Archive for December, 2013

Wrote for Luck

December 24, 2013

Over in the Spectator, Nick Cohen writes of an encounter with the Mumsnet site editors, who asked him to do an online chat in Kentish Town. When he asked about the fee, he was told that ‘Webchats are actually something Mumsnet often charges for, because they’re such an effective way of promoting things; they tend to get many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of page views’ – in effect, this was a pay-to-play gig, where, as Nick says, ‘Mumsnet charges writers and actors or their publishers and producers for the privilege of providing content for its website’.

A cultural change has taken place in the 2010 arts scene, where writers and artists are expected to provide content free of charge, for schools, workshops, literary festivals, magazines, academics, publishers’ websites, universities – for any and every media and any and every event where writers have to invest time and effort and money to be there. Authors are starting to get hacked off with this – there’s a piece by historian Guy Walters here, another by the novelist Amanda Craig here. The rationale is that by providing free content, writers are getting exposure, which at some point down the line will translate into actual cash, thanks to the generosity of the arts organisation which has allowed the writer to work for nothing.

If even established authors are scrabbling for coins, think of the unknown young creatives who are expected to undertake long unpaid internships to get into the delirious professions. My favourite intern story concerns the independent publisher Dalkey Archive, which prints bad books of laughable obscurity. Around a year ago, when Dalkey was moving its base to London, the press put out an advertisement for publishing internships, which is worth quoting at length:

The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who: have already demonstrated a strong interest in literary publishing; are very well read in literature in general and Dalkey Archive books in particular; are highly motivated and ambitious; are determined to have a career in publishing and will sacrifice to make that career happen; are willing to start off at a low-level salary and work their way upwards; possess multi-dimensional skills that will be applied to work at the Press; look forward to undergoing a rigorous and challenging probationary period either as an intern or employee; want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.); know how to act and behave in a professional office environment with high standards of performance; and who have a commitment to excellence that can be demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. DO NOT APPLY IF ALL OF THE ABOVE DOES NOT DESCRIBE YOU

Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.

When challenged on this by Laurence Mackin of the Irish Times, Dalkey director John O’Brien described the advertisement as ‘a modest proposal. Serious and not-serious at one and the same time’ in an email exchange that apparently began with O’Brien ‘pointing out that the advertisement was written in a manner he viewed as appropriate with Irish literature: that of Swift, Joyce  Beckett and, perhaps most pertinently, Flann O’Brien.’ If only some of that playful wit and erudition could find its way into Dalkey’s published titles.

Perhaps it’s the British way that finds it vulgar to ask for money, even for a job well done. But money is never just about money. Paying your staff well is the same as saying that they are worth something. Paying staff badly or not at all is the same as saying they are not. So why does anyone bother working for free? Nick explains:

For a handful, the gamble of working for nothing or paying for the right to write may pay off. They could be the one in a 1,000 who becomes a superstar. Inevitably, the majority of those taking the risk will be the children of rich parents. Not all, I accept. You can work in a fulltime job and write in your spare time, as many novelists do, and newspapers don’t just recruit from the moneyed classes. But when I look at the young people starting out in journalism around me, they are overwhelmingly from the upper class or upper-middle class. Only they can take out loans for university and post-graduate degrees, and then work for years for little of nothing. I doubt that my younger self could afford to be a journalist today.

This has been a contentious issue for some time and the soul searching is getting ridiculous. With sentimental exceptions (doing a free reading at your mate’s spoken word night is fine, as long as they buy your drinks) you should not work for free. Don’t take on an internship, don’t do free work for arts organisations, and if you know arts organisations that expect free labour from artists, then don’t use those organisations, don’t use their services, and tell your friends why. Without free labour, the culture will change.

In the meantime, I like to amuse myself by flagging down black cabs, asking them to drive me to random places in the city, and then, when it’s time to settle the fare, telling the driver that ‘I’m not actually paying you for this journey, as I am a well known blogger, online celebrity and bon vivant, and think of the exposure you will generate from having me in your cab.’ The reactions are interesting.


Notes from the Smoking Garden

December 22, 2013

Some of you who know me, may know I spent some time in hospital this autumn. This piece is the result – a light-hearted, knockabout story of life on a closed psychiatric ward.

I was thinking of calling it ‘A Christmas Miracle’.

Also, from 3:AM: my piece on Charles Manson.

If I don’t post on here before year end – have a good one.


Hear It Tear: Roth Redux

December 16, 2013!/httpImage/image.JPG_gen/derivatives/display_600/image.JPGIt is now a year since Philip Roth, officially, told the world he was going to stop writing about it, telling Le Monde in somewhat cryptic fashion that ‘I don’t wish to be a slave any longer to the stringent exigencies of literature.’ This puts biographer Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation although once, when the possibility was raised at a public function, Roth turned around mock-forgetful and asked: ‘Were we married?’) in a privileged position: she could view the man’s career as a single arc. And what a weird arc it was. He began with a couple of generation-defining knockouts (Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint) and ended with a string of phenomenal American novels: Sabbath’s Theater, I Married A Communist, American Pastoral. But Roth was sixty when Sabbath was unleashed onto the bookshelves. Before that, entire decades were wasted on trivia, self-reference and National Lampoon style satire. As Martin Amis writes: ‘it could be argued that with one thing or another Roth took about 15 years to settle into his voice… the early career was wildly eccentric — a mysterious and fascinating flail.’

