thoughts.

For one thing, I'd love to know what she thinks about what I think of as relatively "impartial" criticism: poor editing, grammar mistakes, historical errors - the kind of things that are easier to quantify and hold to some sort of standard.*

Also, she states that a book educates readers at an emotional level. Therefore they need to be open to this experience. I love this idea, because it's very close to the way I read. But this comment makes me wonder how (if at all) she sees genre fitting into her theories. Is this only about High Art?

There is a perception that most genre fiction is the slightly dim cousin of literary fiction**: cute, but shallow and not one likely to stick around for a lasting relationship. Criticism often focuses on the way genre is more about a) entertainment and b) emotional appeal rather than intellectual rigour. In the first part, Smith argues that reading shouldn't be a passive experience, like watching television,*** but in the second, she also asks that readers should immerse themselves wholly in the reading experience, particularly on the emotional level. So is there some sort of hierarchy of emotional experience at work in ranking books?

I'd also argue that well-written non-fiction can also have a similar impact on a reader. Mind you, the view that all non-fiction as less creative and drier than fiction is a pet peeve of mine...

Finally, she argues that the ultimate goal of a great work of fiction is to reveal the soul of another (or an Other, I guess). She also asks that readers open their minds to that experience, by leaving behind the easy systems of analysis provided by literary theory.

Like Smith later on, I'd argue that it's just as easy for people to become entrenched in their own view of "how to read". She asks such individuals to similarly disengage from their own worldview and work to appreciate the novel on its own terms.

But I think that theoretical frameworks can be beneficial. They don't have to be all-encompassing systems, but tools to be used in analysis: they can shake up the individual's own ideas about the world and guide them into a new appreciation of a novel from another's point of view. Therefore, a truly great criticism can have the same impact as a truly great novel, but the personality exposed is that of the critic, not the writer. If this analysis is systematised into a general theory, in my opinion this is no bad thing since it can foster internal dialogue as well as external discussion. The real danger is the seductive assumption that this theory alone reveals the Truth.

* Even taking the whole post-modern view on standards into account. There's a huge difference, imo, between a book which breaks "standard" English rules on grammar/spelling etc. for a reason, however challenging, and one written in standard English that does the same for no discernable reason other than poor editing.

** Although relevant I'm trying (and failing) for brevity, so I'll leave aside the business of literary fiction being another kind of genre.

*** Ms. Smith has clearly never watched the telly with someone like my parents, if she thinks TV-viewing is a passive experience. Their engagement with the medium is pretty vocal and exhaustive - so much so that sometimes innocent by-standers require a gentle lie-down under cold cloths to recover.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Another frontier?

I've been on a bit of a popular science kick, lately, reading-wise. It's David Attenborough's fault - all those fish have warped my mind. Although it probably doesn't help that my two favorite English-language bookshops are light on fiction but have quite a lot of interesting-looking stuff of the boffin-at-the-beach variety on their shelves.

Also, last month's National Geographic came complete with one of their giant shiny wall charts. Since a childhood happily spent filching them from Dad's collection and using them to plan imaginary expeditions and paper my furniture, I have always had a quiet geekian affection for these big pull-out charts and maps. This one's of "The Solar System, December 2006: Eight Planets: The New Cosmic Order", which makes it sound as if there's been an intergalactic coup, rather than spot of relabelling last August by astronomers not a million miles away from where I type. In the solar system, it's like 1929 all over again but with more astral bodies, apparently.

Apart from the still-controversial relegation of Pluto to "dwarf planet" status, the chart includes a sparkly white Kuiper belt, and my new favorite cosmological feature, the Oort cloud. Purely for the amusing-name factor when said out loud in a gravelly voice: "Oooort cloud". "Oouuurrrrt cloud." Finally, for those who combine their interest in interplanetary travel with a concern for weight management, it handily it gives the Earth-weight equivalents for the effects of other planet's gravities. Just a suggestion, but Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune might be handy as places of banishment and shock therapy for the more annoying "00"-size celebrities.

The only problem with all of this, I've discovered, is that it can be the reading equivalent of brushing one's teeth before the orange juice of speculative, s/f fiction. I tried reading some futuristic thingimabob the other night and discovered that I had turned into the worst kind of pedant… "Faster than light speeds? What utter bollocks." ... "Anti-gravity propulsion drive? Bwahahaha. Puhleese. Idiot." … "NOise? In Space? Have they never seen Alien?" ... "Humanoid extra-terrestrials? Aaarrghhh!" *thump* I've had to go and lie down with a historical whodunit to recover.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Marketing of Night, Part the First

Something pruned from the draft pile - be afraid, be very afraid...

