Plot…is that all there is to fiction?

Laura Miller of Salon is one of a long line of ‘I know best-ers’ to throw the tired old crumbly stones of  ‘writing commandments’ from the journalistic mountaintop http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2010/02/23/readers_advice_to_writers/index.html(was-there-not-anymore) :

  1. Make your main character want something.
  2. Make your main character do something.
  3. The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting.
  4. Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can’t recognize “good writing” or don’t value it that much.
  5. A sense of humor couldn’t hurt.

Anyone who champions rules of commercial fiction risks sinking creativity to the lowest common denominator in the reader’s mind. It is so easy to force feed unknowing audiences junk culture, just as easy as it has been to promote junk food. And where has junk food got us? If Laura or anyone attacks quality or ‘difference’ be it in art, commercial fiction, food or politics, in the end, logically, it leads to totalitarianism. Commercial control of a cultural market, or political control of a society have similar roots.

We are not animals tethered to a plot line only – sophisticated readers want more than plot. If anyone reads War and Peace (a great read by the way, easy to read, entertaining and enjoyable) it is a long time before any one character assumes ‘the what’s going to happen to me next driver’ aspect to his or her role, but it is there – but it is always there as part of ‘the life’ in the novel – what will happen today? It is part of all of us – but there is much more to enjoy in Tolstoy’s novel, as there is in reading Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Outsider, As I lay Dying, and A Hundred Years of Solitude – all examples of novels and narratives that are far more mysterious and compelling than commercial fiction that obeys these silly rules Laura speaks of. In The Great Gatsby, what do we ever discover really of Gatsby? – not a great deal, more than half Fitzgerald’s point. Nick, we get to know, the character we engage with, the thinking centre of the novel. Hamlet was introspective and procrastinating and one of the greatest characters of all time. Just because lowest-common-denominator is now the major dollar driving factor in contemporary reading culture doesn’t make it good or good to read. The only comment I agree with is the last – laugh while you write and hope like hell the reader laughs with you!

“Naturally, writers of genius have broken these “rules” as well as every other rule ever conceived. But, let’s face it, geniuses don’t need lists like this and couldn’t follow them even if they tried. Most writers are not geniuses, and most readers would be exhausted by a literary diet that consisted only of the works of geniuses.”

This is Laura’s ‘a genius can do it, but the rest can’t argument’ which in effect shuts down experiment, closes the door on dissent. Who knows what genius is? It was 200 years before the Romantics woke up and declared Shakespeare a genius. All we can really hope for is that creativity in any novel is whatever form it takes when exciting readers. If a writer takes readers somewhere we haven’t been, surprises us in some way then it is an achievement worth applause. The ‘Only a genius can break the rules’ argument is another argument for more gatekeeping. This ‘we know the rules’ is nonsense. And even if someone like Laura could for a moment make a good fist of why she subscribes to her only a genius-can-break-rules-theory, very few of the ‘genius writers’ she’ll choose will surprise even her all of the time. No book or writer is untouchable. Everybody can be criticized, even Shakespeare. Logically, if anyone follows these, or any rules, they will become slaves of a market mechanism. Rules for fiction or any other art form only end up filling the pockets of the chosen and promoted writers. Rules lead straight to homogenization (though that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun with rules, while you’re doing other more interesting things) …go-go genius go.

 

Pacific Rim Review of Books’ review of ‘Uncorrected Proof’

PUBLISH OR DIE! by Paul Duran

Review of Uncorrected Proof by Louisiana Alba – ElephantEars Press

Paul Duran – L.A. director and writer

from Pacific Rim Review of Books Fall/Winter 2009 Issue 12 – pg. 33


Who is Louisiana Alba and what does she (or he) have against the publishing industry? It’s a rhetorical question since most authors inevitably have some gripe against the media giants they are forced to rely upon to shepherd their creative works to the masses. Yet usually, besides the odd drunken cocktail party diatribe or expletive-laden rant to one’s spouse, authors won’t, or can’t afford to, bite the hand that feeds them. Alba on the other hand has decided to go straight for their throats, going public with the writer’s eternal screech – the bastards have    (add your own word here – ruined, stolen, fucked up, etc.) my book! – then framed it within a literary conceit so audacious and capricious, that to stumble just a little bit is to fall off the mountain completely.

