Thursday, 30 July 2015

James Agee’s to-do list

In 1937 James Agee applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship. He listed the following projects under the heading ‘Plans for Work: October 1937’, adding ‘I am working on, or am interested to try, or expect to return to, such projects as the following.’ In the following section of his application he wrote in more detail about each of the projects.

An Alabama Record.
A story about homosexuality in football.
News items.
Hung with their own rope.
Notes for color photgraphy.
A revue.
A cabaret.
Newsreel. Theatre.
A new type of stage-screen show.
Anti-communist manifesto.
Three or four love stories.
A new type of sex book.
‘Glamor’ writing.
A study in the pathology of ‘laziness’.
A new type of horror story.
Stories whose whole intention is the direct communication of the intensity of common experience.
‘Musical’ uses of ‘sensation’ or ‘emotion’.
Collections and analyses of faces; of news pictures.
Development of new forms of writing via the caption; letters; pieces of overheard conversation.
A new form of story: the true incident recorded and an analysis of it.
A new form of movie short roughly equivalent to the lyric poem.
Conjectures of how to get ‘art’ back on a plane of organic human necessity, parallel to religious art or the art of primitive hunters.
A show about motherhood.
Pieces of writing whose rough parallel is the prophetic writings of the Bible.
Uses of the Dorothy Mix Method; the Voice of Experience: for immediacy, intensity, complexity of opinion.
The inanimate and non-human.
A new style and use of the imagination: the exact opposite of the Alabama record.
A true account of a jazz band.
An account and analysis of a cruise: ‘high’-class people.
Portraiture. Notes. The Triptych.
City Streets. Hotel Rooms. Cities.
A new kind of photographic show.
The slide lecture.
A new kind of music. Noninstrumental sound. Phonographic recording. Radio.
Extension in writing; ramification in suspension; Schubert 2-cello Quintet.
Analyses of Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Auden, other writers.
Analyses of Kafka’s Trial; various moving pictures.
Two forms of history of the movies.
Reanalyses of the nature and meaning of love.
Analyses of miscommunication; the corruption of idea.
Moving picture notes and scenarios.
An ‘autobiographical’ novel.
New forms of ‘poetry’.
A notebook.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Summertime, half a century ago

In 1965 – fifty years ago – I was packed off by my mum to a Hebridean island on a two-week camping trip. It was a boys’ thing: around 20 of us, all in our mid-teens, with maybe half a dozen ‘officers’ aged, I guess, in their twenties. It was pretty glorious: we walked, climbed, swam, fished, messed around in canoes, sang songs round campfires, got rained on, hadn’t a care in the world.

I wouldn’t have been able to date this trip if I hadn’t yesterday, for no good reason, googled ‘Schools Hebridean Society’ and found a website maintained by someone who went on other trips, in the 70s, run by that outfit. I went, I think, on three trips. Certainly to Raasay in 1965 and to Harris in 1967, because there’s my name listed: here and here. Memories, in no particular order:

– watching, from somewhere on high, a Golden Eagle flying below me, and close;
– envying the ability of my friend Mike Ackroyd (we did everything together in our teens, including ‘dancing classes’ in Bradford) to fall asleep, anywhere, anytime (the tents were basic, the ground not level);
– losing a camera my mum had bought me (I didn’t really want it) when my canoe overturned;
– getting one book of the Everyman 3-vol edition of War and Peace waterlogged, also in a canoe (I’ve never re-read it, so it must be from that year that I remember the line, spoken by some minor character, ‘Where there is judging there is always injustice’);
– taking shelter during a rainstorm in a derelict house, finding some Penguin crime books there, reading The Postman Always Rings Twice;
– in the temporary absence of fresh water, making porridge with sea water (not good);
– the high bargaining price for a cigarette (the nearest shop was 7 miles away);
– in Tarbert, waiting for the ferry to the mainland, discovering that our favourite ‘officer’ wasn’t going to be much use getting us into pubs because he drank only tea;
– on the MacBraynes ferry over to the islands, listening to men singing in Gaelic.

(Also, on the train back from Scotland to Yorkshire on a Saturday afternoon in 1966, transistor radios: we were travelling while the World Cup final was being played. But I think that was coming back from a different camp, a CCF one.)

My friend Mike Ackroyd died in his early 20s in Japan. One of the other ‘boys’ named on the Harris 1967 page is John Ryle – surely the writer and anthropologist John Ryle, whose book on the Dinka of the Sudan I worked on while at Time-Life in the 80s, it must be.

