Further North of the Book
Chaz has given permission for North of the Book, the regular column he wrote for Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society, to be reproduced here. Earlier columns appear on this page, later and still later ones on separate pages, and there is a full list of topics on the North of the Book home page.
Okay, here's a fact: you can go into a pub and ask for a Bloody Mary, and they'll stick a glass under a cheap vodka optic, top it up with bottled tomato juice and maybe add a dash of Worcestershire sauce. They might ask if you want ice in that; if you're really lucky they'll even throw in a slice of lemon, though it may well have come out of a jar.
But here's another fact: you can pour Stolichnaya into a jug, mix in home-made tomato juice to taste, follow that with a slug of dry sherry and a freshly-squeezed lemon, then add Lea & Perrin's, a dash or two of Tabasco, a handful of ice-cubes, a grind of black pepper and whatever secret ingredient you favour (every practised hand has his own: mine is chilli vodka, while one friend swears by a hot bottled sauce he imports from New Orleans. Another goes for celery salt, which I think is disgusting, but hey, he shoulda kept it secret. There's a rumour that someone else makes his with clamato juice, but I think, I hope that's just vicious). The end result is a whole different experience, but it's still called a Bloody Mary.
How is this relevant to writing, you ask, beyond Brenchley's perennial obsession with flavour? Simple, my children. What is true of drinks is universally true; cream floats and gold sinks, but one way or another, quality will out. A book is a book is a book, but - as a wise person told me, long ago - good books are better. You can go into your local supermarket and buy the latest Jilly Cooper if you must; it's a book, it's a story, it probably has a beginning, a middle and an end, which you can read in that order if you choose to (though a researcher in an airport bookshop turned up a wonderful family, mother and two daughters who always bought the new Jilly for their annual holiday read. Just the one copy. They divided it into three, shared it among them, and swapped the parts over as they finished. They claimed that it made no difference which order they read `em in. Never tell me that there is no God...).
Alternatively, you can go into a decent stockholding bookshop - or of course hop along to Amazon from the comfort of your own home - and invest the same money in an utterly different experience. It won't look that much different, nor feel much different to the fingers; it's still pages bound together in a cover and filled with words. But the distinctions arc vastly greater than the similarities, believe me. Doesn't matter if it's by Jane Austen or Paul Auster, Edward Gibbon or William Gibson - what you hold in your hands will be the work of someone with wit, intelligence, talent and understanding, someone to whom language matters more than money, insight more than income. And that makes all the difference in the world. Storytelling is magic, and there is a limited number of real magicians out there, and an uncountable number of fakes.
On the other hand, not all magicians are licensed by the state; not all the best writers are approved by the establishment. I once heard Marghanita Laski divide all published fiction into literature and trash, and I wanted to take her out and shoot her; ignorance on that scale is indefensible. Better was Anthony Burgess, who admitted that he read a great quantity of pulp. Of course he did, and so do I. How else to winnow the wheat from the chaff, except by digging your hands deep into it? The trick is to tell the one from the other, and that ain't hard; chaff blows away on the wind.
Which is not to say that there is no virtue in chaff; it makes pretty patterns as it swirls. Sometimes that's what you most need, something light and fleeting. There are bad books out there that are none the less addictive. I reread E E `Doc' Smith regularly, for the sheer joy of the thing; I also have a mad passion for the Chalet School books of Elinor M Brent-Dyer. What makes them better than bearable, what makes the fun work and the work fun is the unimpeachable honesty of their creation. When writers do the best they can and believe in what they're doing, however limited the tools at their disposal, I can have no quarrel with them. The magic may be diluted by crassness or sheer folly, but it's still there to be seen, to be felt in the hectic rush of genuine storytelling.
Kissing don't last, though; cookery do. After the rush is over, when the book's set aside, nothing lingers and you're hungry yet. Which is why I have to read all the Lensman books one after the other, or a dozen Chalet Schools: because in the end they don't satisfy. And some of the best books 1've read, some of my favourites I've never reread and probably never will, because their effect is so strong still in my head. I live with them daily, and don't need to go back.
A genre magazine is the last place where I'd need to defend genre; you know how good some of our people are, how they stand comparison with any writer else. I'm just worried, I guess, by the way the shelves are stacked against them. Fluff's all right for a while, it's easy and entertaining and it makes no demands; but fiction needs to challenge, or it loses its significance. Readers need to be challenged, or they forget what makes books different, they can't recognise or respond to the magic when it comes. It's a precious thing we have here, and if we're not careful it'll be stolen away by stealth or simply mislaid under a deluge of commercial pap. Everyone knows the price of freedom; be vigilant, beware. And treat yourself, even if it's only once in a while. It really is true, good books are just so much better ...
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Thoughts on not being a Literary Fellow: spit, snarl, phssthppkkk!!
Kindly allow me to translate...
One of the fringe (or not-so-fringe) benefits of being a writer in Britain in the late twentieth century (and no, you haven't missed my millennial party, possum, your year-clock is set fast) is that there is public money out there to support literature and the literati. Not enough, of course, and nowhere near as much as goes to other major art-forms, any other significant arts you care to mention - but it's there, mostly in the shape of grants and residencies and suchlike.
Now our Chaz was a proud lad once upon a time, before he learned to humble himself, and one of the chimaerae with which he used to buff up his own ego was that he never took no hand-outs off of nobody. There was one bunch of writers over there who went from one subsidised project to the next and never dirtied their fingers in the muddy waters of commercial publishers; there was another group over here who lived directly by selling what they wrote. Gigolos and hacks: professional writers all - and good work coming from both sides - but very different species, and Chaz knew where he stood, which was firmly with the hacks.
