There is an article in the books section of Last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph which caught my attention.  It is written by Hanif Kureishi, who is a novelist and a teacher of writing.  He makes the basic point that to be a ‘good writer’ one should not concentrate on a study of such things as plot, perspective and dialogue; rather, one should give the imagination free rein.  He goes on to make the following specific points:

“The imagination rarely behaves well. It can be ignored and censored, but never entirely willed away.  Such a willing away would be a mistake because, unlike fantasy, which is inert and unchanging – in fantasy we tend to see the same things repeatedly – the imagination represents hope, rebirth and a new way of being.  If fantasy is a return of the familiar, you might say that an inspiration is a suddenly uncovered part of the self, something newly seen or understood.  Emerson, who tells us in ‘Compensation’ that ‘growth comes by shocks’, writes in another essay, ‘The best moments of life are those delicious awakenings of the higher powers.’

“One of my students said he read books in order to have ‘more ideas about life’. You’d have to say that the imagination is an essential faculty, and that it can be developed and followed.  It is as necessary as love, because without it we are trapped in the bleak polarities of either/or, in a North Korea of the mind, dead and empty, with not much to look at.  Without imagination we cannot reconceive what we know, or see far enough. The imagination, while struggling with inhibition, represents more thought and possibility; it is myriad, complex, liquid, wild and erotic.

“The imagination is not only an instrument of art.  We cannot delegate speculation to artists.  Or rather: whether we like it or not, we are all condemned to be artists. We are the creators and artists of our own lives, of the future and of the past – of whether, for instance, we view the past as a corpse, a resource or something else.  We are artists in the way we see, interpret and construct the world.  We are daily artists of play, conversation, walks, food, friendship, sex and love.  Every kiss, every piece of work or meal, every exchanged word and every heard thing – there are better ways of listening – has some art in it, or none.

“To survive successfully in the world requires great capability.  To be bold and original is difficult labour; it can seem impossible, because we have histories and characters that become fixed identities.  We are made before we know it; we are held back by who we are made into.  Not only that, we are inhabited by destructive, chattering devils who want less than the best for us. . . .  There is nothing as dangerous as safety, keeping us from reinvention and re-creation.  Imaginative work can seem destructive, and might annihilate that which we are most attached to.

“Naturally, if we can do this, we pay for our pleasures in guilt.  However, in the end, misery and despair are more expensive, and make us ill.  Let madness be our guide, not our destination.

“Aspiring writer who wish to be taught plot, structure and narrative are not mistaken, but following the rules produces only obedience and mediocrity.  Great writing and great ideas are strange: their sorcery and magic are more like dreaming with intent than they are like descriptions of the world.  Daily art makes and remakes the world, giving it meaning and substance. . . . The imagination creates reality rather than imitates it.  There is no interesting consensus about the way the world is.  In the end, there is nothing more out there but what we make of it, and whether we make more or less of it is a daily question about how we want to live and who we want to be.”

I think this is a brilliant essay about the role of imagination in writing and in life.  For more about identity, how it is formed and shapes our lives, I refer the reader to Sable Shadow and The Presence.

Review: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is the first novel by Fatima Bhutto, who is the granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former President and Prime Minister of Pakistan, whose sister was Benazir Bhutto.  Fatima Bhutto graduated from Columbia University in 2004.  She lives in Karachi, and is a freelance writer.  Interestingly, her website does not mention this book.  Instead, it mentions three other books.  Judging by one article on her website, she seems to be a political radical.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is an interesting novel, relatively brief and quite intense.  It is set in the tribal region of northwest Pakistan and involves three brothers who are preparing to celebrate Eid, the Muslim feast at the end of Ramadan.  The oldest son has decided to leave his childhood sweetheart and go into business away from his home town of Mir Ali.  The middle son has become a doctor in Mir Ali and the youngest has joined his brother’s sweetheart as an insurgent.  In the novel, Mir Ali is the focal point for the armed struggle between Pakistan’s army and local people who crave their own freedom.

Fatima Bhutto does a very good job describing the culture, the issues, the people and the setting.  One gets the sense of a long-running, life-and-death struggle in the northwest of Pakistan.  It is clear that the author’s sentiments are with the insurgents.

I found the novel frustrating in the sense that it lacks focus.  There is an insurgent plot to kill a minister, and the story seems to be headed to a climax there, but the novel ends in uncertainty.  Was he killed?  Who killed him?  Or if not, why not?  There is some uncertainty as to who the insurgents are.  Some are Taliban; some are ordinary people.  What is the relationship between them?  The Pakistani government is clearly an evil influence, but in a book like this which is somewhat polemical, it would be a redeeming feature to hint more broadly at what the government should do differently (other than bringing in local conscripts).  There are also some religious issues: notably Sunnis vs. Shiites, but there are problems for Christians and Hindus, as well.  How do these issues fit into the over-arching themes of justice and freedom?

Ms. Bhutto’s writing in quite engaging.  Occasionally, there is a too long sentence which requires a second reading to gain understanding.  And, like all ‘young, modern authors’ she likes to use unconventional words rather than the conventional.  Mostly, this works well, but there is the occasional grating which disturbs the flow.  The characterisation of the two older brothers, the female sweetheart and the Pakistani colonel are all clear and intriguing.  The character of the youngest brother – the insurgent – is somewhat opaque.  We can understand why the two older brothers do what they do, but what – apart from his father’s lectures – motivates this brother to be an insurgent?

An interesting book and a particularly interesting author. I’m sure we’ll hear more from her!

“Literary Misery Index”

An article under the headline “Reading between the lines: novels are so last decade” appeared in today’s Daily Telegraph.  It said that the ‘literary misery index’ has demonstrated that  novels reflect accurately the economic hardship of the decade prior to their publication.

