Quick post, just some thoughts…

Iron CouncilWhile there’s a whole lot of focus on China Miéville’s Big Ideas – his seemingly limitless creativity, his rigorous political convictions, his baroque genre smorgasbording – there’s considerably less attention given over to the minutia of his prose, and his identity as a master stylist. It would be a shame if the grand schemes of his stories overshadowed too much the actual words he uses to tell them.

And while most readers acknowledge that he is an incredible stylist, most reviews don’t delve any deeper than vague comments about how cool and adjectival and maximalist his writing is. All of which is true, of course, and all of which I love; but it’d be nice to see some closer sentence-by-sentence readings and appreciations of China Miéville’s texts.

I mean, he doesn’t always hit the mark (describing a forest as a ‘barkscape’ is an attempt at linguistic estrangement that, for me at least, veered dangerously close to twee, much as I love that particular suffix…(though who knows, maybe ‘twee’ was what he was aiming for?)), but when you encounter such gems as this paragraph from Iron Council, then all is forgiven:

Time was stilled. Cutter walked through a ghostworld, the earth’s dream of its own grasslands. There were no nightbirds calling, no glucliches, nothing but the dark vista like a painted background. Cutter was alone on a stage. He thought of dead Ihona. When at last the lights were close he could see a kraal of heavy houses. He walked into the village as brazen as if he were welcome.

Themes here include wilful loneliness and grief; the language becoming suitably poetic in order to handle such things; perhaps an attempt at finding a narrative register appropriate to the lofty (dare I say ‘tragic’) emotions being described. A head count of the rhetorical devices in the above paragraph includes: psychological abstraction (‘Time was stilled’), neologism (‘ghostworld’), description via negatives that reinforce the themes of loss and absence (‘no nightbirds, no glucliches’); there’s simile (‘like a painted background’), as well as metaphor, (‘alone on a stage’), simple direct sentences (‘He thought of dead Ihona’), contrasting imagery (‘dark’ / ‘light’), as well as subjunctive mood (‘as if he were welcome’).

That’s a real magician’s hatful of rhetorical techniques, all of them pushing and tugging and rubbing against one another in a brilliant linguistic maelstrom that echoes the tensions and conflicts roiling up within the protagonist. If you were feeling particularly generous, you might even claim that the theatre-centric imagery is an attempt to recall the literary space most familiarly given-over to addressing tragedy, despair and loss. Just please stop short of saying ‘Shakespearean’.

So, the TL:DR version of this is: don’t lose sight of the details in looking at the bigger picture. It’s something I know I do all too often, and I’ll endeavour to give more space over to close reading in future posts.

New reviews coming soon. Honest.

Tomcat.

Gaming in the Red Room

Gaming is a significant narrative medium. It’s not “nearly there” or “potential”, but a fully-realised and progressive form. I have this firm belief that critics who refuse to engage with the narrative aspects of videogames will soon find themselves with serious and crippling gaps in their cultural knowledge: just as those critics in the 90’s who –fingers-in-ears and eyes squeezed shut – stubbornly disregarded comics and American T.V. were, ultimately, left behind, and found themselves adrift, outside the zeitgeist. And not in a good way.

It’s unfortunate that gaming, perhaps more so than any other narrative form in history, is so vehemently and aggressively derided by people with absolutely no knowledge or experience of the medium. Even those early detractors of the novel had at least read a couple of them.  I despair when, for example, I play an avant-garde gaming masterpiece like Journey, in which gameplay is stripped to an absolute minimalist quintessence (move from point a to point b) in order that the developers can concentrate on an examination of semiotics, word-less signification and the essence of language, only to read, the following day, about some media commentator, politician or other blowhard with an underserved platform decrying videogames as “juvenile”, “depthless”, “socially damaging” and “non-art”. One only needs to view a single screenshot of Journey, with its un-gendered, visually middle-eastern protagonist and highly stylised art design to realise that, shock horror!, this is a very artistic, critically fertile and challenging artefact. What other mainstream piece of culture would have such success in the West while daring to cast a (potentially) female and (potentially) Muslim character embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage as its central protagonist?

