Archive for January, 2008

Looking for the great 21st-century Pakistani novel …

I wanted very much to like very much the novel Broken Verses,whose author, Kamila Shamsie, has received high praise.

brokenverses.jpgAfter the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister, I began to wonder about the country’s literature and why I could name several writers from India but not a single novelist from Pakistan. That led me to an excellent piece in The Guardian by Shamsie, which made me feel not quite so poorly read, and that, in turn, persuaded me to rectify this particular deficiency with one of her books.

But alas, we were two ill-suited ballroom dancers who were out of sync and occasionally on one another’s feet.

For my part, I’ll admit that I brought my own clumsy expectations to the reading enterprise and sometimes found myself annoyed by what the novel wasn’t doing. ‘Give me more Pakistan — more local flavour and context and political insight,’ I kept thinking. But criticizing a novel for what it’s not is hardly fair.

For her part, Shamsie was sometimes distant and distracted in the writing. The story centres on a young woman’s remembered experience of her charismatic mother’s love affair with an equally charismatic poet. The mother, Samina, is a political leader and something of a firebrand; her relationship with the poet is played out during a time of great turbulence in the country.

Sounds pretty good, yes? And oddly resonant with current events. I would certainly be interested in a novel about these two lovers. But it’s not their story. At least I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s Aasmani’s, the narrating daughter who attempts to find meaning in those times and solve the mystery of the mother and poet’s disappearance — which, it turns out, is only a mystery to the narrator. (I won’t spoil the ending, but the overall effect is a bit like reading a detective novel where not only is the bad guy never caught, it turns out there may not even have been a murder in the first place.)

Although the remembered action of the past is often dramatized, it seems too far removed and I feel like the first-person narrator is keeping me at a distance. Maybe this is a deliberate strategy — the two lovers would probably dominate the novel entirely if they were made any more immediate, and as I’ve said, Shamsie’s story is about the daughter.

Lastly, Broken Verses is many time zones away from Chick Lit (or at least what I understand to be Chick Lit) but I do have a nagging suspicion that women will cotton to it more than men. Where women might see a certain emotional richness in the struggles of the narrator, men would likely see a surfeit of self-absorbed hand-wringing.

You say ‘tomato’…I say ‘tomato’….

A book is rarely all bad, of course, and Broken Verses has many things to recommend it. The narrator is sharp-witted and engaging, and, despite my grousing, the book does open a window on Pakistan. I will certainly consider reading whatever Shamsie offers next….

Story catalysts, gift-warped characters and other creative prods

No, it’s not a typo in the headline. It’s how I’d like to think of some of the real live genuine authentic true-life people found on a few strange but delightful web sites I’ve come across. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction.

If this doesn’t get your creative pot boiling with ideas for characters and story twists, then go back to accounting.

PostSecret is a site where people creatively represent one of their secrets on a homemade postcard. Do you think it’s true? I wonder if there’s more creativity here than genuine secret….

In much the same vein is Mortified: Woe and Tell, where people share their most embarrassing moments. Hmmm….got a few of my own I could send here….

Found Magazine has a strong ring of authenticity with its sometimes obscure, inane, touching but generally interesting detritus picked up from strangers’ lives. Great stuff here.

And then there is the hilarious PassiveAggressiveNotes.com, a site to which people send the notes they’ve seen or been left by others with an axe to grind. The ensuing discussions are also worth a look!

Happy browsing, and happy writing.

It was a dark and stormy writing book

Writers and aspiring writers know the first sentence is where they should deploy their freshest bait, their best pickup lines and, when all else fails, their most irrefutable strong-arm tactics.

20789862_b9c013396b.jpgWhether it’s seduction, fishing, or just grabbing them by the lapels, first sentences succeed when they lead readers to the second sentence. This holds true for novels, short stories, newspaper articles, letters, news releases, magazine features, essays, works of non-fiction, backs of cereal boxes and ransom notes.

OK. Maybe you’d read the entire ransom note regardless of the quality of its first sentence. Assuming it’s to do with someone you care about. But everything else needs to be compelling enough to draw you in.

Which is why I find most of the examples that follow a little disappointing. They are the first sentences in books about the craft of fiction writing — some by reasonably well-known authors, others not so well-known at all.

Have a look at these five and see which inspire you to run out and read their writing books or, better still, their works of fiction.

You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to write, so let’s write.

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.

