Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Good of the Novel

An excellent new book from Faber, The Good of the Novel, edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan, is a series of essays on the nature and current state of the novel, circling such questions as What kinds of truth can be told uniquely through novels? and taking in an examination of the role of the critic.  Each essay focuses on an individual novel, and the contents include Robert Macfarlane on Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty; Tessa Hadley on Coetzee's Disgrace and James Wood on Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  I have already gobbled up the excellent (and inspiring) introduction and James Wood's opening piece, which I'm not sure I agree with entirely - must read it again, more carefully - but which is exciting food for thought.  I'd say the book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the present-day novel. 

There's a discussion on the topic on the Faber blog, to which I was very kindly asked to contribute. In Part 1 Richard T Kelly, editor of Faber Finds and agent Clare Alexander contribute their views, and in Part 2 I have my say along with two other bloggers, Paperback Reader and Juxtabook. Do go on over and contribute your own views.

Cross-posted with Fictionbitch

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Reading group: Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

I suggested this book as one of my favourites, one that I said had made a lasting impression on me and which I have always recommended to anyone and everyone. It concerns the fictional eighteenth-century James Dyer, born unable to feel pain and becoming, via a series of picaresque adventures, a skilled and sought-after surgeon, before the ability to feel is finally unlocked in him.

The number present to discuss it was our smallest: just four. One of those, Mark, hadn't managed to read the book, and this necessitated my recounting Dyer's convoluted adventures, which underlined the eighteenth-century-type picaresque aspect of the narrative. However, as I explained, the book is not ultimately linear: it begins after Dyer's death when the (real-life) Burke and Hare are dissecting his body to look for clues as to his unusual condition, then moves backwards a year to the point in Dyer's life when, now able to feel pain, he has lost his surgeon's nerve. After this it switches further back thirty-eight years to the night of his conception, the half-rape of his mother by an unknown stranger on a frozen lake, conditions (according to traditional lore) determining  his life of frozen feeling. It is after this that the novel takes on a linear mode, charting Dyer's life to his death (and taking in on the way the eighteenth-century epistolary mode). This structure is I think both clever and essential, as it allows us as readers to become involved with Dyer's fate when we might otherwise be unable to do so, ie while he is dispassionate and unempathic.

I said that the things that had attached me to the book were its themes of empathy and of magic versus science, these being among my own themes as a writer. James becomes a freak of nature and a wonder of science and is first shown in fairs and used by Gummer, a snakeoil saleman (who is probably his biological father) to 'prove' the efficacy of his medicine, and then 'saved'/abducted by an aristocrat who keeps a stately home full of such 'freaks' - including Siamese twins, a librarian with six fingers and a creature who seems to be a mermaid - to be exhibited to a royal scientific society. All of this conveys beautifully the Enlightenment tension between superstition and scientific reason, and the lack of empathy often involved in scientific inquiry, issues strongly relevant today. Press-ganged with Gummer (who has 'saved' him from the aristocrat), Dyer becomes mate to a ship's surgeon before taking on the role himself and then, with his utterly clinical and cool-headed approach, a famed surgeon.

The trouble is, I said to the others, although once again I found the book engrossing, I had not in fact remembered any of this plot, and I usually remember novels very well. I had only remembered that Dyer 'had a series of picaresque adventures' before the next stage of the story, which I did strongly remember. Here Dyer takes part in a race - which did in historical reality take place - to be the first doctor to reach the Russian court and inoculate the Empress against smallpox. It is on this trip that Dyer's unfeeling is breached, that he first begins to feel, and the scene in which the agent of this change appears was imprinted on my brain. She is a woman, a kind of witch, and we first see her pursued by men and dogs in the snowy woods, through the eyes of the Reverend whose party has been holed up by the weather in a monastery along with the disappointed Dyer who will not now make it first to the court. The English party rescue the woman, and from that moment on she works her 'magic' on James Dyer and he begins to feel, at first emotion and then the physical pain his body should have suffered through all its previous traumas. At last, as a consequence, he learns the empathy we have seen in him at the start of the book.

I wondered why I should have so vividly remembered that particular scene and been so vague about the rest. When I thought about it, I similarly couldn't remember the precise adventures of the heroes of picaresque eighteenth century novels either, such as Joseph Andrews or Roderick Random, and I decided that it was because of something inherent in the picaresque mode: its deliberate reliance on ups and downs of fortune (suited to an age, the eighteenth century, when life indeed was precarious and one's fortunes could turn in a second), and consequent disconnection between episodes. The encounter in the woods with Mary, however, operates in a much more organic and pivotal way: unlike Dyer's other experiences, it's not just a random illustration of the theme which could have been replaced by another, but is absolutely essential to the plot, the moment that will change the course of Dyer's life in a more fundamental way than any other, where the theme is most dynamically realised through the drama of character in action. After this there can be no more hostage-to-fortune moments: it contains within it the seeds of the end, and as such it's the stuff of modern drama and fiction, and not of the eighteenth-century novel which for much of the time Ingenious Pain pastiches. I found the episode extremely moving on both readings, and the narrative following it (and read in the light of it) very moving, too.

