Thursday, 4 February 2016

Is stylised prose making a comeback?

I thought at first I was asking this question with my reviewer's hat on, after reading a few recent novels that seemed to me, anyway, to be excellent examples of stylised prose. Marlon James's debut, for example, John Crow's Devil, felt highly stylised, in the best possible way, a great marrying of voice and language.

 I also got excited by Laird Hunt's excellent Neverhome, about a woman who has joined up to fight during the American Civil War, for the same reason - a voice that felt both realistic and unreal, literary in a stylised way.

I think of Megan Abbott as a great contemporary stylist, too. Bury Me Deep is a perfect example:

A favourite from the past is Eudora Welty, a superb stylist - and of course, the Modernists. Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence and co, all stylists. But for a long time now, 'style' has been out of fashion. Perhaps that's why Hemingway has also been in the doldrums. Chandler, too. Robert Louis Stevenson, a great prose stylist - but who amongst us reads him regularly now? Jane Austen has been cited as a stylist (I was asked once by a terrifying teacher at school who I'd offer up as an example of a great stylist, back in the 1980s. I could only think of Austen and almost died with relief when he just said 'hmmmm', and didn't throw the blackboard chalk at me, which he was wont to do), and at least is still read. But who else? Martin Amis is listed as a stylist, but he's famously never won the Booker. I think James may have beaten him to it, as the times change...

Some linked the disappearance of style in contemporary writing to the rise in creative writing schools - so I guess nobody is being taught to write like Hemingway? I've never quite understood what's meant by the criticism that a piece of work is very 'creative writing school' and I'm still not quite sure. I think what's meant by that criticism is that individuality is being ironed out, to produce a more bland, more generally acceptable rose style. Get rid of the quirks and obey the rules.

I'm not sure that's fair to creative writing schools, if that is what such a criticism means. What part do publishers play in this? Do publishers prefer a blander, more pared-back, more simplistic style that has a greater potential to appeal to a larger group of people? Marlon James asked recently if the reason publishers didn't go for his early work was because he didn't fit their perception of what they thought he should be writing about - but perhaps also he didn't fit how they wanted him to write.

A more stylised piece of prose may well have more limited appeal, of course. So now I'm asking with my writer's hat on. I think my Madeleine Smith novel could probably be described as 'stylised', and at the moment it's with agents as I look for new representation. Will that be a problem, I've been asking myself, if 'style' is still out of fashion (more than a problem, I should say, than low book sales. Cue hollow laughter)?

I've come to realise over the years that often the novels that excite me the most are those with more stylised prose (Joyce Carol Oates is someone I'd cite in this category, too), and the ones that are least stylised are the ones I truly struggle to 'like'. So is 'style' making a comeback, or are the likes of James and Hunt more of an anomaly? I can but hope...

I should also add, that non-fiction is part of this, too. When I was writing 'Between the Sheets' I was very aware that my writing style was...raw, I would call it. Quite rough in places. I only had to read Claire Tomalin's beautifully written biography of Katherine Mansfield to realise the difference. But I was in a real quandary about that. My book, I felt, had a political point to make and I wanted that to feel real, immediate. A rougher, rawer style felt appropriate. Beautifully polished prose didn't. I have the feeling sometimes, in literary biography, that one is supposed to be more 'ladylike' in one's expressions. But this wasn't, I'm happy to say, a 'ladylike' book!


Tuesday, 12 January 2016

How Did She Get So Much Of It Into Him? A Victorian Murder Mystery

In the early hours of March 23rd, 1857, a young man of French parentage, originally from Jersey but living now in Glasgow, staggered into his lodgings in agony. His name was Emile L'Angelier, and he would die from severe and excessive arsenic poisoning around 11am.

His death led to one of the most notorious murder trials of the nineteenth century. Because the individual accused of murdering him was a twenty-two year old woman, the daughter of a wealthy architect. Her name was Madeleine Smith, and she had been conducting a clandestine affair with the dead man for two years.

Her trial caused shock waves, not least because her love letters to the victim were read out in court. They were frank and unashamed, detailing the first time the couple had sex. Madeleine not only wrote about sex, she wrote that she enjoyed it, too. Newspapers were aghast - after the trial, many took the view that Emile, an older man and a foreigner, must have corrupted this young woman.

