Morrissey the Writer

Finally, at the third attempt, I’ve managed to finish Morrissey’s Autobiography, though it was sometimes a struggle. I should state at the outset that I’m a die-hard Morrissey fan, having lived with his songs in my head for the best part of forty years. One of the minor pleasures of reading the book lay in spotting the snippets of lyrics slipped unobtrusively into the text (without quote marks or italics) for the benefit of the aficionado.

But frankly this was one of the few pleasures. The bulk of the book is devoted to settling old scores – with ex-Smiths members, managers, record company execs, music journalists, fellow musicians, DJs, lawyers, judges, in fact virtually everyone Morrissey seems to have met in his life. When he’s not rehearsing old grudges he’s annotating the chart position of every one of his singles and albums in the UK and US charts and badmouthing all those who stopped his songs from reaching a higher position out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Do I feel I know Morrissey any better at the end of this book than at the beginning? No, but that’s as much a testament to the strength of the songs as the weakness of the book. Would I like to know him better, now I’ve read it? Hmm, not sure. Will his songs continue to exert their peculiar hold over me? Almost certainly.

Having said all that, there were parts of the book I enjoyed. His account of possibly seeing a ghost on Saddleworth Moor, site of the infamous Moors Murders (and inspiration for the memorable ‘Suffer Little Children’), points to the ghost of a genuine writer lurking within the cantankerous curmudgeonly frame of the public Morrissey. And there’s something strangely vulnerable and touching about the sense of validation (he refers to it repeatedly as ‘love’) that he seems to take from his relationship with his adoring fans in Mexico, Chile and Sweden. Finally, as someone who gave up eating meat in the 1980s, I had no argument with his occasional, surprisingly restrained animal-rights diatribes, even applauding him for walking out of a meeting with a lunch partner who insisted on ordering frogs’ legs, a not uncommon occurrence by all accounts.

As one might expect, the book is written in a highly idiosyncratic, idiomatic style, full of offbeat alliterative riffs. Sometimes the wordplay is clever and amusing, more often it’s bizarrely unfathomable, and most of the time it’s in need of a good editor. Morrissey may think he’s writing in the tradition of Oscar Wilde or perhaps even James Joyce, but a writer who doesn’t know his garner from his garnish or his hew from his hue should probably stick to songwriting.

I’ll leave the last word to Morrissey himself, taken from a passage that encapsulates both the peaks and troughs of his miserabilist tier: ‘Only the grand completion of a recorded song allows my heart to laugh… But once you have said Life is a Pigsty, where to go from there?’

Post-Brexit & post-human

Ben Elton is best known to most people as a writer of sitcoms such as Blackadder and, before that, as a stand-up. This is a pity as he’s also a writer of very good comic fiction. His latest offering, Identity Crisis, is a razor-sharp satire of post-Brexit Britain whose targets include: English nationalism, political correctness, gender and identity politics, MeToo, politicians who misspeak but subsequently own their misspeaking (‘This is not who I am’) and much else besides. It’s a world where all rape victims must be referred to as ‘survivors’ even if they’re dead (at which point they become dead survivors), a world where Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) is investigated for historic sex crimes, and a world where a retrospectively non-consensual kiss on Love Island can be considered a kind of oral rape. I found little to disagree with, and a lot to laugh at, in Elton’s gleeful skewering of these subjects. Unfortunately for him, his novels will never win a major literary prize because they’re funny and accessible, qualities that seem to be anathema to most literary prize judges.

Another novel I recently enjoyed, though with some reservations, is Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, a terrifying and often shocking fable updating the Frankenstein story to a futuristic world of sexbots and post-human AI. Winterson pulls no punches in her dystopian vision of an AI-engineered world, a vision that may well prove as prescient in its own way as Brave New World. The novel also includes a beautifully-observed recreation of the circumstances surrounding the inspiration for, and composition of, Frankenstein – one of my all-time favourite novels – conceived when Mary Shelley was just 19 years old. Unfortunately I felt the book somewhat lost the plot, literally so, in its second half and ended with more of a whimper than a bang. Nonetheless it’s a bold and brave attempt to warn against an all-too-possible future and confirms Winterson’s status as one of the most gifted British writers at work today.

Finally revised!

The Year of Living Philosophically is now available in paperback on Amazon. This is a revised edition with some fairly substantial changes to the original eBook edition. For example some of the philosophy-heavy conversations towards the end of the book (which one reviewer complained about) have been cut, and the serendipitous nature of Dave’s relationship with the philosopher Max (which another reviewer complained about) has been addressed and is no longer serendipitous. All in all it’s a much tighter book, I think, with many small improvements and a cleaner (but still curveball) ending. And it only took me eight years to do it!

