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Sheenagh Pugh
17 September 2013 @ 10:39 am
I’m thinking about plagiarism at the moment – well, everyone in the poetry business is – but not so much about why people do it, more about why they often get away with it so long. I don’t think there is a single easy answer, but two elements seem to me to be an undue emphasis on “personal story” and an inexactness both in writing and reading.

See, here’s a poem by Laurence Lieberman (The Osprey Suicides) which describes, in quite a lot of informed detail, an osprey diving on a garfish. Next the Australian poet Graham Nunn writes, or I should say constructs, a poem called “The Goshawk”, using techniques he describes as sampling, mixing, or, most memorably “ I’m reading a poem or listening to a song that a door opens and my mind flashes with images from my personal history. It may be a phrase, a line, a metaphor that triggers this, but when it occurs, I give myself over to the images and ensure I capture them. In doing this, the framework of the poem is used to tell my own story and parts of the original text are creatively appropriated in the formation of a new work”. Quite a few parts of Lieberman's poem, in fact, like the phrases “traces the periphery”, “drops like a discharged projectile” and “like a small geyser”. Hm. (It’s archived on this page, though you need to scroll down some). What Nunn does change, though, is an osprey into a goshawk. But this transformation seems to have been a little incomplete, because this remarkable goshawk is still, like the osprey, diving into the sea and hauling out a fish (mullet this time). That will come as a surprise to the RSPB, who are under the impression that the goshawk is a land bird which eats small mammals and birds.

This, of course, makes a nonsense of the “personal story” claim. The osprey poem cannot possibly have recalled to Nunn a personal memory of a goshawk acting as no goshawk ever did. The claim is, ironically in the circumstances, symptomatic of a modern attitude that a poem is somehow validated by being “true” or part of one’s “personal story”. This may in fact be one reason people plagiarise: if their own personal story isn’t interesting enough, they don’t think first of embellishing it or going beyond it, as you’d expect a writer of fiction to do, but rather of nicking someone else’s, like some wannabe mis-mem author who hasn’t had quite enough mis happen to them.

What’s more alarming is that it took me two readings of the goshawk poem to realise it had to be baloney. Once it dawned, of course, it was obvious; I am no ornithologist but I do know the habits of the commoner birds. That first time, I hadn’t read properly or carefully; I had registered “goshawk” as “bird”, as in “yet another bird poem”. And since the poem has been online for over a year without anyone, apparently, pointing out the error of this fowl’s ways, I can’t be the only one.

A reader who was a keen birdwatcher would have spotted it straight off, but so, to be honest, should most readers. A lot of people have been marvelling that plagiarists can get away with it for so long, and speculating that this just shows how few people actually read poetry,. I think it shows how carelessly we sometimes read. And, sometimes, write. I have read prizewinning (and non-plagiarised) poems which got some detail of the landscape or event wrong, not creatively wrong as in changed for the sake of the poem, which is fine, but plain ignorantly wrong, as in importing an animal into an island where it doesn’t exist, or making a plant flower in the wrong season. For any reader who notices this, the poem is ruined, because the writer’s eye can no longer be trusted: we are liars by trade, but you can only give the main narrative verisimilitude if you get the details accurate. W S Gilbert was dead right about that. The kind of writer who dismisses such errors as unimportant is, I suspect, also in thrall to the “personal story” notion. His poem isn’t really about the event or environment where it’s set; it’s all about him, and as long as he gets himself right, he thinks the details don’t matter. But they do, or they would, if we always read as attentively as we ought. My current excuse is that for months I had been reading books for a shortlist, as closely as I could, and I'd let myself relax as a result. Mea culpa.
Sheenagh Pugh
18 April 2013 @ 11:47 am
It isn't so much the political side of this article by Zoe Williams that interests me (though it's actually quite a balanced argument, acknowledging the usefulness of "checking one's privilege" every so often, but warning against being rendered completely mute by it). But what drew me was this paragraph, because of its relevance to fiction/poetry and people's reactions to same:
What makes me doubt this idea is its striking similarity to a technique of the right, the hyper-individualisation of every argument. Unless you are penniless right now, this second, you can't complain about inequality. Even more exclusively, unless you were born poor you can't take the side of the poor. I dislike the argument because it's anti-intellectual, dismissing reason and systems – all the tools of discursive progress – and attempting to replace them with the power of personal testimony.

