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Saturday, October 31, 2009

 

Halloween




BOO!




This concludes our Halloween broadcast.



It's not very scary, but I'm ill, so leave me alone.


*Later addition: someone said elsewhere that they were afraid to comment on this, because of, well, the 'leave me alone' thing. This is merely me grumping because I am ill, not an actual demand that everyone leaves me alone. If anyone has any scary stories to share, scary movies to recommend, recipes, pictures of their pumpkins or other Halloween-related stuff, I'd actually really like to hear about it. The pumpkin picture above is one that I carved based on a design by my husband, from a few years back; this year's pumpkin is a cat face in honour of Mika, but I haven't had the energy to put my picture of it on the computer yet. Maybe I'll put it up next Halloween...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

 

Rainy day Mikalogue


Mika: Kit! Kiiiiit! Kiiiiiiiit!


Kit: Mika, what? It's hours until supper time.


Mika: Play with Mika! Plaaaay!


Kit: Baby, I have things to do. Lots of things.


Mika: But is boooorrred!


Kit: Can't you go play outside?


Mika: Is raaaaining!


Kit: Oh, I see. Okay, how about this string on a stick? Wanna catch it? Wanna catch it?


Mika: Ha ha! Submit to Genghis Cat!


Kit: Oops, there it goes!


Mika: GOTCHA!


Kit: ... Okay Mika, if you want me to twirl it around for you to chase, you have to let go of the string.


Mika: Fno. Is Fmika's.

Kit: You gonna let me take the string back?

Mika: Fno! Won fair and fsquare!

Kit: Okay, fine. But that means I'm going to let you keep it and get on with stuff.

Mika: You fno fun. Fboo.


Friday, October 23, 2009

 

Odd limericks

In reading John Julius Norwich's 1990-1999 Still More Christmas Crackers (a series of highly entertaining commonplace books), I came across some interesting verses. They were written by the Reverend Patrick Bronte, father of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell, and quite rightly described by Norwich as 'what must be the most irritating verse form ever devised.'

Basically, the form is serious limericks - but limericks in which the last line deliberately doesn't rhyme. Here are two examples:


To novels and plays not inclined,
Nor aught that can sully her mind;
Temptations may shower,
Unmoved as a tower
She quenches the fiery arrows.


Religion makes beauty enchanting;
And even where beauty is wanting
The temper and mind
Religion-refined
Will shine through the veil with sweet lustre.

Really, it's poetic equivalent of having your teeth drilled. I think what makes it particularly annoying, apart from the moralising - if you're going to moralise, you need to make deeper observations than that - is that the final line may not rhyme, but it does scan. You can break with the form completely and
have a quite pleasing effect, for instance (borrowed from this site):

The limerick, peculiar to English,
Is a verse that's hard to extinguish.
Once Congress in session
Decreed its suppression
But people got around it by writing the last line without any rhyme or meter.

That isn't annoying, because once the line runs on past the last syllable the ear relaxes, knowing that the form is being properly broken with. It's as if we were running a race and came in second: we don't get the satisfaction of the tape breaking across our chests, but we run a few paces and cool off. But when the unrhymed last line scans, it's as if we were running a race and the judges sneakily replaced the tape with a brick wall. Thud.

I remember an interesting lecturer at college talking about how the limerick is so inherently comic in its sound that it's difficult to contrive one that isn't funny (or at least, doesn't feel like it's trying to be.) His best example was on Sir Walter Raleigh:


Sir Walter was handy with cloaks,
And tobacco, and packets of smokes.
Such a mighty romancer
Of insomniac cancer -
I thank him, and hope that he chokes.


But I wouldn't say that was successfully serious either. A limerick might well lend itself to anger, but it comes out feeling like an epigram, and epigrams are another form with comic overtones.

I can't think of other non-comic limericks either. There are some that aren't funny if you take them seriously, so to speak, such as Edward Gorey's:


To his clubfooted child said Lord Stipple,
As he poured his postprandial tipple,
'Your mother's behaviour
Gave pain to Our Saviour
And that's why he made you a cripple.'


- which is very upsetting if you think about it, but animated by Gorey's dark humour; it tends to produce an appalled laugh. Edward Lear could do something similar, made less funny by his outmoded tendency to repeat his first line:


There was an Old Man on some rocks,
Who shut his Wife up in a box:
When she said, 'Let me out,'
He exclaimed, 'Without doubt
You will pass all your life in that box.'


Which is pretty creepy, really, and has that uncomfortable diminuendo that Lear's repeated last lines tend to have, but it still feels comic in its form. A lot of Lear's comic poetry is minor-key and curiously sad, and this is no exception, but you wouldn't call it a serious poem.

So the Reverend Patrick Bronte seems to carry the laurel for unfunny limericks, and he does it by - with the best of intentions, I'm sure - using the last line to thump you hard enough that you aren't amused. Unless anyone can think of another contender, I think it's Bronte in the lead.

Here's my take on the subject:


Rev. Bronte, a worthy old cleric,
Whose children wrote books atmospheric,
Tried verse for a time,
But his endings lacked rhyme -
An effect that is oddly frustrating.


Anyone else got one?


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

 

We don't need fascists

So if you have a moment, can I ask all British citizens to please contact the BBC and tell them that.

This Thursday, the BBC plan to invite members of the British National Party, the openly white supremacist party of Britain, to appear on Question Time. Which is to say, they're planning to treat them like a legitimate political party rather than the bunch of anti-democratic racist thugs that they are.

As I've been saying quite a lot lately, the BBC is a terrific institution with a deserved reputation for political credibility. Even this latest decision, with which I completely disagree, proves that James Murdoch was talking out of what I shall charitably refer to as his wallet when he suggested that the BBC's publicly-funded status meant that it was an organ of the ruling party: inviting the BNP, who everybody hates including the people they lionise, is a pretty serious nod to free speech.

But you don't need to go on the BBC to have free speech. Nobody is trying to shut the BNP up, and saying that they shouldn't get a respectable slot on the BBC is not taking away their right to talk whatever fascist shit they want under their own initiative.

The BNP are best treated as a joke. They are a tiny and wicked gang of extremists who simply don't belong on political prime time, and putting them on the BBC is giving a stamp of legitimacy and a whole lot of attention to people who don't merit it any more than any other nasty crank. Please take a moment to contact the BBC and tell them that.

And, as it's very possible the BBC will do it anyway, let's also agree not to watch. If we reward them with ratings, we're supporting them. We don't need to see this. Until they say the phrase 'We've all changed our minds and we're very, very sorry,' there's nothing any BNP rep can possibly say that's worth hearing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

 

Real Life Mary Sues

[Credit where it's due, this post is an expansion of something sparked off by a comment on Slacktivist...]

Many of us are familiar with the term 'Mary Sue', but for those who aren't, a brief explanation. Mary Sue is a character type generally written by incompetent authors, who, rather than being a three-dimensional person in a world of other three-dimensional people, is an overly perfect paragon to whom all other characters show improbable devotion. Bad characters may hate her, but they hate her with a passion and find themselves equally unable to stop thinking about her: nobody can be indifferent. Someone quoted a Mary Sue character as being one who 'commands love' from all, a person whose very self overshadows everyone else and places them in the background.

It's commonly remarked that such a character is completely implausible. And indeed, this may be the case to some extent. But lately, I've been starting to wonder - because I and other people I know have encountered people who are, in some ways, real life Mary Sues. They're just not quite the way they appear in fiction.

I've blogged previously about a famous literary character, Jimmy Porter of Look Back In Anger, who fulfils a lot of the criteria for a Mary Sue; a Mary Sue rendered with above-average literary skill, but a Mary Sue nonetheless. He's generally acknowledged as a portrait of his creator, John Osborne. And here's the thing: Osborne was a pretty nasty piece of work, but he was, based on the evidence, undeniably attractive. He married five times, for instance; while burning through that many marriages does not speak well to your qualities as a husband, it does indicate a degree of magnetism. Osborne had friends, lovers, admirers aplenty. He had charisma.

Charisma is a curious quality, more easily recognised than defined and quite separate from likeability. Many of us have met charismatic people, and they are, by their nature, fascinating. They can also be complicated.

At the simplest level, charisma can be a kind of grace. I once met a woman who had saved several Jewish people from a concentration camp at great risk to herself, and she had - there's no other phrase for it - an inner light. I don't think it was just the knowledge of her heroism that made me see this: she glowed, she was tranquil and joyous and at ease. Perhaps the knowledge she had been tested and proved righteous put her at ease; perhaps to take such a risk required an exceptional person to begin with. Either way, had she given me a piece of advice, I believe I would have accepted it without question.

