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The writer and her material: Lionel Shriver and Han Kang

You may have heard about the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at Brisbane Writers Festival. The flaws in Shriver’s argument have been outlined elsewhere (here, for example); but I was struck by how clearly some of her underlying assumptions illustrate a particular approach to fiction.

“Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls?” asks Shriver. “The fiction writer, that’s who.” At first glance, this might just seem to be common sense, but it assumes a particular relationship between the writer and her material: not just one of taking, but also one of assuming control over what is taken.

This can lead to situations such as one from Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles, which she describes later in the speech:

In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.

From Shriver’s account, Luella exists within the novel solely for the purpose of teaching Douglas a lesson, and being part of a neat little artistic counterpoint; and never mind that she ends up humiliated and presented as bestial. At one point in her speech, Shriver takes issue with the idea that there may be a difference between ‘representing’ and ‘exploiting’ characters. I would suggest that one definition of exploiting a character might be this: manipulating a life purely for fictional ends, with no concern for the implications.

Human Acts

So, what alternatives are there? One good recent example of a different approach, I think,  is Han Kang’s novel Human Acts. This concerns the Gwangju Uprising, which took place in Han’s home town when she was a child; but, even so, the book does not treat the experience of the event as ‘belonging’ to the author. Indeed, the epilogue (written from Han’s viewpoint) brings the question of how to write about the uprising into the work itself. It suggests that Han could only apprehend these events from a distance and in fragments; and this is also how readers experience the novel. Han allows her material to be what guides her way of writing.

Human Acts is stronger as a work of art because it confronts the problems inherent in its own making. It illustrates something that I often feel about fiction: in the best work, there is a sense that the author has spent time considering what it is that she’s doing in writing that work.

A reader’s beliefs

I believe that a work of fiction is not…

…a machine. It cannot be understood simply by breaking it down into its component parts. It lives in the reading.

…a business transaction. Once the book is in my hands, there is no customer relationship. The book owes me nothing.

…an exam. There is no such thing as ‘difficult’ fiction. There may be fiction that requires concentration, or setting aside preconceived ideas of how a work ‘should’ be – but it’s all there to be read. There won’t be a test at the end, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t see everything. What matters is opening myself to the experience.

…functional. There are times when I’d like a book to fit a particular bill, and sometimes I’ll find the right one and the right time. But many of favourite books do things that I may not have anticipated, which is why I try to let the book have its way when I read.

…mandatory. There is no  single book that I have to read, be it old or new. There are books which are essential to me, but these can only reveal themselves with hindsight. Reading is an ongoing process.

…an unfiltered view. Reading a book is like looking through a window, but even the plainest window frames and shapes what you see.  The fiction I value most builds that sense into itself: form is the window, and it is made to be part of the view.

…written for my benefit. The author wasn’t thinking of me when writing this book (any book); I ought to bear that in mind.

***

What, after all that, do I believe a work of fiction is? Just that: a work unto itself.  No matter how old, no matter how much has been said or written about it, the work remains, ready to speak anew. I just have to listen.

Reflections: fiction and manipulation

MountainsEchoedI recently read Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed for my book group. It’s the kind of realism that is not generally to my taste, but I found it okay for the most part. That was until the point where two characters were about to be reunited, when I had a distinct sense of being made to care about these characters – and I did not like that sense at all. “Unpleasantly manipulative book,” I thought.

But this reaction raises some questions for me. Couldn’t it be argued that all fiction is ‘manipulative’, in that fiction manipulates language, and language affects the reader? Well, maybe, but that makes it sound as though fiction is just a trick, and I don’t believe that – I have been affected deeply, viscerally by some fiction; it would be denying the reality of those experiences to treat them as products of trickery. If I’m going to conclude that, however, perhaps I need a more nuanced picture of what was happening when I read Hosseini.

WeightofThings

It might be useful to compare my experience of reading And the Mountains Echoed with that of reading The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz. Now, there was a book I found harrowing, an effect created at least in part by the way the novel withheld information and rearranged its chronology. Is Fritz’s approach really so different from Hosseini’s? If not, why did one book induce the feeling of being manipulated when the other did not?

The answer, I think, lies in the language and style that the authors use. In The Weight of Things, the style, structure and shape become part of what the book is about – they mean something in their own right. So, for example, the deceptive lightness of tone can be seen to reflect the way that the characters do not or cannot acknowledge the existential weight bearing down from the events of their history. As a result, Fritz’s novel could not be written another way, because then it would mean something different.

