January competition – writing a play script. My process.

Two competitions caught my eye this month. The first is the Arundel Festival Theatre Trail competition which is free-to-enter and with fantastic opportunities for the winner. In addition to a small financial prize, the play will be performed as a part of the Arundel Festival in 2020. The submission date is 31st January 2020. (photo Arundel Festival. Copyright. Charlie Warring).

The second is the Scottish Arts Club short story competition with a good financial prize and publication in an anthology for the winners. 

Both have their downsides: I have never written or even attempted to write a script.  The deadline for the Arundel Festival submission is the end of January so leaves me very little time. 

The second competition also (already) breaks my own rules for free-to-enter competitions but it still tempts because of the calibre of entries it attracts. The stories in the previously published anthology ‘The Desperation Game’ (Eds: McBean, SC and Munro, H, 2019) are excellent.

Also, I have a bountiful collection of story ideas filed away in my Evernote folder, each hankering to be called upon.  In truth, creating stories is not difficult for me (telling them well is the challenge). Writing 2,000 words does not feel as intimidating as writing in a form I have never even thought of tackling before and yet I lean towards having a go at a script.  I think it highly unlikely I can produce a script worth submitting but the goal of my blog this year is, for me, writing-craft development so here goes – the script it is.

My ‘how to write a play script’ notes

The invitation to submission says scripts must be for a play of 30 – 40 minutes, easily staged with minimum props and a maximum of five performers. Although there are caveats to the general rule, the consensus in on-line blogs seems to suggest that a page of script equates to a minute performed. 

The script must be presented in a specific way. It must, of course, have the dialogue – how the actors tell the story. The stage direction about what needs to be on, or happening on a set. The script itself must delineate between each element through how the script is formatted (i.e. use of italics or capitals). Fortunately, I have some help with this as I use the excellent Scrivener which has a script template I very much hope will make the process easier.

I have a story in mind, and I think I can best organise this around two acts but think I will need at least four or maybe even five scenes to tell the story. Before I even begin to write, I wonder if this will make such a short script far too busy.  I may need to give this more thought.

Research suggests plays must consist of five parts

Exposition

The introduction of the characters and ensuring the background information about the aspects which needs to be known is shown.  This stage of the play should also set the mood and connect the audience with the material.  In such a short play, it seems to me that the story must be relatively simple but the exposition must be quite a hook to ensure that the characters are relatable and of interest. I have what I think is a strong idea for a setting for my play and a well-formed set of distinctive characters who I can already see in my mind’s eye (I find myself already liking some of them which is a good start). 

Rising action

I have a clear idea of the first and perhaps most crucial incident that causes a ‘moment’ –  a ‘tension’ in the plot and is the hook upon which the rest of the story unfolds.  The initial tension must be followed by other relevant conflicts between and within characters to carry the overall story.  I am less clear at this point about how to hold onto the tension beyond the initial action point and will need to do more story crafting on this.  I vacillate between being a plotter and pantster when writing stories anyway so although, for a new type of writing, I would rather be clear about where the story is going I will try to enjoy the ‘let’s see what happens’ element of writing it.  

Climax

There must be a critical turning point which changes everything for the key character(s). This might mean drawing upon alluded to, but hidden, inner strengths of the character. In my story, lives must change – there is no option, and individuals must themselves change to accommodate the broader situation.  In doing so, some characters will draw on others for support.  I can articulate this as a general story, but at this point, I have no idea how to tell this exclusively in dialogue and within the constraints of acts and scenes! I am not sure whether I am excited or intimidated. 

Falling action

This part of the story is where the story wrap takes shape towards the outcome. In this part of the story, it should be clear that something has happened and there has been a shift or a significant change.  This part of the story needs to lead to the resolution of the story.  My pre-writing story planning is woolliest here. I can imagine all kinds of elements to it, but they seem somewhat wishy-washy.  I hope this can be resolved in writing.