It’s a high wire act that literally co-opts the style of dozens of literary untouchables and pop culture icons from James Joyce to Jimi Hendrix, Anthony Burgess to Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway to Quentin Tarantino (there are over a hundred authors and artists listed in the book’s acknowledgements starting with ABBA!). Alba (an obvious nom de plume) uses each successive voice in her vast arsenal to tell the story of Archie Lee, the plagiarized author who schemes to get his novel back from the people who stole it – the celebrity novelist Martyrn Varginas, his greedy publisher Menny Lowes, and his man-eater of an editor, Ellen Spartan.

Using The Iliad as a starting reference point (in a deliberate cracked mirror image to Joyce’s use of The Odyssey in Ulysses), the novel playfully winks at Homer not so much for his epic poem’s style as for its archetypal tale of love, abduction and revenge. The characters all are sly doppelgangers for their Greek counterparts; Archie Lee for Achilles; Ellen Spartan for Helen; Menny Lowes for Menelaus and so on. But the book does not rely solely on post-modern mimicry or clever homage to keep our interest. It more than holds it’s own as a thoroughly enjoyable pulp story about stolen manuscripts and deferred vengeance in the volatile, cutthroat world of publishing. Making publishing a life and death enterprise involving kidnapping, murder and the CIA is a nice conceit that no doubt will give even the crustiest of publishing execs a knowing chuckle.

The novel starts with Archie out to expose his literary theft at the Crocker Prize banquet (read Booker Prize). He gets cold feet when he comes face to face with his nemesis Varginas and Varginas’ attractive editor Ellen. She unexpectedly offers Archie a position at her new imprint when he stammers out that he’s “expert with espionage thrillers.” From there the story follows Archie’s desperate scheme to wreak revenge from inside the publishing mecca using his newfound influence to try to get his original novel into print under the name of an opportunistic young hustler he has hired for the part. Nothing goes according to plan as the novel ricochets from London to Barcelona to the South of France to New York and back; from pulp crime to spy thriller, memoir to meta-fiction, screenplay to redacted text.

It may sound like a daunting task for the narrative to constantly shape-shift from one disparate source to another but the effect is breathtakingly kaleidoscopic and in most cases wholly appropriate (even the few typos in the book seem correct given the title). In truth it would probably take a tenured literature professor with a vast music and DVD collection to decode all the stylistic shifts in Uncorrected Proof but that’s not really the point. Given all the literary byplay and conceptual ambition, the story is still amazingly accessible, so when you are able to pick up on a particular author or style, it just adds to its kicky pleasure.

In the end Uncorrected Proof is also a cautionary tale about ego and ambition run amok in a world where ego and ambition are the only character traits that seem to really matter. With no clear winners or losers it could almost be read as a twisted metaphor for our own troubled times, with the publishing industry standing in for Wall Street and the banks, where the “best and brightest” have had their way for too long and have grown fat on the bones of those crushed under their Gucci loafers and stiletto heels. Perhaps I’m reading too much into Alba’s remarkably varied prose, but the seeds of a revolution are there, if not on the economic front, then maybe just in the publishing house.

Paul Duran’s films include Flesh Suitcase and The Dogwalker.


newcoverimage

For another review by LiteraryMinded please go to:

http://blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded/2008/11/07/uncorrected-proof-louisiana-alba/

elephant-ears-8-2
The novel’s web page http://elephantearspress.com/uncorrectedproof.html

Progress of the Novel

Image – ElephantEars Press

The novel has seen so many developments on so fronts through its long history in many languages and periods of history. It began with Cervantes and still is going strong. ElephantEars Press through its Facebook group Progress of the Novel, wants to learn of innovative novels, ‘gems’ published in recent years.

(posting for ElephantEars Press)

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=199000248124&ref=mf

Intentional fallacy

It was called the intentional fallacy when I was at university  – meaning for me  that the author is not really a good judge of her or his work, doesn’t really understand what has been written.

