Creatives in profile: interview with Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Library of the Future

Hovind, Anne Beate

In Norway, a thousand trees have been planted in a forest just outside Oslo. In 100 years’ time, they will be used to make the paper for an anthology of books, which will form part of the so-called ‘library of the future’.

Conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, the project has captured the attention of great authors across the world, including Margaret Atwood, who was the first writer to pledge her story to the future collection.

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Planting an entire forest that will one day help make the books of the library of the future takes time. Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch.

Yet 100-year art projects, by their very nature, take time. When you work with timescales longer than the average human life, the focus of the work shifts: it is no longer about outcomes, or about critical reception from the artistic and literary communities. Rather, it’s about the experience, and the journey, that takes everyone involved in the project along with it.

Of course, there are also certain logistical necessities that go hand in hand with creating a project of this nature. How do you convince authors to write books that will never be read in their lifetimes? How do you ensure the forest you have planted is used to make the books, and not cut down to make way for some new highway or housing development?

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How do you ensure the forest you have planted is used to make the books of the library of the future, and not cut down to make way for some highway or housing development? Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Vibeke Hermanrud.

To try and iron out some of the answers to these questions, the Nothing in the Rulebook team caught up with the project manager and curator of the project, Anne Beate Hovind.

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

So tell us about yourself and your involvement with the Future Library project

ANNE BEATE

I’m the commissioner and the producer for the project. It’s a magical sort of idea that really challenges our concept of time, as well as of trust, and I think ultimately has a lot to say about our world, and the way we interact with it as human beings.

What I think is extraordinary about the project is the opportunity to work so closely with the artist, Katie Paterson. In a way, I sometimes have to pinch myself when I talk about how I became involved in the artwork because in a way it’s crazy – because just imagine the pitch that begins ‘I have this proposal: but it’s going to take 100 years’. That’s when you panic. Because you think ‘100 years?! Oh my god”. Then the artist says, ‘and, we’ll also need a forest’. And you know, you immediately ask yourself – where will the forest grow? Because I work in the Oslo harbour development area – where and how do you grow a forest in a harbour? And then, on top of all that, the artist says, ‘one more thing – we need authors, famous writers, who are willing to participate, because it’s their work we’re going to print, a hundred years from now’.

But even though it’s a little crazy it really is extraordinary and I actually think in my role, it’s an interesting one to see how you have the relationship between the artist and the commissioner or producer, because where the artist is creative in that kind of traditional artistic way, I’m creative in making it happen!

INTERVIEWER

The project wouldn’t happen without you!

ANNE BEATE

Well I think it’s an interesting relationship – I was actually talking about this with another friend of mine, a Norwegian artist called A.K. Dolven, and we were discussing what it means to put an artwork into the control of the producers and so on who make art ‘happen’. Because you need both the creative idea and inspiration and also that inter-displinary competence and almost entrepreneurship to make those ideas into a reality.

INTERVIEWER

You’re the curator, in a sense

ANNE BEATE

I wouldn’t call myself a curator because I’m not an artist in the traditional sense – I’m an entrepreneur first, I create start-ups. And I actually spend a lot of my time working in the construction business, which is quite crazy, but I always get into this situation where I get into the exploratory work; the ‘make things happen’ kind of work; so even though I’m in a different field of work professionally, there are elements where I work in the same way – it’s about attitude; methodology; it’s a way of working exploratively. And it’s quite similar to the way artists create art. And this is what I like to share and talk about when I give talks and stuff.

INTERVIEWER

You were in Austin, Texas, recently for the Southwest by Southwest festival. Can you tell us a little more about the talks that you give?

ANNE BEATE

I was invited there as a speaker for their official programme, and actually on the way out I was a little nervous because I’d never been there before and on my plane out the Crown Prince of Norway was on the same plane and there was a band on board and the fanfare was a little overwhelming. But once I got off the plane I realised quite quickly I was actually the only Norwegian speaker in the official programme, where I was set to appear on their ‘live’ show.

I didn’t know what to expect but it was really interesting to be a part of. I shared a few of my thoughts about what leadership is about when it comes to making things happen.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by that?

ANNE BEATE

Now, I think what it comes down to is approaching a new project with a kind of explorative attitude – you kind of have to have this tacit knowledge of where to start: what doors to keep open as long as possible, which ones you have to close. In my day job, there’s a lot of risk assessment involved. There’s a totally different risk-mind set involved compared to what I do in my daily life in the construction business; because in order to be innovative – in order to make innovations happen, you have to take risks, you have to be risk taking – and though you might be aware of some of the potential challenges or risks, you have to strike out and lead from the front.

INTERVIEWER

How do you identify what sort of projects you’re going to pursue with that vigour? How do you maintain the energy for it?

ANNE BEATE

I think what it comes down to is more about your attitude. In any job I do I try to make the most I can out of it. So I can do things that other people might find quite boring or not really very ‘arty’ but I don’t mind. I’m very curious. I learn everything about hospitals when I build hospitals. I worked in shipping classification for the shipping bureau and I learned a lot about that and I’ve worked at the main airport in Norway and I learned lots about that and the aviation sector and I do art – and other things – I think, because of that curiosity. If I’m curious about something or something grabs my attention, I want to find out more and I want to see where we – the project and I – can end up.

If you’re not curious about something, how can you have the passion for it, how can you find that energy? You know, that’s what it’s about. You have to know how to run a business or a project; but you also absolutely have to know how to stay with it.

INTERVIEWER

Surely that’s a really important point in this day and age because, in, for instance, London alone, there are so many different free presses or websites and magazines that start up, and they might be around for a year or two years, and then they die off – or they print one anthology and disappear. Because it’s really hard to sustain a project and keep it going, especially in the world we live in where it’s hard to keep funding coming in. And so often there’s a difficulty in building in a sustainable, long-term view to your project. That you can keep building on.

ANNE BEATE

Oh absolutely and you know, I think we might have a similar approach to you at Nothing in the Rulebook, because I like to ‘put bricks on bricks’ – that’s a saying I often use. This whole ethos really resonates with the Future Library project. What we say in Norway is ‘all wood’ – it’s wood all the way through. It’s an expression that basically means something is authentic; it’s true; it’s solid; and it has good correlation between what you say you are and what you do. And building this sort of thing takes time, it takes time and conscious effort. You have to pour yourself into it in a way and make sure your idea doesn’t just stop.

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“‘All wood’ – it’s wood all the way through” – Anne Beat Hovind. Photo credit: Giorgia Polizzi

This whole attitude can be seen in the way we approached the project too, I think. Because we don’t spend anything on communication. And Katie Paterson, who is the incredible artist behind the idea, the two of us work very intimately and very closely together. Even though the Future Library project is quite big and quite well-known in the world; it’s mostly me and her.

INTERVIEWER

So how does that work? How do you do it? Especially when it comes to first launching the project and getting people involved like Margaret Atwood.

ANNE BEATE

How do you do it? How do we do it? We just ask! It’s such a fascinating story – people ask, ‘why don’t you make e-vites when you invite people to the handover ceremonies – but I said, ‘no – I’ll do it personally’. Because I think; that’s what fascinates people. We’re not part of a big organisation. The project does not have a lot of money behind it. It’s small and grounded and goes slow. It’s personal. It’s not like this big stuck up thing. It’s exactly what it says it is.

I think when you are living in this fast living world, with all this start-up thinking it’s like something gets blown up and then just as quickly it’s like PUFF – gone. But the Future Library isn’t like that at all; it’s totally different. And I think this aspect of the project is what people really respond to and connect with, you know, because it has real meaning and authentic content and impact.

