“Alan Moore knows the score”

February 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

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This was shouted by someone, around 6 a.m., at the Scala Cinema in Kings Cross, during the title sequence for Return of the Swamp Thing. The year was 1990. The titles- consisting of a montage of pages from the comic -were by far the best part of the film.

Then there was V for Vendetta; From Hell; The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. About which there is little worth dwelling on.

As for Watchmen, I do not know if I dare to see it. But then again, as Moore says in a recent interview in Wired

My books are still the same books as they were before they were made into films. The books haven’t changed. I’m reminded of the remark by, I think it was Raymond Chandler, where he was asked about what he felt about having his books “ruined” by Hollywood. And he led the questioner into his study and showed him all the books there on the bookshelf, and said, Look—there they all are. They’re all fine. They’re fine. They’re not ruined. They’re still there. And I think that’s pretty much the attitude I take. If the books are as good as I think they are, then they are the things that will endure. And if the films are as bad as I think they are, then they are the things that will not endure. So, I suppose we’ll see at the end of the day, whenever that is.

Advice for young writers

February 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

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“You must- do you hear me, young man? -you must work harder… Too many whores! Too much boating!  Too much exercise! Yes, that’s quite right: a civilised man does not require as much locomotion as doctors would have us believe.”

This was Flaubert’s advice to the young Maupassant, who he acted as tutor to. “If you have any orginality,” Flaubert told him, “you must dig it out. If you don’t have any, you must get some.”

If only these excellent precepts had been drilled into me by my own writing tutors! How many diseases might have been avoided! Those foolish hours walking!

These, alas, were not the only snippets witheld. I should also have benefited from an injunction to subscribe to various publications, in order to be familiar with the kind of work actually being published. I should have been advised that a story once written, like a fine confit, improves from being left; that a sequence of well-crafted sentences is far from being a story; that some things are always a matter of taste and that I, though still a pup-in-arms, was a goddamn genius whose star was a light that bless-ed and bedazzled.

If only this had been the case! Then I would have gladly taken part in the preparations for my tutors’ burials. I, like Maupassant, would have bathed them in eau de Cologne, dressed them in silk underwear, then a suit complete with waistcoat, cravat and skin gloves. I would have brushed their famous moustaches, covered as much of their terrible wounds as powder and care might allow. I would have engaged a choir of sweet voices, bloodied my knees in prayer. But this, alas, was not to be. They are in their pauper’s grave, while I, who live, regret.

Customer service, a la William Faulkner.

February 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

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Sitting at work, trying to lose myself in the serious and important enterprise that is not-working whilst at work (or to be precise, doing other, far more valuable work, such as reading Harpers) I came across this description of William Faulkner’s brief time in the University of Mississippi post office (from Javier Marias’s Written Lives).

“Apparently one of the lecturers there, quite reasonably, complained: the only way he could get his letters was by rummaging around in the garbage can at the back door, where the unopened mail bags all too often ended up. Faulkner did not like having his reading interrupted, and the sale of stamps fell alarmingly: by way of explanation, Faulkner told his family he was not prepared to keep getting up to wait on people at the window and having to be beholden to any son-of-a-bitch who had two cents to buy a stamp.”

And lest there remain any doubts regarding his good nature:

“When he died, piles of letters, packages and manuscripts sent by admirers were found, none of which he had opened. In fact, the only letters he did open were those from publishers, and then only very cautiously: he would make a tiny slit in the envelope and then shake it to see if a cheque appeared. If it didn’t, then the letter would simply join all those other things that can wait forever.”

I would repeat his views on what a woman should do, but some son-of-a-bitch wants to know who wrote The Kite Runner. I will sweetly smile and tell him, “William fucking Faulkner.”

Zadie Smith vs. ‘Zadie Smith’

February 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Cover art: Charles Burns!

Cover art: Charles Burns!

On the face of it there are several reasons why I could dislike ‘Zadie Smith’, by which I do not mean Zadie Smith, the actual person who has loves and hates and passions just like mine, but ‘Zadie Smith’, the construct presented by the media in the form of articles about her, pictures of her, reviews of her work, her blurbs on the back of books, the object of publishers’ noble quest to ‘find’ the next ‘Zadie Smith’.