Monday, 20 July 2015

When is a novel not a novel?

There was a bookseller I knew who, when someone wanted a job in the shop, gave them a list of titles and asked where – i.e., in which section: fiction, poetry, biography, New Age drivel, etc – they would shelve them. Ah, but that was a while back, when everyone knew their place and doffed their caps and there were porters at railway stations.

Category definitions are often like round holes for square pegs. The Novella Award welcomes ‘any genre of work, provided it is fiction, in the English language and between 20,000 and 40,000 words’ – so Alice Munro could probably enter one of her ‘short stories’. (Many stories by Munro, others too, would not be eligible for most magazines that publish short stories because of their wordcount restriction.) The Novella might have welcomed Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (I don’t know, I haven’t counted the words; in fact I haven’t even read it), a book that was shortlisted for the Man Booker, which is for ‘novels’, isn’t it? The Man Booker is sensibly loose in its definition of what’s eligible: publishers of ‘literary fiction novels’ may submit, and each submitted book ‘must be a unified and substantial work’. (Is there a word for novels over a certain wordcount?)

I’m pretty sure that if last year I, as publisher, had submitted Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist for either the Novella or the Man Booker it would have got nowhere – despite it’s being within the Novella’s wordcounts and also, I’d say, a substantial work. (‘Unified’? Anna Aslanyan, writing for 3:AM: ‘the author’s decision to call it a novel seems justified: these confluent streams of consciousness amount to a narrative in prose where every comma is vital for the flow to run as it does . . . their arrangement is precise down to the last dropped aitch.’) It just doesn’t look like fiction, or like many people’s idea of what fiction should look like. But by 2014 there was also the Goldsmiths Prize, set up ‘to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’, and it got shortlisted for that.

Reviewing Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS last year, Kate Webb noted that Cole’s work ‘occupies a new ground of uncertainty opening up in twenty-first century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture. Every Day is for the Thief is presented as fiction but is interleaved with Cole’s photographs of Nigeria, heightening the sense of actuality, and pays homage to Michael Ondaatje’s memoir, Running in the Family, about his own journey home to Sri Lanka.’ Fiction that doesn’t look like fiction has been around since at least the time of Sterne, but recently it has been coming to the fore in a way that must have booksellers, with their neatly labelled sections, scratching their heads; and blaming Sebald for this doesn’t help anyone. Where are the booksellers to shelve a book that, according to its back cover, ‘weav[es] fact and fiction, travelogue and an erotically charged game of cat-and-mouse’? (This is Emmanuel Carrère’s A Russian Novel, and I guess there’s a clue in the title, and even more so in the publisher’s stated category: ‘Fiction’.) Where are they to shelve David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel? (A sort of reverse clue in this title.) Or Jack Robinson’s Nights and Days in W12? (Which I wrote and published, and I have no idea at all what to advise them.)

It looks likely that next year’s CBe titles will include one book that’s made up of prose and poetry in roughly equal parts, and another Robinson-ish book that’s made up of fact, speculation, fiction, you-name-it. How do I list these in any catalogue? I’m thinking of putting them both under ‘Mongrel’. Other suggestions welcome.

Monday, 22 June 2015

On James Kennaway

I was sent the above last week.

Here’s some post-coital gallows humour. After drinking with a newspaper editor and then in a club, and after very rashly placing Susie (‘in little bruised pieces’) in the care of Fiddes and then camping out for a while in another drinking club, Link goes to see Mandy, a prostitute on whom Fiddes has performed an illegal abortion, and after they fuck Mandy tells him about a documentary she watched on TV:

Quite the scene. This is of cows going into a slaughterhouse. Great, it was. They look exactly like people, you know – there’s Aunt Maisie with her bow legs and udders brushing the gound, and there’s another who’s the split image of a silly tart that used to stand on the corner of Audley and Curzon Street, when I was in the first bloom of my youth. But most they’re like horrible housewives in Winchester or Blackheath, or maybe Wembley. Stupid, you know, not vicious, stupid. And they waddle into this slaughterhouse calm as can be, just like the supermarket; then ‘bonk!’ there’s a chisel gets hammered right through their nuts. They sway a couple of times, then fold up. It had me in stitches. It’s horrible really. But it was funny for me ’cause I knew all the cows.