Paperback writer

The Year of Living Philosophically — previously available only as a Kindle eBook — will be available in paperback on Amazon from Jan 1 next year, published by MTP (Michael Terence Publishing). The eBook version has already been updated with the new cover and revised text.

Publishing a book on Kindle is easy, publishing it as a paperback far less so. As a postscript to the above, I would urge any budding authors who are considering this route to check out MTP. For a very modest sum (and zero royalties) they will liaise with you to produce a professional cover design and fully-formatted interior so that your book is basically indistinguishable from any book produced by a mainstream publisher. They also help with promotion and much else besides. They really are very good.

Two reasons I hated Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 won the 2017 Costa Novel Award and has been heaped with fulsome praise by everyone from George Saunders to Sarah Hall (‘He leaves behind all other writers of his generation’). Amazon and Goodreads are full of glowing 5-star reviews, though with a significant number of dissenting one-star reviews alongside them. Quite a few reviewers, like me, didn’t finish the book. I abandoned it at the end of the first chapter, 30 pages in, and here are the two main reasons why. I won’t reveal the book’s plot as there basically doesn’t seem to be one. There’s a superficial storyline about a missing girl but in general – I’m basing this on the reviews I read – it’s about the ordinary lives of the people in the small English village from which the girl goes missing.

One. The book is written in an extraordinary style with the structure of virtually every sentence the same, namely a simple declarative statement usually beginning with ‘The’ or ‘A’ or ‘He’ or ‘She’. This creates an excessively monotonic, indeed monotonous, effect upon the reader – at least it did upon this reader. It’s a bit like a musical instrument that only plays one note. Here, for example, is the first word of each sentence on the opening page: They… It… The… When… A… They… She… She… They… The… The…

Two. The book is inhabited by scores, if not hundreds, of characters, none of whom – at least in the opening chapter that I read – is individualised much beyond being given a name. Worse, the names in question are invariably common English ones so that it becomes practically impossible to distinguish between the characters behind the name. By way of illustration, here are the surnames of every character introduced in the first dozen or so pages: Shaw, Hunter, Jackson, Dale, French, Simpson, Smith, Bowman, Hughes, Thompson, Carter, Fletcher, Cooper. Likewise the forenames: Rebecca, Tony, Jess, Lynsey, Deepak (what’s he doing there?), Sophie, Andrew, Irene, James, Liam, Jane, Les, Sally, Martin, Ruth, Gordon. And yes, of course we realise this says a lot about the ethnic diversity of small English villages but does it have to be so obvious? Even good old Anglo-Saxon names aren’t always of the Smith and Jones or Tom, Dick and Harry variety.

I should emphasise here that I have nothing against experimental writing or innovative literary styles. My favourite writers include the likes of George Saunders, John Barth and even, on a good day, Georges Perec. But sometimes one has the feeling – as I also do with the work of Ali Smith – that the experimentalism or innovation is there for its own sake and not for the sake of the book, let alone the poor put-upon reader.

The best novel of 2017? Do me a favour.

POSTSCRIPT: A couple of weeks after writing the above, and I’ve just read – and enjoyed! – The Reservoir Tapes, McGregor’s short collection of monologues by characters from Reservoir 13. Here he writes simply and often beautifully about the everyday lives of ordinary people – though such a description makes it sound misleadingly like radio soap The Archers – inhabiting a series of voices that provide back stories to the novel and together cohere into a satisfying whole. It’s a puzzle to me why he didn’t adopt a similar approach in Reservoir 13. Or, loath as I am to admit it, does the fault rather lie with me and my own impatience as a reader? Perhaps I should give the book another try.

Review: Alexander McCall Smith’s A Distant View of Everything

I don’t normally review books I’ve read but, with Alexander McCall Smith’s latest offering in his Isabel Dalhousie series garnering so many glowing 4-star and 5-star tributes on Amazon and Goodreads, I feel it incumbent on me to raise a dissenting voice. So here’s a slightly expanded version of my 1-star Amazon review:

SPOILER ALERT: STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS IN THIS BOOK WHERE NOTHING HAPPENS. How does Alexander McCall Smith get away with writing such dross? There are three main storylines in this book. Philosopher Isabel Dalhousie suspects a plastic surgeon is a gold-digger preying on vulnerable women — but it turns out he isn’t. She also suspects her niece Cat may be a closet lesbian — but it turns out she isn’t. And Isabel’s husband Jamie thinks he may have gout — but it turns out he doesn’t. That’s it! Isabel and Jamie are insufferably smug and middle-class and the entire book is a piece of pointless sanctimonious flim-flam padded out with Isabel’s (ie McCall Smith’s) tedious tangential observations about a variety of uninteresting subjects. The characters are as two-dimensional as Lowry’s matchstick men and women and the dialogue is just an excuse to shoehorn in whatever vapid thoughts happen to be circulating in McCall Smith’s richly-rewarded brain as he sits at his computer. No wonder he’s written over 80 books, he must have knocked this one off in a weekend. What a waste of perfectly good paper.

