Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The things you're allowed to say and who you're allowed to say them to

In an article in today's Guardian Jenni Murray notes that women's theatre has been held back by 'a fear of doing damage to the sisterhood':
You rarely saw a feminist play where the women characters were weak, bad or stupid. As the playwright April de Angelis put it in a 1997 lecture she gave at Birmingham University, female writers have worried that men might see a play about compromised and conflicted women, and say, "Well, if she's saying it, it must be true, and we were right all along to say women have no rights in society, should get back to the kitchen, have children, etc." There's a fear, De Angelis confessed, of writing an "incorrect" woman character. All of which has meant that the feminist theatre of the 80s and 90s has been long on consciousness-raising, but short on laughs.

Which makes me think immediately of what happened when my satirical first radio play, Rhyme or Reason, was broadcast. This was a play about a single mother taken in hand by a childless 'feminist' who sees fit to inculcate her into feminist theories including those of motherhood. All in all, she bosses her about something rotten and generally betrays, to comic effect, how little she actually knows. It was a play, as so many of my plays, about the gap we often encounter between theory and practice, and about the power that some of us wield over others, often unwittingly, in the guise of do-gooding, and I suppose, yes, it was also about certain bullying aspects I felt had emerged in the women's movement - and which were really nothing to do with the true aims of feminism, but were indeed a corruption of them - and which are now of course well documented.

Oh dear. There's me having a coffee with a mate a year or so later and she tells me that she was at this meeting, and there were women up in arms at what I had done to the women's movement with that play - especially as it had won a prize: let's face it, it had been a suck to antifeminism, and as such it had been rewarded by the antifeminist establishment.

Wow. No wonder there was that frosty reception that time I went to that feminist book launch...

And ten years later there I am in the print shop in the village and a woman I haven't seen for years, not since the time I wrote the play, comes up and explains to me, more kindly, her still-held personal opinion on the matter: There was nothing wrong with writing it, but what was wrong was doing it for national radio, for the ears of those who could use it to condemn. The only place to say such things was within the movement itself.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Internet blackout and 24:7 lights-up

Sorry about the unannounced absence from my blogs: I was away in a place where I thought I could get broadband and found I couldn't - nowhere, no cafes, no pubs, nada, and I hesitate to say where in case I collude with nasty stereotypes about my beloved homeland!!!! This afternoon I'm off to buy mobile broadband for next time, though I understand that on that particular mountain there's as yet only rudimentary connection, not broadband speed.

Anyway, I came back to Manc yesterday and to 24:7 Theatre Festival already in full swing, and buzzier than ever before. Tickets are selling like hot cakes and houses are packed. Shows are starting to sell out, and I suggest booking now rather than waiting to get tickets on the door. It's really quite amazing how this festival has grown in the short time since Amanda Hennessy and Dave Slack dreamed the idea up. In the pic above Dave (in the blue shirt) is standing outside 24:7 venue Pure in the Printworks, talking with actor Nick Mason who had just appeared in Watching Stars by Kate Gilbert and directed by Wyllie Longmore.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Agony and ecstasy

Susan Hill has said again that she doesn't understand the 'agony-brigade' and if she didn't simply love writing, she just wouldn't do it. Ah, lucky Susan. She does wonder, though, if she'd go on doing it if she weren't getting paid for it - and I think that may be one crucial point. Susan makes it clear that writing is what she is meant for temperamentally, and one way in which writing can be agony is if you're compelled to do it willy nilly by your whole makeup, and yet you're not getting paid for it - worse, if you're not even getting published.

There's another kind of agony, and I've been suffering from it this week. I knew there was something in there I wanted to write, and I couldn't get to it. Or rather, I could glimpse it, but I couldn't find the way to it. All the ways I tried were wrong, or rather, they didn't produce the thing I really wanted to say. I've been suffering precisely those feelings that Susan says she suffers when she's not writing - I've felt itchy, frustrated, stopped, only half alive.

