Tag Archives: reading

What stories should we tell?

A good writer can tell any story they like. However, one of the hallmarks of the crappy author is the inability to spot the stories they aren’t qualified to tell. All the male authors who write their women boobing boobily down the stairs being an obvious case in point. This is how we get the dominance of stories in which the only gay people are having unhappy coming out experiences and dealing with abuse. It’s how we get miracle cure disabled stories, and all kinds of fantasy disability. It gives us bad takes on history, and the thoughtless repetition of racial stereotypes.

Whenever you set out to tell a story, it’s worth asking why you want to tell this particular story in the first place. Also ask what qualifies you to tell it. If the answers involve current writing fashions, or some superficial awareness of the subject that should make it obvious that you are not, at this stage, qualified to tell the story. Good writing involves research, and if you don’t have a rich body of experience to draw on, you can tackle that by dedicating time to finding stuff out.

This is also an issue we can consider as readers. Whose stories do we buy and consume? The creative industries tend to favour white middle class men. Often the depictions we see and read of anyone outside that narrow category, are created from the outside. That increases the risk of prejudice and assumption, or of treating the characters as exotic and other. I don’t want to read stories written by men in which the inside of female heads are dominated by an obsession with their own breasts. I don’t want to read weird middle class fantasies about what poverty might actually be like. 

A weak author tends to assume that everyone is basically like them. Thus they don’t do any work exploring the differences between people. They don’t actually imagine other ways of being in the world, or how experiences different from their own might shape a person, but project bits of themselves and their assumptions into a variety of bodies. This is how we get disabled characters who are only tragic or heroic and women who have emotional melt-downs over broken nails. 

Often, when people are allowed to tell their own stories, what emerges is strikingly different. Queer authors don’t tend to write stories about how hard it is being queer. What you get instead are characters who are queer, who have queer friends and queer relationships and a main story that is about them doing some stuff. Also, happy endings, because people usually want to see people like them wining and that’s sadly lacking when stories are written about ‘the other’. People from the global majority don’t tell stories centered around how hard it is not being white – why would they? 

A good author isn’t simply someone who could tell any story, but is someone who will know what stories they can tell to best effect. A good author writes what they know – and will undertake to make sure they know before they start writing. As a reader, you deserve the work of people who know what they’re talking about, not the misleading fantasies of the empathy-impared.

“Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.”

And you might want to read this much more details and far better referenced article on the limits of how we imagine each other – http://lcfi.ac.uk/news/2018/sep/7/can-we-understand-other-minds-novels-and-stories-s/


Revenge Fiction

This year I was picked for the third time as a finalist in the Stroud Short Stories competition. As we’re in lockdown, it was entirely done online, so there is a video of me reading my story. It would be fair to say that the camera angle and lighting conspire to be less than flattering, but my voice is good, so I recommend just listening.

All the key details in this story happened, or came out of conversations with various men. Most of those conversations were personal, one was an interview with an actor. It may all seem a bit far fetched, but sadly it isn’t. The scenario is fictional, and so is the female character. I wish I was better in person at taking down this kind of thing, but I’m not. In some of these situations, I panicked, or went quiet, or didn’t know what to do.  I lived with the man who told me frequently how much he suffered for being so much cleverer than everyone else and who told me he felt lonely as a consequence.  It’s only in the last year that I’ve really questioned whether that was a fair thing to have been told…


Reading nature

The idea of reading nature for signs is problematic in many ways. It can be a way of adding to the sense of separation of us, from nature, where nature is seen as one homogenous thing. ‘Nature’ as a word is a shorthand for many complex existences and interactions and we should be wary of reducing it to symbols and then reading it for insight into our personal lives. It’s not all about us.

However, there are ways in which we can meaningfully read the world around us. This takes a lot more work over the long term and is not as human-centric.

