Archive for January, 2008

Plugged back in

January 31, 2008

Succour contributor H P Tinker has an important message:

I indecently implore you all to buy AMBIT 191. Right now. Not only does it feature a very nearly new story from me – please, control yourselves – but also Beatle-based cover art from the late, great Sir Peter of Blake who is not yet dead. Commissioned for a piece called The Beatles In Tonypandy by Euron Griffiths, it’s bound to be collectable one day so grab a copy while you can.

Despite the ringing endorsement of Nicholas Royle CBE, it really is worth buying.

Thanks for listening. Thank you for being you.

Fashion and luck

January 31, 2008

If you’re a writer, and you haven’t entered the Debut Dagger 2008 contest, it’s probably worth the £20 entry fee just to get the email bulletins.

Today Natasha Cooper gives some sound advice to aspiring crime writers.

I’m quoting the whole thing because it’s full of wit and insight, and I can’t find it online.

Fashion and luck are two of the essentials in successful crime writing, as in most other endeavours. But it’s dangerous to fixate on the first and impossible to engineer the second.

By the time any writer struck by a current fashion in murderous fiction has plotted and written his or her own version, taste will probably have moved on. And there’s nothing more unattractive to editors and critics than last-year’s fashion.

At one time in the recent past the only crime novels that seemed to excite people with power in the booktrade were those dealing with serial killers. More and more writers created increasingly florid plots about men with twisted imaginations and sadistic impulses. Writers would introduce their readers to a young and attractive woman, of precisely the physical type that tweaked the killer’s taste, just in time for her to become likeable to readers. She’d be the junior detective or a reporter, or the wife, girlfriend or daughter of the main sleuth. The serial killer would kidnap and hide her away to take his time torturing her, and readers were supposed to remain breathless with anxiety as they waited to discover whether she would be saved. Guess what? She always was. Boring.

Then there was (and, alas, still is) paedophilia. Long, long ago it was genuinely shocking to be made to see that child-abusers are not all grubby little men in dirty raincoats hanging about primary schools. As we now know, there are paedophiles in every social class and every profession. Many real criminals were abused in childhood and have gone on to become abusers themselves, citing the ‘it never hurt me, so why make a fuss when I do it?’ complaint when accused of their crime. Crime fiction must, I believe, reflect reality, but putting paedophilia at the heart of every novel is silly and tedious. It’s also dangerous. You should never use a serious and desperately damaging crime in a way that provokes only boredom.

The latest fashion, following on from Dan Browne’s astonishing success with The Da Vinci Code, is for novels about conspiracy in high places, preferably the Vatican. Now, whenever I read a blurb that mentions someone powerful trying to stop a world-shattering or religious secret getting out I shudder – in all the wrong ways.

As for luck, you’ll need it if you’re to find a publisher, win prizes, get picked by Oprah or Richard & Judy, see your title at the top of the bestseller list. Your own particular take on the world and the way you write have to fit with what publishers and critics and selectors happen to be looking for at the moment they light on your book. And there’s nothing you can do to make that happen.

But you can write brilliantly, which will always help. You can plot with care and create characters who are psychologically coherent and credible. You can make readers like at least some of them, which you must do if you want to keep people with you all the way to the last page. And you can generate tension. You must set up huge and important questions and delay the answers. These questions aren’t huge in the sense of the mad scientist trying to bring about the end of the world, but huge in the importance they carry for your characters and for the men and women you hope will read your novel.

Most of all you must care about what you write. If you don’t, no one else will.

Where ideology becomes faith

January 30, 2008

In the wake of the French banking scandal, the fantastically over-the-top Charlie Brooker explores the idea that the free market is really more of a faith than a system.

But even I know enough to realise it’s largely an imaginary construct: abstract numbers given shape by wishful thinking. If the traders suddenly stop believing it’s healthy, millions of people lose their jobs. Maybe one day they’ll stop believing in it altogether; they’ll collectively blink and rub their eyes, and the entire global economy will vanish, like a monster under the bed that turns out never to have existed in the first place, or an optical illusion you’ve suddenly seen through. And on News at Ten that night they’ll say, “Business news now … and, er, there is no business news. It’s gone.” At which point we’d better come up with some kind of replacement barter system, pronto. Let’s hope it’s not based on sexual favours, or a simple trip to the supermarket’s going to be downright harrowing.

