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Tag: reading

Holiday reading

11902521_10153119920583333_1817372311601665677_nI’m on holiday and for me this means that, in between the usual paddling, sandcastles and family arguments, I’m reading. Two books so far this week.
The first was Ian McEwan’s cool and confident The Children Act. Very hard to find fault with it, it was engaging and thought-provoking, yet I can’t help feeling that maturity has stripped him a little of his va va boom. I miss the McEwan of the short stories and novellas. (I feel the opposite about Angela Carter. I find the early stuff compelling, like watching a confusion of fireworks shooting out from different places, but as she matured into a master sorcerer, weaving the lights and colour into perfect patterns. Imagine what she would have created if she’d lived a little longer?)
Next I read a classic and much lauded crime fiction novel by a woman. I like the crime genre. It has a pleasing plot structure and it takes you to interesting places in the human mind. I’m not going to name the author or the book because I don’t want you to think that I have anything against this specific book. It was brilliantly plotted, fast-paced, it kept the tension high, interesting and real central characters, loads of good stuff. The problem I had with it didn’t really hit me til I picked up my next book, something else in the same genre by a woman, and read the first line – another woman in pain and danger and more blood.
This isn’t a feminist complaint about female victims in crime. Sometimes, now, the perpetrators are women and the victims are men. Either way, women are in pain or in danger of suffering pain. And there’s lots of blood (often with the addition of some other bodily fluid). Why? The thing I like about crime is the puzzle, the plot puzzle and the human puzzle. Where can I get this without the blood and the women in physical pain?
And it’s not just crime. Even the usually safe ground of romance now comes with the same flavours – think vampires, Fifty Shades, domestic noir… What’s happening to us that is being reflected in our fiction? Has it always been like this and I haven’t noticed? Has it always been there but presented in a more palatable manner? Is it some reaction to the growing outward power of women? And if so, why are women embracing it, rather than fighting its imposition?
Whatever is going on, for me, it’s making very tedious reading. I’m off to the pile of holiday books to find something that doesn’t start with a strong woman made vulnerable and leaking some combination of sweat, tears, mucous or blood.

Why I need sequinned socks

Recently, I read my work in progress out loud to an audience. It was terrifying. I’ve given presentations, run seminars and read out loud before. But not my own work. Reading it out, volunteering to read it out, is saying ‘I think this is worth listening to’. And that’s opening the door to rejection. Who wants rejection? Who wants rejection of something that is so close to yourself and that you really really want people to like?

I did this because it is something you are meant to do if you want to be taken seriously as a writer. So that’s worse. I’m standing up in front of a bunch of people who love and know about writing and saying: ‘take me seriously as one of those people you study and admire’.

All I could think as I waited for it to be my turn was, why have I agreed to do this? And why did I change the font of my manuscript from Arial to Times New Roman just before printing a copy to read? Times New Roman is tiny and I’m short sighted. When I last went to the optician complaining about my eyesight he kindly informed me that, considering the state of my eyes, I was lucky I could see as well as I could. Err, thanks?

There was one other thing that worried me and that was my lack of sequins. I read this article on public readings. I’m sure it said lots of really helpful things but the key points I remember were don’t drink alcohol and wear sequins. I don’t have anything with sequins. I’m not a sequins kind of gal. I felt naked. So I had a drink. To be honest I did mind less about the sequins after that.

I’d bagged myself a slot in the middle of the first half of the series of readings. The day before I’d been to watch my son in his school Christmas play. He was one of any three children in his class to have a line to say. It was: ‘Three Wise Men entered the stable and laid their gifts before the baby’. I remember. I will probably remember it til I die now (that and the der-der der-der from Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner). The point is that anything about the wise men is right near the end. There are donkeys, stables, babies born, angels and shepherds that all come before that bit. So there was the longest of waits until he got to say his line, until we would know whether he had remembered it and was able to speak slowly and clearly and I would able to restrain myself from leaping up and saying it with him. The tension was terrible. I couldn’t go through that twice in as many days.

So, my time came and I did it. I read the Prologue to my novel. Apparently some people laughed, not just my friends. (Just to be clear, it is supposed to be funny.) I lived. And then I drank. And I didn’t need sequins. Maybe next time though. What if there was no drink?


Bloody hell! I had already reached the conclusion that writing seems a lot less fun and a lot harder since I started studying it. Now I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the same can be said of reading.
Recently I have found myself starting books and immediately finding fault with them. Didn’t I used to get pulled on by simple narrative? Wasn’t I a woman who finished the books she started, rather than letting them languish in the company of dust bunnies under the bed? (Apart from that Zadie Smith book, but that was an exception.) I even finished Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and I hated that. (Before you squawk, I’m odd. I think Dickens is like chewing sawdust – broke my English teacher’s heart when I told him that.)
Anyhow, this new critical eye/ear/sense is a pain. I started one book and rejected it because I could see what the writer was doing and felt manipulated. I heard the first page of a new novel, purchased by a publisher at HUGE expense, on an arts review programme. Poncey and self-consciously writerly. “Zeitgeisty” as the lovely CF would say. An interesting idea that might be fabulous in the hands of Margaret Atwood, but I suspect has been bought for the film rights. I’ll have to wait for it to hit the multiplex because the style of page one tickled only my gag reflex. Every novel or story I start, I question the point of view, I doubt the characterisation, I’m on the look out for lazy tricks and turns of phrase – handy reflections that enable physical descriptions (I know it works, but now it appears in italics in my head), dust motes in the air – this is my favourite, I plan to write a thesis on the use of the dust mote in English language fiction, one day.
And does this new found critical faculty help my own writing? Does it buggery. I’m paralysed by insecurity and indecision. Close third, multiple or first person? Too much telling? Present tense, ever? Is she sympathetic? Is he a shallow stereotype? They got published and couldn’t get it ‘right’! What hope do I have?!