Journey

And this is the real significance of gaming as a narrative form. Its progressive, controversial, experimental and theoretical aspects aren’t happening on the sidelines, in the margins or in the obscure, hard-to-reach places of the culture, but in its mainstream. Hollywood is languishing in a quagmire of sequels, remakes, bad adaptations and racist casting (I’m looking at you Star Trek, and you Lone Ranger, and you 47 Ronin).  Mainstream literature, meanwhile, still worships at the altar of such dead-in-the-water institutions as the Man Booker Prize, which clings ever more desperately to the Victorian critical flotsam “the superiority of consistency of character and place”, as if modernism never happened.  Sure there are valuable, imaginative and important films being made, and sure there are valuable, imaginative and important books being written, but these things are hard to find, ignored by the Big Industry of their mediums, and almost never given the cultural primacy they deserve.

Gaming, by comparison, is in a unique position: its most critically lauded, challenging and creative examples are, simultaneously, its mainstream bestsellers. Perhaps this is because the form has progressed so quickly from a niche, sub-cultural interest to a major part of culture. Who knows? Yeah, the press like to selectively highlight Call of Duty or Gears of War, claim them as representative of the entire medium, and, in what would be considered a gross logical fallacy anywhere else, subsequently decry all of gaming as hyper-violent adolescent wish-fulfilment as a result, but there’s so much more to gaming than CoD, or Battlefield or whatever. Take the original BioShock, for example; a mega-selling masterwork helmed by gaming auteur Ken Levine. The dénouement of BioShock (which I won’t go into – if you’re not familiar with it, look it up) was more than a twist-ending mindfuck, but a critically astute invitation to the player to question such notions as freedom, the will to power, and the player’s own role and moral complicity in the actions which they, by proxy of the character they control, allow to happen. It did all of this while simultaneously challenging the relationship between player and character, and teasing out the contrast inherent in the player’s freedom of action on the one hand, and narrative linearity on the other.  BioShock offers the gaming equivalent of reception aesthetics.

bioshock-big-daddy-wallpaper-HD

Another example: Dead Space, on the face of it a relatively mindless shooter that revealed itself to be an experiment in genre convergence (a haunted house mystery re-fashioned through the lens of modern Space Opera) that made some intriguing leaps forward in how developers handle the paratext of videogames.

So, my obvious and over-laboured and unoriginal point is this: gaming is, most definitely, worthy of rigorous critical attention. And, in light of this, I have started a new blog, tentatively named Gaming in the Red Room. It’s being hosted over on Gamespot (rather than integrate it as a sub-category of this blog, I thought it would be more prudent to take advantage of a blogging space that already has a vested gamer audience), and my general goal (which may or may not be driven into the wilderness and abandoned, depending on how well I can make it work) is to apply narrative and critical theory common in the study of literature, to games and all the stuff that surrounds them.

If you’re at all interested in any of this, here are some links:

My first post, transposing the textual notion of paratext onto gaming:

The Zone of Influence

Something long and rambling about ambiguity and dénouement:

The Allure of Ambiguity

And something more light-hearted about potential source material for videogames:

Transpositions

In the coming days, I’ll be adding a new page to this blog, in which I’ll collate and link to all of my Gaming in the Red Room articles.

Tomcat.

Iain Banks 1954 – 2013

Iain Banks

I wrote one of my undergrad dissertations on the works of Iain Banks. I remember my coursemates and I being summoned, one-by-one, to the office of our Director of Studies (“DoS”) to announce our preferred subjects (I think the remit we were given was ‘any writer 1850-the present’, or something similarly broad), so that he could attempt to find a suitable supervisor for each of us.  His office was situated at the very top of the college, and only accessible via a winding and mountainously steep staircase that rendered the climber a red-faced, gasping and achy-legged mess requiring several minutes of composure time upon reaching the summit. Some of us had a theory that this staircase was deliberately contrived to give the waiting supervisor an advantage of physical and mental collectedness over the student; to make our inevitable academic dressing-downs all the more humiliating.

