Readersforum's Blog

August 28, 2012

Fiona MacCarthy and Padgett Powell win James Tait Black prizes

Winner of the biography category of the 2012 James Tait Black Prize, Fiona MacCarthy. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

Experimental novelist and biographer honoured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

By Jen Bowden

The British biographer Fiona MacCarthy and the American novelist Padgett Powell have been named the winners of the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes 2012 at an award ceremony held at Edinburgh International Book Festival.

MacCarthy won the the biography category with her life of Edward Burne-Jones, The Last Pre-Raphaelite, while Powell won the fiction prize with his latest novel, You and I.

Speaking at the event MacCarthy said that writing the book was “pure enjoyment from start to finish”.

“I’m thrilled and excited to have won this wonderful prize,” she said, “which I think of as one of the most serious literary prizes still in existence.”

Powell thanked the students who had chosen his book and the fiction category judge, Dr Lee Spinks, for “ratifying the decision”.

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August 4, 2012

Will Self: modernism and me

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 6:12 am

“Aged 20 I was already finding conventional English prose fiction quite as constricting as I did conventional English society’ … Will Self in his writing room in London. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

Will Self has always felt pained by the constrictions of English fiction. Only the modernists offered him liberation as a reader and aspiring writer. With his latest novel, longlisted for the Man Booker prize, has he finally ripped off the corsetry of convention?

This is a story about being out in the cold. And fittingly, albeit arbitrarily, it begins in winter, proceeds leapfrogging from one winter to another, and ends in this more or less sodden summer during which the pages of the books I have read – unless they are electronic ones – have seemed to fox beneath my fingertips, super-saturated as they’ve been with a very English atmosphere. This is a story about exile – not a dramatic, physical exercise to a real Siberia, but an internal exile, a driving out of a human awareness from a place of relative psychic safety, to one where all bets are off and anything may happen. A place – to expand the definition of place itself – where up may be down, and the solitary wanderer in a sea of fog observes, horrified, as its dank clouds and sinister volutes are inexorably modelled by the soughing winds into a likeness of his own anguished face.

In the winter of 1981-82 I was infesting an icy-cold house in the Jericho neighbourhood of north Oxford. My housemates had gone off for the Christmas holidays, but I had stayed behind. I lay on the three mattresses I had piled up to make a bed and looked at frost stars on the inside of the windows while I listened to the inadequate gas heater whiffle. The room was as narrow and high-ceilinged as a fish tank, painted a pale blue and embellished with a filigree of damp patches. I had laid the wardrobe on its side and piled all my books up, higgledy-piggledy in a narrow alcove. I had one picture in the room: a postage stamp-sized portrait of Heinrich von Kleist torn from one of these books and Blu-tacked to the wall above my wonky divan; and I had a solitary companion: a midget cactus, which, despite its having flowered in the week leading up to Christmas, I still became convinced – in one stoned fugue or another – was a plastic model, and so tore it from its little pot, only to discover its pathetic rootlets.

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April 29, 2012

The sound and fury of book-prize brouhaha leaves literature nowhere

Arguably insouciant … How would Christopher Hitchens have reacted to his final book's failure to win an Orwell prize? Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe for the Guardian

As the fuss surrounding the Pulitzer and Orwell prizes shows, book awards are increasingly more about hype than substance.

By Robert McCrum

The great literary boom of 1980 to 2010 is over, but its glittering prizes still linger, like discarded party favours the morning after the night before. Hardly a day goes by without some new titbit of literary prize gossip, or speculation.

Last week, it was the brouhaha over the news that this year’s Pulitzer prize, one of the premier US literary trophies, would not be awarded in the fiction category.

Then came crowd-pleasing advance publicity for the People’s book prize (promoted by Frederick Forsyth and the late Beryl Bainbridge).

And on Wednesday, new depths were plumbed in reports that the Orwell prize jury had “snubbed” the late Christopher Hitchens by not shortlisting his final book of essays, Arguably. (I bet they’re shaking their heads up on Parnassus about that one.)

