Wednesday, 27 January 2010

I Don't Hate You, It's Just That I'm Writing A Novel

This post first appeared on my Red Room profile

Writers notoriously have a reputation for eccentricity and bizarre, anti-social behaviour. The late Harold Pinter was notoriously bad-tempered, and how many of us, whose hours are spent in quiet darkened rooms inventing imaginary people, imaginary places, can honestly say we feel completely comfortable when required to socialise with actual people? When I'm dragged out, against my will, of a weekend, I may stand at the party with a drink in my hand, but inside I'm glowering. All I can think is, "You bastards, you took me away from my project." Don't get me wrong, I love it when people desire my company, and I'd hate for my friends to stop inviting me to things. [Please, don't stop inviting me to things]. It's just that my mind is often on the Project: how soon can I decently make my getaway, and get back behind the laptop?

For those of us whose writing does not currently pay, weekends are inevitably the finest opportunity we get for hours of quiet, uninterrupted work. During the week, it's a couple of hours a night at best. At best, and often not that. For there are Crap Tasks to be done, and it is wrong to neglect the other half in favour of a bunch of imaginary people.

So in view of that, I would like to publicly apologise for my behaviour, and explain myself to everybody. I've been acting a bit weird lately, and I think it's only fair that I explain myself, and apologise to everybody affected. I don't doubt that there a lot of people in my life wondering what the hell is going on. Why I've developed all these strange tics, why I barely speak, and why I never go out any more. Wonder no more, friends, for I do not hate you: it's just that I'm writing a novel.

Housemate: I am sorry I disappear upstairs with the laptop every time you want to watch TV in the living room. It's not that I can't bear your company, or that I despair of your choice of TV programme. It's just that I'm writing a novel.

Friend: I am sorry that I didn't come to your gig last night. I know there were bands playing that I won't get chance to watch again in a hurry, and I know it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I'm sorry that we haven't had chance to talk in months. It's not that I hate you, it's just that I'm writing a novel.

Long-suffering boyfriend: I'm sorry that I get all twitchy when I go for too many days without writing, and that I act a bit weird when we spent the evening on the sofa together watching TV. I'm sorry that I've annexed your computer for my own use. I'm sorry for refusing to talk back to you when I'm working. I'm sorry that sometimes I go a bit quiet when I'm in the supermarket sometimes. I'm sorry that sometimes, I go into these long protracted silences when my eyes glaze over, and I appear to be in another world. It's not that I hate you.... it's just that I'm writing a novel.

Saturday, 23 January 2010


New Julian Barnes short story, "Sleeping with John Updike", on The Guardian website.


Huddersfield Literature Festival

Fact fans, the Huddersfield Literature Festival is 5 days long and starts on the 10th March. You're going to want to go to this because it features Simon Armitage, flat of vowel and tasty of words, Jeremy Dyson of The League Of Gentlemen fame, and many others. It is also fully endorsed by Patrick Stewart off Star Trek, who is honorary patron of Huddersfield University. The festival features, among other things, "poetry karaoke" and a "Manga masterclass". I do not know what either of these things are. I'll tell you one thing for sure, though: those bods at Huddersfield University sure know how to run a world-beating festival. Last time I went to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, I heard so much fascinating new music, I almost went home and threw my entire CD collection away, so tarnished did it appear by comparison. True story.

The Grist Anthology, the result of last year's short story competition, will be launched at the festival. Winners of the currently-running short story & poetry competition on the website could also be included in this book! The closing date is February 12th, and you need to be succinct (upper word limit, prose, 1000 words; poetry, 10 lines). So be quick and be sharp, and good luck to everyone who enters.

Currently reading

White Teeth Zadie Smith
Broken Glass Alain Mabanckou
The Kid Dan Savage
Boy Roald Dahl
After The Fireworks Aldous Huxley
Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Let's start a revolution!

, originally uploaded by lakash.

So yesterday, I was complaining about the lack of breadth in beauty ideals, and how images of women in the popular media conform to a ridiculously narrow ideal. And then today, I was "browsing" the internet, and I found this flickr group, Revolution of Real Women! How do you like that?

Friday, 15 January 2010

Why are you hitting yourself?

A couple o' months ago, I wrote a piece about unrealistic beauty ideals and what they do to women's self-esteem, called Hands Up If You Feel Ugly. I did it because the current prevailing definition of sexy is too thin, too young, too inoffensive, and quite frankly, too super-bloody-lame.

There's a uniformity to the look. It's unattainably thin, but it's also - somehow, inexplicably - got knockers. It's got clear, glowing skin, and a perfect, cute little button nose! And most "how do they do that?!", it's got no scars, no floppy bits of skin, and no bruises. It's like the most popular girl from your secondary school all over again. She's better looking and has a better life than you, and she's taunting you everywhere you look, and selling everything from chocolate to cars.

