Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.

 

Review: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 12 March 2016.

Charlie Jane Anders might actually be able to see the future. As co-founder and managing editor of io9.com, she’s one of the most insightful people writing about science fiction today, and those skills have carried over into writing science fiction itself. Her new novel, All the Birds in the Sky, feels like a bittersweet reworking of the legendary Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman collaboration Good Omens (1990). It similarly centres on a world-threatening conflict between two intractable ideologies, with an odd couple at risk of getting swept up in the chaos. However, this time the odd couple consists of a witch and a mad scientist rather than an angel and a demon, demonstrating a moral complexity which Good Omens lacks. Witty, heartfelt, and unerringly humane, it’s a tender and funny debut from an exciting literary talent, although its occasionally flabby structure means it stops just shy of being an instant classic.

We open with Patricia, the aforementioned witch, and her first encounter with the magical world at age six. After an unexpected conversation with an injured sparrow, she is led to the mysterious Parliament of Birds, only to be yanked away by her parents at the last minute. (This is the first of many references to classic fantasy, in this case C.S. Lewis’s Parliament of Owls.) As a teenager she meets a fellow social outcast, Laurence, who goes through a similar experience involving an abortive rocket launch, and who copes with his anxieties by developing a two-second time machine. From there we follow the two of them as they grow together, then apart, and finally together again, all the while dealing with deadly assassins, home-grown AIs, and the very real prospect of human extinction. It’s a dense and multi-layered plot, filled with narrative digressions, but what holds it all together is Anders’ deft characterisation and subtly elegant prose style.

This is an endlessly quotable novel; barely a chapter went by without something that I wanted to scribble down for future use. This is mostly down to the narrative style, which is one part Douglas Adams to two parts Rainbow Rowell, and full of great one-liners. Personal highlights include “Laurence felt like he’d grown an extra body part just in time to be punched in it”, and “One day the Singularity would elevate humans to cybernetic superbeings, and maybe then people would say what they meant. Probably not, though.” But as brilliant as the jokes are, this is a fundamentally character-driven story. Laurence and Patricia are one of the most interesting literary double acts in recent memory. At one point we’re told that “They knew almost all of each other’s secrets, and that gave them license to talk in crappy puns and quotes from old hip-hop songs and fake Prohibition bootlegger slang, to the point where nobody else could even stand to be around them.” The overwhelming sense is of two people completely at ease with one another, and markedly less so with the rest of the world.

The other characters are largely solid — while a few of the bit-part players boil down to conceptual gimmicks (a man who looks different every time you meet him, a wizard who turns everything he touches into plants), the main supporting cast are economically yet vividly characterised. The lack of an overt villain is particularly noteworthy. Everyone acts with the best of intentions, even the ruthless assassin of the book’s first half. This is particularly effective given that things get downright apocalyptic in the second half: everyone and no-one is to blame, and Anders effectively conveys a sense of ambiguity and chaos without getting into tedious moralising.

That sense of narrative chaos carries over into the book’s structure, which is unfortunately one of its main problems. Anders has been a luminary of the short fiction market for a few years now, and the transition to long form is not an easy one. While the novel has a pithy, to-the-point quality, there are a few too many narrative digressions, and Anders’ habit of revealing important bits of back-story out of order leads to a plot that occasionally feels meandering. There is a sense of a writer letting themselves off the leash, which is liberating, but also leaves the story feeling a bit cluttered. The individual episodes all work beautifully, but at least one or two could have been dropped to make for tighter pacing.

Although the novel’s structure is occasionally a little undisciplined, this does not detract from the discipline evidenced elsewhere. All the Birds in the Sky shifts effortlessly from fairy tale to romantic comedy to apocalyptic despair and back again, and the clash of elements never feels jarring. It’s a virtuoso performance from a fresh new literary voice, and well worth reading, even if it feels like Anders’ best work is still ahead of her.

All the Birds in the Sky is published by Titan Books and is available to buy in paperback, RRP £7.99.

Review: An Evening with David Mitchell

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 1 December 2015.

David Mitchell is many things. He is the author and celebrity namealike behind this year’s novel Slade House. He is also, if Saturday night’s event at Blackwell’s bookshop is anything to go by, a tremendous geek. In conversation with journalist Susie Faye on Saturday night, Mitchell was immensely thoughtful, witty and well-spoken. The overall impression was of a man with an incredibly rich and detailed knowledge of his subject matter and literature as a whole. Over the course of the hour long talk about writing Slade House, Mitchell made it very clear that a lot of thought had gone into this book. 