A few years later, though, some of my best friends were gigolos; and Northern Arts asked if I'd sit on a committee handing out grants to other writers, and suddenly I was lost. I shovelled out cash by the bucketful, and could never quite keep the thought from crossing my mind that actually, you know, maybe I did deserve a bit of this myself ...
So for a while now I've been a hybrid, still thinking of myself as a jobbing author but ready nay eager to take whatever other money came my way: a grant, a residency, funding for a trip abroad, whatever. The major shock came this year, when I realised that fully two-thirds of my income over the last twelve months had not come directly from my keyboard. There are reasons for that - largely, losing my agent and my publisher in swift succession - but I still don't like it.
However, that didn't stop me applying for a big job when it came along. Every two years, in conjunction with a couple of local universities, Northern Arts appoints a Literary Fellow, and pays 'em lavishly for their time. After, ooh, twenty-three years of starving in garrets, the appeal of some financial security was irresistible. Besides which, when I first applied for it some years ago, a spy on the appointment panel reported back to me that as soon as my application came up for discussion, one of the university representatives said, "Oh, we don't want a horror writer, do we? Don't we want a poet?" So I've been applying in a spirit of high dudgeon ever since, determined not to let up until I at least made the shortlist.
This year I had a couple of friends, one could almost say fans, on the panel; and to my great surprise and wonder, I actually did get onto the shortlist. I still didn't expect to get the job, as they have a history of appointing (a) poets and (b) someone from outside the region. The trouble was, having got this far I realised that I really did want it; being shortlisted gave me some recognition, but not enough. How much that was wanting to wave the flag for genre fiction and how much it was greed or simple ego, I can't say. It was a fact, that's all, something I had to deal with.
So I went along to the interviews this week, and almost enjoyed the process: it was one of those times where you dive into sentences without the faintest idea where they're going to take you, and discover that actually you can swim after all, and when you bob up at the end and look back, you do seem to have made some sense. Even so, I was still convinced that I hadn't done well enough, that I couldn't conceivably do well enough to overcome the odds against me; and so it proved. The Fellowship went to a poet, from outside the region.
So just how sour are my grapes? It's hard to say. I don't need to tell readers of this column that there is a monstrous prejudice in the academic and literary worlds against genre fiction in all its guises. Crime has perhaps acquired a little grudging respectability, but it goes no further than that. I can live with that, I've had to, as we all have; what I resent more is the presumption that poetry is of more value than prose of any description, that poets have the artistic high ground by right of destiny. It's the literary equivalent of institutionalised racism, it seems to me; several of the panel have assured me that we all had an equal chance, and I'm fairly sure they believe it, just as I'm absolutely certain that they're wrong.
So: apart from working off a fair bit of vitriolic bile, why am I devoting a column to ranting about academic bias, given that I'm very much preaching to the converted here? Because I think we can change the world. As both writers and readers, we're entitled to the respect of our peers, and I think we should demand it.
I wrote in my last column about the power of good books, of true literature in whatever genre. What we need to do as readers is to assert that power. Buy what's best, bring it to the attention of your booksellers and librarians, review it on Amazon and lend it to your friends; the more attention we command, the more we rub their faces in the sheer quality of what's available, the less tenable their prejudice will become.
And the same applies to the writers among you. As I said, I kept applying until they had to pay me some attention; others can do the same, I'm not unique. Find out what funds your regional arts board has available for travel & training, for grants, for residencies; apply, and keep applying. What benefits one of us benefits us all, so do it ...
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This issue's column comes to you by special request of the Editrix herself, courtesy of a comment I let fall en passant. It's become something of a tradition at FantasyCon (viz it's happened twice consecutively) that Sunday mornings begin with a sort of agony panel, where we talk about writing technique, address specific problems in tackling specific genre themes, and usually end up talking about sex. Simon R Green and I are the stalwarts; other panellists have come and gone - lack of staying power, we think (unless they just have something better to do on a Sunday morning than talk about sex...). Anyway, I don't actually remember this but apparently we were asked about criticisms and how to handle them, and I said "I've been criticised ... damn it," which does indeed sound like me. Her Priority has invited me to use my space here to expand on this whimsical response, and any request from On High (that's somewhere in Scotland, by the way) is of course tantamount to a command, so ...
There are, I think, three forms of significant criticism. These are editorial comment, before publication; friends' reactions, before or after publication; and printed reviews. There's also the stuff that total strangers tell you at the bar, but I ignore that at the time and I think we can ignore it here also. The three I have listed above, alas, cannot be ignored. How do I handle them? Badly, I think, on the whole. But let's tackle them one at a time, and see where we end up.
Editorial comment: ah, the descent of man. I used to be virtuous, and now I'm a brute. Allegedly. Robert Heinlein said that editors always like the taste of something better after they've pissed in it; I took that on board long ago, but I used to say thank you and pass 'em the toilet paper, and now I just tell 'em to keep their fly buttoned. In plain English, I grew up writing for teen magazines, which meant rewriting constantly to suit editorial whim. It was second nature, part of the job, no problem. Hell, I was a professional; they said jump, I said how high? So when I got seven closely typed pages of critical comment on my first novel, I absorbed it all and rewrote to specification, whether I agreed with it or not. But that was, what, thirteen years ago now, and I don't do that any more. I still argue that the editorial role is crucial, that any book can be improved by an objective second opinion, I'm very politically correct on this; but when it comes to practice - well, I still listen, I still consider carefully every point that's put to me, it's just that these days I tend to stand by my original words. I'm not immovable, but I'm told that I'm bloody hard work to shift. Thing is, they're all so young, the editors of today (he said, sighing for the giants of yesteryear). I've been in the business so much longer, I know so much more. There is a difference between listening and capitulating, and I'm usually right, is what I'm saying here. Even when I'm wrong, I'm so beautifully wrong I don't want to change a word.
