Kazuo Ishiguro Wins!

I’ve thought myself out of writing on here for months. I overthink blog posts and discard the idea and I just need to write them.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. I was so happy for him. My undergraduate dissertation was on the use of memory in his novels and I really enjoyed writing it. Apart from The Buried Giant, I’ve read each of his books more than once so I feel like I know them inside out (I read The Buried Giant once and I didn’t include it in my dissertation because it wasn’t out then). I wrote an essay for Thresholds on his shirt story collection, Nocturnes. He’s the author I’m most familiar with. My first words to my husband when we met working in an Oxfam shop were about the Ishiguro books he was clutching in his hand, about to buy.

Ishiguro is a very respected writer, but he’s not a showy one. He’s not often in the news for writing something controversial. And some of his books have huge mass appeal. So I don’t know why I felt like liking his books was a bit of a secret. Maybe it’s because one of my favourites from him, The Unconsoled, was unpopular with critics and readers when it was released, but I agree with the critic quoted on my edition, calling it a masterpiece (even though I don’t think it’s massively useful to call a creative piece a masterpiece). Ishiguro thought that people hated that book and he rewrote it, lukewarmly, as the more palatable When We Were Orphans. Maybe his books felt a bit secretive to me because I knew more about them than a lot of people. Maybe secretive isn’t the right word. I think this relates to a Bjork quote I like: ‘there are certain emotions in your body that not even your best friend can sympathize with, but you will find the right film or the right book, and it will understand you.’

Whatever, I’m happy he won.


On Game of Thrones and First Impressions

I came late to Game of Thrones. My now-husband watched it when the first series aired and he then read all of the books. ‘It just seems to be soft porn and dragons,’ I said, probably. ‘I’ll stick to Literary Fiction, thanks.’ (I was doing a degree at the time and didn’t read much out of that field. I’m not really averse to reading fantasy or fantasy).

So I was as surprised as anybody when I decided to give it another chance earlier this year and absolutely loved it. In the first few seasons I was a bit like ‘guys, we get you like boobies, please carry on with the story.’ And they did carry on with it, eventually. I was actually surprised by the richness of the core female characters and the way their vulnerabilities and strengths are played out on screen.

My love for it was cemented in a recent episode. Two major characters are going for each other in a fight and it is difficult to say who you want to lose. Very often, in most stories, we only see one side: there is good and evil. Right and wrong. And Game of Thrones subverts that.

I wonder if this is why I have gone off Hollywood movies. Films seem narrow and binge-watchable TV is not. There are more hours to tell the story. There is more opportunity for nuance and sadness, humour and intelligence. There is more time to be honest and to not resort to cliche.

My husband and I recently listened to the first audiobook together. It was well-written and I liked it. I liked it more than I thought I would. I usually struggle with big casts, like I struggle with big groups of people, because I just don’t know what’s going on in everyone’s heads. But I found myself enjoying the brief glimpses into characters’ minds and found it an effective way of telling a story. A three-hour train ride went past in an instant when we were lost in Westeros.

I don’t know if I can be bothered to read the rest of the series (those books are long and I know most of the story anyway, I think). I’m more into the TV series and I’m kind of amazed by it. It’s actual TV for adults. And not just in a naughty way, but how I used to view old noir movies as being made for an adult audience. I don’t think that Game of Thrones, for a massive TV show, is dumbed down in any way. Plus there are dragons. It’s quite good. But everybody else knew that already.

A Dry Spell

I graduated with a master’s degree in Creative Writing in December (thank you). Since then, I am struggling to remember having completed any piece of writing. To be honest, these short sentences are all over the place, so it is probably safe to say that I haven’t completed any writing – a story, an article, anything – since then. Possibly since before then.

I have two unfinished novels in my Dropbox. I have quite a few pretty-finished-but-are-they-really? stories and more that need more fleshing out. I have had lots of ideas for articles and non-fiction, but most of them remain ideas.

I feel that this is making me too vulnerable even saying this. I worry I will write this and then leave it to fester, unpublished, in my saved posts. I worry I will come back to it in a couple of months and think ‘I’m not feeling like that anymore, I’ll delete that.’ Or, more likely, I’ll think it wasn’t well-written; feel embarrassed at my poorly-chosen words and click that satisfying ‘trash’ button.

I wasn’t just bragging about my master’s degree – it has some relevance to how I’m feeling right now. I think that the structure of a course such as this can make a person feel this way after it’s over. I think, also, that there’s a tendency for samey-ness on a CW course. I listened to a podcast recently in which the presenter talked about her problems with writing after graduating. We’re all taught to admire Chekhov and Hemingway etc but what if those stories don’t touch us? I wrote a lot of stories where I see myself trying to sound, to be, a certain way. And, of course, when this happened I would get a good grade but I wouldn’t care about the story very much. A lot of the stories I wrote for my course are things I feel disconnected from. They aren’t so much me figuring out myself as a writer, they are me parroting writers I don’t even particularly like. Which, I suppose, is common for beginning writers. But yes.