Resolution

The end of the story.  Conflicts and tensions are resolved, the story and character arcs are complete, and the audience must feel that this story has come to a good stopping point, but with a hope of more that could be told.  The resolution needs to make sense and be rationally in-line with what has happened (no ‘and they were unexpectedly kidnapped by aliens’ moments).  There should be a sense of satisfaction and completion for the audience

Story and plot

My story fits firmly in an ‘up-lit’ genre. It is a story of community, kindness, friendship and hope. I aim for it to be tenderly funny in exploring complex connections between a diverse group of people and to show how such an environment can engender calm over chaos and smooth frictions. I like the story, which also takes me right out of my writing comfort zone (I more usually write crime stories). This is by no means a new story but, of course, so few are. What will hopefully make it worth telling is how I manage to deliver it – or in other words, the plot. I am less clear about the plot – the not necessarily chronological events within the story that come together to enable the parts of the play to meet a dramatic and satisfactory conclusion. I know it depends mainly on how I show relationships between characters. I have a lot of work to do over the next ten days.

I will publish my entry on this site, whatever the outcome, once the competition has been concluded. Wish me luck!

Poetry competition entry (January)

In December 2019 I entered a competition hosted by the marvellous site Ink Pantry – I strongly urge anyone with any interest in creative writing to subscribe to their blog. The competition invited poetry on the theme of ‘Krampus’. My last foray into poetry was so long ago I had an Osmonds poster on my bedroom wall but I decided to go for it anyway.

I won a prize!

There was one outright winner – a marvellous poem Krampusnacht by Amy Cresswell, and two highly commended. Mine was one of the ‘highly commended‘ – and I was thrilled!

Krampus

Krampus stole my grandchildren.
No goat ever threatened my son.
Just the mothers’ ally threat
‘Santa does not visit naughty children’
was enough, at least in December

Vienna is as beautiful as the girl
Who captured my boy’s heart
Who took him home
To celebrate life, love and Christmas
Held on the 24th December.

Which is not really Christmas
Where my boy grew up
But is where his boys now excitedly
Hope for a visit from the Christkind
And Saint Nicholas

My mince pies
Do not meet the approval of
Großmutter Anna
Though I like her Lebkuchen.
Thankfully, no-one likes carp.

The kids in accented giggles
Call me Die Englische Großmutter
When they tease my Yorkshire inability to ski.
I ache for Granny, or Grandma
Closeness cleft by air miles.

Judge Claire Faulkner wrote: ‘A different style and approach to the theme of Krampus, but one which captured my heart about the impact of myth in different lifestyles and cultures.

I am very grateful to Ink Pantry for considering my submission and also for my lovely prize!

Creative writing competitions: a beginners adventure

In 2019 I wrote a blog which reviewed monthly recommendations made by the Guardian Review in their ‘literary calendar of books and events to note in 2019’.  For this blog, I read and reviewed one book a month from the list, and I also researched and wrote about the dates the list recommended we note. I read and reviewed 11 books I almost certainly would not have otherwise read, and I learned about events and people mostly new to me.  It was an adventure I enjoyed very much.  More importantly though, I stuck to a disciplined writing schedule.

As a hobby writer, it is too easy to allow one’s effort to become secondary to housework, other hobbies, and putting the pen down when things go wrong.  My journalist cousin once reminded me of the well-known adage that that journo’s cannot wait for the muse – they have deadlines or no job.  Creative writing as an amateur, especially when stories won’t form or words will not be tamed, is far too easy to walk away from. It’s just a hobby, right?  No-one cares if the book or story isn’t finished.  Only I do care and am often frustrated by the whims of my hard-to-tame procrastination monster (who looks a bit like this!)

This year I have set myself a new challenge.

At least once in every month in 2020 I intend to enter a creative writing competition. Once the competition deadline is over and/or the results have been announced, I will post my submission.
For the most part and unless there is a very good reason to deplete our bank account and exasperate my partner, I will enter free competitions which means the likelihood of me posting any winning submissions will be low. Free competitions attract a lot of submissions.

Writing competitions have a huge internet presence across all genres. They present the opportunity to have one’s work recognised and valued, perhaps be published, possibly result in a prize of some kind. Critics have argued competition outcomes mean little: Judging panels are so small they cannot represent potential readers to any significant extent and judges’ credentials, criteria and fitness to judge is not always transparent. Feedback is often poor (when any is offered at all). Competition winning, it is said, is no alternative to the more usual efforts to be published by a reputable company. (see Geoff Ward’s interesting article on competitions for Medium).

Writing competitions can be fun though!

In December 2019, on a whim, and as part of my research for this blog, I entered two small competitions. I gave my entries literally minutes thought and sent each in within fifteen minutes of first seeing the posts. I won prizes for both! (Thank you to Patsy Collins for my much-appreciated book – and also for how very supportive you are to other writers).

