Category Archives: Books

Serial Thrillers

1990s culture had lots of perks. Some of us remember the music, the rise of the Pokemon card, the questionable fashion. For me, the 90s was defined by two must-have brands, the Beanie Baby and that ever so slightly creepy, chirping bird-doll-hybrid Furby creature. We might look back on these fads with a fondly nostalgic eye, whilst being quietly grateful that we have moved on to greater things, to smoothies, to micropigs, to kindles. However, in terms of the world of fiction, there is one 90s trend that is still influencing the way we read today, and that is the serial novel.

Furby friend of the 90s

Furby friend of the 90s

In spite of its 1996 publication date, George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, first in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, is still topping Waterstones’ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror bestseller list. In fact, the list is dominated by other books from the series, the formulaic titles chiming together repetitively, like a meditative chant of words from another world; swords, dragons, kings, thrones. Unsurprisingly, the neat sense of continuity in the A Song of Ice and Fire collection makes it perfectly adaptable to television. Not wanting to miss out on the next link in the chain, the recent third season finale was watched by 5.4 million viewers, making it HBO’s second most-watched programme of all time. Indeed, just as we wait in a reverently carb-free limbo for the next episode of The Great British Bake-Off and relish in re-entering the parlour of Downton once more this autumn, the book-in -a-series format is a sure way to create a classic page turner that has readers suffering from a heady addiction. Let’s not forget the queues and hysteria surrounding the latest J K Rowling effort, as eager buyers grappled to get their hands on the latest contribution to story-time for the children, their Sunday night read or their lunch break.

Game_of_Thrones_title_card

The popularity of 1990s oeuvres such as the Harry Potter series, A Song of Ice and Fire and His Dark Materials heralded a new movement in the world of fiction that continues to be felt. Indeed, in cinemas recently was the first installment of the The Mortal Instruments, a series of six young adult fantasy novels no doubt following in the wake of their 1990s antecedents.  And it’s not just limited to fantasy, to a world of mythical battles and politics. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy entranced readers with a slightly different power game. In parallel to our TV routines, as we loyally follow episode after episode of docudramas, talent shows and cookery series, the way we read has been transformed into a question of ‘what comes next?’. As we journey breathlessly through novel after novel to the imaginative parameters of the epic whole, it seems that every-day entertainment now comes in bulletin format. It’s about getting your hand on the latest, the next in line. Reading has become a bit like watching a soap opera.

And yet, delving into the past reveals that enjoying books in episodic format is something that we have a much older figure than George R R Martin to thank for.  Due to the rise of literacy and advances in print technology, as well as efficiency and improved economics of distribution, the serialisation of novels became voguish in the Victorian era. And this was all due to Charles Dickens’ 1836 serialised work The Pickwick Papers. Following that huge success, Dickens’ subsequent works were published in weekly or monthly magazines and newspapers, giving the inquisitive reader regular bulletins of another world and heightening their appetite as the latest chapter went to print. In fact, Dickens’ method of serial publication proved to enliven his readership so greatly that he developed an editorial relationship with them, modifying his stories and characters over the weeks and months in tune with their reactions.

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

Say the words ‘Charles Dickens’ to a reluctant reader and they might wince at the thought of a hefty, starchy tome. Yet in reality, his epic character studies were broken down into tantalizing tit-bits, each structured internally like a miniature serial novel of today, with climaxes, twists and turns but just enough of a cliff-hanger to leave us yearning for the next installment. Dickens is credited with creating the caricature, a figure whose quirks are exaggerated to a larger-than-life extent, so that we cannot help being captivated. And that is much the same in today’s serial novels. So no matter how much weird and wonderful characters like Edward Cullen have become icons of 21st century global popular culture and our obsession with serial storytelling and fantastical escapism, they are the products of a literary form rooted firmly in a tradition that is much closer to home. Perhaps when we lose ourselves in a sequence of novels, we are actually finding our way back to the beginning.

Dickens

Dickens

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‘Gatsby? What Gatsby?’