But that didn't answer the question: did she kill him?

At the end of the short trial, Madeleine was found 'not proven' and released. Despite the evidence of a note she'd sent Emile asking him to meet her, the prosecution couldn't prove that the two had met the night before he died. And despite the fact that she had purchased arsenic three times in the weeks before Emile's death, they couldn't prove that she had administered it to him. And despite the fact that Emile would often stop at her apartments on Blythswood square, tapping the railings to indicate he was there, when she would give him a cup of cocoa, the prosecution couldn't prove that the arsenic had been stirred into the hot drink. Chemists testified at the trial that sprinkling the poison into hot liquid would simply make it adhere into a sizeable lump, easily detected. One found that if you boiled the arsenic up with the chocolate, the poison would disperse into smaller lumps, but not enough to go unnoticed.

Four or five grains of arsenic is all it takes to kill a man. Doctors found, after an autopsy, that Emile had about 90 grains in his body at the time of death. Given the considerable purging that would have taken place, they estimated he'd ingested at least double that amount. Approximately half an ounce. The amount Madeleine bought each time she purchased arsenic from a local apothecary. If she did kill him, how on earth did she get so much of it into him?

It all looks pretty bad for Madeleine. When I started researching for my novel about her, I kept an open mind. Suicide? Suicide to frame her? Murder by another hand? Madeleine's sole motive was her desire to end the affair with Emile, which he was refusing to let her do. He had told her he would show her love letters to her father. Her response was terror and hysteria: she immediately sent the houseboy to purchase prussic acid, a well-known poison for suicides. But the apothecary wouldn't sell it to the young servant. What else was she to do?

Here's how the story began for me. In December 2010, the writer Emma Tennant rang me to say that she was working on a novel about Madeleine Smith and asked if I'd like to write it with her. I was more than happy to agree - I'd reviewed Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair's excellent history, Murder and Morality in Victorian Britain: The Story of Madeline Smith (Manchester UP), and knew something about her life after the trial. Emma suggested I tell Madeleine's side of the story, and I thought about having her tell it towards the end of her life, when she was living in New York.

I was finishing my novel Unfashioned Creatures at the time, and didn't get the chance to write anything when a year later, Emma rang again. We talked about it some more, and this spurred me on to write a few pages. Unfortunately, Emma then became seriously ill. I visited her in the summer of 2012. She had sent me 26 pages of the novel she had been working on, and I had sent her about 20 pages of my side of it. She had hoped to be able to do more, but after my visit she rang again to say she didn't think she could manage it. She gifted me her 26 pages (set at the time of the trial) to use as I saw fit.

By this time, I'd already thought more about Madeline's life after the trial. I wanted to write a section about her life in London, when she married George Wardle, the manager of William Morris's arts and crafts firm. And I wanted to write a section set in New York, the year before she died, set in 1927. When I became Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone's Library in May 2013, I managed to get a rough first draft written.

But I still hadn't solved the essential dilemma. Was Madeleine a murderer or wasn't she? I tried to tell myself it didn't matter, but it did. Either I was writing a story about a woman who had committed murder and got away with it, or I was writing about a women unjustly accused and suspected for the rest of her life. I had to make up my mind, and that also meant deciding how, if she was guilty, she could have done it.

Emma certainly thought she was guilty, and gave me a hint about how it could have been done. Janet Morgan, author of Agatha Christie: A Biography, also told me, when I chaired her at an event, that she was sure Madeleine was guilty. But Sue John at Glasgow Women's Library was quite convinced of her innocence, and biographers are divided, too.

It wasn't until I read through her letters (the crime writer Caro Ramsay very kindly gave me hard copy of the trial, and it is also available online as a pfd) - some of which I got to see at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where a scarcely legible hand covers every scarp of the paper - that I made up my mind. I think it was the letter with her first response ot Emile's threats that convinced me. I believe her terror; I believe she thinks her father will throw her out on the street (given that she was sent away by her family after the trial would bear that fear out). I believe she is quite desperate, and out of her mind with panic.