Friends, now: in some ways friends are more difficult, because they're less mobile. They tend not to be promoted out of one's friendship, or offered better rewards elsewhere for being friendly with other people instead. An editor may only be for Christmas (one I kept for less than a fortnight), but friends can be for life. Which means it's a major, major mistake to listen even the once, for if once you have paid them the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane. And yet there you are, young and hopeful, working on your first book; of course true friends are interested, of course they ask if they can see it. And you remember all you've heard about objective second opinions and you think how well-read these people are and how wise, how much you trust their views - and you do it, of course you do. You hand your manuscript over. Perhaps only to one or two, your very best and closest - but I'm sorry, it's still a mistake. Two examples: I have a friend who very much influenced my reading and my life from my late teens on, so when I was writing The Samaritan it seemed only natural that I should show her the first draft. She read it like an editor, she was sensible and useful, I was grateful. So we did the same with The Refuge, and with The Garden. By that time, though, I knew better myself what worked and what did not; besides which, I had a comfortable relationship with my editor and really didn't need her input any longer. But this is the Dane-geld situation, and it's lethal. She was hurt when I didn't show her the next book at draft stage, and quite sharply critical of it when it was published. Which hurt me, so I was snappish in response. She said less and less about my ensuing novels, until I did turn to her again when I started the fantasy series; that's much more her field than my earlier books, and again I wanted to tap her wisdom (this is what friends are for, right?). She read the early chapters, and spent a very happy hour telling me how many problems I had and how to put them all right. I guess I'd asked for it, but I didn't like hearing it and I reacted badly, deliberately ignoring every suggestion that she made. It's impossible to say whether she was right; I'm not even certain whether she was honest, or simply seizing the opportunity to avenge earlier slights. Which is one constant problem with criticism, you can't generally tell how much it's tainted by the critic's own agenda. The other big problem is when you do know that it's pure and true: I got stuck big-time, halfway through Paradise; had no confidence in it, thought I might have wasted a year of my life on a project doomed to fail. A friend offered to read what I'd done thus far, see if he couldn't reassure me; I was so desperate, I took him up on it. He read it, hated it, said so. Transparently honest, and an absolute killer: it was six months before I could get back to work on the book.
Which brings me to reviewers - except that I've used more than my allowance of words already, and they deserve a column to themselves. Well, they deserve a special circle of Hell to themselves, actually; but more of this next time ...
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You don't want to know, but I'm writing this in my seriously cool room in the Ritz hotel in Taipei ... sipping a Taiwan beer and watching the sunset while I juggle alternatives for the night ahead: where to eat, where to go afterwards, who to go with ... See, I told you. You really didn't want to know, did you?
I shall say no more, for now. Next issue, Chaz'z thoughts on freebies, foreign travel and literary ligging; this time, as promised, Chaz'z thoughts on Reviewers.
There's this game every professional writer discovers, usually around the time of their second novel's publication; it's called Can You Imagine a Lower Form of Life? and the Professional Critic is its subject.
It's a curiously addictive pastime, and results can be spectacular, but most people come off cold-turkey after another book or two. It's like Noughts and Crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe, for my transatlantic readers) - impossible to win, if played properly. It becomes clear very early on that in fact there is no lower form of life, and even a writer's imagination has to fail somewhere...
Besides, this is a small world and growing smaller. Write a few more books, and chances are you'll be asked to review something yourself (I originally wrote 'you'll be asked to review yourself', then realised that was ambiguous, though not necessarily untrue: in fact, I have once been asked to review my own work, but I turned them down. Eventually. (Well, Hell, they weren't proposing to pay me ...). Even if the TLS doesn't come after you, there's always the small press or the local paper. Someone knocks; if you have any decency at all, you hesitate; but you do most likely succumb. Your agent, your editor will be keen; your public of course demands to hear from you, even if it's only your views on others' work. Most of us writers are lowlifes anyway and always prepared to stoop lower, infinitely susceptible to blandishment. It's not that we can't say no, just that we see no good reason why we should. And you think you'll change the face of reviewing anyway, it'll be a whole new world with you in it ...
News for you: it's not. Occasionally - very occasionally - you're given a wonderful book to review, a book that changes the way you see the world or your place within it; it's a privilege to be invited to comment. It's also very hard work, to convey the power and precision of a masterpiece within the brief span of a review. What's almost harder and very much less exhilarating, less important is to find useful or interesting things to say about a book that is neither useful nor interesting itself, just one of those run-of-the-mill, competent pieces of work that we all turn out from time to time. What's easy, quick and fun is to slag off the garbage, to find new and inventive ways to be rude in print. Knocking-copy takes no time to knock off (always an advantage, in a job as poorly paid as reviewing), is only a challenge to one's creativity and the pleasure of a well-turned insult is unbeatable, especially when directed at an undeserving bestseller. So you do it once because you're asked, and again because you want to; and you don't recognise how slippery this slope is until it's too late, you've already slipped too far to recover ...
