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The Modern American Great Novel

26 Feb

There is something bogus about the title, and those of you who have spotted this have a good ear for irony. Why? Well, because there can certainly be such a thing as a “modern novel” or “an American novel” or a “modern American novel” but to refer to a sub-set known as “the modern American great novel” seems to suggest that the latter is so numerous that it needs a list or a classification. Which is not the case, sadly.

The concept of the “great” American novel may be a throwback to the post-colonial era, when America was keen to demonstrate that it was just as capable as England when it came to producing great writers. With Henry James and other prominent early twentieth century voices, America found itself still very keen to have great writers. And in the end, at the tail end of this movement, we have the likes of Roth and Bellow constantly being asked about the “great American novel” and whether they felt they were writing in that tradition. This was always an idiotic question. The only tradition for a novelist to be writing in is the tradition of creating fiction. Whether it is great or not, and even whether it is American or not, seem to be later questions for consideration.

The rise of the independent publishing sector in America has blurred the lines even more, by pumping out a great variety of fiction by writers viewing themselves as “outside the system.” Their alienation and starvation has led to a sort of machismo, a dated Parisian, Baudelairean reincarnation of the romance of being Bohemian, misunderstood, and very likely a genius too, whose hunting grounds are defined by Goodreads and Amazon. By definition, failure or unwillingness to be a top-selling writer producing easy forage for the mass market  has created a sense of heroism among “independent writers.” Their ethos also takes some of its content from Bon Jovi lyrics: “Stuck in a hotel, drank a bottle of vodka last night, working on the thirteenth rewrite of the twenty-eighth draft of chapter six. Surviving outside the system, man! And my baby left me…”

Fiction is not about blood, it is not the ego being demonstrative about itself.  It’s about spirit, and thought.

Great fiction is usually about slow immersion, not acrobatics, or chain-smoking, or the artist as bench-press master.

And who cares where it is from? America? Liberia? Artists are always something more than members of a national fraternity. They cross borders.

A recent Twitter discussion on “do we really need another novel from Brooklyn” struck me as so very stupid. Of course we do. Brooklyn is not Brooklyn. Liberia is not Liberia. Everything is just the human mind. And now that more and more people are on the move, we may find that the next Modern American Great Novel is written by a Liberian. Living in Brooklyn.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Rejection Letter

18 Jun

Being a writer, I am very well accustomed to that notorious instrument of negation known as “the rejection letter.” When you consider the use of the term, you have to agree that it is a sniveling, self-pitying sort of word, conjuring the image of the writer as a sort of ingénue tearing his/her hair, passionately engaged in the writing of complicated, important tracts, passed over by film shits and pussel-gutted publishers, allegedly because, a) they are only interested in money, or, b) they have no interest in artistic expression as a valuable thing in its own right.

The truth is not quite as simple. The rejection letter is not really a rejection of someone’s writing, it is actually more likely to be a polite “Thanks, I’m busy.” Publishers and film shits, as anyone else, like to feel that they are calling the shots. They want to be originators, not receive proposals that might require them to read or be open to someone else. Let’s say a film shit comes up with the idea of optioning a book about Romantic poetry in order to make a thriller. While this may strike one as a bit of a non-starter, it remains true that the film shit in question will invest a great deal of money into his/her brainchild. But woe to the writer who comes up with the same project and tries to bring it to the attention of the same or any other film shit. They will all laugh, while the writer sits wringing his/her hands, wondering why no one can see the brilliance of the concept. But, as I am trying to explain here, the failure of the proposition is not that the project is below par or redundant. The failure, in fact, is that the writer has to be prepared to act in accordance with other people’s ideas. What this effectively means is that if writers want to achieve success – if they want to live in nice houses overlooking the water, and sit on terraces drinking decent wine and discussing art with clever friends, before popping out in brand-new hybrids to pick up their clever, lovely children from private schools – they have to be prepared to write stories tailored to the requirements of others. By others I obviously mean film shits or pussel-gutted publishers. And in order to do this, they have to enter into little bands of creative fellowship, befriending film shits and going to parties with them and cultivating their rarefied company.

The likelihood nowadays that a film is “based on a book by” is really little more than a desire on the part of the film shit to “choose” a story to be made into a film. There are armies of screenwriters out there who’d love to write a script “based on their brain,” but unfortunately this goes very much against the desire of the financier or producer shit to expand into the traditional role of the artist in “coming up with a concept.” Such shits can now decide in advance that a film will be about a bunch of dwarf fighters killing a dragon or a lesbian detective with Asberger disorder – merely on the basis of a book they can skim through in a few hours, then acquire the film rights for the price of a small Mercedes.

What this points to, one might argue, is that the role of the originating creator in art (or media) needs updating. It is no longer effective for writers to live solitary lives dreaming up stories. They need to raise their profile in an institutional sense. Media and the arts is one of the most rigidly controlled of all industries. In many business sectors, managers and leaders will give someone with a good idea a chance to take it forward, but film shits and pussel-gutted publishers are allergic to any such risks. They read CVs more assiduously than any banker. They give the jobs to their friends, or they give the jobs to those (however mediocre) who can demonstrate that they have done similar jobs before. This state of play is largely dictated by financiers, because they know that a decent film concept will only radically fail if someone tries to do something radical with it. Better a pair of mediocre, safe hands.

Originality or new concepts are not even in question when projects are set in motion. That’s why I say “think again” to writers out there who feel that their ideas have been rejected – because their ideas have not at all been rejected. It’s much worse – they have not even been considered. It is the artists themselves that have been rejected. Once, at an industry seminar I attended, a BBC executive admitted that he would spend more time considering a three-word proposal from Ken Loach than a well written, carefully angled 3-page outline by someone he had never heard of.

What this amounts to, in my view, is that media/the arts have now entered an era, which might be described as “institutional.” The idea of autonomous genius simply does not exist any more, it is an anomaly only applied in fields such as science or computing. I think it is an important distinction to make, because the genius concept has been at the foundation of the arts for well over two hundred years. The 60s are gone, flower power and crazy, drug-fueled fantasies and eccentrics and desperadoes are no longer artists in any operative sense of the word. It’s over.  Artists now have to be clean-cut, smart, adaptable, media-savvy, and willing to tow the line.

Publishers and agents are interested in how many Twitter followers writers have, how many Facebook friends. Social media channels are burgeoning with frenzied writers copying links to obscure reviews or mentions of their even more obscure productions. But in my view if they really want to get somewhere this cannot be enough. They must show their genitalia in public or throw eggs at journalists, or, most cleverly of all, speak out energetically in favor of global warming. What I mean is, they need to establish an interesting identity and think of a way of making the public take notice.

Let’s be clear about this. Writing is never really obscure. It can be bad, certainly. But obscurity does not necessarily mean that a piece of writing is inaccessible, only that for a range of possible reasons it has not been read. In David Mamet’s play “Speed-the-Plow” we can see for ourselves just how obscure it can all be, when film shits conspire among friends to come up with a concept for a film.  And yet, this is precisely how films are made and books commissioned. We are not living in a meritocracy, we are living in a fraternity.

There are still a few old-school writing personalities knocking about, but they are getting old and soon they’ll be gone. In their place, society will be filled with a new class of writers. In the interest of continuity I will call them “writer shits.”

The Door Handle is Depressed – Ten Years Translating the Nordic Crime Wave

5 Jan

At the end of the 1990s, the London scene for Nordic translation had lost whatever sheen it once had, which was never more than a flash of reflected light from the window of a passing car. Kerstin Ekman’s “Blackwater” was one of the few Swedish novels that had actually entered into the English vernacular, evading the lethal tag of being an obscure or substandard translation. The Danish novel, “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow”, also outgrew its imported status and was accepted as “an English book.” But apart from these two and a handful of others, there was a realisation that even the most glorious translations of Estonian poetry or Finnish experimental novels would never sell very well in England. Certain high-brow types bewailed what they described as English parochialism, until they understood that educated people all over the place, in all countries, were rejecting proper literature, which no longer seemed suitable for general consumption. By that, I suppose, I mean that it did not have an easily marketable quality except that it was very profound and important. The writers tended to be old, ugly, serious, decrepit, snowy-haired professorial types, or willowy left-of-centre rebels keen on sexual adventurism or demolishing authority wherever they saw evidence of it. Such authors were never going to appeal to marketing departments or the general public. What was needed here were slick operators who knew how to string a few words together in the correct order, keeping strictly to exciting and/or terrifying subjects. Of course we always had thrillers, but somehow the thriller which also used to be more simply known as “the bestseller” was out of fashion, and even Frederick Forsyth was little more than a funny old ex-secret service chap, in a Burberry raincoat, spouting on about the Cold War, which was long over.