Anyway, I scaled the stairs, knocked on his door, and proudly announced that I’d like to write my thesis on the novels of Iain Banks. “Have you ever read him?”, I asked. “No”, he responded, with a tone that suggested a subtextual “of course not”. I knew wanting to write about Banks was a bit, umm, progressive (the rest of my coursemates had chosen authors or poets who were significantly more canonical, and significantly more dead; and that’s how my uni seemed to like it), but I stuck to my guns. I thought I had a good idea for a topic (I didn’t: it was something ill-conceived and ill-defined about Scottishness, Science Fiction and Freudianism; but hey, I was, like, 19: it felt a solid plan at the time), and eventually he agreed that I could do it, and told me that he’d start looking for an appropriate supervisor.

He couldn’t find one. It seemed that despite the university’s staggering array of teaching academics with all their myriad specialities, finding anyone qualified to supervise a dissertation on Iain Banks was an impossible task. I was summoned (again) to my DoS’s top-of-college office, and asked if I’d like to reconsider my subject. No: I was adamant: I really wanted to write about Iain Banks.  Publicly this was because I had great confidence in my ideas, but privately I was entertaining some nebulous and juvenile notion that I was somehow sticking it to the Cambridge establishment by writing about SF instead of, you know, Keats or whatever. After all, I’d been stopped short and told to “change the subject” when I mentioned Science Fiction in my application interview, so I felt I had something to prove.

Iain Banks books

A coupla weeks later (and just before the find-a-supervisor deadline), I received an e-mail informing me that a tutor had, indeed, been discovered: a post-graduate PhD student writing a doctorate on landmines in modernist poetry (I shit you not). It wasn’t really what I’d been hoping for, but what the hey?, I corresponded with him by e-mail, and eventually took a bus to the outskirts of the city for my first supervision. In his house.

Being a student himself, you see, he had no teaching rooms of his own. His house was an innocuous terrace in one of those packed-like-sardines rows that seems to contain more houses than should reasonably be expected, or should be possible. I knocked; he opened the door; and with a delighted “Tom!” (I think I was one of his first ever supervisees) he attempted to give me a high five. To say that this was an unusual and unexpected form of greeting from a supervisor would be somewhat of an understatement. He was aloof and laid-back, constantly leaning-back and constantly grinning. The house was tiny, untidy, and the walls obscured by floor-to-ceiling towers of creasy-spined paperbacks. I thought that all of this was awesome; but I was naïve and anxious (well, more so…). It’s obvious to me now that this guy was a massive stoner, and probably hung-over during each of our meetings.

But the worst part was: he knew fuck-all about Iain Banks. I mean, he’d read (some of) the books (a long time ago); but in a casual capacity, and not with any academic or critical rigour. He’d probably seen my proposed dissertation on whatever list gets sent around the university when supervisors are being sought and thought he could make an easy few hundred quid by spending a term teaching an undergrad who doesn’t know any better. Ideally in this situation you’d request a change of supervisor, but given how long it took just to find this guy, that wasn’t really an option.

So, for the next few months, I essentially self-taught, with minimal input from my supervisor.  The writing process was frustrating, and the end result was a lack-lustre and directionless thesis that didn’t achieve a particularly successful mark. But despite all of these extenuating circumstances, the months I spent submerged in the novels of Iain Banks remain one the happiest, most significant reading periods of my life.

TheCrowRoad

I think it’s fair to say that I gorged on his fiction. I read most of his books twice, and several (The Wasp Factory, The Bridge, The Player of Games) three or four times. This was partly under the pretence of academic thoroughness, but the truth is I loved his books so much that I was even re-reading the ones that had no bearing whatsoever on my dissertation. The Crow Road was a bildungsroman like I’d never read before; the tripartite narrative structure of The Bridge and its attendant deconstruction of the three parts of the Freudian psyche blew my mind. The Wasp Factory’s stylistic convergence of neo-gothic imagery with hysterical realism is something I’ve not encountered anywhere else. The way Inversions suggests a place within his wider SF narrative ‘The Culture’ without actually name-checking it is a prominent example of the kinds of tricksy intertextual jokes Banks implanted into all of his work. And I’ll never forget sitting in my university room at 3am and crying as I read the most tragic passages of Espedair Street.

Iain Banks died last week. This has clobbered me in a way that I’ve never been clobbered by the death of a person I don’t actually know. Banks’ novels bore a significant influence on my future reading tastes (The Culture was my first ever experience of “real” Science Fiction), and changed my approach to fiction in the way that only those books you read when you’re young and free of all cynicism can actually do. His humanism, humour, liberalism, creativity, disregard for binaries and fearless devotion to the real spectrum-complexity of things has become the yardstick against which I judge so much of what I read.  It seems grossly, cosmically unfair that he died when he did, and so soon after announcing that he still had a year left.

