Literature for change: vital reading for the left-wing optimist

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We live in difficult and uncertain times and the world around us seems increasingly full of fear and terror: it is easy to lose hold of hope and grow cynical and weary. But this is the sort of attitude that suits only those who would seek to exploit these feelings to push agendas that nobody wants.

The newly announced general election in the UK is a prime example here. Brexit is not the sole issue facing the country and a general election should not be used as a battleground on which to debate it; least of all because in the debating of it the government will be able to hide the fact it has no clue or plan or strategy. Yet unless we demand and fight for a more positive world and put other issues on the table; we will hear of nothing else over the coming weeks. There will be no talk about the fact that wages for the majority have stagnated or fallen every year the conservatives have been in power; there will be no talk about the fact that we are working longer and harder for no reward, as our physical and mental health and wellbeing deteriorates; there will be no talk of the rising levels of misogyny or hate crime; of the crises in our public services created by privatisation; or of the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our world.

We have the power to change this; to stand up to the politics of hatred and division. Optimism is a strategy for building a better world – if you believe human beings have an instinct for truth and justice and equality; and you believe there are opportunities to change things so we build our society around these pillars – rather than those of fear – then there’s a chance you can contribute to making a better world. “Don’t mourn – organise!”

To help you do just this, we’ve picked out some of our favourite left-wing books. We’ve tried to avoid the obvious tomes of Marx, Lenin and Kropotkin – and instead gone for alternative inspirational, informative, interesting and accessible texts. Check them out!

1. Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay, by John Lanchester

We have been living with the fallout from the 2008 banking crisis, and will continue to do so for decades to come. Fortunately, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, as – without any irony – the publishing industry reacted to the near total failure of modern capitalism by successfully pushing out to the market books that tried to explain the crisis and the myriad political consequences of it. Few of these books, however, are as pleasurable to read as John Lanchester’s “Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.”

The snidest villains and the greediest buffoons in the narrative are the bankers and other financial wizards who began recklessly playing with new, risky, little-understood tools to get richer faster — tools that ostensibly hedge against risk but also dramatically increase it. If you don’t know how derivatives or credit default swaps work, or what securitization is, or why futures are riskier than options, this is a book for you

2. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

A painfully well-researched, addictive romp through Friedmanite economic terrorism by one of the best journalists working in English. Read this book and you’ll understand how and why world governments are capitalising on the economic crisis to impose austerity on ordinary people.

3. Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? By Mark Fisher

The late, great, Mark Fisher identified the paradox of modern capitalism: that the more it fails, the deeper it becomes entrenched. The more people rail against it, the more powerful it appears to become. Yet while Fisher does not identify a single tool or solution to help us achieve the radical social change necessary to displace capitalism, he does however, hint at what any theoretical tool or idea must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

4. The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

A powerful explanation of the nature of violent uprising and the psychology of oppression.  Almost every page contains quotes that one wants on a poster or revolutionary t-shirt (after all, in the words of Billy Bragg “the revolution is just a t-shirt away”).

5. Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft

Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s tome is an inspiration for three centuries of subsequent human rights thinking. She identifies natural rights as being just that – rights; and not to be denied to any group in society by another.

6. The intelligent woman’s guide to socialism, capitalism, sovietism and fascism, by George Bernard Shaw

Shaw’s 1928 work is a brilliant debunking of the myriad excuses for inequality. He argues that women of all classes must free themselves from economic dependence on men, and points to traditional family structures and familial roles as being at the heart of patriarchy. Capitalism is the villain of the piece (as well it should be), as Shaw argues for a humanity driven by forces of love and compassion, rather than self-interest. Intriguingly, he also posits that men will never be truly free or able to reach their full potential until women are free and released from bondage.

7. Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood

An evocative portrayal of life in depression-era Britain, the fact that Greenwood’s Love on the Dole remains in print stands as a testament to a lost industrial culture, and also as a story that speaks its essential truths loudly whenever times get hard.

“I have tried to show what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole,” Greenwood reflected, “the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth.” As austerity policies continue to deprive millions of men, women and children in the UK and elsewhere of essential decent living standards  and newspaper columns bulge with warnings of yet another generation laid waste by unemployment, it’s a mission statement that we would do well to take up.

