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Tuesday, 7 July 2015

It's reality, Jim, but as WE know it... by Bill Kirton

Novels always carry the careful ‘any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is coincidental’ disclaimer but, as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t really needed. I may borrow how someone looks, or copy what he/she wears, but using a real person as a model just doesn’t work for me. I've only tried it twice. For the woman, it sort of half worked, but when it came to the man, I found that my awareness and knowledge of the actual person prevented my character from growing and being himself.

Presumably (and it was certainly true in my case), a writer ‘uses’ a real model because there’s something special or unique about that person – he/she is wonderful or despicable. The real man I chose to copy was the latter but he wasn’t my character. In the end, I had to free the character and let his nastiness develop in the way he wanted to express and live it. The result was that, even though he’d begun as a clone of the real nasty, he turned out to be more charismatic (in a horrible way, of course). But they were different, and I wouldn’t want to spend too much time with either of them.

One of my novels, Shadow Selves, is set in and around the fictitious University of West Grampian and an equally fictitious teaching hospital. When they heard this, some of my friends assumed that, because I used to teach at a university, the people and things I described would be based on personal experiences. They’re not, except insofar as I know the general academic atmosphere, the demands and privileges of working in such an institution and the (small p) politics in which some teachers and researchers delight. But anyone reading the book and expecting to recognise x, y or z will be disappointed. What I hope they will get, though, is a sense of the strange world of academia – a rarefied place where high culture and low cunning co-exist and some individuals continue to be blissfully unaware of how privileged they are to be safe in their ivory tower. (Incidentally, by way of a plug, I should add that they’ll also get a couple of corpses, a stalker and a case of sexual harassment.)

A little (relevant) aside next. If I asked you to name some nice writers, i.e. writers who are nice people, I bet that, in the UK at least, Alan Bennett might be at or near the top of the list. And yet, a few years back, in an interview about his play The History Boys, he said ‘no writer's entirely nice, otherwise they wouldn't be writers. It's quite a sneaky profession really’. The implication in his tongue-in-cheek remark was that we use other people’s experiences as our raw materials, distorting or otherwise exaggerating them to suit our purposes. In other words, we exploit people. Well, we do, but I think our excuse is that we do so for a reason.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
At one point in Shadow Selves, as part of his investigation, my policeman goes to watch an operation. The description and details of that operation are all taken from a visit I made myself to an operating theatre to watch a thoracic operation at close range. The surgeons delved about inside a woman’s chest cavity, shoving lungs and other red and white bits out of the way, chopping lumps out of tubes, and, at the same time, chatting away about a concert one of them had been to the previous evening. The patient’s head was concealed by a suspended sheet and the surgeons’ entire focus was on the small area of flesh with its big hole, into which they were dipping their hands. In a way, they weren’t dealing with a person but with a sort of anatomical puzzle.

Despite the fact that their manipulation of the various organs that were in their way seemed a bit cavalier, no one would seriously suggest there was anything ‘inhuman’ about their actions. They just needed to be objective and think in terms of the mechanical aspects of what they were doing. So, while chatting about music as you grab a pulsing organ and push it aside may seem disrespectful, intrusive, it’s actually the reverse. The fact that they were prepared to take responsibility for such extreme interventions to improve the lot of a fellow human was an affirmation of their humanity. They cared. They were doing all that so that she’d survive. And she did.

I hope you can see where I’m going with this. Scalpels, pens – same thing, really. (Except that very few of us use pens any more.) Yes, we pick up news stories, snippets of conversation, fragments of real lives, aspects of real people, and we steal them and shape them to suit our subjective purposes. If you like, we don’t treat them with much respect. But usually, these purposes are positive, affirmative things – we want to add to people’s enjoyment, make them laugh, offer them new perspectives, enlighten them, highlight threats to their security/happiness/culture, and a host of other things aimed at lifting them out of the humdrum or the painful.

Of course there are writers who are definitely not nice – political and religious apologists and/or propagandists, individuals with a personal vendetta against society or one of its groups. Such people thrive on distortion, reductionism, cynicism and a dedication to their own cause which shows little respect for those outside its concerns. But I prefer the glass to be half full and the writers I know and celebrate, famous and unknown, are those who write to make other people’s lives better. Like Mr Bennett, they’re nice.

