Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Book Blogging as Travel Writing

In a recent post at Of Books and Bicycles, Dorothy W. explored the connection between blogs and personal essays:

I'm beginning to think that the best blogs are crosses between diaries and personal essays -- with, of course, the links and the interactivity thrown in there. I love personal essays -- one of my favorite books is Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay. If the voice in an essay is interesting, it almost doesn't matter what the subject is. I read them for the personality, the sense of the author that lies behind the words, and I think that's what I enjoy about blogs too. I want a sense of a personality coming through. And I love the way that personal essays -- and blogs -- don't have to be consistent or coherent from one part to the next. They are places to explore ideas, not necessarily to present well-thought-out conclusions. Montaigne, one of the best personal essayists was upfront about being contradictory. And people themselves are contradictory, so why not?

I’ve thought a bit about the connection myself. Early in the evolution of my blog, I looked to personal essays for inspiration. I haven’t read as widely in that genre as I’d like though and I’m grateful for Dorothy’s recommendation of the Lopate anthology. I’d love to hear recommendations from others as well.

It occurred to me recently that book bloggers might also take inspiration from travel writing. Claire Harman, biographer of Robert Louis Stevenson, says of his first foray into travel writing (An Inland Voyage):

What he intended as "an easy book," riding on the novelty of his itinerary, turned into an impromptu prospectus of the author’s personality, philosophy and literary style.

I’m a fan of Stevenson’s travel books (and incidentally also of his essays) and the sort of travel writing that Harman describes is the sort I most enjoy in its contemporary guise as well.

Some criticize travel writing that reflects back on the author in this manner as arrogant. They scoff at writers who travel many miles to see a new place then seem unable to get out of their own way and truly see the place at which they’ve arrived. Certainly I’ve come across books of which this is a fair criticism. But I’m more inclined to regard the reverse as arrogant. I think that those who light down in a wholly unfamiliar place and shortly thereafter purport to produce an objective and authoritative account of it are deluding themselves. What they can credibly offer is their perceptions of the new place and their reflections on what their encounter with that place reveals about themselves. This can make for compelling reading.

How is this brief meditation on travel writing relevant to the practice of book blogging? My favourite litbloggers travel into books with an open mind and send back dispatches. They don’t purport to describe the book in objective fashion; they write about their encounter with the book and thereby reveal something about their previous reading, their preconceptions, their aesthetic sensibilities. If it’s a return visit rather than a first encounter, they may reflect on shifts in their perception of the terrain this time around. And, most important, rather than expecting fellow readers to take their word as final, they encourage us to pick up the book and see it for ourselves.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Margaret Atwood on Rules and Writing

Margaret Atwood on rules and writing:

The word should is a dangerous one to use when speaking of writing. It's a kind of challenge to the deviousness and inventiveness and audacity and perversity of the creative spirit. Sooner or later, anyone who has been too free with it will be liable to end up wearing it like a dunce's cap. We don't judge good stories by the application to them of some set of external measurements, as we judge giant pumpkins at the Fall Fair. We judge them by the way they strike us.

Margaret Atwood, "Reading Blind" in Moving Targets: Writing With Intent 1982-2004 (2004).

Monday, May 29, 2006

James Salter on Why He Writes

James Salter on why he writes:

A great book may be an accident, but a good one is a possibility, and it is thinking of that that one writes. In short, to achieve. The rest takes care of itself, and so much praise is given to insignificant things that there is hardly any sense in striving for it.

In the end, writing is like a prison, an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe.

James Salter, "Some for Glory, Some for Praise" in Will Blythe, ed., Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (1998).

Friday, May 26, 2006

Book Expo Canada

I read the various blog bulletins from Book Expo America with interest. Book Expo Canada is being held in Toronto from June 9-12 and I’m thinking it may be my patriotic duty to attend. My sense is that the Canadian publishing industry has been slow to embrace the promotional opportunities afforded by the Web, so I’m intrigued to see that this appears to be a central focus of a one-day conference that precedes the trade show: Writers to Readers: Linking the Content Creators to the End Users. The subtitle makes me cringe (Is it meant to be a joke, playing off computer jargon? I hope it’s meant to be a joke) but the program looks interesting. There’s even explicit mention of blogging, although I suspect that this is a reference to promotional blogs connected with individual authors rather than litblogs broadly speaking.

