Genre, old-school storytelling, and voice

[amazon_link id=”9380905076″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”alignright” ][/amazon_link]My second novel, [amazon_link id=”9380905076″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Descent of the Lyre[/amazon_link], is due out in the next couple of weeks, and although I have not yet received my final author copies, I am experiencing that familiar mixture of trepidation and excitement that comes in the period before a book flies the nest and makes its way in the world. The book so far has had some very favourable pre-press: it was one of the Bookseller‘s recommended reads for August, and it has also got a slot in August’s Booktime magazine; so I wait to see how it does more widely after those handsome hardback copies (paperback edition to follow in due course, as well as e-book versions, and other formats not yet even dreamt of…) have made their way out into the world.

Only now that I see some of the pre-release feedback do I realise that what I have written in the Lyre is, in a certain fashion, historical fiction. This really shouldn’t surprise me at all, given that it is a book that is set firmly in the nineteenth century in Bulgaria and Paris: if not historical fiction, then what else could it be? Nevertheless, when I first saw the book described as ‘historical fiction’, I found myself thinking, ‘Oh, how strange—so that’s what it is…’

As a writer, genre is something I don’t think about very much at all. There are writers who have a clear sense of genre, and there is no doubt that this robust sense of how one’s work fits in to the marketplace can be useful, but I’m just not that kind of writer. I don’t tend to have a clear idea of what I am doing until I have done it. In the world of writing punditry, that clamour of advice for writers and would-be writers, there are those who claim that a clear sense of audience and genre are absolutely necessary, whilst there are those who claim that these things are not necessary at all; but I’m a bit sceptical of all these imperatives. I’m in favour of a kind of literary mixed ecology where people write to different ends and different purposes, where they go about writing in different ways. It’s a wide world, and there’s room for more than one approach.

But, to get back to historical fiction, I wonder if the reason that I was surprised that this is the genre the book has found its way into is that this wasn’t written as historical fiction in the realist mode, in that it doesn’t attempt to recreate an era or offer a window onto the past as it actually happened. Part of the reason for this is that the story draws not just on history but also on myth; and part of the reason is that of voice. One thing that I am always conscious of in writing is that what I am doing is telling a story. I am not providing a window onto reality, but I am spinning a yarn. And like any oral storyteller, I have the habit of occasionally breaking the apparently realist spell, if it becomes a little too realist, to remind the reader that this is, after all, an act of storytelling. ‘Oh, look…,’ I say at certain points, ‘this is a story’.

Some will no doubt disapprove; but I have always had a weakness for stories in which there is a clear storytelling voice that doesn’t quite belong to the story itself, that stands at a little remove from the story, that is not entirely involved, somewhat philosophical, a little bit wry, occasionally digressive. And whilst these things might seem to some like strange postmodern voodoo, I prefer to think of this approach as old-school storytelling in which the storyteller’s voice is a part of the story. Realism in storytelling is, after all, only a very recent invention (or, I would say, only a very recent myth…).

In Praise of the Moomins

I am writing this somewhere on the ferry between Stockholm and Turku; and as I look out of the window at the grey sea and the rocky little outcrops of Åland, I find it all seems strangely familiar, as if I have seen it somewhere before. And, in a way, I have; because these are the seas that I navigated again and again in my childhood imagination, in the company of Moominpappa and Moomintroll and Snufkin, whilst reading those incomparably strange and wonderful [amazon_link id=”0140306099″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]children’s books[/amazon_link] by Tove Jansson.

These are the seas with islands so small and remote and strange that they might seem like bits of fly-dirt on the map; seas where chilly and lonely Grokes pursue distant boats with paraffin lamps at the head of the mast, glowing in the night; tiny harbours where small, solitary creatures crawl secretly underneath the tarpaulins of tied-up boats, to fall asleep and dream. And it feels like a pilgrimage of sorts to come here, and to watch out at the cormorants scudding over the waves, and to look across the countless islands towards the distant horizon. Read more

Techno-utopians, luddites, paper-fetishists and others

When it comes to technology, I suppose that I was an early adopter. Back when I was at school, aged ten, I injured my left hand, which was as a result put into a sling. It was a small school, with no more than forty or fifty pupils, in the village of Great Snoring in Norfolk. Great Snoring was just down the road from Little Snoring, where a family called Gotobed lived. Norfolk was like that in those days. Anyway, there I was, one-handed and incapable of writing, and the school had a problem on their hands. As it happened, however, the school had just bought a Sinclair ZX81 computer; and so whilst my hand healed up, I was put in charge of working out how the strange little black box worked. In those few weeks, I learned how to write programs in Sinclair’s version of BASIC, and I was immediately fascinated by what this curious little machine could do, if you fed in the right instructions. Read more

Lowering the Bar

If there is one thing that seems almost impossible to escape these days, it is the notion of excellence. As a little demonstration of our contemporary obsession with excellence, try this as an experiment: go to the website of any university and type in the term ‘excellence’. Note down the number of search results. Now type in any particular virtue that you favour, ‘curiosity’, for example, or (don’t say it too loud) ‘wisdom’, and compare your results.

It is clear from little experiments such as this that universities are excessively concerned with being excellent. And this is not just a concern of universities. Everywhere—from the halls of power down to primary school classroom—we hear the language of excellence. Teaching, we are told by government ministers, must be excellent; writers the critics say, must be excellent; and I probably don’t need to remind anybody in the UK that the Olympics in full swing, and that the second of the three so-called ‘Olympic values’ is also ‘excellence’ (along with ‘friendship’ and ‘respect’, apparently). Read more


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