A sense of nerdy self-deprecation was established from the beginning, as Mitchell walked on stage thanking Doctor Who fans especially for coming to the event instead of watching that night’s episode. It was a remark particularly appropriate to the TARDIS-like interior of the Norrington room, and that sense of enthusiasm informed the ensuing conversation, as Mitchell talked about how his novel grew out of a short story he wrote last year on Twitter. “I wanted to use Twitter in a way that wasn’t a glorified notice board”, he commented. “So I thought, ‘How about fiction?’”. Originally told over a series of tweets around the time last year’s The Bone Clocks was published, Mitchell’s short story was “re-translated” into the first of the five stories which make up Slade House. Mitchell talked about the challenges of the 140-character that influenced aspects of the book: “The character ended up with a short name, because if you have a name like Benedict Cumberbatch it becomes hard to say much else in a tweet. There are no Englebert Humperdinks in the Twittersphere.” He spoke enthusiastically about @I_Bombadil, the twitter account created in the run-up to Slade House‘s publication, detailing the life of one of the book’s characters. Mitchell used the account to interact with fans, a process which became “a cyber version of Dungeons and Dragons”, as people asked him questions and requested information about the book’s setting. Mitchell told an anecdote of being asked by one follower for a picture of the door to Slade House, and commissioning an illustration from his publisher and posting it on twitter, still in character. That follower’s response? “Now take a selfie in front of it.” A ripple of laughter greeted this punchline; even in this off-the-cuff setting Mitchell can spin a good narrative.

Mitchell also talked about how his own reading informed his approach to writing horror for the first time. “I approached it as a taxonomist – I thought ‘What sort of ghost stories are there?’” Each of Slade House’s five sections represents a different sub-genre of horror, with that horror becoming increasingly uncertain and visceral as the novel progresses. This sense of genre instability is reflected in the novel itself – Mitchell argued that it takes about fifty pages for a ghost story to either become supernatural or commit to reality, in which case it becomes either a horror story or a psychological thriller. Slade House is structured deliberately to avoid that, to reinforce the reader’s sense of unease through its instability of genre. The inability to trust one’s own perceptions is a key theme in the novel: according to Mitchell he likes “having the carpet pulled out from under my feet by authors, as long as it’s fair, and the evidence was there beforehand.” The sense of gleeful play within genre rules informs a lot of Mitchell’s fiction, and Slade House is no exception.

Mitchell also responded to audience questions, with answers including a delightful extended riff on Japanese ghosts (borrowing ideas from other cultures is a kind of “unearned instant originality”, according to Mitchell) and a thoughtful reflection on vampirism in his work (“From their point of view, are they really doing anything wrong?”). Mitchell was quietly charismatic and charming throughout, giving thoughtful, honest answers, building a genuine rapport with the audience. It was, all in all, a quietly brilliant performance, and the audience’s enthusiasm was palpable. For all that Slade House got a bit of a rough ride from critics (including by myself earlier this year), the fact remains that Mitchell is an immensely talented writer and public speaker, and one gets the feeling he’ll be selling out events like this for years to come.

An author, after a fashion

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 6 October 2015. It was my first ever fashion article, and I’m quite proud of the things I’ve written for that section – it might be my favourite section to write for in terms of the quality of work in gets out of me. Anyway, here’s a thing about fashion and literature.

Oscar Wilde famously said that fashion was “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” The same could very easily be said about the bestseller charts. Literature goes in and out of style like everything else, along with the writers behind that literature, and there is a sense that Wilde rather needs to get off his high horse about the whole thing. Because in the modern world authorial personas are deeply influenced by a particular writer’s sartorial choices, and these are a key part of the impression they make on the public consciousness. The author may well be dead, but he still needs to give interviews and go on promotional tours, and a distinctive look can be a big help. Oscar can joke all he likes, but the fact remains that fashion was a key part of his own public image, and it has become, if anything, even more crucial to the authors of today.

A distinctive look can reinforce, or play against, a reader’s perception of what an author is like based on their work. No-one is surprised after reading Neil Gaiman’s work to find him a slightly dishevelled, tousle-haired goth with a fondness for black coats, just as Donna Tartt’s reputation for expertly-crafted fiction is reinforced by her invariably immaculate suits. The late, great Terry Pratchett was known not only for his unique prose style, but in his public appearances for his trademark black hat, to the point where it was disconcerting to find pictures of him not wearing it. And James Joyce looks just as punchable in photos as he does in prose.

