Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Literary Versus Commercial Fiction Part 405...

Despite us being on the same page conclusion-wise, I just wanted to respond to many of the points Simin Savidge makes in his Booktube discussion video looking at the false division between literary and commercial fiction that has reared its head again during the Literary Prize listing season.

Here is Simon's original video, definitely worth taking a look at.

The first point is that there is no doubt Will Self does stir things up with his provocative statements on the future of literature, but a) I don't think he's pinning it to low sales of his own book and b) while he is what may be called a literary snob, his points about the future of the novel are more to do with technology and how we read digitally more than the descrying the dumbing down of novels. (My profile of Self & his work here). So there is undoubtedly as Simon says snobbery among some readers and that is lamentable if it is aimed at readers who are being accused of not being clever enough to 'get' certain books. But I feel there is an equal tendency for an anti-intellectual tendency, to tear down difficult or complex books as elitist, as not speaking to anyone, as if these books didn't have a right to exist. To my mind that is the same type of snobbery merely inverted.

Simon calls for all books to have an accessibility and while that's true and an end always worth pursuing, I don't agree with his assertion that it is far harder to write books simply and accessibly. How exactly are we measuring the 'hardness of writing a book'? Who can say whether a book written simply is harder or easier than a complex, experimental book? It comes down to the individual writers, some find writing easier and quicker than others irrespective of what genre they write. Besides there is little merit in judging which one has worked harder, because ultimately it's not how much work an author has put into writing their book, it's the end product and what type of read it delivers for its audience. Finally regarding Simon's accessibility point, it's true commercial books reach more people which implies they are more universal; but not all authors write for a universal audience (or any specific audience in mind at all for that matter). Such authors must be permitted to write the books they want to write, to pursue the lines of literary, fictional & stylistic inquiry of their choice and the judgement of first, editors (as to whether to publish them, because they must possess some modicum of commercial potential however small scale) and then the judgement of readers, (for even without an audience in mind, the decision to write a book assumes someone will read it) will determine some sort of external verdict on the work.

The problems arise when readers and critics with a foot in one camp or the other of commercial vs literary, or simple vs complex, start defending their corner by pulling down their opponents' tastes. We all know what we like and enjoy reading, that is we all know our reading tastes, but you have to allow other readers with different tastes. And this is why literary prizes may be more harmful than good, in that fans jump on the debates they prompt to deride something they like that is omitted, or attack something they don't like that is included. Social media fuels the fires. But the thing is, don't take it so personally, a panel of judges listing books is not a slight on your personal tastes. Being a book lover and promoting your favourite authors out of your passion for their work, is not the same as supporting a football team and wearing colours and punching the lights out, or swearing at fans of the opposite team. Or at least it shouldn't be, but we edge ever closer. (This is not a development unique to the book world, same thing in politics, music et al, this ridiculous lurch into tribalism).

Simon states that pretentious books can alienate. Of course they can, but I find many non-pretentious books can alienate me as a reader for lots of different reasons. We either like a book, or we don't. Pretentiousness may be nothing to do with it. I absolutely agree any book has to carry a reader along with it, but as I discuss in my video below, there are many different ways that different readers can be carried away by a book - again we return to tastes.

The different elements of a novel that can appeal to the reader include but not restricted to -

1) Provides escapism
2) Absolute immersion in the real world
3) The story
4) Ideas/ Themes
5) Character - the psychology
6) Character - seeing through the eyes of a different person, sometimes far removed from you the reader
7) Style
8) Language
9) Metaphors
10) Formalism/ experimentalism
11) Me personally, I like discovering new words which authors introduce me to

Of course, in all likelihood it's a few of these taken together that determine the makeup of a reader's tastes, but the point ultimately it has nothing to do with pretentiousness, worthiness or whatever else Simon lists, as these things are not to his tastes, whereas to a reader who veers towards say (2), (9) and (10), the book may never strike them as pretentious or over-worthy.

I was very interested to hear his experiences of being a judge for a literary prize category. But prizes do create problems. How can you judge a collection of short stories against a novel for example? Or as he says, the Women's Fiction Prize is a vital prize, yet the appearance of literary together with commercial fiction on the same broad list -which after all the only criterion is fiction written by women - to my mind makes it impossible for judges to rate the merits of one book against another because they are not trying to do the same things at all. But there again, the notion of rating any book with some sort of putative 'score' is anathema to me. Simon talking about the brief he was given, to select a book that potentially could be in the most hands of potential readers, provided a mechanism that could cut through this comparative rating problem, but makes it one particular type of prize only. Come the next year with a new judging panel, will that same brief be employed? If it is, then really the prize should make that rubric public and if it isn't, then it just makes the whole thing seem quite random from year to year; that was the year that we wanted the greatest potential accessibility for the winning title, but the following year it was some other facet...

