Current Reading – January 2011

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21 thoughts on “Current Reading – January 2011

  1. I’ve eliminated all but four of the list from last month. I’m really struggling with the Lidia Jorge though: – it started off really good, but is just so repetitive; I’m only 70 pages from the end, but I don’t feel I’ve got the strength to overcome them.

    I thought this year I’d delve into c18th literature (having read none last year), so I’m reading Roy Porter’s Enlightenment (a Christmas present) and Europe in …er… the Seventeenth Century (but I do have its sequel, Europe in the Eighteenth Century).

  2. Do you mean books about 18thC lit?

    I finally managed to finish The Canal, though there was a long hiatus when I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. In it’s way it’s a truly extraordinary novel which should give hope to all aspiring authors. If a writer as poor as this can get published then anyone can.

    ‘… Rainclouds were forming. Nonetheless, those who were walking to work along the towpath seemed to possess a far more agreeable and upright gait than usual, despite the ominous gathering above. Gone were the bent backs, the downward glances and the dishevelled postures. Now there seemed to be direction and purpose to their collective footfalls. Even the cyclists seemed more positively energised, thanking me for moving aside as they trundled by… ‘

    It’s like a statement written by a semi-literate policeman, the pompous diction, the vile cliches, the horrible grating phrases. Collective footfalls! There’s so much of it that I began to think it must all be an elaborate joke, in which case it would be a masterpiece, if a rather dull and pointless one. Having googled and read a couple of interviews with Rourke it’s clear that he’s entirely serious.

    What I don’t understand is how so many clearly intelligent people have read the book (though some of them do seem light on quotation) and rated it highly. Baffling.

  3. No, I don’t mean “books about 18thC lit” – I mean actual 18thC lit. It just so happens I’m starting off reading some books about the 18thC in general – as useful background. – Then I shall be moving on to actual 18thC books (and perhaps some c17th books, and no doubt a good helping of early 19thC books).

    “If a writer as poor as this can get published…” – yes, that’s what drives me on. However bad my writing might be, worse things have been published. (Mind you, they usually have their market – as evinced by the Rourke-appreciators).

    There’s a lot of “seemed” in that. As I edit my own work, I find I strike out every appearance of the words “seemed” and “appeared” – it makes it sound a whole lot better. – Let’s have a go, eh?

    ‘… Rainclouds were forming; but despite this, the people walking to work along the towpath were more upright than usual. Gone were the bent backs, the downward glances, the dishevelled postures; instead there was direction and purpose to their collective stride. Even the cyclists seemed more positively energised, and thanked me for moving aside as they trundled by… ‘

    Better? Worse? Too many semi-colons?

  4. My favourite Raymond Queneau book The Bark Tree contains a lot of writing about boredom – some great earnest agonised interior monologues by people that suburbia is driving round the twist. He writes engaging descriptions of a dull location that catches the imagination of one of the characters when he sees it from a train window on his way home and which becomes an important part of the story.

    BS Johnson writes a lot about this as well. I suspect Rourke is enthusiastic about authors like these and has tried to do what they do.

    Seemed and appeared are the banes of my writing style. Not that I write much other than comments on blogs like these.

  5. Yeah, I’ve always felt it’s harder writing an interesting book about boredom than say an interesting book about war – and so, if you lack talent, it’s probably better to write the book about war. It has “intrinsic” interest without the author having to add anything.

    Sometimes I think about “seemed” and “appeared”, it’s almost as if you don’t trust your views or your relationship with the world – as if you doubt things too much in a post-modernist type way. Always, always sounds better if you drop the “seemed” and just use the verb you attached to it – unless, of course, “seeming” is appropriate.

    This is a good example of style:

    Gone were the bent backs, the downward glances and the dishevelled postures.

    You could write this:

    Gone were the bent backs, the downward glances and dishevelled postures.

    Gone were the bent backs, downward glances, dishevelled postures.

    Gone were the bent backs, downward glances and dishevelled postures.

    The first sounds best on its own, I think – but it depends on context. You just can’t write it as Rourke wrote it (imho).

  6. I never gave ‘seemed’ a thought until ET mentioned it on PH. Now I scan everything I write for it.

    I didn’t notice how many there were in the Rourke passage, another black mark against his style. Your version is better than his, but there is still objectionable content. The ‘dishevelled postures’ is particularly annoying – clothes or hair can be dishevelled, but not postures. ‘Collective’ is just terrible and ought to be done away with completely. That ‘positively energised’ sounds like an advert for breakfast cereal: it’s a nasty construction which must go. ‘Trundled’, Christ, are we on the Dave Lee Travis Show? A bland comedy word which needs at least a century for rehabilitation.

  7. I’ve never read any of Thirwell’s books and am probably unlikely to but he did write a lovely tribute to Barbara Wright, Queneau’s main English translatoer when she died a few year’s back.

    You are quite correct about seemed. I tend to use it as a let-out clause because I’m uncertain at times about what I think of something – it could be this but just as easily could be that.

  8. I’m getting double gravatarring just like on PH. One minute I’m on an ecstasy comedown after 3 nights of raving, the next minute I’m Cuthbert the comedy guard-dog.

  9. I could be unkind and suggest Thirlwell had a book out at that time, which was all about translating works from foreign languages (mostly, as I recall, French). – I take it this is the piece.

