Paris Mon Amour — A Review

Rarely can a novel have been so appropriately titled as Isabel Costello’s Paris Mon Amour. The city is so evocatively described it becomes one of the characters (Paris: Mon Amour, perhaps?). Also, the novel explores the contrasting romantic mores of two French men (Paris. Mon Amour, maybe?)

Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello
Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello

I’ve blogged before about the pleasure of seeing friends’ novels being transformed from Word documents  e-mailed around as drafts to professionally published finished article. When Isabel announced that she’d got a publishing deal, I wrote a post about Paris Mon Amour as being one of these deserved successes. Now I’d like to pass on a few thoughts about the novel in a belated review. 

First of all, it’s a compelling read. One problem with reviewing the novel is avoiding spoilers and, while the premise of the Paris Mon Amour is well advertised to anyone looking at the blurb, the way the events unfolded towards the end of the novel certainly took me by surprise (in a good way).

As well as an enthralling plot, I loved  the quality of the writing. One benefit of being something of a writing workshop veteran (through many course and writing groups) is that I appreciate excellent prose: I was constantly impressed by this novel’s standard.

Isabel’s prose in this novel isn’t the sort that draws attention to itself in a showy way but it possesses a definite elegance — avoiding the repetitions and banalities that subconsciously drag down more workaday novels. It also reflects the restrained but classy character of Paris as a city. There were certain turns of phrase — like “it flipped the catch on my imagination” that I found refreshingly inventive.

As might be inferred from the title, one of the book’s strengths is its depiction of Paris as a city. Alexandra, the half-British,  American-raised ex-pat narrator, is a perfect guide to Paris for the non-native. This is a master stroke. Alexandra is as knowledgeable as a Parisian about the city’s geography but she still has the eyes of the outsider, which allows her to provide illuminating descriptions to the reader who’s not quite so familiar.

The novel captures an elusiveness about Paris. I’ve visited the city on numerous occasions but I feel it’s much more inscrutable than most cities. I’m less able to mentally picture how to get from A to B than in many places I’ve visited far less frequently, for example Berlin or San Francisco.

Perhaps it’s those numbered arrondissements — they seem like a code that only seems to yield its secrets to those who’ve lived in the city. With Alexandra, at least from the geographical perspective, the reader feels in safe hands.

Paris could be the only setting for this story as, like the city itself, the plot lies at the intersection of sensuousness and culture.

Paris Mon Amour tells the story of an intense, passionate affair through both the heart (and other more erogenous parts of the body) and the head. Isabel has a degree in modern languages and while, through Alexandra, she wears her erudition lightly, the characters use, for example, the poetry of Baudelaire to articulate their feelings.

Paris is the city of love and French is the de facto language of love. The sprinkling of French language dialogue in the novel (translated where necessary) works well to set the place. Also, as a novel written in English, the French works well to evoke the heightened sexuality th both the principal characters feel once they’ve embarked on their illicit affair.

For those of us lacking fluent French, the odd phrase hints at the exotic and unknown world that Alexandra is entering.

Isabel wrote a much-commented-on post on The Literary Sofa about Sex Scenes in Fiction. It was so thought-provoking I wrote my own my response to it. The careful thinking she put into that post is evident in Isabel’s expert handling of the sexual relationships between the characters in Paris Mon Amour.

What makes the novel feel so authentic is that much of the protagonists’ motivation stems from their mutual unadulterated sexual attraction (or perhaps that should read very adulterated?) .

As in real life, characters in the novel make reckless decisions, often knowingly, because they’re unable to physically resist the object of their desires. To acknowledge that people are subject to such pure, undiluted desire is genuine and realistic. It’s a refreshing change from novels that might try to rationalise attraction by over-compensating with a character’s likeable, non-sexual attributes.

Conversely, a couple can be matched perfectly in social and intellectual terms, but if they’re not getting along physically then all other types of compatibility are in jeopardy.

Sexual motivation is just as important (if not more) than any other driver of a character’s behaviour. The tricky thing is that it’s intrinsically far more difficult for a writer to convey sexual attraction than more rational motivations

Isabel achieves this goal through some impressively economical writing.

(I’m not an enthusiast about borrowing the visual term ‘sex scene’ to describe fiction but there’s not a concise equivalent term that I’m aware of in writing so I’ll bear with it.)

There must be at least a dozen ‘sex scenes’ told from Alexandra’s point of view, both with passionate Jean-Luc and her less pulse-racing husband Philippe. The novel is frank in depicting intimate physical details that would never be seen on post-watershed British TV or in mainstream films. Only a few art-house films, quite often French ones, don’t shy away from depicting the messiness of sex. Thankfully one of the strengths of the written word is its ability to use its direct connection with the mind of the reader to describe and explore personal experiences that get little exposure in other genres.

As an aside, it’s baffling why the mention of even perfectly straightforward sex remains a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon taboo. The reasons why so many people are buttoned up about one of life’s most universal experiences people is a topic for a blog post (or entire blog) of their own.

While Paris Mon Amour is candid, the effect is almost always achieved using one carefully chosen phrase or sentence. I’d guess that the sexually explicit content of the novel would come to no more than a couple of pages, if all cut and pasted into one place.

Erotica this isn’t but the writing is genuinely erotic, through its sparing use of tantalising details — a case of less is more – and every detail advances the plot and revelation of character. Nothing is gratuitous.

While the narration means that sex is described from Alexandra’s first person perspective, I found it engaged me from the perspective of a male reader (particularly as I’ve written similar content myself). Through Alexandra’s narration, Isabel’s writing strikes empathy with her male characters. As I mentioned in this post , in any healthy relationship, it seems vital to try to appreciate the physical enjoyment of one’s partner but there’s also an elusive impossibility about being able to authentically experience what the other feels.

While Alexandra’s physical appearance isn’t described in exhaustive detail, one key question at the heart of the novel is whether Jean-Luc, a good-looking, twenty-three year-old man, who seems to have no problem seducing women of his own age (and younger) would find Alexandra irresistibly attractive. This ties in with a theme in the novel that will inevitable resonate more strongly with women readers – female fertility.

At the opening of the novel, we learn that Alexandra is self-consciously aware that she’s entering her forties — that threshold where she worries that the underlying source of her attractiveness to men (the outward signs of fertility) might be waning. By contrast, her considerably older husband, while not sexually attractive, is still presumably potent in reproductive terms.

I can’t speak for Jean-Luc but I have no problem in finding women over forty to be very attractive and, if I try to cast my mind back to my own early twenties, I think that’s always been the case. There are far more important factors at play than age when it comes to sexual attraction.

The novel has a very stylish cover photograph of a vase of shattered lilies (see above). It complements the classy prose and elegant setting but also, as book covers tend to do, it serves to position the novel in a certain genre. I guess this would be upmarket women’s fiction, although my own enjoyment of the novel suggests it’s capable of appealing well beyond an exclusively female audience. I’d suggest Paris Mon Amour also sits firmly in the ‘book club’ category. 

One reason for this is the novel’s subtlety. Plot details that later take on large significance are slipped into the narrative almost (but not quite) without the reader noticing — a skillful technique that repays a second reading. I had that satisfying feeling that I was stealthily picking up subtly buried clues about possible duplicitous behaviour of one of the protagonists and my suspicions were confirmed towards the end of the novel. To say any more would be to give away spoilers.

Finally, it’s ironic that the novel was published in the same month as the EU referendum when certain parties attempted to incite divisions and to assert willfully misleading falsehoods about our European partners .While Paris Mon Amour shines a fascinating light on differences between cultures, it’s a welcome reminder of how a shared appreciation of the love, passion and humanity ought to unite us all.

Paris Mon Amour is published as an ebook by Canelo and is available from all the usual platforms.

Before I Die

For the last few months the day job has led to me working most days in Southwark — right by the Thames — a stone’s throw from the Tate Modern and Globe Theatre and in a building that actually preserves the remains of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in its foundations.

It’s a wonderful area to stroll around at lunchtime in the winter — both full of history but also still undergoing a transition from a grimy, industrial area in the post-war period to a rejuvenated cultural corner of London. The Tate Modern and the Globe are the most obvious examples but there are also plenty of places like the Jerwood Space and the Menier Chocolate Factory that are examples of old warehouses being repurposed into arts venues.

View From Southwark Bridge Late 2014
View From Southwark Bridge Late 2014

The river also seems to demarcate the cultural divide. It’s exhilarating to walk out of an office and have an immediate view of some of the most iconic buildings in the country (if not the world) — like the Shard, Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie and others — but walk half a mile down Southwark Bridge Road and you’ll be in some the most deprived parts of London.

There are still plenty of semi-derilict spaces, like the poignant Cross Bones Graveyard, and the area towards Elephant and Castle, where I finally located the Ministry of Sound.

The feel of the place was summed up to me by a blackboard I saw outside a greasy caff very close to the Tate Modern, which seemed to draw most of its clientele from the builders who are busy demolishing or smashing through warehouses to create ultra-luxury penthouses or art spaces, like the Tate Modern extension.

The blackboard showed changing daily specials, usually involving chips or all-day breakfasts. I looked a bit more closely one day at this interesting menu — something which perhaps says something profound about post-industrial Britain?

On the Menu -- Sausage Mash and Unions
On the Menu — Sausage Mash and Unions

And speaking of blackboards, I was strolling along Union Street in Southwark when I came across this larger blackboard, which I discovered was part of a global network of similar blackboards all based on the simple concept of asking people to chalk up an ambition they’d like to achieve ‘before I die’.

The Before I Die concept was accidentally started in 2011 in New Orleans by artist Candy Chang who set up the first wall on a derict building while grieving over the death of a loved one. (The full story can be read on the Before I Die website.) Since then the concept has spread to many other cities across the world (at least 150 or so), including several in London.

Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1
Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1

The board on Union Street (actually in a small square tucked away behind a railway viaduct called Flat Iron Square) was apparently the first of the chalkboards in London and had been up for about a year before I came across it.

I’m afraid that this board is no longer there, having presumably been removed a few weeks ago as part of the Thameslink/London Bridge viaduct works it was originally created to shield (as part of the Bankside Merge festival — see link above).

The idea behind the blackboards is brutally direct and straightforward — going to the heart of what motivates people — and reading through the anonymous, public declarations is a fascinating experience for anyone who writes fiction — or wants to understand the human condition in any other way.

As my photographs show, while there was some crass vandalism and pure obscenity chalked up on the board, this was surprisingly hugely outweighed by the clearly genuine sentiments that had stood out through the jumble of over-written messages — and perhaps they were all the more heartfelt from having been scrawled on the way back home after a well lubricated night at a pub or club.

Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1
Before I Die Chalkboard, Union Street, SE1

It’s a well known truism that no-one on their deathbed says they wished they had spent more time in the office, although plenty of people seem to ignore this in their own working lives. (I’m not sure whether to pity or respect people who get all the self-fulfillment they need from corporate life — on the one hand it must be gratifying to be paid to do the thing you most enjoy, but on the other you think they don’t realise the value of all the other things they haven’t experienced — a bit like blissful farm animals.)

Nevertheless, I’ve not spotted any comment on these chalkboard like ‘I want to be promoted’, ‘I want a comfortable pension’ or ‘I’d like the desk near the window’. Maybe if one of these chalkboards was put right outside a corporate HQ then it would be full of such ambitions but, even there, I doubt it.

Most of the comments seem to be on the themes of relationships (or ambitions that might help people improve their relationships) or travel — which are two of the subjects with which a large amount of fiction is concerned. (There’s also a more general theme of ambition and self-fulfillment, which tends to include both the first two categories.)

I’ll point out a few of the comments that particularly amused or intrigued me although you may be able to decipher some of the other comments in the following photos.

Before I Die -- Union Street SE1
Before I Die I Want to Visit Hull

In addition to someone wanting to meet Ed Sheeran (pop stars recurred on the board), fear nothing and stop worrying was the more modest ambition of visiting Hull ‘City of Culture’ (interesting when the board is about quarter of a mile from where the greatest writer in world history wrote his plays).

Before I Die -- Gallery and Italy
Before I Die — Gallery and Italy

This section of the board shows the ‘official art project’ notice linking the board to the Bankside Merge festival and has a nice combination of travel, artistic ambition and romance: ‘I want to live in Italy’, ‘I want to own my own gallery’ and ‘I will make Emma my woman’.

And as well as relationship aspirations there are plenty of messages of pure desire and lust — especially about someone called H Styles.

I Want All Women To Be the Same Size as Taylor Swift
I Want All Women To Be the Same Size as Taylor Swift

I found the message slightly buried in the centre of the photo quite intriguing: ‘I want all women to be the same size as Taylor Swift’ to which someone else has appended ‘but with a brain’.

Before I Die -- Union Street -- I Want to Have More Than Average
Before I Die — Union Street — I Want to Have More Than Average

And perhaps the most honest (and it seems to have some pointed phrasing that makes it particularly heartfelt) is on the left of this photo: ‘I want to have more than average tits!’

