Archive for June, 2010

The Case for Fathers

“That fathers not only kill adventure but also stand in the way of self expression in a child is something that children’s writers have always understood.”

Really? According to Andrew Martin, a novelist who wrote and presented “Disappearing Dads: the curious case of absent fathers in fiction”. He wrote an accompanying blog post on the subject, which can be found here.

The essential message in both the programme and the blog is that fathers in fiction are often absent, and those who are present are either ineffectual layabouts or aggressive tyrants. There is a concentration on children’s literature and Dickens, with a vague mention of Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

This programme really makes me sad. I don’t agree with a lot of what he says: Mr Bennett is not a terrible father, he just knows the futility of engaging with his wife and younger children, but if needed he will step in immediately, as he does when Mrs Bennett threatens not to speak to Lizzie if she doesn’t marry Mr Collins.

Strong father figures do exist in fiction, although they are admittedly less common than the previously mentioned types of fathers. Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (although he does go to war, he is strong and loving when he is present). I have tried desperately not to mention The Railway Children because just thinking about it makes me cry! But that’s all about a lovely Dad, who isn’t weak, and who is present throughout (if not in person, in the characters’ thoughts and deeds), as mentioned by DaveG in the comments on  the BBC blog. But Martin says: “[The children in The Railway Children] miss their father, but not much. His absence is compared to what happens when you stick your finger into dough: it made a deep impression but the impression does not last long.” He goes on to say, “With father back on the scene, the fun is over.”

And Martin’s programme seems unclear about the distinction between real-life fathers and fathers in fiction, which are very different things. Just because Dickens only wrote one novel with a present father (Dombey and Son), doesn’t mean that fathers in real life Victorian London weren’t present or fatherly. Martin fails to mention Joe Gargery of Great Expectations, a substitute father figure who really should be included if we’re talking about Dickens and fathers.

In the comments of the article, two people have mentioned Phillip Pullman, saying: “Mothers are also absent from most books. Was it Philip Pullman who said you first have to get rid of the parents?” And here is the key to the puzzle. Children’s literature, even examples cited by Martin himself, often relies on absent parents, not absent fathers. Adventures are constrained by parents, so frequently a protagonist is an orphan: Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, Pip… even James Bond is an orphan! The Pevensey children are evacuated in the Narnia books, and the Famous Five are always being independent in a lighthouse or similar. Removing the parents (or parent) is a device used by some writers to push the story along, to add some tension and adventure. But this is fiction, there are many, many exceptions, and it doesn’t and shouldn’t reflect on real life understanding of the role of fathers now or in the past.

So back to the quote (it’s about 19 minutes into the programme): “That fathers not only kill adventure but also stand in the way of self expression in a child is something that children’s writers have always understood.”

If he’s talking about real life, Martin cites no real life examples. If he’s talking about fiction, Martin should probably substitute the term ‘father’ with ‘parents’ for many books.

At the end, Martin says: “Fathers in fiction stifle a child’s inner life. But fathers in real life can help promote it.” I wish he’d said that throughout the programme.

What does everyone else think?

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I haven’t written anything for ages – a couple of weeks – which I’m quite ashamed about. I spent the weekend getting back into the swing of things, and eradicating that slightly niggling feeling of shame.

But once I get back into a writing routine, harking back to my post of other day, I think it might be a good idea for me to have a couple of stories on the go at the same time. It might keep me more interested and spur me to finish something, particularly if these stories are at different stages of the writing process.

What does everyone else think? Do you work on one thing at a time, or a number of projects simultaneously?

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This is my first review in the Summer Reading Challenge from Between the Lines.