I've known other people like that to a greater or lesser extent. I recently attended the funeral of a great-aunt who died at the age of a hundred, whose love and interest in others and deep-down niceness shone out of her. She wasn't possessed of magical powers, but she was rather remarkable, had had an adventurous life, and struck everyone with her charm and sense of fun. I wasn't particularly close to her - she was the mother of an aunt by marriage and lived far away, so I only saw her at family gatherings - but even so, when I heard of her death I felt the world a little poorer for her absence. She was that uncommon thing: a person everybody loved.

So people who are generally loved do exist. They tend to be sparky rather than bland - my great-aunt was kind, but she was also a tough old thing and had a wicked sense of humour - and writing one such would take considerable skill. This, though, is slightly different from the idea of a person who 'commands love', and even draws the devoted fascination of those who, for reasons of personal disturbance, hate them.

The thing is, I think the other kind of person, the compelling personality, is a real thing too. I and people I know have met some. It's just that the quality of commanding love is, in reality, rather a complicated one.

There's no one kind of person when it comes to charisma like this. I can think of one individual who's a hugely powerful and wealthy businessman; another who was in her way something of a mystic. On the face of it they had nothing in common, but they and others like them did have a family resemblance.

These were people who liked to tell stories about themselves and who never feared they were boring their listeners. The stories could be anecdotal or they could be epic, but they were almost always stories of philosophy. You could categorise them: the story of How I Reached My Present State of Understanding, the story of How My Worldview Was Proved Right, the story of How I Have Yet To Show Others The Way. All tend to revolve around the fundamental story of What Makes Me Me. These categories sound derogatory, but the stories themselves tend to be interesting: a charismatic person is, in some ways, the novelist of their own life. If most of us live in a soap opera, charismatic people live in a bildungsroman.

We all are the stars of our own stories, of course, but some people magnify this effect. They may be highly aware of how others react to them, but they are less prone to wondering whether a negative reaction calls their values into question. Most of us have a basic set of principles by which we live, but charismatic people tend to have a quest: something is the ultimate goal, be it power, insight, glory, spiritual experience, fun, justice or anything else - and such a goal is considered not just the best way for this particular person to live, but the ultimate aim of all life. Someone who disagrees is seen as missing the point, as naive or corrupt or bewilderingly dull.

Such an attitude tends to provoke love-or-hate responses. The reaction may partly depend on the chosen ideal and how well it overlaps with your own personality: someone for whom success is everything will get a more positive response from an aspirational friend than from a believer in altruism and humility, for instance. It's not entirely a question of agreement and disagreement, of course; both the aspirer and the altruist may be fond of the success-guru in their different ways. Charisma isn't the whole of a person, it's a quality they possess, and you can relate to the person inside the charisma - or at least try to, depending on how hard they push for their particular goal to dominate the conversation.

Which is where the issue of 'commanding love' comes in. A person who's the star of their own narrative may not expect you to love them, but they do expect you to be interested in them; after all, they have insights that should be useful to everyone. There is an expectation that you will respond to them on their terms, in their own framework.

If you do, then love has been successfully commanded. But it's a command that can be disobeyed. The difference is that disobeying the command takes greater energy than indifference would.

Have you ever known a person who you don't like but end up spending a lot of time talking or thinking about why you dislike them even if they haven't really done anything wrong? A person with a strong charismatic ideal driving them can have this effect. In essence, the force of their worldview is powerful enough that it exerts some gravitational pull: when you are around them, so compelling is their narrative that it's easy to fall into it, to start seeing things their way. To avoid this happening, you have to lean back, to remind yourself that you see things differently and that this doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. It takes effort. Dismissing their opinions occupies your thoughts. Psychology Today remarks: "Synchrony is a marker of rapport; if two people click, they unconsciously adjust their posture and speech rate to each other. Bernieri strongly suspects that charismatic people are natural "attractors" who get others to synchronize to them." If you don't want to fall into synchrony with someone like that, you have to pay some attention to avoiding it.

This, I think, is the real-life equivalent to the Mary Sue who is either loved by nice people or hated by people with issues. The 'issues' in real life may be actual neuroses or they may simply be a different worldview - but for at least some charismatic people, a different worldview is in itself something of a neurotic thing to possess.

Hence, if you want to hold on to your different worldview, you do to some extent have to fight, at least in your own mind - not necessarily because you hate the person but simply because the force of their personality is such that if you want space for your own way of seeing you have to push for it because they won't automatically make room. Most of us constantly measure our own judgement against that of others, and if somebody seems to think we're naive or materialistic we do a quick cross-check of them-versus-us to see if they have a point. Charismatic people tend to do that less, which, through no deliberate intention, puts more pressure on our own cross-checking system. Two cross-checkers, averaging out against each other, will end up somewhere in the middle, but if you average with someone charismatic you'll wind up closer to their way of thinking without them moving any closer to yours. If you don't want to end up thinking like them, you can end up feeling threatened even when the charismatic person hasn't done anything except be themselves.

(None of which is any excuse to be unpleasant to the person, of course, and neither does it mean that if somebody vigorously disagrees with or dislikes you it must mean you're charismatic; you could just be a pain in the butt.)

However, when it comes to writing, there's an interesting angle here. Nobody is good at everything in the way a Mary Sue is traditionally written, but the idea of having a personality that by its nature tends to exert a strong influence and that provokes fascination even in those who dislike you is not confined to fiction. You might say a Mary Sue story, which casts the haters as driven by their own personal failures, is a rendering of charisma from inside the charismatic viewpoint. In daily life, after all, most of us have to get by with manners because we're too aware that we don't control reality and that other people's viewpoints are just as likely to be correct as our own, but writing a story means you do get control of a fictional reality and your say on what is and isn't correct is final. Mary Sue may be a written rendering of the inner charismatic that most of us lack the social skills and confidence to pull off in our regular existence.

The real problem with such Mary Sues comes, I think, from the fact that charisma and greatness don't inevitably go together. Charismatic people are very often damaged.

My great-aunt was a sturdy-minded sort and had a talent for creating her own happiness, but I wouldn't class her as charismatic in the sense of being the star of her own story. She was simply a charming person who was widely loved; it was, in fact, difficult to get her to talk about herself because she was more interested in other people. The other people were more complicated: the business mogul was feared as much as he was liked, the mystic was in a cult. People famous for their charisma are often famous for being problematic. Winston Churchill managed to drag Britain through a hideous war and retain the nation's loyalty even when promising it 'blood, toil, tears and sweat,' for instance; he also suffered from lifelong depression. So did Abraham Lincoln, come to that. Life knocks us about, and building up a fierce ideal can be a way of trying to repair the damage, of putting a self back together. Damage can hang about, though, however bravely we cope with it, and the damage we carry ourselves affects those around us as well - and developing a personal ideology is not necessarily the best way of dealing with our problems. It can be a healing strategy, even a heroic resolution never to let others suffer as you have, but it can also be a compensatory strategy, a quest as distraction - and people compensating aren't always the easiest to get along with, because they can be unreasonably attached to their ideas even when it isn't appropriate.

A charismatic person may command love, but actually loving them may mean you're going to have to brace yourself. This is where the divergence from fictional Mary Sues comes: rather than being the perfect solution to all your problems, a charismatic person is, like anybody else, a mixture of good and bad - and the bigger the personality, the bigger both the virtues and the problems. A charismatic person can be a hero, or they can be a Jim Jones, or they can just be a lot to cope with.

That said, I do think it's worth pointing out that, while an incompetently written character is never plausible, Mary Sue or not, it simply isn't true to assume that there's no such thing as a person who has an unusual influence, whether deliberate or not, over the emotions of others. Such people are rare, but you do come across them. Perhaps a problem with them is that while charisma can be a compelling force when encountered in person it very seldom survives translation into print: reading Helter Skelter does not really let you know what it was like to know Charles Manson.

A charismatic person can do with their own life what a skilled writer can do with a fictional life: translate it into a compelling story with highs, lows, revelations and lessons to be learned. To create a convincing portrait of someone like that, you need to tell a story about a storyteller - and that's an extremely difficult thing to do. You can't write a better writer than yourself; issues of ego, wish-fulfilment and personal gripes tend to creep in, and so do structural problems if they're telling a story at the same time as you. To portray a genuinely charismatic person means portraying a self-mythologiser, and to do that you need to balance their charm and force with a writer's perspective that nobody's more than human; you have to be able to show them overshadowing other viewpoints without letting them overshadow other characters. It's a horribly difficult task to set yourself.

