Thursday, June 14, 2012

The creative class

Interesting and saddening article on Salon recently about how there has been a massive drop in work opportunities for those in what article author Scott Timberg calls 'The Creative Class.' Many groups have suffered in the recession, but this article is, as much as anything, about presiding narratives. About how classes are portrayed, by whom, and with what agenda.

This from the article:

Novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose father was what the writer describes as “a non-famous artist,” sees the American artist as living in internal exile. American history is stamped with “a distrust of the urban, the historical, the bookish in favor of a fantasy of frontier libertarian purity. And the Protestant work ethic has a distrust of what’s perceived as decadence.”

For me, that resonates with my sense of New Zealand too.

There has been much talk recently about anti-intellectualism in large sections of the U.S.Where creative artists are mistrusted, and how people are being persuaded to mistrust creative workers. This opens up the whole debate of course, over just what we consider a creative worker, and who is it that is in the creative class. I often remind my students that creative is not a state of being, but an action, and perhaps an understanding.

The man alone against physical wilderness held great power over this country for a long time, and has never really left us. It is always problematic though, as it can inspire insularity and paranoia. At the very least it is always male-centric and even its view of the rural is onesidedly male.

The same resentful and paranoid chills have affected the U.S.

Again, from the article.

But these seeds of paranoia really blossomed with the invention of the term the “cultural elite.” During the “Murphy Brown” wars of 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California, connecting the Los Angeles riots to a group sitting “in newsrooms, sitcom studios, and faculty lounges all over America,” jeering at regular people. “We have two cultures,” he said, “the cultural elite and the rest of us.”

It will be a long time before the dust settles on this issue, and on the recession in general and its survivors. It is important though, as always, that we drive our own narratives. If we give away control of our stories we become secondary characters in the stories of others.

You can read the full article here.

In the margins

Interesting reflective piece from writer/poet Serie Barford, at the Poetic Inspirations blog, about her life and her poetic process. Serie has taught poetry on some of my courses, and is always well received. It's fascinating to watch an audience and a class switch gears when a poet who is an expert performer takes center stage.
Poetry often slips under the mainstream radar in New Zealand (and often elsewhere) but the poetry community is vibrant and self sustaining and poets, especially those whose public readings add an extra dimension to their written text (as Serie's do) tend to make their own waves, rather than wait for waves to come and find them.

From the article:

I’ve since resigned myself to the fact that I live in the margins and that’s okay because I can create from this space and it’s my ‘inner world’ that keeps me anchored to the ‘outer world’.

Serie's poem 'Plea to the Spanish Lady' about the influenza epidemic that devasted Samoa (and many countries) just after WW1 brings up the the issue of hidden narratives, or more correctly, narratives that are hidden. Hidden by governments, by media who represent just one strata or colour of society. How whole histories and traumas and tragedies vanish because they're not told, outside of the people who directly experienced them.

Here's an excerpt:

Plea to the Spanish Lady (extract)
 Today the Samoan Times is all news:
death notices and a front page
Today the editor died
Today Teuila’s screams awoke me
as she lay between her parents
dipping fingers in their sweat

Serie's work and the work of other Pasifika poets such as Selina Tusitala Marsh, John Pule and Karlo Mila add extra bite and resonance to what in New Zealand was often a very monochromatic literary scene. We can acknowledge Shakespeare and Browning, yes, but we don't need to be imprisoned by them. Poetry also lives here in the Pasifika New Zealand. Now.

Kudos too to Maryanne Pale for setting up this poetry blog. Long may it continue.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The iron dark of the world.

