Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Books Interview: David Shields

I have had a very busy week. A job interview on Tuesday and today and yesterday I was awake at 4:30 to be a chauffer. Lots of things have been capturing my attention but I’ve been too tired to do anything about them. Right now I’m sat at the dining table trying to get a manuscript ready to be torn apart on Saturday. This quote from an interview with David Shields in the New Statesman however should be shared.

You’ve said that the novels you like are those that almost cease to be novels.
Your basic well-made novel by Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen just bores me silly. They start with some notion that they’re supposedly exploring – say, freedom, or the idea of overcorrection – to give the work a kind of literary glamour or intellectual prestige. I find that such works pay the merest lip-service to exploring ideas. They are essentially barely disguised 19th-century novels. Take Jonathan Franzen’s work: it’s just old wine in new bottles. They say he’s the Tolstoy of the digital age, but there can only be a Tolstoy of the Tolstoyan age.

In music they’re not endlessly rewriting Beethoven’s Third Symphony; in visual art they aren’t painting portraits of 16th-century royalty. Art moves forward. Art, like science, progresses, and to me it’s bizarre that a lot of acclaimed and popular and respectable books are not advancing the art form.

From my point of view, Reality Hunger called bullshit on our boredom with the novel. I just can’t believe people think that these novels, which are so quaint, are great works of contemporary literature.

The Books Interview: David Shields

It shames me that I haven’t ready Reality Hunger yet. The paperback edition is on my list of books to buy in the near future. There is a remixed version of the site called “Reality Hunger, Remixed” which can be found here.

Alfonso Cuarón on Exposition and Explanation

You leave some major questions unanswered — such as what caused the infertility — which some viewers might consider bold and others frustrating.

I agree. But the thing is that you cannot please everybody. There’s a kind of cinema I detest, which is a cinema that is about exposition and explanations. Cinema has become now a medium — well a lot of mainstream, and even indie sometimes — it’s become now what I call a medium for lazy readers. It’s illustrated stories. You can close your eyes and you can follow the movie. What’s the point of seeing the movie? Cinema is a hostage of narrative. And I’m very good at narrative as a hostage of cinema.

Alfonso Cuarón, director of “Y tu mamá también” searches for hope in “Children of Men

When I was at School

When I was at school in 1998 the film of the year for everyone to try and watch illicitly, as we were all under age, was Saving Private Ryan. The opening scenes of carnage on Omaha beach were the subject of discussion during many cold mornings waiting for the school bus. I was twelve at the time. When my parents rented Saving Private Ryan we gathered around the TV to watch it. My mum, disturbed by the beach landings, stopped the tape. Not much later, when my parents replaced a dead TV with a wide-screen CRT and bought an ONdigital tuner with a subscription to Film4, I recorded The Thin Red Line. At this point I doubt I’d have seen all of Saving Private Ryan. This would probably be in 2000. I doubt that it would have aired on terrestrial TV by then.

Now to me, both then and now, The Thin Red Line is the superior approach at making a war movie. It was a revelation to a bored thirteen year old stuck in dreary Midlands. A beautiful, existential and truthful vision of the Pacific war which is quite unlike the sentimental cowboy version of history presented in Saving Private Ryan. It seems that even then my instincts for narrative truth were tuned away from closure and exposition. I find it interesting that the HBO series The Pacific contrasts with their earlier series Band of Brothers in a similar way. (Although it would be churlish to call Band of Brothers a cowboy film in the same way Saving Private Ryan is.) Maybe this represents a fundamental differences between the two campaigns. See also cinematic depictions of Vietnam and the Iraq wars.

We’re All Going To Die

Er, yeah, nihilistic rock ‘n’ roll. Good bass line though, makes doing the dishes slightly more enjoyable. Still, we’re all going to die alone.

Like Waves on a Beach

Within fandom1 there are many questions that are always being asked: What is the nature genre? What exactly is fantasy? What exactly is science fiction? What role does escapism play in all this? What value does short fiction have? And so on. These questions are asked often by younger2 members of fandom because they haven’t answered these questions for themselves. This conversation is good. These are the very questions which define fandom and give it its shape. The continued reassessment of whatever fandom is means that it continues. They are also questions whose answers aren’t constants and do resist objective analysis. So the lack of any really tangible answers mean that the questions will be asked again. These questions are like waves whose rhythms are dictated by the wind.