I am cheating a little by posting my other competition success in December as my first ‘comp’ post outcome of this blog. The competition was hosted by Ink Pantry which is a marvellous platform for writers – do check it out. I was astounded to achieve a ‘highly commended’ for poetry as the last effort at poetry (fortunately lost forever) was no doubt about unrequited love, spots and/or hating school.

Writing for competitions will encourage me to write outside my comfort zone – whether this is about required word count; genre; style; requirement to include reference to specific items etc.

My 2020 blog will consist of two-part posts each month. Part one will be about the writing process. I will give details of the competition – about why I chose it. The genre and anything else I think is relevant, interesting or useful. Part two will be the piece I submitted. Often writing competitions require submissions to be unpublished, so I will only post my submission once the competition has been concluded.

I hope this blog, like the last, will be another writing adventure I will learn from and enjoy.  I hope others might too. 

Reviewing the Review – a Review!

On Saturday 5th January 2019, alongside many other Guardian readers, I received a copy of the Review section of the paper which included a year calendar of books ‘to look forward to’ and ‘literary dates to note’. It was the Review’s cover story and was sizeable piece of journalism covering a whole eight pages of the Review.  I was curious about how the list came about and its purpose.  Was it just a fat advertorial, sponsored perhaps by the publishing industry?  Was it maybe a filler task handed over to some junior intern or newbie-learning-the-ropes?  I pondered the possibility that it was very carefully put together by an incredibly learned bookish person and was indeed filled with terribly important knowledge I really should take note of. No author was ascribed (if I had written it, this would have upset me greatly!)

As I wrote in my first blog post, on 2nd February I decided to Review the ‘Literary Year Ahead’ calendar published in that edition of the paper.  As I mentioned in that post, I hoped it was something Guardian editors over at the Review might be interested in. Their failure to respond to a number of approaches on email, twitter and by actual posted letters (yes, I did that) suggested not.  So, as a potential article pitch, my efforts failed.  Having drawn on the Review for my reading matter during the previous year (for reasons also explained in the first blog post), I found many of their monthly recommendations disappointing reads.  Indeed. Some of the positively reviewed books were downright terrible.  Was the ‘literary year ahead’ calendar, abundant in recommendations, going to offer richer pickings?  I decided to choose one book recommendation and follow up on one ‘event to note’ per month to read, research and write about (see choice methodology below). But first, I wanted to know – why were these books and events to note? What authority did they have?  Who said so and why?  So I wrote, emailed, tweeted to Sian Cain (the Guardian’s books site editor) and Lisa Allardice (the Guardian’s chief books writer).  I asked each:

  • who is the author of the Literary Calendar (none is attributed)
  • how was the ‘books to look forward to’ list arrived at – why were those books in particular chosen?
  • how was the list of ‘dates to note’ arrived at? who put this list together and was there a rationale or inclusion criteria?

Eventually, after a few emails, I had a response to question 2 from a staff member at the Guardian (no role title given) called Hanako who replied:-

“we have a fiction and a non-fiction editor who both read widely and decide which are the most interesting books to include based on catalogues from publishers. Obviously we can’t include everything, but they do their best to make sure a wide range of new and established authors are included in the list”.

(Email correspondence 5 Feb 2019).

I followed this up with Hanako, but unfortunately, no further responses were offered.

It would seem then, the list is drawn up based on the personal choices of the editors. I assume these are the two book editors referred to on the Guardian website – Sian Cain (#siancain) and Lisa Allardice (@LisaAllardice), but I acknowledge this may be an incorrect assumption.

Anyone who follows Sian Cain and Lisa Allardice on Twitter will know these are women who understand the book world and have enviable knowledge about the industry, books, authors and are fine writers themselves. I admire their work tremendously. There is though, a responsibility that comes with creating a list others should ‘note’. The inclusion methodology should be transparent – is this a well thought out list or just a huge book flogging (paid for??) advertorial for some publishing house/s? The trustworthiness of our media is important, and it shouldn’t matter whether this is news about 2019 (UK) election, or a pert but somewhat throwaway little filler magazine insert into the weekend paper.

Analyzing the list: my methodology
I decided to spend a little time analyzing the list, and it is just as important to make my methods transparent.
‘Analyzing the list’ turned out to be much more of an effort than I had first imagined. I looked at both the books and the dates to note listed for each month of the year. I used a spreadsheet to do a count.