Monday, 6 July 2015

#AskELJames and Other Stories - Debbie Bennett

Love her or loathe her, Ms James certainly pushes buttons, doesn’t she? The recent #AskELJames Twitter Q&A had some interesting questions posed to the author, my favourite being from @skepticosaurus Will you be rewriting the book from Stephenie Meyer's point of view next time? Or this one. One wonders whether her publishers were expecting this kind of reaction or whether they expected her legions of fans to produce a flash-mob of adoration and publicity. I’m sure there were a lot of people praising the woman, but you never hear about all the nice stuff, do you? That doesn’t make news. But #AskELJames does - even on ITV!

So what is it about certain people – certain authors – that polarises opinion? EL James, JK Rowling, even Stephenie Meyer? They don’t write literary fiction, no, but neither do a lot of other authors and it doesn’t matter. We laugh, criticise and castigate. Are we jealous of their success or money? Maybe some writers are, but that doesn’t explain the hordes of non-writers who delight in name-calling and tweeting. Are we scared that if we admit to reading – even liking – these books, that other people might think us weird in some way. Do we appear less-educated because we admit to reading these books?

These people – these women – have made millions. Billions probably, when you add in film and other franchises. Better still they’ve got people reading; people who might not have read a book since their school days are lapping up (ok, bad choice of words there) these books and begging for more (I’ll stop, shall I?) That must be a good thing, surely?

JK Rowling has been banned by some councils and schools with her references to magic. Really? That’s just bizarre to me. I’m not a fan myself, but I can see the appeal – school stories, Mallory Towers for the 21st century and all about loyalty and friendship conquering evil. I have no issues with that and I wish the author well. I’m not so convinced about the carefully-stage-managed leak of her pseudonymous new books – but hey, it worked and kudos to whoever thought that one up.

James and Meyer are a different matter. I’ve read Twilight and the sequels, and I admit to quite liking them. They wouldn’t be on my list of best-books-ever-read, but I passed a few pleasant hours. I’ve not read James and I have no desire to - though perhaps I should, just to speak with more authority. But I do wonder whether these books have a more dangerous message. What are our young impressionable daughters reading (and of course they are reading FSOG) about male/female relationships. Is it healthy for such books to be fêted as masters of their genre? In Twilight, Bella sacrifices her humanity for Edward. Is that love? Maybe it is. But FSOG is a world darker and I doubt it’s an accurate introduction to the world it portrays. The definition of consent is a fine line and not one to walk without very careful consideration.

Would I write anything to make money? Well probably not anything. I wouldn’t intentionally defame or hurt anybody. I write contentious material anyway, but I do it carefully and with forethought. I’m sure the authors I’ve mentioned above do too. Would I risk ridicule to make their kind of money? Hell, yes! Money doesn’t buy happiness but I can be miserable in a great deal of comfort …

Sunday, 5 July 2015

How Far Will You Go to Write? asks Kathleen Jones

This is my journey to the Edge of the World, where Captain Cook accidentally stumbled into Haida Gwaii while he was looking for the Pacific exit of the fabled North West Passage.  Beyond this expanse of sand is the Pacific Ocean - the biggest mass of water on the planet;  to the north is Alaska and the North Pole.

“Where your world ends, ours begins”
Haida saying

For months I’d been feeling depressed, anxious and powerless. There seemed to be no solution to the perfect storm of economic and environmental chaos that was (and still is) approaching. My own personal life felt just as stormy and unsolvable. But at the moment when I felt most depressed, I read a book by an American poet called Robert Bringhurst. It was called A Story as Sharp as a Knife. At first what drew me to the book was the discussion about narrative. I’m a writer, and I’m fascinated by narrative. Story telling is fundamental to the human psyche, even our brains are structured to construct narratives. Every time we access a memory, our brain re-assembles its components as a story, making it slightly different every time. So this new and poetic approach to story-telling had a deep fascination.

Bringhurst was writing about a First Nation people called the Haida, who lived on remote islands off the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean. Over a hundred years ago their oral literary tradition, which had been developing for nearly ten thousand years, was transcribed by an anthropologist. Most of the stories, told as poems, had never been translated until Bringhurst began to study them. The way the Haida structured their poems and stories was quite different to the literary traditions we have here in the west, and that fascinated me.  Here was a tradition as old as the Greeks, but offering a different model to follow.
A Haida village before it was abandoned.
They also had a mythology which was not simply about a group of humans who were gods in disguise, but which was animist in origin - regarding animals as supernatural beings and placing humans firmly within the world’s ecology as a cog in the works, rather than a superior being who was in charge of it all. ‘Everything is connected to everything’, was one of the Haida sayings and it summed up their philosophy. There had to be balance in all things in order for the world to function. This was reflected in their literature too, their literary forms involved a balancing of themes and events.