On the flip side, after reading the dazzlingly complex and energetic novels of David Mitchell, it can be a bit disconcerting to find that he’s a bit of a plain dresser in real life. Similarly, the dress sense of the real-life Douglas Adams is nothing like that of the impish trickster conveyed in his work, and Michael Cunningham’s intensely stylish prose bears almost no resemblance to the plain white shirts of his publicity photos. Readers, consciously or not, form images of what a writer is like based on their books, and it’s often disconcerting when the real person doesn’t seem to match their writerly persona.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. In an age of corporate branding and all-pervading marketing, it’s easy to view the lack of a recognisable authorial ‘look’ as some kind of failing on the part of said author. When in reality, it is almost entirely unfair to expect an author’s style in real life to reflect the style of their writing. There are those, like the aforementioned Oscar, who make a conscious effort to imitate art in life, but the fact is that it is not, fundamentally, an author’s job to select their outfit any more carefully than anyone else. In truth, it would have been ridiculous for Bram Stoker to wear a cape and bloodstained fangs, and Geoffrey Chaucer probably wasn’t winning any awards at London Fashion Weeke.

Nevertheless, literature is a part of the same culture as the world of fashion, and only a fool would say that the two were totally inseparable. While Virginia Woolf did not habitually wear the short skirts and pearl necklaces of the flappers, the two were both part of the same broad social and cultural movement. Coco Chanel famously said that fashion “is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” And so, for that matter, is literature. Both are concerned with the drive forward, iterating on themselves constantly, trying to find new things to do with old materials. Both are immediate, tangible aspects of the culture, concerned with what our society is in the here and now.

With that in mind, judging authors by their sartorial choices is misleading. Plenty of authors do not actively keep up with sartorial fashion, but it is a very poor author who is not at least aware of what’s going on in contemporary literature. Authors, however much they or their readers may like to think so, are not separated from the world of fashion. Because literature is simply another kind of fashion, just as trend-based, ever-changing and fascinating as any other.

No wonder Oscar Wilde had a go. He was savvy enough about both fashion and literature to know that the two are interchangeable. I suspect he feared that he had competition.

Greg Baxter: A Way of Being

Photo: Anja Pietsch

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 4 June 2015.

With his first novel, The Apartment, Greg Baxter established himself as a unique and important voice in contemporary fiction. This reputation has only solidified after the publication of his new novel Munich Airport earlier this year. The book is narrated by a young marketing executive, stranded in the titular airport with his retired and disaffected father. They remain there for days on end, waiting for the release of the body of the narrator’s sister, Miriam, who appears to have died of anorexia. The novel flashes back to various episodes in their lives, and Baxter balances the angst and pain of the novel with a dark sense of humour and moments of genuine pathos. This is not a light book, but it is an incredibly rich and rewarding one, and has been met with much praise in the literary press. Baxter was kind enough to meet with me to discuss the novel, as well as the intense experience of writing and the necessity of road trips to good fiction.

Our conversation opened with the novel itself, as Baxter told me what had inspired him to write it. “That’s kind of a long story. But the short version of that is that I ended up ending breaking my ankle in Romania, and ended up twice in Munich airport for eight hours, and thought that I would have to do some good with that experience so that the experience wouldn’t be forever just a miserable one. I just thought that was an interesting place to be, and at the time I had this idea about a guy stuck in an airport and I wasn’t quite sure how to turn that into anything longer than a one or two page story. And then I got quite ill with some strange infection, and didn’t eat for weeks. There was a sense of intrigue, a strange empowerment when I got better and started to study the idea of what it was like not to eat, to withhold appetite. So these things kind of came together, these ideas sort of coalesced into the possibility of a narrative. And finally I settled on the one that came out.”

The novel deals heavily with psychological issues around anorexia and self-harming. What made Baxter want to tackle such sensitive subject matter? “The issue of starvation came about, physically, from within. I felt like there would be an interesting combustible relationship between this sense of starvation and having a marketing executive narrate – this idea of consumption vs. denying appetite. So I thought that these two things might have worked well together. But I don’t entirely set out with a certain intent. Really, it seems like a possibility, it seems like something that’s there, and then you kind of see what happens. I’m the kind of writer who will get going on a book for a little while, see if it works, give up on it after thirty, forty, fifty pages, and start something new. The idea is to see if it really holds together as a narrative.”

How did he find the experience of writing such an intense book? “I wrote it over a period of about a year. I think the first draft I wrote in about seven months or so, gave it to my editor, and he wanted it bulked up a little bit, because it had been more spare than it originally was. So I took some time and off, and then spent the summer revising it, and that was it. It’s funny, I don’t consider myself a really imaginative type of writer. I don’t conjure these big stories and plots and find a way to invent things that I myself have not experienced. I’m a sort of method writer – I have to become the person who is the narrator. I think like him and act like him. I get quite involved in it. So writing it almost feels like second nature when it’s going on, and then afterwards there’s a period of time in which you hope to come back to reality a little bit. That’s always a very difficult process, stopping writing. The next book isn’t going to come because I’ve dreamed something up. In the same way that Munich Airport arose out of a set of circumstances, out of a sort of way of being, a sort of inner transformation. So you kind of have to wait for that again. For me, something has to change. The pattern of life has to alter in a significant way that sort of transforms me from within and allows me to become the next narrator.”

