News and views
The Blank Page by Jon McGregor: National Conversation
An original provocation from Jon McGregor for the finale event of WCN's National Conversation, Cambridge Literary Festival, 29th November 2015
All writing begins with a blank page, and with the fear of the blank page. The silence before we begin to speak. The silence into which we can say anything we like. Telling stories with words on a page – or words in the air, or words on a screen, or words whispered into ears – is a very flexible form. There are no budget constraints or logistical hurdles or collaborative compromises. The page really is blank. We can say anything we like. And it's that 'anything' which often proves so terrifying – so intimidating – and which, instead of feeling like a wonderful opportunity, provokes a kind of paralysis of the imagination.
Often, not just as writers but as anyone involved in literary culture, we can forget what a privilege it is to start with these blank pages. It can be easier to retreat to the comfort zone of familiar templates, well-worn paths, the successful habits of successful people: If I write this story in numbered chapters then when I get to 70,000 words I'll have written a novel. If I publish this manuscript which reminds me of a book that sold well last year, I can count on the support of the sales department. If this Cambridge graduate works as well as this for free all summer, it makes sense to give her the job without advertising it. If we broke even on these festival events last year, then let's stick to the same format this time around.
We do things the way they've been done before, because they seem to work. To not want to err is human, after all.
But what if we look at these blank pages for a moment longer? What if there are other ways of doing things? What are we losing by not more fully considering our options? What are we missing out on? Who are we leaving out?
Let me look at one example in detail, one to which I've given a lot of thought precisely because it has often seemed so alien to me and yet seems so taken for granted: the public reading, or 'author event'. Note, just for starters, how at a public event the writer becomes an 'author'.
Picture the typical literary event: There will be a long, narrow room, with chairs set out in straight rows. The audience members will gather in attentive silence. The writer will stride confidently to the front of the room, be introduced by an event organiser, pour himself – and the default image is, still, of a him – pour himself a glass of water from a jug on a low table, and move across to the lectern to begin.
From this lectern, the writer will talk for a time about their latest novel: how the research was done, where the idea came from, how the idea was developed, what a personal struggle it was to wrestle this beast into being ... they will give a lecture about themselves, essentially, often for many long minutes.
They will then read some pages from their novel, with much harrumphing and mumbling and fiddling with bifocals.
This reading may go on for some time.
The audience will politely pay attention.
The author will then be ushered over to a comfortable chair on the stage, and joined by one or two others on equally comfortable chairs, there to have a conversation with each other to which the audience is expected to listen.
The conversation will be about the writing of the novel, or the argument of the novel; the author will be given the opportunity to very gently defend or justify what they have written. The conversation will then be 'opened up' to the audience; meaning that the more confident members of the audience will call out questions to which the writer is expected to respond instinctively.
Afterwards, there will be glasses of wine set out at a table. Always wine, notice. Sometimes there will be smartly dressed young women handing out these glasses of wine. The author will make small talk with individual members of the audience, and then leave to eat M&S sandwiches in a hotel room or on a late train, spending the next forty-eight hours crippled by doubts and insecurities about what he said or how he answered the questions or whether he could be heard or why no-one bought copies of the book afterwards.
There are variations to this broad template, but not many. Sometimes the room will be a marquee; sometimes the chairs will be set out in slightly curved rows; sometimes the crippling self-doubt will only last for twenty-four hours.
And there's nothing inherently wrong with this format; it is evidently an appealing format for some, and an entire industry of literary festivals is built around it. But why is it more or less the only format? What does that mean? Allow me to unpick the semiotics just a little. Let's start with the lectern.
Why do so many writers give their readings from a lectern, as though standing in a lecture theatre, or a pulpit? Do we really expect our writers to be teachers and priests? And then there's this business with the comfortable chairs and the staged conversation – the low table, the vase of flowers, the jugs of water; would it be fair to say that this staging is designed to mimic the Oxbridge student meeting with a tutor to defend an essay? And the audience members calling out questions; can we say these are the members of a debating society, or an academic committee?
I would argue that the entire format is based on a 19th century idea of the public intellectual: the lectern, the lecture, the silent audience, the spirited conversation, the debate; even the wine.
It's a format which deliberately privileges those from a specific cultural and educational background – the privately educated, the Oxbridge educated, those who have grown up with dinner parties and salons and debating clubs, those who feel comfortable and confident holding forth, those who expect to be listened to.
This all makes sense, of course. It's entirely fitting that the novel should be presented and discussed in settings such as these. Because the novel itself is a peculiar artefact, a product of a very particular socio-economic class. That the telling of stories was devolved to the object we call the novel is an historical anomaly born out of a particular set of technological and economic circumstances: printing technology, the availability of a specific size of leather binding, the educational shift from Latin to English, and the growth of a leisure class with the time to read long novels and the disposable income to collect them. And wasn't that leisure class itself founded on the wealth drawn directly from the exploitation of the labouring classes, from the pillage of empire, from slavery? Shouldn't we consider the novel itself to be a freakish indulgence, forever tainted by the stain of colonialism and slavery, as ugly in its way as the stately homes and gilded statues which shame our landscape?
Just a thought.
We've heard a lot, in previous contributions to the National Conversation, particularly from Kamila Shamsie and Kerry Hudson, about the lack of diversity in publishing, and about the stifling of voices which results. But this lack of diversity is more pervasive than even these previous contributions to the National Conversation have suggested. The problem is one of structure. The problem is one of form. The entire culture and apparatus of the published novel was developed by an economic elite with leisure time on its hands, and the descendants of that class work to perpetuate an environment in which their own sort feel at home, while others are accepted only as hyphenated anomalies: the working-class-writer, the black-writer, the gay-writer, the disabled-writer, the woman-writer.
Here's my suggestion: if we want to open literature up to a much wider range of voices, and if we really want to hear the stories our fellow citizens have to share, we could start by entirely revising our idea of how we expect writers to behave; how we expect them to look; how we expect them to present their work to us when we ask them to perform. We could remind ourselves that we do have these blank pages from which to work.
We could start by getting rid of the lecterns.
We could start by asking some simple questions about what it is an audience might gain from experiencing a piece of writing in a live context, or from an encounter with a writer.
Why, for example, do we expect writers – those who have chosen to spend their working lives alone with the voices in their head, and who by definition are likely not to be comfortable in company and certainly not articulate at volume – to be convincing performers of their own work, or advocates for it? Is it a coincidence that we have such apparently low expectations for an author reading? Have you ever read a review of an author giving a reading? Why are we expected to find it charming or endearing when a writer can't find their place in the book they're reading from, or doesn't know how to use a microphone, or reads for too long, or shuffles through their papers asking if they have time for just a little bit more? Isn't it time we dropped this cult of cheerful amateurism, this embarrassment about being seen to make an effort? An embarrassment that comes, again, from the Victorian tradition of the Gentleman Amateur?
Why, having asked the writer to stage a performance of sorts, do we require them to lecture and debate on their own work immediately afterwards?
When was the last time you went to a gig which concluded with a Q&A? Can we not just knock it on the head with the Q&A? And whose idea, incidentally, was the open-mic?
Why does the audience have to sit still for an hour? Can we not have a break to go to the bar, to absorb what we've just heard, to talk to the friends we came with? Why does the audience need to look at the writer at all? Could the writer stand at the back of the room? Could we all sit in a circle, around a fire? Could we just go to the pub, or back to someone's house?
Why don't writers go on tours of book clubs, where there's a ready-made and enthusiastic audience, where the chairs are more comfortable and the wine is better? It couldn't be because book groups are mostly made up of women in a domestic setting could it? Why don't more writers go on tours of libraries, or prisons, or schools?
And when giving a reading, why do writers insist on reading from a book at all, when it's just one more barrier between them and the audience? Why not make the effort to prepare, all the better to connect with an audience?
Why do we want to hear writers reading their own work at all? Might it sometimes sound better when read by someone else? Why do we want to meet the writer in person at all? Might their work come across better on film, or in audio? On headphones? Between the pages of a book?
I'm not asking for the wheel to be reinvented every time a writer appears in public. Some events in the traditional format can be wonderful: captivating, surprising, engaging, revelatory. Some writers are comfortable reading at a lectern, and holding forth from a stage; some of those are even quite good at it.
But other writers are better at small talk, in small groups. Some writers benefit from preparation and rehearsal and can perform their work wonderfully, but not talk about it coherently afterwards. Some writers can work with musicians, or theatre-makers; some can work well alone; some prefer the intimacy of a bookshop; others, the privacy of a brightly-lit stage. Some writers can communicate wonderfully through social media, while an actor performs their work. Some events in the traditional format suit some of the writers, some of the time. But they exclude many writers – or, at least, squeeze them into uncomfortable positions in which they struggle to thrive – and they exclude great swathes of potential audiences.
This exclusion – this exclusivity – should be a matter of urgency for all of us who care about literature.
In her contribution to the National Conversation, Erica Wagner said: 'Books may vanish, but literature will survive.' She was talking about the forms of storytelling which long predate the printed book, and will outlive it. There are many ways of telling a story; there are many ways of presenting a book in a live setting; there are many different writers who have many different things to say in many different styles and many different settings.
It's time to open the doors to these many different writers.
If we're serious about diversity, and about wanting to hear the great stories that we're currently missing out on, then it's time to do things differently.
It's time to stop asking our writers to conform to a Victorian idea of the public intellectual. Time to get rid of the lectern, to move the chairs around, to celebrate the art of the storyteller. Let's take literature out of the lecture theatre, out of the drawing room, and away from the pulpit; let's set it loose from the soiree and the salon. Let's start with a blank page, and open the door to new audiences; and to the new writers who will come from those new audiences.
Notas De Viaje - literature and the writing life in the Philippines
Associate Programme Director Kate Griffin reports on the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference in Manilla; a three day international event entitled ‘Against the Grain’ which explored themes of struggle, social protest, regional/national voice and writing women’s lives.
In October I attended the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference in Manila and enjoyed three days of intense exchanges and privileged insights into literature and the writing life in the Philippines. Writers in the Philippines are writing in English and Filipino, as well as in the regional languages, but literary translation is an incipient art in the archipelago. Geographically the Philippines is a little out of the way; writers there feel isolated from the global literary scene, and so welcomed the international attention brought about by this conference.
Writers and struggle
The theme of conference was ‘Against the Grain – difference, dissonance and dissent’. We were hosted by the University of the Philippines in their Diliman campus, a long-standing centre of dissent. Nicknamed the Republic of Diliman, the campus prides itself on being free of influence of government, church and military, offering a zone of critical thinking.
