Tag Archives: writing

Thoughts on the Ockhams

I’m going to rip into a long delayed round of reviews – or at least responses -to novels I’ve read over the past year. Starting with a response to the novels nominated for Ockham NZ Book Awards for 2016, just in time for the new longlist to be announced in November.

To quote myself:

Mostly though, I think I’ll veer towards reviewing for a bit. Works of note, hidden gems. NZ books, yes, but not only, and especially those with something to say. Starting with an appraisal of the NZ Book Awards longlist for 2016. I was, of course, eligible (and not nominated) so reading the chosen works this year has been interesting… to say the least.

The delay stems mostly from most of my time being taken up with the planning and assessing, and documenting, that is the workload of the modern NZ classroom teacher.

The additional problem I found is that when I actually read most of the novels, I did not really feel inclined to bother reviewing them. Now, they were all “good”, at least to a technical degree, hence being longlisted.  But, whatever the various strengths of the novels, I was more interested in exploring the texts’ flaws, which often held a lot more interest for me than the story being told. But I didn’t want to write x-hundred words and have it all come out like critique: not unless that book is impervious and I still recommend reading it anyway. That’s not a review, nor a fair reflection of the text itself.

So, flag that.

I suppose what I really underwent in reading the longlist was an appraisal of my interests and tastes versus those of the Ockham Award judges.

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Not a fan

Upon reading, I discovered I was not a fan of most these novels. I did not enjoy them. I did not have my imagination captured by these texts: not enough to complete reading two, or overlook the flaws in the execution from two others.

In counterpoint, I’d assert the judges obviously were fans of their longlisted texts, making the issues with the texts, for them, non-existent or forgiveable.

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing) – Winner
The Chimes by Anna Smaill (Hodder & Stoughton)
Chappy by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House) (shortlisted) DNF
The Back of His Head by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press) (shortlisted) DNF
The Legend of Winstone Blackhat by Tanya Moir (Penguin Random House)
The Invisible Mile by David Coventry (Victoria University Press) (shortlisted)
Reach by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Random House)
The Pale North by Hamish Clayton (Penguin Random House)
The Antipodeans by Greg McGee (Upstart Press)
Astonished Dice: Collected Short Stories by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press)

I did not read all of the longlist: the ones in grey, I chose not to. Some I just couldn’t get my hands on at the right time. I enjoyed Clayton’s Wulf, so will check out The Pale North at some point, and The Antipodeans – I like the premise, and the idea of reading all three of the “rogue” publishers. Not for me, but here’s a review of Reach, too.

As someone who had good skin in the game this one year, the biggest disappointment was seeing a collection of previously published short stories make the list. First, short stories are a fundamentally different text – they honestly did not have enough novels to choose from? And previously published? Now if they were irrefusable, something world-changing like George Saunders, fine – but they didn’t even make the shortlist.

Of the remaining six, there were two reads I found most frustrating. I can see why the judges were fans of them, but to me, they were not wholly successful as texts.
The Legend of Winstone Blackhat had some lovely writing and imagery, particularly in the wind-blown wasteland of the protagonist’s cinema-inspired Western alternate reality. The story tackles a subject of real importance in NZ culture. But. The monotone misery of the boy’s actual life lacked vitality, and its telling simply did not ring true. Poverty and abuse are serious topics and I didn’t feel the author had anything authentic to say.

The other was The Invisible Mile. Coventry creates some lovely sentences and images, tending towards stream-of-consciousness, and the story concept is full of ambition, a drug-fuelled narrator reconstructing his life, that of others, some whole chunks of history while riding the Tour de France. Put those two strengths together and perhaps you can imagine the problem.
Among other things, this book seriously needed editing. At least one more draft. The key issue is that the narrator is insufficiently defined, and his lack of identity – indicative or mingled with a lack of authorial clarity -means we get a load of redundant digressions, internal commentary and orphaned “darlings” in often scatter-shot fashion. I found the writing was best and most readable when the narrative was grounded in a scene, in interaction, and this did not happen often enough. As such, the view of the Tour de France, and the world around him, lacked selection or focus. Some might say this jumble was artistic. For me, the text failed to communicate.

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The Chimes

The Invisible Mile demands attention principally because it was shortlisted, taking the place of, in my view, a superior novel: Anna Smail’s The Chimes. This text was also ambitious, also unfortunately flawed, but to nowhere near the same degree. Indeed, the first half of the text approaches perfection. Yes, I am a huge fan of this novel. It achieves so much, was so readable, did something so new that despite its flaws, it deserves attention.