I'm not entirely sure if this is specifically an argument of the right. But it does strike me as quite similar to the kind of criticism of fiction, and especially of poetry, which focuses on "did it really happen?" and seems to think (a) that the factual truth of the words employed is more important than the skill displayed in the use of them and (b) that writers who have not been there, done that, have no locus to write about experiences they have not actually been through -or, as Williams might put it, dismissing imagination, empathy, research and verbal skill and attempting to replace them with the power of personal testimony. There is sometimes a political dimension to this, in that writing about characters from a different culture or even, sometimes, gender, can be dismissed as "appropriation". This worries me in itself, because, though such writing demands proper research and sensitivity, if it isn't allowed at all, I don't see how fiction can ever be universal rather than somewhat boringly compartmentalised: is not part of the point of writing to be able to step outside oneself and into others? But it isn't purely political; it's also commercial in that readers seem to want to think the writer at least could have been there, done that. Thus male Mills & Boon writers use female pseudonyms, while women writing m/m erotica use male ones, and both happen more often than the innocent reader might think.

The specific problem for poets seems to be the I voice allied to the lyric form. Nobody reading a novel in the I voice assumes that the narrator is the writer; alarming numbers of readers assume when reading a poem that not only is the narrator the writer, but also a totally reliable narrator who never embroiders experience. Quite recently, a poet I know via social media had to correct online information about herself which stated confidently that she had conceived her child via IVF. She'd done no such thing and never even had IVF, but she'd written a poem about it, so naturally they assumed It Must All Be True! Or, possibly, that it should be, for I've heard people maintain that though novelists are allowed to make things up, lyric poets should "write from the heart". I've mentioned before that when someone at a reading assumes it's All True and you say "no, actually I made it up", there is sometimes a look of disappointment. Someone once speculated, about a book of elegies for a poet's wife, whether people's reactions to it would be altered if they found out it wasn't true, that the lady was alive and well (she wasn't; the critic was just being interestingly hypothetical). But I was mildly horrified by the number of readers who said it would ruin the book for them - hang on, the words would be exactly the same? But it would be insincere, says a lady who presumably doesn't feel incapable of being moved by emotions expressed in a novel merely on the ground that the person expressing them never existed?

Personally I never assume that the I in a poem is (a) the writer or (b) telling the truth (it isn't the case in my work, so why should anyone else's be different?). In fact of course it sometimes is; there are poets whose I voice is sometimes, often or even perhaps always them, and who write so much from their own experience that you might mistake the result for autobiography. But they aren't the most memorable poets, not unless they manage along the way to transcend the experience, to universalise the personal and go beyond facts to a deeper "truth" that comes from imagination, perception and the transforming power of language.
Sheenagh Pugh
28 December 2012 @ 12:50 pm
.. because I've just come across a review of an anthology launch that refers to "surprisingly imaginative poems from old ladies". (Yes, it is by a man). Am now mentally listing Old Ladies I Have Known And/Or Read, such as U A Fanthorpe, Rosie Bailey, Louise Glück, Ruth Bidgood, Elma Mitchell, any one of whom had enough imagination in her little finger to surprise, nay astonish, certain pipsqueaks. Grr.
Sheenagh Pugh
03 August 2012 @ 03:53 pm
This (by solicitor Louise Restell) is a fascinating article, perhaps especially to writers, and the more I read it, the less I think there are any easy answers to most of the questions it raises.

Most writers probably don't give a thought to what might happen to their FB profile when they die, despite the fact that it may contain fascinating background information on their methods, not to mention even more fascinating spats with fellow writers. All the stuff, in fact, that once might have been available to biographers or literary critics in diaries or letters - only most of this will not be similarly available, for though FB will "memorialise" a profile by providing space for an obituary and allowing Facebook friends to leave posts on the wall for remembrance, it will delete all status updates. (I don't know what would happen to comments by the dead person on the status updates of others, and it's an interesting thought, for removing them would inevitably misrepresent the discussion in question.)

This may not matter a damn to the deceased, but it does potentially matter to literary critics, and indeed historians in general, if we're talking of users other than writers. We probably record more of our lives than ever our pre-internet ancestors did, but ironically their sepia photographs, Mass Observation Project diaries, rolls of cine film and sheaves of letters tied in ribbon may still be there when our online diaries, Flickr albums and YouTube videos have long vanished in the ether.