The novel takes place in January 2009, and centres on the employees of an advertising agency, Meerkat360. The company is a menagerie of madness, power games and magnified corporate ridiculousness. Any reader who has worked in an office will recognise the employees at Meerkat360: Harvey Harvey, deranged and socially inept, and ‘so polite he replies to spam’; Liam, desperately trying to get his girlfriend back and wallowing in a pit of debt; Milton Keane, desperate to get on BB10 and ‘so totally not gay, really’; Caroline Zitter, perpetually absent due to self-improvement conferences; Ted Berry, creative director (‘Mc Ideas’), so pretentious he believes that the creative team should have a ‘hairdresser in residence’; and David ‘The Man’ Crutton, whose children are running wild, and the whole world is conspiring against him.

A lot happens, and it’s all a bit nuts. From run-of-the-mill office stationery stealing and broken spam filters, down to Margaret Thatcher perfume and rampaging coked-up pitbulls, it’s all there in E Squared. Each character (and there are many) is vibrant and well-drawn, with a very distinct personality. Each character’s individual plot line is interwoven into a complicated but amazingly easy-to-follow structure.

Like it or not, online communication is inescapable, especially in this book. E Squared by Matt Beaumont is a novel constructed entirely of modern communication forms: texts, emails, blogs and online chat. This is an original format, which is engaging and entertaining throughout, but it does have some drawbacks. The reader never sees immediate action take place, and by necessity is always ‘told’ and not ‘shown’ what has happened. The punchy and sharp nature of emails and texts means that towards the middle of the novel I felt a bit bludgeoned over the head with a computer. Although the short, punchy emails were realistic and did advance the plot, the reader in me wanted some chunky prose to get my teeth into. The blog posts were a welcome insight, and offered an opportunity to provide further insight into the characters (along with some continuous prose), but unfortunately this wasn’t used to its full potential. On the other hand, the use of emails and texts did provide an excellent insight into the minds of the characters, and the attention to detail (forgotten subject lines when emails have been rushed, for instance) was impressive.

There are some very funny moments. David Crutton and his wife refusing to communicate directly with each other, choosing instead to use their PAs as intermediaries. Harvey Harvey replying to all of his spam, terribly concerned about Comfort the Nigerian girl with millions of dollars to deposit in a UK bank account. For me, though, these subtler amusing moments were my favourites, and were occasionally overshadowed by the more outrageous events: loan shark gangsters shooting each other, the Serbian employee offering to torture potential stationery thieves for a confession, and an employee with a fear of flying being detained in Guantanamo Bay for suspected terrorism.

All in all, it was a very entertaining read, and a nice satire of modern office environments. It’s not as rib-splittingly hilarious as the blurbs on the book cover promise, but it is amusing. I would give it 7/10.

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Writerly Luck

Referring back to my post about luck taking a role in becoming a writer, I found this lovely section of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man the other day:

“George is like a man trying to sell a real diamond for a nickel, on the street. The diamond is protected from all but the tiniest few, because the great hurrying majority can never stop to dare to believe that it could conceivably be real.”

A Single Man, Isherwood, C., (1964), p33

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Literary Fiction

What is ‘Literary Fiction’? I know what Wikipedia says about it:

In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, the plot may or may not be important.

This is generally what I write (and what I like to read), but when someone asks me I am always reticent to say ‘literary fiction’. Using the word ‘literary’ seems to be an overly self-congratulatory term to describe your own work.

Does that sound neurotic? And how would you classify your own writing?

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Plan A

In the pub last night, we were talking about what our “Plan A” career was. Or, what we had wanted to be when we grew up.

“I’m probably on Plan H, or something,” said Nick. He counted them off on his fingers. “Yep, just about.”

“What was your Plan A?” someone asked.

“I can’t even remember now.” And not many other people could, either. We all laughed.

For most of us in that group, Plan A was a pipe dream: astronaut, actress, footballer… And for most of us in that group, there is a still a Plan A(ii): writer, author, novelist… We all write in our spare time, and everyone would love to give up their jobs and earn enough money to live off their writing. Oh, how we want it. But no one said it.

I thought to myself about how my Plan A is beginning: with the Masters I am taking the first step to that goal. When the course finishes, I will step back into real life again, get a slightly boring job again, and continue writing in my spare time. Unless I’m very, very lucky.