The point is that review space is limited, and most of it is already wasted. If we're given space to fill and books to fill it with, we have a duty to use it appropriately. There is simply no point in writing savage reviews of popular novelists (except of course for the immediate personal benefit of venting spleen, but there are other ways to relieve violent humours, and writing is not therapy): it won't affect their sales nor improve their next book, so why bother? And it contributes to an atmosphere of cheap-shot reviewing where any book is fair game and the unknown or unsuccessful can similarly be held up for ridicule, which is cruel and counterproductive. There are enough good books out there to fill our pages, we don't have to waste time, paper or ink on the bad stuff. It's lazy and self-indulgent, and becomes increasingly dishonest. A reviewer with a reputation for vitriol has to justify and maintain it; they start to read explicitly for what they can disparage.
Better by far to boost the beginner and applaud the overlooked. The problem, of course, is that this is not what literary editors want, by and large. If they're going to attract advertising revenue from publishers, they have to cover the big books, the same titles that every other paper and magazine is covering; the system is wholeheartedly corrupt, with publishers effectively buying column inches for their favoured titles. Beginners and the overlooked have to turn to the small press for whatever exposure they can glean, which is, by definition, small, and so the beginner becomes the overlooked and the whole depressing cycle is repeated.
Now I've gone and cast myself into gloom on your behalf, and the only remedy will be to sally forth into the glitz and glamour of the Taipei streets. Hey-ho. Just one quick anecdote, almost a confession before I go, certainly an explanation of why I feel so strongly about this (I am, as you know, not prone to feeling strongly about anything). Peccavi, I have sinned, I have written knocking-copy in my time, of books and writers who did not deserve it; I have also been sinned against. Not often, but it's been spectacular when it's happened. Once in particular, my only major solus review in a national daily: the book was Light Errant (which you lot gave me an award for, bless you) and the reviewer was a man clearly ignorant of and out of all sympathy with the genre. He had a third of a page to play with, and used it simply to show how clever he could be, how scathing, how witty and how sharp. It was a pointless exercise in ego-inflation, and I'm still bitterly resentful several years on. It's degrading to be mocked on that scale in a public forum; the book didn't deserve such treatment and neither did I. I had this lovely plan to put the man's photo up on my website and have visitors nibble away at it, pixel by pixel; that never happened, but it's still a fantasy from which I draw comfort on occasion. Even so, I'm grateful; it was that experience that brought home to me just how futile that style of reviewing can be, and just how much damage it does to other writers, be they friends or strangers.
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Hey-ho, the glamorous life. I wrote my last column, you will remember, from Taipei's Ritz Hotel, while enjoying many of the pleasures of the flesh and anticipating the rest for later (whoever said patience was its own reward simply hadn't waited long enough; anticipation provides a tingle all its own, of course, but there are other and more tangible benefits to a slow fruiting - but now I'm starting to sound like Leslie Phillips, which is going a little far, I think, even for me).
So I did all that, and came home full of the joys of a winter wildly misspent and found that it's true, the gods really do hate a happy man, though they call it just deserts. Unless it's just me, of course, could just be me. Whatever, I had been comprehensively burgled in my absence. A word to the wise: you are not as well backed-up as you think you are. Trust me, you are not. I've been practising and preaching hard-copy-and-spare-floppy for fifteen years or so, and still can't believe the amount that I've lost.
But this is not my subject for tonight. My thoughts on freebies, I promised you, my take on literary ligging. Not that there's really that much to say about it (just as well, as we're on tight rations this issue: shortage of space, paper, cash, something, I don't know). Only that it exists, really, the opportunity is there and I have truly no idea why.
For a writer, perks come from various sources. No longer the private patron, alas, who'd keep a poet in his purse for the sheer tickle of it; these days the presents come from men in suits, women with power shoulders, people who you'd think would know better.
First off, there's the publisher. Nothing odd in that, you'd think, of course a publisher will toss the odd sweetie to his writers, keep them sweet, how not? And so they do. But these are the same publishers who suck air through their teeth and shake their heads when you suggest spending a few quid on a run of postcards, to promote your new novel: nice idea, but there isn't the budget for it, Chaz, so sorry; and yet there is always the budget to send a big bunch of flowers and a bottle of whisky on publication day, take you to lunch at Quaglino's or the Sugar Club. They won't put an ad in The Bookseller, the trade magazine that everyone in the business reads and pays attention to; but they will pay train fares, hotel bills, restaurant bills and incidental expenses to send you and a publicist to half a dozen ill-attended gigs in bookshops the length and breadth of the land. I'm sure there is a commercial logic here somewhere, we're all very focused and business-oriented these days, every penny piece has to justify itself to the accountants - but whatever that logic is, it surely escapes me. The trips, the bouquets, the whisky on the other hand do not escape me, and I'm very grateful for them. I just don't understand, is all I'm saying, and I hate being confused.
On a different scale of startlement altogether, though, are the perks that are publicly funded. Taxpayers' money has taken me out of the country more often than my own resources; I've been to Toronto for Northern Arts, Spain and Israel for the British Council, and now Taiwan for the Taipei City Government. This last was the most spectacular, by far. There were about ten of us, writers from all over the world, from Newcastle to Nicaragua via Canada and Korea; and it wasn't just the rooms in the Ritz they gave us. There were banquets (eat abalone now - ask me how...), there were seriously good seats at seriously good concerts, there were presents galore - I have my own chop now, hand-carved in a kind of soapstone, wherewith to stamp my name in Chinese characters, in the reddest and stickiest of inks. I love it.
