The Final Word

FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! Now that I have grabbed your attention in a most indecorous manner, I would actually like to offer you some free fiction.  Mine, as it happens. Some time ago I wrote about a piece of innovative fiction that I submitted to a competition run by Diagram Magazine. Now that the competition has run its course, I’m making my story available here for everyone to download via the link just below.

The Final Word by Andrew Cookson

The story is called The Final Word and could be described as an intellectual, satirical detective story, presented through non-standard narrative means. I would love to hear your feedback, either as a comment below or via email here. To give you a taste, here is the first page.

THE FINAL WORD

You know what advice I’d give to people, if I could, one piece of advice so that they’d never be convicted of a crime? Don’t do anything out of the ordinary. And that’s it. If you have a daily routine, stick to it. Religiously. That way there’s nothing to explain. That’s my advice – never, ever leave yourself with something to explain.

J. Smith, on his release from prison, after spending 40 years inside for a crime he did not commit.

You know what makes an epistolary novel unbelievable? When none of the letters go missing. I wish I lived in a world like that. And why do we only see the relevant letters? If you want to show a person’s life through their letters, why don’t we see them all? The utility bills, the flyers for delivery pizza firms, letters addressed to previous tenants and the rest. Just imagine now, doing the same with the modern day equivalent – a novel told through an exchange of emails. A festival of badly-written notes, carelessly devoid of grammar, baffling and patchy capitalisation, unspellchecked spelling, all bookended by an awkard and often incongruous approach to personal formality. Not to mention the deluge of spam from online casinos and drug vendors. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea after all.

C. Johnson, prominent literary critic and neophyte blogger.

To Review or Not To Review

…that is the question. Were Shakespeare alive today he might despair at this flippant appropriation of Hamlet’s words – regarding the nature of suffering and existence – to the mere frippery of book reviews. Then again, we could well imagine some literary wag retorting, ‘A matter of life and death? No. It’s far more important than that!’

As it happens, and to mislead you no longer, I’m not questioning the value of book reviews per se, rather, I have a more specific query: is it worth reviewing any and all books, regardless of when they were published, or should we instead restrict ourselves to only recent releases?

To date, I’ve written two book reviews for this blog, of The Infatuations by Javier Marías, and of The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, in each case less than a year after the book was released, and for The Infatuations, less than a month. As an amateur reviewer with a full-time job, and crucially without access to pre-prints, it’s hard to turn them around much faster than that.

But what of books published a few years ago, or longer ago even than that? Some Henry James or Charles Dickens? Or perhaps Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque? A week or two ago, I almost began to write a review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for this blog. It’s an immense book, which already has several websites, such as The Wallace Wiki & The Howling Fantods, dedicated to decoding and analysing this epic work. Not to denigrate my abilities, but would a few-hundred word review written by me really add anything, other than to note that yet another aspiring author was both inspired and intimidated by this book? This question posed, I renamed the file from “A Review of Infinite Jest” and began to fill it out with this essay instead.

I know that many other bloggers, and websites such as Goodreads, regularly post reviews of old books, but I’m unconvinced of the need. Before continuing, I should qualify my arguments by stating that I in no way wish to discourage people from engaging with literature and in fact am heartened by it. It shows the literary form has not shrivelled into irrelevance. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t question the value of these reviews, and further, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the nature of these reviews. Are they in fact the same beast as the review of a freshly-printed book? In general, I would contend that they are not.

It’s not that I believe these reviews are unable to say anything original, or that the personal perspective they might provide is worthless, it’s just that the longer the book has been exposed to the oxygen of the wider cultural environment, the greater the etchings and erosions that the collective opinion and critical thought will make on it, and so the harder it is to write a truly original view of things. The original book has become obscured by this cloudy accretion of oxides. The risk is that in over-earnest attempts to be impartial, by consciously attempting to divest oneself of all that critical baggage, it is easy to drift into a reactionary position and find oneself unfairly rubbishing the critically-acclaimed masterwork. Maybe the best critics are able to avoid these traps.

Another aspect of reviews is of course the plot summary – useful at first when it isn’t common knowledge, but after a while certain words of Calvino become apposite, when he describes the class of books that “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too“. An exception might therefore be made for the unjustly unpopular or little-known work. In that case there can be genuine value in a review – it carries no baggage, and by drawing our attention to the book the review performs a useful service. The longer a book has been published though, the less the need for yet another straightforward review – after all there were presumably a surfeit of those when it first went on sale.

So, if we’re not to review these old books, how we do direct our excess literary energies? How can we best engage with these older works? Is there anything original that we can add to the collective critical opinion?