Of course, writing a Mary Sue isn't likely to be a deliberate attempt to write about the complexities of charisma. As I said, it's more likely to be an attempt to experience the benefits of charisma from within. In real life, charisma is a difficult trick to pull off and requires intense self-belief; in fiction, the easiest method is not solely to dial up the power of your Mary Sue but - which is easier - to reduce the power of everyone else. (As I point out in the essay on Jimmy Porter, you can see Osborne doing it.) This, of course, tends to lead to a weaker story, which is one of the reasons why Mary Sue is an unpopular character: her presence renders those around her boring.

As, of course, is any story that isn't well done. The more I think of it, the more I incline to the view that Mary Sue is less a problem because there's nobody like that, and more a problem because she's an inaccurate portrait of people like that.

Monday, October 19, 2009

 

A few odds and ends

1. A reminder to all American friends that the votes are starting in Maine on Proposition 1, the homophobic amendment that would outlaw same-sex marriage. Blogger Greta Christina (possibly not work-safe, as she also blogs about sex), who I've cited before, has an article here going into the reasons why Maine is important - political momentum - and why it's important to get campaigning now rather than at the last minute. Protect Maine Equality is the place to go; let's all strike a blow for freedom and justice. 

2. It's my pleasure to point out another fine offering from the BBC: their Sunday-evenings adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma, which is turning out to be the best Emma I've seen. Romola Garai manages to give the most intelligent turn as Emma I've seen an actress do, and is thoroughly charming; the drama is carried well, the cast and script are all excellent. The nature documentary Life is also on again tonight, and as last week's episode kicked ass, I fully expect great things. Two highly recommended reminders that attacking the BBC is attacking something great. 

3. I just saw The Damned United and it was brilliant. If anyone isn't familiar with Peter Morgan's scripts - which also include The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Last King of Scotland - 
you're in for a treat. They're fantastic. All except the last also star the amazing Michael Sheen, whose ability to portray real people as diverse as Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams makes me think we need a new phrase for what he does. I'm going with 'performance biography'. Peter Morgan, Michael Sheen, these are ornaments to the contemporary film scene and I can't overpraise them. 

4. An explanation I seem to owe about Facebook. A few weeks ago I signed myself up, and I didn't mention it but people seem to be finding their way to me anyway. When they do, I don't sign them on as friends, which is unfriendly of me. So, explanation. 

Like a lot of people, as the years go by I find a lot of my friends moving to places where I can't easily get at them, like New York and Bristol and Reading and other places where you can't just pop by. Living in London, even my Londoner friends tend to be a fair old hike away. Lots of them are having babies, at whose pictures I like to coo but whose presence limits their visiting energy. Joining Facebook means that I can keep in touch with these people on a day-to-day basis, which is all very nice.

However, since I'm also a writer who hangs around on discussion threads, this also means I'm fortunate enough to get goodwill from people I haven't met. After some reflection, I've regretfully decided that if I sign these nice people up as Facebook friends, I'll be getting all their Facebook messages too - which means that I'll find it harder to spot the messages from my long-lost personal friends in the crowd. This is especially the case as the kind of people who friend writers on Facebook tend to be lively and frequent Facebook users, which is an excellent thing in itself but liable to swamp my long-lost friends, who tend to post only one message every few days. I have therefore sadly decided that if I want to use Facebook for the reason I signed up, I'm going to have to friend only people that I know socially. 

This is one of those awkward etiquette situations that new technology somethings throws up. All I can say is, if I don't friend you, please don't think this means anything personal. I'm very happy to chat on my blog or reply to e-mails; I'm just trying to keep Facebook for a specific purpose.

At some point, if somebody can explain how, I might try to set up a separate Facebook account where readers can sign up as fans, because I know that this is possible to do. Anyone who wants me to do this, please give me some pointers and I'll see what I can manage. But in the meantime, I fear I'm going to be using my Facebook page as a kind of semi-private line, not because I don't like to meet new people online but just because I miss my friends and want a place where I can hang with them. 

5. A big thank you to everyone who joined in the conversation on the last post, making for a most interesting discussion which I thoroughly enjoyed. I'll be preparing new posts, but as well, does anyone have any questions or topics they'd like to hear me talk about? 

Monday, October 12, 2009

 

So do I think there's a problem with the readership?

After a weekend away, I have managed to catch myself up and view the Newsnight Review section in which I featured as a talking head. (A somewhat nervous talking head, by the standards of my own conversation; I'm only that jittery when someone's pointing a camera at me. Just saying.) But, for those of you who didn't see it, here's what happened:

Voice-over: Science fiction was nowhere near the Booker list, to the anger of sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson, who insisted that Yellow Blue Tiba should have won the whole thing. Is sci fi literature really, as Booker judge John Mullan claimed, a self-enclosed world with work bought by a special kind of person, with special weird things they go to? Novelist Kit Whitfield thinks there is a problem with the readership.

Novelist Kit Whitfield: I think that there's a lot of people outside science fiction who think that they don't want to touch something just because it's science fiction. And I think within science fiction, you have some people - though by no means all the science fiction fans - who will read something because it's science fiction and be more forgiving of its faults than they would be if it wasn't science fiction. So I think if you add the two together, you can get a degree of ghettoisation.


First thing to say: I haven't read Yellow Blue Tiba, so I have no opinion on whether it should have won the Booker or not, but it is worth pointing out that one of the books shortlisted was Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger, which, if not science fiction, is definitely a ghost story. A ghost story in the same way that Turn of the Screw is, perhaps, or the movie The Haunting (the Shirley Jackson book may be, too, but I haven't read it yet), in that it's a haunted-people story in which the ghostliness or otherwise of the haunting is presented in a deliberately ambiguous way - but whatever else it is (a very good book, among other things), it's a ghost story. So in fairness to the Booker judges, evidence suggests they aren't excluding everything with the slightest non-realist element.

Second thing to say: if you read what John Mullan said in its proper context, he wasn't saying 'Nobody but a weirdo would ever read science fiction.' He was saying two things: one, they can't choose books that weren't submitted and not much science fiction got submitted, which isn't the judges' fault, and two, he thinks that science fiction is getting more ghettoised than it used to be and he thinks that's a bad thing. Which isn't antagonism to the genre; he's expressing the view that the genre's capable of more than it's currently doing. And why not? I personally see nothing wrong with aspiring.

Third thing to say: time limits being what they are on television, I'd like to clarify my statement, because 'there's a problem with the readership' isn't exactly what I was trying to say. Here's a fuller version:

I think that there's a lot of people outside science fiction who think that they don't want to touch something just because it's science fiction. And I think within science fiction, you have some people - though by no means all the science fiction fans - who will read something because it's science fiction and be more forgiving of its faults than they would be if it wasn't science fiction. So I think if you add the two together, you can get a degree of ghettoisation ...

... because the law of supply and demand means that if there's a proportion of the market that will consume badly-executed stuff, poor execution won't be as big a barrier to publication as it should be. So there will be bad stuff out there that really doesn't deserve a ticket out of the ghetto.

Which means that some of the ghettoisation will be for unfair reasons: people refusing to touch anything science fiction at all no matter how good it is. And some of it will be for fair reasons: if you get a big enough proportion of bad things in any genre, it will drag down the average quality and increase the chances of newcomers ploughing down in bad examples. As Raymond Chandler said about detective fiction when it was riding high: 'The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn't get published.' Anybody approaching that section of the bookshop for the first time is thus statistically more likely to put their hand on a bad book than a good one and retreat discouraged.

On the whole, the panellist I most agreed with on the Newsnight discussion was Jeanette Winterson, whose first major remark on the subject caused me to point at the screen and shout 'Yes! Exactly!', to the resignation of my husband, who hears me make the same point regularly. Now, I understand that readers outside the UK can't get hold of the discussion, so for your amusement, I'm transcribing the relevant portions, interspersed with my heckling.


Jeanette Winterson: You have to rip the labels off. It's time we did this with everything. Labels are for packaged food in supermarkets, they're not for books.

[Kit applauds offscreen, yelling, 'That's right! Genre is a bookseller's convenience, not an artistic category!']

JW: And you know, we've had Aldous Huxley, we've had H.G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, there's so many good writers who play with it, now the whole thing is up for grabs.

[Kit applauds again, yelling, 'Yes! Tropes don't belong to any one genre or a subculture, they belong to everyone! Anyone should feel free to use them!']