Often the old answers will be repeated and rephrased by participants unaware that their answer is old. I don’t have a problem with that. Their responses, if independently arrived at, will be original and their own.

What I do have problem with is older, more bullish members of fandom who have their answers wading into discussions to say that this has all be argued before and that we already have the answers to these questions. That may be so. But what’s happening there isn’t helpful. When for example the answer are: “We’ve tried that. It doesn’t work. There isn’t a market for it.”3 That’s not constructive, that’s claiming ownership of a question and one set of its answers. It’s often someone trying to shut down a discussion so that they aren’t contradicted or shown to be wrong. I’m not going to speculate on the reasons why people try and claim ownership of these questions… the probable answers aren’t pleasant and don’t add anything to my point here4.

I think that once you’ve found answers to some or all of the questions like this it’s time to stop trying to answer them. The questions aren’t going to go away, but the usefulness of your contributions to other peoples’ discussions about the answers will diminish with time. Your answers aren’t automatically invalid, and you may change your mind, but it is destructive to try and shut down these discussion because think you already have an answer. And, sadly, that’s something I see a lot of around fandom.

1 – An ugly word, but one that will do for now.
2 – Time spent in fandom and not actual age.
3 – Answers drawn from my guest blog post There is an untapped audience for SF magazines.
4 – Really. I’ve thought about it. Think about the possible reasons for yourself.

You are Listening to…

If you are anything like me than you will have listened at great length to SomaFM’s many wonderful stations which play ambient and instrumental music. For me they are excellent sources of background noise to have playing while I work. (I attribute my success at Uni to the Drone Zone.) Recently another source of ambient music has been brought to my attention. You are Listening to Los Angles is the first site of a series of themed sites which plays ambient music and overlays on top of the music the sound of a police scanner from the named city.

The effect is supremely relaxing and when played through my headphones works nicely with the gentle ticking of a kitchen timer that I have dividing my hours up into smaller working units of time.

There are also variant sites for New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Montréal which I assume play music from the same pool of recordings but with a different local police scanner. Just imagine how utterly trivial You are Listening to Leicester would compare to any of the cities currently offered. On You are Listening to Los Angles I’ve heard kidnappings. On You are Listening to Leicester I expect the most exciting thing you’d hear on most days would be a stolen car.

I would love to see a fictional variant called You are Listening to Mega-City One. Until then Los Angeles is good enough for me.

The Secret War on Terror

Whenever I start to feel that the standard of programs broadcast by the BBC is declining I do often find myself pleasantly surprised. This has happened twice in the past five days. On Friday evening, quite by accident, I watched and enjoyed a documentary on British blues called “Blues Britannia Can Blue Men Sing the Blues“. I am not going to write about this. It was just another fine example of a music documentary made for BBC4. The second program, broadcast yesterday at 9PM, was the first part of a two part series called “The Secret War on Terror“. In this series journalist Peter Taylor is exploring the use of torture in the intelligence war fought against Al Qaeda in the decade since 9/11.

Much of the information offered in the program for an informed viewer is not new. The use of “enhanced interrogation” methods, including waterboarding, and extraordinary rendition by the CIA and their allies to secret prisons has been well documented over the past ten years. Instead “The Secret War on Terror” makes the skeleton of the documentary a sequence of extracts from interviews conducted by Peter Taylor with key people involved in the gathering and use of intelligence gathered in the war on terror. These are joined together by narrated reconstructions and explanations of the questions presented to the interviewed individuals. Individuals interviewed in this program include former heads of departments in the United States State Department, the CIA and the head of MI5 after 9/11 Baroness Manningham-Buller.