There then remained the problem of - how? I've badgered my poor family and close friends about my particular theory, which will be revealed at the end of my novel.

But how do you think she might have done it?


Monday, 13 July 2015

The harm that loving characters too much can do

It's a tricky line for a writer to tread. How many of us have had novels rejected by publishers, who tell us that they "just didn't fall in love with" our characters? How many of us have had novels accepted because publishers tell us that they "just fell in love with" our characters?

How to create a "loveable enough" character can be a cynical exercise and you can see it in some contemporary novels - the overloading of vulnerability (make your narrator an orphaned kitten!), the piling-up of tragic events, the sentimentality ratio off the scale.

But it's what we want, as readers. Or at least, the current fuss about Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman points that way. I have a confession to make - I've still not read To Kill a Mockingbird. I somehow missed the school-imposed years when it became practically a set text, and I've missed subsequent opportunities since.

That doesn't mean I don't hold similar characters close to my bosom: the first 'fictional' character I really fell in love with was The Girl, or the Second Mrs de Winter, in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. I read it when I was about 13, and those first few chapters about the shy and unsure who feels she's doing everything wrong fitted exactly with my perception of myself at that age. I even remember feeling quite annoyed when another girl in my class at school said it was her favourite novel, and The Girl was her favourite character - you can't have her, I wanted to say, she's mine!

When we love, we possess, and it's clear from the furore about Finch that we feel we 'own' him, too. There's an argument to be made that Finch isn't so much a character as an ideal and it's the destruction of that ideal we object to so much in Go Set a Watchman (similarly, we 'love Jane Eyre, but also see her as an ideal - we are meant to cheer when she refuses Rochester's request to be his mistress. How would we feel if an previously undiscovered manuscript of that novel showed a Jane Eyre capitulating to Rochester's request?)

But even with an ideal, it's an expression of love that we have for him/her/it. And that expression of love contains a difficult message for authors. How dare, we seem to be saying, Harper Lee take Finch and make him detestable? How dare she do that to 'our' hero?

But perhaps Go Set a Watchman has given us a useful reminder that characters are not 'ours' to own; that they belong to the author, who has the right to do whatever they want with them. Look at Arthur Conan Doyle, for example: he killed off Sherlock Holmes only to be forced by readers who adored him to bring him back. Conan Doyle felt tethered to a character he wanted to see the back of (actors playing the character have sometimes felt like that too, when they become too popular).

This is where 'love' hampers creativity. We need to be free, as writers, to do what we want with the characters we have created. Recently, the author Claire Messud was questioned about creating an 'unlikeable' character in her novel, The Woman Upstairs. She railed against the suggestion that in order to appreciate a work, we have to 'like' the protagonists. What she was protesting against was the forcing into a creative hole that such a liking entails.

I'm writing at the moment about a Victorian woman accused of murder. If she was guilty, how do I make her 'lovable'? And should I even try? Is that what I should be doing? I don't think so: I want to get at some kind of psychological truth about her, not make her some kind of defenceless kitten. Can I make her sympathetic, like The Girl in Rebecca? I can try - if it feels appropriate. But 'loveable'? Maybe that's just a step too far...

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Do you have to be middle-class to be a writer?

I've decided to raise the thorny question of class and writing, partly because I recently saw a facebook post by another writer, who said that when she went to University, it was full of 'posh kids from private school.' Author James Kelman has been very vocal about the issue of class, and has often raised the point that you pretty much need a private income to be a writer these days (if you don't have a different day job, or aren't a best seller).

I suspect there are some who would like to think class has nothing to do with being a writer any more - in Tony Blair 's words, 'hey, we're all middle class now'. Except, of course, that that's rubbish.

I should 'fess up about what bothered me about that writer's observation about her Uni days - I was one of those 'posh kids from a private school'. Except that what's behind that statement is a little more: my Dad grew up in  a tenement in Springburn before his family emigrated to Canada, my Mum in a council house in Knightswood, both areas in Glasgow (for those who don't know, Springburn once had the accolade of being the worst housing area in the whole of Europe). I was first-generation University educated - like many working-class parents, they held fast to the notion that 'nobody can take it away from you', in reference to a degree. That's important when you grow up in families where the main jobs are in industry the threat of redundancy is always hanging over you. That job could be taken off you in a second.