A London where memory and words are replaced by song, wiped out by the Chimes. This world is beautifully realised, developed layer-on-layer as our hero, Simon, acclimatises to this new city he has entered, only to be constantly disrupted by the systematic erasure of memory – whereon Smaill uses her musical knowledge and artistry to smooth over this narrative complication and we are awed all over again. This is the aspect most reviews focus on, it is where the literary merits and the fantasy storytelling is strongest. If only Smaill had allowed her narrative – with Simon, Lucien, the pactrunners, hunted by the Order – to just stay there, resolve the tale within the city-world she had so powerfully constructed.

Unfortunately, instead of just having her characters survive the imposing world she’d created, she sent them off to destroy The Order and save the world. Smaill’s writing holds up, and the finale will not dismay, but to get to her end, the story becomes ever more convenient and contrived. In the Chimes, the thrall in which the Order held the world was terrifyingly convincing; so the relative ease of Simon’s adventures away from the city makes the oppression of London suddenly seem a Potemkin Village. Those of us who have read and written speculative fiction and SFF know that the bigger you build up the evil, the more you have to do to earn the right to pull it down, and it is damned hard to justify pulling off in the second half of a single book. These stories don’t typically run to trilogies just for royalties and movie rights.

My other mild disappointment was that I had, at a couple of points, thought Smaill was having a shot at the role of the media in our public discourse (the fuckers). The Chimes wipe history, meaning and context, and leave only select repeated truths, creating “an eternal present”; and this chimes with the literary criticism of those such as Frederic Jameson who argue that the establishment media perform the same as a function of late capitalism.  However these thoughts were always dispelled only a few pages later, and the story makes it very plain that the Order are misguided Utopians. This is disappointing because, despite the trope, human existence is certainly not, nor has ever been, in danger of misguided Utopians. Resource-swallowing combines and selfish, greedy, imperialist elites remain the Monster of the Day.

The Chimes is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a reader. I wish it had been that bit more perfect, because, yes, let the “London” setting disarm the collective prejudices (and hook a UK publisher, a great strategy), but this is straight, great fantasy. There is no intrinsic connection to the contemporary world, just character, and humanity and adventure in the best SFF tradition, and it’d be nice to see NZ publishers and readers start backing those qualities straight off the bat.

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Coming Rain; daylight second

In my view, what Smail attempted, and achieved, eclipsed all but one other that I’ve read from the longlist. Two books I did not finish: Chappy because while the concept was interesting, I found the writing lacked texture, with not enough detail to let me into the world; whereas I enjoyed the busy style of Back of his Head, but simply wasn’t hooked in by the story. They seemed strong texts, just not my cup of tea.

Coming Rain, though, I read before it was declared the winner, and the sheer pleasure of it was like the sun bursting through the eponymous veil.

Pitch perfect prose. A simple period story told with intimate knowledge and detail. I wouldn’t change a thing. My only query over this text is that it’s more of a 1-act play padded out with a parallel narrative; there is no arc of transformation that I’d typically expect of a novel.  But that is only relevant as a judging criteria, had it been necessary to compare more thoroughly with the other nominated texts: it wasn’t. We recognise the characters; we anticipate what will happen; this was far and away the most riveting read on the list, and while others showed more ambition, no one else came as close to perfection in executing their vision. I’m reminded of John Banville when he won the Booker for “The Sea”: he was pleased to see “an art book” rewarded, and this is the same.

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A judge’s duty

My verdict then, is less on these novels than on the merits of the first Ockham NZ Book Awards themselves. They got the winner right, from my reckoning. It’s interesting to me there was such a convergence of publishers this year, yet my best two texts came from overseas. With the publishing industry in such straits, the longlist is important to NZ authors. It is valuable marketing space. If it is a benchmark of quality, it has to have integrity. Or why have it?

This all ties in to the swirling murk that is the “Is NZ fiction boring?” debate that surfaced again this past week as a result of the Book Council report into reader attitudes to our fiction. My answer: well, yes, it’s going to look “boring” if the stories that get published and promoted and celebrated consistently represent a narrow wedge of interests and tastes. Of fans.

And so I come to my conclusion. If we accept that most novels are flawed – that’s not controversial, certainly if you are looking at as small a pool as NZ fiction – then that’s where the judges really begin to earn their bacon, as close, critical readers.Not just as fans.

