Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Harper Lee and Rosemary Connolly

First, Harper Lee.

Finally, The White House are recognising the contribution this lady made to literature.

LINK to article in The Independent HERE

Whether she will turn up to the award ceremony is debatable. She has granted one interview in 33 years, at which she famously said very little, and is a recluse. Would she relish the thought of meeting the man who pushed for the impeachment of Clinton over Monica Lewinsky? I wouldn't know.

What I do know is this. The Independent article says:

"The novel is studied in more than 70 per cent of US high schools. In some ways, though, the White House is going against the grain of many academics who are unconvinced that the book's warm-heartedness is matched by a level of literary craftsmanship to warrant its stellar reputation.

The fact that Lee has never published again has led some critics to wonder whether the book's success was entirely due to Lee or the prowess of Tay Hohoff, her editor at the publishing house JB Lipincott.

Others have suggested that alcohol has played a role in Lee's subsequent writer's block."

So 'academics' do not rate the book because it does not conform to some craft rules. And these 'adacemics' are writers or just 'academics'? What on earth are they thinking? Does originality count for nothing at all? There must be a reason why 70% of US high schools s tudy the thing. Or is it a more comfortable way to study racial injustice in the Deep South? Easier than history lessons, because fiction is one step removed from a chilling (and not quite dead) reality?

(I say not quite dead, because I visited Virginia in April this year. My second visit to the USA. The first was to Florida 25 years back...enough said. I saw how black people are still treated. NOW. 21st century. Purely because of colour.)

So these 'academics' would like to lessen the book's impact, perhaps. And what colour are these 'academics'?

Then, look at the second point here.

some critics (...) wonder whether the book's success was entirely due to Lee or the prowess of Tay Hohoff, her editor at the publishing house JB Lipincott

And consider it in the light of the recent flurry of panic that Tess Gallagher's release of some of Raymond Carver's work, in the original, unedited state will burst a bubble... fear that much of his greatness was manufactured by his editor.

Where is the 'weight' in the provision of literature to the reader today? Is it with the writers, who provide the publishers with original work, and the publishers then produce that for the market? Nope. It is the publishers (I am talking the big houses here) who are driven by the need to provide dividends to shareholders, and rely on tried and tested formulae. Read any new writer's blurb, and the marketeers will say who they write like.

Carver's editor is being given the credit for a proportion of Carver's success. As is Lee's. Kudos being removed from the writers, even at this level.

Oh I know how important editors are. But stand back a moment.

I was in conversation with an excellent writer only this week, whose work has been recently anthologised next to a seriously poor piece of work by a beginner.

"Oh it would have been OK if she'd had a really good editor" said my colleague, whilst at the same time acknowledging that she had had many people saying what a poor piece of decision making his had been by the publisher.

Surely, SURELY the editor is there as an equal partner in the relationship? Not the controller of the creative result? The one who acknowledges the originality of what he/she is working with, and just enhances it? NOT rewrites the lot...., to sometimes render (as in this case) navel-gazing beginnery drivel into literature?

My colleague was seeking to allow an editor to be ghost writer, to turn a bad piece of work into a good. Good enough to be anthologised alongside some experienced, well published, original writers.

Back to Harper Lee, poor woman.

So what have they done to her? They've tried to deny her any real credit for writing well. Tried to remove the influence her work has on generations of children. Suggested that it was not her, after all, any of the good, but her editor's.

And the final insult? They've stood right back from the appalling treatment they've handed out to Lee, denied that she might just have been adversely affected by any of it. And blamed something else for sending her to the safety of her own company for years...ALCOHOL.


Where does Rosemary Connolly come in? Oh yes. I was talking to another writer yesterday, a brilliant, stellar writer. I mentioned how I felt when the organiser of a lit festival when I asked about readings and so forth, looked me up and down (I'm both chubby and height challenged) and said "But we have to sell tickets..."

"Why don't you go on a Rosemary Connolly course?" the writer said brightly.

I thought that was a writing course.

It isn't.

It was acknowledging that how I look is more important than my writing.

On The Fiction Workhouse, I was bewailing that... and a colleague posted this,


Herewith a modern covering letter to an agent. TODAY's agent, working with TODAY's big publishers. Please feel free to cut n paste. I'm sure you will have great success ...

