Archive for October, 2010

Writing Diary

Last night I had a bumper writing session. I had dinner at a place near work and then went to Starbucks for about three hours. I wrote nearly 2,000 words on the ghost story I started earlier in the month. After a coffee and a tea, I didn’t sleep too well, but I’m very proud of the work I got done and its quantity.

At lunchtime today I got another 400 words done, bringing the total up to 2,600 or so.

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The Ten Best 100 Best Novel Lists List

In this post I’m going to reveal how many of the books on each list I’ve read and then, by averaging them, come up with a figure for how well read I am.

1. Time – 10

2. The Modern Library – 6

3. The Modern Library – Reader’s List – 19

4. The Modern Library – Radcliffe Rival 100 Best Novels – 14

5. The Best 100 Lists – 28

6. BBC – The Big Read – 24

7. The Guardian/Observer – 11

8. Goodreads – 28

9. The Telegraph – 100 novels everyone should read – 17

10. This Recording – Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels – 29

Total: 186. Divide by 10: 18.6

Therefore I am 18.6% well read. What about you?

Conclusions: I actually own a lot more of the books on these lists than I have actually read – so I need to get around to reading them (Moby Dick, for instance). There’s plenty of others that I don’t own and haven’t read. But I can take some comfort from the fact that I don’t appear to be a complete ignoramus. My score on the sf and fantasy list is a little low – so there’s work there to be done, for sure.

The ‘Jewish Jane Austen’ wins Booker

Howard Jacobson just won the Man Booker Prize with his novel, The Finkler Question. The main talking point of this event is the fact that it’s the first comic novel to win the prize in its 42-year history.

When I think of comedy fiction, three writers come to mind – Robert Rankin, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. For me the first two – and I love Robert Rankin, and am on the positive side of indifferent to Terry Pratchett (it’s just been announced that Pratchett is a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner) – are fairly self-indulgent reads. People read Rankin and Pratchett because there’s something comforting about the worlds they’ve created and sustained in the five million novels they’ve written between them (five million is an approximate figure). They are full of wordplay, silliness and running gags. Douglas Adams, for me, is a much more serious writer. When I read the Hitchhiker books I get a sense of existential melancholy; that series explores the fundamental pointlessness of human existence. The answer to the question – the question, about life, the universe and things of that nature generally – is 42 – which is about as meaningful as any other answer people have come up with.

Jacobson’s thesis, from what I’ve read and heard in the past day, is that comic novels are not or should not be a minor sub-genre, but the totality of literature – all novels should make you laugh, he says.

Well, I would say that humour is a useful tool in any writer’s kit – any novel can have flashes of humour that arise from the characters or the situations. But comic writers also use a certain voice – an authorial voice that is itself humorous, witty, punning, observational – that doesn’t often sit well with literary quality. Of the three writers I mentioned, I would say Adams achieves it, but Rankin and Pratchett do not.

It would be nice to think that all writing and writers are published simply for their literary merits, but it seems like the reality is that many books are published because they fulfil(publishing companies’ perception of) market demand. Fantasy novels have to be about 8,000 pages long and tell the story of a young hero, or group of young heroes, in excrucating detail from childhood to confrontation with the ultimate evil that killed their parents. And comedy novels, clearly, can’t be serious literature – it would confuse people.

My favourite series of books is Stephen R Donaldson’s Gap series. It’s a gripping, brutal space opera – but it has one joke (if that’s the right word) that stood out for me. Introducing one character, Godsen Frik, the book says something along the lines of, ‘He had the fleshy smile of a pederast who’d just been made the head of a boys reform school.’ Appropriately dark, but in as much as it is funny (opinions may differ), it’s somehow out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.

I think, ultimately, that each book should just be good at was it does, whether it’s a comedy, a funny book with serious bits, a serious book with funny bits or a work of unleavened humourlessness.

I’ve never read any Howard Jacobson, although I’ve seen him in the media over the years and he’s always seemed plain-speaking and likeable. I should get a copy of one of his books at some point – maybe even The Finkler Question. You can read more about him and his shiny new 50,000 pound prize on the Independent website or over at the Telegraph – or any other news site (but you’ll have to search for them yourself).

Word of the Day: wit

wit 2 /wɪt/

–verb (used with object), verb (used without object), present singular 1st person wot, 2nd wost, 3rd wot, present plural wit or wite; past and past participle wist; present participle wit·ting.
1. Archaic . to know.

—Idiom
2. to wit, that is to say; namely: It was the time of the vernal equinox, to wit, the beginning of spring.

Origin:
bef. 900; ME witen, OE witan; c. D weten, G wissen, ON vita, Goth witan to know; akin to L vidēre, Gk ideîn to see, Skt vidati (he) knows. See wot

Source: Dictionary.com.

“Standeth it yet?” said Brandoch Daha.

“For all I wot of,” answered Mivarsh.

Source: The Worm Ouroboros by E R Eddison.

Word of the Day: scapular

scap·u·lar 2 /ˈskæpyələr/

–noun
1. Ecclesiastical . a loose, sleeveless monastic garment, hanging from the shoulders.
2. two small pieces of woolen cloth, joined by strings passing over the shoulders, worn under the ordinary clothing as a badge of affiliation with a religious order, a token of devotion, etc.
3. Anatomy, Zoology . scapula.
4. Ornithology . one of the scapular feathers.

Origin:
1475–85; < ML
scapulāre, n. use of neut. of scapulāris (adj.). See scapular 1

Source: Dictionary.com.

The monks were now standing at the tables, motionless, their cowls lowered over their faces, their hands under their scapulars.

Source: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

Word of the Day: riparian

ri·par·i·an /rɪˈpɛəriən, raɪ-/

–adjective
1. of, pertaining to, or situated or dwelling on the bank of a river or other body of water: riparian villas.

–noun
2. Law . a person who owns land on the bank of a natural watercourse or body of water.

Origin:
1840–50; < L
rīpāri ( us ) that frequents riverbanks ( rīp ( a ) bank of a river + –ārius -ary) + -an

—Related forms
non·ri·par·i·an,
adjective, noun

Source: Dictionary.com.

The northern border between Korea and China formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers has been recognized by the world for centuries, much longer than comparable borders in Europe, and so one might think these rivers always constituted Korea’s northern limits. In fact, Koreans ranged far beyond these rivers, well into northeastern China and Siberia, and neither Koreans nor the ancient tribes that occupied the plains of Manchuria considered these riparian borders to be sacrosanct.

Source: Korea’s Place in the Sun by Bruce Cumings.

The Page 99 Test

Apparently, the author Ford Maddox Ford favoured the idea of judging a book that one might read by reading page 99 first. The logic being that it won’t that it will be a good example of the general standard of writing in the book. An article in the Guardian says that there is a web site starting up on which authors and readers will submit page 99s of novels for public perusal.

Page 99 is a completely arbitrary point at which to test the literary waters, but it is an easy number to remember (if choosing a number is too difficult for the prospective reader). It’s also not too far into most books. The Guardian piece says it will be a quarter to a third of the way through most books – make that a fifth to a tenth of the way through a fantasy novel.