As you can probably tell from my liberal approach to punctuation today, I haven’t written for public consumption in a while. Perhaps I normally write like this. I can’t remember. I felt ridiculous telling my husband I wanted to go off and write for an hour the other day. I nearly couldn’t do it. It felt so silly of me. It’s much easier, safer, to sit and watch Netflix after working all day.

So yes, I’ve been going through a dry writing spell this year. Hopefully it will remain just a spell. Hopefully, also, I’ll figure out what this blog is about and write relevant things on it and not just use it as an old-school Livejournal sort of place. I will remember how to structure a blog post!

On Life, The Universe and Everything

No, I’m not talking about the Douglas Adams book. But I did recently read (listen to) the first Hitch-hiker’s Guide book and I really enjoyed it. Today, I’m writing about the comfort I’ve been finding recently in ideas about the universe.

When I’m feeling anxious, I’ve found that looking at the night sky helps me. (Though only if I’m feeling anxious at night, obvs.) The stars, planets and other galaxies make me feel so small, so insignificant. And this, for me, is a beautiful thing – my worries are meaningless and I should just try to enjoy life. I don’t need to be wracked with so much worry about Brexit or America because, well, human life is so fleeting. Which makes me happy; we should just try to be as kind as possible and stop worrying.

So yes, I like thinking about the universe. Recently, I think it is a response to everything that’s happening. I’ve been listening to a lot of The Infinite Monkey Cage (totally binge-listening) and I’ve just finished Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. It’s quite difficult for me, as somebody with a humanities / literature background, to understand so much physics. But if physics had been presented to me in such a way at school, I might have been more interested in it. So yes, perhaps part of the attraction for my current physics obsession is that it is, especially in comparison to literature, divorced from emotion: so much of what is happening in the world right now is reactionary and people thinking that they are right. But, in learning about the universe, I’ve found that scientists are far more likely to admit when they don’t know something. They’re mainly interested in being correct, not adamant about a particular way of seeing things. For somebody who has a background in forming an argument and sticking to it and, for somebody who is a perfectionist, this is oddly calming. And I think that the idea that we are all made of stardust is pretty yogic, but I probably shouldn’t say that.

I always liked looking up at the stars when I was a child. I had a book called I-Spy in the Night Sky and I had to tick off constellations as I saw them. The other evening, as I was walking home from work, and I saw a bright star in the sky. I took out my phone because I’ve now got an app that can identify stars etc. And it turned out that this bright shining object was Venus. I could see another planet with my naked eyes (okay, with my glasses). ‘Isn’t this amazing?!’ I wanted to shout to the other people desperate to get home. But I didn’t. Because human beings are weird. But it was amazing. It’s amazing to get a new perspective on life, to see things a different way. It’s amazing to learn about people working together, across nations, to further knowledge. Especially in 2017.

Ricocheting In Between

‘I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between,’ wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal. I am a person prone to depression and The Bell Jar is one of my favourite novels and ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’ is one of my favourite short stories. But I wish this quote didn’t stick in my head.

I cannot write – or read – if I know I’ll be interrupted. I go deep into books and, shamefully, if I am big into writing something and my husband is home with me and he bounds into the room wanting to share something funny he’s seen with me, I feel annoyed. I wish I didn’t. I’ve been proud to wear the introvert flag ever since I heard the word. I always knew I was quiet. I liked getting on with my own creative endeavours. This is why the idea of “having it all” never appealed to me: what is the point of “having it all” if you have no alone time? No time to decompress, to read, to think without people badgering you? How could you get to the deep place to write and read fiction if you can hear other people being annoying? I had a lot of questions about why people would want a high-powered job, a husband, children and a full social life. What kind of life was that?!

And then life gets in and, rather than having the amazing realisation that I am an introvert, like most people, I had the realisation that I am, in fact, not as much of an introvert as I thought I was. I need time alone like other people need sleep, but I need to be up and around and seeing people and hearing things. I think the problem with Plath’s thinking in the above quote is that it’s too confined: she puts being outgoing with being happy – the key thing for a woman to be in the 1950s – and being introspective – the thing that lets her write – as sad. For Plath, her sadness was perhaps a little self-fulfilling. She was taught that motherhood would bring her happiness and that it, if it didn’t, it was a problem within her. Perhaps she was made to think that her introspective writings were a fault, a reason for her mental health problems.