INTERVIEWER

It’s this idea of longevity being built within the project from the outset – the entire ethos of it. We live in an age where thoughts around cathedral thinking has disappeared – the idea that we used to build something that would last hundreds of years for future generations, and now, it’s the opposite…

ANNE BEATE

Precisely. And it’s interesting you mention that idea of cathedral thinking because this notion is so important. I was thinking a lot about what Stephen Hawking says about this and I totally say the exact same thing about it.

And you know the day before I was due to give the talk in Austin, Texas, Stephen Hawking died – and I was quite touched by the timing of it because I always mentioned cathedral thinking whenever I talked about the Future Library project and Hawking has been the spokesperson for this idea that we need to invest in ideas for the future, which are made and built for the generations that come after us. And so the night before I gave this talk I totally changed the start of my presentation and I started out with a quote from Hawking about cathedral thinking. And people got really emotional here – and some actually cried. It was very moving.

But this I think is what makes people feel such a connection for the project. Because people are longing for slow, cathedral thinking projects that are grounded; that are not ‘tech tech tech’.

INTERVIEWER

So what influence does technology have on our modern lives and culture, do you think?

ANNE BEATE

Well I think firstly I should say that I love tech. You know. I drive a tesla – I was the one of the first persons in Norway to buy a Tesla. In our household we have two electric cars – we don’t have gas or petrol fuelled cars. We Live in a three-generation house run by solar energy and a thermal well – we have a lot of technology. But for me, technology should only be used to facilitate my life.

INTERVIEWER

Technology is an enabler.

ANNE BEATE

Yes, exactly. It’s about being a human being and keeping hold of that. And I think people are longing for that – to be reminded of what it is to be human, forget about the other tech stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Yet we live in a world where you only have to walk down the street to see almost everyone always on their phone. Living their lives plugged in constantly to the digital world. And it can seem difficult to separate the technology that can do brilliant incredible things that bring us closer together – speeding up communication and living our lives more effectively – while of course avoiding the danger that we get sucked into this world of technology where it’s all we think about – and our social media lives take precedent over our social lives; which are actually the real, authentic parts of our lives that allow us to build real relationships with other people that last years; not seconds.

ANNE BEATE

This is why projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.

INTERVIEWER

We are designed in our society to be constantly stimulated – To constantly go out and get things for ourselves and gratify ourselfs and just go, go, go, all the time. We’re constantly walking through our cities plugged into our headphones, but you can’t get away from the music in waiting rooms or shops and supermarkets. We don’t even have time to sit and be bored anymore, let alone think about building forests.

ANNE BEATE

And this is the world where this Future Library artwork comes in, that’s entirely based on the idea of planting trees – it’s about walking in the forest; doing rituals!

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Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

INTERVIEWER

And how important is the relationship between nature and art? Especially in a world where we now have eBooks, rather than physical books. How important is it for us to keep creating these projects that entwine physical ‘real’ nature with art?

ANNE BEATE

It’s interesting you ask this question about the relationship we have with nature and how we connect to it, because it’s actually a very personal topic to me.

I grew up on a farm. I carried the farm name – which is 1000 years old. It was once a Viking farm. And when my father died when he was young, I was supposed to inherit it. And in Norway, this is almost taken for granted as a rite of passage, that you would take on the farm and run it as a farm. And you are in fact obliged to run it as a farm if you take it.

And my father died when I was 22 and I really had a difficult decision to make; about whether I would take it on, and I said ‘no’. So it’s no longer part of the family.

And this is a decision I haven’t regretted. I realised I wasn’t a farmer, and that that was okay. It was maybe a brave decision, but the right one. And oddly enough what the whole experience has taught me – is that life, in a way, is about planting trees. And planting grains – because my other project is about planting farm crops in the middle of Oslo. And when I first heard about these projects and became involved with them, they both confronted me with how disconnected I had been from nature, even though I have such a long family history of living and working on a farm, which is so connected to the natural world.

And so when I think about this, I realise that both of these artworks are about sustainability. They’re both about the importance of protecting our environment; about living in this world and our collective futures, and having to protect what we have for the long term. We really need to reconnect with nature and the world.

So it’s amazing how both these artworks are so rich in the way they communicate a very fundamental message about being human, which is that no matter how much technology we have, we are still the same animals that evolved over millions of years and thousands of years of modern civilisation to live as part of nature – not apart from it. We need to save our world and our planet. So artworks that speak to this fundamental need are really important.

INTERVIEWER

But of course, we live in an era of catastrophic climate breakdown – do you think these artworks have a call to action in encouraging people to take better care of our planet and our environment? Do we need to each start planting more trees?

ANNE BEATE

So even though Margaret Atwood is kind of quite ‘black’ in her writing, she really isn’t when it comes to her outlook. And when I spoke to her she said “this is a hopeful project” – she’s the one who really knows what it means when it comes to environmental activism. She’s there, on the front of it – and she’s been there all the time; but we haven’t necessarily been listening. And it’s partly her environmentalist background that made her say yes to participating in this work – it took her maybe only two minutes to make up her mind, she said.

Of course, we were SO happy, when she said she was willing to get involved. I can still remember where I was when I got the message saying she would do it. I was so happy! Because it was at this moment that I realised ‘this project is actually going to happen’.

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Anne Beate Hovind and Future Library contributor, Margaret Atwood. Photo credit: Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

INTERVIEWER

Did you have doubts that the project might not take off before you got Atwood’s backing?

ANNE BEATE

Not necessarily doubts, but I knew it was a challenge, because, as we said earlier, there aren’t many projects or ideas these days that are built around cathedral thinking – we don’t even build monuments or buildings that won’t be finished for 100 years, let alone art. So how do you talk to a board about this? How do you convince them that 100 years is nothing?

But it’s been a fantastic journey so far, and it is fantastic still. I’m so happy and grateful to be a part of this work, and it has changed me – it’s been life changing.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think this project resonates so much with so many people, including yourself?

ANNE BEATE

Some researchers should do some research on this, you know. When I saw the article had been upvoted so many times to the front page of Reddit, I thought, what is it that makes people upvote it so much? What is it all about?

INTERVIEWER

There’s a core essence, perhaps, that the project has which has the capacity to capture people’s imagination’s in a really quick way.

ANNE BEATE

And it’s so positive: the engagement people have with it is so built on hope and trust and empathy and compassion. I think it’s really basic human things that we need and are in need of.

I don’t have the answer of course; I can only try to imagine. But when I hear people say things about it, or when I have people ask me ‘how can you be sure that someone will take on this project after you are dead’ (so there’s even an aspect of mortality here that is intrinsically involved), well, I say it’s all about trust.

But when you say that – people have a really shocked reaction – they think ‘that’s so crazy’!

INTERVIEWER

So how do you sustain the project for the future? In 70 or 80 years time, how will you make sure it’s still running?

ANNE BEATE

Trust! It’s all about trust. You know we have set up a formal trust and intention agreements with the relevant municipal authorities in regards to the forest and the room at the Oslo Library, so we have kind of rigged up that admin aspect of it. But to run this project is also about energy – its about respect for the artwork and how it’s set up; and it is about loyalty.

There will be things the board and the trustees will have to solve that me and the artist couldn’t forsee. So there will be people who have to take on my job and fulfil it.

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Oslo Public Library, where the books of the library of the future will be kept. Photo credit: Atelier Oslo and Lund Hagem.