So; that’s the story of my immersion into his books. Please share your own anecdotes/favourite bits/Banks-based thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear them. Thanks for everything, Iain. I’m off to read The Crow Road. Again.

Tom.

The A26 – Pascal Garnier

The A26I guess it’s customary for me to begin my reviews by writing about the genre in which any given book functions, but darn it this one has me stumped.

Stylistically The A26 borrows from mid-Twentieth-Century hardboiled noir; stuff like Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon.  The writing is often cynical, curt and metaphor-heavy, characterised by an unsympathetic portrayal of gruesome violence.  In fact, many of the narrator’s observations are so close to something Philip Marlowe would say that they can only be viewed as appreciative nods in Chandler’s direction.  Where The Big Sleep equates bodies with heartbreak:

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

The A26 follows suit with the slightly less eloquent:

They say there is nothing heavier than an empty heart; the same is true of a lifeless body.

Of course this specific reference to Chandler may just be an idiosyncrasy of the translator (I don’t have a French copy (or a French speaker, for that matter) here for comparison); but needless to say there’s definitely a noir-esque tone that pervades the prose.  Acts of violence are described with a glib matter-of-fact-ness, and when the writing does become more lyrical, it’s always with a snarky undertone and dark sense of poetry:

The countryside, accustomed to low skies and drizzle, looked ill at ease in its Sunday best.  The bricks were too red, the sky too blue, the grass too green. It was as if nature felt embarrassed at being so extravagantly made up.

These stylistic proclivities, coupled with the story’s bodycount and focus on social outsiders, should make the act of genre classification an assured thing, right? It’s a noir. But once you’ve read a few chapters, and you start to get to grips with the actual plot, things don’t seem quite so clear-cut.  The A26 has murders, sure, but it’s not about the murders, per se; there are no procedural or detective elements, and without meaning to sound dismissive of noir and its pulp roots (of which I am much-enamoured), The A26 just seems too… literary.  It’s a novel about the strange hinterlands between spaces – both physical and figurative – and the inevitable fallout that ensues when people try to bridge the gaps between, for example, the rural and the urban, past and present, love and hate, life and death.

This thematic pre-occupation with boundaries is made readily apparent in the book’s opening chapter, a metaphorically loaded scene that sees Frenchwoman Yolande staring out at the world through a tiny peephole drilled in the wall of the boarded-up house that she never, ever leaves.  Yolande believes that World War II is still on-going, and that all of her neighbours are ‘boche’ informants.  She is cared for by her brother, Bernard; a retired rail worker obsessed with the construction of the ‘A26’, a major road (and obvious metaphor for death) slowly impinging on their rural community.

Yolande and Bernard have lived in this old house – separate and hermetic – for decades, and the real substance of this book is found in the ways these characters react when the outside – illness, neighbours, the new road, technology, the present – begins to push against and trespass their borders.  It’s as much an investigation into solitariness, love and desperation as it is a forensic examination of the circumstances surrounding some particularly imaginative murders.

So might we just call it Literary Fiction with noir tendencies, then? Well, no, because to do so would be to perform an almost sacrilegious disservice to another of the book’s defining traits: The A26 is really, really funny.  It’s so funny that (you could probably argue) calling it anything other than a Black Comedy is to decidedly miss the point. The blogger WinstonsDad is correct when he likens the book’s premise to the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is comedy to be found in the new road, with all of the traffic and metaphors it brings with it. But WinstonsDad’s second comparison – that the siblings of The A26 evoke the reclusive brother-sister duo Edward and Tubbs from the T.V. show The League of Gentleman – is much closer to the descriptive mark.  The comedy is decidedly a gallows humour; Garnier’s descriptions of a bic biro being used as a murder weapon are gruesome, but also very funny.  And the humour isn’t exclusively violent; between the book’s murder sequences the comedy is frequently scatological and sexual: preposterous in a way that’s reminiscent of medieval fabliaux (a genre of writing that emerged from Northeast France – and I imagine it’s no coincidence that The A26 is set in Picardy).