Really, it’s a shame Hitchens is no longer around to make hay with the ideas that: a) he was troubled by prizes; b) he had somehow always hankered after the Orwell trophy; and c) there can be any meaning whatever in handing out posthumous awards to books whose authors are beyond the reach of lunch, dinner, and especially critics.


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January 31, 2012

Carol Ann Duffy is ‘wrong’ about poetry, says Geoffrey Hill

Filed under: Poetry — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 4:02 pm

Oxford professor of poetry Geoffrey Hill: "Bits of oligarchical commodity English such as is employed by writers for Mills & Boon" Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

Oxford professor of poetry attacks Duffy’s praise of text language, and compares hers to Mills & Boon.

By Alison Flood

Carol Ann Duffy might have won numerous literary awards and become the country’s first female poet laureate, but Oxford professor of poetry Geoffrey Hill has nevertheless compared her writing to that of a Mills & Boon author.

Hill, who frequently earns the sobriquet of the English language’s greatest living poet but whose learned poems are also often described as “difficult”, was giving a lecture at Oxford University when he laid into Duffy. Taking umbrage with an interview the laureate gave to the Guardian in September 2011 , in which she said that “the poem is a form of texting … it’s the original text”, Hill sonorously laid out his reasons for disagreeing to gathered students.

“When the laureate speaks to the Guardian columnist to the tremendous potential for a vital new poetry to be drawn from the practice of texting she is policing her patch, and when I beg her with all due respect to her high office to consider that she might be wrong, I am policing mine,” said Hill, in a lecture entitled “Poetry, Policing and Public Order”. The Oxford professor of poetry has previously described difficult poems as “the most democratic because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing they are intelligent human beings”, saying that “so much of the popular poetry of today treats people as if they were fools”.

Speaking in Oxford, he said that he “would not agree that texting is a saying of more with less, and that it in this respect works as a poem”. “As the laureate says, poetry is condensed. Text is not condensed, it is truncated,” said Hill. “What is more it is normally an affectation of brevity; to express to as 2 and you as u intensifies nothing. Texting is like the old ticker tape: highly dramatic and intense if it’s reporting the Wall Street Crash or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, not through any inherent virtue of the machine. Is the breaking news which runs at the foot of the screen on the BBC news channel condensed and consequently poetic? I fail to see how anyone could rationally claim that it is. Again texting is linear only. Poetry is lines in depth designed to be seen in relation or in deliberate disrelation to lines above and below.”

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January 11, 2012

Book critics to get their own prize for reviews

Inaugural ‘hatchet job of the year’ prize announces shortlist in order to boost profile of professional criticism.

The Guardian is represented in the shortlist by classicist Mary Beard and her review of Robert Hughes’s book Rome. Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe

By Mark Brown

From Thomas Macaulay observing of Socrates: “The more I read … the less I wonder that they poisoned him,” to Edith Sitwell on DH Lawrence – “very dirty” – there has been a noble history of writers getting it in the neck from critics. But now the critics may get a prize for their harsh words.

The shortlist was announced on Tuesday for the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year award, a celebration of “angry, funny and trenchant” book reviews which the organisers hope will “promote integrity and wit” in literary journalism. Anna Baddeley, editor of The Omnivore website which is behind the prize, said one aim was to boost the profile of professional arts criticism. “We think it is at risk from the growth of book bloggers and Amazon reviews,” she said.

The website was set up by Baddeley and her friend Fleur Macdonald when they left university three years ago. “It makes no money at all,” she said. “It is a labour of love.” It aggregates press reviews of books, films and plays and has a database of more than 10,000.

It means they have to read a lot of reviews and Baddeley said they had concluded that many were just not as good as they should be. “We do get annoyed as we read hundreds of book reviews a week. So many of them are really boring and a lot are just plot summaries with just a couple of sentences of cliched opinion tucked at the end.”

Hence the decision to celebrate “artful demolitions”, although Baddeley stressed it was meant to be fun and they were careful not to include scathing reviews of debut writers.

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October 28, 2011

In praise of easy reads

Nice and easy … Patrick McGrath at home in Ibiza. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

It might not be the right way to judge the Booker, but readability is something we all crave from time to time, and the books don’t need to be bad.