JW: We shouldn't be saying, 'This is sci fi. This is history. You know, this is literature, this is realism. We should be saying, 'Is this a good book? Let's read it!'

[Kit applauds, and her husband pauses the broadcast so he can hear what's being said.]

Kirsty Wark (presenter): Yet Kit Whitfield says that actually the bar is set much lower, because what she seems to be saying is that sci fi nuts will read any sci fi whether it's good or bad, and they're not as discerning as it were other readers.

[Is that what I meant? I don't think that's it precisely. Some 'sci fi nuts' will read any old tosh; I've known some. That doesn't mean everyone who's a science fiction enthusiast. If you want to draw a line between 'sci fi nuts' and 'science fiction enthusiasts' you could, I suppose, but people tend to be a sliding scale rather than clearly defined camps and individuals often defy categorisation.

You get undiscerning readers in any genre, or else undemanding ones. That's one reason why genre is such a problem: any genre publisher whose income depends at least in part on people who will consume anything that has the right label on it is under a market pressure to lower its bar. (And you can get a vicious circle going there: if you get too dependent on a specific market, you can't afford to alienate them with products that might attract new markets for fear of losing what limited custom you have.) I have nothing against Mills and Boon, for instance, but there's a reason why you never see their publications on the Booker shortlist, and it's not prejudice against romance. Nothing against Mills and Boon authors either - writing a saleable Mills and Boon book is much harder than it looks and deserves respect - but no such author would call their work fine art. If someone wants to argue that all romance is as pulpy as Mills and Boon they're liable to make an idjit of themselves, but so is anyone who wants to argue that romance as a whole doesn't adapt itself to market demands and produce a whole lot of books that aren't very sophisticated.

So if you're talking about a genre as a whole, you have to factor in the badly-executed stuff at the bottom. Expecting to be judged only by the best works won't do. You can't have it both ways: either you decide there's something exceptional about really good books, in which case we're talking about good books and that's a quality thing, not a genre one, or you decide you're talking about the genre, and that means everything in it, including the stuff that doesn't make the genre look very good.]

Natalie Haynes: Yeah, well, perhaps that is true. But I, for example, like Pride and Prejudice, I don't read Mills and Boon. You can't dismiss all of fiction where a boy meets a girl and they get together by saying, 'Oh yeah, but that Mills and Boon book is rubbish.' And that's absolutely the same thing with sci fi.

[Kit: Yes, I agree. But that's a reason to read books individually. If someone's talking about romance as a genre, those Mills and Boon books are going to come up. People don't admire Jane Austen because she's a romance author, they admire her because she's Jane Austen, and there was only ever one of those. She doesn't prove anything much about romantic stories except that it's possible to make fine art out of them, and you can make fine art out of any subject if you're a fine artist.]

NH: If you only read really, really low rent TV fan fiction spin-offs, then you would be depriving yourself of George Orwell, John Wyndham, H.G. Wells. Why would you do that?

[Kit: Ooh, nice choice of writers there. All good stuff. But if we're talking about contemporary science fiction, which was was the subject the discussion seemed to be about, I can't help noticing that all of them are, well, dead. And have been since before either of us were born. Wells was writing at the turn of the previous century, Wyndham and Orwell in the middle of it. Wells was writing at a time when 'science fiction' as a category barely existed; he was just a writer trying something. Orwell was a political writer who occasionally used allegory or dystopia to make his point. Wyndham was writing in the Golden Age - an age when, as with Wells, things were still in a phase of newness and experimentation. If you want a discussion of science fiction nowadays when it's become so much associated with a particular subculture and acquired specific imprints and all the rest of it, you need other examples.]

NH: It's one of the hopeful joys of the rise of places like Amazon, surely, is that books will stop being sold on a case with a title on the top, and instead you'll get somebody going, 'Oh, did you like this book? Somebody over here liked this other book.' And you're going, 'Oh, okay.' And let's all be more interesting.

[Kit: Well, you say that. But every time I've ever seen 'you might also like this' recommends on Amazon next to my books, they've been next to books that I don't want to read. The recommends tend to have only only the most superificial thing in common with my books: that there's some kind of supernatural element in them somewhere, generally a werewolf or a vampire knocking around. That's no reason to buy a book.

Amazon isn't a literary analyst; it goes on a mechanical calculation of sales. As long as people are buying conservatively within genres, it will be making recommendations conservatively within genres. That means clumping and stereotyping in exactly the same way bookshop sections do. Come the revolution it might work in a hopefully joyous way, but at the moment, in my experience at least, Amazon's recommends run on exactly the same principle as the bookshop's title-on-the-top case system, only worse.]

Kirsty Wark (presenter): With science being so mind-blowing at the moment, should there be more science in fiction, Jeanette?

[Kit: There should be in fiction whatever a fiction writer can make work. Always. If that includes science, so be it, if not, so be it.]

JW: You have to leave that to writers. There'll be as much as we think we have to put in at any one time.

[Kit: Yep. Thank you.]

JW: But, you know, this is a place where the whole world is opening up right now, so it's absolutely right for a fusion of imaginative capacity and scientific endeavour. Now it's time for everything to merge, not for things to be separate in little boxes. We don't live in a world of little boxes any more.

[Kit: I don't think we ever lived in a world of little boxes. Boxes are only there when people put them there, and those were never the people worth listening to.]


So was I saying what the voice-over seemed to think I was saying? I'm far from saying that every science fiction reader in the world is a weirdo, because that would be stupid. But I do think there is a problem that seems to affect writers in a distinctive way.

One of the issues discussed on Newsnight was the idea that 'boys in bedrooms' had, since the rise of the Internet, managed to organise into a visible subculture with power of its own. Kevin Smith, who was also on the panel, made the very reasonable point that the prevalence of science fiction movies calculated to appeal to that demographic was probably down to the simple fact that a few of those boys in bedrooms grew up and got jobs which allowed them to make commissioning decisions, a common-sense observation if ever there was one. But what if you weren't a boy in a bedroom reading science fiction but grew up to write it nonetheless? That was a question that seemed to occur to no one; the assumption seemed more or less to be that the kind of person who produces science fiction is inevitably someone who spent their adolescence wrapped up in it. And that's not necessarily true.

The ghetto is a problem for writers for a specific reason. If you're a reader and you don't like the ghetto, you don't have to go in; you can go read something else. When I say 'like the ghetto', I don't of course mean 'like being ghettoised', because nobody likes that. But science fiction, more than most other genres, isn't just a set of literary tropes and categorisations. It's also a large subculture. Someone who's a detective-story fan is much less likely to use that as a major element of their identity than someone saying 'I'm a science fiction fan' or 'I'm a geek.' There isn't even a word equivalent for 'geek' with detective stories; you might conceivably call someone an 'armchair detective', but I've certainly never heard it done. I know people who love science fiction, I know people who love romance, I know people who love whodunnits, and the geeks are the only ones who have a word for themselves. Science fiction fandom has, over the past few decades, built up to the point where it is a bona fide subculture rather than just a taste: being a geek nowadays is like being a punk or a hippy, part of an identifiable club with its own ways.

The thing is, clubs have positive and negative sides. If the entrance criterion is 'liking a certain kind of book' and you want to join the club, that's marvellous: the doors are open and you can go right in and start partying. But if the entrance criterion is liking the books and you don't want to join the club - whether because you don't like it or simply because it doesn't feel like your kind of place - then the logical step is to avoid the books. Once the books get too firmly associated with the club, many people will find it hard to judge them as separate from it, and their disinclination to join the one will put them off trying the other.

The Newsnight special was more or less explicitly addressing the question 'Will the geek inherit the earth?' as a means of talking about science fiction - but therein lies the problem. No genre belongs to any one subculture: every trope, every story structure, every fictional conceit belongs to the people. Geeks may be all about science fiction - or some of them, anyway, some of the time - but science fiction isn't all about geeks. As long as it's perceived that way, of course it's going to be ghettoised, or at least seen as somehow separate, because it's associated with one particular subculture that not everyone belongs to. If biographies of Tudor monarchs were a major criterion for describing yourself as a mod, people who didn't fancy ska and scooters would think twice before picking up a David Starkey book.

Readers have some freedom of movement when a genre is the badge of a club. They can join in, stay out, or read at home considering their tastes of their lives a thing apart: they can engage with the club on their own terms. But if you're a writer, you can only write what you can write, and if it's your living you can't do it quietly at home. You have to get out there. If your natural bent is towards a club genre and you don't particularly want to join the club, you do at least have to cope with the expectations created by its existence - both from within and from without. It doesn't have to be your spiritual home to end up being at least a proportion of your workplace.

