Gillian age almost-twelve

In a recent tidy of storage space, my mother found a box of my possessions. As well as quite a few short stories that I thought had gone missing forever, the box contained a strange mixture of papers from my past.

Very little went back beyond university, but there was a scattering of work from high school. One was a school assignment I did when I was not-quite-twelve. In an ideal school, I felt, teachers would also wear uniform so that they couldn’t tell students “well, you’ve got your uniforms” when the students tell them how well they’re dressed.

I also had a list of the books I had out from the library. All mistakes were made by my near-twelve self.

Most of the books I can remember, but, oddly, not The Outsiders. I was saying just two weeks ago I needed to read it. It obviously didn’t make an impression on my younger self!

The books were:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Outsiders
The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit
The Pirate’s Treasure
The Outlanders
Escape Alone by David Howarth
The Nomads
Ordeal of Innocence by Agatha Christie
Helen Keller’s Teacher
The Island of Blue Dolphins

Turning fiction writing into a privilege

A poor person on Twitter unintentionally got me answering back where normally I would bite my tongue. Some of it was the day: between anti-Semitism, a heat wave, various ailments and stuff (much stuff, but all of it private and family and not appropriate for here). Some of it was, however, a genuine annoyance at a statement that was made.

The tweeter told writers to support a type of publication. To subscribe to review publications and literary journals. Apparently they were targeting their tweet at writers who don’t and should.

I apologised and backed down and promptly worked out that I still have an issue with the command. Several issues, in fact.

The first is not with the tweeter, but with the environment the tweeter is a part of and the assumptions that fed into the tweet. The one that assumes that a statement like that can be made about people in any industry without supportive data about what people in that industry do. If the tweet had linked to a table that showed that writers didn’t support literary journals, there would have been a leg to stand on. A single leg only, but a leg.

The underlying assumption made by a general statement exhorting any group of people to do a particular thing is that they’re not doing it. As a group. Data pointing out that a subset do it helps that group identify that it’s not a general accusation, and that it’s not about them if it actually isn’t about them.

Poor wording unsubstantiated by the material that would have let those of us who aren’t the target know that we aren’t the target is not what made me respond. This was Twitter. We all do things like this on Twitter. If I’d complained about that, it would be a case of pot and kettle.

What made me annoyed is that this was the umpteenth time a member of the public has told me as a writer what I have to spend my money on. I’ve been told that if I don’t support this industry body, this journal, this wonderful project on the other side of the world, this political thingie, this anthology, this fundraiser for charity, I will be failing as a writer. Not all of them say it so directly, but enough do. The others imply, gently, that I’m currently doing less than my public duty.

Who and what determines the public duty as a writer? And why do so many people assume that spending money we don’t have on something that someone else thinks important is so critical to the well-being of society?

Let’s start with the second question. The first may have to wait until another time.

Writers support literature. Writers support culture. That’s the assumption.

It’s got a lot of truth in it, as an assumption. It falls down, however, in the nature of the assumed support. As people within the writing industry often point out, writers don’t get paid in the same way as, say, accountants. It’s so hard to make money reach fiction writers as a rule, that new writers have to be told not to pay to be published. “The money should go towards the writer,” they’re told.

We give work away for free (me, this piece, now, though I admit that people who want more essays by me can join me on Patreon, most of my essays are not for money for so many reasons). We donate copies of books to this cause or that, and our services to this cause or that. All that is par for the course. It’s not sufficient, it seems, for we have to do more. We’re exhorted to do more.

One big problem with the assumption that writers are essential to keeping the Arts afloat through being responsible for the survival of literary journal sand their ilk through subscribing rather than by submitting pieces to them or being a part of the discussion around them or by being reviewed or any of the other ways we already participate is that when one adds an emotional “thou must” financial support aspect to the game it becomes a wealthy person’s game. (And I shall leave that sentence as it is, however tempting it is to edit it into readable blocks – sometimes we need impossible sentences.)

This is related to the ‘who determines’ I mentioned above. When the determination of a writer’s duty is through moral obligation more than by hourly rates of pay and type of work, we start living in a different world to many others. It’s not about the quality of work, the hours spent, the pay received, the negotiated benefits: it’s about the specific benefit to society. It turns fiction into a job for those who are sufficiently prosperous not to need to live from it.