Back in September, Michael Cox's, The Meaning Night was short-listed for the first novel award category of the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Book Award. The Costas are the more populist *kofflowbrowkoff* cousin of the Man Booker Prize. They have the shortlist that hangs out late at night in local pubs and rides a beat-up motorbike, but still visits the 'rents regularly, listens to classical music when the mood strikes and holds down a steady job. They're pretty prestigious for all that. I tend to read more of their nominees than Booker ones, not deliberately but just because, if that helps.

My memory of this book was jogged recently because the category winners were announced last week - Cox's book lost out to Stef Penny's, The Tenderness of Wolves. There's a whole other post connected with this that I'll have to save for another time because it turned this one into a bit of a monster. But what first drew my interest to this novel was one particular aspect of its marketing.

Heavy Weather

Periodically, the corner of the blogosphere in which I lurk is rocked by an area of low pressure bringing high winds and thundery showers to the beverage container of your choice. The classic one revolves around online reviews, their quality, and the involvement of amateur reader/reviewers in the process. Well, I do hang around a lot of book sites.

In the ensuing kerfuffle, lines of acceptibility are drawn, the horns of justification are blown, and into the fray are chucked freedom of speech, etiquette, solidarity of all kinds, and the need to protect sheep-minded readers from being seduced by nasty reviews that might unfairly twist their minds and drive them into the arms of another author. It's a great, glorious, messy mix of ethics, economics and self-interest that provides hours of fun for anyone involved.

(Although I must admit I occasionally wonder if it might be possible to write a glowingly positive review that somehow provokes the same sort of reactions. Hmmm…)

Hyperbole alert

Anyhow, in the course of these debates someone will usually raise the spectre of the Amazon review. As the most impassioned diatribes will have it, regardless of rating, the dreaded "drive-by" Amazon review epitomizes everything that is wrong about online reviewing. They are written (if such a noble verb can be applied to such a distasteful process) by frivolous amateurs, or even worse, pseudonymous shadowy figures with a sinister agenda who have likely never even read the book in question. Since anyone who actually buys a book from Amazon is in thrall to an Evil Corporate Giant, they are produced by individuals whose credibility accounts are teetering into the red, if not completely bankrupt. These travesties of critical reasoning are notorious for their nit-picking pettiness, pointless puffinery, poor language and personal hygiene attacks and should therefore be spurned spurningly, like they've never been spurned before.

Duck! More Mixed Metaphors Incoming

Like some people on the "reader" end of things, my impression is that Amazon reviews mostly cover the same range of views you'd pick up on a trawl through review sites and blogs in general. The advantage for me is that they're all in one place. I also reckon that most readers have a fairly nuanced way of dealing with the opinions presented. For me, it all boils down to something like this: most readers aren't that uncritical when it comes to either books or reviews. Take a deep breath and a step back - we don't really need guidelines, 'cos we're quite capable of figuring out what does and doesn't float our own particular boats, even if we get a bit of a dunking in the process.

Use the force, dudes

The publishers of The Meaning of Night don't seem to embrace either the view that amateur reviews are killing sales, or that online reviews are unimportant. Rather cleverly, they've turned the whole thing on its head and embraced the concept of popular opinion with a possible side-dish of frothy manipulation.

Prior to its official release they sent proof copies to the chosen - 487 readers - selected via libraries, magazine subscriptions and reading groups. They wanted their comments to create a "credible body of opinion" to use for promotion (cover blurbs, website etc.). Amazon also asked their top 100 reviewers (even Harriet K., I presume) to review it as well, although I can't find much background to this detail, particularly confirmation of who generated this idea: publisher or retailer.

But the publisher's trusty market research team didn't stop there. There's also an online survey for anyone who has read the book to complete. It catalogues reading habits and recommendations and asks for numerical ratings of everything from storyline, to sense of period, to ending. A summary of results is available on the website under the heading, "real people, real opinions." As opposed to those pesky fake people with their fake opinions I mentioned earlier, I guess.

It may be that in addition to generating advance buzz, the publishers were hoping to drown out any negative voices in waves of sweetness and light. And most of the reviews, professional or otherwise, are positive, even glowing. But I'm reassured by the fact that it hasn't been too hard to find the odd less-than-complimentary opinion either.