A new film is upon us from the man who visualised Shakespeare’s Mercutio cross-dressed and gyrating on the sweeping Capulet staircase to ‘Young Hearts, Run Free’ in a white diamante bra and choker. Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has burst onto our screens with much the same panache and beat as his 1996 ‘Romeo and Juliet’. As Luhrmann revealed in an interview for Sky Movies, he first envisaged creating a film out of Fitzgerald’s classic as he travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway after filming ‘The Moulin Rouge’, enjoying the novel in audio book format as he dozed off with a glass of red wine. Just like the fantastical ‘blue gardens’ and ‘yellow cocktail music’ of Fitzgerald’s imagined world, Luhrmann has conjured up a vision of ‘The Great Gatsby’ that cavorts as if it is haunted by the cancan dancers and clownish entertainers of that infamous Parisian nightclub, born out of train journey slumbers and wine-fed dreaming.

gatsby 1

Luhrmann’s inspiration is apt, as the novel really is all about dreaming. Nick’s dream of Gatsby, Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, Gatsby’s dream of Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream of  Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream, or perhaps nightmare, of America. Hemingway claimed that Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda used to encourage her husband to drink whilst writing. Perhaps, much like the stumbling narrator Nick , who sits ‘within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’, Fitzgerald wrote his novel through a haze of ethanol, in a state of wakeful dreaming. He shaped the black ink on the page with a mind blurred and fluid at the edges, at liberty to fantasise, to fashion the synaesthetic party scenes in which the senses queasily intermingle. Even after all the bloodshed, the smashing up, the loss, there is a small place within Fitzgerald’s imagination still enchanted by a faith in dreaming that he has shown to be futile. He is in part charmed by the ‘orgastic future’ that we ‘stretch out our arms farther’ to reach, despite its eluding us ‘year by year’. It is Fitzgerald’s ambivalence that defines Gatsby’s ‘greatness’. Like the sublime, he is a figure who unnerves as much as he attracts, just as his dream is as romantic as it is dangerous.

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann's flamboyant touch

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann’s flamboyant touch

It is this instability that Luhrmann fails to capture. He dreams with the carelessness of the party- goers and the wild romanticism of Gatsby himself, and doing so, the caution and nuance of the author’s craft is lost. The word author is etymologically related to authority, seen in the close relationship between the medieval words ‘auctor’ and ‘auctoritee’. The hold of an author over their work has always been problematic from literature’s foundations, with writers such as Chaucer struggling to establish clear power. He prefaced his works with vocalisations of modesty which instructed readers didactically as much as they apologised for any shortcomings and shook off culpability for dangerous misinterpretation. With the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, private manuscripts became available for public readership. Popular anthologies such as Tottel’s Miscellany encouraged a collaborative authorship, with readers actively taking to the page with quills and amending sonnets, circulating new versions and subverting the original poet’s power. Clearly the authority of authorship has always been contentious, but it is difficult to lose ourselves in the film’s contrived and off-piste opening, as a washed-up, bearded and morose Nick talks softly to a psychiatrist as snowflakes dust around the sanatorium. Luhrmann’s portrayal of the story’s narrator provides a painfully unsubtle metatextual experience, as Nick’s words clunkily etch themselves across the screen in typewriter font. Suddenly, the famously unreliable voice careers off with such autonomy that even as Fitzgerald’s powerful cadence draws the film to a close, Nick must wrap it all up in a ring binder and in a moment of casual afterthought asterix ‘the great’ onto the title of his manuscript, ‘Gatsby’. Giving such deliberate power to a narrator who oscillates so infamously between repulsion and attraction in the novel, Luhrmann re-shapes Fitzgerald’s tale with a carthartic neatness, a ‘once upon a time’ frame that counters its original sense of emptiness, negating the force of the ‘foul dust’ and ash that swirls through its pages and drains away any prospect of redemption.

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

Of course, it is important to recognise that a film is a work of art in its own right. But for dedicated Fitzgerald fans, Luhrmann’s emphasis seems to usurp the ultimate dreamer, the author. The novel’s greatest moment of loss is given a sense of rose-tinted fatefulness in the film. Gatsby’s death is romanticised by his desperate belief that Daisy is the one at the end of the trilling receiver, a point in the plot that Fitzgerald fashions with devastating sparseness. Nick can only imagine that Gatsby looks up at the ‘unfamiliar sky’, detached from the ‘new world, material without being real’, a man who had ‘paid a high price for living too long with a single dream’. Lying not far away is Wilson’s body and ‘the holocaust was complete’.

