Archive for February, 2016

Let’s Be Negative

February 22, 2016

Ned_FlandersNaomi Frisby is one of the best new bloggers out there and her latest post got me thinking. Segued into her review of a book she clearly wasn’t convinced by, Frisby writes of ‘an on-going discussion in the blogosphere as to whether or not you should write negative reviews of books’ and although she didn’t care for the novel under discussion she concludes that ‘it’s my problem, not the book’s’ and that reviewers should write negative reviews ‘with the proviso that they’re critical discussions within which the reviewer registers their own schema/bias’.

I’ve been reviewing books for more than a little bit, and most of these reviews were positive. On the occasions I’ve felt compelled to absolutely hatchet job something, I did it for various reasons: Jonathan Coe’s Number Eleven because I loved his other books so much and was so disappointed with his new one, it was more sorrow than anger, as they say. With other titles – John Lanchester’s Capital or David Goodhart’s The British Dream – I was dismayed and confused by the reverent reception accorded to what I believe were genuinely bad, lazy books, so wanted to offer a countercritique.

The delicate phrasing of Frisby’s piece and the qualifiers she introduces give an idea of the sensitivity around critical reviewing. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a feeling of ‘don’t rock the boat’. The literary world is small, and you never know who you’re going to share an agent or publisher with, who will be on the panel for that top lectureship, or that grants body, or that prize committee. If you don’t have anything nice to say, try saying nothing, for who knows what social embarrassment or career reversals may occur? (The potential for this kind of mishap is satirised to fine effect in Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December, where the novel’s career hatchet-job artist R. Tranter has to undergo a grovelling turnaround when he is up for a major book award.)

Falling literary sales and the workshop boom also mean that literary scenes are prescribed as mutually supportive environments where to criticise is seen as bad form. It is rare these days to see an openly critical review in the books pages, unless the book under consideration is something genuinely ridiculous by a public or political figure. I can’t even remember the last time I read a hatchet job on a lit blog. The Omnivore’s brilliant Hatchet Job award seems to have fallen over in 2014 and the only other prize that highlights bad writing, the Bad Sex Award, is often criticised itself for being too negative and is looking more and more vulnerable.

I can understand why people are reluctant to really go for a bad book. I agree with critics when they ask how they can bring themselves to demolish in 700 words what might have taken the author two or three years of hard work. And then there’s the backlash for the reviewer: on some occasions I have slammed a book I’ve had feedback from the author’s fans that calls into question not only my literary judgement, or my reading comprehension, but my worth as a human being. I don’t want to portray myself as a ‘victim of internet trolls’ – I just want to try and illustrate how sensitive critical reviewing can be sometimes.

Sure, there’s enough negativity in the world. Think of how many times in the workplace you have heard a manager criticise someone for ‘being negative’. Managers do this for good reasons: at work, if everyone is sitting around bitching and moaning, nothing gets done. I want to ask, though – do we want the literary world to be a workplace? Surely, to paraphrase Julian Morrow, what we do should not be work: it should be ‘the most glorious kind of play.’

Presenting a united front at all times may seem like smart politics but it doesn’t make the negativity go away. The negativity just moves out of the public domain and into whispers, texts, emails, messenger and DMs. And not always: have you noticed how the people who insist on that united positivity are so often the same people who become very censorious and negative when told something they don’t want to hear.

All of which is my way of reiterating that it is dissension, disagreement, anger and derision that keep us interested, and keep the blood pounding, in art as well as in life. All of us at some point have committed bad writing to print or screen. Let’s be called out on it, and learn from it, and hunt the next atrocity down. And go for a drink afterwards, because although we may be furious and disagreeable as writers we are most often very nice and well mannered people and this is, of course, England!

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Mens Rea

February 21, 2016

This short story has just been published in the Winter ‘Infection’ issue of Opening Line.

I Am Island: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun

February 7, 2016

theoutrunA difficulty with the rehab memoir is the decline in interesting material after the protagonist finally sobers up. The invaluable Popbitch website demonstrated this in its review of Steve Coogan’s autobiography. Coogan was something of a tabloid wildman until he settled down and discovered the quiet joys of arthouse film and statutory press regulation. The Popbitch piece quotes dull anecdotes about Philomena and Judi Dench. The website’s reviewer is all but shouting: ‘Forget all this stuff about gym car parks and the Oscars! Tell me about Courtney Love and coke!’