Roland Barthes spoke of something similar in the The Death of the Author. I would have liked to have talked to Barthes back at university about it, instead of much later in my head when postmodernism seeped into my consciousness. It would have provided a shorter route to where I believe I am than the road I took. But at least I heard of intentional fallacy and it had an effect on my understanding of how literary works are constructed (or not). And then I heard of Barthes and many others later, and my understanding deepened.

One intentional fallacy I would like to point at in Uncorrected Proof (or maybe it’s not really an intentional fallacy, more a mistake) –  I based the novel (a little tongue in cheek, I admit) on the prelude/the history of Helen and Greece prior to the context of the Iliad and then fast-forwarded to the finale of Homer’s poem itself. For me any strict following of Homer’s martial poem would have been a weight I didn’t need. I felt in my heart that I had the greatest on my side in this, and that if Shakespeare were  Joyce he might have decided on a less strict following of the Odyssey for Ulysses, and given more emphasis in Bloom‘s narrative to ‘story’. For me, Shakespeare knew how to use story as a platform for other literary ventures. Joyce it seemed didn’t ‘do’ story or didn’t want to understand it, seeing story as a unnatural structure forced upon him by commercial literary progress, at least so it seems in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. But there is story in Ulysses, just it isn’t in any way commercial. Did Joyce intend to deconstruct story or did he simply not do it well?

The intentional fallacy (is it one or not?) I must own up to in Uncorrected Proof is this: in my creation of one particular character I intended for readers to read the words as I pronounced them in my head. And one word with a possible reader-mispronunciation attached to it only occurred to me recently, a mispronunciation that might have some politically correct readers catching their collective breath.

For reasons that shall remain in code, I named my genre plagiarist novelist in the story- Martyrn Varginas.

I lived in Italy and speak Italian and understand the Greek and latin bases to western European languages, so for me, Varginas, without question, is pronounced as the Greeks might, with the main accented syllable being the first Vár (as in are)-gin (as the drink)as (mass)

If it were in Italian the accent would be on gin…definitely NOT as English speakers might read it, with the emphasis on a middle sylalble – gyne – leading the surname to more than hint at the female sexual organ in plural.

Now it is true I realised the implications of making Martyrn’s surname and ‘vaginas’ so close but as I based it on a real name, itself very close to the most actively used pejorative term for the female sexual organ, I deemed it just and fair use. Suddenly (I kid you not) I realised of course that, just as swimmers at my local pool mispronounce Lido lie-dough, instead of lee-dough as it is in the original italian, they would just as readily mispronounce Varginas.

So, for the record: It is Vár (as in are)-gin (as the drink)as (mass)..okay?

Phew. Now that this has been clarified I will move onto the main characters in Uncorrected Proof that are based on the Iliad:

Archie Lees – Archilles

Ellen Spartan – Helen of Sparta

Anthony Gamenman or A.Gamenman(n) – Agamemnon

Menny Lowes – Menelaus

Cal Kline (or Cal Chase or Patrick Locus) – a fusion of Calchas/Patroclus

Dolon – Dolon (perhaps western literature’s first spy)

The first part of the story’s premise: Archie Lees gatecrashes the Crocker Book awards in a hairbrained scheme to get his novel back from the bestselling genre novelist..Martyrn Várginas..the ‘gin sodden half-assed’ hack who plagiarised Archie’s book …

Anymore from me on this subject could inspire some virulent shouts of intentional fallacy.….or worse…

In.. The Road

The Road The Road by Cormac McCarthy


My review

This is a taut moving beautifully realised post-apocalypse narrative. The beauty of it ameliorates the subject. It is a tale filled with almost unbearable tension, a tiny thin thread of hope throughout. Someone wrote that it is not particularly American, but I thought it very American, almost at times a touch too cowboyish in parts. But looking back now I see no flaws in this now. At first I thought: this is a searing tale right up until the end but McCarthy wandered off into Hollywood territory with an (almost) all’s wells that ends well roundup, even in a post-apocalyptic hell on earth, and this is some hell on earth.. At first I thought: has McCarthy snatched literary defeat from the jaws of victory? Did he dismantle 300 odd pages of narrative perfection ..Does he want to wipe the slate clean? I thought: maybe it’s his irony on the myth, ingrained it seems in the American psyche, the good guys and bad guys stuff ..but I realise, thinking again, I was wrong.