Meanwhile, gawky translators were hanging about in bookshops or inundating publishers with letters in which they were forever “looking forward to hearing from” someone, learning as they went on that no one ever replies to polite individuals who look forward to being replied to. It’s one of the rules of publishing and, some would say, a fundamental rule of all commerce. And so it was that, by the end of the 1990s, if one entered a room filled with translators, one could faintly make out a background noise of whinging and moaning, also of grumbling bellies. Public money was the only thing that kept us alive in those days. Grants issued by the Swedish Arts Council were regularly doled out like disaster relief to any fool willing to have a go at translation.

Sweden, being a small country with a modest ego, appreciated from the very beginning that it had to export itself in the field of the arts no less than in industry. It had to become virtual and pervasive, and it had to define itself. England, while physically an even smaller country, had a very large ego and plenty of weighty history to compress its freedom of manoeuvre, but more important still, England felt that its literary heritage made translated imports an irrelevance at worst and a bit of fun at best. While its empire had certainly diminished alarmingly, the English language was still swaggering and showering spittle all over the world’s smaller nations and their piddling cultural output. And for all these reasons and more, translators were regularly wheeled in by the Swedish consular authorities, given a few medals, stuffed with prawn toast and gravlax and chicken satay sticks and sent home with jiffy bags containing free books, publishers’ catalogues and a sufficient quantity of smoked cod roe to keep them alive for a few weeks. Mid-range wine was consumed in large quantities at these functions, while ambassadors and cultural councillors shook hands and surreptitiously checked their watches. The translators, their heads spinning with glory, were sent back to their dingy suburbs, where another year would pass locked into the intricacies of translating 1940s Surrealist poetry or perhaps a classic nineteenth century novel about iron ore mining north of the Arctic Circle?

The English public had a resistant view of Nordic literature in those days. It was considered earnest and slightly unsophisticated, like a wooden clog in a museum – either too folkloric or too politically aware. Scandinavia had not yet been changed by the digital era. Its countryside was a farmyard, and its cities were meat markets. Its young peasants were not yet smart or technological, more about hubcaps than Apps. In the background, if you strained your ears, you could just about make out the creaking sound of a rope in a kitchen, where a hanged man swung gently in the draft. Even more distantly, a faint, anodyne beat was thumping from a nightclub where happy, buxom blondes had danced the night away and were now going back for a sauna with a few chosen males. Plenty of uncomplicated sex was on offer, of course. And here was the strange marriage of Sweden: the depressive streak affectionately holding hands with hedonism. The wild club dancers had one pocket full of condoms and the other stuffed with Prozac. How was literature ever going to appropriate such extraneous territory? The only way, as we have seen, was by sticking religiously to genre, because genre is a narrow corridor through which we see everything – or even the long lens of a telescope, picking out the required details at the expense of all else.

How different everything is now from those primitive days! The lubrication of money shifted the axis of writing in Sweden. By 2011, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy had sold 65 million books worldwide. Henning Mankell was not far behind, although his sales were obviously spread across a larger number of books: and yet, total sales of 40 million books cannot be explained away. A pack of minor, though still massively selling authors, joined the irresistible tug of crime book production. Liza Marklund fought herself clear of lesser wolves, and “The Postcard Killers”, her recent collaboration with the bestselling American writer James Patterson, was the world’s first e-book to shift more than 5 million units. She was also the first Swedish woman to top the New York Times Bestseller List. One could mention other names such as Jo Nesbo (the “Harry Hole” series has sold more than 20 million copies) or Arne Dahl (“A-team” Series, 2.5 million copies and counting). The trend, when discussing the Swedish crime writing wave, is already evident in this brief introduction. We are not so concerned with the actual literary quality of the books. The accepted assumption is that books selling in such vast numbers must be good. Whenever one reads anything about crime writers, their sales are mentioned as credentials of their worth in much the same way as literary prizes used to be bandied about. Whereas “John Smith”, Winner of the W.H. Smith Prize, used to be an attractive proposition, we are now much more delighted to hear that he has sold almost so-and-so many million copies in 62 countries. Democracy has gone wild. Unfortunately, as translators know all too well, the assumption that excellence leads to good sales is often about as wrong as anything can be. Translators are frequently asked to convert ridiculous, superficial, hackneyed nonsense into another language, only to be challenged by publishers daunted by the sheer ridiculousness, superficiality and hackneyed nonsense of the property they have just bought. Experienced translators and publishers, on the other hand, rest assured: they know that crap sells.

The sheer impact of the gruesome imaginings of Sweden’s assiduous crime writers on the world’s reading public cannot be denied. Just as an English gentleman in many parts of the world is still believed to be a polite, well-mannered fellow in a tweed suit, so a Swede is increasingly considered to be an unshaven, hung-over police inspector at his kitchen table, possibly weeping as he/ she reads a frayed, old letter from his estranged daughter/ son, before getting into his car and driving off into a gloomy, punishingly cold morning. Somewhere, the reader knows, a person lies dead, bludgeoned, strangled, electrocuted, boiled, poisoned, extorted, cut into pieces, raped, drained of his blood, beheaded, drowned, plasticized or in some other ingenious way robbed of his/ her precious life. It’s unjust, it’s unreasonable. People deserve to be safe, people deserve better than death. But what are you going to do? There are dark forces out there. Swedes know the reason for this problem. The agents of darkness do not vote for the Social Democrats, nor are they concerned about the health service, maternity leave or global warming. They have private health insurance. Women don’t have children, they have careers, thank God. Global warming is not on anyone’s radar. These dark folk have simple goals; they either want to get rich fast, or they have an obscure need to get even with someone; and in many cases, worryingly, they are just ordinary folk pulled into the matrix of crime by circumstances beyond their control. Judging by the success of Swedish crime writing, we had better hope the Swedish economy keeps doing well. Imagine the potential danger of millions of impecunious Swedes? Crime would become our bread and butter.

My own view, fantastical though it may sound, is that Swedes made a decision at some point to revive their ancient Norse mythology; in fact, to demonise themselves. Sweden had been a secular society for years, and a time came when it seemed expedient to harness Old Nick to aid our cause. Frost giants are once again duelling over the hills; in still nights we can hear their mighty hammers. Below, in the valleys, law-abiding folk are eating sausage sandwiches and soured milk yoghurt and getting ready to go to their ordinary jobs in offices, warehouses, and factories. Soon they will sit down with their colleagues for their morning coffee and cinnamon buns. Their soft-spoken voices will relate what they had for supper last night, or how much they managed to bench-press at the gym. Such ordinary people are under threat, the world is crumbling around them. A greedy criminal is waiting to commit an outrage. He/ she is a representative of chaos, he/ she is a person intent on breaking the rules and making honest people’s lives miserable for no proper reason. If the criminal wasn’t so twisted, he/ she would just find an ordinary job and get on with taking snuff, eating soured milk yoghurt, going to the gym three times a week and the nightclub on Saturdays, then fornication? But alas, life is not so simple. In many instances the greedy usurper is simply a Capitalist intent on destabilising the reasonable and equitable social model that grew out of the looming poverty of the early 20th century, still remembered with a shudder all over Scandinavia. And so the problem of evil goes on, and has been going on now for thousands of years. We still can’t explain it. Where do these unpleasant people come from, why do they rape, maim, kill and torture, or exploit others? Why don’t they make love, heal, have children and give pleasure to others? Well, as any literary expert will explain, it’s because they’re either foreign, most likely Russian or Serbs or at least dark-haired people with guttural accents; or, they’re just very individualistic types who don’t believe in a caring society.

