Friday, 27 August 2010

Never judge a book by its theme tune

I often cite Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) , Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as typical of excellent television programmes that are preceded by brilliant theme tunes. Books, we are told, should not be judged in the same way, and, unfortunately for James Bradley, his novel The Resurrectionist has a superb cover.

I have a sneaking regard for the reading public’s star rating on Amazon’s reviews; rarely does it fail (I have theories about Amazon review scores which I might share one day). The Resurrectionist averages forty-four percent, which I think is a little generous. However, there is a decent story within the book that’s dying to get out.

Irresistible, isn't it?
My first point is about ignorance on my part. I didn’t realise that ‘resurrectionist’ is a euphemism for ‘graverobber’, so I thought the book was a take on Frankenstein. Second, on revisiting the blurb, I realise it hands out information not covered in the novel – bizarre. Third, what a dirge this novel becomes.

Set in 1826, the narrator is main protagonist Gabriel Swift, apprentice anatomist, the day-to-day business of which is beautifully rendered, if somewhat gruesome, in the first chapter. However, the first person perspective fails to deliver for Bradley. Throughout the novel, we get no sense of Swift’s personality from the narration (think the opposite of Holden Caulfield), and the start to some chapters feels very third person omniscient.

We follow Swift in this near-linear story as he falls foul of colleagues, resurrectionists and whores, descending into the most unconvincing opium habit ever, and finally attempting to reconstruct his life abroad. Thinking about it, the title is misleading: Swift is a resurrectionist for no more than ten percent of the book’s three hundred and thirty three pages.

Shelley's inhuman character had more personality than Gabriel Swift
Despite its promising start, the novel deteriorates into a monotone record of minimal drama, split into one and two-page chapters that give a disjointed feel. There is simply no energy in the prose whatsoever. Bradley tries to create suspense by using what can only be described as reverse dramatic irony, where a character interacts in plain view of Swift, who he knows, and who we have already met, yet remains nameless at that point in the text. Ridiculous.

There is a general lack of characterisation throughout, including the protagonist-narrator. With Swift, we start off feeling neutral about him, and then, as we read on, we discover reasons to dislike him. Perhaps if we understood the motivations for his actions we might identify with him, but Bradley insists on telling us what to think instead of showing us, and in the end we just don’t care. The blurb promises a classic gothic antagonist in Lucan, but he turns out to be a damp squib.

Resurrectionists, apparently
The final quarter of the novel, set ten years after the resurrectionist events, has some redeeming features. In fact, if Bradley had been given a half-decent editor, this would have been where the story starts. We would have seen Swift in his ordinary world, tutoring the offspring of Australian landowners, and painting his beloved stuffed birds; a picture of sweetness and light. The chance arrival of former anatomist colleague, Robert Newsome, throws Swift’s happy existence into turmoil, dragging up the miserable existence he suffered in London ten years ago, affecting the relationships he has built up. The ending, of course, would be the memory of the bird crashing in to the mirror (p,251), thus making sense of his birds-only portfolio (how sad).

All-in-all, the book fails to deliver in character, drama and style, and takes no advantage of its gothic appeal. If it had a theme tune, it would be something like The Love Boat, and then we’d know not to read it.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Yes, no, maybe - could you repeat the question?

Forget gluttony or sloth; vacillation and procrastination are the two mortal sins in my possession that I abhor the most. Too often I find myself in a situation where either I bounce between two options like a rubber ball in an evacuated room in zero-gravity, or I am frozen in a tangle of indecision resulting in several hundred consecutive games of Mahjong on my laptop.

So, when I was asked to choose the specialism of my MA – fiction novel, screenwriting or non-fiction – I was torn. Quite quickly I decided I did not have a strong enough knowledge base in any single subject to sustain an entire non-fiction book, ergo strike that one. Now I just have to select one of the remaining pair.

At the start of my creative quest three years ago, it was simply to garner techniques and strategies to enable the writing of a novel – after all, everyone has a book in them, don’t they? However, my Open University coursework in 2009 explored screenwriting, and I found that my stories were already film-like in my head. I felt a natural affinity with part of the writing process for film and television.

There are strategies for people like me

I enjoy reading fiction and watching movies equally. I would be happy to be successful at either. I have more than a dozen ideas for both. Both sets of course notes were very attractive. Both UCF lecturers seemed equally enthusiastic about and able at their craft. How on Earth could I decide? In the meantime, my win-lose ratio at Mahjong was improving dramatically.

There are many commentators who will offer opinions about whether it’s easier to move from one field to the other later on in a career, or which profession is more worthy. Strangely, these opinions tend to fall in line with the profession in which the author of them inhabits. A co-founder of internet-based screenwriting magazine Twelvepoint, Julian Friedman, in an article, says that ‘writing prose is relatively straightforward and it does not require the same obsessional adherence to structural templates that scripts need’. On the other hand, the snobbery inherent within fiction literature, even against other novelists let alone other genres, is well documented.

