At The Cheltenham Booker (1915) panel event

So the weather was good, and that always helps, even if you’re seated in a blacked-out marquee, because when you’ve walked past families settled on the grass, or students gathering at the promotional tents, and the rest of us are milling between those seven other possible gathering points that have been fitted into the grassy square, well it could have got messy.

cartoon books 001But we had sunshine slanting across the autumnal leaves that line the main route into Cheltenham, so there was a lot of cheerful chattering as people compared notes and ‘book bags’.  I was in literary mode well before I found my seat.

I was early.  There was time to settle down and take a good look about.  A woman squeezed past to take the seat on my left.  ‘How many have you read?’ she said.  ‘We’ve done them all.  I passed them to my husband as I finished each one, and then we discussed them.’

‘Which one would you like to win?’ I asked.

‘Somerset Maugham,’ she said.  ‘Isn’t he marvelous?’

And that’s how it seems to be at the literature festival, people are ready to talk book at the drop of a smile.

The audience was divided, evenly at the first straw-pole, between the five novels that had been chosen as ManBooker contestents.  It was an eclectic selection: The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan), The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford), Of Human Bondage (Somerset Maugham), Psmith, Journalist (P. G. Wodehouse) and The Voyage Out (Virginia Woolf).

The panellists, Victoria Glendinning, Andrew Lownie, Selina Hastings, Alan Judd and Robert McCrum championed a novel each.  If you’ve ever wondered about one of the most often repeated pieces of advice given to would-be writers that they should read, lots, events like this demonstrate what it’s about.

cartoon reader 001After writers have read for pleasure, they go back and think about how the story got written.  So, that’s what we heard, writers thinking aloud about the nuts and bolts of creation, assessing not just the literary merits, but also the creative skills.

Chairman, James Walton was not impartial.  He anticipated which of the novels would fall at the first and second hurdles as he pushed for a decision on the titles that could be quickly discarded.  But, he pointed out, half of his job was time-keeper.  This panel could not luxuriate in arguments about what was clearly lesser literature.  The winner would be decided within an hour.

Was this a fair collection of titles?  How come Joseph Conrad’s, Victory, or The Rainbow, by D. H. Lawrence weren’t included?  I’d wondered about how this list had been put together when I booked the ticket.

It was only after the event that I realized how artful the compilers had been.  What we had were titles to appeal to all sorts of readers – adventure, comedy, social issues, female writing and a mystery.  Many had, like my neighbour, read all of them for the first time in preparation for this event.  Some were going home to read one or two again, some to try them for the first time.cartoon rusty 001

What the panel had done, was to rouse our curiosity.  As we filed out, all round I heard people discussing those five, 1915 novels.  Is it me, or isn’t the idea that something published one hundred years ago can still grip us, wonderful and somehow reassuring?

I’d like to recommend, Rumer Godden

I chose this novel because it was slim, and bright yellow, not because I recognised the author.  I wanted something on a completely different track to the local author’s we’d been studying in the reading group.  Good as they were, I would need something different to unwind with.  Breakfast with the Nickolides looked exotic. breakfast-with-the-nikolides

I didn’t read the blurb on the back.  At some point I’d put this on my shelf, therefore, someone or something had suggested that it was worth reading.

It is.  Godden was a stylist.  Her writing, apparently simple and straightforward, is deftly organized.  Here’s the opening scene:

It was in the little agricultural town of Amorra, East Bengal, India.

In the night Emily Pool’s small black spaniel, Don, slipped down the stairs.  He ran into the garden and out through the gate into the College grounds where the lawns lay smoothly between the buildings and the trees and ended in grass beside the tank.  He ran with curious intentness, his head down, his wide ears brushing either side of his hot serious face, and very soon his ears were soaked with dew and stuck with twigs and ends of grass.

He was hot.  He lay down and panted; but in a moment, pricked with some intense discomfort, he was up to run again, round and round without any point or reason.  There was nothing he wanted, but he could not be still, he could not feel or behave like himself at all.