To sum up, Sweden, one of the safest countries in the world, has become synonymous with brutal crime. The more you think about that, the odder it gets. A Mexican, Brazilian or Honduran crime writing wave would make far better sense – though it might also seem too obvious. It is far more shocking when Sven, not Pablo, whips out his gun and mows down a few innocent bystanders. The underlying reasons of this discrepancy are one of the subjects of this book. But I have also made myself the subject of it: a simple translator far from his country, separated from both snuff and soured milk yoghurt. More than ten years have gone by since those meagre days when no one had heard of Inspector Wallander – and I walked down to Piccadilly to spend my last money on a very expensive Norwegian-English dictionary.

These days I sit at my desk, sighing forlornly as I check my deadlines, and then sneakily escape my duties to set down these thoughts. There is no possibility to rest any more, or to choose. The question is no longer “What book deserves to be translated and published?” but rather “What book can we publish and sell as successfully as the last one?” There was something heroic, if also cute, about the first. Sometimes I miss those days of penny hunting, of canned tomatoes, the crucial oil and garlic, and, naturally, the coarse Merlot, all of which gave one the strength – but only just – to go on a little longer in search of a masterpiece.

Maybe I am being overly confident, even arrogant, but I believe my insights into the Scandinavian fiction crime wave may help put an end to it. Why should I wish to do such a terrible thing? Am I also a criminal, an agent of darkness? Yes, I suppose I am. You see, I have a pin and there is a very large balloon before me. Inside, I see a lot of floating publishers, agents, writers, and translators, all dancing and singing and shaking their hair, or hopping into top-of-the-range Volvos and even the odd Porsche; or boarding their speed boats; or lying on beaches. It’s a fine moment for puncturing a bubble.

I want to see them all covered in sticky gum. I’m vengeful, you see. I believe in art and culture and better things.
When I hear a police car screaming down the road with its flashing lights, I ask myself, “Why doesn’t someone arrest those noisy bastards and put them in prison?”

I don’t like cops, I don’t like crime, I can’t see the point of dwelling on it. In spite of this, like so many other people, I can’t deny that I have cashed in without any compunctions about “proper literature” and the necessity of staying true to the pursuit of masterpieces, unicorns, and the Holy Grail.

But let me begin with a telephone call, thirteen years ago.
I was at home, in London, toasting some stale bread discovered at the back of the freezer and confirming to myself that my efforts at being a translator had amounted to not much. I had recently finished writing a book of my own, an elaborate historical novel set in the wilds of nineteenth century Sweden. It had taken me six years to finish it and I had been quite convinced that this was my masterpiece, until forty-three publishers rejected it. I was fairly sure that none of them had even read it, which made their rejection even more mystifying. And yet, maybe not? My book had not a single crime in it, no one was run through with a scimitar or tortured with hot candle wax and pliers. No women removed their brassieres only to finish off their lovers with sharpened paper knives. No men were seized by a roguish desire to start Biblical cults, set fire to churches and/ or capture wild swans and also set fire to them before releasing them to streak across the sky as a warning to non-believers. There were no hackers or deranged psychopaths with customised torture chambers, no drug-taking nymphomaniac women intent on flashing their underwear, no goggle-eyed drug dealers frenziedly pummelling old ladies with titanium dildos. In my book, not a single drop of blood or any other bodily fluids hit the floor in over four hundred pages. Although no one ever managed to read it, I did not draw the logical conclusion of this, and I never considered editing my book to make it more conducive to the modern mind. Possibly, the problem was that the modern mind had not yet understood its desire to buy tens of millions of paperbacks about criminal Swedes being hounded by depressive, recently divorced and/ or terminally ill detectives. The late nineties were a confused time in literature, a time in which there were some vague longings still in place for the old world, high culture and other such notions. The internet had not taken over, there was no information highway, only primitive dial-up connections that spent minutes buzzing like telephone calls to Botswana.

One distinct advantage of Sweden as the source of the crime phenomenon was its status as a leading producer of paper pulp. Thus we controlled the entire supply line. We had the trees, we had the paper mills, we had thousands of willing writers, and we had the Foreign office to help market our books all over the world. In spite of our proud custodianship of the Nobel Prize and other distinguished institutions, Swedes proved to be remarkably untroubled by any notions of literature. We are a simple people, believers in egalitarianism and therefore, by definition, convinced that books are, in essence, products written by anyone, no one writer so much better than another – unless it’s Stieg Larsson, of course; Stieg Larsson is the Jim Morrison of Swedish literature. If someone is a nice, switched-on person, and their book is pretty good, then why not read it? This sort of reasoning has now taken off everywhere. Any person with the initiative to sit down and write a book is worth a round of applause in Sweden. The concept of sneering, as practised in England, is not highly evolved in my country. Possibly, cultural journalists may look down on an artist for being uncool or wearing the wrong glasses or shoes, for not having an appropriate music taste or supporting the wrong football team. The worst sin of all is to be elitist and/ or rich. Swedes, with their love of meatballs and boiled potatoes, woke up at some point and understood that this was also how they liked their books: nice chunks of ground meat fortified with breadcrumbs, egg yolk and onion, steaming piles of mashed potato; the whole thing drenched in thick creamy gravy, holding it all firmly in place, without unnecessary slippage in the mouth.

If Henning Mankell and Stig Larsson had not stepped forward with their simple, rugged approach and their instinct for pleasing the gallery, Swedish writers would still be out there in the wilderness, reading poems about stillborn goats or romantic tales of matrimony between gravediggers.

The failure of my historical novel seemed to suggest that I must press on with the side-line of literary translation. Except there was no side-line; there wasn’t a line, and certainly no sides to it either. In fact, the signs were already there of the coming revolution. Kerstin Ekman, in “Blackwater”, had invented the idea of the detective as an ordinary person, the crime story as a focus on common-or-garden folk trying to go about their daily business. She also managed to create a sort of fascination for the Swedish way of life, which everyone now knows is based on the kitchen table and all that passes around it: family niggles, worries about electricity bills, and the repetitious ingestion of black pudding and sour milk yoghurt, washed down with boiled coffee. Or is that just another crime genre cliché taking hold of me? In all the hundreds of books, excerpts, and scripts I have translated, I have always found myself back in the same place, my buttocks soundly on a hard kitchen chair, listening to the sizzling of butter in a cast-iron pan where pancakes, black pudding, or cured pork are being fried, while some nervous old woman wearing compression stockings talks of her fears of excessive electricity bills this year; then, as a slight digression, moving on to a discussion of how to brew a proper cup of coffee and bake cinnamon buns; then an oblique comment on how the streets are not as friendly as they used to be; followed at last by a reference to a spate of murders in the area…

Listening to the signals of that telephone echoing in my cold flat on that fateful morning, I did actually sense a slight rumbling of destiny in the air. I dragged my feet across the kitchen floor, and before I answered, noticed my big toe sticking out of my left slipper.
I heard a brisk, efficient voice at the other end of the line. A secretary. She wanted to know if I could meet the executive producer and co-owner of Yellow Bird Films at the Soho Hotel in Charlotte Street. Tomorrow morning. In the restaurant. Ten o’clock sharp.
No film executive had ever invited me for breakfast before. But, I should add, I had been hired by Yellow Bird about a month earlier as a translator of a new series of ten Kurt Wallander films. Each script would go through a development process of five drafts, which effectively meant that I had fifty scripts to get through over an eighteen month period.

And this was really the beginning of my personal revolution. I see now that my life has very accurately reflected a certain phase of our history, because my fortunes were advanced by the world’s fascination with the spilling of Swedish blood.

I will tell you how it happened. I’ll try not to libel anyone. But I will tell the truth.

Stay tuned for more installments of “The Door Handle is Depressed”…

Please click here to read more about my novel “The Maggot People” published by Dzanc Books.

The Tyranny of Genre

11 Dec

To anyone who writes fiction, or reads it, or is interested in it as a theoretical subject, the idea of genre is probably of greater interest now than it has ever been. Carl Linneus, the famous natural scientist, earned his laurels by finding a way of categorising the world’s fauna and flora into families and sub-families, by a formal system of division between one species and another. Because of Linneus and those who continued his work, we know that a fulmar is not a seagull, and a chough is not a crow (while of the same genus), though to all intents and purposes they look very similar. We also know that a lemur is not technically speaking a monkey, and that a platypus is most closely related to the spiny ant-eaters of Australia and New Guinea. But one could argue that the thrust of science here was to observe the workings of evolution, and uncover inherent evidence in nature. Science did not invent evolution, science observed evolution.