When Orcadian writer Amy Liptrot gave up drink and drugs forever, her worst fear was that abstinence would take her essential self: ‘my cool, by which I mean my enlivening sense of discontent, and my youth, and sex – narrowed eyes and full lips – and enjoyment of testing the boundaries, of saying something uncomfortable and an excitement in the unexpected.’ She was aware of the personality dangers associated with quitting. Some twelve-step graduates become new-age temperance fundamentalists, wagging their fingers at any succeeding generation that seeks the bright lights and pleasures of the evening: others go on endlessly about their old session life, as if trying to reclaim a contact high. ‘I don’t want to become someone sanctimonious,’ Liptrot writes, ‘who tuts at teenagers drinking alcopops; neither do I want to talk in therapy platitudes nor acquire the evangelical tone of voice I know from church preachers.’

But Liptrot had somewhere interesting to come back to, and this is where I have to declare an interest of a kind. Orkney is a love-hate place. Many mainlanders move to the islands to find a fresh, more natural way of life, only to leave after they discover that the Orkney life is rather more fresh and natural than they had supposed. The artist Max Scratchmann spent six years on the archipelago and described Orcadians as ‘veritable Jekyll and Hydes when the midnight sun sinks and rum and whisky washes away their numerous inhibitions’, adding that ‘The two major pastimes on long winter nights are gossip and adultery’ (presumably there are also some negative sides). Myself, I have family friends on the island and enjoyed my few visits there: people were friendly, there were decent pubs, beautiful stone circles and you could see the sea from wherever you were. Reading The Outrun, I could feel undiluted wind and hear the local accent sing in my ears: a combination of mainland Scottish and Wirral Scouse, if memory serves.

But I don’t know if I’d love the place so much if I’d been raised there, and knew the place like Liptrot did. She grew up yearning to get off ‘the Rock’ and escaped to London as soon as she could: after numerous lost jobs, failed relationships, nasty encounters and dissolved houseshares, she returned to the island to get her head clean and the book details her struggle to reconcile herself with place and roots.

This is where The Outrun diverts from the traditional rehab memoir. There’s a sense that the last drink is where the story really begins. Like many such books it’s very I-centred, the observations derive from her own individual experience – but always in an arresting and seamless way. This is what I mean:

It wasn’t the out-of-the-way location, the tatty seats or the blank bureaucratic dealings that made me sob when I was in the waiting room at the addiction clinic: it was the smell. It was the same sour odour that had filled my London bedrooms, the smell from an ill sheep you are going to have to spray with a red X and send to the mart.

I remembered that acetone smell from when I was a child and sheep lay dying. One morning Dad went into a field and found more than twenty ewes on their sides or backs, blown up like balloons, others stumbling around as if they were drunk. They had been put into a new field the night before and gorged on chickweed in the grass.

In a more subtle way, Liptrot writes that ‘For those of us susceptible to addiction alcohol quickly becomes the default way of alleviating anxiety and dealing with stressful situations. Through repeated use of the drug, our neural pathways are scored so deeply they can never be repaired.’ Later, when she is building a drystone dyke, Liptrot marks ‘the sun’s short journey across the southern sky, over the Bay of Skaill and the hills of Hoy before it falls below the Atlantic horizon and I can no longer see my stones. I start to think in decades and centuries rather than days and months.’ She is beginning to build new neural pathways and doesn’t need to explicitly say so.

Liptrot gets a job with the RSPB tracking corncrakes by GPS and later moves to one of the northern islands, the ones populated by just handfuls of people, or else only monks and sheep. She rents a cottage from the RSPB – inevitably known locally as ‘the birdy hoose’ – on a rock of just 371 souls. Come reflections on the urban versus the remote – some predictable (you can’t leave your door unlocked, but you can in Papa Westray) and some not so predictable. Cities have their problems but small communities too nourish sprouting evils. How long can you live by yourself and still stay sane? What number constitutes the perfect and harmonious community of peoples? 500? Seventy? Two? One?

The Outrun has moments of luminous, almost surreal beauty and an understated sensuality in the prose that recalls Alan Warner at his best and brightest. Liptrot captures something of what it must be like to live in a remote place where the sky is on fire and you become acutely aware that people are little more than transitory witnesses to life and time. It’s proof that the unintoxicated life also bears examining and of a happiness that doesn’t write white.