Because we are too menny?

A couple of weeks back, the novelist Javier Marías wrote an article for the Independent on the subject of why to not write novels (and one reason why you might want to write them). Briefly, the reasons were these: i) because there are too many novels in the world; ii) because more or less anyone can do it; iii) because it’s unlikely to make you rich; iv) because it’s a hopeless way of courting fame; v) because neither will it bring you immortality; vi) because it is not flattering to the ego; and vii) because of the sheer suffering that it involves. As for the sole reason for writing novels, Marías says, “Writing novels allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be.”

I’ve mentioned the torment and suffering before, in a recent blog post, so I won’t go back over that. And there’s a lot that could be said about the rest of the list as well (particularly the peculiar reason Marías gives in favour of writing novels). But what I want to talk about here is the idea that there are too many novels in the world. Read more

On Drinking Tea

My good friend Annie Pecheva has just published a wonderful blog post, translating a list of the twenty-four best situations in which to drink tea, taken from the Tea Report 《茶疏》 by Ming Dynasty scholar, Xu Cishu 許次紓. Here are the first six from the list:

1. 心手閑適 when you are idle and relaxing
2.披詠疲倦 when tired of reading poetry
3. 意緒棼亂 in time of confused thoughts
4. 聽歌聞曲 when listening songs and melodies
5. 歌罷曲終 when the music has finished
6. 杜門避事 when alone

The last one of these is particularly nice, meaning literally something like “with the door closed, avoiding [external] affairs”.

It strikes me that the English, who have a very different tea culture from that of the Chinese, could extend this list still further. I know people for whom there is no situation in which it not appropriate to drink a cup of tea. This can, at times, cause confusion. A Swedish friend who had been living over here for years once went through a horrible break-up with her boyfriend. As she was wailing in anguish, a sympathetic English friend patted her arm and asked her, “Would you like a nice cup of tea?”

“Did I say I was thirsty?” wailed my Swedish friend, convinced that her anguish was not being taken seriously enough. But the truth of the matter is this: in England, there is no way of taking anguish more seriously than offering to make a cup of tea…

You can read the rest of the list on Annie’s blog here.


Knowing, not knowing and teaching

I’ve just been sending off the edits for a paper that I’ve been writing for China Media Research, who are running a special issue on communication and Chinese philosophy. The paper is about education as a matter of communicating not just knowing, but also not-knowing, something that I’m arguing through a reading of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi.

In talking about not-knowing, I am not, I think, advocating anything particularly mysterious or mystical. Instead I am more interested in the fact that most of our lives are lived in what I am calling epistemological chaos, in which knowing and not-knowing exist alongside each other, and in which we don’t always know what we know, what we don’t know, or what the boundary is between the two (unlike Socrates, who always seems mightily—one might say ‘improbably‘—certain of his lack of knowledge). I’ll post here again when the paper is published, but here is a very short extract.

a rich educational context is one in which knowing and not-knowing, assurance and non-assurance swirl around each other chaotically; and teaching is as much about communicating not-knowing, tentativeness, uncertainty, flights of fancy, hypotheses, puzzles, conundrums, bafflements and confusions, as it is about communicating knowing, assurance, certainty, well-mapped paths, proofs, solutions, clarifications, illuminations and clarities.

Storytellers and Anthropologists

I’m currently in the middle of editing a book that I’ve been working on about the Tanimbar islands in Indonesia. I was in Tanimbar some twenty years ago as a fledgling anthropologist, and it was in Tanimbar that I started writing seriously. In fact, I find it hard to disentangle my time in Tanimbar from my life as a writer. This, in part, has been why I have found this book so tricky to write, and why it has taken long. Read more

The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing

There’s a spectacularly stupid quote attributed to Hemingway that seems to be everywhere on the internet these days. It goes like this, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It turns out that Hemingway probably never said this (although he may have said other spectacularly stupid things), although that has not stopped the quote appearing here and there on writing blogs with all the persistence of Japanese knotweed.  Read more

Prisoners on Tanimbar?

I got home yesterday to find an exciting package waiting for me: a small parcel from France, inside of which was a copy of a French comic dating from the 1960s. It was a copy of Akim (no. 247, to be precise), which started life in Italy as a knock-off copy of Tarzan. Akim ran from 1950 to 1967 in Italy, and had an afterlife in France where it continued to be published until 1991. Issue no. 247 dates from the French period, and the reason I got hold of it is that I’m currently writing a book on the Tanimbar islands in Indonesia, so when I saw that there was a French comic from the sixties telling an exciting tale of  imprisonment in Tanimbar (‘La Prison de Tanimbar’), as a thorough researcher, I thought I had to get myself a copy. Besides, ‘La Prison de Tanimbar’ had a magnificent cover, which I cannot resist sharing. Read more

Tove Jansson on Men & Marriage

“All the reasons I don’t want to get married came up… The whole male solidarity and protective pedestal of privileges, their weaknesses, inviolable and fenced in by slogans, their inconsistency and charming disregard for the feelings of others proclaimed with no trace of nuance as they beat a big drum from morning to evening from the safety of their boys’ network of connections. I can’t afford it, I haven’t time to marry any of them! I’m no good at admiring and comforting. Of course I’m sorry for them and of course I like them, but I’ve no intention of devoting my whole life to a performance I’ve seen through…”

— Tove Jansson, quoted in Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words

Review of The Descent of the Lyre in Bulgarian

I’m delighted to have a review of The Descent of the Lyre / Произходът на лирата in the Bulgarian publication Kultura (Култура), written by the wonderful novelist and translator Angel Igov. The review, which is only available in Bulgarian, is very thoughtful and considered  (though given my poor Bulgarian, I’m relying mainly on the powers of Google translate!), and deals with both the English and Bulgarian versions, as well as with some of the interesting slippages that have taken place between the two.

Read the interview here.


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