And finally, the burning question: has this flood of detailed opinion tipped the balance? Is the book now on my wishlist? Well, just in case I'm still undecided, it seems that those busy people in marketing haven't finished with me quite yet...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


The stunned silence last week was mainly the result of my reeling from the intracacies of the Czech tax system. Unbelievable what a determined person can come up with when given a free rein on bureaucracy, Kafka as a cultural icon and no vowels. That and dealing with the flatmate issue.

For yes, the flatmate has returned, her entry heralded by the colonisation of one corner of the bathroom with bulk-sized designer shampoo and the hiking-up of the thermostat to 27 degrees. She is making very clear her total disbelief in the principle of wearing warm clothing indoors, and apparently she's also having some general difficulty in coming to terms with the concept of wool.

Regardless of the fact that it is quite enjoyable seeing her and having people (her and the supply-flatmate for the slightly more organised and postcard-sending other one who's gone awol) around again after three weeks of solitude, it's also a bit peculiar. Sharing living quarters always involves a certain degree of negotiation, especially if you don't know them very well. Luckily it's all pretty friendly.

But this and Suisan's recent travails brought to mind the the once-upon-a-time when I lived under the overly-bangled wing of the Very Peculiar Flatmate And Her Necessarily Psychotic Cat.* The bees, they did buzz up a storm in her vintage 70s bonnet, all the while insisting that she was a "majorly chilled-out person. buzzbuzz." I moved in with her in desperation, and moved out again shortly thereafter in a fairly similar state.

Foible me this

Fruit was not allowed in the fridge due to the way the mysterious fruity ethers would affect the developmental health of her takeaway dinners. Any casual hoovering or dusting would be followed by an intensive two-hour ordeal to return every item back to its original position, to the millimetre, "because that way I know where everything is."

My particular favorite was the one to do with the direction of cutlery in the drying rack. It may have been a feng shui thing, but failure to do so sent her into the sort of hysteria that could not even be provoked by moving the armchair throw pillows onto the sofa. ("Handles UP! UP I tell you! They must go UP! Terrrrible things will happen if the handles do not go UP!") My own personal theory was that it was due to the unspoken fear that the Necessarily Psychotic Cat, during the course of its unhygenic trips along the kitchen counter, would bend down to lick at something in the sink, trip over the tap and impale itself on a grapefruit spoon.

Fribble and flash

Needless to say, when she went on holiday, I was left to look after the Necessarily Psychotic Cat with a detailed list of feeding and cleaning instructions. Daily calls followed to ensure that I was not doing the underwear-clad dance of the ash-fairy through the front room, scattering dead leaves and cobwebs in my wake. NPC immediately leapt, tooth and claw, to the conclusion that I had done something unspeakably horrible to make the Very Peculiar Flatmate Go aWAY. Everyone's a critic. He consequently set up camp beneath the dining room table from which position he would slash at my ankles anytime I walked by.

You have to admire the purity of his dedication, since he never emerged in my presence or let up in his frenzied attacks, despite my very best kitty bribes. So I wore boots or thick socks downstairs all week (ha-ha). I barred the cat from the kitchen. While I followed the instructions to the letter and then some, I also moved everything in the living room a quarter of an inch clockwise. There may have been some underwear dancing. Best of all, I slotted all the forks, tines-up, in every rung of the drying rack and left them like that all week long. And Life was Good.

*I am normally a cat person. But not this cat. This was a one-woman cat. This cat was a cauldron of seething hatred for anyone but its mistress.

Monday, January 15, 2007

On Literachure

There are, as I type, something ridiculous like nine or ten pages of accumulated incoherent brain mush all about reading, writing and books inelegantly sprawled out on a draft somewhere in the bowels of the Blogger server. Which is fine, I guess. One day I may haul some of it out, ruthlessly prune off the huge repetitive chunks and overblown extemporisation, add some conjunctions and plonk it up here. Maybe.

But in the meantime, Zadie Smith has written roughly the same number of words in the Guardian on a similar topic. Of course, the difference between my efforts and hers are somewhat akin to the difference between a shameful brain fart in a crowded lift/elevator and the rare, sweet honeyed breezes of Paradise that waft the manna of thought to a hungry reader. She’s the breezes, I’m the flatulence (sorry, Dad). So go read. It’s bloody fantastic. It made my Sunday morning (that and my special Christmas coffee in its lovely tin, that is). And it will likely make next Sunday too, since that’s when the second part gets published.