There he stood, just come in from that bare and desolate wasteland, into the well lit hallway with its dreams and ghosts of movies long dead and gone and shorn of all meaning. He'd walked through the tangled mesquite brakes and up beyond the south fork of the river to where the movie theatre stood skeletoned in the burning sunset. He'd stood at the ticket office, the clerk jaunty and misbegotten and he'd bought an ice cream and so burdened he'd made his way through the bloodred reefs of moviegoers to that long, haunted corrider where the theatre doors broke away left and right. Somewhere a tap dripped and dripped, counting away the days and nights and other days and nights of the world. His tie hung canted, angled, a chimera cast perhaps in some demonic tiemaker's forge in the iron dark of the world. A tie whose stripes spoke of that lost dream. A camera bulb flashed.
You're not smiling, the woman said.
I reckon you're smiling enough for both of us, he said.
Did Billy bring the horses in?
Yes mam. Crapped all up and down the hallway.
He'd woken that morning from a dream. In the dream a great black shape had risen from some far off cave across an oily black river and he'd watched as it turned into a thunderhead blacker than any he'd so witnessed before.
He leaned and spat.
His horse whinnied.
It ain't nothin he'd said.
His horse nodded. They rode on.
So riding they came upon a road of bones and among those bones a single flower lay half crumpled but green still and it grew greener as he stood watching. He crouched, passed his hat across his face. No reason, really, he just liked to do that. And then the flower began to rise on the breeze and he rose with it and it grew then into a twig then a branch then a trunk then a torso until what stood before both man and horse and other men and horses (as a crowd had gathered) was a woman. She turned, glanced down for a moment then turned and walked out across that foreland plain where even the vaqueros wouldn't ride. She leaned and drank rainwater from the rockpools, her face lost to them. She walked until the narrator bid her to stop. She turned at last to regard them. Then she was gone. Lost in that thunderhead. He awoke. A thousand years older.
Where did you get those boots? said the woman in the theatre.
Texas. Where did you get that outfit?
They stood.
There's a cafe in the lobby, she said. You a coffee drinker?
Coffee? he said. I once shared a coffee with an old man, just south of Testeverde, New Mexico. He sat in a field in a highland plain where the winter sun turned the grass a burnt umber and the horses milled about, hazing among the flowers whose pollen hung in the sun like powdered gold and...where'd she go?

(A thousand apologies to Cormac McCarthy)

Light and Shadow

I was watching a few clips from the Charles Laughton directed 'Night of the Hunter' on YouTube.It's the tale of two childrens journey to escape a psychotic pseudo preacher. Robert Mitchum plays the preacher, with creepy intensity. 

Laughton, one of the greatest actors of them all, directed a grand total of one movie. One. This one. The critics panned it, perhaps because its sense of cinematography, hell, its sense of everything was way ahead of its time.

Here is a clip from this film. Laughton had a sense of how to use light, shadow and layered sound to create a total experience of a scene. A sensory and cerebral 3-D, without the stoopid gadgetry. The expressionistic vision and use of light/shadow in graduated contrast (the steeple shape above the child's bed, for example) is stunning. It's not a film for the feint-hearted, but worth the experience to see such risky and visionary film-making in action.

First books...

This was the first book I ever owned. Great little story. I must pick up another copy. Parents bought it for my 5th birthday. 

I was the saddest dog you could ever see,
Sad because no one wanted me.
The pet shop window was my jail.
The sign behind me said, "For Sale."

For my 7th birthday (when I was sick in bed with the flu) my mother bought me a set of a half dozen Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton. Then for my 9th birthday she bought me 'Of Mice and Men' by John Steinbeck. I looked at it, looked like a small book, easy read. That was the end of the beginning for me.

Makes me think of first books and of the children lucky enough to be introduced to the world of books and reading early. Ours wasn't a house of books by any means. Even cheap paperbacks required putting money aside, and a book as a present was for birthdays and Christmas only. 

But then I discovered libraries. 

Stories have been captured and housed and transported within many different forms, oral, the early presses, ornate hardbacks, bargain paperbacks, mainstream paperbacks with higher production values, .pdfs, e-books. I'm certainly glad to have lived in a time where, as a child, books were both a voice created in the reader's imagination, and a tactile, sensory object. My early books eventually required large amounts of cellotape. School librarians would shudder when they saw me coming. The 'new' world of e-books will give us different pleasures, and some of the children's e-books out have exquisite graphics and lots of interactivity. But there will always be something to be said for rolling up a bent and battered copy of 'Of Mice and Men' in your back pocket and riding your bike to somewhere with grass and a tree and pulling it out and flattening the pages.  
They're all good times, just in different ways. As long as we keep telling stories, and listening, and reading.

The Ngaio Marsh awards

At the NZ Society of Authors Auckland branch meeting last Friday we had Craig Sisterson come and speak. Craig runs the Crime Watch blog. One of the subjects he spoke about was the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel by a New Zealand writer.

The long list for this annual event is out now.
The longlisted titles are:
  • COLLECTING COOPER by Paul Cleave (Simon & Schuster)
  • LUTHER: THE CALLING by Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster)
  • FURT BENT FROM ALDAHEIT by Jack Eden (Pear Jam Books)
  • TRACES OF RED by Paddy Richardson (Penguin)
  • BY ANY MEANS by Ben Sanders (HarperCollins)
  • BOUND by Vanda Symon (Penguin)
  • THE CATASTROPHE by Ian Wedde (Victoria University Press)

Great to see this award, both in its role of supporting crime writing by New Zealanders, and also it's dual role in honouring the grande dame of New Zealand crime/thriller/mystery writing, Ngaio Marsh.