In the realm of fiction it is much harder to argue that there is any innate genre to be discovered by literary critics. Writers do not adhere to genre, they create it. Or maybe that is also a dubious statement? If we look carefully at mythology, which, one could say, cannot be anything but a universal declaration of the laws of humankind, we may observe that only a limited number of genres are possible. Yet, however one argues, it remains true that while crime or horror or science fiction are characteristic forms of fiction, they are hardly innate. There are crime stories in which no crime takes place, or where the criminal is the hero, or where the crime that has taken place or is about to take place is largely uninteresting and peripheral to the story – that is, there are crime stories where the crime is of lesser interest than the people affected by it. There are horror stories where no monstrous or diabolical beings make their entrance – in fact where fear of such non-existing things is enough to make one take stock of “the reality” of horror, namely that horror is just a fiction of people’s imagination. And there are horror stories written for young teenagers, where the themes are so ridiculously infantilised that one would be better advised to put them in a sub-genre of the comic book. The Linnean point here would be, does literary crime fiction (Wilkie Collins, “The Woman in White”) belong to the same genre as Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”? I would argue that they are related in much the same way as a platypus is a bit like an ant-eater, but not in a scientific sense.

When we start looking at literary fiction we run into our biggest classification headache. As yet there are no effective genre sub-systems for defining literary fiction, at least none that I am aware of. (Although, the more one looks into it, genre seems to be the tiddler of literary specification, the most irrelevant distinction of all.) What Raymond Carver has in common with Doris Lessing, apart from both being practitioners of literary fiction, seems rather irrelevant. Admittedly Lessing writes novels while Carver sticks to short stories, but these are not genres but literary forms. To get niggly about it, one might say that Carver often expresses social satire or at least social bleakness, whereas Lessing documents the everyday human condition, as opposed to the role of the marginalised human – though in “The Fifth Child” she comes close to expressing a dark horror, which is a basic aspect of what one might term “ordinary life.” Of course, Lessing has also written science fiction, but with Lessing’s writing one gains little by classifying it. Her science fiction subverts or inverts or converts the commonplaces of the genre by giving us either more or less than what would seem to be required. Equally one might ask where Clarice Lispector belongs, or Penelope Fitzgerald, or J.M Coetzee. “Good writing” is not as far as I know considered a genre. Highbrow readers are currently getting away with thinking that they are not part of the movements of their time. They are partaking of higher, more rarefied moods. How wrong they are.

The highly regarded Swedish crime writer Åke Edwardson has stated that he is not really a crime writer, and he is not alone among crime writers to make this assertion. It seems quite obvious: good writers may conveniently get lumped into genres, but in the end what they convey is something additional to the standard fare of those pigeon-holes. While Kerstin Ekman’s “Blackwater” is credited with inventing the modern Swedish crime novel, I do feel bound to add that nothing about being Swedish qualifies as a genre definition. I say this because there is a suggestion that Swedish crime writing has added a new sub-family to the genre. In fact it could not possibly even be a sub-sub-form. Admittedly Swedes are supposed to be depressives who have to endure long winters, and in a certain way it could be conceded that a police commissioner (for instance, Wallander) who suffers from melancholy is more interesting than a clean-cut American cop or a gentlemanly Agatha Christie amateur investigator. Hercule Poirot has become rather dated. Sherlock Holmes took opium and suffered from clinical depression, hence his longevity. Let’s just state here quite clearly that there is nothing original about a dysfunctional cop – one need only look at the neo-noir creations of James Ellroy or Raymond Chandler in “The Big Sleep” (1939), to appreciate the ubiquitous presence of the down-at-heel-and-heart outsider as policeman. It is important to understand that these groundbreaking books all diverged from, or added to, existing practice. Those who stick to the rules of genre are the Lumpenproletariat of that genre, the fortune-seekers and mediocrities. Good genre writing must by definition be an attempt to use some of the existing conventions while expanding and enlarging upon them in a way that delights and stimulates.

Aristotle, as in so many other respects, was the first to attempt a classification of writing, defining it as comedy, epic, or tragedy. But to Aristotle the only proper forms of writing were drama and poetry, and he would not have had an appreciation of prose writing as anything but a record of events – if even that. Writing, to Aristotle, was much more about performance than mere text. Poetry and drama in his time were orally conveyed. Drama touched upon the sacred realm, an area not greatly in vogue in the modern era. Last century, writers such as Joyce or D.H. Lawrence still made allusions to a sort of heightened consciousness that seemed almost divine in its scope. And in the preceding century, Wordsworth and other Romantics developed the idea of the spiritual hero.

Other eras have had their fads. The Augustans (in the eighteenth century) were big on satirical poetry (Pope, “The Dunciad”) and satire (Swift, “A Tale of a Tub”). Dryden and others relished the impossibility of writing epic poems (such as Milton’s “Paradise Lost”) and with a snarl invented the anti-hero, although some (including William Blake, who suggested that Satan was the true protagonist of Milton’s epic poem) later tried to revive the true hero in a more updated format. Byron, for instance, did his best with “Childe Harold”, but he could not conceive of a hero that was not encumbered with doubt, melancholy, and a sort of dashing lack of care for his own well-being – and so we were still stuck with the anti-hero.

The heroic/ anti-heroic theme continued in the nineteenth century historical novels of Sir Water Scott, whose writings achieved an astonishing level of popularity in his day. “Rob Roy” (1817) sold 10,000 copies (and that’s in leather-bound hardback) in two weeks. His poem “Marmion” (1808) sold 2,000 copies in a month, at one and a half guineas per copy. It was followed by another 12 editions by 1825, meaning that Scott on the strength of one poem alone had made enough money to live in a decent house with servants cooking his dinner – not a fate one would anticipate for even the most famous of modern poets. Yet in the case of Scott it is not form that is important, for his novels sold as well as his poems. Scott, in a very modern way, wrote for popular taste and chose a genre – historical romance – that appealed to the masses. Later, Charles Dickens also dipped into the lucrative historical genre (“A Tale of Two Cities”), but most of his great novels were strictly “literary fiction” – stories about people living in a world we recognise as our own. In other words, not a historical, fantastical, horror-tinged, or crime-defined reality populated by policemen and thieves. Dickens wrote familial stories tinged with tragedy (though not on a grand enough scale to qualify as Aristotelian), where happiness, once it appeared, had a pastoral tinge to it (while often intensely urban and usually set in the great metropolis of London). There are no shepherds in Dickens, but his happy characters wear suits, have comfortable homes where children play, and go off to work every morning with a spring in their step, as if off to inspect their teeming flocks.

The nineteenth century also produced a surprising breakout from a genre that bubbled out of the Romantic obsession with dwarves, monsters, ruined castles, spirits, and diseased maidens (Keats, “The Lay of St Agnes” and Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein”). At some point in the 1820’s, Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” (1817) and James Hogg’s “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” (1824), and many other books pursuing a similar line, invented a Gothic horror element. Hogg’s book, published anonymously, was disturbing in its implications, namely that a man could be so filled with nihilism that he would commit terrible crimes in the blithe assurance that he would nonetheless go to Heaven as one of God’s Elect. Hogg seems to have invented the psychopath as anti-hero, a theme resounding in our modern crime fiction, which would long ago have withered without the constant fertilisation of psychopaths. One need only think of Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psychopath”, which perhaps could never have been written without the cultural influence of Hogg some 150 years earlier.

Genre very much operates in this way. It is an evolving phenomenon and responds to social factors. The emergence of the Swedish crime story, for instance, owes much to the collapse of what has sometimes been referred to as “the Swedish model.” Swedes, once safe in the knowledge that the State was there to guarantee their security, began to write about horror and evil in society once the State receded like some weary grandfather clutching a bottle of booze.

Where do we conclude these ramblings on genre in our time? Only with the simple statement that readers – and this must also include sophisticated, literary readers – should not avoid genre writing. If they do so, they are ignoring the weight of literary tradition. So-called “literary novels” are merely novels that do not belong to any genre that has been defined as yet. Most genre novels (and literary novels) are too awful to be countenanced. And the exception does not prove the rule, because there is no rule.