Why did Baxter choose an airport for his setting? What is it about an airport which makes it such a perfect venue for existential angst? “I’d written my first novel, The Apartment, and I was quite annoyed. Unbeknownst to me, I was accused of doing something called ‘Psychogeographic Writing’. So one of the appeals to me about an airport is that they wouldn’t be moving anywhere. There was nowhere to go, there’s no journey they could take, and they were stuck. The novel is about, almost every page, is about confined spaces and that comparison of confined spaces and the nightmarish feeling of inescapability. The airport is just one space that sort of echoes everything else. The hotel rooms, the basement he goes down to in the museum, the art gallery that he sees. It felt like a natural place to explore this sense of confinement. There’s two things airports do. One of them is to move you along to wherever you have to go, and the other is sell you things. I don’t know, it seemed like a really appropriate place to put all these people, I guess.”

The novel deals with a global family; a father living in America, a son in London, a daughter in Germany. Did Baxter feel that the scattered nature of this family was important to the story? “On a practical level, yes. There had to be a distance, otherwise, you know, the father could have just driven to see the daughter at any time. So the distance was important, just to make it slightly impractical. I think the father and the brother do want to see Miriam. Over and over again, they live confused lives partly because of her absence. In one way there’s a respect for that absence and an attempt to understand it, but when it finally leads to her death there’s this sense of profound shame and confusion over the fact of not having done what it would have taken to go see her. But also a sense of helplessness, that even if they had, there was nothing they could really do to change it. The book is really about their reaction to it, and the process they go through over three weeks, when they go to Berlin. The first week being a sense of being confounded, unable to even process their grief. On the second week they go on this massive party binge, all around the Rhineland and the Ardennes. And the final week they go back, and the only way they can begin the grieving process is to start starving themselves, which is also inadequate, but it seems like a last resort.”

Was there anything that surprised Baxter when he was writing the book? “Writing is a learning process for me. I had two obsessions during the time when this idea was forming in my head – Charlemagne and the Middle Ages, and Schoenberg and twelve-temp music. I don’t know that I would write books if I didn’t have these sort of peripheral obsessions. Without the challenge of having to put them into the story, it wouldn’t be worth it for me. And then [there were] things like halfway through, the story had started to bog down, and I realised that the father and son really needed to go on a road trip. So I just got in my car and drove around. Essentially, everything that happens to them happened to me. What draws me to writing is that every page involves a certain sense of learning something surprising, and dealing with the challenge of trying to fuse that with whatever else is going on.”

The dead, complicated – a chat with Paul Farley

Photo: Jemimah Kuhfeld

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 10 May 2015.

Paul Farley is no stranger to literary acclaim. His last collection, The Dark Film, saw him shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize, and his eighteen-year career has spanned multiple award-winning collections, as well as extensive work in broadcasting and prose writing. I was lucky enough to get to ask him a few questions about poetry, swearing, and how new technology influences his work.

You first started writing poetry in 1998– what spurred you to start writing poetry in the first place? How has the landscape changed between then and now?

My first book came out in 1998 but I’d been writing for a long while before then. I always had done, but I also painted and drew a lot, which I think must have masked or suppressed my writing, mostly from myself. I didn’t go at it in the same way as I did making art. But it was there, a kind of scribbling in the background; I just didn’t take it seriously, or took other things too seriously. I stopped painting because I couldn’t really afford to keep it up, which was a huge regret – haven’t picked up a pencil since – but the writing took over. Maybe my energies were diverted, or refocused. I was in my mid-twenties by then.

The landscape? I think I caught the tail end of an older publishing world, an older kind of poetry world I guess. I met people who’d known Plath and MacNeice and Larkin, but also a lot of younger writers like myself. It felt like a very vital, transitional time, and it was all very new to me. Maybe it always feels like this, whatever the stop you get on at. Today feels pretty interesting.

Your last poetry collection was The Dark Film– what ideas did you want to explore with this collection?

Being a one-poem-at-a-time kind of writer, I tend to only get a sense of what’s on my mind when I look back at work in the round, as reflection. There’s usually some recurring themes or preoccupations that come into focus. Even just at the level of image or metaphor: like, you’ll discover light bulbs or the word ‘sump’ occurring in several poems.