Yesterday I found the key, and wrote the whole story in two mornings, and phew, there I was on that writing high again...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Launch of Me and the Dead by Katy Evans-Bush

Well, at the risk of reinforcing horrid northern stereotypes, I can report that I fled a freezing Manc on Tuesday and was whisked in only two hours to the comparatively balmy world of London and the urbanity of Treadwell's bookshop in Covent Garden, where fabulous Baroque in Hackney blogger Katy Evans-Bush was launching her keenly awaited Salt book of elegant, witty and moving poems.

The room downstairs was packed, and Katy was kept busy signing all night long, though she took a few minutes out to stand on a chair (the only way we could see her) and read two poems (just two - when we could have gone on listening!).

I took photos - and seemed to be the only one doing so - but most of them came out blurred, maybe because I was temporarily (I hope!) brain damaged: I had met friends in Wahacas for a meal beforehand, and coming out of the loo I stepped down a step without knowing it was a step and rattled my brain so hard inside my skull that I felt it knock and was utterly dazed for a few seconds. That's my excuse, anyway. Or, no, actually, Katy does move a lot!

Here she is reading:

And signing:

I had a great evening and was delighted to meet for the first time fellow-blogger, Little Monsters author and now Salt short-story author Charles Lambert. Here he is with Salt poet Isobel Dixon (who has her back to the camera):

And I was equally pleased to meet literary blogger Tim Love, that indefatigable reviewer of short stories.

Me and the Dead is a great book: buy it.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Reading group: Crash by JG Ballard

This was a pretty heated meeting.

I had suggested this 1973 book since I had never read it, yet had always meant to, being fairly sure from what I knew of its subject matter that it was culturally significant and would be at the very least an interesting and probably an exciting read. It's the first-person narration of an advertising film executive, 'Ballard', who, after a car crash, becomes involved with a group of people all of whom are also crash victims and who are led by the sinister ex-scientist Vaughan into an obsession with car crashes and, more importantly, into a cult of the eroticization of violence and physical wounds. The story is told retrospectively after Vaughan's inevitable - and indeed more or less self-willed - death which opens the book.

Ballard's introduction to the French edition, published in my English edition - which I didn't read until afterwards - sets out his, to me, exciting and significant aims. The book, he says, is 'an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation'. He suggests that the car crash - 'a pandemic cataclysm institutionalized in all industrial societies that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions' - may be a 'sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology'. We live in an age of 'the concept of unlimited possibility' and in a world 'ruled by fictions of every kind', indeed 'inside an immense novel', and the consequent 'diseases of our psyche' - 'voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings' - 'have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect'.

He would like to think that the book is also 'the first pornographic novel based on technology', but it also has a political role, he says - and pornography is anyway 'in a sense the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way'. I'm not too sure about this definition of pornography - pornography might well reveal this about our behaviour but revealing it as a political act is not often I bet the motive of the pornographer. He states that as the author of the book he has no moral stance, since this can no longer be the role of the writer, who 'knows nothing any longer', yet Ballard's political aspirations for the book surely pull against this. Finally he states that the ultimate role of Crash is 'cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape' - and you can't get much more moral in intent than a cautionary tale.

Had I read first these apparent conflicts in authorial intention I might have guessed how disappointed I was going to be with the book, and introducing the book to the group I said so. There are brilliant descriptions of our traffic-choked world and our shifting significance within it, but they are repeated over and over in a way that becomes numbing. The increasing perversions of the characters are presented in the same numbing manner, wounds matched to car parts in a way that becomes nerdy and as infantile as the characters performing them, while the characters themselves are kept at a distance. All of this is clearly strategy to recreate their loss of affect - and Trevor jumped in here in defence of the book to point this out - but I'm afraid it simply didn't work for me: I just found the book dull and had to struggle to go on reading it. It said little more than the introduction and was as much of a thesis - indeed its thesis was repeated numbingly over and over : 'these unions of torn genitalia and sections of car body and instrument panel formed ... a new union of pain and desire' - since it gave me no real insight into the characters and their psychology. There was no real development to engage you, you knew exactly what was going to happen.

