Amateurs, Professionals and Bullshit Going Forwards

The new academic year has started at De Montfort University, and I’m teaching a course on Professional Writing Skills. It’s good to be back in the swing of teaching, and a pleasure to see my students from last year once again.

This is a course that I love teaching, because of the way that it directly mixes philosophical, technical and practical issues. But the longer I go on, the more I’m a little worried by the notion of a professional writer. In my lecture today, I said that I’d like to teach another course alongside this one called amateur writing skills. It got a muted laugh, but it was not really a joke.

The trouble with many widespread notions of professionalism (what I would call faux-professionalism), is that they can be so very narrow and restrictive. They conjure up drab images of suits, ties, boardrooms smelling of stale coffee, and that awful bureaucratic-speak that is properly categorised as bullshit (or bullshit going forward). In this context, ‘professional’ and ‘unprofessional’ (or ‘amateur’) are often terms that are used to maintain a very restrictive range of behaviours, and to limit what can and cannot be thought about and talked about. None of this seems to encapsulate a state of being towards which anybody, writer or otherwise, should aspire.  Read more

Fashionable topics

I’ve just finished reading Julia Lovell’s translation of Lao She’s wonderful novel, Mr. Ma and Son, and I thought I’d share the following short quote.

In the book, the hapless ex-missionary, Reverend Ely, is trying to persuade Mr. Ma to write a book comparing Western and Chinese cultures. The good clergyman is not entirely disinterested in his urging, because he himself is working on a book called A History of Taoism, and needs some help with his poor Chinese. Anyway, here’s the quote, which is still pertinent today:

The Reverend Ely pulled out his pipe, and slowly filled it with tobacco. ‘I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking on your behalf for some time now, and I feel that while you’re abroad, you ought to take the opportunity of writing something. The best thing would be a comparison of Eastern and Western cultures. That’s a fashionable topic nowadays, and it doesn’t matter particularly whether what you write’s correct or not. As long a you say something with conviction, anything at all, you’ll be able to sell it…’

— Lao She, Mr Ma and Son, trans. Julia Lovell

Writing China, at the Nottingham Festival of Words

I’m delighted to be participating in the international launch event at the 2014 Nottingham Festival of Words, along with two fellow-novelists, the Nottingham-based Rhiannon Tsang (The Woman who Lost China, Open Books 2013), and the Beijing-based Karen Ma (Excess Baggage, China Books 2013). Between the three of us, we’ll be talking about ‘Writing China’.
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A note on conversation

One good thing about France is the bookshops. Proper bookshops, filled with proper books — books that are about stuff, shelves of philosophy and science and all kinds of other things (there are reasons that French bookshops are good and British bookshops not so good, but I won’t go into these at the moment). So I made use of last week’s holiday in France to indulge in a buying frenzy — paperback editions are also reasonably priced — and to get hold of a number of books about philosophy, Chinese studies and so on. It’s good to be giving my French a work-out, and I like the style of French sinology, which tends to be more speculative than Anglo-American traditions.

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Margaret, Manuscripts and the Moon

There’s a good story in the Guardian today about Margaret Atwood’s latest manuscript, which is going to be buried for one hundred years as a part of The Future Library Project, the creation of Scottish artist, Katie Paterson. It’s a terrific idea, so I went over to Paterson’s website to see what she had to say about it.

A forest has been planted in Norway, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

The texts will be held in a specially designed room in the New Public Deichmanske Library, Oslo. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

This is intriguing stuff, and Paterson has produced a lot more work that is really worth looking at. For me, even more intriguing than the Future Library Project, is her “Earth-Moon-Earth”: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata translated into Morse code, sent as radio signals to reflect off the surface of the moon, returning in fragmented form to earth, and then re-scored with all the “gaps and absences” where the signal has been lost somewhere in the shadows and craters.

It’s a lovely idea, and really worth taking a look.

Proust, Hemingway and Writing Apps

I’ve just been reading The Wave in the Mind, a wonderful collection of essays by Ursula Le Guin. The essays are insightful and often very funny, and I was particularly pleased to see Le Guin write in celebration of long, luxuriant sentences.

Amongst those who dish out writing advice, there is often the claim that short sentences are to be preferred. There are even apps that can help you write shorter, punchier sentences, such as the Hemingway App, which offers to make your writing “bold and clear”.

However, when I read fiction, I often find that there is something a bit wearying about short and punchy sentences (I am one of the few who probably prefers pre-Lish Carver to the weird, boiled-down post-Lish Carver). For a long time, I’ve not been sure why it is that I get irritated by this taste for short sentences, but now I think that Le Guin puts her finger on it. Read more


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