Archive for April, 2011

The Stars Are Indispensable

April 27, 2011

This is a 3:AM review of Jennifer Egan’s wonderful A Visit from the Goon Squad. The title is from a phenomenal passage from Philip Roth, which this book made me think about. Here’s the Roth passage:

On the night Murray left I recalled how, as a small child, I’d been told – as a small child unable to sleep because his grandfather had died and he insisted on understanding where the dead man had gone – that Grandpa had been turned into a star. My mother took me out of bed and down into the driveway beside the house and together we looked straight up at the night sky while she explained that one of those stars was my grandfather. Another was my grandmother, and so on. What happens when people die, my mother explained, is that they go up to the sky and live on forever as gleaming stars. I searched the sky and said “Is he that one?” and she said yes, and we went back inside and I fell asleep.

That explanation made sense then and, of all things, it made sense again on the night when, wide awake from the stimulus of all that narrative engorgement, I lay out of doors till dawn, thinking that Ira was dead, that Eve was dead, that all the people with a role in Murray’s account of the Iron Man’s unmaking were now no longer impaled on their moment but dead and free of the traps set for them by their era. Neither the ideas of their era nor the expectations of our species were determining destiny: hydrogen alone was determining destiny. There are no longer mistakes for Eve or Ira to make. There is no betrayal. There is no idealism. There are no falsehoods. There is neither conscience nor its absence. There are no mothers and daughters, no fathers and stepfathers. There are no actors. There is no class struggle. There is no discrimination or lynching or Jim Crow, nor has there ever been. There is no injustice, nor is there justice.

There are no utopias. There are no shovels…There is just the furnace of Ira and the furnace of Eve burning at twenty million degrees. There is the furnace of novelist Katrina Van Tassel Grant, the furnace of Congressman Bryden Grant, the furnace of taxidermist Horace Bixton, and of miner Tommy Minarek, and of flutist Pamela Solomon, and of Estonian masseuse Helgi Parn, and of lab technician Doris Ringold, and of Doris’s uncle-loving daughter, Lorraine. There is the furnace of Karl Marx and of Joseph Stalin and of Leon Trotsky and of Paul Robeson and of Johnny O’Day. There is the furnace of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy. What you see from this silent rostrum up on my mountain on a night as splendidly clear as that night Murray left me for good – for the very best of loyal brothers, the ace of English teachers, died in Phoenix two months later – is that universe into which error does not obtrude. You see the inconceivable: the colossal spectacle of no antagonism. You see with your own eyes the vast brain of time, a galaxy of fire set by no human hand.

The stars are indispensable.

Why Self Publishing Can’t Work, Part 94

April 27, 2011

Writers have a notorious sensitivity to criticism. I’ve seen the flustery suppression of rage on the faces of people whose books I’ve critiqued; sensed it in myself while having my own fiction critiqued by others. I think the sensitivity comes from the act of writing, because when you’re writing something good, you feel like the greatest human being in the universe – and how can anyone else not see that?

That kind of attitude is no good for negotiation, and yet the ego has to be there to justify your love and enjoyment of the hours that the world finds useless and may not amount to anything. The good writer walks around with a rock-star arrogance and also a sense of his or her cosmic insignificance. The paradox is a twisty wire at the centre of your chest.

The peerless Jane Smith defines the author’s big mistake as ‘replying to a review with anything more than ‘thank you for your time’. Jane points to this book review and comment thread as ‘the author’s big mistake in action.’ It’s not just a big mistake – it’s a masterpiece in petulance and pretension.

I first saw the piece highlighted on my morning book trade email. In Britain we love a good online breakdown – it’s like a Newgate hanging – and within a couple of days the review had made national newspapers, Stephen Fry had retweeted it, the link was all over social networking nights and the author’s name a comic internet footnote and a shorthand for unprofessionalism and stupidity.

The first thing to notice about the review is that the book blogger is quite complimentary about the novel – he says that readers will ‘find the story compelling and interesting.’ However, Big Al has some criticisms: ‘the spelling and grammar errors, which come so quickly that, especially in the first several chapters, it’s difficult to get into the book without being jarred back to reality as you attempt unraveling what the author meant.’

Despite the nuance and kindness in Big Al’s review, the author jumps straight into the thread and begins shouting at him, accusing him of unfairness, posting positive Amazon reviews, demanding that he take his own review down, calling him ‘a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom’ and insisting that her writing is ‘just fine’. Big Al responds:

I’ll also point out that in the first two chapters alone I found in excess of twenty errors that ideally would have been caught in editing and proofing. Some were minor, but all have the potential of disrupting an enjoyable reading experience, depending on the specific reader and their sensitivity to such things.

