Reading Undressed

Reading Undressed

As a lover of beauty, books, and nudity, the concept of Naked Girls Reading is an alluring one: beautiful girls read a thematic mixture of prose and poetry to an audience, while seated naked on a small stage.

So on 5th July 2011 I attended the Naked Goddesses Reading event for an evening of mythical reading at the Paradise by way of Kensal Green, London. The three goddesses–Sophia St. Villier, Glory Pearl and Lily Miss-Chevious–were, quite naturally, radiant, which coupled with their impeccable reading, demure posture and piquant reading list made for an evening that was in equal parts contemporary as it was classical.

From the traditional gravitas of Homer, through to the popular stories of Thomas Bullfinch and the contemporary words of Margret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, the evening was lightened with poetry from The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy, and acted as a temperate and enjoyable dance through the realms of mythology.

While nude reading is unlikely to remain anything but a niche interest, it is, above all, an excellent opportunity to listen to quality public reading. Although the combination of nudity and reading might appear tawdry to some, it is perhaps reminiscent of the nudity of the ancient Greek Olympics, showing that nudity has a long tradition of being the ideal way of performing in front of audiences.

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Fighting the Middle-Aged at the Hay Festival

Fighting the Middle-Aged at the Hay Festival

Waking at 4:40 am, the journey from Surrey to Wales is a blur. A noisey rush along empty motorways, some hair-raising buffeting on the Severn bridge, and then  a drawn out, madcap dash down a warren of country roads to reach Hay-on-Wye. While the blue sky made a brief appearance just after leaving England, it is quickly replaced by a playful wind, light rain and some dark, imposing clouds. Just as I’m about the chrottle the SatNav for sending me to the middle on nowhere, Hay-on-Wye appears out of the morning mist and I give the SatNav a reprieve.

Walking around the festival ground an hour before it officially opens, the place is pristinely empty which makes me feel like an imposter. I keep on expecting to get asked for a pass or  to explain what I’m doing, but I’m glad I’m not stopped as I don’t have a clue what I’m doing here so early in the morning. I’m a peeping Tom, getting an eyeful of the naked festival ground before the neat composition of walkways and stalls are dressed with people. A few grisly faces peep out from stalls, trying to work out how to shake off last night’s hangovers. I find a dingey refreshment tent serving coffee. The server looks at me accusingly as I place my order: just because they’re open it doesn’t mean she wants to start serving yet. It’s probably not in her contract, assuming she has one, of course.

Sitting with a strong coffee I notice a few more people traipsing in, bringing with them a hopeful, morning excitement. The emptiness ebbs away, and I’m no longer an imposter, just another punter awaiting the day with anticipation. I finish my coffee, and make my way to the theatre tent to watch journalist Alice Jones interviewing Magnus Mills.

When Alice and Magnus take to the stage I’m initially surprised at Magnus’ height and graceful composure, but the surprise is only momentary before I notice Alice Jones’ legs. She has incredible, long legs, and even though the chill air is eating exposed flesh, she’s brazenly not wearing tights. I suspect the air is scared of her legs, as they look perfect for kicking at things viciously. I pull my attention away from her legs, and listen as Magnus tells the audience about his craft. How he structured his first novel, the Restraint of Beasts, like a fence; how structure and style are more important to him than plot; how writer’s block is just an excuse for not writing; how he never edits his work; and how none of his colleagues read books. My eyes hone in on Alice’s legs again. They’re wonderful.

Leaving Magnus and the legs behind, I walk round the festival. Although busier than before, it still feels like it hasn’t bloomed. Perhaps it’s because it’s a Sunday or perhaps it’s the boisterous wind, but the gaggle of visitors still aren’t thronging with much enthusiasm. It’s as though everyone’s witholding their excitement, and noone is willing to really relish the day. I visit Hay Fever, the area set aside for families, but still I don’t find the ebullience I’m searching for. Maybe it’s just the weather, but I wonder if the Hay festival is perhaps just a mecca for the windswept middle-aged?

I busy myself with more coffee and then step into the bookshop to watch Magnus Mills signing books. I wait patiently in queue with everyone else, clutching an unread copy of Screwtop Thompson for him to sign. People ask for specific messages, sometimes for a birthday present, or for a loved one back home. Magnus looks harried, and I start to wonder if signing books is a highpoint of the day for authors, or a chore they stomache solely for the chance to sell more books. The queue is unending, and while I really want to ask Magnus what he think’s about book signing, I decide against it and leave with my book untouched by his fair hand.