The conference opened with a keynote address by writer Butch Dalisay, who told us that writers in the Philippines have always had plenty to write about and struggle against. One of their heroes is the 19th century writer José Rizal, who published two anti-clerical novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, which contributed to the rebellion against the Spanish colonisers and led to his execution in 1898. Today Rizal is a revered figure, with statues and museums celebrating his life.
Filipino writers continued to use literature to protest and raise social issues throughout the twentieth century, from feminism in the 1930s to the political ferment of the 1960s and 1970s. During the decade of martial law, independent newspapers were referred to as the mosquito press, known for biting at the dictatorship until its collapse in 1986.
Now there is freedom of speech but against a background of poverty and powerlessness. Butch told us that there are no taboos or sacred cows: writers can write about sexuality and gender, identity, the diaspora, love and war, beauty and politics. That evening in the Conspiracy garden cafe, a popular hangout for writers and artists hangout, the readings by Filipino writers highlighted this lack of taboos, with sexuality a common theme.
Through fiction, writers can express their ideas and stay alive, but journalism is dangerous. In the Philippines, journalists face libel cases, even assassinations, especially in the boondocks
, still ruled by warlords, including the 2009 massacre of journalists and others in the southern island of Mindanao.
Filipinos are proud of their strong writing community and self expression is encouraged. Unlike other Asian countries, there are long-standing creative writing programmes and enrolments are rising; literary awards have been given for the past 65 years; there is a Manila book fair and two literary festivals; and new writers are given recognition.
However, there are few readers or booksales, in part due to poverty: the price of a paperback is higher than the average daily wage. There is also little real conversation across the languages and the classes, between the powerful and the disempowered; literary writing in English is often far removed from concerns of ordinary people.
The novel is historically under-developed in the Philippines and is a form readers do not find easily accessible. Rizal wrote two towering novels, with revolution in the background, a love story in the foreground and a cast of thousands. Contemporary Filipino writers are constantly trying to reproduce this, rather than aiming for writing that, while also dealing with big issues, is more intimate and allows readers to get to know each other across the different parts of the Philippines.
The reach of writing in Filipino is broader, but literature doesn’t sell well; people tend to prefer other forms of entertainment such as melodrama, films and television. Over lunch, I heard about a local bestseller by Jack Alvarez, a transgender sex worker based in Saudi Arabia who’s written his memoirs, self published in the Philippines in Filipino. My dining companions told me that Filipino-language non-fiction that tackles serious subjects but in a light and humorous style can outsell imported English-language bestsellers. The audience exists, but – as elsewhere – writers of literary fiction find it hard to reach the readership.
Notions of literary quality are imported from the west; according to Butch Dalisay, Filipino writers need to revisit and reconsider their ideas about literature and writing if they want to connect with the Filipino audience.
Voices from the regions
There are 173 distinct languages in the Philippines and a palpable tension between them. There is also tension between writers writing in the regions of the Philippines and those writing from Manila. In one of the conference panels, we heard from writers and translators based in some of the southern islands of Philippines, including Mindanao.
Playwright Roger Garcia spoke about translating Shakespeare into Cebuano, one of the languages of the Philippines. His students learn English and speak Cebuano in daily life, but not this lofty Cebuano; the translations need contextualisation and humour to make the plays accessible and the language recognisable.
Poet Christine Godinez-Ortega spoke about the writers’ workshop in Mindanao, which has been running for the past twenty years. Recognising that the national literature is multilingual, they are open to papers in all languages of the Philippines. The writer should bear witness to people’s lives and generate ideas in the language most intimate to them, with the creative freedom to interrogate the past. Many regional writers are steeped in native traditions and ways of seeing, using metaphors in indigenous languages, and sharing their writing with the rest of the world through the internet. Their topics include communities, politics, corruption, conflict, and the military. In Mindanao, Christine said, you find a showcase of indigenous literature untouched by Spanish colonialism; she believes that writing about present realities recreates the past for the future.
is a poet from the city of Tacloban, where the native language is Waray-waray. However, he studied in English, graduating without any knowledge of regional literatures, and didn’t know who he was as a writer or a person. And he was not alone in this; when he put together an anthology of Waray writing, he provided an English translation for local readers, as a way of reorienting them to their own language and literature.
Through the anthology Victor found himself returning to the cultural community of his father and grandfather and finding out about the fabric of his own social history. Oral poetry and song from the 1600s showed him that people in Tacloban had sophisticated ways of predicting weather, an advanced system of boat building, and witty songs. In the 1800s, men were shy and courtship rituals were complicated, they expressed their feelings though love songs that revealed their sad plight. From periodicals dating from the late 1800s to the 1960s Victor learned that the Waray language has changed little, incorporating just a few loan words from English. In the 1920s he read that the film-watching public adopted American dress but didn’t always get it quite right; women took a shine to bathrobes, thinking them fashionable, and wore them to market. In the 1940s poets ridiculed people who were adopting American language, and in the 1950s they wrote disapprovingly about women wearing make up, speaking broken English and flirting with Americans. Even then they were worried about the dominance of English language writing.
Victor translated Waray texts into English in the 1990s, for local readers who prefer to read in English rather than for a global audience. In Manila, he said, the English-language writers seek acceptance from critics, but this isn’t necessary for local writers, who publish on the internet. In theory they could be read by readers the world over, but they’re not – this is illusory. According to Victor, unknown writers in other languages generally become known only if they’re translated into English by an English-language writer or translator, a new form of literary colonisation. You can read the full text of Victor’s talk in the Leap+ magazine.
Playwright and composer Steven Fernandez
spoke about the concept of national literature, which should be the merging of all regional literatures, except that the centre dictates what is national literature. Classification also comes from the centre, but terms such as lyrical and narrative poetry don’t mean anything in regional languages and literatures, where engagement and performance is more important than form. Meaning depends on context, there are different definitions of the concepts of time and space in the regions, and humour doesn’t always travel.
Manila writers, particularly those who write in English, don’t make sense to people in the provinces, according to Steven. This is partly a language issue, as English sets the structure and frames the mind view. Meanwhile Filipino English has its own structure and meanings that are not always understood by US publishers.
Karlo David is a creative writing graduate from Davao, where there are three language groups: migrant settlers from the north of the Philippines; Muslim groups; and the indigenous residents of Mindanao. Karlo is a Tagalog-speaking migrant who lives in a linguistically diverse neighbourhood and often uses several languages. This linguistic turmoil is a challenge for writing. Writers who choose their mother tongue have to erase their other languages and as a result may have difficulty articulating their local identity.
Karlo chose not to purify his language but to write in the Tagalog he knows, mixed with words from other languages, such as Ilongu, Cebuano. In his writing he articulates local ways of cursing, flirting, and expressing cynicism. This doesn’t always go down well with university teachers, and it can be hard to get published, especially for pay. But Karlo fears that regional writers are becoming like writers from Manila, with enforced homogeneity; he believes that it’s important for writers to embrace regional diversity.
The conference closed with an absorbing keynote lecture by Christina Pantoja Hidalgo on ‘The Subversive Memory – Women Tell What Happened’. Few women in the Philippines have published literary memoir as candid self revelation makes Filipinos uncomfortable; much autobiographical work is written against the grain. In Manila, many personal documents were destroyed during the second world war; few were able to preserve their letters and diaries. Autobiography and memoir is not listed as a category in the Philippines, but is found embedded in other genres, such as poetry, essay, history, literary criticism.
The earliest Filipina memoir was by Gregoria de Jesús, born in 1875. Her ‘Notes on My Life’ was published in 1935. Much of her memoir focuses on her life as the wife and then widow of Andrés Bonifacio, a revolutionary fighting against Spain, rather than on her personal life and reflections.
Some memoirs were in the form of travel writing, including ‘Notas de Viaje’ by María Paz Mendoza-Guazón, who worked as a professional journalist in the early twentieth century. After a trip to the US, she felt that she had a duty to report on what she learned, in particular the level of ignorance of Americans about the Philippines. Another memoir was about of the Japanese occupation, the war seen through the eyes of a non-combatant, written first as a private diary. Other women recorded their lives through their cookbooks, collecting culinary notes, recipes, newspaper clippings, poems, all within the bounds of a traditionally female space.
Christina noted that Filipino men don’t like talking about their problems; they write about their profession and work, but not about their personal life. Most of the women memoirists that Christina discussed don’t talk about sex and intimate details such as marriage break up. Only one journalist and memoirist, Griselda Morales, writes about being abandoned by her lover.
For many of the women, writing memoir allowed them to find a core of stillness and stability within themselves, to reconstruct and rewrite their lives.
It took me three days to travel from Norwich to Manila but it was more than worth it, to spend three full days at the APWT conference learning about a distant literary scene and different ways of thinking, in such inspiring company.
Sarah Perry at the East Anglian Book Awards - East Anglia has 'never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom'
Sarah Perry introduced the East Anglian Book Awards on 4 November 2015 having won the Book of the Year Award in 2014 for After Me Comes the Flood, also long listed for the Guardian First Novel Award in the same year.
At the ceremony she shared her love of a region that has ‘never quite stopped thinking of itself as a Kingdom’. She praised the radical character of the East Anglia woman referencing Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Fry, Harriet Martineau, Edith Cavell and of course Boudicca. With much to say on the East Anglian landcape she gives the final word to WG Sebald who with his translator Michael Hulse ‘captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease.'
The East Anglian Book Awards not only hold a significant place in the literary calendar, but are very dear to me. Having been fortunate enough to have been awarded a prize last year, I know how the generosity and praise of peers can see a writer though a cold Tuesday afternoon when putting one word in front of another seems a hopeless endeavour.
I also know that those of you whose books have secured a place on the short list will be feeling more than a little on edge, and so I promise I will not speak long. But I’d like to spend a short while touching on the cultural history of East Anglia, and its strange, marvellous landscape, and try to understand how this region has produced such an embarrassment of literary riches.
Writing about Norfolk, and writing about writing about Norfolk, Malcolm Bradbury once said, “Sometimes our place is our real subject, the basic material we work with, providing our vision, setting, landscape and theme. Sometimes it is a culture which stimulates our writing and lets it happen.” Those who live and write here I think will recognise this twofold effect: sometimes the shingle and the fens, the curlews and skies are consciously our subject - at other times they lie several inches behind the printed page - but always they are there.
When I moved here after a wearisome decade in London, I remember quite clearly noting that the Norwich train bore an iron plate reading RAEDWALD. When at last I thought to look into it, it pleased me to see it referred to East Anglia’s king in the year 616, when this was the most powerful of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I like to think that East Anglia never quite stopped thinking of itself as a kingdom, and that this proud separateness is part of its allure. One does not arrive here by mistake, only by intent. Those of us who frequently make the journey home to Suffolk and Norfolk by train will know there is moment when, crossing (I think) the river Ouse - where white egrets stand impassively watching the trains - it is impossible to reach anyone by phone or email.
