To Write or Not To Write?

How can I put into perspective how difficult I find the practice of writing a novel? Words with purpose. Sentences that express some truth. Scenes that join thwritinge dots.

I don’t know?

At times, I feel my attempts at writing a novel may be the hardest thing I’ll ever do. Harder than maintaining the two most important relationships of my life (my wife and my son)? Harder than continually challenging myself and developing my career in the hospitality industry? Harder than simply being a person on this planet at this moment in time?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, I think, so hard, too hard, the skills required to write a novel that holds together from beginning, through the muddle to the end.

Other times, I’m harsh with myself – ‘First world problems, man.’ I have a good job. I have a loving family. I have a roof over my head and food in the pantry. I am living in the most abundant era ever. I lack for nothing.

And so, yeah, I could give up writing. Why should I struggle so much? I could choose not to face the keyboard and blank page-on-screen every morning. Who needs that 5.15am alarm?

Viggo-Mortensen-in-Good-007

Seriously, 5.15am. It’s dark when I get up and it’s still dark when I finish writing at 6.15am. There’s no audience. There’s no pat on the back. There’s no-one there to say, ‘Good job, dude. Love your work!’

There’s just me, my practice and this tornado inside of me that demands I continue to ‘Show Up’.

So, giving up, chnew-crescent-2.jpgoosing not to write is an option. Of course it is.

But that won’t stop the feeling inside that needs an outlet for the ideas that are always swirling around my head. They won’t go away. They’ve flowed through me like tributaries trickling from the
mountaintop down into the valley where the river masses and swells my whole life.

As a writer I’m trying to navigate these waterways. Trying to craft my voice, my style, my unique and sincere self through the stories I want to tell.

And this is hard for me. Almost every day, in some way, I struggle with how best to communicate my literary ideas through story. Often, I feel like I’m failing. Sometimes, I have some positive self-talk: ‘Keep turning up, Ken. Keeping working the problem through showing your dedication to your characters, your story and your practice.’

Other times, most times, I’m not so gentle and generous. One day I may finish a novel that ends up somewhere near where I want it to. I really hope for the day. And as best I can, I will fight my corner. I will continue to show up, because while my confidence waxes and wanes, the urge to tell stories and write never does.

2016: A Literary Calendar

New releases from four Booker-prize winners; posthumous works from Christopher Hitchens and Terry Pratchet; a tribute from William Shatner; and several commemorative reimaginings for Shakespeare’s 400th death-day. It’s shaping up to be a veritable feast of a year.


January

And Yet: Essays
Christopher Hitchens
Essays
A posthumous collection of observations that proves Hitchens is nothing if not entertaining. Whether or not you agreed with his worldview he possessed an articulate charm that still shines through in his writing.

1129-BKS-Popova-master675

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
Lisa Randall
Science
Ranked by Brainpickings’s Maria Popova as the best non-fiction work, and if that’s not high enough praise I don’t what is. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of dark matter? Read her full review for the New York Times here.

The Noise of Time
Julian Barnes
Fiction
Whether you like Barnes or not he’s won a Booker prize so it’s worth keeping an eye on his stuff. This one appeals to me particularly because it’s about Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the greatest string composers of the 20th century, and is set amongst the chaos of Stalinist Russia.


February

Leonard: A Life
William Shatner
Biography
Of course we want to read a book by the endearing Shatner. Especially a tribute to his late friend and co-star Leonard Nimoy, immortalized as Spock in Star Trek, in the 50th anniversary year of the original series premiere.

Shylock Is My Name
Howard Jacobson
Fiction
The first in a legion of Shakespeare nods in this the 400th anniversary year of the great bard’s death. True to form Jacobsen focuses on the Jewish character from The Merchant of Venice in an exploration of fatherhood and morality. And as another Booker winner, his stuff is usually worth a sniff.

The High Mountains of Portugal
Yann Martel
Fiction
Yet another new release from a Booker winner (this seems to be the year), this is the novel I would choose above the others so far due to the sheer originality of Martel’s voice. In the vein of Life of Pi, Martel again tackles the quest narrative in a story about treasure, murder and of course, animal companionship.

This Census-Taker
China Miéville
Novella
Miéville has been around for a while but his appeal is now taking off beyond the ranks of genre fanatics. A startlingly inventive speculative writer, here he deals with the relationship between a young boy and a stranger who might save him from himself.


March

Anatomy of a Soldier
Harry Parker
Fiction
Debut novel from a former solider about a British captain recovering from a horrific bomb injury. What sets this novel apart is that it’s narrated from the point-of-view of 45 inanimate objects. 

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails
Sarah Bakewell
Philosophy/Biography
An exploration of existentialism from 1930s France through to the liberal movements of the mid-century, by examining the lives and relationships of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron, among others.

Hot Milk
Deborah Levy
Fiction
A Booker-shortlisted author, Levy’s new novel is about a mother and daughter finding refuge in a Spanish village, and explores all the trauma and triumph of female relationships and identity.