Dear Agent,
I have recently not completed a 100,000 word novel which I would like to send you. The book deals with nothing at all, as you'll see from the enclosed 0-page synopsis.

I consider myself to be a marketable commodity. I am empty headed, orange plastic faced, have large breasts, and a stick thin rest of me. I can't sing or do much else really, but I'm very 'open', if you get my drift.

Oh, and I can't spell, but fortunately, my manager can.

Yours etc

Honey Moneymaker

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Words from a Glass Bubble: Update ii

THE LAUNCH A conversation.

What, thinking about the launch already?

Doing more than thinking, peeps.

When’s this book coming out…March?


Come on. We’ve got Christmas, New Year, Bonfire Night, Valentine’s Day before then

Yes. And?


St David’s Day.


St David’s Day. Leeks, daffodils and Glass Bubbles.

Oh bloody hell. You’re one of them. Welsh.

Oh yes. Listen: Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn anwyl I mi, Gwlad beirdd a chantorion enwogion o fri

Stop! My ears aren’t working. What’s that noise?

Welsh national Anthem, actually, idiot. Oh unlearned idiot.

You are no Bryn Terfel, Vanessa.

Sorry. Ahem. Back to the launch…

A launch with leeks and daffodils then? On St David’s Day?

I didn’t say that.

You said ‘And St David’s Day.' Like it meant something. So…

It does. The book might be published then. The launch might be a week or so later…

So no need for leeks. Thank Heavens for that.

No leeks.

So having a few drinks at home then?


Huh? So what ARE you doing?

Not finalised yet. Keep reading this blog…I’m planning to do all sorts.

Do? What do you mean, do all sorts? Launches are… launches.

Yes, course they are. However…

Oh God. Is this V thinking sideways again? When will you learn to think frontwards?

Never, I hope. Now. The launch…


Oh right… we’ll take you off the invitation list then…

Monday, 29 October 2007

W G Sebald, my hero

Well, he is kind of my hero. He is the one who started me off on this writing journey, and to whom I will be eternally grateful.

Earlier this year, Norman Geras invited me to write on my favourite book for his illustrious series... and this was my contribution.

August 28, 2007
Writer's choice 117: Vanessa Gebbie
Vanessa Gebbie teaches creative writing and is assistant editor of Cadenza Magazine. Her debut collection of short fiction, Words from a Glass Bubble, is forthcoming early in 2008 from Salt Publishing. The opening of her novel-in-progress won the Daily Telegraph Novel Competition in May 2007. In this post Vanessa talks about W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz.

Vanessa Gebbie on Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

Like Andrew Bolt earlier in this series, when I was invited to write on my favourite book, I started wondering what 'favourite' might mean. That wondering took all of five seconds. It's not like being asked what book you'd take to a desert island, is it? My favourite book is Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald.

I purchased this in a deeply intellectual moment, sheltering from a cloudburst in Brighton Waterstone's in early 2002, waiting for a break in the torrent so I could make a dash for my car. A deeply deeply intellectual moment... I liked the cover. (Here, one could break off and start a hare running about marketing, about airheads. About the effects of thunderstorms on the brain. But one won't. One will, however, use 'one' just twice more.) One was not a writer of fiction in 2002.

On one level, Austerlitz is 'about' a journey of painful rediscovery of identity that goes something like this: Kindertransport. Well-meaning upbringing in Wales erasing memory. The adult piecing together his own past. I was hooked. Well, give an adopted child like me (we never grow up) anything like that and they wallow... sure.

Oh, but.

Nothing in this book seemed to have grown from anything else I'd read. Where were the character descriptions - the oh-so-cleverly-placed mirrors allowing me to 'see' the furrowed or beetling brows, the tousled curls, the steady stare and other clichés? Where were the stage directions – Gerald rose from his chair, crossed to the buffet and poured a gin - or Amanda pouted, repaired her lipstick and closed her tiny shoulder bag?

They do not exist. They do not exist and yet I am 'with' the words. I 'see' just as if I was being led by the nose by a lesser author.