It's interesting, therefore, to find myself so much in agreement with Jeanette Winterson. Not entirely surprising, given that I admire her writing, but it's not the only case of a writer trying hard to make the same basic point. In the essay by Raymond Chandler quoted above, The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler remarks '...some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with' - insisting, again, that execution matters more than subject, and with a note of frustration that sounds familiar both from Winterson's vehemence on Newsnight and from my own experiences of being assumed to be a certain kind of writer purely because of the subjects I choose. My husband remarked that the champion of such frustration was probably the comics writer Warren Ellis - someone I haven't personally read, but who, husband informs me, found the demand for superhero books of the kind he wrote to support his original work a source of frustration so extreme he became famous for his colourful invective on the subject and his tendency to ban any visitor to his website who pushed his buttons on a first-offence basis.

This is the kind of thing, in short, that drives writers crazy: a good book is a good book, you can write a good book about anything, labels only get in the way, and assuming any kind of book is the property of a particular subculture or conventional genre rather than the broader culture is only going to make the labels harder to shift.

Nobody's really to blame for this. Writers write what they can. Publishers publish what they think they can sell. Readers buy what they want to read. TV features have to find some kind of angle. But if we're going to discuss any genre as a literary question, for goodness' sake let's not confuse the subculture that most heavily reads it with the genre itself. One is a literary form, the other is a group of people: those are two very different things.

I keep coming back to the same point, in the end. Discussing whither science fiction is precisely the wrong question if you actually want good art. The question should always be 'Is this book any good?' or 'What shall I write?' 'Science fiction' is a term applied from the outside that has nothing whatever to do with the issues that are actually important, like whether the book is well written or perceptive or engaging, and anybody who gets too preoccupied with the definition, which means anyone from a stereotyping outsider to a tub-thumping insider, is perpetuating the problem. We need to get everyone to drop the categorisation game if we want to get anything done.

So do I think there's a problem with the readership? No. The readership of anything is made up of people, and most people are pretty nice. But I think there's a definite problem when anyone, no matter who, starts conflating the readership with the books.

Friday, October 09, 2009

 

If ever I commit a serious crime, you don't have to defend me

Even if you liked my books.

There's been a lot of discussion about the Roman Polanski case recently, including the fact that a lot of his friends
- including some artists I, like millions of others, admire - have signed a petition asking for his release after he raped a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977. Probably other people will have said anything I can say and better - the ever-reliable Jay Smooth being my top recommend (check out the links he references as well as what he says) - but it's still throwing up some interesting conversations. Be advised, this blog post is not exclusively about the Polanski case; much of it is about questions of how we relate to art and artists, considered in a much more general context. This is not meant as an act of disrespect to any of the people involved: there's been so much discussion that I feel there isn't much more I can add, and as I'm not someone who's going to influence the outcome of the case one way or another I don't feel that authoritative statements about it from me are either necessary or appropriate. But if you feel it's too soon to be talking about the case as an example rather than as an issue in itself, or if you're feeling raw about Polanski right now and not in the mood for someone to spin into digressions, heads up; watch Jay Smooth instead.

I've read the transcript of the victim's statement, and it's heartbreaking. The case of rape is completely clear: not only was she thirteen years old, not only did he ply her with alcohol and Quaaludes, but she kept on saying no and he chose to ignore that. With a little girl so young she described his performing cunnilingus on her as performing 'cuddliness.' That mishearing tells you pretty much everything you need to know about her vulnerability, and it's enough to make you sit down and cry.

I can understand the desire not to
go to prison, but nobody wants to go to prison and we don't usually take that as a reason not to send them. If Polanski feared being assaulted and sexually abused in prison that's understandable and that shouldn't happen: a society that doesn't make a serious effort to prevent its prisoners from assaulting each other is failing. Committing a crime shouldn't put you outside the body politic or revoke your citizenship: prisoners are members of society, and if they get assaulted in prison, we are failing to protect society from crime. Some people seem to enjoy the idea of prisoners punishing other prisoners, but apart from being sadistic, the attitude is also fundamentally unlawful. If we outsource our punishment of criminals to other criminals, we're handing over execution of the law to people who, by the very nature of their situation, have conclusively proved they don't have much respect for the law. And when we do that, it's time to hand in our civilization certificate and pick up a change-to-barbarism form on the way out.
So I don't relish the idea of anyone in prison, and I certainly don't think prison should be a place of unbearable trauma. But here's the thing: if you commit a horrible crime you ought to be sorry, and if you're sorry, that includes acknowledging that you are not the person who gets to decide when you've been punished enough. (Including deciding that a couple of months under psychiatric observation is adequate penance for rape.) A rapist who insists on freedom from consequences is a rapist who feels sufficiently justified that he sees no need to make reparation, either to his victim or to society.
There's something ugly in the idea of an old man going to prison. Less ugly than the idea of a little girl getting anally raped, mark you, but putting him in prison won't turn back time and the victim herself has stated that she'd rather let the issue drop and get on with her life. This may well be an act of moral heroism and admirable recovery on her part, and it feels ugly to override the wishes of someone whose wishes were so hideously overridden all those years ago. It's a complicated and painful case, and the law's failure to hand Polanski the long sentence he deserved at the time has created a mess. But bottom line, fleeing justice should not be rewarded with a free pardon. Polanski has to face the music, and the best thing to hope for would be a media that respects her privacy and a judge who can hand down a sensible sentence.

But what about all the people who signed the petition to free him or who think he should be let off? Where do they stand in this?


One argument is to say that they're rape ennablers, protecting one of their own whatever the cost, blinded by celebrity or by the belief that an artist should be immune from the law, or uncaring of what happens to little girls. I don't think we can know what's in people's minds, and as there's enough hate and anger in the world I for one would prefer to disagree with the signatories and supporters while giving them the benefit of the doubt. Possibly the fact that he pled guilty to a lesser charge is leading them to believe he should be assumed innocent of the greater charge until proven guilty. Possibly the fact that there was some supposed breaches of ethics by the judge means they think the case should have been dismissed on legal grounds. Possibly in the wake of the Bush administration people are uncomfortable with American pressure on other nations. Possibly they feel they have to stick up for a friend or for someone they admire. I don't think there should be a petition and I don't think people should be supporting Polanski's right to escape justice, but I'd rather not assume evil motivations of anyone without better proof.


But there is, of course, the fact that I love Roman Polanski's movies, and saying I think he ought to go to jail, or at least face some kind of punishment, is an uncomfortable position. It feels ungrateful somehow, inconsistent, as if I should either burn my DVDs or take his side. And I think this take us into an interesting question. Leaving aside people who may have petitioned for Polanki's freedom because they're defending a friend, what of the discomfort those of us who are Polanski fans feel in loving his work but wanting him to face justice? Who owes who what? This is a question that goes beyond a specific case and into the heart of the relationship between artist and consumer. (And this is the point where I'm going to stop talking about the Polanski case as a criminal issue and talk about audience emotion as a cultural phenomenon and go into personal reminisciences, so if you don't want to hear me going on about that, here's the place to stop.)



*****



When I was in my teens, my father liked to recommend movies for me to watch. An intellectual man who loves good stuff, he put a lot of classics on the list, whether drama, thriller or comedy, and a lot of his recommendations became favourite movies of mine, movies that I watched repeatedly, absorbing their rhythms and beats and immersing myself in the work of really good directors. Besides the enjoyment of these films, what I most remember is the feeling of expectation and compliment: the sense that my dad thought I was old enough and smart enough to appreciate this stuff. I felt excited, nascent, on the edge of something great, a whole world of fine experience ready for me to reach out into it.


This, of course, was an expression of love on my father's part, the desire to share favourite things with a family member and to nurture the brain of a kid who looked like she might turn out bright. It was good parenting, the artistic equivalent of taking care to put nutritious meals in front of me, and like a well-nourished child I thrived on it.


One of the directors he put before me was Polanski.


I still remember the day we went to the Chinatown-Knife In The Water double bill. I remember the movies, my earnest concentration to expand my mind around these new challenges, the sense of occasion, like I was being shown some entirely new secret. I remember the Italian meal afterwards, the way my dad talked to me about the movies and asked me what I thought, the feeling of interest and approval from him all through the day. I was in my mid-teens, I think, very young really. Young enough that the movies definitely were a challenge I had to rise to and felt proud of meeting. I was older than the girl Polanski raped. Had raped when I was a baby, in fact, but I didn't know anything about that. I was safe with my dad, the man who a few years later would read my first short story and say, 'You could be a proper writer,' and he was taking me out to dinner.