With that prosperity comes a different type of obligation, one where it’s perfectly normal to spend more money on supporting an industry than the income one earns within that industry. Writing is for the gentry, not workers.

I am a member of seven industry bodies, because they fit my work. If I had more money, there are several more I really need to join. Yet I’ve been told that my authority as a writer is suspect because I’m not a member of these other organisations. I buy subscriptions to journals when I can (which is not nearly often enough), and I mentor, I support new artists and help established ones get through difficult periods. I teach. I edit. I write. And my actual creative writing brings in a much smaller income than my teaching and my editing and my non-fiction. Yet it is as a creative writer I’m expected to shoulder that extra burden of public duty. It is as a creative writer I’m instructed to do more, because it’s the right thing to do. The right thing takes money. Writing is for the gentry, not workers.

This is – probably entirely unintentionally – creating a class system. My choice of language above was not unintentional.

Writers who have the money to pay for these things through other income (day jobs, supportive partners) are doing the right thing. Writers who don’t, are not. It’s important that the tweeter let me off the hook because I support who I can when I can, not because of my income. The actual income of a writer is not relevant when creative writing is considered a luxury to be undertaken by those who can. Writing fiction is seldom considered a regular job.

There are other jobs that are also not regular jobs. We’re all part of a social change, where some critical areas are expected to carry particular burdens. I need to talk more about this somewhere, sometime. Right now, there’s one key element of that change that belongs here.

Australia is in a mess. One of the ways that mess is being articulated is by people who think they see a way out telling others “If you do this, we’ll be better off.” If we can all support literary magazines we would be better off. It’s true. These people are pointing out things that would work.

Why isn’t this uniformly a good thing to do then? To ask writers to shoulder the critical support means that the literary criticism is more important than what we do as writers ie our writing. It actually makes the mess worse. It pushes us just that much closer to a society where only the privileged may create professionally.

Yet another angle is that the assumption is that the critical magazines are more important than our livelihood. Yes, I said this before, but this time it has a different meaning. It means ‘cultural cringe.’ Australian creators are being returned to the bad old days when what we do is not important. We’re moving back into a cultural framework when being an Australian writer is terribly important for the support they give others but is probably not doing anything worth noting themselves.

I keep wanting to say to all these people who have wonderful ideas of how I should spend my money in support of others, to first of all buy enough of my books so that I have that money. This is not allowable in this world. Cultural cringe says “people must discover your work mysteriously – it’s not like the Big Names, about whom we’re informed by Those Who Matter.” This is the Australia I grew up in, and I don’t like to see it returning.

What’s ironic about all this is that I count as friends some wonderful people who write for literary magazines. They never play this kind of game, for their vision of Australian culture is complex and profound and includes my writing and the writing of others and lays the burden of supporting literature on wider populations.

None of the critical literary pundits I’ve spoken to (as friends or casually) have ever told me I have to support this or that magazine. They’ll point out articles I need to read. They’ll share ideas. We’ll argue about the ideas in my novels or in the fiction of someone else. They’ll say “If you’re writing a novel about gender, did you see that article in…?” When enough people send me towards enough articles in a particular magazine, I’ll save and save and save and take out a subscription, for it will be entirely undeniable that I need to read every single issue.

A general exhortation says more, while it says less.

I have even more sympathy for the tweeter than I did when I responded to the tweet in such an ill-advised fashion, therefore. Not only did they get an annoyed Gillian making puerile statements in their direction, they caused this rant. It was good for me, however, for it means I can get back to writing my novel and researching my non-fiction and leading the life I lead.

Lost Stories

Once upon a time, I wrote many short stories. Forty-one short stories, to be precise. Until I was twenty-five, in fact.

Alas, I translated all those stories from Mac to PC and only four survived. Also alas, it was the four worst stories that survived. They’re very useful for teaching how not to write, but not for much else.

The reason I personally didn’t have a printed copy was reasonable. I’d moved from Melbourne to Sydney to Toronto to Sydney to London to Paris to Sydney and then to Canberra, all in five years. I didn’t have much of anything that couldn’t be fitted in a single suitcase. Being a cautious tyke, there were copies of everything safely stored with my parents.

