Thursday, March 27, 2014

Part 1: All Time Favourite Short Stories

1. "The Shadow Industry" - Peter Carey 

Simply the best distillation of consumerism in English literature. It could also have been written in the form of a sestina. The last paragraph also makes it a masterpiece of post-modernity.

Also recommended by the same author: "A Schoolboy Prank" - Anybody who went to an all-boy's school will relate to it.

2. "The Garden Party" - Katherine Mansfield

An obvious choice that beats "The Prelude" and "At the Bay" by the same author because they're more novellas than short stories. What this story has to say about classism still rings true today. More importantly, what it has to say about the facade of civilisation and its tactical remoteness from death is still relevant.

And like all great literature, it offers more questions than answers, ending with the line: "Isn't life...?"

Also recommended by the same author: Among many others, "The Wind Blows" is a finely-tuned reverie. "Feuille D'Album" is also a masterclass in portraying a character without boring the reader with too much description and a very rare example of shifting viewpoints working well in a short story.

3. "The First Class Passenger" - Anton Chekhov

A reminder that society's obsession with celebrity is neither a recent nor uniquely Western phenomenon. It's about an intellectual lamenting his lack of fame or status to a stranger on a train, until he learns who that stranger is. It's also a nice little anecdote on how professors deal with the resentment of not having much influence outside their own citadels.

Also recommended by the same author: "The Devil and the Shoemaker" does something similar for money as "The First Class Passenger" does for fame.

4. "Little Louise Roque" - Guy de Maupassant

A suspenseful story about madness and murder. The picture it paints of repression in the ruling class illustrates why so many people in positions of great responsibility (judges, surgeons, etc...) end up developing psychological issues. And like "The Devil and the Shoemaker," it shows that the rich live lives of quiet desperation just like you and I.

Also recommended by the same author: "Mother Sauvage" is the most powerful non-combat story about war I have ever read.

5. "The Mysterious Stranger" - Mark Twain

Even though it's set in 16th century Austria, it gives early 20th century anthropocentrism a kick in the nuts. Admittedly, this might have been developed into a novel had Twain lived longer, and there is no consensus as to what the most faithful version of the shot story is, but it does more to take apart organised religion than the entire careers of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins put together.

Also recommended by the same author: "Luck" is about a complete idiot who achieves all kinds of success without knowing how little he deserves it.

6-10 to come next month.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Creative Writing Tips

