Dangerous Ambition

theblazingworldI’ve been wondering whether to ditch the idea of reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World. Not because I didn’t enjoy it or admire it – I did both. But because it somehow seemed difficult to write about. Briefly, the novel concerns neglected artist, Harriet Burden, a woman of great ambition, great intelligence and fierce drive, whose work has been repeatedly overlooked and dismissed by the critics. It is structured as a posthumous collection of disparate writings by and about Burden that trace the development of her life and her last, desperate attempts to prove gender bias by creating three spectacular shows of work that are fronted by men, masquerading as the real artist. This isn’t some pc-driven whine: in the novel it’s noted how many actual women artists were blatantly sidelined, receiving no real recognition until their seventies (Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois) or their death (Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell) or indeed not at all – like Lee Krasner who was only ever seen through the frame of her husband, Jackson Pollock. The art world does have a problem with women, preferring ‘their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.’

Harriet Burden is driven to the edge of her sanity by the lack of recognition her work has received, and her dangerous ploy, to create work that men agree to show, backfires in all sorts of ways. Her first chosen male artist, a newcomer to the scene, is hailed beatifically and then cannot deal with the fact that he is not the work’s creator. Her second, a gender-bending black man, is too close to the feminine to attract the serious attention of the art world, though Harriet enjoys their collaboration most of all. The last, an already-established rock star of the art world, pretentious Rune, betrays Harriet in the worst possible way. Harriet proves the sexism inherent in art criticism, but she is powerless to change anything, and remains deprived of the satisfaction she seeks.

I thought a lot about Harriet Burden while reading Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels. Fels’ argument is that ambition is useful to us – ‘coping skills, understanding of reality and sense of self-worth’ are all higher in women who have defined plans for their futures. Women who want to be ‘upwardly mobile via their own achievements’ turn out to be ‘the most psychologically well adjusted.’ But recognition – accurate, meaningful praise from the external world – is consistently withheld from women, and white middle-class women in particular are the group most loathe to go after it. Ambition is understood to be pushy, aggressive, non-feminine. Women will repeatedly say that they have nothing against ambition, that they understand it can be useful, but will stubbornly stick only to ambitions that involve nurturing others.

What I found most intriguing about this book is its insistence on the value and importance of recognition. It’s a tragic myth women tell themselves to try to come to terms with their lot that it’s all about the work for its own sake, Fels suggests. ‘[T]he recognition of one’s skills within a community creates a sense of identity, personal worth, and social inclusion – base cornerstones in any life’. The times we receive recognition are usually iconic moments we remember forever more. ‘Recognition by others defines us to ourselves, energises us, directs our efforts, and even alters mood.’ Fels argues that the times we are happiest and most engaged in our work are the times when we are most valued and validated – and alas for women, cultural validation only comes in the form of praise for selflessness, for stepping down, shutting up, putting their desires away and promoting others.

Honestly? I agree. There is so much of my own experience that resonantes here. Fels notes that: ‘When girls persist in being high achievers, they are subtly penalised by their teachers. They actually receive less attention from their teachers than any of the other student types.’ Yup, that was my experience at school. And the times I flew high and found my work easy and fulfilling were mostly during my graduate days when I had two mentors around me who encouraged me a great deal. When I began working for the university, there was no recognition to be had. In thirteen years teaching, I had two appraisals and only one sentence of praise which yes, I remember to this day (the then Senior Tutor said ‘no one can please all the people all the time, but you get pretty close to it’). The constant lack of recognition undoubtedly contributed to chronic fatigue – I paid out so much energy, and had so little re-energising sense of doing well in return. And I did indeed feel guilty and wrong for wanting recognition at all. Not least because I was aware that it’s so hard to come by. For instance, here’s an intriguing study from Fels’ book:

Two groups of people were asked to evaluate particular items, such as articles, paintings, resumes and the like. The names attached to the items given each group of evaluators were clearly either male or female, but reversed for each group – that is, what one group believed was originated by a man, the other believed was originated by a woman. Regardless of the items, when they were ascribed to a man, they were rated higher than when they were ascribed to a woman. In all of these studies, women evaluators were as likely as men to downgrade those items ascribed to women.’

Essentially, it’s the premise of Hustvedt’s book. Which of course puts women in a complicated position. What else IS there to do but try and find consolation in the practice of whatever work we do, in the full awareness that it’s the only reward we’re likely to get? Another interesting book that’s been holding my attention lately is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Approval and acceptance are hugely important, they agree, but to jump on the bandwagon and produce commercially successful art is often to lose your identity as an artist, whilst standing out for your own vision is always fraught with inevitable misunderstandings: ‘The problem is not absolute but temporal: by the time your reward arrives, you may not be around to collect it. Ask Schubert.’ It’s a great little book, actually, that has made me laugh a lot, and has some pithy advice.