The night is far from over – after being chucked out by Mandy (‘I hate sleeping with men. There’s always that meddling goes on at half past five’), Luke goes on to a police party with a couple of other prostitutes in tow, and then flies to Germany to see the son of his last true love, who was killed when she skied into an army truck – so the slaughterhouse comes almost as light relief, a welcome change of pace. All of Kennaway’s novels are short but you do need stamina (and a good head for drink).

Link, Fiddes and Susie combine to form the triangular relationship at the heart of Some Gorgeous Accident (1967), the last novel published by Kennaway before he was killed in a car crash at the age of forty in 1968. The bond between Link, a war photographer, and Fiddes, a doctor in a charity hospital (‘wondering why he’d chosen to be the kind of doctor who makes no money. There was such awful, English arrogance in that’), is already there at the start of the book: ‘When they met there were always the same ironies, obscenities, insults and jokes.’ So is the bond between Link and Susie: ‘Why, he just took the girl out a couple of times. Once for a week, a super steeple-climbing, Ritz-eating, no sleeping frayed-lovers week. Next time for a few months of hell in the Village in New York.’ The link between Fiddes and Susie is effected by Link, acting out of motives that seem sometimes innocent, sometimes not. That there’s a sexual element in the bond between Link and Fiddes is arguable: ‘A homosexual, or latently homosexual attachment, Mr Link? … If I sometimes think so, Fiddes would go on, it is only because I can find no better for such a close relationship.’ Later: ‘Is there always a moment in a triangular situation where everyone’s sex is the same?’

Formally, you could – though I can’t see why you’d want to – call Some Gorgeous Accident an experimental novel, at least mildly so. Pages in the second half of the book are taken up by transcriptions of court proceedings (someone has snitched to the BMA about the abortion carried out by Fiddes). The novel is written in brief sections under italic sub-heads (sort of); some are straightforward scene-settings or timelines (‘Meanwhile, back in Jack’s café’, ‘Later, two or three drinks later’), others very different: ‘Nerves, Linky, nerves’; ‘Yet it’s too easy to throw this scene away’. Who exactly is narrating? The stop/start of the sections might suggest that what you’re reading is more draft than finished novel, but not so. According to The Kennaway Papers (1981) by Susan Kennaway, a memoir including extracts from her husband’s letters, diaries and notebooks, ‘James used to say that for every slim novel he published he would write an average of a million and a half words, which was not an exaggeration.’ The book began as a novel set in Kashmir, then it shifted to Scotland, then to London; and at some stage it became, well, life: the Link-Susie-Fiddes triangle mirrored – though you don’t need to know this – by that involving Kennaway himself, his wife Susan and the writer David Cornwell, as documented in The Kennaway Papers.

What came before Some Gorgeous Accident was far from negligible: Tunes of Glory (1956), an army-barracks novel (later filmed with Alec Guinness and John Mills); Household Ghosts (1961) and The Bells of Shoreditch (1963), both featuring aldulterous triangles; a number of screenplays. But then the two posthumously-published novels …

They were painting the gothic corridors of the railway hotel when the economist arrived. It was about six o’clock in the evening, early in May, which is no great time to die, and it had been raining heavily.

That’s the opening of The Cost of Living like This (1969). The economist is Julian, who has cancer (and a flask of jungle juice in his coat pocket: includes heroin, morphine, cocaine); the other two in the triangle are Sally, a teenage office worker and champion amateur swimmer; and Julian’s wife, Christabel. Also featuring: a wedding party on a flight from London to Glasgow; a Scots football referee called Mozart; a painting by Lucian Freud (‘No shit, d’you know? It’s just a few leaves, and it fascinates me because when you’ve seen it you feel you’ve never looked at a leaf before’); a student demonstration, a fire, suicide. It’s about sex and death, of course. It’s slightly absurd; intricately but fluently structured (though given the high stakes and Kennaway’s gift for sparring dialogue, at times you feel that all he has to do is get any two or three of the characters in a room and let them get on with it); and the drifting first chapter especially (before ‘All three. All hell let loose.’) is a wonder.

And then Silence (1972). ‘I wish I could say I were a simple man, but none of us can say that any more.’ A doctor’s daughter has been assaulted by a man with an address in ‘the Negro quarter’ of Chicago; her husband and his rich pals, fuelled by liquor, drive there to exact justice, and the doctor goes along, though ‘he couldn’t quite believe that the boys were reacting from love of Lilian’. The man is not in the apartment, but his family are: ‘It was as if they had expected the visit and in a sad sort of way were glad their time had come.’ In the street, violence, gunfire. The doctor, with a knife wound in his side, flees, enters a building, then a room. ‘The doctor knew that he was not alone in the room.’ The doctor, and a silent woman. ‘Really, the doctor couldn’t believe that she spoke any language, except that she looked at him sometimes, very slowly, almost, almost smiled.’ She hums, smokes pot, treats the doctor’s wound, feeds him, listens to him; they play games, make mistakes; and the end (there's another cattle slaughterhouse), the end is almost unreadable, unspeakable. Astonishing, terrifying book. (Under 100 pages.)

