10 resources for your literary New Year’s Eve celebrations



Parties! The opportunity to kiss strangers! Unrelenting fun and endless bonhomie! It is the last day of the year – a time to remember the year just past, make resolutions, plan for the year ahead and, perhaps, have fun over an alcoholic beverage or two. Fireworks may or may not be involved. Yet so much emphasis is often placed on New Year’s Eve that the night frequently fails to live up to expectations. Indeed, it can often feel quite like mandatory fun – the expectation that you must absolutely have the most wonderful time at all costs, even if it’s cold outside, everyone is at different bars – all of which are overcrowded or fully booked – several people are already arguing with complete strangers and the clothes you’re wearing hardly fit after the overindulgence at Christmas.

Of course, you still want to try to have fun on New Year’s Eve – yet leaving the house almost guarantees you’ll spend at least part of the evening crying drunkenly, shoeless and wondering what the point of anything is. As literary giant W.H. Auden said of New Year’s: “The only way to spend New Year’s Eve is either quietly with friends or in a brothel. Otherwise when the evening ends and people pair off, someone is bound to be left in tears.”

In light of this, and out of a desire not to suggest visiting a brothel, we’ve put together a brief crib sheet of resources you can use to have the perfect literary New Year’s Eve, safe in the comfort of your own home. So, crack out a bottle of something bubbly, and get reading!

  1. Seven short stories by Junot Diaz you can read for free

The recipient of countless honours and accolades, Junot Diaz’s writing has been referred to by critic and playwright Gregg Barrios as “a deft mash up of Dominican history, comics, sci-fi, magic realism and footnotes.” What better way to spend a New Year’s Eve than reading the short stories of a writer whose unique voice, swinging between street slang and profanity to incredibly formal academic prose, gives us lines such as “As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end,” which are surely appropriate for a night of new resolutions and insistent new beginnings.

  1. Bad sex in fiction: the connoisseur’s compendium

Spasming muscles, groans, whispers, licked ears, sweat, bucking, otherwise central zones and bulging trousers. If you’re hoping your New Year’s Eve will feature at least some of the above, you can guarantee it by checking out our collection of all the winning entries of the infamous ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award.

  1. Rare audio recording of James Baldwin discussing the real meaning of words and the artist’s struggle for integrity

Who needs the latest pop culture mash ups blaring over speakers in a sweat-drenched club when you can sip a civilized glass of merlot and listen to the smooth, dulcet tones of literary giant James Baldwin giving a lecture on the real meaning of words, and the artist’s struggle for integrity?

  1. 16 short stories by Alice Munro you can read for free

Junot Diaz provided the evening’s early entertainment; now move onto the short stories of Alice Munro – the author described by Jonathan Franzen as having “a strong claim to being the best fiction writer in North America”. 16 of the best short stories by one of the best short story writers.

  1. Hunter S. Thompson’s advice on finding your purpose

As we move through the years, signposted by New Year’s Eve parties and New Year’s Day hangovers, there is a risk that we begin to find ourselves borne along through life via currents not of our choosing. This sensation that we are not quite in control of our destinies – though ultimately still personally responsible for them – can be crippling both mentally and creatively. So, instead of heading out for the annual expensive night out, featuring in all likelihood tears and disappointment (or a brothel, if you follow Auden’s advice), why not take the evening to read some of the finest life advice from one of the finest writers of the 20th century?

  1. One letter from Charles Bukowski that will make you want to quit your job and become a writer

At that time of year when we take stock of where we are in our lives and careers, you may struggle to do better than listen to the words of acclaimed poet Charles Bukowski, as he looks back on what it takes to quit your soul sucking day job and pursue your authorial dreams.

  1. 33 writing competitions for 2017

Now that Charles Bukowski has convinced you to become a writer, put your pen to paper and get your own writing out there. This collection of upcoming writing competitions for the year ahead is as good a place to start as any when looking at places to submit your work. All power to your typewriters!

  1. Raymond Carver reading ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’

After your burst of creativity and writing, settle back down with that glass of port and enjoy the smooth voice of Raymond Carver reading his most celebrated short story, ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’. After all, if the holiday season is about anything at all; it’s love.

