Artistic Ladder

A good friend of my wife’s and mine is an only child and when her father died, he left her a large industrial site on the outskirts of a major city.  For some years, she thought to sell it to a developer, but the area is not ideal for a residential – or commercial – development.  She is an art lover and gradually, she began to put on exhibitions by two or three eclectic artists in the buildings.  The site became known as an art venue and she developed a mailing list of ten thousand ‘members’ who pay a small fee to be advised of events and are admitted for free.  Recently, she put on an exhibition by three prominent artists in different disciplines from three different countries.  One of them is thinking of establishing a studio on the site.

I asked her what she could do with a grant of one million euros.  Her face lit up and the ideas came tumbling out, but then she stopped and said, “But I haven’t any idea how to raise one million euros.”  We talked about it further, and she agreed that grants in that size can be obtained with the right connections and a persuasive proposal.  She certainly has connections in the art world, if not the actual fund-raising skills.

She also said that her surname will die out with her and she wants to somehow leave her name attached to whatever she does in the art world.  We talked about a way to do that, and then she was back on the subject of the kind of exhibitions she might put on.

I asked her to give serious thought to providing same ‘ladders’ for aspiring, but unknown artists with talent.  I pointed out that in every art discipline (including my own – literature, and including sports) there tends to be an enormous gap between the well-known, well-paid, big names and the skilled but unknown, and unpaid beginners.  I suggested two possible ladders for her to consider when possible.  The first was to put on an aspiring artists exhibition, at least once a year, with exhibitors selected by a panel of experts, and prizes being awarded to those judged to be ‘the best’ by another expert committee.  Perhaps provision could be made for the public to buy individual pieces, or for a gallery to pick artists to carry.  The second ladder was to establish an artist’s workshop space in the premises where young artists could come and paint or sculpt, where they could exchange ideas, and minimise the loneliness of their trade.  Maybe a small coffee shop would be opened to serve them, and perhaps interesting events could be organised.

As those of you who have been following this blog know, I feel that there are not enough ladders to success for aspiring artists of all disciplines.  In fact, in literature there are structural disincentives for the advancement of new talent: the tight grip of the traditional publishers on whom to select and promote.

Review: Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner is a novelist I had never read until now – perhaps because I grew up and was educated in the northeastern US.  Now that I have read Absalom, Absalom! I can understand why Faulkner is considered one of the greatest American writers of the 19th century.

Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897, was raised by a black nanny, lived most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, and attended the University of Mississipi (Ol’e Miss).  His family, upper-middle class; his mother was a literature buff who read to him and introduced him to the classics.  Friends and extended family often told tales of the Old South, the Civil War, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and his last novel, The Reivers (1962) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.  Faulkner died in 1962 after the fall from a horse.

William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom! (the title relates to the return of the central character’s son, Charles; Absalom, according to the Jewish bible, was the third son of King David.  A handsome, high-living man, Absalom killed his older half-brother for the rape of their sister) is set in the early to middle 19th century, mostly in Mississippi.  The central character, Thomas Sutpen, a rough, ungentlemanly fellow, appears in a small Mississippi town with 20 slaves and considerable funds of suspect origin.  He acquires 100 square miles of property 12 miles outside the town, builds an enormous mansion, grows cotton, marries the town shopkeeper’s daughter, and has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.  Sutpen had married the daughter of a Haitian sugar planter, who bore him a son whom he named, Charles Bon.  When Sutpen discovered that his new wife has negro blood, he pays to have the marriage annulled under obscure circumstances.  In his mid-twenties, Charles Bon suddenly appears at the U of Miss. where Henry is attending and the two become friends, though Henry does not learn Charles’ identity until later, when Charles begins to realise who his father is.  Henry and his mother begin to promote the marriage of Judith to Charles.  Sutpen travels to New Orleans (where Charles first appeared) and learns who he is.  On his return, he tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and the marriage will not be permitted.  Henry refuses to believe that Charles is his brother.  The Civil War intervenes.  Charles decides to break the impasse by marrying Judith, and Henry kills him.  Other deaths follow until there is no mansion and no living heirs to the Sutpen name.