The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process.’

Sensible words, but I doubt they would have helped Harriet Burden. Ambition is like a virus, I don’t think you can just will it away, but it is also a very high-risk strategy, particularly for women and I can’t see that changing any time soon.

 

Writer Beware Writer

Ever since Dan Brown did his best to convince us that a Harvard professor of symbology could be an action hero, thrillers have moved into some unusual territories. Those of us crying out for the directions to the nearest library now turn out to have deeper and darker motives than you’d think possible. I was entertained lately by both Philip Kerr’s Research and Robert Galbraith’s (aka…oh you know don’t you) The Silkworm, books set fully within the world of publishing, where the authors had a great deal of fun at the cost of their profession’s integrity. Readers are more than welcome to join the party, but only if they suspend reality first.

researchPhilip Kerr’s Research opens with a shocking item on the news: it seems that multimillionaire author, John Huston, has shot his wife, Orla, and done a bunk from their luxury appartment in Monaco. Alerted to the news is struggling author, Don Irvine, who knows Huston better than most, given that he wrote a significant chunk of his novels. For Huston, ex-advertising copywriter and business mastermind, used to run what he called an ‘atelier’, a clutch of ghost writers to whom he would send out 70-page synopses, full of technical detail, to have them transformed into blockbusters. John is a man who can’t be bothered with the actual tedium of writing, and who saw from his first contract that there was serious money to be made if it were possible to produce generic fiction at a superhuman rate. Don was the first ghost he hired, and he used to do very well out of it, although he was paid a tiny fraction of the money that Houston glories in.

Then John Huston had an awkward turnaround; he decided he wanted to write something more literary and was tired of the treadmill of his empire. The atelier was disbanded and the men he employed were forced back on their own (literary) devices. When the news of Orla’s shooting reaches the papers, Don is dragged to lunch with the rest of the gang, all embittered, angry men who are delighted to witness Huston’s fall from grace. It makes a pleasant change from staring at computer screens, unable to come up with the plot that was John’s particular genius. (‘Being a published writer is a bit like what Schopenhauer says about life itself: non-existence is our natural condition.’) Don among them seems more loyal and forgiving towards their old boss. In fact, he’s expecting a call for rescue from him at any moment, and when it comes, the men team up in a race across the Riviera, trying to outwit justice. Or maybe, Don is trying to reach some unusual justice of his own.

The engine of the plot is rage and envy inspired in men by other men who earn a great deal more money. It’s structure is a two-handed narrative, as Don and John carry the story in turns, the better to twist and fool the reader. And the pleasures along the way are all about the ill-feeling that exists between genre and literary fiction. Huston’s brief to his atelier writers tells them:

If you want your novel to be a page-turner then make clichés your friends. Clichés – the kind of writing that Martin Amis makes war on – are the verbal particle accelerators to finishing books. Original writing just slows a reader down and makes him feel inadequate. Like he’s thick. Which of course he is but there’s no sense in rubbing that in. My readers actually approve of clichés.’

It’s a very funny book – you can’t help but laugh at the wall-to-wall satire – and it’s very slick. Though you get an ever clearer idea of where it’s headed the further through you get and the ending is not quite the exultant climax I was expecting. But it falls into the category of very pleasurable hokum.

 

the silkwormThe Silkworm is a strangely woven beast. Hold it up to the light one way and it’s dark, violent and grotesque; hold it up the other and it’s light, fun and entertaining. Essentially I think it’s written in Rowling’s easy, affable style, but inside her lurks the soul of a 10-year-old boy who is fascinated with everything disgusting and scatalogical (even the bit-part defunct cat is called Mr Poop).

Once again we have an author gone missing, but Owen Quine operates at the far end of the scale from John Huston. He writes revolting and perverse books of dubious literary merit that hardly anyone ever reads. Only when his body is found, murdered in the most ghastly circumstances, the motive seems to lie in his most recent book. In it Quine has taken revenge for all his perceived slights by portraying in ornately disguised fashion, his agent, his editor, his wife, his lover and his great literary rival. Having just written that sentence I suddenly wonder whether Peter Greenaway was a muse for Robert Galbraith; it’s plausible. Anyway, this part-disguise is in fact all about revealing terrible secrets concerning the above cast, things that they did not want the general public to know. Although the book is only in manuscript form, it’s managed to more or less do the rounds of the literary fraternity in London and so the possible suspects for the murder are legion.