The great thing about this artwork now is that I’ve seen there is a whole world protecting it. So if the forest is threatened by anything – the whole world will make sure to guard it and the books.

I have no choice other than believing in the project. And there’s also trust the other way – because the coming generations have to trust us that we do these kinds of thing for them. They have to trust that we will do things that take care of the planet – that we create work of arts for them.

INTERVIEWER

Art is about what brings people together and the connections that this kind of project can form. Do you have any hopes for yourself about how this might turn out? If you could see the ceremony that takes place 100 years from now, what would you like to see?

ANNE BEATE

I’m sure it’s going to be very emotional. I hope some of my great grand-children will be there and for them to maybe think ‘it was crazy for my great grandmother to take on this idea 100 years ago’, and I hope they think about that and what it means. Because it’s about building bridges between now and the future – but to turn it around, it’s also going to be about the present in the future and the past.

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A book review by other means: Politics of the Asylum, by Adam Steiner

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When it comes to reviewing new works of fiction, the Nothing in the Rulebook team are always keen to jump at the opportunity. So, when we were offered the opportunity to review Politics of the Asylum, the debut novel by poet, publisher, short story writer and concept artist Adam Steiner, we leapt (both figuratively and literally) at the chance. What’s more, when we heard that Steiner’s book would draw on his own personal experiences working in the NHS, examining some of the tragic effects of recent neoliberal politics on our treasured healthcare service, we were filled with a genuine excitement (this may be expected; after all, our biggest creative project last year involved the publication and distribution of thousands of haikus in support of the NHS).

So, first thing’s first, what’s the plot?

Politics of the Asylum follows Nathan Finewax – a cleaner in a hospital steadily falling apart. He’s working on a ward where staff cheat, lie and steal to get ahead, where targets, death tolls and finance overrule patient care, and every day the same mistakes are repeated in a seemingly unstoppable wave of failures. Nathan is sucked deeper into the hospital routine as he dreams of escape, trying to avoid one day becoming a patient himself in this house of horrors.

Sounds great, right? Well, that’s where things get a little more nuanced. You see, this is a novel that, while startlingly original, is also almost as challenging as it is unique. In fact, to call it a novel, in the traditional sense of the word, is perhaps somewhat misleading. So much so, that we are somewhat bemused to say that Politics of the Asylum is perhaps the first novel we have reviewed that has split the opinions of our creative collective firmly down the middle. A little bit like marmite, there are those here at Nothing in the Rulebook towers who love the book; and those who found it more difficult.

As we are nothing if not a democracy, we decided that the best way to approach the review of this book, therefore, was to turn it less into a review, and more into a transcribed conversation between our two reviewers.

Without further ado, therefore, we hereby introduce you to a colossal debate of expert opinion between Professor Wu – amphibious philosophical mastermind and all-round fan of Steiner’s work; and Tom Andrews – NITRB’s resident book reviewer and human being, and some may say a ‘Steiner-sceptic’ (at least, for now…).

Bang the gong: aka – reviewers, fight (verbally, of course)!

Professor Wu (PW): 

Okay, so this is powerful prose if ever I saw it. Though you can tell Steiner is a poet. The language he uses in the book vividly depicts a broken system – an institution where madness abounds and insanity reigns supreme. It would have been easy to say “the NHS is falling apart because of systematic government cuts, bonkers private finance initiatives and underhanded privatisation” – because all that has been said a thousand times before. It’s all true of course; neoliberalism is destroying one of Britain’s most sacred institutions. But what Steiner does so brilliantly is to make the reader not just see what is happening – but to feel what is happening to the NHS. His lyric essays – which is how I’d describe them – capture the frustrations and rage of those people caught within the tangled bureaucracy in a way I’ve personally not seen or experienced before. If we ever needed proof that we find new ways of looking at the world through stories; this is it. Totally unique – and an important work for our times!

Tom Andrews (TA):

Can I just start by quoting the first line of this book?

‘I intensify atoms. With every step, every breath between pause, a rushing haze  of red water flicks – to remind me – there’s that ugly taste on the lips.’

It’s a long way from ‘Once upon a time..’ I fear that the language rather tends to obscure the message and the author is too concerned with being poetic to be clear. Some may struggle to get beyond the early pages – it’s not a book concerned with telling a story or being accessible. Steiner should be praised for his ability to find inspiration in the most unlikely and mundane places (he is currently producing a series of poetry films about the Coventry ring road).  He captures well the dullness, the numbing and futile nature of a dead end job.

PW:

I understand where you’re coming from with the first line – there’s an element of obscurity that may not be to everyone’s taste. I think in part you almost have two options here – analyse it line by line, word by word, on a granular detail – or take it more in swathes, read each piece of the jigsaw and try and see what images or feelings it stirs within you, as a reader.

For the general reader I think the second approach is best. No writer wants (or should want) to turn their work into a classroom exercise where you have to find meaning in a rose thorn. But in the same way I can happily go to a modern art or traditional art gallery and stare at artworks without any schooling in the medium, I think readers can take this book and find emotions and themes without necessarily having to have them laid out in a traditional narrative model. In a way, the point may even be the obscurity – working within a bureaucratic behemoth like the NHS is bound to make one feel not only obscure; but confused, alienated; disoriented.

This, for me, speaks to an even bigger theme and question at the heart of the book. You rightly raise the point about accessibility. You’re talking about accessibility of language, but within the context of the NHS, we should be talking about accessibility of healthcare. Increasingly what we are seeing is that the founding principles of the NHS are slowly being corrupted under this Tory government, and that healthcare is increasingly restricted, and less accessible. The recent case of Albert Thompson is an extreme example, but we are now at the point where UK citizens are being denied access to life saving treatment because of their background. And that’s before we even start to think about increased waiting times, and certain services being removed from NHS provision. In this way, you could say that some of the inaccessibility is a way of holding a mirror up to a system that is being turned into such a mess of procedures and process that restricts access to patients – just as we as readers are restricted from an ‘easy’ or accessible route into the narrative.

I appreciate this may be a bit of a cheap argument – and I think it’s important to note that this book perhaps isn’t for anyone looking for just a bit of light reading before bed. But for me, part of the narrative comes from the way the reader has to find meaning and explore the language of the book in the same way the principle protagonist/narrator has to explore the tangled web of work within the NHS.

I also think you’re dead right about the way this doesn’t just have to be about the NHS – it could, as you say, be about any ‘dead end’ job. For workers and people living in a world in which it so often seems the only purpose of your life is to go out and get things for yourself and gratify yourself and buy things and own more and more and more – finding meaning within your existence (and poetic meaning at that) is something we could all with having more of.  

“You do have a point about this book resembling it’s subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched, much like the service itself.” – Tom Andrews

TA:

I don’t want to dismiss the work as dead end – it keeps the NHS going.

However, there is a certain air of futility, of fighting against a tide of mess just to create a fleeting cleanliness that is quickly destroyed.

The text itself certainly experimental and full of ideas. As the novel progresses, bold type, page layouts and single use onomatopoeia make an appearance. A later chapter is written in the form of a patient’s medical notes, including this delightful couplet.

‘This Pepto gives no cure to the fire/with haunting sounds of Orpheus’s lyre.’

I’m not saying a journalistic expose would be better and as you said there is no lack of statistics and first hand testimony to illustrate the problems facing the NHS, but I feel that by putting across his experiences in such a form, Steiner is in danger of preaching to the converted like you and me.