It’s the sort of essay-writing that makes me want to flop belly-up in her presence, wagging my tail in delight as I agree with every single word she says, ‘cos I think the writing is sooooooo goooooood. Well that, and curling up with despair at the realisation that I will never, ever write so well in my entire life. I mean, Zadie Smith wouldn’t be looking at the first two words of this post thinking, “There is? er… There are? umm… There is?? Oh buggerit. Flip a coin.”*

So it took me a read-through, a period of thinking, and then another read-through (with a pen! making notes!) to overcome my instinct to just say, “Yes, yes, yes. I agree!” and actually THINK about what she’d written. It’s still damned interesting, but I’m beginning to feel the urge to argue. What a relief.

If you can’t be bothered to read the lot – even as a first section, it’s pretty long, there's an incomplete misinterpretation of her essay below, using as many of her words as possible, because they’re better than anything I could manage. Unfortunately, this means that I’m leaving out the metaphysical swoosh of Great Writing that makes the essay such a fine reading experience. Sorry.:

1. Writers are torn between the Platonic ideal of the novel that resides in their imagination and the reality of what they produce.

2. Between these two versions of their novel, lies a gap. There… be dragons, aka. the personality of the writer making itself felt, and into this gap tumbles the truth about literary success or failure.

3. “Personality” is the writer’s “way of being… and…processing the world.” His/her duty is to try to reveal this to the reader, although this is “impossible in totality”.

4. Because of the impossibility of revealing the whole of the self (see 1 and 3), at heart, writing is “a compromise… a self-betrayal.”

5. But great writing will still do this well enough to “wake us from the sleepwalk of our lives.” It changes its readers.

6. Readers have a similar duty to be open to the Other: the “picture of [an unfamiliar] human consciousness”. They must work to tease out the nuances of the writing and stretch their understanding, rather than passively receiving a text.

7. In other words, readers have to engage with the text, not just relate to it, looking to have their own worldview confirmed and sustained (you see now why I’m throwing in as much of what she wrote, verbatim, rather than using my own words).

I should also add that although she is making judgements about literary quality, she doesn’t condemn any specific genre or type of writer wholesale. And she does this on the basis of what she sees as the duty of both readers and writers when tackling fiction. This provides her with a way to express what she thinks lies at the heart of a Great Novel. While she discusses failure and success, I don’t get the feeling the essay is about exclusivity, since the effort she describes is guaranteed to end in failure for anyone.

In my view, it’s all very interesting stuff to swish around with a mental stick and then poke at, to see if anything happens. Why? Well, first of all, I think it sheds light into the murkier corners of the perennial debate about criticism that rages between writers/writers-as-readers/writers-as-critics/readers/readers-as-writers/readers-as-critics/and-variations-thereof. I don’t think it resolves it, but for me, it provides a new perspective on aspects of both the reader and the writer’s disappointment in the process that I want to think about some more. Particularly the bits about TS Eliot and “bad aesthetic choices” having “an ethical dimension.” Someone needs to alert those interior decorator heroines from the 1980s. Chrome and black velvet does not an ethical statement make.

It’s also helped me to articulate part of why I find clichés so frustrating, and plagiarism in fiction so personal. At heart, she’s writing about truth, both as a writer and a reader, and there is something about this ideal that is intensely appealing.

But here’s the crunch, and it’s why I’m a tad anxious about the rest of the article to come. I really don’t want to put words on her page before I’ve had a chance to finish the whole thing, so I’m going to leave out what I’d planned to say in the rest of this paragraph… Let’s just say that I want to believe, I really do, but I’m very scared about where all of this might be leading.

*But then, she probably doesn’t get holiday letters like mine, or write stuff about creationism, man-titty and all things czechish. Life’s not all bad.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hellooo? Flatmate?

Here's the thing. You were supposed to be back by last weekend. I'm sure of it, because I wrote it down in my diary when you told me. After all, I'm a bit of a flake with dates. I'm pretty sure you also told me that your new contract started on Monday, as in "the Monday after the New Year weekend Monday". But you're not here. I mean, some of your stuff is here, but you, yourself aren't. You aren't answering emails, or your phone and none of your friends I've bumped into have heard from you. So I'm a bit concerned.