I was not a fan of Chappy or Back of his Head. However, I could see their clear literary qualities, and had I been an Ockham judge it would have been my duty to not put down those books, not act like a fan. Weigh their merits clearly against my fan-love of The Chimes. Put aside prejudice and respect not the author, or publisher, or genre, but the text. 

Yes, it’s a small a pool in NZ. We will not get 10 works of literary fiction of the standard of Coming Rain every year, not like the Booker. So quality “genre” novels – (what the fuck is genre? a matter for another time) – should inevitably make that list some years. By considering that there might be quality writing beyond the bailiwick of the “lit fic” genre conventions the judges would raise the diversity of the longlist at the same time as populating it with more wholly successful works.

Now it’s 2017. The judges have been named. Their longlist is announced on 22nd of November. I am sure they’ll do their best. It’s always going to be apples v oranges v tomatoes, but that is what they are paid for.

I just hope to hear one of them say, “I’m not a fan of all the books on this list, but I’m damn proud to have put them there.”

 

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Recent reviews, scandalous gossip

“An epic adventure of High Fantasy and High Stakes;
deserves a place next to Pratchett or Goodkind.” -Nebula Books

Nebula Books has reviewed The Sovereign Hand. It was a positive review, but more importantly, it was detailed and really engaged with the perceived strengths and weaknesses, which I  greatly appreciate. Gadammit, if I don’t love me some feedback to mull with me wine!

Under-utilised and forced elements of worldbuilding; Late arrival of an antagonist; Unanswered questions and loose ends to finish. Check. Check. Check. Fair enough. I can see why it might read that way. I knew what I was doing, all deliberate. All by design.

So, I want to briefly discuss why this design, but not to rebut the review, which I accept 100%. It is a thoughtful, well-written response to the text, and this is valuable. Everyone reads differently, yet I am certain that other potential readers will interpret The Sovereign Hand similarly to the reviewer. Just as other readers will not, and have not, because the text is rich enough for people to make meaning in a variety of ways.

The first, easy response, is that many lingering questions of plot and redundant detail in The Sovereign Hand might be answered by a return to the text, whereon the reader can make new connections in fuller knowledge of where things are headed. I can almost guarantee it rewards any second read. But this is not the whole answer.

More significant is the fact that while carrying its own story, I also burdened The Sovereign Hand with the duty of being the base slab on a pyramid comprised of two further novels, forming one larger, deeper field of text. It was a big ask, and a risk, and I accept that my compromises made the shape of the text unconventional and a less streamlined read. I just had to hope that despite the potential costs, in this text and the bigger picture, the benefits paid off.
So from this review, 7/10 tells me, okay, there’s enough in there for this reader, and that helps inform what I try to get away with next time. (Writers always want to get away with something. You just hope to be elegant about it.) My hope for this time is that the review might encourage others to get the book out of the Have-Not-Finished pile.

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I will admit one query from the review, over the criteria for “overwritten”. To me that’s a technical term, and on a technical level, even The Sovereign Hand’s most colourful passages do parse as “trim” or “lean”.
More likely this is a reference to style. The Sovereign Hand occasionally affects a bombastic style to complement the themes and narrative, and tends to illustrate in close or particular detail – then, fine, that is a matter of personal taste.

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In the end, everything in TSH is there for a purpose, and any inelegance at least leaves the story perched, ready for take-off in Book 2 – hence the scandalous gossip. With the purchase of Steam Press by Eunoia, I’ve started drafting the following, and final, two books. Book 2 has a title and an outline.

And I’m really excited about it.

eye2

Got your own thoughts on The Sovereign Hand? Leave a review at Amazon or Goodreads

 

 

 

Eleanor Catton, Braveheart. Copyright Robert Catto Robertcatto.com

Eleanor Catton: NZ’s Braveheart? Not just yet.

I have been writing this since Thursday, recollecting and ruminating, but it has been hard keeping up since each day seems to bring another twist in the tale that has sprung from Eleanor Catton’s uncommon, but largely unremarkable remarks, made at the Jaipur Writers Festival in India.

To sum, she felt “uncomfortable” with being seen as an ambassador for New Zealand given her feelings about how our government – and she’s careful to include the Australian and Canadian governments also – are dominated by “profit-obsessed” neo-liberal politicians who “would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want.”

And something of a media furore erupted.

