My fourpennyworth (Writing)


Tuesday 25 April 2006

Reader’s Block

One of the many writing projects I have in mind is a none-too-serious novel about an actor who becomes a spy (working title: Codename Autolycus), and as preparation for this I have begun reading genre fiction. A recent visit to the library (actually, not so recent after all – I think I had to renew the book when I was last there) saw me pick, somewhat at random, a book by Lawrence Block. I think I was actually trying to find a nice bit of tough-guy American crime writing by someone like George Pelecanos, to sustain me after the end of the TV show The Wire, but in fact Mr Block, who must have been praised on the back of one of the other books I picked up (since I had never heard of him before), turned out to be a pretty fair model for the sort of book I want to end up writing. The narrator runs a second-hand bookshop in New York and in his spare time – though in fact it’s not clear which way round his life really works – he robs people: indeed, the titles of the series this book belongs to always start with the words ‘The Burglar’. (This one was The Burglar on the Prowl.)

I must say I’m beginning to see the appeal, especially after all those lifeless ‘modern masterpieces’ I’ve tried (and failed) to read over the years. Oddly enough, it has something in common with many of them, but its tone, its sense of its own ridiculousness, wins you over. This one messed about with coincidence an awful lot: the narrator (and by extension the author) apologised for there being so many of them, whereas you can imagine a more pretentious book being just as packed with coincidences, but justifying them by some reference to destiny or what-have-you. (In other words: this is the way the book has to be.) In fact, Block’s book used the sheer number of unexpected intersections to its advantage: fulfilling its role as a detective story, it shuffled up the random and the salient connections to blind the reader as to who did what to whom and when. (Well, more or less.)

I was sufficiently pleased with The Burglar on the Prowl to go back to a truly vast and epic book that my brother Charles lent me two months ago: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by a writer called Michael Chabon. (The name had meant nothing to me, even though another novel of his, Wonder Boys, had been made into a film I’d seen and enjoyed.) This actually suffers from many of the flaws I have been known to detest in other long, super-ambitious pieces of fiction – I have a particular distaste for a kind of sympathetic sob I seem to hear in these books’ third-person narrators – but the ‘Block effect’ seems to have lasted well into the middle of this one, and I’m pretty much enjoying it. There have even been a couple of examples of over-written prose (the whole thing is over-written, really – did I miss the memo about the relaxation of the adjective rule, for instance?)* which I have secretly enjoyed, because they remind me so much of the sort of thing I like to do: the main character, Joe Kavalier, is described as being ‘obscurely furious’ with his boss at one point, a phrase whose actual meaning seems to me to be drowned out by its chiming euphoniousness; while early on, my eye was caught by the expression ‘infinite columns of minuscule type’, whose rhyme and dactylic rhythm are perhaps not enough to justify that absurdly hyperbolical (and insufficiently humorous) ‘infinite’. Still, it’s jam-packed with good things, so I think I shall continue with it (I’ve got another 300-plus pages to read) – though the recent and evidently more-than-cameo appearance of a female character has, for some reason, filled me with a certain foreboding…

* Hypocritical, me? This is a journal: I’m supposed to write whatever I damn well please!

(Category: Writing)

11.55 pm

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Tuesday 28 March 2006

Meanwhile, in downtown Akron…

On Sunday night – or, by BST standards, yesterday morning – an old musical I wrote over fifteen years ago with my friend Jamie ( was disinterred by a group of enthusiastic citizens of Akron, OH, and given a small-scale performance in the church where Jamie is music director. During the afternoon and evening I’ve had a series of congratulatory e-mails forwarded by Jamie or his wife Sarah saying how wonderful it was. Those Americans - you gotta love ’em…

Now, no doubt, we’ll see whether this piece has legs. It’s taken a great deal of work by lots of different people to get it to this preliminary stage: it’ll need considerably more to go any further. Is it up to it? As the lyricist and writer of the book I know better than most its various deficiencies: until recently I was also in the unusual – practically unique – position of knowing its virtues too. I don’t think I ever heard a good word about it from anyone here in the UK when I showed it round. I can’t say I believe this new development is exactly a vindication of the piece, or indeed a Yah Boo Sucks to the people who saw nothing in it; on the other hand, it’s certainly true to say that musicals, more than any other theatrical form, need their audience to give them a certain benefit of the doubt, and that this script’s audience tended to show that nasty (to say nothing of self-destructive) British combination of cynicism and lack of imagination by simply refusing to do so.

