Matter of Recall

I’ve just finished Strange Affair, the second of two Peter Robinson crime novels which I’ve listened to in audio format rather than reading. I have read some of his earlier work but have not been the devotee that some of my friends are. Indeed I have one friend who deliberately saves his new novel each year for her Christmas treat and retires behind closed doors with that and a bag of fudge not to be seen again until she has finished both.

While I’ve enjoyed both books I have to say that listening to them, experiencing them in a medium in which you have to encounter every word, has made me aware of some the weaknesses of the extended series that a reader might well skim over and not necessarily notice. For instance, there are moments of verbal déjà vu when you come across the reminders of specific characteristics of the main participants, so often couched in exactly the same words as they were in the preceding book. Or you find yourself listening to the recall of episodes from earlier crimes in the sort of clunky detail that signals this is something you need to know if you’re going to understand what happens next but really you ought to have read the previous books.

I’m finding this a bit grating and beginning to wonder if one of the mark of a really good writer is the ability to orientate the reader to what has gone before in a way that is less than obvious. I remember when Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets came out cringing at the way J K Rowling handled the necessary recall from book one and then being aware as the series progressed that one indication of how she was growing as a writer was her development in this area. I’ve moved on now to Henning Mankell, also a new writer to me, and I shall be interested to see how he stacks up in this respect. Of course, it does depend on my being able to get hold of his books in audio form. Off to the library site again!

Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm  Comments (9)  

Sunday Salon ~ Reading for the Snowbound

While I was washing up this morning (well, even the mundane jobs have to be done every now and again) I happened to catch the thriller writer, Andy McNab, being interviewed on the radio about books to be read while snowbound.

Now, one of the more interesting discoveries that I’ve made about myself as a reader over the past couple of weeks is that when I have apparently endless time in which to do nothing but read I can’t sit for more than an hour or so without needing to get up and fiddle with something.  Maybe this is because the leisure time is enforced, I don’t know.  Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea that there might be some books that were better for the snowbound than others (perhaps I’ve been choosing the wrong ones!) and even more intrigued by McNab’s choices, which included Great Expectations and Catcher in the Rye.  The one thing that his selections had in common was that they were plot driven rather than character led.  Of course, this might have something to do with nature of his own writing, I don’t know.  He did set me wondering, however, if there were books that were more appropriate than others and whether or not you have any ideas that might help me to take better advantage of the time the snow is forcing me to spend in my comfortable new chair.  I’ve read everything McNab suggested and I’m sated with re-reading at the moment, so what can I pick up instead?  All suggestions gratefully received.

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 6:35 pm  Comments (8)  

Sunday Salon ~ Characters in Genre Fiction

As I expect my UK readers already know, The Teaching Company has recently opened an outlet on this side of the Atlantic, which has made ordering courses from their catalogue considerably easier.  Just before Christmas I treated myself to Timothy Spurgin’s twenty-four lecture series, The Art of Reading.  On sale, the downloadable version was less than a pound a lecture, a bargain unlikely to be beaten even in the most generous of January reductions.

I used to teach a course very similar to this and it’s always interesting to see how someone else approaches a topic that you have spent hours, weeks, years even, trying to make as accessible as possible to new undergrads who at school have been drilled with techniques designed to get them through exams without paying much attention to developing them as open-minded, thinking readers.

This morning I was listening to the session on characters, always a problem area for me because as a structuralist I instinctively read for plot first and characters tend to come a pretty poor second.  Spurgin was stressing the point that what he was considering was literary fiction where he would expect the principle characters to be well rounded and to have the potential to behave in unexpected but convincing ways.  Pulp fiction on the other hand, he suggested, was more likely to feature characters whose behaviour is predictable.  (I should say that he wasn’t necessarily downplaying plot here -we haven’t got that far in the series yet- simply focussing on one particular feature for discussion purposes.)

Now I would have stopped my I-pod there and then in order to have a good argue against this had Professor Spurgin not immediately qualified what he’d said – or rather had he not acknowledged that his wife had pointed out to him that he was being too sweeping in his generalisations.  Mrs Spurgin, a librarian apparently, had drawn his attention to the fact that what distinguishes a good genre writer from a poor one is precisely the fact that while plot is likely to be pre-eminent they do also make an attempt to shade their characters and give them three-dimensional qualities.  The author mentioned was P D James and I would agree that she does indeed create well-rounded characters, at least in her earlier books.  In fact, thinking about this while I was out walking, I realised that it was the way in which James has begun to falter in this respect in the more recent Dalgliesh books that has made me think that they are diminishing in quality.