I'm also worried because your on-and-off again Czech boyfriend with limited English appears to have dropped by expecting you to be around. At least, I think it's your boyfriend. Otherwise I'm going to get nervous about strange men slipping notes under the front door that say, "Hi you want pub tonight? I am home here now. I am missing crazy hair." By the way he didn't put this in an envelope, fold it or even address it, so please don't think it's an invasion of privacy.

Anyhow, I am worried about your safety and health in general. I'd love some reassurance. Because I have a very vivid imagination. And putting on my slum landlord hat, here's the other thing. You owe me rent. I mean, I was cool (really, I was) about you paying me when you got back from your holiday. I understand the banking issues - I've been there myself. But that was when I thought you had a flight and a reason to come back by a certain day in January, and you're now at least 5 days later than that and it's just deathly silence from your end.

The thing is, I'm not your parent or your older sister, and I don't want to play the heavy. I mean, you seemed pretty straightforward, albeit somewhat vague about the practicalities of life. But not everyone knows which way of a saucepan is up, and why you shouldn't open the washing machine door mid-cycle, even if you just wanted to quickly add the Top You Absolutely Must Wear Tomorrow. I appreciate there is a learning curve with these things. And you only did it three times, and you mopped the floor and everything. So I appreciate that it could be that events have just taken over and you've ended up in the remote jungles of Brazil up a tree house with no mobile reception, internet or telephone.

But I think you owe me some contact at this point, even if it's a postcard delivered by carrier pigeon. Because let's face it, in the dark of night, when thoughts of budgets and such begin to dance in my head, I'm also starting to wonder at what point I can justifiably turf your room out, stick up a new "for rent" sign and flog all your stuff on eBay.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Playing catch-up... here's my peculiar aristocratic title. Has a nice ring, doesn't it?

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
Grand Duchess Perilous the Nimble of Lower Slaughter
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

In other news, belated congratulations to Bulgaria and Romania on joining the big happy EU family, and to Slovenia for adopting the Euro. It's easy for this sort of thing to slip by, since the EU has developed the astonishing ability to be invisible in plain sight by adopting a cunning camouflage of extreme dullness. Personally, I blame the economic thing. That and the Common Agricultural Policy. Between sugar beets, French cows and legislation about numbers, minds (well at least my tiny one) just kind of skid over its existence, and so far the troupes of well-choreographed ribbon dancers bouncing along to a re-orchestrated version of "Ode to Joy" have yet to change my mind.

On the home front, the Bulgarian correspondant advises that so far the price of petrol has gone up significantly, but fears that the special Bulgarian milk will vanish are so far unfounded. Her Slovenian counterpart confirms that prices have gone up universally, and is grumbling about greedy merchants and the lack of decent toothpaste.

A slight digression: apparently the growth of the EU is less good for its language policy. Whereas previously, major documentation had to be translated into all of the 23 official languages (including Irish), and minor into a pre-defined selection, the translation fees are now getting so expensive that people are just defaulting to... English. At least, so says the Economist.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Shirts past the post

Editor's note: Still going through the old post. I may be some time.

Dear Beautiful People, especially the wonderful, beautiful ladies.

As you know so well, we spend all of the year bringing joy and love to all of you, because all of you deserve it so much. Even the ugly ones with bad hair who sit around all day eating bonbons in ill-fitting leisurewear deserve love. And so we give it to you. From the bottom of our very, very big, manly hearts.

Sometimes this is a great sacrifice. There are mornings when I wake up and it all seems like too much for my well-muscled shoulders to bare bear. Although we may look like a pantheon of demi-gods, we are in fact only a small band of ruggedly attractive men. Or "clan", maybe, (little in-joke there) when we wear our kilts and make the expression that suggests we may be thinking in Gaelic.

Yes, there are times when I ask Pexx, "How can one man emote so much in a single day? Why must we constantly bear bare enormous pieces of our souls in tight-fitting leather trousers and fur-trimmed gilets?" And Pexx will say, "We do it for the love, man. We do it for the love."

As you can tell from the soulful expression in his midnight-dark eyes, Pexx is very deep.

Christmas, of course, is the season of joy and love, and so it's very special to all of us. Every year as the weather gets colder and we sit around open fires debating the tricky question of the appropriate size and placement of a strategically-placed santa hat, we also take time to reflect on the joy and love we have brought others during the year. We're just so full of it that when we start to talk about all the things we did this year, it amazes us just how much love we have to give. It just keeps on coming, with even more ready to give next year.