On arrival, the stranger will find the dialects of Suffolk and Norfolk not only thrive, but are contagious: I have barely been here three years, but find myself adopting the Norwich habit of using ‘that’ for ‘it’: “Good morning! That’s a nice day, that is!” Here, a jackdaw is a cadder, a bittern is a buttle, and a heron is a harnser (which, incidentally, is perhaps what Hamlet meant when he pointed out that he knew a hawk from a handsaw). The use of language here is nimble and witty: if you drive for any distance through the countryside you’ll encounter groan-inducing puns on signs for cafes, farm shops and roadside hot dog stands (the only one that currently comes to mind is ‘Bear’s Grill’). Hilary Mantel, who lived for a time in Norfolk, recalls seeing an elderly neighbour stand on the doorstep, peer disconsolately upward, and remark that there’d not been enough rain to wet a stamp. Even the place-names seem playful, and almost certainly designed to outwit the outsider: there is no mortification quite so bad as mispronouncing Happisburgh or Wymondham. In fact, playfulness and invention seems integral to the East Anglian literary character, from Thomas Browne’s coinages – antediluvian, jocularity, electricity – to George Borrow, who entitled his memoir ‘Lavengro’, after a Romany phrase meaning ‘word-master’.
East Anglia has a long history of radicalism: political, social and religious. There was the rebel Kett, who led 16,000 men against the king and was hanged for his pains from Norwich Castle wall; the 16th century butchers, labourers, constables and painters burned at the stake for the sake of freedom of conscience in Walsingham and Thetford and on Ely Cathedral green; there was Thomas Clarkson of Wisbech, abolitionist and noted redhead. I don’t think it fanciful to say that this radical tradition thrives in the contemporary literature of East Anglia, which is willing to challenge, wary of convention, tends towards idiosyncrasy and is often disruptive.
It is impossible to account for the hold East Anglia has over writers and artists without considering its extraordinary landscape, much of which seems made of some element which is not quite water, and not quite land. It has a peculiarly eerie, melancholy quality: it does not dazzle, in the manner of the Scottish Highlands or the Cornish cliffs; rather, it clings to you, I think – like a scent, or like a sea-mist – often I find myself unable to distinguish between memories of walking on Holkham sand or the Aldeburgh shingle and all the strange dreams I have had. Robert MacFarlane’s description of a Suffolk sunset epitomises a kind of East Anglian nature writing which is beautiful, but which faintly disturbs: “At evening, as the sun was low and red in the sky, we crossed back over the River Ore, and into the woods and fields of Suffolk. A single mushroom-cloud of cumulonimbus dominated the eastern sky, and it was soaked in the red fission light of the sun.”
In H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald describes her beloved Brecklands, and again this is no chocolate-box landscape: “It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghost here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.”
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve seen more strange things in heaven and earth in the three years I have lived in East Anglia than in the thirty-two preceding. I have stood in the pine forest at Wells, where it is silent as a cathedral, and suddenly heard a volley loud as gunshot as all the pine cones overhead burst open in the heat of the sun. Later that same day, scanning the horizon over the sea, I saw a Fata Morgana, a disconcerting optical illusion in which fronts of cool air create refracting lenses that build strange, Brutalist black towers in the sky, which grew and diminished over the course of an afternoon.
Naturally enough, this uncanny land is ripe with myth – the most persistent kind of story: there’s Black Shuck, who scorched the door of Bungay church in 1577 and last made the headlines in 1971; there’s the Green Children of Woolpit, who would only eat beans, and the poor Orford Merman, who was tortured for refusing to speak and finally released back into the Ness.
It seems curious to me that those responsible for the new British passport could rustle up a mere two women of significance between them. They ought to have looked East: here lived Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love was the first book by a woman to be published in English; here also lived Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography to be published in English. Here lived the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, here was born the great sociologist Harriet Martineau, here also lived the novelist and abolitionist Amelia Opie. Edith Cavell lived here, is buried here, and is remembered whenever beer is drunk in the pub named for her, and which is a stone’s throw from her memorial. Maggie Hambling was born here, Boudicca of the Iceni lived and died here. Britain’s first female surgeon Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was of Suffolk blood, Anne Boleyn was born in Blickling, and legend has it her heart is buried here. The character of the East Anglian woman is radical, literate, rebellious, courageous, mystic and astute.
I will finish by turning to the outsiders, since no-one should think that East Anglia – for all its remoteness and pride – does not welcome the stranger. In fact, one can barely cross the road without encountering a poet or novelist who has run here – often without quite intending to, yet never really meaning to leave. Eric Arthur Blair, born in India, named himself for the River Orwell; the great Irish writer Eimear McBride lives here, as does the Hungarian poet George Szirtes. Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot, but lived here long enough: it is impossible to read – for example - The Cement Garden without seeing something familiar in its eerie, remote setting.
Last night, while musing on Twitter about the lure of this land, the writer David Hayden replied that since being here the landscape has ‘insinuated’ itself into his writing: “Always the dark woods, the lone trees, the green river, the night heron.”
I will give the last words to Sebald – one of the greatest of East Anglian outsiders, who with his translator Michael Hulse captures more precisely than any other writer this kingdom’s unique qualities: melancholy, dreamlike, almost dangerous in its likelihood to induce existential unease. Giving an account of walking in Suffolk on a day sullen with heat, he said: “Several times I was forced to retrace long stretches in that bewildering terrain . . . In the end I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me – all this became oppressive and unnerving….months after this experience, which I still cannot explain, I was on Dunwich Heath once more in a dream, walking the endlessly winding paths again, and again I could not find my way out of the maze which I was convinced had been created solely for me.”
East Anglian Book Awards
Now in their eighth year, the East Anglian Book Awards are an important part of the literary and publishing landscape in the region. Since the awards began in 2008 they have showcased the work of well over 100 authors, 129 titles, and more than 80 publishers. Find out more about the 2015 awards here.
Cutting the Long-list in Two: Choosing the Brave New Reads Books
Rowan Whiteside, Brave New Reads Communications Coordinator blogs on how the Brave New Reads books are chosen:
How can you possibly choose just six books to be part of Brave New Reads
? How do you decide which books are the bravest and brightest around, which titles are going to introduce readers to thrilling new worlds? Well, we do it with spreadsheets, colours, top fives, hundreds of reviews, and with the gracious assistance of the Readers’ Circle
, a community of eager readers from across East Anglia.
The Readers’ Circle are all volunteers. They live in villages and cities and small towns across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. They come from different backgrounds, and have different reading habits: some snatch the time to read on lunch breaks or bus journeys, some are able to indulge their love for the written word all day everyday, and some squeeze their reading in when the kids are asleep. No matter when, where and how they read, every member of the Readers’ Circle have one thing in common; they share a love for reading and a desire to recommend great books. (Find out more about the Readers’ Circle
This year we started our selection process armed with a list of titles (sourced from individual recommendations, prize longlists, review pages, and recommended by publishers) including poetry, non-fiction, short stories, works in translation, and YA. Melanie, the Brave New Reads Programme Coordinator, got in touch with the publishers of the recommended titles and asked very nicely if WCN could have copies of the suggested books. As the parcels started arriving everyone in the office gathered round, eager to get to the books inside.
The longlisted books, all 121 of them, were distributed to our Readers’ Circle and they started to read, and read, and read.
And this is where the choosing began. Each book that is read must be reviewed and marked red, amber or green. Colouring the review red meant that the reader disliked the book and wouldn’t recommend it, amber that the reader was unsure, and green meant that the reader loved the book. It’s only been two months and we’ve already had more than 500 reviews, with Melanie valiantly organising the feedback onto multiple spreadsheets.
In theory, it should then be a simple task to cut down the longlist according to the number of green, amber and red reviews. In reality, some books create violent reactions (marmite books, as I like to call them) with some people loathing them and others adoring them, skewing the numbers. Naturally some books are also reviewed less than others. Therefore, each colour is assigned a value so an average rating can be calculated. BUT, this still isn’t enough to have a truly representative view of the titles, so Melanie asks for all of our Readers’ Circle members to send a Top 5 of their favourite reads so far.
The Readers’ Circle meet regularly to discuss their opinions on the books, and last week we met in WCN’s new home of Dragon Hall to discuss cutting down the long list to a medium list of around 60-80 titles. Using all the reviews, the Top 5’s and the colour ratings, the Readers’ Circle members debated which books should make it through and took the opportunity to champion their favourite books.
The next day, having well and truly crossed some titles off the list, and clutching handfuls of notes and comments, we began to cut down the list in a painstaking fashion. As a result, we ended up with 74 titles on the medium list
, all of which have so far excited, challenged and entertained.
One of the sad realities of having to cut down the Brave New Reads list is that some much-loved books don’t make it through to the next stage of shortlisting. As such, we’ve decided to feature three of the very-almost-made-it titles at the bottom of this blog, along with a review which might tempt you to check out the book (perhaps from your local library!).
As always, happy reading!
Making Nice by Matt Sumell
I thought this collection of linked short stories was excellent although perhaps mislabelled as a novel. It put me in mind of Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her
both in tone and subject matter, although written from a different cultural perspective. Sumell's central character Alby is both likeable and immensely dislikable in a similar way to Diaz's Yunior. He is sex obsessed, prone to violent outbursts, a bit of a loser and immensely selfish. However he also shows softness, deep love for his family, and his grief at losing his mother and (almost) his dog are realistic and powerful. His portrayal of a dysfunctional and struggling family was accurate, funny and disturbing.
- Reviewed by Julia Webb of the Readers' Circle
The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyro (translated by David McDuff)
ook tickled my sense of humour and at times made me laugh out loud (something I rarely do when I read). It has the surrealness of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared
with delightfully absurd images being created by Kyro. But it is also thought-provoking and very wise, exploring capitalism, migrancy, environmentalism, and how people are treated by various systems in society. Hugely compassionate, a joy to read.
Coastlines by Patrick Barkham
This book is a tour through the 742 miles of the British Coast owned by the National Trust. As in his previous two books The Butterfly Isles
, and Badgerlands
, Barkham proves an engaging, thoughtful and entertaining guide. Barkham possesses a journalist's gift of presenting a high density of historical and cultural detail with a deftness and lightness of touch that ensures the reader is never overwhelmed or bored.
I read the bulk of this book while staying in a caravan on the Norfolk coast and I would say its effect is definitely enhanced by being read by the sea it so powerfully describes. Coastlines
is no less enjoyable and informative for being infused with a certain melancholy. The sea seems to bring out in us a sense of awe and an acknowledgement of our own insignificance. The sea's abundance is constantly threatened by human predation as we seek to slake our appetite for its fruits whatever the consequences. The sea also exercises a pull on the desperate who are apparently taking their own lives at places like Beachy Head in ever greater numbers. Yet for all the sadness this is still an uplifting read.