I have listened to smart, well-educated people talk in circles, obsessively, even angrily, on the subject of the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

The sound of the language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to.

To teach creative writing, or to be taught it, is a paradox.

Hmm….some of these sound like tough-sledding, don’t they? It’s unfortunate because they are all quite respectable writers with valuable insights to share. Is it too much to want them to communicate a little passion for something they’ve devoted their lives to?

Shouldn’t their first sentences be lit fuses?

Feel free to share your own examples — good, bad or tough-sledding.

Sticks and stones: name-calling in the name of art

Céline Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods.

85184.jpgDon’t you just love a good rant? The above comes courtesy of Sam Anderson writing in the December 17 New York Magazine. His book review is headlined: “Taster’s Choice: Is disdain for Céline Dion innate or learned? And what’s wrong with liking her music anyway?” The book under consideration is by Carl Wilson, a writer/editor for The Globe & Mail, and called, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

I bring it up here because nothing grows quite so robustly in the garden of cultural criticism as debate about low and high, and what the significance is – for individuals and entire civilizations – when one group of people likes something that another group doesn’t.

Defenders of taste and decency will of course argue that a Giuseppe Verdi belongs in Milan’s La Scala, and a Céline Dion in, well, a Las Vegas hotel. The same sort of classifications come up in book discussions all the time. Stephen King is not a serious writer. John Irving is hopelessly middlebrow. Heaven forbid anyone should dip their toes into the cesspools of genre fiction.

In a piece that appears in The Times online, Brian Appleyard considers the stigmatizing effect of being branded a science fiction writer, while tenaciously defending the genre.

In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves. “Had it won,” Aldiss, the wry, 82-year-old godfather of British SF, observes, “he would have been labelled a science-fiction writer, and nobody would have heard of him again.”

Undeterred, Aldiss has just published a new version of A Science Fiction Omnibus, a fat collection of classic stories. In the 1960s, the original was on everybody’s bookshelves, dog-eared and broken-backed. Aldiss says that was SF’s one golden age, when Oxford dons were happy to be seen indulging the genre. Now they wouldn’t be seen dead with a Philip K Dick, a James Blish or a Robert Sheckley. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, insists her books are not SF, but “speculative fiction” or “adventure romance”. “She’s quite right,” says Aldiss. “She had this idea that a certain amount of opprobrium always hovered around the title science fiction. You might call it double-dealing, but I can quite understand it.”

Labels stick; having one slink along in front of your name (science fiction writer Salman Rushdie) could carry surprising and unwanted meaning. “Literary fiction,” I suppose, is meant to signify something of weight that displays a certain technical and artistic mastery. Trouble is, as Appleyard points out, it often doesn’t. At the same time, writers of so-called genre fiction — like a Stephen King or a PD James — can demonstrate a high level of artistic assurance in handling the serious theme.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I wouldn’t know. I spend all my time reading Proust and Schopenhauer.

Yeah, right.

It’s a bit sad, really. Not quite, “My-Heart-Will-Go-On” sad, but sad nonetheless. Maybe what we really need is a little tolerance. I too “would rather be processed through the digestive tract of an anaconda” than listen to Céline, as one critic puts it in the Anderson piece, but the fact is millions of others would say she’s brought music into their lives.

Is that so bad?

Girding for the wilderness of the blank page

possession.jpgIn lieu of the ‘oblogatory’ recounting of New Year’s Resolutions, I present on this first post of 2008 a writerly invocation of the Muse. This comes from A.S. Byatt’s Possession,which won the Booker Prize in 1990. This may sound a trifle over the top now, but that’s OK. Writing means different things to different people; most agree it ain’t Tiddlywinks.

Use at your own risk.

Shall I presume to tell the Fairy’s tale?
Meddle with doom and magic in my song
Or venture out into the shadowland
Beyond the safe and solid? Shall I dare?
Help me Mnemosyne, thou Titaness,
Thou ancient one, daughter of Heaven and Earth,
Mother of Muses, who inhabit not
In flowery mount or crystal spring, but in
The dark and confin’d cavern of the skull –
O Memory, who holds the thread that links
My modern mind to those of ancient days
To the dark dreaming Origins of our race,
When visible and invisible alike
Lay quietly, O thou, the source of speech
Give me wise utterance and safe conduct
From hearthside storytelling into dark
Of outer air, and back again to sleep,
In Christian comfort, in a decent bed.

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