Scotland China Association talk

I’ll be giving a talk to the Scotland China Association on Tuesday April 12th, mainly about what’s been happening in Xinjiang since the July 2009 riots. I was there during April last year, and will be showing photos, and maybe some video from the trip. I wont be showing this photo:

Tue 12 Apr 2011 “The Tree that Bleeds: Xinjiang after the 2009 riots”

Tuesday, 12 April 2011 7pm for 7.30pm

The Meeting House
7 Victoria Terrace, Edinburgh
at the junction of Victoria Terrace and the Upper Row, just off the Royal Mile/Lawnmarket.

The Pale King

There is something unsettling about new books appearing from dead authors. It makes the writers seem as alive as before, because in most cases we did not know them as people: all we had, as proof of life, was the release of a new book, the barrage of reviews. But in recent years, as the situation of the major publishers has become increasingly straitened, the scouring of literary estates seems to have intensified. Since Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 there have been several collections of previously published work, and there was recently a collection of 14 previously unpublished stories entitled Look at the Birdie. Whilst there are clear instances of writers wanting something unfinished (or simply unpublished) to appear after their death (Mark Twain, for example, did not want his autobiography published until 100 years after his death) it seems unlikely that a writer of Vonnegut’s popularity had 14 early, unpublished stories more or less kicking around. If he had wanted them published, there is little chance that anyone would have refused, whatever their relative merits. There are probably few serious writers who do not have a few novels or short stories, which although they cannot get rid of- as one cannot discard a child – they prefer to keep in the drawer.

At least the same cannot be said of David Foster Wallce’s forthcoming unfinished novel The Pale King (due April 15th 2011). Wallace is said to have taken considerable pains that the manuscript be in good order, to the point where he left in the open, with lamps shining on it, before he killed himself. The novel focuses on IRS agents in Illinois, and is said to be an attempt to engage with boredom. However, Wallace’s wishes regarding another book are far less clear. In December, Columbia University Press will publish Wallace’s undergraduate theses, entitled Fate, Time and Language. Though it may be, as the promotional material claims, ‘a brilliant philosophical critique of Richard Taylor’s argument for fatalism’, it is hard not to feel uneasy about the appearance of a work which Foster Wallace made no effort to get published during his lifetime. Though there are sound critical motives for wanting to see such a work- it would probably provide an insight into the evolution of Foster Wallace’s ideas on free will and the uses of language -it is hard to say whether these should take precedence over the author’s probable intentions. Whilst one must be glad for some refusals to follow an author’s last wishes (such as Max Brod’s unwillingness to burn Kafka’s work), in other cases it is hard not to be skeptical about a publisher’s motives for wanting to sell an obscure piece of youthful work by a recently deceased major writer.

‘A conjuror of high magic to low puns’

It’s definitely more fun to write about being an academic than to actually do academic stuff.

As proof, I cite this piece of mine in n + 1 and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.

***Thanks to The New Yorker, American Fiction Notes, The Millions,, The New York Observer and other places for linking to the piece.

Festival readings

A patas monkey

I’ll be reading on the shoulders of a few distinguished folk- first with Ron Butlin, the Edinburgh Makar, and author of The Sound of My Voice and many other acclaimed books, at Wordpower at 1pm on Thursday August 12th.

Then I’ll be reading at the Golden Hour at the Forest cafe on Wednesday 25th Wednesday 18th from 8pm. Also on the bill is AL Kennedy, whose novel Day won the Costa award, and more importantly, is amazing. As in a great book that actually deserved to win. She, like Ron, is also a wonderful reader, so this should appeal to my enemies as well as my few allies: come and see my literary ass get kicked by these people.

Burning Books

I have a piece in the latest London Review of Books. This is how it begins:

I began burning books during my third year in China. The first book I burned was called A Swedish Gospel Singer. On the cover there was a drawing of a blonde girl wearing a crucifix with her mouth wide open and musical notes floating out of it. Inside was a story, written in simple English, about a Swedish girl who loved to sing. One day, passing a church, she heard a wonderful sound. When she went in, the congregation welcomed her and asked her to join their gospel choir. Through these songs she learned about Jesus, his compassion, his sacrifice, the love he feels for all.