And, of course, tanstaafl applies; there still ain't no such thing as a free lunch. What did they want, in return for all this munificence? Well, um, it's a bit hard to say, actually. They wanted a few photographs, sure, our presence at a few events, press conferences and such. That's pretty much it, really; if they wanted more, they never said so. We were an exercise in PR, as near as I can judge it. Internally they wanted to get us in the papers, to show the electorate how Taiwan is a cultural magnet for the movers and shakers of the literary cosmos and hence by extension the cosmos at large; externally, they're hoping that we'll go away and write nice things about Taipei. And that's the key, that's the pivot to understanding what is actually going on here. They and the other public funders, the arts boards and the British Council and all of them, labour under the bizarre delusion that writers matter in the world, that we have weight and influence, that because we have a voice we are therefore listened to. It's sleaze, it's all sleaze, it's Neil Hamilton's biscuit; we should be forced to declare it, and I am. I've been bought off, and it's shameful; I'm now an unofficial ambassador for all things Taiwanese, and I'm going back next month to do some further research towards a novel. That should gladden the hearts of the people who bought me, body and soul.
The bad news for them, of course, is that they're simply wrong. However much I sing the wonders of their city (and it is wondrous, and I do: see my website), it's not worth a jot or a tittle to them. W H Auden said that poetry makes nothing happen, and he was right. That's the real message of the Sixties, that actually a song can't change the world. Stories are important, stories are crucial, stories teach us who we are - but they don't reshape us. Fiction is a mirror, not a medicine. But hey, don't tell them, okay...?
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Unaccustomed as I am to public research, there is something that even I have noticed in my occasional forays into the dangerous realm of asking strangers to tell me the intimate details of their professional or private lives, and it is this: that they are strangely, frighteningly eager to do so. I don't get it, but it's true. It may be related to that curious confessional impulse that drives people to expose themselves on Humiliation TV with Jerry Springer, but actually I think not. The TV thing is about getting up in public, making an exhibition of yourself, shouting loud; talking to a writer is about getting down in private, laying out your inhibitions, talking softly and particularly. It's a different kind of confession, and more closely kin to what goes on in a church with a priest, though we don't actually offer absolution. For some people, I guess it's therapy of a sort. I don't mind that, so long as I get what I'm after; if they get something out of the exchange too, that's fine, so long as they recognise that's incidental and temporary, and no part of my job. I had this guy once who convinced himself on the back of a fairly intense conversation that I was actually a psychotherapist in the guise of a writer, and an active part of his current treatment; he phoned me weekly for months thereafter, to talk about his fugues.
By and large, though, people don't want anything in return; they just fall over themselves to help, as soon as you say you're a writer. This is welcome, it's delightful - hell, I'm going back to Taiwan tomorrow, and I'm spending three weeks in someone's flat, being picked up and ferried round, taken wherever I want to go, and it's not funded this time. Amelia's just doing it for me, because I'm a writer.
But (you knew there had to be a but, didn't you?) what's really curious is the way people assume that you need help when you don't. I'm long used to every marathon runner, lorry driver, movie-maker that I know wanting to write a novel and believing that they could, when I would never dream of trying to run a marathon, drive a lorry, make a movie. There are skills inherent to those tasks that I know I don't have; but hey, there's a book in everyone, right? Er, no, actually. There's the material for a book in everyone's life, sure, but that is a rather different thing. What's worse, though, what really gets me is the friendly arm flung around my shoulder, and Listen, Chaz, I know how you're always looking for new ideas. Well, I've got this doozy. Haven't time to write it myself, so I thought I'd share it with you, words to that effect. It really does happen, and it makes me want to bite, in no playful way at all. What is it that makes these people imagine that I can't do my job on my own, that I'm dependent on being fed their predigested pap? Of course I'm always looking for ideas, but it's my own ideas I want, the raw material that I and only I can break down into stories that I and only I can tell.
And I'm not exactly running short. Apart from a natural anxiety about the future welfare of cats & teddy bear, the only thing that distresses me about the notion of dying is that I must inevitably leave stories unwritten behind me, which nobody else will ever be able to write on my behalf. That's a genuine and lasting loss to the world, far more so than my transitory company. But then, I leave stories unwritten behind me every year, every week of every year; I have stories unwritten ahead of me, that I know I will never have the time to write.
Like this: I am, as I said, going back to Taipei tomorrow. I am - of course! - going in search of a novel. Or six, seven, an indeterminate number of novels; the only certainty is that some will necessary fall by the wayside, into the great hopper of ideas I never got around to using. The ones least imagined thus far are the ones I'm actually most likely to write: I'm on the very verge of finishing my first big fantasy series and actively looking for another, and there is something magnetic to me in the structure of the contemporary Taiwan/China relationship, overlaid with imperial Chinese culture, overlaid again with traditional Chinese folk myths. I'm fairly sure this will happen. Next in line in likelihood is the book I'm more immediately going to research, a contemporary psychological thriller with a cyberpunk grammar, Patricia Highsmith meets William Gibson on unfamiliar territory for both; I'd love to write this one, it's all there to be done, but I'm just not sure where I could fit it in between the fantasies and the mainstream novels I'm working on already. And then there's the SF trilogy, blackly funny Chandleresque private-eye stories set in near-future Taipei. This is really a love story in three volumes, covering courtship, marriage and children: Desdæmona, Dæmonogamy and Pandæmonium, and I'm almost entirely convinced that I will never, ever have the chance to write it, and that's such a shame.
