Monday, 31 March 2008

Strong Language Warning

Warning: this post contains 'strong language'.

Whenever I see “Strong Language Warning” on a CD cover or a book cover, I think of storm warnings issued over the radio, of hurricanes or gale force winds. I imagine fishing trawlers tossed from peak to trough of 8 metre high waves, with thunder and lightning crashing into a dark ocean, and of lives in peril. And then I think of D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and know I'll listen to the CD or read the book regardless of such a warning, because it'll inevitably be over a storm in a teacup.

On the whole, we’re an inventive and playful species, and one of ourStorm_in_a_teacup inventions is language. It’s an artificial construct, which we communicate through, build upon and play with. And yet, as with all artificial constructs, the way we use it, abuse it or play with it, says something about us and the era we’ve created for ourselves.

It strikes me as odd sometimes that people will complain that so-and-so “used the F word” or so-and-so “used the C word.” As if the actual pronunciation of the word ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’ might cause the sky to fall down. It’s just about okay to write ‘f***’ or ‘c***’ in a publication like a newspaper or a magazine, but not the complete word. The most obvious allusion is fine, but not the actual word in full. It’s as if we’ve invested these specific sounds and symbols with such power that they have a magical, but destructive potency, of their own. But why do we do this? What is it we’re really frightened of?

One answer, I believe, is that such responses reflect what is currently socially taboo; that language is a barometer of the age in which we live, and that ‘unacceptable language’ reflects that which society, as a whole, hasn’t yet matured enough to accept. We deem that language is offensive, or strong---and thereby use it abusively, offensively---when we’ve become Lady_chatterleys_loveruncomfortable with what it was intended to convey. And perhaps the only way to overcome this and move forward is to reclaim the word and the idea behind the word, and to refuse to snicker or be offended or complain when someone uses ‘strong language’.

To an extent, D.H.Lawrence achieved this approach with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, even though the novel was banned in 1928 and Penguin Books were prosecuted (but vindicated) under the Obscene Publications Act during 1960 when they decided to publish it. Sometimes it takes an age for society to move forward, but sometimes, unfortunately, we also go backwards.

There’s an anecdote from the introduction to Lady Chatterley’s Lover that’s stayed with me from when I first read it, which is relevant to the way we use and abuse language, and what it says about us. It goes something like this:

A soldier, recently returned from overseas, appears in court on assault charges and is asked to explain himself to the magistrate. “Well, your honour,” he says, “I’d spent eighteen fucking months fighting for King and country, and when I’m demobbed what do I fucking find? I arrive home on the last fucking train of the day, and decide to surprise my wife, so I walk all the fucking way home, let myself quietly into the fucking house, and make my way up the fucking stairs to our bedroom, where I fucking find ... where I find my wife having relations with a stranger.”

Monday, 24 March 2008

Thinking about voice


It’ll be no surprise to those who’ve been visiting this blog a while that I’m a fan of Raymond Carver’s short stories. And so, this morning, to celebrate the holiday, I began Sam Halpert’s Raymond Carver, an oral biography (University of Iowa Press, 1995). My daughter bought it me a few months back, and it’s been one strata of The Stack ever since, protected by the supplier’s shrink-wrapped plastic, in preparation for such a moment.

How I’ve been looking forward to peeling off that plastic wrap and getting into it! And, though I generally prefer fiction to biography and am just a quarter of the way in, it hasn’t failed to delight.

It’s got me to thinking (yet again) about voice.

Richard Cortez Day, who took some creative writing classes that Carver attended early on, has this to say in the opening interview: 'As soon as I saw his first manuscript I realized that this guy could really do something, because he had a strong sense of narrative. Of course a lot of writers have that, but not many know the other two things, and though one of them can be learned---the use of detail to establish a reality---the other I believe cannot be learned. It’s the real gift, the true sign of whether a person is a writer or not---and that is the voice. And right from the start Ray’s voice was authentic, personal, and compelling. A bit Hemingwayish maybe, but that’s OK---you have to work through some predecessors.'