It may of course also matter to friends and relatives who would like to keep these memories of the departed, to read through their status updates as you would a diary. As far as I can see, they can't, unless the whole lot is backed up somewhere else, which may be a grief to them. One could, as the article suggests, leave one's passwords handy with one's will, but the surviving relatives may not be in a state to do much about it for some time, which could be too late.

The alternative scenario, of course, is when the deceased didn't want their nearest and dearest to have access to their online persona, which may not have been the same as their real-life one. Both FB and Yahoo refuse to provide relatives with the password of a dead person, and the article gives instances of relatives challenging this. Though one can understand why, I tend to agree with FB and Yahoo (for a wonder) that the dead have a right to privacy. "After all", says the article, "if you’d written it all down in a journal or letter there would be hard copies for your survivors to find". Well yes, but you might well have intended to destroy them if you'd had time, and in the case of online material you might not have thought you needed to. Not giving your relatives your password strikes me as the equivalent of encrypting a written diary; it makes your wish for privacy fairly clear.

It's also possible, if you are a writer, that you may not want to remove material altogether from the web, but just to keep it from the view of your family. I'm thinking here of some fan fiction writers who work pseudonymously, and in particular of one I knew online, though I never met her. By what I could deduce of her real-life personality from interaction on forums etc, she was a rather conventional middle-aged married lady of, indeed, quite conservative views on most things. Her writing, however, was surprisingly and graphically sexual and violent; it was nothing much out of the way in her online writing community, but if her family, after her death (which was somewhat sudden and unexpected) had been able to access her passwords and pseudonyms and discovered this other side to her, I can't imagine they would have been other than shocked, not so much by the material as by the fact that they hadn't known her as well as they thought. Some fan fiction writers indeed leave passwords and other information with friends in the community, precisely so that after they die, their writing can stay available to the community but not to their families, who never knew of it. The writing isn't always of a violent or sexual nature either; it is just a side of themselves that they wanted to share only with a particular group of people.

This may well also be the case with the poor lad mentioned in the article, who committed suicide and whose parents want access to his online accounts. I can see why they feel it would give them an insight into his state of mind, but it's an insight he may not have wished them to have. I'm mighty averse to the idea that Yahoo or FB should be forced to give out passwords in such cases or, I think, in any case, but as I said, I don't think there are many easy answers here.

I do think folk with a lot of stuff online, like photos, videos etc, should think about backing it up, unless of course their motto is "après moi, le déluge". As for social media, it's easy to say that one should remember it is a fleeting medium and that anything you really want to preserve needs to be, at the very least, in a more secure online space like a personal blog. But in practice, you can't tell which casual post will turn into a truly fascinating and illuminating debate. A great deal of interaction between writers via social media is going to be lost. You may say, so was conversation in literary salons, but in fact the best of it was often recorded later in diary or letter form. Does that happen now? Is an admiring retweet any more likely to survive than its original?
Sheenagh Pugh
02 August 2012 @ 04:12 pm
This is a post for fellow Goodreads users who, like me, are fed up with the nuisance of unsolicited emails saying "be my friend on Goodreads" (and I know there are such users because they've been complaining on the same forums I've been using). I use Goodreads to put book reviews on. Sometimes I read those of others, but it's possible to "follow" people's reviews without doing the whole friending thing and I was never into that - FB and Twitter are enough. A few people I knew well became friends, and that was fine. Now and again someone else would ask - again, mostly folk I knew. At least one, whom I didn't know, turned out to be a colossal bore who was only on Goodreads to promote her own work, but that could happen anywhere.

Friends requests were not a pest, because they were rare. Suddenly they are anything but - on a bad day I'll get half a dozen emails and I know others have been finding the same. I got in touch with a nice lady at customer services called Claire. She advised making sure the account wasn't associated with any other, like Facebook, and setting a "secret question" that potential requesters had to answer. I duly did all this, but unfortunately the "secret question" only applies to anyone who doesn't already know your email address, and mine needs to be public for work reasons. So it's made no real odds. I also tried saying on my profile that I didn't do the friends thing and would ignore all requests. That didn't work; people clearly don't read the profile before firing off their request.