  1. Living Room Les Mis

The stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s timeless classic, Les Miserables, has been thrilling audiences for decades. Yet going to the theatre is just so darn expensive. Surely there must be a better way to capture the same thrills – the same spills – but without having to spend half your paycheque on seats with an impeded view of the stage? Thanks to the power of Youtube, you can bring this classic of the literary canon to musical life right where you’re sitting (or preferably, up on your feet, singing). And after the bubbly, merlot and port, you’ve probably reached the stage in the evening where it would be rude not to participate musically.

  1. Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to the future

It is a little known fact that Kurt Vonnegut, one of the true titans of literature, collaborated with TIME Magazine to write a letter to the future population of Humanity, in the year AD 2088. The purpose of the project was simple: to provide “some words of advice” to those living in 2088”. For our last item needed to make your literary New Year’s Eve a success, it seems pertinent to look forward to the future – not only to our own lives for the year ahead, but to the direction of mankind over the coming years.

Vonnegut’s words of advice are, of course, that trademark and distinctive blend of satire and sincerity, and – at a time when the world increasingly seems destined for catastrophe (what with the election of various demagogues-cum-fascists in major countries around the globe, along with the passing of the carbon threshold, mass extinction of flora and fauna, rising global temperatures and increasing inequality) – it seems we need to revisit Vonnegut’s words now more than ever before.







Seven short stories by Junot Diaz you can read for free right now


Since he exploded onto the literary scene in 2007 with the publication of his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz has won countless honours and accolades. Along with the Pulitzer Prize, his novel topped a 2015 literary critics’ list of the best 21st century novels (so far).

Yet there are precious few of Diaz’s novels for book lovers to collect and sink their literary teeth into. His notoriously slow and laborious writing process is, according to the author himself, because he is his own worst critic, describing this as “a character defect”, which leads to him finding the actual act of writing “miserable”.

The pain that goes into his writing, however, may be what makes his works such a treat to read. The voices of Diaz’s narrative recall and reference countless cultural touchstones, from pop music and hip hop through historic and quasi-mythological allusions, through to the world of science fiction, gaming and comic books.

Described as “a nerdy New World Joyce” by some critics, Diaz’s swirling references in his writing have been referred to by critic and playwright Gregg Barrios as “a deft mash-up of Dominican history, comics, sci-fi, magic realism and footnotes” – all achieved through a unique voice that swings from street slang and profanity to incredibly formal academic prose.

So, while there may not be so many novels of his you can read, we’ve tried to collect together as many of his short stories as possible – so you can get your needed dose of Diaz. Below are links to seven of his stories that are available for free online, in both text and audio. Enjoy, comrades!

  • “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” (textaudio)
  • “Miss Lora” * (The New Yorker, April 2012—text)
  • “The Pura Principle” * (The New Yorker, March 2010—text)
  • “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” * (The New Yorker, July 2012—textaudio)
  • “Monstro” (The New Yorker, June 2012—text)
  • “Wildwood” (The New Yorker, June 2007—text)
  • “Alma” * (The New Yorker, December 2007—textaudio)

The best literary stocking fillers this Christmas


With the average Briton set to spend over half their monthly wage packet on Christmas this year, and their American cousins set to spend a similar amount, there’s a good bet a significant amount of this money will be spent on what some may term “tat”.

Of course, we’d hesitate before using the term to describe those gifts, like the Universal Crocs Mobile Phone Case or this Star Wars sun reflector for your car, that will absolutely – without doubt – be used by their respective recipients for countless years to come.

But if you are one of many people keen to lavish gifts upon your loved ones, but fearful of buying them something they don’t really need or want, we have some suggestions for you that have a long shelf-life and extensive usability.

We’re of course talking about books. Not only can they be read again and again, and invite us to explore new worlds and entire new universes, they also help us think differently about the world – and they teach us about wonderful new ideas. As this paper in the journal Science points out, reading literary works cultivates a skill known as “theory of mind”, which is described as the “ability to ‘read’ the thoughts and feelings of others.” So books make us nicer, basically. If there is anything more appropriate at Christmas, then, we certainly haven’t come across it.

So which books should you buy for those special people in your life? Well, surely size comes into it – because they have to fit into stockings of all shapes and sizes.

To help you narrow your options down, take a look at some of our suggestions, below:

  1. How to become a writer, by Lorrie Moore


Taken from award-winning writer Lorrie Moore’s debut short story collection Self-Help (1985), How To Become a Writer is a wryly witty deconstruction of tips for aspiring writers, told in vignettes by a self-absorbed narrator who fails to observe the world around her. The perfect gift for that aspiring writer we all know.