-Reviewed by Ken Mason of the Readers' Circle
Check to see if the books are available from Norfolk
Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list
Find out more about Brave New Reads
Floating to the Fringe - a blog by Paul Thompson
I'm a singer-songwriter from North-Norfolk and recently completed a 3 month tour to the Edinburgh Fringe in a specially converted milk float. The tour was partly funded by Arts Council England, paying for some of the conversion costs to the milk float, as well as costs such as my time spent running song writing workshops during the tour. I'd never done an application to Arts Council England, and spotted a one day workshop being run at the Writers' Centre Norwich on how to make successful arts grant applications.
The workshop was run by an ex Arts Council officer, who covered topics such as how to develop partnerships, doing a budget and how to demonstrate your track record as a creative practitioner. It was a fantastic starting point and gave me the confidence to go ahead and make my grant application - which was successful first time round. The main tip I'd give to anyone applying for a grant (I applied to the Grants for the Arts scheme, which has quite a wide remit), is to read all the guidelines on the Arts Council England website very carefully. There are lots of 'do's' and 'don'ts' to negotiate, but it will give your application much more credibility if you've done your research properly.
Many people were surprised that I got funding to tour the country in a milk float which let's face it sounds like a pretty daft idea, but it's all about the thought behind what you're doing that counts. I was keen to tour in a sustainable way, and had solar panels on the roof of the milk float that powered my music gear. I performed at venues like the Green Britain Centre in Swaffham and Northumberland National Park that I felt would fit with the ethos of the tour, and the song writing workshops I ran were to do with using the senses to appreciate the environment.
I was also fortunate to get sponsored by CalMac, the Scottish ferry company, who paid for my ferry tickets to tour all the way up the west side of Scotland, performing at the islands including Arran, Rum, Skye, and as far north as Harris on the Outer Hebrides. Not bad for a vehicle that could only travel at 15mph! 'Bluebell' my trusty milk float was also my home for 3 months, stopping mainly at camp sites where I needed to charge the batteries each night.
Highlights of the tour included using Bluebell as a stage at Belladrum Festival, one of Scotland's biggest music festivals, and a two week stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, where I was performing every day on George Street with guest acts coming to play from all over the UK.
I kept a blog of the tour, which can be found at my website, www.paulsmusic.co.uk
, and I'm currently writing a book which I'm hoping to find a publisher for in 2016. I also have further plans for the milk float, using it to do music events and song writing workshops around Norfolk, and possibly a tour of Holland. In the mean time, if you're interested in booking myself and Bluebell to come and play some music for an event please get in touch!
Writers' Centre Norwich runs a year-round selection of workshops, masterclasses and courses on anything from writing nature poetry, to finding a literary agent or editing your first draft. You can find out more about our programme of events and workshops here.
A Writer’s Manifesto by Joanne Harris: The National Conversation
An original provocation for WCN delivered at Manchester Literature Festival on Monday 19th October, 2015.
In a world in which the internet, with its forums and discussion groups, has blurred the line between readers and writers almost to invisibility, the relationship between one and the other now seems increasingly difficult – audience participation in the creation of art is considered by many to be not only legitimate, but desirable.
Both on and offline, everyone has an opinion. And everyone has a platform from which to disseminate their opinions. Much of the time, this is a good thing. It allows a potential dialogue to exist between readers and creators. It allows readers to get in touch with the authors of work they have enjoyed. It allows writers to understand where and how they might have gone wrong, and how they can improve and grow. However, this breaking-down of barriers has also created a false sense of entitlement, giving some readers the impression that artists and writers not only inhabit a privileged world, in which there are no bills to pay and in which time is infinitely flexible, but that they also exist primarily to serve the public, to be available night and day, and to cater for the personal needs of everyone who contacts them.
This is partly due to the fact that there are so many more writers than there were fifty years ago. The rise of self-publishing, e-books and fanfiction means that far more people are now able to identify as writers. And although this is a good thing in many ways, it does also help perpetuate the idea that anyone
can write a book, and that the people who actually do so are simply luckier, wealthier, or blessed with more spare time than those who do not.
The truth is, not everyone can – or should – be a writer, in the same way that not everyone can or should be an accountant, or a ballet dancer, teacher, pilot, soldier, or marathon runner. The same combination of aptitude, experience and acquired skills apply to being a writer as to any other job. We would never think of telling a doctor that we were thinking of taking up medicine when we retired. We would never expect a plumber to work for free – or a plasterer, for publicity. We would never expect to hear the word “privilege” of a teacher who has spent their career working hard to earn a living. We would never expect a lawyer who has paid to go through law school to tutor aspiring lawyers for free.
And yet, and yet, these demands are made of writers all the time. Perhaps it’s because the value of writing is such a difficult thing to quantify. Everyone dreams. Not everyone gets to dream for a living. But are we writers expecting too much? Can we keep artistic control, whilst expecting to earn a living? And, in a world in which the consumer increasingly calls the shots, can we still hope for a relationship with our readers that transcends that of mere supply and demand?
Not long ago, I was involved in the debate around an app called CleanReader, which contained an algorithm that picked out and replaced “offensive words” in e-books with “acceptable substitutes.” Thus, “breasts” becomes “chest,” “bitch” becomes “witch” and any kind of profanity is reduced to a series of American euphemisms, making nonsense of the text, its rhythms, style and meaning. Writers rallied round to combat the distribution of this app, which was swiftly withdrawn from sale. But the designers of the app, a Christian couple from Idaho, wrote to me several times to protest that readers, having paid for my books, should have the right
to change my words if they disapproved of them. Readers are consumers, they said. Therefore, just as a person ordering a salad in a restaurant should have the right to ask the chef for a different dressing, readers should also have the choice to enjoy a story without being exposed to language they deem offensive, or ideas that challenge their perceptions. After all, they said; isn’t that why writers exist in the first place? Are they not there primarily to serve the needs of the public, and does it not make sense that they should take those needs into account?
Well, of course our readers do have a choice. And of course, we writers owe them a great deal. But a novel isn’t a salad with interchangeable ingredients. Nor is the reader entitled to order from a menu. As writers, we are always grateful when a reader chooses one of our books. We hope that they will enjoy it. And most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.
The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone
all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction. Fiction is not by its nature a design for living, nor an imaginary comfort zone. Although it can
be both those things, its range goes much further than comfort or escapism. Fiction is often un
comfortable; often unexpected. Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.
I love my readers. I love their enthusiasm, their willingness to engage. I enjoy our conversations on Twitter and at festivals. I love their diversity, and the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them, and according to what they have experienced. Without readers, writers would have no context; no audience; no voice. But that doesn’t mean we’re employees, writing books to order. We, too, have a choice. We choose what kind of relationship we want to have with our readers – whether to interact online, go to festivals, give interviews, tour abroad, teach pro bono creative writing sessions or even live in seclusion, without talking to anyone. Writers are as diverse as readers themselves, and all of them have their own way of operating. What may work for one author may be hopelessly inappropriate for another. But whatever our methods of working, the relationship between a writer and their readers should be based on mutual respect, along with a shared understanding of books, their nature and their importance.
On the internet I’ve seen a growing number of sites and blogs enumerating what readers expect of writers. Requests for increased diversity, increased awareness of current issues, requests for time and attention, gratis copies of books for review, interviews and guest blog posts - or simply demands to work faster. Readers have numerous spaces in which to discuss author behaviour, to analyse their politics, lifestyle and beliefs – sometimes, in extreme cases, to urge other readers to boycott the work of those authors whose themes are seen as too controversial, or whose ideas do not coincide with their own. Authors are expected to respect these reader spaces, whatever the nature of the discussion. To comment on a bad review – or even to be seen to notice it – is to risk being labelled an “author behaving badly”. Authors whose work is deemed to have problematic content are expected to analyse the cause – and in some cases, to apologize. There is an increasing call for trigger warnings; profanity warnings; age guidelines – in order to help the reader choose amidst a bewildering number of books. The demands on authors are numerous; often even daunting.
But do readers ever ask themselves what authors want of them? Do authors ever ask themselves what they want of their readers?
I think that for most authors, it comes down to two deceptively simple things.
The first and most prosaic is: we want to make a living. This fact is at the same time obvious, and fiercely contested, not least by many authors, who rightly see their work as something more than just a means of paying the rent.
That’s because, many authors find it hard to talk about money. It’s considered vulgar for artists to care about where the next meal is coming from. And many authors are driven to write: would probably write whether or not they had an audience; or whether they were ever published or paid, just for the joy of writing. This is at the same time their strength, and also their downfall; with the exception of a canny few who treat art as a business, writers are often reluctant to think of their work as just another product. We do not like to think of our books as units, to be bought and sold. And yet, to the publishing industry, that’s exactly what they are; the product of thousands of hours of work: of editing; copy-editing; design; marketing; proof-reading; promotion. Publishers spend most of their time thinking about the readers – the consumers of our work - but for an author, thinking about the readers (or, even worse, the pay-check) while trying to write a novel is like thinking about the drop when performing a high-wire act; dangerous, counterproductive, and likely to lead to failure.
But if, as Samuel Johnson maintains, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, there must be a lot of blockheads in the writing community. I’ll admit I’m one myself. Nevertheless, however much we may cling to society’s romanticized views of art for art’s sake, authors and illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.
That’s where the readers come in. Many readers seem to believe that authors are earning millions. The reality is that most authors earn rather less than the minimum wage, and when touring, attending festivals, blogging, giving interviews, holding readings, writing guest posts for bloggers, too often give their work for free. That’s why it’s important for readers to show appreciation for the work of the authors we love; firstly by buying
their books (as opposed to downloading them illegally); by borrowing them from libraries (because authors are paid
for borrowed books, a sum which, though small, adds up and can often provide a welcome annual windfall); and most importantly, by supporting their work; by attending festivals and readings, by writing reviews and joining in discussion groups, and generally promoting awareness of their writing, and of books in general.
Because what authors really want (and money provides this, to some extent) is validation of their work. We write because we want you to care; because we hope you’re listening – that we can make a connection, somehow; that we can prove we are not alone.
Because stories – even fairy stories – are never just entertainment. Stories are more important than that. They help us understand who we are. They teach us empathy and respect for other cultures, other ideas. They help us articulate concepts that cannot otherwise be expressed. Stories help us communicate; they help eliminate boundaries; they teach us different ways in which to see the world around us. Their value may be intangible, but it is no less real for that. And stories bring us together – readers and writers everywhere – exploring our human experience and sharing it with others.