Nick is a man who is glad to compliment Gatsby before he dies as better than the ‘rotten crowd’ he associates with. But in all the glitz and glamour, we must not forget that he is also a man who freely admits in the same sentence that ‘I disapproved of him from beginning to end’. Dreams are not always beautiful, but they are always enigmatic. This is what Gatsby is, how Fitzgerald writes, how Nick observes. It doesn’t seem to be how Luhrmann directs.

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The Writer’s Toolbox

I’ve been writing a diary every day for nine years now. I don’t remember ever specifically wanting to start  a diary, but a Christmas gift from my Grandma triggered an enjoyment in journal keeping that has become an obsession, a love of looking back over my life at memories that I can read and re-read again and again. But I have a confession to make. I’ve let my diary writing fall by the wayside for the past week or so. Just as I have let my blogging. As I survey my surroundings whilst I sit and type, it’s not difficult to see why. Scattered around my room is a mosaic of sodden laundry that I vainly hope will dry. Coffee mugs adorn every available surface. Everything is haphazard to a slightly unacceptable degree.

 

 

What I am also surrounded by are words, but these words are not my own. Scraps of paper scribbled in quotations, critical voices resounding from tea-stained library tomes, photocopies and extracts. It is these fragments of opinions, these quips and epigrams of literary characters that have been swirling in my mind for the past week or so, immersing me in the bounds of books.

What I relish in blogging however is that it allows us to speak and listen beyond the pages of fiction or the monochrome columns of a newspaper. For those of us hurrying past the newsagents with little time to stop, blogging keeps us connected, and particularly in a journalistic capacity, dramatises momentous news stories in an intense real-time framework. As an arts student, the Oxford English Dictionary always proves an invaluable tool in bolstering an essay’s argument and revealing new layers of meaning to words.  Of course, stylistically, online blogging is not the same as essay writing, but a quick definition search of ‘blog’ provoked some interesting thoughts about what is expected of bloggers as they log into WordPress and compose a witty snippet. ‘Blog’ is defined as ‘to write and maintain a weblog’. For me, the idea of ‘maintenance’ is particularly interesting. It seems that blogs need to be up to date, current, recent. The blogger’s voice should freshly echo what is unfolding in society.

Blogging in a journalistic field therefore becomes particularly valuable. Cambridge’s Varsity newspaper certainly made use of the excitement and vitality of a ‘live blog’ unfolding alongside the tensions of the recent Presidential election. Online media allows writers indefinite opportunities to upload, edit and refresh. And this creates a culture that must forever be up to date. Our yearning to be kept in the know is kindled even more by the interactivity of reading in an online format. As journalists link their pieces to Twitter, we can enter a world once confined to offices of broadsheet, tweeting comments and questions to writers in response to their articles. Of course, the interactivity of the reader has implications for the ethics of online writing. Bloggers and journalists are always accountable for their work.  The force of ‘click to share’ could become dangerous, spreading poor, misinformed or offensive opinion and perpetuating a negative online presence for writers involved.

But is a cantankerous voice resonating online worse than not being heard at all? Certainly Oscar Wilde stated that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’. Perhaps, the endless renewal and updating of online pieces and blogs mixed with carefully crafted tweets, gives those who have made a slip of the tongue a chance for redemption. Yet maintaining our writing online in the heady world of technological progress proves challenging. With Twitter’s bemusing and alien lexicon of ‘retweets’, ‘modified tweets’, ‘hashtags’ and ‘trending’, many voices may find themselves lost in translation.

As technology advances, all that writers like me can do is hope that they can keep up, maintaining their voices and satisfying eager and inquisitive readers. This is where sites like Mashable become so handy. It might not be the first place we think of, but in providing the ‘how to’ for social media, this is where all aspiring writers should start.  A handbook for anyone challenged by the hashtag, Mashable provides a catalogue of helpful articles ranging from ‘5 better ways to network on Twitter and LinkedIn’ and ‘A Totally Serious Beginner’s Guide to Memes’. It is a tool box I have rummaged in from time to time, helping me navigate the haze of bitlyed links and retweets and better understand how to speak to those who might want to listen. In breaking down the giant that is social media into its clear components, Mashable provides a handy map for anyone wanting to scribble their thoughts upon the canvas of cyberspace. In this way, even when my little emerald green leather-bound diary lies unfilled by the inky splashes of my mind, my words might just fill someone else’s mind across the distances of the globe for one little moment.