Because Peter Taylor’s interview technique is excellent many interesting reactions to questions arise. By asking the interviewee a direct question or a series of short questions about a single subject and letting the interviewee answer with no interruptions they reveal truth through omission and contradiction. One example of this method at work can be seen when the former head of the CIA is asked a direct question and is forced to answer looking stressed, blinking uncontrollably and searching for an answer. A second example of this is a pair of answers given by Baroness Manningham-Buller and the former president of Pakistan General Parvez Musharraf about British complicity in torture. Their answers contradict each other. General Musharraf states into to the camera that the British Government did not tell him to not torture detainees.

At the end of the first part of this two part documentary we know where Peter Taylor stands on the use of torture, and we know what the opinions of the FBI and MI5 officially are: they are against it. This opinion is never thrust into the program as an agenda. If “The Secret War on Terror” has an agenda I suspect that it is solely to document rather than to change opinion. In the closing remarks of the first part, Peter Taylor does concede that the use of torture has saved lives, and Baroness Manningham-Buller says that security cannot be guarantee and that all terror attacks can not be stopped. In fact it is a delusion to think that they can all be stopped.

“The Secret War on Terror” is good intelligent journalism. It is a model I wish more programs on the BBC would follow. Gather primary sources and present them to us with as little editing as possible. Let journalists have an opinion, make it clear, but never let that dominate the presentation of evidence gathered. There is a difference between a polemic and a documentary. This is a documentary and we need more good documentaries like it.

At Least I’m Not Vomiting into the Gaping Anus of Christ

I feel pretty rough this afternoon. A combination of many late night, crap larger, not eating enough food, reading paranoid spy novels until three in the morning and forgetting that the human body needs fluids other than beer, tea or coffee.

There’s also been a severer lack of fruit recently. I don’t know when I last ate an apple.

However, at least I’m not vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ.

Rereading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

I can’t remember when I first read John le Carré’s third novel “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” (From now on referred to as The Spy for the sake of my sanity.) I suppose that it must have been during my late teens. Anyway, after receiving a free copy from World Book Night, and after struggling through the dire translation of Stanislav Lem’s “The Cyberiad”, I want something to cleanse my pallet.

The Spy is a good way to clear my head of a really confused translation. I’m only a few chapters into my reread — he’s about to meet Liz at the library for the first time — and the most striking part of The Spy is the preciseness of the language used. It’s almost perfect.

William Boyd, in his introduction to the Penguin edition, comments that the choice by John le Carré to use the omniscient perspective for a spy novel is unusual. I do agree that it’s unusual, as one would probably expect a first-person or maybe a very close third-person subjective — which essentially the same thing as first person with some major advantages. But it works in The Spy because John le Carré is seriously fucking talented.

The vividness of the third-person omniscient perspective in The Spy is a clear example of what John Gardner writes about in his book the “The Art of Fiction.” I’ll quote from Rudy Rucker’s writing about “The Art of Fiction” because I’m too lazy to find my own copy.

“The amateur writes, ‘Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.’ Compare: ‘She turned. In among the rocks two snakes were fighting.’ … vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as “she noticed” and “she saw” be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.” p. 99. Yes! Of course! I’ll start doing that. In a way this is an elementary example of using omniscient author POV instead of third-person subjective.

And now consider this with this extract from The Spy:

“Pushing up the collar of his jacket, Leamas stepped outside into the icy October wind. He remembered the crowd then. It was something you forgot inside the hut, this group of puzzled faces. The people changed but the expressions remained the same. It was like the helpless crowd that gathers around a traffic accident, no one knowing how it happened, whether you should move the body. Smoke or dust rose between the beams of the arc lamps, a constant shifting pall between the margins of light.” (Chapter 1)

Although this isn’t the best example in The Spy, but I don’t have an ebook version to choose a better example. Still consider the above paragraph if you can’t find your own copy of The Spy. There are other examples of short stories and novels by dozens of different writers who use similar techniques of narrative distance. Graham Greene in his short stories at least certainly uses ideas related to this even if he’s writing in the third-person subjective. This is a technique worth keeping an eye out for.

I hope now that I’ve gotten this minor observation out of my head I can carry on reading The Spy for mostly for pure enjoyment, and not because I’m trying to workout how it works.