This is an intriguing story, deeply coloured with the culture of the Old South.  Falkner’s story-telling technique is quite oblique: he makes use of different narrators to illuminate parts of the story that they know first-hand, have heard from others, or suspect, so that the reader is able to gradually pick up the thread.  This technique creates a sense of mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity about a story which was nearly a century old.  Faulkner’s writing is a poetic, erudite, stream of consciousness by the narrator, particularly when the subject is what a character is thinking or feeling; not infrequently, these dissections of a character’s motives can go on for two pages or more, and they are not easy to read, because they lack fluency and are full of parenthetical statements.  Sentences can go on for half a page.  Nonetheless, a careful reader will, at thinking and feeling levels, understand the character.  There is almost no dialogue in the novel; nearlyh all is revealed by the narrators.  Interestingly, the narrators never set the scenes: what the town, the battlefield, the mansion looked like.

The characters are all clearly drawn.  I found it somewhat surprising that all of the female characters were presented as passive.  One gets a clear sense of what life was like in the Old South, particularly before the Civil War, from the point of view of the wealthy few, the middle class and the slaves and poor whites. The slaves themselves had various classes.  As a literally minded person, I found it difficult to accept that Thomas Sutpen could have acquired the wealth he had as the overseer of a Haitian sugar plantation: something is missing.  Similarly, it is doubtful that Sutpen, 20 unskilled slaves and a French architect could have built the huge, elaborate mansion ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’.

Absalom,Absalom! is not an easy read, but it should not be overlooked if one is interested in distinctive American writing – particularly about the Old South.

Review: One Hundred Years of Soliude

Having never read of any of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ writing, I decided to start with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is thought to be his greatest novel, a classic, and one of the best by a Latin American author.

Gabriel García Márquez was born on 6 March 1927 in Aracataca, Colombia.  García Márquez’s grandmother, Doña Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes, played an influential role in his upbringing. He was inspired by the way she “treated the extraordinary as something perfectly natural.”   The house was filled with stories of ghosts and premonitions, omens and portents, all of which were studiously ignored by her husband.   According to García Márquez she was “the source of the magical, superstitious and supernatural view of reality”.  He enjoyed his grandmother’s unique way of telling stories. No matter how fantastic or improbable her statements, she always delivered them as if they were the irrefutable truth. It was a deadpan style that, some thirty years later, heavily influenced her grandson’s writing.  Marquez began his career as a journalist while studying law.  Throughout his life, he was left-leaning politically, adopting socialist thinking, and he held that socialism and democracy are mutually dependent.   García Márquez said, “my grandfather the Colonel was a Liberal. My political ideas probably came from him to begin with because, instead of telling me fairy tales when I was young, he would regale me with horrifying accounts of the last civil war that free-thinkers and anti-clerics waged against the Conservative government.”   In 1955, Marquez published fourteen articles in the El Spectador newspaper based in his interviews of the lone survivor of a shipwreck.  In the articles he made the case that the ship wreck of a Colombian Navy vessel was the result of improperly stowed contraband, rather than the government’s story that the tragedy was due to a storm.

García Márquez received the Nobel Prize in Literature on 8 December 1982 “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.  Marquez wrote 6 novels (Solitude is his second), 5 novellas, 6 collections of short stories, 8 pieces  of non-fiction, and 26 films.  He once remarked: “Most critics don’t realize that a novel like One Hundred Years of Solitude is a bit of a joke, full of signals to close friends; and so, with some pre-ordained right to pontificate they take on the responsibility of decoding the book and risk making terrible fools of themselves.”  Due to his newfound fame and his outspoken views on US imperialism Garcia Márquez was labeled as a subversive and for many years was denied visas by U.S. immigration authorities.  After Bill Clinton was elected U.S. president, he lifted the travel ban and cited One Hundred Years of Solitude as his favorite novel.  García Márquez died of pneumonia at the age of 87 on 17 April 2014 in Mexico City.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude is the story of seven generations of a prominent Colombian family living in the fictional town of  Macondo which was founded by the family patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía.  Initially, the town is isolated from the rest of the world, but with the arrival of the railroad, it becomes connected.  Among the many family characters, there are themes of inherited traits, incest, selfishness and licentiousness.  In keeping with the style of magical realism, there are some startling events: five years of non-stop rain and one year of contagious insomnia, for example, which are presented as unremarkable in a laconic tone.  There are many references to real events in Colombian history: a long-drawn-out civil war, colonization by an American fruit company and the cover-up of the massacre of workers.  Each of the characters is distinctive and memorable, principally for their actions, which, in some cases, are outrageous, rather than their beliefs.  Life is not presented as a happy, constructive experience, and memory in not to be trusted.