Then my father died. Mum moved house. We couldn’t find the stories when this happened. They were officially deemed missing.

This week, my mother asked various relatives of they would remove their belongings from under the house. When they did, a box of papers appeared labelled “Gillian.” Mum thinks they might be my stories and will post them to me in the near future.

At this moment, we have no idea how many of them there are, or how good they are. Several of them were accepted for publication, then the magazines collapsed, so they never saw light of day. One of them won an award. We don’t know, however, if those stories are in the box. For all we know, the stories that survived might be the same appalling stories that I occasionally use to teach bad writing. In fact, the only thing we’re certain of is that the box smells frightful, having been confined under a house for nearly three decades.

This is a mystery worth celebrating. Make a guess at how many stories of mine are in that box (1-41). If you’re right, I’ll let you see one of them before the rest of the world, before I so much as decide what to do with them. In my early twenties, I wrote some very good stories. I also wrote some amazingly bad ones. I can’t guarantee which you’ll receive. The only thing I can promise you is that it will be fiction, by me. You have until January 8.

All guesses that reach me (that I actually see ie that don’t get eaten by spam or a ferocious internet tiger) will be valid. If a thousand people guess correctly, then a thousand people will receive a story. If one does, then one will.

Open Question Time

This is open to anyone (you don’t have to know me) and you can ask anything. I won’t answer questions that require much research at my end – open question season is not a place for me to do significant amounts of research for others. If I don’t know an answer off the top of my head, however, I will say so.

I’ll try answering all questions (one way or another) but your best bet is to ask questions that fit my areas of expertise. I’m strongest on things historical (especially Medieval, but not by any means only Medieval), things political (especially given my recent post on my personal blog), things to do with writing, editing, research, literature…

Let me take care of the standard questions. My current research is all to do with cultural constructs and genre and how we tell stories. The novel I’m working on right now is science fiction and about alien engagement with Earth and is sarcastic and feminist and full of chocolate and fruitcake. My next novel (publication-wise) is about colonialism and is not set on Earth.

The questions that are hardest for me to answer during question time are the ones that require long answers or are nebulous. With the nebulous questions, if you don’t know precisely what you want to ask, then the likelihood is quite high that I will have equal difficulty giving you an answer. Also, very broad questions are difficult, because I’m a writer/historian and I see the world as complex. In other words, try to keep your questions specific. Be as precise as you can. “Did London shoes have shoelaces in the early fourteenth century?” is preferable to “What’s the history of shoelaces ?” It also helps if I know a bit about you or why you want to know. “I am interested” will often get a quite different answer from “I need to know for my new novel and it’s a NaNoWriMo novel so I can’t go away and research for a week.” I’m happy to be asked why this difference exists…

With history questions, remember that if a hundred years is a long time to you personally and if you’ve seen heaps of changes in your less-than-100-years, that this might also apply to people in the past – this is another reason to ask precise questions.

Frivolous questions are fine. I do not answer “How long is a piece of string?” or “What’s your shoe size?” for once was enough for both of those questions.

Personal questions are fine for I can always be snarky or refuse to answer. I reserve the right to be snarky, in fact, or cheeky, or even impudent. I will take serious questions seriously, however. It’s OK to ask me about being Jewish, especially if there isn’t anyone else you can ask. It’s not OK to ask me about my housekeeping.

This thread is open for questions until next Sunday.

Edit: Some weeks are just like that, aren’t they? I know that there are people wanting and trying to ask questions and it’s just not working. I’m therefore moving this post to my Livejournal blog and keeping it open until 1 December. I hope this helps. Gillian

The Biology and Lifestyle of Griffins by K.J. Taylor

On Sunday, a group of us shared a booklaunch at a science fiction convention. One of the authors was K.J. Taylor. She and I share a Moomin addiction and are Tuckerising each other due to a random conversation on Facebook.

Her new novel, The Last Guard” is set in Cymria, a place where humans live alongside griffins. I word this with care, for I’m not at all certain what would happen if I implied the griffins were second in importance. To celebrate, she has kindly given us important information concerning griffins. For Sydneysiders who find this post in time, she will be at GleeBooks on 7 October.