Here is what I wrote on this site way back when her Booker win was announced:

“Beyond the novel, success at the Booker has given Eleanor Catton a profile, and I hope she works hard to make it one that truly reflects the person she is, the things she values, her depth of thought. The mainstream media is trite, superficial, and loves gossip, even the erudite sectors. She has already, by her own admission, tripped up talking too loosely to journalists (New Zealand lacking a culture of reviewing, she said), and she has to decide how to use the power the spotlight brings. Arundhati Roy, for instance, has not written a novel since The God of Small Things, but used her profile to fight for justice and sovereignty in India – duly ignored by the mainstream media (see how quickly Catton would become “that crazy astrology lady” if she starts banging on too much on the wrong topic – say, the impact of industry on global warming).”
astrorant

 

And also:

I hope someone as appealing and articulate as Eleanor Catton can make an impact on the fortunes of the NZ literary environment, at least lifting the profile of NZ writers, if not encouraging more funding. Given, the current government’s bullying approach to public intellectuals and culture, she could be just the person to take them on.

Lo and behold. Kinda.

Catton said her thing; in response, radio journalist Sean Plunket pushed the rhetorical boat to the limit, calling her an “ungrateful hua” and traitor” for her comments about our great country/government. And of course Catton’s remarks couldn’t go reported for even one day before Prime Minster John Key’s rebuttal had to be tacked on to them. Whenever someone says something disquieting about our country, he’s where our media go to “balance” the picture.

They’re just the two highest profile retorts. There was support as well, of course, including from those already scourged, already tarred, or with nothing to lose. And there was Twitter. But Key and Plunkett are authority figures who create a great allowable arc of attacks and uninformed comment masquerading as debate, much effectively dismissing her as a silly girl, a know-nothing writer, or fanatical Green party advocate. The unthinking dismissal of someone who is not instantly and whole-heartedly celebrating the state of our society.

catt capt 2

Such is the bloody circus that performs as our public discourse.

This is not simple “tall-poppy” or even misogyny.  I call it our New Chauvinism, actively fostered since the Clark years as a sheepskin to bring the Right back to popularity and reinvigorate the very neo-liberal power base that Catton was criticising.

Is Eleanor Catton the braveheart to challenge this status quo? I’ll asssert, Catton is not an expert on politcal economy and power structures. Not yet. That does not diminish the value of her remarks; not in the way Key’s belated comeback attempts to suggest. She is intelligent and moral, and trusts her feelings – the latter is something our society could learn to respect a lot more. Society, elections, would be a lot different if people were encouraged to trust their gut feelings of right or wrong.

For Catton, I expect if it matters to her she will inform herself and become truly dangerous very very quickly indeed.

That is an if. She hasn’t shown her courage yet. She can still step back, although she has made a clear statement that she will not, and even pressed her point with regards to the cutting of National Library services to New Zealand schools. But she has been invited to rejoin the silent folds. She can still be politic. All will be forgiven.

And she is safe to criticise, to a certain extent. There will always be publishers willing to print her. She does not “need” New Zealand. She has a global base and can live quite well and afford to lose the outraged fans thought she was so nice when she shone for them through The Luminaries.

But Catton clearly cares about New Zealand, its people, its culture, its environment. So if she wants to continue to share her ideas, make a difference, she might talk to Robyn Malcolm, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Lucy Lawless for some insight on voicing values contrary to those driving our gears of power. Or Jon Stephenson, Nicky Hager. Mike Joy. Or columnists like Tapu Misa, disappeared and not published enough. Martyn Bradbury would have some interesting things to say about the double-standards at “our” Radio New Zealand – there’s no refuge there. Gareth Morgan – he was the mainstream economic golden boy once, but got sidelined once he started musing on democracy and social justice long before cat-control.

Dissident voices are heard for one day, maybe a week, but are inevitably buried beneath the myriad others that are constantly rewarded for recycling the chauvinist and neo-liberal norms; it is a career path in itself. For a glimpse of her future, Catton might chat to Germaine Greer. Or Julian Assange – the flipside of being a hua/hoor. Create a haven for truth and you get to be a rapist with no evidence of such, liberty gone, no charges, no public outcry.

Regardless of her publishing, Catton can expect to be scrutinised through the lens, as Plunkett put it, of a traitor: someone who does not celebrate the ideas dominant in NZ society with the appropriate level of “jingoistic fervor”. As if any criticism is therefore a criticism of rugby, beer, barbeques and WWI veterans – of “our” team. Which is, in the chauvinism of the current establishment, the happy, positive, winning “Team Key”. Doesn’t she want to be on our team? Isn’t she a “”winner”? The derision reserved for losers, critics and malcontents is well bedded.