Yet once that voice had come, you could listen to it all night. Man, that relentless, hip, raging prose, line upon line, para upon para, building, shouting, that arguing, despairing, explanatory voice, so lyrical, yet carries a relentless affinity to the material, and hits the reader’s consciousness like a wall of solid flame. Perhaps the best way to illustrate it is from a passage in Sabbath’s Theater where the libidinous revenant has picked up an attractive young German hitchhiker. Sabbath’s car stereo is playing the Benny Goodman band and the old puppeteer talks his new friend through it:

This is what’s called a foot mover. Keeps your feet movin’…. Here that guitar back there? Notice how that rhythm section is driving them on?… Basie. Very lean piano playing… Here that guitar there? Carryin’ this thing… That’s black music. You’re hearin’ black music now… Now you’re going to hear a riff. That’s James…. Underneath all this is that steady rhythm section carrying this whole thing… Freddy Green on guitar… James. Always have the feeling he’s tearing that instrument apart – you can hear it tear… This figure they’re just dreaming up – watch them build it now… They’re workin’ their way into the ride-out. Here it comes. They’re all tuned into each other… They’re off. They’re off…

It’s prose as music, and Roth’s first influence was that great American prose singer, Thomas Wolfe. O ghost, come back again.

Sabbath is Roth with all the restraints thrown off. He’s a depraved belligerent pile-up of a man, without the tortured idealism of Alexander Portnoy or the taciturn observance of Nathan Zuckerman. Even the late Norman Geras, a longtime Roth fan, was appalled by the novel: although he liked the scenes where ‘its anti-hero, Mickey Sabbath, returns to the Jersey neighbourhood of his childhood and youth – visits the graves of his family, talks to an old cousin he happens upon there is vintage Roth in these pages: the intricate, irreplaceable specificities of a time recalled, which he does so well’ to get to this ‘one has to make one’s way through pages and pages of the sexual life of Sabbath and his various sexual partners; vis-à-vis one of whom in particular, Drenka Balich, he engages in every imaginable type of sexual experiment, including masturbating over her grave after she dies of cancer.’ I hate to disagree with a great man so recently gone from this world, but I think Norm was wrong on this account: it’s Roth’s fidelity to the physical that gives the book its form, and distinguishes him as a writer. As Roth Pierpont says: ‘Let the sexual in. Let the body in.’ And so most of Roth’s heroes, most more cerebral and high-minded than Sabbath, have these physical preoccupations: even Nathan Zuckerman, at the end of his life and after eleven years of solitude in the Berkshire forests, makes an ass of himself over a woman forty years his junior. Of course, sex is never just about sex. It’s also about life, death, power, and desire, even if that’s just the desire for desire. As Zuckerman says: ‘How can one say, ‘No, this isn’t a part of life,’ since it always is? The contaminant of sex, the redeeming corruption that de-idealises the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.’

Roth in his career was criticised by feminist writers, and also by Jewish community groups (a New York rabbi demanded ‘What is being done to silence this man?’ in a 1959 letter to the ADL) for his uncompromising depiction of American Jewish life in his native Newark. The feminist critique had weight. Many of his characters’ rants come off again as sophomoric and National Lampoon style. I don’t believe he is a misogynist, certainly his female characters are as believable and complex as the males, but there is an Iron John anti-matriarchal element there, and an exasperation with difficult women. And yet in Roth nothing is ever unchallenged. Even Mickey Sabbath doesn’t get to have everything his own way. His old friend Norman Cowan, a man everything Sabbath is not, rages at the puppeteer: ‘Isn’t it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero? What an odd time to be thinking of sex as rebellion. Are we back to Lawrence’s gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism. To be out with that belly of yours, championing pornography and flying the flag of your prick. What a pathetic, outmoded old crank you are, Mickey Sabbath. The discredited male polemic’s last gasp. Even as the bloodiest of all centuries comes to an end, you’re out working day and night to create an erotic scandal. You fucking relic, Mickey!’