Here are a couple sample sentences from the first two chapters that gave me pause and are representative of what I found difficult while reading.

‘She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs.’

‘Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.’

I understand what both are probably saying. I do question the sentence construction.

To which the author of the book under review, in the face of heavy criticism from an increasingly busy thread, shouts ‘Fuck off!’ a couple of times, before leaving the forum altogether.

This is an old story, I know, but I would like to make a few potentially career-saving points:

1) The book’s flaws are not centred around lack of story, unbelieveable characters or cliched prose but, rather, very basic things like spelling and grammar. You pick up this stuff very quickly if you read a lot of fiction but it could be that this particular author, like so many aspiring authors, does not read for pleasure.

2) Still, the spelling and grammatical errors could have been flagged up by an agent or editor if she had gone the route of commercial industry publishing, which for all its faults does select on talent rather than the author’s ability to pay. 

3) Conversely, self publishing has no quality control, no critique and therefore doesn’t help writers develop. There is no obligation to make the writing flow, and to put effort into making an effortless reading experience. This is also why self publishing appeals to people who want to smash the paradigm, and who don’t realise that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

4) I haven’t read The Greek Seaman but it’s possible that the story is so strong a publisher would take it on despite the flaws. Therefore, it is possible that Jacqueline Howett tried her luck with an actual publisher, she would now have a good novel, a respectable contract and a loyal readership, rather than a silly Google profile and the knowledge that she has made a fool of herself in front of actual millions of people.

Which raises a couple of further questions. How come no one, at least in the mainstream media coverage I saw of this, highlighted the problems in the self publishing model that led to Howett’s humiliation? And if traditional publishers and the corporate media are challenged and frightened by the daring new paradigm, why is it that self publishing gets such an easy ride in the mainstream book pages, even to the extent that literary journalists will encourage people to get into it?

Love Begins at the Nerve Endings

April 24, 2011

To celebrate the tolerant and open spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ 3:AM is devoting its weekend coverage to rampaging atheism. There’s me, on Sam Harris‘s The Moral Landscape, an exploration of how we can rescue morality from religion, and S J Fowler interviews A C Grayling, another New Atheist who has written a book on similar themes. I particularly liked Grayling’s comment here:


Though perhaps not in this country, or northern or central Europe, but certainly in America, Africa and the Middle East, there has been a resurgence in religious extremism and fundamentalism. Why do you think this has happened? Are the reasons cultural or political, or economic?


In my view religion is diminishing not resurgent; what looks like resurgence is a turning up of volume, an amplification, the noise of protest and anxiety resulting from the pressure that religious groups feel from the secularising tendency of history. The historical precedent is the sixteenth-seventeeth century loss of hegemony by the Roman Catholic Church: as the Reformation broke its control over the mind and life of Europe, it fought back hard, causing nearly two centuries of extremely bloody and cruel religious wars and turmoil. At the time it would have looked like the Church militant and rampant, but it was more the rearguard action of a diminished power, like a cornered animal. I think something like this is happening today, not least with Islam, whose way of life and values are under severe pressure from a globalising world with the sometimes rapacious secular values of the powerful West.

Update: You can’t talk about Sam Harris without discussing his views on torture. This is a standard charge the pro-faith left throw at him as a substitute for content. Harris has written a piece for his website where he clarifies his views on torture. His argument appears to be that:

1) Torture versus collateral damage: why do people support the killing of innocent civilians in airstrikes, but oppose the torture of people who are probably guilty?

2) Ticking bomb scenario: No one has ever come up with an argument against the use of torture against someone who knows about a secret bomb that will annihilate millions of people in an hour’s time. It doesn’t matter that this scenario is so unrealistic – if you can’t explain why torture should not be used in even this unlikely situation, you don’t have an absolute argument against torture.

I’ve taken issue with Harris before, on immigration and on prospects for democracy in the Middle East. I think he is wrong about torture as well, on both these points. For what it’s worth, I think torture is always and everywhere a crime – I agree with Norman Geras that ‘there is no higher authority that can legitimize the practice of torture.’

This is a crime under international law, as is all but universally recognized, and everyone may be expected to know that it is, irrespective of how they have been advised. Apart from the legal constraint, all people, everywhere, have a moral duty not to torture.

The point is that Harris’s argument on torture doesn’t fit the pro-faith stereotype of the rationalist inquisition, but is well within the realms of the reasonable.

