Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Baileys Longlist: Reasons She Goes To The Woods

This novel's fabulous title finally tempted me to give it a go, despite the reservations I expressed in my round-up of the Baileys Longlist here. And how I wanted to like it. Deborah Kay Davies is clearly a gifted writer, and her evocations of a small girl exploring the woods are spot on both in terms of the psychology of small girls and the geography of woodlands:  'the stream's breath smells of bright weeds, frogspawn, lichened pebbles... Circular, swirling eyes come and go on its surface... Pearl's shorts and pink sun-top all feel so stupid. She wades into the water, her sandals growing heavy, and waits for the stream to settle.' And, a little later on in Pearl's childhood: 'The sun is jabbing through the foliage like knitting needles, pointing out beautiful things. Bursts of golden light dart and pool in amongst the leaves. Her eyes are sore and swollen. Everything has a pink tinge. It's weird, and the woods start to look wrong, so she throws her voice up to the trees' heads.' As a very small child, the short vignettes from Pearl's life are fascinatingly well-observed. I'm wary of child narrators, but even I had to admit that Davies handles these snippets well, simultaneously capturing the eerie dangers and fantastic adventures promised by the woods.

Unfortunately, Reasons She Goes To The Woods does not fulfil the promise of its opening sections. One major issue is the form of the novel. I think restrictive forms can often be very good for writers - Eleanor Catton certainly made it work in The Luminaries - but by choosing to tell Pearl's story not only in brief vignettes but vignettes that all have to be more-or-less the same length, Davies has saddled herself with an impossible task. This almost works when Pearl is a small child, as the brief sections mirror the short attention span of a three- or four-year-old, but the natural lengthening the reader expects as Pearl grows into a teenager is necessarily absent. Rather than sinking deeper into Pearl's world, the reader feels increasingly alienated and confused. Secondly, I found that Pearl herself became a less interesting character as she grew older - although perhaps she was imprisoned in the novel's form. The originality of her depiction as a small child gives way to something that feels much more familiar; an amoral, unforgiving, judgemental and rather Freudian girl caught between childhood and adulthood. Especially near the end of the novel, I had the sense that Davies was grasping for fairy-tale resonances, but - having never had much patience with Bruno Bettleheim's Freudian readings of fairy-tales, as I discussed in my review of Sara Maitland's Gossip From The Forest - I felt that this all fell rather flat.

I can't see this on the Baileys shortlist, largely because it promises so much more than it delivers. However, the quality of the writing was evident throughout, and I'll be seeking out more of Davies's work.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Blog hiatus

Sadly, my workspace doesn't look quite like this.
I'm taking a leave of absence from this blog - not sure how long it will be yet - as I need to focus on the final stages of my PhD. (I did intend to review The People In The Trees before this hiatus, but a jar of pasta sauce spilt on it when I was on my way back from a youth group I run, and it has only just recovered enough to be readable.) 

Monday, 17 March 2014

Monday Musings: Blocking writers

Hanif Kureishi has been in the news for calling creative writing courses a 'waste of time.' Putting aside what an incredibly stupid and insulting thing this is to say when he is paid to teach them, we might get closer to what he meant to say if we look at this earlier article he wrote. In this more measured piece, Kureishi essentially argues that while you can teach plot, structure and character, what you cannot teach are the leaps of imagination performed by truly great writers such as Kafka. Here, I'd have to agree with him. Having no creative writing qualifications myself, I would also agree that it is a concern that an MA on creative writing might be seen as an instant passport to a career as a novelist, or, worse, that novelists have to have MAs in creative writing in the same way that academic historians have to have PhDs. However, apart from these two caveats, I think he is talking total rubbish. Reasons:

1. To get the pettiness out of the way first. Kureishi says that 'A lot of my students just can't tell a story. They can write sentences but they don't know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between.' I completely agree that this is an important skill to have. I also totally agree with Kureishi's next statement: ‘They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: 'Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’ Unfortunately, I'm unconvinced that (a) this is a skill that cannot be taught - unlike leaps of the imagination, pace absolutely can be improved by practice and advice, and (b) that Kureishi is actually capable of teaching it, given how much I struggled to get through The Buddha of Suburbia.

2. More important. It may be a bit of a revelation to realise that not all aspiring novelists aspire to be Kafka. Many course participants will be aiming to write genre fiction, or literary fiction that focuses on being enjoyable and interesting rather than intellectually ground-breaking, and that's OK. I enjoy reading such novels and believe they should exist, and I certainly believe you can teach at least some of the skills you need to write them. (I also think there are serious arguments to be had about what types of literary fiction are the most 'valuable', but that's a topic for another time.

