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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

I’m a Cool Girl Now

Not often, but sometimes, it occurs to me that I am very, incredibly, out of touch with the rest of the world.  It has always been thus, but living in Oxford makes it easy to forget that once I was a geeky Converse-clad girl with a bad hairdo. (I am now a geeky Converse-clad girl with a better hairdo. And sometimes I wear boots.)  My life has become something completely ridiculous, in a rather wonderful way.  Take this, for instance: one of the highlights of my existence is the rush I get when I swipe my card at the Bodleian and open my bag so that they can check to make sure that I’m not trying to smuggle a bottle of water in and walk up the stairs and smell the books.  And there are all these other people there! Doing the same thing! Loving the books! And outside (this is the best bit) there are a bunch of tourists who can’t come inside.  It’s a perverse (and very British) revenge of the nerds; and I’M PART OF THE CLUB!  I actually have a special walking to-and-from the library swagger.  Just so that everyone will know that I belong. (Sometimes, but not often, I even manage to swagger without tripping over my own feet.)

 

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Playlist/Reading List

…on the shelf:

  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh edited by Michael Davie
  • Selected Poems by Louis MacNeice (a constant presence, of late)
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • British Poetry Since 1945 edited by Edward Lucie-Smith
  • Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

…on spotify:

  • Stuart Murdoch
  • Polly Scattergood
  • Florence + The Machine
  • Fleet Foxes
  • Neko Case
  • Regina Spektor
  • Take That (Yes, really.  I’m convinced that in many ways “Shine” is the ultimate walking-down-the-street-on-a-sunny-summer-day tune)
  • Johnny Flynn

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I’ve been semi-following the #queryfail and #agentfail debacle for some time, with guarded interest.  Yes, a morbid part of me wants to watch a bunch of authors and agents have a web 2.0 go at each other, just as a morbid part of me loves cheesy action flicks and sappy romances (it’s entertainment, pure and simple).  But frankly, the whole thing also makes me feel dirty: I don’t like thinking that the agent-author relationship has been reduced to a high school drama, because, if you really want the truth, I’m not any good at dealing with high school drama, and I don’t want it to be true that a world I fundamentally respect, in spite of its faults, is no more virtuous than some bitchy cafeteria.

So it’s been interesting trawling through the ostensibly educational comments that agents have made about authors, and vice versa.  And, yes, it’s so terrible, the agents are just so mean, and, like, really, can I help it if they don’t think my last name will look good on the cover of a book?  And equally, those agents are rats, they never respond, and ohmygod all I want is a form rejection letter but boo-hoo they’re too busy on Twitter and Facebook and getting drunk at inappropriate hours to spend ten seconds on the masterpiece that took me ten years.

But still.  So much has already been written about all this since #queryfail debuted as an idea in March that I couldn’t really find anything to write about it that wouldn’t seem like a needless rehash (no pun intended) of a needlessly popular topic.  But yesterday, something clicked in my mind as I was reading this post by Jean Hannah Edelstein on the Guardian’s book blog.  For several paragraphs the post is a spectacularly uninteresting, though possibly necessary, reminder that literary agents do a lot more than sip champagne at the Ivy over glamorous lunchtime meetings.  But towards the end of her post Edelstein finally hits upon something genuinely intriguing.  “Agents serve as a crucial linchpin,” she writes, “…ensuring that the publisher-author relationship stays positive so that nuanced contractual disagreements don’t get in the way of the writing and editing of a good book.”  She then reminds us of a growing trend, whereby writers, frustrated perhaps by the enormity of the conventional publishing-machine, the hoops, the rejections, the time spent crafting fiddly query letters which may or may not end up hash-tagged to the general amusement of a thousand onlookers, hungry for fodder or a quick ego-boost, reject the machine entirely and bray that self-publishing will bring about the happy end to literary agents.

“All of which is fine,” writes Edelstein, “so long as these writers are happy to devote their lives to all of the extensive hard work that goes in to making a book exist – and sell – long after the final words have been written. The problem, of course, is that all of this work is so extensive that it can really eat in to your writing time.”