Walking is always thinking time for me, so while I was out in this morning’s gorgeous winter sun I found myself drawing up a list of other popular fiction writers that I would cite as paying considerable attention to the creation of characters who are more than simply cardboard cut outs.  Ian Rankin was high on my list, as was Katharine Kerr in the field of fantasy and Philip Pullman where children’s literature is concerned.

What do you think about this as a means of distinguishing amongst the writers of genre fiction and if you agree with it as a principle who would you suggest should feature on that list?  All suggestions gratefully received.  Who knows, we might all meet some new writers we can add to our tbr piles – as if we needed any additions!

Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 6:32 pm  Comments (8)  

Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersJust two quick points today, quick because of the first of them.

I am having real problems with my server at the moment.  Just now I can get on line, but I don’t know how long this is going to last.  So, my apologies for not visiting around as much as usual.  Most days it just hasn’t been possible.  The engineer is coming to check the line tomorrow but this has been an on-going problem for the best part of a year and I suspect the answer eventually is going to have to be a re-wiring job.  I will post and comment from the University when I can, but if I’m sporadic for a while you will know why.

The second point is a reading one – proper material for the Salon:)  Yesterday afternoon, I picked the new Audrey Niffenegger novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, from the library and realised when I got it home that I was almost too frightened to read it.  I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife so much that even the possibility that this might not live up to it froze my hand as I went to open it.  Is this a common phenomenon or am I just being neurotic?  (Or, as The Bears would say, even more neurotic than usual!)

Talking of Bears, I have to tell you that I was driving back from Kidderminster on Friday afternoon when I passed a motorcyclist going the other way who had (and I kid you not) a life-sized Teddy Bear strapped to his waist and sitting on the pillion seat behind him.   If only I could have got a picture.  Mind you, my Bears did not approve when I told them about it; the Bear was not wearing a crash helmet.

Off now to do some visiting while I still have a connection.

Published in: on October 11, 2009 at 9:18 am  Comments (14)  

Sunday Salon ~ My Native Tongue

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersLast week in the Salon I was having a grumble about novelists who either felt the need to establish their credentials as researchers or who were not skilful enough to distinguish between material that was necessary for their story and detail that pushed the book from fiction to quasi-encyclopaedia entry.  In either case the result is a novel that is relatively top heavy in minutia and light on plot. In doing so, I quoted from Henry James, who wrote:

The historical novel is, for me, condemned.  You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents…as much as you like, but the real thing is almost impossible to do…I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent.

Starting out on the journey of my first Masters module this week, I found myself thinking that in fact, the opposite was true: that when we try to understand the cultural sensibility that allowed Shakespeare to flourish, we don’t have the slightest chance of coming close because the conditions that made it possible for him to thrive, that made the Elizabethan world the crucible of linguistic invention that it was, are now non-existent.

It was just half a sentence in the course materials that set me thinking this way, although I’ve given you the sentence before as well, to set the context.

It’s never easy to account for cultural change, for the emergence of the new, or for the way in which a particular set of social, historical circumstances lead to the development of specific art forms. The early modern period was characterised by developing use of the vernacular,

And there you have it.  We take the use of our native language for granted.  Not only do the major institutions of our time conduct their business in our mother tongue, but there are consistent moves made to ensure that as much confusing jargon as possible is removed, that we understand what the powers that govern our lives are about.  How can we ever begin to even imagine what it must have felt like back in the latter half of the sixteenth century to experience the shackles of legal and religious parlance falling away and to know the exhilaration of hearing for the first time the most important and influential factors in your life spoken about in your own language?

The English Language was being liberated and Shakespeare and his audience must have been relishing this in the same way as the growing child relishes the sudden freedom to explore territory previously denied to them.  The joy in discovering the possibilities that writing in his mother tongue afforded him is palpable in everything that Shakespeare wrote and must have been appreciated just as much by the audiences that came to see and hear his work performed.  The nearest that I can hope to come to this today is to try and imagine what it must be like to be a Welsh speaker here in the UK or a Basque speaker in Spain surrounded by a culture that may pay lip service to their language but which in every meaningful way makes using it on a daily basis for anything that encourages social enhancement almost impossible.