2. The Art of Rogue One


As with last year, December 2016 has been dominated by the cultural event that is the release of a new Star Wars film. To combine your love of epic space sagas with books, this one’s for you. The Art of Rogue One is a visual chronicle of the Lucasfilm art department’s creation of new worlds, unforgettable characters, and newly imagined droids, vehicles, and weapons for the first movie in the Star Wars Storyseries Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In the same format and style as Abrams The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the book gives readers unprecedented access to hundreds of concept paintings, sketches, storyboards, matte paintings, and character, costume, and vehicle designs. 

3. The Philosophy of Beards


One for that bearded gentleman in your lives. This eccentric Victorian book argues a strong case for the universal wearing of a beard – that essential symbol of manly distinction since ancient times. Thomas S. Gowing contrasts the vigour and daring of bearded men through history with the undeniable effeminacy of the clean-shaven. He reminds the modern man that ‘ladies, by their very nature, like everything manly’, and cannot fail to be charmed by a ‘fine flow of curling comeliness’. Gowing’s book is now republished for the first time since 1850, accompanied by illustrations of impressive beards from history. Hipsters, in particular, are sure to love it.

4. Penguin Little Black Classics


80 little books to choose from – one for each year in the life of Penguin Books and each around 60 pages long – give you a wealth of options to choose from. These extracts of wider classical literary works are sure to offer choices to meet all literary tastes. Authors include Karl Marx, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Plato, Caligula, Keats, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Dickens. What’s not to love?

5. The Inevitable Gift Shop, by Will Eaves


The Inevitable Gift Shop, by Will Eaves, is one of those delightful little books that will fit any stocking. As we’ve noted before, it’s also one of those increasingly rare literary finds: a book that is thoroughly unique. Described as ‘a memoir by other means’, it’s not at all plot driven. Rather, this work of collage brings together bits and pieces of memoir, fictional prose, poetry, essay and non-fiction. Interactive, funny, insightful and thought provoking in equal turns, it’s a perfect book to revisit time and time again. It features thoughts, stories and poetry of artificial intelligence, philosophy, nature, and of course, family feuds – without which it simply wouldn’t be Christmas.

6. Harry Potter colouring book


2016 saw the release of the much-anticipated Harry Potter movie spinoff, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Loved by adults and children alike, bring a bit of magic into your Christmases with Potter and co, while also getting on board the continuing explosion in colouring books, with the Harry Potter colouring book. Packed with stunning pieces of artwork from the Warner Bros. archive, this book gives fans the chance to colour in the vivid settings and beloved characters of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world.

7. The Codex Silenda: more than your average puzzle book


If you’re looking for something entirely original and unique, look no further. Created by puzzle designer Brady Whitney, this wooden book has only five pages – but it may well still take you a good deal of time to finish, since you’ll need to solve a complex mechanical puzzle on each one before you can turn to the next.

8. We go to the gallery: the original satirical spoof of the classic ‘Peter and Jane’ children’s series

9780992834913Strictly one for adults only, this hilarious spoof of the Ladybird early learning books of the 1960s sees Susan discovering that God is dead, and John being scared by big, feminist vaginas.” While the artist behind the series, Miriam Elia, ran into legal trouble with Penguin (who ripped off her idea), the book continues to delight readers. We go to the gallery is one of the best presents to unwrap on Christmas morn. Kick the holidays off with some laughter.

And a few others, we’re sure you’ll appreciate


Still looking for other ideas? Well, for people who love books but who have replaced their physical books with Kindles, give them that which their home may now be missing: the scent of leather bound books and library shelves, thanks to this book-scented candle.

You could also consider some of the best indie books of 2016 and support independent publishers and writers in the process.

How about if you’re looking to spice up your romantic life with your partner? Then look no further than the Star Wars Kama Sutra book.

And finally, with a view to next year, how about making sure your loved ones have some poetry in 2017 with this Haiku calendar?

A repulsive horror? How famous writers responded to winning the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’



Bulging trousers, gasps, moans and sighs – all feature heavily in the award winning passages of “bad sex in fiction”.

Every year in November, the lovers of literature hold their breath as they await news of the winner of one of the most notorious ‘booby’ prizes in the world: the Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Founded in 1993 by the Literary Review, the award causes titular delight among its hordes of fans, and has developed from a cult-prize into a world famous event – this year’s shortlist and award ceremony was covered by major newspapers and mainstream TV news channels across the globe.

