The marvellous and/or doomed voyage is, if you like, a sub-genre of the weird and the fantastic. One might reach back as far as the Voyage of St Brendan, moving forward in time to Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and, to a certain extent, the account of Captain Walton which forms the framing narrative in Frankenstein. And these are only the ones I can think of, off-hand. However in the case of Jean Ray’s ‘The Mainz Psalter’, the stories most immediately on my mind are Conan Doyle’s ‘The Captain of the Polestar’ and particularly William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates, although it is claimed that Jean Ray only read The Ghost Pirates after he’d finished this story.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Monday, February 13, 2012
After my speculations last year that the version of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's story, 'The Hell Screen', that I'd heard on the radio seemed different to that in The Weird, the radio adaptation is currently being rebroadcast on Radio 4Extra. I will be paying close attention.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
A couple more pieces on Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s love letter to early film:
Ed Vulliamy on Brian Selznick, author and illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret and some accompanying film stills and book illustrations.
The first six issues of Amazing Stories magazine (April-December 1926) are now available online, thanks to the Pulp Magazines Project.
Hilobrow.com has just finished serialising Jack London’s The Red Plague and is planning to serialise H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook later in the year.
The death of John Christopher was announced this week. Obituaries by Christopher Priest in the Guardian and Paul Vitello in the New York Times.
And apropos of nothing in particular except that I happen to like it, a shout-out for Charles Tan’s daily listing of things of sf/fantasy interest: Bibliophile Stalker.
What if … London were like Venice? (How To Be A Retronaut)
Friday, February 10, 2012
I wasn’t sure how to respond to the Hatchet Job of the Year Award when it was unveiled. I suppose my main objection is the title itself: it smacks too much of a desperate desire to annihilate something, which is the antithesis of what the award is supposed to encourage, and is indeed the antithesis of everything I believe is important about reviewing and criticism. However, I can see that it’s an attention-grabber.
The Hatchet Job’s Manifesto wasn’t particularly encouraging either (and fascinating as I find cultural manifestos, I think they should on principle be approached with caution). So, the award apparently aims to raise the profile of professional critics and to promote honesty and wit in literary journalism, which sounds very uncontroversial. But what about: We need professional book reviewers. We need people who know what they’re talking about, whose voices we recognise and trust, even though we might not always agree with them?
And if you backtrack a paragraph or two, we have: only 15% of people said they found out about new books and authors from a newspaper or magazine review, with growing numbers relying on Amazon, blogs and Twitter. A single tweet from Stephen Fry will have an infinitely greater impact on a book’s sales than a dozen broadsheet reviews. In fact, if we go back to a Guardian article introducing the Hatchet Job shortlist, Anna Baddeley, editor of The Omnivore, the website which created the award, says ‘We think [professional arts criticism] is at risk from the growth of book bloggers and Amazon reviews.’
So, apparently it is really all about turf wars again, and the perfidious influence of people writing about books without being paid to do it. This argument about the comparative merits of book bloggers of every stripe and ‘professional newspaper critics’ is becoming old and tired, not least because it is almost invariably brought up by people who really don’t understand the full breadth of the territory they’re dealing with. ‘Book blogger’ can encompass anything from websites filled with ridiculous bits of puff that lead one to suppose every book ever published is wonderful to sites where the quality of writing and argument wouldn’t be out of place in an academic journal. There is something to suit every taste; even Amazon shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as some of the reviews, even if ‘popular’ in flavour, nonetheless do a good job of discussing a book’s merits. A well-written review on a blog can easily compete with a ‘professional’ review in a newspaper.
It is, of course, all about brand recognition. The Omnivore, the promoter of this award, turns out to be an aggregating website and thus, one assumes it is heavily reliant on newspapers and magazines publishing reviews which it can then fillet and serve up to its own readers. One would hesitate to suggest the award is therefore more than a little self-serving but it is difficult to avoid the sense that the website ensures its own reputation by proxy, and no wonder it’s worried about a lack of reviews in the quality papers. Indeed, I think the only reason I was cutting the award any slack by this point was that Sam Leith was one of the judges and I consider him to be a sensible and thoughtful literary type. And actually, in the end, the shortlist was a decent and sensible sort of thing that it was quite hard to have an argument with.
Of the shortlist, I’d read two of the reviews already, Mars-Jones’ review of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, which was funny, and Mary Beard’s notorious and truly scorching takedown of Robert Hughes’ Rome, and there is no doubt that they are bravura pieces of reviewing. Having now read Geoff Dyer’s review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, it is pretty much what I’d expect from Dyer, whom I find to be a consistently interesting and engaging reviewer. I want to go out and read the Barnes because Dyer’s review intrigues me so much. I’ve also been reading Mars-Jones’ work for years and again I find him to be entertaining but also very clear in his thinking. Beard I know more through her other occasional writings, though I’ve read some of her reviews in the Times Literary Supplement. Of the three reviews, hers comes closest to what one might think of as a, er, classic hatchet job. Equally, what comes through in her review is the passion and the outrage of the career classicist confronted with a book riddled with errors. I’m not a classicist myself but I can understand her anger and I admire the way she channels it into a firm explanation of why Hughes’ book is so bad. I’m looking forward to reading through the rest of the shortlist.