True, to bring you these incredible feelings of wonder and love, we've had our share of difficulties. There was the baby oil shortage in June. Then 'Zoid got a rash from using the black market stuff. But knowing that every smouldering look brings joy to the hearts of thousands of wonderful women makes it all worthwhile. And it's amazing what a man at the peak of physical fitness can do when he dedicates himself to his mission like us. For example, our emotional range is now even bigger because Deltz has been studying the techniques of Japanese "Noh" drama. Now he can give a detailed synopsis of a 378-page novel, including the epilogue, just by twitching a winged eyebrow.

And talking about dedication, Konan had a really tough challenge in April. He got asked to stand under an arbour with his shirt buttoned right up to the neck. He agonised over it for days, I'll tell you. A lesser man might have given up, or maybe suggested a loosely-laced pirate shirt in transparent linen. But he knew that you, the beautiful, wonderful women of the world, were depending on him. You needed him to do this, so he steeled himself and went through with it like the true hero he is. And, damn if the guy didn't emote as well, if not better, than if he had been in a raging storm wearing nothing but the dramatically flowing cape and thigh-length boots.

Meanwhile this year, Abz and I really dedicated ourselves to our hair. After all, it is our gift to humanity and shouldn't be squandered. There were a few weeks in late August (I think maybe around the 23rd) when the humidity could have destroyed Abz's new tousled waves "au naturel". Things looked pretty bad for a while there, but Abz has real guts. His mind just cut right through the fear and pain like a knife and he took total charge of the situation. It was a tough decision, but he went for an emergency application of liquid silk. You'll all be relieved to know that after a couple of days he was totally out of danger.

As for me, the guys have been really impressed by my determination to introduce volume throughout the length of my hair, rather than just at the crown. But I knew I needed that extra volume and movement to show the full volume and movement of the love I feel for all of you. It's taken some real tenacity to put in the work every day. There were even times I thought I wouldn't make it. But when I was struggling with the safety lock on the volumizer spray, I could feel my love for the guys' hair, and their hairy love the love of their hair right back for me, and I just couldn't let them all down.

And so this is our holiday message to all of you incredible, wonderful people. Especially the sensitive, female ones: Your souls are beautiful and special. You are beautiful and special. You should know this deep-down because we are even more beautiful and special and we have dedicated our lives to sharing our beautifulness and specialness with you. That's right. It's for every single one of you. Feel the love, feel the joy. Because you're special, too. Happy holidays.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A dish called wander...

…while I deal with some more post

Because it's a grey misty day and someone else may be fuzzy-headed and wondering why it is they've managed to lug something like 60 lbs. of books 2000 miles only to decide that they read the only interesting-looking one in the airport waiting for the rest of their luggage to arrive...

This is fun to play with. I especially like the literature map, first of all because it's a map, and maps are always good, and second of all because of the way the names wobble around. Finally I prefer to mess around with it rather than use the recommendations because although there's a pretty broad selection of authors, it only tends to pull out ones I've already read.

Up at gnod there are links to similar toys for music and films. Haven't played with the films much, but the music recommendations did leave me slightly nonplussed. Mainly because every combination of singers/bands I have tried so far brings up the suggestion, "Barbara Streisand" (in bold purple lettering).

Not that there's anything wrong with a good diva-style belting of "Woman in Love" or an overwrought rendition of "Send in the Clowns" in the shower, but I had slightly of hoped my tastes might be broader... or perhaps a tad less schmultzy than that. I mean, my posh Christmas shower gel has "citrus and cedar notes" and I've never really taken to glitter or the (Ce-)lean, mean, singing machine in a big way. Hey-ho. Better go and polish my unfeasibly large chandelier earrings.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Missed the post

Editor's note: Finally got the post box open today, and I must be on some kind of mailing list...

Dear lifemates, bondmates, minions, bloodsires, flock members and assorted other blood relations (including the one who's madder than a box of frogs - maybe he can print this out and use it as a seasonal fly-swat).

Please insert your preferred "creature of the stygian night" greeting here. The one that indicates a familial relationship ("Brother" is always good) and is the verbal equivalent of a manly nod and heartily slapped arm-clasp between two rough-hewn warriors standing on a windy peak. Anyone who's broken through their "taciturn warrior" shell may add something poetically in touch with nature in your aunciente (made-up) fadres langwache. I'd avoid anything that refers to winds and the avoidance or encouragement thereof. Not after all those sprouts.