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In the wild, griffins generally live in mountainous areas, and make their nests in various places – nesting mothers generally choose treetop platforms which they make themselves, but griffins have been known to choose caves and overhangs for sleeping and eating. If you are travelling in the wilds of Cymria and happen upon a cave with a stench of rotten meat about it, run away very fast – a wild griffin has no qualms about adding you to the menu.

Griffins hunt their prey both from the air and from the ground – sometimes swooping down on their victim from above, and at other times mounting an ambush from cover. More than one person has been killed that way, but most of the time they prefer larger animals such as deer, and livestock which they frequently steal.

Unfortunately, as humans became more and more numerous and their settlements became larger, the wild griffins began to lose their habitat. Prey became more difficult to find as wild animals were killed or driven away by human activities, and in time the griffins were forced to begin taking livestock rather than starve. Naturally the humans banded together and killed plenty of griffins to protect their flocks, and their numbers began to drop.

However, not being mere dumb animals, some griffins soon realised that there was another way to survive. They began to loiter around human settlements, picking up scraps, and over time some began to form bonds with various humans who took pity on the starving creatures, which they venerated as sacred (some humans had even argued against killing livestock-stealing griffins for this reason, but mostly went ignored. In the face of starvation, nothing is sacred).

So some humans began deliberately feeding the griffins, mostly out of basic decency and kindness. Others, happening upon griffin chicks that had been lost or abandoned, took them in and kept them as pets.

In time such griffins became more and more accustomed to humans, who in turn came to see that the creatures were at least as intelligent as themselves, and that the sounds they made were in fact a language. As humans and griffins grew closer, both races began to understand each others’ speech – chicks raised by humans understood them more or less perfectly, though they were unable to speak the human language themselves.

And, when fighting began to break out among the humans, the griffins joined in – fighting to defend the towns and villages which they had claimed as their “territories”. Before long it became obvious enough to both sides that if griffins fought alongside humans they could crush their enemies and seize more territory for themselves. And so the first true griffiners emerged. Griffins, recognising that wealthy and powerful humans could provide better food and shelter, began to gravitate toward the emerging nobility, and many of them would form a special bond with a particular human. Others made the choice purely out of self-interest. Some griffins feel genuine affection toward their humans, but others see their partners as nothing more than a commodity on legs and treat them accordingly.

Not wanting to leave “their” humans unprotected, partnered griffins took to carrying them on their backs when travelling, though aerial combat proved to be far too dangerous and inconvenient to be particularly worth it. Some griffiners would use bows while on griffinback, but flying hands-free was extremely risky. Besides which, carrying a rider makes a griffin slower and less agile in the air, so this idea never really got off the ground, so to speak.

Griffins are able to mate all year round, and without the need to consider the avilability of food they have more or less abandoned the “mating season”. When a female goes into heat males will fight for the right to mate with her, but mating still occurs even when the female is not on heat, if it is simply convenient at the time. Some females will couple with a male merely to win something from him, a trick plenty of humans have used themselves! Pregnancy lasts for three months, and after laying the eggs must be incubated for a further three months. A typical clutch consists of three eggs, about the size of watermelons, usually speckled brown in colour (though there was at least one exception in recorded history…).

After hatching the chicks stay in the nest, sharing their mother’s food, until they are large enough to leave. More or less the moment they are able to fly, the mother will drive them away. If they try to return to the nest, she will attack to kill.

City griffins generally live for fifty to seventy years of age, though some have lived much longer (it is commonly believed that more magically powerful griffins have longer lifespans). Much like other large predators, they spend a lot of their time sleeping. Griffins aren’t particularly talkative and have a limited range of emotions – they have little to no concept of love, and virtually no sense of empathy. They find both concepts largely incomprehensible, and view any sort of religious worship as complete nonsense, as they have no concept of spirituality and prefer to think of themselves as the centre of the universe. The existence of the gods would in other words bruise their ridiculously huge egos and is therefore unacceptable.

Griffins are however quite capable of showing affection, and when scratched or otherwise petted they will sometimes purr or croon. The chicks are very playful, though playing with one will probably leave you sporting a lot of scratches.