Are any of my fellow Canadian litbloggers planning to attend?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Men at Test

Test is a new Toronto reading series devoted to poetry. It was started by Mark Truscott just two months ago. There are already several poetry series ongoing in this city but Mark saw the need for another:

I began noticing that the easiest way to respond to the poetry read at such events was to key in to its ability to entertain in the immediate sense and that it was difficult (for me at least) to get a sense of its more subtle features. Again, entertainment in poetry is entirely valid in itself. I decided though that I also wanted a chance to hear the work in a different way, in a different context.

Last night’s Test reading was the first I’ve managed to attend. Based on it I’d say that Mark is succeeding admirably.

The site of the series is the Mercer Union (a centre for contemporary art) and it’s a perfect venue. There’s something about a space designed to make you look carefully that somehow also makes you listen carefully. The two readers, Stephen Cain and Lisa Robertson, held the standing-room-only crowd rapt.

Stephen Cain’s work is very interesting, full of satisfying word play. And he did an excellent job of setting up each poem beforehand. I’ve noted before that, much as I enjoy hearing good poetry read aloud, I have a tendency to drift without the words on the page in front of me. Cain had a way of reeling me back in, grounding me each time for the start of the next poem.

Lisa Robertson has an extremely powerful presence, a beautiful voice for reading aloud. This reading marked the launch for her book The Men, newly published by BookThug. I bought it afterwards and went home and immediately read it cover to cover. This morning, I read it again. All I have to say is: buy this book.

The evening closed with a Q & A session. These always make me anxious. There’s that awkward moment of silence at the beginning and I worry that there will be no good questions or, indeed, that there will be no questions at all. But the moment of silence was brief and there were some excellent questions. Topics raised included the inspiration of visual art, the impetus behind found poems, what it means to be a Canadian poet at this point in history, poetic traditions versus poetic genealogies, the experience of being edited, inhabiting the “I” and the “eye” of the poem. High-flying stuff that generated smart and interesting responses from Cain and Robertson.

Watch for sound files of the readings soon to be posted at the Test website. And in the meantime, click over to BookThug and buy The Men.

David Lodge on Literary Biography

David Lodge on literary biography:

Revelations about a writer's life should not affect our independently formed critical assessment of his work. They may, however, confirm or explain reservations about it.

From "The Lives of Graham Greene" in The Practice of Writing (1996).

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fictitious Reading Series 5

The fifth instalment of The Fictitious Reading Series will take place on Sunday, May 28th at 7:30 pm in the gallery space above This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (483 Church Street, Toronto). This month’s featured writers are Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Richard Truhlar. The evening will include readings by Kathryn and Richard, as well as an informal onstage interview with them. Stuart Ross will host, and I'll conduct the interview.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of two books of fiction. Way Up was shortlisted for the 2004 ReLit Awards and won a Danuta Gleed Award. The Nettle Spinner was described in Books in Canada as “a marvellous novel with something of the magic of the best fairy tales in its structure, its timing, and in its richly textured narrative terrain." Kathryn teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and serves as an editor at Bookninja.

Richard Truhlar is the author of seven books of poetry and fiction, the most recent of which is The Hollow and other fictions. His work was described in the following terms in Prairie Fire Magazine: "This is distinctive and compelling writing... A reader senses that Truhlar likes to set himself challenges, either intentionally or intuitively, and then revel in the discovered possibilities of fiction, in an inventive, skilled, and evocative way." Richard is also a visual artist, composer and performer. He was a member of the sound poetry group Owen Sound and a founding editor/publisher of Underwhich Editions. Since 1987, he has worked as the production manager of the Centrediscs recording label of the Canadian Music Centre.

For more information on the series, check out the new Fictitious website.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

What Fiction Moratorium?

Last night, a few of my pals gathered at my favourite local pub for a belated celebration of my birthday. My actual birthday was the day that I flew home from Scotland. With the time change, that could have been a clever way to extend the occasion. Alas I was too jet lagged to make festive use of the extra hours and the party was postponed.

Since it was the day of my birthday celebration, I behaved as if it was my birthday and spoiled myself accordingly. That means books. I made a circuit of downtown bookstores and came away laden with gems.