It would be interesting for anyone writing a novel to take a few minutes and consider what their characters might write on a blackboard like this — what’s most important to them, what do they really want to achieve, whom do they lust after?

When I took my photos I couldn’t see any chalk available to add my own contribution — and I think I could think of quite a few to scrawl on there — but there’s one ambition I don’t really need to chalk. The whole of this blog is dedicated to it.

A Bit of Sex on the Literary Sofa

I didn’t intend to write this post but I was making a comment on Isabel Costello’s blog On The Literary Sofa and it became so long that I thought it would be an imposition to post on her blog in its entirety – hence it’s mutated into a rather long post of its own on this site instead.

Isabel’s blog posts are thought-provoking and well-researched and long enough to develop an interesting argument, which I like (though not quite as long as some of my posts). The title of On the Literary Sofa’s centenary post published this week is Sex Scenes in Fiction and it’s well worth a few minutes of any literary-minded person’s time — as is the rest of the blog, which has barely mentioned the subject of sex before now. (And I should add that I know Isabel — mainly via Twitter although we’ve met a couple of times. I haven’t hit on her blog at random.) Reading Isabel’s original post may also put my arguments below into context: many of the points are direct responses to quotations or points made On The Literary Sofa. I also revisit some views I’ve previously blogged about myself.

It’s a very balanced piece, asking whether it’s desirable (or even feasible) to effectively write good fiction about sex. It covers positions (and I will resist the temptation to highlight double entendres throughout this post or it will be even longer than it currently stands) from the ‘when the bedroom door closes everything should be left to the imagination’ advocates to those who prefer naturalistic no-holds-barred action with explicit vocabulary to match. However, I absolutely agree with Isabel’s observation that ‘it would be to the detriment of literature if nobody wrote sex scenes’.

I find the term ‘sex scene’ a little troubling when it comes to fiction as it echoes the vocabulary of film and television (or even art). The term scene is always coupled with sex but it’s not often used to describe other passages of fiction. It also suggests the visual – that depictions of sex are about what you see – whereas the power of words extends directly into thoughts, emotions and the other senses.

There’s an argument that writers should self-censor because, as these scenes are difficult to write, there’s a lot of bad writing about sex. This view is perpetuated by the likes of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. I’m sure the Literary Review could find plenty of examples of bad writing about other situations but people wouldn’t find them as amusing, which is probably a symptom of British embarrassment when the subject is discussed in public.

In itself, I can’t believe that sex is an impossible subject to write about. Just because it’s perceived as difficult to get right that’s not an argument to stop trying – more the opposite. If writers retreated from the hidden and potentially uncomfortable then novels would become terribly banal.

Isabel quotes Irish author John Banville on the reason he thinks sex in fiction is so difficult: ‘What people feel they are doing is so discontinuous with what they are actually doing.’

This seems to be a cop out. The differences between a person’s perceptions and the ‘reality’ of what they’re actually doing are a staple of fiction. There are plenty of instances in other fictional situations where feelings are disconnected from actuality – grisly murders, for example.

Discussing Banville, the On The Literary Sofa post argues that  ‘sex, which [is described] as this extraordinary act, is one of the few aspects of life to remain private, even in an age when we are surrounded by sexual imagery and so many are hooked on “sharing”‘.

There’s much truth and insight to this argument. It’s a paradox that a behaviour which (for most of us) is private is referenced so heavily in all varieties of culture. A quick glance at the shelves of W.H. Smith also illustrates an insatiable curiosity (for both sexes) in what other people are doing (‘Am I normal?).

Perhaps another interpretation of Banville’s words is that is that sex is much less likely to be an activity to which the author has been a third-party observer (at least at first hand). Although this point is not limited to sex – any fantasy or historical novelist has never witnessed or experienced their topic – it might be unique in that it’s an activity that is so universally practised, albeit in private. However, this should surely make it a much more compelling subject to write about.

I suspect the argument that sex is too hard to write about is a canard used by authors who are simply shy and embarrassed. There’s no reason why writers should write on subjects they’re uncomfortable with but it’s disingenuous to justify that by asserting that it’s impossible for anyone else to succeed.

I’m sure that much of the reason many writers avoid writing about sex (particularly in creative writing classes where they may have to read it out or discuss it in person) is because of the fear that readers will blur the distinction between writer and character/narrator (i.e. if someone writes about being spanked or having sex in a public place or so on then they feel that readers will somehow snigger away, having inferred it must all be autobiographical).

Why? Anyone reader who automatically conflated the author with the protagonists in other genres would be considered unable to understand the basic principles of fiction (‘it’s made up’). Countless thriller writers come up with depraved ideas, the vast majority of whom aren’t considered sick-minded individuals.

Similarly, some writers say they’d be embarrassed on behalf of their partners/parents/children if their sex scenes entered the public domain. Again, that’s their personal call, but readers won’t assume that this writing is any more autobiographical than anything else in a novel. And it’s most likely, as with less sensitive topics, that a writer’s experience will be used to create composites of characters or plot events. (In the novel I’m writing, the sex scenes are more likely to draw on university experiences than anything more recent).

Published writers , no matter how high profile, seem to deal easily with any prurient questioning – take E.L. James’s frank but hardly salacious comments. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn easily deflected questions in an interview in last weekend’s Sunday Times – stating how happy her own marriage was and that her husband encouraged her to push the boundaries in her writing as far as she felt necessary.

Most creative writing classes and workshops therefore tiptoe around sex scenes at least until participants know each other better (I think the Open University officially cautions against them). But because (rather than in spite) of the difficulty and potential embarrassment I was determined to workshop a sex scene by the end of my City University course. I’m glad I did that as I’m happy to submit my writing about sex to MA tutors, coursemates and anyone else who’ll read it in a mature way (although I sometimes give a polite warning).

Because it was difficult to push myself for the first workshop I’m a fan of the approach that Isabel describes in her blog post about when she attended a creative writing workshop about sex (a Word Factory Masterclass) that was led by literary novelist Michèle Roberts. She asked the writers to ‘asked us to write a sex scene involving something we’d never done. Cue nervous laughter. Twenty minutes later we were listening to some engaging and hilarious stories about threesomes, dogging and a decadent practice someone had just dreamed up.’

It’s an ingenious approach – deliberately avoiding any autobiographical speculation by instructing writers specifically not to use direct experience. It puts everyone in the same position and it sounds like it was very funny. Sex can be a tremendous source of humour in real life but intentionally amusing sex scenes are arguably relatively rare in fiction. Not all funny sex has to be bad sex either.  Good humorous writing about sex – as with any subject – means laughing with the characters and the writing, rather than at it.

I suspect there’s also a similar issue with readers. One’s private reaction to an erotic scene in a novel might be much more awkward to admit to others than pretending it’s hilariously funny or marginalising its importance — the reaction ‘less is more’ seems to be useful code for saying ‘Of course I’m not a prude but I’d rather die than admit I got sexually aroused’.

It seems to be motivated from the same discomfort that inspires the Bad Sex Awards – the notion that there’s writing about sex can be classified into either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m sure there are many occasions when less detail is preferable but it shouldn’t be misapplied into a general rule that says all such writing should be brief. In some contexts whole chapters in the bedroom could be necessary or appropriate.

(As an aside, I usually find ‘less is more’ to be a particularly unhelpful comment if used generally in feedback. Without pointing out which of the ‘more’ should be discarded and which of the ‘less’ should be retained, it’s really a cryptic way of saying ‘be more concise’, which is a principle that all writers should use anyway. It’s similar to another bête noire of mine – ‘murder your darlings’. Some misguided people interpret this as advising all writers to delete any writing that they think is good – one of the stupidest pieces of advice ever. What it should mean is ‘don’t be self-indulgent’ but even that apparently sound advice is difficult to apply – one reader’s self-indulgence is another’s literary masterpiece.)

It’s good that someone who writes a popular literary blog that, as is pointed out in the post has hardly mentioned the subject in past, is brave enough to avoid the easy route of trivialising and ridiculing of writing about sex.

It’s not being depraved or perverted or unusual to be aroused (mentally or physically) by well-written writing — it touches what it is to be human and good writing can also evoke physical reactions in other ways — raising heartbeat with suspense stories and so on.

Anyone reading this far might think my novel is stuffed with sex scenes. It’s not — but it’s a modern novel with a male-female relationship at its core and the attraction between the characters is key to driving the plot.

As it stands, the first sex scene is well over a third into the novel and there’s probably no more than half a dozen in total and the narrative is only in flagrante delicto two or three times. It’s much more likely that the writing sets the scene or explores the consequences, particularly through dialogue.

Using all the feedback patiently offered me by my coursemates and writing friends, I’ve worked out the parameters that I feel I’m comfortable with and competent in writing. I find there’s a problem with diction — it’s difficult to tread the line between medical terminology and euphemism (or the overblown imagery that earns a Bad Sex Award).

While words like cock seem to do the job (so to speak) for the male anatomy there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory word for the female equivalent.  (I get puzzled when some writers substitute the abstract noun ‘sex’ for the concrete – as in ‘he touched her sex’.) But words like ‘pussy’ seem either too American-porno (or Mrs Slocombe) and the c word sets off a debate that would take another blog post to discuss.

Similarly with the actual act of sexual intercourse itself — there’s a limit to how much language can enhance the mechanics. But while most sex could be represented as a basic biological transaction, its immediate context could reveal much about the relationship between characters. For example, even in relatively ‘vanilla’ sex, characters might use more anonymising positions in which they don’t see each other’s faces.

While there might be limits to the variety of description of sex itself, assuming the novel or story isn’t purely for titillation, there’s a huge role for fiction to illuminate its anticipation, desires and consequences.

If it’s true to life, it should reflect that it’s part of the human condition to understand that we’re not always motivated by rational, intellectual choices.  I’m fascinated by the subconscious, subliminal, instinctive, inexplicable desires that are drivers of our behaviour.  And these are universal. While it might be more socially conventional for men to be portrayed as being more driven by sex, it would be an unfortunate (and perhaps incompetent) man who’d never experienced in private the formidably pleasurable force of female sexual desire.

Sometimes we do things we know are wrong and may have catastrophic consequences that are purely based on physical impulses that might come from dark places we don’t understand. That’s surely an incredibly fruitful subject for fiction.

And cultural values change as I was reminded when I visited the Pompeii and Hurculaneum exhibition at the British Museum at the weekend. The Romans would be puzzled that we were having this debate at all. They thought nothing of murals of people having sex or ubiquitous representations of phalluses (wind chimes were a favourite!). And the statue of what Pan was doing with the goat probably was beyond the imaginations of anyone at Isabel’s Word Factory Masterclass.

Beaten To It?

…but hopefully not with a paddle. I spotted this in W.H.Smith at Northampton services on the M1 last weekend.

Angel -- Beaten To It?
Maybe Not the Shelf for Mine?

I’d realised my novel’s title is a bit of a hostage to fortune. I like it because it works in conjunction with the content of the novel in several different ways — and I like the definite article usage that’s so associated with pub names. But it obviously has many associations that aren’t lost on the publishers of erotica and similar. Therefore I wasn’t too surprised to see one of the heavily promoted titles in the erotica section in the motorway services used the same title — it’s one of the Mills and Boon Spice series. Interestingly, this is the only The Angel I could find on Amazon, although there are loads of Angel and Angels out there — Marian Keyes used the title and Katie Price has ‘written’ one too. As I’m so familiar with this title, I don’t know what I’d think if an agent or publisher wanted me to change it.

Book titles are a bit like song titles — there aren’t enough original ones to go round. At least mine wouldn’t sit on the same section of the bookshelves — barring a commercially focused rewrite and a foxy sounding pen name. Although the novel doesn’t shy away from the characters’ sexual lives, I think anyone looking for a bit of mass-market sado-masochism will be disappointed. Currently there’s no sex until almost half way through — but, of course, that may yet change.

Speaking of sex scenes in novels, I’ve been ‘enjoying’ excerpts from the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards (see previous post).  Now the shortlist is out, short 140-character bursts have been tweeted using the hashtag #LRBadSex2012.

I’ve had a few Twitter conversations with whoever tweets as @Lit_Review about some of this year’s incredible bunch of finalists — and they’re from largely well-known writers (one of the authors, Nicola Barker, wrote a set text for last year’s MMU second year MA course).

It’s not the flowery, purply-prose passages that I find particularly funny — sometimes you can see what the writer is trying to aim for — but the ones which are the opposite of lyrical. For example: ‘He ejaculates voluminously and with very great force indeed. In fact, he keeps on ejaculating, there’s loads of the stuff’, ‘he began to massage her with a kind of dry pumping action, which reminded her of someone blowing up a lilo’ or, my favourite, ‘his penis was jerking around wildly in her hand now and she began yelping to encourage his flow of thought’. The Literary Review doesn’t officially identify the authors of the tweets but let’s say my flow of thought is never going to be quite the same again when I’m watching a report on the nation’s stagnant GDP on Newsnight.