Children are generally not allowed to be presented to the griffins as potential griffiners, on the grounds that it’s simply too dangerous. Griffins partnered with children can and have killed their humans, purely by accident.

As for the wild griffins, they are now largely extinct and have no rights. Some are killed outright, and others captured and forced to entertain the crowds at the fighting pits which most Cymrian cities have. Few survive for long, and all are intentionally crippled from using their magic with regular doses of a herb known as griffinsbane, which paralyses the organ responsible for generating magic. Wild griffins are thought of as savage brutes incapable of speech, and it would take a truly exceptional person to ever successfully form a partnership with one. But every now and then, such a person does come along…

kjtaylor
KJ Taylor

Moonshine Pudding

An extract from the Conflux cookbook, mainly for Ilse Pilsener and Penni Russon. This is the result of a loaf of bread (not mine) and a tweet. Just for the record, this is the best bread and butter pudding recipe I’ve ever made.

Ingredients:
A loaf of thinly sliced bread
Butter
Currants
Glacé cherries
Candied pineapple
Other glacé fruit
900 ml cream
6 egg yolks
½ nutmeg (grated)
Sugar

Method:
Layer the bottom of a baking dish with bread and butter. Add a layer of currants and candied fruit. Add another layer of butter, then more candied fruit. Continue until the dish is full.

Mix cream, egg yolks, nutmeg, and sugar. Pour the mixture on the pudding, and bake it in a moderate oven for three quarters of an hour.

Additional comment: I interpreted the bread and butter bit quite specifically. I buttered all the bread and used that for the layering. So did the hotel.

The food (including a recipe and test for Cornish Meat Rolls) in The Wizardry of Jewish Women

A group of enthusiastic cooks and lovely people are making recipes mentioned in my new novel, The Wizardry of Jewish Women. I almost always have recipes lurking beneath my fiction. Even my next novel (which I’m editing this week) contains food which I can cook, and it takes place off-planet! My new novel is set in Australia and I’ve borrowed and adapted over a hundred of my family’s recipes for it. When more recipes are out, I’ll put up a post with links. In the meantime, this is the culinary background to the box of forgotten recipes that appears in the novel. When you’ve read this blog entry you will know more about them than my characters do!

I was lucky with this novel. Very lucky. I’d been researching the difference between Anglo-Australian Jewish and Continental Jewish food because someone asked me to, way back. My family had found me many, many recipes to help with my research and I had the full oral history for them from two aunts and from a cousin. There were no missing years: both aunts had cooked the cuisine (and I’d eaten it at their houses) and my cousin is just enough older than me to know the bits they wouldn’t tell. When my aunt and my mother found recipes notes and even a handwritten cookbook, I had the stories to understand them and to interpret them. My food historian side, in fact, enabled me to work out exactly which bits came into the family and when. Stuffed Monkeys was a favourite dish of my father’s for instance, and they came into the family from the nineteenth century London Jewish community. You can find its history here. If enough people ask, I’ll make the recipe and give a documented version to you, just the way I’m about to do with Cornish meat rolls.

The thing about this cuisine is that it’s missing a lot of ‘standard’ Jewish dishes. Even those parts of the culture that came from Eastern Europe had been transformed, through London and then through Australia. It doesn’t come from Eastern Europe, in fact (though dishes poke their heads through from time to time and say “But I do!”): it is partly a southern English variant of Sephardi cuisine. It has lost many of its most Spanish elements, but maintained a lot of recipes that are easier to make with London and Australian ingredients. In their place one finds very familiar British dishes (like the Cornish Meat Rolls), some local oddities (like Stuffed Monkeys) and a few dishes that look very unJewish. They’re a part of the cuisine. Some of the older English Jewish food is kosher, and some enjoys its bacon. My grandmother knew how to cook all these dishes and according to some relatives she cooked them and according to others she didn’t. What I know for certain is that after my father married, she didn’t cook them for him, for he married into a very kosher-keeping family. This means that, from 1956, one whole strand of recipes was lost, just as, from the moment the family came to Australia (just under a century earlier) the more Sephardi dishes would have been lost.

If you want to know more about how I identified the London Sephardi origins (check my research, argue with it, etc) just ask for a copy of my paper.