Italian novelist Erri De Luca scooped the 2016 award, which recognises those authors who have produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel. A general consensus seemed to form relatively quickly that this year’s shortlist (which can be read here) didn’t quite live up to 2015’s, which was won by Morrissey. But perhaps this has less to do with the featured writing in both year’s shortlists, and more to do with the way Morrissey reacted to the news his book, The List of the Lost, was first shortlisted – and then announced as the winner.

Indeed, describing the prize as “a repulsive horror”, Morrissey told Uruguayan newspaper El Observador that he had “many enemies, and their biggest motivation, as you know, is to try to use all your achievements against you.”

So perhaps it was the added drama of Morrissey’s reactions that made the 2015 awards seem that bit spicier compared to Erri De Luca – who reacted by ignoring the whole thing.

With that in mind, how have previous winners of the notorious prize responded to the news? We’ve brought together a few choice reactions from these famous authors below.

“Honoured” – Rachel Johnson

Rachel Johnson’s novel Shire Hill was singled out for her book’s slew of animal metaphors, including comparing her male protagonist’s “light fingers” to “a moth caught inside a lampshade”, and his tongue to “a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop”. Literary Review deputy editor Tom Fleming was also disturbed by the heroine’s “grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside”.

Johnson said it was an “absolute honour” to win, taking her place alongside former winners including Norman Mailer, Sebastian Faulks and Tom Wolfe. “I’m not feeling remotely grumpy about it. I know that men with literary reputations to polish might find it insulting,” she said, “but if you’ve had a book published in the year any attention is welcome, even if it’s slightly dubious attention of this sort.”

Read Johnson’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.

“Not the least bit surprised” – David Guterson  guterson_300.jpg

David Guterson snaffled the bad sex prize for his fifth novel, Ed King, a modern reimagining of the Oedipus myth. Judges were swayed by a scene introduced as “the part where a mother has sex with her son”, and including the passages: “these sorts of gyrations and five-sense choreographies, with variations on Ed’s main themes, played out episodically between 10 pm and 10 am, when Diane said, ‘Let’s shower'”; and “she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man’s-land between her ‘front parlour’ and ‘back door’ (those were the quaint, prudish terms of her girlhood)”.

“He says in brackets that these are quaint, prudish terms but I don’t think that is sufficient justification for using them,” said Jonathan Beckman, the Literary Review’s assistant editor.

The American author took his triumph in good spirits, saying in response that “Oedipus practically invented bad sex, so I’m not in the least bit surprised”.

Read Guterson’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.

You can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it.” – Tom Wolfe  Wolfe_at_White_House.jpg

American author Tom Wolfe, 74, best-known for his novel Bonfire of the Vanities and for his eccentric dress – he normally wears a white suit and carries a cane – was awarded the Bad Sex award for his novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. Judges were swayed by a number of passages of “ghastly and boring prose”, with the following extract drawing particular ire:

“Slither slither slither slither went the tongue. But the hand, that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns – oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest – no, the hand was cupping her entire right – Now!”

Wolfe did not react well to news his novel had won the infamous prize. He described The Literary Review as “a very small, rather old-fashioned magazine”, and went onto say that the British literary judges who awarded him a prize for the year’s worst sex in fiction simply did not understand that his description of a first encounter was meant to be ironic.

“There’s an old saying – ‘You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her sing’,” he said. “In this case, you can lead an English literary wannabe to irony but you can’t make him get it.”

“I purposely chose the most difficult scientific word I could to show this is not an erotic scene,” he added. “There’s nothing like a nine-syllable word to chase Eros off the premises.”

Read Wolfe’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.

“I blush to read my offending prose” – Iain Hollingshead


British journalist and novelist Iain Hollingshead received the 2006 award for his book Twenty Something, specifically because of his description of sex on page 46 of his novel, in which he writes:

“I can feel her breasts against her chest. I cup my hands round her face and start to kiss her properly. She slides one of her slender legs in between mine.

Oh Jack, she was moaning now, her curves pushed up against me, her crotch taut against my bulging trousers, her hands gripping fistfuls of my hair.

She reaches for my belt. I groan too, in expectation. And then I’m inside her, and everything is pure white as we’re lost in a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles.”

Judges were particularly keen to highlight the use of the phrase “bulging trousers”, and upon receiving the award, Holligshead wrote an entire article in the Daily Telegraph about the experience.