None of this means anything when we talk about Polanski the man. But when I think of Polanski, I remember that dark old cinema. I remember being curled up on the sofa watching Rosemary's Baby. I remember being so well protected that I could run into the wilds of art and thought and play wherever I chose.


So I love Polanski's films. I love them because they're great films, and I love them because when I watch them, I remember people who loved me.


And I think that if justice had been done, he would have been in jail the day my dad took me to that cinema.


And when I try to reconcile those opposites, even though intellectually I believe they're compatible, the emotional part of my brain wants to know what on earth is wrong with me.



*****



What happens between artist and consumer when you consume the work they've created?

On the most basic level, you usually make some kind of financial transaction. You pay the price of a ticket, a DVD, a book, a CD, or some other sum that gives you access to whatever physical form the work of art has been rendered in. The amount you pay is almost always way less than it cost the artist or artists to create it, whether in actual expenses or in man-hours. Trust me, it cost more than £12.99's worth of groceries to keep me alive long enough to write In Great Waters. The thing you buy is usually not the work of art itself, unless it's a painting or a sculpture; usually you buy either a mass-produced reproduction or recording of the stuff that goes to make it up, words, images, sounds or whatever, or you buy permission from the owners of a cinema to go into a room where you will be able to see a mass-produced reproduction of a recording of the images and sounds.


As an interaction, it's fairly straightforward. But it's also intangible. When my dad bought me dinner the day of the Polanski outing, the food arrived on plates, we ate it until it was gone, and that was the end of it. But when he bought us tickets, it wasn't two little pieces of paper he wanted. If that was what we'd been looking for, he could have bought a whole roll of them from a supply shop and saved himself some money. What we wanted was the experience of the films - and once we'd seen them, we could carry on remembering them. When I later bought a DVD of Rosemary's Baby, it wasn't the disc I wanted, it was the ability to watch the movie - and in theory I could have the same experience every single day without paying an extra penny. I can think about any of those movies without being charged for it, and thinking about them is an essential part of the consumption process.


Similarly for the artist, the object I bought was not the object they created. My DVD box doesn't contain the streets of New York and a youthful Mia Farrow, after all, nor even a roll of film. The recent Hollywood writer's strike included the protest that writers, ridiculously, earned less per DVD than the guy who made the box - but why does this strike us as ridiculous? Because it's the content rather than the physical object that we want to consume, and the content comes from somewhere else.


The purchase of any item is a closed transaction. If you want a copy of my latest book (and you do, I assure you), you pay Amazon £9.09 at the time of writing, and assuming they deliver the book to you in the time frame and condition promised, that's it. They can't threaten to take it away unless you give them more money; you can't expect them to send you anything else unless you give them more money; if you change your mind and return it, all you get back is £9.09. If you choose, you need never deal with Amazon again: you haven't created a relationship with them. You paid, they delivered, you can both walk away. No hard feelings. No strong feelings at all.


But when it comes to works of art, sometimes we find it hard to stick to the closed-exchange model.


In his book about football consumption, Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby reflects on the fans' comparable tendency to feel betrayed when they find their beloved clubs raising prices beyond the fans' means:


It is interesting and revealing that opposition to these bond schemes has taken on the tone of a crusade, as if the clubs had a moral obligation to their supporters. What do the clubs owe us, any of us, really? I have stumped up thousands of pounds to watch Arsenal over the last twenty years; but each time money has changed hands, I have received something in return: admission to a game, a train ticket, a programme. Why is football any different from the cinema, say, or a record shop? The difference is that all of us feel these astonishing deep allegiances ... Over the years we have come to confuse football with something else, something more necessary, which is why these cries of outrage are so heartfelt and so indignant.


Hornby perceptively observes that every financial investment he has made in his beloved product has been a closed transaction: you pay your money, you get exactly what you paid for, and if you believe your money purchased more than was advertised, reality will prove you wrong - or at least powerless to enforce your view. But somehow it's hard to see the money as just money. To a greater or lesser extent, we can see the money as buying something more.

Does the money you spent buy you any expectations of, or indeed duty to, the people whose work you've spent it on? In most cases the answer is an obvious no, but when it comes to matters of real passion like sport or art, our instincts get confused.


My last birthday a friend of mine gave me a book by psychologist Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational. In it, the good professor - himself motivated to study psychology less for abstract reasons and more from the experience of terrible pain when nurses peeled the bandages too fast (for what reason, asks the study?) off the wounds inflicted by severe burns - considers two different kinds of interaction. These he refers to as 'social norms' and 'market norms':


Social norms include the friendly requests that people make of each other. Could you help me move this couch? Could you help me change this tire? ... Instant paybacks are not required: you may help move your neighbour's couch, but this doesn't mean he has to come right over and move yours. It's like opening a door for someone: it provides pleasure for both of you, and reciprocity is not immediately required.


The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different ... Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean - in fact, they also include self-reliance, inventiveness, and individualism - but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for - that's just the way it is.


Ariely points out that such norms can coexist peacefully when kept separate, but cause tremendous social friction if you try to play one by the other. A man who expects sex because he bought his date dinner, for instance, has shifted from a social to a market norm and is liable to get neither sex nor his money back. If I tried to pay my father for his time in taking me to the movies, I'd be insulting him.


Social norms can actually increase profits. Companies that encourage a social-norm atmosphere with employee benefits and free take-aways once in a while are more likely to have employees who repay in social kind by working late and committing more creative energy. But once you've moved from a social to a market norm, especially if you do it suddenly, not only do often create a sense of betrayal but you shift the other person into market norm mode in response (your employees' efforts drop down to exactly what you pay them for, say, so no more staying late to finish a job, no more double-checking, no more taking work home). And, too, once you've moved into a market relationship, the social relationship is extremely difficult to get back. Now it's about money, and appeals to social instincts fall on cost-benefit analysing ears.


Now, when it comes to art, on the face of it it's a financial transaction, a market norm. As Nick Hornby would say, every time you spend money you get what was promised: a ticket, a DVD, a book. But the thing is, you have to use the things you buy - and to do that, you need to invest emotion. You could buy a ticket and then throw it away; you could buy a DVD and never play it. To actually consume the work of art - encoded on the film or screened in the cinema or printed on the pages - you have to do something beyond just putting your money down. You have to invest time, and you have to invest feeling. You have to pay attention.


The same applies to anyone who creates a work of art. An artist who invests no emotion at all in their work is going to produce a work of art nobody wants. It's not just a question of billable man-hours. I've worked a variety of jobs besides writing, and compared with schedule-juggling or till-checking, writing is exhausting. It demands a concentration of feeling so intense that some days you can't get it working properly at all. Art is not something you can make absent-mindedly.


In a market relationship, we exchange goods for money. But investment of emotion is for social relationships. Because of that, it can be hard not to feel as if some kind of relationship has been struck up between artist and consumer. You don't know each other personally, but the artist has enriched your emotional life, and generally that's the job of your friends, family and loved ones. When a stranger does it without ever being in your actual presence, the brain gets confused. Rationally you know you don't know them, but some corner of your mind can end up whispering, 'Friends don't demand friends go to jail.'


Having seen the exchange from both the artist and the consumer point of view, though, I don't think this is the way to go.


Looking at things on a social plane can cause curious complications. A couple of examples spring to mind, one more serious than the other. Margaret Atwood caused a lot of annoyance, if I remember right, by suggesting that she could use a remote machine to sign her novels rather than doing it in person, which involved more travel than she felt she could take. Personally I wasn't bothered by this, and remembering my explanation, I said something along the lines of, 'She's already enriched my life with her writing more than I had any right to expect; if she doesn't want to sign my book in person she doesn't have to, she doesn't owe me anything else.' I was talking in social-transaction terms, it seems, but at the same time I was used closed-exchange market logic: she's done her job, done it superbly, and if I want more I ought to give more. Those who were angered by the idea, I suspect, were seeing the relationship between writer and reader more in social terms: they felt that as readers they had invested the same good will in wanting an autograph that they would in paying a visit, and that a remote visit did not reciprocate that good will.