    I’ve only ever read Queneau’s The Sunday of Life (which I thought was pretty good); – I guess my hesitation to read any other works has been around this question of its untranslatability.

    The gravatar is linked to the e-mail address you supply. You have used two different ones.

  10. I’d heartily recommend The Bark Tree now published as Couch Grass for some reason.

    his work is so pun-ridden and playful with language that I should think he’s terrific in French but he’s still pretty good in translation. He was enough of an English speaker ( I think he translated Amos Tutuola’s Palm-wine Drunkard into English ) to have aided Barbara Wright’s versions.

  11. I lie he didn’t translate Tutuola’s book into English he translated it from English into French.

  12. I’ll read Zazie in the Metro then, since that’s the only one I’ve got.

    I can imagine Queneau liking Tutuola.

  13. Your exchange with frogc on the cw thread was entertaining. No wonder modern novels all sound the same – they’re flattened by the cw steamroller. Mind you, Rourke would have benefitted from a course or three.

  14. I don’t know: – my real protest against Creative Writing courses is on ideological grounds. I believe writers should be self-developed free-thinkers: – people who can stand outside of society and are beholden to no-one. Geniuses tend to be people who’ve drifted along down a road less-travelled, I think because they can then maintain their idiosyncratic ways of thinking – their mistaken notions, of which otherwise they might be cured.

    (Also, I’ve always felt that writers – rather like magicians – should keep their secrets to themselves).

    Rourke – Rourke would have told them they were all wrong and they just didn’t understand the avant-garde; they needed to read more Blaise Cendrars.

  15. Let me say, without defending CW workshops or MFAs or (no kidding) PhDs in CW (which I’ve never experienced firsthand), that Flannery O’Connor found, what, nurturance and (I guess) some practical feedback at the Iowa university that’s so famous for leading the way in the institutionalization and industrialization of “CW”. Surely she’s no cookie-cut stylist.

    Which genius – or hack – is actually “self-developed” or “stand[s] outside of society”??

    When I think of CW programs as something that could work – that is, that could enable idiosyncrasies to flourish uncorrected (albeit not unchallenged) – , I think of medieval/Renaissance painting, of painters coming each into his (and rarely her) own in a manner I suppose (correctly??) to be analogous to craft-guild training: apprentice -> journeyman -> master. If that actually happens, without the imposition of some institutional norms of quality/ambition or, maybe worse, careerist mediocrity (a norm of own, to be sure), maybe it’d be a Good Thing – or a better thing than adding aspiring writers directly to us marginally employable misfits.

  16. Which genius – or hack – is actually “self-developed” or “stand[s] outside of society”??

    Hmm, I probably need to define my terms more carefully – but I think I’d rather concede the point for now rather than try at length to defend it.

    One can observe perhaps that almost no writer I know of learned his craft from another writer during the entire course of human history – that is, literally was taught by that other writer, rather than been influenced and inspired by his books and methods and then under his own guidance and judgement using them as a basis for his own work.

    Yes, the Renaissance method would work. I’d also quite like rich folk like the Medici to pay me to sit in a room and write books purely for their own sake – purely to create something beautiful.

  17. I can think of one who “literally was taught” etc. Guy de Maupassant was directly trained by Flaubert. Reading Maupassant, though, has left me with many doubts about what this actually means. Not sure “directly trained by” is that different than “influenced and inspired by” etc., not in this case.

  18. Which surely proves my point – doesn’t it – that there’s no need for creative writing courses? – You can just read books by people who interest you and get the same result. (In fact, considering some of the complaints in the original Guardian comments, this is pretty much what some creative writing courses consist of).

    Yes, the whole Flaubert, Maupassant, Zola mob came to my mind too. Zola describes Flaubert as his master; not sure whether one taught the other – Z’s writings, I find, are quite different. – I generally find Maupassant slightly more interesting as Flaubert – but Maupassant is denigrated a little as a writer, is he not, precisely because he didn’t think it all up but just “copied” Flaubert.

  19. If it’s not proof, it’s powerful evidence. One of my doubts, or suspicions, is that the “my master Flaubert” business was partly marketing. Young writers getting a publicity boost from the old avant garde.

    I sincerely, foolishly, thought that actually reading Maupassant would clear this up.

  20. Well, every writer was taught basic literacy by literate teachers, and, I think, for most writers, that education was stylistic as well as technical. Probably for brilliant literary artists, this passing on of conventional literary sensibility highlights your point that the activity of genius makes its own way beyond modest literacy.

    I’d also say that, in what I’ve read about writers learning in CW environments, the passing on of literary education is more a matter of taste – that is, of critique and of constructive comparison of priorities and values – than of empirically identifiable technique (as with Renaissance-to-Impressionistic painting ‘shops’). That is (for example), a writing teacher who’s got a florid style in her or his own publications can help far more minimalistic or naturalistic students to find/hone/polish their voices.

    The practice of journalism – perhaps you’d agree that it’s a ‘craft’ – has, since (to my small knowledge) the 18th c. literary ‘magazines’, been a matter of apprentices becoming journeymen (who occasionally become masters).

    I agree that the CW racket – to the extent that it is a racket, which might be great – will drown more writers and writing in bureaucratic and careerist mediocrity than it’ll buoy. I just wonder, in an abstract way – as I say, I haven’t been and can’t imagine becoming involved – , whether there aren’t a fair number of writers who don’t get ‘better’ at writing in MFA programs.

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