This is clearly a great classic in its innovative style, its extraordinary imagination, fluid writing, and in the complexity of the human issues on which it touches.  Paradoxically, while I found it difficult to read – to follow the thread of the author’s imagination, I could not put the book down: I had to find the conclusion.  (The family and the town die out.)  At over 400 pages, it is not a short book, but it is also intense and dense.  Often, the novel is written in stream-of-consciousness style, with breathless transitions from one event to the next.  There is very little dialogue to relieve the narrative, and the narrative itself can be quite complicated.  There is one sentence in the book which goes on for a page and a half.  To do One Hundred Years of Solitude its due, one needs to be in a position to read it deliberately, without distraction, so that the dots – or at least most of them – are connected.

How do they decide? Booker shortlist.

In my last post, I argued that critics tend to look for innovation in writing, rather than ‘quality’.  This argument appears to be validated (at least in part) by the shortlist selections for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

There was a commentary in the Evening Standard on September 13 written by the Literary Editor, David Sexton, from which I quote.

“This year’s Man Booker shortlist is a total surprise.  The two most obvious contenders from the longlist failed to make the cut,  Colson Whitehead’s vivid, inventive novel about slavery, The Underground Railroad. has already won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award in the United States, and been warmly endorsed by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.  Now it has been discarded by the Booker.

“Sebastian Barry’s lyrical ballad about a young Irishman and  his partner fighting through the Civil War in America, Days Without End, won him the Costa Book Award last year – but it doesn’t figure either.  Booksellers will be clasping their heads today.

“Could the judges, chaired by Baroness Young of Hornsey, have possibly been influenced by a desire not to be seen to be following the other big prizes and so seem behind the pace?  Surely not, because the prize’s one criterion is to find ‘the best novel of the year’. regardless.  The problem is that the five judges change every year, so there is no consistency and rarely any clear agreement, producing the erratic decisions that the Booker is famous for – including many terrible eventual winners.  When Julian Barnes dismissed the prize (before he won it) as ‘posh bingo’, he did it too much honour.

“The committee system is simply not a good way of determining ultimate literary value.  If you rope together five individuals and they charge off eagerly in different directions, they are likely all to end up flat on their faces – as I know from my own experience.  Camels are animals designed by committee, and Booker shortlists are compromises.

“Lola Young emphasises that the judges have discovered ‘six unique and intrepid books that collectively push against the borders of convention’.  Perhaps that is all convention ever deserves, to be intrepidly but collectively pushed against?

“The shortlist is certainly great news for the debut novelists, Emily Fridlund. 38, and Fiona Mozley, 29.  Our reviewer called the latter’s novel, Ehmet, ‘a wonder to behold’ and hoped this David would conquer the Goliaths of the Booker.  However, of the novels that have survived this eccentric winnowing, the favourite to win, if it is determined on merit, must surely be Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, a writer who first came to prominence here through being awarded the Booker’s rival, the Folio Prize, for his short stories.  It’s and extraordinary invention: voices from limbo, counsel from the afterlife, heard as President Lincoln grieves his 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862.  ‘A dark imagination in service of a tender heart’, said our reviewer Johanna Thomas-Corr.  Properly unique.”

The shortlist for this years Man Booker Prize is:

  • Elmet, by Fiona Mozley
  • Autumn, by Ali Smith
  • 4321, by Paul Auster
  • History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund
  • East West, by Mohsin Hamid
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Publishing Industry Standard

Angela Bole, CEO of the Independent Book Publishing Association, has introduced an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book in the July issue of  IBPA Independent magazine.

Angela Bole

In the article, she says: “IBPA has been championing independent publishers, big and small, self and otherwise, since 1983.  That’s over 30 years of advocating for indie voices in the traditional publishing industry.  Over this time, we’ve seen a thing or two.

“Recent changes in the publishing industry have created enormous opportunities for self-published authors.  It’s now possible to produce a professional-quality book outside of the Big Five conglomerates.  Unfortunately, this opportunity has come at the cost of a deepening divide between how traditionally-published and self-published authors are treated.  Too often, IBPA has noticed a bias against self-published authors, independent publishers and hybrid presses when it comes to choosing titles or authors for review consideration, book award contests, association memberships, and inclusion of independent bookstore shelves.