Of more
political import, the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card caused a lot of anguish amongst his fans by arguing passionately and not very coherently against same-sex marriage: the gist of the anguish was that Card's books argued for tolerance (a contested claim, actually) and that consequently it was a painful shock to hear him espousing such intolerant views. There's an interesting essay by one science fiction fan discussing the essay of another here, the two of them taking different viewpoints about whether Card's pronouncements should mean an end to loving his work. Though they differ in their conclusions, what unites them is passion. The fan renouncing Card lamented: 'It was as if that kind, gentle and understanding father figure had casually mentioned over breakfast that today he was going to skin a couple dozen squirrels alive and watch them twitch helplessly on the ground ... I cried, because this person that taught me that understanding was everything, this person that taught me to accept people, to embrace life, to understand - this person was not a person who understood, or accepted, or embraced anything wholeheartedly and without judgement.' The person who felt renouncing Card's works unnecessary replies, 'Sometimes you have to let your heroes turn human, which is a stage of maturation, and then you have to find a way to forgive them for it,' recalling how he wept at the death of his favourite author, Robert Heinlein, knowing he would never get to 'meet' or 'thank' him. The depth of emotion in both essays knows nothing of the closed exchange: the interaction between consumer and artist didn't end in the minds of these consumers, and would never end, because the effect of the art had influenced them so much that it was a permanent part of their identities.

Obviously deciding you've
dragged your tail through enough airports is not as bad as opposing basic civil rights for your fellow citizens - I have every sympathy for the former, myself - and neither is as bad as raping a child. But the fact that people get so distressed when a favourite artist does something they don't like - more so than they would if a stranger did the same thing - shows us in an odd light. If we've loved an artist's work, we can end up wanting the artist to be worthy of that love; in a sense, we feel that by being the kind of person we want them to be, the artist is coming as close as a stranger can to loving us back. They might not be bringing us the paper in bed, but when the paper comes it tells us good things about them. They're doing what a loved one does: being the person we need them to be when we need them to be it. As journalist Donna Minkowitz says of interviewing Card, a literary hero she found impossible to like in person: 'When he says provocative things I agree with, he's my brother.' The language is once again intimate, familial, struggling to find some way to hold on to the sense of kinship she felt when reading the book, to escape the feeling that the emotion she poured into the work wasn't being thrown back in her face by the behaviour of the writer.


What to make of this from the artist's side? Because while I feel for the pained fans, as a writer I'd be unnerved at such a weight of expectation being placed on me.


Some people who consume my art turn up here or e-mail me. That's socialising, and it's nice to do: I get to hear from pleasant people who want to pay me compliments, and who doesn't like that? So I enjoy socialising with the people who consume my art. But do I feel socially connected, really, with the artists whose work I've consumed? No. Because I know from experience that I don't know the people who consume mine - or if I do, only through the distant contact of e-mail or letters. I experience my relationship with artists, on the whole, as a hopefully cordial business transaction; I hesitate to assume they owe me anything - or at least, owe me more than any citizen of the world owes any other citizen of the world, like the duty to be a reasonable human being.


Those are, after all, the explicit terms of the contract. The sticker on my latest hardback says '£12.99', not '£12.99 and a FREE! promise that Kit won't say or do anything you hate,' and I've never seen such a sticker on anyone else's book either. I'd rather not do hateful things, but that's not because people buy my books. If I need sales to motivate me not to be hateful, I'm kind of a jerk. And to be honest the idea of total strangers expecting me to be their sister or mother would be a bit threatening, and I suspect I'm not alone in feeling that.


But since emotion is a necessary part of the artistic process, what to do with it?
There is, to begin with, a practical issue: social relationships are reciprocal, and the relationship between the artist and the consumer is not, or not in the same way. However social I felt with my dad that day, it didn't make Polanski any kind of father figure to me. The father-feelings I have about his films are about my actual father. Showing me stuff to draw out my tastes was his way of connecting with and praising me. Not the only way - it's not as if we had one of those awkward relationships where you can only communicate obliquely by talking about shared interests - but watching a Polanski movie, or a Kurosawa or a Woody Allen movie, I was not only listening to what the director was trying to say but to what my dad was trying to say too. I was trying to learn what my dad was trying to teach me with his suggestion that I watch these movies, and underlying this was a sense of being deeply complimented he thought it was a lesson I could understand.
In the irrational parts of my mind it's possible to get the two mixed up; to feel that one of the messages Polanski put in his films was, 'Kit, your father loves you and respects your mind.' When an artist is heavily associated with a particular relationship, we can conflate the two - and conversely, an artist we discover on our own can be associated with the message, 'You're an independent person who makes their own decisions.' Or 'You're not alone; other people think like you.' Or whatever message we most desperately wish somebody would come along and give us.
This is fine: it's a way of taking care of ourselves. It's just that it's a message we're telling ourselves through watching the movie, not a message the artist put there for us. We can parent ourselves with art, seeing a father or mother figure delivering to us the messages we want to hear, when in fact it's our own act of seeking out these messages, finding confirmation of what we most deeply want to believe, that's the act of nurture. On an interpersonal level, the credit, or indeed the blame, lies with the person who introduces or chooses the art rather than with the artist. The artist wasn't there.
However much emotion I invested in watching Polanski's movies, he doesn't know about it any more than I know exactly what emotions my stuff provokes in the people who read it. Faces may be familiar from photographs, but we're all strangers to one another. Conceiving and consuming a work of art are both essentially self-contained experiences, and the sheer weight of numbers and anonymity means that whatever emotion flows from the consumers to the art never actually reaches the artist. It simply carries on circulating within the consumer. Likewise, whatever emotion the artist invested was not addressed directly to the consumer, not personally, and social relationships are personal.

Rather than encountering each other as members of society, the artist and the consumer relate to each other only incidentally. In both cases, their ultimate relationship is with the work. The artist pours their energy into the work; the consumer pours their energy into the work, but the work is not a permeable membrane. It absorbs energy and bounces it back. Inanimate objects based on abstract conceptions are not very good communicators of what the other guy said about you: the work of art acts not only as a connector between artist and audience but as a breakwall.

I invested emotion in watching Polanski's movies, but does that mean he owes me anything? No. Does it mean I owe him anything? I think it depends what market we're looking at.


I don't think I'm morally obliged to support anything any artist does, no matter how much they enrich my life. I think I owe an artist-as-human-being exactly as much as I owe any other member of society: the benefit of the doubt, and the expectation, should they commit a crime, that they be judged appropriately. To expect an artist to be held to a higher standard of ethics than anyone else is unrealistic, but to hold them to a lower standard of ethics is not only irresponsible but insulting, a failure to judge them as an adult.


But the art does give me something, and something I didn't pay for. A DVD of a good movie costs the same as a terrible one: the money didn't buy the experience. That was the artist's gift.


I don't think I'm obliged to pay it back. I think I need to pay it forward. If my dad took me to the movies, I should be nice to him, but if Polanski's work influenced me either as a person or an artist, I learn from that and put it into what I write and what I do. That, at least, is reciprocating in the same coin: creating beautiful works of art was not a personal favour to me, and while there would be no reason not to pay it back in a personal favour if appropriate, there isn't an obligation. The obligation is to make good use of what you were given.


What about market retaliation? If an artist does something you object to, by this logic, does that mean we can't boycott their work? No. Refusing to put money into the coffers of someone you disapprove of is a basic social as well as market tactic. While I agree with almost everything Jay Smooth ever says, I don't think buying bootleg copies of an artist's work is a good way to express your disapproval: that's kind of stealing, and stealing from someone you don't approve of is not a good tactic in most societies. I think if you want to vote with your wallet to express your disapproval, that doesn't entitle you to break the law to save yourself inconvenience; no one ever died of waiting for a movie to come out on television, or not watching it at all.


Polanski is more talented than me and so I may not be the yardstick by which to judge. But as a small artist judging a big one, I don't think art makes you an exceptional citizen - by which I mean it doesn't make you an exception to the rules of civilisation. The ability to create something doesn't make you anything other than a human being. If I did something wrong and found a fan of my books arguing that I should be let off the hook because of what a great writer I was, I think I'd be kind of insulted. It would be objectifying, a reduction of complex humanity to a mere cypher who could only be judged as a producer of stuff, not as a person and a citizen. If it was a choice between being objectified and being imprisoned I'd probably go with the latter - but if I commit a terrible crime, that's no longer my decision, and if I didn't know that when I committed the crime, I should have.


So I'm just saying here and now: if at some point in the future I commit a serious crime and there's no question that I did it, you don't have to take my side even if you liked my books. The financial deal is simple and closed, and unless you actually introduce yourself, any social relationship we have is with the work. You don't owe me any more than I owe you.


I don't know what's going to happen with Polanski. Mostly I hope the girl, now woman, he raped is left alone in privacy, and that we as a society can get a whole lot better at dealing with rape.
But when it comes to judging criminal behaviour, the basic rule is very simple: art has nothing at all to do with it. Those feelings about the artist? We put them there ourselves, and it's to ourselves, ultimately, that they have to return.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

 

I'm gonna be ON the BBC!

