There is a box file marked ‘Jenny Diski (Simmonds) School and other early’ next to my desk. It’s been sitting here for a couple of years, and, just as in childhood when I would flick through the contents to fill an hour on an empty Sunday, I’ve left it largely untouched. On those Sundays the thing that drew my attention was an onion-thin letter, worn with rereading, in which Doris Lessing offers my mum a room, and an alternative existence.
In the spring of 2009 I received a phone call from someone who worked for a programme on the Travel Channel called No Reservations, of which I had never heard. He told me they were planning to shoot an episode in San Francisco over the summer and would I be interested in appearing. As no one had ever asked me to be on television before (or since), I said: ‘Sure.’ I was told that the star, Anthony Bourdain, had borrowed a copy of my book of essays, Cutty, One Rock, on a long flight to Sri Lanka from one of his staff and liked it so much he wanted to have me on his show. ‘That’s nice,’ I thought to myself.
Jonathan Meades’s eulogy was read at Gavin Stamp's funeral in Camberwell on 25 January by Otto Saumarez Smith. There are millions of people who feel deeply about the depredations of the construction industry; who feel deeply about architects wantonly exposing themselves like red-rumped macaques in the hope of attracting central Asian tyrants; who feel deeply about the environmental, social and aesthetic iniquities visited on this increasingly sick, increasingly corrupt little country. But, as Thom Gunn noted, ‘Deep feeling doesn't make for good poetry. A way with language would be a bit of a help.’ Most of the millions do not have a way with language. Gavin did have. For poetry substitute polemic; substitute philippic; history; panegyric. Gavin tirelessly articulated the discontents of the many whose lives are screwed by the cupidity of the few. Architecture and buildings are political. And Gavin was, among much else, a political writer – a political writer in disguise, but a supremely political writer.
I have spent 15 years or so looking for a new agent. I had one once, but he died. I am being slightly economical with the truth when I say that. I shall tell the whole story. I have spent most of my time writing since 1978. This has only ever been subsidised by part-time work. Writing is much more than a hobby or interest in my case. While my first love is poetry, I also write novels, travel books and journalism. In the early 1980s I began to get more and more work published in magazines (including the London Review of Books, who once put my photo on the cover), anthologies and collections brought out by small publishers. My breakthrough came with the publication of Sky Ray Lolly by Chatto and Windus in 1986.
Jenny Diski died early this morning. ‘Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer,' she wrote in the LRB in September 2014. 'Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’ Her first piece for the LRB, a Diary, appeared in May 1992.
The debate about the point of creative writing programmes took a new turn last week. People seem to like this debate – maybe because so many people like taking creative writing classes. Writing in the Atlantic, Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper start by pointing out how much the literary-industrial complex has grown in the last fifty years, and then try to ask a slightly different question about it. Not the usual, 'is the creative writing industry having a pernicious effect on fiction?' but: is it having any effect at all? They used computational analysis to try answer the question, plugging a couple of hundred books into a computer program to see if it could detect a difference between the novels produced by MFA writers and those written by people who never did an MFA. (‘To make these two groups as comparable as possible’, they ‘only gathered novels by non-MFA writers that were reviewed in the New York Times, which we took as a mark of literary excellence’ – if only.)
Andrew O'Hagan in the LRB, 30 July 2015: I’ve always had a soft spot for To Kill A Mockingbird. I like its prose and am easily persuaded by its gently nostalgic tone, its depiction of a sleepy Southern town and its nightly routines, neighbours who know one another, a parent who can make a richness of a child’s moral sense. The novel glows with soft light – too soft, some would say – but it yields a hard lesson. Time passes and bad things happen but decency and empathy draw you back. It’s a children’s story, really, not unlike The Railway Children and other daddy-obsessed narratives, but Mockingbird gains power by seeming so deeply hitched, as it might or might not have been, to a social upheaval and a time of change. Atticus Finch was the right everyman for the right time and Gregory Peck was his ideal embodiment.
Questions of how the Arab world should be depicted, by whom, in what language, and for what purpose, came up in several discussions I took part in over recent months. The debate is fraught, and prone to curtail writers’ freedoms as much as open up new ground. It is best engaged with in what Ahdaf Soueif has described as the ‘mezzaterra’ between East and West which, thankfully, is less of a no man’s land than it used to be.