Craig made a point also of grouping writers/writing/readers of the genre in wide terms. Crime/mystery/thriller. That takes into account the traditional English cozy mysteries of Agatha Christie (cozy in setting and to a degree - style, not in incident) and texts a million miles away from that, such as Lee Child and his hyper-violent Jack Reacher series of novels. Readers within the wide framework of the genre probably change their positions over time, and this range of scope reflects many different needs, expectations and styles. That's a good thing.

Here is the link to the Ngaio Marsh Awards' Facebook page, so you can keep up with developments. Best of luck to everyone, and congratulations to the organizers for setting up the awards to support and promote this field.

Water flows through flat land...

I look high up on the wall, all the way to the top where there is one of them skylights, them lights that let the sky in. I ask Pa why them city folks let the sky in when the wind and rain and the rustbrown dead leaves of November come in too.
'Don't be asking me such darned fool questions,' he says.
'I need to know, pa,' I say.
'Boy, you need to bring that mule round front. That's what'n you need to do. Lord knows I've suffered enough.'
'I did, Pa.'
'I asked Vardaman to look on it.'
'He's just a boy.'
That boy, that Vardaman, he comes in now carrying a fish, darn nigh as big as he is. He slops it down on the floor, stands with his legs apart, like a man.
'Where's the mule?' says Pa.
'Can't eat no mule,' says Vardaman.
Then that boy, that Vardaman, he goes out, down the long low lazy looping hallway to where you smell the woodsmoke on the wind. We follow him out across the dirt and leaves. I stand. Pa stands. Vardaman stands.
'Everyone else drives around in cars,' I say. 'Why we still using a mule?'
'Can't a man have a moment's piece,' says Pa, 'less'n he's set trials and tribulations by the good Lord on the road to his reward. Lord knows I've suffered enough.'
'Even Didley Dooley has a Nissan Smart Car.'
'Lord knows. Electric cars. Next they'll be a fixing us electric lamps too.'
Then that Cash appears. He's covered in sawdust from his head to his boots. He's wearing his tool belt, the one with his tools in it. He carries a brown paper bag. One of the tongues of his boot hangs loose, flaps in the wind. He reaches into his toolkit and takes out a hammer and knocks it back in. The nail draws blood. His face doesn't change. The look in his eyes don't change neither.
'I smell viddles,' says Pa, looking at that Cash, looking at that paper bag. Cash looks. Pa looks. A feller riding past on a bicycle looks. 'Lord knows I could use some viddles. To ease my journey on the way to my reward. You durn been hunting in that there long grass?
'No, pa,' says Cash. 'I been to McDonalds. Like them normal people.'

(Apologies to William Faulkner)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The old man and the cat.

And the man turned, looked past the wine bottle at the cat. Furry, fluffy, desolate. And the man knew then he would not pat that cat though he wanted to, just like he had in that house in the snow in Austria where he'd sat with another cat and another bottle of wine, where they'd looked out the window at all the cat tracks in the snow, muddy, blurry, and someone said they weren't cat tracks, no, those aren't cat tracks, but they were cat tracks and they saw those cat tracks all that winter until they died.

(Apologies to Hemingway)

Graham Swift on the Narrative Physics of Novels

I've just read an interesting article from the English writer Graham Swift (Waterland, Last Orders) about the slowness of writing. I've long admired Swift, though it would be over the top to say I've loved all his work. There are great snatches: the final image of the motorbike standing alone by the canal's edge in Waterland, the moment the old geezers have their puffing and heaving fight (they're trying to swagger) on the hillside in Last Orders.

Anyone who works on prose fiction likely knows the strange feeling that writing can flow, and you can get a lot done quickly in a scene, but a narrative as a whole is painstaking. I've written most of the passages in my current novel quite quickly, with a sense of being in the real-time 'bubble' of the scene. Hearing the spoken dialogue at the speed those words are spoken, watching characters move across the landscape in the time it would take in the world. And yet it's taken years to get to the point I'm at.

From the article.

I’m not disheartened by the thought that what takes me years to write may occupy a reader for just a few hours. To have made, perhaps, a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, and if that communication becomes for readers not just a means of passing those hours, but a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, then that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.

Most of us are probably not aware of exactly what we're doing when we read, and how we slip in and out of ticking-clock-time. Maybe that's one of the roles of the novel, and of reading itself, to disrupt that regimentation.

The answers to the question that arises out of my opening paragraph are simple ones. Why do novels take so long to write when so many scenes go by in real time?

* drafting and redrafting until it's the best we can do to have the text do the story justice
* writing isn't just the fingers on keyboards phase, it's the reading back, the thinking, the reframing
* the moment so often seen as the 'creative moment' is just a beginning. There's much work to do after that.

To read the full article, click here.