But in order to stop the novel descending into abject farce, which would bathetically undermine the book’s more serious concerns for loneliness and mental illness, much of The A26’s grotesque comedy is undercut by, well, stuff that’s just genuinely grotesque: grotesque in a way that provides some nice tonal variance, but also establishes a disconcerting and genuinely unnerving tension.  Somewhat predictably, then, this leads me onto another of Pascal Garnier’s genre appropriations: horror fiction.  Converging with the noir-esque narration, the literary concern with boundaries and the book’s strange sense of comedy, are some passages that wouldn’t be out of place in Lovecraft or Ligotti:

Always at the end of this dream, however, his two halves would be wriggling on either side of the track and would manage to stick themselves together again.

Or:

Something had smashed on the floor, her bowl half-full of red wine.  Some creature going past no doubt.  They were everywhere.  You couldn’t see them but they were there, nibbling, scrabbling, gnawing at even the very shadows.

And this description of a rictal grimace is absolutely a reference to Georg Heym’s The Autopsy:

On the mattress the exposed corpse gave a toothy grin.

But much like the other element’s I’ve discussed, the horror isn’t prevalent enough to warrant labelling the entire novel as such.

I could go on and on: the changes that Bernard undergoes when he realises his illness is terminal could encourage me to read The A26 as a kind of late-life bildungsroman.  The quasi-incestuous nature of the siblings’ relationship make me want to tag the novel as a love story (albeit a dark, twisted one); and the neighbours’ investigations into the strange murders almost (almost) make this a piece of straight-forward crime fiction.  But simply listing verbatim all of the different literary genres that Garnier has appropriated, though providing some glimpse of the book’s aesthetic, doesn’t really offer, in itself, any kind of critical understanding of the work.

So, why, then, is The A26 such an obvious smorgasbord of so many disparate genre conventions?  Well, as I understand it, this blurring of genre borders acts as a deliberate structuralist reflection of the book’s actual plotting and themes.  Bernard and Yolande have spent decades trying to erect walls (both physical and figurative) around themselves, but their efforts are ultimately proved futile as their borders are all breached with violent inevitability.  Within their tiny house, Bernard and Yolande’s approach to life seems divided: he is obsessed with death, she insists that “Nothing [is] ever supposed to stop” – but even this distinction is proven to be permeable, as the novel’s denouement so powerfully demonstrates: both characters choose the same path, regardless of their individual approaches to death.

The A26 is a warning against hermeticism, blockades and isolation: an illustration that the borders we so unthinkingly put up – even those literary distinctions between genres – are in fact unstable and transient.  The proper word for this rejection of boundaries and certainties is probably “modernism” and this, it seems, is the best label for the book: at least it’s better than the bullshitty genre compound “Horror-fiction-literary-black-comedy-noir”.  But the fact remains that whatever you do decide to call The A26, the book is absolutely fantastic.

Tomcat

Overthrow: Peter Stothard and Why Blogging is Valuable

Urch. So, the Chair of this year’s Booker Prize has made a contentious statement to the media about book bloggers – just as the Booker winner is due to be announced.  Right on cue, really. It’s almost as if he made the decision to declare his controversial opinions just as he’s about to enjoy his big Booker-judging moment in the sun, to ensure a couple of extra column inches are dedicated to a prize that many argue is becoming less and less relevant year on year. Almost.

I say “almost”, in fact I have very little doubt that his comments (or the timing of them, at least) don’t constitute a PR strategy to get his name and his prize into the papers and onto blogs.  This being the case, I really shouldn’t rise to the bait and write about what he’s said. But fuck it; I’ve been so irked by this guy this week that I just can’t help myself.

***

In case you’ve not read or heard what it is that Peter Stothard has to say about bloggers, you can find the original Independent article here, and a shortened version from the Guardian here (complete with a response from mega-popular (and mega-good) book blogger Simon Savidge, who’s having his own discussion on this over at Savidge Reads (to which I’ve contributed, and which was the kernel of this post – so thank you Simon)).  To précis Stothard’s remarks: he argues that book bloggers “are harming literature”, that they offer “unreasoned opinions” instead of “literary criticism”, and that bloggers will damage “the future of writing”.