How easily my eye slipped down the page, the images building in my imagination.  The location is set in a sentence, but what is the significance of Emily Pool’s black spaniel?  Who is Emily Pool, and since we have her full name, why no description?  Why is the first short chapter (a bare page and a half long) focused on her dog, Don, and his odd behaviour?

In chapter two we get the first of the human characters introduced smoothly, with just enough back-story to give context.  Charles Pool, the man who set up the Government Farm at Amorra, with ‘its colonnaded buildings, it’s straight well-sanded roads with railings that led through model fields’, has a mission to modernize the traditional agriculture of India.  It’s through his achievements that we see countryside and its people as well as himself and his lifestyle.

Only Charles Pool knew how big it really was; he knew exactly, because he had made it.  He had pushed it out and across the plain, patch after patch, crop after crop; and it had not been easy…in eight years the Farm had become an Industrial and Research Centre, with an annual exhibition; it had a Stud Farm and a Veterinary Research Anex…and three hundred students who came from all parts of the province to study livestock, crop-husbandry, bacteriology, agricultural botany, mycology and entomology.

The essence of normality is conveyed even as the plot shifts forward, and we, and his neighbours discover that Charles has a secret.

One morning Charles went down to the jetty to meet the steamer; and on the steamer was his wife, and not only his wife – there were two children of perhaps eleven and eight.

This is the point where the careful process of revelations begin.

Where had this family come from?  It appeared that they had been driven out of Paris by the war, and escaped by Lisbon to the Canaries, where they had taken a ship round the Cape to Colombo, and another from Colombo to Calcutta

So that’s one question answered, but perhaps it’s not the whole explanation for where this family came from.  It leaves us with more questions, such as, ‘What were they doing there?’ and, ‘Why have they come back after eight years without Charles mentioning them?’

Mysteries, the small, domestic intricacies of marriage, the cultural chasms of that time and place, are revealed slowly, one layer at a time.  Don’t expect a comfortable read.  This is a novel of subtleties.  Godden didn’t take any easy ways out with this story, though there were plenty of opportunities when she could have.

There is violence at the heart of the story, but it’s implied, and arguably the more powerful for that.  This is an understated novel.  At one point, as I was reading it, I found myself wondering if it couldn’t have been reduced to a short story.  Only in the hours after I’d finished reading, when my subconscious was still processing the implications, did I realize that it could only have been a novel.  Changing one word might have spoiled the carefully drawn and balanced parallels.

This, I think, is writing to aspire to.




The nature of plot

Perhaps it’s because we’re now past the halfway point in our reading of Anna Karenina (from this point on, to be referred to as AK) that my thoughts are turning to plotting again.  I’m re-discovering how impressive the design of this novel is.

To say design makes it sound like Tolstoy had some kind of plan to work to.  Ah, yes, the D word, the secret formula.  It’s one of those things that block so many would-be writers from starting out.


We have an idea for a story, but are not sure how to manage or shape it.  That formula, the one that successful writers use, and seem to hint at, but never quite explain, that’s what we’re after. If we can once discover the trick, then we know that we too can begin to tell our stories.

Apparently, Tolstoy took his inspiration from the tragic death of a neighbour’s mistress.  That and reading some Pushkin.  A week later he was writing to tell his friend that the novel was finished.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what would come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it, then of course, altered it, and suddenly it came together so neatly and nicely that there emerged a novel, which I have today finished in rough, a very lively, ardent and finished novel, with which I am very pleased and which will be ready, if God grants me health, in two weeks.

Now before you accuse me of a typo, Tolstoy really did claim to have written a novel in a week.  You’re jealous, aren’t you?  That is a phenomenal achievement.  Actually, it wasn’t AK as we know it, and he never sent the letter.  Instead Tolstoy got stuck into reworking his material.