People were now bouncing in their seats to contradict me. Trevor said I couldn't complain about knowing what was going to happen because it tells you at the start: Vaughan gets killed in a car crash. I said I didn't mean plot, I meant emotional development: I wanted to know, to experience precisely how the characters moved into the psychological states which led them to their perversions and I didn't. I had really wanted to be excited or shocked by this book, but I wasn't. I was held at a distance. Trevor said that I couldn't complain about that because it was deliberate to keep the reader at a distance. I tried to say that because something is deliberate doesn't mean it works but now people were talking on all sides and I didn't get a chance. I did get to say that my biggest emotional involvement had been wondering how I would have written it: how I'd have retained a moral stance - I was going to say while allowing the reader to share the experiences of the characters, but Trevor cut me off, saying firmly that Ballard had no moral stance. I started to say, Yet he says he's telling a cautionary tale, but realized I had been deflected from my point, so stopped. Also I was afraid that people were thinking that I was being precious and pulling rank and showing off as a writer, especially as I had mentioned at the start that I had been published alongside Ballard a couple of times in mags and anthologies. Indeed Clare now asked me if I always read novels as an author and I said there was no way I couldn't, and Clare and Ann agreed (somewhat politely, I thought) that it was interesting to get an insider's viewpoint while Jenny stayed significantly silent, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that I had disqualified myself as a pure reader and invalidated entirely the point I was trying to make. Trying to get back to it, I did say that I hadn't been at all emotionally involved or found the book erotic apart from one or two moments, but Clare and Jenny said they definitely had.

People started talking about that but I said that I still had my most important thing to say about the book, and they subsided and let me. I said that I completely acknowledged that cars are sexualized in our culture, that when young lads drive cars fast it's a sexual thing and the car is an extension of their penis etc, but that commonplace fantasy precisely overlooks the matter of maiming or death: such young lads feel invulnerable. By contrast in this book pain and death become part of the erotic fantasy. (In fact, I've written a bit about this myself, in my novel Body Cuts, but I found Crash so emotionally unconvincing that I came away feeling that I didn't understand it at all.) I was about to say this, that the book didn't make it convincing, but people jumped in to explain the phenomenon to me, saying That's because it's a perversion! Jenny said, the difference is that all these characters have been involved in car crashes already, and Clare said, yes and then the pain and the wounds become eroticized.

People were now interrupting each other and complaining that they were not being allowed to speak. Eventually I asked them to let me speak again because I wanted to finish my point about psychological conviction in the narrative, which I felt I hadn't got over, but Jenny said, You've said it already and I felt told off and shut up altogether and ate some crisps instead while the discussion went on between Jenny, Clare and Trevor, the book's proponents. (Ann, who hadn't managed to get hold of a copy and so hadn't read it just listened too, as did John who had also found the book boring.) They relished the brilliance of the idea of the airport setting as a theatre for Vaughan's perversions, and the voyeurism yet exhibitionism of the narrator Ballard perched in his glassy flat overlooking the motorway flyover, at the clever paradox that the traffic was constantly static, stuck there in jams. There was a brief discussion about whether the book was erotic or pornographic. Clare did admit that she had also found the repetitious descriptions of car parts and wounds tedious, and had noticed that occasionally the prose descended into clunkiness, but she agreed when Jenny said with a grin that she had found some of the details really shocking, such as the growing semen stain around the flies of Vaughan's filthy trousers.

Because he had said nothing, Clare asked John what he thought of it. He said he had found it samey and boring but he had no real strong feelings about it either way. He did think though, that perversion is really a search for emotion, and that this is what the book was about. Then Jenny said but what's perversion? A perversion is only a perversion once you name it that, it's simply cultural, and there was some inconsequential discussion about this.

Trevor said, What about the bit when 'Ballard' and Vaughan have sex in the motorway underpass and then Vaughan tries to kill Ballard by running him down, that was dead good. I spoke up again and said that I could quite believe it can happen that men have sex and then want to kill each other afterwards, but I really didn't believe in this scene in this novel, it was narrated in too distant a manner. Trevor repeated that I couldn't complain about that because that had been intended. This time I said that I could complain about it, just because something is intended doesn't mean it works. In fact I thought this book was a brave experiment that hadn't worked.