I chose the Cornish Meat Rolls because I wanted to see if the family’s pastry can be made with olive oil (since I knew what it was like made with other fats). An olive oil pastry would be very good for my heart, I thought. The pastry was good with olive oil (rather good, in fact) but not perfect. It was too crumbly for my taste, but I’d still do it again, for it had a lovely aroma and if I can solve the crumbliness I have a pareve heart-healthy pastry that takes next to no time to make. I adapted the filling a bit and have put my replacements in brackets. This is because I’ve had this food in my childhood and have made it with dripping at my aunt’s. I wanted to adapt it into a modern Australian version.

The filling took me back to my childhood. The moment I tasted it I knew where it came from. It was tasty and stodgy both at once. Perfect for a Melbourne winter. Also, very easy to make. very hard to turn into something elegant. This is easy food for a big family, basically.

I took a picture, but seem to have lost it. You’re not missing anything. Think of big sausage rolls. Golden and clunky and full of filling. In fact, the filling spills out whenever it’s not properly sealed. The pastry is short and crumbly. I took one look at it and wanted to add tomato sauce and demolish it. I couldn’t get through it all (though I tried for three meals) and gave a slab to a hungry friend. Depending on how hungry the diners are, therefore, this will fill 3 to 6 people. Add chips and salad and it’s terrifyingly Australian.

And now for the recipe:

Cornish Meat Rolls:

Ingredients
¾ topside steak (I used low fat mincemeat)
1 onion
1 large potato
1 tomato
2 cups SR flour (or 2 cups plain plus raising agent)
pinch salt
¾ cup dripping (I used olive oil)
½ cup cold water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
salt and pepper.

Method
Remove fat from steak. Peel potato, tomato and onion, and put through mincer with meat or chop each very finely and mix together. Season with salt and pepper. That’s the original instructions. Me, I boiled my potato and peeled it and cut it finely. I added it to the mincemeat. I then chopped my onion and tomato coarsely and put them through the blender. Then I seasoned the mix. I mixed it until it held together very nicely.

Sift flour, salt and baking powder (or just the flour and salt if you use SR flour!). Rub in dripping ( or olive oil – oil doesn’t rub in properly, so you need to watch the texture) and add water and lemon juice and mix to a stiff paste. Roll on floured board to oblong shape, about ¼ inch thick. Spread with mixture, and fold into a neat roll.

Bake in a moderate oven 40 to 50 minutes.

Being here

I’m still catching up with things from March. I have just one or two urgent things to go and they get harder and harder as time passes. It also gets harder to do the straightforward paperwork, because I’ve got this sense of never being quite caught up. There’s one particular article that’s causing me too many problems, but until it’s done, I can’t turn to the others (the stuff that was beginning to be due around August).

I’m doing some rethinking, along with the catching up. The seventeenth century novel has to wait. It’s high intensity in terms of work and I can’t do it yet. It’s that simple. If I wrote it now, I’d write it badly. Next year or the year after I’ll be able to write a good novel on that theme, for all the different parts of my brain will be able to work together. This means that my writing is turning to another contemporary novel. I had two begun (barely) and have decided to focus on the gendered one, for I really need to sort out those issues. Also, this is the perfect year for writing in the voice of an angry alien who is frustrated by the limitations of human bodies and human lives. (Most of the novel won’t be in that voice – just enough to annoy people.) I’m nearly 5,000 words in and will take a break at 15,000 for that will be most of that voice. This is the novel that was speaking to me the night before surgery. I was supposed to be launching my Wizardry novel (news of which is definitely forthcoming soon) and instead I was listening to an old woman dying and was being shaved in interesting places. I wasn’t allowed to wear off my nerves by walking, for I was hooked up to various things and besides, the hospital was worried about me and didn’t want me to go away even for a second, so I lay there, looking up at the television (this was the only ward I had a television), listening to my neighbour try valiantly to hang on, being interrupted by various preparations, realising that some of the weirdness was PMT and that the hallucinations were from medication and wondering just how strange life can become. At that moment this novel (which was had already taken some shape in the weeks before) announced a bunch of things to me. These are the things I’m dealing with now. The rest of the novel isn’t even a small part of the way there, because I was focussing on the other novel. Life does this.

