Sunday, April 02, 2006

Is writer's block real or imaginary?

Also in today's blog

Coates rant chez Charkin
Jenna's 2 hours a day = 5 books a year
What Einstein told his cook
Latest news of Jack Reacher
Ruari McLean dies
Dalrymple on the great education fraud

Rant by Coates chez Charkin

There was a splendid rant by Tim Coates, guest-blogging at Richard Charkin's blog yesterday. Don't miss it!

"This is a £1.2bn pa operation which has no accounts, no boards of directors, no planning or budgeting, no measurement of performance and no management of the kind a garage mechanic would recognise. It is a disaster from the tip of its branches to the lengths of it ancient roots. Use of the service has fallen to half its rather successful level of twenty years ago and no one can even agree whether that is a good thing or a bad one. No junior manager learns the basic skills of "yes" or "no" from his senior- because he, or she never learned those skills either. The operation is a national disgrace and nobody even knows."

I've been using public libraries for about 64 years, starting as a sub-teen schoolgirl at Norwich public library during the second world war and currently enjoying summer use of the Guille-Allès and Priaulx libraries in St Peter Port, Guernsey.

Memorable libraries in my life have been Bristol, York, Nantucket, Vancouver and many others around the world. To a bookworm, a library is a home from home.

Writer's block - real or imaginary?

Early last Monday morning I read a 4,000-word article by Jane Smiley published in the previous Saturday's issue of the UK's most bookish newspaper, The Guardian. The subject was "on beating writers block". [no apostrophe]

Above the heading was - "Writing fiction always came easily to Jane Smiley, until a few years ago when her imagination suddenly failed her. Launching a new series on reading, the novelist explains why she turned to the work of others in an attempt to overcome her own writer's block."

At the end of the article we are told it is an edited extract from the introduction to 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, to be published in May by Faber & Faber price £16.99, with a paperback following in September, and that "Jane Smiley's column on reading fiction begins next week."

Some years ago I read and enjoyed Smiley's novel Horse Heaven. Then I read another of her books - can't remember the title - which I found less absorbing. Probably, had I spotted her name on the shelves of the public library in St Peter Port, the source of much of my summer reading, I would have read more of her books.

An interesting fact about Ms Smiley is that, although still only in her fifties, "She has been married three times - to John Whiston (1970-1975), William Silag (1978-1986), and Stephen M. Mortensen (1987-1997)."

As I read the Guardian piece, I couldn't help wondering if three marriages ending in divorce might have a bearing on her bout of block.

To be honest, I've always felt that block is something afflicting only those who don't depend on their writing income to pay the mortgage/school fees/grocery bills etc. My problem is the reverse of block : a long list of ideas for books and a decreasing number of years in which to write with them. Oh, to be 45 again!

Jenna's 2 hours a day

Last week an American writer Jenna Bayley-Burke hit the comment button and wrote
"I've never read Grumpy Old Bookman. I think I'd like him. I hope that as my children get older and start school I'll have more time to write, but life fills in whatever you don't make time for. Even with my family obligations and my boys, I commit to writing 2 hours a day and can complete 5 novels a year. It's all in what you do with your time."

If that sounds impossible, work it out. Taking Sundays off, six days a week for 48 weeks = 288 working days x 1,000 words [500 words an hour] = 288,000 words. Which is two substantial 140,000-word novels, or five Harlequin/Mills & Boon 55,000-word romances.

Jenna added, "And if you like Don't Sweat the Aubergine, try What Einstein Told His Cook. Kitchen science amazes me. Haven't figured out how to work it into a romance yet, but I will."

Which sent me off to Amazon US where I read a long - 951 words! - review, headed "Allows one to use plastic spoons for caviar etc" written by Dennis Littrell from SoCal USA.