In order to maintain their mad conviction that the economy is real, City traders adopt all manner of belief-bolstering strategies, such as awarding themselves vast bonuses when they “do well” in the “stock market”. This reinforces the notion that it’s possible to play the market with a modicum of skill, which it isn’t, because a) it isn’t there in the first place and b) it’s random. They’re like pub gamblers convincing themselves they’ve developed a “system” for beating the fruit machine, except they get paid in Ferraris rather than tokens.

In his excellent book Irrationality, the late Stuart Sutherland cited several surveys in which the advice of financial experts has consistently been proven to be markedly less reliable than random guesswork. Professor of psychology Len Wiseman went one further in his book Quirkology, conducting an experiment in which a professional investment analyst, a financial astrologist and a four-year-old girl all chose stocks to invest in. The four-year-old couldn’t even read, so her choices were made by writing the names of 100 stocks on pieces of paper, throwing them in the air and grabbing a few off the floor. No prizes for guessing who consistently came out on top, by an impressive margin, even when the value of the stocks was tracked for a full year.

In other words, the French rogue trader is only really guilty of dreaming that little bit harder than everyone else. Rather than punish him, perhaps they should simply wish him out of existence.

Or as Martin Amis said, in Money, ‘If we all held hands for ten seconds and stopped believing in money, then money would no longer exist.’

Casualties of prohibition

January 29, 2008

This, from the Manchester Evening News:

Nick Hogan, former landlord of The Swan Hotel and Barristers Bar in Bolton, was found guilty of failing to prevent people from smoking in his pubs on four separate occasions.

He now faces a £10,000 bill after being told to pay £750 for each offence – a total of £3,000 – plus costs of £7,236. 

He told the court that he warned customers that they were breaking the law in a letter put out on tables.

No smoking signs were also displayed in the pub after the new legislation was introduced under the Health Act 2006 on 1 July last year.

But he did not actively enforce the ban, claiming it was customers’ `right to choose’.

Hogan, who represented himself in court, said that he would consider an appeal and vowed to enforce the ban in the pub he now runs in Chorley, Lancs.

He said: “I need to take time to reflect on the court’s decisions, but it certainly is not the end of the matter. I am a little bit shell-shocked about the size of the fine and costs.

“I am disappointed. I still believe that this legislation is draconian, and I am sure that the fight against it will go on. This was not just about smoking. It was about people’s rights.”

There’s a weaselly, one-sided editorial accompanying the piece, which I can’t find online.

Here’s an excerpt:

Smoking was gradually banned, by common consent rather than statute, from workplaces, theatres, cinemas, aeroplanes, buses, trains and shopping malls. As smokers dwindled to a quarter of the population the numbers asserting smokers’ rights grew weaker, as did their argument that they should be allowed to inflct their unhealthy habit on others.

By the time MPs voted for a ban in all public spaces, only pubs, clubs and restaurants still allowed it. That overwhelming vote reflected the tenor of public opinion, and, following this social revolution, opinion in favour of smoke-free pubs has if anything strengthened.

Okay. If this ‘social revolution’ happened ‘by common consent rather than statute’ why was it necessary to introduce the ban as part of the Health Bill 2006, in defiance of a manifesto commitment?

Why was it necessary to accompany the new law with a massive media campaign emphasising what would happen to you if you broke it?

Why was it necessary to have undercover council officers sneaking around pubs and bars to make sure people were obeying the law?

This is a definition of ‘consent’ I wasn’t previously aware of.

I think the MEN‘s editorial team should get out a bit more, and step outside their pious little consensus.

They would then realise that more people agree with Nick Hogan than they think – including, in my experience, a great deal of Manchester’s bar staff.

Rights for temps

January 28, 2008

Last autumn there was a private members’ bill to give agency and migrant workers the same employment rights as permanent staff. As agency workers now compromise about 1.4 million people, this is a much needed reform.