 

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Handbound

I have been absent from the world of blogging for the past couple of weeks for a simple reason. Books. And what could have been more apt than for me to discover, just as I turned my mind to blogging again, that books were not just something enveloping my time and interest as I began back at Cambridge , but were something grabbing attention beyond the heights of the University Library’s dusty shelves.

Tomorrow, the winner of the 2012 Man Booker prize will be announced. This is the 44th year of the competition which started in 1969. The ceremony will take place in London’s Guildhall to be covered by the BBC. The winner receives £50 000 and the six shortlisted writers £2, 500.

The winner also receives a specially commissioned and artfully handbound edition of their book.

It was this last snippet of information that stayed with me the most. The writer, who probably began his or her novel with ideas jotted down on scrappy post-it notes, has taken their creation through the void of black and white Times New Roman on a cut throat journey of  editing and rewriting to come to this final moment. They may well wish never again to open that file on their computer. Yet I imagine as they are handed a beautifully bound copy of their work, with a waxy, embossed cover and starchy leaves that crackle as they are turned, that the monotonous tapping of the keyboard that has been the pulse of their day to day life for so long must seem worth it. The special commissioned copy of the winner’s book will sit on their shelf to reflect their public success in the competition and the sterile word document will be transformed into an object living and breathing with personal value and memories of struggle and inspiration. Often it seems, it is not what we read, but how we read it.

The way that we can read books today is changing. Cambridge is a patchwork of artisan and antique book shops nestled down crooked alleyways. All sorts can be unearthed from the higgledy -piggledy shelves, be it a fully illustrated gold embossed collection of ‘Tales from the Arabian Nights’, or more simply, a mouldering pocket edition of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Sometimes, the book seller can be a little liberal with the term ‘antique’. My brother is an avid collector of old books and on one grey and foggy November evening we travelled to a book seller housed in what turned out to be a dilapidated warehouse tilting at a drunken angle. The smell of mildew and creosote, coupled with the atmospheric tinny drip of rainwater was a far cry from the squishy chairs and the squealing costa coffee machines of Waterstones. Clearly ‘antique’ had become ‘decrepit’. Yet old books can be little fragments of history. Dates in the cover. Names scrawled over the title page. Notes in the margin. All these little details bespoke a copy so that it takes up a unique place on a shelf.

A jumble of old books

Even if the pages are tea stained and raggedy and the ink has melted grey at the edges, these more unusual editions of literature are surely more valuable than the mass printing of chunky volumes piled up in a jenga on the Waterstone’s special offer table,  automatically branded with the bright neon ‘three for two on all classics’ sticker. A shelf full of beautiful and historical books becomes a work of art that is being continually developed and perfected. I recently acquired a copy of John Donne’s poetry in French so old that some of the pages had not yet been cut. As I slid the knife through the pulpy fibres I felt I was reawakening a lost tradition that celebrates as much the way that a book is crafted and put together as it does its contents.

Patterns of reading however, are continually evolving. We often read quickly and in transit. E-books entertain us as we stand wedged on the tube or sunbathing on a beach. I find myself often reading for a specific purpose, searching frantically for quotations and themes to fit the essay titles that I have been set in a race to meet the deadline. Computer formats of literature are invaluable for this. Yet my degree and current study of 18th century literature has found me a compromise between  new and old ways of reading, allowing me to pick up the mass produced modern classics at a slashed price and still feel I am getting a beautiful book onto my shelf. 18th century readers  kept ‘commonplace’ books in which they collected their favourite quotations into exquisite journals. I too have been keeping a form of reading log in a little embellished notebook that I bought at a vintage market stall, which I look back through to refresh my memory of the best bits the written word has to offer.

This is one way to keep books beautiful, by etching our favourite words onto some uniquely bound pages that we can place on the shelf as personal to us. That way, when my latest edition of a cheap Austen is donated to the library book sale to make space for the new Waterstones BOGOF I’ve quickly picked up in town, I can keep reliving my favourite moments of literature bound into beautiful covers by a pen in my hand.

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