April

Fragments
Elena Ferrante
Writings
One of the hottest authors around and still her true identity remains a mystery. Having recently concluded the highly acclaimed Neapolitan quartet, this year she releases a collection of observations through short pieces, interviews and letters.

The Bricks That Built the Houses
Kate Tempest
Fiction
Winner of the Ted Hughes prize for poetry and nominated as a rapper for the Mercury music prize, Tempest’s new work is a novel about three youths escaping south-east London together, running from various forms of oppression in the hopes of liberating themselves from self-loathing, loneliness and unconsummated desire.

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The Blade Artist
Irvine Welsh
Fiction
Another grungy British novel, and who wouldn’t want to read the latest Welsh? Particularly when he returns to one of Trainspotting’s most divisive characters, Francis Begbie.


May

A Life Discarded
Alexander Masters
Biography
A ‘found’ biography, compiled from 148 volumes of diary discovered amongst discarded building materials in Cambridge.

Selection Day
Aravind Adiga
Fiction
May is a busy month for releases but do not miss Adiga’s latest novel. Yet another prior Booker-winner, his new work focuses on a young boy in present-day Mumbai.

The Gustav Sonata
Rose Tremain
Fiction
I would recommend Rose Tremain’s gorgeously rendered novels anyway, but when ‘Gustav’ and ‘Sonata’ are mentioned in the title it’s a no-brainer. Two boys hold onto friendship over thirty years of life spanning World War II.

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
Kate Summerscale
True Crime
In the vein of her previous bestseller The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Summerscale turns again to murder in Victorian England, this time writing about the trial of a 13-year-old boy.

Zero K
Don DeLillo
Fiction
Another big name release for 2016, DeLillo addresses mortality and the privilege of extreme wealth when a man tries to save his wife from terminal illness.


June

Hands: What We Do With Them – and Why
Darian Leader
Psychology
The latest in the line-up of fascinating psychoanalytical works, Leader examines what’s really going on when we fiddle with our fingers.

The Games: A Global History of the Olympics
David Goldblatt
Historical
Just in time for the 31st Olympiad in Rio, Goldblatt delivers on the success of his football history to give us the highlights of the world Olympics.

the long earth

The Long Cosmos
Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Fiction
Of course this is a must-read no matter who you are. The grand finale of The Long Earth series concludes a life’s work from Pratchett, who died shortly after its completion last year.

Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler
Fiction
Another Shakespearean tribute from the Booker crowd (A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted last year), Tyler delivers a quirky interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.


July

The Girls
Emma Cline
Fiction
Already sold to Scott Rudin for film adaptation, this is one of the most hotly anticipated debuts of the year. A young girl in the 1969 summer becomes involved with a commune similar to the Manson Family.

The Muse
Jessie Burton
Fiction
Set in Spain and London in the 30s and 60s, the author of The Miniaturist spins a tail about a painting, a Caribbean immigrant and a bohemian artist.

You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know
Philip Gourevitch
Historical/War
Gourevitch returns to the subject of Rwanda after his startling and brutal coverage of the 1994 genocide.


August

A Horse Walks into a Bar
David Grossman
Fiction
A perplexing and enthralling novel about a comedian whose life disintegrates on stage during an act in a small Israeli town.

Beast
Paul Kingsnorth
Fiction
A Booker long-lister this time, Kingsnorth returns with a quest novel set in the Midlands moor. His debut The Wake established him as an author of remarkable linguistic inventiveness with his use of a shadow version of Old English.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
Ed Yong
Science
Yong discusses the incredible influence of microbes on the lives of all earthly animals, released off the back of a successful Atlantic column, science blog and viral TED talk.

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu
Charlie English
Historical
The story of librarians smuggling manuscripts out of Timbuktu when it was on the brink of Islamic occupation, combined with an exploration of the city itself as it was first discovered by the western world in the Victorian era.


September

bolshoi

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet
Simon Morrison
Arts/Historical
What’s not to love about this exploration of art under pressure? Russia, ballet, tsars, Putin, Bolshoi, beautiful people, famous composers, and life in the spotlight.

Here I Am
Jonathan Safran Foer
Fiction
We’ve waited eleven years for the next Safran Foer novel, and if you haven’t read his previous two make sure you start from the beginning with Everything Is Illuminated. His new work also examines Jewish identity, this time set against the war in Israel.

The Lesser Bohemians
Eimear McBride
Fiction
A new novel from the author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing which won the Baileys Prize in 2014. Set in the 90s in north London, a young woman moves from Ireland to study acting and begins an affair with an older actor.

Who Rules the World?
Noam Chomsky
Sociology
The controversial intellectual claims the greatest threat to future peace is the USA.


