It keeps getting easier

You know, I’m a moaning bastard. No two ways about it. I’m old and cynical and lots of things get on my nerves. Yet I discovered a shortcut last night that is going to help me enormously in doing my MA and while it’s only a small thing, I’ve been – for some reason – disproportionately excited by it. I’ll get to that in a minute. First of all let me trawl through the good old days…

When I was an undergraduate, I had to buy a lot of books. If they didn’t have them in the university book shop I had to wander about Liverpool and try every second hand bookseller I could find. I had to try all the libraries. It was a bit of a pain in the arse. I was also trying to be a writer back then and I bought a second hand typewriter. Every time I screwed up, or changed my mind, I had to retype a whole page. Or I had to use those little tipex rectangles to blot out a word and then retype over it with the letters usually misaligned. It was, to be quite honest, a bit of a pain in the arse.

By the time I came to do my first MA, we had Amazon. As long as I was quite organised I could get all my books, delivered to my door, well in advance of needing them. I also had a word processor. It was a big, ugly, grey thing that you could use as an electric typewriter or as a rudimentary computer – typing onto a six inch screen, saving the file to a floppy disk and printing out the pages only when you were happy with them. It was a lot better than the typewriter, although printing stuff did take about as long as typing it. The only difference was you sat there and watched it, fed paper into it, and had a beer.

By the time I got to my PhD, Amazon had added the ‘Look Inside’ feature to their books. Which is just as well. I lost some of my notes along the way and although the quotes I needed were already in my thesis, I didn’t have all the details for some of my citations. Instead of trawling all the libraries, I located the books on Amazon. I opened the ‘Look Inside’ feature, searched for my quote, and hey presto – I had a page reference. I also had access to the front pages in the book – the ones that give you year of publication and geographical location of the publisher. (By this point I also had a laptop. I won’t even go into how much easier that is than a typewriter or a word processor…)

Ok, coming back to my latest discovery. But let me put it in context. My research technique has always been as follows: read a book and make notes in it while I go. Afterwards, I come back to it and trawl through all the notes I’ve made. The ones I think are going to be useful I write out, in longhand, in an A4 pad. With the page number, and the book’s publication details at the top. Sometimes, that process can take two to three hours. I filled four of these pads while researching my PhD thesis. (And incidentally, it was the loss of one of them that led to the ‘Look Inside’ discovery).

Two of the novels I’ve read so far for my current MA I’ve read on my Kindle. I knew there was a highlight feature on it, and I knew the highlights get written to a ‘Clippings’ document on the device. Very handy to have all your notes put into one place for you to reference in seminars. What I didn’t know, however, is that this ‘Clippings’ document is actually a .txt file. Which means, I can plug my Kindle into my laptop, open this file, and then copy and paste all the quotes in it into a Word document. Actually, even better, I can copy and paste it into an Excel spreadsheet. Then I have an indexed list of all my quotes, properly referenced, readily available without having to get cramp in my wrist. I can search for quotes rather than having to flip through pages to find them. And best of all, I don’t even have to type them into my essays – I can copy and paste them in.

So now I have to find something else to moan about. I could always moan about the inconvenience of that I suppose. Or how about this – why wasn’t all this stuff around twenty years ago? The hardships I could have avoided if some technological inventor types had pulled their finger out a bit quicker. Lazy bastards…

Blue Monday, Postmodern Tuesday

Yep, yesterday was Blue Monday. In time honoured tradition I celebrated it by having a thoroughly shit day. Today is the day after and because of the novel we covered at uni last night (White Noise by Don DeLillo) I’ve been thinking about postmodernism all day.

The DeLillo book irritated me a bit, probably because I was expecting a postmodern classic and what I got was a satire of postmodernism presented in a fairly conventional structural form. Don’t get me wrong, in parts it was amusing and I’m always up for a bit of satire. But at times it seemed like he was really denigrating postmodernism, reducing it to the absurd and illustrating how it’s useless as a mechanism in approaching existence in the phsyical world. Although I don’t really use any of its techniques in my writing, I still think postmodernism is one of, if not THE most viable aesthetic approach of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Not just in literary terms, but in art, in cinema, in music even. The appropriation of existing cultural themes and reconstitution of them into something new is, for me, the most honest approach an artist can take. Everyone is influenced by what has gone before them, so why not highlight that? Why not make the audience aware that they’re reading a novel or watching a film? Narrative isn’t reality, so why pretend it is? Once you free the work from that constraint it’s then able to provoke all manner of responses to it – on it’s quality, it’s cultural purpose, it’s position within the evolving framework of cognitive connections that form in the mind of those engaging with it.