Yes, with no apparent connection to my praising the BBC, I am going to be on television this Friday! 

Specifically, I'm going to be a talking head in a little film insert for Newsnight Review. Two very nice and charming people came round my house last night with a camera and some surprisingly bright lights and filmed me saying stuff.

This Friday, Newsnight. Which you can download for a week after from BBC iPlayer if you don't get the BBC. Tell everyone you know. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

 

Hurrah for the BBC

Anyone in the UK who isn't following Criminal Justice on BBC1 this week, check it out. You can see the previous episodes on BBC iPlayer. For those unfamiliar, it's a tense drama following the build-up to and aftermath of a woman stabbing her husband. Why did she do it? Will she, or should she, go to prison? What will happen to her family? The writing, by Peter Moffat, is naturalistic, taut and thoroughly engrossing.

Since HBO has been making British drama look a bit pallid lately, it's nice to see the BBC come up swinging with something genuinely good. Since the extreme right also seem to have their sights on the BBC - terrifyingly, as with privatised television we'll lose TV journalism that doesn't depend on serving the business turn of whatever wealthy corporation owns the station, meaning that reportage will take a horrible swing away from neutrality - it's also worth reminding ourselves that the BBC doesn't just produce decent news but decent drama. Excellent drama, in fact.

As well as truly outstanding, world-beating nature documentaries. Life, the new David Attenborough series, starts next Monday. And if you're in the UK and not planning to watch it, what on earth is wrong with you?

Say it with me: we love the BBC and don't want it messed with. We love the BBC and don't want it messed with.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

 

Getting into editing

Somebody e-mailed me and asked whether, since I offered advice from an editor's point of view for aspiring writers, what advice I could offer aspiring editors.

They e-mailed me months ago, actually. I e-mailed back saying, 'What a good question. I'll write a post and put it up shortly.' Then I went away and wrote a post.

And then I somehow forgot to put it up. Because sometimes I'm a dumbass.

So, if you're still reading and haven't given up on my dumb ass: many apologies, and here is the answer...



A few provisos. One, I can only answer for my own experience, which is based on London; non-British publishers may work differently. Two, while I was reasonably successful by the time I quit to write, it's not as if I was running Penguin single-handed, so my advice should be measured in proportion to that. Having said that, I'll suggest what I can. It basically boils down to this: make contacts, get experience and keep trying.

1. Get experience.

This is crucial, the essential and inescapable requirement.

Edit your college newspaper or anthology. Take a job writing copy for some other kind of company. Do some reviewing for a local paper. Anything that shows you've had contact with this kind of work, even tangentially, is necessary. An academic qualification alone is unlikely to get you very far.

There's a simple reason for this: editing isn't taught in schools. Literature classes teach us to analyse texts, but there's a difference between speculating about a text as a completed object and the practical approach you have to take to a text that's a work in progress. Students aren't allowed to say that Northanger Abbey might have worked better if Austen had established the existence of Eleanor Tilney's fiance earlier in the story; that's editor talk, and a degree in literature doesn't prove you're capable of those kinds of insights. Nor does it prove you're a reasonable person to work next to, which is something else that editors want to know.


Having said that, we need to remember point 2: You won't be allowed to 'edit' straight away.

That's a job you have to work your way up to. The entry level position is Editorial Assistant, and this involves the following kind of things: proofing copy, sending parcels, making photocopies, handling admin, reading the slush pile - which is probably the closest you get to editing in that position, but be prepared, almost everything in a slush pile is goshawful and deciding whether to kick it up the chain is not very challenging. An editorial assistant is basically the editorial department's PA. It's a good job to have, and you need it to work your way up, but your insights on books may have to wait a while.

So some basic office experience is a useful thing to have if you can't get into editing straight away. A lot of what you'll be doing is filing and carrying, and experience proves you can do that.

But there's a certain catch-22 in sought-after jobs, of which editing is one: people generally want to give the job to someone who's done it before. That ups the odds of them being able to do it. So if you haven't done it before, you're in a difficult position. This brings us to point 3:


Be prepared to work for free when you're starting out.

The publishing world runs on contacts and relationships, on people who know each other making recommendations. I once got a job interview, and subsequently a job, because I sent out my CV to the company on spec and they recognised the name of one of my references. To establish yourself there, there's a simple procedure: take a survey of all the publishing companies in your area, send them a copy of your CV written in a way that highlights anything connected with publishing, and send it to their HR department. Check their records or call them up to get the name of the head of HR right, because this shows you have some initiative and manners, and send them a letter stating that you're very keen to get into editorial and would like to build up your experience, and consequently would love to do some work experience with them if they have anything available.

Don't just send it to the publisher you like best: law of averages is the name of the game here. Big publishers are more likely to be able to do work placements because they have more space, but there's no harm in casting your net wide; if you send in a good CV and letter, they may remember it if you later apply for a job.

On this principle, if they write and say sorry, they don't have anything available, write and thank them for their time and say you hope they'll keep you in mind. Courtesy is very important in this business.

If they do call and offer you some work experience, take it. Even if it's not in editorial. I've worked in Publicity and Contracts as well as Editorial: once you're there, you get some feel of how a publishing company works, which is an important thing you can bring up when it comes to interviews. If you do your job well there, you've now got references from actual publishing people, which will be very valuable.

This brings up a controversy: is it better to take a paying job in non-editorial if editorial is your goal? Some say yes, it's good to get your foot in the door any way you can. And, indeed, you may want to pay your rent. But personally I'd hesitate. I once temped for a month and a half in a non-editorial department, and though I could really have used the job they offered me, in the end I decided against it. The reason was fairly simple: the person who had occupied the job I was filling in for had been promoted within that department. The person whose job she'd been promoted to fill had also been promoted within that department. People were bumping up the chain - but both of them were hoping they'd get into editorial at some point. They'd been in this department for a couple of years, though, and they still hadn't. After a certain point, you can stop looking like a potential editor and start looking like an established Sales or Contracts person, and that can get difficult. I hope the people I was working with did eventually get into editorial, in which case you can ignore this advice, but in general I'd think twice about accepting a job you don't want on the assumption it'll make it easier to get a job you do. It might not.


4: Learn proof reading marks.

This is a notation system that everyone uses to indicate corrections in the text, and if you want to work in editorial, it's as necessary as being able to touch-type. This is an example of the British standard ones. Get a book and study the conventions if you have no other means; if you can afford it, it looks good on your CV to take a training course in them. Copy editing runs on a slightly different system, and you need to learn that too. (To define: copy editing is done after the text has been rewritten, and involves fact-checking, spelling, punctuation, grammar, repetition-spotting and general tidying up. Proof reading is done after the text has been typeset, and is fine tooth comb work.)

This is a technical skill essential to all editors, and you need to learn it.


5. Apply for jobs.

Bear in mind that once you've established yourself as an editor of, say, medical journals, it may be difficult to switch into fiction. Fiction is the most competitive of all the editorial jobs, and indeed I and many others have had a perfectly pleasant time editing non-fiction of various kinds, but it's a good idea to work out a balance of what you're prepared to apply for. If you don't want to spend your career editing legal textbooks, probably you shouldn't apply for that job, but if you want fiction and there's a job open for the autobiography department, that translates fairly well.

If you do want to end up in fiction but get a job in a different field, you'll need to do some freelancing to keep your hand in. Try to get some work reviewing or writing readers reports on unpublished stuff. I got a job editing fiction from a job working on bargain book-style true crime and The Unexplained-style books by taking the following interview approach: the true crime gave me experience working in an editorial department, and on the side I'd been writing reports for aspiring writers (commissioned through a friend of mine who ran a writing bureau; contacts are everything) which gave me experience of handling fiction - therefore, I hadn't done this exact job before but it was the perfect opportunity to combine experience I'd had in different areas.


The Writers and Artists Yearbook contains the contact details of publishers you'll want to approach. Approach them politely, thank them for any attention and persevere.

Editing is a difficult job to get into and coincidences of timing are often a factor. If you're an aspiring writer, it can be a mixed blessing: it gives you some experience of the industry you're hoping to sell to, which can make you more realistic and able to absorb the inevitable knocks, but full-on editing can also sometimes eat up your writing energy; I certainly haven't been at my most prolific when I was editing fiction.

Having said all that, I wish the best of luck to anyone who's trying to get there. Editors are wonderful people to work with, and I hope you all find success.

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