October

Blood Riders
Gary Oldman & Douglas Urbanski
Fiction
Any work of fiction by esteemed Brit actor Gary Oldman sounds enticing enough, let alone this, the first in a proposed series of Wild West vampire novels. Watch him in 1992’s Dracula to get yourself in the mood.

Bookworm
Lucy Mangan
Literature/Historical
Mangan collates her vast experience to provide an insight into the beauty of childhood reading and the classic books that have profoundly influenced generations of young people.

Total Intoxication
Norman Ohler
Historical
An examination of the use of drugs in the Nazi party as a tool of war and experimentation.


November

The Power
Naomi Alderman
Fiction
A satirical reimagining of a society in which girls are the stronger sex, from the author of The Liar’s Gospel.

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The Worlds of Joseph Conrad
Maya Jasanoff
Literature/Historical
Jasanoff uses Conrad’s life and works to examine perspectives on world culture and geography at the beginning of the 1900s.

Venice: An Interior
Javier Marías
Design
Marías, esteemed Spanish author of A Heart So White and The Infatuations, turns his eye to the beauty of Venetian design.

 

Elise Janes

How to change the world into words

My top three pieces of writing advice? Stop whining and write. Stop fucking around and write. Stop making excuses and write.    – Nora Roberts

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Sean Macgillicuddy: There’s writing, and there’s being a writer. Writing doesn’t always make you a writer any more than being a writer makes for better writing. That said, a good rule of thumb in becoming and being a writer is to turn up. Whatever that might be – a couple of hours a morning, late at night, or a number of assigned days a week that slot in with your other job, the one you do part-time for money – the hours you turn up are like surgery, or a precision athlete mid race. It’s a contract, this turning up to write. If you want a personal day or you don’t feel well, it’s a big deal. A really big deal. And don’t be shy. Let everybody know that this space is where and when you turn up to write and, within, reason, if the world wants you for anything it can go fuck itself. Alternatively, and this applies more to emerging writers than writers with an established path or agent or contract, find a writer you admire and pretend to be them: clothes, habits, hair. If they’re alive, attend a function as them. If they’re dead, the same. Transcribe one of their better known works – Illywhacker, say, if you’re Peter Carey – and look for a publisher under your own name. Enter it into competitions, a master class or two at Varuna, use it to find a mentor. If people ask what you’re working on, tell them. If they say it sounds a lot like Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, deny you’ve read it, or accuse Peter Carey of plagiarism, or confound them with some sleight of hand question like, ‘You’re not one of those people who never read anything they haven’t written themselves, are you?’ When you’re inevitably discovered, the lesson to take from the exercise, the tip, is to believe you have something to say. That inherent within you is something that matters, that’s legitimate, that carries with it an urgency and how it’s told will come. At that point, see above.

Ken: The view from my desk.

Ken Ward: Write when it’s hard to, when you don’t want to – are too tired, too disinterested, not inspired enough. It’s here your efforts will satisfy you the most.

The view from my desk.

 

 

Jane: Current workplace.

Jane Abbott: Forget everything the books tell you. Write with passion, as one possessed; write what you would love to read. Sacrifice everything else in order to write. And never, ever give up.

 

 

 

Elise: The State Library of NSW is most conducive. Except they won't let me sleep here.

Elise Janes: Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Life’s too short, and there’s too much to be said and done to waste time measuring sticks. You may need to leave the country to get any useful artistic work done because Australia is small and insecure and so are most of its cultural gatekeepers. Don’t let them trick you into thinking the world is small. They are just afraid. Don’t be afraid. Write what you want to write and forget everyone else.

Conan Elphicke: When my children’s books ‘go Rowling’, or even get published, then I’ll start dispensing tips. You won’t be able to shut me up. Until then …

Carmel: My workspace is wherever I happen to put my laptop. Usually, I have a mug of tea by my side.

Carmel Purcell: I don’t feel that I am skilled enough to give tips because I am still learning. But, I guess if I have any advice it is…learn to appreciate criticism. Criticism is inevitable and very important in the field of writing. I am a very stubborn person so this is something I will always struggle with.

My workspace is wherever I happen to put my laptop. Usually, I have a mug of tea by my side.

 

 

Ashlee: An obvious addiction to Apple products.

Ashlee Poeppmann: Keep writing! Every day, about something or about nothing! It’s all about practise and finding what you’re comfortable with. This is the best advice I’ve received from other writers, and it works best for me.

An obvious addiction to Apple products.

 

 

 

 

 

An All Hallow’s Read

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Allhallowtide, Night of the Dead, whatever you call it and however you think it came into being one thing’s for sure, it’s become a majorly lucrative chocolate-selling and movie-renting business. This year why not save your consumerist fervour for Christmas and instead stay home for a quiet evening read, with a flickering candle and a glass of brandy or something. What to read, you ask? We have just the thing.

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thus, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act i, Scene 2.