By John Self

To be zinged by the literary establishment twice in one week is a special kind of privilege. I didn’t see Stella Rimington’s now-legendary Man Booker prize speech – in my defence, I was trying in vain to rock a two-week-old baby to sleep – but someone mentioned later that she had attacked unnamed critics for “writing lists of books you would have chosen if you had been the sole judge”. Goodness, I wondered: could she mean me? Then, a few days ago, Jamie Byng, publisher at Canongate and founder of World Book Night, issued a blunter response to my comment that the list of next year’s World Book Night books was tilted heavily in favour of authors who already have very large readerships.

Byng was right to criticise me, I think: World Book Night is about readers, not authors. (And presumably big sellers are more likely to be in a position to waive their royalties.) It is aimed at getting books into the hands of people who wouldn’t pick them up otherwise, and those who are selected to distribute books are told explicitly that their books are to be given to “non or light readers” – though tips for identifying them are not provided. So the fame or otherwise of the author is not important, but the type of book is. And this of course fits in neatly with The Booker Kerfuffle (to name it in the style of a Robert Ludlum novel).

The common thread is that much-maligned (by me, among others) word: “readability”. If we accept what the Booker judges didn’t, quite, and say that it essentially means “not too hard going”, then it’s not much of a measure for a literary prize, but it’s more or less essential if you’re aiming to give books to people who don’t normally read. There are very good books on the World Book Night list, from Iain M Banks’s The Player of Games – my own favourite of his novels – to Andrea Levy’s sublime Small Island, which marry quality with approachability.

But you don’t have to be a reluctant reader to be attracted sometimes to something that slips down effortlessly. “I have never been able to finish a novel by Kafka,” said Martin Amis. “But then, neither could Kafka.

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October 18, 2011

A life in writing: Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett … AS Byatt is a fan, calling him 'a great storyteller, and splendidly inventive with the English language'. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

‘I think there’s time for at least a few more books yet’.

By Alison Flood

Terry Pratchett is having a statue made. It’s a statue of a goddess, and he thinks she ought probably to be smoking a cigarette, and to be showing one breast. “There should be an urn, too. If there’s an urn it’s not porn – that’s a Discworld cliché,” he says, a bubble of laughter in his voice.

The goddess is one of Pratchett’s own invention: Narrativia, the deity of narrative who smiles on writers (and perhaps especially sunnily on her creator). Discworld, created by Pratchett 28 years ago, is the fantasy world held up by four elephants balanced on the back of a giant turtle. It’s a concept which started out as an affectionate lampoon of the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre, but it has, over the years, become an increasingly sophisticated swipe at contemporary society, pointing out the ridiculousness of everything from Hollywood to the postal service, newspapers, banks and football.

And Narrativia has been beside him all the way. “If you’ve been a good boy and worked at what you’re doing, then the goddess Narrativia will smile on you,” he says, recounting his delight at a particular piece of her work, when he was writing Thief of Time more than a decade ago. He decided to call one of his characters Ronnie Soak. Soak is the fifth horseman of the apocalypse – the one who left before they got famous. His name was picked at random, so Pratchett was astonished when he noticed what it sounded like backwards. Suddenly, he knew of what this particular horseman would be a harbinger. “I thought chaos – yes! Chaos, the oldest,” he says. “Stuff just turns up like that.”

In typically ebullient fashion, Thief of Time also contains a sprinkling of yetis, a clock which will stop time and the Monks of History, whose job it is to manage time, moving it from where it isn’t needed (underwater) to where it is (cities). AS Byattsaid on the book’s publication that it should have been nominated for the Booker prize. But it was a fantasy novel; it was funny; it was a bestseller. Unsurprisingly enough, it wasn’t.And despite Pratchett’s immense popularity (75 million copies sold of his 67 books), it took a while for the literary establishment to notice – apart from Byatt.

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August 28, 2011

Michael Holroyd laments the decline of biography

Michael Holroyd said: 'If you are writing a literary biography you have to try to hide the fact because it's so tremendously out of fashion.' Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

Acclaimed biographer of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw tells Edinburgh international book festival that his current work – A Book of Secrets – will be his last.