This is chauvinism in action. And conscious of their own brand and image, people will be less gushing with praise for Catton because cattontwitthey know she is tainted. In award or review, they’ll find some reason to favour some other author, or novel, or point-of-view. The door is open – they’ll say that she opened the door – to scrutinise everything she writes and says for more evidence of her treachery. She may become satirised, to the point that she exists to the mainstream only as a caricature and grotesque – “elitist”, “traitor”, and the establishment favourite, “narcissist” – from behind which none of her thoughts and truths and arguments will be heard.

It’s not a dead end, nor a lost cause. Arundhati Roy has forged her own path. George Monbiot is the model of a wise, moral and intelligent person railing impotently from within the media system. Media critic Media Lens has advocated a donated fund to free thinkers, journalists and  writers to publish free of self-censorship, something I’ve personally always contended. Plus artists. Especially artists. Look at Russell Brand. Artists reach people. Especially the young.

Because of this, Catton and those like her are a threat to the status quo. They become authorities we feel we know and trust, in the same way some people feel Queen Elizabeth is a trusted member of their own family. That’s why they get torn down. They can become leaders, if they have something to say. They need to be patronised, co-opted, sullied, or stigmatised because no amount of media whitewash can drown them out. Give them too much of a start and they won’t need a masthead, nor a media-constructed image, like a Key. They just connect and connect and connect. And then…?

That’s what makes them scared.

The Booker was Catton’s start. This furore, all over a simple statement of views not proportionally reflected in our public discourse, was the first step.

Red pill, blue pill. I’m with her if she goes down the rabbit hole. So should everyone of a like mind and the courage to say it. Fund change. Form an alliance.

But I would not fault her for going the other way, either.

Writing in fantasy

One thing I spoke about at the launch was my experience in discussing the book with someone for the first time.
One type of response was polite interest, knowing that I had a degree in boring old politics – then the listener perking up when they heard it was a fantasy.
The other was the reverse of this – effectively, if you want to write something important, why fantasy?

Well consider the alternative, if I set a story about personal and state power and the nature of authority, in our “real world. In New York. Moscow. Baghdad. Just from those words, the reader immediately summons an entire pre-constructed world of meaning full of assumptions. Literally, cultural baggage. If the author’s reality and the reader’s do not match, communication is affected. In fact, viewpoints may differ so greatly the only transmission of ideas might be the book flying, thrown by the reader across the room.

By writing and reading in fantasy, it’s like we make a pact, giving each other permission to imagine and question in ways that might conflict with everyday assumptions. This is not so important with what I call “Tree of Life” stories; but it is essential when you are deconstructing big ideas around the “Book of the World”. Our world resists deconstruction, so you have to take that task elsewhere. If I make that new world welcoming to the reader, don’t disrupt with too-intricate world-building, tap into the familiar, keep to what I know is true, I get a chance at a clean slate, and maybe the reader can discover something new.

And also have some epic quests and cool monsters along the way.

Books given, books read

Gifts: The Wind City, by Summer Wigmore; Tropic of Skorpeo by Michael Morrisey; Unspakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauclan; The Factory World by Joe Ryan; I'm Working on a Building by Pip Adam' Hand Me Down World, by Lloyd Jones2013 was my Christmas of Literary Giving. All my family got great NZ books, as pictured, plus The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion‎ (a thoughtful choice, which my mother promptly vetoed by exchanging it for Amy Tan – sigh.)  Of the seven, I’d only read Tropic of Skorpeo and The Factory World, so I was giving away treasures I actually want to read myself: an inverted narrative about the construction of the world’s tallest building on the west coast of the South Island; Wellington’s Aro Valley has a hotbed of adventure, dark magic and intrigue – maybe with The Wind City‘s Maori gods romping around in the capital at the same time? Definitely no lack of entertaining ideas.

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Of the books I have read recently, I enjoyed Hamish Clayton’s Wulf, historical fiction fusing Te Rauparaha with the Beowulf epic. Sometimes I take just one or two things away from a novel, and in this case it was the evocative emphasis on a New Zealand that was all “black and green”, without the imported autumnal colours. Living in Dairyland, I was really impressed by that simple point, and kinda yearn to be in that long-gone place. Makes me appreciate my time in what remains of our bush even more.