For Roth, the backlash from the synagogue was easier to understand, fourteen years after the Holocaust and at a time where the Nazi genocide barely registered on the American consciousness (Amis again: ‘News of the killings emerged in May/June 1942: a verified report with a figure of 700,000 already dead. The Boston Globe gave the story the three-column headline ‘Mass Murders of Jews in Poland Pass 700,000 Mark,’ and tucked it away at the foot of Page 12.’) Roth also was hardly unaware of anti-Semitism in its American and British forms, and in its bierkeller and bistro varieties. What Roth fought for was the freedom to define himself, like Portnoy, not as a Jew but as a human being: to leave the prison-house of monocultural identity and into the carnival of American experience. Many of his books seem dated because fewer and fewer people define themselves by their religion or ethnicity. What he was against was the destructive fantasy of purity. Amis writes: ‘fiction insists on freedom: indeed, fiction is freedom, and freedom is indivisible.’ Roth was a multiculturalist before multiculturalism and history has proved him right.

Roth Pierpont’s book is a biography of the counterlife, the creative life. As he says: ‘Art is life, too, you know. Solitude is life, meditation is life, pretending is life, supposition is life, contemplation is life, language is life.’ And now, Roth in his eighties sits in his cottage in the woods of Connecticut, and ‘somehow, pages are piling up… there are notes, thoughts, corrections… He’s written a wonderful account of the American writers who shaped his youth – it’s about them, not about him – but he’s done it just for the pleasure of doing it. He can’t stop writing, can’t stop turning life into words.’ Roth sums up his career with a De Niro impression: ‘You never got me down, Ray. You hear me? You see? You never got me down’ but perhaps a line from the Godfather is more appropriate: ‘I tried to get out… but they pulled me back in.’

Kent’s Categorical Imperative

December 3, 2013

The University of Kent’s writing programme took some heat today over a passage on its website that reads ‘We love great literature and don’t see any reason why our students should not aspire to produce it … We love writing that is full of ideas, but that is also playful, funny and affecting. You won’t write mass-market thrillers or children’s fiction on our programmes.’ That drew a flurry of comments from children’s writers, complaining that the phrasing of Kent’s prospectus implied that the university sees children’s or YA fiction as a somehow ‘lower’ artform. Whoever’s running Kent’s Twitter feed took the criticism in good spirit, replying that ‘Sorry for the slow response. We were writing adult novels’ and later that ‘We are penitent! The offending passage will be removed. As soon as we can work out how to do it… the author of the offending passage will be paraded through Canterbury in chains, pelted with copies of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.’ The passage has now been changed.

My take is this. The number one objective of a creative writing course is or should be to teach people how to write well. That’s the beginning and end of it in my view. There have been criticisms of creative writing courses to the effect that they take student fees without instructing them in how to write fiction that will actually sell. Maybe. But it’s a bad precedent to demand that university education should teach immediate monetisable skills. Otherwise no one would study anything except accountancy and plumbing. And with a publishing market that is unpredictable and in constant flux, teaching what sells is a fool’s game. There’s an anecdote by top agent Simon Trewin that illustrates this point better than I can, which he relates in the Writers and Artists Yearbook:

I received a mediocre thriller one day and read about 50 pages and sent it back with a note saying I didn’t feel it was going to be a good fit for my list. The next morning a very indignant man called me and told me in no uncertain terms that I was mistaken. ‘Oh yes,’ said I, ‘why is that?’ He then proceeded to tell me that he had read the top ten thrillers of the previous year and had coded each of them onto a graph. Where there was a cliffhanger he coloured in the appropriate square on his chart with a green crayon, when there was an explosion he whipped out the red crayon, and when there was a sex scene he used blue and so on. He then wrote his own novel based on his equation of what constituted the statistically average ‘bestselling novel’ and was amazed that I didn’t immediately snap it up.

Writing, and genre writing in particular, attracts fortune hunters. If you see a front page article about J K Rowling and think ‘I could do that, piece of piss, I’ll write something similar about wizards and make millions’ it’s best if you’re disabused of that delusion as soon as. You’re not going to be a bestselling writer by following a cook. What you do is write what you love. Perhaps sales won’t come. But then again. Look at Life of Pi.

What Trewin’s story proves though, and this is where I agree with Kent’s vituperative critics, the qualities that the prescriptive and obscurantist academics deride in genre fiction – compulsive storytelling, character development, believable and memorable dialogue – are exactly the skills that demand patience, solitude and finesse. This kind of thing can be at least encouraged if not taught, and it’s no more than philistinism to dismiss genre fiction out of hand – particularly with children’s fiction, which has produced good, literary novelists in recent years. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials and Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogies were aimed at YA but they are great books and all ages like them.

Sometimes, literature is only a rumour.

Update: There’s a comment from crime writer Stuart Neville, which is just too good not to share:

The mistake made – or at least implied – by the university is to conflate literary fiction and literature. The Oxford dictionary defines literature as being written works ‘of superior or lasting artistic merit’. The writer doesn’t get to decide if their work is such; only the reading public, and the passing of time, can do that.

If a writer sets out to write literature, it’s almost certain his or her writing will be insufferable. We simply write the best stories we can, write them with care, and see what happens. Literature – in the true sense of the word – comes from all genres, including literary fiction, which of course is just another genre [.]

File:Flag of Kent.svg

The flag of Kent. Image: Wikipedia