I think this novel might contain a deal of bleakness. This is why I have to write it. being grateful to be alive and able to live life fully is one thing, but the path I took to get here is also a bit of who I am.

It’s not just my papers I’m catching up with.

When the New becomes the Same-Old

I’ve reached the stage where I’m tired of the Not-Quite-New Black in SFF. I would very much like publishers to stop pushing gritty urban noir fantasy at me right now, whether it has elves or not, whether it’s derived from ancient gods or not, whether it’s set in London (which most are) or somewhere else. I’ve loved this sub-genre for a fair while in book terms, but there comes a moment when you read something sparkling new and it feels you’ve read it before. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the moment it becomes clear that a sub-genre has codified and events are predictable: that was three years ago for my particular example. Now it’s “I need to come back to this book when I can read it for what it is, rather than expecting it to be dangerous and new.” The problem with reading novels as dangerous and new when they’re not is one starts to look for flaws. Not even the best-written novel can stand up to this.

There’s another style of book I’m tired of, but this second type is much harder to pin down. Some groups of writers develop their own style. I read the first novel by one of them and that author gets all the advantage of newness. I tell everyone “read this author.” Then I find other books by the same closed circle and I discover that they’ve infected each other with style traits in their beta reading process. Sometimes this is good, but more often it means that reading more than one writer from a given circle feels like reading story after story that are the same.

I’ve worried about this before. I’ve been working on teaching methods to break this down. While it’s nice to know I can break it down and can ensure it doesn’t affect my writing (all my faults are, alas, mine own) it doesn’t help when I encounter it in others.

Often it’s linked to a teaching writer surrounded by non-teaching writers. The teaching writer doesn’t realise they’re teaching their own method of writing and only their own method of writing. It’s the main reason I do fewer writing exercises in my classes than I used to, for I discovered that it was when I corrected exercises that I pushed writers towards my perfect text. I’m coming out the other door on that, for I’ve been working on to improve my teaching in this regard. My priority now is to find out who people are, how they write, where they want to go as writers and what kinds of paths they have open given their abilities and background and can open given their aptitude for language and learning. I analyse their speech and their attitude to language and people as well as their writing, for I need to know what they can be if I don’t want them to become me. And I load them with tools that can be twisted into various direction so that they are forced to make choices for themselves before they use those tools. And it works. All my Wednesday students have their own voice, despite years of Gillian.

Only one writing circle out of maybe ten becomes this inward-looking self-replicating story-telling machine. That one, however, makes me weep. I deal with it by never reading books by these authors within 2-3 months of each other. Sometimes I have to leave books for two years.

It’s not a sufficient way of dealing. It’s the best I can do.

When I discover writing groups that don’t have this inwardness, I grab everything I can by every single writer in the group for I know the various writers in the group will be the richer for the interaction.

The first few pages of any new book is checking to see if that novel is not-quite-new or whether there is an inward writing circle involved. Discovering either of these things will entirely change the way I read a book.

Updates

My life is full of updates. Today you get small ones, just to reassure you that I’m still here. I’ve had an exceptionally challenging time since early April and it will be another few weeks before my life gets back to normal.

First news is a review of Langue[dot]doc 1305 by an academic. I know what I put into my novels, but I don’t know how successful I am in this until someone points it out, so this review makes me happy, because some of the things I intentionally put in are explained: http://medievallyspeaking.blogspot.com.au/2016/05/polack-languedotdoc-1305.html

Secondly, I will have an essay myself on Langue[dot]doc 1305 in a coming issue of postmedieval. I’ll let you know when it appears.

My new novel appears to have been delayed. Due to my recent and interesting past, I don’t know why there is a delay. The release of the book was the day of my operation, so I didn’t know it hadn’t come out until I was fully conscious. It was a disconcerting piece of news to wake up to in hospital, I admit. Again, when I have news, I’ll post it here.

History and Fiction is safely released and looks very pretty. If your bookseller doesn’t have it and you want it, the publisher is has world wide distribution so they should be able to get it in. I do need to warn you that it’s an academic book and so it’s rather expensive.

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