Stepping out into the whipping wind, I realise something extraordinary has happened. The quiet restraint of the festival has disappeared and has been replaced by a noisey buzz of people. Everywhere I look people are squeezing past other people, books clutched in claws and the wind blowing conversations up and down the covered walkways. I struggle for ten minutes to get away from the bookshop and then have to brawl my way into the Oxfam tent for a lecture by V.S. Naipaul. Squeezing into a dark corner of the full tent, I watch the legendary author for all of ten minutes before the soothing spell of his voice sends me to sleep. I dream of Alice’s amazingly long legs and wake just in time to applaud at the end of the lecture. I fight the crowd once more until I finally make it to the festival exit.

Next year I might or might not bring a heavy duty walking stick and some chainmail to fight the crowds, but next year I certainly won’t book tickets for the Sunday brekfast performances. Those early morning starts are not only undignified, but they’re a beastly preparation for a day fighting the crowds at Hay.

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The Next Big Author

The Next Big Author

In very much the same vein as NaNoWriMo, the UK Arts Councils’  The Next Big Author competition challenges  authors to write the opening chapters of a novel during the month of May.

However, unlike NaNoWriMo, which promotes scribbling a first draft at break neck speed, The Next Big Author’s focus is on creating a polished draft of 5,000 – 7,000 words, which can subsequently be uploaded for peer review, with the 5 highest-rated entries receiving a professional critique from a publishing house.

Sounds like May will be the month to dust of the typewriter, and get in a heavy duty order of caffeine. Shucks, and just as the evenings went and got all vernal.

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Genre-less Genre

Genre-less Genre

As a childhood fan of genre fiction—from Science Fiction and Fantasy, through to spy thrillers, murder mysteries, and a dash of horror for good measure—the discovery of non-genre fiction came late to me as I fell out of my teenage years.

Having spent my youth in the wilderness, I took to reading historical and contemporary classics with a vengeance. With little to guide me apart from the dogged maxim that genre was wrong, I ploughed through endless books, desperate to make up for my wasted youth. I’m not sure where the thought came from, but in the back of my mind I knew there was something wrong with genre fiction. Something debased about it that marked it as a lesser form of writing, to be shunned by civilized folk and, at best, to be read solely for the amusement of minors.

However, as I matured, I slowly rediscovered genre fiction. Like a dirty secret, I kept the rediscovery to myself, but gradually my desire to read magical realism and speculative fiction grew stronger, until I could no longer keep my reading habits to myself, and finally had to come out as a through-and-through fan of genre fiction.

Although I’m now comfortable with my literary inclinations and I’m well-adjusted enough to read whatever I want, I still can’t help but wonder if there’s a fundamental reason why so many dislike genre so much? Is there some intrinsic property that separates genre fiction from real literature, or is the separation nothing more than the bias of cultural elitism? After all, one generation’s genre fiction can become another’s classics, and in practice genre is little more than a categorization of literary style. Indeed where would some of our most compelling authors be without genre? Where would Margret Atwood be without speculative fiction, or Salman Rushdie without magical realism?

For some genre might be the price of making reading accessible to the masses, for others it’s the stench of cultural elitism, but for the rest of us it’s a compass that helps us navigate  through the literary landscape. Just because a book is written according to the informal rules of a particular genre it doesn’t, by any means, stop it  from being an original or significant work, or, indeed, a cultural masterpiece.  While the debate over genre and literature is unlikely to die out soon, given the significant number of books that willingly shun the shackles of genre, who’s to say that Genre-less fiction hasn’t become a genre in it’s very own right?

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Authonomy.com Review

Authonomy.com Review

I first came across authonomy.com on Book Army’s closing down page, which was perhaps an portentous start. Given Book Army’s failure to attract a significant user base, it seemed there are numerous lessons that publishers could take away, but if my first impressions of Authonomy are right, then publishers still don’t get the Internet. Publishers seem to view the Internet through the same old media lens that they founded their businesses on, and while they understand user generated content and social networking are two faces of the new Zeitgeist, they fail to appreciate how exactly they can tap into the new world of media.

Authonomy suffers from the same problem that bedevilled Book Army, which is it lacks the passionate zeal that separates the great and good from the morass of mediocrity. Authonomy looks like an exercise in corporate expenditure, and while giving the site a fresh skin and adding some of the missing integration features would certainly help, the fact they haven’t pushed those features, suggests it’s a website being run more as a job than as a hard worn destination for the reams of readers and writers browsers.

To give Authonomy one last chance to redeem itself, I visited the site for one last time, only to be greeted by the site’s error page. While this could be taken as evidence that publishers don’t understand or appreciate the 24-7 nature of the Internet, what’s worse is it shows their lack of appreciation for a properly designed error page.

Publishers–and in particular HarperCollins–shame on you.

