Archive | July, 2015

I Had a Bad Dream the Other Night

19 Jul

I saw enormous Arctic wastes melting into dirty slush, through which disconsolate white bears shuffled, trying to understand this apocalypse. I saw drilling towers, and oil spills floating on the sea. I saw seals, walruses, colonies of birds, all at a loss. I saw the frozen tundras of Siberia and Alaska, melting, billions of tonnes of water flowing into the seas, plumes of methane flaring into the sky.

I saw heat, I saw the air quivering with it, I saw thirst.

I saw Russian trucks and bulldozers building deep-water ports all along the northern coast, ready for what they believed would be the next boom in shipping. I saw soldiers, planes, runways. In preparation for war.

In Iran, I saw the lifting of sanctions, and the basic effect of this: Russia, able to supply nothing more useful than missiles and nuclear power stations. Eagerly selling these wherever it could.

In America, I saw a lot political clowns waving their arms and talking nonsense, unable to distinguish between TV and reality. In the streets I saw countless people being shot, while in Washington DC a lot of pasty-faced fools argued about guns and how they were a fundamental freedom. I saw America’s obsessive spending on arms, its boundless belief in commerce and free trade, again without any real purpose to its love of lucre.

In China, I saw empty minds pushing for growth and development. I saw fumes and pollution hanging over its cities, I saw children born with weak lungs and bad hearts. In the South China Seas I saw barges and ships dredging up the sea bed and making small islands, covering these in barracks and runways. More war.

In South America, I saw enormous inflows of money from China and the BRICS, railways cut through pristine jungles, oil wells sunk in Amazonia and Yasuni even thought the world was already over-supplied with oil and we HAD TO, HAD TO start investing seriously in clean energy. But we had no intention of doing it, because we were small-minded and fixed and had no ideas about the future.

Everywhere, I saw little concern for people. The you and the I. Wherever I looked we were being ignored or locked up or tortured or kept on intellectual and moral bread and water… Wherever I looked I saw a small group of industrialists and multinational stars flying about in private planes, sitting on white beaches, swaggering, convinced that they had attained some kind of blessed state. The important ones. They were mainly playing violins very badly while their cities were burning. Feeding their senses, feeding their ravenous lust to have things, to be things, to define themselves by what they owned.

I saw no leadership, no vision for the human race. I saw little greatness in the human spirit.

I saw no concern for the telling of truth, the liberation of the human mind, I saw no let-up from commerce and the strangulation and pursuit of money.

And then when I woke up I saw my dog lying in the garden under a rosemary bush, finding some shade for itself, stretching out its little body and savouring the fragrance of the foliage overhead. And I thought to myself, I wish people could be as happy and satisfied as my dog, who asks for so little.

As I watch my dog I realise he is also dreaming. His little legs are kicking. He is chasing a rabbit through the grass. He is purposeful, he is not epic in his desires.

Even his dreams are better.



Light Fiction and Fiction so Light that it Blows Away

18 Jul

It has become a sort of mantra of our weary, market-led days, that one must never scratch one’s Marxist intellectual beard and make comments about how publishers “these days” are “only trying to sell books” – because there’s nothing wrong, could not ever be anything wrong with commercial fiction, right?

In fact, anyone who recently published a book with a smaller publisher, possibly a so-called “independent publisher,” would probably be ecstatic to find that his or her independent publisher had been putting a bit of effort into “only trying to sell books.” The dichotomy is problematic, to say the least. On the one hand, any sane author would like to sell as many books as possible. Yet, at the same time, most sane authors try not to go to the length of writing books about book-reading circles, people who fall in love at cookery courses, shy librarians who take up skydiving, or grandmothers who become football coaches. Such books might be described as “feel-good fiction,” which means they can also be dissolved in vitamin water and knocked back as a decent way of maintaining recommended levels of potassium and selenium. Nor will most sane writers descend to writing books about a bipolar Scandinavian detective sent to Haiti to solve a series of bloodcurdling voodoo murders. Obviously I am talking here about genre fiction, or rather, I am talking about those desperate writers who take refuge in genre as a sales ploy. (I could also add that, as a literary translator, I have seen versions of all these books published with great success – and unfortunately I have also had to translate some of them…)

Well, I don’t have a beard, and I am not especially a Marxist either, so I will just say, there really is nothing wrong with writing standard genre fiction, just as there is nothing really wrong with watching crappy television or eating pop tarts for dinner. It’s a choice one makes. But it should also be added, pop tarts are not very good for your body, and crappy television wreaks havoc on the human mind – which is our province, at least I always thought so.

