Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Having a Butcher's

Butcher bird seeks inspiration at HOP Snr

I’ve been devouring books. I literally ate a couple the other day thinking they were rice cakes. Honestly, I sort of switch off at lunchtime. It’s the meal I have because it’s halfway to gin and tonic time and one must keep up one’s strength. Noosa Library is a very excellent place for books which is lovely because they are far too expensive to buy here. It occasionally exhibits pretensions beyond its station – like parking Lambrettas and Fiat Bambinos in its foyer to signify Italian month. I would have been perfectly happy with a complimentary glass of pinot grigio and a slice of pepperoni pizza. Besides, I had a rather unpleasant experience in a Fiat Bambino in Rome once which involved the large and morose jilted lover of a friend I’d gone to visit (who had scarpered without warning), and some extremely narrow cobbled streets. Suffice to say my backside was never the same again.

Noosa understands that the primary purpose of a library is a depository for books for loan. Consequently, the shelves are full of them and they are unlikely to run out while I am still able to read. They’ve even thoughtfully provided an impressive selection of large print books for when my eyesight fades. If they don’t have the one you want, they will get it. Not only do they have a lot of books, they are perfectly content to keep acquiring them – unlike British libraries whose guardians feel so bad that most of the population can’t read, they fill their libraries with toys and comic books instead. That’s not to say that literacy isn’t an issue in Australia. When I asked at Blockbuster for an Aussie film called Romulus, My Father I wasn’t all that concerned that the young woman at the counter asked me to spell ‘Romulus’. I guess they don’t teach Roman history and mythology anymore. It was when I asked for The Politician’s Wife and she asked me to spell ‘politician’ that I became alarmed. Disconcertingly, she was able to spell ‘wife’ without any difficulty.

I’ve read so many books these past few months, I’ve forgotten half of them already. I read Black Dogs by Ian McEwan and The Leviathan by Paul Auster - both good, weird, but good and A Theft by Saul Bellow which is not only lovely but provided me with the perfect inscription for my current project. A Thousand Splendid Suns is palatable but covers the same ground as Kite Runner and I found that a bit annoying. There’s only so many literary escapes from The Taliban that one can endure. I read two books in a row that were the end products of creative writing masters degrees. You’d never, ever want to do one of those if you’d read these. I can’t remember their names now. I also read another terrible book called Pros-somethingorother's Dream. (Not its real name, obviously, I just couldn't be bothered remembering it. I suppose a review job is out of the question_)

Shockingly, I have lately neglected books by women so I’ve got out Elizabeth Jolley’s posthumously reissued The Well and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods out. I love everything JW has written and most of EJ’s – although I’ve not read all of them. I studied American literature and it has remained the foundation of my love affair with the novel. If I had to pick one novelist on which to bestow the dubious honour of inspiring me to pick up the pen, it would be Jack Kerouac. I’ve just finished Rabbit is Rich by John Updike which I’ve been meaning to read for years. I read Rabbit, Run about the same time as I first read A Confederacy of Dunces, one of my very favourite books and then just didn’t get around to completing the series. I am now moved to do so having received a refreshing and timely reminder that fictional characters need not carry the burden of redemption, ennoblement or death. They can just be if that is their desire.

When I wrote The Way of the Pear, I wanted to create a female character in the tradition of Rabbit Angstrom and Ignatius C Reilly. I don’t know whether it’s because she’s the wrong gender or just in the wrong time, but Heather doesn’t come across like that to most of the kind people who have read some or all of Pear. Only one person truly saw Heather the way I thought I had portrayed her, (Yo Jim!). Of course it could just be the way I write but, judging by what the people who most disliked her said, there was a general refusal to accept a woman behaving like this. Heather rather pugnaciously takes it upon herself to challenge the world as opposed to merely being frustrated by it or quietly scheming to manipulate it to her will.

More than one person advised me to tighten up the beginning as most readers make up their minds about whether or not they like a book in the first five pages, apparently. Two people advised me to read a book called The first five pages. I didn’t because I don’t believe the premise to be true. I don’t make up my mind about whether or not I like a book until I’ve finished it. That’s not to say that I haven’t cast aside one or two but not because I’d made up my mind I didn’t like them, rather that they were appalling enough to prompt me to decide my time would be better spent sending death threats to their authors. Even then I usually last more than five pages and it’s rare that I don’t give a book a fighting chance. I did finish Pros-somethingorother’s Dream, even though it was diabolically bad. Fundamentally, I believe that it’s the reader who is in debt to the book rather than the other way around. Engaging with a book is an investment of my time that I take very seriously. I’m not going to play mind games with it or impose upon it a pointless agenda like demanding it enthral me at a time of my determination. I trust the book to reveal its purpose to me as and when it chooses. The only thing I require of it is that it doesn’t do anything daft like undermine its own givens. I’m prepared to accept whatever world it lays before me unconditionally and I’m very much in favour of excellent editing.

