Date to note: February

Perhaps February is a literary dry month. Options offered in this month’s dates to note were thin.

8th. Bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin in 1819.

Release of James Baldwin adaptation of If Beale Could talk by Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins.

20th.  20th Anniversary of death of Blasted playwright, Sarah Kane age 28

John McKie in a 2016 BBC review of ‘Cleansed’ offers the view that Sarah Kane is one of the UK’s most acclaimed theatre writer with work is a standard part of the drama A level syllabus.

I had not heard of either Blasted or Sarah Kane and chose this to date to explore further because I was intrigued by how young she was when she died.

I was captivated firstly by images of Sarah Kane.  I am often irritated when authors focus on the physical attraction (or otherwise) of their subjects.  I am also of a generation of feminist who well remembers the perils of being accused of objectifying women, so it is an odd place for me to start this piece.  I saw  beautiful black and white images by Jane Brown held by the National Portrait Gallery (on-line).  She looked like many women I have known – lairy, funny, self-aware, tough yet vulnerable. Like a woman I might have stood alongside waving a banner.  From of her images alone, I wanted to like her and her work.  The more I read, the more there was to like.  She was interested in sexuality and violence, was described as ‘notorious’, happily accepted her plays were radically divisive and near impossible to stage – and – according to one reviewer, wrote ‘disgusting feast(s) of filth’.

How had I never heard of this amazing rebel woman?

I read the Blasted script online (I have not added a link because I am unsure whether the full copy on-line meets copyright rules – but yes, I did read it).  The script was said by Kane to be a response to the Bosnia war. I did not like it.  Not at all.  Like many of the journalist who went to the first press show, it read to me as a not very skilled writer, lazily keen to shock and I found it both dull and tedious.  What a disappointment! 

I read that Sarah Kane committed suicide by hanging with shoelaces after being hospitalised by an earlier overdose.  In that context Blasted made more sense to me (I had not yet looked at 4:48 Psychosis).  In my professional life, I have read material written by people with severe mental health conditions and the Blasted script seemed to me to be not dissimilar to those writings which screamed of inner pain and torment. 

As sad as any death of a troubled person is, and unpersuaded by the Blasted script, I was still unsure why the anniversary of her death was a literary ‘one to note’ for February.  Was I missing something?

It would seem that the original reviewers of Blasted missed something too.  Charles Spencer of the Telegraph  (5th April 2001) acknowledges that from initially thinking the play was ‘rubbish… designed to shock’, he later came to realise that Kane had ‘genuine artistic vision and great dramatic talent’. It is clear that he was not the only critic to dramatically and quite quickly amend his opinion.  But what changed their minds?  A cynic might ponder upon the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes and journalistic egos or the modern concept of FOMO – fear of missing out.  Kane herself was not terribly interested in the ‘middle-aged, white, middle-class men’ who were unable to understand her work, possibly, as she laughingly proposed in her interview with Dan Rebellato, because they empathised rather too uncomfortably with the lead character in Blasted – Ian, the bigoted and subsequently horribly abused journalist.  

Sarah Kane in conversation with Dan Rebellato

Subsequent review from both critics and learned people of the theatre referred to her ‘incredible instinct’ and, I was particularly interested in Katie Mitchell, Director of another of Kane’s work ‘Cleansed’ who refers to it as an astonishing piece of work and a ‘strong feminist piece of writing’. Consciously drawing on a feminist perspective, I considered her work further trying to understand the alleged originality. While not a scholar of theatre, I was able to understand that her work challenged the (then) norms of theatrical delivery and the new form powerfully presented her passion. Kane’s works when read have the difficult musicality of jazz. Experts in the form of theatre suggest her words on the page are made meaningfully complete in the actual performance of them. Theatre scholars also suggest her works are hugely complex but so lacking in stage direction they demand the most of actors. The scripts compel them to deliver exquisite and perfectly nuanced performance which properly manifests Kane’s meaning. The skill of her ideas is in forcing the presentation to reflect her powerful message accurately.

I watched as much material as I could find on YouTube which covered theatre performance snapshots of Blasted, Crave, and 4:48 Psychosis and reviews predominantly. I also watched ‘Skin’, her short and only film.

Skin by Sarah Kane

I listened to her charming and funny interview with Dan Reballato, and I listened to his later (excellent) audio documentary which can be found on his webpage http://www.danrebellato.co.uk/sarah-kane-documentary and also on the BBC Sounds app https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b00hlbp2

I was particularly taken with her response to an audience question in which she said she did not make things up but described real things she saw around her.