Books to note list
For the book list, specifically, I counted:

  • whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry
  • the gender, sexuality and ethnicity of the writers
  • whether authors identified as disabled
  • (from May only) the class/educational level of the author

To be completely transparent I need to acknowledge that this count was literally me running my fingers down the monthly list and looking the (first named only in the case of dual authored books) authors up on the web. In May I added a further very loosely framed category of class/educational level of the author after recognizing a pattern of very high academic achievement of listed authors but I did not go back and find this data for the previous five months. By any research standards, it was a roughly hewn methodology and approach. Counting is almost certainly awry and therefore, it should be viewed as a general big picture rather than micro perfect.

I need to add a couple more important caveats:

‘Straight’ sexuality was identified and assumed only by the author being married to someone of the opposite sex in materials I found online. No ‘straight’ author actually self-identified as such in any articles I viewed.

Gay and lesbian authors were identified specifically by biographical material found online where they identified with this naming specifically-

Some authors identified as queer.
One author identified as non-binary.

The sexuality of some authors could not be identified through biographical information found online.

Disability information was taken from biographical information found online and language used here reflects how it was presented on-line.

One author self-identified as ‘mixed nationality’. Some identified as dual nationality. International includes Canada, US, Australia, Jamaica, Chile, Argentina, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Sudan, New Zealand, Georgia, Russia, Mexico, India. The country with the biggest representation within this group was the US with 25 writers featured.

Ethnicity data proved to be the most challenging to gather from on-line sources due to the broad range of ways people’s ethnicities were described and in some cases, it could not be found and only assumed from images. The term ‘mixed’ is only used where authors have specifically referred to themselves thus in on-line sources.  I have used the categories provided by Gov.UK’s   ‘List of ethnic groups’ but attributing descriptions as given in on-line information to these groups involved somewhat clumsy decision making and data presented here should be understood in that context and as relatively poor quality data.

The book breakdown

  • Fiction 61
  • Non-fiction 53
  • Poetry 9
  • Young adult 1
  • Children’s 1

Gender

  • Male 59
  • Female 65
  • Non-binary 1

Sexuality

  • Not known 35
  • Straight 76
  • Non-binary 1
  • Queer 3
  • Lesbian 4
  • Gay 6

Disability

  • Mental health issues 1
  • Physical health issue 1
  • Dyslexia 1
  • Deaf 1
  • Not known 121

Author Nationality

  • UK 56
  • Europe 22
  • International 46 (25 US writers within this group).
  • Mixed 1

Ethnicity

  • White 83
  • Mixed/multiple ethnic groups 2
  • Asian/Asian +other 7
  • Black/African/Caribbean/Black +other 20
  • Other ethnic group 1
  • Not known 12

I intended to have a category called ‘educated or posh. By the time my web based research of the authors on list got to the month of May I came to realize that the majority of authors seemed to be Princetown, Harvard or Oxford educated, were Professors of Literature, University lecturers, held degree’s, MA’s, and doctorates and/or were prize winners from Laureate to other prestigious prizes. There were of course authors who identified as working class (in on-line bio’s), so not everyone was posh. Still, the vast majority were at the very least educated to degree level and most far beyond (and, yes, I do equate access to funds to participate in education at beyond degree level to equate to some level of privilege. Sue me). The Ivy League and Oxbridge had a significant presence in the list of authors.

So what might we make of the ‘books to look forward to’ list?

The list is balanced well between fiction and non-fiction aimed at an adult audience. Poetry appears to be underrepresented in this list but this, of course, depends on the annual number of poetry books published by the major houses. Women were marginally over represented. The majority of authors were straight. Although in number terms UK authors had a good showing, in terms of the geographical size of the potential pool of authors both it and US writers were arguably over represented. As mentioned above, the breakdown of ethnicity is complicated because of the challenge of attributing ethnicity accurately and respectfully. However, even with that caveat, white authors significantly dominate the ‘books to look forward to’ list.

Disability information proved to be the most difficult to gather. Very few authors mentioned any kind of disability. As a person with disabilities myself I have long noted both the absence of characters with disabilities portrayed in books. Conversely where we are portrayed we are often the cripples – physically or mentally lessor as a story telling short-cut to enable the help/pity etc of an able bodied character to be evidenced. While it is not the responsibility of people with disabilities to educate society about the subject, it is true that ‘writing from within’ and telling stories from our point of view has an important place. Still, these stories were largely missing from the Guardian list. I have also been influenced to think about the struggle disabled writers face to be published, experiences of ableism within the industry and the impacts of that upon both writers with disabilities and how we are represented in published works. Is this represented in the Guardian List? I guess it is hard to say.

