Monday, July 23, 2007

Adam Mars-Jones on humour

An excellent review by Adam Mars-Jones in yesterday's Observer of the new collection by Woody Allen could stand as a how-to (or how-not-to) guide to writing humorous fiction. It's well worth reading the entire review, but this stands out:

Since at least the Victorians, writers have announced their intention to amuse with a facetious linguistic register. Why? I've no idea. Antimacassars are no longer in fashion, whalebone is a rarity, yet the stylistic gurning goes on. 'Upon arriving home and perusing in secret her libellous narrative, I was rendered dumb' could as easily be Mr Pooter as Mr Allen. Humorous writing is where discredited words such as 'eschew', 'distaff', 'poltroon' and 'matutinal' come to die. It's their final forwarding address.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing fiction

Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Aristotle's thoughts on tragedy

From Aristotle's Poetics:

Every tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality - namely Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Two of the parts [song and diction] constitute the medium of imitation, one [spectacle] the manner, an three the objects of imitation. And these complete the list. These elements have been employed, we may say, by the poets to a man.

I like Aristotle. It all flows so logically. I've learned more from him in the past couple of nights than from a whole slew of 'how-to-write' manuals.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Laing on others

RD Laing:

People can and do destroy the humanity of others, and the condition of this possibility is that we are inter-dependent. We are not self-contained monads producing no effects on each other except our reflections. We are both acted upon, and changed for good or ill, by others; we are agents who act upon others to affect them in different ways. Each of us is the other to the others.

Inter-dependence. It's what drives everything. Without it there would be no need for good or evil. With it, they are indispensible.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Flann O'Brien - sage

Poetry gives no adequate return in money, is expensive to print by reason of the waste of space occasioned by its form, and nearly always promulgates illusory concepts of life. But a better case for the banning of all poetry is the simple fact that most of it is bad. Nobody is going to manufacture a thousand tons of jam in the expectation that five may be eatable. Furthermore, poetry has the effect on the negligible handful who read it of stimulating them to write poetry themselves. One poem, if widely disseminated, will breed perhaps a thousand inferior copies.

Haruki Murakami - After Dark

Just finished Haruki Murakami's latest, After Dark. It's one of those novels where you have to ask 'if it wasn't written by a famous author would it be published?' The answer is probably no. If this was on a publisher's slushpile it would remain there.

Yes, it has all the trademark Murakami touches - enigmatic young female, cool, slightly detached young man; cat (completely pointless and unnecessary here, you just feel the Murakami story generator decided it was time for a cat interlude); alternative realities reached through a television screen; a generalised feeling that 'strangeness is as strangeness does'; disconnection from society: in other words, it's the full gamut of Murakamisms.

It's actually a curiosity in that it melds the two strands of Murakami's writing -the surreal stuff and the ethereal love-story-that-isn't. I guess there's always been a touch of the latter in the former - the girl with beautiful ears in A Wild Sheep Chase, for example, but Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border have a very different texture and tone to the other works. There's something elegiac, end-of-time-ish about them which is beguiling. This new novel doesn't have that tone, exactly, but it's not the meatier, ballsier voice we hear in Wind-Up Bird and Sheep Chase.

So why is this novel so unsatisfying? Basically, it feels like Murakami-by-numbers, like he's going through the motions. It's dull and slow, where Wind-up bird, for example, was exhilarating. The relationship between the two mains felt plastic and predictable where, in Norwegian Wood, for example, the female lead was so heartbreakingly real you wanted to take her in your arms and hold her tight. The novel feels to me like all those 'School of Brueghel' paintings which mimic the master's savagery but look two-dimensional in comparison to the real thing.

