Thursday, 21 August 2008

Notes for a novel #1

Once I've handed in the thesis, one of the grands projets is to begin working on a novel.

That's a pretty big opening line, that is. What I mean is, I want to give it a serious go now, and see what happens. Obviously, I need to publish some papers and that, but, as nice old ladies put it when they're discussing a disappointed grand-nephew's Christmas gifts, I 'have my heart set' on a novel. And poems, but poems are different, and require a different kind of work, and they're in the pipeline already.

Beyond the obvious ramifications of such a remark, I think about novels a lot. I'm kind of obsessed. I'm obsessed in a way that makes me disappointed, sad, and angry with the majority of new fiction I read, and when I find something that I think is fresh or exciting I develop a neurotically-charged infatuation for it. I make little to no secret of the fact that I think most contemporary fiction is glib, jejune, cloying, caveating, pompous, defused, wrestling unsuccessfully with its agon, politically dubious, too detached from the world, not detached enough, forcedly melancholic, self-aggrandising, unpoetic, too earnestly 'poetic', scared, pampered, market anxious, dull, fake or a collection of any or all of the above. I find that too many people who write novels are cape-tossing self-dramatisers, Kafka wannabes who spend years cultivating an outsiderness that is immediately forgotten at the sniff of a literary prize, or people who have attained some basic skill at putting words and plots together effectively but have no understanding of the historical weight that comes with the job. I tend to reserve my respect for those writers who seem to have an infinitely renewable joy in the potential of literature, not least their own, but temper this borderline infantile romanticism with a real cynicism about 'literary' institutions. I also like it when writers read books, and lots of them. Having met floods of hopefuls from UEA's creative writing course (at all degree levels), I have been stunned by just how many simply don't read novels or poetry written by other people. The attitude, all too often, says something along the lines of 'My limited personal experience has been vindicated as worthy of poeticisation by my acceptance on this course. I shall write what I know; my acceptance has elevated me to a certain literary eminence already.' Knowing some (very good) people who have taught on those courses, I can promise anyone reading this from 'outside the loop' that this is 100% not bullshit or apocyphal.

Anyway, I've raised the stakes for myself considerably already, haven't I? I like to think of these rants as being a little like an Oulipo exercise: the more I criticise, the more I set parameters for myself which stimulate (rather than inhibit) my creativity. For a long time, I had a war with nominalism, or using real place names in fictional writing: I thought that I'd read too much which used place as a really feeble crutch, masking cliches as 'evocations' and declining to do the kind of archaeological work that Ballard or Iain Sinclair take on. It was a long time before the circumscription of the 'zone of the nameable' (see Roberto Calassi's book K) stopped being my favourite thing about Kafka. That obstruction of realist extension is also one of the first thing I admired about some of Henry Green's novels, and it's still one of the few things I've personally been able to come away from Maurice Blanchot's fiction with. Cf., I suppose, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Alan Burns and, in a stranger way, the post-Kafkan political allegoris of Rex Warner, Edward Upward, and Ruthven Todd.

Then, about a year ago, I was sitting having a couple of pints with my stepdad and he was telling me some story that could only ever have taken place in County Durham. You just couldn't reset it anywhere, not even in some suggestively unnamed place. The effect was bizarre - I literally had to step outside and have a breath of fresh air (on Scorton Green, which is a good place for that). I felt that restriction I'd been setting myself for so long come off - I still can't say why, precisely - and felt that I'd somehow graduated to a place where all my ambitions for writing might actually be pursued. Restarting this blog has been a kind of slipstream effect of that conversation. Since then, I've been really in thrall to all these tremendously vivid descriptions of place in anecdotes other people tell me: Dad talking about working for the Forestry Commission in a remote valley off Glencoe while he was a student, Mum talking about smoky offices in London at the beginning of the seventies or growing up in the Wear Valley. It's like I got place back.

The thing is, like many or even most people, I need a certain amount of detachment from a place before it becomes writable. I'm not sure I'd ever like to write about Norwich (beyond the Mortmere version of the Earlham Road Project), and what I'll pretentiously call my 'poetic affiliation' to a distended triangle whose points might be Berwick-upon-Tweed, Kendal and Whitby has only really coalesced as such in the last year. When I say 'poetic affiliation', I kind of mean it literally because poetry is all I've had time to write on top of the thesis, teaching and seminar-organising in the last twelve months.

But I'm obsessed, as I say. I'm going to sleep thinking about it and deliberately not having the change for the bus in the morning so I can walk to campus instead and daydream about it on the way. It sounds silly, but I've got a first scene, which is High Row in Darlington just before Christmas in 1990. Then two men have to go together and watch Darlington beat Torquay United 3-0, and stand in the East Stand paddock (where my stepdad, interestingly, repaired the terracing during the ground upgrades necessitated by the Bradford Fire.) There's other bits, none of which are really about football, and which don't resemble the prosaic realism that this description might imply: it sort of makes an arabesque from there, I think. Passages already exist in the form of snippets for other stories I've written over the last four years.

Which leads me to the gripe that prompted this entry in the first place. The greatest 'sports opening' I've ever read is the 'Pafko at the Wall' baseball sequence in Don Delillo's Underworld, which is a completely virtuoso demonstration of how to write the the big, allegorical, Baudrillardian pseudo-event. But hasn't Delillo, amongst others, been a hideously pernicious influence on so much young British writing in recent times? I mean this in the sense that Delillo, like many Americans, favours a kind of sleek-lined minimalism, by which I mean a particular form of ironically-poised narrative composure. I'm looking for a good quote, by the way, but I can't find one: whatever, my point is that Delillo can actually do this well and lots of others can't. So many people seem to have forfeited an inclination to be expressive on their own terms because they have fallen under a creative writing mantra that insists less is always more, and that Raymond Carver is the sine qua non of fictive communication. I am never less than astounded by the impact of Dave Eggers's publication Macsweeneys, which peddles a kind of quasi-literary, indie-pop-cultural whimsy as some kind of brave fictional future. You know what I mean: lots of young people who aspire to be Karl's brilliantly caricatured 'Conrad McKrustican' , writing in infuriating Hemingwayan conversational ellipses about dysfunctional relationships and imprecisely-defined miseries. Melancholia and taciturnity (read: aestheticised repression) is completely fetishised on the bookshelves of Waterstones or Borders. You sometimes feel that the majority of modern fiction is composed by people who want to cross-pollinate Proust and Chekhov but have never read Proust or Chekhov. Everything has to feature men who can't communicate properly and an individual trying to put together the jigsaw of some traumatic moment in the past...a glibbed-up psychoanalysis has become the consolation for all the disjunctions fiction has undergone since Flaubert and Dostoevsky. Now, we're expected to read countless tales of disintegrating families narrated by vaguely fashionable young people who listen to Smog and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - but it seems that the majority of people writing these fictions are too young to have the depth of emotional experience that is required to write believably about such matters.

Anyway, these are notes: things I wanted to get down before I forgot, and thought I'd do in public so you'd all know just how hard I wasn't working on my thesis today.

Speaking of which...

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