As an aside, and nothing to do with bad sex or erotica, I went to the Made In Germany exhibition in Shoreditch on Thursday — a show by six young or emerging German artists. I’d unreservedly recommend anyone else to visit — except that it finished last Friday (another show with different artists is probably planned). I particularly liked the young people nightlife pieces by Nadine Wölk (the only solo female artist) and the odd landscapes by duo Mike MacKeldey & Ellen DeElaine (possibly the same sort of landscapes Kim might paint).

Made in Germany Logo
Made in Germany Exhibition Logo (from German Embassy website)

I chatted with the representative from the German gallery who’d organised the show — and told him about my novel. Although I think he’d rather I wanted to buy one of the pictures, he told me a fair amount about how German artists trained and where they tended to live and work (mostly Berlin, as I’d imagined). Kim’s backstory in the novel is fortunately quite plausible — she trained at the Universität der Künste. And it would be quite feasible that she’d come to London, although as the chap from the gallery said he though that Shoreditch High Street was starting to look like Kensington, that she’d find it hard going financially.

On another tangential note, I listened to Dustin Hoffman on Desert Island Discs this morning and the section where he talked about being a young, unknown actor, trying to get parts at auditions was fascinating. His life at that time was all about coping with almost continual rejection.

He still seems to feel the pain in some ways and made a very telling point about how people in the acting industry judge talent. It’s his view that the worst actors often got hired, mentioning that his friend Gene Hackman, also then unknown, was such a good, naturalistic actor that it didn’t look like he was acting when he auditioned — which is what directors at that time wanted to see.

It’s Hoffman’s theory that casting directors are terrified of making a mistake and this leads them into usually preferring someone who’s derivative — who reminds them of a known quantity. Because of this, the original talents are often overlooked.

His story sounds reminiscent of the struggle for recognition of many writers — and how it’s easier to market work that fits a known niche. The photo above of all the Fifty Shades derivatives on the shelves at Northampton services makes the point. Twelve Shades of Submission even re-uses the s word in addition to the ‘number of [insert your kink here]’ formula.

But Dustin Hoffman is a salutary example of persistence. He kept on auditioning, got his break and he’s now received the ultimate honour even in this country — Desert Island Discs.

Know What You Write

I’ve recently been writing a new scene for the novel involving street art. As readers of the blog will know, I’ve spent plenty of time recently learning about street art and observing it around Shoreditch (on Thursday this week I was looking at some recent street art in the car park opposite Village Underground, under the new Overground viaduct, with Jamie and Sabina from I Know What I Like).

What I didn’t know that much about was how the artists actually created their work — I’d seen artists at work, like Amanda Marie (see previous posting) but I wasn’t aware of basic information like where they got their materials, how much they cost and the fundamental experience of what it was like to press your finger on the nozzle of a spraycan and to try and do something creative, especially in an outdoor environment and possibly looking over your shoulder to avoid being arrested.

So I decided to try for myself. Last weekend I became ‘macnovel’ the street artist.

The New Tag on the Block
The New Tag on the Block

First of all, I had to buy the paint — and I wanted the proper stuff that serious artists use, not Halford’s car bodywork cans. An online search produced plenty of websites that would supply aerosol paint cans for delivery but I couldn’t find many bricks and mortar outlets, even in central London.  The best place I could find was Chrome and Black on Bethnal Green Road in Shoreditch, located, perhaps not coincidentally, just round the corner from Redchurch Street.

Montana Gold
My Montana Gold Cans Ready for Action

Chrome and Black is a supplier (I’d hesitate to call it a shop) dedicated to graffiti and street art. It reminded me vaguely of one of those old Swedish government owned liquor stores or the hardware shop in the famous Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch, as all the merchandise was locked away behind metal screens or glass cases — and the spraycans and markers came in a bewildering variety of colours. It’s not the sort of place where customers go to casually browse.

Dressed for work and carrying my Evening Standard, there was no way I was going to pretend I was some kind of cool graffiti artist (although from what I overheard I think there may have been a genuine street artist ‘name’ in the place at the time). So I asked the bloke behind the counter for something I could play around and experiment with. He recommended me the Montana Gold range and I took a red and black can of each (they were about £3.99 each, by the way).

Having a couple of cans of graffiti paint stuffed in my work rucksack made the journey back on Chiltern Railways feel faintly subversive. I’d guess a fair number of my fellow passengers would like to bring back hanging for anyone caught in possession of spraycans.

The First Attempt -- Signed Too
The First Attempt — Signed Too

I had the cans but where the hell was I going to use them? Even if I was inclined to do my experimentation in public places there are hardly the post-industrial walls of Brick Lane near where I live. The most readily available blank canvasses would probably be sheep in the fields.

But I remembered the materials used by Adam Neate when he was unknown — he’s now one of the world’s most famous street artists. (The story goes, which is a little romanticised, that he literally left his works in the street for anyone to keep who found them.)

Neate painted his early work — and still sometimes does — on cardboard. He’s now an exceptionally collectible artist which is ironic as the base material for his work is potentially the potentially the contents of a typical recycling bin (he got his cardboard from charity shops I believe). His spray painting has an effect almost like alchemy on this otherwise base material, transforming it into something that art collectors will pay tens of thousands of pounds for.

Having a backlog of cardboard waiting to go to the tip, I decided to use it as my artist’s medium – as it happens, mainly packaging from a John Lewis fold-up bed. But I didn’t want to be ‘just’ an aerosol artist. I wanted to have a go at stencilling too. So I found what I thought was suitable — a thin piece of Amazon card packaging — and cut out a few shapes  with a Stanley knife.

Cans, Stencil and Finished 'Artwork'
Cans, Stencil and Finished ‘Artwork’

I went out into the garden with a willing helper, my spraycans, stencils and cardboard and had a go. And some of my efforts can be seen in the photos here.

Any thoughts on the artwork? I’m actually quite attached to it. I thought I’d throw it away instantly but I’ve hung on to it as I quite like it. Anyone who reads my manuscript will be able to spot exactly which part of the novel I was writing at the time by the stencilling I’ve attempted to do in the picture below.

Can You Guess What It Is Yet?
Can You Guess What It Is Yet?

Clearly they’re just practice efforts but I really enjoyed it –and it was valuable for the writing. There are aspects of the experience that can’t be imagined that easily — or gleaned from a Google search — like the way it’s easy to over-apply the paint so that it starts to dribble and the way the paint coats your fingers. And then there’s the smell — it reeks of solvent. My novel’s graffiti painting scene takes place in an enclosed space and there’s no way that, having had a go at this myself, I could write the piece in the novel without mentioning the smell.

Becoming a temporary street artist might be the most extreme example of how I may have become a ‘method writer’. I don’t know whether there is such a thing but, if there is, I’d imagine it to be a little like the method school of acting which, to simplify greatly, means the actor prepares for the performance by trying to experience the world of the character.

According to the Lee Strasberg Institute website (he’s credited with inventing the technique) it uses ‘the creative play of the affective memory in the actor’s imagination’ to  ‘[create] performances grounded in the human truth of the moment’ — which I take to mean the actor tries to do the same stuff as the character — so these may be drawn upon in performance. So if the character is a dustman, perhaps the actor goes out on a dustcart a few mornings. I’m not sure how it works if a character is something like a serial killer, though.

A Studio Too Messy Even to be in My Novel
A Studio Too Messy Even to be in My Novel

Even so, method acting reinforces Aristotle’s belief that ‘the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself’ — and this must also be true with writing. If the writer doesn’t care about a character, why should the reader? If the writer wants a scene to evoke emotions that create physical reactions in the reader, maybe of danger, peril, grief, anticipation or anger in the reader, then these ought to be more vivid or genuine if the writer also experienced these feelings at the time of putting the words on the page.

The same must also be true for the physical reactions triggered by effective sex scenes. If you’re writing about two characters who are so attracted to each other then it must be a mark of effective writing to engender a sympathetic reaction in the reader — which is probably why they’re so difficult to write that many writers avoid them altogether.  And if they’re difficult to write then it’s a step further to workshop the stuff with your writing course friends, although that’s a pretty good deterrent against going too far along the path of purple prose.

I suspect most of the candidates for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards, due to be announced fairly soon, ended up on the list by obfuscating the fundamental, but discomforting, truths of writing about sex behind over-elaborate prose or strained metaphors.

My MMU Creative Writing tutor last year had the good grace to admit to our class that he won this dubious prize for a passage in novel of his in the 1990s, which used a sewing machine analogy. I have actually read the passage in question and I don’t think it’s particularly cringeworthy, more taken out of context. He must have been unlucky — or lucky, if you think that sort of publicity is the good sort.

Sadly, my method writing hasn’t involved sex and sewing machines but the experience of writing the novel has influenced my life in plenty of other ways. Ironically I’m finding the normal advice of ‘write what you know’ could be better phrased in my case, as ‘know what you write’.

The novel’s themes include business, food and pubs (of which I have a fair amount of practical experience, particularly of the latter) and also art, which is something I’ve learned a lot about while writing the novel. As well as a number of viewings I’ve been to with I Know What I Like, I’ve also taken advantage of working in London to visit many of the high profile art exhibitions and events this summer.

Most recently, I’ve been to see the Turner Prize show and the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain, Richard Hamilton and the Titian exhibition at the National, British Design at the V&A, the Bauhaus Exhibition (and another I can’t remember) at the Barbican, Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, the Invisible Art show at the Hayward Gallery, the Lazaridis Bedlam exhibition at the Old Vic Tunnels (used as MI6’s bunker in Skyfall), the Moniker Art Fair at Village Underground and various others.

I doubt I’d have gone to a single event had I not started writing the novel — although going to so many events reduces the time I have available to complete the novel. I sometimes beat myself up about this but, on the other hand, I started writing the novel when working in the cultural wasteland that was an office park on the wrong side of Luton Airport, where the most exciting way of spending a lunchtime was to browse the aisles of the local Asda (although it’s an ambition of mine to write a novel that’s successful and mainstream enough to be put on the shelves there).

But binging on art and cultural events begs the fascinating question of which came first — did I start to write a novel about an artist because I wanted to discover more about art — or is it purely secondary?

That's Adam Neate's Hand Ready to Sign Posters
That’s Adam Neate’s Hand Ready to Sign Posters

And then there’s the access I’ve had to artists via the brilliant Love Art London — about whom I’ve blogged before. How did I know that Adam Neate painted on cardboard? Because I heard him tell me himself at the Love Art London viewing of his show at Elms Lester’s Painting Rooms in St. Giles. I asked the gallery owner how much Adam Neate’s work was priced (as there were no figures on display next to the works on display). I was told they were in the region of £25-30k per piece (and one of his works was recently sold for £80k at auction). The bloke seriously thought I might buy one. Well, maybe, but probably only if this novel gets to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list one day.

When the artist is able to sell work to serious collectors for so much money, it’s great credit to both Adam Neate and Love Art London that he attended our viewing to talk about the work — and even more impressive that he came to the pub with us afterwards — the appropriately named Angel.

Adam Neate was an incredibly nice, modest bloke — and I know because I ended up chatting to him for about fifteen minutes — even bought him a pint of Sam Smith’s. We talked about Berlin, as he was going there the next day for a weekend break. I told him a bit about the novel — as Berlin is where Kim was trained in the novel — and I’d guess that Berlin and London are the two main centres of urban art, certainly in Europe.

Not a bad journey in terms of method writing — starting by conceiving a character who’s a street artist, then trying to have a practical go at what she does and then talking about the fictional character with someone who’s achieved in reality what my character is striving for in the novel.

The Huge Studio for Scenery Painting at Elms Lester Painting Rooms
The Huge Studio for Scenery Painting at Elms Lester Painting Rooms

I could have spent the time revising the novel rather than going out and validating my portrayal of the artist. Instead I might have a finished novel by now but would it be genuine and informed enough to move readers, particularly those who are interested in art?

It’s worth making a note about the fascinating space at Elms Lesters. The gallery was originally built for huge scale painting for West End theatres. It still has an incredible space about forty feet high and much less wide that was constructed for painting theatrical backdrops — and is now used for filming things like music videos as much as for anything else. It’s quite an extraordinary building.

Apologies to Tamara Watts

The user name below, found on an office ‘multi-function device’ (i.e. printer), appealed to my puerile streak.

Office Print Jobs
Are You Sure About Allocating That User Name?

I guess I shouldn’t laugh — maybe Mr Timothy or Ms Tamara Watts has had to deal with such sniggering throughout their lives — although the way computer user names are constructed to an unbending formula might prevent subtle ways of avoiding the construction. At least there’s a bit of ambiguity in the plural, I guess it’s even worse for someone with the surname Watt.

That particular piece of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary intrigues me as I was once pulled-up by an Open University Creative Writing student for using it in a screenplay writing assignment (and I suspect she deducted marks from the assignment in question). The objection wasn’t to the word itself — it was because I’d dared to put it in the mouth of a female character (in fact a prototype Kim).