There’s a certain incoherence as if it is a collection of poems or lyric essays which want to be a novel rather than a novel in the strictest sense. The description as a novel is perhaps unhelpful as I was expecting something rather more conventional from the blurb. You do have a point about this book resembling its subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched like the service itself.

“I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS.” – Professor Wu

PW:

Your question of whether this book has an air of preaching to the converted is an interesting one – you’re certainly right that there’s an element that supporters of our healthcare system may approach this work and others like it with an air of intrinsic bias. We want to support the NHS by any means necessary, so any project that strives to do that may be one we inherently think positively of.

So the question here I suppose is whether the more superficial aspects of the work – the changes in form, structure, the poetic lyrics, etc – are unhelpful to reaching new audiences and convincing them of the value of the NHS (as well as the current challenges the system is facing).

My concern is that by arguing that such aspects hinder the accessibility of the work, one could use a similar thought pattern to dismiss poetry and lyricism more generally. Should readers be essentially pandered to? If someone expects to read a novel and suddenly finds they have accidentally read a poem or lyric essay, have they somehow been wronged? Do they deserve compensation? Do they require a warning label on the cover of any book along the lines of “warning, may contain poetry”?

Poetry has long been a vital form of art as a form of protest. Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

In the same way, I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS. Not only rallying the troops but gaining new supporters from those who appreciate writing that is attempting to do new things.

Conformity with formal structures of writing and the status quo may not have the same impact as a work that challenges its readers’ assumptions.  

TA:

The difficulty in reviewing experimental and out of the ordinary writing is that I might dismiss something just because it isn’t what I am accustomed to. I’m not sure that I have the tools to find the merits in this, lacking as I do the literary background of an amphibian professor like yourself. Certainly, I would not have chosen this book for my personal reading.

Lyrical makes it sound like this is going to be a pleasant, beauty in the details, kind of book. It’s more of a warts-and-blood-and-pus-and-death kind of book – imaginative but not necessarily beautiful.

It could well rouse opinions among people who are more vaguely angry about the NHS than specifically engaged, although it would be a distinctly avant-garde bit of clarion playing.

Intrigued? Perturbed? Baffled? Read the first chapter here –

https://adamsteiner.uk/2018/02/08/politics-of-the-asylum-one-month-to-launch/

 Read the book and want to get involved in the conversation? Leave a comment below!

Haven’t read the book and want to get involved? Buy the book from publisher’s Urbane Piblications via Amazon here https://urbanepublications.com/books/politics-of-the-asylum/

The power of language: Toni Morrison’s Nobel prize acceptance speech

 

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“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” George Orwell wrote in Power of the English Language. Much has been written on the power of language, which can be appear through political rhetoric and bedazzlement, as seduction through words, as “persuasion” – in order to change the way we perceive the world. This power can be used to coral, dictate to and control entire swathes of the population; by the media, through dictators and elected politicians alike; through to influencing the minutiae of everyday life; the arts of seduction of advertising, the sales tricks of telephone marketing, or the menacing undertones we may encounter in the workplace or our personal relationships.

Yet language is also the hallmark of our species. Our ability to communicate with one another through words, through grammar and syntax, either written down or spoken aloud, is perhaps the defining feature of what we may term ‘civilisation’. Language has the power to corrupt – and to be corrupted – yet it also has the power to convey meaning across generations, it has the ability to record histories and ideas that lead to advancements in our society once thought impossible.

When it comes to the great power of language and the responsibility we have when using it, we may turn to the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Tony Morrison.

Morrison received the Nobel Prize in literature for being a writer “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” On taking to the podium to accept the award in December 1993, she provided us with a spectacular speech on the power of language to oppress and to liberate, to scar and to sanctify, to plunder and to redeem.

Morrison opines:

““Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.”

In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”

She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.

The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.

For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims. The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised.

Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency — as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse. For her a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie. When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,” his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the “final word,” the precise “summing up,” acknowledging their “poor power to add or detract,” his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns. It is the deference that moves her, that recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.

Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Listen to Toni Morrison’s dazzling speech here below

Creatives in profile: interview with Wundor Editions

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Matthew Smith, founder of independent publishing house, Wunder Editions.

It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the industry has been forced to seek new and innovative ways to survive. 

One fantastic – and relatively new – player within the sector is Wundor Editions, a London-based publishing house committed to producing innovative and challenging literature and images, while working with new and established writers and photographers.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview with the founder of Wundor Editions, the author, photographer and designer Matthew Smith.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

SMITH

I’m a writer of fiction and poetry, a photographer and a designer. I read English Literature at Oxford, but part of me had wanted to go to art school in London. Both the literary and the visual have always been key for me. In my own creativity and in the work of the artists I am inspired by I like to be surprised by the work of the imagination. A ‘wundor’ is an Old English word for something unimaginable, perhaps a miracle, perhaps a monster. This is the stuff of storytelling, so I named my publishing house after it.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SMITH

Nas, Billy Corgan, Pep Guardiola, Marilynne Robinson, Bjork, Warren Buffet. All people with a singular vision who have managed to bring it out of themselves.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Wundor Editions – how was it borne into existence? 

SMITH 

I wanted to make compelling books and present them to readers in new and engaging ways. By fusing together the worlds of striking photography, illustration and design with original, new works of literature, I felt we could make a world of creativity that people would want to be part of.

INTERVIEWER

It’s no easy feat to bring a new independent publishing house into existence – the sector is so dominated by the established ‘big five’. What are some of the main challenges you faced in establishing Wundor Editions?

SMITH

The main challenges are to do with becoming known to readers. First you have to become known to bookshop owners. Before that you have to become known to reviewers, a distributor and a sales team. You have to take the vision out to these people first, and convince a lot of people that your vision will come to fruition with perhaps only one book in print form that you can use to demonstrate this.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, are the biggest opportunities for independent publishers within the publishing sector?

SMITH

There are lots of artistic works out there that are not given the time of day but they could find an audience. There is no shortage of this stuff, that’s a myth. You just have to know what you’re looking for, and be grateful that it’s not what someone else is looking for.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a publishing house or printing press should be for? Why are they important?

SMITH

They give artists a platform and inspire their readers.

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has stated that the problem with the big publishing companies is that they are too risk averse: they are only willing to “publish novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think that independent publishers have a duty to champion independent voices of authors and artists whose books may never be given a chance by the bigger companies in the sector?

SMITH

Great books are great books – big companies publish them, small companies publish them. Independent publishers should be careful not to define themselves by their differences to bigger companies, thereby limiting their own potential unnecessarily. And independent publishers do fall into the same trap Julian Barnes rightly mentions. But hopefully more often than not their independence allows for a more nimble and agile approach to creativity, and the courage to take risks on original works of art. The challenge is to build this ethos into a growing company that continues to take risks as it grows.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

SMITH

I’m just looking for exciting new authors and photographers who have unique visions and who have taken the time to develop their technique so they can express their ideas brilliantly. The future will look after itself.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see traditional presses playing in this new “digital era”? 

SMITH

The same role they’ve always played. The internet is great for seeking out specific pieces of information and for communication, but after prolonged periods it wears away at your concentration and offers little in the way of sustenance. Traditional presses can make books we can treasure and that have meaning – both in their physical form and as vehicles for stories and poems. There is a power that a book lying on a table has that is magnetic. The internet can’t compete with it.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

SMITH

The ability to imagine something and then to make it accessible to others.

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to authors thinking of submitting their work to Wundor Editions?