One of the themes of The Dark Film is technology, new and old– how do you feel poetry should respond to new technology and digital media?

I remember saying somewhere that I liked the idea of poetry keeping up, and I still do. Mind you, you shouldn’t feel compelled to respond to anything you don’t feel excited or mystified by, although saying that I have written a couple of things recently that you could say fall into the pulse-quickening sub-genre of ‘consumer electronics verse.’ Isn’t the real excitement that poetry inheres in time, playing its long game, and yet we’re living our lives during a moment of rapid technological change and acceleration? We’re losing touch with the hands-on world even as more of the world is becoming instantly available to us. Ways of seeing or remembering the world become extinct, new platforms come online. It’s bewildering and exciting – but we still write about love, the soul, who we are, time, where we call home. And the subject of death will continue to get poets out of bed in the morning.

Who do you consider your main poetic influences? Who are your favourite modern poets?

I think you have to have that kind of book-by-the-side-of-the-bed, intimate relationship with poems in order to address yourself to writing one of your own. I say ‘fall in love with a poem’ to students, and feel like a sentimental idiot, but I still believe it. There are poems that provoke, or get under your skin and onto your tongue. You absorb them, and they absorb you. But you can admire from a distance, too. There are plenty of poets who work in a way I can’t imagine, and I like them all the more for doing things I couldn’t do. Influence is dead complicated. It’s the dead, complicated! And our contemporaries, the people writing around us, influence us in all kinds of unpredictable ways. You know that thing Auden said about your peers’ work raising your own game? They might squeeze a few secretions from the envy gland, but they do you a favour, too.

If you want names… Michael Longley’s The Stairwell and Liz Berry’s Black Country: old and young, two very recent books I’ve been enjoying.

As well as poetry, you’ve also done a great deal of prose writing, as well as extensive broadcasting work. How do they all compare? In what ways do you adapt your approach to each area?

They’re different engagements, different slants to the world and the imagination, different ways of moving in language. It’s like taking up different physical positions. The sprinter vs long distance runner analogy for poetry and prose rings true. Though I’ve found that when I write prose, after a while I want to run in the opposite direction from it. The American poet Kay Ryan once said something about how reading a really abstruse critical or theoretical essay gets her right in the mood for writing a lyric. I know exactly what she means.

Of all your works, which are you the most proud of, and why?

Sometime in the late 1970s I wrote a sweary poem in school about the Cold War – and got into trouble for it, was sent to see the Head of English, and so on. I think that put an idea in my head, and even though it took me years to figure out what it was, I’m glad I wrote that poem, which is now thankfully lost.

 

Censorship and the Hugo Awards

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 30 April 2015. It’s the second of our two editors’ columns, and this time the theme was ‘Censorship’. At the time, the whole Hugo controversy was still fresh, so I went with this even though, in hindsight, it didn’t entirely fit. Still, the whole Hugo controversy was a mess, and I can only hope we avoid a similar kerfuffle this year.

In order to talk about censorship, I am going to talk about a literary science fiction award. Bear with me on this one. You may have heard of the Hugo Awards, but just to get everyone up to speed, voted on by registered members of the annual convention WorldCon, the Hugos are the most prestigious and important awards in the relatively small world of sci-fi publishing.
This year, the Hugo Awards were hijacked by neofascists. The spearhead of this campaign was a man named Theodore Beale, who encouraged enough of his supporters to nominate a specific list of works chosen by him that he was effectively able to dominate this year’s award nominations, with 87% of the nominated works being chosen by him. Beale is a thoroughly odious man, who, among other things, has publicly expressed the view that the Taliban’s attack on Malala Yousafzai was “perfectly rational and scientifically justifiable.” I honestly wish that was the worst quote I could dredge up. And this is the man who has been allowed to choose the award-worthy works of last year’s sci-fi output. Now I don’t want to go into the whole drama surrounding the awards in too much detail, because frankly there are much better people out there who have covered it more thoroughly than I possibly could. Instead I want to talk specifically about Beale and his supporters’ stated motivation for doing this.
You see, Beale and his supporters mounted this campaign because they believed that the awards were being dominated by broadly left-wing fiction because of the censorship of a shadowy group of left-wing authors, rather than because the books they wanted to see nominated just weren’t any good. And so they decided to stuff the ballot. They reacted to an unfounded conspiracy of censorship by actively engaging in censorship themselves. What happens to the Hugos as a result of this still ongoing controversy remains to be seen, but we can learn a crucial lesson from it. Which is that the would-be censor can all too easily turn anti-censorship rhetoric to their advantage. We must be mindful of that, and remain vigilant if we want to see truly free and open artistic expression.