Ann then said the discussion made her think of Hubert Selby Junior's Last Exit to Brooklyn which we discussed previously. Jenny and Clare groaned. Oh no, they had really hated that - that really had been distasteful! Jenny said that she had also liked Crash much better than Nabokov's Lolita which had so disgusted, shocked and upset her that she had been unable to finish it.

It struck me then that this was a clue to what seemed a paradoxical response in the group to Crash, for how could you find a book shocking, as they were gleefully claiming to do, while acknowledging and approving its detachment? Last Exit to Brooklyn and Lolita are books which, unlike Crash, take you right into the minds of the transgressive characters and allow you to see their humanity: what is shocking in them is that they implicate you, the reader, wholly and in my opinion are the greater novels for it. Crash, on the other hand, allows the reader a voyeuristic position, and as such is as pornographic as Ballard clearly intends: any shock is safe, second-hand and as relishable (or tedious) as a ride in a ghost train. Thus the book and the reader collude with the lack of affect it is intended as a warning against.

Not that I got to say any of this. I just drank too much wine instead.

Finally, people asked if it could have been written today. Ballard's premise, stated in the introduction, that we are characterized by optimism and a sense of limitless possibilities, no longer holds in face of the uncertainties of terrorism and global warming. Certainly Ballard could not write that introduction now, nor use this observation as a premise. Yet the book itself is a pessimistic vision, and we operate enough on doublethink to make its message still relevant today.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Claire Keegan wins Edge Hill Prize

Yesterday afternoon John and I drove over to Liverpool and the awards ceremony for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize in the Bluecoat Gallery, where Irish writer Claire Keegan was presented with the prize for her wonderfully evocative second collection, Walk the Blue Fields. Runner-up was Simon Robson (The Separate Heart), and the Readers' Choice Prize (chosen by reading groups in the area) went to Christopher Fowler for Old Devil Moon. Aslo shortlisted were Jane Gardam (The People on Privilege Hill), and Robert Shearman, whose Tiny Deaths was the one book on the list published by a small independent, Comma Press.

Accepting her prize, Claire Keegan echoed a sentiment I've expressed elsewhere and spoke of the mistake that people make in assuming that the short story is a quick-fix read suitable for a rushed age. Stories are anything but, she said: it's no wonder they're unpopular as they require a special kind of concentration and stillness.

I was told that around thirty books had been submitted (publishers were allowed to submit two books each), that the competition had been stiff and that a consideration in choosing a shortlist had been not simply the quality of individual stories but whether or not a book made a good collection - by which I think was meant a unified collection, a somewhat contentious issue I've discussed previously here. The three judges (who I think read only the shortlist) were novelist Hilary Mantel, BBC producer Duncan Minshull and Professor Rhiannon Evans of Edge Hill.

I had a great evening: the canapes - chosen apparently by Edge Hill lecturer and prize instigator (and my metropolitan co-editor) Ailsa Cox - were probably the best I've ever tasted (goat's cheese and aubergine - wow!) and I had a good chinwag with some really interesting people.

Here I am talking to shortlister Robert Shearman:

These were John's favourite canapes, beetroot and sushi, bit blurred I'm afraid - guess he was overexcited:

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Signing for Chorlton Bookshop

Yesterday I went down to Chorlton Bookshop to sign copies of Balancing on the Edge of the World for the local authors day they are holding on Saturday (5th) for Independent Booksellers Week. Chorlton Bookshop is one of the nicest independent bookshops I know, and I'm not just saying that because as an author I've always found them fantastically supportive: there's such a buzz about it and it always looks so enticing - and they have always had the loveliest window displays. Here's a ridiculous photo of me not actually signing but pretending to because John wanted me to stand in front of one of their colourful displays:

And bookseller Vicky made my afternoon by telling me that my book has done really well there and is still selling!