Prufrock's Page

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Banville's Future

Cast your mind forward to 2050. In a biographical dictionary you read: 'Banville, John: Irish author of numerous novels, all of which are entirely forgotten. Chiefly remembered for a scurrilous review of Lord McEwan of Islington's masterpiece, Saturday. Some of his novels, which Banville had written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, are still in print.'

Why One Hasn't Written A Novel

John Updike's goal is 1,000 words a day. Richard Ford awakes at six so he can begin as soon as possible. Philip Roth follows Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Wolfe in preferring to stand for hours on end. Oh, the discipline and routine needed to be a writer.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Loosen Up, LitMags

Editor Dan Crowe talks of the present and future of literary magazines, using Granta as a case in point: "With the deaths of George Plimpton, founder of the Paris Review, and Barbara Epstein, a founding editor of the New York Review of Books, and the change of ownership at Granta, this is a critical time not just for Granta but also for the future of the literary journal as an art form. It is no longer enough for a literary magazine to publish 'good writing', or even 'new writing'. We've got the internet now. When Plimpton founded the Paris Review it was an act of rebellion; similarly for Bill Buford when he relaunched Granta in the 1970s. They wanted to shake things up a bit. With the new owner in place, it is time for another shake-up. Granta must loosen up; it must rock and roll. It must not only seek to publish good writing, but it must seek to become original again - original and broad-minded in the ways it communicates with its readers."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Amis Again

Apologies for going on about Martin Amis' new book yet again, but here's another review by David Aaronovitch that's more sympathetic, more considered, and, as such, definitely worth reading: "Through Qutb and others Amis came to the realisation, chronicled in The Second Plane, that Islamism itself was a problem, since what it loathed about the West was, as Amis puts it, not our active seductiveness, but our passive attraction. 'We should understand,' he writes, 'that Islamists' hatred of America is as much abstract as historical, and irrationally abstract too; none of the usual things can be expected to appease it.' Amis connects this existential envy to the political failure of Islam and attributes this in turn to the suppression of women in many Muslim countries."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Great, But Can We Have Banville Back, Please?

The New York Times Sunday magazine begins to serialise Benjamin Black's new novel, The Lemur.

More Elmore

After Stephen King, it's Elmore Leonard's turn to tell you about what makes writing stand out, with his Ten Rules of Good Writing. Rule # 10: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." Simple, no?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Wodehouse, The Realist

David Twiston-Davies reviews A Wodehouse Handbook: The World and Words of P. G. Wodehouse by N.P.T. Murphy: "The great myth about P.G. Wodehouse, until he died at 93 in 1975, was that his characters had only the vaguest connection with reality. They were solely the fruit of one man's fantasies, nurtured over decades while living abroad, it was claimed. 'Wodehousean' has come to imply a world of idle Etonians little touched by the Fall of Man, while 'Bertie Woosterish' is an insult employed by the Left against anyone it wants to tar as an ally of the House of Lords. Colonel Norman Murphy started investigating the matter more than a generation ago, and these two stout volumes contain some of the most dedicated sleuthing in the history of literary detective work. " This ought to be fun to read. Of course, chances that it'll be available at any library or bookstore around here are marginal. You'd have to visit one of the world's 10 best bookshops. (What, none from India? What an insult to our national pride. Quick, let's start a protest.)


Reviews of Martin Amis' views on a post-9/11 world, The Second Plane, are being written, and all of them will, inevitably, mention Terry Eagleton. Such as this one (forgive the long extract, but something like this will be at the heart of all discussions of the book): "One of the arguments that runs through this book is that barbarism is all but indistinguishable from religion and that the opposite of religious belief is not atheism, but independence of mind. The highest expression of independent minds in western enlightened culture is, to Amis, its literary fiction ('reason at play'). His personal struggle against the 'dependent mind' of Islam is thus fought on the level of playful language.

"For all the verbal thrill of much of this engagement - more than enough to make it essential reading even for Terry Eagleton - there is an undeniable hubris at the heart of it. In equating human value to literary value Amis finds a way not only to place himself on the frontline of the struggle against the forces of darkness, he also comes close to dismissing half the world as morally inferior and psychologically backward without visiting any of it or hearing from any of its citizens."