Funny, that.  Edelstein has hit upon something that many of us, as writers, may have forgotten in the scramble to get back at the cruel agents who participated in #queryfail, or may have forgotten even before the first Twitter-savvy agent hit “#”: the point of obtaining a literary agent, surely, is not so we can make another tick in the success column and feel that somehow, we’ve won the game.  It’s so that we can commence a complicated and rewarding relationship with someone who will, ultimately, allow us to do what we most desperately want to do: write for an audience.  Agents are enablers, not sticker-happy 2nd grade teachers who are there merely to reward our hard work.

So how has it come to this?  I don’t know for sure, but I can hazard a guess.  The problem is not that writers, as a species, are fundamentally stupid and self-loathing, nor that agents are universally vitriolic and inhuman.  The problem, as illustrated by the #queryfail and #agentfail trends, but certainly not started by them, is that somewhere along the line, the literary world stopped being so much about words and ideas and started being about winning and losing.

We see this every day.  The only aspect of the literary world that’s continually stressed is that it’s competitive.  As a writer, it’s all you hear.  Publishing houses, literary agencies, newspapers, magazines, tiny online literary journals, seem to exist solely to remind us of the unlikelihood of our success, to remind us that from the vast pool of writhing would-be authors, we’re probably not going to be picked out as special.  It’s not personal, just circumstantial: statistics matter most.

I understand the necessity of reminding people that they need to work hard, produce nothing but the best–it keeps you from becoming lazy, from thinking for even a moment that you do not have to care deeply about what you do and then spend more time than you thought possible crafting and nurturing every sentence.  What I don’t understand is why that’s all we’re ever reminded of, and I applaud Edelstein for suggesting that there’s more depth to the agent-author relationship than failing or not failing.

So the problem with #queryfail and #agentfail, and the subsequent deluge of commentary about both, is not that either is fundamentally unfair, mean-spirited, or an example of Twitter gone wrong.  But neither can we laud #queryfail and #agentfail for providing a much-needed insight into the minds of agents and authors–articles attempting to glean anything useful from the stream of drivel and hilarity, such as this one, fall spectacularly flat (anyone who is seriously looking for an agent already knows to read submission guidelines like they’re going to save your life).  What we can do, however, is wonder why we’re so worried about failure, and so desperately convinced that writing and publishing is some sort of blood sport, that we’ve forgotten to do whatever it is we love–and, more crucially, forgotten that each party, the agents, the authors, needs the other.

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Pages Devoid of Guilt

The other day, Thursday, my day off, the sweetest thing possible in the middle of the week, I got a solid few hours’ (writing) work done in town and decided to reward myself with the one thing I don’t need more of: books. So here’s how I spent the birthday Blackwell’s gift certificate, at long last:

The Other
by Ryszard Kapuscinski
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
Selected Poetry of William Wordsworth
The Return of the Solider by Rebecca West
Essays in Love by Alain de Botton

The weight of them in my bicycle basket on the way home afforded me great happiness indeed. I’ve spent some time feeling them, smelling them, turning pages, reading paragraphs at random. This ritual of acquisition seems not ugly, as perhaps it should do in dire times (surely he who has a spare £20 to spend on books shouldn’t do so with quite so much unrestrained glee), but kind, rewarding. I’ve found the one place that my overdeveloped sense of guilt doesn’t stretch to, and it’s nice to spend a few moments every so often here, smelling the books.

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My mood at the moment: lustful. I lust for longer days, warmer evenings, summer dresses. I lust for new clothes (I spend hours at the computer, clicking photographs of things I can’t afford). I lust for the glow of inspiration to sparkle into a frenzy of of productivity. And by wanting this so much, I stay stuck (it’s the trickery of Spring).

The city has emptied herself again, tipped the students out, and we see who is left. “The arselickers who stayed,” Philip Larkin called them (called us). But all I can think is that now that they are gone I will go to the Bodleian and get lost amongst the books.

Suddenly Monday nights are blank in a good way, they are quiet again, and as I glide wraithlike down the High street under eleven o’clock darkness there might be no one but me in all the city, no one but me and the lonely kebab vendor, in his cloud of grease and chip smells, no one but me and the lonely kebab vendor and the ghosts crawling over the college walls, frolicking in the gardens while they can.

(The Man gets home late, I hear him undressing and the birds starting to wake simultaneously; he slips into bed beside me while the night is melting into morning, and our window is wide open).

