That’s Entertainment

I want to tell you about a short story, called Wireless.  It was first published in 1902, but don’t let that put you off.  The writing is fresh, and enjoyable, and I don’t think a word is wasted.

Of course, the same goes for a lot of good literary stories, so why am I advocating this one?  Because each time I read it I understand it differently. Is it science fiction, science fantasy or ghost?  I can never make my mind up.  Neither can the groups who’ve read and discussed it with me, which is why I’m suggesting you take a look at it, too.

Writing manuals will often suggest that short stories should imply more than they tell.  Easy to say, harder to describe the technique that achieves that.  Here’s a story that demonstrates one method, beautifully, largely by its use of intertextual detail.  That is, references to other arts, and artists, in this case, Keats and three pre-Raphaelite paintings.

The story belongs to a time when its audience might have been expected to know more about the life and poetry of John Keats than we do today, so if you are planning to look it up, here are a few facts to help you on your way:

  • John Keats was the eldest child of the manager of a Livery stable, and was orphaned by the age of 14.
  • He was apprenticed to an apothecary surgeon, and although he earned his licence, chose to give up that profession and become a poet.
  • He suffered from sore throats that developed into TB.
  • He was secretly engaged to Fanny Brawne.
  • He died, aged 25, in Rome on February 23 1821.

Keats poetry did not receive much notice during his life-time, but by 1902, he was considered one of the foremost English romantic poets by readers, writers, artists and teachers.  His poem, The Eve of St Agnes inspired three pre-Raphaelite artists.

Exhibited 1856.

Exhibited 1856.

The one to the left is, arguably, the most relevent to this story.  It’s by Arthur Hughes.

I bumped into an old student the other day, and the next thing she said after, hello, was, ‘I still think about Wireless.’

When someone can say that two years after they read a story it’s got to be telling us something, hasn’t it?

I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to make you wonder why I haven’t mentioned who the author of this story was.  I’ve held back deliberately, because for many of us, Rudyard Kipling has been labelled as old-fashioned, and too jingoistic for modern readers.

Well, put aside all thoughts of the Kipling you grew up with.  This is something different.  Don’t believe me?  I dare you to try it, because yes, it is available to read on-line.  Though some versions don’t include the prequel poem, KASPAR’S SONG IN ‘VARDA’, and you really do need to look at that first.

If nothing else, this story is a window into another century, and reminds us of how fantastic the early days of communication must have seemed.  In other words it does something else that many see as the role of good fiction, reflects the ideas and beliefs of its time.

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What Should We Read?

I’m often asked to recommend a good book, and the question came up again the other evening when I was invited to give a talk to the local Women’s Institute.  My answer usually depends on which hat I’m wearing. I have a variety of suggestions for creative reading and writing groups, but in those cases, I look for texts that work on more than one level.  They should entertain, but also have enough going on with content and or style to provide discussion material.

Since my chat with the WI I’ve been thinking about how recreational reading works. A good book-group can provide added insight into a story, long or short.  Each of us bring our unique life-experiences and history to what we read, and sharing those ideas with other people can help us to see a story in a different way, but I’m not trying to promote book-groups here, that can wait for another blog. This post is about the reading we do on our own.

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I think of my reading as a pleasure, but that enjoyment extends to all words, so if, by some anomaly, I’m in a situation where I’ve not got a book close to hand, I’ll pick up the nearest text and read that.  I’ve gleaned a lot of information that way, over the years, though if I add up all the breakfasts spent reading a cereal box, I’ve probably also wasted a lot of hours.  Less said about that the better, I suppose.

The consequence is that I’m a bit of a genre-magpie, dipping into any text that comes my way.  I may not keep up to date with all the novels – is that even possible these days?  And no, I’ve not yet tried 50 Shades, or the Twilight Saga, but I’m not ruling them out.  I may need to read them for work; I might be given a copy, or hear something intriguing about the writing.  I only got round to the Millenium Trilogy last year.

What bothers me about my title question is the SHOULD.  When I was growing up (in the 60s and 70s) my brothers and I were allowed one comic each per week, partly due to costs, but also because our parents thought we should spend more time reading proper books.  Which was fine by me, but not my one brother.  Beano or Dandy were the only fiction he willingly read outside of the school syllabus.  So while I had my nose in a book, he was exploring other hobbies.  These days he does read for pleasure, though not fiction.  He prefers tales of true-life adventure, and cartoons, of course.

And thankfully, alongside the rise of Manga, and graphic novels, those old ideas about the worthiness of comics have been overturned. Anything that encourages a child to read must be good, mustn’t it?  Besides, they may have been simple, and little short on lessons in grammar, but the clue about comics is in the name, isn’t it?

Surely, the first thing any reader should expect from a text is entertainment.  It doesn’t have to be humour, though in my experience the best classics are layered with irony, but that’s a personal preference, and what might raise a smile for me could leave you cold, or even insulted.  That, I would argue is where discussion comes into its own and why I’m once again veering off towards bookgroups when I’m trying to think about the experience of reading individually.

Reading is such a personal activity, and therefore individual, that I hesitated to suggest an individual title we should read.  Instead, my answer to that question the other night was that it might be worth us all occasionally trying a type of book that we would not usually attempt.  If you read romance, try a thriller; if you read historical, try some science-fiction; or swop long fiction for short or vice-versa.