I'd asked Claire if there was any way of just opting out of all friends requests. There isn't but she gave some hope that they might think about it. After another slew of emails, I've asked her again if there's any likelihood of this. If she comes back and says no, I'm going to delete the account. That'll mean all the reviews go, but most are elsewhere, either on my blog or on Amazon.

I'd be sorry to do this, because the more reviews are out there, the better for writers, and most of mine are, deliberately, of stuff that isn't getting much reviewed elsewhere. But it won't be worth the hassle unless they can make it possible to opt out of these requests. Since I know there are others having this problem, I'll let you know what response I get from Goodreads. In the meantime, if you too want a way out of this nuisance, I'd suggest emailing and telling them so, because they do seem to listen and reply.
Sheenagh Pugh
02 February 2012 @ 10:28 am
The Guardian, on a slow news day, recently reported a two-month-old lecture by the Oxford Professor of Poetry, Geoffrey Hill, in which he seemed to take issue with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy (the press is only ever interested in poetry if they can present it as a "spat between poets"). For the record, you could easily take issue with both. Duffy had said that poetry and texting had a lot in common, being both forms of condensed utterance, which is the sort of daft thing people my age say when they are trying to sound as if they totally get Da Yoof, man. Hill pointed out, very fairly, that textspeak was not condensed but truncated, and that there's an important difference. He then went on to ruin his case by comparing Duffy's own lexis to Mills & Boon, which it isn't, and by going to the other extreme, ie pretending to be a High Court judge who'd never heard of Da Yoof.

Silliness all round, but I do think it raises an interesting question, namely whether the new media of tweeting and texting, with their very restricted word limits, are potentially useful media for poets. more behind cutCollapse )
Sheenagh Pugh
26 October 2011 @ 02:25 pm
There's been a lot of debate recently in the literary world about whether women are under-represented in the field of reviewing, both in terms of reviewing books themselves and getting their work reviewed. And editor after editor, some of them female, have complained that "women don't put themselves forward". According to a writing friend of mine in a recent tweet, "she [editor] said "women don't contact her, but men send her lists of books they want to review, and why, and when".

This was all news to me, cos when I was reviewing, editors contacted reviewers, not the other way about. And I can't help feeling that though it may well make an editor's life easier to sit back and wait for reviewers to contact them, it's a bit of an abdication of responsibility. If I were an editor, and Joe Soap sent me a list of books he fancied reviewing, unless I knew him very well, alarm bells would ring; I would think, either these folk are his mates and he wants to puff them, or his enemies and he wants to shaft them, and neither is much use to the reader who just wants an unbiased opinion. I would also feel it was my job to decide what was reviewed and who reviewed it, and that he was being a trifle forward. If I liked his style, I would probably write back saying, none of these are available but you're welcome to review x, y and z if you like. If he refused that offer, I'd take it that I had been right about his having an agenda.

Editors are a kind of journalist, and as far as I know, journalists do not wait for news items to put themselves forward; they go out and look for them. If editors content themselves with those reviewers who put themselves forward (dear God, what an unBritish thing to do!) then we shall indeed hear from a narrow group of people. They may well be mainly male; they may also be disproportionately privately educated, because those schools, while in my view (and I'm speaking here as an ex-uni admissions tutor) offering no better an education than state schools, do tend to imbue their pupils with a self-confidence that sometimes amounts to an inflated sense of their own importance. If reviewers are mainly male, and choosing their own texts to review, then those texts too will be overwhelmingly male. I know this because more than one editor has noted a reluctance among male reviewers to assess women's writing - when I was reviewing for Poetry Review in the relatively happy days of Peter Forbes' editorship, I once asked him why he sent me so many women poets to review. He said he had to send women's books to women, because many of his male reviewers refused them. To his credit, he then sought out female reviewers who wouldn't say no; another editor, who was having trouble getting her regular reviewers to look at books from a certain part of the kingdom, simply jacked in the attempt. Me, I'd have concluded those reviewers came from too narrow an educational and geographical pool and that I needed to look elsewhere.