James may have felt that it was his advantages that got in the way of writing historical fiction.  For me it’s the other way round.  What might seem like an advantage on the surface, my ability to converse in my own tongue without even having to think about it, is in fact a disadvantage, because it robs me of the impetus to explore my language and makes it almost impossible to appreciate the intensity and the exhilaration of creating a new art form in the words that are spoken around me every day.

Published in: on October 4, 2009 at 9:54 am  Comments (10)  

Sunday Salon ~ Warts and All

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersAt the moment I’m re-reading Geraldine Brooks wonderful book March in preparation for a book group meeting a week tomorrow.  The edition I have includes an article by the author in which she quotes Henry James on the subject of historical fiction.  Mr James was not amused. He wrote:

‘The historical novel is, for me, condemned.  You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents…as much as you like, but the real thing is almost impossible to do…’

Not surprisingly Ms Brooks does not agree and, for the most part, I’m with her.  I enjoy well-written historical fiction and I think you can learn a lot about not only the facts but also the feeling of what it was like to live in times other than our own, but…

Oh yes, there is always a but.  Sometimes that multiplicity of little facts that James talks about can become an avalanche under which the story is suffocated.  Over the past three or four years there has been a spate of books mostly, but not always, historical, which seem to me, and I have to add to many of my reading friends, to have suffered from what you might call the warts and all principle.  Their authors have done their homework to the nth degree.  Their research is meticulous.  It can’t be faulted.  And you know it can’t be faulted because you can read it all, every last reference, every last footnote, every last little fact, right there on the page.  You don’t so much read these books as mine your way through them, hoping beyond hope that you will eventually reach the seam of gold that is the story and that, if you do find it, it will still be alive and well.

Sometimes, you feel you can forgive the writer. (Although, I have to say that some readers are more forgiving than others.  My friend Mary and I have had some right ding dong discussions about what is acceptable and what isn’t.)  For me, one such occasion was Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel, The Historian. It contained so much information I could really have done with a notepad and pencil by me all the time to keep track of everything.  And yet, at the core there was a fine story that was worth the effort it took to dig it out.  Kostova is a writer to be watched, I feel, and I’m very glad to see that she has a new novel, The Swan Thieves, due out in the new year.  I hope she will have refined her technique and that the resulting book will be sharper.  At a projected 400 pages it’s still hefty but, nevertheless, over 300 pages shorter than that first novel.

This week, however, I have had a rather different experience.  I’ve had to give up on a book by one of my favourite writers because over a hundred pages in I was still trying to claw my way through the spoil pile of her research in order to find a story that I was beginning to suspect might not be there to find in the first place.  Note, ‘one of my favourite writers’, this is no first time author not yet sensitive to how much detail should or should not find its way onto the page.  This is a writer with over twenty historical novels behind her and a rightly-deserved fan base that must run into six figures at least.

I think what may have gone wrong in this case is that the author has changed her period and that as a result she is not as confident as she should be about what the reader does or doesn’t need to know.  There is a sense almost of her reassuring herself that she knows enough about this new world to be able to write about it.  And, if that is the case, then I have to ask the question, where was the editor?  This is a question I seem to return to again and again.  Too many books recently have reached the shelves before they are properly ready.  In some instances the problem has been major faults in the way the story is fashioned, as here, in others the difficulties have had more to do with the quality of the proof-reading, which I know can never be perfect, but which nevertheless seems to be of less and less importance these days.

OK, so it’s been a bad week and maybe I’m feeling grouchy.  Am I alone in the blogging world in feeling this way?  Or are there others who have encountered similar problems?  Let me know what you think.

