Prufrock's Page

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Lonely Journalist

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Robert Kaplan urges reporters to travel to discover the pleasure of finding things out first-hand: "Journalism desperately needs a return to terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned travel writing....Reporting emphasizes the intrusive, tape-recorded interview; travel writing emphasizes the art of good conversation, and the experience of how it comes about in the first place"

His hopeful and impassioned conclusion: "How will good reporting survive? Individual men and women will slip away from the crowd — away from the panels and seminars, the courses and conferences, away from the writers’ hangouts and e-mail networks — to cultivate loneliness. They will demand of themselves not to write a word about a place or a subject until they know it firsthand. And they will do this out of curiosity — for as the illusion of knowledge grows daily, the reality of places themselves becomes more of a mystery."


"[A} work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations" [It would make a good novel because] it is exciting, packed with sinister villains and a richly imagined world".

That's Robert Irwin on Edward Said's seminal Orientalism. Irwin's For Lust Of Knowing seeks to "hammer, and hammer again, at the many invalid assumptions, omissions, errors and mistranslations within Orientalism," according to this review. Looks like university academic departments are going to have lots to discuss in the near future.

Comments On The Tenants

Slate has an interesting comment on the just-released movie version of Bernard Malamud's The Tenants: "...this is a movie about the tyranny of the book, the way the compulsion to novelize life can shut us out from the pain and passion of real experience." The review ends: "...there's something endearingly bookish about a movie whose single most frightening shot involves the possibility of an ax being taken to a typewriter."

Not having seen the movie, one can only express grave concern over the casting: Dylan McDermott as Harry and Snoop Dogg as Willy? Not the way one had imagined it...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Smoking Out The Smoking Gun

As is well-known by now, it was an expose by The Smoking Gun that led to James Frey's downfall. Or was it? Moscow-based newspaper The eXile claims that its September 2005 editorial was the first to cast doubts on the veracity of A Million Little Pieces, and editor Mark Ames says that "there's no way the Smoking Gun did not see what the eXile did."

Smoking Gun founder Bill Bastone's response? "I don't know what the [bleep] he's talking about."

Better Halves

Someone really ought to do a study on the influence that authors' wives have had on them: from Vera Nabokov to Nora Joyce to Zelda Fitzgerald, there's bound to be fascinating material there. Contemporary authors, too, aren't immune -- as Ian Rankin, David Lodge and Douglas Kennedy affirm, at the end of an article on the worth of writing groups.

Advice For Paranoiacs

Vikram Seth is also at the [Hay] festival. He talks about the arduous process of finding a publisher for his novel in verse, The Golden Gate, which was rejected 20 times before it found a home. But when I speak to him later, he's inspiringly circumspect. Talking about the plight of unpublished writers, he says, 'the world is not against you. It's indifferent.'

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"A Collective Salman Rushdie"

Is the uproar over Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's misguided depictions of the Prophet Mohammed being fanned by simple semantics? If you read the BBC's round-up of comments on the issue, you'll find them variously described as "caricatures", "cartoons", "illustrations", "graphic art" and "drawings". Even if one bears in mind that representation in any form is offensive to Islam, each one of those words has a different connotation -- and using the wrong one simply serves to heighten tensions. Leading the Russian paper Novyye Izvestiya to assert that Denmark has turned into "a collective Salman Rushdie".

Without Comment

Q: What is the worst lie you've ever told?
A: No way I can answer that.

- James Frey, answering's questions on the release of My Friend Leonard, the follow-up to A Million Little Pieces. Before the storm broke, naturally.

Facts About Fiction

Bowker, "the world's leading source for bibliographic information", has just analysed more than 13,000 works of adult fiction published in the US. Some of their findings:

"1,550 of [the novels] with an identifiable location were set in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. New York topped the list of cities, followed by London, Los Angeles (including Hollywood), Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C."

"The major fictional genres of romance, mystery & detective, science fiction and westerns constituted half of all adult fiction published in the U.S. The dominant format for the fiction genre continues to be mass market and non-mass market paperback, with 65% of romance, 61% of science-fiction and 58% of mystery & detective titles published as paperbacks."

"The average science-fiction novel was 329 pages long, followed by romance at 324, mystery & detective at 292, and westerns a relatively skinny 261 pages."

So if you're writing a novel about people falling in love in New York that plays out at a little over 300 pages, congratulations -- you've just upped your chances of publication. As a mass market paperback, of course.

Reading The World

The Royal Society of Literature recently asked authors to suggest ten books that every child ought to have read before he or she leaves school. And while suggestions ranged from Dickens to Joyce, this is what Ben Okri did:

"[He] avoided nominating books but sent in a 10-point list instead. It contained such advice as: 'Read the books your parents hate; Read the books you're not supposed to read' and 'Read the world. It is the most mysterious book of all.' "

Thanks a heap, Ben. Last time one checked at the local bookstore, they said they didn't stock "the world".

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

With Malice Towards One

Say what you will about Khushwant Singh, his literary proclivities have always tended towards the, er, earthy. Here he is on Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking:

"It is about a woman coping with her husband’s death while their daughter is in the intensive care of a hospital. The husband collapses on the floor while having dinner and is almost certainly dead by the time he gets to hospital. She goes into prolix details about his condition, what caused his sudden collapse, the doctors’ opinions on the subject and medication they gave him in the hope of reviving him. It is the same approach to her daughter’s trauma. She tries to relive the past, goes over details of the places they visited, people they met, dinners and lunches they ate in different cities and countries. It is maudlin, repetitive and tedious."

His advice to readers? "...if you want to read only good books, take no notice of how well they are doing sales-wise and before you accept friends’ opinions, find out their credentials as judges of good writing."

Talking Of Mockingbirds

Long before Salinger, Pynchon and Roth, Harper Lee showed the world what it meant to be a reclusive author. But she still makes an annual appearance at an awards ceremony for an essay contest on the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Unless, Of Course, You're James Frey

"You're more free when you write fiction; you can do anything you want. With non-fiction, you have to think quite hard. It has to stand up in some way, and be sensible. Whereas with a novel, the madder it is, often the better."

- Hanif Kureishi in The Daily Star

Alive And Kicking

John Freeman asserts that the novel is still relevant and is still alive, despite the fact that realism has been hijacked by the movies: "...this is a blessing in disguise, because it allows novelists a freer range to imagine the less tangible world. It is no accident that the first billionaire novelist owes her fortune to a make-believe boy wizard who goes off to school to fight the forces of good and evil. How else better to capture the open-ended horizon of what we imagine in our childhood? The same goes for adult life. The last novel to get a big bump from a book prize was Yann Martel's Booker winner, The Life of Pi, the story of a man stranded on a raft with a Bengal tiger.

Rather more to the point: "Novels may once have existed to show us the world, but what they have always been best at is coaxing us into believing we can imagine how something feels on the inside - no matter how far from our experience."