So this is my manifesto, my promise to you, the reader. From you, I ask that you take it in good faith, respond in kind, and understand that, whatever I do, I do for the sake of something we both value - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.
2. I promise not to sell out - not even if you ask me to.
3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.
4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.
5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.
6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.
7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.
8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new - even if the things I try are not always successful.
9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don't think you really want me to.
10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.
11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.
12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.
Joanne Harris has written fourteen novels, including Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. She has written two books of short stories and three cookbooks with Fran Warde. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. Harris plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16 and still lives in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband and daughter.
This piece was commissioned as part of the National Conversation, a year-long discussion about the issues that matter to writers and readers. Find out more.
Listen to the provocation and debate here
Do let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Mike Carey: How do we reflect the world in fiction?
In advance of our National Conversation event with Joanne Harris on Monday 19th October, we asked Mike Carey for his response to the question - what is the role of the writer in contemporary society?
I don’t believe that a novel is a mirror carried along a road. That’s one of the many things it can aspire to be, but it’s generally not a realistic goal. There’s too much of you in a novel for the rest of the world to fit comfortably. All you can do is say “well this bit of the world looks like this from the angle at which I’m currently standing.”
Having said that, I thin
k all novels are haunted by the real world in the way old repurposed buildings are haunted by their original form and function. And I think you have to watch those angles pretty closely – the points where your stories lean up against reality. They’re always going to be there because everything has to be supported by something.
Ursula LeGuin said that people who don’t read sci-fi think of its narratives as excursions, whereas in fact they’re incursions – raids on the real. Wallace Stevens said that the beauty of Earth is the beauty of every paradise, and that I certainly believe. It’s true of dystopias too, or should be: genre fictions, like all fictions, are curiously shaped and intricate tools for exploring what matters to us (and to the people around us) in the lives we lead in the world we all happen to share. It’s not the only thing they do, but it’s an important thing.
It follows that you’re responsible, at least a little bit, for the inferences and assertions about the real world that either flit across the surface of your fictions or else get deeply embedded in them.
That may seem a bit controversial, even wilfully naïve. The death of the author happened a long while back (I was sorry because I knew the guy). We’re all agreed now that meaning
, signification, is something that happens when the reader’s mind encounters the text, not when the author opens his magic bottle o’ meaning and pours in a big dollop of the stuff.
But still. Your words exist in the world, in the same way a table or a chair exists in the world. If you were building a chair you wouldn’t build it with one leg shorter than the other three. Likewise you wouldn’t make a table with a nail sticking out so anyone passing by might injure themselves on it. And it’s the same with stories.
Please don’t mistake this for a parable about Not Giving Offence
. It’s absolutely fine for stories to give offence. It’s both inevitable and perfectly acceptable. You may think that Salman Rushide is an infidel and Michel Houllebecq is a racist jerk, in which case you can avoid their stories or – better – you can read them and think about them and try to formulate what it is about them you disagree with.
What I’m saying is more about function. You have to be aware, as a writer, of what your story is about and what it’s for. You have to own your meanings, insofar as they are yours. You have to make sure the fiction is fit for purpose.
When you send it out to walk along the road, it’s reflecting you as well as the world. Be in there as yourself, not as someone else. And be honest. It may only ever matter to you, but it should matter to you a lot.
Mike Carey is a screenwriter, novelist and comic book writer. He wrote the movie adaptation for his novel The Girl With All the Gifts, currently in production. He has worked extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His comic book series The Unwritten has featured repeatedly in the New York Times' graphic novel bestseller list. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz. His next novel, to be published in April 2016, is Fellside, a ghost story set in a women’s prison.
Joanne Harris will be discussing the role of the contemporary writer with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Lemn Sissay and Geoff Ryman on Monday 19th October at Manchester Literature Festival. Do join us, or read Joanne's provocation online after the event.
Being Dad - Common ground amongst disparate writers.
Lander Hawes is a father and writer based in Norwich, and is a regular attendee of WCN workshops and events. He is published by Unthank Books, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Here, he explains the process of being involved in an anthology about fatherhood, that pulled together writers of disparate styles who all share one special thing - fatherhood...
The starting point for the Being Dad: Short Stories about Fatherhood anthology was the editor, Dan Coxon, realising the degree to which his short story writing peers shared his parenting experiences. When Dan contacted me to enquire if I could contribute, I was immediately interested as the anthology seemed a way of peering into the hatch of different writers lives, or as a potential area of common ground amongst writers who were otherwise likely to be largely disparate.
Ironically, parenthood and the resulting dawn writing routine has made me so dough-headed from exhaustion that I initially forgot I had a story featuring parenting, and so respectfully declined involvement at first. Luckily, Dan was persistent enough to keep asking, and eventually I remembered ‘Bird Tables for Swans’. This story had been ranked in the top 100 for the Bridport Prize in 2014, and featured a divorcing father failing to cope whilst obsessed with extreme domestic carpentry. It took around two months to write, largely in 6.00-6.30am sessions. These had the effect of padding the process out with thinking space, so I spent more time than I might otherwise have done considering each step the story took. It’s also the last story I wrote, and the only really viable one, of a series in which the male protagonist struggled with an alarming, compulsive hobby. So, for me, completing this story marked a break-out from a creative cul-de-sac, and a writing phase of relative stagnation.
Being Dad: Short Stories about Fatherhood is an anthology of brand new fiction about fatherhood edited by Dan Coxon.
It features stories by: Toby Litt, Nikesh Shukla, Dan Rhodes, Courttia Newland, Nicholas Royle, Johnny Mains, Dan Powell, Rodge Glass, R.J. Price, Tim Sykes, Lander Hawes, Andrew McDonnell, Iain Robinson, Richard W. Strachan, Richard V. Hirst and Samuel Wright and is being published via a kickstarter campaign
. You can find out more about it here
If You Liked Brave New Reads, You’ll Love....
Did you devour the Brave New Reads titles? We’ve picked out some books which we think you’ll also enjoy. Scroll down to see them all, or click the relevant title.
Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh
Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham
Black Country by Liz Berry
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov
Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery
Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
We'd love to hear what you thought of Brave New Reads 2015. Please take the time to fill in this brief survey and you could win book tokens!
Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh
A brutal, compelling and savagely funny collection of interlinked short stories. Semi-autobiographical, Any Other Mouth
is a candid and deeply personal exploration of grief, growing-up, family dynamics and explicit sexual experience. Mackintosh deftly reveals the raw reality of bereavement, balancing supreme honesty with a wrenching tenderness.
Find out more about Any Other Mouth.
If you liked
Any Other Mouth, we think you might enjoy:
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth
Not that Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned by Lena Dunham
Animals is a hilarious, moving and refreshingly honest tale of how a friendship can become the ultimate love story.
A hilarious, poignant, and extremely frank collection of personal essays by Lena Dunham, the acclaimed creator, producer, and star of HBO’s ‘Girls’.
How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Part memoir, part rant, How to be a Woman
offers a new way to look at feminism from Caitlin Moran, one of our funniest writers.
Nobody Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
A remarkable collection of stories which explores seemingly ordinary people living extraordinary lives and how a single moment can change everything.
Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger
Fiercely clever and unapologetically wild, Eat My Heart Out
is the satire for our narcissistic, hedonistic, post-post-feminist era.
Brass by Helen Walsh
Shockingly candid and brutally poetic, Walsh creates a portrait of a city and a generation that offers a female perspective on the harsh truth of growing up in Britain.
Music for Torching by AM Homes
Homes lays bare the foundations of marriage and family life and creates characters outrageously flawed, deeply human and entirely believable.
Black Vodka by Deborah Levy
Twenty-first century lives dissected with razor-sharp humour and curiosity, stories about what it means to live and love, together and alone.
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
In language dazzling, energetic and pure, The Panopticon
introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine on her way to the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders.
Dig deep and discover the subterranean world of the humble badger in this compelling account of the animal’s history. In Badgerlands
Barkham examines one of our most controversial creatures. Intriguing and instructive, Badgerlands
debunks myths and proves that when it comes to badgers it’s never just black and white.
Find out more about Badgerlands
If you enjoyed Badgerlands we think you might like:
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
H is for Hawk
is an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald's struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk's taming and her own untaming.
A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson
A Sting in the Tale
tells the story of Goulson’s passionate drive to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee to its native land and contains groundbreaking research into these curious creatures.
The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane
Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world of places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.
Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin
Roger Deakin's unmatched exploration of our relationship with trees is autobiography, history, traveller's tale as well as incisive work in natural history.
The Dig by Cynan Jones
Deep in rural Wales, a farmer is struggling through lambing season when he becomes aware that his land is being stalked by a badger-baiter who brings with him the stark threat of violence.
Claxton by Mark Cocker
Passionate, astonishing and inspiring, this book is a celebration of the wonder that lies in our everyday experience.
Four Fields by Tim Dee
Tim Dee tells the story of four fields spread around the world: their grasses, their hedges, their birds, their skies, and their natural and human histories.
A soaring collection of poetry, which weaves birds of all kinds through the text and swoops from childhood innocence to sensual pleasures. Black Country melds traditional West Midlands dialect with Berry’s fresh and contemporary voice, creating a distinctive linguistic energy. Using precise language and an acute awareness of heritage, Berry creates an enchanting atmosphere of folklore and magic.
Find out more about Black Country.
If you enjoyed Black Country we think you might like:
Chick by Hannah Lowe
Division Street by Helen Mort
From the clash between striking miners and police to the delicate conflicts in personal relationships, Mort’s stunning debut is marked by distance and division.
With London as their backdrop, Hannah Lowe's deeply personal narrative poems are often filmic in effect and brimming with sensory detail in their evocations of childhood and coming-of-age, love and loss of love, grief and regret.
Fire Songs by David Harsent
David Harsent's new collection of poems shares a dark territory and a sometimes haunting, sometimes steely, lyrical tone.
Moontide by Niall Campbell
is filled with images of the island's seascapes, its myths, its wildlife, and the long dark of its winters. Quietly reflective and deftly musical, these thoughtful poems explore ideas of companionship and withdrawal, love and the stillness of solitude.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller
Acclaimed Jamaican poet Miller dramatizes what happens when one system of knowledge, one method of understanding place and territory, comes up against another, as the cartographer, a scientific rationalist, attempts to map his way to the eternal city of Zion.
Mesmerising and haunting, this otherworldly fairytale describes a life shaped by landscape. Yerzhan is seemingly an ordinary young boy, but as you travel across the Kazakhstan steppes together he’ll lead you through his blighted youth; from the nuclear wasteland of his home to his lost love. Emotionally true, The Dead Lake
will echo long after you’ve finished reading.