3. Can you teach somebody to be Kafka? No, probably not. But as numerous other commentators on this topic have pointed out, a writing course gives students the space, time and motivation to complete a novel. I'm hopefully about to complete a PhD in history. There is no possible way I would have done this project without being enrolled in a PhD course. (And I speak as someone who has written a novel without doing a creative writing MA - I did it during my last year in sixth form and my first two years as an undergraduate, so I'm not saying it can't be done - but I recognise that not everyone goes to university, or has the motivation or time to write around a job, or is writing a novel in their twenties, etc etc…) This article might be interesting in this context, although please ignore the rubbish it talks about millennials.

4. I teach undergraduates history. Can I teach all my undergraduate students to be academic historians? Probably not, and the majority of them probably don't want to be academics anyway. Does that mean my teaching has no value? Hopefully not, because learning history is valuable in itself and they will also learn other skills that they can take with them. What do I think ought to happen to me if I was to insult my students publicly by saying they have no hope of being historians and hence are wasting their time? I'd think I ought to be fired for being a terrible teacher, because teaching is not only about skill but about trust, and the sense that your teacher is on your side. And perhaps that, really, more than the reasons I've given above, is why I'm so angry with Kureishi.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Monday Musings: The Baileys Longlist

A self-indulgent post where I muse and comment on the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction longlist.
I have read [links to my reviews]:
On the whole, I'm impressed by the quality of the longlisted titles I have read. The only one that I think shouldn't be on the list is Almost English, which I thought was dreadful. Three of them made my Top Ten Books of 2013, which is very satisfying, and I hope the Adichie, Catton and Tartt make it to the shortlist.
I want to read:
The Strangler Vine: MJ Carter. This sounds so fabulous - even though I generally avoid historical novels set in the nineteenth-century Empire - that I may have to give it a go.
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing: Eimear McBride. This has been on my to-read list since I first heard about it.
Still Life With Bread Crumbs: Anna Quindlen. I read one of Anna Quindlen's earlier novels (One True Thing) and, while expecting it to be an easy, generic read, I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting I found it. I'd certainly like to read something else by her.
The Burgess Boys: Elizabeth Strout. I'm intrigued by the synopsis.
I may be convinced to read:
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon: Fatima Bhutto. Nothing about the synopsis of this debut grabs me immediately, but equally I have no reason to think I'll dislike it.
Eleven Days: Lea Carpenter. This sounds like it's treading very dangerous ground between trashy and interesting, but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.
Reasons She Goes to the Woods: Deborah Kay Davies. I'm intrigued by the title and the central idea, but (a) it has a child narrator - see below and (b) I'm not won over by the idea of reading very short chunks of prose.
The Flamethrowers: Rachel Kushner. I feel this could go either way and, with limited reading time, I'm not convinced enough at the moment.
The Undertaking: Audrey Magee. I'm not sure I can take any more novels about Nazis.
All The Birds, Singing: Evie Wyld. Although Wyld's debut was well-written, I found it ultimately very disappointing. I may be tempted to try this to see if it is any better.
I don't want to read:
MaddAddam: Margaret Atwood. I'm not a Margaret Atwood fan, I'm afraid, and having read five of her novels I have decided that life is short and reading time is precious.
The Dogs of Littlefield: Suzanne Berne. I disliked her previous Orange-Prize-winning A Crime in the Neighbourhood, and this sounds very similar.
The Bear: Claire Cameron. I admit this is pure prejudice on my part but I am currently avoiding all novels with child narrators unless I have a very good reason to think they will be able to portray children in a non-cliched way.
The Lowland: Jhumpa Lahiri. I avoided this once when it was on the Booker shortlist and I still don't want to read it!
What are everyone else's thoughts on the longlist?

Friday, 7 March 2014

If you go down to the woods today

Shortly after finishing Sara Maitland's Gossip From The Forest, which traces both the history of British woodlands and the ways in which woods and their inhabitants are used in Grimm's fairy tales, I decided to watch The Blair Witch Project for the first time. I'm fifteen years too late on this one because I'm not a fan of horror films and thought it would terrify me, but the film is much more psychologically interesting than remotely scary. I'm a little obsessed with forests and with interrupted narratives, and I felt the film could have made much more of its central idea, but one thing that will stay with me is the sheer effort that the three teenagers make to try to get out of the forest, and the sense that the forest is somehow resisting them. Here, the jerky filming and the monotony of the trees plays fully to the film's advantage (whereas the night-time scenes can get a bit repetitive) as the situation feels both familiar and frustrating, and horribly nerve-wracking as we share their dread of what is to come when the sun leaves them again. Maitland thinks that 'few adult novels focus on woods and forests' and, while I suspect far more adult horror films use the forest to effect, this was why I was keen to finally watch Blair Witch; because I love stories set in the forest and find that I read too few.