The Road is too spare and taut for happy endings. It does end better than it could have … It doesn’t matter that the hope comes from and to the boy..there is much left of the road still to go for him..

I put it alongside the bittersweet end to Nam Le’s The Boat…Both tales are about that thin thread of human hope in so much despair. Even if at times I find myself asking why does Cormac McCarthy gives us this cowboy stuff every now and again…..Maybe, I wanted to say: I would prefer a bet each way on human nature…….but looking again I realised it is the hope in that upside-down burned-out world throughtout, the tiny impossibly thin thread of it, so beautifully captured and centred in the boy, that tense last thread that truly resonated with me throughout the telling of the tale, and it still resonates with me long after I finished reading..

‘Uncorrected Proof’ – Review by LiteraryMinded

http://blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded/2008/11/07/uncorrected-proof-louisiana-alba/

Uncorrected Proof – Louisiana Alba November 7, 2008 – 7:54 am, by LiteraryMinded http://blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded/

ElephantEars Press, 9780955867606, 2008 (UK)

Can something be playfully and overtly postmodern and still be readable – driving you through a compelling plot? Louisiana Alba proves it can be done. Uncorrected Proof is a postmodern novel that entertainingly riffs on form, style, character, tense, person – but with an overall thriller/quest type plot appropriation, it folds you into its delicious bizarro metascapes and humorous oft-satirical, oft-homagical visions.

Somehow Alba (if that’s who she really is… death of the author etc.) incorporates stylistic elements of hard-boiled fiction, screenplays, cookbooks, metafiction, the spy novel, cyberpunk, the literary novel, A Clockwork Orange, Gaelic, intertextuality, memoir and so much more in a book that self-consciously satirises the entire book and publishing industry – authors, editors, publishers – literary celebrity, literary delusions, literary snobbery, literary stupidity and so on.

So what’s it ‘about’? Archie’s novel manuscript has been pilfered and plagiarized by Martyn Varginas, prolific mystery writer. Archie and his friend Cal plot a convoluted revenge through Archie getting work as an editor, and employing a re-plagiarisation of the book by a young hired-gun (or pen, as it were). What follows are kidnappings, political intrigues, sex, jaunts to New York and Paris (from London), Stake-outs, party crashings, a couple of book launches, boardroom drunkenness, author cameo appearances, mean streets, cop/spy banter, and a few disturbing murders.

I was completely absorbed in this book – somehow Alba makes it so easy to read, despite the switcheroos in style, and shifts in narrative drive and character motivation. The book’s title Uncorrected Proof displays irony – those not in bookselling or publishing may be unfamiliar with a ‘proof copy’ or ‘uncorrected proof’ – books that become available before release, oft-unedited versions of the final with spacing, grammatical and typing errors. This ‘published’ book, has a few (tongue-in-cheek) placed throughout.

Alba has worked in publishing, and is actually avoiding traditional distribution methods for the book, keeping in the uber-hip underground spirit of the novel – with a well-handled guerilla internet and out-of-hand distribution system. I came across the author through Facebook.

This book proves to me that extraordinary talent can be represented through shunning traditional publishing methods. This book is inventive, imaginative, and inspiring. It is a unique publication. If you enjoy Italo Calvino or John Fowles, or if you also work or have worked in the book industry, even on the fringes, you would get a great kick out of this novel.

There’s an amazing offer at the moment on the ElephantEars Press website. Postage on Uncorrected Proof FREE to any destination! http://elephantearspress.com/uncorrectedproof.html

Another Voice for Nam Le

Louisiana Alba is the author of Uncorrected Proof, which I heart, so I asked if she would write something just for me (and you lit-lovers). Here ’tis:

Italians have a phrase: non mettere le mani avanti, don’t put your hands out in front (to prevent the fall you fear). Let the scholars sort out my fictions. I am trading here on memory and instinct alone, a dangerous line, I know, particularly as I was going to do a piece on Windschuttle and other historical fabrications. Do you know Windschuttle? Does anyone care? No? Then, I best leave him for another time.