It began with Lord Jim. When Ella recommended that I read it last week, I intended to check a copy out of the library. Then I spied the pristine 1931 Modern Library edition pictured above and it seemed that it was meant to be. I followed that up with some nice Penguin paperback editions of RLS’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, James Joyce’s The Dubliners, Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe, and Bernard Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives—all the right price and the perfect size to carry around for subway reading. And for those of you who were wondering about my sanity after Sunday’s post, I did go back for the Kavan and the Sorrentino and the Auster.

It’s entirely possible that my moment of panic on Sunday had less to do with the anxiety of influence than with a birthday with a zero in it and the realization that thus far in my adult life my literary output has crawled along at the pace of one book every ten years. In any event, I’ve got a fire lit under me now. And just to be sure I’ll save the Sorrentino and the Auster until after I’ve finished a draft of the meta-fictional piece I’m currently working on.

Stuart, my co-conspirator in The Fictitious Reading Series, turned up at the pub late in the evening. We hadn’t seen one another since before my Scotland trip but he’s been reading my blog.

“I hear you’ve given up fiction,” he said.

“Oh, that was just yesterday,” I replied.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Everything I’ve Ever Wanted to Write

I had an odd moment while book shopping today. I stopped in at my local independent first and didn’t find a single one of the books on my wish list. I continued on to the used bookstore a few doors down and, it would seem, hit the jackpot. They had an Anna Kavan, a Gilbert Sorrentino, and several Paul Auster novels that I’ve been wanting to read.

But instead of the joyful sense of triumph that such finds generally provoke in me, I felt a mounting sense of panic. As I flipped through the books and read the back cover summaries, I began to feel as if everything I’ve ever wanted to write had already been written, as if all of the ideas that I fancy to be my most original had already been used up by more accomplished writers than me.

I suppose I could transform this moment into a positive—a sign that it’s time to act on the urgency I’ve been feeling lately to devote myself more seriously to my fiction. Perhaps I should even take a break from reading fiction for a bit while I concentrate on writing my own. Or at least take a break from reading the sort of experimental fiction that seems too close for comfort to the thing I’m currently attempting to write.

In the end I did put all the novels back on the shelf. I opted instead for a collection of poetry and two non-fiction books. Then I fled to the nearest coffee shop to comfort myself with tea and a chocolate dessert.

Questions for writers:

What do you read while you’re writing?

Do you feel the need to insulate yourself from books that you fear will prove too strong an influence?

Reading Beckett

In the Review section of Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Ian Brown ruminates on reading the collected works of Samuel Beckett:

This is why reading Beckett, as funny and brilliant and insightful as he often is, is always exhausting: he fundamentally disagrees with what you’re doing, and wants to make you stop. Again and again he lures us into a game he then reveals to be pointless and stupid. After a while, it gets on your nerves. Enough Sam, you want to say: if you despise words that much, you could have gone into human resources.


And yet, and yet, as Rushdie says: All you have to do is submit, and the words take you away. It’s the paradox of Beckett, maybe even his flaw, that the writing of the man who said writing is meaningless (and then set out to make it so) should be so compelling and so often beautiful. “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” are the last words of The Unnamable, but it might as well be the motto of everyone who tries to read it.

To read the rest of Brown’s article on his Beckett immersion, click here.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Cover Me

I just finished reading Cover Me, a novel by Mariko Tamaki. It’s her first book, published in 2000 when she was, I think, quite young, and it has the sort of rawness about it that one expects in a first book by a young writer. But given the subject matter, the rawness is right. It amps up the power of the book rather than diminishing it. Plenty of shock factors are present here: self-mutilation, a trip to the psych ward, multiple tattoos, a romantic connection between a girl and a gay boy. But none of it reads as if it’s calculated to shock. It’s all just part of the terrain that the narrator, teenaged Traci Yamoto, inhabits. The back cover copy describes Traci’s story as “a riot-girrl rumble against family expectations and private school poseurs.” This is a bit misleading, making the book sound like more of a romp than it is. Certainly there’s a wicked sense of humour at play. But there’s a quiet, sad centre as well. Traci boldly defies her family's expectations all right, but she also craves their approval, particularly that of her father who comes off as an exasperating but extremely sympathetic character. The novel is equal parts funny and moving, full of devastating moments beautifully written.