Paul Farrelly’s private members’ bill got support from a third of the Labour Party last year. Now the issue has come up again with an Early Day Motion set up by Andrew Miller.

EDMs are really just there to gauge the parliamentary mood on a particular issue but it would still look promising if this one got as many signatures as possible.

There is a Facebook group on this issue and a suggested letter to your MP. From the text:

The Bill seeks to give agency workers equal treatment with permanent workers in basic terms and conditions. This is an issue of national importance but also a local, constituency one. Many thousands of agency workers – who are often also migrants – are treated appallingly, frequently finding themselves on very low wages, poor terms and conditions and working for anti-union employers. At the same time, indigenous workers find themselves undercut, often leading to social division and alienation with the mainstream political parties with all the implications that this brings.

You are no doubt also aware that protection for temporary and agency workers formed part of the 2004 Warwick agreement, on the basis of which many thousands of trade unionists campaigned for a Labour victory and many more cast their votes for Labour candidates. Labour committed to support a European Directive on Agency and Temporary Workers and, once agreement had been reached amongst member states, to implement that directive in British law.

Furthermore it was agreed within Warwick negotiations that, should it prove impossible to reach consensus within Europe on this matter, the Labour Government would unilaterally introduce protection for Agency & Temporary Workers within British law. Now that successive attempts to progress this issue in Europe have failed, I am sure that you recognise that the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill provides a crucial opportunity for Labour to deliver on one of the key commitments in the Warwick agreement, and ensure protection for some of the most vulnerable workers.

This Bill may be the last opportunity to deliver progress for temporary and agency workers in this Parliamentary term. As we move closer to another General Election, it is vital that trade union members can see that their Labour government is continuing to deliver on the promises made in advance of the 2005 election.

Is Martin Amis worth three grand an hour?

January 27, 2008

For that is his pro rata rate, according to the Manchester Evening News:

AUTHOR Martin Amis is being paid an incredible £3,000 an hour – the same hourly rate as a Premiership footballer – to work at Manchester University.

Amis – who was signed up last year to teach creative writing – is receiving an £80,000 salary but is only committed to working there about 28 hours a year. The M.E.N. discovered the figures using Freedom of Information legislation.

The university has recently been forced to shed up to 750 jobs – including lecturers’ posts – to get itself out of £30m of debt.

The Times has Amis’s response.

“It’s very much Manchester University’s decision to make and I abide by it,” he told The Times. “This is really an invidious conversation. Who’s to say I wouldn’t earn less money anywhere else?

“Why aren’t you having this conversation with Wayne Rooney? Some footballers earn huge amounts. Not every footballer gets a hundred thousand a week like Rooney. And that’s all I want to say on the matter.”

The article also points out that Rooney earns far more than Amis in real terms.

I’m not bothered about the Premiership footballer comparison – Amis is much more deserving of this silly money than some social parasite whose only talent is to kick a ball around.

I’d like to see some ‘Career Move’ style story, set in a parallel universe in which novelists command eight-figure contracts and public adoration, while footballers scrabble around with day jobs and derisory public grants.

But there’s a serious point here. From the Independent:

Responding to the news of Amis’s salary, Dave Jones, the senior Unite union organiser who represents 600 staff at the university, told the MEN: “We understand why people like Martin Amis are being sought by the university, and recruitment is a competitive business. But I think those staff who are left after the various redundancies and early retirements need to know that there will also be investment into their careers as well, along with the new structure of the university.”

I welcomed Amis’s appointment and remain a big fan of his work. But recruitment of star names should not come at the expense of other staff jobs.

The sensible thing would be to cut Amis’s salary down to £50K or so, and extend his teaching time.

Oxford Road confidential

January 27, 2008

Overheard in a bar last night: a guy talking about a trip to Europe before the single currency kicked in.

The old money was brilliant – the Deutschmark is exactly the same size as the British five pence. Worked in all the peepshow machines!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you humanity.

Better than literature

January 26, 2008

Mark Lawson is on excellent form talking about the false separation between genre and literary fiction.