You may think that I dodged the question, but what would you have said?

 

*Illustration, Alberto Manrique print.

Reading as a Writer: The Queen’s Gambit

I’ve just been reading The Queen’s Gambit*, by Elizabeth Fremantle.  I volunteered to review it for the bookselling site, Lovereading.co.uk.

 I’m posting the review I’ve sent them here, but with a few additional thoughts I had on reading it as a writer.

I like historical fiction.  When it’s done well it is armchair time-travel.  This one is well thought out and nicely written.   The opening hooked me straight onto Katherine Parr, the main character.  The prologue shows her caring for her dying second husband, John Neville, Lord Latymer, who describes her as, ‘his dear, dear Kit.’  We see that she is thoughtful, practical, caring and clever and that he loves and trusts her.  I trust her.  She is not a great beauty, he tells us, but she has charisma.  It is this charisma that drives the main strand of the story, because here is a Katherine Parr who can be asked to cross unspeakable boundaries, if circumstances demand.  Who knows what else a woman will do, if she’ll risk her eternal soul to save a loved one from suffering…   

The novel’s secondary character is not King Henry VIII, but Katherine’s servant girl, Dot.  Here is an equally rounded character, slightly scatty, but caring and curious.  While Katherine is progressing along her political road, Dot is learning.  Her questions and curiosity allow Fremantle to provide a broader picture of Tudor life and expectations. There is no need to pause for explanations; Dot’s journey illuminates the period.  She watches, listens, questions and learns, and has her own romance to pursue.

This is not a heavy novel.  It only spans six years of Katherine and Dot’s lives, but in that time, both are drawn into the dangerous religious and political intrigues of Henry’s court. Through their extraordinary stories Freemantle provides an accessible and vivid picture of women’s lives in Tudor England. 

How can you put your reader on the edge of their seat when writing a fiction based on a historical figure?  I suspect that most readers will know how the marriage of Henry and Katherine came to an end.  Even if they have not seen one of the many celluloid, ‘Lives of Henry VIII’, then the old, ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, alive’ rhyme is probably jingling along at the back of their minds as they turn the pages.

Fremantle’s solution is to give us access to Katherine’s thoughts, memories and feelings, so we can see her tensions.  Katherine is no longer a middle-aged and plain woman who was good at ducking domestic missiles when Henry’s gout was bad.  (Oops, wasn’t that from a Carry-on film?) Instead we have a woman who is sexual attracted to one man, but forced to marry another, and that man is notorious for the way he has disposed of four of his previous five wives.  Our sympathies are engaged, our curiosity is raised, how did she do it? Why? What would that have been like?

For suspense, we have Dot, faithful to the point of reckless, and Huicke, royal physician, whose homosexuality puts him at risk.   

Dot is particularly interesting, because she is the character who grows in this story.  Dot is a servant, and therefore trained to serve invisibly: she should be neither seen nor heard, we are reminded several times.  Well, that’s not so in Katherine’s household.  When Dot enters the story, in the prologue, she is apparently a secondary character, almost invisible to us, the reader, too.  But she is in Katherine’s thoughts when the chapter ends.

So what? You may say. 

I say, if beginnings need a good hook, endings require bigger ones on the same fishing line.  Chapters don’t just fade away, they generally leave us with a question designed to maintain our attention. Sometimes it is a cliff-hanger, ‘what next?’ often it’s a, ‘why, how, where or who?’  

So when Chapter 1 ends with the suggestion that the daughter of the house thinks of her servant as a sister, I wonder, Why? and turn to the next chapter.

And there is Dot, asking questions, not only for herself, but us too.  Like the side-kick in a detective duo, her purpose is to allow Fremantle to draw our attention to significant details.  But more than that, the areas of Dot’s ignorance are as revealing as the answers she is given.  She is a historical reference point.  Education, we are shown, is available only to certain people at this time.  Dot embodies the expectations and experiences the serving classes might expect, whether by acquiescing to them or defying them.     

But Dot’s other big function in the story is that she is not a major figure in history.  When the scandals and intrigues hot up, and Dot is drawn into the centre of them, we have no idea whether she will survive them, let alone how.  It is Dot who carries the real tension of the story.  While we may hope that our author will not kill off a major character, we cannot feel confident.  After all, Dot is a servant, she is expendable.  So if Dot has developed into a character we can care about, and has been drawn into perilous situations, then the author has us on the edge of our seats despite what we know about Katherine.      

  *The Queen’s Gambit is published in early March 2013

From Melvin Bragg’s, ‘The Value of Culture’

Did you catch Melvin Bragg’s radio 4 series last week?  I missed a little, but will definitely be catching the whole thing again one way or another.

One quote in particular stands out for me, and I thought I’d post it here.  I’ve also jotted it down in my diary.

David Puttnam:

‘Mozart, Dickens, Shakespeare, were entertainers.’

Obvious?  Not always.  Sometimes we are too busy seeing their genius to remember that they wrote not for academics, but us, the general public.  David Puttnam went on to suggest that the majority of the audiences for Dickens and Shakespeare may have been illiterate.

There’s something to keep-in-mind when we’re writing and editing.