Writing drunk rarely works. Writing hungover, on the other hand, can be surprisingly effective. A bastard behind the eyes can still the frivolous part of the brain – the part that wanders off and watches cats on YouTube, or scrolls through Vice’s Dos and Don’ts – and allow the serious part to take control. Daily Rituals, Mason Currey’s compendium of working methods of the ‘great minds’, is full of writers who spent their nighttimes getting wasted, then got up and almost immediately started producing.
There is a story about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk practising his signature in the Latin alphabet. The image is incongruous: the most powerful man in Turkey sits frowning over his own name, breaking in the unfamiliar strokes like a schoolboy. He had decreed in 1928 that Turkish would now be written in Latin rather than Arabic script – severing ties with the Ottoman past and making a generation of readers illiterate. In 1934 he passed a law requiring everyone to adopt a surname: Turks at the time tended to go by titles, patronymics or the name of their profession. It’s unclear how Kemal came by his name (he tacked on ‘Father of the Turks’ after 1934; it’s still illegal for anyone else to use it), but as for romanising his initials, the story goes that he tried spelling it first with a Q, then with a K – and deciding that he preferred the latter, banned the letter Q from the alphabet. The story is apocryphal; Kemal’s signature (now one of the most popular tattoos in Turkey) was designed by Hagop Çerçiyan, an Armenian calligrapher. And while it’s true that the letter Q was outlawed for 85 years, from 1928 until last month, the reason for the ban had little to do with aesthetic bias or onomastic whim.
Jeanette Winterson and Anne Tyler, among others, are rewriting Shakespeare's plays for Random House. Just in at the LRB is a review copy of a much bolder project, Marcus Brady's self-published Dark, Love and Light: A 21st-Century Play with Shakespeare-Style Language.
Towards the end of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby's father shows Nick Carraway a book Jimmy Gatz had 'when he was a boy', a copy of Hopalong Cassidy with a handwritten 'schedule' on the last fly-leaf, mapping out his day: 'rise from bed' at 6 a.m., followed by 'Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling', 'Study electricity, etc', 'Work', 'Baseball and sports', 'Practise elocution, poise and how to attain it' and 'Study needed inventions'. There's also a list of 'general resolves':
‘What is “experimental” art,’ the late Christine Brooke-Rose once asked, ‘or an “experimental” novel? Is it a genre?’ The question was the theme of a symposium on her life and work at the Royal College of Art last week, organised by Natalie Ferris. Tom McCarthy, like Brooke-Rose mistrustful of the label, suggested that the question had to be: ‘Experimental compared to what?’
‘Ah, the tyranny of mzungu prizes!’ the Kenyan author and journalist Parselelo Kantai said when I rang him up to talk about literary awards for African writers. Mzungu is Kiswahili for ‘white person’ and Kantai was only half-joking. Since its inception in 2000, the annual Caine Prize for African Writing – awarded, more narrowly than the ‘African Writing’ of its title might imply, ‘to a short story by an African writer published in English’ – has been the most high profile award for contemporary anglophone African writers. But it’s administered in Britain and the £10,000 cash prize is bestowed during a gala dinner at the Bodleian Library. ‘There’s something that rankles,’ says Kantai, who has been shortlisted twice. ‘Once the conferring is done in London you become big on the African landscape.’ But the lingering hangover of colonialism may be lifting.
From Chimamanda Adichie's review of There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe (LRB, 11 October 2012): He began to write Things Fall Apart after a British lecturer told him an earlier story he had written lacked ‘form’, but was then unable to explain to him what form meant.
About six years ago I started teaching creative writing to undergraduates. When I took the job at Royal Holloway, I had never taught creative writing, and when I was younger and struggling to get published, I never took creative writing classes either. I was pretty suspicious of them, for the usual reasons. They always made me think of Woody Allen’s joke about the kid who cheats on his metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the boy sitting next to him.
The hideous cloud of productivity now looms over all our lives. It seems that actual writers use productivity apps to get on with their articles and books. Helen Oyeyemi advises writers to download the Write or Die app onto their computer (or does she write on an iPhone?). In ‘kamikaze mode’, if you stop writing for more than 45 seconds it starts deleting the words you have already written. Other writers claimed they use it (‘great for those days when you simply can’t start’) or joined in with advice for getting those words down on the page. Pomodoro forces you into 25 minute slots and five minute breaks, making writing like interval training. Written? Kitten! gives you a cute kitten pic for every hundred words you get down. Stick or carrot? You decide.
