July 17, 2021
Books: Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts
I’ve wanted to read this novel ever since visiting Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ home in Sussex, and hearing an actor read from it. He gave his readings beside the garden shed where she wrote it – her ‘room of one’s own’ – and claimed that passages in the novel suggest that the spot he was standing on was the very spot where the pageant in the novel was performed. This also suggests that Monk’s House is the origin of Pointz Hall, described as a modest country house in a small village ‘three hours by train’ from London.
Quite by accident I read it immediately after reading George Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air, also set in 1939 in the shadow of the coming war, and in terms of structure and style the two novels could hardly be more different. Orwell’s blunt, no-nonsense approach contrasts strikingly with Woolf’s elusiveness and experimentation.
Yet the two novels do have many points in common. They both have satirical elements and could be described as State of England novels. Both view the coming war with alarm and look to the past. But whereas Orwell is nostalgic for an England that has already all but disappeared, Woolf reaches back much further and is more ambivalent.
Orwell’s novel is essentially a monologue, a diatribe against the modern world by a character called George Bowling who could be seen as a stand-in for Orwell himself. Bowling is an unhappy character, trapped in a dead marriage, who tries to recapture the past by travelling back to the scene of his childhood, only to discover that it has changed beyond recognition and was probably never what he thought it was.
Woolf’s novel, on the other hand, revisits the past through the medium of the pageant, and the audience are finally invited to reassess the late-Victorian era, still within living memory, through the device of having the players hold up mirrors – a ploy that provokes very different reactions, some of them hostile.
But Woolf covers a much longer period of history than Orwell and a wider range of society – wider, it seems to me, than in many of her other novels – and this is surprising because a criticism frequently made of her is that she tends to see the world in her own image. The characters include two that are clearly viewed as marginal – William Dodge, ‘a toady; a lickspittle . . . not a man to have a straightforward love of a woman’, and Miss La Trobe, an eccentric who shares her cottage with another woman, whose energy is admired but whose pageant provokes puzzlement and indignation.
To sum up: Orwell’s view is dour, pessimistic, some readers might say misanthropic, whereas Woolf’s is more finely balanced. Both novels end on an unresolved note. Bowling, after his trip to Lower Binfield, returns disillusioned to renew his conflict with his wife Hilda, and Isabella in Woolf’s novel resumes her love-hate relationship with her stockbroker husband, Giles. I admire both novels, but to me Woolf’s is the richer experience – complex, modernist, and likely to reward many readings.
March 2, 2021
This writing business: some rambling reflections
Last month I finally got round to publishing Small Town Blues, my second and probably last novel. Each was years in the making and at 77 I’m not sure if I have the time or stamina to write another. I’ll go on writing, of course, but in shorter forms: poems, stories, possibly a novella or two. Brevity is an undervalued quality and the novella an underused form – a genre that allows for development while avoiding the ‘bagginess’ that Henry James complained of. ‘The blessed nouvelle,’ he called it.
‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ Same for a novel? So the question is, when to let go? I guess in a pandemic when survival looks chancy? I’m reminded of those writers, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Thom Gunn – witnesses to the decimation of whole communities in NY and San Francisco in the 1980s – who rushed to get their AIDS narratives and obituaries out before being chopped down themselves. Sometimes there isn’t scope for pernicketiness. The clock says, Speak Now!
(The British experience of AIDS in the 1980s – so brilliantly captured in the Channel 4 series It’s a Sin – while no less horrifying for those affected, was less catastrophic in scale than that of the USA, and I can’t think of any British writers except Adam Mars-Jones and Oscar Moore who testified from within the eye of the storm, so to speak. Most AIDS writing – like Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship – is retrospective.)
Philip Larkin thought the two novels he wrote before he turned to poetry, if ‘not very good’, were nevertheless written with scrupulous care. I think I could reasonably say the same of mine. The effort’s there, whatever the achievement. Besides, ‘every attempt is a wholly new start and a new kind of failure.’ Actually, I’m struck by how much you hold in your head when writing a novel, so that by the end you feel as if your brain will burst. And it’s not just the language; it’s the details that accrue around a character, the specifics of appearance, location, plot. Emma Bovary’s eyes, apparently – though how many of us notice? – change colour several times in the course of the novel. Easy to slip up, then – or leave unplugged holes – and my heart goes out to Raymond Chandler who admitted to a gathering of screenwriters that he didn’t know who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep.
‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,’ wrote Jane Austen of Emma Woodhouse. Likewise, Evan, my central character, is not a vote-winner. He too is arrogant, vain and callow at the start of the novel, but he passes through an arc of self-discovery and by the end has gained, like her, a degree of maturity. In any case, I confess that I’m sceptical about the idea that a central character must be likeable. It suggests a naïve view of fiction. For isn’t there a difference between liking and sympathising? Do we ‘like’ Heathcliff, Becky Sharp, Clarissa Dalloway, Humbert Humbert, Holden Caulfield, Tom Ripley? And doesn’t any sympathy we might have for a character also wax and wane? Pip, ill-used in childhood, becomes, before his change of heart, a snobbish young gentleman. And what about Hedda Gabler? Power-mad lunatic or freedom fighter? Perhaps we recoil from her at first but then inwardly cheer her on? Yeah, go for it, girl!
I started my first novel with no thought of publication; I was simply lost in the creative process, and part of the challenge was to see if I could go the distance. But when I reached the point of fiddling – putting in commas and taking them out again – I wondered what to do with my bundle of words. I could leave them to rot on the computer or make them available to anyone who wanted to read them. Eventually, after some feeble attempts to interest agents and publishers, I decided that self-publication was the route for me. And there’s a living to be made from that, of course; though actually I’m not interested in sales; I’ll settle for a handful of sympathetic readers.
But how to gain even a single reader without some promotion? The worst part of publication is having to plug your novel. Most of us just want to write, yet if we don’t promote, no one, in the welter of fiction now available, knows we’re even there. The professionals, who also have to promote, complain about it too. Pat Barker says that she stopped writing for two years after winning the Booker and simply sat in bookshops signing copies of The Ghost Road. Frankly, I’d have thought that winning the Booker was promotion enough; it certainly puts everyone else in the shade. But isn’t that the downside of prizes: a case of winner takes all? Anyway, not my problem: I’m as far from winning the Booker as becoming Sportsperson of the Year. On the other hand, if you fancy a coming-of-age tale about a cocky young man who gets into trouble, head over to Amazon. And if you’re signed up to Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free. Paperback available soon. The cover illustration, by the way, is by my partner Phil.
September 16, 2020
Work in progress
After finishing Such Fine Boys, I began work on a new novel (see Blog Hop below). But a novel is a long haul and I sometimes break off to write a short story or poem. I now have a book-length collection of stories, which I’m currently editing for publication. Watch this space!
Some of these have been winners in the annual Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition and appear in collections available from Amazon. In 2014, the judge was Jim Kelly, a crime writer from Ely, and the winning stories can be read in Encounters 2014. I was also pleased to get a prize in 2016 and 2017, when the judges were Deborah Mehler, a local author, and Helen Marshall, who teaches Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University (see Seven Sins 2016 and Rituals 2017). Since 2018, all entries to the competition, not just the winners, have appeared under titles that reflect the theme for that year – Freedom, Revenge, Mountain – and these too are available from Amazon. Alternatively, you can read some of these stories, including my own, on Cambridge Writers. Simply click on Members and look up the profiles.
Where do I go for inspiration? Well, one of my favourite independent bookshops is Gay’s the Word in London. Conveniently situated at 66 Marchmont Street, just a short distance from King’s Cross, it’s a great place to drop in and browse on your way to the British Museum or into town. The staff are always friendly and the range of books is wide, covering every genre of queer literature. But it’s more than a bookshop, of course; for many it’s a community, a refuge and a lifeline.
I am grateful, too, for the support I’ve had from Gay Authors Workshop, a London-based association of lesbians and gay men who are poets, dramatists and fiction writers, and delighted that a story of mine has now been published in the latest anthology from this group, A Boxful of Ideas.
August 6, 2019
Bones of Contention: an occasional series
(3) Point of View
Is this the biggest bugbear of the lot? Are you irritated, like me, by readers who raise an eyebrow at any change of viewpoint? By those who say, “I was just getting interested in Kate when Hugh poked his nose in”? Or worse: “The whole thing should be told from Harry’s viewpoint”? Perhaps you feel like retorting, as Ian McEwan did to Philip Roth in another context, “But that’s the novel you would write; it’s not the novel I want to write.”