Published in: on September 27, 2009 at 10:38 am  Comments (14)  

Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersOh Lord!  Sorry I haven’t been around these last couple of days.  My nightmare scenario happened at a preliminary meeting over at Stratford.  There was a major accident on the motorway on the way home and as a consequence the hour journey took nearer three.  And, as a consequence of that, my adrenalin problem kicked in and, well let’s just say you don’t want to know about the rest, because you really don’t!    I console myself by the fact that if things really do become impossible this is a degree that can be done by distance learning.  I don’t want to do it that way, but if I have to I will.  Nothing much to report from the meeting (this week and next it’s more administrative stuff than actual teaching) except that everyone seems formidably clever and incredibly confident.  I know enough about students to know that the latter, at least, is 90% bravado.  Most of them will be shaking in their boots as much as I am.

But, I did get a good tip from one woman to whom I spoke about a very good audio version of Richard II, which in the light of what we were talking about last week concerning the way in which Shakespeare’s audience would have listened to a play, I thought I would explore and see if just listening made a big difference.

The version about which she was so complimentary was the BBC Radio Production with Samuel West as Richard.  I’m not certain if those of you who are reading this outside the UK will know Sam West’s work, but let me just say that when I heard this existed I had to come home and discover if it was available anywhere because anything with West in it is a must in this household.  In fact, it is because Sam West is his namesake that Samuel Bear wants to grow up to be a Bear who is an actor. (Amongst many other things.  Samuel Bear is a Bear who wants to do everything; preferably yesterday.  Sometimes, living with Samuel Bear can be exhausting!)

The link I’ve given you is for the Audible Company.  I discovered them last week after deciding that I wanted to do more listening.  For £7.99 a month you can have one download whatever the actual price.  Sometimes that means a saving on shop bought CDs of over £50.  A deal not to be sniffed at.  We have already had our discounted download for this month and I’ll tell you about that another day, but as this Richard is only £8.99 I’m going to treat The Bears and we are all going to the theatre this evening.

I think Audible must have originated in the US, so if this is as good as my new colleague suggests then when I report back maybe you will be able to get a copy there if it appeals. I wonder, are there other companies like this around?  If anyone knows of any I’d be glad of a link.  As it is we have already decided on next month’s discount.  Little Dorrit is available at about 15% of the price I would have had to pay in the shops.  Our long winter nights with tea, scones and Dickens are now assured.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 9:39 am  Comments (9)  

Sunday Salon ~ A Different Type of Listening

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI have spent the last forty-eight hours trying to get used to a new pair of glasses and so any form of extended reading has been very difficult.  Past experience has taught me that this will sort itself out in time, but at the moment it’s all very blurry and rather nauseating so I was more than usually interested in the discussion that I managed to plough my way through yesterday in Simon Palfrey’s Doing Shakespeare about Elizabethan audiences and the manner in which they listened.  (The ploughing, by the way, was down to the glasses and not the writing; the book is very good.)

Palfry makes the point that because of the very high levels of illiteracy (90% of women and 60+% of men) ‘[m]ost school learning was by rote, absorbed aurally.’  These people were read to, and it wasn’t just lessons that they experienced this way, but also ‘fables, stories, songs , ballads, news – and in a very real sense plays.’  They knew how to listen in a way that we have forgotten, nay in a way which we have never learnt.

For us sound is perpetual, we are surrounded by it constantly, to the point where complete silence, if we do ever experience it, is frightening.  But the corollary to this is that we have stopped listening.  I would consider myself to be far more aurally aware than many of my friends.  I watch almost no television and rarely go to the cinema.  Most of my non-reading entertainment and all of my news coverage is absorbed from the radio or via CD, but even so, I know that I do not actively listen to any more than about 20% of what I hear.  I am not an Elizabethan.  This weekend I have wished I was.  It takes practice to listen actively and I’m not good at it.

So, if it is permissible to make a new year resolution half way through September, here is mine.  In future when I put a programme on the radio that I want to hear I am going to stop doing whatever else I was multi-tasking and really listen to it.  I am also going to start downloading audio-books and listen to those.  There is a real issue here for me because my mother lost her sight and was unable to read during her latter years.  While the condition she had is not inherited, the shape of eyes that are likely to develop it is and so there may come a time when I have no option but to be an Elizabethan listener.  If that time should come then I don’t want to have to learn how to do it in my eighties.  Whether I will ever reach the listening heights that Palfry claims for Shakespeare’s contemporaries and be able as a matter of course to pick out the rhetorical figures of speech that dominate his works is another matter, but I’m going to have a really good try.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:57 am  Comments (16)