My Haunted Bathroom

8 Sep

We are living in a time when there are too many writers and too few readers. Who said that? Well, I think everyone said that. And so, six months after publishing my first short story collection and exactly ten months before my first novel comes out, it’s reassuring to be able to access Amazon’s recently introduced Author Central service, which allows me to check on my sales figures without having to chase down the publisher, who can be a bit of an elusive beast. Right now, I can tell you, my short story collection is riding high in 559,052th place on the Kindle bestseller charts, out of a total of 800,000 listed books. Its high point was on March 21st, when it climbed to a whisker above 59,000th place. As for the paperback, well, Author Central informs me that a single copy was sold in America between September 12th and October 9th. This, in Chicago. Whoever you are, rare-spirited denizen of Windy City, I thank you! Do I deserve more readers? Well yes, I think I do, but so do a lot of people.

Have you seen any photographs of Neil Gaiman lately? He stares at the camera like a startled child, woken up in the middle of the night to have his diaper changed. Neil Gaiman never realized he would turn out to be Neil Gaiman, and now, like most successful people, he has come to the erroneous conclusion that he is quite good. To be fair to him I think he can be quite good sometimes, but the operative fact about him is that someone on the top floor decided his books would sell. They have, because they had to. But my reader in Chicago may be interested in getting beyond the debate on sales figures and hearing instead how I came to write my first book.

I had rented a small house on a remote island in the Mediterranean, where I found myself in a promising position – a paid position with a film company that never gave me any work to do, just faithfully paid my salary and occasionally asked me to spend ten minutes “doing the crossword” for them. There was never any running about, no gas bills to worry about, no friends using me as a clothes-horse for their ragged misfortunes – just long empty days flooded in sunlight. After a few weeks of sitting on the beach, staring fixedly at the ever-blue horizon, I realized this was my chance to write whatever came into my head.

The house I had rented was haunted by an old woman who lived in the bathroom on the ground floor. When I first moved in I was unaware of her, of course. All I knew was that I had a strange reluctance to use the bathroom at night. Finally, with some embarrassment, I asked a neighbor about it, and she confirmed that the house (a Medieval construction with bad plumbing and a staircase only fit for mountain goats) had once belonged to a semi-lame wyvern, confined to the ground floor.

She invaded my sleep, and I had a nocturnal succession of the most vivid dreams of my life, many of which ended up as short stories. The title of my short story collection, “Love Doesn’t Work”, was initially going to be “Voices of the Ghost Room”.

Once you start typing, it is amazing how quickly a book takes shape. I found myself waking up like a rubber ball and bouncing down to the market to buy an aubergine or a bag of octopus. By the time I had climbed back up to my little study there was a fully formed story in my mind. Fertile as a wild boar!

One night I dreamed of a monk standing by my bed, asking me what I was doing in his house? The clerical theme found its way into my stories, which were often about sexual guilt or the impossibility of spiritual redemption in a corrupted world. I read up on the Cathars, an obscure group of European heretics (mostly butchered by the Church about seven hundred years ago) who were pretty negative about one’s prospects of achieving any real bliss down here on earth. One of my stories concerned a couple who never had sex at all, preferring to caress a little sculpture with wooden spoons as a sort of distancing technique. They called this “mental sex”. Again, you see, I was finding metaphors to explore sexuality without actually writing about it. Then there were the dictatorial dreams, dreams of what I would do if I held the world in the palm of my hand – I invented a telepathic Hannibal with the ability to zap his enemies. In one of my stories I had an Englishman confronting an ex-girlfriend and her giant pet amoeba – he ended up burying his fork in it. Finally, I wrote a story in which the state of Texas was being swamped by a deluge of beetles. This, I know now, was a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive procreation. Ultimately the beetles caused so much damage that it brought on a second American exodus to Paris, where the locals referred to this new wave of American bohemians as “Sexans” (for obvious reasons, at least to anyone who ever read Henry Miller). This last story never made it to final draft (also, perhaps, for obvious reasons).

After four months I found I had a manuscript with a beginning and an end, and this was a revelation to someone who had rarely found an ending before. It had been a painless process, each story rising up in my mind like a bubble of swamp gas – perfect for bottling, it seemed to me. After removing two thirds of the material and editing what was left – which took me about a year – I sent off the manuscript to an American independent publisher and, several months later while enduring a freezing winter in Stockholm, a pleasant letter arrived asking whether I’d consent to having my stories published. I consented; and so, here we are a few years later, I have hit 559 000th place on the Kindle bestseller charts. Was it worth it? Well, yes, it was.

But I still wonder if the old lady in the bathroom fooled me with her imaginings? Maybe if I had written a normal avatar kitchen-sink drama about robot invasion, zombie breakout and scheming psychopaths colluding with Old Nick, I would have been with Neil Gaiman now, having a cold beer on the roof of some hotel. In Kuala Lumpur. I will never know.

(First published on The Nervous Breakdown, October 24rd, 2011. View original post and comments here.)

The Planning Disease

3 Oct

There is no such thing as a perfect man, nor a woman either… I keep telling myself this, because I am often aware of failing myself, failing others, failing the idea I have of perfection, which must be seen as a sort of disease of the mind. In spite of knowing this I often catch myself in a rage at my shortcomings.

My most serious fault, as I see it in my dissonant ramblings, is the wastage of time to which I have subjected my life (that’s an awkward sentence, I know – but I don’t have time to rewrite it). In my twenties I did little more than bum about, while endlessly considering where I should go to do some more bumming about.

Many, many years ago, when I went to India at the age of 22, I spent my days torturing myself about whether to go here, or there, or nowhere. Even on trains, lying in a second class bunk while that continent’s seemingly endless fields, forests, and deserts sped by, I was always fretting about where to go next. There is a simple mathematical equation to it: by going to one place one does not go to another. By not going to another, one changes the direction of one’s whole life. Because every new step we take determines everything that comes after.

While I had been waiting in Athens for my flight, the winter had oppressed us all. I had found myself a cheap hostel, filled with down-at-heel Irish people who were emigrating to Australia and/or had been in Greece for the orange harvest. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember a cracked window by my bed where a very cold blast of wind disturbed my rest. And I remember a lot of weeping, drunken confessions and Irish voices declaring their love for those they had just met, and would never see again. The departures took place on a daily basis.

When it was my turn to board the plane, I had bought a bottle of very good whiskey, after some raffish traveller had explained to me that one could sell whiskey in Bombay at a premium. My neighbour on the Air Egypt flight, a bearded fellow working for an NGO, shunned me after finding out that I was intending to sell my whiskey for profit – quite rightly, he assumed I was just another brainless, hedonistic backpacker looking to cruise India for kicks. I walked around the streets of Bombay that night and sold my bottle and made ten quid for myself and it didn’t seem worth it. Apparently I had been poorly advised. People are usually poorly advised; it is one of the cardinal rules of existence that advice is always useless, unless it is useful. And you will never know the difference until years later, when you are in an old people’s home.

The journey was eventful. We took off from Athens and stopped in Cairo to pick up more passengers. A savage sandstorm erupted and we spent three days at the airport, which began to look like some sort of world party. Tall Ethiopians in colourful head-dresses, bony Englishmen re-living the joys of empire, gangs of Pakistanis complaining about the lack of facilities for their massive families… I managed to get a room in a hotel at the airport, where I stood watching the sand blowing across the runway; I was ecstatic, more or less, absolutely immersed in Henry Miller’s trilogy, “Sexus”, “Nexus”, and “Plexus”. I wanted that sandstorm to keep blowing.

But all good things expire… the sandstorm passed, we took off and flew across the Indian Ocean into the dawn…

No sooner had we landed, than I followed the other hedonistic, brainless backpackers to the Red Shield Salvation Army Hostel very close to the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway to India. They seemed to know exactly where they were going. The very next morning, they set off in a large gaggle to one of the British-built train stations in Bombay (this one looked exactly like King’s Cross in London; it must have been by the same Victorian architect) to buy their tickets to Goa. I accompanied them for a part of the way, listening to their explanations about why Goa was the best place to start, to relax, swim and surf, dance, sink into the “emotion” of India before putting in the necessary “hard travelling”, the dutiful exploration of the interior or the little-known border territories.