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Thus begins one of the oldest, strangest and oft-referenced works of speculative fiction to grace our shelves, as mysterious today as it was when first published in 1895. The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers, and if you’re nodding your head now it’s because you recognise the title from the first season of True Detective, where the themes and symbolism were referenced as a kind of otherworldly red herring to the mystery pursued by Rust and Marty.

The intertextuality doesn’t end there. Chambers’ collection itself is hung on the influence of a play about the titular King, which is continually referenced throughout the stories but never fully presented. The play is said to bring insanity or a grim fate upon those who read it. Besides Chambers’ stories themselves being a great read, this elusive structural gimmick is pure squirmy genius.

And its heritage is vast. Chambers’ Yellow King was influenced by the classic works of Ambrose Bierce, Théophile Gautier and even Poe, and went on to be a foundational inspiration for most of the significant genre players of the  twentieth century, including H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Robert A. Heinlein and even Stephen King.

All this over a creepy fictional play that never actually existed.

The best news is that it’s now public domain so you can read the entire text online. Enjoy.

Marlon James Wins the Booker Prize

Snaps for Marlon James, the first Caribbean to win the Booker Prize since V. S. Naipaul won in 1971 with In a Free State, and the third in a row of winners who have not been Irish, English or Indian.

James’ win should put a smile on many a rebellious face, much like the subject matter of his book A History of Seven Killings, which covers the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in the 1970s and traces the cultural fallout through the following decades, employing a surprisingly diverse array of narrative voices.

Jamaica’s history is rich in music and poetry, and James’ novel was inspired by this legacy, however he is notable for being one of the first truly successful Jamaican novelists.

Wayne Brown, a Trinidadian author who taught creative writing in Jamaica, wondered why all good Caribbean poetry came out of Jamaica, but all the good novels were from Trinidad. He observed this interesting difference between the two cultures:

If you put up a statue in Jamaica, the next day everyone pass that statue in silence. With a kinda solemnity about it. Because, you know, it’s a serious thing. That’s how I find you Jamaicans. You take things so goddamn serious. But if you put that same statue up in Trinidad, the next morning people deface it. Or they throw garbage at it. That’s how we are. You can’t put anything up on a pedestal in Trinidad.

from The Guardian

Now doesn’t that sound culturally familiar, fellow Australians? Apparently our natural bent toward toppling pedestals makes us prime novel-writing pasture.

Another encouraging fact that may appeal to those emerging authors out there: James’ first book was rejected by 78 publishers and agents. Hooray for number 79.

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2015 Booker Shortlist:

  • Marlon James (Jamaica), A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • Tom McCarthy (UK), Satin Island
  • Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), The Fishermen
  • Sunjeev Sahota (UK), The Year of the Runaways
  • Anne Tyler (US), A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Hanya Yanagihara (US), A Little Life

Previous Winners:

  • 2010: Howard Jacobson (UK), The Finkler Question
  • 2011: Julian Barnes (UK), The Sense of an Ending
  • 2012: Hilary Mantel (UK), Bring Up the Bodies
  • 2013: Eleanor Catton (NZ), The Luminaries
  • 2014: Richard Flanagan (AUS), The Narrow Road to the Deep North

 

 

Five Fathers: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of fictional dads that doesn’t lead with Atticus Finch, so here he gets a category all of his own. This guy had it all. A lawyer raising two kids, teaching them to be real humans (the audacious character of Scout alone is testament to his fathering abilities) and defending the indefensible from the vilest aspects of human nature, all the while dispensing ageless advice to his children on the front porch of their Alabama home.

In tribute to Father’s Day (and the reality that some will find it a mixed affair), here are a few of the best, the worst and the strangest dads in literature.

 

The Good

  1. Jean Valjean

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

“Because things are not agreeable,” said Jean Valjean, “that is no reason for being unjust towards God.”

At the bequest of a dying Fantine he rescued Cosette from the despicable Thernadiers and despite being a fugitive, remained a steadfast adoptive father and all-round good guy until his death, never once losing faith despite all he endured. That takes some guts.

 

  1. Mr Bennet

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters.”

Some deride him for his sarcasm and his ambivalence toward his wife, but considering what he had to work with these are shown to be quite endearing qualities. It is his relationship with Elizabeth, the knowing-ness that passes between them, which makes him one of the best fathers in literature.

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  1. The Man/The Father

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

Leads his son through a wilderness of post-apocalyptic destruction and teaches him indispensable survival skills, navigating the ambiguous morality that arises from such desperation. His tenacity alone is enough to garner him father-of-the-year.

 

  1. Arthur Weasley

The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling

“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?”

His light-hearted perspective on life and unflinching defense of his children and the marginalised Muggles makes him almost a lovably clownish Atticus Finch. And without exception his seven children are among the greatest humans (?) on the planet.

 

  1. Thomas Schell

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

“Honey! I got to go! Other people need to use the phone! I’m gonna be fine, you’re gonna be fine! You listen to me! You made my life better and I want you to know that absolutely love you. I’m going to call you back in a few minutes.”