Novelist/screenwriter Richard Price, whose screenplays are probably more well-known than his novels, when interviewed at the 2009 Istanbul Book Fair, pretty much mirrored the reasoning I used to make my decision. He says, ‘Writing novels is a very solitary occupation. When you’re done, it’s all yours. Screenwriting is anything but solitary, you’re working with directors, actors, studios, agents and you have no control over that.’

Richard Price almost won an Oscar: Touchstone Pictures

Of course, agents, publishers, and editors are still present to throw a spanner in the novelist’s fragile works, but because, like many others, I don’t (yet) work within the writing industry and I rely on a ‘real’ job to pay the bills, I have no choice but to work in solitary way. From what I can gather, much screenwriting relies on selling an outline to a producer long before there is a need for a script. Waiting for someone to give me a green light before I’m allowed to write is untenable at this stage in my embryonic career.

So, novel it is for the MA. But it doesn't stop me from wondering if I've done the right thing, so I plan to write a first draft screenplay at least for this idea for a movie that I just can’t get out of my head. Next up: which of my ideas shall I use for the novel? Oh well, I imagine I’ll be a Mahjong grandmaster by the time I nominate my project.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Elementary, my dear Mr. Moffat

The narrative begins with a familiar feel: the retired army medic, wounded in Afghanistan; looking for affordable digs in London; a chance meeting with an old colleague; an introduction with an eccentric scientist at Bart’s.

The first few minutes of the pilot episode of the BBC’s contemporised Sherlock, A Study in Pink, closely follows the opening to Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. It helps settle that feeling of trepidation I have on behalf of Moffatt and Gatiss for such a brave undertaking. Let’s face it, the original stories are in themselves iconic, and we all have our favourite Holmes and Watson. As a child, I couldn’t get enough of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s rip-roaring adventures; Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke played beautifully convincing portrayals; my tapes of the BBC’s radio series with Clive Merrison and Michael Williams are almost worn out.

The Doctor and The Master?: BBC

Casting comedy actor Martin Freeman as Watson rang alarm bells for me prior to watching Sherlock. The last thing we need is a bumbling sidekick. Benedict Cumberbatch, on the other hand, could be a masterstoke; he is a fine actor and pulls off arrogant-eccentric with ease.

In fact, Freeman puts in a creditable performance; his timing is superb, and he acts as an excellent foil for Cumberbatch. However, I’m not entirely sold that he is ex-army medic John Watson; perhaps Holmes’ perception is greater than mine because I saw little evidence of military bearing. Cumberbatch, as expected, was excellent, given the restraints he was forced to entertain: namely the sanitising of Holmes’ foibles. And while Mark Gatiss plays extraordinary characters brilliantly in The League of Gentlemen, he is no Mycroft.

Holmes was dragged into the present to battle Nazis: Universal Pictures

Once Lestrade begs Holmes’ help, the real detecting starts, and we are sucked into the romp good and proper. It’s all entertaining fayre, and has a Doctor Who feel about it: corny humour, oddly dressed protagonist, lots of running. Which reminds me, the psychosomatic leg arc added no value to the story whatsoever. There are some handy highs and lows to keep the drama going, but most people will have realised the identity of the murderer long before Holmes did, which is sad. The enjoyable romp part ends with the anti-climactic face-off, the explanation for which didn’t seem to ring true somehow: a believable impossibility is preferable... and all that.

The writers incorporated some of the plot-points from A Study in Scarlet into the story: the method of ‘suicide’; the scrawling of RACHE in blood (the usage in the original is better); the murderer’s profession; the murderer’s terminal illness. However, there were many omissions from the original which could be classed as missed opportunities: Holmes’ string of cases that relegate Watson to his room early on; the whole motivation for the murders (perhaps replace Mormons with Scientologists) and the antagonist; Watson’s actual injury; Holmes being tricked by a collector of evidence.

Holmes and Watson brought into the 1980s to play themselves: Granada

On the plus side, the BBC has made good use of interactive media. Watson’s journals are now a blog, and Holmes’ article ‘The Book of Life’ takes the form of a website. I wonder if better use could have been made of these, during the first broadcast?

One of the problems with bringing the world’s only consulting detective into 2010 is that Conan Doyle was able to use his own medical knowledge, and inspiration from forensic surgeon Joseph Bell, 130 years ago, to bestow Holmes with credible expertise in a period when brilliant gentleman scientists could achieve more than those mediocre types funded by an institution. Nowadays, an amateur cannot hope to match the modern CSI. At no stage did I feel that this new Holmes offered anything that Gil Grissom could not.