Maybe we should stop putting ourselves in boxes and think of ourselves not as wholly one thing or another. We’re complex creatures. Just because some of us deeply need solitude, for instance, it doesn’t mean that is all we need. We need lots of things. We can’t get everything we need from one thing, or one way of being. Maybe ‘ricocheting in between’ isn’t the route to madness, but a fuller life.

FFS, 2016

If you’re the sort of person who values intelligence and kindness, then this has not been your year. Just when you think that we have got to our lowest point, as a species, then a man who has befriended racists beats a qualified woman to a job he is totally unqualified for. Hill-dog has been vilified for deleting emails whilst Trump can say whatever the f*ck he wants and that’s totally fine. Lesson learned. If you aren’t a white man and you want a good job, then you better be perfect.

FFS, it is Brexit all over again. All sane argument has been removed and replaced by slogans, scaremongering and tedious sound-bites. ‘We don’t trust experts anymore’ / ‘Lock her up’. And people fall for it! There are some who want to blame this on the establishment but it is entirely the fault of the electorate. We get what we deserve. If we don’t demand more from our politicians, then this is what we get. To blame the establishment is essentially saying that people aren’t capable of making their own decisions, which they are. But they are seem to be coming from a place of fear. I have yet to hear a convincing actual argument for Brexit and have yet to hear the beginnings of an argument for making Trump the most powerful man in the world.

It’s funny, because ‘millenials’ (and we seem to be totally going with that word now) are often accused of being selfish. But I can’t think of anything more selfish than voting, as an older person, to make life slightly more like you remember when you were younger. By disregarding people who have fought in recent years for their right to marry each other, or study in a different country, or have free movement, people who voted out of fear of ‘other’ people are ruining their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ lives with their own tedious, life-long prejudices. Of course, I’m not suggesting that older people all voted this way. A lot of young people did and it’s bizarre.

I am conflating the two things here but they are, in many ways, the same thing. The ignoring of a whole sector of people (which started with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair copied it). That sort of politics (David Cameron, Hilary Clinton) looks old-fashioned, staid. And of course it does; professionalism and thoughtfulness does look old-hat next to chants of ‘lock her up’ or a childish insistence that we leave the European Union yesterday, mean judges.  So, congratulations, knee-jerk-reactionists of the world! What a worthy revolution you have fought.

P.S. – In British slang, Trump means fart.

On Sex & Death

Sex and death – OMG – are there any other subjects we think about more and talk about less? Faber have just released a new short story collection called, somewhat transparently, Sex & Death. Guess they don’t want to leave anything to the imagination, then…

Short stories are great for examining small moments of a character’s life – not entire, messy lives, but the tiny bits. So they are perfect for looking at sex and / or death. But, of course, they are written by literary writers who can be a bit coy. So, some of the stories seem to have little to do with sex or death. I suppose that you could say that some are about the death of a relationship, or whatever, but I do like a bit of wildness in my short stories.

One of the stand-out stories for me is ‘Evie’ by Sarah Hall, one of the book’s editors. It is memorable because it is so difficult (hard, lol) to write well about sex. Overly descriptive prose takes you out of the story because people don’t think like that when they’re having sex. It doesn’t seem realistic. In ‘Evie’, Hall’s protagonist becomes obsessed with sex, to the bemusement of her initially rather uninterested husband. He does not seem to care about her, but changes how he thinks about her now she has started acting differently. I think the fact that the sex scenes were memorable but I can’t remember any “sexy” description shows that she has achieved something.

Another stand-out story was by the book’s other editor, Peter Hobbs. ‘In The Reactor’ sees a man with a job in a fake reactor meet his new workmate. They have to spend all of their time in this fake reactor – the government have said that the power station is real but it isn’t, it’s all show. There is a lot of mystery in this story, which I enjoyed. Hobbs doesn’t tell us everything. The protagonist is there because he is paying off a debt to a big company, so I suppose it could be set in the near future. The ending also gives the reader a lot to mull over, which I enjoyed. I liked these two stories because they combined aspects of sex and death. These stories felt primal in a way that some of the others didn’t.

And, of course, I loved Ali Smith’s story which closed the collection. ‘Metaphysical’ isn’t really a story as such, but two separate, almost flash, pieces that don’t seem to be linked. In one, a man with dementia confusedly leaves his hospital and goes for a nighttime walk. When he rambles to people the next day, they naturally don’t believe him. What if he really did do what he said? The more I think about it, the more I love this story.

There were more I liked but I don’t have time to go into them here. Sex and Death has stories from a lot of great short story writers and they address the themes we are, often unwittingly, obsessed with.