To my mind, Hosseini’s book isn’t like this. It’s written what feels like a default literary style: effective and efficient in its way, but familiar from so many other books – and, crucially, not implicated in the novel’s project. It would be possible to change the words and style of And the Mountains Echoed without really changing its meaning. For me, this makes the language a kind of veneer over the novel, and that’s where the sense of being manipulated arises.

In contrast, The Weight of Things acknowledges that its language is the novel, so it brings me as reader closer to the text – and my response to it seems to emerge spontaneously from the reading. This is one reason why fiction that doesn’t take its language and shape for granted is the fiction that makes me feel most alive.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate/publisher links)

And the Mountains Echoed (2013) by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury paperback

The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (2015), Dorothy, a publishing project paperback

Too soon to be a classic?

One thought that occurs to me reading the Vintage Classics edition of Morvern Callar: is twenty years too soon to call a book a classic? (Granted, in this case ‘classic’ is more a marketing term than a critical evaluation, but the question remains.)

I don’t have a straightforward answer. On the one hand, my instinct is to say that the term ‘classic’ implies a book old enough to have survived being tested by the years, and twenty years is not old in literary terms. On the other hand, I very much liked Morvern Callar, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. If a ‘classics’ imprint can look at a certain period in time and say, ‘these books are worth reading now’, I find it hard to begrudge that.

Reflections: reading through a doorway, reading through a hole

FilerI have an on-off relationship with my ereader. I’m not particularly averse to electronic reading; it’s just that I rarely think to pick the ereader up when all the shelves of print books are so much more visible. I still prefer paper books at heart; indeed, very few of the ebooks I own are titles that I could also have bought as a print copy.

One of those few is Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I’ve been re-reading for my book group. I’d forgotten how much I liked it – the way it creeps up on you, gradually revealing that its form and narrator are not as they first appeared to be. I had put that forgetting down to not having read Shock until after it became a Big Name Book and somehow subconsciously (erroneously) assuming that meant it couldn’t be good, even though I remembered otherwise. But I also wonder if the experience of reading the book electronically didn’t have something to do with it.

“A book…is a doorway,” wrote Eleanor Catton recently. Her metaphor was more general, and made in a different context; but let’s run with the specifics of it for a while. When I open a print book, it is like stepping through a doorway, into the world of the book. Whatever distractions there may be from outside, it is ultimately just me and the book, and I have the whole text – its whole world – before me.

Catton goes on: “A screen is all surface. How many adults can sit at a computer terminal and read diligently and immersively, for hours?” It’s worth pointing out that, these days, such electronic reading is less likely to be done on a terminal than on something like a tablet or phone. But I think she does have a point here, because I find that, when I try to read on a multifunction device, I don’t have the same level of focus. After all, in those circumstances, reading is just one function among many.

I would distinguish, though, between multifunction devices and dedicated ereaders. With an ereader, it is still just me and the book, but the experience is different. If reading a print book is like opening a door, using an ereader to me is like peering through a hole. With a printed text, I can feel that I have the whole book in my hands. With the ereader, I have a single page (or page fragment) in front of me at any one time; I can’t flick so easily back and forth through the book; and an electronic page or percentage count give me a less intuitive sense of where I am in the book than holding a physical volume.

The effect of this is that, with ebooks, I find myself focusing much more on the isolated moment, less so on the context. It may be no coincidence that the only book read electronically that I’ve reviewed on this blog at any length is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a novel that demands – and rewards – attention to and engagement with its language, which is something that reading in the moment can encourage. On the other hand, The Shock of the Fall, which takes you through different texts and styles, rewards an appreciation of its cumulative effect. I appreciated Filer’s novel well enough on the electronic page, but perhaps I would have experienced it better on the printed one.

 

Reflections: 'light reading'

Since I’m aiming this year to think more deeply about what I read and why, I wanted to begin this occasional series of posts on how things are working out and thoughts that come my way. It’s been a good start: I’ve read three books which are certainly going to stay with me – The Vegetarian, Manazuru, and The Wandering Pine. They inspired strong responses from me, and I can recall vividly what it was like. That, ultimately, is what I’m looking for.

But there was a time, towards the end of last month, when I felt the need to read something ‘lighter’. I wasn’t even sure what that was going to mean in my current reading context; I suppose it really meant a book which I could read once and wouldn’t mind if it didn’t stay with me. I tried a few books and found voices with the potential to entertain – voices telling of crime capers or small American towns under the burden of peril; or a quirky voice masking a darker experience of the world – but I put them aside. Some of those books would probably have done the job I wanted them to; the thing was that I felt I knew where their voices would take me, and it turned out I didn’t want that.