“There is no reason for this bias.  While it is true that not all books are created equal, when they are, it’s important that the industry treats them as such.  That’s why the IBPA’s Advocacy Committee recently published an Industry Standard for a Professionally Published Book – a two-page document developed to support independent publishers and self-published authors, but also to urge an industry in flux to acknowledge that books ought to be judged on their substance ranter than their business model.  If used appropriately, the checklist gives both authors and book industry professionals an at-a-glance method by which to gauge the professional presentation of a book.  The goal is that the checklist becomes a future guide that reviewers, contests, membership associations and bookstores turn to when deciding which authors merit consideration.

“You can download the checklist at: ibpa-online.org/standardschecklist .

“During BookExpo last June, I had the privilege of discussing the checklist with other industry organisations.  I met with the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild, Publishers Weekly, Foreword Reviews and many more.  I’m glad to say that the reception was warm.  Those industry professionals paying attention know they’re missing quality books be using gatekeeping tactics attached to business models; they just haven’t figured out how to consider books without opening the floodgate to unprofessionally produced content, as well.  They seemed to appreciate that the checklist is a needed first step toward figuring this all out.

“Today’s independent publishers and self-published authors represent a diverse array of voices and backgrounds, often speaking about specialised issues that are marginalised by larger presses, often because their books are being judged on the business model and not on what matters, which is the content of the books.  Just as publishers, self, or otherwise, are responsible for producing books that adhere to industry standards, the book industry as a whole is responsible for creating an environment that allows for equal evaluation of all published works.”

Amen!

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, St Martin’s Press, 2016, comes to some unexpected conclusions.  The book was reviewed by Sandra Elliot in the June issue of The Florida Writer.

“Through an analysis of recent best sellers, Authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers claim to have identified the elements that move a novel to the top in sales.  They begin with an overview of what makes people read, including insights and quotes from Stephen King’s On Writing.  He says no one really knows what makes a story a hit, and advises would-be professionals to choose topics they know and blend in others like relationships, sex and work.  The Bestseller Code authors arouse reader interest by debunking King’s adages.  No sex in popular novels?  No, they say, and use their research findings to support their statements.

“. . . One of their first questions: themes that promote or limit a story’s commercial popularity.  Sex, drugs and rock and roll are among those tested and found wanting.  Few bestsellers are based on these themes.  What about Fifty Shades of Grey?  . . .  Not the sex, they say, but a living, breathing side of the narrative that readers feel it like the thrum of nightclub music.  The Da Vinci Code is the only other book to have such a powerful rhythm, they add.

“. . . (The book) identified John Grisham and Danielle Steel as authors who used themes of interest to many readers.  Grisham’s signature theme is ‘Lawyers and the Law’, Steel’s ‘Domestic Life’.

“Overall, bestselling authors allocate a third of their novels to one or two themes; less successful authors include more. . . . These findings are particularly relevant for debut writers who tend to write about too much.  An in-depth story is easier to follow than writing heavy with description and detail.  More women than men gain popularity with their debut novels.  Does a feminine writing style have payoff?  No, it’s not gender but an understanding of audience and language that pays, that, and the nurturing of skills through practice.

“Gender differences were noted.  Protagonists in recent female-oriented novels are internally complex and externally challenged, odd or different gals with power and motivation.  Characters in bestselling novels, male or female, are high-energy people who set out to achieve what they want to be.”

A three star review by EVS on Amazon.com says, in part: “I found myself simultaneously impressed with the depth of the research and disappointed with the triviality of the findings. Moreover, as much as the authors hope that their formula will open publishing industry to new writers overlooked otherwise, I have a feeling it will only serve to build more, higher walls, imprisoning writers in even tighter cells. Ironically, what would mediate the potential for abuse is making the formula available to the public in the form of a readily accessible test. It’s just the question of time until application of this or similar math becomes obligatory among agents and publishers. If the potential success or failure of an artist’s project is going to depend on a formula, the artist should have the right to face his accuser.”

I tend to share EVS concerns about agents and publishers using this, or a more ‘perfect’ algorithm in selecting works for publication and thereby building higher walls and imprisoning writers in even tighter cells.  But, I also guess that it will indeed be helpful in coaching overlooked authors to better hit the mark.  And I suspect that, in any case, there will always be a writer who finds a route to success that the algorithm overlooks.

In view of all this, I am motivated to get a copy of the book and report to you in more detail.