Find out more about The Dead Lake
If you liked The Dead Lake, you might enjoy:
Soul by Andrey Platonov, Translated by Elizabeth Chandler, Olga Meerson and Robert Chandler
'For the mind, everthing is in the future' Platonov once wrote; 'for the heart, everything is in the past'. The protagonist of Soul
is a young man torn between these opposing desires, sent as a kind of missionary to bring the values of modern Russia to his childhood home town in Central Asia.
All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
All That is Solid Melts into Air
is an exceptionally moving novel of interwoven lives, set amidst one of the most iconic disasters in living memory, Chernobyl.
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, Translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah
1867: a year of devastating famine in Finland. Marja, a farmer's wife from the north, sets off on foot through the snow with her two young children. Their goal: St Petersburg, where people say there is bread.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Jones, Translated by Clarissa Botsford
Hana is forced to adopt male persona Mark to avoid an arranged marriage. After many years as a man, Mark is offered the chance to move to the US – but what does he know about being an American woman?
The Wall by William Sutcliffe
Joshua is a troubled boy who lives in a divided city, where a wall and soldiers separate two communities. One day Joshua discovers a tunnel, which leads under the wall to the forbidden territory of the other side.
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Translated by Rosalind Harvey
A masterful and darkly comic first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole
is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child’s wish. Tochtli, son of a drug baron, has everything apart from his heart’s desire: a pygmy hippotamus from Liberia.
The Good Angel of Death by Andrey Kurkov, Translated by Andrew Bromfield
Koyla moves into a new flat and discovers an annotated manuscript hidden inside a copy of War and Peace
. He decides to track down the author, and begins a very bizarre
charts the downfall of three generations of land-owners and the disintegration of their American dream. Louise reluctantly sells her family land, property developer Krovik builds on it and goes bankrupt, and the Noallies family move in, ready for an untainted future but unprepared for what’s to come. Saturated with an eerie menace, the prose shifts and mutates to create an unsettling and gripping novel.
Find out more about Fallen Land
If you liked Fallen Land we think you might enjoy:
Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
The House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
The Bellefleurs own vast lands and profitable businesses, they employ their neighbors, and they influence the government. A prolific and eccentric group, they include several millionaires; a mass murderer; a spiritual seeker; a wealthy noctambulist who dies of a chicken scratch; a baby, Germaine - the heroine of the novel - and her parents, Leah and Gideon.
Immensely imaginative. Impossible to put down. Impossible to forget. House of Leaves
is thrilling, terrifying and unlike anything you have ever read before.
Wreaking by James Scudamore
Three solitary characters remember their shared past in a sprawling, derelict psychiatric hospital on the English coast. Wreaking
is an intricate, labyrinthine novel about the opiate power of place, the fragility of sanity and the fickle nature of memory.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it tells a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.
Absolution by Patrick Flanery
Sam Leroux returns to South Africa to write the biography of Clare Wald, world-renowned author. But as the project continues and her life story develops, the line between truth and fiction becomes blurred, and Sam’s own ghosts emerge.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Over six decades, the consequences of a moment's impulse unfold, drawing an heroine Holly Sykes woman into a world far beyond her imagining. A kaleidoscopic story of an unusual woman's life, a metaphysical thriller and a profound meditation on mortality and survival.
The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In a sleepy little New England village stands a dark, weather-beaten, many-gabled house. This brooding mansion is haunted by a centuries-old curse that casts the shadow of ancestral sin upon the last four members of the distinctive Pyncheon family.
A potent tale of survival and determination, Prayers for the Stolen
tells the story of Ladydi: a fierce young girl who masquerades as a boy to escape the grasping threat of drug cartels. Ladydi is taught defiance by her wisecracking mother, yet the mountains of Mexico are filled with dangers; from toxic herbicides to ravaging gunmen. Immerse yourself in her enthralling life, and an unforgettable adventure.
Find out more about Prayers for the Stolen
If you liked
Prayers for the Stolen, we think you might enjoy:
The Underground Girls Of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys by Jenny Nordberg
An Afghan woman's life expectancy is just 44 years, and her life cycle often begins and ends in disappointment. For some, disguising themselves as boys is the only way to get ahead. Exploring the historical and religious roots of this tradition, The Underground Girls of Kabul
is a fascinating and moving narrative that speaks to the roots of gender.
The Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle
Two very different men find their lives entwined when wealthy American Delaney Mossbacher knocks down a Mexican pedestrian. The two men are fated to collide, and as Delaney attempts to clear the land of the illegal immigrants a boiling pot of racism and prejudice threatens to spill over.
2666 by Robert Bolano
On the Mexico-US border there is an urban sprawl that draws lost souls to it like a vortex. Convicts and academics find themselves here, as does a sportswriter, a student with her widowed father, and a reclusive 'missing' author. But there is a darker side to the town: girls and women are disappearing at an alarming rate...
Heliopolis by James Scudamore
As a child Ludo is plucked out of the shantytown and transported to a world of cosseted luxury; at twenty-seven, he works high above the above the sprawling metropolis of São Paulo. But this is not a simple rags-to-riches story: Ludo's destiny moves him around like a chess piece, showing him both extremities of opulent excess and abject poverty, taking him to the brink of madness and brutality.
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Lilith is born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. As she comes of age and begins to understand her own feelings and identity, she dares to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman.
Any of these titles take your fancy? Check out the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire library catalogues and reserve the books online, or pop to your local bookshop.
Brave New Reads is brought to you by Writers’ Centre Norwich and the library services in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, and was created in Norwich, England’s first UNESCO City of Literature.
Shifting Debates and Modern Translation
Programme Director Jon Morley looks forward to our upcoming event Translation in the Margins. Taking place on the 3rd of October at the Free Word Centre, this practical symposium will investigate issues around translation. Tickets are still available at only £15.
Translation in the Margins, which I’m curating at the Free Word Centre on Saturday 3 October, will explore the radical edges of literary translation in an interactive, writer-led format.
When I used to study Postcolonial Literature in a Translation Studies department, it always seemed to me that there was something of a rift between the two fields. At the annual postgraduate conferences, I was often the lone postcolonialist, listening with fascination while translators outlined cutting-edge research. I remember illuminating presentations on the inadequacies of the classic English translations of Chinese poetry; on the pressure that Thai and Sri Lankan translators faced from Buddhist supremacists when they sought to bring narratives that challenged nationalist myths to a wider international readership; on unexpurgated English versions of Osama Bin Laden’s speeches, whose rhetoric seemed uncomfortably close to that of emblematic heroes of Third World liberation struggles (Mandela, Castro or Cabral). Like the history of empire which I was discovering more about, translation seemed to turn the world on its head.
With performance techniques borrowed from the Caribbean poets I loved (including samples of reggae music in an analysis of poetry, for example) I was able in turn to seize the attention of the translators, exposing them to New World perspectives on literature. It always struck me as strange that, for translators, there was such novelty in mixing up ‘literature’ and common speech in this way, given that multilingualism and ‘the oral tradition’ are conditions of the developing world.
The debate is shifting. International Translation Day, In Other Words and Modern Poetry in Translation regularly include discussion of postcolonial ‘englishes’ and how they might serve to bring texts from Africa or Asia into European markets. But our event (funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation) seeks to refine the issue a little more, by including translators, writers and political activists on the same platform and seeing what kinds of discussion, what lines of enquiry, emerge.
Jamaican poet Olive Senior will start the day off with a keynote lecture that explores the issues from a new world, Caribbean perspective. Bestselling Korean novelist Sun-mi Hwang will talk about setting children’s fiction – stories so dark and thought-provoking that they’re categorised as books for adults when the English translations hit the shelves of Waterstones – in war zones and disputed territories. Meena Kandasamy, Tamil poet, activist and agitator will argue that translation is a feminist act, speaking about the intimidation and threats she has received as a result of translating the political writings of ‘Untouchables’. Hamid Ismailov will reflect on the experience of being widely acclaimed as Uzbekistan’s foremost novelist whilst living in political exile, and how translation has facilitated wider access to his work. We’ll have a crash-course on how to translate poetry composed partly in Braille by Indonesian disability activist Khairani Barokka, radical publisher Deborah Smith will give her view on why the world still needs independent presses, Yrsa Daley-Ward will explore the new routes to publication that young, multiple-identity writers are experimenting with across Africa and the Americas, Francesca Beard will help us find new forms of expression through a live literature master-class, and we’ll close the afternoon with the announcement of the Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize and an international poetry reading by several of our delegates.
Of course, there is much, much more that we could include. I hope the Q&A sessions will be lively debates where a multiplicity of writers, from different styles and different cultural backgrounds, can share their experiences and their hopes for the future.
The event runs at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon from 10.30am on Saturday 3 October. I hope to see you there!
Programme Director, Writers’ Centre Norwich
As Slowly as Possible: Han Kang Reports from the BCLT Summer School
In the summer of 2015, the acclaimed South Korean novelist Han Kang stayed in this Fine City as our latest UNESCO Writer in Residence, sponsored by the Arts Council of Korea. She attended Worlds, gave readings in Norwich, London and Edinburgh, translated poetry, explored the Norfolk landscape, met her publishers at Granta and prepared the proofs of her next novel, Human Acts (due to be published in the UK in January in Deborah Smith’s translation).
Following the BCLT Summer School, a practical symposium was organised to explore some of the issues around translation. Taking place on the 3rd of October at the Free Word Centre, Translation in the Margins will investigate the radical edges of literary translation. (Find out more about the event.)
Here, Han Kang reflects on the experience of being a guest author at the BCLT Translation Summer School in July. With additional support from the Korean Literary Translation Institute, a number of novice literary translators participated in a week-long workshop with Deborah and Daniel Hahn, testing different approaches to translating Kang's fiction in the presence of the author herself. Kang's fascinating diary entries form the basis of her account of the process. The below piece was translated by Deborah Smith.
Slowly, as slowly as possible
This summer just past, I spent two months in the small, peaceful British city of Norwich, supported by the British Council and the Korean Arts Council, ARKO. As it happened to coincide with my residency, I also participated as a writer in the translation workshop held for a week every July at the University of East Anglia
. That workshop was on a larger scale, and more intensive, than any other translation programme I had previously heard of or experienced. Translation sessions were organised by language, for Dutch, German, Norwegian, Italian, and even Korean, included this year for the first time. Workshops were also held under the name of ‘multi-language sessions’, translating literary works from a variety of languages into English, shared between poetry and prose classes.