8. The Cultural Roots of British Devolution, by Michael Gardiner

For citizens of the UK and Europe, the very real possibility of a break up of the United Kingdom demands proper study and research. Scottish devolution and independence takes precedence in Gardiner’s tour de force of a book; yet within it we can also pick out the same recurrent features of “British” culture and politics that have created the climate for Brexit and the push for greater powers for Wales and Northern Ireland.  Gardiner makes, for instance, concrete and extraordinary connections between, for example, English rave and a new unBritish, pro-democratic Englishness. Its scope makes it sightly wandery at times; but this is part of its appeal: unlike anything else in the subject you’ve read.

9. The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

One of the first books to give a voice to marginalised and ‘otherised’ groups in post-war British society, this is not only a novel about race and survival; it is also a novel about the city. Selvon’s descriptions of post-war London are so powerful and evocative that one fancies oneself alive and present on these same streets. He brings to life the grubby, working-class backstreets of the Harrow Road and Notting Hill, and the seemingly unbreachable divide between them and the rich neighbourhoods of Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Hampstead. He shows how London is not one city, but a compendium of many little cities: there is no such thing as one London or, indeed, one Britain.

The message of The Lonely Londoners, then, is even more vital today than in 50s Britain: that, although we live in societies increasingly divided along racial, ideological and religious lines, we must remember what we still have in common – our humanity. As the novel says: “Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead.

10. The Coming Insurrection, by The Tarnac 9/The Invisible Committee

This short book, written in 2005 by an anonymous French collective known only as The Tarnac 9 (also sometimes known as the Invisible Committee) has become a core text for radicals and revolutionaries across Europe and the Middle East. The slender text is part antimaterialist manifesto and part manual for revolution. The writers expound at length on what they see as a diseased and dehumanizing civilization that cannot be reformed but must, they contend, be torn apart and replaced. To that end the authors direct their readers to sabotage authority, form self-sufficient communes and learn how to “support a conspiracy against commodity society.”

 

This is, of course, not a comprehensive list and we’d ask anyone and everyone reading to respond in the comments with their own essential articles, books and texts for organising and mobilising as a progressive force against the disastrous forces of capitalism.

Now, here’s a video of Charlie Chaplain. Because reasons.

 

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New Welsh Writing Awards 2017 longlist dominated by women

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New Welsh Review, in association with Aberystwyth University and AmeriCymru, has announced the longlists for the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017: Aberystwyth University Prize for Memoir and AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella.

Now in its third year, the Awards were set up to champion the best short-form writing in English and has previously run non-fiction categories with the WWF Cymru Prize for Writing on Nature, won by Eluned Gramich in 2015 and the University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing, won by Mandy Sutter in 2016. The Awards 2017 opened up entries from the US and Canada for the first time in the Novella category.

Both new and established writers based in Wales, England and the US are in the running for the top prize, including a joint memoir by a husband and wife. The longlist is dominated by women with 8 out of 9 women contending for the Memoir Prize and 6 out of 9 women in the running for the Novella Prize.

The memoir list includes true stories of a Canadian hobo; anorexia; a daughter’s American road-trip made to help reconcile her father and grandmother; an all-boys care-home in South Africa whose residents include a baboon; being the daughter of a Rhyl beauty competition judge, and backpacking behind the iron curtain.

Among the novellas, sexual abuse or the threat of it are among the themes; as well as homosexuality in a Welsh monastery; the meanings and mystery of treasures old and new; escaping the shadow of a father figure, and the enduring healing and destructive powers of archetypes and idylls.

Aberystwyth University Prize for Memoir Longlist

Maria Apichella (Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk)                                    The Red Circle

Caroline Greville (Eythorne, Nr. Dover, Kent)                                    Badger Contact

Catherine Haines (Charing, Kent)                                                            My Oxford

Liz Jones (Aberystwyth, Wales)                                                              On Shifting Sands

Sarah Leavesley (Droitwich, Worcestershire)                                  The Myopic of Me

Mary Oliver (Newlyn, Cornwall)                                                             The Case

Amanda and Robert Oosthuizen (Eastleigh, Hampshire)             Boystown S.A.