Review: The Rover

My blog of April 17, Review: Today, concerned a novel by David Miller on the death of Joseph Conrad.  Since I had never read any of Conrad’s work, I bought Selected Short Stories and The Rover, by Conrad.  As well as The Rover.  the book includes eleven of Conrad’s twenty-six short stories, selected and commented on by Dr Keith Carabine of the University of Kent.  In his introduction to the stories, Dr Carabine says that Conrad’s great distinction “lies in his ingenious and rigorous exploration of the undiscovered possibilities latent in one of the genre’s most familiar forms, namely the framed short story in which a first-person narrator (who is sometimes a member of the group) introduces, comments on and encloses another’s tale.”  As Dr Carabine says, the theme of most of the stories is man’s fate, and they are often “teasing and enigmatic”.  The framed construction of these stories introduces uncertainty in that the main narrator and the teller of the tale may have different interpretations of the events, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions.

Two other general points I would make about Conrad’s writing.  First, he does not take great pains to capture the interest and attention of the reader at the beginning of a story.  The beginning may be a page of detailed description of the opening scene, with little information about the character who is present, and a considerable, almost poetic word picture of the setting.  In fact, Conrad’s word pictures of scenes are remarkable in their shaping of the mood of the story: mysterious, uncertain, uncommon, unusual.  Moreover, Conrad is lavish in the extent of his descriptions throughout a piece.  Some of this may be attributable to his writing for commercial publication in up-market magazines, where his compensation would be based, at least partially, on the word count.  Each of these stories has at least one principal character who is confronted with some sort of existential challenge and has defects in his character which contribute to his downfall.  Nonetheless, the reader is drawn into his predicament, hoping all the while, that the right solution will be found.

The principal character in The Rover, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, is an ageing, sea-faring, privateer who has come ashore in the south of France to take his ease.  There is also a dim-witted and committed old revolutionary, a young woman who has been psychologically damaged be the horrors of the revolution, a royalist French naval officer, and an aspiring young British naval officer, each of whom seeks his/her own solutions in the world. Who will succeed?  The ingredients in the story include a plan to deceive the British fleet, as well as a search for love, and a re-ordering of the world between revolutionary-royalist lines, and a rough but beautiful Mediterranean sea coast backed up against a traditional rural society.

One comes to have sympathy for the dilemmas of each of the flawed but real characters, and one can sense the tensions between them, as well as having a sensation of being on the rough bucolic scene, or on board one of the ships.  The Rover is an engrossing tale.  The one aspect which I found annoying was the slow pace of the conclusion.  One cold feel it coming, but Conrad was in no hurry to jump into it.  There was much detailed scene setting and character back-story telling.  We were familiar with the scenes, and the character enhancements should – I think – have come earlier.  Nonetheless, The Rover is a satisfying and interesting tale.

The new ‘Parthenon of Books’

There is an article in Architectural Digest, posted on July 11 by Nick Mafi , the title  – 100,000 Banned Books Have Been Formed into a ‘Parthenon of Books –  of which caught my eye.

“In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis banned books that were written by authors who were of Jewish descent, or had pacifist or communist sympathies.  The list included such luminaries as Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London.  Now, some eight decades later, a monument is being constructed in honour of these censored books.

Argentine artist Marta Minujín has created a full-scale replica of one of the world’s most famous structures, the Parthenon in Athens, constructed entirely from censored books. The symbolism is striking, as the Parthenon is the very antithesis of political repression. Indeed, the artist went on to add in a statement that the original Parthenon is “the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy.”

The display is part of the Documenta 14 art festival in Kassel, Germany. Now in its 14th iteration, the Documenta was first established in 1955 an attempt to bring Germany up to speed with modern art, after the horrific years of Nazism. For the current exhibition, Minujín created the structure by sourcing 100,000 donated books from around the world. The novels were then secured to the steel structure with plastic sheeting, protecting them from the natural elements while allowing sunlight to filter through the building. The site of the exhibition is noteworthy as well, as the city of Kassel (located in central Germany) was where several thousand books were burned during the Nazi-led campaign to rid the country of books deemed un-German.

The temporary exhibition will run through September 17, 2017. When it ends, the books will be taken down and recirculated around the world.”

Pretty cool, don’t you think?

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

A friend of my wife’s gave me this book to read with assurances that I would certainly enjoy it.  One night, when I was about half way through the book, there was an interview of the author, Elizabeth Strout, by George Alagiah on the BBC World News channel.  The interview was recorded at the last Hay Festival.  I warmed to Ms Strout – in part – because two nights previously there was another interview from Hay of a poet, whose name I don’t recall, and whom I found unintelligible.  In her interview at the Hay festival,  Ms Strout said that her writing is shaped by the ordinary people she knew in Maine.