Mariko Tamaki has had two more books published since Cover Me, both of which appear to be an interesting blend of fiction and essay: True Lies: The Book of Bad Advice and Fake ID. I’m looking forward to reading them.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Moving Round Books Instead of Through Them

E.M. Forster on literary pseudo-scholarship:

Everything [the pseudo-scholar] says may be accurate but all is useless, because he is moving round books instead of through them, he either has not read them or cannot read them properly. Books have to be read (worse luck, for it takes a long time); it is the only way of discovering what they may contain. [...] The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of its author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency.

From Aspects of the Novel (1927).

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Introducing Characters

In her first column as Books Editor of the Women’s Post, Marianne Apostolides reflects on first impressions, “that moment — that specific point, a click of connection — when the relationship between reader and character begins.” As she thinks about how best to introduce the main character of her second book, she turns to other novels for inspiration:

I took Pnin off my shelf last night, after putting my two kids to bed. I randomly grabbed dozens of other books too, examining how authors introduce their characters. Some writers immediately tell us the character's name, others just use a pronoun; some show the character being observed, others have her observing; some describe the character's physical appearance, others put us right inside her head. These decisions are all pulling us, the readers, toward a certain way of relating to that character.

Click here to read the rest.

My head is full of memorable fictional characters, but after the fact I seldom recall the first moment that I encountered them. Marianne’s column has got me flipping through the books on my own shelves trying to recapture those moments. It seems a very important exercise for a writer, and an interesting one for any reader, to return to that first meeting.

Are there any particularly effective first introductions to characters that stand out for you from your fiction reading?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Lexiconjury: The Philadelphia Edition

Tonight, I attended the penultimate lexiconjury reading. The featured readers were three kick-ass poets from Philadelphia: Janet Neigh, Karen Hannah, and Sarah Dowling. I won’t attempt to describe their work. Even when I think a poetry reading was amazing, I rarely leave with more than a vague sense of what was read. I need to see it on the page before it really sinks in; that’s just the way my brain works. The test for me is whether hearing the poems makes me want to read them for myself. I am very keen now to read the work of each of these poets.

Happily my vagueness need not deprive you altogether. A series of p/reviews are available on a. raw's blog. I encourage you to click here, here and here to learn a bit about each of the poets and her work.

On the way home from the reading, I started composing a new story in my head, plucking the characters at random from my fellow streetcar travellers. I don’t know why, but good poetry always makes me feel like writing fiction.

Monday, May 15, 2006

E.M. Forster on Gertrude Stein

E.M. Forster on Gertrude Stein:

Well, there is one novelist who has tried to abolish time, and her failure is instructive: Gertrude Stein. Going much further than Emily Brontë, Sterne or Proust, Gertrude Stein has smashed up and pulverized her clock and scattered its fragments over the world like the limbs of Osiris, and she has done this not from naughtiness but from a noble motive: she has hoped to emancipate fiction from the tyranny of time and to express in it the life by values only. She fails, because as soon as fiction is completely delivered from time it cannot express anything at all, and in her later writing we can see the slope down which she is slipping. She wants to abolish this whole aspect of the story, this sequence in chronology, and my heart goes out to her. She cannot do it without abolishing the sequence between the sentences. But this is not effective unless the order of the words in the sentences is abolished, which in turn entails the abolition of the order of the letters or sounds in the words. And now she is over the precipice. There is nothing to ridicule in an experiment such as hers. It is much more important to play about like this than to rewrite the Waverly Novels. Yet the experiment is doomed to failure. The time-sequence cannot be destroyed without carrying in its ruin all that should have taken its place; the novel that would express values only becomes unintelligible and therefore valueless.

From E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927).

I’m not a fan of Stein’s work, but neither am I inclined to go along with Forster and categorically doom to failure the sort of experiments with time and chronology that she undertook. Other views?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bad Dialogue

I read a mediocre novel on the plane from Edinburgh to London, and watched a mediocre film on the plane from London to Toronto. In both instances, I was struck by how peculiarly bad the dialogue was. It often seemed as if the characters weren’t even engaged in the same conversation. I’m not referring to the sort of missed communication dialogue that can reveal so much about the relationships between characters in, say, a James Salter short story. I’m referring to characters that don’t seem to be speaking to one another at all.