Lynne Parry-Griffiths (Wrexham)                                                         Painting the Beauty                                                                                                                                      Queens Orange

Adam Somerset (Aberaeron, Wales)                                                     People, Places, Things: A                                                                                                                                Life with the Cold War

 

AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella Longlist

 

Cath Barton (Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, Wales)                    The Plankton Collector

Rebecca Casson (Holywell, Flintshire, Wales)                                   Infirmarian

Barbara de la Cuesta (Seaside Heights, New Jersey, US)                Exiles

Nicola Daly (Chester, Cheshire)                                                            The Night Where                                                                                                                                                      you no Longer Live

Olivia Gwyne (Newcastle Upon Tyne, Northumberland)            The Seal

Atar Hadari (Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire)                                  Burning Poets

Joao Morais (Cardiff, Wales)                                                                     Smugglers’ Tunnel

Veronica Popp (Chicago, US)                                                                    Sick

Mike Tuohy (Jefferson, Georgia, US)                                                     Double Nickel Jackpot

 

Commended

Amanda Oosthuizen (Eastleigh, Hampshire)                                     Carving Strangers

For further information about the award and the longlisted writers, visit www.newwelshwritingawards.com

Faking Lit: A serious podcast about books

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Faking Lit is a new podcast in which five rising comedians (Chin Tee, Daniel Offen, Haran X, Alice Burden and Josh Bellman) get together to discuss the finest works of classic literature, the twist being that none of them have actually read the book.

The podcast has been started primarily as an excuse to eat various pies, which are lovingly produced each week by Alice. Ideas about growing the profiles of five talented young comedians are very much secondary to this objective.

“In essence, we’re five comedians who met at the Edinburgh festival (where most of us took successful shows) and we’re incapable of hanging out without the excuse of some sort of content to produce. We hope that Faking Lit will become a roaring success, not only for the good of our careers, but also our social lives,” Offen explains.

The opening episode features Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel “The Alchemist”. Talk of the book somehow leads to discussion of which is the best House Robot on “Robot Wars”, the underlying racial themes in the movie “Predator” and that this book isn’t all that forthcoming on how to actually turn base metals into gold. Also, somehow along with all of this, the episode features a fair amount of discussion of classical literature and is occasionally insightful as well as nonsensical.

You can listen to the podcast here below:

The podcast will be released weekly, from now until the end of time.

Lines with dots under them: exclamation points and how writers use them! (or don’t use them!)

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In one of his most memorable pieces of advice for writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald voiced his disdain for exclamation points, writing: “cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

This has become a (moderately) consensual belief in the writing, publishing and generally literary spheres. The British journalist and writer Miles Kingston, for instance, opined: “so far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience.” Meanwhile, in his book How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, Howard Mittelmark writes: “In almost all situations that do not involve immediate physical danger or great surprise, you should think twice before using an exclamation mark. If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it.”

But, of course, it is easy to advise one thing and practice another. So is it true that using exclamation marks is a sign of poor writing?

Not necessarily. In Ben Blatt’s new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, we are given fantastic, empirical data that proves you can use exclamation points and still go down in history as one of the greatest writers.

Consider the chart below, for example, which shows how many exclamation marks ten of the most revered literary legends used per 100,000 words of prose writing:

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You will see that James Joyce – that modernist, avant-garde author of Ulysses, and arguably one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century – tops the list at over 1000 exclamation points per 100,000 words. That’s an exclamation point roughly every 100 words.

Does this mean Joyce was simply laughing at his own jokes? One suspects not. In second place, we have Tom Wolfe – one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism literary movement and winner of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ awards. Writing only slightly fewer exclamation points per 100,000 words than Joyce, one finds that a liberal use of exclamation points is not an anomaly among the literary elite.

Even Elmore Leonard, who, in his book ‘10 Rules of Writing’ stated: “you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose” ignored his own advice. In his career he wrote 40 novels, totalling 3.4 million words. If he had followed his own advice, he would have used only 102 exclamation points in his writing. As it happens, in the end he used 1651 – sixteen times as many as he recommended.

So, why is it that, despite the perceived literary consensus that exclamation points should be avoided, so many of the ‘greatest’ writers continue to use them so frequently in their prose?

In her now famous book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss, posits her own theory for this:

“As if by common consent, people turned to the ellipsis and the exclamation point. There must have been a reason for this. My theory is that both of these marks are ways of trying to keep the attention of the reader. One of them says, ‘Don’t go away, I haven’t finished, don’t go, don’t go,’ while the other says, ‘Listen! I’m talking to you!’”

Perhaps then, the use of exclamation points by writers – great and small – is a subconscious call for attention; an attempt to hold the attention of readers they fear they might lose without such punctuation use.

This line of logic doesn’t really provide an argument in favour of using the exclamation point. Indeed, it is difficult to find many writers willing to vocally challenge the assumption that it is best to avoid them.