SMITH

Go for it! It doesn’t have to be perfect – we will work with writers to develop their stories and their poetry. But you do need to have an original voice.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for Wundor Editions? What should we look out for?

SMITH

We’ll be publishing an Australian literary heavyweight for the first time in the UK later this year, and we’ll be launching our first photobooks too.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

SMITH

Oh no. Wait. That’s it! Hmmm.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

SMITH

  • Trust your own instincts completely but be open to other people’s ideas.
  • The only thing worse than refusing to take advice is taking advice you’re not comfortable with. Take advice from a number of sources and pick and choose what resonates with you. Be your own executive editor.
  • Know that you might have to put your work out there before it’s perfect, and perfect it along the way.
  • There’s no such thing as writer’s block, only fallow periods. If you don’t have any ideas, don’t write anything. Wait for the urge to come back. You’ll save yourself a lot of hours of editing.
  • There’s always time to write a novel if you really want to. Be ingenious in your scheduling.
  • Minimise all engagement with digital stuff if you want to rediscover deep concentration.
  • Don’t buy into the dream of a life where you only have to write. You wouldn’t find it fulfilling because there are other kinds of work which can provide things that writing can’t. And if you can earn money from another source, you’re free to pursue your vision unimpeded by commercial concerns. Ironically, if your work is good, there’s a good chance it will sell.

Grammar rules and how to break them: the run-on sentence

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Breaking rules are what all the cool cats are doing these days (and have been doing for years, to be honest with you – it isn’t something that goes out of fashion). Even though new writers may find themselves drawn to the myriad number of ‘rules’ for writing that exist on the internet, there are a lot of writing ‘Dos and Don’ts’ that were made to be ignored – so long as you do it right, of course.

Chief among these are often rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation. Not least because attempts to standardise language and the written word often leads to the suppression or marginalisation of communities and peoples.

Grammar rules do exist for a reason; yet learning when and how to ignore certain rules can enhance your writing.

To give you an example, in this article we’ll look at the run-on sentence – and show you how you can throw all conventional wisdom out of the proverbial window in order to write one hell’uva good story.

Cool runnings – an introduction to the run-on sentence

First things first; the basics: run-on sentences, also known as fused sentences, occur when two complete sentences are squashed together without using a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation, such as a period or a semicolon. Run-on sentences can be short or long. A long sentence isn’t necessarily a run-on sentence.

What’s the problem with using a run-on sentence?

A run-on sentence lacks the correct punctuation to tell the reader where to pause or to signal that a new idea is being expressed. The reader may be confused about the meaning of the sentence or have to make their own decision about where to pause.

Correcting a run-on sentence can help your sentences read more smoothly and should help your reader understand what you’re trying to say more easily. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.

Breaking the grammar rule

Now, we’re not advocating ignoring the rules around run-on sentences completely: you can’t use them for everything you write, constantly. But if you understand how to conveniently forget about the grammar rule around them from time to time, you can help bring some new-found life and variation to your stories that will leave your readers gasping for breath – and gasping for more of your writing.

In the spirit of one of the most frequently touted rules of writing – we aren’t going to tell you how to do this; but rather show you, by using examples from some of the greatest writers who didn’t think twice about what grammatical rules they may or may not have been breaking.

First up – and perhaps not surprisingly – we have James Joyce’s Ulysses, which  famously concludes with Penelope, or Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, which has 24,048 words punctuated by two periods and one comma. Here’s a part of the final episode:

“…I suppose he was thinking of his father I wonder is he awake thinking of me or dreaming am I in it who gave him that flower he said he bought he smelt of some kind of drink not whisky or stout or perhaps the sweety kind of paste they stick their bills up with some liquor Id like to sip those richlooking green and yellow expensive drinks those stagedoor johnnies drink with the opera hats I tasted one with my finger dipped out of that American that had the squirrel talking stamps with father he had all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep after the last time we took the port and potted meat it had a fine salty taste yes because I felt lovely and tired myself and fell asleep as sound as a top the moment I popped straight into bed till that thunder woke me up as if the world was coming to an end God be merciful to us I thought the heavens were coming down about us to punish when I blessed myself and said a Hail Mary like those awful thunderbolts in Gibraltar and they come and tell you theres no God what could you do if it was running and rushing about nothing only make an act of contrition the candle I lit that evening in Whitefriars street chapel for the month of May see it brought its luck though hed scoff if he heard because he never goes to church mass or meeting he says your soul you have no soul inside only grey matter because he doesnt know what it is to have one yes when I lit the lamp yes…”

If you find this difficult to follow, you’re not alone. At the time of writing, this soliloquy contained the longest sentence ever written at 4,391 words, which made it the master of all run on sentences.

Nonetheless, while you might not want to go quite as far as Joyce, you can see how ignoring conventional grammatical wisdom can enhance the intensity, voice, and style of your writing. It helps your words to flow freely, adding life and vigour to your writing.

For our second example, we’re turning to another literary great, David Foster Wallace. His short story Incarnations of burned children was first published in Esquire magazine and you can read it online for free (do it now).  The story consists of only nine sentences, and yet is 1100 words. The breathless run-on sentences intentionally lend to a panicked, anxious reading, a messy and somewhat incoherent babble as neither the narrator nor the Daddy nor the Mommy can slow down and think rationally.

Here are the first three sentences of the story, to give you a flavour of how Wallace breaks traditional grammatical rules to such devastating effect:

“The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child’s screams and the Mommy’s voice gone high between them. He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen. Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child, whose screams were regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around.”

Protect your voice

If we were to ‘correct’ the work of Joyce and Wallace (to name just two authors who ignore the run-on sentence rule), we may make them conform more closely with standardised English language; but both works would lose something fundamental in doing so. They would lose their energy; they would lose their voice.

Since a writer’s voice has more to do with what meaning is or isn’t conveyed to the reader than the grammatical rules and syntactical structures we place upon our written language, these stories would have their fundamental essence rearranged and, ultimately diminished.

So, if you find yourself locked in a burst of frenzied writing energy and wake the next morning covered in raw coffee beans and ink (we’ve all been there) to find that your prose is riddled with run-on sentences; don’t worry. Sit back, re-read what you’ve written, and remember the timeless (though slightly paraphrased) words of Doc Brown from Back to the Future: “Rules? Where we’re going, we don’t need rules…”

 

 

 

 

Faking Lit feat. Nothing in the Rulebook: a serious discussion about Dinosaur Erotica

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Would you be averse to a velociraptor opening your door handle at night? Have you ever looked at a picture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and thought they’d make a great CEO of a large financial firm? These questions – and more – have been both raised and answered in the latest issue of the acclaimed podcast ‘Faking Lit’, in which five rising comedians get together to talk about books they may or may not have actually read.

Nothing in the Rulebook were thrilled to be invited onto the show to discuss the intriguing world of dinosaur erotica – where humans and dinosaurs get all kinds of jiggy with it.

Sitting within the wider genre of ‘moster book porn’, dinosaur erotica has proved to be quite the explosive phenomenon. Some of the best-selling authors behind the books (usually self-published) have earned so much from their craft that they have been able to quit their day jobs. With these books ranging in size from one to fifteen pages, and featuring titles such as ‘Taken by the T-Rex’ and ‘My billionaire triceratops craves gay ass’, the team behind Faking Lit had just one main question: just how hard can writing dinosaur erotica be?