Nam Le has just won the Dylan Thomas Prize. This is no small prize and no small feat, I said to myself, then realised I was staring at my own. My feet were the only feet in the room. I was intrigued though I confess I didn’t know Nam Le’s work before I went online and ordered the one copy of The Boat held by the British Library. The book of The Boat. The Boat in book form. It says a lot about the focus of readers in London that it hadn’t been snapped up already. After the Booker Prize shortlist was announced every copy of every book the BL had by every writer on the damn list was in use. Hell, what’s going on? I said at the time.

Nam Le, who is he? When no answers came I could interpret I webbed wider to find out more. I came upon: ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, from The Boat itself. I read the screen-printed story. Even in the twenty-first century I still find it hard to read fiction this way. Yet Nam Le had me hooked with his first words. The Boat had cast me a line. ‘LHPPCS’ is a fine and good story, as Hemingway might have said. I saw echoes, or imagined I did. Thom Jones’s an-American-in-Vietnam stories, what was Nam Le doing here, a parody of memoir technique developed by a writer come writing-teacher in an Iowa writing school? Many stylistic lines from many American short story writers crossed my eye-line, Le skilfully self-addressing the author, wannabe, manqué throughout.

Thom Jones is still on that Iowa program I believe. I have long admired his work and reference him in Uncorrected Proof. Judging by ‘LHPPCS’, I feel no less strongly about Nam Le’s capacities, finding the comments of praise I saw this morning true and right down to the last syllable. Hemingway is an apt voice to mention as well, I suspect, for what happens at the end of ‘LHPPCS’ happens to the Hemingwayequestrian character in The Garden of Eden as well – the writing and story of both characters ending up…No, I can’t say it either.

Let me be frank or… Nam Le. This writing strikes more than one chord, literary and life chords. When I first left Australia, after university and film school, my first assignment abroad was to film a boat full of ex-Vietnamese hitting land in southern Thailand. Pure fate. It was only the second time I had professionally put an Eclair 16mm camera up on my shoulder, only the second time I had used one live full-stop.  As I clambered about the decks of beached boats, sweat running in my eyes, the stench of summer in the Gulf of Thailand all around, somehow I kept the excitement of the waving forms motoring towards me in focus, somehow I maintained the other arrivees close-by in frame, somehow I didn’t end up in that murky Thai seaside drink all sides up. All along I had no idea I would revisit this plot and theme several times in my life.

I move on to Hong Kong filming and producing two more films on escapees from a hell on wheels inside Vietnam, to a fate far worse than the Thai camps, if my olfactory memory of the warehouses along Hong Kong’s Pearl Harbour serves me well. My fourth and last experience is back in Sydney six years later, making a film for Special Broadcasting Service on a need some Vietnamese children developed for writing up their experiences. In a Strange Land, one girl titled her poem, or was it tilted, living out a nightmarish late childhood horror that was Cabramatta, or as some Australians casually called it back then, Vietnamatta. Reading Nam Le brings it all back.

What is Nam Le’s ‘LHPPCS’ all about then? Writing in Iowa? Growing up in Australia? Relationships? Remembering Mum? Revisiting or leaving Vietnam behind? Getting onto livable terms with Dad? Memory in ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’ is a wonderfully cruel trick. We live and die by it along with his character in the same instant. Nam Le’s memoir, the memory of his life’s truths as laid out in fiction, is an examination of a fictionalised ‘ex-Boat person’ narrated in such an unadorned air of truth that if the other stories in the collection are even half as good, then I know in truth I am in for even more of this rare treat.

Can’t wait to see what she says after reading the rest! – LM

Small versus Big, and small must win

ElephantEars Press, my publisher in Hackney, a small, new and independent publishing press dedicated to bringing you good literature, fiction and non-fiction, at fair prices, is now offering FREE post and packing to ANYWHERE in the world.

These holidays ElephantEars Press wants to give readers a real and true deal.

