Wednesday 24 July 2013

The L Word

Too many people seem to be daunted or scared off by the L Word.  That is, the Literary Word.

I’ve recently read Under Milk Wood and I’m sure many would recognize this as a great piece of fiction although it may not be recognised as literary fiction but to me it has all the imgredients. As I read it the qualities that made it so striking were firstly the language: At the sea-end of town, Mr and Mrs Floyd, the cocklers, are sleeping as quiet as death, side by wrinkled side, toothless, salt, and brown, like two old kippers in a box…and there’s plenty more of where that came from; secondly the characters with their colourful monikers such as Nogood Boyo, Butcher Benyon or Organ Morgan to name but a few,  and finally the voices. For instance: Me, Mrs Dai Bread Two, gypsied to kill in a silky scarlet petticoat brown as a berry, high heel shoes with one heel missing, tortoiseshell comb in my bright black slinky hair, nothing else at all on but a dab of scent, lolling gaudy at the doorway, tell your fortune in the tea-leaves, scowling at the sunshine, lighting up my pipe.

Apparently Thomas wasn’t a great one for plot.  In Walford Davies; introduction to Under Milk Wood he explains that Thomas ‘knew better than anyone that his strengths did not lie in extended ‘plots’ of any kind. The only firm frameworks that were ever congenial to him were the intricate verse-forms of his poetry. In all other respects his genius was essentially lyrical, capitalising on the vividness of parts within loose structures.’

Neither would Thomas’s work fit into the structure of a play.  When Thomas was offered the chance of having his works broadcast on the radio, the producers got round this by calling Thomas’s work ‘radio features’ rather than ‘radio plays’. Douglas Cleverdon states that  a radio feature ‘has no rules determining what can or cannot be done and though it may be in dramatic form, it has no need of a dramatic plot’.

Now all this fits in with the concept of literary fiction where plot is secondary to what may be character-driven or voice-driven or both.  There’s a lot of misconception around literary fiction: that it is lofty, flowery, wordy - maybe because of the word ‘literary’ –  it may  be, but more likely it won’t.  It is just as likely to be gritty, edgy or experimental.  Literay fiction is non-genre fiction so there is more freedom to bend the rules expected of a genre – for example experimenting with form, structure, characters, voice, language.  This is why it’s my favourite fiction and what I also like to write. Too often people review literary fiction and don’t understand the genre.  They may say ‘nothing happens’ and have missed out on acute observations of characters and situations.  They’ve missed out on fresh and poetic language.  Fine art gets the same flak.  Of course, you get Fine Art and Literary Fiction which doesn’t work or is just trying to be different for the sake of it but you also get poor genre fiction and poor commercial art too.   They say Fine Art is art’s for art’s sake, thus Literary Fiction is sometimes words for words’ sake.  Yes, it may annoy the hell out of some people but it is often – should be – at the cutting edge of fiction, rolling back the frontiers.

Some of my other favourite literary writers who also tell a great story include: Margaret Forster, Ali Smith, John McGahern, Jon McGregor, Alison Moore, Kate Atkinson, Jane Gardam, Penelope Lively, Helen Dunmore, Paul Magrs, Jeanette Winterson and many more.  

Saturday 6 April 2013


In three recent reviews of three different books of mine, the subject of endings has come up.  Two of these reviews were thorough, in-depth reviews – always worth their weight in gold - the other a four-liner. But what they all had in common was the feeling that my endings were rather abrupt.  The fact that these three reviews came close together in time, regarding three different books of mine, prompted me to write this blog. It’s always good to be challenged and also to know the effect of your writing on your readers. 

The four-line reviewer felt that Thalidomide Kid ‘was so rushed in the last chapter that it was almost like the author was trying to beat a deadline and just whipped out the ending rather than finish the story’ and ‘felt cheated of a conclusion’. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth! I spent a lot of time writing and polishing the book with the help of my then publisher.  Although my publisher made several suggestions for improvements, interestingly enough, none of them included extending the ending.

Another very favourable review for Fall Of The Flamingo Circus states: ‘My only issue with the book, and it’s a small one, was the ending. It just sort of happened. Lauren’s life didn’t seem resolved in any way. However, I guess diaries do just that, one day you’re writing one, the other you’re not. This though is a personal view. I like stories to close off.’  More about that later.

The third review of Did You Whisper Back? - another thorough in-depth critique - gets to the heart of my intentions when I end a book.  The reviewer states: ‘The ending is abrupt which I’m assuming is a deliberate intent to show that a) there are no happy endings and b) there are not really endings in life and c) what we are looking at is a very small beacon of hope, a very small new beginning rather than an ending…I can live with that abruptness because I think it’s stylistically intentional.’

It’s very satisfying for writers when readers and reviewers ‘get’ your intentions.  I don’t go in for long drawn-out endings.  I hold my hands up, guilty as charged!  This is because I have an aversion to the sort of endings, be it in books or in films (especially films) that dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’.  When that happens I find myself wanting it to end in the perfect place which for me is leaving a bit to the imagination, a bit of mystery, a bit of ambiguity, wanting a bit more. There’s a tradition in European dramas and films to understate endings and not to overdo them which is perhaps lacking in the UK and the US tradition.

In literary fiction, there is more a tradition of the fluid or ambiguous ending.  But if you are used to reading genre fiction with different expectations of endings then this may jar and leave you feeling disappointed or frustrated.  

My brother had an altogether different explanation for readers’ perceptions of endings. He thought it may be a gender thing and he may well be right.  The need for something ‘to close off’ and the feeling of being ‘cheated of a conclusion’ were both from a male perspective, whereas the reviewer for Did You Whisper Back? was female.  OK, I know this isn’t scientific evidence but it did get me wondering. 

This is where I’d love to have your feedback and thoughts. Feel free to knock these theories down in flames!  Do you have expectations of how a book should end?  Do you like everything to be tied up or do you like a bit of mystery?  Do you have different expectations from different genres?  And do you think there are gender differences?

Finally, thank you for reading and many thanks to those who have taken the time and trouble to read and review my books so meticulously. 

Saturday 12 January 2013

Reviewing My Reviews.

New Year New Start!

It's about time I did a fresh blog since it's almost a year since the last.

I don’t do many book reviews though I try to support indie writers by doing some. I try to be positive and fair in my reviews, concentrating on a book’s strengths and have erred on the side of generosity.

But I've been thinking - is this helpful to the author?  Shouldn’t I also be concentrating on a book’s weaknesses too?  Then again, a review isn’t the same as a critique.  If an author asks for private feedback about a piece where there are clear weaknesses, I wouldn’t hesitate in offering it where I felt it was warranted.

That said, I wear two hats: one as writer and one as reader.  And I also feel an obligation to the reader.

Lovely as it is to receive them, too many glowing five star reviews does little to profit anyone: neither the author whose book is being reviewed nor your own integrity as a reviewer.  It cheapens and threatens to patronise.

So from now on, I intend doing my reviews a little differently, aiming to highlight weaknesses as well as strengths if possible. I may also amend some reviews I’ve already done where weaknesses were overlooked. This may be due to too many typos or some other deficiency.  I may drop a star here and there (a 4 Star review is still very worthy) but I want to save the 5 star reviews for my absolute personal favourites. 

Well, that’s the intention anyway.  I may revert to type by next week.