I can’t help but think that it would take hard work to create this effect, that it could be nearly as difficult as writing good dialogue. How does it happen? Perhaps, at least as far as the film is concerned, it’s a script-by-committee problem. The various people involved in the drafting may have different ideas about the identities of the characters, the nature of their relationships with one another, and hence what any given conversation between them is about. Inconsistencies and contradictions creep in and are never resolved.

This seems a less plausible explanation with respect to a novel where one expects a lone authorial consciousness to be at work. Then again, in light of recent revelations about the roles played by researchers, collaborators, and book packagers in the drafting of some high-profile novels, perhaps it’s naïve of me ever to assume a lone authorial consciousness. It might have required a whole team of people to produce the terrible dialogue in my airplane book.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Typewriters and Nostalgia

Darren Wershler-Henry on typewriters and nostalgia:

The effect of nostalgia on our perception of the past is considerable. It's like a thick smear of Vaseline on the lens of a movie camera, blurring our objectivity. From the far side of the millennial divide, a photo of a typewriter doesn't just show a machine but an icon of unalienated modernist writing. The typewriter has become a symbol of a non-existent sepia-toned era when people typed passionately late into the night under the flickering light of a single naked bulb, sleeves rolled up, suspenders hanging down, lighting each new cigarette off the smouldering butt of the last, occasionally taking a pull from the bottle of bourbon in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.


Here's an object lesson: walk down to the corner bookstore and see how many books — novels, memoirs, and anthologies alike — sport covers featuring grainy sepia-toned close-up photos of of typewriter keyboards. You'll be there a while, I guarantee it, because there are far too many examples to bother citing. The typewriter is the pre-eminent symbol for earnest, unalienated writing and one of the biggest visual clichés of our age.

From The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (McClelland & Stewart, 2005) at 25 & 26.

Setting the Work in Context

I’m back home in Toronto and back to my Saturday morning ritual of reading the Globe and Mail Books section cover to cover. There are some very good reviews in this week’s edition. By good I mean well written, not necessarily positive, though, as it happens, both of the reviews that I single out for praise here have positive things to say about the books under review. The two standouts for me are Catherine Bush’s review of Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey and T.F. Rigelhof’s review of jPod by Douglas Coupland.

One aspect of these reviews that makes them particularly noteworthy is the excellent job each reviewer does of setting the book under review within the context of the author's work as a whole. This is a feature that I find to be all too rare in contemporary book reviews. I understand why. First, the word limits imposed on reviews by most print publications simply don't allow space for it. Second, reviewing is a time-consuming activity. Even if reviewers restrict the time that they spend on it to a careful reading of the book and the subsequent drafting of the review, the pay per hour generally works out to an abysmally low sum. If you add to that the time it would take for reviewers to familiarize or reacquaint themselves with the entire oeuvre of the authors whose books they write about, the pay rate sinks to even greater depths.

Thus I certainly don’t expect all reviewers to make reference to authors’ previous work and to where the current book fits in. But when reviewers do this and they do it well, it’s a real service to the reader. I’ve heard plenty about both Peter Carey and Douglas Coupland but I’m not very familiar with the work of either. Reading Bush’s and Rigelhof’s reviews of these authors’ latest books has piqued my interest not just in those books but also in the ones that preceded them.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Geraldine Brooks on Bronson Alcott

I have yet to read Geraldine Brooks' novel March which takes as its central character the father of the March family from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. (It's on my list.) But I was fascinated by her recent article in the Guardian about Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May. This is a very different Bronson Alcott from the one I've encountered in biographies of Louisa May. Click here to read the article.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Mystery Sites

So long as I was being a shameless literary tourist, I couldn't resist stopping by a few sites related to favourite mystery authors and characters.

The first was the statue of Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place. Eleven Picardy Place, where Arthur Conan Doyle was born in 1859, was long ago demolished. But the Holmes statue stands in front of the spot where it once was. Unfortunately it also stands in the middle of a traffic circle with a parking lot on one side and a busy street on the other. Consequently you have to take your life in your hands to get a proper look at it.