Lately, I have been following Amazon’s attempt to monopolize Print On Demand, to force independent publishers to accept Amazon on terms designed to crush the life out of the independent publishers and booksellers. It’s a disgrace – Amazon only got where it is because readers like you and me helped them become a force. We supported them in the early days because we wanted diversity, because we believed they were for us. Not anymore they aint!

Amazon wants to monopolize bookselling and print on demand publishing. They want to to kill off publishing independents and consumer independence. Don’t let them. Buy from small independent presses like ElephantEars. Support small and ignore the big homogenizers of creative output.

For this holiday, for your gifts – Buy from the small dedicated publishers like ElephantEars Press determined to bring to you reading quality for your pound, dollar, and euro

SUPPORT SMALL against BIG.

Where we are

Linda Nylind
London Fields outdoor Pool - The Guardian. Photo by Linda Nylind

I was doing my 1500 metres in the pool yesterday, lap, swim, turn, lap, roll, stretch, concentrating on my breathing, thinking of what novelist, inventor, academic, Eric Willmot said to me on the phone the other day, talking of his recently written essay on human and planetary survival. I had read the pages he sent me, describing our progress of us all, the twenty third species of human on this planet..the story aint all pretty. Well, I think we know that, but where do we go from here? We seem to be running out of time. Eric is convinced that the global warming we are experiencing is a prelude to another ice age.

Ice with a black hole - see that's the proof!
Ice Age (with a black hole in it as well!)

Our nearest refuge, that is, nearest to our earthly conditions in toto, is Venus, but that planet is a green house gaseous inferno. So that’s out. Another solar system like our little ‘Goldilocks zone’ around the sun, surrounds the star Gliese 581, but that is twenty light years away, beyond our capacity to reach in all our lifetimes. Without some sort of quantum leap in our capacity to travel, our interplanetary air bus is going to run out of gas, if not time.

And even if we get there Gliese 581 may not be quite for us. It hasn’t sent us any kind of signal, let alone a welcome email they want us over for any holiday coming. We better find out then. We could send the executives of Fanny Mae and Freddi Mac and a few bank presidents, the whole of Wall Street in fact, on ahead to check it out, investigate the real estate and other markets and set up for us. In the meantime, we’ll sit it out and wait down here, glued to the telly for messages, filling our neighbourhoods (and the silent universe) with the sounds of humanity, eating, drinking and getting inordinately merry, all those goings on, as we use up the planet we’re whizzing around on.

Eric has some ideas on what we can and can’t do. Are we facing extinction? Are we staring into the abyss, not so blissfully un-a-ware as impotently more-than-scared? Rabbits in the headlights of some rogue comet or asteroid heading relentlessly our way? What should we do? Recycle our rubbish, turn off our appliances, walk to work, invest in nuclear reactors using Thorium (pronounced /ˈθɔːriəm/ wikipedia tells me).

Well, I think the first thing we should do is get up to speed on the actual conditions, educate ourselves. Get to know our options (even if the picture aint pretty). We’ve faced threats before – Hitler, the Cold War, the nuclear holcaust. Let’s face this one, form neighbourhood groups to discuss intra and interplanetary survival.

Well..okay…let’s do nothing then..just sit and wait and watch it happen. Let’s climb into the warming pot we call this world and boil slowly and then when the fuel burns out, slowly descend down into that big freeze.

Who knows how or why the wind blows?

Who makes the decisions today – beleaguered writers, publishers buying up book windows, readers with chips in their heads (writers with chips on their shoulders), booksellers going broke, online bloggers pushing in, reviewers popping up everywhere – who has the power, what really matters in writing – style or story or celebrity? Is the scene different to the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s? Was there really a golden period of modernism when writers became more than mere entertainers? Can it really be true that people find Grisham’s work the best in American writing? Do Americans believe they will learn the law, real or fictional, from Grisham? I confess I have only read two of his books – the second The Chamber I read in Italian before I had learned Italian well. But i got everything because beyond the blindingly obvious there was nothing to get. In America today you have writers like Stewart O’Nan, acres larger than clodhopping Grisham, and yet the book buyers ignore the craft, talent, brilliance and buy the second rate stuff. People of London went to Shakespeare’s plays – anyone out there to help me out here on all this?