This, it would appear, is another one of those cases of the reviewer putting words in the author's mouth. Nuance be damned.

Meanwhile, Ian McEwan answers questions after the successful film adaptation of his Atonement. He tells you why he favours 'realism' over 'modernism' and airs his views on blogs: "I don't read the blogs much. I don't like the tone-the rather in-your-face road-rage quality of a lot of exchange on the Internet. I don't like the threads that come out of any given piece of journalism. It seems that when people know they can't be held accountable, when they don't have eye contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that I think slightly doesn't belong in the world of book reviewing."

Monday, January 07, 2008

Move Over, Berners-Lee

"...a growing number of contemporary commentators — whether literature professors or cultural critics like Umberto Eco — have concluded that Borges uniquely, bizarrely, prefigured the World Wide Web."

Teaching Skill, Not Talent

"...when it comes to teaching creative writing, good intentions are nothing but paving material for the route to dull-prose hell." Nathan Whitlock adds to the debate over whether creative writing classes are a good thing, in his review of Penguin Canada's Writer's Gym, yet another one of those books aimed at Those Who Want To Write. (Those of you who are suckers for such books may find this recent report interesting: How do you organize and structure the narrative path of the work you wish to write?)

2008, Booked

"The aura of a book I have yet to read, with its promise of rapture, surprise and edification, might be even more powerful than the aura of a book I have read, enjoyed and duly forgotten." A book editor's honest new year resolutions.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

'Where's Malcolm Lowry? I Hear You Cry. Graham Swift? Zadie Smith? Byatt But No Drabble?'

Erica Wagner anticipates criticism and debate in introducing The Times' list of the Greatest British Writers Since 1945. (No Peter Ackroyd, no P.D. James, no William Trevor -- but you'll find J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkein.)

Taking His Time

He's written just two books in the last 15 years, once entertained notions of becoming a Trappist monk and returned to the US recently after years in Berlin. The Telegraph profiles the incomparable Jeffrey Eugenides: "...I think the only thing I've ever had on my side, more than a flashing ability or a talent or anything like that, was a determination not to quit. Tenaciousness is what got me to publish a couple of books, I think."

Audacious Highwire Act

"...the most fundamental character trait of short stories, other than their shortness, would seem to be audacity. More than even the sestina, short stories are the highwire act of literature, the man keeping all those pretty plates up and spinning on skinny sticks."

- An extract from Richard Ford's introduction to The New Granta Book of the American Short Story. (What still rankles is that there isn't a single story by Malamud in the volume.)

Friday, January 04, 2008

New Voices

An earlier report on debutant authors in The Guardian, that one overlooked, is fascinating in that it makes those rarefied creatures come across as so...regular. Nick Harkaway (The Gone Away World), son of John Le Carre, says anxiously, "Can you make me look cool? In family photographs, I'm always standing at the edge looking like the country cousin." Mohammed Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes) reveals, "My son would try to read bits over my shoulder while I was writing the book. I think he got bored because it took me two years. He would say, 'Are you still writing that mangoes book?' " Joe Dunthorne (Submarine) says, "Saying I'm a writer is one of the most uncomfortable things. You can't help but feel you are showing off." And, in a confession sure to gladden the hearts of Mumbai's commuters with literary aspirations, Lucie Whitehouse (The House at Midnight) says that her novel was written over six years, mainly on the train to work. Come on now, all of you who're reading this: you can do it, too.

Plus Ca Change...

Those in the book business look back on 2007 as yet another year of uncertainty and possible decline, mediated by hyped new titles and technology, finds Scott Timberg: "'s hard to reconcile the unease people feel about the business with the excitement they feel about the books themselves."