I read all the translations I could source, and everything I could find out about the Haida.

Haida sculptor Bill Reid's carving of the myth 'Raven and the First Men', where the Raven finds human beings in a giant clam shell.

Here, it seemed, was a people who knew how to live in the world without killing it. Perhaps they had an answer to the ills of the twenty first century. Perhaps they could teach us how to live without destroying the planet that supports us. I knew that somehow I had to get there.

Riding the Dog - it's more than 9 hours to Port Hardy
It took a long time to find the money, but I finally made it (thanks to the Royal Literary Fund) in May 2015, flying to Vancouver, crossing over to Victoria, making my way up Vancouver Island by Greyhound bus, and finally a flight to the islands of Haida Gwaii - over a thousand miles from Vancouver. I was incredibly nervous - would I be disappointed?  Would there be anything to write about? I needn't have worried. The big surprise was that I didn't write about any of the things I'd planned;  the story I found when I got there was far bigger than anything I'd imagined.
Alison, a Haida woman in her Haida robes which she is now free to wear.
I found myself in the middle of the nation-wide debate about a process called Truth and Reconciliation - arriving on the eve of publication of an important Commission's report into the treatment of First Nation people and particularly their children.  The chair of the Commission used words such as 'cultural genocide'.  When the colonists arrived in British Columbia there were three indigenous people to every European immigrant, yet they were never consulted about what should happen to their land and laws were quickly passed (a succession of 'Indian' acts) to ensure their dispossession and marginalisation. Their traditional ceremonies were made illegal (you were imprisoned for taking part), their language forbidden and their children removed for 're-education'. One British Columbia politician actually stated that the policy was 'to kill the Indian in the child'. But what happened was that they often killed the child too.  There are those who believe the genocide was not just cultural and there's a lot of evidence on their side.

From the age of 5 to 15, children were placed in residential schools (known as the Schools of Sorrow), run by various religious and state organisations.  Many thousands of children died from neglect and cruelty.  They weren't fed or clothed properly and their emotional needs were ignored - including contact with their families.  Many thousands of others were physically and sexually abused in a manner that became routine. The last school in British Columbia closed in 1986; the last in Canada not until 1996.

In the Haida communities a population of more than 20,000 was reduced to about 500 over two decades in what became known as 'The Great Dying' as epidemics of TB and Smallpox swept through.  The Haida had become displaced, their lives disrupted, their traditional medicines and healthy lifestyles outlawed and they had become vulnerable to European infections in the same way as natural disasters all over the world often lead to outbreaks of disease. There are even stories of the deliberate infection of communities in order to solve 'the Indian problem' by removing them.
The rotting house poles at one abandoned village - Skedans
This was not the story I had come to write, but it was one I couldn't escape.  It was all around me. The abandoned villages, the tenacious survivors putting their languages and traditions back into place, using the very legal system that had dispossessed them to regain possession of their lands and their rights. What also excites me is that the First Nation people are now leading the way in the environmental battle against pollution and exploitation.  They aren't going to allow the west to trash their communities again.  No Enbridge signs were everywhere, as they fight an oil pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands that would put their World Heritage status islands, and their livelihoods, at risk. We need to give them as much support as we can.

And I had a wonderful time in the vast wildernesses of Haida Gwaii.  I slept in Margaret Atwood's bed (she loved it apparently, despite having to traipse through the kitchen to find the bathroom).

I met a multi-millionaire still driving his own taxi at the age of 89, a poet married to a bank robber (seems a good way to fund poetry!) and one of the script-writers for Frasier and House.  I had an encounter with a bear on a remote beach (well.... its footprint at least - it was too scared to introduce itself!)

Grant A Mincy wrote in The Ecologist that ‘The joy of the wild is rooted deep in the human spirit and without it our lives are starved of a vital nutrient.’ That was how I felt when I arrived, but I found the peace and calm I needed between forests and oceans. Did I find 'The Wild'? Kathleen Jamie writes that ‘Wild is a word like ‘soul’. Such a thing may not exist, but we want it, and we know what we mean when we talk about it.’  I went a long way to find it.