The publishing history of Kennaway’s novels is patchy. Most were at one time in Penguin, but now not. An omnibus edition (including Tunes of Glory, Household Ghosts and Night) published in 2001 by Canongate is still in print, just about. A US publisher, Valancourt, reissued The Cost of Living like This in 2014. The climate perhaps does not favour books by men who were educated at public school and Oxford and served in the army; and novels infused (but not Silence) with the hard-drinking macho kind of masculinity that background can produce, however brilliant the writing (Kennaway writes sentences that can hurt); I don’t know.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Dark Horse

Friday eve was the London celebration of the 20th anniversary of Gerry Cambridge’s The Dark Horse magazine. There was a party in Scotland before, there’ll be another in New York later. Music from John Lucas et al; Gerry himself on harmonica. The first issue was put together not just without funding but without a roof and four walls: the first slide in a brief introduction showed the caravan in which everything began. To have kept this thing going for twenty years – 21-gun salute, at least (or whatever’s the equivalent for those who prefer harmonicas to guns).

The second half of the readings was especially wonderful. (And as you know, I’m not generally an enjoyer of readings.) Kei Miller: simply, he’s the man. (Brecht: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs heroes’; but we’re not there yet, we’re still unhappy, and I’d follow this man.) A highlight of Clare Pollard’s reading was a long, angry, funny, heartfelt rant (but it was more than that) on, let’s say, the commodification (ugly word, but then it’s an ugly thing) of pregnancy and motherhood, not least the language it comes wrapped in: patronising, pseudo-scientific, health-&-safety prioritised, trust-in-‘experts’, product-selling, profit-seeking …

Somewhere there surely already exists – and if not, someone please write – a long, angry, funny, heartfelt rant (but more than that) on the commodification of ‘the writer’. It might best be written by an emerging writer (not yet an established writer). Someone who’s maybe had work published in a few magazines (but are they the right ones?) and thinks they should perhaps be aiming to having a pamphlet out but they’re uneasy about doing any ‘gigs’ because they haven’t done the performance skills course yet. Etc. The author photo; the festival appearances; the well-meaning articles on how to self-publicise; the contacts. So much anxiety; so much help and support on offer; and the two run around in a circle.

No point, really, in arguing with this, because it’s here to stay. But worth remembering that fine babies have for millennia been born to mothers who have done a lot worse than miss a few NCT classes; and fine poems and novels have been written, and still are, by people who haven’t had to pay for a single course for the privilege of writing them.

Also this: neither writer nor mother (I’m not going to push this analogy any further: mother wins, no question), though both part of the ‘economy’, are paid for what they do. Only J.K. Rowling and a handful of others (count them on one hand, two?) actually make a living from their writing. A century ago a writer could live off selling a couple of stories a year to Strand magazine. Now, the more the commodification of the ‘the writer’, the more she or he is reliant for income on work peripheral to actual writing: readings, festivals, hack-work journalism, and above all teaching (usually on CW courses), all of which contribute to to the aforesaid six-syllable word. Someone has flicked a switch while I wasn’t watching.

Monday, 8 June 2015

2 or 3 degrees of separation

Let’s say you have written a book that’s got as far as being published (a very long way). And then what?

If you are with one of the big publishers, presumably their marketing and publicity departments (I’m still not wholly sure of the difference between those two) kick in, and your book gets reviewed everywhere and advertised on public transport and … (Or maybe not. I think it’s true that the more famous the author, the bigger the marketing & publicity budgets; if you are not already famous, the less money and effort is available for making you so.)

If you are with one of the small presses, different story. Very few of these have any money for advertising. And – speaking for myself here – even if I did have a ‘budget’ for marketing and publicity, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I have zero professional experience in this. And frankly, like many others I’m uneasy with the whole notion of publicity, especially self-publicity. (Stendhal: ‘I’m like a respectable woman turned courtesan, at every moment I need to overcome the modesty of a decent man who hates to talk about himself.’)