Considering that having a ridiculous plan is better than having no plan at all, I have started on a short-story writing project that is an attempt to become the Chekhov of Shenzhen. Because successful artists are so worshipped, the arts tend to attract the kinds of people whose chances of being taken seriously are such that they might as well be wearing a pink bikini. Plus, there is nothing more cruel or vain than a failed artist. 
But when you're working in Shunde you have to pass the time somehow so why not do so in the most megalomaniacal way possible? As Scottish academic Alastair McIntosh put it: The world is a ball of strings (economics, politics, philosophy, ecology) and we can't pull on one without unravelling some others. Literature, in my opinion, is the best way of unravelling all these strings at the same time.
Here are some tidbits of wisdom I have picked up so far. 
1. Listen to the advice of the greatsThis goes without saying. But ultimately, they all have their own idiosyncrasies and so will you. You have to carve out your own way. Here is mine. 
2. Have a plot: As screenwriting guru Robert McKee wrote in Story, politics is the art of making lies sound truthful, science garbles with complexity and perplexity, and religion is a series of moth-eaten rituals designed to mask hypocrisy. The medium people turn to nowadays is story, and - as neuroscience will tell you - storytelling is hardwired into our brains. We are our own heroes in our own stories, and every story we tell in a barroom is fictionalised in the sense that it is restructured to have a beginning, middle and end (and usually a hero and a villain). 
Don't worry about conveying a message. Your world view will come through if it's written well. 
3Try to stick to the 25-50-25 rule: The story should be structured to have the beginning make for about 25%, the middle account for about 50% and the end be about 25%. The middle 50% is the hardest and most important part to do well. Anybody can come up with an arresting opening paragraph or a heartwarming last sentence. It takes skill to keep the story moving forward without boring people.
4Write dialogue in characters' own voices: Dialogue should probably count for around 30% of the text but there are successful examples of it accounting for 0% or 100%. Most importantly,  the characters should talk in a way that sounds like themselves rather than the narrator or the author. But if a character has, say, a thick Oklahoma accent try not to make it too irritating, e.g. "Well I declare that that was darn rootin' tootin'. 
5Seek unobtrusive ways of evoking the appearance of a character: In 19th century novels such as "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, when a character is introduced the author tends to spend a couple of paragraphs telling you outright what they looked like and what their personality was like. 
Christopher Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin," written at a time when novels were competing with the movies for people's attention, evokes the appearance of Sally Bowles by describing her tacky nail varnish and lipstick, giving a good enough impression of what a lost soul she is. To show that somebody is unrefined, have them snort loudly while they laugh or something. 
6. Read, read, read, read, read and read: This is the most important tip of all. Read all the good writing you can get your hands on. Bad writing is contagious. 
7. Creative writing courses are probably not a good idea: I did one and had a great time, but writing is not a career the way engineering or dentistry are careers (see number 10).  People way more qualified than me to have an opinion about it have called creative writing courses the biggest racket in academia. In what Philip Larkin called the "rented, intricate, uncaring world" of offices and factories, a qualification in creative writing is worth nada and to try to convince a young person otherwise is just irresponsible. 
What I have done for this project is find a writer who I admire (a published novelist, award-winning poet and prolific journalist) and employed him as a sort of mentor, at least in the early stages. When I've finished a draft, I'll pay a couple of thousand to one of the handful of people who knows Shenzhen well and has a proven track record of good writing to make sure the whole thing makes sense. 
8. Go out and hunt inspiration, don't sit waiting for it: At first I thought the inspiration for stories about Shenzhen would be the bizarre news items I covered and the even more bizarre people I befriended. Then I realised that the problem with this is that fiction has to be believable. 
It's up to you what you think can be the basis of a good story. In 1905, Arnold Bennett glanced at a peculiar old lady in a restaurant and she was the inspiration for a whole novel "The Old Wive's Tale." The other day I was in KFC (I'm not proud of it, I was hungry) and it was grossly understaffed so the queue was a bitch. When I got to the front, the girl serving me had a gentle smile on her flabby, acned face, not one of those awful fixed smiles you get from staff at 5 star hotels, but a sign that she really wasn't miserable in her work. Or maybe she was daydreaming. Either way, she would make a great character in a novel.
9. Don't try to write beautifully: Language is the window through which people look at the story. No bugger goes to a museum to admire the glass behind which the artefacts lie. Beautiful writing will ensue with practice. Pretty flourishes tend to only distract from the narrative and get cut out by editors anyway. 
10. We write because we write because we write: Writing is not utilitarian, neither are smiling, laughing or dancing. Those things make life worth living, so people shouldn't look for usefulness in them. 
Anyway, to tell people there is big market demand for good creative writing is neither helpful nor kind. The boom of the 80s and 90s is over and in the post-financial crisis world, the market is small and getting smaller. Even a lot of the well-known ones are struggling. 
Plus, worldly success (awards, bestseller lists, 5* reviews, etc...) is not a good thing to think about while writing. You have a star to follow. As Clive James put it: "If would be writers aren't capable of writing a book for its own sake, they shouldn't be writing at all." If you need to go to your grave knowing for sure whether your life's work had any value, writing is not for you. Go into animal psychology or something. 
The spirit of self-expression for its own sake is well encapsulated in the poem "Self-Protection" by D.H. Lawrence (who probably wouldn't have passed many biology tests):
When science starts to be interpretive
It is more unscientific even than mysticism.

To make self-preservation and self-protection the first law of existence
Is about as scientific as making suicide the first law of existence,
And amounts to very much the same thing.

A nightingale singing at the top of his voice
Is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself nor propagating his species;
He is giving himself away in every sense of the word;
And obviously, it is the culminating point of his existence.

A tiger is striped and golden for his own glory.
He would certainly be much more invisible if her were grey-green.
And I don’t suppose the ichthyosaurus sparkled like the humming-bird,
No doubt he was khaki-colored with muddy protective colouration,
So why didn’t he survive?

As a matter of fact, the only creatures that seem to survive
Are those that give themselves away in flash and sparkle
And gay flicker of joyful life;
Those that go glittering abroad
With a bit of splendour.

Even mice play quite beautifully at shadows,
And some of them are brilliantly piebald.

I expect the dodo looked like a clod,
A drab and dingy bird.