I don’t like reluctant, dutiful things. If there is not some genuine reason for doing something, why not just leave it?

I remember how, at one point, we turned a corner and there before us was a whole street filled with water buffalo, all lying down in the shade and chewing the green fodder that had been put out for them. On the other side of the street, a group of lepers came limping across as soon as they saw us. A long thoughtful silence broke out among the new arrivals. “Yes,” someone said. “Goa is more relaxed.”

I was not sorry to see them all boarding the train and heading off.

Then I spent two days trying to buy a train ticket. The queues were enormous and terrifying, and once you got to the ticket window, you had to know the departure times and various code words or they told you to come back later. After queuing for two hours, this was not an attractive option. Eventually I broke down in tears. Until a very helpful Frenchman and his wife, who to this day seems to me the most beautiful woman I ever met, took me by the hand and led me to the Tourist Office and explained that I could go in and buy any ticket I wanted in ten minutes. I did not know this, because I had not informed myself…

Without exception, all the people I had met were clutching the Lonely Planet Guide to India, which was incredibly detailed, specifying exactly which boarding houses to stay in, which restaurants to eat in, how to buy train tickets, and so on. Armed with this book it was possible to spend three or four months in India without ever having any bother or getting further than four feet from the nearest American/Brit/German travellers, heavily laden with helpful advice about selling bottles of whiskey or going to Goa. I had not bought a Lonely Planet Guide; I trusted in a crude map of India, which I spent many hours staring at, trying to work out from the names and locations of the towns where I would most like to go.

So, a few days after arriving in Bombay, I caught a train into Gujarat where I toured a lot of very small towns that rarely had more than a single hostel, mostly with hard beds and dirty bedlinen and pillows decorated with a large hair-oil patch in the middle, smelling nicely of jasmine. In one of these towns I had to leave, after some locals spread a rumour that I was working for the government as an agent to collect information on some recent anti-Muslim riots.

The high point, or low point, depending on whether you were standing upright or hanging upside down, was experienced in the docks of Ahmadabad at five in the morning, when I found myself walking down a long deserted road between warehouses, with no one around except a strange man following me with a murderous look in his eyes. I bid him a good morning and stared at him so intently that I think he eventually drew the conclusion that I was mad, and left me in peace.

Ahmadabad seemed to be the home of Surreal experience. One day I was walking through a street market when suddenly a naked man came running through the crowd, screaming. A few men picked up sticks to beat him, when suddenly their attention was detained by a rabid dog careering along, foam flying from its mouth. I was transfixed, watching as the men proceeded to club the suffering beast until it was no more than a patch of red gore flattened into the dust.

My agonies grew out of this ignorance of mine, the fact that I did not know which towns were cool, which towns had sacred lakes, which towns had ashrams and freaks and bongs and bang lassis. Obstinately I navigated by my silly map. There were advantages, but some of them could have ended up killing me. On Diu, an island in the north, I ended up climbing into a ruined Tower of Silence, and I must be one of the few India travellers to have got inside a Zoroastrian sacred tower where the bones of the dead are picked clean by vultures. I could tell you exactly what it looked like, but I would never reveal a secret like that.

Now, when I tell the stories of my travels, it all seems so pleasant and decorative. At the time, it was an agony of decision-making. Should I go to this dot on the map, or that one? I never knew from one day to the next where I should bring my bag of bones, my sleepless head. In the end I succumbed to the planning disease. I bought a scuffed old Lonely Planet Guide in a second-hand bookshop in Delhi, and from there on, when I think back, there was an element of predictability to my journey. From being a panicked young man who knew nothing, I had a great deal of superb information at my fingertips. I met other travellers, all extremely confident about where they were going next. And, oh, how obvious it all was.

In those early days, while I was blundering through Gujarat, I took a long walk in a forest one day and, in a glade, I came face to face with a whole pride of wild lions. Females, males, cubs: thirty lions lying there, watching me stumbling into their midst through a bush. That moment when I faced an upright, tensile male, his ferocious eyes the size of tennis balls, will never be forgotten.

My advice, then, is: don’t read the book. Turn off the radio, throw away the newspaper. Smell the wind, check the sky and the clouds and the sun. Then set off and make your journey.

My next book The Maggot People is due out in November but it is available for pre-order on Amazon. My short stories Love Doesn’t Work are available on Kindle or as a paperback. 

Film Shits II, Cannes is Finished

9 Apr

The minute I arrived in Cannes I suspected the gods were playing with me. What I really mean is that the weather had it in for me. I came out of Cannes train station, having cleverly opted for the budget flight to Milano and chugging down on local trains to the Ligurian coast, into France and Monaco with its wedding cake villas. I had a feeling they were all owned by film producers, but this was surely incorrect. Most of them had probably been bought by Russian “businessmen”.

Anyway, the skies opened the moment I stepped out of the station. I was soaked in seconds, then thwacked by a sheet of dirty water thrown up by a long black limousine belting through a deep puddle by the pedestrian crossing. I caught a brief flash of a couple of high-rollers in the back seat, laughing uproariously and drinking champagne.  Ha-ha, we got someone soaked! It was not a good beginning. Frankly, I knew I should not have come to this open-air conference of some of the worst, most loathsome shits one can meet.

A couple of hours later I had found my lodgings, crowded with young, ambitious animators, fledgling directors, cameramen, producers, actors and writers. We were paying in the region of fifteen hundred pounds per night for the apartment, and as I was a late arrival I ended up sleeping on a dirty mattress on the balcony, where I got away with paying only a hundred pounds per night.

I had turned up with a film treatment, a long and detailed treatment, mind you, carefully adapted from a classic Italian novel from 1953. Armed with this I felt I was not just one of thousands of people seeking to charm someone. In fact I did not want to charm, but impress.

My theme was Homeric: a man was looking to find a way back to his wife (i.e. Ulysses/ Penelope), but the more he tried the further she receded. Sprinkled into the narrative was a host of illusions, monsters and she-devils. Cunningly I had set the story not in Italy and not in Greece either, opting instead for the Finnish archipelago, which I felt had something uniquely Homeric about it. The previous year I had stood on a ridge in Finland overlooking a wide forested landscape interlaced with serpentine lakes. I’d imagined a yacht, a Finnish yacht, maybe a Swan or similar, with my actors on board, threading its way through this magical place.

Now, I had come to Cannes to meet with a Finnish producer who was, everyone implied, going to be a big name any day soon. When one hears this sort of thing, one usually imagines there is some truth to it. This is a big error. The big names are almost always those who spring from nowhere unannounced. And for every big name there are literally thousands of small-fry putting on their killer whale suits before they head off to Venice, Toronto, Berlin and Cannes.

I met with the said producer in one of Cannes’ pretentious beach-front hotels. He lounged knowingly under a sun parasol and spoke fondly about ice hockey for an hour and a half. Was this the preamble to the deal, I wondered? Possibly so, because we arranged to meet for lunch the following day. Before I left, he looked up and said: “Do you know what a film is? A film is a story told in pictures.”

I agreed with that.

I walked along the pretty streets of Cannes, imagining that this could be the beginning of my entry into a world I had felt for so long was closed to me. Maybe I had been too negative about film producers? Here, after all, was a Finnish producer who was so down-to-earth that he would rather talk about ice hockey than film. He’d even phoned a mail order company in Helsinki to order an ice hockey shirt for his son, while I knowingly yawned and sipped my spritzer. And still, in the midst of all this filial concern, he had time to make a striking remark on film-making. Amazing stuff.

The next day we got down to business. He opened negotiations by telling me that he liked my treatment and had already spoken to seven screenwriters in London. I was momentarily thrown by this, unable to understand what was motivating this strange, long-haired fellow with weird clouded eyes, like algae on the surface of a pond. An effect, perhaps, of too much vodka? Harsh winters? Leaky Russian nuclear reactors?

“But I want to write this. This is my project!” I explained to him. For a moment I feared he’d go back to ice hockey, but he just frowned in a taciturn Finnish way and said, after a weighty pause: “Ah, you want to write, do you?”

“Yes. That is why I wrote the treatment.”

The food arrived. Clearly my explanation about wanting to write the script had galvanized him. He was in the groove, he got out a napkin and a pen. “I want a first draft by August 20th. Can you do that?”