Genre is a very good way of getting books sold, because it’s a definition, and the spoon-fed consumer needs definitions. But publishers are increasingly bad at figuring out how to make their latest book sound different from the hundreds of other books simultaneously being published. After all, their latest book is probably not very different at all, apart from the odd word here and there. In book A, the bipolar detective shoots the Ukrainian villain with a starter gun on page 236; whereas in book B, the bipolar detective shoots the voodoo priest with a bolt gun in a disused morgue on page 251. As a result, there is a new way of thinking in PR departments, a new and easy solution to the problem of originality: they can actually reach the lazy majority by offering people what they want without even trying to differentiate the product in any meaningful way. Basically, they’re selling hamburgers, but they keep insisting that their hamburgers are 100% organic. Their cattle are grass-fed. And they spend money on getting that dubious message out. Except, like all advertising, it’s a carefully structured lie.

So long as writers are aware that genre is only a meaningful way of classifying a book if it isn’t very good, then it’s fine. I mean, I do think writers still like to think they are trying to write something good. All successful genre writers I have met get slightly defensive (after a few vodkas) about what they are writing. Books must be bigger than their pompous jackets, books are actually just good or not. Writers know this.

So, to go back to the opening statement. My belief is that light fiction is fine, light fiction can even be brilliant. Just consider books like “Cold Comfort Farm” (Stella Gibbons) or “Travels with My Aunt” (Graham Greene) or “My Uncle Oswald” (Roald Dahl). They are certainly light, but also brilliant and loaded with good nutritional stuff. Stella Gibbon’s book is a sort of pastiche of “Wuthering Heights”, but to call it a pastiche would be plain wrong. It is actually a fresh re-imagining of a classic story written with a subtle understanding of Bronte’s use of Gothic elements. Greene is spoofing the travel genre, while Dahl is creating a sort of female picaresque. My point is that in none of these three works do we, as readers, really stop to wonder about their genre, nor do we ever stop feeling entertained, and certainly we never, ever conclude that they are so light that they might blow away in a strong puff of wind. Light fiction can be really heavy. Another few examples strike me, and I’ll throw them in: David Lodge’s “Therapy” and Hilary Mantel’s “Fludd” (an early work of hers). These are not exactly comic, but somehow, in spite of all, there is an attitude at work, these are not just lumps of story thrown at the reader with a pitchfork. They have a light, sure tone, which takes skill.

Maybe the only really interesting thing about genre as a sales pitch is that we are talking about it at all. I hope publishing is not doing to writing what the record industry did to music in the 70s and 80s. In the 60s there was an absolute boom in music, with great and enduring performers popping up all over the place inspired by a new awareness of musical roots. The same could be said of film-makers. We had Fonda and Nicholson turning up at the film studios and being taken seriously. The executives did not know what to do, they knew the world was changing but did not know how. They played it safe, opened their wallets, threw a bit of money at the crazies, and were quite delighted with their income from “Easy Rider”. Personally I am not a huge fan of “Easy Rider”, but I do see its importance as a sort of break with the suffocating power of the studios. Other weird 60s artists like the performer David Bowie or the experimental writer Richard Brautigan came out of the woodwork, and executives were surprised and somewhat dismayed because they sold. And they did not understand why they sold. My point is, for a brief period the artists were in charge.

Ultimately, the executives started trying to buy the same hip clothes themselves, they even started smoking pot, and at a certain point they started feeling that they could sit down in their boardrooms, and create their own films and writers and performers. They could re-assume full control of the media, because they had the cheque books and they also owned the outlets. And so they began dabbling, in their lacklustre way, and that is where all the trouble started.

By the year 2015, the industry of book production has grown into a sort of sausage factory. The big publishers are too capitalized, too reliant on new revenue streams. They have the means to pick up one or two or three or four established or emerging stars, which gives them a bit of a quality stamp. But just take a look at their lists, and you’ll know where their income is coming from. They need a lot of it to pay their staff and shareholders. Most independent publishers, on the other hand, are too small, too inefficient, too helpless, too clueless. They will proudly tell you they don’t even have an office, they hold their editorial meetings in a coffee shop, and this is all sounds very cool. But in the end all it means is that their “PR department” is on holiday when your book is published, or your “reading tour” gets cancelled just after you booked your tickets, or “we don’t do book launches”, or you’ll never, ever, get a royalty statement from them (because, they’ll tell you later, they lost your address).

Then, sitting in their rooms around the country, we have the writers. The primary producers. We know what’s going on, we know what we want to write. We have to forget about the business people, we have to forget about social media, we have to forget about genre as a sales ploy. We really do have to think about our own lives, what’s going through our heads. We have to concentrate on the writing.

Action produces reaction.

And something will come of it … something always does.


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