She actually said that something along the lines of ‘a woman would never say that word’. (It might be an unwelcome consequence of feminism that many women — and I do think this is far more true of women than it is of men — seem to feel qualified to make sweeping statements on behalf of their whole gender group. It brings to mind Harriet Harman’s periodically facile assertions about women running organisations more effectively and compassionately — and in the next breath she denounces the uncaring destruction wreaked on the country by Margaret Thatcher.)

Every other woman who read that use of the word had no problem at all with it — so I don’t think it’s a gender issue — more of a generational one. Female baby-boomers, especially middle-class ones, have probably been conditioned by parents and peer-pressure not to swear in company but this doesn’t hold true for Generation X and Y — and especially not the generation who come after Y — whatever they’re called. (I’m a Generation Xer, by the way.)

‘The Angel’s’ characters straddle the boundary period between Generation X and Generation Y. (I’m using the most common definitions, according to Wikipedia, of X starting in 1964 and Y starting in 1982.) James and Emma are the tail end of the Xers, while Kim’s an early Y…and to some extent James will look at Kim as an example of a new, exciting generation (even though she’s not much younger).

But both the female Xs and Ys will swear a lot (I’m also going to have a woman Baby Boomer character too, who won’t). In fact the dialogue in the novel is so full of swearing that it breaks one of the cardinal Rules of Creative Writing that you tend to find in books — readers don’t like reading lots of profanities.

I’m not really sure about this rule on a couple of counts.

  1. I can see dialogue in which every other word is effing and blinding will be tedious but some of the most captivating speakers I’ve listened to in real life use frequent swearing in an expertly oratorical way — to contribute to the rhythm of a phrase or for comic timing — think of some of the most popular stand-up comedians.
  2. As with their reactions to sexual content, or something similarly taboo, what people say they think about a book/film/play/artwork is not necessarily what they think privately about it. I’ve blogged before about this issue might prevent honest discussion of a piece of writing in a workshopping situation — where it’s human nature for participants to use their feedback to reveal or conceal aspects of their own characters or experiences to the other participants.
  3. The advice might be sound in that it points out the costs of alienating a significant portion of a writer’s potential readership. However, if you worry too much about offending people as you’re writing then you may end up with a story as inoffensive, uninteresting and utterly bland as if it had been written by a focus group.
Mind you, having expounded about how my professional and arty middle-class characters indulge in the joy of swearing, I’ve realised that I didn’t hear a single profanity (aside from a few ribald songs) in a location that I visited today (see photo below) that, perhaps 20, 30 or 40 years ago, would have been a bastion of male working-class culture — and which is now going-on for half female and with a very cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities (I particularly liked the personalised ‘Van Der Singh’ shirt I saw someone wearing).
Old Trafford
Old Trafford Half an Hour Before Kick Off
I’m currently writing James and Kim’s initial restaurant conversation chapter and she teases him by suggesting everything about him says he’s an Arsenal fan.
Inside 'The Theatre of Dreams' (And No Swearing)

So Man Utd 2 Norwich 0 is my excuse for not getting that much writing done today.

What Happens in Vegas…

…ends up in my novel. This may be something of a surprise seeing as most of it is set in an English country pub which, apart from the copious amounts of booze drunk, is probably one of the places least like Las Vegas in the world.

However, as has happened throughout the writing of this novel, what I’ve ended up doing in real life tends to have muscled its way into the narrative. The problem is that I’m taking so long to write the thing that the danger is that the plot I started out with will be crowded out with bizarre and incidental links to what else I was up to over the two years that it will have taken to finish (I have to be optimistic that it will be completed by Christmas — well, first draft, maybe?).

I’d like to say that the horribly long period between this post (written on a slow, stopping Chiltern Railways train in the dark) and the last (completed on a balcony in Santa Barbara overlooking the Pacific) was due to many words being committed to Microsoft Word but the time has mainly been spent enjoying the rest of the holiday (of which more later), getting back to work with the commute made more grinding by Chiltern Railways’ horrible new timetable – improved only for people north of Leamington Spa it seems – and doing all the tedious stuff that normally arrives in September.

But, as mentioned in my comments on the last post in response to Bren Gosling’s enquiries, I’ve come up with a whole load of new ideas for the novel. Some are wholly extraneous, irrelevant and (quite possibly) completely gratuitous but others serve to provide some missing context and backstory and to provide a bit of extra complexity to some characters.

And so to Las Vegas. This was the last stop on the holiday and I’m probably one of the last of my friends to have visited the place.

We arrived by car from Arizona and the Grand Canyon and, as I got the first view from the freeway about 10 miles away, I was quite prepared to dislike the peculiar cluster of high-rise buildings on the Strip, completely out of scale with the low-rise sprawl beneath.

Through a combination of special offers and me haggling at the reception desk for a pair of rooms with a connecting door, we ended up with a suite and adjoining king size room on the 39th floor of the brand new Cosmopolitan hotel. The combined floor space was probably bigger than my house. Whereas the view from my house is of green fields and the rolling hills of the Chilterns behind, the view from the three (!) balconies we had in Las Vegas was of the Eiffel Tower (at the Paris casino), Caesar’s Palace, the Flamingo, a glimpse of the campanile tower at the Venetian and the amazing Bellagio fountains. We were too high up to hear the music (maybe a blessing) but the synchronised show was a spectacle nevertheless.

Vegas at Nightfall
Nightfall on the Strip, Las Vegas

As well as being very well appointed and luxurious, the hotel room had some unexpected bonuses – a washing machine and tumble dryer were very useful for people who’d been living out of suitcases for two weeks. So rather than a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket and some caviar blinis, room service delivered us a free packet of washing powder!

This was all very serendipitous research for the novel. As some of my ex-City friends might remember a piece I workshopped with Alison last autumn where Kim and James end up in a penthouse suite in a luxury hotel in London. If anything, the Cosmopolitan was larger and better appointed than the almost surreally sumptuous suite I imagined my characters stumbling into — it even had several plasma screens that controlled the music, lights, door locks and so on as well as being TVs.

I walked around photographing the suite and then also video recording it to keep for research (even the three toilets).

I’ll resist the temptation to make art follow life too slavishly and avoid writing into my novel a scene where Kim makes use of the facilities and puts her smalls in for an overnight wash and dry cycle (although, at that point in the story, she’s not changed for 36 hours so she probably ought to).

The Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas

Another Las Vegas experience that may make its presence felt in the novel is the Beatles/Cirque du Soleil Love show at the Mirage. This is something I’d wanted to see since its inception about six years ago but never really thought I would – bar a transfer to the UK. Some of the remixes in the soundtrack album ‘blew my mind’ (to paraphrase one of the songs featured) when I first heard them.

It was a superb show but, being along time worshipper of the Beatles music, I was most interested in the surround sound – having Paul McCartney’s harmonies on Come Together come out from speakers behind your ears is a memorable experience.

The Beatles have some very strong German connections: John Lennon is often quoted as saying ‘I was born in Liverpool but I grew up in Hamburg’. This German influence on the outlook of one of the best-known Englishmen and shapers of popular culture in the 20th century won’t be lost on Kim – who’s a devout Anglophile but also has the patriotic fervour of the ex-pat.

Caesar's Palace
Caesar's Palace on the Strip, Las Vegas

Las Vegas – or the Las Vegas of the Strip – is such a ridiculously OTT monument to artifice that, a little like my reaction to Disneyland, the place couldn’t be viewed ironically – it ridiculed itself. I was awed by the scale and audacity of the place – a pyramid, a recreation of the New York skyline, a casino with an erupting volcano outside it and, perhaps most bizarrely, a monorail system of all things.

New York, Las Vegas
New York, Las Vegas

The whole place is a fiction – an attempt to paint audacious, and convincing, narratives to disguise the low-level, slot-machine routine gambling that provides the casinos with the cashflow that is the life-blood of the city.

But, ironically, it’s a fiction that isn’t executed in a tacky way. A lot of money is spent on exactly sourcing the right sort of materials to create a pyramid or the Manhattan skyline or similar.

Kim would know that one of the key figures behind much of the extravagant architecture on the Strip is Steve Wynn, who’s used his fortune to buy a lot of valuable modern art (though one of his acquisitions lost much of its value when he put his elbow through the canvas).

The all-you-can-eat buffets in the hotels also emphasise how Las Vegas is built on human fallibilities – greed being one, but also (obviously) gambling and  sex is suffused throughout the city. It never seemed to be far from the surface in Las Vegas – whether the organised touts on the Strip with their ‘Girls To Your Room in 20 Minutes’ T-Shirts (incredibly I saw someone wearing one of these as a souvenir at the airport), the risqué shows (including one Cirque du Soleil one) or the general atmosphere of a perpetual stag or hen party – thronged with gangs of hardly-clothed young people, although no-one is going to be comfortable completely covering up in the 40C temperatures we experienced.

It’s no wonder, despite the Strip’s relatively recent transformation in the 1990s, that Las Vegas has come to occupy its own niche in the pantheon of popular culture — many novels and films mine use it as a shorthand to access fallibility and excess.

But despite the hedonism, there’s also an appreciation of real beauty and culture – as in the opulent setting of the Venetian with its ‘real’ gondolas — its artifice is a step up from the fibreglass reconstructions in theme parks. The first time I walked into the recreation of St. Mark’s Square I gasped at the incredibly lifelike blue sky. It’s such a ridiculous conceit to reconstruct a water-bound jewel of the Renaissance in an American desert that it’s completely seductive — and you’re soon on the water being serenaded past Dolce and Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. I can see how Emma would fall in love with this place in a second.

Gondoliers in Vegas
Gondoliers in Vegas

It’s a fiction writers’ dream – a fantastical place that is motivated by, and appeals to, all the human desires that are normally kept hidden by the inhibitions of  society. I was so fascinated by the place I bought a couple of books when I got back on the development and history of the Strip — and I’m fascinated by the psychology of manipulation that is used in casino design.

It’s almost a cliche that there are no clocks or windows in casinos (although there are big windows at the new Cosmopolitan) but there are many other subtle triggers that are used to manipulate customers’ behaviour (perhaps no more than in a supermarket but it’s better to end up with too many buy-one-get-one-frees than to have your bank account cleared out). There must certainly be parallels with fiction writing and narrative.

So, despite, or perhaps because, my novel is largely set in such a supposedly staid and traditional place, some of the characters will be seduced by the idea of Las Vegas – it would be the sort of destination that both James and Emma would visit on their own stag/hen dos and probably go out for a long weekend in the winter.

And if anyone goes on holiday to Las Vegas during the course of my novel then you know that something interesting is going to happen — and what happens in Vegas isn’t necessarily going to stay there.

Behind Closed Doors

In W.H.Smiths in Marylebone Station I recently spotted a new novel by Lucy Kellaway, the FT’s management correspondent, whose debunking of management theory codswallop is always entertaining. Her last novel ‘Martin Lukes: Who Moved My Blackberry’ was my holiday reading a few years ago (if you don’t understand the joke in the title then you’re happily innocent of one of the more ludicrous management bestsellers of the past few years).

However, it was in the ‘Buy 1 Get 1 Half Price’ offer and, of course, the fallibility of my mind to marketing psychology meant I scanned around for the ‘bargain’ book to accompany ”In Office Hours‘ and succumbed to the temptation of a book I’d seen partially serialised in The Times a few weeks ago: ‘The Sex Diaries Project’ edited by Arianne Cohen.

(Curiously, this book has a relatively high sales ranking on Amazon and is number one in its niche category in the health, family and lifestyle section but no-one has posted a review so far — which is odd.)

The book is formed of around fifty diaries kept by British people in which the diarists recorded their sexual activities and thoughts — although most diaries spend more time reflecting on relationships than recording the mechanics of sex. Perhaps calling the book ‘The Relationships Diaries Project’ would have been less commercial but a third of the diarists record no sex at all (for various reasons) during their week. The diaries aren’t, of course, a representative survey of the population — there are probably a few too many ‘unusual’ diaries for that — but there’s a very varied spread of gender, age and sexual orientation.

It’s not particularly salacious or erotic — it’s tame enough to have been discussed on ‘Woman’s Hour’ on Radio 4 — I found an interview with Arianne Cohen on the BBC website. (It was quite amusing to hear Jenni Murray finely navigate the line between being over-euphemistic and speaking too frankly.)

I’d argue (honestly!) that this book is a very valuable resource for anyone writing a novel which emphasises the development of any intimate relationship between its characters. These are frank accounts of behaviour between real people written in the language they genuinely use. Almost by definition these activities are private — they’re not the kind of things a novelist can sit and wryly observe from a coffee shop. The diaries are published anonymously (although Cohen does a lot of checking to ensure they are not hoaxes) and, like diaries of the more conventional sort, the writers commit to paper much that they would never speak out loud to anyone else.