In the end, Mars-Jones was victorious and today the Guardian carries his own reflection on winning the Award. It is a wise and thoughtful piece in which he discusses the craft of reviewing. I suppose, in its own way, it is also a manifesto, though it might be better described as useful words for the reviewer to live by. Certainly, I found a good deal in it to agree with, not least the way in which Mars-Jones gently criticises the award itself: ‘I’d be more comfortable with the phrase ‘scalpel job’, since a review, however unflattering, should be closer to dissection than hackwork, but I have no illusions about it catching on.’
A few examples: ‘A book review is a conversation that excludes the author of the book. It addresses the potential reader. A reviewer isn’t paid to be right, just to make the case for or against, and to give pleasure either way.’ One may have to interrogate the meaning of ‘pleasure’ at some point, but I know what I think he means by that. And this: ‘The only “bad” review in my book is one whose writing is soggy, its formulas of praise or blame off the same stale shelf.’
Or, and most pertinently, ‘I’d rather be an attentive amateur than an expert. Expertise so often becomes a sort of impregnable fortress, inside which the passionate subjectivity that first made the choice of specialism wastes away.’ This comment is particularly interesting, in part because of something Mars-Jones says later – ‘I take it for granted that reviewing is a secondary activity – but one that needs to be primary while you’re doing it’ – and in part because of the award’s implicit assumption that being a critic or reviewer is a full-time thing, literarily a profession, in and of itself, which runs directly counter to Mars-Jones’ own perception of what he does.
There are no answers, no rules, of course. Adam Mars-Jones does what he does, I do what I do, the editors of The Omnivore will continue to flutter around in distress over the state of reviewing and things will continue pretty much as usual, except that as Mars-Jones notes, never again can the Hatchet Job Award be won in a state of innocence; it will always be there, lurking, as the reviewer settles down to flay a book.
Sunday, February 05, 2012
Keeping it simple, stuff from the interwebs that I feel like sharing.
Better Bookshelves (Incidental Comics), though I admit I am of the school of shelving that doesn’t go for artistic display preferring as much shelf footage as possible.
Leading to an excellent post by Jonathan McCalmont asking Why Do People Buy Books They Don’t Read? I want to come back to this post at some point and talk more about it.
Winter in southern England. Snow. Travel chaos. The usual amazement professed that we have had the same amount of snow as we did this time last year. Sigh. So, here are five books … about snow (Reading Matters) to which I would add Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg and Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson.
Other Cool Things
Carleton Watkins, the first person to actually photograph the Yosemite Valley. Photos here and here.
Bonus time-lapse video of Yosemite now (io9)
Plant galls! (Kuriositas)
Death masks of the famous (Kuriositas). All men, so let us redress the balance with L’Inconnue de la Seine, and in particular the Radiolab podcast about her.
Vintage astronomical illustrations (Retronaut)
More vintage space illustrations (Dreams of Space)
And more (Dreams of Space)
And even more, these by Lucien Rudaux, the first illustrator to produce accurate pictures of the moon and Mars (io9)
The Ghosts in the Living Room, a fascinating analysis by Adam Curtis of the way in which Ghostwatch was shaped by the rise of the suburban poltergeist and its reporting on tv, and the response to Ghostwatch itself.
Series of East London scenes by Noel Gibson (Spitalfields Life). Would love to have seen these in the flesh.
Spitalfields Market Nocture – beautiful black and white photos of the old Spitalfields Market (Spitalfields Life)
World Fair, Paris, 1900 (How To Be a Retronaut) Click through to the links to the rest of the set, and on to the archive at the Brooklyn Museum.
Robocat Returns (Savage Chickens)
The dining-room bookcase was the only considerable one in the house and held a careless unselected collection to suit all the tastes of the household, together with a few full and obscure old theological books that had been left over form a learned uncle’s library. Cheap red novels, bought on railway stalls by Mrs Corbett, who thought a journey the only time to read, were thrust like pert, undersized intruders among the respectable nineteenth-century works of culture, chastely bound in dark blue or green, which Mr Corbett had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days; beside these there swaggered the children’s large gaily bound story-books and collections of Fairy Tales in every colour.(183)
I have quoted at length from the opening of this story because the contents of the bookcase is metonymic of the Corbett family itself: Mr Corbett more concerned by appearances, Mrs Corbett not concerned by anything much at all. The children’s books suggest some life, some energy, and at least one person has a taste for something a little imaginative, Fairy Tale collections being in the plural. With everything stuffed together in the one bookcase like this, it might be seen to represent a very close and happy family. On the other hand, one might also argue that ‘this neat new cloth-bound crowd’ suggests a careful keeping up of appearances; the bookcase is the only one of significance, and it is in the dining room, not the sitting-room. There are no bookcases in the children’s bedrooms, apparently. Reading is not as central as it might at first seem to be.
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
Back to my project of Blogging the Weird, I reach ‘The Dunwich Horror’ by H.P. Lovecraft, the grandfather of the pulp weird story, perhaps. Except, as we have already seen, he is now but one among many, and the name people reach for when they talk about weird fiction. I was not, when younger, a huge fan of Lovecraft. It wasn’t the language, I think, as I loved the flood of words, but I think I recognised instinctively that while he could describe things he could not make you see them, and he wasn’t much of a story-teller. Historically, he is in his way interesting and a necessary participant in the history of the weird, but he is too a man of his times and by our lights frequently racist and anti-semitic, snobbish and, to judge by his fiction, obsessed with purity and terrified of anything vaguely monstrous. I cannot think of another writer who has used the word ‘degenerate’ as often. One should endeavour to separate fiction from biography but the frequent recurrence of certain themes in this work makes it almost impossible to do so.