Now I'm writing a book about the journey, which seems to be writing itself at the moment.  Will it be any good?  Or will it be a kind of  'What I did on  my holidays' essay?  Until I finish it I've no idea, but I'm loving every moment as I re-live the experience!

Kathleen Jones is a biographer, novelist and poet who publishes on both sides of the fence.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life', is often to be found wasting time on Facebook, and Tweets incognito as @kathyferber 

Her latest novel, which was included in 'Outside the Box',  is The Centauress, available on Amazon.

"Bereaved biographer Alex Forbes goes to war-ravaged Croatia to research the life of celebrity artist Zenobia de Braganza and finds herself at the centre of a family conflict over a disputed inheritance. At the Kaštela Visoko Alex uncovers a mutilated photograph, stolen letters and a story of indeterminate gender, passion and betrayal. But can she believe what she is being told? In order to discover the truth about Zenobia, Alex travels to Istria, Venice, New York and London and, in working through the narrative of Zenobia’s life, Alex begins to make sense of her own and finds joy and love in a new relationship."

Saturday, 4 July 2015

We Need To Stop Asking Permission To Tell Our Stories - Alice Jolly

I am in a strange no man's land at the moment. My book came out yesterday but the book launch isn't until next week. And more importantly, a couple of articles in the national press about the book will also not appear until next week. So the book is out but it isn't. And I have no idea what to expect.

A couple of friends who have no knowledge of the book world have said, 'You must be feeling pretty confident about all of this.' My response is, 'Unless you are an absolute fool, then you never feel confident about a book.'

Having said all that, the omens are quite good. The book has had a lot of good publicity, the cover is great, I think. Although the book was crowd funded, it is being distributed by Penguin Random House. Certainly, it should do better than my novels did.

But the truth is that 95% of books sink without trace. And this is true of good books as well as dodgy books. Even publishers are often completely unable to understand why, despite plenty of good omens, a good book goes nowhere. Publishing is like the weather. There is no point in asking why.

From a personal perspective, I have had a wobbly day. Partly it is just that flat feeling that comes at the end of any project. But I'm also suffering from all those strange feelings which do come with having a book published. It feels like walking down the street with no clothes on. It feels raw and invasive. It makes me want to hide. It makes me feel silly. It puts me in the spot light in a way I don't want.

I know my novels produced all these feelings - but a memoir is even more worrying. People can like a novel or not like it. Memoirs have the capacity to cause offence, even to provoke law suits. I do live in fear of the person (and there is certain to be one and maybe many more) who don't like what I've said.

But just a few days ago I found a wonderful quote which made me feel much calmer. It comes from the memoirist Alexandra Fuller. If there is anyone out there who hasn't read her wonderful memoir, 'Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight' then you really should give it a try. I admired it so much.

Since writing that book Alexandra Fuller has written a number of other memoirs which are deeply personal and challenging, as well as being funny and shockingly honest. Her latest book is about her divorce and this is what she said in an interview when the journalist asked that inevitable question about whether family and friends might be upset.

'There's almost this expectation you need to get approval. I doubt Hemingway was asked what his ex-wives thought of his writing. I think women have to stop asking for permission .....'

To me that quote is important and so right. I don't have to ask permission. We none of us have to ask permission. And, in fact, if we do, then we're unlikely to write a good book.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Through Her Looking Glass Darkly - By Umberto Tosi

Orson Welles' "Lady from Shanghai" Mirror Maze Scene
My cursor blinks accusingly from the end of a pathetic little string of words, lost in the white-out of a freshly opened page – a tiny Inuit and his dog team sledding over the ice pack of my frozen inspiration. Time to take a walk, maybe down to the lake. Let the creative unconscious (that capricious weasel) to its job. Maybe I should get that pound of coffee we need, or change that burned-out track light in the hallway. But how can I take a break when I haven't even started? … Mmmm. What's in the refrigerator, and why am I staring into it? How did I get here? Indeed, that is the question.

Back at my desk amid its comfortable clutter, I swivel in my high-backed chair to see Oliver, my inamorata's fat orange cat, sprawled on a window sill facing our pair of leafy verdant mulberry trees. A deliriously bright summer afternoon – breezy and pungent from yesterday's thunderstorms – beckons me. Oliver stares through the screen – mouth watering, tail twitching at myriad, fussing birds feasting on the trees' early purple fruit. We all have dreams that have nothing to do with writing. 

