Putting bread on the table

It’s easy to get carried away by high-falluting ideals about the arts, but the biological fact is that we all have to eat. The link below explores the inequalities of incomes, even among acknowledged, prize-winning writers, and how there are hardly any middle-earning authors, in the tens-of-thousands bracket – everyone is either in the very wealthy range or having to juggle other jobs. In short, when art and capitalism meet, art ends off the worse.


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The Age of Innocence

Here’s Melvyn Bragg’s take on Edith Wharton’s the Age of Innocence and other novels. You can tell Bragg is blown away by Innocence, and well he might be: it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century (see my earlier review of here). However, I felt that the experts danced around the greatness of it – considering it as merely a commentary on the world of women in turn-of-the-century high-society when it is so much more. Still, there’s a lot of meat in the programme and if you’re a Wharton fan it’s half-an-hour well spent. (If you’re outside the UK you’ll have to use a VPN like Tunnelbear and make up a UK postcode – I suggest SW1A 2AA, which is Downing Street).

Wharton wearing an unusual pair of mittens.

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You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off…

… metaphorically speaking.

Here’s an interview with the eternally workmanlike Michael Caine. Caine is talking about the skills of acting, and says that beginner actors will want to play drunks by consciously trying to slur their words and walk crooked, while real drunk people are trying their best NOT to slur their words or walk crooked. It’s a cute piece of advice, but not very useful unless you know how to behave so that normal behaviour is an effort – unless it is actually getting drunk, a la method school, before every performance (and even then, what do you do for scene 2, where you’re supposed to be sober again?) . I think the secret is consciousness and self-awareness – everything you do must by controlled and deliberate – calibrating the nitro you must use very exactly, if you like. I’m not quite sure how to articulate this, but I feel it’s at the heart of good writing as well as good acting.

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Cherry-Garrard: the cleanest way of having a bad time ever devised

Here’s Wikipedia, crediting the Dadaists onto Burroughs: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cut-up_technique

Here’s Burroughs himself, crediting himself and citing Johnny von Neumann of all people: https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/burroughs-cutup.html

And here’s a quote from George Seaver, writing about his friend Apsley Cherry-Garrard (describing when he was starting “the worst journey in the world”, about 1919):

“Cherry’s method of writing was peculiar to himself. He did not write consecutively in pages, but in separate paragraphs dealing with such matters as came to mind; these he then pieced together in appropriate sequence. His writing has thus sometimes a certain abruptness which sharpens interest.”

BTW Cherry was friends with (TE) Lawrence – and 7 pillars reads in that same “abruptness that sharpens interest” way, an almost atonal way, as well. (Although ultimately I find Cherry much more readable, and more gripping). I speculate that L experimented with this early cut-up method as well.

Radio 4 is serialising BS Johnson’s “the Unfortunates” at the moment: everyone who downloads it gets a different playing order.

(The post title refers to Cherry-Garrard’s own description of polar exploration).

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Dead Seas

It’s crossed my mind – a lot, actually, in recent months – that we might be witnessing the end of our civilisation, whether at the hands of climate change or a rejuvenated – and this time successful – fascism. If so, most of us will die, of course, but also all our culture, all our achievements, all the things that define our civilisation, all that will die too. We would be entering a modern dark age. And that would be somewhat of a pity.

Well, if things continue as they have over the last decade, the time might come when those who love human thought will have to try and preserve it for the people after the darkness, if any there be. I suggest time capsules of books, buried in locations future archaeologists might look but future book-burners won’t. The books would be treated to last and resist insects and fungi, and be hermetically sealed, and in containers strong enough to withstand tectonic movement and made of incorruptible material. There would be no record of where they were hidden, except in the hiders’s heads, for the challenge the time capsules present to the new rulers would not be tolerated.

The plan stands little hope of success, but what can we do? The religious hermits who laid down the Dead Sea scrolls couldn’t be sure they would last for nearly 2000 years; all they could do is their best.

Which books would we select? A Shakespeare – Hamlet, say – with translations into several languages in synoptic columns. Another edition of the same play, with school notes. A good dictionary, thesaurus, and dictionary of quotations to help future scholars with our language. A few of the greats – choose half a dozen from the canon that you fancy. Maybe a few modern authors who otherwise might not survive – Golding, Lessing, Naipaul. A science data book. A one-volume summary of our scientific ideas, perhaps with the pages explaining nuclear weapons torn out. A score by Mozart – the magic flute. Something on history, something on visual art, and definitely something on climate change. You get the idea.

Am I serious? Not more than half not.

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How many types of story are there?

I’m not talking about tragedy vs comedy (answer: two, obv) here, or even genres like sci-fi vs crime vs romance, etc (answer: maybe half-a-dozen, everything else being the non-genre genre called “mainstream”). No, I really mean how many species of stories are there? – not particular instances of stories, but stories in their abstract essence. Arcs, patterns, templates, stamps, classes, moulds, whatever – dammit, how many?

There is, in fact, a thriving subschool of literary criticism that is obsessed with this platonic question, and the answers it gives varies from one to infinity. For example, Joseph Campbell says there is fundamentally only one story – but with infinite variations! (It’s a good answer, and it’s a real pity that that one story is Star Wars.)

One, said also Robert Graves:

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

(Not Graves’s best, in my opinion, although he liked it and that should be good enough for anyone.)

Now, the trouble with just having “fundamentally one story” is that your pattern has to be so unifying, so vague, that just about the only template that applies to all stories would be “something happens” – and even that misses much of Beckett. So “one” is out.