Editors have a hard and often thankless job, but I think it is part of that job to be proactive and independent. They, and no one else, should decide what is to be reviewed; if they go along with the suggestions of would-be reviewers they are opening the door to a great deal of intentional or unintentional nepotism, because many reviewers are also mentors of writing, and of course they think their own ex-pupils are the brightest and best; that's how teaching works. And there's nothing wrong with their promoting those whose talents they believe in as long as they do it in their own space; I use this blog to review and interview those I believe in and who might otherwise be overlooked. But part of what an editor is for is to counteract the influence of those with the loudest voices and widest connections and make sure quieter voices get heard as well.
Sheenagh Pugh
24 March 2011 @ 02:58 pm
I've been thinking for a while about an email I got last year. I'd judged a poetry competition, the winners of which, with my comments on them, are online here. Soon afterwards, I got an email enquiry from a gentleman who was clearly well-read and highly educated, a retired medical specialist fluent in two languages (English was not his first language, but I don't think that actually made any odds in the context). He was fond of traditional, especially rhymed, poetry but said he had difficulty in understanding contemporary poems, and my comments hadn't helped him. He was hoping I could give him "short conclusions about the context of each poem and the message they wish to send to the public".

This, as I explained, I couldn't do, firstly because having judged them all anonymously I had no idea who had written them, or under what circumstances; nor did the context affect the quality of the poem. As for the message, again that wasn't for me to say, or rather it was for every different reader to decide what they said to him. I tried instead to outline the criteria I had used in judging: which poems seemed to me to be the best constructed, and to use language and the other tools of poetry - rhythm, imagery etc - most effectively to achieve an effect on the reader. But I suspect he'll have found this unhelpful too.

What worries me is that here is an intellectual, erudite person who thinks he needs guidance (from someone no more intelligent than himself and probably rather less highly educated) on how to read contemporary poems, and doesn't trust his own judgment to come to a conclusion even on what they're trying to do, let alone how well they succeed. The poems in question are by no means abstruse either, as you'll see if you read them on the linked site; we're not talking J H Prynne here and we never would be, because I wouldn't have chosen anything I couldn't understand. It looks more like the sort of automatic switch-off my mind performs when faced with mathematical or financial matters, which I simply assume I won't understand. That again would be understandable in a man of science whose mind had no holding place for the imaginative intelligence of poetry, but that's not the case; it is purely contemporary poetry that does this to him. And if that's the reaction of a person who would seem in many ways to be poetry's natural audience, it's hardly surprising most collections sell in dozens.

At a guess, I would wonder if it has to do with there being no obvious rules. I suppose when reading a sonnet, even if you are nervous as a critic, you can count to 14 and figure out if something has gone amiss with the rhyme scheme. In the same way, with a representative painting you can tell if the perspective's wonky or the horse's walk doesn't convince, whereas with a Jackson Pollock you have no such clear means of telling if it's any good or not and will be hesitant to express an opinion. Since that's exactly the position I am in with art, I can understand it in that context, but in poetry, rules or no rules, it still seems to me clear enough when imagery is fresh and surprising as opposed to stale and over-familiar, or when rhythms flow rather than halt, or language takes off and flies instead of plodding across the page. It just isn't as specialised as art; few of us can paint a convincing horse but we all hear and use language all the time. That doesn't mean we can all employ it as poets do, but I'd have thought it did mean we could all form a fairly confident opinion on what they were trying to do and how well they succeeded. Am I being, here, the poetic equivalent of my old maths master, standing baffled at the blackboard saying "But it's so easy! Why can't you all see it?"
Sheenagh Pugh
11 March 2011 @ 10:55 am
Exam time is icumen in, and many poor souls in schools up and down the country are wondering what to say to the examiners about poems, some of which are mine. This post is aimed at making sure they don't say some of the things I've recently heard people saying online.

I've blogged before about the perils of assuming that "the narrator" of a poem, especially one in the "I" voice, is the same person as "the poet", or that everything recorded in a work of art Actually Happened. A discussion I've lately been involved in on Facebook, though, makes it clear that some readers, even if they know it ain't necessarily so, think it should be; furthermore that they make a difference between novels and poems, at least lyric poems, in this regard. It's fine by these folk for novelists to make up a world; it may even be ok for writers of long narrative poems to do so, but there's a feeling that a lyric poem should come "from experience" (I have actually seen the phrase "from the heart" but am trying to forget it) and that if it's in the "I" voice the "I" should be the poet telling (heaven forbid) the truth about himself - whatever that is, and assuming he even knows it.