I also said that, actually, I had been surprised to find that I couldn't think of anything more to say about the novel (beyond admiring the concept and theme and the fact that I'd forgotten most of the story) and it now struck me that this novel was a supreme example of so-called 'high concept' (so beloved of present-day marketers). It's based on a very striking, unusual yet graspable idea - that of the man who feels no pain and so can't empathise - but that idea is established right from the beginning of the novel and the rest of the book is largely an illustration rather than a development of it. The book is thus less deep than it seems or than I had remembered.

Ann and John agreed. They too had found the book an engrossing read but had been left with similar thoughts. We three also agreed that the book's eighteenth-century world feels stunningly authentic, and we particularly admired the authentic feel of the language. We also thought it a supreme achievement to have engaged readers with such a potentially unappealing character as the icy Dyer.

John, a child psychologist, pointed out that James's condition was an exaggerated version of some aspects of autism: apparently some of those with autism do have a high pain threshold and many have an obsession with circular mechanisms - James is indeed obsessed with the orrery, the moving model of the planets, which he is given as a child; that, significantly, is his first memory - and the book is thus a comment on the 'autistic' tendencies - the overlooking of emotion - in medicine.

Mark said that he was just really dubious about books written in the present day and set in the past: he didn't see the point (especially when they adopted past modes of fiction as this novel seems to). We said that a character with James Dyer's condition in the present day would have been immediately picked up by the system and prevented from the kind of adventures James has that carry the theme so vividly - apart from the fact that his condition is unusual enough to be mythical and thus better placed at a historical distance. Mark said he could see that that was true, although he remained generally suspicious of historical novels.

Ann and I puzzled about the Epilogue which I won't describe here in order not to plot-spoil, but although its meaning was not altogether clear to us, once again we found it very vivid, evocative and moving. And in spite of our doubts about the whole novel on analysis, there was no denying that it remains an engrossing, striking and moving read, remarkable above all for its humanity.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New novelist from new publisher: Emma Jane Unsworth and Hidden Gem

About sixteen months ago I attended a meeting of women writers in Manchester, called in response to the difficulties that the increasing commercialisation of the bigger publishing houses is presenting writers, and with a view to discussing possibilities of setting up an alternative publishing house. One of the main movers behind the meeting was writer and teacher Sherry Ashworth, and it is indeed Sherry who has now, with her husband Brian, established the brand-new Manchester-based publishing house Hidden Gem. Their aim, they say, is to 'publish top quality novels by the best emerging talent'. Their very first publication, launched last week, is Hungry, the Stars and Everything, a striking debut novel from former journalist Emma Jane Unsworth, and last Thursday The Portico Library was packed for the book launch.

It's a high-concept novel in which the elaborate taster menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant triggers memories of the somewhat fraught life of the narrator-protagonist, twenty-nine-year-old food critic Helen Burns, and in which the devil takes a prominent role. A memorable first sentence, 'I was eleven years old when I realised what I wanted most out of life: more' sets the scene for a story of a dysfunctional family background with a dieting mother, anorexia and alcohol addiction, and tension between, on the one hand, the rigid codes of church and grammar school and an unexciting but safe  relationship and on the other rebellion and submission to passion. The devil, representing that last, and 'the ultimate bad lad', as Emma described him at the launch, makes vivid appearances throughout. Carried along by the story and the fluent and zippy prose, I read it in a single day. The themes are explored through astronomy as well as food (Helen falls for an astronomer), and there's plenty of tension to keep you wondering about Helen's fate. What's really neat is that in spite of her emotional troubles, sharp turns of phrase make her a feisty protagonist.

Congratulations to Emma, and to Sherry and Brian.

Monday, June 20, 2011

How to let go...?

Oh dear. I have printed out copies of the ms for my three early readers, I have punched holes in two of them. And every time I glance at it I see something that needs changing. I know I can't really tell piecemeal, but it's so very, very hard to hand something over unless you're feeling for the moment (however wrongly) you've got it right. However, I know I need more distance before I can work on it again, and this is the only window two of my readers have.  I'm going to find this really difficult...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Flying the nest

An amazing cacophony this morning: the baby jackdaws in the nest nearby hadn't flown before I got back from Wales after all, and they flew this morning. For about five minutes there was a huge squawking as the parents shoved the fledglings around, chasing them up the pitched roof opposite, up to the ridge tiles where they had no choice but to take off, swooping down and practically knocking them off the TV aerial, and generally yelling. And now they've gone and all is silent.

And yesterday I spent the day working on the changes to my novel suggested by John, being tough enough with it (I hope) to make it fly, and now it's ready to go to my early readers and all is going quiet at last in my head. Actually, just like the parent jackdaws I've had enough of it now: I kept glancing at pages where I'd made the changes and thinking that the changes had spoilt the rhythm, but the only way I could be sure of that is with a proper read-through and some distance, so I'm leaving it to others for the present: my fabulous, eagle-eyed, mince-no-words, I-just-like-a-good-story early readers.