I’m not sure about that business of it being learned or not (the nature versus Raymond_carver_an_oral_biography nurture argument too often generalises and simplifies a point of view to the point of meaninglessness), but I do believe voice is something that’s developed and that can become more pronounced with time, practice and confidence. But it’s also something that can be spoiled, by being too measured, too cautious, too refined, self-conscious, or smug. As readers, we all have preferences of course for the type of voice or tone of voice that we prefer attuning ourselves to throughout the journey of a story, but me---well, I’m probably more comfortable with one that borders on being a tad raw rather than carefully polished. (It's what'll hold me to a novel like Charles Bukowski's The Post Office, for instance, when I'm feeling there's not enough else.)

It’s an elusive quality though and not that easy to define, which is possibly what Day was alluding to. It’s not necessarily the narrative voice we’re talking about, because the narrator can be as much a shaped character as any other character, with flaws and idiosyncrasies which mark his/her voice and interpretation of events; although sometimes, when that isn’t the case, the narrative voice may indeed be the authorial voice. But often, I think, when people are talking about this authorial voice what they’re really talking about is ‘style’---except ‘style’ is a less fashionable word. All the same, what’s being discussed is no different: the type of choices that define an author, the vocabulary that’s drawn upon as a whole, the selection of what’s important and how it’s shown, along with the omissions and silences---these are perhaps the things which contribute to that quality of voice or style and which might sometimes be described as ‘authentic, personal and compelling’.

Yes, I think that's it.

To finish, I’ve just got to a section where Scott Turow (novelist and lawyer) adds this to the debate: 'There’s a massive difference between the writer as a person on the one hand and his work on the other. There’s an invisible element in writers. Indeed, one of the things that drove me to law school was the fact that hanging around with these guys, I came to realize that writers as a group do a miserable job of talking about themselves. They’d be happy to tell you stories, repeat stories to you that they heard, but when it came to talking about their inner selves ... very little. I found that lawyers are much more open ... Writers in many ways write because there are things that are otherwise unapproachable for them.'


Sunday, 16 March 2008

The importance of a good editor

I’ve been editing and redrafting Novel Two recently. (Am not going to say what it’s about or even what its working title is because I’ve manufactured a superstition for myself about the dangers of doing that.) Everything was sweet until a couple of weeks back, though, when I began to suspect something was Bill_brysons_shakespeare missing and that I needed to build in a transitional scene. Exactly the sort of challenge I enjoy. So I spent the last fortnight building this scene, playing with a couple of thousand words and the ideas behind them, juggling them around, dropping a few, picking up a few new ones ... editing, refining, redrafting, working through it again and again, until the new section felt as polished as those on either side.

However, the moment I slotted it into place, it became blindingly obvious that it slowed the pace rather than enhancing it---whatever was I thinking of?---and so I ripped it out again. Now it’ll be filed away with the remnants of other deleted scenes and half-completed ideas in that bizarre wasteland of phrases and snippets. (It’s a place I go a-browsing every now and then, sometimes swinging a flame-thrower at the horrible mutations I discover lurking there, whilst rescuing other strange beasts I find.) But at least I can return to editing the main body of what's already written.

Of course, this isn’t two weeks work down the drain. It just means I have a better sense of the balance of the whole (I hope). Yet it highlights the importance of editing, and returning to a piece of writing in many different moods, because what might work one day might seem clumsy beyond belief the next; what might seem profound in the middle of the night may reveal itself as embarrassingly trite in the light of day.

This, coupled with the fact that I’m enjoying Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare at the moment (who illustrates how much of what we know about the bard is based on supposition and very few facts), put me in mind of the following excerpt about editing and editors. It goes to show that a good editor is invaluable and should always be listened to.

(Thanks, Martin, for posting this link to me.)

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Bringing the stack down

In the town of my childhood, I think there once was a very tall, round, brick chimney. A couple of hundred feet tall, perhaps, with the name of a company (not the town) painted in large, white characters from top to bottom:






But I can’t be absolutely sure of this. It might be a memory from the town of my childhood, or from another place I’ve lived or travelled through, or it might be a fragment that’s been manufactured down at the Factory of the Imagination which has somehow found its way into my warehouse of memories.