One assertion that Arianne Cohen makes in the interview, which is re-assuring to writers but also perhaps surprising given the tone of much of the debate on gender, is she believes that the male and female diarists ‘experience relationships in a very similar way’ and in terms of ‘minute-by-minute thoughts men and women are quite similar’.

Where the difference lies is that men express this experience somewhat differently — usually in a more explicitly sexual way. However, the female diarists are certainly just as capable of commenting explicitly on the sexual attractiveness of others. Maybe to emphasise the point, the gender of each diarist is printed in very small type. It’s sometimes easy to forget whether it’s a man or woman writing the diary.

Jenni Murray said she detected an undercurrent of misogyny in some of the male entries and Arianne Cohen agreed that around 15% of the male diaries showed a disturbing objectification of women. This might be summed up by the serial adulterer who also visited a prostitute almost every week and who seemed to believe his attitude to women was shared by most men. (It isn’t.)

On the other hand, it’s misleading and self-deluding to assume (as was possibly implied in the Woman’s Hour discussion) that infidelity is automatically linked to misogyny. In anything but the shortest flings, there are usually two people involved in the deception — in the case of (straight) male  infidelity it’s the despised ‘other woman’.  While the man may indeed be objectifying and using both women in a shallow way, it’s also equally true that his actions may be driven by passion and emotion — not a dislike of women at all.

This leads to the question of whether women can easily be categorised, as maybe they are in soap operas,  into the likes of predatory husband-snatchers or faithful home-makers. I’d guess it’s not so simple and there’s a continuum of behaviour that suggests, depending on circumstances and many other factors, that the majority of people could end up being either the ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ party in an episode of unfaithfulness.  I hope so as this is one of the main dilemmas for the characters in my novel.

The honesty and accuracy of the diary entries is perhaps vouched for by the frequency of the occasions where the diarists record masturbation. There really isn’t much kudos to be gained by an individual to record that they’ve masturbated — the nature of the activity itself means that anyone can do it and independently of any relationship. That people masturbate such a lot might be simultaneously the most enlightening and least surprising finding in the whole book — precisely because it’s an activity that is very rarely discussed or written about and only often in abstract, de-personalised, self-help terms.

But it’s the near ubiquity of the activity which is quite striking: it’s recorded at a similar sort of intensity by men and women, people who are single or in relationships, young or old (although not the very oldest). There are a couple of oddly touching anecdotes on the subject — one the man in his 60s who is unhappily resigned to the physiological challenges involved at his age and the pregnant woman who debates whether her unborn baby is technically a witness — and, if so, what does this mean ethically (she decides it’s OK).

The last point also stresses the privacy (usually) required. If the diarist is in a relationship, almost every incidence of what  is euphemistically called ‘self-love’ is kept hidden: people are aware that their partners probably do masturbate but the where and the when aren’t really considered, apart from one particular entry that stood out as the exception that proved the rule. (I was startled to read of some of the diarists nipping away from their work desks for the purpose.)

This revelation of the inevitable must be interesting to fiction writers — this is something your characters are pretty likely to do and it may reveal something of their inner-lives, unlike involuntary bodily functions that everyone does but don’t normally appear in novels. On the other hand, a solitary act of (another euphemism coming up — no pun intended) self-relief is almost, by definition, lacking in the drama that occurs when a sexual act is part of a relationship. I can see why masturbation is not a common event in fiction but the candour with which these diarists record it makes me wonder whether writers tend to shying away from using a fairly universal experience.

If every aspect of the book that’s fascinating to writers was discussed in detail  then this would be an even longer post than it already is (and I think it’s already the longest one on the blog — more of an essay than a posting). There follows a list of a few points that were particularly thought-provoking. Some are seemingly obvious and intuitive but that may lend credibility to the implication that the more apparently deviant attitudes are more common than might be generally supposed. Again, there’s no science to this list — it’s what struck me while reading the selection of  diaries.

  1. Ex-lovers feature a lot — both in people’s thoughts and in physical encounters. Many, many diarists long for a previous partner — and sadly many of these people are in other relationships with people they prefer less. This is often in spite (or because) of a recognition that any lasting relationship with that person is emotionally impossible (such as the newly-divorced woman pining for her ex-husband). Many report that sexual encounters with ex-partners continued on a sporadic basis long after the relationship finished. The ability to impulsively hook up with an ex has become much easier with new technology: mobile phone ‘sexting’ is another example of the greater intimacy and audacity people use with the written word. (I’m convinced that people tend to favour texting due to its privacy and asynchronous nature. There are a number of examples of where the utter simplicity of a text saying something like ‘Come over — I want to fuck you’ works very effectively for all parties and this brevity and directness is a lesson to writers.) The internet is another obvious tool (and Facebook is mentioned a lot in the book) for ex-partners to keep in casual contact. People tend not to talk about exes to their current partner — so again this is good, private, fertile ground for the writer.
  2. Many of the straight women describe an aspiration for sexual experimentation with another woman. This seems to be borne out of inquisitiveness and curiosity about whether this would be a different, maybe more sympathetic, sort of sensual experience than with a man. This was often acknowledged to be something that would remain in the realm of private fantasy although some expressed regret at having lost the opportunity to try it.  Straight male diarists seemed to have no interest in other men (except perhaps as an unavoidable consequence of group sex).
  3. When the respondents were interested in sex then there was little gender difference in the levels of desire recorded. However, it seemed in committed relationships that men were more likely view other people in terms of sexual attraction. Women, by contrast, tended to comment on others mainly when they were dissatisfied with their current partner.
  4. Traditional (or even stereotypical) roles seem to be preferred. To use a parallel from the dancing world (is it just tango?): it’s expected that the man takes the lead. This shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a green light for blatant sexism. It’s not — women want caring relationships with people who pull their weight domestically. However, effete ‘metrosexuals’ aren’t popular (there are various approving references to men behaving ‘like men’). Passive, indecisive, wimpy men appear to be held in almost universal contempt. (One woman complains she always ends up with docile partners which means that she ‘always seems to be the man’ in relationships.)
  5. Self-esteem is very closely linked to behaviour in relationships — sometimes directly when a person is suspicious of anyone treating him or her well because they don’t feel they have earned it or deserve it and sometimes people enjoy an inversion of status and control during which all their choice and self-determination is denied — something they curiously find empowering. The most bizarre entries are ‘dom/subs’ where the word ‘I’ is symbolically written in lower case by the submissives with their ‘Masters’ or ‘Mistresses’ referred to as He or She.
  6. Physical intimacy (feelings being safe, wanted, cared for) is perhaps more valuable to people than sex — particularly to those who have lost a partner through death or a traumatic split. However, there is powerful evidence of the beneficial effects to relationships of hormones like oxytoxcin or dopamine released during sex. Some diarists report deep frustration at their partner’s perceived withholding of sex over periods of days which ultimately comes across as near-loathing. Yet when they’re put out of their misery and have sex it’s a joyous experience and suddenly they record they love their partner very much. How long this effect lasts is questionable — I’d guess that anyone who internalises that their partner is using the restriction of affection perhaps as a power game is going to remain unhappy most of the time and that the humiliation of sexual rejection, whether deliberately or accidentally inflicted, probably contributes more to infidelity than any inherent predisposition.
  7. Availability often outweighs attractiveness: as the diarists are anonymous and there are no photos there’s no way of gaining an impression of their physical attractiveness but people’s own perceptions are hinted at widely, unsurprisingly women being self-critical about their weight and so on. While stunningly attractive people are often remarked on, sometimes people are far less selective about the choice of  the level of attractiveness of a potential partner than might be imagined — and this is not just men wearing ‘beer goggles’. One young woman, who would appear to consider herself attractive, describes her frustration that men appear to be wary of approaching her for fear of rejection. She correlates the increasing acceptability of potential partners with the length of time it was since she was last in a relationship and even makes an explicit plea via the diary for men to to be less reticent — saying that they would be shocked at the extent that ‘we can sometimes lower our standards’. This relates back to the point about exes and there are also plenty of examples where diarists describe incidents in their past when sex has often occurred spontaneously with an unexpected person.
  8. Volatility: people’s attitudes towards their partners are incredibly volatile. Two diary entries a few minutes apart can swing between radiant optimism and black despair or switch between profound love and vituperation — often as a result of a text, e-mail, casual remark or, sometimes, just personal contemplation. I’m not sure this comes across in a lot of fiction. Much creative writing workshop discussion focuses on rationally trying to examine the credibility of characters’ motives and actions — almost as if constructing some sort of probability decision tree. In reality people do not act impassively and deliberately — particularly not in emotional matters.
  9. There are more instances of  agreed ‘open’ relationships than I’d expected — both in the traditional ‘swinger’ style and those where partners were happy to allow each other to have independent sexual relationships (both casual and regular) with other people. Sometimes these were to accommodate bisexuality. This is the area where the editor says she was most surprised — and is happy to say she has reflected her discoveries in her own private life. However, I do suspect whether this is an area where the selection of the diarists has been a little skewed — but then I might be viewing this through my own moral conditioning?

The diaries encourage people to reflect on their lives in ways that are sometimes quite self-revelatory — re-appraising relationships. There’s also some speculation that’s quite thought-provoking about how one’s sexual experiences may affects one’s wider perception of the world.  A woman in her 20s who describes herself as bisexual and a masochist says: ‘I have a pet theory that much of the way men and women relate to each other, and hence how society is structured, comes from the psychological difference between penetrating and being penetrated.’ It might be physically fundamental but this may be at the root of many attitudes: I’d suggest that the vast majority of straight men aren’t able to even imagine the physical or psychological experience of being penetrated. This might make the fact that the experience can be extremely pleasurable for women quite mysterious and fascinating.

This relates, albeit anatomically rather than psychologically, back to an earlier post I wrote based on Graeme A. Thomson’s perceptive interpretation of Kate Bush’s work — the perhaps impossible desire to understand and experience what it is to be the other person in a relationship. Maybe a way for a woman to appreciate what her partner feels in being with her is to imagine how she herself might be touched by another woman?  Maybe? Who knows what goes on in other people’s heads and it’s why this book is so illuminating — revealing a few glimpses, albeit perhaps unrepresentative ones.

From a practical writing perspective, fiction writers would do well to study the diction used in the diaries. These are real people choosing their own words to describe their sexual experience. The editor believes that her British diarists are far more creatively verbose than their US equivalents — something that any reader would pick up from the styles of two publications I regularly read: Time and The Economist. (It’s also another reason why Stephen King’s views on brevity and adverbs don’t necessarily transfer without some refinement across the Atlantic.)

Nevertheless, there’s a refreshing absence of the sort of convoluted, obfuscatory prose that many writers might be tempted to use. People overwhelmingly describe their experiences as ‘we had sex’ (naughty passive voice there) or simply ‘we fucked’. Again, this is instructive for a novelist because, while people in polite conversation (for example at creative writing workshops) don’t generally talk in terms of ‘fucking’, these diaries show that’s the term that people most frequently commit to the page and, by extension, it probably indicates way that most people use in the privacy of their own minds. And, after all, filled also with all its hidden lusts and insecurities, one’s mind and imagination are the places where readers also engage with novels.

Do It Like A Dude

The Angel has an old-fashioned love triangle at its heart and, while I know the eventual outcome I want to write, I’ve been gripped by an internal debate about how much of this tension should be shown in the novel in terms of what the BBC call ‘sexual content’.

This is a difficult question to wrestle with in various ways although I’m convinced that all writers of novels (or of drama) that involve adults in close, emotional relationships must at least consider, but not necessarily write about, the sexual behaviour of the characters — even just to establish that there is no sexual relationship between them.

In real life, as well as in literature, there are many relationships that seem to defy gravity on intellectual, social or various other personal issues but must obviously work at a deeper sexual level — women falling for the bastard or cad or men being mesmerised by a pretty girl are stereotypes that are clearly true. There are many biological and psychological reasons why relationships aren’t driven by rationality — and that people often pursue relationships that logically they know aren’t good for them.

Also, despite (or perhaps because of) much more openness about ordinary people’s sexual behaviour — look at the covers of most women’s magazines and a few men’s — no-one really knows with much certainty what everyone else is up to. There are plenty of surveys but they’re almost by definition self-administered so no-one can verify how truthful are the responses (it’s considered that men tend to exaggerate, women to under-report). This is probably truer the more unusual the behaviour is. Paradoxically, despite sexual behaviour being driven by very deep biological and psychological motivation, most people seem to be anxious to know what’s ‘normal’ — if only to then outwardly appear to be so.

For this reason it’s probably one area where workshopping might yield responses which would be not that representative of readers as a whole. I’ve participated in a few workshops where the writing has involved descriptions of illegal drug usage. People tend to be quite guarded in their reaction — ‘I have a friend who told me that this description is more like ecstasy than speed’ — not wanting to be thought too boring and unconventional as to never have tried the drug but certainly not wanting to admit anything like familiarity with it. And why should they do anything else? Participating in a writing workshop doesn’t oblige anyone to reveal their history of drug usage.