We might more accurately call his novel at this point a rough draft.  Some of the events he described were subsequently included in the final draft of AK, but the characters were re-named and transformed as Tolstoy developed his ideas.  Now, if we’re looking for direction in our own creative writing surely that flexibility is a lesson to think about.

There was a plan.  You can read accounts of it in various academic books and essays.  Just note that he didn’t stick to it.  If he had, I’m not sure we would be studying his novel today.

Tolstoy made major changes to the central characters which affected their motivations and actions.  He introduced new characters and changed the narrator’s tone.  He expanded his original plot out.  He didn’t just write onwards, when he realised that he was telling too much back-story, he re-set his beginning to an earlier date.  The story evolved.

There is evidence from Tolstoy, his wife and his friends, that a great deal of thought and planning went into developing these ideas.  He talked a great deal about ‘linkage’, and themes and symbols.  It seems he envisaged the patterns he would create with his forty two named characters.

Around the time he was writing AK he abandoned an old project to write about Peter the Great.  He couldn’t seem to get started on it.

Funny that, sounds familiar, and perhaps a little reassuring to find that one of the great novelists was also floundering around with an idea.  Go back up this essay a little and look again at how Tolstoy came to start writing AK.  It wasn’t just an idea, he’d been reading Pushkin.  A fragment beginning, “The guests were gathering at the dacha,” was the inspiration.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what could come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it…

Two things I take from this.  First, writers read, and are influenced by other writers, and that’s a good thing.

Second, don’t wait.  Trust your subconscious.  Let your material direct you.  Worry about sorting the technical bits out later.

Which Shelf?

It was only after I’d checked the general novels and then the classics shelves that I thought of looking in the children’s books section.  Sure enough, there was T.H. White’s, ‘The Once and Future King’.  Perhaps this doesn’t surprise you, especially given the illustrations the publisher has used for the new cover.  51jAaoccw9L._SL190_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA190_Besides, ‘child’ covers a lot of time, anything up to…to…actually, now I come to think about it, I’ve no idea about this.  Looking back at my own history, I think my reading extended into the adult section somewhere around the time I started secondary school.  I wouldn’t like to pin that down specifically, mind, because for a long while I alternated, continuing with the children’s section for at least as long as I was in school.

I wasn’t just returning to the books I’d loved for years, the Famous Fives, school girl mysteries and the teenage ghost and horror collections etcetera.  I read contemporary writing for children too.  Sometimes these were recommendations, often they were random choices.  Which means, I suppose, that the covers attracted me.

Books, especially those chosen or read in public, are status symbols.  If you think that might only be true for children, and you’ve left that behind, let me ask what you would be willing to be seen reading on the bus or train?  Isn’t there a genre, or certain publishing house that you would not dream of being associated with?  What we carry brands us as directly as the way we dress.

Rumour has it that the popularity of kindle is partly based on it’s ability to disguise the genre being consumed.  There are some who claim that the rise in popularity of erotic fiction has only occurred because it can be read covertly.  I don’t know how true that is.

I do know that a lot of people are discussing the Fifty Shades sequence of novels, in public, but perhaps that’s just because of the publicity that surrounds it.  I hear a lot of, ‘Have you read it?’ ‘What do you think about the writing?’  (This can’t be the only book where a justification usually follows the admission, ‘Yes, I have..’ can it?)  I don’t hear many of those people admitting to reading other similar titles.

I also know that we only had one copy of ‘Fifty Shades’ donated to the bookstall at the local fete this year.  The first year any have turned up.

But I want to get back to T.H. White.  I think I was in my late teens when I first read The Once and Future King.  I still have that copy, though it’s now held together with an elastic band. Fontana imprintThis, I think is a book that I could have been seen carrying in public at any age.

I would also like to add that it’s a cover that more accurately conveys the content of the book.  I know it’s taken me a long time to get here, but this is my real question about this book, ‘Did the person who decided on the illustration actually read the book, the whole book?’

Here’s the opening:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.  The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles.  She did not rap Kay’s knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate.  The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name.