It was originally longer, and took in all kinds of other personal stuff, but I think they kept the core. There’s no better cure for one’s tendency to be precious than having a thousand words just cut.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

The wonderful Wyatt Mason has a review of Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky in the latest New York Review of Books. WM makes some good points about DFW’s willingness to explore the various sofas, couches, ottomans, divans, chaise lounges and footstools that constitute our mental furniture. He argues that there was nothing ‘un-edited’ about DFW’s stories and novels (if memory serves, Infinite Jest had about 500 pages cut from it). For my part, I have a copy of Lipsky’s book glaring at me right now. There is a dog on the cover. His name is Drone.

Minor update

Looks like my book, The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge, will be out in early October, at least according to Amazon. No doubt the thinking is that it will clean up at Xmas, which is of course the time of year when people are desperate to buy books about riots and ethnic tension. On Xmas day, I may recreate that scene from The Doors where Jim Morrison gives the rest of the band presents, which pleases them greatly, till they open them and find that they have each been given a copy of his book of poems. [following sentence deleted out of an attempt to preserve reasonable family relations].

Horrible news

Barry Hannah, a writer who could make a sentence twist and kick and still make sense, has died aged 67. It would be incorrect to say that his books have influenced me greatly- it is something they still, and will, continue to do. High Lonesome is as good as any place to start. I hope that some of the stories’ titles put a hook in you:

‘Ned Maxy, He watching you.’

‘Snerd and Niggero’

‘Through Sunset into the Racoon Night’

‘Taste like a sword’

‘Get some young’

He had this to say about his writing:

“There’s a ghost in every story. Something haunts the story and you’re turning those pages to find out what it is. And it better be good. I’d better be good, or just shut up.”

An old interview with Hannah, from 1993: Barry Hannah Interview with Don Swaim

Scottish Arts Council Grant

I’m pleased to say I’ve been awarded a professional development grant by the Scottish Arts Council which will help fund a trip to China in March. The purpose of the trip is to visit my old students, most of whom are either in the south east, around Guangzhou (which can be considered the new workshop of the world), in the south, in Hunan province (far poorer, more agricultural) or in the far west, in Xinjiang. I’m primarily interested in how they’ve fared in the far more open (and far more perilous) labour market that developed in the last decade. While all trained to be teachers, many have found their way into other occupations (soldier, businessman, postal worker), often in regions far from their hometowns. It is also possible that I may visit some interesting places in Xinjiang and have interesting conversations, and that these conversations, should they occur, may or may not help me understand the events of last summer and autumn.

It looks like The Tree that Bleeds will be out in the summer.

LRB archive goes to Austin


Galley for LRB contents page

Nearly 600 boxes (or 275 linear feet’s worth) of material from the 30 years of the London Review of Books has gone to the archives of the University of Texas, in Austin. The files contain correspondence (between editorial staff, contributors and readers), typescript submissions and page proofs, complete with annotations. There are also pieces (and here my heart skips a beat) that failed to make it to publication, on which are written comments such as ‘not urgent’, ‘not this week’ or worst of all, ‘Killed’. The only frustrating thing about the scans included in the article is that the annotations on the pages are (no doubt deliberately) not quite legible. More here.

The Golden Hour Book Vol. 2


Now on sale from Forest Publications, the latest volume of prose, poetry and music (it comes with a CD) from the monthly Golden Hour cabaret at the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh.

It features contributions from Andrew Philip, Alan Gillis, Robert Alan Jamieson, Kapka Kassabova and myself. Ron Butlin, Edinburgh’s current Makar, had this to say about it

‘There is genuine wit, deep feeling and real entertainment in this most enjoyable volume. Light-hearted and serious by turns, ‘The Golden Hour Book Volume II’ contains some of the best and freshest new writing I have come across for quite a while.’

You can now also buy Stolen Stories (an anthology I c0-edited) from the Forest Publications site, as well as many other fine publications.

Bridport prize shortlist


A story of mine entitled ‘The False River’ has been shortlisted for the Bridport prize.

Whilst this is all very nice, please do not confuse this with me having a) won anything or b) being in contention for anything. The Bridport ‘shortlist’ is actually about 80 people long. The real shortlist is the 13 people who are still in contention for the prize itself. Being shortlisted for the Bridport prize is one of the boxes that short story writers like to check, especially in their bios.

Willesden Herald competition


The Willesden Herald short story competition is now open, and worth entering for several reasons.

Firstly, in addition to three prize-winners, they put out an anthology that features the top 10 stories, so unlike many other competitions, there’s a chance of publication even if you’re not in the top 3 (which I wasn’t last year).