This week, Joan Brady – a talented American novelist living in Devon, who won the Whitbread prize in 1993 – received £115,000 in an out-of-court settlement from a cobbler close to her Totnes home. The novelist alleged that fumes from solvents used at the plant had caused her physical distress and mental distraction.  

One example given of her problems – and here we come to the reason that Brady should probably not walk down any dark alleys filled with crime writers – was that she had become so confused by the fumes that she was forced to abandon a serious novel, Cool Wind from the Future, and turn instead to mystery fiction, with Bleedout.

So, in the course of a compensation dispute, we have medical and legal support for the traditional libel against crime writing: that it is done by authors whose brains aren’t fully working. Perhaps, in the way that the dim in showbusiness became known as airheads, leading crime and thriller writers should in future be designated fumeheads.

Crime fiction, at the moment, has more depth and intelligence than literary fiction. Because of its very nature the crime novel has to be intricately plotted and filled with complexities – or else it won’t work. If you don’t believe me, read a book by Christopher Brookmyre or Carl Hiaasen – and then try to summarise the plot.

Crime fiction does more than transcend. At its best it encompasses all the great themes of literature. Love, death, the human condition, the Western dream – it’s all there, in books like Stormy Weather and Skinny Dip, highly charged novels with a moral and political sensibility, realer-than-real characters and better prose lines than in a yard of Zadie Smith or Mark Haddon. (Hiaasen once said, ‘I’m sick of books where you keep having to flick back so that you can tell the characters apart.’) It’s no surprise that Hiaasen has been called the Mark Twain of the crime novel; he is the true heir to the great American novelists like Faulkner, Salinger and Fitzgerald.

Compare this to the contemporary literary novel. Stephen King, another great literary writer unfairly sidelined as just a horror novelist, once said: ‘People always ask me when I’m going to write a serious novel… by which they mean a book about a college professor with erectile problems.’

The literary novel is increasingly focused on one or two author surrogates, and can bypass story altogether, going instead for straight emotional regurgitation. If this is semi-fictionalised it will be hailed as ‘brave’ and ‘challenging’. Characters are indistinct and indistinguishable; the prose is flattened to an anaemic half-life by years of creative writing courses. Content is focused on the self rather than the outside world. The contemporary literary novel is increasingly localised, parochial, obsessive. As Lawson puts it:

And, even in literature, the view that highbrow fiction is somehow all broadly worthwhile does not long survive service on the jury of a book prize. Parcel after parcel arrives of books that somehow contrive to be both plotless and proseless, often involving near-escapes from sexual abuse on seaside holidays in childhood. Yet these works do not smear an entire type of fiction, in the way that The Da Vinci Code does, for the simple reason that they remain largely unknown.

P J O’Rourke once said that Hiaasen’s novels were ‘better than literature.’ At the moment, he’s right.

The problem with Ian

January 25, 2008

Here’s Ian McEwan on the literary blogosphere:

I don’t read the blogs much. I don’t like the tone-the rather in-your-face road-rage quality of a lot of exchange on the Internet. I don’t like the threads that come out of any given piece of journalism. It seems that when people know they can’t be held accountable, when they don’t have eye contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that I think slightly doesn’t belong in the world of book reviewing.

I don’t agree with this but I’m not surprised McEwan doesn’t like blogs as he seems to be an object of hate for most of them.

Most of the vitriol is directed at McEwan’s novel Saturday, which deals with a day in the life of a neurosurgeon.

There are many legitimate criticisms of the novel. The twist at the end is unrealistic and sentimental, Perowne’s children are irritating and McEwan tends to over-describe – as Ellis Sharp said, we don’t need a sixteen-page squash match. Apart from this, though, I enioyed the book – a decent read by a good, but not great, author.

However, the criticism McEwan gets from the Brit Lit Blogs is not so much for his writing but for his politics. Saturday is set on the day of the 2003 antiwar march, and McEwan’s protagonist is not totally convinced by the antiwar case. He has treated an Iraqi doctor who has been tortured by Saddam, and feels that war is the only way to get rid of the fascist regime.