Check out the podcast below and find out more about the quite frankly insane world of dinosaur erotica through the following helpful resources:

Watch Faking Lit live

On Thursday 29th March, the Faking Lit podcast team at Waterstones Tottenham Court Road, London, in a live Easter special of the podcast, as they work together to unlock the mysteries of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel of Jesus secrets, The Da Vinci Code.

Check out the podcast

The podcast is available on Soundcloud, iTunes,Tunein and Stitcher.

Follow Faking Lit on Twitter via @Faking_Lit_Pod

Creatives in profile: interview with Helen Rye

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The world of a short story may be more condensed than the world of a novel, but its emotional impact can be as wide-ranging as a novel’s. Indeed, whether you want to call it micro-fiction, sudden fiction, smokelong lit, short-shorts or flash fiction, writing short stories requires dedication, skill and applying new techniques to make them zing. But, when done right, these pieces of fiction can offer a true – albeit fleeting – moment of literary delight to both writers and readers.

With booksellers reporting a surge in the popularity of the short story, Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with one of those writers brave enough to embrace the short story as their form of choice.

Helen Rye has arrived on the short-story scene with quite the onomatopoeic splash and bang since her debut short story was nominated for the 2016 Bridport Prize – with her stories variously winning or being shortlisted for a number of other prestigious short story competitions since.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

RYE

I live in Norwich, UK, a beautiful city packed to the seams with talented writers, due in part to the legendary MA creative writing programme at the UEA. I don’t have an MA, but I have benefited via a sort of trickle-down effect from some brilliant classes and writing groups run by people who do.

My main work background is in homelessness and drug work, but I’ve also been a lab technician, a classroom assistant, a cleaner, an admin worker, a voluntary theatre company director and an underqualified parent. I’ve wanted to be writer since I was eight and was encouraged by a couple of English teachers to pursue it seriously, but I dropped in and out of school as a teenager. After being told in sixth form that there was no way to study creative writing beyond school, I ended up leaving to work in a science lab, studying physics part-time at a tech college.

I was always writing in my head, but too afraid to put it down on paper for such a long time in case I turned out not to be any good at it after all. For years I kept telling myself that soon I would write, until I was staring down the barrel of a milestone birthday and decided it was now or never. I took a couple of courses and joined a writing group, where I was introduced to flash fiction via a Kit de Waal story. I REALLY wanted to learn how to do that, so had a stab at it, and that story – the first thing I’d ever subbed anywhere – ended up being shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. That gave me enough of a confidence boost to try writing some more and (I know this sounds incredibly jammy), the next story I sent out won the October 2016 Bath Flash Fiction Award, out of 700 entries.

I’ve since had other stories published in various online and print journals and anthologies and went on to win the Reflex Fiction Prize in the summer of 2017, as well as unceremoniously crashing and burning in other contests. Confidence is such a strange thing, isn’t it. I’m still really reticent about sending stuff out, and am fairly brutally aware of my shortcomings as a writer. The last few months have been a particularly busy and difficult time in my life, but I’m hoping now to press through this hesitancy – basically, to get over myself and get subbing.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

RYE

No, it’s writing. That’s my thing. I also love music, though, and I have been part of an improv comedy troupe, although I’ve come to the conclusion that my brain just doesn’t work fast enough for that. I do love the creative, collaborative nature of music and of improvised theatre, though, and the incredible sense of teamwork and connection that comes with both – I get that from the writing community, too  – the flash fiction writers are my lovely dysfunctional extended family. We get each other in a way that nobody else does, beautiful obsessive weirdos that we are.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

RYE

Oh, gosh. Well everyone who can write a beautifully constructed sentence that takes my breath away with its emotional impact, and anyone who can produce a flash story that shines with heart and poetry. So many writers. My mentor, Tania Hershman – as well as being a wonderful, joyful writer, she is a shiny, glowing human full of life and encouragement. One or two of my closest writing friends who would probably be embarrassed if I named them, but they know who they are. People who give so much to the writing community in editing journals, helping other writers develop, writing incredible stories themselves. People who always make time to workshop your story twenty minutes before the deadline you forgot you had. People full of kindness, humour and humility who are willing to slice open a bit of their heart and lay it on the page, make themselves vulnerable in order to say something worth saying. These guys keep me sane and keep me writing with their support and encouragement.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

RYE

I had two dedicated and (here comes that word) inspirational English teachers at school who both said they were keeping stuff I’d written because they thought I’d be a famous writer one day. Sorry to disappoint you there, guys. But thank you so much for your encouragement – I definitely wouldn’t have tried to write at all if it weren’t for you. Then in more recent years I did some creative writing courses with former UEA people Lisa Selvidge, Stephen Carver, Andy McDonnell and Ian Nettleton. They’re all utterly fantastic teachers, genuinely.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

RYE

Flash is everything that’s best in writing, to me. It’s closer to poetry than it is to longer fiction, I think – the condensing of ideas and feeling, the need for single or pared down imagery and language. At its best (i.e. other people’s) it’s a laser-cut jewel of perfect shining prose. It can break your heart in pieces in such few words. I love poetry too, but I don’t understand it well enough to write it well and I relate better to the clearer narrative of flash. A great flash story will make me feel something, and that’s almost the whole reason I read. Writing it lets me work out and express what I feel or think about something better than anything I know. I’d trot out that old line that it’s faster to write flash than longer fiction, but for most flash writers I know that’s not actually true. When you have few words to tell a story you try to get every one of them right. I hope there’s no function on my computer that can tell you how long I’ve spent per word on a given story – I’m sure whole novels have been written faster and better.

INTERVIEWER

How easy do you find it to move between different writing forms/mediums – can you balance writing a novel with crafting flash fiction or short stories?

RYE

I’m focussing on trying to get better at writing flash at the moment, but have accidentally written some hybrid pieces that stray towards prose poetry territory. I have begun thinking about returning to the shambolic collection of scenes on my laptop that I’ve sometimes described as a novel draft, and I have a couple of children’s fiction drafts and ideas I’m wanting to find the time to return to. How easy I’ll find that shift, I’ll let you know when I try it!

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

RYE

The crazy obsessive in me can’t let it be. It’s how my brain works, I think in terms of stories and eccentric language and metaphors, and it’s one way I try to make sense of the world. If I didn’t keep writing now I’d probably develop some other, more self-destructive habits, so I need to keep it up, I think. And the support and encouragement of writer friends. I’d be weeping under a duvet without them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel writers should feel any ethical responsibility in their roles?

RYE

I don’t think you can divorce ethical responsibility from anything you do. Nobody wants to read preachy writing, but sometimes what drives us to write is an unbearable sense of injustice, or the suffering of other people. And maybe occasionally a story will make someone think – or rather, feel – deeper – who knows. Doing our absolute best not to be a part of endemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism etc is everyone’s responsibility, and that extends to art.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

RYE

No. Maybe I should, I don’t know. I kinda just write and hope it might end up beautiful in some way, say what I want it to say, and that someone somewhere will read it and not completely hate it.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry (if we can call it thus)? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

RYE

I’m a mum from Norfolk and I’ve only been submitting stories for about 18 months – I’m not sure I’m aware of general trends within the writing industry… I think flash is becoming more mainstream, maybe? There seem to be more opportunities for chapbooks and collections to be published commercially than a year or so ago, which can only be fairly wonderful. Maybe the literary world is catching up with us flash writers, here at the tiny but sharpened cutting edge of short story writing…

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

RYE

I’ve just joined the editorial board of Ellipsis Zine, a fantastic online flash fiction magazine, and also been asked to act as fiction editor for another print journal. Both of those are incredibly exciting for me. I have a back catalogue of mothballed flash stories in need of editing and sending out and I’m hoping desperately to find the time and confidence to do that now. I have that half-written and possibly very bad novel hidden in a dark corner and I need to brush the beetles off that and see if it’s worth working on. I also have some children’s picture book texts I’m trying to psych myself up to send to an agent. And an idea for a children’s novel that’s been occupying a small space in my head for about a decade. What I really need is someone to prod me with sticks until I get over myself and just do this stuff because who knows, hey. It’ll definitely never get anywhere if nobody ever sees it.  And that’s what writer-friends are for.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

RYE

No.