Secondly, though you have to pay to enter this year (as opposed to the previous years, when it was free), it’s only £3, far less than competitions like the Bridport prize (about which I should also like to say that no one who places highly in it seems to be ever heard from again).

Thirdly, if we have even a passing interest in having any sort of literary culture that does not revolve around celebrity-written memoir or novels, we’re going to have do some work ourselves. Which means buying literary magazines and supporting small presses, not dutifully, or because we feel we should, but because there’s a lot of good work out there which will otherwise be ignored (especially if, as Mr James Kelman said earlier this week, it falls outside the more heavily-marketed genres).

Age waters the writer down

Martin Amis, 1985

Martin Amis, 1985

I’ve never got much out of Martin Amis’ novels. They seem to want to be both ludicrous (farcical plots; characters called ‘Russia’) and very, very earnest (“She wondered where the end of the world was and what the world ended with- with mists, high barriers, or just the end of everything” Other People, p.56). The only books of his I’ve enjoyed were Experience, a memoir, and The War against Cliche, a collection of reviews and essays, most of which were impressively precise in their attention to language.

I was very snug in this opinion (fiction- no thank you; non-fiction- yes, please) until I read a number of articles in which he expressed opinions on Islam and terrorism that suggested he had lurched to the political right. In October 2006 he told the BBC that we should not feel bad about having “helped Iraq scrape a draw with Iran” in the Iran-Iraq war because a “revolutionary and rampant Iran would have been a much more destabilising presence.” Elsewhere he referred to the “extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture.”

It seemed ill-advised for him to be making high-profile pronouncements on subjects as complex as these. It recalled the rightward shift of Christopher Hitchens (who vigorously defended the Iraq war in the pages of Vanity Fair). And because these views were so in conflict with my own, I accordingly (and very conveniently) wrote him off. It was much simpler than trying to reconcile Amis-as-political-pundit with Amis-as-critic.

But this morning, as I clicked my way through today’s Guardian, I saw he had written a piece on Updike’s last book. It begins with a challenge that is hard to turn down, perfectly pitched as it is to the promise of wisdom and the reader’s ego.

The following wedge of prose has two things wrong with it: one big thing and one little thing – one infelicity and one howler. Read it with attention. If you can spot both, then you have what is called a literary ear.

… Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land.

From there it takes sentence after sentence apart, chiding them for repetition and poor word choice (I wonder if he would fail the sentence from Other People quoted above on the same grounds).  As Amis himself concedes, it is the kind of demolition that “would have gone unwritten if its subject were still alive”.

But this destruction is wreaked in the most loving, respectful fashion (for Updike’s place in Amis’ canon is almost as assured as that of Saul Bellow), as if by highlighting the flaws of this last book, he means to underscore the quality of all that came before. It is a fine review. It makes me think that his students at Manchester University are very fortunate. They cannot be complacent.

That Incredible Music Again


The New York Observer reports that there are two biographies of David Foster Wallace being offered to publishers. One is by D.T. Max (who wrote the excellent New Yorker piece) and has already sold. The other, by David Lipsky, is perhaps not quite a biography, apparently more a sketch based on a series of interviews he did for Rolling Stone in the mid-90s (which never got published).

Max’s biography is due to come out no earlier than 2011. He aims to examine the sociological factors that shaped D.F.W’s writing (this for some reason depresses me).

“The reason I wanted to go longer on him is that most writers live and die in a room writing, and Wallace definitely did that, but he also lived and died out on the street. He was in the world in a way that most writers are not. Because of his peculiar openness to the world and his peculiar kind of sensitivity, everything that happened in this country affected him and entered his fiction in a way that I don’t think is true of other writers.”

He added: “We don’t know the book where the author is a child in the ’70s … where he first becomes a writer in the Reagan era, attacking when everyone else is retreating. And where he keeps trying to produce during the profound blandness of the Clinton years. … That’s not on the bookshelf yet. Because the writers who’ve gone through this experience are just too young—they’re in mid-career; much of their work is ahead of them,” Mr. Max said. “So in the tragedy of Wallace’s early death, I see an opportunity, a chance to write down a story so recent, it’s strange.”

Much as I admired Max’s piece, I would prefer to hear more from D.F.W., rather than someone else’s take on him. Let’s hope the Lipsky book finds a home.

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