My feeling is that, rather than a general review, it might be better to provide a more specific discussion as to how the novel meshes with the contemporary environment, to assess the impact it has had, perhaps embark on a deeper exploration of one of its themes. Furthermore, rather than pretend that the subconscious infiltration of other opinions hasn’t occurred, we should face them out in the open, and discuss the book within that context. Finally, rather than critique only a single book, perhaps a comparative approach examining two or more works might prove to be more illuminating.

These are merely my opinions, though ones which will naturally guide the direction of my blog, but what do you other readers & reviewers out there think? Please do leave your considered comments below.

The Theft of Art as Satire

Metal left out in the open air is fair game it seems – electricity cables on the railway tracks, copper roof cladding, public works of art – the theft of any of them reprehensible, but it’s the last which hurts the most. The financial considerations aside, we know that the cables and the roof can be replaced, yet once Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture Two Forms (Divided Circle) was stolen, melted down and sent through the cruel diode of entropy, we know something special and intangible has been lost forever.

Two Forms (Divided Circle) by Barbara Hepworth

Two Forms (Divided Circle) in happier times.

The theft of public art is the theft of old family photographs, of heirloom jewellery and holiday knickknacks, and the theft of these items is more than the theft of the object alone, it’s the theft of our memories and our private heritage. You might say that if these items are valued only for the memories they represent, then why isn’t the memory alone sufficient?

Memories require prompts if they are not to dissipate into hazy recollections of once-had experiences, and and even if they didn’t, the recall is sweetened by the tangibility of these physical prompts. Where the theft of an heirloom marks the loss of private heritage, that of a public work of art threatens our shared heritage.

There’s little sense that can be made of it; as pointless to ask the petty thief why he doesn’t respect the privacy of the homeowner, as it is the art thief about his conscience. Our concerns are sadly orthogonal to theirs.

Any of these losses are upsetting then, but the only solace I can take, the only reinterpretation of those acts that might yield something of value, is to say: what if we view the theft of art as an act of political satire and an opportunity to reflect?

That there have been economic troubles recently hardly seems worth repeating, it’s been the backdrop to our news for five years now. What is newsworthy is that the economy continues to stumble – any slight rise is followed shortly thereafter by another lumbering, ungainly fall. The possibility of a full and complete recovery in the near future hardly seems plausible. Rather the question is, what will be the next contagion?

As a remedy, we’ve witnessed a regime of austerity and cuts to public finances, cuts which are at least as politically motivated as they are economically so. To give some indication, roughly 4.5% will be cut from the Arts Council England budget between 2013/2014 & 2014/2015, and certain councils, such as Westminster City, are cutting their arts budget completely!

Of course, some financial reality must be allowed to intrude, but what we must not permit is for this reduced budget to become the status quo, a baseline which is viewed as always open to further and further reduction, on the purported basis that it’s not important and not worth protecting.

To know the value provided by funding of the arts, we need merely remember the generous patronage provided by the House of Medici who inspired and sustained the Renaissance. My mention of this cultural outpouring from several centuries ago is no accident. We are blessed today with a dazzling wealth of music, art, theatre and literature provided by the masters of old. Da Vinci, Beethoven, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Picasso, Shostakovich, Brecht, Camus and the rest – we can not rely on past glories; we must not indefinitely draw down on this resource and make no contribution of our own.

Society today is the beneficiary of all societies past. To be stingy in funding art, or to refuse to fund it at all, is a selfish act, not just for today but for future generations. That which we leave behind, or fail to leave, tells a story about us as a society and culture, and we have only one chance to write this postcard to the future, which says “Here is our contribution to the project of humanity, please enjoy!”

The thing with art, the one constant of it, true whatever the form or genre, is that there exists no reliable method of selecting a priori only those potential artworks that will come to be deemed astounding in the future. Moreover, the only way to guarantee that there will be any art in the category is to produce lots of art. To say nothing of the fact that art should represent the full spectrum of experience today and not just a single stratum.

A final thought: whatever money was paid to finance the composition of music in the time of Beethoven, is surely more than justified by his music alone, when we consider the pleasure it has brought to the many millions of listeners in the following 200 years. That’s the context, and the timescales, in which we must approach this subject.

To return to the present day, the theft of art by criminals is in fact a piece of performance art all of itself, a horrifying piece of political satire, one that is to witness and relive. The disrespect shown by the thieves towards art mirrors that of our government. They both are chipping away at our past heritage and preventing the formation of new.

Though it can feel like we’re powerless to stop either of them, as long as the arguments in favour of the arts and its funding continue to be made, perhaps we can halt the slide and, one day soon, reverse it. Otherwise, though there’ll always be a philistine element in society – those ungrateful, uncultured few – the danger is that we, the rest of society, will sink to join them.