These are the passages that really annoyed the Brit Lit Blogs:

“Not in My Name” goes past a dozen times. Its cloying self-regard suggests a bright new world of protest, with the fussy consumers of shampoos and soft drinks demanding to feel good, or nice. Henry prefers the languid “Down with This Sort of Thing.” A placard of one of the organizing groups goes by—the British Association of Muslims. Henry remembers that outfit well. It explained recently in its newspaper that apostasy from Islam was an offense punishable by death.

All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think – and they could be right – that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view.

These passages confirm McEwan as one of the Blitcons. Like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, McEwan is an imperial propagandist, writing in the service of the war machine, justifying the crushing of all other cultures with the jackboot of Western rationalism. According to Ziauddin Sardar, he shares a belief that ‘American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world.’

Of course McEwan’s readers among the public, the critics who review his work favourably and the judges who shortlist him for prizes are too stupid to see this hidden agenda. Only a handful of literary bloggers are smart enough to see what is really going on.

Even before Saturday was published, retired blogger Ellis Sharp confessed that he was feeling ‘apprehensive’ about the novel:

The Saturday in question is Saturday February 15th 2003, when somewhere between one and two million people marched through central London to a rally in Hyde Park to protest against the impending war on Iraq by the Bush and Blair governments. It was the biggest demonstration in London’s history. Around the world an estimated 35 million people marched against the impending war that day. The Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy called it “The most spectacular display of public morality the world has ever seen.”

But it looks as if that display is about to be mocked by one of Britain’s leading and most highly-regarded writers, if an extract from Ian McEwan’s forthcoming novel ‘Saturday’ published recently in The New Yorker is anything to go by.

The main protagonist’s views on the Iraq war in ‘The Diagnosis’ – an extract from an early section of ‘Saturday’ – appear to parallel those of Ian McEwan.

Sharp then babbles on for a couple of thousand words, dismissing the Iraqi interim government as a fascist Vichy regime (eight million Iraqis went to the polls a couple of weeks after his post was written) taking in a vicious two-para ramble about Israel that is of little or no relevance to McEwan at all, and claiming without evidence that McEwan spent the eve of war at an official dinner with George W Bush. Ironically for a blogger, he describes McEwan’s views as ‘couch-potato politics.’

When he finally returns to McEwan’s fiction, it’s to repeat the schoolboy error in book reviewing of confusing author and protagonist:

Henry Perowne witnesses the marchers gathering for the great anti-war rally and finds their “general cheerfulness…baffling”. He thinks “The scene has an air of innocence and English dottiness.”

Maybe McEwan is being ironic here. Maybe we are supposed to perceive Perowne as complacent and self-satisfied. But I suspect not entirely. I think these are probably McEwan’s own views.

Of course, Sharp concedes, ‘It would be unfair to condemn a novel which hasn’t yet been published and which I haven’t yet read.’

By February 5 he has read the book, and produced a 5,500-word tirade against it. The opening paragraphs sum up the whole post.

This is a novel which is set entirely on 15 February 2003, the day of the great London anti-war march.

Not a single character in this novel goes on the march.

Later on, we get:

‘Saturday’ is a novel for liberals who didn’t go on the march (and I have yet to read a review of the novel or hear or watch a discussion of it that engages with the question of whether or not the critic participated in that march. My guess is that probably not a single one of them did.)

In one section of the left this has become a litmus test of morality. If you went on the Grand March you’re good, if you didn’t you aren’t. Membership of the club rests on participation in a dubious exercise of street politics that made absolutely no difference to government policy.

Later – much later – there is a kind of summing up:

‘Saturday’, is, then, a novel about anxiety. It is in the great tradition of the nineteenth century bourgeois liberal novel, when affluent, talented writers were terrified of the idea that their whole way of life was under threat by dark, destructive forces. Back then the threat was from working-class radicalism. The image of workers gathered together for political purposes sent a shiver down the spine of novelists like George Eliot, whose vision of the proletariat was that of a terrifying mob, a “mass of wild chaotic desires and impulses”. Dickens in ‘Hard Times’ suggested that those who suffered under capitalism should respond with dignified restraint, in heroic isolation. Nothing as vulgar as politics should intrude. Henry James in ‘The Princess Casamassima’ proposed that the major motive of political radicals was envy and suggested that the only decent destiny of a thinking militant was to see through the sham of revolutionary politics and commit suicide. (Thanks, Henry.) The actions of Al-Qaeda have, alas, soured the agreeable quality of suicide as an apt political destiny, and even when liberals with a capital ‘L’ do something so liberal as to empathise with the state of mind of Palestinians who detonate themselves beside Israelis, they quickly find, as Jenny Tonge did, that the liberal – or Liberal – imagination is suddenly a very narrow and slyly calculating one.