There's only a certain amount we can do if we want to be free of these images. You can stop buying magazines, and if you really wanted, you could stop watching telly. But for God's sake, what sort of a society would we be living in if we were only allowed to enjoy entertainment if we were willing to pay the price of feeling dreadful about ourselves?! Come on, people. Wouldn't it be better if the general rule were to populate the worlds of advertising and television with people who looked like real human beings? Real human beings are great. They come in all shapes and sizes. Lots of them are sexy and beautiful in unexpected ways, they have personality and vigour, and they don't look like they just stepped out of some bizarre heavily airbrushed nether-world.

Unattainable beauty ideals have shocking knock-on effects for your average woman in the street. Looking at them every day - which you could only not do if you wore a blindfold everywhere you went - makes us feel fat and ugly by comparison. We come to hate our own bodies, and we don't feel sexy. That, friends, puts us off getting naked in front of our husbands and lovers. Who in their right mind wants to live in a world like that? DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING!

In an interesting twist upon Big Corporations Doing Evil Things That Are No Good, [past examples include killing third world babies with formula milk, and shooting anyone who joins a trade union], Dove have set up the Susie Orbach-instigated campaign for real beauty. Part of this campaign involves using a wider range of body types and beauty ideals in their advertising, and education work in schools to improve body image in little girls. There's a short film on their website about how girls and women develop skewed ideas about beauty on their website here.

In other good news, the Liberal Democrats called last year for a ban on heavily airbrushed images, arguing that they are bad for women's mental health, and that they put pressure upon women to live up to unrealistic beauty ideals. [The libs would also make it easier for small venues to get a license for live music, and abolish Council Tax, so vote for them. DO IT!].

Wouldn't it be great to see loads of sexy girls and boys of all shapes and sizes in the public eye? For every Eva Longoria Parker, a Nigella Lawson; let's have more pictures of big girls eating cake, and more images of older women looking pleased with themselves. Let's have everybody feeling good about themselves, and a chocolate fountain on every corner. Let's make sexy older, let's make it more interesting, and best of all, let's make it bigger.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Interesting article in The Guardian about how e-publishing could overtake the traditional ink and paper publishing format, given the right software.

Its an interesting idea, in which the reader can create 'playlists' of novels they like, in software akin to Spotify (the music streaming software). You know why this wouldn't work, though? Because books aren't the same as a three-minute pop song. You can't listen to a book in under three minutes. You can't divide your attention between reading a book, say, and crossing a road. What's the point of creating a 'playlist' of novels? It's not like you can flick between one novel and the next. You'd only get confused about the plot.

You know what would be a really great piece of software for voracious readers? A piece of software more like radio. Using Lost.FM radio, music fans can 'scrobble' (brackets: 'find') bands similar to their existing favourites. How could would that be if it existed for books?!! I would love to use a piece of software that recommended authors to me that wrote in similar styles to the ones I already enjoy. Existing recommendation systems are clunky at best, or embarrassingly wide of the mark at worst. I'm talking to YOU, Amazon Recommends. A Quiver Full Of Arrows, for me? Really?!

I can't be the only keen reader who'd love to be able to get personalised recommendations for new authors, recommendations of authors she's actually likely to enjoy. I would buy this software, for sure.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Snow day!

This post first appeared on my Red Room profile

Well, we've had the shortest day, according to reports, but according to me, the mornings appear to be getting darker. How do they make that work?

This morning, I was up and at 'em before the sun had risen. In the glow of the street light, I could see snow falling. Great, heavy, juicy globs of snow, a dozen snowflakes clumping together like heavenly muesli. I thought, "Should I go to work? Will I get stuck?" This was the question I mulled over my tea and toast, sitting at the kitchen table. It was coming down the whole time I chewed on my toast, and was still the one I considered while I held Pig Destroyer up to the window to show him the snow.

Long Suffering Boyfriend came down the stairs as I was checking the news. The journalist, apparently unable to get anywhere with her crew, was forced to make news by hi-jacking a poor old lady in a nearby house. "Are you cold?" she asked, in desperation. "How do you stay warm?"

"I wear lots of layers," the old lady twitched. "And I bake cakes." She helpfully held up a fruit cake to the camera, to better illustrate the point.

"You might get stuck if you go out," Long Suffering Boyfriend said. "There are about six inches of snow in the street."
"Make sure you wear boots with good grips," the TV journalist was saying. "It's treacherous out there." Grinning, she held up a pair of ski shoes, pointing at the sole.

I called my office, and unbelievably, some sucker was at work. Having secured myself an Emergency Snow Day off, I sneaked the heating on, and sat down with Pig Destroyer on my knee to get to work on the Big Secret Project (approximately 6,000 words left to go, dear readers!). But the day seems wasted to use entirely indoors, and so after a big chunk of work, we strapped our boots and our gloves on, and went to take some pictures.

The streets were quiet: no kids throwing snowballs, and only one snowman. There was nobody in the park, leaving me the welcome opportunity to tramp through ten inches of fresh, crunching snow. I had my photo taken next to somebody else's snowman, and wrote half the first verse of 'Ding Dong Merrily On High' in the snow in someone's windscreen with my finger.

As I write, its still coming down: tomorrow might be another snow day....