The violence that made people gasp/faint/walk out is based on the truth of violence in war.  I went back to Blasted and read it differently.  At the second reading, I understood what she meant when she said that Blasted was not a violent play but a play about violence.  I also felt overwhelmingly sad.  In discussion with Dan Rebellato she explains 4:48 Psychosis – her last play.  It has been suggested the play is effectively a suicide note – though her brother strongly suggests that to view her work as such is diminutive and lacking. 

Nevertheless, her work is so full of pain and hurt it is difficult not to see trauma, torment, loneliness and autobiography. 

It is difficult not to feel sorrow for a talent lost too soon.  I am hoping I have the opportunity to see her plays performed.

Is the anniversary of Sarah Kane’s death a literary date to note?  Yes – it seems fair to say so – but the Guardian Literary Calendar list of dates to note speaks only to those who already know. What is the purpose or value of such a list for the rest of us? Is the intention of the Guardian Literary Calendar list to document or educate?  I think this is a valid question, loaded with responsibilities, which I will ponder further in subsequent blog posts.

The plan and the pitch

Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity.

Heinz Von Foerster 1992

On Saturday 5th January 2019 The Guardian Newspaper Review* carried an eight-page cover story feature. The piece was a 2019 month by month breakdown of ‘books to look forward to’ and important dates to note.  For example, in May 2019 The Book of Science and Antiquities by Thomas Keneally will be published by Sceptre, while August marks the bicentenary of the birth of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick.

Each month this blog will ponder/reflect/muse upon one of the allegedly noteworthy dates suggested by the article. At least one of the suggested ‘books to look forward to’ will be reviewed.

My selection will, to a large extent, be influenced by what calls out to me as a vegan, leftie, Guardian reading, disabled, lesbian feminist, academic and latterly hobby writer but I will at least make an effort to leave my comfort zone and select from the range of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books. 

Why bother? 

Primarily (though not exclusively as I will come to later) it is because I have a complicated relationship to the Saturday Guardian Review supplement.  Once upon a time, as some of the best stories begin, I aspired to be the kind of person drawn to the broad range of books it included: the latest tome on Kantian philosophy or the History of Mathematics, or the multi-award nominated debut literary novel about fishing by a Spanish hermit whereabouts currently unknown.  Only… I was a crime girl, through and through.  A compulsive reader since childhood, I was hooked by the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and moved onto Agatha Christie before I reached my teens. My love of the thrilling murder mystery, in most of its forms, never since wavered. Over the years the Guardian Review sometimes led to crime authors new to me but, mostly the weekly supplement had content about all the books I might read if only I had the time. 

I felt more worthy just by reading the Review and that was a good enough short cut to intellectual exercise of my mind. 

And then crime fiction and I had a falling out.  I am an aspiring writer.  Since the slog of completing my un-thrilling doctoral thesis, I have had some small but yes-thrilling publishing success in journals, books, in newspapers and through guest blog posts.  I have performed my stories to lovely gracious audiences and, my work has even featured in an art installation.  Of course, the book I ache to write well is my crime story.

Crimefest

Crimefest 10 year celebration promotional t-shirt image

One of the best Christmas gifts I received in December 2017 was a full three-day event pass to Crimefest 2018.  Crimefest is a convention for crime readers and according to their website ‘die-hard fanatics’ of the genre. As one of their target audience, I had wanted to go to it for several years. Big name crime authors would be speaking at the event and they were, of course, something to look forward to but the panel itinerary was the biggest draw.  I want to be a better writer. I am enthusiastic to study my craft and keen to learn from those who write and publish.  I carefully marked each panel I would attend and despite my partner’s gentle reminders about the usefulness of the clutter free Kindle and the flimsiness of our bank account, knew I would come home with a great many new books.  In fact, buoyed by the remarkably un-starry, friendly and approachable Lee Child’s affirmation that he reads literally hundreds of books every year and assertion that only great readers become great writers I bought every single book from every author of every panel I attended. 

It was an impressively large stack covering cosy mystery, whodunit, locked room, police procedural, forensic crime and psychological thriller.  My bedside table looked like a branch of Waterstones. 

And this is where, in the best tradition of whodunits, things took an unexpected turn.  Many of the books I read were terrible.  Some sloppy stories, poorly told with little imagination or craft.  Many were boring or stretched credibility to its limit. Far too many of them involved harm to women either in the sense of them being the victims (over and over and over) or in the portrayal of women as weak, impressionable, to blame, complicit and deserving of their often laboured over gruesome fate.  Of course, I am aware of the discussion on Twitter and in other arenas (see for example discussion related to the Staunch Book Prize) in support of fiction that does not portray women thus but only in immersing myself so deeply in my preferred genre had I seen the Emperor’s new clothes.  The genre sells and publishers like to sell books, but it really doesn’t mean they are actually very good books.  I was glad to get to the final novel in my selection. Genred-out, I stopped working on my own crime novel and parked an idea for a sequel. 