I don't know where this notion came from - the earliest real school of lyric poetry in Europe would surely have to be courtly love, which existed to celebrate purely imaginary love affairs - but it horrifies me quite a lot. For the record, when poets are minded to write about their personal experiences, they are very likely to distance the poem by putting it in the third person and making it happen to someone else, for the excellent reason that it avoids the danger of sentimentality. The most autobiographical poem Kipling ever wrote was the third-person "Merrow Down", which purports to be about a bereaved Neolithic father. By contrast The Changelings" (courtesy of Tim Kendall's blog "War Poets") is first-person and deals with experiences that weren't the poet's own at all; it's very much in persona.

I used to write poems in persona if I thought they might otherwise look too personal. These days I tend to third-person. But even if they do spring partly from my own experience, that is no reason to assume they won't also be adulterated with my reading, or other people's experiences, or, shocking as it may be to some, imagination... The fact is, poets are licensed liars; it's what we're good at and we can no more leave the facts of our own lives unembroidered and unimproved on than we can anything else. Nature is often a lousy writer; she gets details and endings wrong and frankly we can do better.

In a recent interview on this blog, my friend the poet Paul Henry described how he had excluded some of his best work from his Selected Poems because he was tired of seeing them read as autobiography. In the FB discussion I referred to earlier, someone said he felt "betrayed" on finding that a poem of Robin Robertson's in the "I" voice was not necessarily All True. Well, attend, O Best Beloveds in the AS-Level exam class, for I am about to utter a profundity: if you want The Truth, you go to the shelf in Waterstones marked Biography. (You still won't get it, but you will get something that aspires to it.) But if you're reading poems, and commenting on them in exams, remember that the "I" voice is correctly referred to as "the narrator". He/she is not, to your knowledge, "the poet", and there's no rule that says they should be.
Sheenagh Pugh
15 February 2010 @ 04:40 pm
I've been corresponding via facebook recently with a lad who's currently having to study poems by both me and Carol Ann Duffy for AS-level. It's become clear that he and his mates have conceived a poisonous dislike for Duffy's poems, because, he says, the teachers have chosen such "depressing" ones to study. I seem to have escaped lightly, because, though I write at least as many depressing ones as she does, I'm the comparison object in the module and the students can, more or less, choose what poems of mine they want to look at, so they all chose the upbeat ones.

This kinda surprised me. We all think teenagers are a self-pitying, self-dramatising lot who like gloomy songs and poems. But he isn't the first I've come across who has expressed the opposite view. I'm beginning to wonder whether we are still haunted by the Romantic image of the poet as a seedy fellow with a death wish.

There's a 12th-century German lyric: hereCollapse )
Sheenagh Pugh
10 February 2010 @ 05:46 pm
Anon, the author of Hrolf Gautreksson's Saga, sends a message to his potential literary critics: "It seems to me that they are best fitted to criticise this story who are capable of improving on it. But be it true or not, may those enjoy it who can, and may the others find something more enjoyable to do. And so I end my story."
Sheenagh Pugh
01 February 2010 @ 08:17 am
The Lost Booker Prize is trying to rectify what happened in 1971 when because of a rule change a whole rainforest of novels was not considered.

Two would surely arouse some special fannish interest: Patrick O'Brian for Master And Commander and Mary Renault for Fire From Heaven. Neither of course will be seriously considered because of the ridiculous prejudice against genre fiction. I must admit I wouldn't give it to O'Brian myself,because though his world-building is great, his style, IMO, isn't. And of course I'd rather the Renault had been The Persian Boy, which would have been outstanding in any year, but all the same Fire from Heaven ought to be a strong contender for any unbiased judge. Would that the panel included Gore Vidal, who had the good sense and taste to be Renault's biggest fan. We shall see later today...
Sheenagh Pugh
01 June 2009 @ 11:21 am
"Where do you get your ideas from" – the perennial question writers get asked at readings or workshops. I used to try to give an answer to the question asked (though it generally came down to "from the world around me"). But I think now that I should have been saying "it isn't about ideas at all; it's about what you do with them". And if I were still giving workshops, I might use the two Ozymandiases to illustrate.
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Sheenagh Pugh
29 September 2008 @ 10:45 am
Whenever a novel starts with the character of a writer sitting in a Hampstead kitchen. struggling to finish a novel, I throw the book straight in the bin