We can read the health of a place. Top level predators are a good indicator of the overall health of a system. Diversity is a good indicator as well. If a place lacks for diversity and there are no predators, help is required. We can also read the health of a place in terms of litter and obvious human damage. Again this should be read as a call for help.

We can read the seasons. There are natural shifts in how the seasons manifest from year to year, so just keeping up with that is an act of engagement. With climate change impacting on everything, it is a good idea to read those shifts for information about what’s working and what isn’t.

You can read for your own impact. Are there insects in your garden? If you don’t have a garden, what can you do to support insect populations? I managed to establish a pot garden, and it attracts and feeds bees, so I can watch it for a while and read it in this way, and think about how to develop it. You can read the birds who come to your garden for what they tell you about the wildlife you are supporting. If you have regular insect eaters, you are doing well for insects.

There are times when an understanding of wild things will mean you can read what’s coming. The way creatures get off a beach when there’s a tsunami on the way is a good case in point. Understanding how the living things around you respond to stuff you can’t detect can be a lifesaver in some contexts.

It is better to read nature for the things nature might be able to tell us about its many selves, than to read the wild world for what it can tell us about our own immediate concerns. And if you’re looking for contact with the numinous, for spiritual guidance, and for guides this is still the better place to start. The knowledge you build by reading this way will make you better able to see something out of the ordinary that may be more to do with spirit and less other living things getting on with their lives. Learning to read what’s around you for its own sake is a gesture of respect, which is a good opening move in a spiritual endeavour.

If there is one message that humans need to hear from nature right now, it is that we are not the only things that matter, it is not all about us, and we have to stop acting like it is.


Reading for pleasure

As someone who works with books, and reviews books, I can end up doing a lot of reading in a workish sort of way. I’m also in the habit of reading as research and sometimes as market research. It’s hard for me to read a book and not analyse it, not think about what makes it work and why, not contemplate the marketing side. This is unfortunate because in many ways I got into writing because I loved reading.

I don’t think it’s a book specific issue. If you are motivated to work with that which you love most, then that which you love most becomes work and your relationship with it changes. A person can easily lose their way when the things that initially motivated them are no longer in the mix.

I think it’s important to take stock regularly, to check in and see what’s happening in life, what’s working and what isn’t. For me this often means reminding myself to make the time to read things for the sheer pleasure of it and for no other purpose. Which is why this post is not a review of Gail Carriger’s Soulless. Which was funny, knowing and delightful to read and just the kind of brain candy I needed in the mix. It’s why I didn’t review Jeannete Winterson’s The Gap of Time or Dr Geof’s The Utterly Un-Relaxing Colouring Book of Cats with their Tanks. They were also fab.

If everything becomes public facing, if every new experience has to become a blog post or a social media update, that doesn’t work for me. Having there be things that are mine and mine alone is really important so that I do not lose myself in what I am doing, and do not lose my relationship with what I am doing.


Stroud Short Stories, revisited

Stroud Short Stories runs twice a year, picking ten stories to be read at an evening event. Participation is usually limited to Gloucestershire. In the winter of 2014, I was picked to read. In the spring of 2015 I edited an anthology of all previously selected stories. Last autumn I was invited to help with the judging, and I’ve been asked to do that again this spring.

Judging literature is a very subjective process. A small percentage of the submissions don’t work – they don’t make sense in some way, are too unoriginal, or express prejudices that aren’t acceptable. Those are the easy ones to weed out, although I have to admit it’s possible that amongst them are high art, super clever serious literature that I’m not smart enough to get. The flip side of this is that I know the audience who come to hear the stories, and they tend to be more like me, and are not cutting edge literary academics either.

The quest for the best ten is not an easy one. It helps that there’s the ‘reading out’ aspect, because this rules out a percentage of the stories. We judge without knowing the author, so I’m less likely to pick a story that depends on fantastic, theatrical delivery. Most authors are shy, wary of the microphone and many come to the events not having read much (or ever) in public before. The story has to work regardless of delivery. I’ve learned to be wary of vast stretches of dialogue, because not every author can produce two or more clear voices on a stage.

