Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The future of reading

A couple of articles to juxtapose:

Firstly, The Reader Organisation, which aims to bring about a 'reading revolution' among people without access to great literature: those in hospitals, care homes, schools, community centres, prisons, hostels and so on.

The emphasis is on a shared reading experience. The groups will read from texts and then discuss points and issues raised by them. This is not a self-help or therapy group, however: it is simply a group which uses the power of reading as a way of generating discussion. And a very positive thing it sounds.

Secondly, a warning that because of local government cuts, imposed on them by central government, essential (and statutory) services like public libraries may not exist by 2020. With the ageing demographic in the country and the resultant increase in demand for adult social care, local government funding will reach breaking point.

This is not simply scaremongering. It will happen, sooner or later. Local government cutbacks are reaching frightening proportions and something has to give. We are seeing the inevitable dismantling of the public library system.

Does it matter? Yes it does. Nonetheless, it will happen, and we have to start planning for a post-libraries world. The idea of literature provided on the rates will one day seem quaint. Instead, we must rely on ideas like The Reader Organisation. Mobilise, readers and writers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reading your way to freedom

Here's a fascinating idea from Brazil: inmates in federal penitentiaries will have their sentences reduced by four days for every book they read.

There are provisos, of course. The Guardian article tells us:

Prisoners will have up to four weeks to read each book and write an essay that must "make correct use of paragraphs, be free of corrections, use margins and legible joined-up writing", said the notice published on Monday in the official gazette.
This is such a brave and enlightened thing to attempt. The article quotes a Brazilian lawyer:
"A person can leave prison more enlightened and with a enlarged vision of the world," said São Paulo lawyer Andre Kehdi, who heads a book donation project for prisons.

"Without doubt they will leave a better person," he said.

What chance this could happen in the UK or the US? In Britain, at the moment, there would be no chance: we are in a slough of anti-intellectualism at present, with almost a societal presumption against learning, while prison is traditionally seen in this country as a place of punishment, not somewhere where an individual can be rehabilitated. Models such as this would no doubt be described by the Daily Mail et al as liberal-lefty lunacy which does nothing except free criminals to come and rob us. I really hope this works.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Story openings

Anton Chekhov:
I let myself go at the beginning and write with an easy mind, but by the time I get to the middle I begin to grow timid and to fear my story will be too long.... That is why the beginning of my stories is always very promising and looks as though I were starting on a novel, and the middle is huddled and timid, and the end is ... like fireworks.
Even the greats struggle sometimes...

Thursday, June 07, 2012

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

Peter Carey is a consistent advocate of the inconsistent. Multiple voices, fractured timescales, whole scenes repeated from different points of view, the structures of his novels tend towards the complex. They undoubtedly show off his immense writing talent. Whether they improve the novels is a moot point.

His Illegal Self is characteristically Careyan. It has a distinctive voice – in this instance a very young boy – and a fractured chronology, looping and repeating, gradually adding layers of meaning, revealing truths, explaining the apparently inexplicable. Indeed, the story is premised on a lack of comprehension. The young boy, Che, is the son of 1960s American radicals left in the care of his grandmother but, when almost eight, whisked away by an acquaintance of his mother (and lover of his father) and transported to the rural depths of Australia. The boy knows nothing of his parents and yet craves knowledge of them, some connection to them. He mistakenly believes the woman who abducts him – a Harvard student called Dial – to be his mother. He clings to a bag of belongings, memorabilia, things which connect him to a past which is so tenuous it is almost mythical. Nothing is as it seems. Even the abduction is not truly an abduction, and Dial is a good woman who has the boy’s interests at heart. The people they encounter in Australia, a community of hippies, are seemingly hostile to the incoming Americans but, when a crisis emerges, they emerge as honest and decent friends. But nobody understands anybody else in this novel. Everyone has their own suspicions, and these suspicions frame their views of the world. Communication is a fraught and fragile commodity, too often forced to play second fiddle to dogma. Even Dial’s name is short for dialectic, the Marxist mode of communication through the exhange of ideas, a rhetorical device with its roots in antiquity but which, in the nineteen-sixties, became bastardised by the idiot left into a hideous form of bullying by loudness.

What emerges is that Che’s parents are fugitives on the run from the FBI for Weathermen-style terrorist activity. The abduction of Che unfolds when Dial picks him up from his grandmother’s to take him to his mother’s safehouse, only for the mother to blow herself up with a homemade bomb. Dial and the boy are at the railway station when the news is broadcast on television, along with their photographs, and suddenly Dial is a wanted woman. She turns to the boy’s father and his underground cell for support, and finds herself with the boy on a plane to Australia.