- Mark Ravenhill: The Guardian

Oh, me too, sir! I've been thinking lately about what hooks me, in a poem or a novel, for two reasons: (i) I've been judging a poetry competition and (2) when I left work, I left my colleagues a bunch of books to give as presents/prizes to students, and a lot were modern novels I had read once and simply knew I would never read again. And that wasn't necessarily related to writing quality. Julian Barnes' Arthur & George was well written; it certainly wasn't a waste of my time but it didn't hook me enough to make me re-read it either. Ditto Orhan Pamuk's Snow. Whereas Will Self's The Book of Dave, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Pamuk's My Name is Red are no better written, in fact all three have factors that annoy me - Self's is Riddley Walker lite, Ishiguro's plotting is laughable even to me, the worst plotter in the universe, and if you're going to do futuristic science and politics it helps to have a basic understanding of both, and My Name is Red is marred for me by what seem inappropriate Americanisms in the translation. But all push some button or other that means I shall re-read them.

It may be partly the fact that I react better to historical or futuristic settings,and to places that are unfamiliar to me - I want literature to be a window, not a mirror, hence my aversion to anything set in a contemporary seat of learning - perhaps, now I no longer work in one, that'll change! But that doesn't always work. I am a sucker for Polar settings, which is probably why the only novel of Magnus Mills that I re-read is Explorers of the New Century. But Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Peter Hoeg) doesn't cut it for me, despite my Arctic obsession.

With the poetry competition, in fact, I could feel myself setting the bar higher for poems that looked as if they were about to push my buttons; there was a danger of expecting more of one with a form, theme or setting that was congenial and then being unreasonably disappointed. OTOH, button-pushing does get an entry noticed as you go through the pile. I honestly believe the winner I've chosen was the best poem in the comp, but it did have a title that, for all sorts of reasons the writer can't have known about, would appeal to me. (The comp was of course judged anonymously, but I know who the winners are now, and have never met them, that I know of. I only recalled having met one person on the shortlist, even.)

Apart from the Ravenhill quote, this one from George Eliot's story "Janet's Repentance" says a lot about what hooks me in a novel. Mrs Linnet likes biographies of famous preachers, but reads them quite selectively;

"Wherever there was a predominance of Zion, the River of Life, and notes of exclamation, she turned over to the next page; but any passage in which she saw such promising nouns as 'small-pox', 'pony', or 'boots and shoes', at once arrested her."
Sheenagh Pugh
03 April 2008 @ 09:20 am
Bang on the nail, madam. Right on every count.

She gave me a stare, at first appraising, then bewildered, then accusing. "You're too young!" she cried. "You couldn't have written that book - you weren't there." It was true, I was not in Palestine in the last days of the British Mandate. "Then none of this happened to you?" she said. "Nothing. I made it all up. It's fiction."

One of the worst things about misery memoirs (apart from the fact that they're unreadable; so the writer had a lousy childhood, why should I give a damn?) is that they seem to have confused readers about what to expect from fiction, particularly when they encounter the "I" voice, which against their apparent expectations is almost always a lie. Not only that, there seems to be a feeling in some readers that fiction based on truth is intrinsically superior to invention, which has always seemed to me if anything the reverse of the case.

I sometimes get queries from A-level students along the lines of "in your poem about the sandman, who's the woman on the beach?" If I reply; well, she's the poem's protagonist, I get the comeback "no, I mean who is she in your life, is it you, your mother, a friend?" When, like Grant, I reply "she's someone I made up for the purposes of the poem", I sense disappointment, as I do if I explain that even when poems are partly based on truth, writers monkey around with the facts, change he to she, set it in a different place, write a better ending than real life did.

The poem I get the most queries about is thisCollapse )

Kids invariably want to know who was who; was the grandmother yours (one asked if I was the grandmother!); was the boy your brother. I explain, patiently, that the whole point of the poem is that you can't ever know; the writer is a liar and you have to accept that, because the lie is the way into the kingdom of story. But I sense that they want desperately to pigeonhole things, perhaps because exam questions are slanted that way.