On Sunday 26th July, the evening before the workshop commenced, the participants gathered in the campus bar for the opening event. It was scheduled to be led by Deborah Smith, who has translated my novels The Vegetarian
and Human Acts
, with help from the translator and author Daniel Hahn, who frequently dropped in on our sessions. After the writer and translators had shared brief introductory remarks, Daniel said with a smile, “My role in these sessions will be to obstruct the work of translation as much as I can, in order for it to progress slowly, as slowly as possible.” I nodded, because I liked the sound of those words ‘as slowly as possible’. I thought it was lucky that this was not to be a workshop where everything was done ‘as quickly as possible’. Of course, at that point I was unable to guess just how slowly our sessions were going to go.
Because the participants who were coming from Korea arrived late on the Sunday night, I was only able to meet everybody in our session first thing on the Monday. Sophie, Hyo-kyung, Victoria, and Celin, students from LTI Korea’s Translation Academy, and their professor Kim Chung-hee. Roxanne, who studies Korean literature at SOAS in London.
The text we were to translate that week was my short story “Europa”. At Deborah’s suggestion, I first briefly explained my motivation for writing the story, and what I had thought particularly important about it, and straight after that the translation began. After each member had translated the first sentenced, they took in it turns to present their translations. After Deborah had typed them up on the computer, she examined each individual word in minute detail - even down to the punctuation marks. She led the discussion tirelessly, neither agreeing completely with one person’s translation nor unilaterally dismissing another’s. In that first session, which took place from 11am to 1pm, I was shocked to see that we didn't even manage to fully translate one sentence. “The important thing is the process,” Deborah said.
The afternoon session was held from 3.30pm to 5.30pm; Daniel came in, and was entirely satisfied with the slow speed of our progress. He had the students read the sentence that was being translated out loud, and after also having me read the Korean, stressed the desirability of the sense of rhythm given by the length of the sentences in the two languages being as similar as possible. Eventually, once three sentences had been completed, when we parted having arranged to meet again the next day, Deborah said that as we continued with the translation, the sentences we thought were 'done' could in fact be revised almost endlessly, to make sure they matched with the following passage.
Instantly I realised that this extremely delicate, elaborate process was giving me a very particular sense of deja vu. All of this was what I myself did every day. Changing the position of a word, rearranging the order of sentences, cutting out unnecessary words, reading out loud, reading out loud again from the first sentence after writing the final sentence, cutting more words, taking out punctuation, putting it in, cutting again. Accepting dispassionately the fact that after writing the next day’s sentences, today’s might all have to be cut, forcing me to re-write everything from the beginning.
Tuesday and Wednesday
Various observers (people from the Writers’ Centre Norwich, the British Council
, teachers and students from the creative writing MA course) came in and watched our sessions, cautiously giving their opinions if we happened to be struggling with certain words, certain expressions. Their input almost always made our debates all the richer, and there were times when it enabled us to suddenly get to the nub of the matter and make progress.
The interesting thing, was the fact that, in direct contrast to the translated sentences given by the participants on the Monday being generally rather similar, the more time went by the more varied the expressions which appeared became. Rather than automatically transposing the original Korean sentence structure, they began to concentrate on the ‘feeling’ of that sentence and inventively seek an English expression which could vividly convey that feeling. Deborah continually encouraged them in this by saying things like “Isn’t this sentence a bit plain?” “What might be an expression that isn’t flat?” “Ah, that’s too bland”, “This expression is awkward in English”.
The result was that on Tuesday we succeeded in translating five sentences and connecting them with the previous three. Before we turned in for the day, everyone read it out loud and exclaimed how happy they were with it. Because we were all well aware of how difficult it had been to find a point of contact and come up with sentences which satisfied us all. Following on from this, on the Wednesday we translated a section of dialogue. We put our heads together to reach an agreement as to how colloquial it should be, what were the idiomatic expressions that are written in English in similar situations. Wanting to test that it was sufficiently natural-sounding, the participants even acted the conversation out, and burst out laughing in doing so.
In the early hours of the morning, I had a dream. Someone was lying in a white bed, and I was quietly watching them. Their face was covered with a white sheet, so I couldn’t tell whether they were male or female. Somehow, I was able to hear what he/she was saying. ‘I have to get up now…no, that’s too flat.’ ‘I really will have to get up now…no, that’s too bland.’ ‘I have to leave this bed…no, that’s awkward.’
Having woken from the dream, I thought of the participants in our session, and thought of Deborah, who had translated two of my novels, and finally thought of myself. I thought about the lives of the struggling people beneath the white sheet that covered their faces, tenaciously asking questions of and answering themselves, ceaselessly rewriting sentences.
In the session that morning, everyone enjoyed hearing about my dream. (I have come to realise that it is possible for someone’s nightmare to make many people happy). In the second session that day, we translated eight lines with surprising concentration, making it the day when our yield was greatest.
On Friday, which was the final day, after putting the finishing touches to our translation in the morning session, in the afternoon we shifted to the Writers’ Centre in Norwich city centre and had a session set aside for presentations. The translation sessions for European languages had translated quite a lot of pages in a week, as might be expected for languages from the same family, whereas we had managed to produce only a little over a single page, from the very beginning of the story. During the fifteen minutes allotted in the presentation session, the participants for our session stood up on stage and read their translation as slowly as possible, and took it in turns to speak methodically about the minute difficulties of the translation process. Sitting in the audience, I was quite moved.
People who delight in the intricacies of language. People who take even the most minute difference to be something large, important, significant. People who, through that keen sensibility, give a single text a new birth in another language. People who move forwards following that strange, beautiful rule which says that it is good to go as slowly as possible. People who ask questions of and answer themselves, alone beneath the white sheet, ceaselessly re-writing sentences. I felt touchingly grateful to everyone in our session, including Deborah - no, somehow to every translator in the world.
Each of the other sessions' presentations was also enjoyable. There was one group who, at the beginning and end of the passage, had the writer and translator read at the same time, producing an effect akin to music, and there was one who, after two people had translated the same text, read a passage from the various versions, so that we could appreciate the differences. There was one group who amused the audience by humorously disclosing that, as their session leader had been unable to attend due to personal reasons, and the only participant in the week who was able to speak that language had arrived late, the other participants had spent the entire week engaged in a bitter struggle, relying only on a dictionary, at the end of which they had managed to produce a grand total of three sentences. I laughed along with the rest, of course, but I also thought it was a bit of a shame. That there was a group who'd succeeded in going even slower than our session had...
Bookseller Louisa Theobald reviews Fallen Land
Bookseller Louisa Theobald reviews Fallen Land, one of our Brave New Reads titles, written by Patrick Flanery. Get a feel of the book below:
Fallen Land is Patrick Flanery’s second novel and one that is stuffed full of themes which range from the nature of madness and cruelty, the legacy of family abuse and the intrusion of business into every sector of our life.
Most overtly, Patrick Flanery explores and dissects the American dream through his cast of diverse characters, and finds the dream wanting. There is the widow Louise Washington, a teacher who is unable to keep her farm profitable after her husband’s death. There is Paul Krovik, the callous property developer who buys Louise's land, driven by dreams of a gleaming subdivision which unravels into a nightmare of lawsuits and foreclosure. Sent mad by his failure Paul loses his family and holes himself up in an underground bunker attached to his former home. Into this house moves Nathaniel Noailles, a ‘director of rehabilitation’ at EKK, a corporation which seeks to monetize the prison population as effective slave labour. As the rain begins to hit this unnamed Midwestern land and a flood begins to rise, Patrick Flanery creates a tense atmosphere where the fates of these three characters collide and the book builds to a tragic conclusion.
It is partly a dystopian vision of corporate greed and partly a psychological thriller of two men’s descent into madness. It has a modern setting yet it seethes with a gothic menace. Patrick Flanery’s skill is building a world where the very land on which the characters place their feet seems to simmer with threat as sinkholes appear to swallow objects whole. Flanery's prose is dark and intense and wholly effective in keeping the reader turning the pages. It is an unsettling read, disturbing but fascinating.
Patrick Flanery will be reading from Fallen Land at Bury St Edmunds Library on the 22nd September, 7pm. Tickets are only £2 and can be purchased online, or directly from the library.
Find out more about Fallen Land.
Enjoy extra Fallen Land content, including podcasts and films.
Listen to a recording of our Brave New Reads event with Patrick Flanery below.
Follow Patrick Flanery on Twitter @PFlaneryAuthor.
Find out more about Brave New Reads.
National Conversation: The Science of Reading by Charles Fernyhough
A provocation by writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, first presented at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 31st, 2015
Open a book and a chorus of voices starts back at you. I remember being asked as a bookwormish child whether I could hear a novel’s characters speaking in my head. ‘I hear them,’ I enthused (my own eleven-year-old son recently said the same). With a sheaf of printed pages in front of her, a reader settles in for an extraordinary internal performance. It’s an everyday happening that illustrates a deep mystery of consciousness: how someone sitting alone in a room, ostensibly doing nothing but silently turning the pages, can be hearing the voice of an unreliable narrator, listening into conversations that never happened, conversing with the dead.
I want to do more than propose that fiction transports you into a different reality: it can certainly do that. Rather, I’m interested in how reading for pleasure can have specific effects of something like an auditory quality. It leaves its sounds resonating in our minds and brains. I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of reading fiction is an engagement with simulated voices with a certain phenomenology (the ‘What is it like?’ qualities of experience). If reading is a pleasure, tuning into these voices must be part of its appeal.
Psychologists have become increasingly interested in the phenomenon of ‘inner speech’: the internal conversation that occupies many of our waking moments. Reading colonises that inner dialogue in varied ways. If you are asked silently to read words with long vowels (as in cape) you will do so more slowly than if the vowels are short (as in hat). If you are told about a certain fictional character who speaks fast, you will read their speeches more quickly than those of a character with a more leisurely speaking pace. Such findings show that you as a silent reader are nevertheless sounding out the words: you are not processing the text purely at some abstract level of meaning, but rather are articulating those voices for yourself in your head.
In this context, voice can mean a whole lot of different things. We speak of writers ‘finding’ their voice, or of succeeding (or otherwise) in channeling the right voice for a particular piece. One of the most influential figures in recent literary studies, Mikhail Bakhtin, argued that novels work when distinct voices, manifested in language, come into creative dialogue with each other. When our team of researchers asked Guardian readers last year what the experience of reading was like for them, we wanted to be very specific about its phenomenology. When listening in to fictional characters, do readers actually hear something like a voice? It seems that many of them do. One in seven of our readers said that the voices they heard were as vivid as an actual person speaking. For some respondents, not hearing the voices of the protagonists was a sign that they were never really going to get into the book.
If hearing these fictional voices is a big part of the reading experience, you would expect that writers would have cottoned on. Any creative writing student will tell you that, if you want to make your characters’ voices resonate, you should use direct rather than reported speech (compare Jane said ‘I love you’ to Jane said that she loved him). Glasgow neuroscientists recently demonstrated a neural basis for the observation that direct speech is experienced more vividly than its reported form. But writers give us their characters’ silent, unheard voices as well as their externally uttered ones. They play with the fact that a character can think (in inner speech) something different to what she is saying out loud, and they build inner worlds through deft portrayals of the stream of verbal consciousness. They fill our heads with voices.