Another popular solution is “seven”. In Christopher Booker’s magisterial (yet jejune) the Seven Basic Plots, we read:

However many characters may appear in a story, its real concern is with just one: its hero or heroine. It is he with whose fate we identify, as we see him gradually developing towards that state of self-realization which marks the end of the story. Ultimately it is in relation to this central figure that all other characters in a story take on their significance. What each of the other characters represents is really only some aspect of the inner state of the hero or heroine themselves.

Having more rather than fewer basic types of story arc reduces the risk of tenuous shoehorning, but on the other hand you don’t want to have too many either. At the extreme, if there were “infinity” types, each one would be so specific it would only include each individual retelling, and there isn’t much point in asking the question.

There are many other systems, but it is noticeable that the answer always ends up vaguely kabbalistic, numbers like 3 or 7 or 36 (no one has ever written a book called “the 29 fundamental types of story”). I think there must be something in the psychology of enumerators that makes them number-mystics as well. Since it’s always possible that some hyper-original writer will invent an (n+1)th story type within a “n types of story” model, any scheme based on such magical numbers is doomed. By comparison, it used to be thought there were only four types of taste, and people would draw them in a square of opposites; until monosodium glutamate was discovered.

Be all this as it may, computer scientists at the university of Vermont have recently settled the matter once and for all: there are exactly six story arcs. The preprint at https://arxiv.org/pdf/1606.07772v2.pdf lists them all, and shame on you if you find yourself thinking that their six are simply all the permutations of alternating rises and falls, as given on page 6:

    “Rags to riches” (rise).
    “Tragedy”, or “Riches to rags” (fall).
    “Man in a hole” (fall–rise).
    “Icarus” (rise–fall).
    “Cinderella” (rise–fall–rise).
    “Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall).

Yes, it’s all bunk, all of it. At least the Booker, Campbell and Graves has the advantage of being well-written and interesting bunk, but it is still bunk.

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Murakami: a story watcher, not a storyteller

The UK Guardian had an important interview with the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami a while ago. See https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/11/haruki-murakami-interview-killing-commendatore. Of course, the article is mostly about Murakami’s writing regime, his personality, and his near-misses with the Nobels, because that’s what these type of articles are for and why non-Martians read them; but the reason you, as someone who cares about the mystery of writing, should print the interview out and stick it to your bedroom ceiling so that you can reread it every night before you fall asleep is that in it Murakami lets slip nothing less than the impossible origin of fiction. I mean, we all know it, of course, but nobody’s supposed to mention it.

If you don’t know them, Murakami’s books are sometimes thought of as a type of magical realism, the adult word for Harry Potter. This is a mistake: Rushdie and Marquez write tourists’ guide-books to a magical land they’ve never actually visited and that they don’t believe really exists, while Murakami writes like a local who knows every alleyway and hidden square and will show you where to get the town speciality at the non-tourist rate. In other words Murakami lives the magical – it’s not an ironic gimmick or metaphor, but the reality of his world. It’s the difference between reading the department of transport manual on driving and being able to drive. (Another writer often misunderstood to be merely magical realist is Peter Ackroyd).

Murakami’s books are also sometimes described as surreal, but they are much more disciplined then that – and no where near as aleatory. They’re not so much like a dream, but like your retelling of a dream to your lover a few seconds after waking – already starting to shape it into a coherent narrative, but still with plenty of gibberish. Murakami reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels, except that Murakami is by far the subtler writer. Most people either love him or can’t see what the fuss is about.

Here’s Murakami’s take on the fictive process from the interview:

However, you should not expect Murakami to tell you what any of the fantastical content in his work is supposed to mean. He operates from a bedrock trust in his subconscious: if an image arises from that dark inner well, he figures, it must be meaningful by definition – and his job is to record what arises, rather than to analyse it. (That’s a job for “intelligent people”, he says, his face crinkling into a smile. “And writers don’t have to be intelligent.”)

“And you know, if that’s what comes to me, maybe there’s something right about that – something from the deep subconscious [that resonates with] the reader. So now the reader and I have a secret meeting place underground, a secret place in the subconscious. And in that place, maybe it’s absolutely right that fish should fall from the sky. It’s the meeting place that matters, not analysing the symbolism or anything like that. I’ll leave that to the intellectuals.” Murakami’s sense of himself as a sort of pipeline – a conduit between his subconscious and that of his readers – is so pronounced that he even pauses, after referring to himself in passing as a “natural storyteller”, to issue a correction: “No, I’m not a storyteller. I’m a story watcher.” 

Murakami is a pipeline, a taker of dictation if you like. His only responsibilities are to listen carefully, keep his shorthand skills honed, and (above all) not to get above his station and imagine he himself deserves any credit for the work. Because that would lead to him trying to improve it, and then he might as well be any old writer.

Murakami (right) and unnamed human. Artwork by Riesmy Friestiwy

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Reasons to be cheerful

Paul Gosar (Rep Arizona): Let’s go back at this credibility. You want us to make sure that we think of you as a real philanthropic icon, that you’re about justice, that you’re the person that someone would call at three in the morning. No, they wouldn’t. Not at all … You’re a pathological liar. You don’t know truth from falsehood.

Michael Cohen: Sir, are you referring to me or the president?

He might be a douchebag, but he’s our douchebag. At least for now.

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The escalator from hell

Mildly better than the escalator to hell, you’d think. You’d be wrong. You’re always wrong. Everyone’s always wrong.


I suppose we all start to look for new jobs, then. And new planets.

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Tony Gilroy: “See, it just works. Where it falls – here.”

Very good (albeit a bit old) interview with one of the best screenwriters out there. I haven’t seen Duplicity, but damn I’m going to.


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