Sunday, 13 May 2007

Who’s listening?

My daughter had to choose a poem to critique for a school assignment and came to me, admitting that she didn’t know any poems.
I am astounded. Poetry, especially by the 19th century romantic boys, is one of my fortes and best loves, yet how could I have left my children so bereft of this important knowledge? I have forsaken them. What a bad mother. It appears that, owing to time constraints and a full-time job, I have forgotten to teach my children the power and passion of the written word. Whether in verse or prose, words have the ability to convey another dimension of human existence. Words can be described as dirty, magic or buzz. They can be meaningful, operative, spread or breathed. A man is his word, take my word for it, and, for want of a better word, a word can be taken out of the mouth.
This is where it all goes wrong for the word, for meaning and intention can be lost to time and subjectivity of the reader. As a writer of a full-blown epic fantasy, I often get carried away with words: moods, time of day or even hormones have a powerful role to play in how and what I write. A certain scene or reaction of a character, for instance, may spark a profound philosophical aside, just because I happen to be feeling particularly idealistic that day. There is little sense in delving into the rationale of why I wrote it: suffice it to say that I just did. Sometimes a writer says something just because he does; often things are left deliberately vague to fuel the imagination. Occasionally rhyme and reason depart to leave behind the nonsensical — take the freckled and frivolous cake or a Jabberwock with eyes of flame and try to understand the rationale behind them. No doubt, some ambitious critic would say that the authors were having an existential moment; that their nonsense was charged with meaningful philosophy. I say who cares? Writers have their own reasons and there is no amount of expert, didactic deliberation or narratology that can exhume true intentions — no matter what erudite formula is applied.
And so I come to my daughter’s poem. Having pondered long and hard over a number of verses, she eventually chose The Listeners by Walter de la Mare. Not having studied it for at least 30 years, I was surprised that I could quote it line by line, word for word. I could talk about metre, rhythm and rhyme. I could remember what the words “alliteration” and “onomatopoeia” meant. What I could not digest was the Wikipedia’s alleged understanding of the plot. It says: “The story of a mysterious man coming to a house in the night on horseback, and subsequently failing, to deliver a message and fulfil a promise.” Excuse me … The person who wrote the entry could not have read the poem properly. “He felt in his heart their strangeness, their stillness answering his cry”. Message received. Over and out! Plunging hooves, thundering into the distance … why else would this lonely traveller leave? Which one of us is right? Would the author really give a damn?
Personal interpretation can make or break a writer and so-called expert critics often do both. Perhaps the best way to get your message across to the reader is to make certain your words are clear; that meaning and intention are unambiguous; and leave nothing to the imagination. Where, however, is the creativity in that? Imaginative literature is the very essence of fiction. In turn, fiction is written with intent to affect perception. Successful writing is therefore dependant on its listeners, who's listening and whether or not they really hear you.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The F word

Before anyone writes in to complain or express disagreement or outrage, the following blog is solely the opinion of the blogger and any similarities to fact are purely coincidental.
There are loads of words beginning with the letter F that, when blurted, can cause serious offence depending on the temperament of the recipient. In the world of publishing, there is a certain F word that prompts violent reactions from all mainstream editors and literary agents when spoken out loud during a telephone query or appearing in a covering letter. From the odd raised eyebrow, to the derisory sniff; from the stifled titter, to a broken nose by a slamming door, there is no other word more anathema to a publisher than the one beginning with “F” and ending in “antasy”.
“Fantasy” — there, I have said it, and the furious bolt of lightning has seemingly missed me. It appears that, despite a big presence in the movies and many established authors still selling well, few readers are enamoured with the new stuff. In fact, according to one literary agent, Sci-Fi (a genre that was considered passé about 10 years ago) is in and new fantasy is struggling to survive in the book world. Apparently, the British readers are gorging themselves on a three-course menu of thrillers, crime and diet books — enough to give anyone a serious dose of indigestion. I jest, of course, I really need to go on a diet. Add to this the difficulties, frustrations and humiliation an unsolicited author (especially one that has no dubious celebrity status) faces in breaking into the publishing world, and you have a recipe for probable disappointment.
So, what is wrong with new fantasy fiction? First, I think, perhaps, that there are too many people doing it. Whether they are writing it badly or not, most precious fantasy submissions — and they are legion —end up at the bottom of the dreaded slush pile, many without even being read. Secondly, fantasy readers are Orced-out. Elves, dwarves, dragons and ethereal faery creatures of shadow and light have all been done to death and are simply becoming variations on a jaded theme. Thirdly, there are relatively few literary agents and publishing houses that actually deal in fantasy — most expressly forbid it. Fourthly, those literary agents that do work with fantasy generally stick to the same formula that has brought them success in the past (go back to point 2).
A bleak picture indeed, but that optimistic streak I find cowering in a corner inside me (the one behind the disheartened murmur) tells me that, like every dog, a good book will eventually have its day. I just hope that it will not be a posthumous one.