I highly recommend spending time with Alice Wong (@SFDirewolf) and Nicola Griffith (@nicolaz), their #CripLit twitter chats and the Disability Visability Project to understand why representation is important.

The ‘dates to note’ list.
The literary ‘dates to note’ could be separated into book festivals (ie Hay), prize awards (ie Man Booker), historical events (ie Peterloo Massacre), film releases – or dead white men. There were exceptions – for example, the death of the fascinating Sarah Kane – but from whichever viewpoint you look at the list of dates to note featuring people rather than events, is dominated by white, mostly dead, men.

How I used the lists and what I gained from them
Each month I chose one book to review and one event to write about. I tried to get a balance across fiction and non-fiction books but only reviewed one poetry book (Simon Armitage – marvellous BTW) because the second possibility (John Cooper Clarke) had a delayed publishing date. I actively tried to choose books from the list I would ordinarily pass by in bookshops – not actively avoid, but not seek out either. I wanted to leave my reading comfort zone.

I was a rather fabulous adventure! I learned a lot from the ‘dates to note’ list. For example, the Peterloo Massacre was new knowledge to me. I am both astounded and a little ashamed that until my research for this blog, I had been woefully ill-informed about such an important historical event (and I ponder on how this could be). Ditto my ignorance of the wonderful Sarah Kane. I rediscovered a joy for Whitman and decided that for the sake of my bank balance, I must never visit the London Book Fair.

From the books to look forward to I read a couple which underwhelmed but I also read books I absolutely loved and yet, would never have chosen were it not for this blogging adventure. – The standouts were:

  • Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez (@CCriadoPerez) which was mind blowing and reignited a long damped feminist call to arms. I am delighted to see how widely her book is being recognised as trailblazing and congratulate her for winning the Financial Times Book of the Year award.
  • Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffery Boakye (@unseenflirt) which was written beautifully, was funny and had radical and compelling content. I learned so much from this book. As I wrote at the time, ‘Jeffrey Boakye… opens eyes and minds and I wish I could write like that’.

The Guardian Review, Review – the Review!

I still wonder what the list was written for. Was it written to be used as I used it? How many people still have copies, consulted monthly from which a choice is made. Not many I suspect, and that is a shame because with a little attention to the caveats cautioned by the data breakdown, it was a damn fine list which facilitated an enjoyable literary journey across my year. The author – whoever that was – could rightfully be proud of it but may I make a suggestion for next year? Please pay less attention to dead/old/white men and more attention to disability.

Finally as this literary journey comes to an end, to the readers of this blog a warm thank you for following!

November ‘book to look forward to’: Oligarchy. Scarlett Thomas (Canongate). Kindle edition £8.63

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for November 2019 said:
‘Her first adult novel in four years: a tale of power and privilege set in a girls’ boarding school’.

I quite enjoyed this novel, despite it being removed on almost all levels from my own experience.

The central character of the book is Natasha – the daughter of a Russian oligarch who, despite them barely having any kind of relationship, has arranged for her to go to an English boarding school. The story is of her learning to understand and negotiate her privilege, her relationships to and with her peers (another form of oligarchy) and navigate the complex and dangerous territory of female body image. Alongside these elements the mystery of a death of a pupil – murder or suicide? – which the girls explore with somewhat ridiculous and excited energy entirely in keeping with the overblown drama peculiar to teenage girls. There was a further story sprinkled throughout, tied to the conclusion featuring a Princess, a death, a diamond and the school lake but I would need to read the final chapters again to work out what was going on here! This element felt like an ‘add on’ and unclear

There are many funny lines and crisp insights and the writing positively bounces along capturing the fickle attention span of teenagers perfectly. I didn’t get any real sense of cultural or character difference between the girls (I had no ideal what made Natasha Russian for example). Sexuality was also strangely missing – in a girls school with teens in the spotlight I might expect more focus than referring to slight crushes. I did not think the line between humour and cruelty was well drawn in relation to anorexia. Anorexia doesn’t lend itself to comedy and whilst the experience of anorexia/bulimia was well drawn (the carrier bags of sick found after a death, the jutting bones) the girls are not given any sympathy or much positive agency beyond the creation of ever more dangerous food restriction rules.