Assuming the feedback gets beyond the tittering ‘Bad Sex Awards’ stage and one gets an honest and adult discussion, it’s still probably true to say that a similar type of reaction applies to sex as it does to drugs: an understandable wariness of revealing personal experience through expressing views on the writing (although people’s experience of sex must be much more widespread and doesn’t (normally!) have associations of illegality). This is wariness is probably more true the more unusual, or even deviant, the behaviour. Consider what might happen if (say) a woman wrote a scene where a man pays a prostitute to perform something exotic for him and one of the men in a workshop starts to correct all the details — she might get useful feedback but no-one would look at him in quite the same way again. (There are all sorts of intriguing permutations about who may be bluffing who in this sort of scenario.) There may be an exception when the action described is so extreme and unusual that it can be thought of abstractly and impersonally — in the City course there was one novel that dealt with incest and this was so bizarre that it was surprisingly easy to comment about.

Reading fiction is also appealing to many people because of its privacy. If you’ve never touched drugs, and don’t ever intend to, you might still have a fascination for imagining what it might be like to snort line-after-line of coke at a glitzy party or have some hallucinogenic trip. Similarly, most readers of the Twilight books don’t want their blood sucked by a vampire but that doesn’t stop them being amazingly popular. So it is with sex in fiction — there’s no doubt people like reading about it but a lot of this enjoyment is probably down to its absolute privacy.

While I’ve been agonising about how much of my characters’ sex lives I show or tell or hint at, I’ve realised that I may being incredibly prudish by the standards of popular culture with which young people are familiar. One of the most popular songs of the last couple of years is about, to put it mildly, curiosity about the same sex — Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ (‘and I liked it’). My eyes popped out last year when I saw my children quite happily watching Katy Perry’s video for ‘California Gurls’. While I think it’s pretty harmless and, in some places, quite hilarious (the whipped cream aerosols) — she ostensibly appears in it stark naked (albeit lying down) — see embedded video below from YouTube.

Katy Perry says she was brought up a strict Christian and has been critical of her current rival — Lady GaGa, whose exuberance I quite admire. My teenage, secondary school age daughter asked me if I knew what the song ‘Poker Face’ was about? ‘A card game,’ I said innocently. ‘No. It’s about a woman having sex with a man while fantasising about it being another woman.’ ‘Oh!’ Things have definitely moved on a bit since ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.

Similarly we were listening to the Top 40 rundown and I asked the title of the Rihanna song at number two. ‘”S&M”, dad.’ I’m not sure if my teenage daughters knew exactly what this meant but the lyrics of the song didn’t leave much doubt: ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones/But whips and chains excite me.’

People might argue that this is all about boundaries being pushed but I’m not sure where the limits will stretch to after the precedent set by a new singer from Essex, who’s just won a BRIT award, called Jessie J. Her first single was called ‘Do It Like A Dude’ and, while I’ve only heard the less explicit version, there’s no doubt what it’s about — something that ‘Lip Service’ pushed the boundaries of terrestrial TV (albeit digital BBC3) by showing — although even then Ruta Gedmintas was only shown from the back. (And I don’t think ‘Do It Like A Dude’ refers to same sex relationships either.)

When I was doing the Open University Advanced Creative Writing course I was picked up by the tutor when a female character says the word ‘twat’ (as an insult about a man) — ‘a woman wouldn’t say such a word’. While this could be the view of a certain demographic of readers, if the generation who have been brought up listening to Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa and Jessie J take up novel reading then it  will take considerably more to shock them.

Lip Service

A fascinating aspect of reading fiction is that, sometimes despite the best efforts of the author, every reader must have a different mental image of each character — most likely a synthesis of their own experience and from triggers picked up from the text. Most ‘best-practice’ writing advice tends to suggest the author should leave as much detail to the reader’s imagination as possible — only providing concrete descriptions that are vital to quickly establish character or to provide information necessary to the plot.

When a novel is adapted for film or television this often leads to disappointment for readers of the original novel — an actor or actress may be physically dissimilar to how they imagined a character or, perhaps worse, behaves in an entirely different way. I read something recently in the Radio Times complaining about Stephen Tompkinson not being at all like the writer had imagined Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks in ‘Aftermath’.

Stephen Tompkinson as Peter Robinson's DCI Banks
Stephen Tompkinson as Peter Robinson's DCI Banks

(Parts of the second episode of which were filmed on the moors very near where I grew up. Look at those intimidating pylons on the picture on the left. They loomed over me every day. ).

The converse of the reader’s mental image is that a writer must also have a picture of a character in mind when writing fiction. Again this must be a mixture of experience and imagination that rarely transfers directly into a reader’s imagination, although, like screenwriters, if a novelist is writing a series of books that has been featured on film or television then they may start writing for a specific actor. I seem to remember Colin Dexter saying this about John Thaw as Inspector Morse.

Occasionally, however, writers must have the image of a character in mind and see some sort of very close likeness in the visual representation of a person — a photograph or picture or something on film or television. I recently had that sort of revelation in connection with the new BBC3 drama series, ‘Lip Service‘. It was the publicity photos for the series on the front of, I think, the Guardian’s Saturday Review section that made me take notice: the actress Ruta Gedmintas, pictured as her character Frankie in the series is a very close fit for how I see my character Kim — at least Kim at the start of the novel.

It’s partly the urban-arty clothing (Frankie’s meant to be a photographer) and her gaunt physical appearance — and she has short-ish blonde hair and a nose piercing, even green eyes. I don’t know whether Frankie is meant to portray a particular lesbian style of dressing. Kim in my novel isn’t gay (I think Frankie is actually meant to be bisexual) but Kim certainly comes from a arty-edgy culture in Shoreditch and Hackney where she will mix with and be influenced by a lot of gay people.  (And similarly in my writing experience I have and have had plenty of contact with gay writers and have workshopped gay fiction.)

Ruta Gedmintas as Frankie on the cover of Guardian Guide 9th Oct (Linked to Guardian Website)
Ruta Gedmintas as Frankie on the cover of Guardian Guide 9th Oct

Frankie is, of course, different to Kim in many ways but, the character, as played by Ruta Gedmintas, captures a startlingly arresting attitude. She has a very interesting, expressive face that varies between a the kind of ‘fuck you’ arrogance of an urban artist and a very genuine smile that shows flashes of concealed vulnerability — two contrasting character facets I’m trying to work on bringing out with Kim. Ruta Gedmintas is probably prettier than I imagine Kim to be but that may be because in my novel, Kim deliberately makes herself look confrontational to start with but she will have the sort of understated beauty that becomes increasingly attractive to James.

I was a bit intrigued by having stumbled over such an uncanny resemblance to a character I’ve had living in my head for around a year. I found from a couple of interviews online that Ruta Gedmintas comes from a Lithuanian family (hence the unusual name) — so perhaps her appearance has an Eastern European aspect, which may have made me think of German Kim — but the actress was brought up in Buckinghamshire which, co-incidentally, is where the bulk of my novel is set — in the Chilterns. (This, perhaps, explains why Frankie curiously speaks with an accent that’s pure Home Counties — or maybe her lack of the Scots brogue might be explained in later episodes with further revelations from her mysterious past?)

In the imaginary sequence of events whereby my published novel gets adapted for film or TV and then (possibly the most unlikely of this chain of possibilities) the original novel writer got asked for opinions on who should play the female lead then I think I’ve now found a perfect recommendation — so long as she can do a Hochdeutsch accent.

‘Lip Service’ has attracted controversy as it’s a series about the lives of lesbians in Glasgow. Apparently it’s the first British-made series specifically about gay women (as opposed to men) and the programme makers have to address a dilemma in that they want, on the one hand, to portray the women’s lives as being as ‘normal’ as possible (i.e. not contingent on their sexuality). But on the other hand if they’ve created a unique platform for the portrayal of intimate scenes between gay women characters then obviously they feel it’s something that they ought not to shy away from using — and, in my opinion, this is achieved very successfully — frankly (or, perhaps I should say, Frankily) but not salaciously.

I’ve watched the first couple of episodes and it strikes me as it’s quite like a gritty Glaswegian ‘Cold Feet’ with added sex (sex is something I always thought ‘Cold Feet’ could have explored more) — a comparison I mean as a compliment as I liked ‘Cold Feet’, especially the first few series — and it had some great actors in it. Like ‘Lip Service’, ‘Cold Feet’ also uses music effectively — and quite a lot of my writing throws in references to music (the latest extract I workshopped mentioned ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’ by The Smiths and ‘Big Love’ by Fleetwood Mac — the latter in a slyly filthy context).

I’m interested in that ‘Cold Feet’ genre — tangled relationships between people who are starting to deal with the responsibilities of adulthood — and think that my writing is probably pitched at the same kind of audience. The success of David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ that I read recently and learned quite a lot from (Nicholls wrote some of the scripts for ‘Cold Feet’). The book gets fervent reviews  on Amazon from the many people who say it’s their favourite ever demonstrates that this is also a commercial genre. I have to say too that David Nicholls is a nice chap as he replied very quickly and politely to an e-mail I sent him about the clever playlist feature he did have on the book’s website — which now seems to have disappeared unfortunately in favour of some of the book’s film adaptation promo material.

Strictly No Sex Please in the British Literary Novel?

After the Facebook campaign that led Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’ to be involuntarily moved within bookshops to the war or crime sections, there’s much excitement that a passage from the book has been urged for short-listing in the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex Awards’.  (Technically it isn’t eligible as it’s not fiction, but the organisers may alter the rules to include it.)

This was mentioned in an article by Susanna Rustin in The Guardian’s book section yesterday in which she advanced the argument (and also voiced some opposing views) that the modern British novel now shies away from anything like explicit descriptions of sex. This probably applies to a certain more literary strata of novels as the article cited the Man Booker Shortlist — there’s plenty of racy action still to be found in other genres of novel, as I found when skimming through a Freya North sort-of-chick-lit book recently.

Andrew Motion was quoted, apparently semi-facetiously, as saying that perhaps authors were scared of being nominated for the Bad Sex Award and the Literary Review’s entry on Wikipedia lists many previous winners as stars of the literary firmament: Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer — and John Updike got a lifetime achievement award.

I wonder if all the people who would wish Tony Blair to join this company realise that the Bad Sex Award was invented by Auberon Waugh — whose conservative views were so detested by Polly Toynbee that she wrote a hostile article about Waugh three days after his death. (I would guess Waugh would also have detested the Blair government but for different reasons than most critics of ‘A Journey’.)

The article also had a very interesting Martin Amis quotation which, perhaps, sums up why many people (like me) find his technical ability to be sometimes quite spellbinding but are unmoved, or even repelled in some way, by the tone and attitude of his novels. He’s reported as saying at a literary festival ‘it’s “impossible” for a novelist to write about real, as opposed to pornographic, sex anyway. “Sex is irreducibly personal, therefore not universal,”‘ [he added later]'”It’s not that surprising. Of all human activities this is the one that peoples the world. With that tonnage of emotion on it, if there is going to be one thing you can’t write about then that would be it.’

I can see his argument — that he can write about sex in an ironically, pseudo-pornographic way because the formulaic narrative of most porn is something that is widely, perhaps not universally, recognised. But that seems to suggest a specific intent for a novel — that it exists to provide an ironic, maybe subversive, commentary on society’s mores or literature and other art forms themselves.

I think that’s a valid purpose for a novel, at least in part, but it appears to ignore one of the key differentiators about fiction as opposed to many other art forms. A novel is an entirely personal dialogue between an author and reader. It’s unlike more social forms of storytelling, like plays, films and television — which also provide visual and auditory representations. The personal nature of this dialogue also makes me query whether a public reading of a part of a novel can ever properly represent private, individual readings of a novel — apart from being influenced by irrelevancies like the reader’s public speaking skills, the audience reaction will influence one’s perception of the words and, unlike the private reading experience, one can’t pause to reflect, re-read a sentence and so on.

It seems the form’s ability to connect directly at a one-to-one level gives a novel’s author a unique opportunity to explore the personal rather than the universal. A novel can give its characters experiences that are beyond the knowledge of most, if not all, readers but by building connections between the personal and universal can create understanding and empathy for the most extraordinary characters and scenarios.

Therefore, because emotional experience is often the most personal and, often, least rational of human nature, I would think this is where the novel can explore in a way that is more intense and more insightful than other narrative forms. And there’s nothing that illuminates characters’  most inner emotions than their sexual motivations, attractions and behaviour.

The Guardian article suggests that it might not be the sniggering-behind-the-bike-sheds tone of the Bad Sex Award that’s preventing the literary authors from writing about sexual relationships but because it’s actually very hard to do. ‘But plenty of authors share the view that writing about sex is difficult, and presents particular challenges – and that sex that might be described as ordinary, or even enjoyable, is hardest of all.’  Hilary Mantel says ‘In good sex the individual personality kind of gets lost, people transcend themselves in a way. In bad sex people become hyper-aware of their bodies, the isolation of their bodies, of shame and humiliation.’

