Declan Hughes

Thursday 22 January 2009

Edgars, Believers, Bono and Bruce...

It's not exactly breaking news any more, seeing as the announcement was made two weeks ago, but since it is the sort of thing you're at the very least supposed to mention on a blog, even a blog that has been unattended for so long it has been the subject of more than one social workers' case conference, I should mark here that THE PRICE OF BLOOD, the third Ed Loy novel (Irish/UK title THE DYING BREED) has been nominated for an Edgar in the best novel category. Surprised and delighted pretty much covers how I felt when I heard. And honoured. And I can't think of anything else to say about it that doesn't make me sound alternately like (a) I think awards are all a load of nonsense and I don't care whether I win or not, and (b) I am now deliriously full of myself and desperate to WIN at all costs. I am certainly going to go over for the ceremony; I was in town two years ago during Edgar week (my first Black Orchid pre-Edgars party was their last, sadly) and it's a very buzzy time. And in any case, it's a big night out in New York City: what's not to look forward to?

In other news, the fourth Ed Loy novel, ALL THE DEAD VOICES, is set for publication in the UK and Ireland in April and in the US in July. So far, the reaction of early readers has been positive, and a few Very Good Writers have said some Very Nice Things. But I'll maybe get to those at a later date; this post has already been far too boasty for comfort.

The other night I finished Shakespeare Wrote for Money, the third collection of Nick Hornby's marvelous Believer magazine columns about books bought and books read (the other two are called The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, and if you haven't read them, you need to). They include some of the best writing about books I've ever read - you could call it criticism, but it isn't quite, or at least, and in keeping with what you might call the ethos of the Believer, there's little that is critical in a negative way, although you do get a very strong feel for the things Hornby likes and dislikes. There's probably a clue to those preferences in the title - the fact that the writer we commonly revere as the greatest ever had to make a living, and to keep a theatre company in business, and this meant he had to pay attention to what his audience wanted (if not exactly handing it to them on a plate). Although Hornby doesn't spell it out, I assume he's making a point about what he considers the appropriate equilibrium between writer and reader - in short, that even the greatest writers of all take account of their readers, and that if they don't, they run the risk of ending up with, as Mark Steyn said somewhere of Michael Ondatjee, books that are so well-written they're impossible to read. (There's a lot I don't agree with Mark Steyn about - his political opinions, essentially - but he's a brilliant critic.) Anyway, this struck a chord with me because I had rehearsed such an argument on a panel at Bouchercon in Baltimore when the age-old debate between genre and literary fiction surfaced yet again, and made the observation that the theatre could serve as a good model to gauge whether literary fiction, in its worship of the Sentence Beautiful above all else, was drifting too far away from its readership. In the theatre, after all, you can write line after beautiful line, but if they're not dramatic, the audience will fall asleep/leave at the interval/tell their friends not to bother/find you in the theatre bar and slap you. The great post-war revolution in the British theatre - Look Back in Anger, the Angry Young Men and all that - was as much stylistic and aesthetic as anything else. In the late forties and early fifties, the great hope of the serious stage was a revival of poetic drama - Christopher Fry and TS Eliot were touted as the successors to the great Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. But their plays, although beautifully written, lacked the kind of dramatic heft needed to compel an audience's attention. Moreover, they mistook high solemnity and earnestness for seriousness. Wit, low humour, melodrama, shameless crowd-pleasing, showing-off, sex, violence, spectacle - when your art has become too serious for all, or at least some, of that, you're officially Too Serious: what A Doctor would call "dull."

Anyway, lest I give the impression that Nick Hornby spends all his time taking potshots at literary fiction, I should note that the title of the second volume, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, refers to Marilynne Robinson's novel, Housekeeping, which he loves (as he does Gilead) and to the Motley Crue autobiography, which leaves him, like the rest of us, gaping in a kind of appalled wonder. The full gamut, if you will.

One passage is worth offering to all those who write, or who want to. Discussing a book by Graham McCann about English comedy writing in the fifties called Spike & Co., Hornby suggests that the chapter on Spike Milligan provides an invaluable writing tip, and quotes as follows: "Once he had started work on a script he disliked ever having to stop; he wrote as he thought, and if he came to a place where the right line failed to emerge, he would just jab a finger at one of the keys, type 'FUCK IT' or 'BOLLOCKS,' and then carry on regardless. The first draft would feature plenty of such expletives, but then, with each successive version, the expletives grew fewer and fewer, until by about the tenth draft, he had a complete, expletive-free script." Hornby comments: "I have found this more helpful than I am prepared to talk about in any great depth, possibly because I can build my own inadequacies right into the page, rather than let them hover around the edges." To which I can only ditto, likewise, what he said.

In other news, I have been mostly listening to a lot of U2 records, limbering up, I guess, for the new album; it seems to me that the last two records are the best they have made, and that Bono is getting better and better as a singer and a lyricist, so my hopes are very high. I've also been listening to Working on a Dream, which is a very strange record indeed. Outlaw Pete sounds like Meatloaf meets ELO, while Surprise, Surprise suggests, not the Byrds as some have said, but  the Hollies; Kingdom of Days, with string accompaniment, made me think of Roy Orbison-flavoured elevator music. Is this good or bad? I don't know. I'm reserving the right to defer my opinion. Posts on both these topics to come, and more.