Should authors’ unfinished works be completed?

I recently wrote an article in The Conversation, following the news that Terry Pratchett’s laptop hard drive had – as he’d requested – been destroyed. Here it is, after meeting the Lord Jericho, a 6 tonne steam roller. Read the full article here.

 

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Philip Pullman and The Book of Dust

fullsizerenderPhilip Pullman announced this week that he’ll be publishing the first in a new trilogy of novels based in the worlds of His Dark Materials this autumn. I wrote about the announcement in The Conversation, thinking in particular about the expansion of existing fictional worlds by both fans and authors, and also the contemporary political resonances.

I wrote a reader’s guide to Pullman’s trilogy in 2002, and a longer critical book on Pullman – Philip Pullman, Master Storyteller: A Guide to the Worlds of His Dark Materials – in 2006. The cover of my book was a design by a fan.

Like many other fans, I’m keen to see what he writes next!

On (Re)reading The Handmaid’s Tale

fullsizerenderInspired by the sales spike of certain books in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, I went over to my bookshelf. Not to pull off George Orwell’s 1984 (one of the books with a new urgency to it) but to find, nestled among piles of other Virago titles, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel’s 1985 dystopian vision of the Republic of Gilead, in which women are forced to breed for the theocratic ruling class, has found new resonance as a US president who has openly and repeatedly demonstrated his misogyny takes office. Atwood’s book is shortly to be released as a TV mini-series, and was plugged (along with several other adverts which seemingly expressed values in opposition to Trump’s) during the 2017 Super Bowl.

Time, then, for me to re-read the book. I have an ulterior motive, too – the book I’ve been writing displays a perhaps not-too subtle influence from Atwood’s novel (my alternate world features cloaked women and constraints – including on reading and procreation – placed upon particular sectors of society). My mum, commenting on an early draft, recognised the influence immediately.

Before starting to reread, I thought back to when I read the book, in the 6th form at school. I remembered lending the copy to a friend, who returned it with an apology and a coffee stain. More precious about my books then than I am now (perhaps because I owned fewer of them), I was cross. I checked, and the stain is still there, running along the top edge of the pages.

fullsizerender-2I opened it up, and saw the teddy bear bookplate: ‘I can’t bear to be without my books’. This childish hangover marked that I’d got the book on my 18th birthday. I suspect I chose the book myself, though I can’t remember. By that time, I’d already read several other of Atwood’s books after being introduced to Surfacing by a forward-thinking A-level English Literature teacher. We’d made collages in class to represent the psychological landscape of the protagonist of Atwood’s second novel; its wild world of madness, nationalism and feminism. The same teacher also set us Tony Harrison’s V, a long poem written after the author had found graffiti on his parents’ Yorkshire gravestones. Its obscene language – ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘nigger’ – caused great controversy when it was televised in 1987 for Channel 4, and was still creating debate when recorded for BBC Radio 4 in 2013. Thinking back, I was lucky to have a teacher so keen to teach us very contemporary, and political, literature.

I’ve written elsewhere about traces of reading I’ve found in my Famous Five books. This copy of The Handmaid’s Tale revealed another history to me – the address of a young man, Laurie, who I’d met on the train home from an interview for a place at Oxford. He’d also been for an interview, and was heading back to Scarborough, I to Lincolnshire. I seem to remember I must have written to him, and we spoke on the phone after we had found out about our offers. In the age before mobile phones and social media, this was done self-consciously from the hallway of the family home.

I’d applied to one of the oldest and most traditional of colleges (mainly because I liked the buildings), and didn’t enjoy my interviews: one with an older tutor interrogated my understanding of a poem I was given to look at on the spot, and found baffling; and a second with two younger men who sat to either side of me so I couldn’t see them both at once. They’d asked me what I was reading outside of my set texts, so I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’d been reading on the train on the way down. They also seemed keener on getting a particular response from me to the text (that Gilead is the former United States, and Canada an escape route) than hearing about my opinions about the book, which I anyway hadn’t yet finished. Dissuaded by these men and their desire for me to utter a pre-determined answer to their literary questions, I chose instead to go to university in York, where my female interviewer seemed happily to listen to my appreciative description of the weather in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and its objective correlative role in character creation.

Life turns on such decisions, but the heat of their moment lessens as time goes on. Physical copies of books sometimes retain that heat within their pages, unfolding a previous life as the pages are turned once more. It’s one of the reasons why bookish people like to surround themselves with shelves of books, even if we know, rationally, we’re unlikely to read a particular copy again.

And yet today, though, I’m starting to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale:

I remember that yearning, of something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future.

 

 

 

 

Gangin on a Bear Hunt

photoI was on the annual, last-minute hunt for Christmas presents today. After a brief foray into Cass Art (where I mainly sat down and drew a couple of Christmas cards, see below), I headed over to Waterstone’s Argyle Street, site of some of the best launch parties for Glasgow writers.