Georgette Heyer's advice for novelists, from Jennifer Kloester's forthcoming biography: 1. Induce your publisher to hand over at once a sum of money grossly in excess of what the book is likely to be worth to him. This gives one a certain amount of incentive to write the thing, and may be achieved by various methods, the most highly recommended being what may be termed as The Little Woman Act. 2. Think out a snappy title. This deceives the publisher into thinking (a) that he is getting the Book of the Year; and (b) that you have the whole plot already mapped out. The only drawback lies in the fact that having announced a title you will be slightly handicapped when it comes to hanging some kind of story on to it.
The Social Animal by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist and right-wing talking head, combines fictional narrative, studies-have-shown pop psychology and conservative social satire in unusual ways. Thomas Nagel calls it 'a moral and social tract... hung on the life stories of two imaginary people, Harold and Erica'. Here are ten of its weirdest sentences:
The Society of Authors has a petition to ask the Department for Culture, Media and Sport not to cut the Public Lending Right (which gives writers sixpence every time one of their books is taken out of a library) in next month's Spending Review. 'Any and all writers who feel strongly about this subject' should sign it, they say. Is it too much to hope that a few readers might care about PLR too? Anyway, the 'Statement by Authors' is as follows and writers can sign it here:
I write likeDan BrownI Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing! 'Check what famous writer you write like with this statistical analysis tool, which analyses your word choice and writing style and compares them to those of the famous writers.' This is the - somewhat questionable, writing-wise - promise of I write like..., a handy website that invites casual browsers to paste in 'your latest blog post, journal entry, Reddit comment, chapter of your unfinished book, etc', and then uses its robot brain to break down the material.
The story of Russia’s deep cover suburban spies in America is the perfect pitch for a 13-part TV series. It’s The Wire (illegals v. law enforcers), The Sopranos (aspirational lifestyles and typical middle-class problems among people living dangerous secret lives) and V (aliens among us) rolled into one. Lost? They do seem to have been. Like Nigerian email fraudsters, whose sensational Moll Flanders-like tales of inheritances and warped morality suggest their talented authors would make more money bashing out African soap opera scripts than they ever would ripping off naive northerners, the easiest way for the Russian taxpayer to get back the money wasted on this loony espionage venture would be to deport the spymasters responsible to Los Angeles with a contract for a 50 per cent cut of whatever the going Screenwriters Guild rate is these days.
In case anyone still hasn't seen this:
Yvette Cooper said at the weekend that criticism of her decision not to stand for the Labour leadership was unfeminist. I didn't entirely follow her reasoning, but then I also don’t understand why having small children should be a reason for Cooper to hold back but not for her husband, Ed Balls. No such qualms would restrain Louise Bagshawe, heavy metal fan, chick-lit author, ardent Catholic, divorcée, millionaire, mother of three and the new Conservative member for Corby and East Northamptonshire. ‘I was quite annoyed that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister,' Bagshawe has said, 'because that meant I couldn't be the first woman prime minister.’
Following the revelations in La Repubblica that a supposed interview with Philip Roth published in Libero last November was a complete fabrication, I got in touch with a few Italian novelists to ask them what they thought about the affair. Most of them politely declined to be interviewed, but Italo Calvino – I found his number in an old Turin phonebook mouldering among the carboys in the cellar; I can't think how it got there – was generous enough to give me a few minutes of his time. My computer unfortunately wiped the recording of our conversation before I was able fully to transcribe it, but here's what I've managed to salvage from my fragmentary notes. It was a bad line, and my Italian isn't all it might be, but this is more or less how the conversation went:
From Christopher Ricks's forthcoming book True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, about 'A Certain Slant': This is finely 'Etched', at the edge of the first line, with 'Edged' likewise at the second line. In its precise finesse, in its unembarrassed self-consciousness, the effect is echt Hecht. (I know, I know, but our poet did advocate 'mens sana in men's sauna', and he metamorphosed Horace's 'Pyrrha' into 'piranha', as well as Wallace Stevens's 'Le Monocle de Mon Oncle' into 'Le Masseur de Ma Soeur'. And he is the justly proud author of Civilisation and Its Discothèques.)