Where are the skeletons of structure? Where are the paragraph breaks? Indeed, where are the paragraphs? Where are the chapter headings? Indeed, where are the chapters? The things that let us break up a work into bite-sized manageable chunks. That allow us to 'read just one more bit before bed'?

They do not exist. They do not exist and yet I am not flummoxed. I do not drown in text. On the first read I did not even notice.

On the second read, I was enthralled for different reasons. Now, I felt, I was in the presence of a writer who was breaking the rules with impunity. And it was working. The book held more than one source of power for me, and that power still remains.

I remember after the first couple of reads, having one of those 'lightbulb' moments. I'd been writing as a freelance journalist for a while, hadn't thought of fiction, not seriously. Fiction was something other people wrote. Here was something telling me to write. And more importantly, telling me how, and why.

A week later, I enrolled on the certificate in Creative Writing at the local university. I wanted to do a dissertation (or whatever it was called there) on W.G. Sebald. When I said as much to the tutor, I had a two word reply: 'Who's that?' I lasted a few terms, and slid away. I'd been silly. My real tutor was in those pages.

Sebald's obituary (he died in 2001 in a traffic accident) in the Guardian says:

Sebald doubted whether those who had never experienced Theresienstadt or Auschwitz could simply describe what occurred there. That would have been presumptuous, an appropriation of others' sufferings. Like a Medusa's head, he felt that the attempts to look directly at the horror would turn a writer into stone, or sentimentality.

It was necessary, he found, to approach this subject obliquely, and to invent a new literary form, part hybrid novel, part memoir and part travelogue, often involving the experiences of one "WG Sebald", a German writer long settled in East Anglia. He was reluctant to call his books "novels", because he had little interest in the way contemporary writers seemed to find all meaning in personal relationships, and out of a comic but heartfelt disdain for the "grinding noises" which heavily plotted novels demanded. "As he rose from the table, frowning..." was precisely the type of clumsy machinery, moving a character from here to there, which Sebald mocked.
Sebald, who was a devoted photographer, used images in his novels. Sometimes they were found objects, postcards, or something from an old newspaper... The photographs appear without captions and acquire meaning from the surrounding text. We read those enigmatic images through the story which Sebald provides, and then, later, come to the suspicion that they were something more (or less) than an illustration or documentation of the story. The way he handled visual images was characteristic of the way he wrote, determined not to make his point in an assertive way, but with implication and suggestion.
His lectures were sardonic and challenging, and possessed the same dry wit, and feel for irony, which enlivened his conversation. He had an incomparable feel for the oddness of life in East Anglia, where he was an inveterate walker and connoisseur of the isolation of an area which has been left largely untouched. There was not even a decent autobahn in East Anglia, and that suited him fine.

One of the most important things Sebald taught me (and is still teaching) is to do with thematic content. I had always struggled with the concept of 'theme', never really understood the use of 'theme' in literary fiction other than to say that it's what 'drives' a writer to write. I could never get to grips with other writers' fascination with everyday relationships; they seemed to me to be just 'there', inescapable. Why write about them? What was new?

Sebald too couldn't see why writers seemed to find meaning solely in more or less banal relationships, and I'm guessing that's why I just couldn't see any thematic originality/strength in what many other writers were presenting me with. And why I love the surreal, the irreal. And Sebald.

Would it be totally off-beam to suggest that Austerlitz is the novel I would recommend to illustrate depth of theme as opposed to varying degrees of weightlessness? I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to see how a good piece of fiction 'works' thematically - the engine bares itself if you look hard enough.

And I'd also recommend it to anyone who wants to read a thematically coherent novel. How many novels have we all read that indulge in trips down side alleys, just because they can? And in the end, whereas those trips might entertain, they break the 'song'.

What 'song'?

Let's take it as read that this thing called 'theme' is the motivating force behind the work, the reason for it being in existence at all – the thing that the writer cared enough about to spend not only researching and writing time on but also emotional energy in crafting something to communicate that to his reader. It drives the work. It is what makes the work resonate, not just entertain. It's what makes it sing.

What makes something resonate? I guess if we are going back to 'resonance' as 'vibration' rather then something felt emotionally, it makes me think of the 'singing' of a wineglass, as a finger wetted with wine or spittle runs round and round the rim until the glass sings. A fine note rises into the air from no throat. It hangs there, a little bit of magic... Until the finger slips.