Quite. So where to start a rebuttal?  Peter Stothard seems to be suggesting that there’s a qualitative problem with book blogs.  Firstly, he hides his cowardice behind misguided propriety by not actually name-checking any of the blogs he so casually and caustically dismisses, so I can’t suss out for myself any of the internet reviewers with whom he has such a problem. While nobody would argue against the idea that the occasional poor-quality or misleading sites do pepper the blogosphere, I could point Mr Stothard to a whole host of blogs that are far more theoretically well-versed, critically astute, eloquent and funny than much of the hack in his TLS (did I mention he’s the editor there? No? Well, he is).  There’s some really high-level academic stuff going on in the blogosphere.

But, of course, that *isn’t* the point, is it? He’s not talking about those blogs, he’s talking about, you know, the blogs that have, like, opinions and stuff in them. Apparently. The problem with his argument is that drawing a distinction between subjective “opinions” and objective “literary criticism” is to establish a false binary.  In fact, Stothard’s comments seem almost to hark back to the Russian school of literary Formalisms from the 1920s, with their attempts to advocate a “scientific” approach to the study of poetics.  But let’s face it, literary criticism is a long way from being anything like an exact science – and, in my experience, lit crit is just as influenced by individual opinions and psychological, cultural and historical contexts as any other form of writing.    Literary analysis is not objective on any level: two Marxist critics may produce radically different readings of the same text – so where does that leave Stothard’s criticism vs. opinion binary?

A bit later on, Stothard adds the qualifier ‘reasoned opinion’ to his rant (“not everyone’s opinion is worth the same”), but again he fails to define his terms. What constitutes ‘reasoned’ opinion?  I wonder where he draws the line. Is there a certain number of critical terms from the dictionary of literary theory that a blogger has to use before he stops being a writer of ‘opinions’ and starts being a writer of ‘criticism’?  By his argument, then, the only person fit to review books is the hypothetical individual who knows the most about critical theory, or has read the most novels in the world (reductio ad absurdum etc.)  He states that literary criticism is all about “identifying the good”, as if literary “goodness” is some objective quality that “reasoned” critics are especially positioned and privileged to recognise. Which, of course, is absolute bullshit. Perhaps one needs a specific degree from a specific university before one’s opinions make the transcendental leap from internet hackery to valuable criticism? Maybe you need to have read Finnegan’s Wake ten times before Stothard will pay any heed to your book reviews? Who knows? I know some bookish autodidacts who’re more well read than many people with degrees, Masters, Phd’s – you name it. Stothard’s idea about what makes a person suitably positioned to review books is so nebulous and vague that it doesn’t really need me to deconstruct it…

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But let’s be honest. Stothard’s vile, poorly articulated and disgusting opinions have absolutely nothing to do with quality of writing or insight, and absolutely everything to do with snobbery, elitism and supercilious pretentions to intellectual privilege.  The subtext to everything he’s said is this: how dare the plebs review books; how dare they impinge on my domain, how dare they enter a sphere of debate heretofore reserved for an elite minority?  Before the rise of the blogosphere, Stothard and co. were part of a cosy clique of intellectuals whose elevated sense of self-worth came from a misguided notion that what they were doing (reviewing books) was somehow theirs; they’d earned it, and he doesn’t like the fact that we, the uninitiated, are now impinging on his privileged place in the culture.  And so there’s a snobbery of medium going on here too, with Stothard’s words implying a hierarchy of cultural value: the printed word being at the top, and the electronically represented word at the bottom.  There’s been a lot of debate recently about the blogosphere “killing” the printed word, and maybe it’s true, but my message to any technophobic luddites who challenge the value of blogging would be this: bring it on. It’s your responsibility to print material that people want to read; to use your medium to the best of its potential.  The fact that more and more people are turning to blogs to find reviews of books doesn’t just demonstrate the cultural significance of blogging, but speaks to the quality of printed literary journalism, too.

