Friday, 11 January 2013

Books 2012 - an anlaysis

I know it was eleven days ago, practically ancient history, but with essays out of the way and a bit of free time, I've decided to post up about my 2012 in books. With statistics, because that's just the way I roll.

Firstly, a little preamble: I record every book I read in an excel spreadsheet. This covers date read, title, author, series (if applicable), my rating (out of 5, including halves). Because I'm cool. Ever since I read Art Garfunkel's booklist I've always wanted to keep one, and this is it in its current form. When I'm old, and hopefully computers haven't taken over the world, I want to be able to turn to my grandchild and say read Cormc McCarthy's The Road - I read it when I was 19 in 2011, and it was absolutely astonishing. Or similar.

Anyway, onto the list.

Over the course of 2012 I read 53 books (including one read twice), 3 less than 2011. This is impressive when you consider the 2011 included my gap year travels (6 weeks in Italy - I read around 15 books in that time) and I wasn't at university until the end of the year.

However, there was a great discrepency in total pages read: from 26173 to 14813. These 12000 pages are pretty much Jonathan Strange, Pat Rothfuss and A Song of Ice and Fire which were read in 2011.

Star's (/rating) average declined from 4.04 to 3.83 which I think reflects the amount I'm reading for university, and that I'm not choosing off my own back. Of the 53 read, 21 were for university and the other 31 for pleasure - one was first read for pleasure, then read again to psychoanalyse for my Literature and Psychoanalysis module (Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg)

Of the 31 read for pleasure, 21 were SFF - 2 of which I could also classify as LitFic (Communion Town by Sam Thompson & A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess). 3 were non-fiction, 3 LitFic, and others including a short story collection and Magic Realism - which you might be able to classify as SFF (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami)

I've been reading a lot of blogs on gender discrepancy in reading, and I fear that I fall into that category. If we include all the books I've read this year, we have: 45(!) men, 7 women and one anonymous. Just for personal reading: 27 men, 4 women. This seems a bit shit to me. If we just look at authors, and not multiples (there are multiple of, e.g., Peter V. Brett, Shakespeare, Terry Pratchett, Joe Abercrombie,in there) we have:  37:7:1(anon.) split. (18% female) split, or personal reading: 21:4 (19%). Hmm. Something to work on.

Finally, my 5* books are:

Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg
A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood
Communion Town - Sam Thompson
Brother in the Land - Robert Swindells
The Heroes - Joe Abercrombie

Worst books were:
The Family Reunion - T.S. Eliot
A Case of Conscience - James Blish

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Worries and suchlike - on creativity and titles

On my course at uni, I have a creative writing module. Sounds fun, eh? Trouble with it was it just wasn't very good... Sure our teacher, Andrew o'Hagan is a Booker lon-listed author, very funny, and Scottish to boot, and his lectures were fun and informative, but somewhere long the way the actual process of writing was forgotten.

Ever since I was but a wee lad I've wanted, desperately, to write. I've been told I have something by teachers etc., but recently I've lost my confidence. I sit and write bullshit. Forced into a mould - 4000 words, title: The Ashtray. This doesn't feel to me like a valid way of testing my storytelling mettle. The title alone seems to force me down a contemporary setting, between the 18th and 21st centuries, Western in culture, urban, or at least close to it, in setting. What if I don't want that? What if that's not even close to my thing? I write SFF - science fiction and fantasy - I write the alien, the other, the different. As such I'm forced to liberally force an ashtray into a setting in order to justify it.

I feel that a better test of students writing abilities would be a theme, or a complex, abstract title. 'The Ashtray' is too mundane, too simple a figure. It's perfect for the Andrew o'Hagans of this world, but can you imagine Paolo Bacigalupi, China Mieville, Ken MacLeod, Arthur C. Clarke or Ian M. Banks latest, 'The Ashtray'? No, me neither. I see Raymond Chandler or Carver, Chekhov, Isac Dinesan - all masterful writers, yes, but all of a certain style or period - realism, the early 1900s, noir, etc. etc. - not speculative, not fantastic (in the literal meaning)

Further to this is the Western-centric approach. Suppose I want to write from the basis of the South American, the South-East Asian, the Central African. The Ashtray is a Western symbol, a western ideal. I can't even locate my story pre-1500 by historical necessity. Tobacco wasn't brought out of the Americas until then, and a quick google doesn't give me much prolific use of ashtrays until the 1940s, and of that mostly American and Western European. And even now, they are declining as smoking becomes less and less widespread. Why, therefore, should an Ashtray be the item to set my creative juices flowing.

You could argue its a 'challenge', something to take you out of your comfort zones, but I'd argue right back that this isn't a Creative Writing university course. It's one module, it's 4% of my degree. That's quite a lot really - £400 of my tuition fees. If it were a creative writing course, over a year to three years, then yes; bring me out of my comfort zone and make me a better writer that way. But to be fought out, you have to be eased in, and that I haven't been. I've written a small piece for class, and that was fantasy. I've written another piece which could be interpreted across cultures and across times, entitled 'My Grandmother's House was a places of constant danger". However, for my last piece I want to do my best. Get the best mark I can. And not to worry about my writing, how bad it is, how much it sucks. And that means writing what I know and what I want to write, what I need to write. The ashtray doesn't allow me that. 'Fear' would. 'Red' would. Hell, any abstract notion would.

It is my belief that such a limiting title is wrong, and not only that, it is actively limiting my ability to do well. I'll try my best, but if you want to teach, why not do it in a way more open to interpretation?