The shop didn’t disappoint in its present possibilities, and in the good humour of its staff and patience of its customers in the face of the queues. (There was a teenage boy who declared his interest in conceptual art to his pals while examining a book of photos who also pleased me.)

But what charmed me most was a middle-aged couple I passed on the stairs; them on the way down, me on the way up. At the turn of the steps was a display of Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Huntfirst published in 1989 and a perennial favourite of children and their parents ever since.

The women stopped, and read out the title in recognition, her attention perhaps attracted by the large toy bear next to it. Then, with a delighted intake of breath, she read the title of the book next to it, emphasising the second word for her companion. ‘We’re Gangin on a Bear Hunt‘.

We’re Gangin on a Bear Hunt is translated into Scots for the first time this year by Susan Rennie, and is published by the wonderful Floris Books (this year’s Saltire Society Publisher of the Year, which I had the privilege to be on the judging panel for).

photo-2The woman’s delight on the stair as she saw the book, shows why it’s such a good idea to translate classics, as well as originating texts in Scotland’s diverse languages. (I had to continue shopping, but I hope she bought a copy to revist the story with its Scots twist…)

Oh, and here’s a perky robin and tree from my drawings… Sláinte and Merry Christmas to you all!

 

Histories of (Famous Five) Reading

fullsizerenderMy academic work falls into the disciplinary fields of publishing studies and history of the book (you can find more about my research here). One of the sub-fields of the history of the book is the history of reading, the area that – as book historian Robert Darnton put it – ‘remains the most difficult stage to study in the circuit that books follow’ (from ‘What is the History of Books?’). Empirical reading histories can nonetheless be traced in a range of ways: through borrowing records of libraries, for example, such as those found in Perthshire’s Innerpeffray Library, or in accounts of reading in letters between correspondents or in private diaries (an excellent resource for which is the Reading Experience Database), or in marginalia (such as those in William Gladstone’s extensive collection of books housed in Gladstone’s Library). The excellent primer A History of Reading was put together by one of my Stirling colleagues, if you want to find out more.

A recent trip to my parents made me pull off the shelves old copies of Famous Five books. I was partly reminded by the publishing of Enid Blyton for Grown Ups parody titles in the run-up to Christmas (sample titles: Five on Brexit Island, or Five Go Gluten Free), but also by the memory of what I’d done with these books, which I’ve already written about briefly.

img_3022Like many bookish children, I’d tried to make my own library (though it was hard to persuade borrowers to visit), and the evidence of the ticket holders are still there (though none of the tickets – where did they go?). In some titles, I’d recorded where I’d got the books from (reminding me of the specific shelf where the books were stored in our local bookshop). In others, I’d ticked off titles I already had, and done sums to work out how many there were left to acquire.

I’d also marked all my books out of 20 (with quite a grade variation – from 8/20 to 20/20 in the copies to hand), and used my Puffin name plates to indicate that the puffins were engaged in the same activities as George (obviously an early crush). In the front of another, I’d also itemised which of the titles I owned, and which my brother. (I found some of the ones that belonged to my brother; they had less marginalia and no grading.) This – I am sure – was indicative of some sibling rivalry/internecine book-owning strife.

Looking at these material objects made a whole load of reading memories come flooding back, but also left me with some gaps in remembrance, and also a question as to what were my grading criteria. Some might say that Enid Blyton wrote to a formula, but to one child’s mind there was a high degree of differentiation.

Bath Books

fullsizerenderLast night as part of Book Week Scotland, I produced ‘Bath Books’, an evening of aquatic literary delights at Glasgow’s iconic Western Baths. I’m a member of the Baths, a glorious Victorian swimming pool featuring Turkish Baths, saunas and a steam room, and the evening was a great way for me to bring some of my literary work to an unusual venue.

The sauna suite was transformed for the evening into an events space, with audience members welcomed to bring up drinks from the bar below (passing on the way the Baths’ floor mosaic created by Alasdair Gray).

The evening featured a series of readings from works by Scottish writers, across poetry, fiction and non-fiction, including some by authors who are members of the Baths. We were also lucky to have contributions from actors, some of whom were also members of the Baths. The audience was promised murder, competition, and intrigue, as well as imaginative dives into the depths, encounters with magical aquatic beasts, and meditations on the restorative powers of water.

We kicked off the evening with a reading by David Anderson from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. In the section, Davie swims for shore after a wave knocks him off the boat. Next, we stayed outdoors but moved into the 21st century, with an extract read by Louise Ludgate of Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun, in which the author swims in the ‘gaspingly cold’ seas off Orkney. ‘One morning,’ writes Liptrot, ‘the sky is reflected in the flat water and I’m swimming in the clouds.’ Continue reading

ThankBooks

This week I’ll be chairing a Book Week Scotland event at Stirling Central Library. It’s a ‘ThankBooks’ panel, featuring several writers (Alan Bissett, Lisa Ballantyne, Billy Letford and Shari Low) who will be talking about a book, author, character or library that made them what they are today.

