Obsession With Words

obsession in deathWhen I accepted Obsession in Death by J. D. Robb to review for a blog tour, I had no idea that the author behind the series was actually Nora Roberts. The name J. D. Robb was vaguely familiar to me and I like crime fiction a lot, so I thought I’d give the book a try.

Nora Roberts, in case you are wondering, must be a candidate for the most prolific author of all time. Since she started writing in 1981, she has published well over 200 romance novels and just over 50 novels in the In Death series. Given that her early days were spent writing for Silhouette, it’s true that quite a few of those books are short. But even so, her annual output regularly reaches ten or more novels, which truly boggles the mind. Kind of makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life, doesn’t it? Apparently she writes eight hours a day every day, revises each manuscript three times and likes to write three romances in a row followed by three police procedurals, so as to linger a little in each fictional realm (rather than zip in and out in a fortnight, I presume). And she’s hugely successful – since 1999 every one of her novels has been on the New York Times bestseller list. Whatever you might think of such astounding output, Nora Roberts also wins the award for most philanthropic writer around, channelling a large cut of her earnings into charities for children, the arts and humanitarian aid.

I’m not sure whether it’s surprising or not that I couldn’t finish Obsession in Death. On the one hand, I love Agatha Christie and Lee Child, so I’m no stranger to the prolific author, and the premise for the book sounded intriguing enough. Robb’s police detective is NYPD superwoman, Eve Dallas, and in this outing she is called to the adroit killing of a high-profile criminal defence attorney, a woman with whom Dallas has clashed in court. The job looks neat and tidy enough to be professional, but an inked message on the wall above the body makes it personal. The killer is a self-confessed admirer of Eve Dallas, out to right the wrongs committed against her and clearly seeking her approval. Effectively it’s a serial killer who also happens to be a stalker, leaving dead bodies as love gifts. I thought this had plenty of pulpy potential, a swift easy read with a dash of sensationalism, a spritz of angst and plenty of headlong rushing towards an eleventh hour climax.

On the other hand, I had read a completely ruinous book before picking up Obsession in Death. One of those books that is so outrageously wonderful that everything else pales in comparison. It was Deborah Levy’s novella-length memoir, Things I Don’t Want To Know, written as a response to Orwell’s extended essay, Why I Write. It was devastatingly good. (And yes, I’ll review it soon, once I’ve got over it enough to write something sensible about it.) Undoubtedly that was a factor.

And whilst we’re on the other hand, I should also point out that nothing had warned me in advance that this would be a sci-fi series. Nothing on the blurb or the jacket cover, although the opening lines inform the reader that we’re in 2060. Which is a funny in-the-middle-of-nowhere time to pick, as it’s essentially a recognisable world with slightly different vocab and a few more gadgets. If I’d got further into the story, I would probably have discovered good reasons for the futuristic setting. But I didn’t so I can’t tell you what they were.

Then there’s the romance element. Apparently, Nora Roberts wanted to write in the manner of Mary Stewart, which is why she took on a pseudonym and began a crime series in the first place. It was a way of combining mystery and thriller writing with love stories. Well, by the time of this book, you may imagine that the relationship between Eve Dallas and her now husband, Roarke, is pretty well advanced. Roarke used to be a criminal, but now he simply runs his multi-billion company and helps out with Eve’s cases when she lets him for the fun of experiencing the other side. He is tall, dark and handsome, quite possibly the richest man on the planet, and utterly devoted to Eve. In the opening sections of the story when Eve returns home after a tough day, having forgotten she’s supposed to attend a social function with Roarke, he cancels for both of them and stays home so he can rub Eve’s shoulders and program her dinner into whatever command central produces meals in 2060. He is perfect. It was probably mostly due to Roarke that I gave up about 130 pages in. I just couldn’t stomach him.

It was a perplexing book. The situations were interesting, the characters okay, the dialogue felt natural, there ought to have been all sorts of enticing subplots opening up. But I struggled to get engaged with it at all, felt the crime was approached in a very superficial way and the investigation was flat and forced. I really wanted to like it – how great to enjoy a book in a series and realise you have another 49 to catch up on! But indifference and the press of other books to read meant we parted ways. Fortunately, Nora Roberts does not need my good opinion, nor the royalties from my sales. But if this novel appeals to you, do give it a try; it probably fell into my hands at the wrong moment.

WEEK 2 BLOG TOUR POSTER (2 of 2)

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!