There is first of all, White Teeth, which though a good book, with much fine writing, was not the Great London Novel we were asked to worship. Perhaps its chief fault was the way its plot lurched towards an unconvincing moment of violence.

But this is something even Zadie Smith (the person) has admitted (reference when I can find it). Zadie Smith (the person) is also not responsible for ‘Zadie Smith’. This is the fault of people who do something called Publicity & Marketing. By way of a disclaimer, I should also like to say that I read the book after several years living in China, when I was, of course, quite out of my mind.

Another possible cause of dislike is her (‘Zadie Smith’) editorship of incredibly patchy anthologies such as The Burned Children of America and The Books of Other People, both of which rely heavily on already published work, some of which may have been included for extra-textual reasons (because they, like ‘Zadie Smith’ were ‘big names’, or because they were willing to waive their fee, or because they were friends of her which made it awkward to reject their work).

But then there is also the fact that I, as an editor of several incredibly patchy anthologies (whose names I forget), know something of extratextual factors. Like the need to have the names of well (or at least better) known authors on one’s funding application. And that even ‘Zadie Smith’, in her efforts to persuade a major publisher to publish and promote an anthology whose profits support a (lack of inverted commas) good cause, could conceivably have similar concerns. Also, that an anthology, by its very nature (multiple styles, concerns and forms) is doomed to be uneven (has anyone ever read an anthology and liked everything in it?)

The final potential cause of dislike of ‘Zadie Smith’ was her inclusion in a piece by Robert McCrum entitled Sebald, Hughes and Smith: three modern greats’. Leaving aside the oddness of pairing Ted Hughes and W.G. Sebald (poet and prose-writer respectively), it made little sense to include her, a young writer, with such luminaries from a previous generation, whose work is similar to hers in neither style nor concerns.

Zadie Smith was one of the first to decry her inclusion.

I would never place myself anywhere near either Hughes or Sebald. I’m 33. I’m just starting out. I’ve written three comic novels and a handful of criticism.

And it occurs to me (because it is obvious) that there is something extremely suspect about me, ‘Nick Holdstock, Edinburgh-based writer’, almost wanting to dislike ‘Zadie Smith’. It can only be some species of envy, if not of her undoubted ability as a writer, then of the status (and the opportunities afforded by it) of being ‘Zadie Smith’. One of the few solaces afforded to struggling writers (those poor souls who have to add their own inverted commas) is the act of trying to topple the great statues under whose shadows we write, even if it means burying ourselves in their rubble. If there is comfort in denigrating such figures, it is of a scuttling kind.

How much better, for all concerned, if we could simply focus on the writing. After all, this is what we, as readers and writers, ultimately care about most. Let us ignore the blurbs and reviews (unless they are actually reviews- see below, and previous post on Gass) and see what Zadie Smith is saying.

These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

This is from a piece in The New York Review of Books entitled, ‘Two Paths for the novel’. It continues:

Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood in opposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace—all misguided ideologists, the novelist equivalents of the socialists in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In this version of our literary history, the last man standing is the Balzac-Flaubert model, on the evidence of its extraordinary persistence. But the critiques persist, too. Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?

At this point, I was no longer eating my egg salad sandwich. I was nodding, and humming a little, thinking about the seductive pull of lyrical realism. The piece, whilst providing a proper review of the books in question (Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder) frames this discussion in a meaningful way, asking us to consider not only what gives us pleasure as readers, but how important it is that such pleasure is effortful.

It also reminds us, lest we forget (and yes, we do, always) that there is nothing so artificial as Realism. That this too is constructed, through precise and concrete description, through the presentation of rich and coherent selves with lyrical inner lives. This is what we try hard to believe.

At a certain point in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek passes quickly and dismissively over exactly this personal fullness we hold so dear in the literary arts (“You know…the wealth of human personality and so on and so forth…”), directing our attention instead to those cinematic masters of the anti-sublime (Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, David Lynch) who look into the eyes of the Other and see no self at all, only an unknowable absence, an abyss.