So, it was a bit of a mixed bag for me. There is a lot to commend in this book – it is fun, there are great lines, good dialogue and Aunt Sonja is a fabulous character who I would like to know more about but there is a level of bleak unkindness about anorexia, and the girls who experience it, that was prickly and pointed and a bit uncomfortable – possibly a writerly technique to reflect a disordered self-hating mind mind that becomes anorexic?

Date to note November: 22nd 150 years since the birth of André Gide

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:
1st Centenary of JM Keyne’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace.
22nd Bicentenary of the birth of George Eliot.
22nd 150 years since the birth of André Gide.

It would have been so easy for me to choose the bicentenary of the birth of George Eliot as my date of note for this month. Adam Bede and Silas Marner are two of my favourite books. Add in the opportunity for a feminist discussion of her writing under a male pen name and there is tasty material to cover. However, this blog has been a journey of learning and new material for me (I will write about my methodology and choice making in my December post) so I chose to explore someone I had never previously heard of.

Andre Gide (1869 – 1951), French essayist, humanist, playwright and novelist was a Nobel Prize winner and thought by many, as he was described in an obituary, as one of France’s greatest writers. Gide was also a self confessed pederast who celebrated his enjoyment of sex with young people.

Anyone who wants to know more about Gide – about his writing, his drive to explore identity and ideas about the nature of sexuality (his ‘investigation of freedom and empowerment in the face of moralist and puritanical constraints’) need only view the detailed, factual but somewhat neutrally toned Wikipedia page or alternatively the on-line version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica which refers to Gide as having ‘tolerant and enlightened views’.

Gide, suggests in his most (in)famous work Corydon that homosexuality is a more natural state of being whilst heterosexuality is merely a useful to society, social construct – though it is also important to note that his is a distinctly male gaze, with male sexuality as the exclusive default. Interestingly the Wiki has this listed as an LGBT topic and as a person who identifies as queer – and as a woman – here is where I struggle.

Many writers have written about the nature/nurture debate relating to human sexuality. I guess the writings – whether good, bad, controversial or provocative have helped to move discussion along and develop ideas about sexuality and sexual identity. I guess, knowing so little of Gide, his work on identity framed in the context of social moralism has been a contribution to that which may explain the admiration for his work. I too am a product of the society in which I have developed. Make of it what you will, but I cannot value, celebrate or ‘own’ any kind of allegiance, respect for or interest in the work of a man who wrote in such sickeningly glowing terms (see autobiography, 1935, p288) about what he refers to as ‘pederasty’ but is of course, the rape of children. Andé Gide raped children.

Much has been written about ‘the problem of history’ – see for example, the debate between Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day. The Guardian Review suggests that the birth of André Gide is a ‘date to note’ – ie to recognise or observe and I wonder what the thinking was behind the suggestion that it be ‘noted’. Is the suggestion neutrally made (like the tone of the Wiki page) or allusion to some kind of quality? I am mindful there is a power in honour naming. Whilst it may or may not be true that Gide made a significant contribution (one writer referred to him as ‘ahead of his time’), failure to contextualise this with recognition of his abuse of children makes it an odd and, I would argue, a careless inclusion.

Date to note October: 100 years since birth of Doris Lessing, winner of Nobel Prize in 2007

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:
4th Cheltenham literary festival
11th Film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch
14th Man Booker prize ceremony
22nd 100 years since birth of Doris Lessing, winner of Nobel Prize in 2007

Doris Lessing was a British-Zimbabwean novelist famous for works rich in story, social commentary and political message. The Golden Notebook is one of her most extraordinary works drawing together themes of mental ill-health, fragmentation and separation into narrative woven story and interactive description.

In 2007 Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sarah Crown wrote a lovely piece about this in October 2007 which can be found here

The Nobel Prize for literature was famously not awarded in 2018 following an alleged sexual assault scandal and the complicated membership regulations, subsequently amended. The amendments also paved the way for changes in how awards are made. In that context, two winners were announced in 2019 – Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke – the latter author also subject to controversy because of his political views.

For this post I am interested less in the awards made – about which much has been written – or about Doris Lessing marvellous as she is, about whom there are almost as many words. This blog will focus instead upon both the process of award making and the relevance of the award to authors.

