Is Anybody Listening?

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“You can’t stop the signal, Mal,” says Mr Universe in Serenity. At the London Premiere we were six deep, waiting for Joss who wore the expression of someone convinced everyone else was more important. I’d just picked up a poster from the printers in a long cardboard box, pushed it over the heads of people in front, Sign the box. Joss, sign the box … Which he did. Originally I said “a good man,” an adjective I apply to people I approve of. I have to qualify this and say creatively I admire Joss Whedon and he is a man. He does not always behave admirably in his private life, and indeed has been a bit of a shit to his ex-wife. But admiring our creative heroes for their creativity while knowing about shitty behaviour is for another blog.

Back on topic, You can’t stop the signal. But an oblong cardboard box signed by Joss Whedon has not been my passport to a screenwriting career and I was reminded of this when Tweeting about Trump the other day. According to my Twitter account analytics, informing the universe that a barely sentient, racist narcissist presently known as “President” described the White House as “a dump” provoked a disproportionate number of impressions, overtaken by an image of a billboard last weekend. You can’t stop the signal, but just five seconds on social media is enough to make you realize the response to the signal depends on people. And here, we must leave it.

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oh fuck what now: 01

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The first in a regular series dealing with the current “heinous fuckery” (copyright @ChuckWendig).

Ground rules: I’ll try and present solutions. If you tell me to shut the fuck up, well, my gaff, my rules. I reserve the right to be as offensive as my late grasp of inventively offensive language allows.

I can’t be offensive enough about Trump to make a difference, so I have to be accurate and use Germany’s name for him. For a nation that lives with the permanent, now-empty memorials of the old horrors of nazism and the holocaust, their name “horror clown” puts Trump in perspective. Trump is simple, he’s the huckster selling snake oil off the back of a wagon. The problem is not Trump’s moral idiocy, but the fact so many people bought the snake oil, not only those desperate enough to believe the lies, but the racist bigotry of true idiocy. The real fuckery is that he’s made good on a promise. He promised to drain the swamp. He has. The slimy, slithering dregs of malpractising veniality that have come to light have immediately been given a place in Trump’s administration.

The solution is not to waste time on the slimy horrors on Trump’s administration. Trump is impeachable, he’s been impeachable ever since he signed his trademark scrawl-wall of a signature just over three weeks’ ago.

Trump is one man, but Trump-ism is everywhere that a voiceless underclass latches onto at whatever the snake oil sellers are using to sell their particular brand of horrible bigotry and isolationism. Here in the UK it’s Brexit. It is compounded by a lack of effective alternatives, and a deep mistrust, or over-reliance, on political competence. Hillary’s political competence rules her out for many, something I found difficult to understand until my inner competence junkie greeted Theresa May as our hero. I mistook the workings of a relentlessly political animal for genuine social concern. In the middle of the endlessly catalyzing effect of Trump on other political leaders, it took the choice of appeasement, faced with moral idiocy, to dislodge Theresa from my need for a responsible adult. Which is understandable, given the heinous fuckery we’re all living through.

What it also brought up was our need for heroes to lead us. Sometimes just somebody to do all that hard, joined-up thinking, but sometimes, as happened with Corbyn’s meteoric rise in popularity, a desire for a lama, a principled guru to follow. We’ve learned to check credentials and in this case, lack of workable competence, but the desire for principled political leaders was genuine.

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Jo Cox was a hero, is a hero, will always be a hero. Extremists don’t target the flawed amongst us, they target the ones with the unique values of bravery and compassion. Because the qualities are contained in a human frame, and the twisted logic of fear believes the destruction of the human being means the destruction of their qualities, Jo Cox was the target. Around her, politics as a game of spunky biscuit with the lives of ordinary people, reached the point where it was no longer a game. For one year, Jo Cox showed what a true politician could be, and no-one came near her for real humanitarian concern for the lot of people like us.

Variously, our political leaders walked away because the game wasn’t worth the trouble (Cameron), thought their particular brand of self-serving deviousness could come out from the shadows (Gove and no, still looking and acting like a nasty little git), realised the fun had stopped (Johnson). Farage is still peddling his poisonous brand of fascist snake oil at every opportunity but mainly, it was as if some unexpected intuition showed the political leaders of the UK what can happen to the real thing, and they weren’t the real thing.