Writer Tom Ewing explains there can be benefits of using what Jerry Seinfield memorably described simply as “a line with a dot under it”; however, he, too, urges caution: “(The) exclamation point becomes a way to disarm the reader and pierce their shell, a kind of textual fluttering of eyelashes,” he writes. “And that’s cool! But once you notice it, you get suspicious.”

It is perhaps worth noting at this point the origins of the exclamation point: being that they were originally called the “note of admiration.” They are still, to this day, used to express excitement. They are also used to express surprise, astonishment, or any other such strong emotion. Any exclamatory sentence can be properly followed by an exclamation mark, to add additional emphasis.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter; since it goes to the root of what makes exclamation points such attractive tools for writing, but which also carries their own limitations. They can easily add emphasis to your writing; however, by overusing them, it takes the power out of it. What are your readers supposed to be excited about if it’s everywhere? If everything is exciting then nothing is exciting, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps, then, it is best to aspire to write beautiful prose where enthusiasm is conveyed by word choice and grammar – instead of relying on lines with dots under them.

Useful resources for the aspiring writer

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Typewriters at the ready, comrades. Here are some priceless resources to help you with your writing!

Filled with creative passion? Determined to make this year the year that you finally finish writing that novel you’ve been working on? We’re here to help. Can we write your novel for you? We would if only we could. Alas, that part is down to you; however, we can provide you with useful tools and resources that will help improve your writing process, and even the quality of the words you put to paper.

Just as a good handyman should have a box for his tools, so too should a good writer have at the ready those tools and resources that help him write. As such, we’ve compiled a list below of writing resources.

All power to your pens, comrades!

First things first – the site that plans your writing schedule

Is there such a thing as the perfect daily routine for writing? There’s certainly no one size fits all formula – you have to find the routine that suits you. But one thing all writers must do is (and this may sound obvious) to find the time to actually write. We work in myriad versions of uncomfortable hours and lead different lifestyles – but Pacemaker.press is a tool that helps you plan your writing schedule, and can make sure you stick to it. Check it out!

Get your vocabulary sorted: get your dictionary

David Foster Wallace claimed that all students of writing should carry a dictionary with them at all times. Save yourself an ounce of weight with OneLook.com, which helps you find, define, and translate words all at one site.

The site that analyses your writing for readability, syllables, word length and more

Introducing wordcounttools.com – the go-to-place to gain an analytical breakdown of your writing. Valuable insights to be found!

Writing tips from a creative writing lecturer

Julia Bell is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on creative writing. Here, she shares with us the top ten pieces of advice she gives her students at the start of each year. Whether you enjoy writing simply for the pleasure it gives you, or if you are looking to develop and improve, these top tips will set you on your way!

Get talking: subscribe to your friendly local subreddit

They don’t call Reddit the front page of the internet for nothing. But while its front page of cat GIFs and interesting and obscure facts is all very well, the real value of the site comes from the users who make its communities (‘subreddits’) great places to share thoughts, ideas, and your own work.

Try some of the best ones specifically curated for and by writers:

r/writing

r/KeepWriting

r/writers

r/writinginsights

General writing skills: Writer’s digest

Writer’s Digest offers information on writing better and getting published. The site also includes community forums, blogs and huge lists of resources for writers.

Avoid the grammar Nazis! A crash course in English punctuation and grammar

A quick and useful crash course in English punctuation.

Grammar Girl

Mignon Fogarty’s quick and dirty tips for better writing. Grammar Girl provides short, friendly tips to improve your writing. Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules.

Vital reading for all writers: The Elements of Style

A freely available online version of the book “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr., the classic reference book. (Of course, you should also buy the hard copy, too!)

Get your reading hats on: free sites to download literature

While we of course advocate supporting your local independent book store – and independent publishing houses – and would urge you to purchase copies of your books where you can afford to, here you can find a collection of 55 websites where you can download tens of thousands of books, plays and texts for free. Oh, and these sites are also all completely legal, of course!

Further reading: A subscription to Brain Pickings

An inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness, spanning art, science, design, history, philosophy, and more. If you’re seeking inspiration, you’ll find it here.

A  list of all the writing  competitions that you can submit your work to in the year ahead!

Now that you are armed with the resources you need to take your writing to the next level, consider getting your stories out there. Submit your work to these writing competitions taking place in the coming months.