Equating the working class radicals of the nineteenth century with the conservative, well-funded Saudi rich boys of Al-Qaeda is a grotesque insult.

This stuff is often recycled on This Space and RSB without criticism. It’s interesting to read – it’s like a road-map of the reactionary left. All the features are there – a parochial habit of putting domestic preferences before internationalism, a weird obsession with Israel, and a hatred of liberalism that would rival Fox News.

But let’s hear what McEwan has to say.

On Iraq:

“There’s always been a part of the left whose dominant impulse is anti-imperialism. And that’s where a lot of the energy I think came from in the anti-war protest here. And there’s another part of the left whose driving force is anti-totalitarianism. And the anti-totalitarians were, I think, a minority, and among themselves and within themselves, deeply split. I mean, by the week before the invasion I really was in a sweat, thinking this is a TERRIBLE mistake.” Now, he thinks the whole adventure has been “a disaster. An absolute disaster. It would have been a lot better to have done nothing than to do it badly.”

On the Blitcons article:

A review of On Chesil Beach by Natasha Walter in this paper recently drew a sharp letter of riposte, for what he saw as a conflation of his characters’ politics with his own. He had already been stung by another piece, reprinted from the New Statesman, “making out Salman [Rushdie], Martin [Amis] and myself to be some kind of wing of American foreign policy. I mean, it was incredibly stupid. And it felt to me like Natasha Walter had decided I was on the political right, and she was virtuous and I wasn’t, and that she was good and I was bad.”

On Saturday:

People felt very uncomfortable because I painted this exaggerated version of themselves, really. Henry is really the fat contented western man, they themselves are fat contented western people. And it was a mirror, in a sense, like Caliban’s mirror, and it made people feel enraged. So I’m completely unapologetic about that – that was always the premise – I mean, I’ve had fantastic unhappiness in my private life, as the clippings will tell you – Henry does not.

On nukes:

My views have not changed substantially; the renovation or replacement of Trident is a waste and a folly; I am sceptical about the proposal to build a new generation of nuclear power stations in the cause of limiting CO2 emissions when we have an adequate, safe, untapped nuclear facility 93m miles away.

Here McEwan gets to the nub of the matter.

I sometimes wonder whether these common critical confusions arise unconsciously from a prevailing atmosphere of empowering consumerism – the exaltation of the subjective, the “not in my name” syndrome. It certainly seems odd to me that such simple precepts need pointing up: your not “liking” the characters is not the same as your not liking the book; you don’t have to think the central character is nice; the views of the characters don’t have to be yours, and are not necessarily those of the author; a novel is not always all about you.

Try telling that to the bloggers, Ian…

Update: Ellis Sharp has pointed out a mistake in this post.

I wrote that Ellis ‘claim[ed] without evidence that McEwan spent the eve of war at an official dinner with George W Bush.’ This is not true. In fact he wrote in January 2005 that:

McEwan’s own personal journey from left to right led him to Number 10 Downing Street on 20 November 2003. While 100,000 people marched through central London protesting against the visit of the warmonger Bush, McEwan was enjoying the reception at Number 10 for the President and his wife.

He doesn’t give evidence but the story is confirmed here (thanks to Anthony Cummins for the link). As Ellis says, I have confused two different dates and occasions.

My apologies to Ellis Sharp.

Police demo

January 25, 2008

Letter of the week goes to Ian Parsons, from Bradford.

I only counted a couple of hundred people at that demonstration. They were outnumbered by miners waving wads of money at them.