Albert Nobel – ‘the merchant of death’

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) was a Swedish business, entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist who, amongst other things, invented dynamite. Nobel was instrumental in weapons manufacture for which he was subsequently condemned as ‘the merchant of death’. Concerned about how he might be remembered, Nobel posthumously donated his amassed fortune to create a positive legacy – hence Nobel prizes for sciences, literature and contribution to international furtherance of peace.

The awards process for the Literature Prize

Every year the body responsible for managing the process of making awards, the Swedish Academy, invites nomination for awards sending out thousands of requests to a broad range of representative organisations and individuals. Nominations received – there are usually up to 250 – 300 received – go through a rigorous shortlisting process, which over months narrows the shortlist to five. The shortlisted works are read and reviewed by the selection committee (in 2019, exclusively Swedish and white, mostly but not exclusively older than 60) over six months after which members of the academy vote. The candidate with more than half of the total votes is named the Nobel Laureate for Literature.

This process is to identify the very best writers – novelists and poets across an international publishing arena. It is reasonable to reflect on the magnitude of such a task and what the prize award, actually means. How many books are read by each panel member, for example?

What is the sample representative of?

How do we know these are in any way a representative sample of the best-published literature available and even then, representative of what? How is the international aspect of nomination and judging managed? Presumably not all panel members have more than one, two or three languages so translation and the essence of a writers work – particularly poetry one imagines – being ‘lost in translation’ must factor into the process? Would a panel made up of people from African or Asian nations, even if using the same published selection procedure, come to similar conclusions? A headcount shows that Nobel Laureates in literature come predominantly from Europe and the US, and the overwhelming majority wrote in English. Only one woman of colour, Toni Morrison, has been awarded the prize.

It is hard to understand what the awards process means. Certainly, it highlights literature with a focus on particular authors. There is not a writer who earns a living through the written word anywhere in the world who would turn their nose up at the significant prize money which accompanies the medal and honour. It would seem that a win is more than likely to lead to more book sales. It needs no saying that the award has cachet and it must be wonderful and a joyful privilege to become a laureate but as a measure of literature(s) of worth, it can only ever be something of a blunt instrument.

Book review: October‘ book to look forward to’: Grand Union. Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton). Kindle edition. £9.99.

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for October 2019 said:
‘Her first short story collection brings together ten new pieces and ten written over the past two decades’.

Zadie Smith is almost universally lauded since her debut novel White Teeth became a best seller in 2000.

Reviews of White Teeth pointed out her talent as a writer, the humour of her stories, her crafted characters and the freedom in-between the words, from doubt either in the story or its crafting. I didn’t get it. When the hype around it began, I was thrilled and greedy to read it, but I found the book to be confusing with so much detail about so many things I found myself forgetting what the story was actually about. Even now, writing this, I had to go back to the cover blurb to remind me. At the time, no doubt drawing on my insecurities, I decided it was me – that I was not literary/learned enough to appreciate it. Her subsequent works (and she has an impressive output) have been very positively received also – including nomination for important literary prizes.

Certainly, Zadie Smith can put words together, so her text reads like lyrics and invoke rippling movement. Her ideas (so many ideas in Grand Union!) are bountiful and wide and a little bit mind-blowing in their breadth.

Perhaps it remains true that I am not literary enough because I have not enjoyed Grand Union either. This is more than a rhetorical point for me because I truly want to love her work.

So many critics and reviewers rave with such bounty about her fabulousness I want to experience their joy, but I found the terrain of this book difficult and frustrating to navigate. The stories as a collection seemed to me to be a hotchpotch of streams of consciousness. It is an incoherent collection and very few of the stories I enjoyed. When I read a story (especially a short story) I expect some outcome, a parablic or allegoric curve, a laugh, a reveal or a satisfying ending but I just didn’t find the majority of the stories in this book to be very good.

I still wonder what I am missing.

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were: 27th Release of Joe Wright’s film of AJ Finn’s thriller The Woman in the Window, starring Amy Adams.

It turns out that the release date of the film has been delayed until 2020 after test screenings allegedly confused audiences and re-shoots have been ordered.

The film itself, as mystery/thriller/drama is about an agoraphobic woman who spends time observing/spying upon the world outside her window. She sees something which causes reality to shift and which, like other films of its type (ie Gone Girl) makes the lead character, and the audience unsure of what is real and what is imagined. The director is the excellent Joe Wright and the cast looks great (cannot beat anything with Gary Oldman and Julianne Moore) so hopefully the new planned release date (May 2020) will be realised.