So many heroes left us last year, it seemed as if some sort of human cosmic crap rushed in to fill the gap. I think we have to be our own heroes. We have to support what’s right, keep dealing with the shit when we’ve got our lives to lead. We still own the streets, we can still say what we need to say and let others say the complete opposite without imploding.

Who will save us from this heinous fuckery?

Us’ll save us.

Give yourself time off, keep to one clear target at a time. Don’t build any walls. Don’t let anyone else rope you into building walls. Hero-ing is hard work.


The llama in the road

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llama
ˈlɑːmə/
noun

lama  བླ་མ་ (bla-ma) meaning guru, teacher, mentor

Jeremy Corbyn’s indisputably  large following among the party membership regard him as a sincere, principled lama who has spent years in the political wilderness for his sincerity. This, I agree with, particularly in contrast with the Bullingdon boys in their smooth body suits – @caitlinmoran‘s “ham robots” was obvious.

A significant proportion of Labour MPs, on the other hand, see Corbyn as a llama in the road. This domesticated pack animal native to the thin air of endless opposition and high principles has sat down in the middle of the road and isn’t moving.

Me?

The urge to turn this into a story, something like Borgen, where principles and commitment break the mould and everything gets SORTED is strong, I’m a writer after all. But being a responsible adult I have to wait like the rest of us, for a messy clash of idealism and pragmatic political realism to work out.

Yup. Messy. Stories are much neater.


The Naked Author … is not

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I was wavering on whether Kazuo Ishiguro appeared as a Naked Author or not in The Buried Giant until Damien Walter came up with The 8 Tribes of SciFi (now The Nine Tribes of SciFi). I am an admirer of Kazuo Ishiguro for his shocking ability to walk the tightrope between an appearance of polite self-regulation and a lot of deep shit going on underneath. Out of respect for his own dislike of the word, and for the country which was home for the first two years of my life, I’m not going to use the term “inscrutable”. Clive James says anyone who spends a couple of days in Japan is better placed to understand how it works than someone who never sets foot there and on that basis I would say “inscrutable” is a word designed to cover a simple cultural confusion. Japanese authors can seem remarkably self-effacing, but only when seen from the viewpoint of several hundred years of Romantic self-expression. Japanese authors are expressing their unique view of the world but don’t necessarily see themselves as the centre of that world. I suspect you have to be at least partly Japanese to understand how this is possible.

As I’m working on the premise that a naked author is one with the writing chops to resolve any story in any format, who has left something unresolved, it’s important to knock “inscrutable” off its perch. Ishiguro has said in several interviews that The Buried Giant, written after a ten-year gap, was the book he wanted to write, giving himself free rein in terms of format, background and story. More Tolkein than Game of Thrones, more modern than mythic and nothing like the rest of Ishiguro’s output, it is a classic case of an author sitting opposite his publisher with a determined expression and enough hard-won clout to write what he wants to write. Not self-effacing, and far from inscrutable.

So Ishiguro is not attempting to hide behind mythic obscurity, a bespectacled modern-day Gawain peering out from behind a concealing fable. There is nothing remotely Hobbity about The Buried Giant and its motives are clear, dealing with the need of the old couple to recover lost memories and the wider effect of memory on war, revenge and love. Personally, I welcome any genre mash-up that includes dragons, but this is a dragon serving the needs of its masters and the miasma of forgetfulness at the heart of the story and weary of the captivity.

The Buried Giant didn’t qualify for my criteria of an author who has deliberately left something unresolved because it is unresolvable in the writer’s own mind. At this point, I passed it through the The 8(9) Tribes of SciFi, courtesy @damiengwalter and it got snagged  here:

The LitFic Tourists
It’s a rare trick for a writer to be both widely read and critically acclaimed. When literary writers wander into scifi, the attempt to be both often ends up being neither. Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a huge book that sold for a hefty advance and has been duly marketed to hell and back by its publisher. But alongside its two equally huge sequels forms a vampire adventure story that suffers from being neither very scary nor particularly exciting. On the flip side the short stories of Kelly Link, which recently earned their author a place as a Pulitzer prize finalist, are sci-fi down to their genes but you could read them all and never know it. The crossover of literary and genre scifi produces some startlingly original books, but it also leads to some of the most ill conceived and downright dull chunks of wordage out there.