Oliver Ferris likes to watch
Maybe I'll never write another book, which is what I said last year about this time, just before I wrote Ophelia Rising.

I apply fingers to the keys again, but they slide off and lie still as dead mice. My mind is a toothpick ferris wheel of awkward phrases and bad ideas. I sort computer folders, feigning productivity. Scrolling through a pack of old notes and story scraps, I see a file named “Valerie's Mirror,” which rings no bells – last accessed “Sat, June 2 2009 03:20:50.” I open it. There's my byline, but the rest remains unfamiliar. I read a little:

Valerie caught a good look at herself in Aunt Dinah's bathroom mirror. It was a fine mirror – large and true. Its beveled, oval glass was encircled in earthy walnut, with carved grapevines topped by a fat cupid laughing from a flowered cartouche. She bent against Dinah's serpentine marble sink and scanned her reflected visage like a general going over a battle map.

Mirror mirror on the wall, who's not the fairest of them all?” She made her case for the prosecution. “Splotchy cheeks, stringy hair, too much forehead, zits on parade! Loser! Sexy as a poached egg!” She dragged fingernails down her cheeks, trailing white furrows, like pulling off a Halloween mask. “Why would anyone want you?” She hissed close enough to fog the glass. No amount of makeup, cleverly applied as Dinah had taught her, would cover her self-loathing this morning.

The mirror sighed in that silent way that mirrors do. She looks as fair as they come to me, he thought, fine features and a high carriage, more than the mere blossom of youth, and with a certain je ne sais quoi. He thought a lot, this mirror, which comes of having too much time to one's self. He had always told the truth, but had never figured how to get it across well. This is why he had given up talking to these people long ago. They saw what they wanted to see – or at best what they were ready for. Mirrors, majestic or humble, had to be content with that. Mirror-Mirror thus found bouncing light from bath towels, shower curtains or even the occasional spider a lot more satisfying than reflecting people with all their conceits and neuroses.

Urrrrrrrg!” Valerie slapped her hands on the counter so hard it stung, and somehow felt good.

Are you okay in there, honey?” Dinah's throaty voice floated through the locked door.

I'll be out in a minute, Auntie. ... Thanks,” Valerie chirped through gritted teeth trying to sound cheery. She always called Dinah auntie, though their connection was oblique.

Don't take too long. You don't want to miss your flight.”

Not bad, I thought. It always surprises me to discover some archival piece of my own writing and actually like it. But who is Valerie, and what is her story? What will become of her? Who is Dinah? And what does the mirror have to say? I wasn't able to glean any answers that satisfied me in the few thousand words that followed. I remembered now – in fragmented images – not quite being able to make the story work, and then filing it away, like many other such drafts. Should I bring this up from the wine cellar now and open the bottle? Has it aged enough to be worth another try? And why pursue this fragment? I have so many other things I want to do. Always the same dilemmas.

My dear, narrative surrealist artist and cat-owner Eleanor Spiess-Ferris says she often sketches something on paper or canvas then asks where it wants to go. “I inquire of it,” she says. Her prolific output of fantastic work over the past forty years indicates that she knows whereof she speaks.
Eleanor Spiess-Ferris listens to her canvas, "River"

The technique works for fictional characters as well. I will have a talk with Valerie, Dinah and maybe the mirror. Face it. I can't write and be in my right mind at the same time. I need to become at least a little delusional with these imaginary people if I'm going to have any chance of making them real. Anyway, who ever said writing was a rational process?

Having three grown daughters, I can empathize with Valerie's coming-of-age angst, although she seems as distinct from them as they are from each other. I don't know, at this point, if Valerie escapes her self-loathing, or maybe I should say, her self-obsession, changes her circumstances, becomes the somebody she wants to be, get the boy she wants, or even gets out of that San Francisco Victorian bathroom before the story is over.

And what happens with the mirror is anyone's guess. I think Dinah found it while antique hunting at a flea market and had it restored. Something tells me it once belonged to Snow White's stepmother or Dorian Gray. Count Dracula may have once owned it, but told Igor to throw it away, because he couldn't stand not seeing himself in it any longer. Time for me to step through this looking glass, like Alice, see what Valerie sees and more, I hope.

And sure enough, it turns out that here on the other side of the glass, Valerie has a Facebook page! (Excuse me for going all Paul Auster on you. Let's just call it a writing experiment.)

I click onto Valerie's FB page and find out things I hadn't known about her. For example, checking the “about” info page, I read that she was born in Manhattan, Kansas, was adopted and has an identical twin somewhere. Also, she had a breakdown recently.

 Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas
Check it out. Maybe you will discover something as well, and offer more tidbits - as fanciful as you like - about Valerie, her twin, Dinah, Mr. Mirror or somebody in the shadows. Hazard a guess. Maybe you've heard some rumors. Maybe you have an opinion or a remembrance or something completely different to share. Don't be shy.

Sure. Go ahead and post, if you please. I will too. It's not real – in the conventional sense, anyway. It's an improv exercise in digital-what-the-hell. Valerie may not listen to us about everything. She is a teenager after all. But it might be entertaining.

In any event, it takes one's mind off of writer's block!

So, the story starts to be about self-imagery and mirroring. That much, I've learned. Looking over her FB Timeline, I see that Valerie has posted an intriguing collage about the magical use of mirrors by great artists, starting with Diego Velázquez's spellbinding trick perspectives in LasMeninas and the earlier, Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. I learn that Pablo Picasso painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in 1957, and that Salvadore Dali never finished his what's considered his greatest work: Dali From The Back Painting Gala From The Back Eternalized by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors (1972).

And I'm thinking now of the climactic scene in Orson Welles' "The Lady From Shanghai" when Rita Hayworth and Welles' characters shoot it out with Everett Sloane's villain in the Magic Maze of Mirrors at the long-defunc
t Whitney's Playland at the Beach on Great Highway in the San Francisco I remember as a teenager.

Like these and other artists, Valerie seems obsessed with mirrors, being a budding artist herself, something else I discovered on her page. She doesn't seem to have a lot of friends for someone her age, but I see the list is growing. Maybe more will show up soon. Maybe I'll even wind up her story one day as well. In any case, this will have been worth the ride.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Italian Literature's Identity Crisis, by Mari Biella

Italy is one of those countries you just have to love. It has some of the best countryside and most interesting towns and cities in the world; it’s the country of the Renaissance, of glorious art and architecture. Its wine, fashion and food are widely considered to be second to none. Besides, how can you not love a country shaped like a boot? Yes, there’s no doubt about it: Italy gets rave reviews all round.

What of Italian literature, though? Ah, this is where things begin to go quiet – at least outside Italy.

Italian literature has something of an identity crisis in the English-speaking world. Italy, at a fleeting glance, just doesn’t appear to have a literary tradition to rival those of France, Germany, Russia, Britain, or the United States. Mention ‘Russian Literature’, and vast numbers of writers will spring to mind: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Pushkin, Turgenev, Bulgakov. If someone mentions ‘Italian literature’, what or who do you think of?

Well, there’s Dante, obviously. La Divina Commedia and La Vita Nuova are classics not just of Italian, but of world, literature, and most modern English-speakers will have heard of Dante’s unrequited love for Beatrice – who, after all, can resist a good love story? Yet it’s questionable how many of those English-speakers have ever sat down and read Dante’s works, which is understandable in a way; in these secular times, a long poetic journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven may hold little obvious appeal to the average reader. Ah, well – it matters not. Themes and subject matter, like writers, go in and out of fashion, but Dante is assured a place at the head of the Italian literary table.

Apart from Dante? Well, there’s Petrarch and his sonnets. There’s Boccaccio and his Decameron, hauntingly reminiscent in style and structure of our own Canterbury Tales. Machiavelli’s treatises on the brutal realities of Realpolitik are as relevant today as they ever were, as a cursory glance at Italian politics will confirm.

And then? Surprisingly little, actually, until you arrive at the nineteenth century; in fact, Italian literature only really begins to come into its own in the latter half of the twentieth century, with the emergence of writers such as Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, and Italo Calvino. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a masterpiece of Italian literature, was published posthumously in 1958 (it was rejected by publishers during Tomasi’s lifetime; one considered it ‘unpublishable’, which should give hope to struggling writers everywhere). In the present day, Italian gialli (crime and detective novels) are popular with English readers; indeed, Inspector Montalbano is probably every bit as popular in Surrey as in his native Sicily.

Still, there’s something of a shortfall in the English-speaking world’s appreciation of Italian literature. Why?