Clearly, at this point, the main protagonist is a child.  I agree that if you ignore the academic references (can you?) it might be possible to assume the intended readers are children.  After all, there are plenty of younger reads that are meant to be enjoyed on another level by the adult who reads aloud.  I’m not convinced this is that kind of book.

The thing is, ‘The Once and Future King’ is composed of four, arguably five books, depending on which version you read. While the cover at the top of this page could apply to book 1, The Sword in The Stone, by book 2, The Queen of Air and Darkness, Arthur is a man.  There are still children at the centre of the story, there is still magic imbedded in the plot, but the story moves into adult territory.  While not graphic, there are seductions, rape, betrayals and battles.  This is, after all, based on the Arthur myths.

Now I’m not saying the book is unsuitable for children.  I haven’t attempted to define what age group childhood covers, let alone what material they should or should not read.

I’m thinking here about teenage, because that, at least, can be accurately summed up as thirteen to nineteen.  What concerns me with the issue in my top illustration, is that it limits this book.  I’m not sure how many older teenagers would be comfortable to be seen reading this copy, let alone adults.  Which is a shame, because T.H. White did not write these books for children, any more than Charlotte Bronte did with Jane Eyre, or Charles Dickens with Great Expectations or Nicholas Nickleby.

Here is the original cover for the collected novels, as it was published in 1958.  I ask you, which cover do you prefer?

Once_future_king_coverIncidentally, in the same shop, The Dark Materials trilogy and all of the Harry Potter novels were shelved amongst the ‘adult’ A – Z of authors.

Changing Stories

So, earlier this week I was trawling around on You-Tube, and yes, that was meant to be writing time.  A friend had sent me a great link to five men playing a piano, and after that I got a bit carried away, but it all worked out in the end, because I found this:

I hope you’ve played and enjoyed the clip.  I loved it so much I’ve replayed it to myself several times since, besides insisting that the family and a couple of visitors share it too.

Now I have to put my hand up here and say that Wuthering Heights may well be my all time favourite book, and Kate Bush’s homage, is one of my favourite tributes to it. However, that doesn’t mean I love every spin-off from the story.

How many have there been?  More than I could list here, even if I wanted to.  Check out Wikipedia, if you want to see a few of the art-forms that reference it, but don’t imagine you’re seeing a definitive mapping of work that was inspired by the story. Not included are the authors who’ve tried to emulate Emily Bronte’s masterpiece more directly with varying degrees of subtlety and success, perhaps the best known of those was Mary Webb, with her novels, Precious Bane, and Gone to Earth, and the wonderful Stella Gibbons, in Cold Comfort Farm.

More recently, there have been ‘mash-up’ rewrites of the novel published.  For those of you who haven’t met this phenomenon before, a ‘mash-up’ is the literary equivalent of fusion cooking (the combining of elements from different culinary traditions).  The usual combination is to take a well known classic novel and add elements of horror into it. So, alongside the other well known titles that have been hybridized, you can now buy versions of Wuthering Heights that include vampires, werewolves and zombies, as if it weren’t Gothic enough already.

At the other end of that rewrite scale is the abridgement.  Yes, someone has decided to produce a version of Wuthering Heights that is considered suitable for children.  I admit I’ve only read one page of one abridgement, but I think I said enough about my feelings on simplifying classics in my earlier discussion about Alice in Wonderland.  So I’ll cut this line of thought here and go back to where I started, with that re-worked Kate Bush song.

You’ll remember that I implied that finding it had seemed to me to justify my surfing through songs instead of writing.  I’ll admit that I was already in prevarication mode, having run out of steam with two stories I’ve got half written, and with my mind already on what I was going to blog about this week.

Well I don’t know what happened to you when the song started going, but for me it was as if a veil lifted.  Kate Bush transposed the book into music beautifully, capturing the gothic, mystical elements with her eerie, lyrical rendition, and fixing a good sized segment of the British population into her mode of music for life, it seems.  Did any of us ever imagine a cover version could do more than palely imitate her?