It’s one thing to abandon books that you’re not enjoying; I have no qualms about doing that. But putting aside books which might pass the time pleasantly enough – that’s new to me, and it is not easy. Yet I resolved to do it more this year, and it’s something I will have to do to get closer to the books that really count for me. It’s a risk with every book we don’t finish, and every book we never start, that we’ll miss something vital. But that’s the way it is, so I let my instinct prevail.

HaynesThe book I chose to read in the end was The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes, which is a thriller about a woman who takes a job as a drama teacher in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh; manages to get one of her classes interested in Greek tragedy; then finds that a tragedy has unfolded in front of her before she realised what was happening. I was immediately intrigued by the protagonist’s voice:

The first thing they’ll ask me is how I met her. They already know how we met, of course. But that won’t be why they’re asking. It never is. (p. 5)

Naturally, this opening prompts plenty of questions in the reader’s mind. There were soon hints of tragedy in the narrator’s past, and of course an uncertain future. The Amber Fury held out the promise of leading somewhere perhaps largely familiar, but not entirely. It was enough for that moment. I carried on.

Did I get what I wanted from The Amber Fury? Yes and no. It might have helped if I knew more about Greek tragedy, because I suspect there were deeper parallels in Haynes’s novel that I missed. As it was, I had to rely mainly on the book’s qualities as a thriller, and… Well, all thrillers of course play a certain kind of game, and to read one is implicitly to accept that game. The Amber Fury’s game played out pleasantly enough; but, towards the end, I was getting impatient with it. I’d had enough ‘light reading’ and was ready for something else.

Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to be ready for something else, but I’d anticipated that being at the end of an enjoyable palate-cleanser; I hadn’t imagined that I would get fed up with the whole idea of palate-cleansing before it was finished. Of course, it could just have been the choice of book; but the experience has left me wondering: if this ‘light reading’ got me hankering after something else, was it really what I wanted in the first place at all? If it was, will the price of light reading always be that I end up falling out with it? Time will tell.

 

 

Strange Horizons Book Club and a moment of reflection

OmbriaThe Strange Horizons book club on Patricia A. McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow is now live; go and take a look. We had a really good discussion, which looks set to continue in the comments; I hope the SH book club goes on to be a regular and reliable source of interesting discussion about books.

This experience (amongst other things) has set me thinking about reading and what I want to get from it. I’m not the only blogger who’s been doing that sort of thing recently – see this post by Simon Savidge, for instance. Now, I’m happy enough to be a prolific – and relatively fast – reader; but Simon’s points about reading mechanically, in a way that does a disservice to a book and yourself resonated with me. This is not necessarily an issue of quantity: for me, it’s a matter of what I want reading to be.

The truth is, in the last few years I’ve read too many books which have essentially done little more than pass the time along, which is not what I want. The most powerful books I read change my world, get under my skin, inspire thoughts that I have to write down and share – that’s what I want.

Of course there will be ups and downs. The odd makeweight book is inevitable, especially when you like to take chances in your reading. Equally, I’m not saying that every good book has to scale the highest of heights to be worthwhile. But there have been too many times when I’ve knowingly kept on reading something just for the sake of it; or when I’ve read with more of an eye for having something to post on the blog than for why I’m reading. It shouldn’t be that way.

So here’s a resolution to be more selective in what I read and keep reading.There may be fewer posts on the blog, but maybe not; I expect I will read fewer books, but shouldn’t feel short-changed for that. After all, reading is not a competitive sport, not even if it’s just competing against yourself. Rather, it’s a journey of discovery, and the point of this blog was to share that discovery – so that’s what I aim to keep in mind.

Science fiction playing catch-up

I’ve been shadowing a lot of award lists lately: I’ve read through the longlists for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (for fiction in translation) and Desmond Elliott Prize (debut novels), as well as the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (science fiction). Add in last year’s Man Booker (the ever-nebulous ‘literary’ fiction) and Edge Hill Prize (short story collections), and you have all my main reading interests. So I think all that reading has given me a reasonable cross-section of current UK publishing in the areas I care most about; and something bothers me – there are books on all of those lists that I like very much, and books on all of them that I don’t think deserved to be there; but, taking each one as a whole, the Clarke shortlist comes right at the bottom for me in terms of quality.