However, this is not the story here…

The story is actually about the author, AJ Finn – the pseudonym of Dan Mallory. Mallory is an American author. The Woman in the Window was his first novel which many publishing houses sought to publish. It hit the top of best sellers lists and deals were secured for the manuscript in 37 different territories. Unsurprisingly, this subsequently generated a lot of interest in Mallory and his work.

In February 2019 Ian Parker published an extraordinary article in the New Yorker accusing Mallory of fabricating illnesses and periods of brain cancer related ill health. Parker further reported that Mallory did not, as he had told employers, have a PhD from Oxford. It also appeared that several members of Mallory’s family continued to be apparently well despite Mallory telling others that his family were dead due to cancer and his brothers suicide. Parker reported that former colleagues of Mallory formed the view that he was ruthlessly and wilfully deceptive in order to get what he wanted with some suggesting that they felt ‘unnerved’ by him.

Mallory responded in a statement in which he acknowledged that he had never had cancer but implied he did as a cover for his struggles with bi-polar disorder which, to some extent, he also blamed for what he referred to as delusional thoughts. In a subsequent Observer interview Mallory blamed depression for absences from work which, at the time, he said were related to ill health caused by a brain tumour.

As Leo Benedictus reminds us, in his February 2019 Guardian article about authors who fabricate literary personas, fiction writers are fantasists and story tellers for a living. Where should we, as readers, draw a line about the ways and means through which an author and their work gains traction? I don’t know if Mallory is a ruthless albeit somewhat perverse narcissist who dances into best seller lists and film options on the back of a useful mental ill health pony, or whether he actually does experience a serious mental health condition – and one he is ‘intensely ashamed’ of.

Mallory has, according to a quote in Benedictus’s article, suggested that readers are not interested in authors biographies and perhaps he is right. I do not suppose for a moment that anyone will choose not to see the film because of the Mallory story. Whether we see publishing houses clamouring for future works by AJ Finn remains to be seen.

September ‘book to look forward to’: Coventry. Rachel Cusk (Faber) Kindle edition. £6.47

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for September 2019 said:

‘A series of essays that reflect on themes central to Cusk’s fictional writing, including life choices, politics, womanhood and art’.

I am not sure I have ever read a collection of essays before.  Of course, I have read essays but never a curated collection from a single author so I was unsure what to expect, and I was unfamiliar with Cusk’s work.  It did not begin well.  The first couple of essays in section one (which include the title essay ‘Coventry’) had quirky and enjoyable nibbles of acute observation but I found the essays to be a bit over self-aware … trying too hard, too cerebral, too self-indulgent.

I wondered ‘what is this book and who is it for?’

The first collection of essays are inward-looking and somewhat autobiographical. The second a mix of reflection, introspection and commentary and the third commentary on works from other writers.  The last section (Classics and Bestsellers) was straightforward, and from a review perspective, easy to understand. These are essays about well-known writers and their work, for example, DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow. These essays evidence an enviable exactitude and economy of prose alongside astounding clarity and intelligence. While I was awed by the gifted writing, I was not overawed and learned a great deal. (Even about Louise Bourgeois of whom I am a fan and despite this particular essay having something of a dense form).  I am in the process of reading or re-reading all the works she addresses in this section.

These essays are excellent and will no doubt be used in creative writing class compulsory text lists forevermore.

I struggle more with the earlier two sections of the book.  I felt irritated by them, and the irritation endured after I had finished the book. I had to go back and re-read it to understand why. On second reading, I tuned in to the fluidity of the writing and the clever and finely tuned wit.  I particularly relished ‘On Rudeness’ and wish everyone would read it. Cusk has a blisteringly penetrating gaze and unique voice. On second reading I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  I think my irritation had root in the unapologetic erudite, self-awareness presented in her work. As a feminist, I applaud and support the lack of apology from any woman for her scholarly sophistication but reflect that I see it so rarely I experienced it as ‘show-offy’. My initial response says more about my academic and scholarly insecurities that it should about the accessibility of Cusk’s book.

I still do not quite understand how this book came to be or who it is for.  It was a bold choice to publish it.  I have no idea if I am the target market (Guardian reader, educated, woman, feminist, writer) but I am glad I read it and that it was included in the ‘books to look forward to’ Review calendar for this month.