As a reader, first and foremost I want to be surprised. This is true of anything I get my nose into. I want not to know where it was going. I want to encounter thoughts that would never have crossed my mind. I am susceptible to beautiful language, but it has to be in service to the story, and I do not like things that sound clever and poetic but lack for meaning.

In the autumn we were picking to a theme, and having the Eerie Evening (see poster!) to work with, was a useful focus for selection. There’s no theme this spring, and I have no idea how that’s going to go. The competition is now open for submissions, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll be reading, and pondering perhaps something in the region of a hundred short stories, looking for the ten. I hope I can do the process justice.

It helps greatly that I’m not doing this alone. John Holland also judges, and he’s done far more of this than I have. While there’s a fair overlap in our tastes, we think in different ways, and in finding stories that we both think work, we’ve got a good shot (I think) at getting the best ten, at least on paper. How they’ll translate on the night is an unknown quantity. Some stories come alive in whole new ways when read aloud, others don’t have the punch you expected. Nothing is certain, and that’s part of the allure.

If you’re in Gloucestershire and want to give it a go (but don’t tell me!) the details are here – http://www.stroudshortstories.blogspot.co.uk/


New Year, New Books

I’ve had a week off, and in that time, I’ve been reading. I thought I’d set the tone for 2016 by kicking off with reviews of the books I’ve read over the last week.

The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch. A book exploring myths, legends and folk practice from Germanic and Scandinavian countries, interspersed with ways to do some of the things described. Charming, accessible and very readable, it’s not an academic text but the author seems well read. While I’m no expert on Christmas traditions, where there were overlaps with things I know about, I saw nothing to take issue with. I very much enjoyed the author’s willingness to explore all the gruesome and creepy aspects of the season. If only regular Christmas had more trolls in it, I’d probably find the whole thing far more palatable!

https://www.llewellyn.com/product.php?ean=9780738733340

 

 

The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman. A prequel to the Sandman series, I imagine it would make little sense to a reader who hadn’t already read the other titles. It’s beautifully put together, the art really shows what can be done with a graphic novel when the artist, letterer and colourist have time to lavish care and attention on every page rather than what the usual factory approach delivers. In terms of story, it is odd, clever, sometimes funny, poignant, uncomfortable – in short all I have come to expect from Neil Gaiman. If you like what he does, you will like this one too.

http://www.vertigocomics.com/graphic-novels/the-sandman-overture-deluxe-edition

 

 

The Voice that Thunders – Alan Garner. A collection of essays exploring the process of writing, the writing industry, landscape, history, family, the relationship between books and classrooms, mental health issues, language, dialect… all laced through with stories of people and places. A fascinating read and exactly what I needed at this point in time. If you’re fascinated with Alan Garner and his work, of if any of the above themes are obsessions of yours, then I heartily recommend it.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1602869.The_Voice_That_Thunders


Too many writers?

As you’re reading this, please start off with a moment of well earned smugness, because you are reading, and reading is a much needed thing just now.

Here on the internet, everyone is writing (there is no escaping a certain amount of awkward irony in this post.) On twitter there are a lot of authors all shouting at once about their blogs and books. Who is reading them? My guess is that for the vast majority, the answer is, almost no-one. We all want to be heard, but no one who is busy shouting wants to listen.

I talked to an aspiring author the other day who said he didn’t want to read other authors for fear of being influenced. As though a book should be something you write in total isolation with no reference to anyone else. As though being influenced is a bad thing. How are we to learn, if not from each other? How are we to understand writing, if not by reading?

Some of it is about speed, about putting out words at ever greater tempo in the hopes that acceleration will somehow magically lead to something. Churning frantically in the hopes of hitting on a magic formula. The author as word machine, pumping them out at breakneck speed. All too often what follows is writing devoid of ideas, lacking depth, or interest. All those ‘ten ways to be an even better blogger’ posts that I don’t click through and read because they’re so tedious.