And now for the big one: a site that contains the information of thousands of literary agents

You’ve got the schedule down. You’ve done the analytics of your writing. You’ve learned how to rewrite. You’ve done the extra curricular reading. Now, with your finished novel – get an agent!

Finally – advice on how to get one of these literary agents for yourself

Having the contact details of literary agents is all very well; but how do you actually go about getting one? Help reduce the risk of getting those morale-crushing rejection letters by following the sage advice of an author who has been there and done that, Charlotte Salter.

55 places you can download tens of thousands books, plays and other literary texts completely legally for free

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In an increasingly digital world, literature is evolving. Sales of e-readers continue to rise, yet the cost of digital books and texts has not necessarily decreased to the extent to which many initially predicted. With authors’ incomes collapsing to near “abject” levels, and with public libraries under threat from swingeing public spending cuts, we felt honour bound to provide our fine readers with some valuable resources that could help save valuable money.

While we of course advocate supporting your local independent book store – and independent publishing houses – and would urge you to purchase copies of your books where you can afford to, below you can find a collection of 45 websites where you can download tens of thousands of books, plays and texts for free. Oh, and these sites are also all completely legal, of course!

Browse works by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Joseph Conrad, William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edgar Allen Poe and other famous writers here.

  1. Classic Bookshelf: This site has put classic novels online, from Charles Dickens to Charlotte Bronte.
  2. The Online Books Page: The University of Pennsylvania hosts this book search and database.
  3. Project Gutenberg: This famous site has over 27,000 free books online (in fact, a lot of the books listed in subsequent sites here can be found at PG – yet we list the others as users may prefer different site’s interfaces, while the others below also help tailor searches for specific types of books or plays).
  4. Page by Page Books: Find books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells, as well as speeches from George W. Bush on this site.
  5. Classic Book Library: Genres here include historical fiction, history, science fiction, mystery, romance and children’s literature, but they’re all classics.
  6. Classic Reader: Here you can read Shakespeare, young adult fiction and more.
  7. Read Print: From George Orwell to Alexandre Dumas to George Eliot to Charles Darwin, this online library is stocked with the best classics.
  8. Planet eBook: Download free classic literature titles here, from Dostoevsky to D.H. Lawrence to Joseph Conrad.
  9. The Spectator Project: Montclair State University’s project features full-text, online versions ofThe Spectator and The Tatler.
  10. Bibliomania: This site has more than 2,000 classic texts, plus study guides and reference books.
  11. Online Library of Literature: Find full and unabridged texts of classic literature, including the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain and more.
  12. Bartleby: Bartleby has much more than just the classics, but its collection of anthologies and other important novels made it famous.
  13. us:Fiction.us has a huge selection of novels, including works by Lewis Carroll, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Flaubert, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others.
  14. Free Classic Literature: Find British authors like Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, plus other authors like Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and more.
  1. net: Here you can read plays by Chekhov, Thomas Hardy, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and others.
  2. Plays: ReadPygmalionUncle Vanya or The Playboy of the Western World
  3. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: MIT has made available all of Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and histories
  4. Plays Online: This site catalogs “all the plays [they] know about that are available in full text versions online for free.”
  5. ProPlay: This site has children’s plays, comedies, dramas and musicals.
  6. Public Bookshelf: Find romance novels, mysteries and more.
  7. The Internet Book Database of Fiction: This forum features fantasy and graphic novels, anime, J.K. Rowling and more.
  8. Free Online Novels: Here you can find Christian novels, fantasy and graphic novels, adventure books, horror books and more.
  9. Foxglove: This British site has free novels, satire and short stories.
  10. Baen Free Library: Find books by Scott Gier, Keith Laumer and others.
  11. The Road to Romance: This website has books by Patricia Cornwell and other romance novelists.
  12. Get Free Ebooks: This site’s largest collection includes fiction books.
  13. John T. Cullen: Read short stories from John T. Cullen here.
  14. SF and Fantasy Books Online: Books here includeArabian Nights,Aesop’s Fables and more.
  15. Free Novels Online and Free Online Cyber-Books: This list contains mostly fantasy books.
  1. The Literature Network: This site features forums, a copy of The King James Bible, and over 3,000 short stories and poems.
  2. Poetry: This list includes “The Raven,” “O Captain! My Captain!” and “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.”
  3. Poem Hunter: Find free poems, lyrics and quotations on this site.
  4. Famous Poetry Online: Read limericks, love poetry, and poems by Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Lord Byron and others.
  5. Google Poetry: Google Books has a large selection of poetry, from The Canterbury Talesto Beowulf to Walt Whitman.
  6. com: Read poems by Maya Angelou, William Blake, Sylvia Plath and more.
  7. com: Rudyard Kipling, Allen Ginsberg and Alfred Lord Tennyson are all featured here.
  8. com: On this site, you can download free poetry ebooks.
  9. Banned Books: Here you can follow links of banned books to their full text online.
  10. World eBook Library: This monstrous collection includes classics, encyclopaedias, children’s books and a lot more.
  11. DailyLit: DailyLit has everything fromMoby Dick to the more recent phenomenon, Skinny Bitch.
  12. A Celebration of Women Writers: The University of Pennsylvania’s page for women writers includes Newbery winners.
  13. Free Online Novels: These novels are fully online and range from romance to religious fiction to historical fiction.
  14. net: Download mysteries and other books for your iPhone or eBook reader here.
  15. Authorama: Books here are pulled from Google Books and more. You’ll find history books, novels and more.
  16. Prize-winning books online: Use this directory to connect to full-text copies of Newbery winners, Nobel Prize winners and Pulitzer winners.