“The frequency with which downbeat words appear in more than five million books by authors including George Orwell, Graham Green and John Steinbeck was found too reflect economic conditions in Britain and America.

“Researchers  compared how frequently “mood” words from six categories – anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise – were used, and created the index by subtracting the number of sad words from the number of happy words.  Some periods, such as the 1980’s were clearly marked by literary misery.

“The lead author of the study, Professor Alex Bentley from the University of Bristol, said: ‘When we looked at millions of books published in English every year and looked for a specific category of words denoting unhappiness, we found that those words in aggregate averaged the authors’ economic experiences over the past decade.  It looked like Western economic history, but just shifted forward by a decade.  It makes sense if you think about authors who wrote sad books, like Steinbeck, that their choice of words would have reflected the economic conditions.  In other words, global economics is part of the shared emotional experience of the 20th century.’

“Co-author Dr Alberto Acerbi added: ‘Economic misery coincides with the First World War, the aftermath of the Great Depression and the energy crisis.  But in each case, the literary response lags by about a decade.’  Professor Bentley said: ‘Perhaps this ‘decade effect’ reflects the gap between childhood, when strong memories are formed and early adulthood, when authors may begin writing books.’

“The study, published online by Plos One, also found the same correlation in German novels.”

As I think about this study, it seems to make some sense.  The mood of an author will certainly be coloured by his/her experience of the world.  I’m not so convinced that the cause of the effect is just economic.  What about the effects of major wars – like the First and Second World Wars?  And what about the effect of the socio/political situation?  Would authors writing after the Stalinist period in Russia have a more pessimistic slant than those writing today?  And what about the ten year time lag?  To me it doesn’t seem right to correlate the ten year time lag to the period between childhood and authorship.  For most authors it is more like twenty years, and in my case it’s a lot more than twenty!  Perhaps the time lag has more to do with the aggregate effect of human memory: memories older than ten years begin to fade in importance, and memories younger than ten years haven’t taken their full effect.

What do you think?


Review: Stoner

Stoner, a novel by John Williams, was copyrighted by the author in 1965, and was first published in the UK in 1973.  As the copy I have was published by Vintage in the UK, I can’t tell when the novel was first published, but a safe bet would be in the mid-60’s in the US.

John Williams was born in Clarksville, Texas in 1922.  During the Second World War, he served in the US Air Force in China, Burma and India.  His first novel, Nothing but the Night, was published in 1948, and his second, Butcher’s Crossing, was published in 1960.  His last novel, Augustus, was published in 1972.  Williams received a Ph.D from the University of Missouri and he taught literature and the craft of writing for thirty years at the University of Denver.  He died in 1994 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

It would be fair to say that Williams is not a well-known author, but Stoner has recently attracted significant favourable reviews.  For example, Julian Barnes of the Guardian says, “It is one of those purely sad and sadly pure novels that deserves to be rediscovered.”

Tom Hanks writes in Time Magazine: “It is simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher.  But it is one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.”

The New York Times says: “Few stories this sad could be so secretly triumphant, or so exhilarating.  Williams brings to Stoner’s fate a quality of attention, a rare empathy that shows us why this unassuming life was worth living.”

I think I read that an employee of a major book seller (was it Waterstones?) rediscovered the novel, and praised it to the point where it became the chain’s book of the year.  I decided I had to get a copy.

Having now read it, I can tell you that I agree with the above reviews.  Moreover the writing is beautiful and captivating.  It is clear, clever and without unnecessary embellishment.  It is a novel that makes one reflect on life in general and one’s own life.

Those of you who have read my reviews will know that I tend to be critical of particular developments that occur without reason.  As someone who was educated in the sciences, I believe that for every effect there is a cause, and I’m not content unless a major effect has a cause that is identified (or at least hinted at); I become sceptical, and I begin to question the author’s attention.

There are three effects in Stoner which for me are presented without cause.  First, Stoner becomes an instructor in literature at a major university.  He is an only child, without self-awareness, or any particular ambition, without childhood friends, growing up on a farm, who goes to university to study agricultural science.  He’s likeable enough, but he does not interact much with others.  In fact, when his literature professor asks him a question in class, he is unable to summon the resources to answer.  We are, in effect, asked to believe that he became a teacher because the same professor told him that that was his destiny.  Based on what?  Most university instructors I have known are outspoken extroverts.  Once Stoner becomes an instructor, I can accept that, over time, he develops the skills to become quite a good instructor.

The second point has to do with Stoner’s wife Edith, whom he takes in marriage based on a fleeting attraction.  This turns out to be a disastrous mistake.  Edith has unpredictable swings in mood and behaviour which are not hinted at when Stoner first meets her.  She seems like a shy girl, but she becomes a nemesis, a witch.  He behaviour is so erratic and so irrational that I found myself doubting her as a character.  Could not Williams not have hinted at a psychological defect or at a strategy which Edith was following.  As a result, I lost interest in trying to understand the relationship between Stoner and his wife.  For me, she was just a “problem”.

The third point has to do with the relationship between Stoner and Katherine Driscoll, a young instructor with whom he has an affair.  I can understand how they could fall in love, but what I don’t understand is how their physical relationship could (apparently) begin so smoothly.  Stoner had no sexual experience before he met his wife, and with her it was disastrous.  Katherine has little experience, and it wasn’t very pleasing.  How could these two sexual misfits behave like practiced lovers immediately?  Give them time, author!

The above tend to be my personal reservations, and they don’t motivate me not to recommend Stoner.  It is a rare and captivating novel.