So although I agree with Simon's conclusions, as evidenced in my video below, I'm not sure I agree with the specific points Simon made in reaching the conclusion; that none of these divisions matter, let us be all readers to all books and make our own individual choices and not rag on readers with tastes different to your own.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Semiotinks - Flash Fiction

  • I want to lick you all over
  • Be my guest
  • I said I want to… but I can’t
  • Why ever not?
  • There’s a part of you that forever remains apart from you
  • What part? What are you talking about?
  • Your shoulder blade. It’s been colonised by someone else
  • The tattoo? That’s more a part of me than any other part. That… is the ultimate expression of me, who I am
  • That… is your signature under another artist’s work
  • Oh no no no no no. That’s all my own design. Utterly unique to me, you won’t see this in any tattooist’s window or catalogue
  • Did you take the tattooist in a drawing?
  • Well no. I knew what I wanted and described it to him. He sketched it out, but only to my specification
  • But he still put his own vision on it. The final rendering was all his and his alone
  • Not a bit of it. I determined the dimensions, the colour, every nib stroke…
  • But he is the artist that has to work with the marble
  • What marble?
  • The marble of your body. The contour of your muscle, the grain of your skin, the flow of your veins just beneath the surface. That is the true you
  • The sculpted me, yes, and I worked damn hard for this. But not as hard as you’re making me work now
  • That is what I want to possess in every topographical detail. But someone else has been in that quadrant before me and planted their flag
  • I’ve had other lovers, they’ve been in every ‘quadrant’ of me before you as well
  • But they have relinquished you. To me. The indelible ink has not and never will
  • Are you seriously expecting me to have it removed? I’m telling you, that is my own stamp of who I am
  • Cogito ergo sum? 
  • Say the sum of what now? 
  • ‘I think therefore I am’. You credit that with this branding, somehow you link up your physical body with how you conceive yourself mentally? 
  • That’s about the size of it yes
  • That how you are in the world, how you think and feel with your physical body is insufficient, you have to exteriorise it, put the construction of your inner life on permanent display
  • It’s not on permanent display. Most of the time it’s submerged beneath clothing
  • So what’s the point of it then?
  • I know it’s there. Radiating like a second heartbeat
  • Precisely. Two hearts beating. Both of them yours. Mine would make it three and three’s a dissonant crowd
  • It’s not a real person!
  • You posited it was your golem. Your spirit at large
  • What that ugly wee fellah in “Lord Of The Rings”? 
  • No… It’s only the two of us get to strip you of your raiment to reveal your skin. And you have tainted it with this… doodle
  • Doodle?
  • Alright, this self-rendered stigmata 
  • Stigmata? That’s proper over the top!
  • You’re quite right of course. More like a… palimpsest. To suggest there’s something hidden underneath. When there’s actually nothing. You could have let me circumnavigate you. All of you. Through taste and smell. Mapping my version of you over time. Instead you have predetermined yourself as to what I, or any future explorer of your flesh, will discover. You have already declared your mappa incognito in the name of your own King and unfurled your standard there
  • Well just don’t lick that part then, unlock the unknown parts of the rest of me
  • I can’t. When I taste I see pictures. When I smell I hear sounds. Your daub interferes with all of that. If I lick it, I would only taste the granular ink, while the picture has already been filled in for me
  • Just turn out the lights then. We can do it in the dark!
  • I don’t have to. The darkness of your soul eclipses all light
  • No Babe, come back… It’s me wants to lick you all over… 


Mosaic Law forbids the application of ink to the skin (Leviticus 19:28). Were the Germans at Auschwitz aware of this proscription, seeing it as yet further tribulation to wreak on the prisoners if they thought they might be denied entry to heaven through an ink profaned body? More likely it was merely part of the Nazi bureaucratic system of processing humans. Inventories and job lots and serial numbers. Cattle brands for the human kine who emerged from the cattle trucks.

The prohibition on marking the body in any way, stems from the human form being a gift from G-d that must not be altered in any way, shape or form, for to do so would be to criticise the perfection, genius and beneficence of G-d. Or more pertinently, to downright disobey Him and turn from his righteous way. For burial, the Jewish body must be unspoiled, well as much as death can leave a body in mint condition. Of course, these bodies were not in receipt of Jewish funeral rites.

Jewish faith works in three ways. Things are truth because it is the word of G-d. They are true because through study and exegesis they can be proven to be true through human ratiocination. And finally through the gematria, whereby the mathematical values ascribed to letters of the Hebrew alphabet provide mathematical proof by ‘adding up’ to the correct answer. But stare at them as they might, the Auschwitz inmates could not make the numbers on their wrists add up to a demonstration of G-d’s love.