Literary themes have always fascinated me. Troubled me. I had the same sense that a child gets when it overhears adults talking and the language goes over its head. A sense that this was not the whole picture. Now, having met Sebald's Austerlitz, I might understand a little more of the strength of themes in work that has real depth as opposed to 'fine', 'OK' and 'competent' literary fiction that restricts itself to an 'exploration of relationships' as an end in itself.

Of course there have to be characters. And of course those characters will interact, and the causes and effects of that interaction will produce tensions and events that drive the work forward. They will entertain. May even provoke a frisson of recognition, empathy, disgust, whatever, in the reader.

But... I don't think that is enough. That is the small beer. So we are human... and? Since when was that original? Unless the interactions, causes and effects lead to the communication of something that forces the reader to reappraise his view of the world in a wider sense, they have been to a certain extent 'without meaning'. And that's what I didn't understand. I didn't understand how one made the jump from the creation of causes and effects that said relatively banal things, thematically, to the bigger guns.

What about the writer as a recorder of the issues of the era? What about the writer as social historian? What about the writer holding up a mirror to a generation? Isn't that something to reach for? And since when have 'I'm in a tired marriage', 'Oops, I'm going to die', or 'I'm lonely' been issues that define an era?

What about the writer as someone who illustrates flaws that run under the skin of generations, one after another, each generation refusing to learn from the mistakes of the last? What about the writer as exposer of political hypocrisy? The list is endless, and is beginning to sound to me like a 'reason' for writing. Austerlitz, in exploring one man's journey, gradually uncovers the journey of a nation and, by extension, exposes the flaws in all our histories.

The singing glass analogy above is about coherence. About not taking your finger off the rim of that glass while it's singing. About surrounding the reader with images, rivers and streams, roads and paths - use whatever analogy you want - but they must all be going the same way. Otherwise the music breaks.

You can't let the reader off the hook. You have to make the reader immerse themselves in the work, and surround them with the singing of the theme, like that wineglass, but you must NOT take your finger off the glass. You must not let the music stop. There has to be coherence.

That is entirely different from the idea of pacing and weighting the drip feed of emotion to 'hook' the reader, which seems a manipulative tool, and not a lot to do with theme.

Sebald shows me theme coherence par excellence.

If the whole book is to do with the painful uncovering of hidden memories, for a single individual and by extension, a nation, each section of careful, painstaking detail serves to illustrate that in some way. Whether it is a study of moths at night in North Wales, nurseries hidden behind false walls, shadow images thrown by sunlight, radio announcers' disembodied voices, in-depth studies of architectural history; then the plethora of detail for the sake of detail, in old libraries, catalogues of things, lives, incidents; the building of edifices over memories, so that we have to pull down those edifices to get at the memories - the whole is a kaleidoscope in which all the pieces tumble and fall to form a whole.

I could also comment on the structure echoing the content. About the gradual and painful journey both literal and metaphoric, echoed in the seemingly 'rambling' prose. But isn't that how memories surface? Piecemeal? The patterns only appearing some way down the continuum?

Some readers might criticize the coincidental meetings between narrator and Austerlitz on which the structure hangs. But again, to me these are entirely organic. Why question them? If you let go and read, the book works its magic. If you seek to judge it according to the 'rules' (whatever they be) it is the rules themselves that are found wanting. Because it works!

So yes. This is my 'favourite' book. I treasure it because it opened my eyes to me, the writer-in-waiting. The rule breaker. The maverick. And it is probably, too, the book I would take to my desert island. Why only probably? Because it's a scary question. It's not so much selecting what to take, but actively turning your back on all the others that's hard. Isn't it?

Words from a Glass Bubble: Update

The collection is coming together. I have to say that working with Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt Publishing is great.


It's like having a friend who emails you and is putting together your precious first book, who really cares about getting it right, who isn’t shy of saying ‘I think these bits don’t go’, and who is happy to flex initial ideas.

