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February 2008

Better than Googling, any day

One of the odd things about being a writer is that you are, in a tiny sense, a public entity. This might sound ridiculous in a culture which has replaced gossiping about the neighbours - because we don't know them any more - with gossiping about Big Brother. And no time soon are you going to be mobbed by paparazzi, or have your bins rifled by the gutter press for receipts for things the government shouldn't have paid for, or know that every bullet the Taliban own will be aimed at your platoon now the world knows you're in Helmand.... Read more →


Bodies crying out

My new novel arrived today. It fell in a lump into my mental lap, rather as I imagine telepathy would happen if it did, just as I was scooting round a particularly tricky little pair of mini-roundabouts by Brockley Station. (My fellow south east Londoners know exactly where I mean.) I was on my way to Goldsmiths to lead a seminar, and my students were very tolerant of how long it took me to wrench my mind away from the new novel towards John Donne and Allen Ginsburg. Of course it's not really a hand-me-down from the Muse, though I... Read more →


Saving sanity and ignoring Caliban

Anyone who frequents writers' online forums know that the way they work varies widely, from relaxed gossip, rigorous critiquing, swapping information, answering cries for help on 12th century journey times and 21st century divorce laws, celebrating success and supporting disappointments, to sophisticated arguments about voice, structure, narrative technique, characterisation or the possibilities of second-person narrative. One member - let's call her Calliope - of a big site which encompasses all these elements, received a private mail from the resident nasty piece of work - let's call him Caliban - bemoaning the fact that the site was no longer sufficiently 'serious',... Read more →


A Great Cathedral

In response to Tim Lott's lament in The Guardian that heterosexual love stories are no longer considered a properly literary and sufficiently substantial subject for a novel, even though they power much (most?) of the great fiction of the past, Susan Hill argues that our ordinary love lives are too prosaic, that these days writing about great love can't be done in a world with easy and blame-free divorce, and that it has to include writing about sex, which is impossible to do well. As a result, she says, we cannot write the sweeping narratives, the high drama and heartbreak... Read more →


Not just singing into the wind

In reply to a comment, on the Writer's Workshop blog Toasting Napoleon, Harry Bingham talks about how the financial insecurity of being a writer can make one seem obsessed with money. Having just had a particularly acute cashflow crisis myself, I know exactly what he means. And yet there are thousands of ways of earning a living that are more secure, and usually more lucrative. Clearly we don't do it for the money in the accepted sense, nor do we have the relative security of equally low-paid but enjoyable/interesting employment, so why do we persist? If the poets and UK... Read more →


Polishing fractals

I heard Richard Sennett talking on Front Row about his book The Craftsman, and rejoiced (even as my feminism was annoyed by the title, though it's hard to think of an alternative). I confess I haven't read it yet, but he was so cogent in the interview that it's now high on my must-read list. The point he's making is that what we think of as 'craft' - an old-fashioned virtue suitable for gnarled old blacksmiths and batty amateurs with time on their hands - should actually be seen as a thoroughly modern skill-set for modern life at work and... Read more →


Not Valentine's Day

I hate Valentine's Day. I think there are about three years in your life when it's wonderful, and the other eighty-seven are varying kinds of horrid. But it's hard to avoid all the theme-ery that goes on everywhere else, and it's got me thinking about romantic love in fiction. I'd be willing to bet that it powers more novels than any other human emotion. Even LeCarr√© is always, fundamentally, about love betrayed. But as in so many other novels/movies/songs the actual substance of the emotion is taken for granted: the story is about what love (or lack of it) makes... Read more →


Looking for the hammer marks

So if there's a difference between scientific truth and artistic truth, I was thinking yesterday, gazing out over an audience which included three Fellows of the Royal Society, is there also a difference between scientific (one might more broadly say 'academic') creativity and artistic creativity? No one who's read any good popular science, or something like Simon Singh's extraordinarily lucid account of the detective story that led to the proving of Fermat's Last Theorem, could doubt that creative thought - inspiration, if you like - is very much part of what makes science happen. (Perspiration too, of course, but then... Read more →


The golden sovereign

I've been delighted by an exasperated quotation from the poet Frances Cornford, describing her family's habit of discussing everything, even personal matters, in 'a thoroughly weighing Darwinian manner' which the family always assumed would, as the artist Gwen Raverat's biographer Frances Spalding puts it, 'inevitably arrive at an authoritative truth.' 'But the truth of art isn't the same kind of truth, as Gwen and Frances knew better than most,' I found myself writing. 'And there's always a risk that one's more a-rational, intuitive, un-logical creative processes are broken on the wheel of rational analysis and ruthlessly reasonable thought.' And then,... Read more →


Jumping the gap

I was startled, and slightly dismayed, to see that my normal 'Hm, must be about time for another blog post' reflex hasn't kicked in on time: it's been a longer gap since my last than I meant. Normally another idea starts to knock on the door quite soon, sparked by something that happens, someone else's blog, some conversation I've had. Maybe it was partly absorbed by putting some thoughts together on internet reviewing for Vulpes Libris. Maybe it was the fact that Wednesday evening, when it was already rather overdue, was very nicely taken up with a writing friend and... Read more →


The slippery beast

The latest post on the Macmillan New Writers group blog is an interesting rumination among those interesting authors about whether or not they think of themselves as writing in a particular genre. The responses, as you might imagine, vary. The difficulty is that the term 'genre' is a slippery beast at the best of times, being used in lots of different senses in many different contexts. Genre as plot-style. As in romance (will they live happily ever after?), detective (will they find the murderer?), thriller (will they save the world?), adventure (will they come out alive?). This seems to be... Read more →