Along Came Laurie: Song for Penny Red

April 17, 2011

I’ve written a 3:AM piece about Laurie Penny, the radical journalist who has just published a book, Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism. The title, ‘Along Came Laurie’, is also my next pitch, a feelgood summer romcom that follows an unlikely romance between an emotionally distant hedge fund manager and an extroverted radical journalist. I believe that the novelist Howard Jacobson may be working on a similar idea; maybe we could collaborate.

Anatomy of a Disaster

April 10, 2011

To illustrate the nepotism of urban hipster creatives, I have today given a positive review to the debut novel of one of my closest friends, Nina-Marie Gardner. The book is, however, amazing. It is called Sherry and Narcotics and I can’t recommend it enough.

Mental health update: got my referral to a consultant psychiatrist who has in turn referred me to psychotherapy, so it looks like I’ll be back in treatment soon. Over the last few weeks, though, my weather’s cleared completely. As McNulty says, I think I can do this and keep myself away from myself.

Don Quixote In Hell

April 10, 2011

Tonight, I ride out

Destroy everything ugly and cruel in the world.

You could find maturity,

among the laughing hyenas, and nodding dogs

and resist the urge to drill down, bore down into this shit.

Move across the surface like a raconteur

And wonder the backstreets at four in the morning, giving

flowers to prostitutes.

Is it a talent for derision that fucks you over?

Whatever, I’ll keep the illusion that my lady love is watching all this from somewhere

when I’m out there, headhunting, gladhandling, feeling the click of a heartbeat in

every wrist I touch.

And He Shut Up, He Sat Down, And He Ate

April 3, 2011

I would agree that growing up is a process of disillusionment. In a previous piece I argued that this term stands for a lot more than its narrow hipster meaning: a kind of prancing boredom. As a child you think of your parents as gods, omniscient and wise, and essentially benign despite the odd eruption. Then you grown up and come to realise the truth of Martin Amis’s sentence, ‘that adults, too, were small, and pushed and tugged by many forces’. The secret is that no one knows anything. True in Hollywood, and true everywhere. We are all winging it, we make it up as we go along, no one is driving this car, no one is flying this plane, the room at the top of the Tower is empty. To me this is what disillusionment means. And there’s a liberation in that.

Given this, if I’d had two children in the 1980s, could I have done even half as good a job of raising those children as my mother did with me? God, I doubt it. One of her worst habits of thinking is a tendency to blame herself for my mental health problems and self-inflicted wounds, and a reluctance to take credit for the success our family has enjoyed. My sister got a first from Oxford. She was the first graduate of our state school to get into Oxbridge for, I think, some generations. She is now an account exec for a major advertising firm – our own little Peggy Olson. Even I’ve done well, with a couple of degrees and a good, salaried job and a comfortable present and a knowledge that anything is possible. 

All this happened because my mother never tried to lower our expectations in the way of so many parents and peers. The thing I most remember her saying is ‘I want the best for you.’ That’s an important thing to hear in a country where everyone is told that they have to settle for something. As I get older, I find that there’s more and more days when I reflect on how lucky I was to grow up in a house full of books.

The old girl has some fascinating stories of her younger years in London and Edinburgh at the tail end of the last century’s great change. She is no drudge, she has been around, yet at the same time I’ve never known anyone so selfless. It’s a rare quality and one that almost scares me, being the self-centred individualist I am. She is nearing the end of a great career in human rights advocacy and public service (and has recently become a Quaker elder). It’s her I think of when I read the classic quote from Middlemarch:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

No one’s perfect, of course, and there are things about my mother that always irritated me and always will. Her enthusiasm for antismoking is probably part of what turned me into a hardcore, unrepetant twenty-a-day man. A fluttery overprotectiveness, an unintentional condescension – I can see myself at seventy, about to walk on stage to pick up the Nobel Prize for Literature, and my mobile goes: ‘Did you have your haircut? Are you taking those zinc tablets I sent you? Have you eaten fruit?’

But being close means you have to forgive these forgiveable sins. Family love isn’t as simple and direct as romantic love: it’s diffuse and complicated, and shadows float in the undercurrents, but it endures. It does.

Skinner fought to keep his mouth shut. But it was true. And he looked at this tough, bitter, loving and wonderful woman, who had devoted her life to his welfare… who looked after him and never talked down to him, valued his opinion and treated him like an adult even when he was just a boy…. He looked down at the food Beverly had made for him and he shut up and he ate.