Kidding, but they’re so hard! Ok, erm…

Whiteness would have made him bulletproof.

 

 

 

Book censorship: “bad language” vs bad writing

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A quick scan over the list of books banned by American schools makes for some intriguing reading. Among their number you can find such famous titles as A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

As recently as 2011, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was banned by schools in Republic, Missouri – with copies only available to students who could present written parental permission.

All of these books have been banned for their use of “bad” or otherwise offensive language.

In this way, the parents of American children who seek to ban these books align themselves with the Daily Mail – who have run a number of fear-filled pieces noting that swearing in books could potentially corrupt children’s minds. And they also share similarities with the notorious law passed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014 that is still in effect today, in which writers can be fined and books banned for including “obscene” or “offensive” language or “objectionable words”, including swearing.

But what impact does banning books for supposedly ‘bad’ or ‘offensive’ language actually have, and what message does it send?

Censorship as suppression

The case against use of swear words or otherwise “bad” or “offensive” language is usually made by those who feat these words either corrupt the language itself or those people reading it. Here, the phrase ‘think of the children’ is frequently heard in shrill cries as concerned parents take a leap of faith in thinking that seeing swear words written down or used by characters in a book may make their innocent kiddos somehow no longer innocent – or otherwise corrupted.

Yet such thought-policing tactics ultimately amount to attempts to control and suppress certain voices and cultures.

Just think of Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting (a book which has three instances of “cunt”, one of “fuck” and one of “fucking” on the first page). Welsh rails against moves to censor literature on the basis of swearing – and explains:

“it seems to be an attempt to erase and/or marginalise certain cultures, i.e. the working class, the ghetto and so on. Language is a living, organic thing. If you try to control that and prescribe what people say, the next thing is prescribing what people think.”

Such concerns of course follow the thoughts of Orwell, who wrote in Politics of the English Language that “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Indeed, Orwell also refuted the idea that one should follow “a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from” – rather, he said, “correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear”.

What this again illustrates is that to suggest a book is of poor quality because it deviates from the norm or standard, or because it possesses within its pages swear words or other words in which people find offense, is to completely misread such a book, and to misunderstand the point of it all – not just the book; but culture itself.

This is because culture is not standard. It should not, therefore, be contained or controlled. It is natural. It is alive. It flows and changes in various fluctuations and metamorphoses.

The sterility of censorship

Trying to impose censorship on books for their use of language ultimately serves as a form of defence for the status quo against new ideas and inspiration. This in turn prevents marginalised communities and voices from finding expression through artistic means.

This is a clear danger to all writers – aspiring or otherwise – as well as everyone involved in the book industry, including readers – and ultimately anyone who considers themselves a part of a diverse or inclusive society. This is because it limits freedom of expression in such a way as to suppress new ideas from emerging; enforcing the creation of dull and mundane art that all looks the same – for fear of doing anything that might fall foul of the new age thought police.

In 1945, American novelist and diarist Anais Nin discussed the act of censorship and its effect on originality in her personal diary, writing:

“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.”

As we’ve discussed before, the act of censorship is indeed brutal and even fascistic in its oppression of freedoms. Indeed, it is often a clear act to control the thoughts and creative expressions of others – limiting originality as it does so.

Missing the f*cking point

Scottish author James Kelman – who saw his own book How late it was how late challenged for its use of “offensive language” has himself challenges whether people trying to ban books for their use of swearing really understand how language works.

Kelman writes: “people can use swear words to emphasise the beauty of something – so it’s not really a swear word at all. If you say something is ‘fucking beautiful’, how can it be swearing, because you’re emphasising the beauty of something. If so-called swear words should only be used when appropriate, well what do you mean, ‘when appropriate’? I was in my 20s before I even realised the word ‘fuck’ had to do with a sexual act for some people. It was never used in that way for myself, and none of my community used it in that way.”

Indeed, Willy Maley recognises the range of functions swearing can adopt in Kelman’s work, in his essay ‘Swearing Blind’. Maley writes: “The swearing is integral to Kelman’s power as a writer. It is neither a vulgar and superfluous supplement nor an offensive coating concealing shortcomings in the narrative, dialogue or characterization.”

Were Kelman to have restricted his language and natural writing style to omit certain words, would we have been given such important literary works as he has produced as an author? Almost certainly not. And in this way we as readers would have been denied access to truly original pieces of fiction.

The difference between ‘bad language’ and bad writing

Just because a character in a novel likes to say the word fuck, or because the author of a book uses a narrator unafraid to use expletives in their narration, it does not mean the book you’re reading is bad – and certainly not that it should be banned.

It may seem obvious, but there is a very real difference between a good novel that contains swear words, and a bad novel that is written in fine, puritanical English.

This is because there is a difference between bad language and bad writing.

Bad language, according to Mark Twain, “has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humour is pathetic; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”

Anyone who has read Fifty shades of Grey, which contains lines like “My subconscious has found her Nikes, and she’s on the starting blocks,” or anything ever written by renowned author Dan Brown will know what Twain is talking about here.

Indeed, you need only read some of the winners of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award to see just how badly some writers can abuse language – yet even here (perhaps even curiously) there are often no swear words or expletives in sight. In their place you find only misplaced metaphors and “bulbous salutations”. 

Conversely, “bad language” is really nothing of the sort. When writers use expletives – or even deviate from traditional models of ‘standard English’ or spelling and grammar – may well be trying to capture language as it is used by their own community.

With this in mind, how can anyone, after all, be genuinely upset by swearing – words that irrefutably exist and form a crucial element to our language? People so often don’t even swear to be abusive or to cause offense: it’s just how people talk.

Of course, this is not to suggest simply including expletives for their own sake can ever be taken as a sign of good writing or mature writing skill. As legendary writer and editor E B White noted, “vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

When it comes to writing – and protecting your own work from genuine accusations of ‘bad language’ – therefore, the most important thing to keep in mind when penning your drafts is ensuring that every word you use is absolutely necessary. If that necessary word may offend Vladimir Putin or evangelical Christian parents in small US towns and states, then you must keep it in – if anything, in today’s world, it may be more necessary than ever before.

 

 

The beauty and complexity of Irish literature

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If Ireland is seen by some people in the world as some kind of romantic ideal, it must be seen only through the prism of eyes that have not seen news or history of the killings in the North, or how Irish women were considered far too lovely for contraception (and still today too lovely to be given the right to abortions). Ireland, far from being a mystic isle of pure beauty and tribal innocence, is – like so many countries – a land of contradictions and complexities.

Ireland’s greatest litterateurs have embraced these sometimes conflicting differences to create works of fiction that are as beautiful as they are in themselves complex; that do not shy from painting the horrors that have befallen the island at times, but find lyrical ways of expressing these to readers across the world. Irish writers write against their own foolishness and flaws as much as they do against those of their fellow countrymen or those of colonial invaders – and in doing so they find ways of expressing truths that are delightful and intricate and small; and thereby discovering beauty that is real and full of power and significance.