His implied assertions that printed book reviews by professional critics are de facto better than the opinions of the public are not just bizarre, but laced with a malicious snobbery – directed at both the messenger and the medium.  And his strange insistence that popular internet book reviews aren’t a valid and important part of critical discourse is nothing but a great big cultural fallacy.  Mainstream opinions influence art in myriad complex and unknowable ways.  I love the diversity of bloggers: internet book reviewers are a diaspora community,  with access to the kinds of social and cultural contexts that produce incredibly fruitful readings of texts: far more varied, passionate, unusual and creative interpretations of literature than anything you’re likely to see in printed newspaper journalism.  Of course authors read our reviews, of course they seep into the culture, and so of course they influence the literature of the time.  This community isn’t hurting the future of literature: it’s shaping it.  To say popular or mainstream (or whatever) book reviews damage literature is crude, short-sighted and, ultimately, wrong. Books and book criticism don’t exist in isolation of everything around them.  Stothard says he’s only ever seen six films in his life (an obvious lie, but let’s go with it), and so completely misses the point that art, literature, cinema, music etc. don’t exist in remote bubbles unaffected by one another.  How, for example, could a reader of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash ever hope to fully understand the book’s aesthetic identity without at least a rudimentary understanding of Hollywood action films?  Frankly, I wouldn’t be interested in the book reviews of a man who’s only ever seen six films.

He goes on to argue that popular writers such as Ian Rankin aren’t worthy of critical analysis (he’s wrong): another of his false oppositions: popularity isn’t adversative to quality.  And as for his statement that critics need to be “alert to what’s new”: I’ll take him more seriously when TLS stops giving so much attention to Dickens and Byron or Jacobson or McEwan, Mantel, Faulks etc. and starts reviewing the truly avant-garde, boundary pushing “new” fiction that’s out there: Michael Cisco, Mark Danielewski, Lydia Davis etc. etc.

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How should I finish this? Of course I believe that book blogs are valuable; a wonderful, nay extraordinary addition to literary culture.  To suggest that the act of blogging is somehow damaging to literature is dunderheaded in the extreme (and I might add that the blogosphere is probably the most active platform of debate over the Booker Prize, and likely contributes to a large percentage of Booker nominee sales).  Peter Stothard’s contention that literary criticism is only valid when certain (nebulously defined) social and cultural conditions are met is nothing more than the most appalling snobbery.  Maybe he’s just afraid that, with the rise of blogging, he’s witnessing an unstoppable sea change, an opening up of what was once an elitism and is now a socialism. Blogging can’t be stopped: it’s in the Zeitgeist now. Of course printed and blogged book reviews can co-exist; but if Stothard is the voice of professional literary journalism, maybe a sea change is a good thing. I wouldn’t want to be associated with him and his ilk.  Maybe printed book reviews *have* had their time. Maybe this is an overthrow.

Tomcat

Signifying into the Future

Proposed Architectures for Nuclear Waste Disposal Sites.

This post isn’t a book review, but I pride (or should that be “delude”??) myself in assuming that anybody who reads my blog will likewise be interested in functions of language beyond the immediately literary.

So, I saw this online and I thought it was cool.  It’s a shortened version of a report into the long-term storage of nuclear waste; specifically that waste which has a half-life of many millennia.  Any such site of long-term waste storage would need to remain undisturbed for as many as 10,000 years – well beyond the lifespan of any thus tested human civilization.  In 10,000 years’ time, maybe there will be no extant record of the English language? In 10,000 years’ time, maybe some atavistic catastrophe will have regressed human society to pre-industrial levels of technology. Who knows?  The problem this report attempts to address, then, is this: how do we transmit a warning sign into the distant future? The need is for some system of communication that isn’t dependent on our own, culturally-specific frames of reference and signs.  Our pictorial symbols for ‘radiation’ or ‘keep out’ might be completely meaningless to some far-future civilisations. Thus what’s needed is an easy to decode form of language that would survive tempestuous shifts in culture, society, technology and environment: we’d need to make sure that no wandering nomad (or who or whatever) stumbles upon the nuclear waste and starts digging around.

In essence the task at hand is this: to devise a system of language that will signify the concept “Danger!” without resorting to primarily textual or verbal lexical signifiers.

We obviously recommend that a very large investment be made in the overall framework of this system, in the marking of the entire site, and in a communication mode that is non-linguistic, not rooted in any particular culture, and thus not affected by the expected certain transformation of cultures. This mode uses species-wide archetypes…of meanings bound to form, such that the physical form of the site and its constructions are both message content and mode of communication. Thus, the most emphatically delivered message is the meaning-bonded-to-form in the site itself.