Ishiguro has given indisputable proof of his ability to write crossover literary and genre scifi with Never Let Me Go. He’s not a tourist, and The Buried Giant is far from ill conceived and downright dull. It probably wasn’t the best choice for a genre straddle, having said that. The Buried Giant won’t lose Ishiguro his place as an author of literary fiction or the success of Never Let Me Go, but The Buried Giant is like watching a dancer end with a spectacular example of the splits. Sometimes you think …

Yes, cool. But did the act need it?


The Naked Author 1: This Census Taker

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Francis Spufford’s review of This Census Taker in The Guardian, heads the “stoic bleakness” in the novel with a choice of author photograph designed to bring out the same qualities. The familiar image of China Miéville: tats, muscles, shorn head, undisputed winner of any imaginary fight with pretty well any living male author of his size and weight you could name, is spot on. Having encountered him, on the other side of a book signing table, courteously and briefly explaining the meaning of “perichoresis,” the image remains, translated permanently into a muscular imagination of mindnumbing flexibility that nobody with any sense would think of arguing with.

What struck me about This Census Taker, however, was a glimpse of the naked author. I’m interested in the idea of the naked author; this for me is where something appears in the story that remains unresolved. Why China Miéville and why this novella? Because Miéville’s ability to hew out new genres by virtue of an imagination you could break rocks with proves the unresolved feeling at the core of This Census Taker is nothing to do with an inability to tell the story.

That is in not in any way to suggest the imagination isn’t still on rock-breaking form. It is another extraordinary experience of a world both familiar and then – not. Headlong as the boy running down the hill screaming in the opening paragraph, the tense shifts, POV breaks, swoops, returns, little animals dislodged from their genres scuttle ahead. The ride has started. Now keep your hands inside the car!

” I shouted, ‘My mother killed my father!’ “

This, said at the end of the opening section, is not fixed or certain; it soon becomes apparent that this is the complete opposite to what he thinks has happened, and we have no way of knowing, by the end of the book, whether that has happened or not.

Miéville’s fiction, any reading of his sparse non-fiction political standpoints confirms, has no more authorial authority than a ride operator sending you, strapped into immobility, on your way. Miéville does not establish his authority by being Miéville but by his skill as an author. Which is why I think we see a glimpse of the naked author in a story which leaves uncertainty at its heart. After all, we are not in the hands of the ‘unreliable narrator’ of less ambitious storytellers as the reveal on the boy emerges early. He is unreliable by virtue of being a boy, and the unsettling shifts in his age, while including the adult, never give us the simple resolution of adulthood or a simple rite-of-passage tale. He achieves authority and adulthood but we have no more sense of what the authority is based on than we know what his father’s skilled craftsmanship of keys to unlock impossible secrets, consists of. The craftmanship of Miéville’s world-building in this novel, in primitive retreat from some apocalyptic state to urban fable, the glimpses of the fully-fledged worlds of his other novels, are like one of the keys. We are handed a key crafted with enormous ingenuity, but it doesn’t unlock the story.

The only reason, for me, why a writer of Miéville’s imaginative muscle would not give us the key to this world, is that we are not supposed to have it. This Census Taker is crafted with great skill to leave us, regular readers and committed apprentices of that skill alike, with something beyond solving. The confusion of the boy, left by one parent in a way that throws doubt on the other is left vividly unresolved. He finds stability as a census-taker;  but whether or not he is this census taker, the authority of a “census taker” in this post-apocalyptic world is unclear.

Like the hole in the hill that receives the dismembered animal bodies of his father’s unexplained episodes of violence, the mystery of the mother’s disappearance is never fully explained. Like the boy, the story skirts around the contents of the pit, revealing possibilities of the unspeakable without answers. The craftmanship in leaving this uncertainty at the heart of This Census Taker makes this, for me, one of the most vivid examples of the naked author.

The next example appears in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.

 


Urban Fantasy is dead – What?