Which is not to say there are no issues here. Point of view is a daunting topic to which reams of literary theory have been devoted, and blame for this is often laid at the feet of Henry James, the author credited with promulgating the idea of the “commanding centre” or “controlling intelligence”. But James, it seems, is misrepresented; he was not interested in issuing “laws” of fiction. The real culprit, it’s said, is Percy Lubbock, a Jamesian critic who took it upon himself to interpret the Master’s ideas in a prescriptive way. Lubbock’s axioms particularly annoyed Forster who, in “Aspects of the Novel”, argues that everything depends on the writer’s ability, in his famous phrase, to “bounce” the reader into acceptance. And Forster’s rebellion is now general; few writers now subscribe to the “old rules”, a shift attributed to many factors: to the influence of cinema, of literary modernism, to the theory of relativity, to the world as revealed by twentieth-century physics and quantum theory. Like Blake, the modern writer seems to deplore “single vision”.
But is that the end of the matter? Do we now believe that “anything goes”? Some critics say, with regret, that we do; that in our rush to abandon the old rules we have slung out the baby with the bath water. They argue that it’s acceptable to change viewpoint if there are good reasons to do so, but not if the change is wanton, careless or in violation of the logic of narrative. Multiple viewpoints, they claim, particularly when they occur within a scene, or worse, within a paragraph, confuse the reader through loss of focus. James himself, without laying down rules, writes that he can see “no breaking up of the register … that doesn’t rather scatter and weaken”.
And yet, and yet, and yet … do we underestimate the reader? Think of what we cope with on television or in the cinema, where long stretches of narrative pass without a hint as to who or what we’re watching. And think of the loss if writers abandoned multiple viewpoint. How would Stephen King write at all? Or David Hewson, who claims that he wrote his first three books, all bestselling crime novels, without being aware that an issue called “point of view” even existed? Think, too, of Clarissa Dalloway’s party, where the viewpoint passes from guest to guest in a brilliant panorama that would be sadly reduced, would shrink to tunnel vision, if the viewpoint were confined to the hostess. Something similar happens at the Ramsay’s dinner party on Skye. James was after a particular aesthetic effect, but fiction is surely a broad church, and Woolf’s use of multiple viewpoint does not, in my view, scatter and weaken. Rather, it opens up and enhances.
I apologise for the length of this. I’m going to take a break now, but I’ll be back when the bug bites; this is an “occasional” series, after all. Meanwhile, please share your own thoughts, on this or any other topic.
June 29, 2019
Bones of Contention: an occasional series
(2) Show don’t tell
I’ve been thoroughly irritated by this advice ever since an agent accused me of ignoring it. It seems to me a neat formula trotted out blithely. So I want to examine and challenge it. First, is the distinction between showing and telling as clear as this maxim suggests? We might concede that we see a kind of distinction here, but is it easily spotted? Showing is surely a form of telling and vice versa; the two blend almost imperceptibly. Open any piece of fiction and I guarantee you will find long passages where the line between showing and telling is blurred almost to the point of invisibility.
But even if we grant the distinction, is telling always to be avoided? Clearly most writers don’t think so. Again, open any piece of fiction. I suppose we might agree that direct speech is stronger than reported speech, but aren’t there occasions, even here, when the latter, for the sake of stylistic variation, is preferable? David Lodge goes further and suggests that telling can be used very effectively as the main mode in a narrative: “The summary narrative method seems to suit our modern taste for irony, pace and pithiness” (The Art of Fiction, Chapter 27). Moreover, as he argues, without an element of telling a novel could become interminable, or its effects ruined (see his previous chapter on Fielding’s expert use of summary).
Yet without going that far, some fiction clearly suffers from too much showing. I have a suspicion that this is what the English critic James Wood had in mind when he accused Zadie Smith’s fiction (which in general he admires) of “hysterical realism”. He applies the term to writing that “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being” – a remark that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s criticism, in her essay “Modern Fiction”, of writing that is bang-on in every detail but somehow misses the essence.
So I was delighted when a tutor on a writing course, after telling us to inscribe the maxim in capitals at the head of our notes, then instructed us to strike it through. I told him that I had always thought the adage needed reformulating. He said he agreed and we swapped revised versions that turned out to be quite similar. I forget his, but here’s mine: “Show when appropriate, tell when appropriate.”
Next time: Point of View.