Isn’t this what Aristotle was getting at when he said that there were only seven plots?  Because even though the names and setting remain true, and even rely upon our knowledge of the original, here the change of tempo affects everything, tone, intention, and mood.

Wuthering Heights has been transformed into a different story, something that is modern, despite its rhythm coming from the jazz age.  This is story as it links back to the oral tradition, something that the tellers adapted to suit their audience, and as I watch and listen, I’m thinking of the story I’m trying to write at the moment, and this song infects me with a fresh surge of inspiration.

I don’t feel any less affection for Wuthering Heights, its various textual hybrids or the original song because of this new version.  If anything, my enjoyment of the originals increases, but I have now to add The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain’s interpretation of the story to my list of great adaptations.

Contents, Covers & Judgements

Nevil ShuteThe other day I received an email survey about book covers.  A publisher, trying to discover what makes me want to buy a book put together some images and a few tick-boxes.

There were attractive pictures, plain covers, abstract designs, portraits of the author…need I say more?  All I had to do was indicate which I thought was most appealing.

Really, that’s all?  But how do I do that honestly?  Is the cover the thing that draws us in?

When I scan a row of bookshelves I’m reading the spines, and I think I’m mostly concentrating on the authors.  But that’s because I tend to look out for books I’ve heard of or read about, so I’m not really browsing, so much as seeking.

Fine, but what about the times when I’ve no specific title or writer in mind and find myself, with time to spare, at the book-shop?

Faced with a room’s length of floor to ceiling bookshelves I do not really ‘read the spines’, so what do I do when I scan?  I take in colours, font shapes and, let’s be honest, publisher.  Yes, there are imprints that tend to be more likely to produce the style of fiction I like, and I gravitate first to their logos, even though I know that by dismissing the rest I’m likely to miss something worthwhile.

I’ve certainly passed by A Town Like Alice often enough.  I did read it, years ago, and thought I’d remembered the gist of it, until came my way again this week.

‘I thought you might like these,’ said my mother, passing me four old paperbacks historical accuracypublished in the 1960s.  They were soft with age.  Their browned pages and worn covers carried the kind of stains that came from getting read in the bath, on the bus, or in the canteen at lunch-hour.  They were the kinds of books whose fates I wonder about when I give them to charity shops.  You just don’t see them on the shelves any more.

Presumably, that’s because we won’t buy them.  I’m as guilty as the next person.  What is it about old books that puts us off?  Personally, it’s not hygiene.  I’ve never heard of anyone catching diseases from books, but I’m willing to learn if anyone else has.  pan book

It’s not the cover design either.  I’m sorry, but I don’t see much difference between the four here and the selection I was asked to decide between earlier this week, except of course, they were shinier.  The thing is, three of these copies have been re-released in the past few years.  They contain the same text, but the covers are all different.

I now have three copies of Tom Jones, one of which is a hardback which has lost its dust-jacket, the other two each have very different cover illustrations.  I bought them because I wanted the content, not because there was a picture of a gartered leg, or a rather attractive young Albert Finney.

I do pick up interesting book covers, but then I read a little, from the beginning or middle of the text.  Only if I like that, do I buy.  In my experience, the illustrations chosen all too often bear little relevance to the writing.  Besides, I much prefer to picture things in my own way.

old favouritesSo I’m wondering how publishers measure their survey answers.  Presumably they see some benefit, since I get one every two months or so.  I can’t be the only respondent who ticks as a fantasy reader, just because I’m going in a draw to win some book tokens, can I?

When is a classic not a classic? "Photo" “Photo Copyright”

I came across a copy of Alice in Wonderland the other day, published by Ladybird.  It is from a range of imprints called, Children’s Classics.  But, it’s not writen by Lewis Carroll, it’s retold by Joan Collins.  ‘Why?’ I wondered, and then, ‘Can this really be necessary?’