They met at the Edinburgh Tattoo, having unwittingly landed there during their European tour on the day of the military parade. They proceeded to compare their inks, the imagery telling its own story since the deafening beat of the military drums drowned out any verbal communication they might essay. As they discovered a myriad of mutualities expressed in pictograms, a love blossomed (perhaps already foretold by both having inked efflorescence, she lilies and orchids, he an hibiscus). As the soldiers marched past their faraway eyes, they were unable to see that most of these men too shared their predilection for marking the skin. Although formal dress uniforms did their best to cover up what was still seen as unsightly and ill-disciplined by the top brass, but which they had caved into permitting through the sheer preponderance among those queuing up for recruitment. While many of the soldiers’ designs involved skulls, the young lovers-to-be both eschewed such morbid imagery. Who wants to make love only to get an eyeful of memento mori plastered on your soul mate’s flesh? An indication that one day they will be snatched away from you.


Angelina Jolie’s Tattoo
The water buffalo pulled the harrow to prick the earth, while in its turned wake the farmer disseminated the rice seedlings. When the Khmer Rouge came, they unyoked the buffalo and attached their enemies to the harrow. They chose anyone who wore glasses, possessed books among their meagre positions hauled with them from the cities, or bore tattoos. Anything that suggested literacy which unutterably betrayed their bourgeoise nature. The buffalo stood around the fields redundant, until it too, like the bourgeois Khmer people, disappeared. The cadres said it had seized its freedom under Angkar and wandered off. We suspected they had under cover of night killed it and cut it up for a luxuriant meal denied the rest of us. 

A few of us managed to escape into the borderland mountains. We formed resistance battalions, secured hold of some guns and swore an oath to free our nation benighted by the godless. Monks had not even been put into the fields to work until they dropped, they were taken away and slaughtered from the very outset. Fortunately one had made it to the mountains with us and he was versed in the knowledge of protective tattoos. He didn’t have access to ink, so he improvised using battery fluid, mixed with the sap of some mountain tree unknown to me as a species. As long as our hearts were pure, his tattoos would deflect bullets and prevent landmines from being tripped under our feet. We couldn’t read our skin’s texts, not because we were illiterates, but because they weren’t written in Khmer but in scriptural Pali. We knew we had to trigger their magic by reciting the mantras each time we went out in the field. Neither the clean skinned Khmer Rouge nor the filthy criminal Vietnamese would stand a chance in the face of the peaceful Buddha’s loving protection of us. 


Blood Ink
My self-styled stylus isn’t disposed with its own reservoir of ink. Instead it relies on its incised strokes to be infilled by the upsurge of blood. My improvised fountain pen spraying the gist of me. But it’s impossible to control such red ink swell. The blood blotter smear of self. So it is only once the flow has clotted and the skin cicatrised, that such graphic calligraphy can be anatomised. The straight edge of the razor makes it hard to curlicue any flesh inscription (made worse when the unhanded side has to grave the more favoured limb, ‘favoured’ in the sense of bias, not in my affections, for I don’t favour a single cell of my body). So inevitably my chirography resembles little more than cuneiform. The Rosetta Stone of me. The medium, the chalky, cracked parchment of my skin, is the message. Can’t you decipher it you illiterates? Why, it’s not as if I hide my verbiage encased behind dust jacket sleeves. Here, I’ll re-carve it. A palimpsest whose abiding runes are imperishable, but the surface scar tissue is recast once again. I aim for a blue vein, but the ink still emerges the unsparing red of the hyper-critical inner-editor. I have no words, but I do have profuse red ink flow to share with you.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Hallmark - Flash Fiction

Happy Birthday Son I wrote in the card, echoing the precast gnomic message already imprinted both front and inside, wondering how many more occasions of just such cards I would be privileged. 

Looking forward to sharing so many more wonderful days with you oh how hollow does that sentiment sound to me?  

I hope you enjoy the present and that you get lots of use out of it. “What present Mum? Where’s the present? What possible use could it be to me, whatever it is?” I’ll just put it with the others. But it changes the room I suppose. 

Suppose I could have written many happy returns. Though there won’t be any, happy or otherwise. Returns on what I wonder? On investments? Well that’s gone bust. A college fund foundered on the rocks. No returns of this day as it was intended. Conceived. As I conceived it. When I conceived you. Just am annual return of this utter melancholy. But of course it’s not restricted to just one day a year. Anyway I can’t change it now, it’s in indelible ink. More indelible that the flimsy tissue of the human body’s fabric. 

I tore the card up into confetti sized pieces. I would have to go and buy another one. When you were young, we used to make cards together for your little friends. So I could always make you one by my own hand. Since you are eternally frozen in your age. 

I don’t suppose Hallmark make an “Unhappy Deathday” card. It’s not clear who U should send it to, you, or me…