The Art of Art #2: Detail or no detail?

I’ve just finished William Boyd’s latest novel, Love Is Blind, a historical romance about the obsessive love of a Scottish piano-tuner for a Russian opera singer, set in a variety of international locations (Edinburgh, Paris, Nice, Biarritz, Trieste, St Petersburg, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) around the beginning of the twentieth century. I found it a welcome return to form for Boyd, whose impeccable literary style I’ve always admired but whose storylines, at least in recent novels, I’ve found less satisfying.

What I want to focus on here, however, is the role of detail in heavily-researched (some would say over-researched) novels such as Boyd’s. It could be argued in Boyd’s defence that, with so many varying locations to cover and a distance of more than a hundred years to bridge, such painstaking attention to detail is necessary in order to impart a sense of authenticity and believability to the narrative. We need to believe the character really is in all these places 100-plus years ago and that requires authenticating detail. But do we really need to know the names and functions of all the different tools used by a piano-tuner in his work? Or the precise brand of tobacco he smokes and the name and address of the shop in Edinburgh he buys it from? What is the point of all this detail?

Partly it comes down to a question of narrative form. In a short story of a few pages the reader expects far less detail than you’d typically find in a novel of several hundred pages. In fact too much detail in a short story can be perceived as a failing, slowing the narrative down and retarding the onward action, while conversely too little detail in a novel can make the novel seem flimsy, lightweight, insufficiently realised. Nabokov was fond of saying that ‘God is in the details’ – ‘Caress the detail, the divine detail’ is another of his quotes. A long line of Nabokov’s illustrious literary forebears — Proust and Tolstoy spring immediately to mind – would doubtless have agreed with him.

So why all this emphasis on detail? Principally, as mentioned above, the detail is there to foster a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude within a text, what the structuralist critic Roland Barthes called l’effet de réel, in other words the illusion of reality. It helps us to suspend our disbelief in an invented tale, while a lack of detail has the opposite effect: after all, if there’s no evidence that the writer has fully imagined the scene being described, how can the reader be expected to do so?

The trouble is that detail takes time to read, often with no obvious benefit to the reader other than the illusion-of-reality effect. And this effect can be achieved far more rapidly and convincingly through the use of a medium such as film. You could write a page or more describing the interior of a room – the furniture, the lighting, the precise colour of the walls and carpet and so on – and you wouldn’t come close to achieving the sense of immediacy created by a movie shot of the same interior lasting just a few seconds. No doubt this is one of the reasons for the slow and protracted death of the novel, or at least of the old-fashioned richly-detailed literary novel in the tradition of Nabokov and Proust. Tellingly, the genre novel (particularly the crime novel and the fantasy novel, where plot is paramount) seems to be in a much healthier state. The easy translatability of such novels from page to screen is doubtless another factor in their survival

All is not lost, however, because it turns out that prose narrative can do things that movies can’t do, or can’t do as well. The novel and the short story can communicate a character’s thoughts, impressions and emotions far better, through the use of interior monologue, than can usually be achieved in a movie, restricted as the latter is to the externals of dialogue, gesture and facial expression etc. This is why the voiceover is generally eschewed by movie-makers, as it brings with it an implicit admission of failure.

So detail in a novel is good, it’s there for a reason. It may seem unnecessary or otiose, it may even be a bit boring to have to plough through it sometimes, but it’s doing its job without you being aware of it. It’s helping to create the illusion of reality that we require in order to suspend our disbelief. More than that – and this is why it was so important to Nabokov – it’s true to the texture of consciousness itself. After all, if I look out of my office window as I write these words, I don’t see simply some gardens and trees and wooden sheds and above them a cloudy sky. Rather I see a hyper-detailed, almost hallucinogenic (and this is without a joint!) tableau vivant of particular gardens and particular trees and particular sheds and particular clouds, all individually limned in my perceptual field. Conscious life consists of a series of unique detailed impressions. Insofar as fiction is meant to be a representation of life, it seeks to do the same.