I rang in Didsbury yesterday to cost getting copies made and bound for them, which I have done in the past, and it turned out that it would now cost almost forty quid for one copy! 12p a page with no discount for volume! And when it costs so much less to properly print a book! It was never that expensive before the shop was taken over by and was a little local service. So I won't be doing that, that's for sure: I'll be standing at my printer running off my own and wielding the old punch and bunging the pages together with treasury tags.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Culture shifts and novel adjustments

Back in Manc this evening and about to work some on the novel again. John said in retrospect that he felt I needed a different emphasis in one section of the novel, and after a LONG talk (I was a bit resistant to begin with) in the pub (The Anglesey in Caernarfon), while the sea  came in and the harbour we could see through the pub window went from half-full to full,  I decided he was right, so I'm about to work on that bit, as well as see to the typos etc he found. (Is a book ever finished?)

Feels odd to be back in town again. Only ten days or so away and Didsbury feels like a foreign country. Which is one good reason for going away: you see the place with new eyes when you come back. However, I'm very glad to say that my grip on the novel survived the culture shock of both shifts.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bookshops I love: Palas Print in Caernarfon

Here's the latest stunning shop window display in Palas Print in Caernarfon - that's a real model boat in which those books are stacked. The display includes books on Patagonia where a Welsh community was established in the last part of the nineteenth century, and notice there in the front A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees by my writing colleague Clare Dudman, her beautifully researched and engrossing novel focusing on one of the settlers and his family. The book was published last summer, and I attended a very memorable launch which I wrote about here. The book's memorable too: the strong characters of the settlers, the scenes of hardship and fortitude and innovation and betrayal, the personality of the native American who watches and then befriends them, and are all still vividly with me.

Interesting to read back on that post in which I describe the launch. I also talk in it about finding a characterising word for one of my characters. Yet after my break to promote The Birth Machine, I went back in January and excised the section done in the voice of that character! Novel-writing, eh? Two steps forward and one back, quite often.

Palas Print is a really great community bookshop: John and I recently bought bikes and we've brought them to Wales with us this time. The other day I went into the shop looking for cycling maps, and the owner spent ages with me searching for the right one and discussing the whole subject. It's that really uniquely personalised sort of help you can get from an independent bookshop.

Both A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees and my novel Too Many Magpies can be bought online from Palas Print here and here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Editing, resting, reading (and whitewashing)

I have come to North Wales to edit the novel and have a bit of a rest and change of scene after my long slog. The weather's weird: you wouldn't know it was supposed to be summer: although it's been sunny it's been cold, especially here up on this mountain. Yesterday people nearby woke to a blanket of hail on the ground, and there was snow on the top of Snowdon. Today we've got winds and rain that are apparently sweeping the whole of the country, but the winds are very fierce here, as they so often are (and I'm unable to download pics off the internet before I get too tired of waiting for them). The crows who have a nest in the trees nearby are going quite mad, cawing and flinging themselves around: I'd go and investigate if it wouldn't mean getting utterly drenched.

It took me five days to edit the novel and print it off, and after that I passed it to John, my first reader who's here with me. I'm happy to say he sat laughing and weeping and read it with great greed and speed, and although he seemed to my pessimistic mind to be making a lot of scribbles, he didn't make all that many after all: just some typos, one or two sentences needing clarifying, and some notes about needing greater clarity in one or two places near the end of the novel.

Just as I'd finished, we had a problem with the wood-burning stove and the whole house was filled with smoke, with the result that the limewashed walls all went brown. Yesterday we re-whitewashed the whole of the downstairs room and up the stairs, and today we gave most of it a second coat, and what struck us was the thing that always strikes me whenever I do anything practical after writing: how quickly one can get practical jobs over and done with, compared to writing! It's especially true of course of long pieces, but it applies to short written pieces, too: sometimes they need so much mulling over, and quite often you go back to them again and again as you think of improvements or ways to develop them.

Meanwhile, I've been reading Hungry, the Stars and Everything by Emma Unsworth, the first novel published by the new Manchester press The Hidden Gem, run by Sherry and Brian Ashworth. Well, actually, I read it in a single day: it's an extremely readable and enjoyable novel hinged on a striking idea - more when I have time to write in more detail. I'm hoping to be back in Manc for the launch at 6.30 at the Portico Library on Thursday, which I believe is open to all (and free), but, as the Facebook page says, 'if you would like to come it would be helpful to send an email to Sherry and Brian Ashworth at or Katie at'

Monday, June 06, 2011

Out of the novel into life

I discovered the other day what kind of crows are nesting in the eaves nearby, just along from where I've been writing my novel. No longer too obsessed with my novel to do more than glance up at them whizzing past my window, I was able to hang about and stare and take photos and identify them. And would you believe it, they are jackdaws, real-life counterparts of the jackdaw and jackdaw's nest with young that feature in the novel I've been writing. I should have known what they were, really: of the crows, jackdaws most often nest in holes, and through my fug of concentration, I realised in retrospect, I was hearing the characteristic jack of their call even as I was writing it into the novel.

When I went out to take these photos, I could hear the cries of the babies in the nest, which were already taking on that mature sound. I'm in Wales now - editing the novel - and I guess that by the time I get back they'll have flown.