So my parents worked hard and made sacrifices to send me and my brother to a private school with an academic reputation. And yes, there were lots of 'posh kids' there - I remember still having the glottal stop when I got there (when you don't pronounce all your 't's) and being really aware that I spoke differently. I consciously changed the way I spoke to fit in - right or wrong? Well, I was 12. And at 12, you just want to be like everyone else.

Now - by way of two University degrees and a brief career as an academic - I write full-time as a critic and author. I have no sick pay, no maternity leave, no holiday pay, no occupational pension, no incremental pay rise. But thanks to my parents' efforts, I had the courage to make a leap and go for the thing I really wanted to spend my life doing - writing.

And what of 'class' in my writing life now? Well, two things. When I was researching for my non-fiction book, Between the Sheets, I read a ton of biographies. I've always been keen on history and biography anyway, but this time, because I was trying to pay the bills and take time out to research as well (I got a five-figure advance for that book but hardly enough to live on - £10,000, slightly less after agents' fees and half was paid first, leaving about £4500 to support me for the year I was writing it), I was very aware of the jobs held by biographers, especially women.

Academics aside, and there weren't many of them, they didn't seem to have 'day jobs'. The business of biography research is a slow and time-consuming one. How did they pay the bills, I kept wondering. Did they all have wealthy husbands? Were they all from rich backgrounds themselves?

Many of them probably had, and were. Biographies tend to be written by the middle-classes, because only the middle-classes can afford the time out needed to research.

Second point: I was once castigated by a literary editor for beginning an article with a gerund. I waited till he was finished berating me in front of everyone in the office then calmly said, it's not a gerund. that's a verbal noun. This is a verbal adjective. It's a gerundive.' Because I had a classical education,too, I wanted to add. I'm not saying a private education is best if you need to score points off other people. But at that moment I was grateful for it.

What about fiction, though? How we love the story of single mum J K Rowling scribbling her multi-million pound first Harry Potter in a cafe, where she sat all day because she couldn't afford heating at home. In the twenty-first century, we're still sentimentalising the working-class effort, because the truth is, it shouldn't be happening.

If you're working-class, you shouldn't be writing - and definitely not anything 'literary'! That's the message, anyway. Government grants are meant to help with this, but they're occasional and when you don't have much money, an occasional grant just delays the problem, it doesn't solve it.

I'd like to see the state pay wages to writers - I know people like Janice Galloway have called for this in the past. Would I be ineligible for being a 'posh kid from a private school' though, even though I earn less than many 'working-class' jobs pay? I hope not. But we do need to make a greater effort to ensure that class doesn't have a place in whether you think you can be a writer or not. I attend book festivals every year, either to review or chair. And they're predominantly middle-class (at one, I overheard an author say to the rest of her panel, 'Oh my goodness, three of us are called Charlotte! we're so middle-class!')

I've suggested before that book festivals have tickets that are free for the unemployed. Not just discounted, but free. I've been unemployed plenty of times in my life and book festival tickets, funnily enough, aren't a top priority. The middle-classes still have a monopoly on the production and, if festival attendance is anything to go by, the consumption of literature. We need to do something about that monopoly. But not by stereotyping, or making assumptions, even though I bet I've made a few in this post. It's hard to avoid, but we can try.      

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

When the midlist is where you want to be

I was inspired to write this piece after being alerted by literary blogger Isabel Costello to this article on the Guardian's website on Monday:

The writer argues that midlist authors are being sidelined (ah yes - what's new?), and that's often where the interesting stuff happens. Big publishers are favouring the kind of titles that promise big branding, focusing on pushing one or two writers at the expense of the rest, because those one or two writers can really bring in the big bucks, if TV and film tie-ins are part of the package.

So far, so not-new. But the article ended on a note of hope for all struggling writers out there: "Those people with half-finished manuscripts in their drawers might take heart from the story of Nathan Filer, the mental health nurse who this week won a Costa award for his first novel. He had 11 publishers vying for the rights to publish The Shock of the Fall. The search for the new is not over yet."