I forget how still Jericho is. On Plantation Road I lean against the curb with my bicycle, so warm I’ve shed even my cardigan, and wait for a few minutes just to feel the sun and the stillness. Later a friend and I sit in the garden with a bottle of strong beer between us, chasing a pool of sunshine to the edge of the grass. It’s like a wilderness this far away from the house, hugging the brambles coming over the fence.

We talk of Africa. I haven’t been to Africa, I almost say, but the truth is that I have. I forget that I have; the Africa I’ve been to is smoky, spicy, sultry in the way I imagine the Middle East to be (but how would I know?). Not the Africa I used to dream about. But then, we all have different Africas, maybe; and I think about how complicated our relationship with place is, anyway, how much love and experience it takes to get to the root of it.

Later I meet the Man for a drink; we should go back to Fés soon, he says, apropos of nothing, nothing but the strange exhilaration which has overtaken everyone now that the weather is turning warm again. Is it really only the warmth, the clarity of light, that makes us believe in the glory of the future, the adventure of a summer, again?

Funny, I think.

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House of Words

I’m on a bit of a design kick these days. Last week the Man and I went for a lovely dinner with some friends, and then spent the entire ten minute walk home discussing how we would re-do their kitchen if it was ours. We didn’t even get to the rest of the house.

I have also developed a–let’s call it a “healthy interest”–in bookshelves. Anyone who’s been to our house knows that the Man and I don’t seem to believe in any form of decorating except to pile the books a little higher. But if we were a little wealthier, we could have some seriously cool bookshelves, as the following photos illustrate. Who needs art when you have these?

Having said that, the Man and I are cultivating a fondness for big, bold prints like these ones, discovered courtesy of this blog:
The more I think about it, we seem to be literally building a house of words (here I am, a writer, and here he is, a researcher). I think the visual manifestation of this started with this print, which the Man picked up from work (on the other side, it’s actually a promo poster for Penguin):Our most recent acquisition is a fabulous little print from the lovely Badaude, who offered a wonderful books-for-artwork exchange last month. Since we are already the proud owners of the print she was offering, and since we are neighbors, we popped over one chilly evening for a glass of wine and a perusal through some really rather stunning stuff. I’m such a fan of this sort of old-fashioned bartering system, and, as the Man pointed out, there’s something weighty about owning a piece of art that you have a personal tie to. (When he said this I suddenly remembered going to Santa Barbara with my parents as a child, to this artist’s studio, and how my favorite paintings growing up were always the two we’d chosen on that day.)

It was a tough choice, but here’s what we’ve ended up with from Badaude (the photo doesn’t do the incredible green real justice). It’s called “wake-up call” and the man in the middle is, the artist told us, actually Edgar Allen Poe, though she hadn’t realized it at first. How apropriate:

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House of Words

I’m on a bit of a design kick these days. Last week the Man and I went for a lovely dinner with some friends, and then spent the entire ten minute walk home discussing how we would re-do their kitchen if it was ours. We didn’t even get to the rest of the house.

I have also developed a–let’s call it a “healthy interest”–in bookshelves. Anyone who’s been to our house knows that the Man and I don’t seem to believe in any form of decorating except to pile the books a little higher. But if we were a little wealthier, we could have some seriously cool bookshelves, as the following photos illustrate. Who needs art when you have these?

Having said that, the Man and I are cultivating a fondness for big, bold prints like these ones, discovered courtesy of this blog:
The more I think about it, we seem to be literally building a house of words (here I am, a writer, and here he is, a researcher). I think the visual manifestation of this started with this print, which the Man picked up from work (on the other side, it’s actually a promo poster for Penguin):Our most recent acquisition is a fabulous little print from the lovely Badaude, who offered a wonderful books-for-artwork exchange last month. Since we are already the proud owners of the print she was offering, and since we are neighbors, we popped over one chilly evening for a glass of wine and a perusal through some really rather stunning stuff. I’m such a fan of this sort of old-fashioned bartering system, and, as the Man pointed out, there’s something weighty about owning a piece of art that you have a personal tie to. (When he said this I suddenly remembered going to Santa Barbara with my parents as a child, to this artist’s studio, and how my favorite paintings growing up were always the two we’d chosen on that day.)

It was a tough choice, but here’s what we’ve ended up with from Badaude (the photo doesn’t do the incredible green real justice). It’s called “wake-up call” and the man in the middle is, the artist told us, actually Edgar Allen Poe, though she hadn’t realized it at first. How apropriate:

Read Full Post »

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