Another piece of advice I’m always getting is ‘show don’t tell’. Why ever not? It’s a book, not a movie. Every submissions advice list I’ve ever read has contained that one and ‘the reader does not want to read your opinions’. Tell that to Updike or Bellow. I personally love opinion spouting from the mouths of fictional characters. So many contemporary novels smack of being processed through this absurd regulatory prism. The whole point of literature is that it can do what it likes, surely. There are no rules. Rules exist to keep rugby players from knocking eighteen kinds of shit out of each other, not to keep novelists honest. Salman Rushdie, interviewed in The Australian on Saturday says,

‘.. if you’re going to add to that heap [of books in the world] it’s got to be because the book feels necessary.’

You could argue I suppose that the ‘necessity’ factor is subjective, a bit like asking yourself ‘do I look all right?’ before you go out. You’re never going to say, ‘hell no, I’d better stay in’. Writers are going to find their books as ‘necessary’ as bakers find their bread I shouldn’t wonder. However, I do think it’s a much healthier preparatory preamble than to commence the writing of a book as if it were a cake to be baked.

Now all this talk about books has made me hungry and it’s G&T time…


Reading the Signs said...

Lovely post, Pants. Eating books - I remember that, but I suppose I never did take the step of doing it literally. I'm going to pick a book from your list as my next read, probably Stone Gods even though I'm one of those who fell away from JW a bit. Basically didn't 'get' some of her books but my lack, I think, rather than hers.

Of course one can do Tell as well as Show, and no problem at all with a character doing that. It's just that the telling can become the author's easy way of loading on information. Most of the things I edit from prose or poetry are to do with overtelling, and it's always clear to see how much stronger a piece is when that's been removed.

You sound well - I hope that's so.

Dame Honoria Glossop said...

I love Oranges are not the Only Fruit .

I think books are so beautiful, and tactile too. I listen to audio books a lot, but there's something so lovely about holding a book. I have some old children's books with gorgeous bindings and illustrations.

Jen&HerBoat said...

I don't agree with the first five pages thingy either. I'd say that I know whether I'm going to like a book by the 100th page.

But, sadly, by then I have to finish it because I've committed myself.

Oh, except for one honking big 600 pager that I slogged bravely through for three weeks in Australia, only to abdandon with 70 pages remaining before I got on the plane back to Canada.

(oh and HI! I read you a lot but don't think I've commented before.)

That's So Pants said...

Hi Signs

Haven't started Stone Gods yet - it has a lovely cover. Good editing, very important. Digression, of which Bellow and Updike are masters, is one of my favourite novelistic things. It's not to everyone's taste.Celebrated literary critic James Wood recently said "It seems to be easier for John Updike to stifle a yawn than to refrain from writing a book". Ouch!

Hello your Dameship

Oranges was my favourite until lighthousekeeping.

Hi Jen and yer boat and welcome to you. I remember the first 100 pages of Women in Love being dire.



Liz said...

Hi Pants,

I am envious of all the reading time you appear to have at the moment. And presumably the climate in Aus allows you to sit in the sunshine and read if you so wish (reading in the garden on a summer day ranks as one of my favourite pastimes). I have read a couple of John Updike’s books (currently struggling with “Memories of the Ford Administration” which is very dull) but I haven’t got to the ‘Rabbit’ ones yet. They are on my list though.

I was interested in your debate about when you make up your mind as to whether or not you like a book. Whilst I have never made my mind up as early as only 5 pages in, I have to admit that I have taken more than one book back to the library unfinished because it has annoyed me so much. There has to be at last one character that I like or empathise with in some way. If I find everyone in the book utterly loathsome, then I’m not going to care what happens to them and I won’t finish the book. Strange or unusual writing style doesn’t necessarily put me off (it took me nearly half the book to get used to Tony Parsons’ journalistic style in “Stories We Could Tell”, but it was well worth sticking with and I really missed all the characters once I had finished reading), but it is much harder to stick with a book to the bitter end if you don’t like anyone in it. When Jane Austin wrote “Emma” she is alleged to have said she wanted to create a heroine that only she could love and I think she succeeded as Emma Woodhouse is selfish and unpleasant and someone I could never tire of slapping, but fortunately most of the other characters in the book are much nicer than she is!

I’m with you on editorial guidance. I had pretensions to be a writer myself at one time and I was often struck by the fact that most ‘classic’ literature appears to disobey most of the rules that modern would-be writers are faced with. ‘Don’t have too many characters’ is my favourite – tell that to Tolstoy!

Sorry that's such a long comment - clearly I never mastered editing.

nmj said...

Hey Pants, Great post! Unfortunately, I don't give a book very long before I cast it aside. I am v impatient, but there are also energy issues - I can't waste energy on crap (but I used to force myself through every book, 'til I was about thirty five). I don't really have to like the characters (hey liz), but I have to like (if not love) the writing. Lazy writing just makes me wail. And I still haven't read The Kite Runner. For this, I feel that I am a bad person. And there is just no excuse for bad editing. Sorry this is all a bit incoherent and jumbled. It is late...x

dysthymiac said...

Dear Liz obviously knows little of NOOSA and that it is such a good place for read-read-reading, that even bad books might be finished.

That's So Pants said...

Hey Ms Dys

That it is.



That's So Pants said...

Hi Liz

Sorry.. I pushed the wrong button after the last comment. Funny how the best writers break all the rules isn't it? One feels compelled to join them really. What has one got to lose?


You a bad person? Never!