He said when he first discovered his book had been shortlisted, he “wasn’t too ashamed” because he was “sure I wouldn’t win”.

Yet, when he was announced as the winner, he wrote “I blush to read my offending prose now […] apparently the judges wriggled with mirth at [some of the phrasing] and I don’t blame them. Shamefully, it could have been even worse.”

He added:

“There’s something very British, of course, about celebrating failure. Some writers deserve to be taken down a peg or two, but most nominees take the awards with the good humour with which they’re intended. […] But there’s also something very British about the whole approach to sex. We’re good at smut, less good at genuine erotica. It is difficult to imagine the French or the Italians running a similar award.

It was once said that the English have hot-water bottles rather than sex lives. I think it’s more that we’re still not sufficiently grown-up to read and write about it properly.

No matter. It’s all harmless fun. Until now, friends’ concerns about my budding literary career have revolved around the possibility that I might, unfairly, be confused with the rather more successful Alan Hollinghurst, author of The Line of Beauty.

Since this surprise victory, I feel we’re on a level playing field. And he can keep his Booker Prize.”

Read Hollingshead’s full extract alongside the other winners in our Connoisseur’s Compendium.

“I deserve a Blue Peter badge for my description of sex” – Janet Ellis

Not an eventual winner of the award, and so placed at the end of this short list, but Janet Ellis nonetheless makes an appearance after her novel The Butcher’s Hook was nominated for the 2016 award, and she wrote a lengthy article in The Guardian in defence of her own book.

The panel of five judges at the Literary Review singled it out for a surprisingly agricultural passage in which Ellis’s heroine Anne consummates her passion for butcher’s apprentice Fub.

“‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.’ He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.”

In her article, Ellis claims that she should be praised, rather than singled out negatively, for being willing to write about sex, because “I didn’t set out to titillate or shock, but to have skirted around the issue would have been cowardly. I didn’t let imaginary hecklers get in the way of what I wanted to write, or worry someone who’d watched me when they were a child would suffer the trauma of finding out I was a grown woman after all.”

She added:

“Writing about writing about sex is also difficult, of course. If you’re not describing what happens (when you can use all the available words any which way you choose, in an attempt to make a very old act seem new) you’re a hostage to fortune. Every phrase risks alerting the double entendre police, who are eager to nudge each other in the ribs if anything naughty arises (see?).


The paragraphs they’ve pulled out (sorry) for the shortlist are scarcely erotic, and weren’t designed to be, but the cumulative effect must have caused some flushing at least. I take some comfort from the fact that if, after such an avalanche, my writing stood out like a ski pole, I must be doing something right.”

Read Ellis’s extract alongside the shortlisted entries for the 2016 awards here.


So, dear readers, what do you think? How should writers react to winning prizes of the ilk of the Bad Sex Awards? With good humour and grace? Or are they right to feel aggrieved and challenge the ethos behind the award? Should they react at all? Sebastian Faulks, a previous winner in 1998, ignored the award at the time; but then paid homage to his ‘achievement’ with a couple of references to the experience in his 2015 novel Where my heart used to beat.

There’s no easy answer, of course; but let us know your thoughts in the comments below.




Writing against impossible odds – what does your writing day look like?


‘There is nothing so dangerous to good writing as having too much time, too much liberty. You need the filtration system of being kept from your work,’ so says renown author Maggie O’Farrel. Writing in The Guardian, she says that “the idea that there is a typical ‘writing day’ makes me laugh”.

Here at Nothing in the Rulebook, we’ve previously asked whether there is such a thing as ‘the perfect daily routine’ for writing, examining in the process the writing habits of a number of literary titans. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, stuck to a regimented routine of writing, reading, exercise and general life admin.

But are such routines only available to those writers who are not dependent upon other sources of income? With author’s incomes collapsing to ‘near abject’ levels, many writers, both established or aspiring, must balance the requirements of writing with the rigors of a 9 to 5 job. And while certain literary voices, such as legendary poet Charles Bukowski, can urge you to quit your soul sucking job to pursue your dreams, it’s obviously more easily said than done.

Some writers, such as Willa Cather, have elucidated at great lengths that face writers who must also work regular jobs. But even if you are free of the challenges that face employees in the hurly burly world of the modern capitalist workplace, what of other demands of day-today human existence?

In her article, O’Farrel notes that it is not just about the work than brings in additional income, but also the work of being a mother – and of being a fully functioning social adult in the modern world.