It’s unsurprising, in a way. The Italian language, like modern Italy, has existed for just over 150 years. Until the advent of national TV and radio broadcasts, it was not widely spoken; even today, many Italians are in effect bilingual, preferring to speak local dialect in day-to-day life, and switching to standard Italian only when confronted with outsiders. Linguistic confusions, along with so many other contradictions and inconsistencies, help to make Italy such a glorious, interesting muddle of a country. Dante, Boccaccio and Machiavelli all wrote in literary Tuscan, which lies at the root of modern Italian. ‘Lingua Tusca magis apta est ad literam sive literature,’ (‘The Tuscan language is better suited to the letter or literature’) declared Antonio da Tempo of Padua. But, of course, most Italians did not speak Tuscan, and so, perforce, could not read or write in it either.

Lake Como, the setting for Manzoni's novel I Promessi Sposi.

In fact, it was not until 1827 that a novel that was both in Italian and in the realist, European vein was published: Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). I Promessi Sposi is marvellous, but in terms of its potential readership it had one major drawback – at the time, it was written in a language that hardly anyone, some educated Tuscans aside, actually spoke or understood. Only today is Manzoni’s work both widely read and recognised as the major contribution to Italian literature that it truly is.

All of which leads to some rather more general thoughts. Those of us who both live in the modern era and speak and write in English are perhaps phenomenally lucky. We just happen to speak the language that is, at the current time, the lingua franca (for how much longer is another question altogether). Linguistic divides are, perhaps, less broad for us than for those who write in other languages. Yet I sometimes wonder whether foreign-language writing gets the attention it deserves in the English-speaking world. In Britain, at least, one might blame a lingering nervousness about foreignness, together with the common suspicion that, in cultural terms at least, the Channel is wider than the Atlantic. And then, of course, there is the simple language barrier. Much tends to get lost in translation, however competent the translator.

Which is a shame, because one of the great things about fiction is that it allows you to glimpse other places, other times, other points of view. Reading English-language works might be like coming back home again; but we shouldn’t be afraid to venture out of our comfort zones every so often, and try something new. Viva la differenza!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015


'What's yours is mine, bwahahaha!'
I’ve been embroiled in a plagiarism scandal for weeks now and it’s still going on. Someone I’ve known for years, been to their launches, bought their books, has plagiarised friends and colleagues as well as famous writers, and it’s been going on for years under our very noses. At first mainly poetry, now as more and more of it emerges, it includes prose as well and cheating on a PhD thesis, and getting huge amounts of funding from various public bodies on the basis of track record as a writer. I got embroiled when two friends, co-publishees (and as they discovered after a book launch, plag’d poets) and our mutual publisher failed to get any satisfaction over several weeks of private back and forth. I started looking at other poems in the new book and discovered to my dismay that many of them were others’ poems with tweaks and synonyms inserted. We then brought in the ‘poetry sleuth’ Dr Ira Lightman, who’s also a friend, and who has brought to light several of these strange creatures before. The detective work goes on, unraveling many personae with various blogs, projects, fundings, names, qualifications, and more and more examples come to light all the time. Trust has been destroyed, people have fallen out irreparably, some who shared work on secret sites won’t share any more, writers are posting they feel scared they might be unconsciously using something they’ve read and are frantically googling their own work. If you'd like to read more about the ongoing case, here are some links. So far, so bad.

It's always hunting season for messengers!