Proof that even in absence a father can be fundamentally influential in his child’s life. Oskar goes in search of a perceived secret message from his father who was killed in 9/11, and finds himself again.

 

The Bad

  1. Pap Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

“I’ll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You’re educated, too, they say—can read and write. You think you’re better’n your father, now, don’t you, because he can’t?”

Drunk, abusive and sadistic, he is everything a father shouldn’t be. The only thing we are grateful for is that he produced such a son as Huck and spawned one of the most famously epic tales of childhood adventure known to literature. We are not sorry to learn of his death at the end of the book.

Lolita with Jeremy Irons

  1. Humbert Humbert

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine.”

Marries Charlotte Haze to get close to her daughter, Lolita, which makes him her stepfather and legal guardian when Charlotte dies, leaving her at his mercy. Enough said.

 

  1. Michael Henchard

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

“MICHAEL HENCHARD’S WILL
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.”

An alcoholic who auctions off his wife and child, never bothering to find them until they return eighteen years later while he is in the middle of courting another woman whom he has already disgraced. Lovely.

 

  1. Mr Wormwood

Matilda, Roald Dahl

“A book?! What d’you wanna flaming book for? …we’ve got a lovely telly with a 12-inch screen and now ya wanna book!”

This quote alone places Mr Wormwood into the lowest percentile of humans. A used-car salesman who deceives his customers, alienates his genius daughter and terrorizes her lovely teacher Miss Honey, he is the definition of terrible-dadness.

 

  1. Archibald Craven

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

“My mother died when I was born and it makes him wretched to look at me. He thinks I don’t know, but I’ve heard people talking. He almost hates me.”

Yes, we feel sorry for him because his wife died but, no, that does not give him any right to abandon his sick son in a dingy room, especially when all his son needs is a bit of love and natural beauty in order to make a miraculous recovery.

 

The Ugly

  1. King Lear

King Lear, Shakespeare

“…he that makes his generation messes to gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved, as thou my sometime daughter.”

Definitely not the only terrible father in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, but certainly one of the most memorable. He makes the ugly list because he tests his three daughters to see who loves him most in order to decide who should inherit his estate, all the while completely blind to their true natures. He deserves to succumb to madness, and does so with spectacular pomp.

 

  1. Don Vito Corleone

The Godfather, Mario Puzo

“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

You could argue that as a father figure, the Don is actually a great family man. Everything he did was for his ‘family’ after all, including making people offers they couldn’t refuse. Yet his actions lead to the death of two of his sons and the corruption of another. So, yeah, ugly.

 

  1. Jack Torrance

The Shining, Stephen King

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Another alcoholic dad, Jack adds to the mix by trying to kill his family with an axe. You could argue it’s not all his fault. But that doesn’t make him a better dad.

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  1. Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

“Linton can play the little tyrant well. He’ll undertake to torture any number of cats, if their teeth be drawn and their claws pared.”

Thus is Heathcliff’s view of his son, another sickly boy confined to a dingy house and his father’s intense disregard. Though it’s hard to really stay angry at Heathcliff because he is so damn brooding and so passionately in love with dead Cathy.

 

  1. Nick Dunne

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

“We weren’t ourselves when we fell in love, and when we became ourselves – surprise! – we were poison. We complete each other in the nastiest, ugliest possible way.”

Though he stays with the crazy wife because of his unborn child, we can all see the direction Nick Dunne is taking by the close of this book, foreshadowed by the misogynistic outbursts of his aging father. You could say it’s all her fault, but then again, is it?

 

Elise Janes

 

The Labyrinth is Thoroughly Known

2013-04-10-labyrinth

Last week I got a bit academic on you and started down this road of form and structure, and what it means to readers and writers and so on. The reason for this dialectic digression stems from my own exploration of the concepts of form over the past few months while I have been structurally editing my manuscript. As anyone who has ever done this knows, ideas of form are integral to the structural process.

I began last week by underlining the fact that ‘form’ as a concept is incredibly complex and a multifaceted term that at different points in one discourse may refer to genre, style, format or structure, or something else altogether. Indeed, ‘form’ often refers to a combination of all these things within the cultural connotations that society has built up over a good few thousand years of literary and narrative art, since well before Aristotle’s Poetics first tried to categorise and define these ideas.

Not only do these concepts of form span history, but they also span ethnicity. While world cultures vary in language, customs, religion and social structures, the ideas of form within storytelling seem yet to transcend even these vast diversities (Let’s pause for a moment and wonder at the incredible global unity that is created by the sharing and telling of stories, and how we have come to be at this moment in time as a result of the many ages and cultures that have come before).

So form is complex, yet it is also timeless. It’s difficult to define, and yet a firm grasp of form can provide an author with a necessary framework to build or remodel a work of narrative art. This is why so many literary courses deal weightily with the study of form. It not only informs our reception and criticism of narrative work, but also the way in which we construct it.