In the jolly round of activities that leads up to the festive season, I've been delegated the task of writing and sending the apparently traditional Christmas letter to update all of you with our news. I'm thrilled.

I'm also supposed to sort out the seating plan, which is a nightmare of tedium. Everyone wants their own special introduction and I can hardly keep track of all the new ones, as well as who hates whom and who is just pretending to do so for dramatic effect. I'm going to need a spreadsheet at this rate. But anything to avoid another Christmas dinner like the one two years ago when four big misunderstandings in a row were resolved before the pudding course. Or last year's debacle, when Phwar had one too many cream sherries and "accidentally" spake the mystic words of binding to the turkey. Well, it was a big one. Luckily, the giblets had been removed, but I felt like an idiot, leaping up with the others to defend it to our deaths from the carving knife. Stupid git.

You'll be delighted to know that the dread curse has been lifted from Gouesnou's (I never know how to say that - he says it's ancient Breton - I reckon he got it out of an atlas) lot who were all slowly losing the ability to taste anything but swede. The vegetable, I mean. Oh, the unbearable agony of their existence: seemingly forever forced to roam the night, desperately trying to cling to the remants of taste. Saying things like, "It's really more of a sprouty flavour, I'm sure," when we all knew they were deluding themselves. And then, the miracle: a coach-load of nubile female pastry chefs crashed in the hedges at the bottom of the drive to their secret lair and the guys were able to rescue the bonny bakers from some rapacious zombies who were hunting them for their recipe for banana cream pie. A few rounds of that, and they were all cured.

Although being married to a dessert specialist isn't really helping Ludovico in the low-waisted, skin-tight leather trouser department. The words muffin top would never pass my lips in his presence, since he'd probably weep poetically now that he's in touch with his soul-deep emotions, but he has started wearing his shirts untucked and they're noticeably more um… tunic-like than before.

Speaking of girlfriends, Jean-Marie (the one who never seems to button his stupid ruffled shirt - he should take a leaf out of Ludo's book) has changed his name by deed poll again. Sworn us all to secrecy, so I can't tell you the new one, but knowing J-M, it won't be hard to guess. He's only got up to "Leçon deux: Héééé, sexy! Mate ce sabre, ma jolie bichette!" in En Garde! - Manly French for the Musketeer en Vous. He's hoping the new alias will help him to hide from that bushy-haired crackpot who's been stalking him for the last few years. Poor bastard's a shadow of his former self, frankly. And his dry-cleaning bill is bloody enormous.

Gaston, sorry, Prohkryyatohr (yeah, really) is another one who's embarked on a self-improvement project this year. He's been male-bonding with Loin (aka Rhobustt) and Thew (now Tyunah - methinks someone had a thesaurus malfunction) over their mutual unspeakable burdens of hangnails and foot fungus. They've all been on a quest for a decent podiatrist to relieve them of their eternal torment, but can't work out Yellow Pages' new organisational system. In the meantime, to dull the unbearable anguish of their existence they've been experimenting with men's cologne. We finally had to confine their experiments to a bathroom with a separate ventilation system because their combined scent was overwhelming the mighty power of Stahlyun's antihistimine.

Most seriously, Djokkstrahpp's evil twin, Ahthletyk Suhppowtah, penetrated our secret palatial stronghold and installed a fiendish solo display of conceptual art on the second-floor landing. The evil genius had taped off the lift with a big "Danger - Do Not Use" sign, and what with the steel caps, studs and 6-inch soles on his boots, D-man couldn't lift his feet up the steps. He howled and raged like a wild beast at the bottom of the staircase, but to no avail. It was enough to make a strong man weep like an overheated hippo.

Then D realised that an unknown yet beautiful landscape gardener who had broken in to study his soil morphology and composting techniques had tripped over the artiste using a party balloon to represent a male hooded seal's nasal display. The imminence of this threat compelled D to unlock the hitherto secret power of his roaming function and he managed to phone the lift maintenance company and a cleaning service just in the nick of time. The noxious Ahthletyk Suhppowtah managed to give him the slip, but Djokk'll get him. Someday... Maybe in the New Year when the dramatic tension finally plays out and the gardener inevitably yields to the seductive power of his nutrient-rich silty clay loam. So have a happy one, y'all.