Elizabeth Strout was born in 1956 in Portland, Maine,  She attended Bates College and the University of Syracuse.  She waitressed before writing her first novel, Amy and Isabelle (1998). Her debut was met with widespread critical acclaim, became a national bestseller, and was adapted into a movie.  She has since written five novels, My Name is Lucy Barton  being her fifth.  Her third book, Oliver Kitteridge, was published in 2008. The book features a collection of connected short stories about a woman and her immediate family and friends on the coast of Maine.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.   Louisa Thomas of the New York Times said: “The pleasure in reading Olive Kitteridge comes from an intense identification with complicated, not always admirable, characters. And there are moments in which slipping into a character’s viewpoint seems to involve the revelation of an emotion more powerful and interesting than simple fellow feeling—a complex, sometimes dark, sometimes life-sustaining dependency on others. There’s nothing mawkish or cheap here. There’s simply the honest recognition that we need to try to understand people, even if we can’t stand them.”

Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton is centered on the unexpected interaction between Lucy Barton, who is in hospital suffering from complications following surgery, and her estranged mother, who has flown east to be with her.  Throughout the book, Lucy has recollections about her childhood in rural Illinois with an impoverished family: distant father and mother, a sister and brother.  Lucy, herself, has gained an education, a marriage, two small daughters, and a career as a writer in New York City, thus estranging herself from her family.  The dialogue between the two women is both limited in the sense that there are unspoken words, and informative in revealing something of their respective characters.  Ms Strout strikes this balance in her writing very well.  She also uses the descriptive recollections of people of the past to elucidate some of the values of the principal characters.  She uses unique voices which shed light on the characters, and her writing style flows simply.  Characterisation is clearly Ms Strout’s strength.

My Name is Lucy Barton is, at 188 pages, short enough to be considered a novella, rather than a novel.  For me, while the writing flows beautifully and the characters are very much alive and their circumstances unique, what was missing was how and why the current circumstances arose.  Why, for example, did Lucy’s father lock her in his pickup for hours – on one occasion with a large brown snake?  We are told that is was a frequent occurrence, but we don’t know why, and knowing why and how it came about would shed further light on the characters.  All of the characters are certainly interesting, but I feel like a hungry diner who was served only an appetizer.

“Writers Are Wrong to Make Historical Women Strong”

This is the title of an article by Hannah Furness, arts correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, on 1 June 2017.  The quotation is from Dame Hillary Mantel speaking in the second of her five Reith Lectures at the Middle Temple in London.

Hilary Mantel

The article said: “Women writers must stop rewriting history to make their female characters falsely ’empowered’, Dame Hilary Mantel has said.  Dame Hilary, the Man Booker Prize winning novelist, said writing about women in history has ‘persistent difficulties’ for her contemporaries who ‘can’t resist’ retrospectively making them strong and independent.  Anyone ‘squeamish’ about the difference in male and female roles in certain historic periods should, she suggested, try a different job.  Dame Hilary, author of Wolf Hall, singled out her own gender for criticism, questioning whether writers should ‘rework history so victims are the winners’.  She said, ‘Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale.  They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced.  Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record.  But we must be careful when we speak for others.  If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?  This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.  Which is false.  If you are squeamish – if you are affronted by difference – then you should try some other trade.  She added, ‘A good novelist will have her characters operate within the framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.’

“Dame Hilary did not single out any particular author, but Philippa Gregory, who has written best sellers including The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen, has been praised for her strong characters.  Gregory has previously said: ‘The more research I do, the more I think there is an untold history of women.'”

The article goes on: “A ‘feminist ideology’ could have the unintended consequence of making endings too predictable because the woman would always come out on top, warns Gerard Lee, who co-wrote Top of the Lake (a BBC2 crime serial).  Fellow writer and Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion called his view ‘complete rubbish’.  She said film could change for the better overnight if 50% pf all public funding went to female filmmakers.”

My view is that Dame Hilary has a point: women in Tudor England had very little power or voice over their own affairs.  I haven’t read Philippa Gregory’s novels yet, but I think that giving a real female character, in a historical novel, more voice and power than she actually had is simply misleading.

As to the Lee-Campion disagreement, it’s not clear to me that strong female characters make an ending too predictable, but maybe Mr Lee means something more that strong female characters when he speaks of ‘feminist ideology’.  Ms Campion’s remark strikes me as self-serving, and I would ask her ‘in what way would films be so much better if they were made by females?’  She might be right, but what is the evidence?