Called upon in the first instance to find the missing Quine, is private investigator Cormoran Strike, the Rubeus Hagrid of gumshoes. A giant of a man but far from gentle, Strike wears his ex-military career in the form of a prosthetic leg, victim of a bombing in Afghanistan. Before we go any further, I would like to issue a plea to get that man’s prothesis sorted out. It’s clearly not doing the job, and I lost count of the times we are invited to be moved to sympathy because of it. I began to have fantasies about creating a detective who got the job done with tact and understanding; who realised the value of good contacts and used them, whose main skills lay in disarming and charming suspects and who looked after himself really, really well. But I forgave Cormoran because I like his secretary so much, the pretty and resourceful Robin who longs to be a detective herself. They make a good pairing.

The inadvertent pleasures of the book are to be found, again, in a slicing and dicing of the literary world, its greeds and envies and duplicities. Though really, Galbraith has more interesting and unusual things to say on the paradoxes of love. This is a long book, almost 600 pages, and its characters are for the most part unlikeable and unlikely, but the plotting is strong and sure-footed and the ending is cleverly done.

Robert Galbraith and Philip Kerr agree wholeheartedly that when writing about writers, it’s the compacted mass of dangerous emotions provoked by the desire to be validated through art that causes all the trouble. Writers, beware. And in both books the expletive count was astronomical. Readers beware. In Kerr this felt like parody, in Galbraith like overcompensation. Doesn’t everybody believe that writers are rough, tough stuff, just full to the brim of murderous violence?

Issue 4 Goes Live

 

And indeed, we are live…!

SNB-logoIssue 4 of Shiny New Books is now available for your delectation. To help you get started here are a few of my favourite reviews written by people other than myself!

Fiction

Harriet’s review of Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

David Hebblethwaite’s review of Bilbao-New York-Bilboa by Kirmen Uribe

Rebecca Foster’s review of Some Luck by Jane Smiley

 

Non-Fiction

Jenny’s review of In These Times; Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars by Jenny Uglow

Rebecca Hussey’s review of Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Annabel’s review of Armchair Nation; An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV by Joe Moran

 

Reprints

Simon’s review of Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Lory Widmer Hess’s review of The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

Karen Langley’s review of In The Twilight by Anton Chekhov

 

BookBuzz

Neil Ansell’s article: The Art of Memoir and Narrative Non-Fiction

Michelle Bailat-Jones’ article: On Writing Fog Island Mountains

Marilyn Dell Brady’s article: Reading Diversity

 

I could have picked so many more, but for now: Enjoy!

The Girl On The Train

girl on the trainWhat is wrong with me at the moment? Paula Hawkins’ thriller, The Girl on the Train, is the most buzzy book around at the moment, and a cursory check of the reviews in the national papers indicates that everyone loves it. Everyone that is, but me. So if you loved Gone Girl, or if you enjoy contemporary thrillers about women in peril, then I suggest you click onto another blog post immediately. Move along, now, nothing to see. Because I am most definitely in the minority, and it may perhaps be best if we carry on under the assumption that I must be missing the point.

The novel is a reworking of a fine rear window principle. Rachel commutes to Euston on the train every day, and has a particular fondness for one signalling light at which the train usually stops. From her vantage point, she can see Blenheim Road in Witney, where a married couple have arrested her fantasies. She calls them ‘Jason’ and ‘Jess’, and imagines their happy life together: ‘They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me, five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.’ For Rachel is in freefall, her marriage over after her failure to get pregnant drove her to drinking too much, unemployed after turning up drunk in the office, and living out an alcohol-drenched shell of her old existence in the hope of fooling her friend, Cathy, whose flat she awkwardly shares. And then she catches sight of ‘Jess’ in the garden kissing a man who isn’t her husband, and she has the first inkling that all might not be well in paradise.

Blenheim Road is dangerous territory for Rachel to fantasize about because it’s the road on which she used to live, and where her ex, Tom, still lives with his new wife, Anna and their little daughter. Rachel cannot let go of her past and obsesses over their new life together. She’s been ringing up and leaving notes and Anna is already furious with her. When Rachel wakes one morning with a terrible hangover and a head wound, she has scarcely any memory of what has happened to her; but she knows it involved Blenheim Road and she knows it was bad.

Then a glimpse at the newspapers on the daily commute shocks her deeply; ‘Jess’ or in real life, Megan Hipwell, has gone missing, and it isn’t long before the search becomes a murder hunt with her husband firmly in the frame. Thinking she owes it to Scott Hipwell to tell him about the other man she saw in the garden with Megan, Rachel starts to become entangled in the investigation, though her drinking makes her an unreliable witness and her general emotional messiness leaves her a walking target for disaster.