I first read the Lewis Carroll story when I was quite young, and loved it.  I don’t remember it as a difficult read. It was funny, in a way I had never come across before.  I was fascinated by the puns, the word games and the ideas.

Looking back, I see this as a moment of revelation.  Here was not realism, it was not adventure, or fairy-tale, it was something unlike any other book I had been offered.  Wonderland really did sum it up.  But that was a few decades ago, and it’s been a while since I last read it.  Perhaps, I thought, the writing does look dated now.

I fetched my dog-eared copy off the shelf.  First published 1865, so it is a little older than I had assumed.   Here is Lewis Carroll’s opening:

‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do.  Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Surely, I thought, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Actually, I would be happy to offer it as an example of a good story opening.  It creates setting, tone and provides an inciting incident and perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I cannot find a superfluous word.

I opened the Joan Collins re-telling:

‘Alice was tired of sitting by her sister on the grassy bank, and having nothing to do. Her sister was reading a book with no pictures or conversations in it. It looked very dull.’

I read on for a couple more pages, but gave up.  This story certainly did look very dull, despite the pictures.  What had happened to the vivid language?  Where were the colourful characters?  Several of them had actually disappeared – no more Dodo, Lory or Eaglet, only ‘a strange collection of birds and animals’.   This was not the charming fantasy that I remembered, it was little more than a series of linked scenes. The whimsical humour of the story had been cut away.  Incidents have been erased or condenced down to a sentence, and carefully constructed jokes reduced to one liners.

I thought about how often I have pre-judged a peice of writing because of the distance since it was written.  Sometimes, when I open that book I am proved right.  Lorna Doone, which I love, is mostly written in a dense style that can make it hard going at times, but the thing is, it’s worth being patient with.  The language is a part of what creates the world of story, and I wouldn’t loose a word of it.

So I answered my original ‘Why?’ with another question, ‘If I had read a re-telling of ‘a classic’, would it have interested me enough so that I would seek out the original?’  Which led me to wonder who this version is aimed at.  Children do not all progress at the same level, or have the same interests, but surely the way to enthuse them about reading is to provide them with good fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to advocate a purist approach to literature.  I have not forgotten Aristotle’s seven plots, and Shakespeare forbid that I should knock any writer taking inspiration from another text.  But this is not another author putting their imagination into an idea, and giving it a new spin.  It’s not a translation or adaptation either.  I’m struggling to see this as anything other than a reduction.

Here’s the question I want to answer, ‘Is this the standard of writing that we want children to learn from, and therefore grow up expecting from fiction?

Reading Authors.

I’m just working on the research I need to do for my Anna Karenina reading group in a couple of weeks time.  Once again, I am struck by the amount of studying the great writers do.  Where does this idea that writing cannot be taught come from?

It was the same last year, when we read Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  Alongside our enjoyment of a rollicking good tale, we began to build up a phenomenal list of texts referenced by the narrator and characters in the story, and also quite a bit of story-theory being discussed along the way.

So, here I am looking at a chronology for Tolstoy.  Besides his education at university, where he read first Oriental Languages then Law, though he did not finish his course due to ‘ill health and domestic circumstances’, he read widely.  His interests were philosophy, education, reform, history, politics, religion, ancient Greek and travel.

He also lived fairly wildly, at least at first.  It’s fascinating to find his life experiences and interests mirrored by characters and situations in A.K.  Is it just me, or do most of us enjoy seeing how things are made?

Tolstoy honed his skills by writing essays and short sketches. He did not finish every project he started. War and Peace, for instance, evolved out of another novel called ‘The Decembrists’.

You could argue that we look for the connections, but does that matter?  Surely, the more we can take from our reading the better?

I like stories that make me think, or go away to find out more afterwards.  Again, it’s a different style of reading to the pure entertainment page-turning novels, and I like those too.  But I would say that this is writing that has matured.  Here is a writer who practiced his craft and shared the variety of his interests through his stories and novels.