“Life with children precludes such planning, such routine, such predictability. Last week, for example, my writing mornings were disrupted and erased by, in no particular order: the cat being copiously indisposed on sofa and carpet; my daughter drawing a seascape of swimming lions on top of some notes I had made; one child sent home ill from school; and another requiring lifts to and from concert rehearsals.”

The challenges facing writers who wish to establish a regular pattern of writing into their day-to-day lives are steep. As O’Farrell notes: “All books are written against impossible odds”.

And of course this is just on the practical side of things – before we even start to consider some of the more existential challenges writers must grapple with; including the need to “struggle with integrity” as James Baldwin says.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Some practical advice may be to include exercise in your daily routines, as so many creatives do. But perhaps it ultimately comes down to a matter of attitude. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to a close family friend and aspiring young writer: “nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one”. It takes time, and effort – and the struggle to face the challenges of writing and becoming ‘a writer’ is part of what you do when you love something enough, and when you’re drawn to write without question – when the thought of not writing is impossible to contemplate; when not writing becomes more difficult than all the difficulties one must face in trying to write, to express yourself.

These are just the thoughts that spring to mind when reading O’Farrell’s insightful article, which you can read on The Guardian here. So what do you think? Is there such a thing as a typical writing day? If so, what does yours look like? Or what would yours look like in an ideal world? Let us know in the comments below!

10 things nobody tells you about becoming an artist

artist in pain.jpg

Think you know what it takes to become the next Picasso or Monet? Think again!


  1. There are 5000 shades of white – and they all have specific names that are usually unheard of. The most common shades are codswallop and bumdergard.

What even is ‘white’, anyway?

  1. Wild easels make the best artistic companions, but they must be caught first. You can do this by tying a piece of camembert to a painter’s apron and leaving it out in the sun for an hour, the easels will eat the cheese and become dopey, making them easier to catch in the apron.
easel in the wild.jpg

A wild easel in its natural habitat 

  1. When you go to a modern art exhibit at a fellow artist’s gallery, there will always be a picture of a giant penis somewhere on the walls. The best thing you can do in this situation is to ignore the penis, and use the stock-phrases artists use in such instances. These phrases include “This art really smells like the decay of our modern civilisation” and “What a lovely shade of bumbdegard the artist is using”.



  1. Never make eye contact with an artist you haven’t been introduced to, especially if there is a full moon due.

eye contact.gif

  1. There is a hierarchy within the art world that must be strictly acknowledged. It runs thusly: Illustrator; Naked Illustrator; Impressionist; Naked Impressionist; Faux-renaissance post-modern lumberjack painter; sculptor; mole-rat enthusiast; naked contemporary artist; contemporary artist.


  1. All art can be described as either ‘cliché’ or ‘erotic’.


  1. If you ever see a photographer trying to sneak into your art studio, you have permission to beat him with your sharpest paintbrush – but only if you are painting with lilac or mauve at the time of his arrival.


  1. The best background music to pipe into your gallery when exhibiting your own work is Enya – also known as ‘loud silence’
  1. The finest pieces of portrait art are those that evoke real, true emotions in the viewer. But beware! These are also the most likely pieces to come to life. If they do, you must burn them before they can take up jobs as inner-city accountants.

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  1. You will frequently get calls from an unknown number that hangs up as soon as you answer it. Ignore these, it’s just Banksy trying to get your attention, and street art can only lead to a life of debauchery and poverty.

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James Baldwin on the real meaning of words and the artist’s struggle for integrity – audio recording


For all artists, there has long been a struggle between creative expression and meaning. Particularly for writers, there is a curious difficulty often in ‘choosing the right words’. This is because, as the post-modern critics and theorists like Derrida and Lacan argue, the meaning of words depends on their context. Yet we never understand contexts fully.  Consequently, ambiguity reigns.  Even our most cherished words – God, love, world, Jesus, hope – are ambiguous.

As we interpret and reinterpret words, we realize no foundational, final, or fixed interpretation is available.  Words refer to other words, those refer to other words, and those words refer to still others.

Meaning seems to exist only in relations of matrices.  Language is a web without any fixed cables.  If we think we have a solid foundation, “things fall apart,” as the poet William Butler Yeats put it, and “the center cannot hold.”

This struggle provides the starting point for one of the most interesting and unique lectures on creative writing available to us today.