 

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I feel an attack of slottishness coming on. Slottishness is when the book you’re submitting is the wrong genre for the current climate. You’ve learned, painfully resuscitating the trampled corpse of the novel you wrote for everybody, anybody and their little dog, to give it a category in the submission letter so the agent knows what they’re dealing with beyond the fact your naked longing is clogging their in-box, along with the other 500 hopefuls (that’s about one month’s worth of unsolicited submissions for a good agent).

It is very tempting to force what you’ve written into a popular slot, a literary sluttishness that comes to all of us. My breaking point came with a direct submission for an 80,000-word urban fantasy which was rejected because the publisher wasn’t taking urban fantasy. The reason being

Urban Fantasy is dead.

“I submit my urban fantasy … complete at 83,000 words …”

No, don’t hack the corpse around. It’s gross – and unnecessary. This living, breathing piece of writing, hewn from your pulsing viscera, is what it is. The genre is just the label put around its wrist to distinguish it for the purposes of assessing, financing, producing and selling a book.

For the purposes of identification between SF/F/YA/litfic I’m fielding The Story Dolly. It has bendy arms, depending on the label on its wrist.

YA (Young Adult)

Still alive and kicking ass, any book where a young-adult protagonist bursts through the door, bleeding from cuts to their head, face and torso from an attack by: apocalyptic gangs, contemporary gangs; vampires; dystopian police states; spaceships.

Literary

The gaps in the ring-fencing around this one are growing but broadly, any book where the protagonist comes through the door emotionally or mentally bleeding from attack by bad relationships or angst. Deep-mined metaphors are OK, but actual elves/zombies/time travellers, you’re in genre territory, however cast-iron your lit cred.

Sci-Fi

Sci-Fi escapes all gravitational pulls and takes you with it. Yes, I’m a fan.

Fantasy (trad/hard core)

Protagonist bursts through the door, pursued by orcs/something with a sword.

Fantasy (contemporary)

Protagonist bursts through door, pursued by pterodactyls that have climbed out of wheelie bins.

Did you see what I did there? OK, so I don’t have pterodactyls, I have south-London tattooists re-writing themselves and other people into a meta-punk dimension, but it is

NOT urban fantasy.

Oh no, it’s contemporary fantasy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Continuation of Cats

 

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This picture, from a series by Miyoko Ihara/Rex Features about her grandmother’s cat, Fukumaru, reminded me of something about the continuation of cats.

A few years’ ago, I decided to learn the piano. I was the teacher’s last pupil (which may or may not be significant) so my struggles with “Peasant Dance” can no longer be laid at her door.

My teacher’s cat was of a whiteness that would be fine and dandy anywhere within the Arctic Circle. In Surrey everything could see him coming from miles away. My displacement activity, faced with the major challenges of “Study” which involved a lift-and-drop move of the left hand from the safety of middle-C, was the white cat. I watched as he shuffled on the newly-dug earth of the garden below and finally stretched out, ridiculously white with the sun on him.

“Study” took some time. The evenings were drawing in by the time I was on “Study – Chords” (page 9). Below, the cat gleamed palely in the dusk. My teacher explained they like the warmth of the earth and, to re-focus me on what was under my fingers, promised he’d come in later.

Two weeks later I was on “Peasant Dance” (page 8) after we’d realised “Study: Chords” was a step too far. The cat went into the shadows and was nowhere to be seen. I can only vaguely remember “Peasant Dance” although some residual muscle-memory might kick in if I sat down in front of a piano keyboard . When I left, in darkness, the cat had not come in. My teacher, kindly, patient and encouraging about “Peasant Dance” was firmer on my offer to go out and look for the white cat. It knew what it wanted she said. Thank you, but no. I realised the cat did not want to be found.

In the way of cats it kneaded a comfortable place in the laps of all of us who have grasped, dragged, thumped our way to fleeting moments of peace. Now, increasingly uncomfortable, it withdrew, a little bored, perhaps, with even a minor negotiation with a world of bowls and catflaps. 

A white cat, glimmering against warm, dark earth, moving from the staccato rhythm of waking and sleeping, to the unbroken legato of the life glimpsed in sleep.

Very little of my attempt to learn the piano remains. I learned a lot, though, about the continuation of cats.