Grissom vs Monk vs Creek vs Holmes; where's your money?

There is no doubt that Conan Doyle’s Holmes would be classified today as a manic-depressive; a condition not unknown in polymaths. Sherlock did not make good use of this; a pity considering how Stephen Fry has shoved it into the public eye. The original Holmes smokes strong (pipe) tobacco furiously, and, during times of particular duress, administers something a little stronger; the BBC seems unable to allow their heroes such disgusting habits, culminating in a nicotine patch sketch bordering on parody.

Although this opener is mostly enjoyable, and will no doubt perform well in the ratings, in my opinion, the twenty-first century Holmes is not quite a match for contemporaries Adrian Monk and Jonathan Creek, who, while clearly created in the Holmes mould, have brought their own distinctive techniques and foibles into play, comfortably beating their master to the solution.

The clue to my rating of Sherlock is given away by the episode’s title: A Study in Pink is a pale reflection of the original.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Genre is Dead. Long Live Genre.

Man Booker prize head judge Andrew Motion stated that only literary fiction novels had been selected for the 2010 longlist; after all, he says, genre fiction has its own sets of awards.

So, does this mean literary fiction is genreless? Let’s look a little closer at the list…

Odds-on favourite and twice-winner Peter Carey’s entry is Parrot and Oliver in America. It has been reviewed as ‘... a dazzlingly inventive reimagining of Alexis de Tocqueville's famous journey, brilliantly evoking the Old World colliding with the New. Above all, it is a wildly funny…’ Does that mean, then, that this book is a historical novel (like the entire 2009 shortlist), or a docudrama, a romance, a comedy? No, it’s simply literary – Andrew Motion says so. I will be writing to Mr Carey to advise him of the fact that his own website might be construed as misleading.

Another strong contender is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Although on the face of it, it’s another historical novel (surprise, surprise) with a(nother) autobiographicalish romance at the heart of the plot, Mitchell has recently declared that the book, which already contains a hint of fantasy, may be the first of a trilogy that becomes increasingly science fictiony. I wonder if he should have kept that announcement until after the prize giving; Mitchell’s probably scuppered his chances now.

I maintain that genre is in the head of the person who has a desire to pigeonhole a novel and/or its author. And there’s no guarantee that any two people would agree in which genre some novels should be placed. I defy anyone to find me a novel that is of a single genre.

Take Isaac Asimov’s The Currents of Space, a book I read almost thirty years ago while I was in my ‘science fiction’ phase. If you see this on a bookshelf, no doubt it will be headed Science Fiction, or (and this hurts) Science Fiction and Fantasy. However, I dispute the fact that because the novel is set on a different planet and in the far future means that it’s Science Fiction. That kind of simplistic classification means that Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger is Fantasy or Horror (ghost stories are horror, aren’t they?). The Currents of Space is in fact a mystery novel, that is also a love story, within a sci-fi shell, that has elements of colonialism, altruism, loyalty...

This type of analysis can be performed on just about any novel.

When the reader reads a novel that engages them, that satisfies them, that wows them, then they desire more of the same. In the vast majority of cases, the reader probably misidentifies why they enjoyed the book. The nearest they can get to it is to choose other works by the same author, but even then, there’s no guarantee of success. What normally happens is that they return to the genre bookshelf from which the book was selected. And this is exactly where the whole process falls down.

The stereotypical common reader is more than happy to stick with ‘their’ genre, buying only crime novels, or fantasy, or chick-lit. And yet within any so-called genre the whole gamut of writing styles and abilities is available. Many authors of what would be considered as genre fiction write in a comparable literary style to that of the writers of that nebulous non-genre literary genre.

Coming from a non-literary upbringing, I fell into reading science fiction, and read nothing but that for several years after leaving school. Of the hundreds of novels and novellas I read, some were brilliant through-and-through, some had excellent concepts but lacked decent characterisation or decent prose, and many were utter tripe. Eventually, I branched out, and now I list in my personal top ten books those written by the likes of JD Salinger, Fannie Flagg, Bill Bryson, and Piers Anthony.

Admittedly, some authors wish to be associated with commercial genres. They enjoy creating stories that consist of overtly familiar themes and plot mechanisms, and rely on a loyal readership. And that’s fine. They have found a market and are feeding it with what it wants: more of the same. The bookshop shelves help this situation. However, I believe that many readers need to be drawn out of their comfort zones and shown that they can be engaged by books from other shelves; that their horizons can be expanded almost infinitely.

I’m not saying that none of the novels on the ManBooker lists is excellent; many are. But it can be argued that they are just as ‘genre’ as those books that Andrew Motion has so-casually dismissed. Motion’s categorisations seem simplistic and outmoded – good literature is good literature no matter what the setting, nor the shelf that the bookstore selects for its display.