When my friends and I were young and awed by David Foster Wallace (whose papers were recently acquired by the ultra-acquisitive Harry Ransom Center) we saw the author's ever-present head scarf as a sort of tourniquet: it keeps his brains in, we thought. We were joking, of course. We didn't know how tortured he really was. Wallace's terminal self-consciousness seemed to us to be symptomatic of the times. If anyone had the intelligence and stamina to point the way out of our post-postmodern labyrinth, it was him. And, for a while at least, Wallace seemed willing and able to shoulder the burden. 'For me, the past few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you're in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party,' he said in 1993, in a long interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction:
It recently dawned on me that the volumes of collected poems popular these days in trade publishing are often a literary auto-da-fe. Are there a dozen people who have read The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara or The Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg from cover to cover? On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Lunch Poems and Howl, first and still published by San Francisco’s City Lights Books, have been prized and pored over by throngs of happy readers for decades.
A selection of recent book dedications, the last two from the same novel: a prize for guessing who it's by. 'I'd like to thank my girlfriend... who travelled with me while I did the field work, and read through the whole manuscript at stages. Admittedly she was paid handsomely in fine Italian wine.' 'In Memoriam Matris' 'To Barack and Michelle Obama, and the future of American art' 'To complainers everywhere' 'to mine enemies, without whom none of this would have been possible' 'Animals possess a purity that exceeds even that of children and they have much to teach us, if only we will cease our arrogance and listen.
It’s strange to find the New York Times Book Reviewdevoting three full pages to yet another round of the Gordon Lish/Raymond Carver spat, previously addressed (at length) in, for example, The New Yorker, Slate and the New York Times’s own Sunday magazine. Stranger still to see it come down so heavily against Lish, one of the more accomplished editors of the 20th century. The byline is also odd: Stephen King – who was once praised (by the same publication) for his masterful reworking of the 'evil-car motif'. Really? I don’t mean to pick on King.
You know the way John Wayne was hopelessly typecast, forever the cowboy, never Hamlet – who knows how vast a range he might have had? Well, so it's beginning to seem to be for me and penguins. One of these days I'm going to branch out and give my attention to spaniels, or water buffalo, but in the meantime, those gay broody penguins I've mentioned before, who were given their own egg in a zoo, are the subjects of a children's book, And Tango Makes Three which has made it to the top of the American Library Association's list of the ten most frequently challenged books of 2008. Challenged, as in: take that filth of the shelves.
'What makes Melville Melville is digression, texture, and weirdness,' says Damion Searls. No, said Orion Books in 2007, all that extraneous business just gets in the way of the story arc. Without all that whale stuff, you could make a readable book. Hey, maybe someone could make an action movie. The result was Moby Dick in Half the Time (which you can buy in a bargain bundle at Amazon with Vanity Fair in Half the Time and Anna Karenina in Half the Time). 'All Dick and no Moby,' said Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. Moby Dick is the novel you read to see what novels can be, and for delight.
Reviews in the LRB of novels on the Man Booker Prize shortlist: Colin Burrow on Wolf Hall by Hilary MantelThomas Jones on The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters Coming soon: Frank Kermode on Summertime by J.M. Coetzee James Wood on The Children's Book by A.S.
Richard Poirier, the founder of Raritan and the chairman of the board of the Library of America, died on Saturday. He wrote his first review for the LRB in December 1979, on David Halberstam's The Powers that Be. Many pieces followed, on Melville, William James, Henry James, Whitman, Pynchon, Bellow – and Norman Podhoretz. His last, in 2003, was about Vivienne Eliot.
Stanley Middleton died last week at the age of 89. He didn't start writing until he was 38 but had 44 novels published and one manuscript with his publishers at his death. He wrote a calm, whispering prose, full of unspoken suggestion between ordinary acts of daily living. Once, long ago, before it was the abysmal circus it is now (though it was always a circus) he shared the Booker Prize with Nadine Gordimer, but it didn't make much difference to his sales. He lived in Nottingham, was not seen at London literary events or dinner tables. He refused public honours and didn't supplement his income by becoming a talking head, but taught English at secondary school until he retired. In the evenings and during holidays he wrote his novels out in longhand. Writing, he said, exhausted him.
I always knew it was punishment.