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Kafka’s The Trial. Freedom of information advocate Aaron Swartz was facing the full weight of the US anti cyber “crime” agenda – years of stress, maybe years of jail, millions in punitive fines – after he made academic texts held by MIT available online. Swartz read The Trial in 2011, shortly after his arrest, and according to his father he called it “deep and magnificent” “I’d not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work,” instead, he’d found it “precisely accurate—every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”

Having now read The Trial, it is hard to argue – it resonates with my experiences with Inland Revenue, even challenging a parking ticket, any bureaucratic power. Has anyone not hit their head against a govt department wall? And now they are gathering all our information so they think they have even more god-like powers to judge guilt before innocence, and for anyone hoping to change the world this is chilling to the core.
Aaron Swartz was, of course, driven to suicide last year. No official of any sort will be held responsible for the witch hunt. He was 26.

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The most challenging and fascinating, and impressive, novel I’ve read lately is Sleight by Kirsten Kaschock. As a writer, you are attracted to reading that resonates with your own writing. I enjoy texts that ask the reader to make their own connections, and our understandings of the characters, the story, and “sleight” begin as disparate then coalesce, in the same way the sleight troupe’s practise comes together and arrives as a singular definitive event. In this way, the subject mirrors the novel’s structure, which is always effective, when achieved.

The multi-dimensional, abstract, almost impossible performance art-dance Kaschock created in sleight also resonated with the abstract-impossible aspects of The Sovereign Hand: those elements that are often decribed as “unfilmable”, where concrete description and detail surrender to an impression that eludes reality, and is all the more potent for it. The slake moth of Perdido Street Station and the perpetual train of Iron Council come to mind; the affect of scent in Süskind’s Perfume; In The Sovereign Hand, it’s the diablerie, in particular. All evidence that sometimes you can not just call a spade a spade, that you need richer language to unchain the reader from unthinking signifiers and permit them to draw their own ring around whatever is signified in their mind. That’s what speculative fiction, in whatever genre, does best.

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Next post: Joe Sacco’s Palestine, The Luminaries, and maybe a bit more about my book.

Booker Brilliance; theme song for the day

As everyone who loves literature probably knows, Eleanor Catton was awarded the Booker Prize this week, for The Luminaries. Google has you covered for most of that coverage, or @fergusvup on twitter, or Bookman Beattie’s blog.

As mentioned previously, The Luminaries was on my must-reads before it got longlisted, but since that time I actually found the reviews themselves diverting enough for me to delay reading the actual book, allowing myself more time to digest the discourse around the novel to inform my reading.

As with 90% of most media products, 90% of “reviews” were drek – just recycled clippings of basic facts: long and physically heavy (work-out jokes), 832 pages, astrological system, intricately unfolding murder mystery, gold rush 1800s Hokitika NZ. More recent reviews, since The Luminaries made the shortlist and won (I’m thinking New York Times, and an Irish or Scottish paper? They didn’t grab me enough to bother linking) were more suggestive in terms of big themes and import: the value of love versus gold, although unsurprisingly with a novel this length and complexity, any review struggles to encapsulate this adequately. As author of a soon-to-be published long novel, I know this; we ask potential readers to take a lot on faith.

Aside from a review via dialogue from two Victoria University students, as insightful as capering Shakespearian fools, there were a troika of reviews, below, that struck me as most interesting as critiques, and it comes largely down to the novel’s design.

Now, I pity poor Catton, in one regard, because the first question it seems she ever got asked in any interview was “Wow – long book. Why?” Her response, naturally was to explain it as a product of design almost outside her control, with the astrological necessities creating constraints for her to work to and the twelve chapters diminishing by half the previous as progressed, and so on… and she is clearly satisfied and proud with how this panned out (by which I join the bad-pun brigade, sorry), and spoke on this at length. This was picked up and became the defining aspect of the novel in the press; if she did discuss any of the import or themes of the book, it was dwarfed by the coverage given to the book’s structure. The consequence being, because of our media’s blaring, echo-chamber effect,  that this intricate design became the summation of that pernicious beast, the author’s intent – the question then being, is this architecture, however perfect, all there is to The Luminaries?

For me, I think Guy Somerset raised this question in review, himself dubious of the answer; CK Stead asked it in his own way and found the novel lacking (The original title was “All that glistens”, from memory); and KIrsty Gunn did the same but came out with an emphatic affirmative of the novel’s worth.

All of which makes me think it is a question worth asking. A good critique should arm the reader with the tools – the right questions – to dig into the field of the text and find their own answers; a good review should at least tip who would be likely to enjoy a book (and not in a snarky way, or don’t review it at all).