Speaking at New York City’s Community Church in 1962, the literary legend James Baldwin emphasises the difficulty of using words to convey meaning that is ‘true’ or ‘real’:

“Words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words […] The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.”

From this point onward, Baldwin continues his terrific reflection on creativity and art, particularly focusing on some of the core challenges central to any artist.

In one of the many moments during the lecture when Baldwin’s passion for art – and the possibilities art can create – truly comes to life, he considers the role of the artist (of the writer, poet, photographer, painter, and so on ad infinitum) in a world beset by chaos and uncertainty. Though Baldwin was speaking in 1962, his words bear that rare timeless quality that make them all the more pertinent here today, in 2016, particularly as our world faces crises posed by Donald Trump, and the rise of fascism across the developed world:

“I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do… The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.


[This is] a time … when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time ago…: “Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” Henry James said, “Live, live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” And Shakespeare said — and this is what I take to be the truth about everybody’s life all of the time — “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.”

Listen to the full audio recording of Baldwin’s stunning lecture via the Youtube video below:

If that hasn’t left you pondering your struggle for your own artistic integrity, why not explore some other fine pieces of worldly advice for creative writers and artists available right here at Nothing in the Rulebook.


The best-selling books of 2016

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There has been much debate in recent years regarding the future of bookselling, and whether the online retail industry can – or will – replace traditional bricks and mortar bookstores you find on the physical high street.

While we can’t yet answer this question, we can tell you a little about the ways in which readers are using these outlets, and what books they are purchasing from them.

We still await data on what books sold the most copies across traditional bookstores, but Amazon has now released its list of the best-selling books for 2016.

“This year’s best-selling list showcases the variety of Amazon readers’ tastes, from literary fiction to thrillers to memoirs,” said Chris Schluep, Amazon senior book editor, in a press release. “The power of Potter is still strong, and readers of all ages can’t get enough of Hogwarts – ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’was the most anticipated book of the year, breaking pre-order records months before its release.”

The full list is here below, with links to Goodreads for your convenience.


The best new indie books of 2016

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In a year that began with a spate of celebrity deaths including David Bowie and Alan Rickman, and ended with the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency after taking us via both Brexit and the news that the planet has now passed through the ‘carbon threshold’, there have been precious few things for liberally minded, creative and generally right-thinking people to hold onto. However, when it comes to independent works of writing by new and contemporary writers, 2016 has at least given us cause for celebration.

As such, we’ve hand-picked our favourite indie books of the year.

The Inevitable Gift Shop

We’re big fans of indie publishers CB Editions, and so it’s not surprising that one of their many fabulous titles makes its way onto our 2016 list. The Inevitable Gift Shop, by Will Eaves, is one of those increasingly rare literary finds: a book that is thoroughly unique, yet also pleasingly familiar as it breaks new ground. Described as ‘a memoir by other means’, it’s not at all plot driven. Rather, this work of collage brings together bits and pieces of memoir, fictional prose, poetry, essay and non-fiction. Interactive, funny, insightful and thought provoking in equal turns, it’s a perfect book to revisit time and time again. Read our review of the book here.

What A Way To Go

Atlantic Books published What A Way To Go, the latest work of novelist Julia Forster. Set against a backdrop of high hairdos and higher interest rates, pop music and puberty, divorce and death, this coming-of-age tale is effervescently 80s, following the tale of 12-year old Harper Richardson as she navigates the various trials and tribulations of young adulthood. Read our review of the book here.

The Waves Burn Bright

There should be a critical term for a book that you can’t stop reading; but also makes you stop and think. Published by Freight Books, The Waves Burn Bright is the latest novel from Scottish author Iain Maloney, and focuses on the 1988 Piper Alpha oil disaster, and the impact it has on the novels central protagonists, Carrie and Marcus, as well as the wider Aberdeen community. It is a book rooted very much in both the past (and the night of the disaster itself), as well as the present; and in its universally recognisable motifs of trauma, loss, and love, carries important messages that will resonate with anyone. Read our review of the book here.

The Story of a Brief Marriage

Published by Granta and Portobello, The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam is an uncompromising narrative of a single day during the war in Sri Lanka. Arudpragasam is an assured and confident writer – and it belies belief that this is the work of a debut novelist. The opening sequence of the novel, in which a six-year-old child with a shrapnel-shredded arm is brought to an open-air operating theatre, feels horribly timely, and the poetic nature of the prose and eerily beautiful writing style makes the detail described in the novel’s pages all the more painful and devastating.