Nathan Filer has become huge since winning the Costa - no midlist ignominy for him, he's set to become a 'brand' like Mantel, Rowling et al, the article suggests. In other words. the piece ends by arguing against itself - telling us the midlist is the interesting place to be, but that what you really want is headline-grabbing success.

Well - and my publishers may not like this! - I don't want that. I like the midlist. I like being there. I get published, I get reviewed, I get to speak at book festivals, I get to meet readers, and I even get (once!) shortlisted for a big prize. I don't earn enough to pay the bills from it because midlist writers don't attract those kinds of fees, but that also gives me the freedom to write exactly what I want. I don't have to worry that I'm not being commercial enough - I don't have to do things I don't want to do.

There's another aspect that's often overlooked. When my book, Between the Sheets first came out, it was published in the States first, in February 2010. Reviews started appearing, and continued right up until the end of August that year. It was hugely flattering and often exciting to get that kind of attention. It was also anxiety-inducing.

Since the death of my Dad almost eight years ago, I've suffered from mild anxiety attacks. They don't stop me performing my work, which I love doing anyway. But I think they'd increase and get worse if I did get the kind of attention that the real headliners get. Do I want the Mail launching a crusade against me, as they have done Hilary Mantel? Do I want to be in such demand at festivals that I don't get another word written for years? Yann Martel said that winning the Booker stopped him writing for 12 months, he was having to do so much other stuff.

Of course I'd love to win a major prize. Of course I'd love never to have to worry about money again. Of course 'd love to have publicists running around after me, booking the best hotels and restaurants to keep me happy. But I'm not sure I want all the other stuff that goes with it. the 'midlist' suits me, my writing, and my personality. Maybe that makes me unadventurous, too cautious about my life. But not, I hope, about my writing.  

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

On reviewing self-published work

As a writer who makes the bulk of her living reviewing for newspapers, I'm beginning to wonder if I should change my attitude to this question, or if I'm still on the right track about it.
Up until now, I have believed very strongly that only the traditionally published should be reviewed in newspapers and journals. As a traditionally published author, you've been assessed, contracted, edited and copy-edited to produce the best version of your book that you can, and the least you deserve is to be taken seriously and reviewed seriously, whether that means with a positive or negative outcome.
That's if you can make it on to the increasingly smaller books sections in newspapers and magazines in the first place, of course.
But a few months ago I reviewed Black Thorn by Aimee Chalmers for The Herald, a self-published novel about the poet Marion Angus. I was hugely impressed by it. It's intelligent and experimental, written partly in Scots, and beautifully so. Should it have been excluded by the traditional books pages because it hadn't been through the same process as other non-selfpublished titles? Surely inclusion should only be about literary merit, not about who publishes it?

But that still didn't quite change my mind. What has challenged me more is something else entirely. Like many traditionally published writers, I also work occasionally for literary advice companies reading unpublished manuscripts sent in for assessment. I've always felt it hugely important to be as honest as possible, especially as the fees for these services can be high. I would never tell someone to give up writing, no matter how bad a job they might have done - it's not my place to do that. But I have always been clear about where and how much more work was needed. That's partly because when I was first setting out on my own 'adventure' in fiction, I got stuck and sent 50 pages off for advice.
The advice I got in reply was correct (I was being too ambitious) but so gently given that I could easily delude myself, and I subsequently spent a very long time writing a book that wasn't going to make it. You could have published it yourself, I hear you cry. Horrors! That first attempt is thankfully in a drawer and it's never coming out.
I am regularly sent scripts that I think the same way about - there's potential there, but it needs work before going to an agent/traditional publisher - even more so, please don't attempt to self-publish this until it's hugely improved!
Most people take that advice well, some go ballistic.
So would it be right, for reviewers like myself, to assess work that had been self-published before it was really ready, in the same way that we would assess a novel by someone published traditionally, who had been through the rigours of editing?
Some very small publishers operate virtually as printers rather than publishers, with no editorial input at all, including proper copy-editing. It shows, and that can be tricky for a reviewer. Should I cut the writer some slack for a poorly produced book that's been printed up badly? Or treat it exactly the same way I would a book from Granta, Faber, Cape etc?
And would self-published authors even want me to review their books? 'Self-published' is an enormous category - it includes those who sell massively and those who sell only to friends and family; those who have been traditionally published and have found themselves on the rejection end of things because of a poor sales record but who have a decent following nonetheless; those who cannot write and will never be able to write but are convinced they're geniuses and it's only the metropolitan elite that's keeping them from Booker prize-winning glory.
Some of these books will be brilliant and some of these will be terrible - much like traditional publishing in fact. If the books pages in newspapers were expanding instead of shrinking, I'd say, possibly it is time to treat self-published books the same as traditionally published ones, and review them the same way. Regardless of whether they're 'ready' or not. But would that be fair?    