Last week I proposed we look at some theories of form that have emerged over the past fifty years or so, since the advent of Modernism combined with massive industrial and technological progress opened the world up to a greater consumption of and formal interest in literature. In the 1950s there unfolded a rebirth of literary academics, and therefore a new progression of philosophical schools of thought about the subject. Here we shall touch on only a few, but at least some of the most important theories that shape how we currently think about structure and story.

Northrop Frye

Last week I pointed you in the direction of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as a foundational academic work that paved the way for all modern concepts of form. Frye was labeled a ‘structuralist’ (as opposed to the post-structuralists that came later) because his theories were founded on the idea of certain concrete and universal frameworks of story.

Don’t be discouraged if you began to drift halfway through Frye’s ‘Polemical Introduction’ and gave up before you even started on the first essay. Frye is considered by many to be the most important theorist on Western literature to have existed in the past fifty years. So his work is necessarily detailed and extremely thorough.

Here’s the general idea about Frye:

  • He was one of the first literary theorists to develop a theory of criticism solely based within the framework of literature itself, instead of applying theories of criticism from other fields of study, as everyone else was doing at the time.
  • This meant he studied the works themselves and developed a theory based on content and communicative ability instead of the whims of literary trends and personal taste.
  • As a student of Aristotle, he based his analysis of literature on the elements identified in the Poetics.
  • By interrogating the substance of great works of literature, he surmised that literature has a general tendency to rely on primitive formulas.
  • He developed a four-fold scope of analysis that was inherently cyclical, that is, took cues from the progressive and atmospheric change of natural seasons, the ages of man, and the progress of history.
  • This is where his famous theory of seasons comes from, where each season corresponds to an archetype of story: comedy, romance, tragedy and satire.
  • He argued that myth and literature are codependent, as literature is merely a means for a society to reinterpret and revoice myths that are central to its foundation and development.
  • His theories focus on the way in which these myths are retold.

In summary, Frye was a genius. In order to really understand his work you need to read it, but short of that try Wikipedia’s summary or this rather helpful slideshow. Basically, he discovered that within certain combinations of foundational elements, all the variety of world literature takes life, much like the twelve tones of music, transmuted through differences of register, metre, rhythm and timbre, form the basis of all the musical works of the world.

Essentially, he found that literature is about telling the same stories in an infinite number of different ways.

Joseph Campbell

Campbell takes this concept of central story archetype one step further in his seminal work, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, from which the theory of monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey, is derived. Campbell was a scholar of legends and world religion and his work points to the same conclusions as Frye regarding literature and narrative being simply the retelling of myths. However Campbell goes on to decide that all stories can be traced back to a single myth, irrespective of time, place or culture: the transformative myth of the hero.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(1891)

Here’s where we can get less abstract and more concrete about form, specifically how it applies to narrative structure. While Campbell’s work was also complex and expansive, he was very adept at applying his theories to modern stories, not just literature but film as well. Add to that a fantastic way with words and ideas, and you quickly see why this guy became so important to contemporary story theory.

Campbell’s work is much more accessible for non-academics than Frye’s so I recommend a full read. However, this series of interviews with Bill Moyers provides a comprehensive and entertaining summary of his ideas, beginning with this fantastic quote from The Hero with A Thousand Faces:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the heropath. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Here’s the Campbell overview:

  • Through extensive comparative research of myths and legends throughout the world he developed a theory that all stories centre on a hero completing a transformative quest.
  • He defines a hero as someone who has found or achieved or done something greater than the norm; who has risked himself for the benefit of others.
  • Like Frye, Campbell discovered that story was cyclical, specifically formed by a going and a return.
  • The basic motif is that of leaving one condition and finding a source of strength or change in order to bring the hero into another, more mature or advanced condition.
  • All stories are based on the objective of saving something: a people, a race, a person, an object, an ideal; and of the hero sacrificing something in order to achieve that salvation.

Have a quick search around the internet and you will find countless diagrams of the hero’s journey and pictorial depictions of Campbell’s work. You will also find a lot more information on the ideas that have come from his writings, specifically the monomyth, but also the structures of initiation rituals and coming-of-age stories as they tie in to the hero’s journey.

In summary, Campbell found that all stories can be traced back to the idea of a transformative quest, that of sacrificing one state for another in order to benefit an external cause.

So…

You may not agree with the above ideas, in which case you would be more interested in the schools of deconstructionism and post-structuralism which became very popular when meta-thinking was all the rage, and was probably what dominated most literary corridors when you were at university (and no doubt still does). Next week we’ll touch briefly on these thoughts, and consider why, after all that, we keep on coming back to this inescapable idea that there is nothing new under the sun except the way in which we colour things.

Is the labyrinth thoroughly known? Or is it impossible to ever know?