For me, the worry is that Murakami is a one-trick pony. I've loved him ever since A Wild Sheep Chase was published in this country and I read an advance copy in my job as a stock buyer for libraries. It was remarkable. It was then followed by Hard Boiled Wonderland and the end of the world, which was like nothing I'd ever read (still is.) Then we had Norwegian Wood which introduced the mellow love-hurts Murakami, and Dance, Dance, Dance, the sequel to Sheep Chase. So far so wonderful. South of the Border felt a bit like Norwegian Wood without the insanity, but then we had the masterwork, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. This is pure Murakami, with everything he does so well. It was staggering, mesmerising. Even the flaws - and there are flaws - didn't seem to matter.

But from then on it's been downhill all the way. Sputnik Sweetheart is South of the Border all over again and Kafka on the shore was a dreary rehash of old Sheep Chase and Wind-up bird strangenesses. In other words, he just keeps doing the same thing over and over.

It's striking that as time goes by the novel I think holds up best is the one that's least like the rest, Hard boiled wonderland. He'll win the Nobel for Wind-up bird, but actually it ought to be for Wonderland. But for now, I think Murakami desperately needs a new direction. My fear is he is going to trot out the same damned thing over and over again, each one more diluted than the last.

And what happens then is that what you once thought was dazzling imagination and daring prose starts to feel a bit like a con-trick. It's much the same as the way you first read Marquez and magic realists and think it is incredible but, increasingly, you come to think 'well that's just a cop-out, anyone can magic up a solution to any problem like this.' And so with After Dark we have another girl who is dragged into a different reality on the other side of a TV screen but this time, unlike Wind-up Bird, the reader thinks 'who cares? Seen it all before.'

Of course, given that his work is Japanese and I am only reading a translation, the quality of the translation may be a factor. However, the translator of After Dark is Murakami's usual collaborator, Jay Rubin. So the responsibility for such turgid dialogue as this must rest squarely with Murakami:

'There's a big difference between playing well and playing really creatively. I think I'm pretty good on my instrument. People say they like my playing, and I enjoy hearing that, but that's as far as I goes. I'm gonna quit the band at the end of the month and basically cut my ties with music.'

'What do you mean, 'playing really creatively'? Can you give me a concrete example?'

'Hmm, let's see... You send the music deep enough into your heart so that it makes your body undergo a kind of physical shift, and simultaneously the listener's body also undergoes the same kind of physical shift. It's giving birth to that kind of shared state. Probably.'

'Sounds hard.'

Honestly, if I'd written that dialogue in a story at Boot Camp I'd have been slaughtered for it. It's utter drivel, but it's increasingly what passes in Murakami for legitimate exchanges. Meanwhile his once lovably odd girls start to sound impossibly rarified and the boys freakish.

Do something different, Haruki, please.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A crofter in the landscape of time

Norman MacCaig died in January 1996. The first two poems here were written in January 1992, when the poet was in his 80s. They may be the last two poems he wrote, the conclusion of a life's work of over 3,000 pieces.


The river slides by, looking harmless.
Ask the rock, that gets smaller and smaller
from its stroking.

Birch trees swarm up the opposite bank
in groups that die, so slowly,
from the centre outwards.
The stalker's path up there
is being taken back into the hill.
Quagmires have swallowed what were stones.

These three things are happening to me also.
Yet I happily observe them from the peace
they bring to me, even in their dying.

I'm a crofter in the landscape of time
repairing a tumbling wall
with each dead stone balanced on another.

Norman MaCaig
January 1992

By the Three Lochans

I sit, trying to look like a heather bush -
hoping to see
a mewing buzzard or a vole or a dragonfly.
How quickly the days slide away
into where they came from.

It's hard to change anything.
I look into my hand to see
if there's an idea there
giving birth to a strenuous baby.
Only a life-line that's not long enough.

An obstinate old rowan tree
stands on a tiny island.
So many storms, yet there it is
with only a few berries, each determined
to be the last one to drop into the water.

And the light floods down
revealing mountains and flowers
and so many shadows. If only
a merlin would hurtle past, that atom
of speed, that molecule of life.

Norman MacCaig
January 1992

The elegaic quality of these pieces is humbling. I have the sadness of the end of it all in my head.