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Is the 'high concept' destroying voice?

Because bigger publishers are unwilling to take a risk with new kinds of writing (witness the many years it took Eimear McBride to get A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing to publication), 'literary' novelists are having to get used to what commercial writers and film-makers have known for years:  the need to 'make a pitch', to create stories with a 'high concept' (see this article for an example here:

'High concept' stories are stories that are easily marketable, but have to be 'original' or 'unique' without scaring the children - hence the popularity of fan fiction. Fan fiction, like any number of vampire or Jane Austen mash-ups, gives you just enough familiarity to make you comfortable, but also the illusion of originality to make you feel that you're reading something genuinely different.

'High concept' stories are also highly visual, they have a mass market appeal, and spawn the essential 'what if' question that works so well for book groups (see these sites here for examples of all of this: on high concept films have been around for ages but are increasingly relevant for novels ( This Amazon list suggest a top ten of literary novels that have used 'high concepts', which gives you the general idea:

What impact does this emphasis on high-concept have on the story you want to write? As a reviewer, what I've been noticing lately is a concentration on such 'high concepts' in new novels especially, often many of them genuinely fascinating. But I've noticed something else as well, which prompts another kind of question: does the 'high concept' concentration come at the expense of voice?

A few years ago, some critics complained that creative writing courses were ironing out different 'voices' (not different 'stories', to stress). A recent event I did at the Scottish Writers Centre sparked of a conversation with organiser Douglas Thompson about Eudora Welty, a writer I love, and sent me back to her books. Her story collection, The Golden Apples, published in 1949 is all about the voice. Look at the opening to her first story in the collection, 'Shower of Gold':

"That was Miss Snowdie MacLain.
She comes after her butter, won't let me run over with it from just across the road. Her husband walked out of the house one day and left his hat on the banks of the Big Black River - That could have started something, too.
We might have had a little run on doing that in Morgana, if it had been so willed. What King did, the copycats always might do. Well, King MacLain left a new straw hat on the banks of the Big Black and there are people that considered he headed west."

I adore this voice from the first word. The big concept? Well, that would be a missing husband perhaps. But there's no 'what if' question here, no big visuals. Who would publish Welty now? Probably a small publisher. My favourite writers all have strong, identifiable voices: Joyce Carol Oates is a good example, and perhaps the fact that many of her stories seem to be taken from real life newspaper reports is what gets her past the 'high concept' question (plus the fact she began her career before that was mandatory for literary novelists). I'd also put Megan Abbott into this category, too: a superb stylist whose latest novel has a high concept that would make a great movie, The Fever.

I'd also include Lucy Ellmann in any list of contemporary writers with a 'voice', and when I think to the past, I come up with names like Stella Gibbons and Dodie Smith. What voices for terrific dark comedy all three of them have! But are they 'high concept'? Hardly.

Why the 'high concept' should kill off 'voice', or style, isn't necessarily clear. After all, you could argue Robert Louis Stevenson managed to pull off both: another great stylist yet also highly visual, great 'what if' stories. But given how few names I can think up to fit both, I would have to argue that the emphasis on one has led to the detriment, or the lack of effort on behalf of, the other.

Does it matter, though, if high-concept content is triumphing over style? For me personally, it's the voice that hooks me and keeps me, not the concept. Am I in the minority?