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Portrait Of an Artist as an Old Man Review

Portrait Of an Artist as an Old Man Review

While it’s often mooted that an author’s first novel serves as an autobiographical catharsis for the author, there is little if any consensus about the relationship between an author and their last novel. With this quandary steadfast in his thoughts, Eugene Pota, a world-renown author and aging cassanova, tries to unravel this enigmatic relationship while producing a novel that lives up to the past glories of his literary career, and in particular his first book – which rightly earned him a place in the history of literature.

Tracing the inner workings of the writing process, from the intimate embarrassment of writers block, through to the mystifying otherworldliness of success and the dizzying and perpetual fear of rejection, the issues deftly rendered in Heller’s last, posthumously published novel, transcends the barrier between fiction and autobiography and depicts the mesmerizing struggle between an author and a novel.

As Pota plants an array of weak, desperate plots and follows the subsequently questionable prose that grows uncontrollably weed-like, the heart rending sense of failure looms ever closer and ever larger, as Pota heroically tries to avoid coming to terms with the closing chapter of his career. With every turn of page in a literary race for time, and as the growing failing of Pota’s writing skills becomes apparent, the question that constantly assails the reader is whether Pota can overcome the overwhelming self-doubt and loneliness of writing and arrive at an idea from which to grow his final novel. Dragging the reader through meetings with his past muses, his literary agent and various facets of his life, through until the heady conclusion of the culminating chapter, a foreboding sense looms over the reader that not only Eugene Pota’s career rests on the success of his last book, but also the sanctified career of the Heller himself.

While the simplicity and measured pace of Portrait of the Artist suitably counters the complexity and mayhem of Catch-22, the high quality crafting of the writing, leaves the book as a laudable reminder and farewell from a master of humour. Ably pulling itself out from the shadow of Catch-22 and standing as a provocative example of how artful a final novel can be, it would not only make Eugene Pota proud, but also serves as a deserved slight to GK Chesteron’s ridiculous assertion that: A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” This is not only a great novel, but it’s also one that tells us the truth about its hero, the truth about its author and the truth of writing process. A definitive read for anyone even vaguely interested in the creative as well as the receptive side of literature.

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March of the Literature Luddites

March of the Literature Luddites

When the British textile artisans of the nineteenth century found their livelihoods threatened by the march of industrialization and technical innovation, they took to smashing mechanized looms in protest, and the first recognisable Luddite movement was born.

Although e-books are, by their very nature, a much trickier prospect to smash than looms, Ned Ludd would be proud to learn the Luddites have kept religiously in step with technology to this day, as amply attested by the wonderful Campaign for Real Books.

So was it religious restraint that kept the fifteenth century’s scriptorium monks from giving Gutenberg’s  printing press the Luddite treatment, or did they perhaps realise that innovation is an inevitable companion of progress, and as much God’s work as the carefully penned workmanship of their own hand?

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The sentence, when done right, is greater than the whole

The sentence, when done right, is greater than the whole

Nestled in the depths of Julian Gough’s piece on the divine nature of comedy, is the following line which exudes so much gravity it’s in danger of putting the rest of his excellent article in the shade:

“The novel, when done right—when done to the best of the novelist’s abilities, talent at full stretch—is always greater than the novelist.

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There is no Definitive in Social Media

There is no Definitive in Social Media

I’d been meaning to write a review of Goodreads.com for a number of weeks, although I’d been plagued by the thought that there’s really no point. That’s not to say it defies analysis, lacks quality, or is any way irrelevant, but rather that it is not the definitive book review site, and therefore is not the social book review site I’ve been trawling the web for.

When I reviewed Book Army I was convinced the idea of a social book review site was a great idea, and while Book Army’s execution is perhaps not as tight as it could’ve been, it promised an excellent place to share reviews. Of course there are plenty of other places to read or publish book reviews, some of them social and some of them not, including: the big names such as Amazon or Facebook’s  weRead application; the traditional print media such as the New York Times; the genre specific sites, such as the Fantasy Book Review, or SF Reviews;  professional review sites, such as BookPage or BookBrowse.com; and the reams of excellent review blogs, such as MostlyFiction or Becky’s Book Review. However, none of them had the combination of presence and social pulse to suggest they might ever become the de facto book review service, and thus none of them has the cachet to catch my interest.

While many of the book review services attract significant numbers of users and reviews, given the number of competing niche services, I’ve slowly realised my goal of finding the definitive service is actually just a misunderstanding on my behalf about what social media is. Although the idea of publishing reviews on more than one service was an anathema to me, it gradually occurred to me I’ve been baulking at the fundamental principle of social media, which is you need to mix communities if you want a diverse and healthy social network. And of course, there’s also never been a definitive source of book reviews, so after weeks of kicking around thinking all these social book review sites were inadequate, it turns out the inadequacy was in me. Oh well, Goodreads.com here I come.

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