Of course, everything depends on the context but, if there’s a traditional ‘romantic’ narrative where two characters are attracted to each other and have a good and satisfying sexual experience I’d argue it’s as necessary to show this (principally as character development) as it would be to describe some sterile or comical failure — although the latter has more potential for dramatic conflict.

On how graphic a writer wants to make their depiction of sex, I think that all depends on the situation, the characters, the tone of the book (is it inclined towards metaphor and imagery), narrative viewpoint  (how would he/she/they/it view the scene?). I’m reminded of Graeme A. Thomson’s interpretation of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ (see previous post) for how a male and female point-of-view might retell the same sexual experience.

In many cases novels probably work well enough to take the Hilary Mantel and Andrew Motion view that readers can do a bit of work and use their imagination — using hints and implications and ‘closing the bedroom door’. However, if interpreted as writing advice, it seems something of a cop-out. There’s a whole range of behaviour that can only be witnessed, by definition, behind the privacy of the bedroom door — characters may act in a completely different, surprising and uninhibited way. This might not always be relevant to the later narrative but it could be — many an otherwise odd coupling might be held together by what goes on in the bedroom and, conversely, it might doom ostensibly compatible pairings.

The biggest argument against writing explictly about sex is perhaps the range of language available. Colm Toibin is quoted in the article as saying: ‘If you give in to any simile, any metaphor, any set of feelings, any flowery language, the modern reader’s irony will come to the fore.’  So if similes and metaphors are out and you also exclude the sort of vocabulary that would remind you of a doctor’s surgery, you’re left with not many words left — and if you avoid the Anglo-Saxon then there’s even less.

Toibin praises Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ as the ‘perfect example. “There isn’t one single piece of language that describes anything other than what occurred.”‘ However, I know from discussing this book personally that it’s exactly that clinical tone to the prose that has made some readers detest that final section of the book — as it’s a story of sexual failure and miscommunication perhaps the language is appropriate but it’s not, in Hilary Mantel’s words, about people ‘transcending themselves’.

Oddly enough, while literary authors are (if you accept this article’s argument) backing away from the representation of sex and some concluding it’s perhaps impossible to do properly, BBC1 is now presenting an hour and a half of some of the most sexualised entertainment for Saturday tea-time viewing.

While the likes of Anne Widdecombe and Paul Daniels are about as asexual as one can imagine, some of the more accomplished dance partnerships move in a way that might cause some of the literary novelists to shy away — ‘he put his hand on her what?’ and so on. I’m no expert of the various dances but clearly many have highly eroticised Latin roots. Many of these dances, with their close physical contact and outfits that are more bare skin than material, are actually transcendent representations of people having the sort of good, enjoyable sex (with hints occasionally of some less wholesome variations) that Mantel and Motion believe is difficult for the novelist to represent.

I know a number of writers who enjoy dancing — either something like Tango or other types as well as getting into ‘Strictly’ — so I think there’s something quite deep-seated in this between dancing and uninhibited self-expression.  It’s also interesting that so few professionals on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ are British (less than a third, I think, with the rest being Italian, Australian, Russian, American and Eastern European’) — perhaps the Guardian article’s concerns are very specific to the British novelist — it does seem that one might learn more about genuine sexual attraction by watching Bruce Forsyth’s programme than reading the Man Booker shortlist.

Running Up That Hill

It’s quite a surprise to have  what seems an innate appreciation of an artist (in the general sense of the word) explained by reading some analysis that explains possible reasons behind a latent, unconscious bonding  – or at least have light cast upon it. On holiday I read Graeme Thomson’s recent biography of Kate Bush – ‘Under the Ivy’  (Omnibus Press) – which bills itself as ‘the first ever in-depth study of one of the world’s most enigmatic artists’.

It’s a curious book – mostly biography gleaned from interviews with figures relatively peripheral to Kate Bush’s life and from press interviews with Kate Bush herself. She’s certainly a fascinating and enigmatic subject but what lifts the book above the levels of most music biographies is Thomson’s critical interpretation of her music, somewhat in the vein of Ian MacDonald’s classic about The Beatles, ‘Revolution in the Head’.

There were a few passages of analysis in the book which suddenly grabbed me and made me think ‘that concept is similar to what I’ve been trying to get over in my writing’.

One trait I have is to tend to throw in all sorts of cultural references and allusions, which is what Kate Bush tended to do in her lyrics – almost to the level of self-parody in ‘Them Heavy People’ but there’s far more – think of Molly Bloom’s speech from ‘Ulysses’ in ‘The Sensual World’ (my favourite Kate Bush track of the lot), or the obvious ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Yet Thomson points out that these cultural references are a paradox and something of a deliberate obfuscation because her work is impossible to fully appreciate solely by academic analysis:

‘Bush’s music takes us somewhere else, somewhere deeper…It’s a very inquisitive, giving quixotic thing…there is no need to join every dot, or explain every reference. That is a game for those who can’t trust their own responses without first looking for an intellectual hook on which to hang it. Kate Bush is all about emotion: the things she uses to get to those emotions aren’t necessarily important. You either hear it and feel it – and trust what you’re hearing or feeling – or you don’t.’

I particularly like the last sentence: you’re either the sort of person who trusts your emotional reaction or you aren’t. This ties in with some current debate about writing, especially of the more literary genre – does it work on an emotional level or does it solely exist to perform intellectual gymnastics?

No-one who’s seriously listened to Kate Bush’s music can underestimate its sensuality. The candid attitude towards sex, even in songs released in the 1970s, is quite revelatory and far more insightful than many of her female successors (think of the relatively crude shock-tactics of the likes of Madonna or Lady GaGa). However, even knowing the song for 25 years I hadn’t fully realised (shows how closely I read the lyrics) what she was trying to suggest in one of her most well known singles, ‘Running Up That Hill’. To quote Thomson:

‘Originally called “A Deal With God”, the song spoke passionately of Bush’s impossible wish to become her lover, and he her, in order that they could finally know what the other felt and desired. It was a sobering comment on misfiring communication and the impossibility of men and women ever really understanding one another, and yet – in capturing the basic human need to strive for compatibility – it was not without hope nor optimism.’

I’d say that many novelists also try to set out to achieve this ‘impossible’ ambition (trying to fully understand the experience of the other gender) – to know ‘what the other felt and desired’. It’s certainly something I’m fascinated with – as I have a novel that switches between male and female POVs in a putative relationship.

It’s pretty evident that these songs have lodged themselves quite deep in my psyche and bits of them seem to come out when I’m writing. I had a playlist of ‘quiet stuff’ on my laptop which featured a lot of Kate Bush songs and I have listened to this over the past few years at very low volume as I fell asleep in work trips in various hotel rooms around Europe.

There’s another aspect to Kate Bush’s work that makes it more approachable from a male point of view which I’d never realised until reading this book – and yet it’s so obvious. She likes men. Thomson says of one of Kate Bush’s most touching songs:

‘Aside from its luminous melody and swooping chorus, “The Man With the Child In His Eyes” is one of the first example of the extraordinarily positive ways in which Bush views men. She is surely unique among female songwriters in that her canon contains not a single song that puts down, castigates or generally gives men the brush off. She has been feminist in the bluntest sense – she wants to preserve and embrace the differences between the sexes and understand the male of the species. Many songs display a desire to experience fully what it is to be a man; she invests them with a power, beauty and a kind of mystical attraction which is incredibly generous. “It’s not such an open thing for a woman to be physically attracted to the male body and fantasise about it” she once said. “I can’t understand that because to me the male body is absolutely beautiful.”’

I knew that Kate Bush had a large gay (male) following but it was only after reading the above interview quotation that I the penny finally dropped. On a similar vein I’m wondering about buying ‘Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory’ which is full of analysis (as it says in the publisher’s press release) ‘written by a queer woman in her late 20s, its answers are delivered in a unique way…showing that theory can be sordid, funny and irreverent’. I wouldn’t mind too much if those three adjectives were applied to my novel, at least in part.

Addressing Deficiencies

Getting back to ideas for The Angel, I think I may have plugged a bit of a hole in the plot and balanced out the characters a bit by considering introducing a male admirer of Kim when she moves to The Angel. This chap will be actively sought out and encouraged by Emma (in some matchmaking activity reminiscent of her Austen namesake). Emma won’t rest until she’s paired Kim off with someone. Of course, the person she tries to pair Kim off with will be totally unsuitable, although the relationship will develop to an extent which will make James terribly jealous — and when James thinks they’ve slept together then he’ll be extremely agitated. It will be something of a dip in their relationship when he sees Kim having some sort of a relationship with someone who he used to think of as a friend but, in this context, sees as something of an arsehole. He’ll realise how trapped he his himself.

This person will probably have been a friend of James’ but they’ll fall out — and, because James is ostensibly a happily married man — he’ll have to find some other reason to vent his fury. Emma will try and coach the relationship on regardless — she’s the sort of person who thinks any outcome is possible, given the right sort of motivation.

Kim will confide a few things to James about how this chap is an utter philistine but that she’s initially flattered by his attention. Then Kim will start to notice a few suspicious danger signs that maybe the new boyfriend’s attention is beginning to wander — perhaps to someone who’s more receptive of his charms?

I’ll need to flesh this chap out — any suggestions as to his name and other personality features would be gratefully received. Perhaps with this character another piece of the jigsaw is falling into place?

Everything But The Bar Sink…

…but I did get the dishwasher in!

Bearing in mind Judith Murray’s comment that ‘in some sense all novels are historical’, I decided to load my last reading with as many contemporary cultural references as I could think of. ‘Decided’ isn’t actually a good definition — throwing in various things that pop into my head is how I tend to write anyway although maybe I’d decide to delete most of them if a book got published.

I’m rather dreading reaction to the scene I’ve just written because it could go either of two ways. It’s a climactic scene after months of simmering, smouldering sexual tension between James and Kim and this comes to the boil (good cooking metaphors there, albeit cliched). To counter the tension as it rises I start off with the most banal sort of conversations. In one point (a cop out I’m sure I’ll be picked up on) I have the narrator say ‘she didn’t care who was talking’ and then throw in three or four unattributed pieces of dialogue.

The cultural references are quite a bizarre bunch. Remember these are all in a 2,600 word piece which is meant to pivotal to the plot: Amazon, Katie Melua, Charlie Brooker, the Guardian, the Wombles, Mike Batt, William Orbit, Orbit’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, All Saints’ ‘Pure Shores’, Katie Melua’s ‘The Flood’ (which goes on to supply metaphors for the later scene), Virgin TV’s ‘Naked Office’ (see below), Jamie Oliver, a Sky+ box, the Carry On films, ‘The Full Monty’, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ (and various of its contestants), Amanda Holden, Simon Cowell, Ant and Dec, ‘Sex and the City’, Heston Blumenthal, ‘The Fat Duck Cookbook’ and Heston Blumenthal’s notorious snail porridge. That’s well over 20 references that only someone living in this country in 2010 would really understand. Apart from the BGT references most of these aren’t gratuitously contemporary as they illustrate character and move the plot in some cases. The music is interesting as (it will be interesting to see if anyone picks this up) as Emma has bought the Katie Melua CD as it’s produced by William Orbit, whose works ten years previously (see above) were the soundtrack to a holiday she and James had in Ibiza when they first began their relationship. He’s meant to see the romantic significance in this — but doesn’t and needles her about Katie Melua’s previous association with Mike Batt (of the Wombles). So, a little vignette of their relationship.

I had to rush writing this piece and sent it out late to everyone. I’m still unhappy with the end and may revise it even further before I read it. I was totally knackered once I’d written it. Partly this was because I was determined to write something new and that pushed the boundaries a bit for me in terms of how comfortable I’d be with reading it. It’s also partly because I’m pushing myself to write new material for each reading and tutorial rather than polish up previously reviewed material. I also went to France very early on Tuesday morning partly to buy wine for our course reading. This produced probably a course first — for the first reading ever to be written, partially, on a cross-channel ferry. On the way out I annotated a printed draft then coming back I had the netbook out by the window looking out into the channel. Wonder if any of the nautical flavour comes through?

The piece was also very emotionally draining, which I found quite surprising. As it’s the consummation of a relationship I was trying to imagine and hold in my mind the feelings and emotions of the characters. When this involves scenes of a disintegrating marriage, seriously unrequited love and then some sudden switch into passion between two people who had (on the surface) treated each other as friends then this takes a lot of mental effort. I did this for three or four days and thought about it so much I was more than semi-detached from reality. I don’t know if it will be good for the writing that it felt like I was so intensely involved in their predicaments — your characters can’t do anything much more real than have sex with each other — or whether I might have got too close?