The second was the Oxford Bar, a regular haunt of Ian Rankin's Inspector John Rebus. I didn't go in for a pint. I figured if the bar is as Rankin describes it, it might not be the most congenial spot for a woman to drink alone. And if it's not as Rankin describes it, why go in and have my illusions spoiled?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Another Tribute to Spark

The book section of Saturday's Guardian featured another tribute to Muriel Spark in the form of the reproduction of a new introduction to The Driver's Seat penned by John Lanchester for the Penguin Modern Classics reissue. This is the novel which Spark herself considered her best. The concluding paragraph reads:

There are no bad Spark novels; her consistency is one of the eerie things about her. But some of the books are less well-known than others, and it is fair to say that The Driver's Seat is not one of her most famous books. That, I think, is because it doesn't tell us a single thing that we want to hear. The Driver's Seat is cruel and violent and dark. It is also, in its way, a masterpiece. No one could read it and mistake its force. Only Muriel Spark would have dreamed of writing it. The book's near-jaunty tone would, in some fictional universes, be at odds with its jet-black content. In Spark-world, they go together like murderer and victim.

The Slaves of Golconda who are soon to collectively work their way through Spark's oeuvre will be pleased to hear the assertion that there are no bad Spark novels. Clearly we're in for a treat.

Click here to read the whole of Lanchester's introduction, but note that he warns those that have not yet read The Driver's Seat to stop reading half way through as, once he moves from a general discussion of Spark's work to a detailed consideration of that novel, he gives away many plot points.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Writers' Museum

I spent yesterday morning at the Writers' Museum. It's a small-scale operation, almost entirely devoted to just three writers: Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. But I stop in whenever I'm in Edinburgh and I find something different of interest each time.

My first visit was in the summer of 1996 when I was only in Edinburgh overnight. I was staying on the west coast that trip, based in Troon, but wandering all over Ayrshire. Robert Burns is a son of Ayrshire and it was the 200th anniversary of his death. Everywhere I went there was an exhibit devoted to some aspect of his life, or at the very least a plaque commemorating his connection with the place. I reacquainted myself with his poems and followed in his footsteps all around Ayrshire. At the Writers' Museum, I focused on the Burns memorabilia.

The next visit was in April of 2003. I was doing some research for a children's novel in which Sir Walter Scott makes a cameo appearance. (A project which is, alas, still at the rough notes stage -- see my earlier post about unfinished work!) At the Writers' Museum, I lingered over the Scott exhibits. I carefully examined his chess set, having read just that morning in a biography that he hated playing chess.

Needless to say, this year's visit to the museum was all about Robert Louis Stevenson. Items that I'd passed by before with hardly a glance seemed suddenly very interesting. For example, there's a cabinet on display there which was made by Deacon Brodie (upstanding citizen by day, robber by night -- the original model for Jekyll/Hyde) and which stood in Stevenson's bedroom when he was a child. There's a moody portrait of him painted by Nerli which his mother, nurse, and wife all hated. They wished that he had painted Louis rather than "insist[ing] on painting the author of Jekyll and Hyde." Another item that I was particularly struck by was a letter written by RLS just a month before his death in Samoa. It was addressed to one Mr. Johnson, an Edinburgh bookseller, to whom he placed an order for six books to be sent by return post. His handwriting is difficult to decipher and I couldn't make out the titles of the books. But I was very touched all the same by the idea of him so far from home ordering a few good books, especially knowing that there's no way those books could have arrived in time for him to have read them.

Muriel Spark's Edinburgh

There was a tribute to Muriel Spark on BBC2 the night before last. Spark guarded her privacy carefully throughout her life (the title of the program was "Elusive Spark") but she did give a lengthy and very candid television interview in 1996. That interview was at the centre of the program.

I wandered up Bruntsfield Place one day last week to have a look at #160 where Spark was born, then made my way up into the Old Town afterwards via the Middle Meadow Walk. The following day I embarked on a reread of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and shortly came upon this passage:

They were crossing the Meadows, a gusty expanse of common land, glaring green under the snowy sky. Their destination was the Old Town, for Miss Brodie had said they should see where history had been lived; and their route had brought them to the Middle Meadow Walk.

All the way through, my renewed familiarity with Edinburgh provided me with an extra layer of enjoyment of the novel.

With that in mind, I was particularly interested to hear Spark say in the interview that she had returned to Edinburgh (she'd left it when she married at the age of nineteen) to write The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In the novel she depicts the 1930's Edinburgh of her own school days but she wasn't content to rely on her memory to do so. She returned to soak up the atmosphere and to "get the voices."