The contents list is now twenty two stories, a real cross-section. Some are long, a few are shorter. One is truly flash length. Some are prize winners, some not. Most have been published before. What holds them together are the themes and the tone, I think. A muted palette, with the occasional vermillion spike.

(It’s interesting to see work in colour. I always look at each piece to find the ‘colour wash’ it inhabits.)

I have created the dedication page. I am dedicating it to a friend who died just before Christmas last year. I was trawling about for quotes. Should I, shouldn’t I have a quotation to say something about Jan, or would that be schmaltzy? I flicked onto some place or other and found a wonderful quote that really chimed… by Sir Winston Churchill. So I have the great man hovering around at the start. Terrific!

The acknowledgements page came next. Golly that is tough. My instinct was to name everyone I felt had been touched in any way by this obsession with writing. (Because writing is like a love affair for this writer. It takes you away from friends, turns you into a more intense being. Makes you high one minute and low the next. And it is impossible to explain to anyone who isn’t also in love…)

My acknowledgement page drafts were like bad Oscar acceptance speeches. I’d like to thank my agent, my granny, my local greengrocer and my bus conductor…
In the end, I named only those individuals who have really played a part in growing this writer, and mentioned others by group tags. Most of the page is taken up with ‘First Published In’ detail and so on. But I also wanted to acknowledge the influence great writers have had and always will. So I do that. I wonder if anyone reads that page?

Jen has all the files and the stories are now off to the typesetters for proofs.

I am on tenterhooks about the cover. I know how vital good covers are. (Hey, it was the cover that made me buy Austerlitz by W G Sebald, starting the process of turning me into a writer.) I have sourced a wonderful photograph and have agreed with Jen that we will go for it. It is so ‘right’ for the book, I can’t imagine anything else fitting. But of course, it will. The problem with the photograph is that it is with a top agency, and the photographer must have final say if it is to be used for the cover of a book. It’s also expensive.

But what the hell. I may only do this once, and I want to be as proud of it as I can be.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Markets for writers

I am often asked where I find places to submit to.

The answer to that is easy. I mix with other writers, we share market information. I also use listings such as PLACES FOR WRITERS and DUOTROPE, which are free. I do NOT pay for information that is free if you look for it.

Check PLACES FOR WRITERS out here.

Check DUOTROPE out here.

I’m sure there are others, but what makes Duotrope good is that it allows the writer to search for the right market for a specific piece of work, by genre, length, whether submissions are by email or mail, and most importantly… whether you will get paid for it.

Also (and Mimi will not like this…) there is an indication on most markets of the acceptance rate for submissions.

If a place accepts 90% of things that come through to it, then it is not as tough a market as one that accepts 1%.

So… if you are like me, and you are a writer that wants to start at the bottom and work upwards, start by sending your work to the places that accept a high proportion of submissions.

Then move on.

That is hard, the moving on bit. Because until you find your level, you have no acceptances for a while. But when you do you know you are sharpening your craft.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Do Successes Demotivate?

Well, I know all writers are different. But this writer has been sent into a compelete tailspin by a few successes this year.

Far from being motivating and spurring me on to do more, I an stressed, unable to concentrate, and fearful of ever being able to 'do it again'.

It was wonderful, therefore, to read on Emma Darwin's blog today about a discussion around this very thing. And even more wonderful to read that Emma herself experienced something similar after the runaway success of her novel Mathematics of Love.

LINK HERE to Emma's post, which also contains a link to the discussion. Well worth a read, if you are like me. It made me feel less like a freak.

Booker Prize selection

I am grateful to Fictionbitch for flagging this wonderful article. The last two paragraphs say exactly what I believe, only put it far more eloquently than I can.

BOOKER PRIZE:objective??

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Starting again

Thank you for dropping in.

I kept this blog for two years or so with the intention of recording all the ups and downs of being a writer.

I began writing fiction in late 2003, seriously, and have had many nice things happen and also many not so nice things. I wanted to share those with other writers who may drop by, especially new writers.

All too often, established writers just do not give the whole story when you ask or read about them. Anyone would think that these people woke up one day able to write prize-winning novels, prize-winning short fiction.

There is a great reluctance to share real experience and advice, I have found. Almost as though if you do expose the fact that you had to learn, that you had /have great self-doubt, that you have had rejections as well as acceptances, failures as well as successes, that you will somehow lose out.