Science fiction and fantasy are where I started as a reader, and I still believe that the fantastic as a whole has a vital contribution to make to literature. So it gave me no pleasure to see the Clarke lagging behind those other awards; but it bore out a trend that I see elsewhere in my reading (most of which falls under one of the five awards’ headings) – on average, contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight. I’m reminded of a comment made by the science fiction author Tony Ballantyne in an interview that I came across when I was reviewing his novel Dream London:

I…think that the most exciting and cutting edge work in writing is being produced [in sf and fantasy]. If you look at mainstream literature, it’s about twenty years behind what we’re doing now.

I’m not convinced that this could even be true hypothetically, simply because the cutting edge is more likely to be found in pockets among various kinds of fiction, rather than in a single one. But behind Ballantyne’s remark is a firm belief that sf is leading the pack. I think that, ten or fifteen years ago, it was certainly keeping pace: writers like China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer were emerging at the same time as (say) Sarah Waters and Michel Faber. These days, however, it seems to me that sf is struggling to keep up.

It’s not that sf is lacking books at the top end of the scale; the likes of James Smythe can hold their own. It’s that, generally, it has fewer of them than the literary ‘mainstream’, and that the average seems to be lower down the scale. If I take writing quality (the backbone of any piece of fiction) as an example, even when I look at my least favourite titles from some of the award lists – such as D.W. Wilson’s Ballistics or Emma Donoghue’s Astray – they’re at worst OK; but, from the Clarke shortlist, there’s stuff in Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise that makes me cringe.

One area for which I’d expect sf (with its imagining different ways of being) to be a natural fit is engaging with textual form. Sometimes it still is, in the work of writers like Christopher Priest, but they seem few and far between these days. When I reviewed Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn earlier this year, I noted that there was a separation between its chapters that mirrored the novel’s fragmented setting, and that this stood out as an unusual engagement with form. The thing is that, in and of itself, it isn’t a particularly radical approach to novelistic form; but it still stood out to me as being relatively rare in genre science fiction. However, if I turn to the mainstream, and a novel like Nathan Filer’s Costa-winning The Shock of the Fall, I see a patchwork of different forms and styles integrated into a standard narrative, and it feels quite commonplace. In other words, I think there’s a level of experimentation with form in the mainstream that now seems unremarkable, which would seem remarkable in genre sf. Imagine what Nexus would be like if it were actually written as though its characters’ minds were linked; instead, it’s a pretty routine thriller – and this is something I see all too often in sf.

Predicting the future is not the business of sf, but it can engage with the future and explore the kinds of issues and choices that may face us. Even here, though, contemporary sf is hit and miss: James Smythe’s The Machine is (by some distance) the title on this year’s Clarke list that explores its issues the most searchingly, but it’s also the one published as mainstream. Niall Harrison has criticised The Disestablishment of Paradise for a lack of nuance in its treatment of ecological issues. When I watched ‘Be Right Back’ in the last series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, I was struck that a drama by a mainstream satirist was telling a robot story that examined issues of identity in a way that contemporary genre sf seemed largely to be shying away from. These are areas where sf truly can do better than the mainstream, and I only wish it would take up the challenge more often.

I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream – and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.

Thoughts: a fraction of the whole book

grantaboybnI’ve now read a couple of the novels which were excerpted in last year’s Granta Best of Young British Novelists anthology; doing so has really brought home to me that a whole novel is not the same as a chapter or two. In a sense, of course, this is only self-evident; but it’s one thing to understand this in the abstract, and another to be able to compare a complete text with an extract which has been presented as a showcase of its author’s work.

Take Evie Wyld’s Granta piece ‘After the Hedland’, for example. I now know that this consists of the first three past-set chapters of All the Birds, Singing. So that means you immediately lose the alternating present/past structure which does so much; and you don’t necessarily spot that the chronology is reversed. That’s before we get on to the missing cues of tone, place and character. In other words, the context is gone; when you read ‘After the Hedland’, you can’t assume that you’re reading All the Birds, Singing.

Then there’s Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. The Granta anthology included chapter 7 of that novel; I knew at the time that I was inevitably missing quite a lot; but, even so, the whole book is again a very different work. For another Oyeyemi example, ‘My Daughter the Racist’ was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award in 2010; it works perfectly well as a standalone story, but it’s not going to prepare you for Mr Fox.

As I said above, this is obvious: a novel is a complete piece of work; you can’t judge from a snapshot. But the thing is that we do, perhaps more so with novels than any other art form; they demand so much time from us that we need some way of filtering out those that we don’t want to read. Rare is the reader who’ll do what Jenny Ackland did when reading The Luminaries, and plough on through 500 pages that that aren’t engaging them, in the hope that the book will suddenly be transformed. Rarer still, perhaps, is the reader who’ll find that it was worth doing.