Perhaps therein lie two sides of the same coin.

 

Elise Janes

 

The Necessary Delusion

I’ve written extensively these past few months about the various ways in which my last manuscript fell apart and the effect it’s had upon me as a writer, and person. In the end, where I fell over was a combination of insufficient planning and my rewriting skills not being up to scratch. More than 8 months since making the decision to step away from that project, I feel the coldness toward it only time and absence can bring.

However, for the 18 months I lived and breathed life in the fictional Northern Oregon township of Kennedy I was convinced of the immenseness of what I was working on. When I look back now, I can see there was a clear axis around which the helices of a double-helix spiralled.

Digital illustration of a dna

One helices was the writing process.  The practical act of writing, planning, revising, plotting, rewriting. Creating time in my day to execute the task of getting words from my imagination onto a computer screen.

Carried along the second helices, though, was the fuel that stoked the fires of my imagination. The flames began as small thoughts: Wouldn’t it be great if this novel was published? Moments of pure serendipity and hours of hard work were kindling to the fire: How will getting published change my life?

In no time at all a great inferno was burning: Imagine this book was really good, really important?

As the story’s characters and struggles became infused into the very core of my being, so did the fantastical notions I had about the impact I was about to make on the literary world. I can tell you know, at different times I imagined winning the Man-Booker Prize, being on Oprah’s Book of the Week club and even winning an Oscar for Best Screen Play for the movie adaptation of the novel. These were all intensely lived fantasies. Each left an emotional mark upon me and served to spur me on the write more, write quicker.

BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

In my head, I was on top of the world. As one part of me toiled away with the pragmatic business of producing a novel, the other part of me basked in all manner of glories that were soon to be bestowed upon because of the impact this book would have.

Yes, you can say it. It’s okay.

I was delusional. A part of me had lost the run of itself.

For a time as I stood in the smouldering embers of the novel when I had burnt it to the ground, I was quite hard on myself because of how far I had let myself go.

But now, I’m softening. Why?

I think a writer or an artist, any creative soul, needs a healthy dose of delusion to help fan the flames of inspiration and motivation. I’ll keep the ‘we’ out of this as I don’t want to be overly prescriptive, and instead stick to the ‘I’ of this matter.

I need to believe my story is fresh and original – only I can tell this story in this way, no one else. I need to believe I’m expressing an idea that speaks to people about some facet of humanity they can understand. I need to believe that some greater good will come to me as a result of all the time, effort and passion I will pour into this project.

I’m learning how to manage this idea of ‘greater good’ so that my delusions remain healthy and in check. Greater good is writing for my own pleasure. It’s about being grateful for the sense of purpose expressing myself through writing brings to my life. And, how being a writer connects me to likeminded souls.

I’ve been working on my latest novel since January. What’s helping keep my emotions and expectations in check is a mantra designed to quell the rampant demands of my writerly delusions:

I’m writing for my own pleasure, for the joy it brings me and how being a writer gives me the courage to live more intensely.

Everything above and beyond this is a bonus.

I still have desires to be published, to see my stories on the shelves of books stores everywhere (or anywhere!). I’ve reigned in thoughts of international literary awards and Hollywood fame.  Now, though, I keep my focus on the work I do each day. Page by page, scene by scene, toward the completion of a complete manuscript. And the resolution to the puzzle this story poses me.

From there, well, let’s wait and see.

On “Debaser”

There’s been a lot of steam lately about the novel and whether literary fiction has more inherent value and weight than fiction classified by genre and what separates the two. When is a novel about love a romance, or a novel set in the future science fiction, or a novel underpinned by a felony of some kind a crime novel? Like The Trial. Crime and Punishment. L’Etranger.

And why are novelists recognised by a genre so readily dismissed as lacking the poetry of craft to be stylists, or the intellectual vocabulary to address issues like identity and meaning and morality and art and the slippery composition of truth?

It’s a complex debate, and is as much about the quality of a work as it is about the arbiters of quality and the climate in which that quality is being judged. And it isn’t unique to writing. The division of the novel into genres all vying for a place in the canon, or not vying for a place in the canon but questioning and rejecting everything the canon stands for, can be seen across all the arts. In music, the white European canon begins with the baroque, classical, the romantic, then across the Atlantic to jazz, blues and gospel, all fusing together to form the rebel teenage sound of rock’n’roll.

Nowadays, rock’n’roll has been carved up into so many camps it’s hard to keep track. Hard to say where easy listening ends and becomes the ballad or folk, becomes modern rock then heavy rock then metal. Then there’s the commercial mainstream and the artists who tough it out independently and the experimental, the alternative, which is generally regarded as more introspective than the mainstream, more socially aware and sympathetic to wider and more inclusive expressions of being human until it gets appropriated by the mainstream and turned into Johnny Rotten selling Country Life butter on British TV.

Pixies

The Pixies

And then there’s The Pixies.