May 30, 2019
Bones of Contention: an occcasional series
(1) Write about what you know
I’ve long thought of writing a series of pieces on contentious issues in writing. So I’ll begin with the above. For me, the problem here is the suggestion that we should confine ourselves to writing about what we’ve actually experienced. But surely much of what we “know” comes to us through our imagination. If we were to confine ourselves to the former there would be no historical fiction, no fantasy and a huge reduction in crime fiction. The loss of the first might suit some, but would be unfair to the likes of Hilary Mantel, Marguerite Yourcenar, Guiseppe de Lampedusa, while the lopping of crime fiction, which might bring some benefits, could rob us of fine novels by P.D. James, Raymond Chandler and Dostoevsky. I’ve no idea what these writers “knew”, but I’m willing to bet that many crime novelists have never so much as seen a corpse, much less committed or investigated a murder.
Shakespeare, a jobbing actor-dramatist from Stratford, wrote about war, kingship, a struggle in fairyland. Emily Brontë, stranded in a remote vicarage with a doll for a boyfriend, wrote about immortal love and ghosts that “walk” the Yorkshire moors. Franz Kafka, an obscure insurance clerk, wrote about the horror of waking to find yourself transformed into a giant insect. Of course, you might say that they still wrote from personal experience; they simply projected that experience through figments of their imagination. But wouldn’t they have found the injunction to write about what they knew – with the implication “had experienced at first hand” – rather inhibiting? Thank God there was no one around to counsel them in their day.
Nevertheless I see where the advice comes from: some writing strays too far. The problem comes when imagination fails to match experience; when writers lie about characters or bungle what they don’t understand; when readers find themselves saying “But she wouldn’t do that!” or perhaps “Beautifully written, but I don’t believe a word of it.” How does Oliver, raised in a den of thieves, retain his sweet innocence? How indeed does James’s Maisie, surrounded by corrupt adults? Is it likely that the otherwise flawlessly embodied Becky Sharp would murder Jos Sedley for his money? In my view, then, we should not be urged to write about what we know, but rather about what our imaginations can encompass.
If you have any thoughts on this, please share them. Next time: Show Don’t Tell.
May 30, 2019
What am I working on?
When not diverted into shorter forms, I press on with my second novel. This began with the idea of reworking Madame Bovary in a contemporary gay setting, though it quickly broke away from its origins and assumed a life of its own. My Emma character is called Evan, and though he shares some characteristics with Flaubert’s creation he’s altogether his own person, to the extent that I don’t know how he’ll develop. This is all to the good from my point of view because I don’t like to know where my fiction will lead me. Hence, like many writers, I’m reluctant to say much about it until I’m ready to publish.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
To which genre does it belong? I can think of several, but I suppose the most obvious is queer fiction. Of course, queer fiction now divides into subgenres – crime, thriller, romance, historical, etc. – thus adding another layer of complication. However, I tend to write without any thought of genre. My novel Such Fine Boys is a love story, so I suppose it could be filed under ‘romance’, though I think that would give a false view of it. The work of Michael Cunningham, Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Tóibín and Edmund White gives some indication of the kind of fiction to which it aspires, though the voice, I hope, is my own. Structurally, it splits into four parts and moves from first- to third-person narration via several viewpoints. However, its main distinctive feature, I’d say, is its voice.
Why do I write what I do?
I like the notion of finding an ‘objective correlative’. This rather daunting literary term, popularised and developed by T.S. Eliot in his essay ‘Hamlet and his Problems’, refers to the process by which we invent – or perhaps discover – characters and situations to express – or objectify – our personal experience. Isn’t this why we tell stories? In telling stories we find symbols for our own deepest compulsions; and this is why all writing, in my view, is autobiographical. The characters and events may be wildly remote from us, but we couldn’t write about them if we didn’t feel some deep personal connection.
How does my writing process work?
I sit at my computer from eight in the morning until mid-afternoon. If I’m writing fiction, I start at the beginning and progress line by line, often with little idea about what will come next. I polish every paragraph until it attains a satisfactory shape. This means that I never write more than a few hundred words a day, but for me it’s the only way. I’ve tried writing at speed and then shaping a mass of raw material, but I simply can’t rid myself of the itch to polish as I go along. In the end it comes down to hard work. Arnold Bennett, however, was too harsh when he said he’d rather break rocks; I love writing and none of us would do it if we didn’t feel compelled. Even so, terms such as ‘inspiration’ and ‘writer’s block’ bother me. It’s not the terms themselves – they denote states that do exist – but rather the way they are used to mystify the creative process and sometimes to justify laziness. Certainly there’s a mystery to writing, but it shouldn’t become a fetish.