Since winning, Catton appears to have hit out at such reviews as Stead and Somerset. Putting aside the tone taken by individuals (a hard thing to ask of any author, I admit), the impression I received across the strata of reviews was the book might well be a glory-box: beautifully, artfully made, designed to hold treasure, and bore the name “glory”, without much exploration of whether it was empty or full. Perhaps a metaphor that suits the pseudo-Victorian style… It is, of course, impossible, now, to write a 19th Century sensation novel; is it possible to even ape that mode so perfectly that the thinking of an author 150 years distant doesn’t seep through? Catton has apparently done her research, and her skills and will are formidable enough, and her design arbitrary enough, that I suspect she would be one of the few able to do it: if she chose. If she chose to crop away the modern-day, couldn’t what’s left feel somewhat hollow?

So I have enjoyed reading the reviews, puzzling over the conundrum of the post-modern Victorian sensation novel before I happily, finally purchased The Luminaries as an e-book minutes after her win, to celebrate – $20, the most expensive e-book I’ve ever purchased, but I don’t hold with the notion of any new book hovering round the price of a coffee or a hamburger. And my reader tells me I’m 9% in, and it’s a slow start, but I get the sense so far not of a glory box, but a monumental pyramid, building, aloof, but not yet sun-dazzled like Pharoah’s, and already the depths are showing, the hint of secret passages and labyrinthine twists. How many slaves laboured for how many years, for such a feat? Just one, for three years. (My own, quite different, long project, will have spanned 10.)

Beyond the novel, success at the Booker has given Eleanor Catton a profile, and I hope she works hard to make it one that truly reflects the person she is, the things she values, her depth of thought. The mainstream media is trite, superficial, and loves gossip, even the erudite sectors. She has already, by her own admission, tripped up talking too loosely to journalists (New Zealand lacking a culture of reviewing, she said), and she has to decide how to use the power the spotlight brings. Arundhati Roy, for instance, has not written a novel since The God of Small Things, but used her profile to fight for justice and sovereignty in India – duly ignored by the mainstream media (see how quickly Catton would become “that crazy astrology lady” if she starts banging on too much on the wrong topic – say, the impact of industry on global warming).

This is all the more important in a year the Man Booker has decided to open itself up to all UK-published works in English. In doing so it is undeniable that this institution has an agenda, a “growth” path for itself, in the corporate model, and it doesn’t appear to involve widening the platform to expose writing talent or even more cash. The only motivation seems a vain hope to aggrandise itself as the anointer of one champion of the writing world. And so not only has Catton won the Booker prize, but the Man Booker has awarded itself a dazzling young star to spearhead its charge on the USA – hoping Americans will notice. For 50,000 pounds? I’m not sure who got the better bargain.

I do know that prizes, while a lottery when you get down to it (comparing apples with oranges and bananas) are invaluable to authors at all stages of their career. The awards for my extracts were hugely motivating and gave a sense of purpose in a pursuit where you have no empirical proof of performance or improvement, not like sportsfolk, or even worth – sometimes not even once you jump that “last” hurdle, getting published. We should be making more prizes, not heading towards a unification bout between the Booker and National Book Awards.

Locally, I hope someone as appealing and articulate as Eleanor Catton can make an impact on the fortunes of the NZ literary environment, at least lifting the profile of NZ writers, if not encouraging more funding. Given, the current government’s bullying approach to public intellectuals and culture, she could be just the person to take them on.

On that note, some Radiohead. (Because why wouldn’t you?)

Excerpt #2, House of Mirrors, now available; another trial cover

It has been another month of line-edits, insertions and deletions; all undoubted improvements, but I always find it unsettling. The text is such a well-traversed field, yet with each tiny change it feels increasingly unfamiliar territory so by the end I want nothing more than to go back and read it all through again.

Excerpt #2, like the first, came Runner-up in the Pikihuia Awards. With Rise and Shine I was pleased to get a literary award for a fantasy extract. With House of Mirrors, it was still fantasy, of course, but also a set-piece from almost the middle of the book: like a cold splash of water to the reader, given the unfamiliarity of the setting, lack of character intros, and general assumptions it makes of the reader’s knowledge. Far from a safe bet, so success at the Awards meant a lot, especially with the excellent Briar Grace-Smith as judge. I think it works well enough as an introduction for Tanner without spoiling too much.

Sovereign Hand temporary cover 2This excerpt includes the latest trial cover for the novel. It illustrates another aspect of the story, the political side. House of Mirrors takes a broad, inclusive brush to matters of political philosophy and sociology; the political motivations of the Crown and its actions are also significant in this part of the book. But the real political in the book, for me, is the personal, the choices and changes the characters make in dealing with power. So the pawn is an apt image and I’d be happy if it was what we finally decide upon.