And that's just the crop of the last few months. Unwritten novels, untold stories flourish like barnacles below my waterline. Like the Oscar Wilde book I should've written two years ago, but I lost my agent at just the wrong moment; and the children's fantasy series that I can't do now because of Harry Potter, I'm too proud; and the couple of dozen unfinished stories that lived on my stolen computer, and are gone for good; and the one that no publisher will ever have the nerve to run with, the sex-changing monk assassins...
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I am, as our editrix would undoubtedly be the first to confirm, an uncertain and unreliable columnist; sometimes I get my copy in early, sometimes I do the other thing. This particular column is dancing so close to deadline it's worse than indecent, it's positively rude. But I've got an excuse, miss, honest.
Here's a quick glimpse of the home life, the working life, the private habits of your correspondent. A while back I was sitting on the floor of my office, entirely surrounded by ten years' worth of reviews, interviews, clippings, anything at all that mentioned moi in print. I used to keep 'em all stuffed in a box, on the random-access principle that the rest of my life runs under, a smaller and more portable version of Oh yes, I know I've got that. In the house. Somewhere. Now at last I was getting organised: each separate item stored in its own plastic envelope, with photocopies, and arranged in folders in chronological order of book. Incontrovertibly useful, yes? Quite so. Then a friend phoned, and asked what I was doing. I explained, feeling deeply pleased with myself; and then he went and spoiled it all by saying "Chaz, does the phrase displacement activity mean nothing to you at all...?"
Of course, we were both of us entirely right. What I was doing was long overdue, and useful beyond measure; it was also absolutely a distraction, an avoidance, another way not to do what I should have been doing. Displacement activities so govern my life that I not only don't notice them in action, the actual words keep deleting themselves from my memory; I stand there clicking my fingers and gesturing vaguely, "You know, thing, wossname, what you do instead of working, there's a phrase for it," until eventually someone says "Displacement activity, Chaz?" Yeah, that.
But one of the fascinating things about displacement as a lifestyle choice is that it's utterly a moveable feast. Logic would argue that there were things one liked to do and things one did not, and that the latter should at all times be displaced by the former. In fact it ain't like that at all. Displacing becomes a goal in itself, irrespective of the activity; I'm never comfortable unless my conscience is goading me, unless I'm busy doing what I oughtn't.
The great shift, the moment that underlines the truth of this happened - of course! - when I was a teenager; it's always adolescent addictions that are swiftest to form, hardest to break. I was or I appeared to be an idle student all my days, doing the least conceivable amount of schoolwork, turning in my homework late or more likely not at all; and yes, of course I was doing all those teenage things one does, copping off in every way a foetid imagination could conceive, but largely I did no work because I was far too busy writing. Short stories, plays, unfinished novels - no one could stop me. Same thing at university; why should I write an essay on Zwingli and the Swiss reformation, when I could be writing fiction that would change the world?
Then I dropped out, and turned professional. And suddenly, less than overnight, between one moment and the next writing had become work, the thing I had to do, no longer an obsession but a duty - and so, inevitably, the thing to be displaced by other stuff.
And so it is still, twenty-four years on; but even within that compass, there are hierarchies. As, for example, this column. For the last eighteen months or so I've been suffering under the burden, the catastrophic weight of my latest book; never have I been so glad of Prism deadlines, as an excuse to let the novel slip.
This time, though, not so. This time it's the column that is work, the thing that must be done, top of the pile of duty; and so I - I who love writing, who hate housework with a passion - have spent the afternoon cleaning the more remote reaches of my bathroom.
Why so, how come unpaid and undeniably casual labour has suddenly risen so high that it qualifies to be displaced, rather than as displacement? I could say "Work it out on your fingers," but I'm not going to. I enjoy this moment too much.
I've finished my novel. I have. Finished it, posted it, done. Seven hundred pages, 275,000 words, and every one of them mine own. There are people whose entire writing careers do not encompass such an intolerable deal of verbiage. And hey, you know what? I don't care. I do not give a damn.
And it's not just the novel, it's the end of the series: six, maybe seven years of work, and one last full stop and it's over. There is a time lag to relief, ask anyone who's freshly free; amputees feel phantom pains, released prisoners look round for a warder to ask permission for a toilet-break, I keep thinking "I should be writing, I've got a book to finish..." And then I remember that I haven't, and I have to find something else to beat myself with because I'm addicted to guilt, I can't function without it. As witness, indeed, this column. I said there were hierarchies here; avoiding the writing of this is only the first layer in a far more complex displacement, on the other side of which lies - aaargh! - starting the next novel, something new, beginning again...
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So here I am, it's a gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon and all the world is off to watch the football, either at St James' or else down the pub; and I have to go the other way, against the tide. Nothing new there, then, do I hear you cry? Actually, you're wrong. The route from here to the pub is rutted with my footsteps, it's known locally as the Chazway, and football is far from the worst excuse I've found to use it. But duty calls, peremptory, demanding. Every couple of months I do this, I write my column, more or less at the last minute; I send it off and relax, huffing a sweet breath of relief, thinking now I can get back to my proper job, Prism has been fed again and it won't need another feed for ages...
But it's astonishing how quickly two months can go by, how seemingly soon it is that those polite but chilling enquiries start to arrive from the editrix. Usually they catch me entirely unprepared. During the downtime, the flatline between the bleeps, I may have had half a dozen different ideas for the next column; but of course I don't write them down, let alone take the time to write them up. So of course I've forgotten them all long before I actually need one.