I’m going to be giving more of this blog to talking about reading. The book market is tough, and there are many fabulous and deserving books that get overlooked because no one even knows they are there. I’m going to put more energy into promoting other people’s books. If you aren’t a regular reviewer and find a book you really want to rave about, and don’t have a platform to use for that, this is an open invitation. I take guest blogs. Drop me a line.

I’m going to rebalance my life a bit, so that I spend more of my time being a reader, and less of it being a writer. Partly this is for my own enjoyment – I’m happy when I’m reading. Partly it’s to slow down. I want to stop and properly engage with things. Partly because there’s this frantic competition for attention going on out there, and I want a different relationship with it.


How books can save the world

  • Reading is a low carbon activity, especially if you read the same book more than once or share it.
  • While theatre, film and other creative forms can offer some of the same benefits, it’s the effect of being involved with the world of a book over days, maybe weeks of reading that has the power to really impact on us. The act of getting involved with a story over time means a book can become part of our lives in an ongoing way, and in the easy business of having a long term relationship with a book, we become more able to engage with that which is not us.
  • Fiction teaches us to see the world through other people’s eyes. We imagine ourselves as other people, and so learn to empathise, which in turn should help us be more co-operative in real life. It is co-operation, not competition that we need right now.
  • Sitting quietly with a book is soothing to body and mind. It slows us down, takes us out of the fast lane of consumption. The more people leave the fast lane, the more sustainable everything becomes.
  • Stories get us interested in ideas, encouraging us to think and question. They teach us not to take everyone’s words and motives at face value. These are skills we all need to deal with information from politicians and the media, who seem intent on pushing us towards ecocide, but good at telling us they aren’t doing that.
  • Fiction shows us people overcoming challenges, hardships, and if you read fantasy, significant forces of evil. We can find courage to face our own challenges from the inspiration of fiction, we can believe that one person may change everything, and so we are more able to become that person.
  • In most stories, selfish, greedy, power hungry people are the bad guys. This gives us a valuable perspective on the real world and the people in power.
  • Books have the capacity to be far more than entertainment, however the chance to escape into other lives and worlds offers us emotional respite which in turn makes it easier to deal with this world and not be ground down by it. Avoiding people being ground down by misery and despair is an essential aspect of fixing things.
  • Books offer us other ways of being and living, from the idealistic to the horrific. This helps us recognise that the world as it is, is not inevitable, just one option amongst many. We could choose differently.
  • Books expose us to beauty, love, heroic friendship, happy endings (at least sometimes) adventure, and they stimulate the imagination. The more of this we have inside of us, the more able we are to recognise it, seek it and make it happen. People who are full of banal thoughts, mean ideas and the like aren’t likely to imagine a better way of living.

Moon Books Family

Authoring can be a very lonely business. For me, it’s the part of the experience I have most trouble with. I prefer to work with people around – if I can get the right people who are companionable without being too demanding. Being married to an artist works well for me in this regard. I’m also very dependent on wider creative networks and contact with other creative people. It helps me keep my frustrations and victories in perspective, and means there are people around who know perfectly well how it goes. How hard it is to make any kind of living from your work being the major issue there. People who don’t do it tend to assume that writing, art etc are easy ways to make a lot of cash. Often they are hard ways to barely break even.

To be any kind of viable, a person has to get out there and actively sell their work. This is a nightmare for me. For one, by the time a book comes out, I’m working on something else, I’ve half forgotten or come to dislike the older one. I feel uncomfortable drawing attention to what I’ve done – I was raised to understand that being attention seeking was a major social failing, so leaping about going ‘I made this book and it’s great and you should all buy it’ does not come easily, if at all.

