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.