 

Mobi and epub for Rise and Shine; cover talk

The mobi and epub versions of Rise and Shine are now available, along with the pdf, of course. Enjoy, share – remark, if so moved! Any feedback very welcome. At the current pace, I expect the next excerpt, House of Mirrors, to be up within a month.

The publication of this excerpt is kind of a micro-product of the whole process at the The Sovereign Hand (Temporary cover)moment: line edits and cover. The temporary cover on these files comes from a fantastic piece of 17th century art, the Temptation of Saint Anthony by Jaques Callot. It fits the story in a variety of ways, particularly as a literal, in-universe depiction of a past, defeated evil, or a figurative representation of the apocalypse that promises to be unleashed. I’m not sure whether we’ll end up working with it in any way for the final cover, but it fills the gap nicely while me publisher and I thrash through the options.

Rise and Shine

Anyone suffering from the reality tv plague is likely to pick up a pitchfork or other wicked implement at the mere mention of a “journey”. There will never be a Writer Idol, but the process by which a writer becomes an author remains of enduring interest, at least for those hoping to become an author – “author” being an interesting enough concept in itself, even before the rise of self-publishing.  That ahh-ha moment I mentioned: for other people, now you have authority, however small, over whatever plot of cultural space you’ve staked out for yourself. The ideas and effort were all there years beforehand, but only now do they have validity.
Whereas our corporate news media can ascribe authority to any half-baked story just by stamping its masthead, thereby demanding our society’s respect and attention.

Yes, I have some interest in authority.

Gdammit, though, if writing about yourself doesn’t feel indulgent. So for the moment I will put any talk of journey aside and let details prop up as they will. In this case, the story of the first excerpt from the novel, now available free for download.

This is Rise and Shine. When I returned from Australia in 2007, I was advised by an arts consultant to try and publish, enter competitions, get my name out there. Luckily enough, the Pikihuia Awards for Maori Writers has a novel extract category – I don’t know of any other such opportunity for novelists.

Shortlisting was reward enough, which brought publication in Huia Short Stories 7. To come second? Well, the judge was on the record as disliking anything in the SciFi/Fantasy realm. Her awarding R&S second proved that my story, written my way, could surmount genre prejudices. I just had to hold the rest of my text up to that standard.

Anyway, download, peruse. Love to know what you think.

Addendum: Mobi and epub versions of Rise and Shine will be up by the end of the week.  WordPress won’t let me host these file types, so I have handed them back to my dear publisher, who is out of town but will sort things by then.

First Post…(of many?)

I know. Terribly imaginative title. But apt enough, because I’m a bit of a reluctant blogger. The throwing of a few words can become an avalanche, and suddenly a whole day lies buried. And I look back at that pile, however attractive and satisfying, and wonder ‘Did I mean to do that?’

Writing is an end in itself, of course; something is always accomplished. But in our modern monetarist culture, that simply isn’t justification enough. Writing, as a profession, is not flush with outside investment. For the vast majority, and for all those starting out, that capital comes from one source. Inside. The writer. And they have to account, either in minutes or cents, dollars or hours, or days, weeks, years of blank cheques signed alternately in pain, hubris or pure will and self-belief. We make up these little coupons permitting us to do what we do, no more audacious than what our banks do creating credit, yet with vastly less authority. The lucky writer though, has at least one person who just takes that cheque on faith. Knows its worth. Believes. Until the rest of the world catches up.

Ahh! You’re published.

(See what I said about avalanche?)

Even publishing, though, ascribes only a marginally higher status, with even less advance in wealth (power). Minutes are still precious. So any writing requires a little deliberation and clear intent. Especially for me. When I write my brain just keeps making connections. The final draft of The Sovereign Hand – which with an ensemble cast, multiple storylines, is no novella – is still 100,000 words less than the first full draft. Much of it whimsies and digressions, along with the expected first-novel first-draft chaff.

So what can a reader of anarko demokratus expect? Terse forays, I hope, rays expanding from a small cluster of interconnected points. Those loci are key. So, reading, writing, literature local and beyond. Anything stemming from the New Zealand discourse that must be said – from the world discourse that must be said. Anything I find must be said. Two writers I enjoy with admirable blogs are China Mieville and Bernard Beckett. A lofty goal, but maybe something in those realms or in-between.

Then, of course, there’s The Sovereign Hand. I will enjoy sharing tidbits of the novel’s past, present and future as publication looms. And extracts – the first of those, and another post, this weekend.