Spark spoke about several of her other books as well, pronouncing Driver's Seat her best, and said a lot of interesting things about writing generally. I was scribbling madly to get it all down and my notes are rather disjointed. Here are a few snippets to give you a bit of the flavour of it:

A book without judgement isn't a book ... you've got to take a risk ... I don't like timid writers ... When I started there was a lot of timid writing, especially by women. I hope that's finished.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been chosen for the next Slaves of Golconda group read, so I'll save my detailed reflections on it for a post in connection with that at the end of June. Please read along with us and join in the discussion.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Joys of the Writing Life

Robert Louis Stevenson on the joys of the writing life:

The direct returns -- the wages of the trade -- are small, but the indirect -- the wages of the life -- are incalculably great. No other business offers a man his daily bread upon such joyful terms. The soldier and the explorer have moments of a worthier excitement, but they are purchased by cruel hardships and periods of tedium that beggar language. In the life of the artist there need be no hour without its pleasure. I take the author, with whose career I am best acquainted; and it is true he works in a rebellious material, and that the act of writing is cramped and trying both to the eyes and the temper; but remark him in his study, when matter crowds upon him and words are not wanting -- in what a continual series of small successes time flows by; with what a sense of power as of one moving mountains, he marshals his petty characters; with what pleasures, both of the ear and eye, he sees his airy structure growing on the page; and how he labours in a craft to which the whole material of his life is tributary, and which opens a door to all his tastes, his loves, his hatreds, and his convictions, so that what he writes is only what he longed to utter. He may have enjoyed many things in this big, tragic playground of the world; but what shall he have enjoyed more fully than a morning of successful work?

From "Letter to a Young Gentleman Who Proposes to Embrace a Career of Art" in Essays on the Art of Writing (my latest happy secondhand bookshop find).

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Robert Louis Stevenson's Birthplace

The other morning I went off in search of the house where Robert Louis Stevenson was born. I found it easily, just outside the east gate of Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden: 8 Howard Place.

Appropriately enough, I also found a row of second hand bookshops directly across the road. Aurora Books had a particularly good selection of Scottish books and I was thrilled to acquire reasonably priced copies of two of RLS’s essay collections there: Virginibus Puerisque and Memories and Portraits.

Claire Harman’s biography of RLS has challenged many of my preconceptions about the man and his work. Admittedly my acquaintance with his work has until now been rather selective. But I think that given his range (religious essays, travelogues, boy’s adventure stories, gothic tales, Scots poems etc) and the shifts that occurred in his ideas about literature and its aims as he moved from one genre to another, he’s a writer who is particularly vulnerable to misconceptions and misunderstanding.

I’ve resolved to read much of the work that I hadn’t read before, starting with his essays and letters in which he often wrote candidly about his aesthetic philosophy and his writing practice. Thanks to my Aurora Books finds, I'm armed to begin.

Writing on the Road

I find it difficult to write while on the road. I keep a travel journal full of rough notes, but rarely embark on any fiction, not even the most preliminary of preliminary drafts. I decided that I’d try to break that pattern on this trip since it’s a fairly long one during which I’m mostly settled in one place. I brought a couple of reference books that I thought might assist in the endeavour: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, the former to help me think about the structure of my novel-in-progress, and the latter with the idea that the exercises in the back might jumpstart some new pieces.

Alas I got distracted by my new book purchases. Not that there’s any shortage of inspiration there—the RLS biography and the collections of his essays that I sought out thereafter have proved particularly thought provoking. But two-thirds of the way through my trip, I’m only now cracking the Gardner open.

It’s been at least fifteen years since I read The Art of Fiction and I didn’t think it had made a particularly strong impression on me. I was surprised to find that I had read it very carefully indeed on my previous go through—lots of underlining and margin notes. Perhaps Gardner’s advice is more thoroughly imprinted on my writerly psyche than I’d realized. I was immediately struck by this passage on the first page:

… on the whole the search for aesthetic absolutes is a misapplication of the writer’s energy. When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition. Every true work of art—and thus every attempt at art (since things meant to be similar must submit to one standard)—must be judged primarily, though not exclusively, by its own laws. If it has no laws, or if its laws are incoherent, it fails—usually—on that basis.

An eminently sensible point that makes me think I'm going to enjoy revisiting this book regardless of whether it gets me writing on this trip.