Shadow State

Published by Oneworld, Shadow State by Alan White is a biting critique of the £80 billion the UK government spends on outsourcing some of the country’s most important public services, from prisons to hospital resources and even child protection. Remember the scandal of G4S’s bungled Olympic security contract? Frightened about the threat Richard Branson’s Virgin Care poses to our healthcare and National Health Service infrastructure? Then this really is a must-read book for you. There are plenty of reasons to despise modern capitalism, and this book pertinently showcases several. We’ll see you on the barricades, comrades.

Electric literature – five digital projects that make you think about books in an entirely new way



Digitally mapping literature: the project ‘Mapping Emotions in Victorian London’ takes data from readers and primary texts to create a graphical visualisation of emotions in fictional Victorian London. 

Here’s a new one for you – what if we were to argue that literary scholarship and the general study of literature no longer requires you to actually read any books? Instead, the same results could be achieved by using computers to crunch “big data” and stores of literary information to provide new insights into the way we think about books, literature, and stories.

This obviously flies in the face of the standard understanding of literary study that for centuries has insisted upon the close reading of texts. Yet it is not a unique argument.

We’ve previously considered whether, with the rise of Apps and digital programming influencing the way we publish stories, the future of literature may be electric. And there is now an increasing number of groups and individuals who believe a similar approach could be taken towards academic literary theory. Indeed, they term this “computational criticism” – that is, the analysis of literature in a statistical way using computational models and digital programming.

Why now? Simply, because modern digital technology permits it. Since Google developed an electronic scanner capable of digitising books in 2004, the written words of all literature can be turned into data – and computers can scan and process this information to pick out trends and identify new areas of insight. They can create graphs, tables, and visual representations of this data that is – arguably – more engaging and interesting to consider than a 100,000 word treatise on the relationship between Kafka’s shoes and modern anti-establishment sentiment (please note: this may not in fact be an actual PhD thesis title – but there are some great ones out there, see for yourselves).

Of course, the idea of visually representing literature as data is not new. One of the great masters of the written word, Kurt Vonnegut, proposed mapping the plots of stories, as well as character development arcs, onto graphs. In 1952, the satirist’s work Player Piano predicted a dystopia in which giant computers have taken over the work of the human brain – and in his later lectures on the shapes of stories he opined “there’s no reason why the shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers.”

Needless to say, this topic has drawn some controversy among the literary establishment. Harold Bloom, one of the best-known literary critics and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, has described the idea of digital literary theory as “absurd […] I am interested in reading; that’s all I’m interested in.”

Others are, however, more receptive to these ideas. Jonathan Franzen, for example, says: “The canon is necessarily restrictive. So what you get is generation after generation of scholarship struggling to say anything new. There are only so many ways you can keep saying Proust is great.”

“It can be dismaying to see Kafka or Conrad or Brontë read not for pleasure but as cultural artefacts,” Franzen continues. “To use new technology to look at literature as a whole, which has never really been done before, rather than focusing on complex and singular works, is a good direction for cultural criticism to move in. Paradoxically, it may even liberate the canonical works to be read more in the spirit in which they were written.”

We’ll let you decide for yourselves what you think of this new world of literary study. Below, you’ll find five of our “picks” of digital projects in the humanities. Let us know what you think in the comments section at the end!


  1. Mapping Emotions in Victorian London draws on annotations made by readers on passages of Victorian novels, to generate an “emotional map” of London. You can navigate the map online, exploring the emotions of the readers, as well as the underlying fictional passages, to discover the ways in which London was constructed, navigated and represented emotionally in its fiction.
  2. BookLamprecognises how similar one book is to others in the same genre. Simply type into BookLamp’s search bar one of your favourite novels and it will return a data-driven list of 20 more titles that you’ll like.
  3. VisualEyes, developed by the University of Virginia, is a web-based tool that uses data to digitally map, graph and chart important historical events, searching through vast online databases to pinpoint where concepts first appeared and how they spread across the world.
  4. ‘A View of the World Through Wikipedia’is a time-lapse video made by Kalev Leetaru, a researcher at the University of Illinois, charting how writers have expressed generally positive or negative sentiments towards the places they have written about. Leetaru has done similar analyses with books, social media and online news in a project entitled Culturomics 2.0
  5. The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is an interactive online model: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.