In practice, I send out the books to a few places for consideration for review (but the lit eds seem to change places frequently, and I can’t keep track). I’ve been known to organise the occasional reading (but many of the CBe authors are dead or abroad or, in some cases, not that interested in readings). (Aside: I once put on a joint launch with one of the big publishers; I suggested they pay half the wine bill; they said they didn’t have a ‘budget’ for this, so CBe paid the full bill; and wine, according my accountant, is not a tax-deductible expense.) I may even tweet. Luckily, a surprising number of the books put out by CBe have benefited from prize shortlistings and more – the Forward, the PBS Recommendations, the Fenton Aldeburgh, the Goldsmiths, the Guardian First Book, the translation prizes – and from the ‘books-of-the-year’ lists in the broadsheets. These are a form of free publicity. They’re one of the things that have kept CBe alive.

And maybe, at this end of the scale, a big budget for marketing and publicity wouldn’t make any difference at all. ‘Six degrees of separation’ is, according to Wiki, ‘the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world’. The books world being far, far smaller than the real world, it’s likely that any potential reader of a CBe book is only three or even two degrees of separation from the book. For the negotiation of these degrees, personal recommendations, and the expression of personal enthusiasm (on the social media of course, but also on the street) may be all that’s needed. These are another thing that has kept CBe alive. Thank you.

Friday, 15 May 2015

The first ebooks from CBe

At long last, CBe is dipping its toes into ebook waters.

The first two ebook editions are Not So Barren or Uncultivated: British Travellers in Finland 1760–1830 and No Particular Hurry: British Travellers in Finland 1830–1917. (Print editions of these are still available from bookshops and from the CBe website, and a third volume – 1917–1942 – will be appearing in print later this year.) These are anthologies: they present extracts from the writings of, well, British travellers in Finland, introduced and with linking passages by Tony Lurcock. Compiled over many years, they are also labours of love – for Finland, and for (some of) the travellers.

Being neither short fiction nor poetry, these books sit a little awkwardly on the CBe list, but they are very welcome. Tony Lurcock originally approached me for advice on how to self-publish the first volume. I started reading. ‘In the Introduction I have presented the writers against the background of their times, describing some of the cultural, social and literary ideas which they reflect. Themes such as “the picturesque” can then be mentioned in the body of the book without further digression. It is by no means necessary to read the introduction to enjoy the contents of the book, nor need the book be read chronologically, in full, or indeed at all. That is the way with anthologies.’ My italics. I was seduced.

We learn, through the travellers, about not just the landscape of Finland but its progressive social character. Finland is ‘undoubtedly the best educated nation in the world’ (Young, 1911); it was the first country in Europe to enfranchise women (1906) and to elect them to parliament (1907); in 1908 Travers sets off eagerly ‘to the only civilised country in Europe, the one place where women have got their full rights’.

We witness the bemusement of travellers when experiencing the sauna and naked bathing – ‘This was my first experience of a bath à la Finnoise, and I am not anxious to renew it, for to stand in puris naturalibus and be soaped from head to foot by a buxom lady (even of mature years) is somewhat trying to a novice’ (Harry de Windt) – and local food and drink: ‘A supply of Finnish beer, a sort of attenuated rhubarb and magnesia tends to gravitate the solidities, but it is funny stuff’ (George Francklin Atkinson); ‘With regard to that brown rye-cake of Lapland, I brought a piece home to England, which my dog saw and annexed. He is a fox-terrier of lusty appetite, and he tried to eat it. He tried for a whole afternoon, and finally left the cake alone on a lawn, very little the worse for the experience’ (C. J. Cutliffe Hyne).

But perhaps the chief pleasure of the books lies in the linking commentary of Tony Lurcock, whose style has an odd affinity with that of many of his travellers. Here is Captain Batholomew Sulivan (who later sailed with Darwin on the Beagle): ‘Sometimes we meet a small boat with two or three people in it, and a cow standing as quietly as possible, though looking too large for the boat to hold in safety.’ Here is Lurcock: ‘On the evidence of the various accounts given by travellers, one may say confidently that the Great Coastal Road was not great, not always coastal, and not always even a road.’ There are not many books of this kind, and possibly none in which the content and the style and temperament of the compiler combine so happily.

For sale from Amazon: here and here. The Amazon pages carry some 5-star reader reviews for both books.

(Coming next, ebook editions of two of my own poetry collections: Paleface, 1996, and The Age of Cardboard and String, 2001. The print editions were once published by Faber.)