In a creative family, this is much less of an issue. I can happily tell you about artists I love, books I enjoyed, films I was blown away by, and so forth. That’s not just easy, that’s a joy. Over at Moon Books, it’s brought some really interesting things into my life. Moon Books publishes a lot of Pagan titles (mine included). Having got to know many of the authors, I can say many of them are just not the people to go blowing their own trumpets. A couple are more cheerfully out there, but as is often the case with authors, there are a lot of shy introverts for whom it is a world of pain to have to try and draw attention to their own work. So let me take a moment and point you that way. There’s lots of good stuff.

Over recent years, we’ve formed a collective habit of reading each other’s work. This is great in so many ways. It means less isolation. Engaging with other people’s ideas and world views stops a person from disappearing up their own bottom in a puff of self importance (always a risk for authors). The sharing of knowledge is good. Seeing what others are working on, and how they handle issues, is good. Spiritual experience is a tough thing to write about – so personal and ephemeral in nature – swapping notes about how to express it helps us build a viable common language.

Thanks to Moon Books, I’ve read a great deal that isn’t Druidry in the last few years. I’ve read perspectives that make no emotional sense to me. I’ve read about paths I wouldn’t follow and I’ve seen teaching approaches I wouldn’t use. I’ve also seen a lot that has influenced me and given me things to explore and play with. I am a fuller, richer, more open minded person as a consequence. I have learned that I do not need to agree with a person’s worldview to respect it and to be enriched by encountering it. I’ve become very relaxed about reading things that are not my path at all, and have found that a book can do a lot for me without being at all about what I do or who I am. It’s so easy to go into other people’s books seeking mirrors of ourselves, and I’ve certainly done that in the past. This way is more interesting.

Reading is a much more rewarding experience when you don’t need to like or agree in order to find value. There are, I have learned, no books that were written just to help me on my path. No books that are perfectly and wholly what I need. No book will tell me how to make my journey. That helps me appreciate that no book I write will be fully those things for anyone else, either.


Reading poetry

Reading is a skill that goes far beyond assembling symbols into sounds and letter clusters into words. Being able to infer and read between the lines, and also knowing when to take the words at face value. Placing historical context from language, assessing characters from speech – I think we learn how to be better humans by learning how to be better readers. But then, I’m an author so I’m probably biased.

In the last few months I’ve been trying to become a reader of poetry. That’s brought up a number of challenges. I’ve got plenty of great poetry – that bit was easy. How to approach a book of poetry? If I sit down and read page after page, as I might with fiction, or non-fiction, it doesn’t quite work. I need to pause more often, at the very least. There’s usually no continuity between poems, so there’s no momentum to move one to the next, none of the ‘page turning’ effect so popular in genre fiction. A lot of poems I end up reading two or three times – something I seldom do with sections of prose writing. Sometimes, having read them silently, I feel the need to read them out loud.

I find it isn’t possible to consume poetry in the same way that I would other writing. It requires me to slow down, to think, to sip rather than gulping. I have to think differently as well. There is no scope to lose myself in a plot or an alternative reality for any length of time. I don’t read much epic poetry, and I find shorter work draws me back to the moment and requires me to think a bit more about how what I’ve read relates to everything else.

We expect fiction to make narrative sense and provide us with recognisable characters who are doing things. Non-fiction is equally required to offer coherence and also clear meanings. Poetry is not obliged to do any of this. There may be meanings to discover, obfuscated by layers of symbolism, and metaphor. Sometimes those aren’t apparent. Sometimes it is the experience of the sounds and words that seems to matter most, the emotional impact of the moment, not an intellectual unravelling of clues. In this way, poetry is a lot more like life than other forms of writing. Life seldom announces its meanings or intended direction.

How to do it? How to set aside the right amount of time to read a poem or two well, and not fall into the trap of trying to read a poetry book like any other kind of book. How to make that part of life? How to engage with these words without trying to gobble them up? How to slow down enough. A life with poetry in it is clearly very different from a life without poetry, and learning to be a reader may be going to take me a while.