There is more, to which I shall not do justice. Please ascend this page, then click.

Too long in the library #1

February 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

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“To perpetuate the ethos of consumption the products of mass culture demand an identification with the status quo which produces the very smugness and intellectual passivity that seem to fit in with totalitarian creeds, even if the explicit surface message is anti-totalitarian.”

Theodor Adorno, The Schema of Mass Culture

Competition not involving dogs

February 11, 2009 § 1 Comment

My story ‘Amy’ has been shortlisted for the Willesden Herald Short Story competition.

Dog of the Day

February 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

‘Dog of the Day’, as the phrase suggests, is a competition which aims to decide which of the dogs encountered during a given day (whether they be few or many) is most deserving of praise (and of course, the coveted title). It is certainly not an opportunity to engage in mawkish dribbling over pictures of cute pooches:

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‘Dog of the Day’, by contrast, is a far more rigorous endeavor, one bound by codes evolved through generations of practice (my father, and his father, and his father before that). Whilst some of these are matters of taste (and conscience), others can be more clearly expressed:

  • the assessor should have ‘met’ (i.e. interacted with, and preferably touched) the nominated dog. This, however, is not a mandatory requirement. Most experienced dog-assessors can recall occassions when it was, if you like, ‘Dog of the Day’-at-first-sight. A Mr B. Morris of Cambridgeshire (one of the most promising young assessors in a region long known for its keen eyes) has written to remind me of a fine morning in April when he and I, and several chums, whilst en route to the continent, spotted a dog with an inordinately long pole in its mouth, at least the length of a well-nourished man. The animal brandished this item with such gusto and skill that it immediately called to mind the villainous character in the much-loved motion picture Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Though nominations were nominally kept open for the rest of the day, no one who had witnessed this remarkable dog ventured to suggest any other candidate.
  • the assessor should be able to provide a full description of the nominated dog (preferably written and corroborated by at least 2 witnesses between the ages of 16 and 65- experience suggests that many of those outside this age range are prone to non-useful assessments like “He was so cute!” and “Just like a baby!”) including, but not limited to information such as: breed; age; disposition; presence of distinguishing coat, leash, or collar; whether the nominated dog had a stick, ball, plastic bottle or other such ‘toy’ in its possession; what the dog was doing when encountered; what it did after it had been encountered, including how it reacted to the departure of the assessor; any comments (for example, regarding the dog’s name) made by the dog’s human (aka, but not equivalent to ‘owner’) regarding the dog.
  • When assessing a dog, be aware of your own biases, whether they be for short hair or long, smooth hair or fluffy, big dogs, little dogs, dogs that jump up or roll over, dogs that bark, whine or make grunting sounds that more closely approximate a pig.
  • On days when either no dogs are ‘met’, or when the dog or dogs that have been ‘met’ are not deemed sufficiently meritorious (though they be sufficient in many other ways (friendly, non-biting etc.)), the accolade ‘Dog of the Day’ need not (and should not) be awarded.
  • When trying to reach a decision on which of the nominated dogs should be ‘Dog of the Day’, particular consideration should be given to unique and charming features. For example, yesterday I ‘met’ an Alsatian whose back legs were strapped into a supporting frame with wheels, enabling it to run at still impressive speeds using its front paws. The dog seemed perfectly happy, as did its companion, a mongrel who looked to have a fair bit of wolfhound in him. There was no suggestion that the mongrel looked down on, or felt sorry for, the somewhat disabled dog (or vice versa). What I suppose I am trying to convey is that the clearest candidates for ‘Dog of the Day’ have the sense of a larger story around them.

But ultimately the process of choosing is more an art than a skill. One learns, through sucessive encounters, to hone one’s perception so that even the briefest interaction- a stroke of the head outside a shop; being approached while in the park -is sufficient to allow the assessor to perceive the signs of character that mark a dog as being, indisputably, a true ‘Dog of the Day.’

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