The writing was also difficult as I thought I had to do a sex scene for a reading as this is what the plot of the novel calls for and I wanted to get feedback on it — good and bad. I’m sure this is very difficult to get right and constructive feedback (though not sniggering) in this area would be a lot more useful than on a scene with people walking around London, for example. In the first drafts I had some graphic descriptions and used some very earthy Anglo-Saxon words. In some ways I’d rather these had stayed in as from a reading perspective because I’d like to have made myself read these out, to overcome the embarrassment. However, the word limit chopped any real physical description of the sex — there’s only really the build up but that’s the most interesting bit for the characters.  Even so, I’ve probably laid myself open to bonkbuster piss-taking.

Fascinating Lessons in Writing and POV

We had a visit from another published course alumnus last night — Penny Rudge, author of ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’, as mentioned in a previous post.

I’ll blog later at more length about what she said about the publishing process in general. I was quite relieved that her book deal didn’t follow as a consequence of the end-of-course reading.

I’m quite inspired by the book and our session yesterday. I was encouraged that she had a similar background to me and, curiously, the style of her novel is probably closer to how I’ve been writing than mine is to anyone else currently on the course — contemporary setting, humorous, lots of dialogue, other gender POV, European leading character (s), etc.

I’m quite gratified that ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’ has probably a higher literary breast count (and other intimate body parts) than my work in progress could be projected to have — there are scenes in a strip club and seedy strippers’ pub.  These descriptions are very well done — very witty and frank but never over-graphic, anatomical or crude. I think I’ll  keep the book handy for my own inspiration — seeing as I’m frequently reminded how sex-obsessed my male character is (wait until Monday’s reading).  Penny’s use of the male point of view in these scenes is also very accurate, at least from my own observation, so maybe there’s hope for me to use POV the other way.

Perhaps it’s because Penny also has a background as a computer programmer. I think I may have blogged on this before but I was a programmer for about 12 years, have worked in IT since and am now doing a dissertation for an MSc. in Software Development. I asked her a question about how she organised the files on the computer, as a writer, and she enthusiastically answered.

Perhaps IT workers are one of those professions, journalism being the most obvious one, that equips people with certain skills — being able to use a keyboard quickly is one but also in novelistic terms, putting together a novel with its themes and planning probably draws a lot on the analytical skills required to put together big systems. And the revision process is similar in that one small change can have very big knock-on consequences throughout the system or novel (name, setting, chronology changes, etc.).

My Reading Problem Solved

We had a run through of our readings in Wednesday evening’s class. I’m currently second on the bill so was one of the first to get up and read. I chose what I think will be the eventual opening of the book — the firing scene. This is a lively scene but difficult to read as it has three characters and some narration — to do it proper justice I need to read in four slightly different registers. I have a cunning plan to try and help me with this BUT I got some extra inspiration from one of the contestants on last night’s Britain’s Got Talent.

He’s Mark James from Barnoldswick and performed a duet from ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in the auditions — where he had a costume split down the middle — one female side and one male. He stood facing different directions when singing the appropriate part! Complete rubbish — and even worse when last night he did Elton John and Kiki Dee which was a much more interchangeable duet so he was forever spinning round. (I was a bit gutted the extraordinarily talented pole dancer went out tonight.)

But — maybe that’s my solution — perhaps I dress in some sort of split female (for Kate the HR woman) costume on one side and a male costume for James and his boss Will (Will is balding so maybe when I’m James I can put a wig on or something)? Then perhaps for the narration I take the mic and hide behind the lectern — very omniscient.

I’m sure all the literary agents would remember that sort of performance?

Emily was ill, which was bad luck for me as I had a tutorial scheduled with her to discuss chapter 5 and other stuff. However, Emma Sweeney was a very capable replacement — she teaches at various places like Cambridge University and New York University (London campus) — a bit more exotic a version of our curiously named Bedford University Buckinghamshire campus that does nursing teaching, presumably for Stoke Mandeville (see below). To digress even further when I Googled her name, I found a syllabus for a course that someone called Emma Sweeney teaches, or has taught, (could be a different person but it’s not so important as the following goes on to say I found a good idea) at a U.S. university that  includes a module on ‘sex and the body’ — a potentially awkward subject that I’d guess causes writers more anxiety than anything else and I’m really wondering whether I should make myself write something similar for my last workshop reading. It might be difficult but it would be a good learning experience.

Mind you I say that as someone’s whose writing always seems to veer towards the smutty — to the extent that other students like to insist I mention that one of my male characters is ‘sex mad’.

Top Bombing

A friend of mine sent me a YouTube link to the new John Smiths’ Peter Kay advert. His observation in sending it was that it picks up a subtle difference between the sexes in that often women try to guess which other women men find attractive — glamorous celebrities often being cited. This advert shows that this view is often very wide of the mark.

The advert is a model of economy but crams an awful lot about a relationship into its thirty seconds. It’s very much a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ in terms of being honest with a partner (‘I won’t get upset. It’s only a game.’) Peter Kay’s character is very well behaved ‘There’s only one lady in my life’ until he’s pushed three times by his partner.

The setting is also quite subtle — some upmarket restaurant pub and the other couple’s presence, although they don’t speak, is essential to the drama. It also cleverly bridges the gap between the fantasy of showbusiness and celebrity (Kelly Brook, Tess Daly) and people’s own lives: ‘Clare from work’. (Great choice of name to bring out the northern vowels — Peter Kay’s from Bolton, not too far from where I come from — Rochdale.)  The shot at the end with the photocopier is one of the truest representations of interior characterisation I’ve seen for a long time. ‘Oh aye’.

Some of the books that examine men’s and women’s different behaviours in relationships from an evolutionary psychology perspective make the point that availability and proximity are  often more prescient factors in a typically male assessment of a mate than the attractiveness. (And this tendency is amplified by alcohol — the infamous ‘beer goggles’).

It’s very much in the vein of James’ point of view in The Angel in the scenes I’ve written with Emma and Kim. These promoted one coursemate to suggest that the log line for my novel should end ‘can James keep his mind off sex for long enough to stop the business falling apart’ — a line that everyone found rather hilarious though I’m not sure if poor old James would.


There’s another story on the BBC website about the benefits of the ‘cuddle hormone’ — oxytocin. I referred to James’ view that human attraction was based on a whole mix of chemicals in the reading I did before Easter — and there was a quite a lot of feedback on whether the various things I’d referred to were hormones or not.

The story had links to an old web page from 2006 which caught my attention because it promoted something that was guaranteed to prevent fear of public speaking — which would be very handy for our reading evening on 30th June. It was titled ‘Sex “cuts public speaking stress”‘. It goes on to say ‘Forget learning lines or polishing jokes – having sex may be the best way to prepare for giving a speech. New Scientist magazine reports that Stuart Brody, a psychologist at the University of Paisley, found having sex can help keep stress at bay.  However, only penetrative intercourse did the trick – other forms of sex had no impact on stress levels at all.’ It’s all to do with something called the vagal nerve, as well as oxytocin apparently. (Maybe James can do some reading up on it?)

It doesn’t say how far in advance of the speech you have to engage in this therapy to make it most effective, though.

The Eve of St. Agnes

I bought a copy of the latest Magma poetry magazine when I was in London last week. Its cover article was ‘Favourite Erotic Poetry’. I was interested to see how I poem I took along to the March meeting of Metroland poets was selected by a couple of the poets making their selection, including Blake Morrison. It was ‘They Flee From Me’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a 16th century poet who allegedly had an affair with Ann Boleyn.

One of the choices of the other poets was Keats’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. The erotic element of this poem comes with the legend of the Eve of St.Agnes — a time when apparently young virgins would dream of the man who was going to sweep them off their feet in later life if they lay naked on their beds on that night (or some other tradition approximating to this). Keats is one of the most sensuous poets — I remember having ‘purple stained mouth’ from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ being explained to me when I was doing him for A-level.

It was quite a revelation to come back to the poem after years — for some reason its phrase ‘a dwarfish Hildebrand’ has popped into mind quite regularly in the intervening time although I didn’t realise where it came from. In the poem Keats uses a couple of star-crossed lovers  — Madeleine and Porphyro. Madeleine is some sort of aristocratic girl, whose chambers are guarded by old nurses. The eroticism happens when Porphyro manages to wheedle his way past Madeleine’s protectors and hides unseen in her room while she strips off and prepares herself for the St.Agnes ritual.

Perhaps it was latent all along but I’d been toying with the idea of something similar at the start of The Angel. The idea is that Kim and James end up together in a similar sort of situation (except facilitated by the after effects of a drunken night out). I think I’ve worked out plot devices for both to be in the same situation. I won’t add more, partly because I need to think it through a bit further, and partly to keep a bit of suspense.

On a related subject, one of my coursemates — whose blog (Bren Gosling’s ‘Evolution of My Novel’ is referenced from the sidebar — wondered whether I was giving out too much of the plot of the novel on this blog. If anyone has any comment on that I’d be interested to hear it. I don’t think I give out enough information for my ideas to be copied and ripped off but it might be possible that anyone be following instalments of the novel (or even just waiting to read it when it’s finished in its entirety) might find some plot spoilers in here. (I’ve probably given the biggest plot spoiler to people on the course already with my short fire scene from last term.)

Here are a couple of stanzas of Keats’ ‘Eve of St.Agnes’ that allude to what might happen later in The Angel:

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,

And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,

As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;

Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,

And on her silver cross soft amethyst,

And on her hair a glory, like a saint:

She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest,

Save wings, for heaven: – Porphyro grew faint:

She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.

Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,

Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;

Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;

Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees

Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:

Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,

Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,

In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,

But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.

‘Sweat Me Garlicky’

We had to take along a published poem (by someone else) to Metroland Poets last night on the theme of ‘Poems to Read Aloud’. There was a very varied and entertaining selection ranging from ballads by Walter Scott to Edwin Morgan’s famous ‘Loch Ness Monster’s Song’.

I made a choice in about five minutes flat but was quite pleased with the poem that came to mind. It’s ‘Cooking with Blood’ by Linda France, which is featured, along with an interview with the poet, in the Open University’s ‘Creative Writing’ course (A215). Click on this link for the poem and an opportunity to hear her read it out.

Again there’s a link with The Angel as it’s all about cooking (in the section I’m workshopping on Monday James tells Kim about his passion for food). It’s also dedicated to Delia Smith in a way. Delia is someone I’ve loved even more since her famously tired and emotional appearance on the pitch at half time at a Norwich City game.

I get the feeling she’s far less prim and proper than supposed ‘edgier’ cooks like Nigella and Jamie Oliver (who I think, to use Kim’s vocabulary, is a bit of a tw*t).

‘Cooking with Blood’ was inspired when Linda France was looking through the index of a cookery book, probably Delia’s, and found all kinds of exotic names for dishes and techniques. What people found quite remarkable when I read the poem was the amazing use of these names as verbs in the poem. ‘Wouldn’t we sausage lots of little quichelets’, ‘She played en papilotte/for just long enough to sweat me garlicky’, ‘I’ve stroganoffed with too many of them’, ‘[I] triped
myself into a carcass’.

Making imaginative use of verbs (and, in fact creating new verbs like this) is something that I don’t really do enough of in my own writing — probably because I do it too quickly. I’ve got the opportunity to experiment a little in this way in my next chapter when I get James and Kim completely plastered. I’d like to try and hint at their altered states of consciousness by attempting to play with language in the same sort of way.

The poem also appeals to me as it’s very sensual. There’s clearly a link between food and sex in the poem (even as far as talking about procreation) but it’s amusing and thought-provoking: ‘After I’d peppered her liver, stuffed her goose/
and dogfished her tender loins, she was paté/in my hands’ and ‘We danced the ossobuco;/her belly kedgeree, her breasts prosciutto.’ I think this poem must have tapped into my subconscious quite deeply as I tend to return to similar elements in my writing: people say it’s quite physical. I tend to write a lot about what people do with their hands and their body appearance.On Monday in the workshop I’m sure it will be noted that James is something of a compulsive breast watcher (well, he’s done it twice once with each of the women). I’ve played this up deliberately for mild amusement but I’m starting on the journey to finding my writing ‘voice’ and I think I’m always going to have a theme of the physical and sensuous. I’ve done the same in ‘Burying Bad News’ with Frances imagining herself and other people with physical attributes of grape varities. It’s interesting as I’m not a touchy-feely type person in normal life at all — I just seem to write about it.

One of the women poets was surprised that ‘Cooking with Blood’ was written by a woman as she thought its tone was quite male. Perhaps that’s down to the physicality of its approach as opposed to the more metaphysical, spiritual tone she might have expected in a poem with a similar message written from a more conventionally ‘female’ point of view. I’m not so sure there really is such a gender bias in reality between male and female writers. At least three of the male novelists on the course are writing from female points of view and Eileen writes in a very convincingly masculine voice in her novel extracts. However, there’s no doubt that many readers form expectations about reading a novel just by reading the gender of the author. That, famously, is why J.K.Rowling is known by her initials — the publishers didn’t think their initial market of teen boys would want to read a book written by someone called Joanne.