Maybe you would lose out. Maybe marketing machines do not want you to admit that you have had strings of failures on the road to something better. Maybe publishers would not take you on if you seemed to be anything other then perfect.

But I have to believe that in the end, if you write as well as you possibly can, learn as much as you can and add a spark of complete originality, your words will be read.

Of course, many many writers are happy to write ‘for the market’, writing entertaining works that earn them a lot of dosh. This is fine, … for them. It is not what gives me pleasure, and not what I want to do. I have always been honest about that. To me, marrying craft with spark is vital. I do not want to write like anyone else.

Ther are ‘bear traps’ out there, and it is so easy to fall into them. Whether it makes one popular or not, I think it’s necessary for writers who find out about less than desirable practices in the writing world to warn others. Competitions that are not what they seem. Publications that are… empty.

Keeping a public document does open you and your words to scrutiny… otherwise why do it. It was lovely to engage in debate with other writers when they dropped by and left messages. One particularly good debate centred round ‘what is good writing’… a fascinating exchange that seemed to go on for ages between writers who saw ‘good spelling and grammar’ as ‘good writing’ and me, who saw that as a given, and good writing being something crafted on top. Who is to say who was right? Both sides backed up their arguments, and both sides I think enjoyed the cut n thrust.

Sometimes, I posted on subjects that were somewhat emotive. And made my own views known.

Examples of these are as follows (heavily précised)

1) Writing competitions. That there are some that are not worth entering because they mean diddly squat on a CV. You may as well run your own competition, enter it and award yourself the prizes. I advised writers to research, to find out who is judging, and whether that person’s endorsement of your work would mean something. I said that I no longer mentioned some of the little comps I had entered on my CV because they were meaningless, although at the time it was nice to call oneself a prize-winning writer. And that there are so many prize-winners now in the world of short fiction that the words are slowly coming to mean very little. I asked editors and other writers to ask ‘what competition’, and ‘who was judging’ if someone calls themselves a prize-winning writer.

2) Time. That how long it takes to write something does not matter at all. Something wonderful might appear in ten minutes. Other times it might take two years to get something ‘right’ (whatever that means).

Both the above had extraordinary responses, not from people who wanted to debate seriously, but people who came over as just fairly mindless. It is odd… they never posted as themselves, but seemed to have created blogging personas just to come in and twitter. Apparently I am arrogant, for telling things as they are.

One can only assume that I was touching a nerve. Good. The writing world can be so up itself, that maybe they needed it.

But to reiterate:

1) I am grateful for all affirmation of my writing. I love it when something I have done touches someone. But I am honest enough to admit that this pleasure is sometimes fleeting. It means far more to get affirmation from a tough editor, writer or final judge who is a good writer than from a well meaning unpublished or inexperienced judge.
2) It is possible, when on song, to write well first draft. Doesn’t happen often, and now that I’m writing a novel, it becomes a distant memory. But short pieces can be born almost perfect IF IF the writer has studied, learned their craft over time and is able to switch out and write free.

One anonymous comment recently said I was arrogant, that any successes I had were luck, and that she hoped my luck would run out soon. (Nice!)

She also said this: that literary competition judges might find out that I had said the above. That if my work had been selected for a place, they might Google my name, see that I said often unflattering things about the plethora of meaningless comps that were taking aspiring writers’ money and hearts… and that they would forthwith say:

“Oh. Vanessa G isn’t very kind to Little Burblington on Twiddle Terribly Important Literary Competition, (finally judged by some unpublished doggerel writer)… let’s delete her writing, and award the prizes to a writer who is more diplomatic.”

Let us hope that whoever this person is, that she does not judge any meaningful competitions. Because if she does, it is NOT the standard of your writing she will be interested in but how nice you are to her.

THAT is the appalling thing here.

Ach, I got angry, depressed, and deleted the whole blog. Two years worth. That was mindless, and stupid. I should have had the courage of my convictions.

When I can be arsed, I will write here again.

Any topics that spring to mind, let me know.

Meanwhile, check out my writing mate Tania Hershman’s blog for a near scam that caught her, and she is no newbie…