Although Rachel’s perspective dominates the stream of consciousness narration, it changes hands between her and Megan – those entries dated earlier, so we are approaching her fate from a long run-up. Megan is a wild child playing at domesticity; despite her current stability and the therapist she’s seeing, she can’t help sleeping around. Megan’s narrative is as incomplete as Rachel’s, because she doesn’t want to come right out and say what she’s doing. Two unreliable narrators clocked up so far, and to this mix we add Anna, who gradually slips into the merry-go-round of voices, initially as the smug married, but whose happiness is undermined by what she believes is Rachel’s stalking. Then we add the men – tempestuous husband Scott, object of everyone’s desire, Tom, and the sexy therapist, Kamal – and we readers are all set to play Guess the Psychopath. Because that’s what got everyone so thrilled in Gone Girl, right? The idea that soured love really does drive people crazy.

As a set-up it has intriguing possibilities. But in its execution it just isn’t terribly… interesting. Not a lot happens, really. It’s mostly plot at the level of wild speculation. But to be honest what bothered me most about the novel was the writing. To be fair, the style is one that is very popular at the moment: the female equivalent of the Lee Child thriller – short telegraphic sentences, lots of repetition for effect, a first-person spoken narrative in the impossible present. The register is mournful female, self-berating, steeped in emotion, lost and alone but quick to action, a little bewildered but oh so determined. I don’t find it life-enhancing.

My major gripe, though, is about the interchangeability of the female characters. There was nothing to differentiate them as far as voice went. And in terms of character traits, there was so much similarity. They are obsessives and masochists:

‘I lived at number twenty-three Blenheim Road for five years…That was my first home. Not my parents’ place, not a flatshare with other students, my first home. I can’t bear to look at it. Well, I can, I do, I want to, I don’t want to, I try not to. Every day I tell myself not to look, and every day I look. I can’t help myself, even though there is nothing to see ther, even though anything I do see will hurt me.’ (Rachel)

‘If he thinks I’m going to sit around crying over him, he’s got another thing [sic] coming. I can live without him, I can do without him just fine – but I don’t like to lose. It’s not like me. None of this is like me. I don’t get rejected. I’m the one who walks away. I’m driving myself insane, I can’t help it. I can’t stop going back to that afternoon at the hotel and going over and over what he said, the way he made me feel.’ (Megan)

When it comes to relationships, they use sex as a weapon of power:

‘We shouldn’t, we ought not to, but we will. It won’t be the last time. He won’t say no to me. I was thinking about it on the way home, and that’s the thing I like most about it, having power over someone. That’s the intoxicating thing.’ (Megan)

‘Being the other woman is a huge turn-on, there’s no point denying it: you’re the one he can’t help but betray his wife for, even though he loves her. That’s just how irresistible you are.’ (Anna)

Scratch the surface and you will find violent rage ready to well up:

‘I don’t have words to describe what I felt that day, but now, sitting on the train, I am furious, nails digging into my palms, tears stinging my eyes. I feel a flash of intense anger… If I saw that woman now, if I saw Jess, I would spit in her face. I would scratch her eyes out.’ (Rachel)

‘”I could lose my job,” he said, and then I really lost my temper. I pulled away, angry, violently. He tried to hold me, but he couldn’t. I was yelling at him, telling him I didn’t give a shit about his job. He was trying to quieten me… I kissed him on the mouth, I bit his lower lip as hard as I could; I could taste his blood in my mouth. He pushed me away.’ (Megan)

Perhaps this is an unfair exercise and in any book you could find moments of similarity like these. Or maybe this is what women are really like and I’m in denial about it? Or maybe it’s possible to see that the otherwise implausible ending could be explained by the women in the book all being of one type. Maybe Tolstoy needs tweaking and whilst happy women have different stories, all damaged, unhappy women are the same?

Anyway, the ending is pure Hollywood, and like all the other crazy relationship endings you’ve ever watched in films or read in books (Fatal Attraction providing the ur-story). When the book was done I took nothing away from it whatsoever. Obviously loads of other people like this sort of thing and I am out of step. But I’ve recently read the second in Eva Dolan’s brilliant new crime series that focuses on the problems surrounding immigration, and Charles Cummings’ latest spy thriller that is such a compelling, clever narrative, and they are both extremely well-written and about so much more than warring spouses. Why isn’t there all sorts of buzz around those books, rather than around an ordinary story told in an indifferent style?