 

2016 – a look back on the year we’ve had

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As we move forward to 2017, please allow us a somewhat self-indulgent post looking back on some of our highlights from the year gone by. After all, 2016 hasn’t been the best year for many around the world – with seismic political events like Brexit and Donald Trump ‘winning’ the US election, along with the continuing breakdown of the natural world and environmental destruction, reiterating the necessity for all progressive, right-minded people to work together to ensure that 2017 – and the years following it – are not as bad as this one.

Without further ado, therefore, here are our Nothing in the Rulebook highlights of 2016.

Our interviews with fantastic creative people around the world

We’ve been running our Creatives in Profile interview series since we first launched the site, and in 2016 we were fortunate enough to interview some truly fascinating – and brilliant – creatives based across the world. From Japan-based author Iain Maloney through Paul M. M. Cooper, the great guys and gals at The Extra Secret Podcast and Pondering Media, to author Julia Forster, it’s been a true honour to speak with creative artists who are truly leading the way in forging new ways of looking at the world through different artistic media. We can’t wait to continue our interview series over the year ahead – so do look out for more creatives in profile!

Stumbling upon some great literary finds

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We’re always on the hunt for artistic delights and creative discoveries, and it has been a great year from that perspective, as we uncovered such literary wonders as John Malkovich reading aloud Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, incredible letters from Charles Bukowski and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the mysterious literary oddity that is the Voynich Manuscript, beat poet legend Alan Ginsberg singing and reading poetry at the University of Warwick, as well as the audio recording of James Baldwin’s fascinating lecture on the real meaning of words and the artist’s struggle for integrity (alongside many others!). We’ll continue our hunt to unearth some of the great literary wonders of the world – and will be sure to bring them right to your computer and smartphone screens when we do.

Bad Sex in Fiction: the connoisseur’s compendium

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One of a number of our articles to go viral in 2016 was our ‘compendium’ of all the extracts from books that won the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award. Featuring spasming muscles, groans, sighs, moans like “police sirens” and “otherwise central zones”, we dug through each of the books that have won the award since it first launched 24 years ago in 1993. It was quite an effort at times; but completely worth it. Do check it out for yourselves, here.

Our first podcast guest appearance

In November, we had the absolute honour to make a guest appearance on the fabulous Extra Secret Podcast in one of their ‘after dark’ episodes. We (that is, Professor Wu and Billy the Echidna) had the chance to talk everything from obscure cult cartoon shows through literature, podcasting, the direction of art and creativity in the digital age, to, of course, Donald Trump – and what his election means for the world. Do check out the podcast online here, and download it via iTunes.

Reviewing some of the finest new books and writing

A real treat for us in 2016 was the opportunity to read and review some truly excellent pieces of writing from both new and established authors. We’re incredibly grateful to the writers and publishing houses who sent us their work – especially since it confirmed for us the fact that there are so many writers out there creating truly exceptional, new and unique pieces of work. Highlights this year include The Waves Burn Bright by Iain Maloney, The Woman in the Water by Will and Sheila Barton, the F(r)iction anthology from Tethered by Letters, What a Way to Go by Julia Forster, Kingdom by Russ Litten, The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves, and River of Ink by Paul M. M. Cooper.