Hence this familiar little walk that runs contra-pub, that takes me virtuously in the opposite direction. When I was a teenager, I somehow inherited responsibility for the family dog, three walks a day; I used to think up stories as we walked. Ever since I walked out on the family I've been a devout cat-man, but I haven't lost the habit of the walk. I still have to think on my feet, and moving. Stuck in a room, I pace; the boys on the sculpture project used to laugh at me as I went up and down the Portakabin. Ordinarily, though, I go out. I have set routes, short and long, focused and diversionary (diversions in this context = shopping). Short-and-focused is around the grounds of the hospital; they don't seem to mind.
So there I am, walking widdershins past the psychiatric block and cursing deadlines, which are the bane of my life just now, cursing the emptiness of my head which is entirely due to an excess of deadlines and the impossibility of meeting them - and suddenly it's so obvious. Faced with a deadline, yet another deadline when I'm all tangled up in 'em already, what else is there to talk about?
Dr Johnson said, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." When you're hanged, you're dead; it's a rope that hangs you, and if you're at sea a rope is a line, except when it's a sheet (which leads us into a whole 'nother parade of puns, where we need not go today); Dr Johnson was a writer, he knew what he was saying. Obviously he was talking about deadlines, and he was right. Douglas Adams famously said that he loved deadlines, he loved the whooshing sound they made as they went by; but Douglas was a special case. What's more common is the sight of the writer sprinting to the keyboard as the dread sound of an approaching deadline builds. There are professional souls out there who never miss a deadline, who know exactly how long it'll take them to write a book, but they're comparatively rare. For most of us, missing a deadline is like going overdrawn at the bank; it's terrifying the first time, until you realise that the sky doesn't actually fall on your head. It's a bit expensive, it attracts an exchange of letters, one is perhaps obliged to grovel, but seldom worse than that. So we get blasé, to varying degrees. Me, I do still try to meet them; but my best guess as to how long a work will take is always based on my best previous result, which is fatal. I once wrote 150,000 words in ten weeks; I now assume that I can do that every time I need to. And I can't.
Which is why vol 3 of Outremer was eighteen months late in delivery; which is why I have this sudden clash of deadlines. It's back for final rewrites, and due for return next week. But it's fatally easy to assume that actually that kind of deadline doesn't matter quite so much, they can always work a little faster with the setting, chivvy the printer a little harder, still make the publication date. And I have to give a public lecture, 3pm on Saturday; that one I can't shift, I can't duck, I just have to be there on time and with a script. The book is far more important than the lecture, but it's working on the book that gets postponed.
And then I get a reminder about this column's being due. And the book and the lecture both are far more important than the column (sorry, but they are - hell, I don't even get paid for this...) - and yet the book and the lecture both get postponed so that I can discuss deadlines and how to miss them. You go figure, it makes no sense to me.
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A few weeks back, I was at the BFS' Thirtieth Birthday Bash. The setting was appropriately chthonic, a basement bar on the Embankment; it was full of beer, food and friends, it was pretty much a hobbit-hole for the day, and - as you undoubtedly know - that means comfort. Or ought to.
The one thing it lacked, at least from my point of view, was air. Breathability, oxygen, health-giving gases, that stuff. I have read where there are air-tight vaults that are flooded with something utterly inert, as a precaution against fire and decay; I thought perhaps the BFS was doing this prematurely to preserve the bodies and minds of its finest while they were yet living, to save us all for the nation.
Whatever, the stuff they had down there I could not breathe, and so I had to retire before my time. Specifically, before my panel. I ran out on Steve and Simon, without ever discussing post-millennial horror (Is Anything Scary Any More?). Which being so, I thought the least I could do would be to discuss it here.
Besides which, it's easy, and I could just do with something easy tonight. The essence of being human doesn't change, simply because a calendar clicks over. Nor because the passage of time makes us more technologically adept, or more driven. To be sure, a whole lot of people are currently frightened of airplanes, or of opening the post, but that's just means of delivery. Fire, assault, fury have always been good cause for terror; so has plague.
I like planes, I like post, and I refuse to dread the statistically unlikely; the present war makes me nervous for the world, but not for myself. I'm flying to Montreal tomorrow, without the least hint of concern. But that only makes me a pragmatic man, not a brave one. I'm as easily frightened as anyone in their vulnerable middle years, more easily perhaps than most, but it's the little everyday stuff that scares me: phoning strangers, making decisions, hearing bad news, having asthma attacks.
All of that, obviously, is to do with dealing with the real world. This - obviously - is why I'm a writer, why I spend so much time reading when I'm not constructing stories of my own; people tend to cope better in fiction, it's a reassuring place to pass my time. Even when it's frightening, it's frightening within a framework, within rules that are familiar to me, that I've either set or accepted. I know how the thing is done, and I know why it's done; this is almost a definition of home.
Cinema is a less natural home for me, which I guess makes me more vulnerable to the tricks of the trade; though we are in any case so dominated by our sense of vision that the same is true for most people, that they're easier to frighten with a movie than a book. This is why I don't give horror films the same respect that I give to novels: by and large they do scare me more, but it's an easy scare and cheaply won. A bit of make-up and a sudden cut, and I jump out of my skin every time. Classic recent example? What Lies Beneath. Fear-by-numbers, a Meccano assembly of what has worked before, nothing new, no imagination: I hated it. And yet it scared me. Which is my point, I think, that I have grown older and more experienced but still not at all immune to shock, to suspense, to dread. What worked before will still work, if it's done with any degree of competence. In this at least, I am a paradigm of humankind. We grow more sophisticated as a society, but we don't grow away from what we were; the taproot is still there, it runs as deep as ever.