Striking Novelists

The Hollywood screenwriters' protest shows no signs of abating. And now, literary lions are taking a leaf from their book: " 'I want more than two free copies of the literary journal where I have been published," said a woman who would only give the name 'Virginia Woolf.' As she spoke she clutched copies of the literary journals White Chocolate and the University of Southern Kansas-North Campus Review. 'I would also like to demand fifteen cents per page.' 'It's just pennies,' said Leo Tolstoy. 'But it adds up.' " Read all about it.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

100 Grantas

How did a "tiny Cambridge journal rise to conquer the literary world"? On the occasion of Granta's 100th issue, Simon Garfield tells us.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

More Than Cricket

Shortly after being elected, Kevin Rudd announced two new $100,000 prizes for Australian writing: a Prime Minister's Literary Prize for fiction and one for nonfiction.Jane Gleeson-White applauds, and calls for a revitalisation of Oz literature: "...far from enshrining the language of competition, economic rationalism and sport that has ruled the national narrative of the past 11 years, our literature tells very different stories. It tells us that we are a nation of many voices. It speaks for the marginalised and the dispossessed and addresses a vast range of subjects, from the political to the personal, from the nature of our social fabric to our place in the world."


Not just Kurt Vonnegut, Grace Paley and Norman Mailer, but also Nathan Zuckerman, Harry Potter and...the hardback. Sarah Crown looks at literary losses of 2007. (But there's a lot to look forward to in 2008, including work from Bernhard Schlink, Zoe Heller, Hanif Kureishi and -- hey, he's back -- Manil Suri.)

A Tampered Destiny

"Our father told us on a harmattan morning. Outside the dining room window, the wind was cold and dry, the whistling pine was swaying, a cock was chasing a squawking hen, the red dust was rising and our mother’s spirit was dancing in its whirls. My brother Chuma and I, lips smeared with Vaseline, were playing scrabble at the dining table and listening to Celestine Ukwu on the stereo. " A new short story by Chimamanda Adichie. (Read it quick, the online version is available only till January 10.)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Tour's Over

Websites. Videos. Podcasts. What a relief for self-effacing authors that there's now an alternative to facing the book-buying public.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Which Authors Said The Following In 2007?

“When people pick up a book they may want something happy that will cheer them up. In that case they shouldn’t really pick up my book. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie.”

"Well, I’ve never thought about this before, but now that you ask it occurs to me I don’t have much interest in whether my books work or not.”

(On the tense Booker banquet) “Would Kafka have put up with this? Would Henry James?”

“Oh, Christ. You can’t go on getting excited every year about this. I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one.”


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Literary Festivities

So where are Gore Vidal, Karen Roberts, Vikram Seth, Alexander McCall Smith, Shyam Selvadurai, William Dalrymple, Shobhaa De and Carl Muller, among many others, going to congregate this January? In Galle, that's where.

Prophet Or Poseur?

One supposes it had to happen. After years of universal rapture over his literary achievements comes this question about Orhan Pamuk: "...this 'caught between East and West' business - how much more literary mileage does he plan to get out of it?"

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Tingle Test

“We are liable to miss the best of life if we do not know how to tingle, if we do not learn to hoist ourselves just a little higher than we generally are in order to sample the rarest and ripest fruit of art which human thought has to offer.”

- From Nabokov's Lectures on LIterature, quoted in an appreciative essay by Steven Kellman

Deja Vu All Over Again

This is from a letter written by Salman Rushdie to Taslima Nasrin way back in 1994. It's time to read it again:

"Taslima, I know that there must be a storm inside you now. One minute you will feel weak and helpless, another strong and defiant. Now you will feel betrayed and alone, and now you will have the sense of standing for many who are standing silently with you. Perhaps in your darkest moments you will feel you did something wrong - that those demanding your death may have a point. This of all your goblins you must exorcise first. You have done nothing wrong. The wrong is committed by others against you. You have done nothing wrong, and I am sure that one day soon you will be free."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Come Back Malamud, All Is Forgiven

Even Richard Ford left him out of The New Granta Book of the American Short Story. Unfair. The time is ripe for a Malamud revival, and Joyce Carol Oates seems to agree: "Given the relative narrowness of Malamud’s subject matter, the more subdued range of his writerly voice, and an aesthetic puritanism temperamentally at odds with the flamboyant self-displays of Bellow (Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift) and Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, etc), it seems inevitable, if unfortunate, that he should come to seem, in time, the least impressive of the four." (The fourth being Isaac Bashevis Singer.)