I think we need to be lucky. That’s why no one said it.

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I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes have trouble concentrating on one thing for a long period of time. Or occasionally, as a product of the internet generation, not much longer than 30 seconds. A couple of weeks ago, I did genuinely wonder whether I had Adult ADHD.

While I’m on the internet (generally at work… oops), I often have 10 or more tabs open on my internet browser. Often, each of these tabs is writing-related article. I’ll read one paragraph, and then click on the next tab and read one paragraph of something else. Then I’ll check my emails, Facebook, Twitter, and move onto a new article. Then I go back to original and sometimes pick up where I left off, and other times have to start at the beginning again because I’ve forgotten what I read. (In fact, as soon as I finished typing this paragraph, I clicked on Twitter).

The problem isn’t as huge with writing or reading: I can read a book for hours without getting distracted, and I can spend 2-4 hours working on a piece of writing once I get into my stride.

But with writing on computer, the problem comes as soon as I get stuck. To write completely without distractions, I have to turn off the internet router, and even then I occasionally find my mouse trailing down the screen to open a browser window, before I realise what I’m doing.

Aside from a great need to implement some form of self-control, possibly reduce the amount of time I spend on the internet, thin out my GoogleReader feed, and get a grip, another method of tempering this insanity came from a friend of mine last night.

“I’m working on five or six different creative pieces at the moment,” he said. “I often have all of them – each document – open on the computer at once. That way, when I get stuck, I can just click on the next one and work on that for  a bit. Writing six things simultaneously!”

“Well, that sounds great!” I said, enthusiasm buoyed by many gin and tonics. “Because when I get a little bit stuck, I always end up clicking on something else. For that something else to be something productive would be great. I’ll definitely try that.”

And try it I will. But what does everyone else think? Is this a sensible idea? Obviously not necessary all the time, as when you’re immersed in something then distraction is not an issue. But as a technique when you’re at a tricky stage, having one or two stories open and in progress at once might not be a bad idea for someone who is as attention-deficient as a forgetful moth at a candle. Opinions?

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Reviewing: Yes or No?

By chance, I found this on Twitter:

Bree Despain goes on to explain:

This discussion is quite timely, as I’ve just posted about reviewing books. As is probably clear from the content of this blog, I am indeed an ‘aspiring author’, and my interests don’t just lie with my own work. I like to read, all the time. I like to think about others’ writing as well as my own, and I enjoy analysing it: why the writing works, and (if necessary) why it doesn’t.

I won’t be setting out to write negative reviews, but if I don’t like a book for any reason, I would say so. And I would analyse why I don’t like it, and maybe even how it could be improved. I will try to be as fair and measured as possible, and I must emphasise that a review is only the opinion of one person. For every one person who doesn’t like  a book, there will be twenty who do.

So, I don’t intend making any enemies or hindering my own prospects, but I would like to be able to review books if I want to. What does everyone else think?

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  1. Sometimes I get an idea for a story and I think it’s the best idea ever. Then the path forks. If I start writing immediately, the enthusiasm for the idea buoys me for the first 1,000 words or so.  If I write down the bones of the idea then leave it for a couple of days, I generally start to doubt the quality of the story idea. Sometimes I decide not to write it at all.
  2. The ideas which are the most emotionally connected to me – the stories loosely based on my own experiences and feelings – tend to be the least successful stories. It’s almost as if I can’t extricate myself enough to apply the devices which are necessary to make the piece work well.
  3. My first draft is often twice as long as the final piece. It’s a monstrosity which should be locked in the basement, like one of the characters in a Lesley Glaister novel.
  4. A friend of mine is so good at suggesting little tweaks and edits for my drafts to polish them up. I’m terrified that I won’t be able to write well without him.

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I’m going to be doing the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge: reading four books and posting the reviews on this blog. So here’s a question: what do you think makes a good book review?

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