“Of course.”

“I will pay you twelve thousand for that.” He wrote down the figure. “But that includes the rights.”

“Right.”

“Then we do two further drafts. Eight thousand.”

“Okay.”

“And then by the Berlinale we have a director and some of the actors in place. I think I can get a million euro out of the Finnish Film Institute.”

“Sounds good,” I said. So this was it. I was on my way to the Technicolor Pantheon.

Before we left the restaurant, we were invited to a smoked reindeer luncheon at the Finnish Pavilion by a friend of the Finnish Producer, who noticed us as he passed by in the street. I was caught off guard when he leaned forward, dropped his voice and seemed to be offering me a job as a spy. For Finland, Sweden, England or some other country? I was unsure. “Actually I’m just here to make a film,” I said. The Finnish Producer smiled, and with hindsight I wonder if he wasn’t laughing at me.

A few days later I was on my way up to Milano for my flight to Berlin’s leafy, broad streets. Cannes had paid off. I spent much of the next months in the courtyard at the back of our place with a jug of iced tea and my computer. The script slid out of me with little trouble. Like a prefabricated house. It was a pleasant summer. And by August 20 I was ready to go.

It was now that the Great Northern Silence began. I have realised that “The Silence” is not only a Bergman film but also a deep-seated trait of most filmmakers whenever there’s a bill to be paid. Bullshit is the currency, money is the religion, but no one has ever seen God. Right?

In fact, to be fair, the Finnish Producer did call me once at the end of August to explain that … well … the Finnish Film Institute had no more money. It was… finished. Which, I know, is a bad pun, but I can’t help myself.

Autumn lingered. At one point my Finnish Producer contacted me to suggest that I come along to a workshop in three days’ time. In Moldovia or similar. Even by this stage my commitment to silver screen was undimmed. I called the Moldovian Film Institute or whatever it was, only to find that it was fully booked, in fact there were film shits dropping in from all over the world.

Six months later I bumped into the Finnish Producer, shivering with friends in the snow around a fire at a party in Berlin during the film festival. I was pretty civil to him. “Ah, there you are,” I said, as if I’d popped off to the loo and had momentarily lost him in the throng. He introduced me to his friends as “a writer he was working with.” I grinned inadvertently at this. We agreed to meet while he was in Berlin, but the Silence was still there casting its great shadow. We did not see each other. I sent him an SMS a few days before the end of the festival.

His response was legendary, to me at least: “My friend, I am in Tokyo and I have not slept for eighteen hours. Please email me in future.”

I immediately fired back: “My friend, I am in Berlin and I had a good night’s rest. Go fuck yourself.”

We have not spoken since. Oddly enough now that I have told a film shit to go fuck himself I feel I’ve grown. I may not be a proper film shit, but I’m certainly a dropping.

Film Shits I, Why Mainstream English and American Films are No Good Any More

1 Apr

Thematically speaking, this short piece – I will readily admit it is opinionated –  belongs with the earlier post (“Analogue Days in Soho”) which was an attempt to summarise the traits of publishers.  Now that I turn to the film industry, my weary jibes at publishers retreat into bleached insignificance. As the film producers walk onto the stage, their feet drum against the boards like thunder. Behold, the gods are coming in! And they’re angry. They want us to know how important they are!

Film is a rule to itself, and by that I mean an absence of rules, a chaotic state of burning desire, jealousy and thievery. The principal reason for this, as we shall see, is that film is administered by business people who passionately believe in their creative drives and even genius. Producers are keen to bring hits to the screen, but they will keenly defend the notion that a commercial film can also be a work of originality and artistic excellence. This is the reason for the current preponderance in the media of cartoon heroes in capes, masked villains, robots, vampires, zombies… then of course an endless progression of syphilitic or divorced police detectives in pursuit of terrorists or serial-killing psychotics. Is it the zeitgeist that we are all terrifically interested in these things, or are we being force-fed like geese in preparation for the extraction of our brains?

Occasionally a producer comes along and makes a grainy film about mammary glands, and is immediately hailed as a genius. But fundamentally the need to be derivative defines everything that film does. The first problem for the screenwriter is that producers will tend to lie about this. Most producers actually believe that they are making worthwhile cultural products. Some would say, of course, that there is something dichotomous about the idea of a “cultural product”. How can something genuinely cultural, reaching into our lives and speaking for us, also be a mass-produced product distributed across the world to the Chinese, Indians, Tibetans, Mexicans, Russians, Egyptians and Serbs? By definition, the whole thing is skewed. Culture is a very specific thing, it touches each person differently. The idea of global cultural products is bogus, it’s just something for the empire-builders, the salesmen. The desperate hunger for “product” leads to every possible book, cartoon and cereal packet being optioned and “worked up” into a film. The hunt is on and, make no mistake – the object is profit.

Almost everyone who works in film, whether a producer, director, editor, gaffer, actor or catering assistant, has a strong belief in the existence of something they will reverentially refer to as “the script”. Most of them will even feel they have an idea for a script. But when we turn our heads and look at the scriptwriter, this maligned and kicked-about little beast, we should ask ourselves how this poor suffering mini-shit manages to live his/ her life? How much creative freedom does the scriptwriter really have? And in the same breath we have to admit that if scripts are no good, if scripts are not expressions of individuality and experience, then what are they? And how can they be the basis of a good film?

In the last 40 years or so, Hollywood and later everyone else too began to create a sort of superhighway of ideas to which we’ve all now been magnetized. When the grand old Hollywood crew of Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese were emerging, they were inspired by the French New Wave, Italian neo-Realism and Scandinavian and/or Russian Melancholy. They wanted to apply these approaches to American film-making which had been caught up in the stiffness of a studio system that no longer created contemporary films. That was how the modern US/ European film-making era began, with “Easy Rider” and “Taxi Driver” and “Jaws”. Forty years later, the outcome, which I would argue points to the end of Hollywood as a creative force, are films like “The Hurt Locker” or Clint Eastwood’s 2011 movie “J.Edgar” about the life of FBI supremo Hoover. American cinema has not understood that the world no longer cares so very much about its icons. What’s required in American film-making is political awareness, but it’s simply not there. More or less every war film coming out of America, and every political thriller, is pathetically sentimental about brave American soldiers/ spies/ diplomats doing what they have to do and paying the price. Deeper questions such as “why did their government start a war/ send soldiers/ bomb the country?” are not asked. It leads to dumb audiences, in fact, one senses the stiffness and naivety of the 1950s reimposing themselves.

There was a brief, brief American dawn in the 1990s with independent cinema, but Miramax and New Line and Zoetrope and most of the other independents were bought up by the big daddies, the studios. Essentially it was a sell-out. The rebels joined the Empire. And you can’t be alternative if you live at the Four Seasons Hotel and have a chauffeur. You can only be weird, in the sense that a big-name rapper is weird. Champagne, gold and Armani – yet songs about the gangs and the streets.

Of course this has very little do with “Film Shits” although it is loosely related. Because in the wake of American and European film-making over the last few decades, a style of screenwriting has emerged that I would loosely call “the School of Mechanisation.” Basically, this is the systematic creation of a story with a certain shape, while the writer’s unique vision no longer holds decisive importance. A good computer could do it. Robert McKee, possibly the most famous writing tutor of recent years, used to begin his famous seminar by clarifying that he was not teaching a formulaic way of creating stories. But of course as soon as he opened his seminar with this denial, one immediately knew that he was doing precisely that. Why not call a spade a spade, Mr. McKee? You have created an absolutely formulaic system for writing screenplays. Producers, all of them shits, are only too happy to accept the formula that has a proven record of pulling in the crowds, filling cinemas and keeping the balancing sheets in the black. This is done by inflating drama, introducing gratuitous and melodramatic “intensity” in the form of struggle, violence and frequent bouts of sexual frenzy. It’s dreary, it’s irrelevant, it has nothing to do with the world I know.