In the end I suspect that its harshest critic was always me, and I never fought for it. Jamie was just as bad, though perhaps for different reasons.

Anyway, it’s now ‘out there’. There’s a website ( – one of mine, I’m afraid). Watch this space, as they say.

(Category: Writing)

1.49 am

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Tuesday 7 March 2006

Smooth operators

I’ve been both bothered and intrigued recently by the increasingly popular new genre depicting the plight of young women enticed from Eastern Europe to the west with promises of good, well-paid jobs, only to find when they get there that they have been sold into prostitution, with no way out. Most British cop shows on TV have had at least one programme using this situation as a background (it was also one of the strands in the second series of HBO’s fantastic The Wire). One high-profile, well-received two-part programme on Channel 4 last year, Abi Morgan’s Sex Traffic, as the name suggests, approached the subject head on, as did the ten-part Belgian series Matrioshki (shown here on FX), about Russian girls forced to work in a Belgian lapdancing club. It’s also turning up in films, eg Amos Gitai’s Promised Land, and I understand that it’s about to get, or has already got, its own US TV miniseries starring Mira Sorvino, which no doubt means that it has officially arrived.

I say I’m bothered by this because trafficking is a real and very unpleasant global phenomenon – late last year Amnesty International even asked me to increase my subscription on the basis of its prevalence – and at the same time dramas that attempt to depict it find it difficult to avoid a certain hypocritical prurience. Black-heart that I am, it occurred to me early on that, after all, the situation – young women, confined, at the mercy of their sadistic captors – is precisely that of one of the most popular genres of exploitation cinema: women in prison (so well-known that it’s often shown abbreviated to ‘WiP’.) Of course, it’s possible to make a high-minded piece about sex traffic – Abi Morgan’s piece, armed as it was with a first-rate actress as the main victim, was pretty exemplary in this respect* – but this approach, it seems to me, misses the elephant in this particular room: the punters whose demand the loathsome pimps and their unfortunate captives are supplying. What intrigued me, therefore, was whether the customers’ part in the transaction could in some way be demonstrated by taking advantage of the inevitable ‘Women in Prison’ overtones – a kind of hypocrite lecteur! approach – or whether this would merely compound the hypocrisy…

Two possible approaches occurred to me. One, probably a stage play, would have two separate narratives, one about a woman who is being trafficked for sex, the other about the ordinary Englishman who will by the end of the play have become her client, and be narrated by none other than the Marquis de Sade, with an arch, self-congratulatory tone. (Sade’s view of human nature is – I would almost say triumphantly – borne out by the world of trafficking, and his Justine could easily be adapted as a story about a woman in this situation, much as Roger Vadim did for the WW2-set film La Vice et la Vertu.) The other approach would be a film (presumably) about the making of a film, in which a young actress is given a plum role as a trafficked woman and does a great deal of serious research on the subject, only to discover that the producers and director are only interested in making a piece of exploitative trash. One advantage of this is that the scenes of ‘real’ trafficking in the film, which the viewer should be misdirected to regard as part of the actress’ researches, can at the end be revealed to be the exploitation film, so that all those ‘non-gratuitous’ scenes of sex and nudity become, in retrospect, what they always actually were: no more than titillation.

I suspect that merely thinking about this makes me a very bad man…

* Unlike, I must say, Matrioshki, which, with its highly attractive cast cavorting in states of undress from the credits onwards, fell into every trap in the book

(Category: Writing)

12.36 pm

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