Welcoming new members to our incredible contributor’s team

Our entire raison d’etre is to build a platform for creative expression – where all artists can come and put their ideas and work across in a safe and supportive space. It’s been truly astounding to see new artists from a multitude of different disciplines join our gang and write countless fantastic articles. So much respect and love for the new contributors to have joined our team this year – Ben Garland, Asim Khan, Robyn Hardman, Josh Spiller, Tom Andrews, Adam Steiner and Eric A Hanson – who join our established team of contributors who have been with us since 2015; Julia Bell, Lola Blake, Rishi Dastidar, Hannah Fairney Jeans, ‘The Goatman’, David Greaves, Iain Maloney, Daniel Offen, Charlotte Salter, Chris Smith, Mark Tomlinson and George Vernon.

You, dear readers!

It should never go without saying that we are nothing without the people who read our work. Without wishing to sound overly sentimental, or start using clichéd song titles and lyrics, everything we do, we do for you. Thank you eternally for your support, and we look forward to many more journeys and adventures with you over 2017! And, if you’re an aspiring creative yourself, do consider making the jump from reader to contributor – get in touch!

 

Until next time, comrades –  Happy New Year!

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

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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)

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

 

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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
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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

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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
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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.

 

 

 

Books are neither elitist nor populist: they are fundamental to our entire existence

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Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

Reading books is a way of studying human beings – ourselves – our ideas and our passions, our cultures and histories, our successes and our failures. So how did we reach a point where the literary world is increasingly divided by accusations of, variously, elitism or populism?

In the intriguing book Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, by the scholar James Turner, it is argued that what we might term ‘academic humanities’ subjects, such as classics, literature, anthropology and comparative arts studies, can be traced back to the splintering of the master discipline of “philology” – the pursuit of wisdom through the study of written words – in the late 19th century.

Literature, and the study of books and the written words of human beings, ought then to be the most accessible of academic disciplines. Indeed, it need not be seen as specifically academic at all. Because it is through the simple act of reading that wisdom is gained.

It might seem obvious, but the fact that the written words of books help us communicate universally applicable ideas to one another is one of the things that sets literature apart from, say, the sciences. Yes we can read, for instance, the scientific observations of theoretical physicists, but we won’t necessarily understand their meaning. Take this description of the point-like particles present in ‘String Theory’:

“Matter particles are usually fermions — particles with an intrinsic angular momentum (spin) that is half-integral in appropriate units. Force carriers like photons and gravitons are “bosons”, particles that carry integer spin. In fact, all the force carriers except the graviton have spin 1 in units of Planck’s constant, while the graviton has spin 2.”

The ideas contained within the scientific writing, then, are not universally applicable. On the other hand, the works of writers of literature are: for instance, you do not need to know the specific historical or cultural context of 19th century Russia to understand the universally recognisable core content and themes of a book like War and Peace or Anna Karenina – where we see characters become bored, fall in love, fall in love with someone else at the same time, get married, commit adultery, fight with rivals.

It has become taboo, in some academic circles, to think this way about fiction. From the 20th century onwards, students at universities studying literature will have likely encountered situations where they have been told it is an error to treat a literary character or scene as anything other than a rhetorical or linguistic or formal or gendered construct. Indeed, it is only by striving for the interpretation and “true meaning” (of which there are nearly always guaranteed to be an infinite number) of a book or story that we should read books, we are told. The act of reading thus is replaced by the act of analysing, evaluating, and theorising. It becomes our business not to empathise with characters but to deconstruct and critique them.

But of course the empathetic element of writing and reading is fundamental to the relationship between the reader and the written word. We develop attachments to fictional characters, simply, because we see ourselves in them. By reflecting characteristics we recognise, characters in books hold a mirror up to our world in a way that science or theoretical academic writing generally can’t.

Fortunately there has been a recent upward surge of writers, academics and literary critics who are increasingly willing to talk about the fundamentally enjoyable pleasure of reading for reading’s sake. The Canadian writer and editor, Alberto Manguel, for example, writes he “would rather describe himself as a reader” rather than a translator or critic.

In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne wrote “books have been useful to me, less for instruction than as training.” This is perhaps the crux of the matter. When we ask the question ‘what is literature for?’, we can say it is – more than anything – about teaching us about the world, and how to be better human beings; books help us become who we want to be, in other words.