Turning The Ephemeral Solid

The role of a critic? "You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings," was Edmund Wilson's motto. A brief overview of the man and his work.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Somehow, One Missed That

"Professor Wendell, in an essay on the Salem Witches, lays down the hypothesis that all the phenomena of suggestion and hypnotism, of clairvoyance and mediumship, which science uses now to explain what was miraculous to our ancestors, may very plausibly be considered rudimentary vestiges of powers of perception and communication which belonged to what was man before he stood upright on his hind legs and knew how to use his tongue for speech. Such a doctrine finds much illumination in the Jungle Books."

- From a June 1898 review of Kipling's The Jungle Books in The Atlantic

Holiday Reading

All you wanted to know (and more) about the relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. A Birkerts-like lament on the decline of reading. Fiction by (among others) Junot Diaz, Raymond Carver and Jhumpa Lahiri (this last not available online yet, alas). A stirring, informed piece on Led Zeppelin's return. James Wood on J.M. Coetzee. A history of American snapshots by John Updike. Poetry by Grace Paley. Reviews by Anthony Lane. Goodness, that's quite an issue.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Creative Writing In The British Classroom

From The Education Guardian, a thoughtful and well-considered piece on whether to take that creative writing class or not. Two comments stand out: the first, from Oxford's Clare Morgan: "...the romantic notion of the single artist struggling ... in a garret has been eroded", replaced by "the increasing acceptability of the notion of writing as a craft, the skills of which one can develop through apprenticeship". And the second, by Jon Elsom, a part-time student at Birkbeck: "Committing the time and ... money to study an MA gives me the structure, motivation and discipline I need to be able to tell my job to get back in its box when I need to."

The Centre Holds

Next year marks the 5oth publication anniversary of a novel by a Nigerian that is heralded as "an inspiration for writers and readers not only on the African continent but throughout the world". International events in about 15 countries are planned to commemorate the event -- including India. Get ready for the fanfare by reading -- or re-reading -- it at once.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Day Of The Jackal

Literary agent Andrew Wylie speaks on his business, his rewards and on whether the future belongs to the e-book (it doesn't): "It's a very odd, very small business, that no one should get into unless they have no other occupation that they want to be involved in. I love it, but it's tough—you have to work two or three times harder than you do at other jobs to succeed...The reward is aesthetic. I respond to interesting writing and provocative thinking more passionately and deeply than I do to painting or film or music. That's just where my interests lie. At its best, it's completely satisfying to me, and everything else is gravy." That gravy, at present, seems very rich indeed.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What You'll Be Reading In 2008

Martin Amis, Hanif Kureishi, Viktor Pelevin and Peter Carey, among others, says The New Statesman. (Please, let's not have more talk about Sebastian Faulks doing an Ian Fleming. It's not going to be a good book.)

Type Right

One is of a generation that still recalls using typewriters in the office -- as well as occasionally writing reviews late at night at home on a decrepit, black Olivetti with sticky keys. Now, of course, they're museum pieces. Well, not quite, says Paul Schweitzer, owner of Gramercy Typewriter Co in New York City: “The younger generation says, ‘Who needs typewriters?' It’s not true; there are people who still like hitting the keys.” For example, according to the report, John Irving uses an IBM Selectric. John Updike favours a 1940s Olivetti and Joan Didion writes with a Royal KMM. Maybe one should have hung on to that Olivetti.

Black Is Back

John Banville, writing as crime thriller author Benjamin Black, gets another set of excellent reviews for his second outing, called The Silver Swan. Here's one: "Black ensures that the familiar satisfactions of unravelling a mystery plot lead us to a very unsatisfying fact: that despicable crimes stem as easily from the most humdrum emotions of ordinary people as from the machinations of the power-hungry."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

WTF Is What Comes To Mind

Merriam-Webster has announced that an expression popular with people that play online computer games was voted its word of the year for 2007. The word -- if you can call it that -- is "w00t" (yes, spelt with two 0s). The lexicographers' hunt for publicity has finally gone too far.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Orange Goes Bananas

The five judges for the prestigious Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction have been announced. Among them are pop singer Lily Allen and BBC broadcaster Kirsty Lang. One is sure these ladies are excellent in their respective fields...but why pick them to judge a literary prize? Perhaps Clapton's autobiography will win it this year. Oh wait, that wasn't fiction, was it? And oh, wait again, he's not a woman, is he?

Next: A Ban On Book Fairs?