Which is why films will never matter as much as books: because what you see can never dig as deep as what you can't see. It's why we're more scared in the dark, because that dominant sense is lost to us; it's why a nervous man is always looking over his shoulder, for fear of what might be sneaking up behind. A sound, a smell, a touch or none of those, only the anticipation of it: this is where true fear lies, as it always has done. This is why we tell each other stories, this is how stories came to happen, perhaps even how language came to happen. Our earliest ancestors sat around fires in the night and told each other stories of what lay in wait, what hunted out there in the dark and how to meet it, how to survive. Fear was inherent, the dull perpetual fear of the darkness and the sudden rush of fear in the story, the beast conjured from the black. That beast is still there, and always will be; that's still why we tell each other stories, and why the hidden secret hearts of us will always terrify. Because they're hidden, because they're secret, because they are our hearts.
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When I started writing this column, the notion was that it would act as a window on the fringe benefits, the side effects of being a writer at this turn-of-millennium time, when the job seems to involve so much more than simply sitting at a desk and arranging words into a pleasing and potent order. We have, we confess, got sidetracked every now and then; one has found oneself ranting or tearful or gigglesome for reasons that were not entirely à propos. Still, the general theme holds good, like a touchstone that one must come back to touch. (Incidentally, did you know that 'touchstone' originally meant Lydian stone, which was used for testing gold by means of the colour of the metal that rubs off on the stone?)
Also when I started writing this column, I intended to write just twenty-four and so bow out after a neat four years, in emulation of my predecessor, the great Nick Royle. However, a combination of burglary and disorder means that I have entirely lost count of where I am. I must I guess be somewhere close to that four-year mark by now, but guesswork is an unhappy judge. I feel like a man on a train in wartime, unsure of his station, dithering at every stop and never quite daring to step off; without an explicit terminus, this journey could go on for ever. I expect that it will go on until I find that I've nothing left to say: that I return to my major theme, that pot of things we do that are not quite writing, and find it empty.
Not so today. Last month I had one of the oddest, one of the least predictable and most scary gigs of my career thus far; next week one of the simplest, most obvious, most comfortable gigs of my career is not going to happen. Poised is what I am, between an exhilarating fascination and a cold desolation, the one been & gone and the other yet to come. I feel like a folk singer or else one of Tolkien's elves, lamenting lost glory and surveying the future with a weary melancholia, anticipating inevitable decline (I don't think Tolkien's elves ever do talk about entropy, but if they'd known and understood the concept, they surely would have done).
What it is, I think, is spirits of place at work. Like this: we have in Newcastle one of the oldest, one of the finest private libraries in the country. The Literary and Philosophical Society (Lit & Phil, obviously, to its friends) occupies a grand Regency building in the centre of town, and many good things happen there. Specifically, it plays host to a writers' club I'm involved with, where every couple of months we set a scientist to talk to a novelist or a poet or a playwright, let the two of them discover where their work runs in parallel, where they can find connections.
Last month we had Tom Wakeford, whose book Liaisons of Life talks about symbiosis and microbes, and lays down a serious challenge to the winner-takes-all, survival-of-the-fittest pure Darwinian view of evolution; and Tom got me to talk to. A public conversation with a serious scientist, when I've studied no serious science for the best part of thirty years; the word 'yikes!' occurred to me. Repeatedly.
But it's hard to sound foolish, hard to make an idiot of yourself under a magnificent ceiling. Groups like ours have been meeting at the Lit & Phil for a hundred and fifty years; I think the rooms understand debate and argument and disinterested enquiry, they get the point, and they filter that understanding back into those of us who use them. Like an Amati fiddle, they make us sound better than we probably are. The gig was an utterly pleasant experience for me, even when the debate did turn to argument.
We also, of course, have bookshops in Newcastle. Twenty years ago, we had crap bookshops; then for a while we had really good ones, a cracking independent and an early Waterstone's where the staff really cared about books and had the freedom to stock their shelves with a genuine range. It was a place to make discoveries, to meet new writers in the flesh and on the page, a place to excite the soul.
Then the '90s happened. For a while we had a Dillons and a Waterstone's opposite each other, fighting for market share; now we have two Waterstone's, each piling the same stock high and selling it cheap, each striving to sell more and more copies of fewer and fewer books. Residual virtues have clung, there have been a few surviving members of staff who actually read, and they have continued a programme of events. Specifically, for the last ten years they have hosted launches for each of my books on publication; and we've filled one shop or the other with punters, and we've sold decent numbers every time.
But, spirits of place: change the mood and feel of a place, you change the spirit. One of these Waterstone's - the one I've preferred for the last five years or so, the one I have an ongoing relationship with - has been redecorated. It used to be cool and shady; now it's bright and white inside, vivid like a beacon, harsh and glaring and competitive. And, uh, crap. Like a supermarket, not at all interested in the source of the goods it sells. The events organiser has resigned, and not been replaced; nobody has authority to do the modicum of work needed to organise a book launch, so my new novel will be published this week without a public celebration, without my local readers having a chance to get their copies signed, without my poor bruised ego getting its accustomed little stroke. I'm having a private party in lieu, but that is not the same.
I hate, I hate to sound like some credulous New-Ager, feng shui and ley-lines and energies and such; but I do find it dangerously easy to believe that some places make things easier, while others do the reverse. Certainly I spend more and more time, do more and more work at the Lit & Phil; certainly I spend less and less money in Waterstone's; certainly neither of these is the consequence of a deliberate decision, it's just the way I feel, where I'm comfortable, where I'm not.
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