By Charlotte Higgins

Biography is a genre in crisis, according to perhaps Britain’s best-known biographer, the author of highly acclaimed works on Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw.

Speaking at the Edinburgh international book festival, Michael Holroyd said: “The book with a single name on the title page is becoming less attractive to readers. A single name, rather unfairly, suggests you are being exclusive. And the worst word you can use is ‘literary’. If you are writing a literary biography you have to try to hide the fact because it’s so tremendously out of fashion: that’s the message we have been getting from Waterstone’s, at least before their recent takeover.

“I have a nostalgia for visiting private houses to find letters and journals and to root around in the attic,” he said.

“But the fact that a lot of material now is on the computer takes the romance out of it, and now it’s about examining what lies behind the delete button – the horror.”

Biography’s golden age, said Holroyd, came in the late 20th century, with works such as the first volume of George Painter’s study of Proust, which appeared in 1959, and continued with writers such as Hilary Spurling, Richard Ellmann and Richard Holmes and Holroyd himself. They became “not rivals but pacemakers for each other”. Biography was, he said, a peculiarly British phenomenon: “If you want a biography of Proust, or Mann, or Goethe, or Strindberg, or Ibsen, you found yourself reading a British writer.”

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July 17, 2011

Forward poetry prize: who got rid of the women?

The all-male shortlist for this year’s prize is sadly true to form. But apportioning blame is not easy.

By Sarah Crown

Spot the similarity ... the Forward prize for poetry shortlist 2011. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/Murdo Macleod/PR

The 2011 Forward prize shortlist has been announced. It’s an anniversary year: the prize is celebrating its 20th birthday. And this year’s list oozes quality: former winners Sean O’Brien and David Harsent compete with Whitbread winner John Burnside, Oxford poetry professor Geoffrey Hill, Irish poetry colossus Michael Longley – and OK, D Nurske, a Brooklyn poet of whom I confess I’d never heard until now. But doubtless he’s wonderful too. A mighty list then, and nothing to complain about – except for the fact that there aren’t any women on it.

Does it matter? I’m not sure. It’s certainly noteworthy, however, so I mailed the chair of judges, Andrew Motion, to ask him where the women were. “Of course it was a matter of concern for us that the shortlist for the Best Collection was all-male,” he replied. “But equally of course the judges (three women and two men) had to choose the books they liked best as collections of poetry. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the same criteria led us to choose four books by women and two by men in the Best First Collection section, and two poems by women and two by men in the Best Single Poem category.”

Fair enough, you might think, and there the matter might rest. I have uneasy feelings about the issue of gender on prize shortlists, anyway: while there are certain areas in which balance ought actively to be sought (the ratio of male to female reviewers, for example), I don’t believe prize shortlists should be one of them. Some years there’ll be more good books by women, some years by men; the judges should feel free to reflect this, and things will, one imagines, even out over time.

Except, in the case of the Forward prize, they haven’t. I’ve just been back to check, and out of the 19 winners of the Best Collection award since the Forwards launched in 1992, only three have been women – Kathleen Jamie, Jo Shapcott and Carol Ann Duffy. Three out of 19 – and we know, of course, that this year, that count is about to rise to three out of 20.

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May 4, 2011

What’s wrong with popularising poetry? Well, the poets don’t seem to like it . . .

By Sam Leith

Angry bards . . . Garrison Keillor and August Kleinzahler. Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe/Beowulf Sheehan

Garrison Keillor – anecdotalist, radio host and laureate of small-town wholesomeness – is publishing a book of poetry, 77 Love Sonnets. Interviewed about the book, Keillor found himself discussing the reaction to an anthology he published a few years ago; specifically, the admired modernist poet August Kleinzahler’s full-frontal assault on Keillor’s “appalling taste”.

I looked it up: a dismissive review that took two and a half thousand words in the dismissing. It’s been said that criticising PG Wodehouse is like “taking a spade to a souffle”. This was something similar; and if you hit a souffle with a spade, you get egg on your face.

Keillor’s taste in poetry may differ from Kleinzahler’s, and his understanding of what it’s for may differ – caricaturally, he thinks it does the soul good, and that makes Kleinzahler wince with embarrassment.

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