All of this is relayed in confused fashion, much of it through the bemused perspective of the uncomprehending boy. Of necessity, it leaves the reader perplexed as well. It’s a brave approach, to deliberately obscure and conceal on this scale, and Carey pretty much gets away with it. The trouble is, though, that the reader is constantly asking questions, in an attempt to make sense of the narrative; and eventually such questions lead the reader to consider the validity of the story’s basic structure. Do I believe in this novel? Do I believe in these characters? Do I accept their situation? Increasingly, as the novel progresses, the answers are no.

This is a pity because there is much to enjoy in this novel. Dial’s growing affection for the little boy is beautifully developed. We see Che grow and mature before our eyes. Trevor, the Australian hippy drop-out who befriends them develops into an engaging and oddly lovable character. It is an unusual menage a trois, three damaged characters in search of love and understanding, and it could have formed the basis for something beautiful. Instead, it is shackled by a premise which seems wafer-thin and contrived. But read His Illegal Self as an exercise in character and you will be richly rewarded.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Another Year by Mike Leigh

Another Year, Mike Leigh’s 2010 film, offers an intriguing exposition of writing craft. Time and again, Leigh appears to be in danger of developing stock characters and stock situations, only to completely wrong-foot the viewer. Every time you cringe and think the story is going to descend into cliché and formula, he pulls away triumphantly. The result is a plot which feels wonderfully realistic, devoid of sensation and dramatic revelation, relying instead solely on character and emotion. This is what real life is, a slow unfolding of events, not a slalom course of crisis and catastrophe.

The first mention of Joe, the son of the film’s central characters, Tom and Gerri (yes, I know, Tom and Jerry), asks the fateful question, “Has he got a girlfriend yet?” The answer is no, which is, of course, usually film and novel shorthand for “he’s gay”. Oh no, you think, another clunky film about coming out and generational misunderstanding. But no, Leigh doesn’t wallow in such shallows. In the end, Joe does acquire a girlfriend, although there remains an intriguing ambiguity about the relationship which suggests the original question and observation may not, in fact, be far from the truth. But there it remains: Leigh doesn’t labour the point, nor does he bore us with pointless speculation. In reality, unless someone comes out (or is outed) we cannot categorically know their sexuality: and this is the case with Joe.

Mary, the other principal character in the film, is enduring a car-crash of a life, an incipient alcoholic desperately seeking love and attachment, battling a growing depression. In a doomed attempt to find freedom, she buys herself a car. The first time we see it is when she drives to Tom and Gerri’s for an afternoon party, where she proceeds to drain some very large glasses of white wine. Then she offers to drive everyone home. Oh no, you think, let’s guess what will happen next. Her car-crash of a life is going to be extinguished in a hideously literal piece of symbolism. But no, there is no crash, not even a drink-driving charge, just a fraught journey home and Mary is ready to fight (and fail) another day.

Then we have Ken. Ken is another alcoholic loser. He is dangerously obese. He drinks to excess. He eats nothing but junk food. He chain smokes. Guess what’s going to happen to Ken, viewers? And so, when Tom and Gerri fetch up in funeral black outside an unnamed house, we immediately assume the cliched worst. Wrong again. The obvious plot device, a fatal heart attack, is avoided, and with it the film achieves a far greater sense of realism.

The opening and ending of the film are also worthy of consideration. Most creative writing tutors would view the opening and declare it flawed. The first two scenes, lengthy conversations, feature Janet, played by Imelda Staunton, who subsequently drops out of the film entirely. Why open with a character who is essentially redundant? Why deceive the viewer into thinking this film is going to be about a woman who plays no further part in it? This, you could argue, is a basic flaw in writing craft. In fact, I made just this observation on a learner’s short story very recently.

And the ending? It is one of those “it just stops” sort of endings which so infuriate many people. Nothing is resolved. The characters remain in limbo, with Mary edging ever closer to full-blown alcoholism and depression, and Tom and Gerri winding down towards retirement. What’s the point of it, you might ask.

But there is a point, and to make that point the opening and the ending are inextricably linked. In the opening, the last comment that Gerri, a counsellor, makes to Janet is that she would like her to return next week for another session, but it is up to her. Will she turn up? We never find out, of course, but we suspect that she probably will not.

Move to the ending, and Gerri is speaking to her friend, Mary. You need to get help, Mary, she tells her. You need to see someone. This is, of course, the same point, the same message that she gave to Janet. Again, the prospect of recovery remains the responsibility of the ill person. Janet, we feel, would not take the opportunity. Will Mary? We hope she will. We do not know, but we hope. And isn’t that true to life, for anyone who has watched someone they know and love take the precipitous descent into alcoholism? Help yourself, we say. Help yourself and I’ll help you, too. Please.

It makes for a wise and beautiful ending. We don’t know what Mary will do. All we can do is hope.

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury has died at the age of 91. As well as a brilliant writer, he was a consistent and passionate advocate for public libraries. At a time when our public librarians are giving up the game, we can scarcely afford to lose such loud and determined voices.