C7 (2)Preparing for the panel has made me think about my own early reading and writerly inspirations. I was a bookish child: here’s me with my nose in a big book of fairy tales, one of my favourites when I was little. Perhaps no surprise that when I came across Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories as an adult I loved its exhilarating, weird, erotic feminist retellings. Who can forget the moment in the title story when the mother gallops, gun blazing, to snatch her daughter from the hands of the murderous Marquis? Or the ‘wily, perspicacious and resourceful’ Puss-in-Boots, who ‘can perform a back somersault whilst holding aloft a glass of vino in his right paw and never spill a drop’? (After reading this stuff, real life is always going to seem a little grey.)

My favourite book of all as a little girl was J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy, which I read innumerable times. I had an edition with the Mabel Lucie Attwell illustrations, and my parents copied me out a flying Peter Pan on a big piece of paper, which I had stuck to the lampshade in the middle of my bedroom. In my head, though, the story was much wilder than the charming illustrations suggested: the interloper boy who steals the children away from the security of their home to fly across the skies to Neverland couldn’t be tamed. Many years later, I delighted in Geraldine McCaughrean’s official sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet (commissioned to continue the flow of royalties to Great Ormond Street Hospital) which perfectly captured Peter Pan’s wildness and prickliness. Continue reading

Calais: in the warm embrace…

The borders of Europe are in crisis, we are told. People are moving en masse, escaping war, persecution, and – in a least-worst scenario – appalling poverty. The particular focus for the British media is the thousands of migrants in Calais’s ‘Jungle’, who are attempting to come to the UK via the Channel Tunnel, risking horrific injury, or death.

Some of our politicians (including those in power), and parts of the media, have taken to using language to describe the migrants that is entirely dehumanising. In so doing, the people of the ‘swarm’ are robbed of their individuality, their histories, and their narratives. We are robbed of our compassion, and our understanding of our privileged place in the world. And they, and we, are robbed of our common humanity.

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais

A much higher number of migrants is currently arriving on other, poorer European shores: Greece, and Italy. The UK concentration on Calais in itself betrays a limited worldview, forgetting the greater contribution others in the EU are making to homing asylum seekers. Yet for this ‘crisis’ to be happening in Calais is, for me, of particular resonance.

My father is English, my mother French. Every summer holiday when we were children, for several weeks (my parents both being school teachers) we’d pack the bags, the car, feed the cassette player, and head south. It was a few hours journey from Lincolnshire to Dover, then the ferry – where the sun would always start to shine – and, after a little queuing to get off the ferry and into France – onto the smooth and (relatively) empty autoroutes. We’d stop off overnight with relatives in Paris, and head further south the next morning, braving the hectic traffic on the Peripherique. Further south still, we’d reach the watershed, where the water divides across France – to the west coast or the south. Then finally, several sticky, argumentative hours later, to my grandparents’ flat.

We’d stay for four weeks or so, sometimes heading off on a holiday within a holiday, to Provence, or the Alps. We’d spend days reading, swimming, sunbathing, playing cards, watching the August meteor showers… the same ‘etoiles filantes’ which are currently raining down over our heads.

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Judging Women

TSaltireBookshe writer Nicola Griffith has recently published the results of quantifying the success – or largely otherwise – of books by women and books about women in a number of major literary awards.

Predictably, this makes for depressing reading. Books by women are less likely to win than those by men, and books about women (whether by women or men) are also less likely recipients of awards than books about men. From such statistics it would seem that we do not value female writers as much as male, and female protagonists (or topics, whatever that might mean – commentary hovers around the ‘domestic’) as much as male.

This is an all-too familiar account, which the introduction of the Orange (now Baileys) Women’s Prize for Fiction in 1996 sought to overcome, after a year in which no women were shortlisted at all for the Booker. Twenty years on, and we don’t seem to have moved that far forwards.

In my book Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, I wrote a set of case studies of bestselling, more or less literary novels. One of the books (or, in this example, series of books), was Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. The final novel, The Ghost Road, won the Booker in 1995. My analysis ran along the following lines: that Barker came to prominence – in both critical and commercial terms – after moving from the feminist press Virago to be published by Viking/Penguin. She had also switched her subject matter from ‘”gritty feminist sagas”‘ set in the north of England to a focus on the first world war, with a cast of predominantly male characters. This shift occasioned some interesting comment, including one from a (female) Booker judge of that year. The judge stated that she would never have guessed that Barker’s book was written by a woman. Her reasoning was based on stylistic grounds, rather than its subject matter (which, as it happened, had questions of gender and sexuality at its heart).

The publication of Griffiths’ data presents an opportunity for me to reflect on my own practice, as a scholar who studies literary prizes, a literary prize judge, and a feminist. (I’m also currently writing a children’s book in which the female protagonist spends most of the plot dressed up as a boy, but that’s a different story…)

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