It doesn’t really matter whether the image in my head is based on actuality orImg_0360 not though because the value of it remains the same either way: it represents for me, at the moment, the tower of books I’ve been putting to one side to read. The books I want to read rather than the books I need to read for work, that is. Most of them are presents from Christmas and a birthday, and I’ve been itching to start dismantling this stack for a while. It’s grown taller and taller and taller, threatening to topple, and (if it wasn’t for my fear of heights) I’d almost see my self as a steeplejack eager to get to the top of it, to begin demolishing it, layer by layer, all the way down to the ground ... simply so I can have an excuse to start building another one with even more books I'm keen to read.

On the very top, like a ring of capping bricks round its rim, were a number of magazines I subscribe to: back issues of Writer (from The Victorian Writers’ Centre) and The Author (from The Society of Authors). Inevitably, I began with these and came across some interesting snippets along the way.

Simon Brett, in his article on writers and depression (The Author, Autumn 2007) asks: ‘Was Georges Simenon’s opinion correct, that “writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness”? After all, normal people don’t need to write. They accept life as it is; they don’t suffer any urge to chronicle or ... to tidy up or improve it.’

I like this. I don’t necessarily agree with it being a vocation of unhappiness, but I do sometimes wonder what it'd be like to not need to write; to kick back and enjoy every single moment without feeling that itch to reflect and explore and get caught up in telling the stories that are revealed. Would life feel emptier or richer because of it? Why do we write?

Illustrator Korky Paul’s article on collaboration (ibid) struck a chord when he cited Paul Klee’s maxim that drawing was a matter of ‘taking a line for a walk’. Whilst this reminded me of the first time I misheard this saying as a child, and the difficulty I had in trying to work out why drawing was like taking a lion for a walk---surely no one could claim that art was that risky---it left me wondering whether writing is like taking an idea for a walk. Is it?

Lastly, Samantha Skyrme’s article (ibid) provided some delightful black humour when, in describing why publication dates are sometimes delayed, she stated: ‘I know of one multi-author book which has been with the publisher for so long (literally decades) that one of the authors has died of old age and the publication is still nowhere in sight’. Maybe I have a sick sense of humour, but I fell out of the chair when I read this.

And I thought it might provide an effective segue into saying thank you to all those people who've asked me recently (via e-mail, Facebook, telephone or in person) about the release date for The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore, and to those who've pre-ordered on Amazon. Thanks. A VERY BIG TOWERING THANKS! We probably won't make March, but things are moving along in the busy, busy publishing world and I hope you'll eventually think the wait worthwhile. I'll put a countdown on this blog as soon as the date is set in concrete.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Courting controversy

Warning: this post contains uncensored 'strong language' (and more on 'strong language' in a future post).

It’s been a feisty week in Victorian Arts. Sculptor Greg Taylor caused a furore by posting 120 posters around the City of Melbourne with the title of his show emblazoned across them: Cunts. And artist Sam Leach's short-listed entry for this year’s Archibald prize upset a number of people because he painted himself in the guise of Adolf Hitler.

Sam_leach The interesting thing about both stories is not so much that both artists were aware their actions would cause controversy---of course they were---but that everyone knows they wouldn’t get the same sort of publicity without being controversial. And it worked: Sam Leach’s portrait hit the front page in Victoria’s broadsheet The Age on Friday (29 February) and the articles on Greg Taylor took the best part of a full page in the same newspaper on Wednesday (27 February).

To be fair, the paintings of Archibald Prize finalists do get a reasonable Greg_taylor airing in the media every year, particularly the overall winner and Packing Room prize, and Greg Taylor has received extensive media coverage in the past (in the mid-nineties, for his life-size sculpture depicting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip sitting naked on a park bench by Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin: Down by the Lake with Liz and Phil). However, a footy player or cricketer only has to limp slightly to receive the same coverage.

So is it any surprise that artists court controversy in order to seek recognition? Beyond the technical skills they possess, and beyond the noise of controversy, is either Greg Taylor or Sam Leach contributing something worthwhile to the Arts or not? Whilst, in The Age, Greg Taylor declares, ‘It’s all about the word,’ and Sam Leach apparently didn’t expect Melbourne’s Jewish community to denounce his painting as offensive, should we regard the likes of Taylor and Leach as show ponies, publicity pimps, or artists? Is a painting or a ‘show’ of porcelain portraits a work of art simply because it excites a passionate exchange of ideas and, if so, is everything that excites a passionate exchange of ideas art?