McKee is not completely mistaken. Some of his tricks can be useful and any half-decent writer will occasionally make use of them, but in the end McKee is a traitor to his own craft – a second-rate magician who stands up and explains his tricks, because he is not true enough to simply perform and be a magician. His efforts ultimately create a pool of imitators who have not learned their craft by their own efforts alone. Thus, when the proper writer – by that I mean a writer who has fought his/her way to a sort of position – presents a work to a producer, this producer is very likely to have read a number of Syd Field screenwriting books and taken a couple of Robert McKee seminars and read Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey” about mythic structures in storytelling. Immediately the writer is faced with a person who knows very little in a practical sense about writing, while at the same time being solidly versed in pseudo-intellectual notions of what a story is. Its meaning. Its intention. Its purpose. Interference will follow as the spark flies.

Producers are always shits. It’s unavoidable. It’s inevitable. They interfere. They think they know better. They can’t write the story themselves but they will always tell you how to improve it.

My suspicions about producers began to grow while I was living in London. I noticed that producers felt obliged to do things as if they were producers – I mean in a referential way. Hence the ordering of sushi by telephone for delivery to the editing suite or Foley-stage. I sometimes wondered if these producers actually liked sushi? Would they not have preferred bacon sandwiches and cups of tea? Answer: no. Because English producers don’t eat bacon sandwiches. They are learning to be American, that’s why, and American producers eat only sushi. Everyone knows that, right? It’s a sort of basic entry ticket to Harvey Weinstein’s helicopter. This is a pity. England always had its own flavour until it was overtaken by American culture. The English have become so blind to themselves that they seem to view James Bond as an English character. In fact Bond’s Englishness is an artificial projection for American audiences. The English sold the silver at some point but they’ve forgotten what the silver was. I can tell you in one word: authenticity.

Now they are proud of the high-budget overseas productions that come to film in their studio complexes – a development started by the Americanised Scott brothers, who also had very little to do with being English. The English were always great chameleons, that’s why they have good actors. They don’t much like their country because it doesn’t really work any more. It’s not even a country, really. It’s layers and layers of class pressed into a weird sandwich: anchovy, jam and pesto on rye.

Available at the River Cafe. Alas.

Analogue Days in Soho, London

26 Mar

For people today who can essentially publish what the hell they like, as I’m doing now, writing is no longer quite the solemn or evaluated thing it used to be. All you do is write something and then tell an awful lot of people that you’ve done it. Back then, you were pleased if you got a half-drunk brother-in-law to peer myopically at your musings at the end of the evening. “Quite like it, yeah…” would be enough to send you into bleeding raptures.

Also there was the substantial problem of publishers. Those monopolists of the mind.

I knew a couple of them. I knew my publisher at Quartet (see “My Sparkling Career”), whose dirty socks I had once spied on the floor where he must have left them after a late night of drinking in Soho. He also kept – I’d noticed – a rolled up mattress on the floor next to his piano. So, yes, drinking was one of the important things publishers liked to do. I’d frequently seen a bunch of writers and publishers occupying the same table at The Coach and Horses – later this pub became a theme venue, but at this stage it was still more or less just a place for writers, publishers and other mad sorts. A few times I’d recognised my publisher from Quartet, also a few times a sharp-nosed nattily dressed fellow, I’m pretty sure he was Auberon Waugh. They were usually, as far as I could tell, drunk. My publisher once nodded wearily at me but I was not invited to sit at their table, which was probably just as well because none of them were saying anything. I think one of them may have been playing with a box of matches. The rest of the publishers/ writers were staring into their beer. I suppose they were depressed, even in those days there was the perennial problem of books not really selling very well, apart from Mills & Boon and Frederick Forsyth. People prefer to buy almost anything other than a book. A bottle of wine, a selection of breakfast cereals, a jar of organic lemon curd, a silk tie, a hedge trimmer.

But there were also other kinds of publishers, serious ones with smart suits, working in big Georgian buildings with clean windows. One such building in Soho Square exerted a strong fascination on me. Bloomsbury Books. One of my favourite pubs was just round the corner and I also had a nearby sacred spot in Soho Square outside St. Pats Catholic Church where, over a hundred years earlier, Thomas De Quincey had parted from a woman he’d only just fallen in love with, as described in “Confessions of an Opium Eater”. I always rated that book very highly and I used to stand there by the front step of St. Pats, imagining de Quincy in that long-gone night, forlornly waiting for his consumptive friend to come back. “Goodbye, my love,” I used to say to myself, quietly of course, “Goodbye…” I felt I had also been abandoned by someone, but I couldn’t think who.

I’d scoured my “Writers & Artists’ Yearbook” for someone at Bloomsbury who might be interested in some poems of mine. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that  Bloomsbury Publishing wasn’t paying the rent by publishing poetry. Looking back, I wonder if I was twelve or twenty-two? Or maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, maybe what I wanted to give Bloomsbury was a bang-up-to-date annotated manuscript of my historical novel “Unwitching the Lake” (unpublished) which I was certain would become a massive international hit. The third possibility, and please do take into account that memory plays tricks on one, was that I had a fresh-typed version of “Tales of the Barrio Gotico” (unpublished), my short stories from Barcelona.

Anyway, let’s just say I was ambitious. I felt I had a hit in me, I wanted to get it out there into the analogue universe.

Bloomsbury had not yet published the first Harry Potter book but they were doing pretty well. I decided to go right to the top, which meant Nigel Newton. My networking instincts were quite well-developed, I’d say. I had a dislike of telephones because I’d noticed that a lot of important people employed secretaries to answer them.  Nigel’s secretary was friendly but incredibly determined not to put me through to him, even though I made it clear to her that “I had a few things to discuss with Nigel.” This had become a source of irritation to me.

One morning I got up as usual, packed my networking kit – a pile of manuscripts, my diary, pen, rolling tobacco and Rizla papers – then headed down to Soho, absolutely determined to speak to Nigel Newton who would surely see sense and agree to publish my deserving short stories/ poems and historical novel.

I was cheered by the surprising amusement of the girl behind the desk at Bloomsbury Publishing. She agreed to summon Mr. Newton to the reception and suggested that I take a seat in the mean time. To give Mr. Newton credit, he did come wafting down in a very elegant manner, shook my hand and accepted my manuscript, though he said he couldn’t promise that he’d have time to read it any time soon.

I don’t think he ever did read it, because I never heard from him again. And this, to go back to the second point, was the other tendency I managed to define about publishers. They had, and still do have, an amazing ability never to speak to you.

I was pretty annoyed about Nigel Newton being too busy to appreciate the promise of my work, and I actually produced a whole sequence of poems, in which I bitterly lambasted him for i) his balding head (“too much air in his hair”) and his tan which, to me, proved, ii) that he’d just come back from the Caribbean with his secretary, whom he’d invited for lascivious purposes. Of course his baldness I had actually witnessed and so there was some justification for lambasting him about it. But the second allegation of sexual usurpation was unfounded and deeply unfair. Most likely I’d taken a fancy to the secretary who had a decisive, tidy yet also slightly saucy voice. I probably had fantasies of eating boiled eggs with her in the mornings, then spending long happy days in the British Library Reading Rooms. Gloomily I decided she was probably dating her boss.

Was there some sort of shadow between my ideas and my execution of them? Or rather, had I executed my own ideas? Would I be an unemployed writer for ever?

The one exception to the general traits of publishers was one of the junior editors at Quartet, the one who helped me knock my Samarkand translation into shape. Not only was she very pretty, abstemious when it came to alcohol and contact-seeking in her general behaviour, she also had a famous father who was both a lord and a historian and apparently lived in a castle. I remember on one occasion she said to me, “I’ve never had a date with a Swede.” Her head slanted slightly when she said it and she seemed to be waiting for my invitation. Too proud to admit how broke I was, I just smiled. “Oh haven’t you?”

With this, my Soho days were more or less over.

Years later I moved to Berlin and as I sit here writing this I happen to know that Nigel Newton is running the Berlin office of a German publishing house acquired by Bloomsbury with a few coppers of their Potter money.  Newton’s office is very close to where I live. Probably no more than a ten-minute walk.

By now I have amassed large piles of unpublished poems, plays, screenplays, essays, novels and other texts of varying quality. I do also have two published books which have risen up from the compacted mud like bubbles of marsh gas. But I’m an older, sadder man. No longer will I be packing a ream of Surrealist poems in my satchel and heading off to say hello to Nigel Newton. No longer will I write poems on the state of his follicles.

I’ll just e-mail him…

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