As part of a system of message communications, we recommend substantial use of verbal texts and graphics, but with little emphasis on constructed, non-natural, non-iconic symbols. These texts and graphics act as indexes to each other, and act as indexes across message levels. We also suggest the site be marked so it is anomalous to its surroundings in its physical properties such as electrical conductivity and magnetism.

The writers identify four levels of message that would, ideally, need to be transmitted:

  1. Rudimentary Information: “Something man-made is here”
  2. Cautionary Information: “Something man-made is here and it is dangerous”
  3. Basic Information: Tells what, why, when, where, who, and how (in terms of information relay, not how the site was constructed)
  4. Complex Information: Highly detailed written records, tables, figures, graphs, maps and diagrams

The most basic solutions to these problems come primarily in the form of proposed above-ground architectures: grand-scale, durable constructions designed to function as linguistic signifiers of warning and danger. Basically: big, scary buildings that, through design alone, will encourage people to stay away from the site.  Any such markers should, of course, be constructed from valueless material in order to limit potential  stripping for minerals (a la the Pyramids), and they should be arranged in such a way that does “not suggest shelter, protection or habitation”.

The report contains some really fascinating detail about the linguistic potentialities of architecture, as well as some theories about pan-cultural communication. Symbols that have always been interpreted in the same way by many diverse cultures: “placement of anything at the dead-centre would suggest it is of the utmost importance, occupying the place of the greatest privilege.”

If you want to be twee about it, you could argue that the crux of the task is to discover the universal metaphors inherent in large-scale architecture:

In symbolic terms, we suggest that the largest portion of the [site] be kept left open, and few (if any) structures placed there, so that symbolically it is: uninhabited, shunned, a void, a hole, a non-place.

I won’t précis the whole thing, as I’m going to include a link at the end of this article. But the report made me think about language in unusual ways: cross-cultural, non-textual etc. etc. I’m sure architects are used to thinking about buildings in such linguistic terms, but perhaps not with such urgency and clarity as would be demanded by this project.

The report concludes with some design concepts: outlandish and intense stuff that poses a lot of questions about how buildings can “mean” but which also appeal to me on an OH MY GOD IT’S SO COOL level.

Here are some images, and below them a link to the report.

Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Tomcat.

Letter to My First Love

Okay so this is cool.

My friend Carly who works for the San Francisco Ballet (hey, don’t look at me like that – I have cultured friends!), is putting together a characteristically creative and somewhat avant-garde promotional campaign for the up-coming ballet Onegin.  It (the promotion) entails a tumblr feed composed entirely of love letters submitted anonymously by members of the public taking the subject ‘letter to my first love’.  The onus isn’t on the reproduction of actual letters, however, it’s more like: ‘if you could write a letter to your first love, what would you say?’

You can find the promotion here (SFballet.tumblr.com), and while some of the submissions are inevitably a bit cringeworthy and naff, many others are very sweet, even moving.  Several of the letters lean heavily to the comedic (one in particular I find very funny), but more-often-than-not the tone is of clearly genuine feeling and sentiment. I’m man enough to admit that the general standard of writing is much, much higher than I initially anticipated, and some of the letters scan almost like prose poetry, unafraid to leave behind the expected propensity for romanticism and explore, instead, such heavy themes as death, regret and the pathos of chronic lonliness.  It’s powerful stuff.

It’d be great if you could head over there and take a look at the letters people have written, and even better if you submit your own (letters addressed to inanimate objects, songs, T.V. characters, long departed pets or that issue of Sonic the Comic no.1 your Mum unwittingly binned while you were at school that one time (…) are also acceptable (remember, it’s all anonymous)).  Carly’s championed my blog for ages (ardent readers of Tomcat in the Red Room (…if such people exist…ahem…) might remember a review of The Easter Parade Carly was kind enough to write for me last year) –so I’d love for Red Room readers to return the favour by whipping up some support for this.  I can’t offer much incentive other than a guarantee that you’ll be contributing to something genuinely worthwhile – think of it as crowdsourced poetry; very twenty-o-twelve.

Tomcat.