It stands to reason, then, that writers must hear those voices too. As the author of two novels, I am familiar with the experience of hearing my characters speak. They don’t talk directly to me, but I overhear them. I know their accents and tones of expression, their choice of words and how their voices betray certain emotions. I don’t confuse them with real people, but I do need to be able to hear them. It’s a common view about the creative process that writers need to hear their characters speak before they can really bring them alive.
Eager to put that idea to the test, our researchers teamed up last year with the Edinburgh International Book Festival to ask professional writers about the voices they heard. Seventy percent of the writers who completed our questionnaire said that they heard their characters’ voices; a quarter said it was as clear as if the protagonist were in the room with them. Two-fifths said they could enter into a dialogue with their characters. In detailed follow-up interviews, our researcher Jennifer Hodgson heard writers describing the experience as something like eavesdropping or taking dictation. One writer described it as a process of ‘tuning in’: ‘It is intimate, like being let in on their thoughts.’
We conducted these studies as part of Hearing the Voice, an ongoing interdisciplinary study of the experience of hearing voices, based at Durham University and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Some of the writers we have been studying literally heard voices that no one else could hear. Dickens was pestered by his characters in all sorts of vivid ways. Virginia Woolf was troubled by auditory hallucinations related to sexual abuse, bullying and bereavement (she put some of her experiences into the character of her war veteran voice-hearer, Septimus Smith, in Mrs Dalloway). Thinking about the range and variety of heard voices points to measures for helping people who are distressed by their experiences, and some of these insights are being integrated into our cognitive behaviour therapy work with voice-hearers. Certain fictional characters can act as though they are beyond the author’s conscious control; understanding the psychological processes involved holds out the possibility of relief for those troubled by uncontrollable voices.
Writers hijack the voices of our ordinary inner speech in all of these ways. Part of the contract we make as readers is to simulate, in our own minds, the vocal hubbub of other consciousnesses. Writers stimulate our regular inner dialogue too; they make us talk back. I am actually a highly distractable reader. If I’m reading fiction that delights, I am constantly fighting the impulse to put the book down and do my own writing. Even beloved novels and stories have the paradoxical effect of making me disconnect from the text for moments or minutes. I don't think that makes me less of a reader. In fact, I want to suggest that one of the pleasures of fiction is its capacity to make us wander off somewhere else.
To understand why that can be a blessing rather than a curse, we need to be easier on ourselves about this distractibility. A mind that is temporarily gazing away from a book is anything but disengaged. In our Hubbub project at Wellcome Collection in London, a diverse group of academics, artists and clinicians are taking an ambitiously interdisciplinary approach to rest and its opposites, and finding that a mind that is ostensibly doing nothing is a lively and varied place to be. Our psychologists and neuroscientists are tying richly detailed descriptions of consciousness to the complex patterns of activation shown by a brain that is busy with nothing in particular. This focus on the so-called ‘resting state’ is one of the growth areas in cognitive neuroscience, and I suspect that reading—or momentarily failing to read—offers many of us a direct line into it. I mean that gorgeous moment of putting a book down, not from boredom or external distraction, but because one’s mind is full of new, unexpected wonders. Woolf herself, like plenty of other writers, enthused about the process of what she termed ‘woolgathering’, or what I would like to call creative mind-wandering. Watch me in my armchair: I may end up reading the same paragraph several times over, but in the process I am having delicious thoughts of my own.
Putting science to work on an experience as intimate, personal and deeply human as reading is a risky business. In a world of library closures and device addiction, it is natural to try to harness scientific evidence to prove a greater good. But we should tread carefully. I’ve suggested that some of the pleasures of reading fiction are its stimulation of the varied voices of our inner speech and its capacity to trigger creative mind-wandering. I’m not here to tell you that reading changes your brain (whatever that laughable statement might mean), or that books make you a better person, in the narrow definition of some inevitably limited research methodology. I am fascinated by how we sometimes seem to think that neuroscientific truth is somehow 'more' true than other kinds of knowledge, such that even literary people are disproportionately swayed by it. We don’t need brain scans to tell us that reading is good for you. Rather, let’s delight in the varieties of that exquisite internal performance: ‘the beautiful stillness,’ as Paul Auster described it, ‘that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.’
This provocation is part of the National Conversation series of events featuring thought-provoking original ideas from writers. Read more, and follow the discussion here.
"Pulled Gently Back in the Direction of Your Goals" - Rebecca Done on the value of Writing Coaching
Rebecca Done’s debut novel This Secret We’re Keeping will be published by Penguin in March 2016. Here she shares how our coaching sessions provided a sounding board for ideas and something ‘to pull you gently back in the direction of your goals’
Coaching and Creativity
As a copywriter and novelist, I know there are times when writing can be tough. Whether you do it for pleasure or professionally, writing does have a frustrating little habit of throwing up obstacles along the way. Perhaps you’re experiencing writer’s block, struggling to protect your writing time, or finding it hard to reach your goals in the face of everything else life has to throw at you. Overcoming these barriers can seem like an impossible task, and that’s where writing coaching comes in.
Writing coaching is all about exploring how to overcome the challenges you’re facing and moving forward as a writer. That can mean different things for different people: finally nailing the plot of that short story, hitting ‘The end’ on your first novel, or finding new ways to develop so your work doesn’t stagnate.
The latter certainly rang true for me last summer. I was working full-time as an in-house copywriter during the day, and spending every spare minute of my own time putting the final touches to my first novel so my agent could begin the nerve-racking process of submitting to publishers. Essentially I was living and breathing writing, and doing little else. With a high volume of creative briefs to tackle at work – for a brand that has a very distinctive voice – the imperative to deliver something original and exciting day-in day-out was as pressing as ever. Finding different ways to keep my writing fresh was something I knew coaching could help with.
Heidi asked me to come to our first session with some ideas about what I wanted to discuss. Aside from anything else, it was fantastic to simply have some time in a room with someone sharing the ups and downs of writing life! As a practising professional, Heidi knew exactly what I was talking about. This helped to maximise our time during the session, as she has a first-hand understanding of many of the problems and issues that writers commonly face.
The great thing about coaching is that it’s very pressure-free. It feels like an exploration of ideas and possibilities, and it’s certainly not about being told what to do. Heidi began by asking me a series of open questions designed to be a jumping-off point for us to explore together what I could do practically to move forward. What’s brilliant about conversations like this is that they tend to throw up a lot of ‘Oh – I’d never thought about it like that’ moments, which for a writer is fantastic because it draws your mind along new paths and gets you excited about fresh ideas.
The main focus of my initial session with Heidi was to come up with new ways of approaching creative briefs at work – how to dream up different concepts, how to cope with self-doubt, what I could do to spark new ideas when a deadline’s looming and I’m against the clock. Together we created a list of things to work on and I went away re-energised, invigorated and brimming with ideas. This, combined with my follow-up session, helped me to compile what was essentially a creative toolkit that I now use whenever I’m writing.
As a writer you might routinely receive feedback on your work from a writing group, friends or employer – but it’s less likely you’ll be questioned about how you wrote something. For me, even just articulating out loud how I put the words together was fascinating – I’d never really pondered over it that much, and it definitely served to highlight where my strengths and weaknesses lay.
You might find you only need one coaching session – it’s amazing how just this short amount of time can focus the mind and generate solutions. For me, having more than one session was useful, because it gave me a timeframe within which to shape my ideas before bringing them back for more discussion.
Writing coaching is very much about manageable steps, which is great if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It breaks down the problem into mini-goals that don’t feel too daunting to tackle.
Although editing a novel is a different process to nailing a killer headline for an advertising campaign, I have found that I employ a lot of the same techniques for both. Many of the thoughts and ideas I discussed with Heidi in a copywriting context became invaluable during the editing process for my novel, and they’ve certainly helped my brain to fire in a different way. Thinking of new creative ideas when I’m convinced I’m all out of them is something that’s relevant to both walks of my writing life, and beyond. It really doesn’t matter what kind of writing you do: coaching is applicable to any and every strand.
As a result of these sessions, I was able to create myself a dossier that I could refer back to whenever I needed a little inspiration hit. Writing coaching isn’t only useful for now – what you glean from it is like a resource you can draw upon when times get tough or you feel particularly stretched. Something to pull you gently back in the direction of your goals. Whether you’re struggling for time or banging your head against writer’s block, coaching is an opportunity to share your difficulties with someone who understands, and who can help you explore ways of moving past (or through) them in a supportive environment.
I can’t recommend writing coaching highly enough. It remains one of the most valuable things I have done as a writer to date.
Rebecca Done is a copywriter and author living in Norwich. Her first novel, This Secret We’re Keeping, will be published by Penguin in March 2016.
Writers’ Centre offer various sessions with two professional writing coaches – Heidi Williamson and Katherine Skala. It is easy to book a session online, or contact us if you would like more information.
Readers' Circle Member Anna Reviews Black Country
Anna Reckin, Readers' Circle Member, gives a tempting introduction to Liz Berry's debut collection Black Country, a 2015 Brave New Reads pick.
Black Country was my number one selection for the Brave New Reads poetry choice, so I’m thrilled that it made it into the final six books! It’s sparkling with wit, energy and linguistic virtuosity, as well as being wonderfully unafraid of myth and magic.
I really appreciate the range of poetry included in the collection, especially the more magical pieces, which read like a poetic re-imagining of Angela Carter. Here are poems that are themselves spells and invocations; including the exhilarating opening piece, ‘Bird’. Others, like ‘Christmas Eve’ and ‘Wulfrun Hotel’ are more straightforward lyrics of landscapes and cityscapes.
The sparkiness of Berry’s writing isn’t superficial glitter; the fairytale elements are grounded in the themes woven throughout the collection: home and flight, love and loss.
Would you be interested in joining the Readers' Circle? Find out more about the group, and how to apply.
About Anna Reckin
Anna lives in Norwich, where she works part-time as a creative-writing teacher and freelance editor. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota and a PhD in the Poetics Programme at SUNY Buffalo. Her poems have appeared in magazines in the UK and the US, including Shearsman, How2, Poetry Wales and Chain. Her first book, Broder (Traffic Street Press, 2000), won a Minnesota Book Award; a pamphlet, Spill (Chibcha Press) appeared in 2004. Her first book-length collection, Three Reds (Shearsman, 2011) draws on materials from Portugal, Australia, China and East Anglia. She is currently working on her second, supported by a grant from Arts Council England.
Visit Anna's website.