Perhaps the lyricism and beauty of Irish writing is in part down to the tradition of oral storytelling and poetry within Irish history, combined with the suppression of the Irish language itself during the centuries of British colonialism. With the brutal restrictions placed upon not just the Irish people themselves, but the very words and language with which they used to communicate, the British, in a way, created the conditions necessary for new forms of writing to emerge. Irish writing so often seems at times to be born from the fragmentation of old certainties, and the need to say important things in an almost coded fashion, so as to avoid discovery. Fiction and poetry – creative writing in general – play a crucial role in conveying meaning through indirect means (metaphor, allegory, etc.). And so, in the face of an increasingly restricted and complex reality, Irish writers created their own worlds – spun into life in the most beautiful, unique and creative ways.

In this view, Irish writers rise to a cultural prominence in which they are defined both by their creative genius and by their nationality. Their identity is absorbed by their craft, and the geopolitics of it. This is an idea captured by Sean O Faolain – a pillar of twentieth century Irish short story writing – who wrote:

“Irish literature came to its great period of effervescence in a romantic mood whose concept of a writer was almost like the concept of a priest: you did not just write, you lived writing; it was a vocation; it was part of the national resurgence to be a writer.”

In honour of these writers, we have brought together a far from exhaustive list of our recommended Irish books to read at any time; but perhaps most fittingly on St Patrick’s day.

You can read our book list here.

10 books to read on St Patrick’s Day

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Curling up with a book (or doing anything with a book, for that matter) may not be how you would first think to spend your St Patrick’s Day.

A national holiday for the Emerald Isle which has been adopted by peoples across the world with no connection to Ireland but a keen desire to use any excuse to drink a lot and have a party, St Patrick’s day is perhaps more often seen as an obligation to drink Guinness and Whiskey than get au fait with some literature.

Sure, it can be a great lark to don some light-up shamrock earrings and drink your own weight in alcohol – but it’s also a fine idea to explore some of the country’s greatest books, both from the literary titans who shaped the modern novel, to those writing today (and all those in between).

If you’re feeling lucky this St Patrick’s Day, why not check out some of these crackin’ Irish books below:

1. Reading in the dark, by Seamus Deane

Reading in the darkIn strikingly lucid language and scenes fired by a spare, aching passion, Reading in the Dark combines the intimacy of a memoir with the suspense of a detective story. Seamus Deane’s poetic inclinations shine through in his debut novel, perfectly illuminating a coming-of-age story of an unnamed narrator in Northern Ireland. Deane captures the underlying, subconscious fears present throughout the course of the ‘troubles’ – where people live as “if they might explode any minute” and can be “disappeared”. Yet this is a pervading background to an essentially familial story, which contemplates love, religion, innocence, love and truth. And while answers to the novels questions come in bits and pieces, by the turn of the last page readers lives have been illuminated, washed in an elegant, graceful and forgiving prose.

2. Dubliners, by James Joyce

dubliners.jpgFrom (arguably) the king of the modernist movement, James Joyce’s Dubliners plants the reader in the heart of – you guessed it – Dublin. This collection of short stories explores everything from sexual awakening to loss in an attempt to depict the paralysis of the city he loves.

Rejecting euphemism, Joyce’s prose reveals the Irish in their unromantic reality – with fifteen stories offering glimpses into the lives of ordinary Dubliners.

Ultimately, Joyce’s genius is proving to all readers that Dublin is so much more than a tour of the Guinness factory (even if it is Paddy’s Day).

3. A Girl is a half-formed thing, by Eimear McBride

half formed thing.jpg“Definitely a genius” according to Irish writer Anne Enright, Eimear McBride transports you directly into her narrator’s mind and heart, making this experimental, award-winning novel totally unforgettable. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing tells a sensitive and brutal story about the relationship between a young girl and her brother, as they navigate experiences of sexual violence, family crisis, and mental and physical illness.

In edgy, hazy, stream-of-consciousness prose, McBride introduces us to a host of well-drawn characters that appear taken directly from the streets and fields of Ireland – ranting, Catholic mothers, difficult brothers and a pervy uncles.

4. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

gullivers-travelsIn this epic fantasy yarn of a shipwrecked traveller, Swift directs a satirical fury against almost every aspect of early 18th-century life: science, society, commerce and politics. Second, stripped of Swift’s dark vision, it becomes a wonderful travel fantasy for children, a perennial favourite that continues to inspire countless versions, in books and films. Finally, as a polemical tour de force, full of wild imagination, it became a source for Voltaire, as well as the inspiration for a Telemann violin suite, Philip K Dick’s science-fiction story The Prize Ship, and, perhaps most influential of all, George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

5. Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

brooklyn.jpgA beautiful coming-of-age tale set in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis Lacey in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind. Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to establish her life in Brooklyn, devastating news from Ireland brings her back to Enniscorthy. Eilis is forced to choose between America and Ireland–and two men who embody these places–in the midst of the sweeping economic and social changes of the 1950s.

6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

tristram.jpgAnother classic of Irish literature, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy ,Gentleman is a meandering satire of the life of antihero Tristram Shandy — a Don Quixote-type character who finds himself in one amusingly dire straight after another, and who somehow cannot seem to finish a story once he’s started telling it. The result is a kaleidoscope of storytelling, digressions, and characters as vividly imagined as those in any great fairy tale.

 

 

7. Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett

godot.jpgOkay, so this is technically a play rather than a book – but you can still buy it in a book form, so it still counts!

Two homeless old men wait in a bare road with a single tree. They are in no particular time or place – nowhere and everywhere. Over two days they argue, get bored, clown around, repeat themselves, contemplate suicide, and wait. They’re waiting for the one who will never come. They’re waiting for Godot.

Vivian Mercier wrote in the Irish Times in 1956 that Samuel Beckett had “written a play in which nothing happens, twice”. This is still happening today – and it happens every time you pick up the book/play and read it, or go to watch it performed.

Beckett’s genius lay in creating a work that, more than half a century on, still speaks to audiences, particularly in troubled times (and boy, do we have enough of those today).

A perfect way to spend your St Patrick’s Day afternoon while you’re waiting for your friend to come back from the pub.

8. Young Skins by Colin Barrett

young skins.jpgAn exquisite portrait of post-millennium small-town Irish life – this short story collection features largely rudderless, misfiring young men as the principle protagonists, alongside young women cut adrift by society or circumstance.

Communities muddle through. Longings go unexpressed – and sometimes a fierce and jolting awareness flares up like wildfire on a damp rock on the edge of the north Atlantic.

 

 

9. The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

TheCountryGirls.jpgBanned when it was published and burnt by the natives of O’Brien’s village (a question – how did they get enough copies to build a bonfire of books if it was banned?), The Country Girls has a purity to it that is only matched by how compelling it is to read. Simple in the extreme, it tells the story of Kate and Baba who have made it to Dublin from the deep and damp parish countryside and find that, in all the excitement, hypocrisy remains a constant. With Irish women on both sides of the border still struggling to fight for their rights, this remains an important book everyone should read regardless of what day it is.

10. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story

granta.jpgA bit of a cheap win this one, as it holds within its pages some of the finest Irish writing from some of the greatest Irish writers of the last century. Lyrical, dark, comic and iconoclastic, the short stories encompass both the richness and the innate contradictions and challenges of Irish life.