But, in Ackland’s case, it was worth doing, and there’s the rub. I’ve seen several people around the book blogging world, whose opinion I respect, abandon The Luminaries relatively early on for one reason or another; I suspect that at least one of those people would ultimately appreciate what the book is doing, if they could carry on. I know I could have given up on The Rehearsal at one point, and I would have seriously missed out. What can we do to try to ensure that we don’t miss out, when we (probably) don’t want to have to finish every book that we start, and can’t guarantee that it will be worth carrying on ?

Well, consider what happens when a book suddenly clicks into place for us: it’s not the book that changes; it’s we who see more. So what I think we can do is be more open to seeing. We can take the view that a novel is not obliged to grab you from the first page (unless it is designed to!), but only to be true to itself. We can aim to be more attentive to what a book is doing, and less concerned with our own expectations. We can talk to each other about what worked or didn’t work for us in a book and why, and try to gauge our own likely reaction.

I think perhaps it ultimately comes back to treating literature as an encounter. It’s not an infallible strategy – nothing could be – but it may be a way of taking better chances.

Thoughts: literary encounters and Catton vs Miéville

luminariesThis post is expanding on a few thoughts I’ve had recently, mostly prompted by reading Eleanor Catton’s article on literature and ‘elitism’ (first published in New Zealand’s Metro magazine in March 2013, then posted on Metro‘s website in December). The whole essayis fabulous, and you should read it. Catton argues that literature itself can’t be elitist, because a book can’t dictate who will read it, or how. But I’m more interested in her conception of literature as encounter, and book reviews as a means of ‘describing and critiquing a literary encounter’. This is such an inspiring idea to me, a different way of thinking about books: less in terms of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, more as an exploration – how did I respond to this book, and why? It’s something I want to try to capture more on the blog.

Thinking about it more, I start to feel that experiencing a strong engagement with a book is more valuable than liking it per se. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not knocking enjoyment of a book, or suggesting that we should feel happy about disliking one; but it seems to me that – less often – we can have deeper reactions to a book which reach beyond that kind of consideration. I’m reminded of when I read Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham a few years ago: the only time in the history of this blog that I’ve abandoned a book and still felt the need to write several hundred words explaining why. At the time, I was annoyed at the book; now I can see how infrequent it has been for me to be so affected by a book I didn’t like, and I feel that’s worth treasuring (it also makes me wonder whether I should give the novel another chance).

Another example. This week, I came across Jenny Ackland’s response to The Luminaries:

It is possible that a book you were on the verge of giving away…still made you want to finish it like no other book you’ve ever read?

Yes

[…]

I am exhausted and exhilarated, and a little bereft.

It’s a wonderful piece that captures just the sort of encounter Catton is talking about. I strongly suspect from this that the experience of reading The Luminaries is going to stay with Ackland for a long time, to put it mildly. But I would also wager that the negative parts of that experience will become integral to the memory of the whole (that’s what I mean by going beyond ‘like’ and ‘dislike’). To my mind, one reading experience this intense – even when there’s rough with the smooth – is worth a dozen moderately pleasant ones.

***

Another thought I’ve had recently is that Eleanor Catton’s current breakthrough reminds of China Miéville’s emergence at the time of Perdido Street Station (2000). Fittingly enough, there are striking coincidences (both writers won a major literary prize with their second novel, and at around the same age). But what I’m thinking about is that both came along as young writers with a very intense vision for their work, and an ability to articulate that vision powerfully. They could see their own way to do things, and Miéville opened up a space that changed the creative landscape around him (other writers, too, but it seems to me that Miéville’s voice rang loudest).

There are a couple of key differences: Miéville emerged from and worked firmly within the field of science fiction and fantasy, which Catton does not; she also doesn’t appear to have a creative ‘manifesto’ like the New Weird. It’s also, of course, too early to know how Catton’s career will develop; but it will be interesting to see how, and how far, her influence spreads. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more elaborately plotted historical mysteries, or novels built on formally organised structures, in the years ahead; but to focus on such trappings is to overlook the heart and soul of Catton’s books, which to me is the depth of unity that she achieves. My hope is that writers will take one key lesson from Catton’s work: do your own thing, and do it as fully and as well as you can.

***

Since I started planning this post, it has also occurred to me that The Luminaries would make an interesting point of comparison and contrast with Viriconium, particularly in terms of how (if?) they gradually erode story. But that’s a thought for another time!

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