It begins
This is a most delightful book, full of kitchen wisdom and chemistry, good and bad puns, and many, many clever witticisms. It is a flat out pleasure to read, but what really makes it such an outstanding piece of work, and a book every kitchen should have, is that it is so full of information, from why and how corn syrup ends up in sodas to why and how to wash your mushrooms--and yes, they are indeed grown in manure, but not to worry, as Wolke explains on pages 286-288 in a little essay entitled, "You Can't Wash Your Car with a Wet Mushroom." (I believe that.) This is the kind of book you'll find yourself reading from cover to cover instead of peeling the potatoes.

I recommend you read the whole of Mr Littrell's review.

Latest news of Jack Reacher

There was a story in The Bookseller earlier this week which may or may not still be accessible by the time you read this. It was an interview with Lee Child, creator of one of my favourite thriller heroes, Jack Reacher. Written by Benedicte Page, it read
"It isn't just men who like Reacher, though. The busy routine of promotion takes up a large proportion of Child's life these days, and he treats his author events as an opportunity to learn from readers' responses. At a bookshop event in Arizona last year, 120 people turned up--all were women, bar two or three men "who didn't want their wives to be alone in the same room as Jack Reacher".

The explanation is simple. "Reacher is hot. I think it's a common fantasy, the idea of a perfect affair that has no comeback--your husband doesn't find out, you don't get divorced. Reacher is perfect for that--he'll knock on your door, and then he'll go away again. The thing you can rely on with Reacher is that he'll always move on." "

The fantasy Lee Child mentions is certainly not one of mine. Usually, fantasies are for people whose real lives are unsatisfactory. Mine is not. I see Reacher as a rather sad, lonely figure who, so far, has missed out on one of the two best things life has to offer - a happy marriage. The other being a satisfying way of earning a living.
Jack Reacher has an army pension and lives very simply. But one can't help feeling that the aimlessness of his life will become a problem as he gets older. Though of course the heroes of thrillers don't age at the same rate as the rest of us.
It will be interesting to see if, when Reacher's creator has made enough money to see him out in comfort, he will say goodbye to Reacher and write a different kind of novel. Eventually, most authors who write commercial fiction, become bored and long to write something different.

Ruari McLean dies

On Thursday there was an interesting obit in the UK newspaper The Times. "Ruari McLean June 10, 1917 - March 27, 2006 Leading typographical designer of his day whose work encompassed stationery, comics, magazines and fine books"

Dalrymple on confidence tricksters

One of my favourite essayists, Theodore Dalrymple, an English big-city doctor who recently retired to rural France, had an interesting piece in The Times this week headed The striking idiocy of youth and sub-headed "French students should go back to class to learn some economics".

The following paras extracted from it will give you the flavour of the article.
"The main difference is that while Dominque de Villepin is tentatively dragging France, albeit kicking and screaming, and with every likelihood of failure, in the right direction, Mr Brown is still stuck on the royal road to disaster, for which the British people, but not of course Mr Brown, will ultimately pay very dearly. When the crash comes, the social dislocation in Britain will make French disaffection seem positively genteel.
The vast and fraudulent expansion of tertiary education, which leaves students indebted for their own useless education, is merely a means by which the Government disguises youth unemployment and keeps young people off the streets. Contrary to government propaganda, unemployment is not low in Britain: but it is now called sickness.
It can't be said either that we won't deserve what we get. It is we, after all, who have listened to the urgings of demagogic confidence tricksters, and believed their promises of irreconcilable goods. We should have paid attention instead to the wise words of Benjamin Franklin that apply as much to economics as to politics. He who gives up freedom for security, he said, will end up with neither."

The fallout from what Dalrymple calls "the vast and fraudulent expansion of tertiary education" is already visible in the worlds of writing and publishing. Unless there are major changes in the years ahead, which seems unlikely, it can only get worse.


The first of Jane Smiley's book commentaries was published yesterday at Consuming narratives

"Jane Smiley plans to read 100 novels in an attempt to 'illuminate the whole concept of the novel'. Here she introduces the first book on her list, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu".

I read the book years ago and found it extremely tedious. Ploughing through Ms Smiley's summary, I felt the book was a bad choice to start the series. But I'll have another look next Saturday and report back.