For my PhD I read a lot of postmodern criticism and took exception to some of the conclusions drawn. This is probably up somewhere else on the blog, but for context I’ve included it again here – my argument against Frederic Jameson (an approach which irritated my supervisors no end, but I refused to take it out):

“A common charge levelled at postmodernism in general, not least by Frederic Jameson, is that it is a superficial method of comprehension; that it fails to engage with representations of the past, or indeed of anything conceptual, in a meaningful or insightful manner. Jameson terms it the “pastiche”, the “bravura imitation” (133) of postmodernism, a reduction of authentic images and ideals to a “mass cultural allusion”, a set of stylised signifiers which start to replace the truth of any matter (134). The example he cites in his opus Postmodernism, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet which, he believes, displaces “the 1950s” with “the ‘fifties'” (281), a string of “stereotypes, of ideas of facts and historical realities” (279) rather than those facts and realities themselves. To a certain extent this argument has real validity; however, it seems somewhat misplaced. This process of conceptual displacement is not strictly a fault of postmodernism alone. Representation itself is by very definition a reductionist process. The 1950s do not mean anything as and of themselves; they are merely a collection of years, of months, of revolutions of the earth around the sun. The attachment of significance to them is a revisionist process, an editing of facts into a narrative, a method which raises the same questions of whose narratives have greater authority – those of the historian or those of the “teller [who] constructs that truth and chooses those facts” (Hutcheon 56)?”

Replace David Lynch with Quentin Tarantino. And then tell me that films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill don’t resonate with audiences because they play on the same cross-reference of iconic images and cult themes that rattle around in their heads anyway. In any case, I’m rambling now. So I’ll stop. We’re covering postmodernism for the next couple of weeks so expect another rant about it soon.

Two Unrelated Things

Two completely unrelated things that I got, indirectly, for Christmas. With some book vouchers I bought this:

HHhH

I was going to say ‘a fantastic novel’ but I’m not entirely sure that’s what it is. It’s more a historical study, written in a novelistic style, with interjections from the author worrying about turning fact into narrative. I don’t like the term ‘non-fiction novel’. Brilliant book though. It recounts the assassination attempt upon Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Gestapo, during the second world war.

You’ll also notice it has an endorsement on the front by Martin Amis. For once, me and Mr Amis agree on something. Wonders will never cease…

Anyway, definitely recommended, as is the latest album by The Pines, which I bought with some iTunes vouchers. This is one of the singles from it. Not sure about all of the lyrics, but just listen to the guitar work on it. Tremendous.

 

I said yesterday I didn’t have a lot to contribute at the moment. This is pretty much it really. Just stuff I like…

I’ve got nothing…

New Year and it’s been a while since I updated the Blog. Poblem is – I have nothing. Nothing at all. I’ve been off work for 2 weeks and decided I was going to let everything slide away and just relax a bit. My phone died on Boxing Day and I’ve left it dead for over a week. Cut off from the outside world. I thought it might help recharge the batteries and I could come back swinging (nice mixed metaphor), but no. I’m going to have to try and jump-start my brain somehow between now and Monday.

In the meantime, there’s this – a short essay on poetics I had to do for the MA course. I handed it in in December and it will have been marked by now so I figure I can stick it up here. It builds upon what I’ve been saying about short stories on here for a while and was written in support of my 7″ fiction project:

Poetics in Support of 7″ Fiction

“Short fiction must be microcosmic in nature in order for it to succeed. The aim of all literary work is to strike at elements of universal truth, to uncover resonant themes and ideas that readers are able to identify and engage with. In a novel, these can be extrapolated and propounded logically over several hundred pages, but in short fiction there is only the time to allude, to signify, to pique the reader’s intellect and encourage their perception to move beyond the limited boundaries of the text.

This is even truer of flash fiction. A piece of three or four hundred words does not have sufficient length to allow for elaboration of theme or protracted development of character and narrative. A successful work of flash fiction should therefore present the reader with a single moment, an instant in time, which contains within itself the cause and effect of its own being. Narrative arc is crucial but should not, indeed cannot, be set out in a conventional manner by the author. Instead of a sequence of events that build towards a conclusion, the micro-text needs to bridge the past, present and future in a series of very precisely related incidents. It must replicate, to some extent, the psychological function of awareness there on the page, where disparate stimuli coalesce to form a unified impression.

Linearity in form is therefore counter-productive to the aims of flash fiction. Linearity fails to stimulate the perception of the reader in the way that is required to contextualise the piece as a microcosmic event. The structure should instead replicate that of an explosion, a conceptual big-bang, with an epicentre from which is thrown all manner of wreckage. The point of impact is the immediate present the narrative voice speaks from; strewn about it randomly are the signifiers of causality and consequence.”

I’ll be back with something more interesting at some point, I promise…