Maitland is fully willing to engage with the creepiness of forests as well as with their beauty. I loved her description of the movement of pine forests, which as she notes, echoes Macbeth; because Scots pine seedlings need good light to germinate, the forest tends to move across a hillside naturally with it as the new trees grow slightly to the side of the old, rather than regenerating under their own canopy. While she (rightly) has little sympathy with Freudian interpretations of fairy tales such as that of Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment, because he reads the tales as intended solely for children rather than being played to a mixed-age audience, she explores the darker implications of a number of these stories, especially through her own retellings of tales like The Goosegirl and The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

Maitland's retellings, which form an end-piece to each chapter, were a little hit-and-miss for me. I loved her versions of the former tales and of The Wild Swans, a story that has always been a favourite of mine, and which is one of her favourites as well. However, I found the stories where she used overtly modern references as an integral part of the retelling rather than as an aside to be less convincing, such as her use of humour in The Mouse, The Bird and The Sausage. My sister tells traditional stories, so I'm very familiar with the use of modern jokes and modern dialogue to communicate with an audience, and I don't think there's anything wrong with doing this. Maitland's retellings became problematic for me when she started to re-interpret the stories from a modern viewpoint, when part of the appeal of fairy-tales is their strangeness. Rumplestiltskin was my least favourite retelling because of this - adopting the perspective of Rumplestiltskin, Maitland has him address his audience with a very post-modern knowingness while simultaneously judging the 'selfish' spinner and king with very old-fashioned morals. For me, this didn't make for a satisfyingly new story or a convincing version of the old.

Outside her series of retellings, the rest of this book falls more easily into the category of nature writing, and I was unsurprised to discover that Maitland is friends with Robert Macfarlane. Maitland writes well on nature, but the sections of the book that dealt with woodlands directly rather than with fairy-tales were less of a stand-out for me, although she fills the pages with fascinating titbits. I loved the exploration of the history of the word 'spinster', the descriptions of mushrooms (did you know that the common inkcap is perfectly safe to eat unless taken with alcohol? What a brilliant murder mystery in the making…) and the histories of forestation and deforestation in Britain, although I was predictably annoyed by her inaccurate assertions about the history of childhood. This book is called Gossip From The Forest, and so its eclecticism fits its title, but I felt occasionally that the project she sets herself in the introduction - to trace the roots of fairy-tales to particular forests - never really comes to pass, and unsurprisingly so, as she confines her travels to Britain. This is a pretty impossible task and she can hardly be blamed for not completing it, but I wish that she had found another framing device for this book. On the other hand, I'm now much better informed about 'ancient' woodland, coppicing and oaks and have a long list of forests to visit. Might just have to put the Blair Witch out of my mind first...

Monday, 3 March 2014

Monday Musings: Villette uncovered

Inspired by Stuck in a Book and Random Jottings, I decided to search for disastrous covers for one of my favourite nineteenth-century novels, Charlotte Bronte's Villette. You will gather from these covers that two key scenes involving Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, have her looking in a mirror and receiving a letter. However, you might be forgiven for thinking that rather than being a frighteningly cold and unreliable narrator, she is in fact a ditzy female who spends all her time looking out of windows. (Villette is actually better-served than most classic novels with covers due perhaps to being lesser-known, so some of these are actually OK except for the fact that they Obviously Don't Show Lucy.)

Villette: The Exorcist Version                            Villette: The Jolly Spy Adventure

Villette: At the Mills & Boon Fairground               Villette: The Ballet School Years

Villette: Why We Pay Teachers Too Much             Villette: The Electric Chair

Villette: How Can I Break Through The Glass Ceiling?    Villette: Lost in Jane Eyre

The cover I actually own is this inoffensive offering from Penguin, but I admire the Vintage cover and especially the new Penguin Classics cover much more. So to clean the palate:

Saturday, 1 March 2014

March schedule

Friday March 7th: Gossip From The Forest by Sara Maitland

Friday March 14th: 
The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Friday March 21st: The South by Colm Toibin

Friday March 28th: Mr B's Reading Year, Four