You may think that an exposed plagiarist, who’s been getting credit and wedges of dosh for stolen work, on exposure, would be howled down. Their publisher, crimson with shame though innocent of wrong, would pulp the book, apologise to all concerned, repudiate the offender, and perhaps falling short of demanding refunds of funding, the plagiarist would be named, shamed and pretty much ruined as a writer. You may think that but you’d be wrong. People do like to shoot messengers. People may cling to denial, especially when it’s someone they know. But nothing prepared any of us, a core group of five, for the shitstorm that has broken over our heads. Much of the contumely has been aimed at us for exposing it. Partly this is a facebook thing, and partly it’s current attitude to copyright. All the sympathy was reserved for the plagiarist, and most of the abuse, to say nothing of the work of finding all the examples, was reserved for us, though the tide has slowly turned as the sheer scale of it has been uncovered. Our motives are automatically suspect. Dr Lightman must be some kind of sinister figure. This should not have been made public. (Not sure how else to put right the public theft of credit for others’ work…)
Notice the quote has been attributed properly, twice!
The word ‘witchhunt’ was used many times, though as someone pointed out, THEY weren’t REAL witches, whereas… The publisher issued a tirade aimed at Dr Lightman, complained about having to pulp the book which he only did after weeks during which he offered to just list the names of plag’d poets in the Acknowledgements on re-publication, for he planned to publish it again. And still does, at least publicly. As for the plagiarisms, he defended these as a valid way of working, of which more anon.  One wonders how he’d have responded to his own books or work being nicked. The plagiarist, when cornered, issued an apology which contradicted the publisher by saying the whole thing had been a mistake, getting muddled, accidentally using other people’s lines or whole poems – a stance still kept up now, when we are well into double figures. Plag’d poets around the world were informed and some were furious. Others were put off by the totally groundless assumptions about the perp's mental state made by amateur psychiatrists on social media and kept quiet rather than be blamed for upsetting their plagiarist. Continual questions are asked about whether the University who awarded the Creative Writing PhD are going to take action, since cheating was involved. Because they too seem to have been very quiet. Major organizations in the writing game (funders, other publishers, bodies employing the culprit as a marker of others’ work etc) have not been keen to respond, except when a wronged writer has forced them to, as technical publishers or funders of some piece of work. Those of us who’ve kept trying to put facts straight online have now alienated quite a few relatively powerful people, publishers, funders and writers, for standing up for the rights of writers. Maybe it's the mathematician in me, but I can't bear to let false information stand somehow. I've been plagiarised myself and it's very unpleasant indeed.
My Quantum Sheep idea was 'rustled' by someone who claimed they thought of it first though it'd been in the media for over ten years.
The worst fuss was about the widespread assumption, nay stated ‘fact’ that anyone who does wrong is automatically ‘mentally ill’ or has suffered ‘brain trauma’ and therefore needs sympathy. They don’t know what they are doing, poor muddled souls. A few of us objected to this on the grounds that 1) the person involved was still running several highly funded and complex projects very efficiently and 2) such assumptions are stigmatizing of those with mental illness and of disabled people in general. I’ve never had such a kicking on social media as after I made these seemingly sensible points. In the light of what copyright means to writers in all genres it raises a few questions.

These are some of the other excuses made for plagiarism, in a world where it is endemic in the student population, where all students’ work is put through detection software, where essays can be bought online or the internet used for copy and paste orgies.

He can't really complain that someone stole his 'r'.

‘Copyright is capitalism.’ Words belong to us all, to use as we like, regardless, and that includes how words are put together. Property is theft and so is intellectual property.
Neither did 'sue your ass off'...
‘Finders keepers; plagiarism is ok because people have always done it.’ Defenders of this stance often cite Shakespeare who was a plagiarist, you know. This ‘fact’ gets quoted all the time without any evidence. Or logical thought: after all, they burned witches then (witchhunts, remember?) and times have changed, ditto the copyright laws. Similarly the ‘writers of the gospels’ (another defence) may have collected oral traditions but that does not mean you can use others’ work now.

'Yes, but who from?'
‘It’s just remixing like they do with music.’ This is used to excuse the practice, alarmingly widespread, of ‘ghosting’ or remixing poems by other people and then publishing them as your own original work without even crediting the writer. Well it’s not ok. Remixing is done often in the electronic music world, only with permission and full credit. The remixer will often just get a flat fee and any sales of the remixed track will bring royalties only to the original creators. If you mash up a couple of tracks in your bedroom, nobody will bother much but if you try selling them, god help you. People get sued for stealing lyrics or tunes or bits of them, and sued to the tune of millions. The music world is far from casual about copyright. You can’t quote any lyric apart from the song title without permission, credit and often a very hefty fee. (So don’t quote music lyrics in your novels!)
I've posted this clever feminist spoof of 'Blurred Lines' (Full credits are on youtube!) rather than the icky version by Thicke and Williams who got sued for stealing from Marvin Gaye.  Enjoy!

‘It’s ‘found poetry’.’ This used to mean poetry you create from phrases found in the world outside, posters, newspapers, instruction manuals, which you incorporate into poems. It’s now being used to mean ‘I found a poem by X, I’m remixing it or tweaking it and calling it mine.’ I have now heard of workshops being run where impressionable newby writers are being taught these techniques. I found a website encouraging this and challenging people to produce one a day, easy enough as using someone else’s poem you can churn them out in minutes. All the above can apply to novels and short stories. Another plagiarist was lecturing at university while selling stories by the likes of Dylan Thomas as her own.

Who cares? Do you? Is it only writers and creators of original work who care about copyright? Is it worth fighting for, or should we just accept that it’s dying out?

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