True story:  several years before I was old enough to own an adult ticket I had out-grown the children’s library with its tiny brown Bakelite chairs and troughs of picture books and was allowed by my Mum, who happened to be a library assistant, to sneak into the adult section.  With a firm warning that I needed to be quiet and unobtrusive, I was parked by the Dewy categorised 920s where I could not be seen.  I sat in my hiding place devouring the biographies of a broad range of interesting folk. I never properly thanked my Mum or her colleagues for failing to properly re-shelve my current read which I hid so it would still be there on my return.  Thanks Mum, I owe you – for such a lot but in this context, specifically for giving me the opportunity to read about, amongst others, Douglas Bader, Winston Churchill and Tallulah Bankhead at what is often called an impressionable age.  I am sure each of these influenced the adult I became and I am sure there is a story waiting just in the wings ready to be told, but perhaps that is for another time. 

The point is, at nine years old, my horizons were expanded by reading beyond the confines of Mallory Towers.

Finding myself years later in an unfamiliarly barren fiction landscape I knew it was time to force a broadened approach to my reading habits, only without my Mum deciding where I should go.

The Pitch

MC Escher Lithograph 1948

So this blog and its ambition is an exercise in self-development but it is more than that – it is a pitch to the editors of the Guardian.  If I had a more established writers profile the pitch would have been delivered to Guardian team members Sian Cain (@siancain) editor of Guardian Books and chief book writer Lisa Allardice (@LisaAllardice) with a suggestion of a monthly page in their well-regarded supplement. I imagine the audacity of such a pitch might have raised a smile – if they even bothered to read it. 

This blog – my review of the reviews in the Review – might, on the other hand, persuade the editors next year to allow me a monthly column in which I review their 2020 Literary Calendar.  I am sure there will be one because the Guardian Review is fond of its lists. The Escher-esque circularity of the idea tickles me.

However, and coming back to my complicated relationship with the Review, it has so far helped my literary learning only in the negative. Since July 2018 and while taking a leave of absence from my favoured genre of reading, I have exclusively read positively Guardian reviewed books.  There was no method to my choice and they tended to be largely but not exclusively novels, many of them featured in fastest selling/best in category/prize nominated/prize winning/genre-busting/huge this year lists so favoured of the Guardian.  The Guardian reviews sat cosily, matily, alongside reviews of many of the same books which featured in other newspapers. Those reviews sometimes then appeared in later editions of the books marketing materials (see ‘Droste effect’). 

The Journey

During this time I have come to wonder about what influences its choices because, to date, I haven’t read a single book that seemed to me to have earned the often ebullient commendations.  Not a single one.  It could, I suppose, be argued that my considerable investment in reviewed books was money well spent.

I have read well-written material and have learned about putting words together so that they are deliciously evocative to read but that does not necessarily equate to producing an interesting story

I have learned how to destroy a truly breath-taking story through a timid editor perhaps too afraid to tell a famous author to lose twenty thousand words. I have learned that utilising a particular literary technique those in the know will understand as incredibly clever does not lead to a book anyone – other than judging panels – will think is a good read.  I also learned that misogyny sells in genres other than crime and it still sucks.

Eight pages is a lot of copy.  Perhaps someone in the book or journalism business might interpret the lead story of the Saturday 5th January 2019 Guardian Review differently to that of a mere reader but as that mere reader, it speaks to me of gravitas, of something to take notice of and of something trustworthy but still, my recent experience raised nagging questions.

Why are these books, as opposed to the dozens lined up by publishers to print in the forthcoming year, ones to look forward to? Who says so and why?

Given they will also feature as a part of my journey (Guardian readers love a ‘journey’) I will be paying attention to the monthly ‘dates of note’ included in the Literary Calendar and using them as a guide to expand my breadth and depth of literary knowledge. Some of the dates added give the impression of being almost self-explanatory but are they?  Why, for example, should I note that 23rd June is the bicentenary of the publication of Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book including “Rip Van Winkle”?  What should, in particular, I take from note of the 31st July centenary of Primo Levi’s birth?  I wonder too about how this element of the calendar came about.  Is there some very learned booky type person I should admire for their startlingly expansive knowledge of literary history or some junior intern told to Google for filler.  You see my point?

I intend to ask the editors (sending them a link to this blog) and if I get a response, I will discuss it here.

*The article can also be found on-line https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/06/2018-year-in-books