The works of exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, living in India, have proved to be the hottest item in the Patna Book Fair. All her books were sold by the fifth day on Tuesday.

Flying Low

You know this whole year-end 'best-of' round-up shindig has gone too far when even websites such as get into the act -- they've just released their "best winter reads", a list that ranges from Ken Follett to Rohinton Mistry. Time to fly.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Return Of Fonebone

Anyone remember Mad magazine's crazy sage, Don Martin? (One recalls in particular his endless, loopy variations on the frog prince story.) The Washington Post's Michael Dirda is a fan: "His jowly, cross-eyed characters stare at us from the page with an utterly sublime imbecility, unaware of their smug silliness, confident that they are in control, the captains of their destiny and the masters of any situation, no matter how complex or improbable."

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Enchantress Of Florence... the title of Rushdie's new book, set in the court of Emperor Akbar and in Florence. Let's hope it continues the return to form that was displayed in Shalimar the Clown. It's to be published on April 3, 2008. (Via.)

Obviously, The Man Has Never Worked In A Company

“When you sit down to write something, it should mean something. This is a day of your life that you’re never going to get back. This is a day you should be doing something well. This is something that should be the culmination of a lot thinking you’ve already been doing... I don’t think you should write anything knowing you’re going to throw it away.”

- Richard Ford

Now We Know Where That Beatles Reference Came From

As it turns out, the famously curmudgeonly, pop-music-hating, child-abhorring Philip Larkin spent some time with a fellow-poet's family in 1964, playing with their children when they were listening to the stereo and even writing a Beatles-type song for them: "Don't like your song/ It gets me down./ It's much too long,/ It makes me frown./ Can't think why this God-awful noise/ Makes daughters miss their dates with boys." The mind boggles.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Neuroscience And The Novel

A.S. Byatt has an extremely thought-provoking essay -- in more ways than one -- in the TLS about how changes in the presentation of human nature over the ages have affected the novel. From characters with immortal souls to love being the only thing that matters to the life as the expression of the libido and the selfish gene, all of this has been grist to the mill of novelists. Now, of course, we stand at the frontiers of a new comprehension of the mind. As Byatt writes, "Neuroscience, and the study of the activity of the brain, is beginning to bring its own illumination to our understanding of how art works, and what it is. I have come to see the delight in making connections – of which metaphor-making is one of the most intense – as perhaps the fundamental reason for art and its pleasures."

In just a slightly different context, one can think of at least two other novelists who have been inspired by scientific studies of how consciousness works: David Lodge, in his Thinks... (also see his essay, Consciousness and the Novel) and Richard Powers, with his Galatea 2.2 as well as the more recent The Echo Maker.

Myers' Manifesto

One can't help but admire B.R. Myers' independent, if utterly audacious viewpoint -- even if one wonders whether he's taking his agenda too far. Consider his review of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. Now, this is a novel that has been lauded by critics all over, being mentioned in more than one "best of the year" list (Here's what The Washington Post said, for example: "To write a fat novel about the Vietnam War nearly 35 years after it ended is an act of literary bravado. To do so as brilliantly as Denis Johnson has in Tree of Smoke is positively a miracle").

But Myers isn't impressed. He tears the prose and the subject to bits, with ample quotations from the book to prove his point. Fair enough: the man's entitled to dislike the book, and he's given reasons aplenty for doing so. But he doesn't stop there. He also takes petulant issue with the critics who've reviewed it favourably, finding it "difficult to believe" that they like the novel. And he positively froths at the mouth when he writes: "...once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there."

Good heavens. And people thought his A Reader's Manifesto went too far.

The Worst Of Times

As a struggling writer, do you find yourself writing in short, simple sentences using relatively few characters, featuring melodramatic plots heavy on violence, sex and tear-jerking sentiment? Don't worry: you'll sell millions in Japan.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Another Literary Light Turned Off

Critic, essayist and author Elizabeth Hardwick died yesterday. She was 91. From a 1979 interview: "...I call myself a feminist in that I believe there are cultural, social and economic boundaries set for women which are immoral and unnecessary and which should be resisted publicly and privately." Says Joyce Carol Oates: "She was a brilliant essayist, absolutely. She was a kind of genius in that difficult form, in which the personal and the critical, or cultural, were melded together in brilliant prose."