The Phantom of Constancy

June 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

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My piece for Open Letters Monthly on the (almost) lost novel of Zdanevich who worked with Picasso, Miro Ernst and Giacometti et al, and in the mid 1970s could still be seen wandering round Paris’s Latin Quarter wearing a sheepskin coat, herding a flock of cats before him.

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On teaching writing

May 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

I’ve been working as a Royal Literary Fellow at Newcastle University for the last year, a job that involves me helping students improve their academic writing. Mainly this happens through one to one sessions in which the student and I talk about their work, usually with reference to a specific piece they’re working on. The following is a short piece on what that experience has been like for me.

This is a strange job. I work amongst academics, but am not an academic. There are superficial similarities between what we do — we sit in our offices and talk to students — but I’m not sure we have the same goals. Whereas they try to convey information to the students, my role feels more diagnostic. The students who visit me know that they, or rather their work, is unwell in some fashion, but can’t see (or at least articulate) what the problem is.

The true cause of this sickness is impossible to discern. Laziness, the education system, their parents, the decline of community libraries, the Internet, the thrill of text messaging, the fact that television has never, ever been as good as it is now: take your pick. But perhaps the aetiology is immaterial. Treatment is all that matters.

I suspect that many of the students want some easy to swallow pill that will make them all better after 7 days. Telling them to search their essays for phrases like ‘This emphasies’ and words like ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’ will provide minor relief – and maybe reduce irritation – but it will not cure their writing of its maladies. What I recommend is more akin to physiotherapy. They need to assume new habits that may seem dull, uncomfortable and pointless and don’t appear to be doing anything useful even after six bloody weeks. They need to print out their work and slowly read through it in a quiet room. They need to read more. They need to read better.

Even if they suffer this regime of treatment there are no guarantees. Having excellent skin is no indicator of one’s internal health. Simplistic, naïve ideas can be well-expressed. And one can be many wonderful things in life without being able to write well. It’s entirely understandable if people have other priorities. There are other kinds of health.

I’m sure many doctors doubt their choice of vocation. People smoke and eat rubbish food and try to meld with their couch and then complain they are unwell. But I don’t blame the students for their problems. In some ways it’s surprising that they’re not much worse: it seems to me that often they are required to do things they haven’t been shown how to do.

I sometimes find it difficult to accept that a student’s prognosis depends almost entirely on them, how much they want to improve, how much their circumstances allow them to. I can reassure them, I can listen, but I cannot transport them to some sanatorium cum library on a Swiss mountain.

But it strikes me that perhaps this illness metaphor misses the point. To speak of recovery assumes they have fallen from some state of perfect health in which no comma was ever misplaced. They aren’t trying to get well. They, like the rest of us, are only trying to learn.

New Traffic Patterns May Emerge

April 21, 2017 § Leave a comment

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My story from Short Fiction 10 is now online.

TLS review of ‘Uyghur Nation’

April 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

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I wrote a piece on David Brophy’s remarkable book for the Times Literary Supplement.

An almost-equally burning question

April 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

This time: How I write.

The smell of death

March 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

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In today’s Guardian I wander round various lesser-known Chinese cities and talk to people about what it’s like to live and work in such fast expanding places. I am also asked to sample the smell of death.

The same thing, on a larger scale, is the subject of my next book, Chasing the Chinese Dream, out in September from IB Tauris.

The Burning Question

March 3, 2017 § Leave a comment

In which I answer the burning question of WHY I WRITE. Warning: this contains my actual voice. https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/nick-holdstock-wiw/

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