Ivo Watts-Russell from the UK indie label 4AD wanted to pass on The Pixies when they were first brought to his attention, believing they were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally ‘rock’n’roll’ for 4AD’s small but eclectic roster. He reconsidered, and the label is still releasing B-side and session compilations to this day. But the thing of it is, Ivo Watts-Russell’s initial misgivings were right. The Pixies were too straight, too normal, and too conventionally rock’n’roll for 4AD. They were all those things to the point of combustion. They were straight and normal like the guy next door who turns out to be a serial killer’s straight and normal. They were conventionally rock’n’roll with a surf pop twist and the stop start phrenetics of a jackhammer. The Pixies were like nothing that preceded them and everything at once. Their music was too happy to be Punk, and they didn’t appear to be protesting about anything or particularly angry or cynical or even art school clever. But they rocked. They juxtaposed the sordid with the mundane, the extra-terrestrial with the flesh and bone, sang in bad Spanish and English and bad English and threw it all together as if at random. Without trying, The Pixies were surreal, as epitomised by the opening track of their second album, Doolittle (1989).

“Debaser” is a song about a guy. It may be the band’s chief singer songwriter Chris Thompson (aka Black Francis, or Frank Black), but we’re not sure. Whoever he is, he’s got a movie. And he wants us to know he’s got a movie because he says so.

Got me a movie / I want you to know

The movie’s the 1929 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The film features a scene where the eyeball of a slaughtered calf is sliced open by a cut-throat razor. The scene’s referred to in the song.

Slicin’ up eyeballs / I want you to know

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou

We’re then introduced to a girl. We’re told she’s groovy, but the second she appears she vanishes without a trace, because the guy seems more interested in being the title of the movie, an Andalusian dog, and telling us that when he grows up he wants to be a debaser. Whatever that is. Frankly, it’s all a bit confusing. But then that’s the point. Like Un Chien Andalou, Debaser isn’t really about anything. Something Luis Bunuel and Dali would have applauded no end. Their divining rule of thumb in making Un Chien Andalou was to make as little sense as possible and to entertain no idea or image that lent itself to rational explanation. Debaser is an anti-song, the words chosen more for their sound than their meaning and delivered like they’re falling off a cliff. Fast, sharp, brutal. And it doesn’t mess around with dead weight. They’re in and out of the song before you can say boo. Which is trademark. The Pixies wrote adventures you didn’t listen to so much as buckle up for and hold on until the end. They were to music what William Burroughs was to literature: outlaws on the edge of form, substance and taste. And like William Burroughs – – crime writer, criminal, iconoclast, author of fantasy, science fiction, horror – the mischief and nonsense at the heart of every Pixies’ song, the cryptic allusions to avant-garde cinema and incest and oddball pathologies and the Bible, all prevented them from achieving the kind of commercial success they deserved.

It’s been said of the Pixies that, like the Velvet Underground, not everyone bought their albums but those who did went out and formed a band, or were indebted to them in some way musically. Like the boys from Nirvana. Radiohead. The Smashing Pumpkins. A band’s band, perhaps. Or just hard to pin down. A fierce light that still burns today but burnt brightest between 1986 and 1993. An accident of musicians in the right place and time who rewrote the lyrical and melodic songbook, and in many ways demonstrated Henry Miller’s observations on nonsense and its unsuspected affinities with the profound. In On Writing, Miller talks of his literary relationship with nonsense, his fear of it, his terror, and draws on the ‘pure nonsense’ of fantasy to extrapolate on how the imagination, given wings, is driven to create worlds with their own laws not bound to the earth by gravity but desire, and how threatening these worlds are to the mainstream, the top 40, the social realists, the purveyors of all things literary and tasteful, circling their prize-laden wagons so the crime writers and the fantasy writers and the romance writers and the Pixies and William Burroughs and Henry Miller can’t get in.

William Burroughs

William Burroughs

The complex debate around the novel and the canons of art is as much about the quality of a work as it is about sameness and fear. The literary novel, no matter how well written, how well produced and sold, how beautifully realised its ideas, has become a snobbery of aesthetics that’s being called to account by the so-called trifles of the penny dreadful. The pop novel. The novel that gets picked up by filmmakers or flaunts a stand at airport bookstores. Or the pure nonsense and escapist fantasies of spec fic, science fiction, novels populated by people of all ages, in love, on the run, biological hybrids, animals that talk, in English, bad Spanish, bad English. This is not a new writing conceived in the hallways of academia or literary journals but a groundswell following the success of a few genre writers that’s disrupted establishment fiction. It’s old school rock’n’roll. And although it’s not new writing in the experimental sense of the term, it may very well lead to a new novel that isn’t bound by the same pedestrian laws as gravity and history and sense.

 

Sean MacGillicuddy

 

Debaser – Recorded 1988 at Downtown Recorders in Boston Massachusetts written by Black Francis. Label 4AD.