Monthly Archives: August 2013

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EIBF: Pippa Goldschmidt and Alice Thompson

EIBF Review: Pippa Goldschmidt and Alice Thompson 20/08/13

 Drive and determination are common topics at literary events, yet a Tuesday afternoon session unearthed some memorable insights. Dubbed ‘When Ambition Gets The Better Of Us’, Pippa Goldschmidt read from her debut work The Falling Sky (Freight Books) and Alice Thompson chatted about her novel Burnt Island (Salt Publishing). Journalist Sarah Crown from the Guardian had a inquisitive manner and managed to draw parallels between the two writers who seemed, at first glance, not to have much in common besides age and gender.

Goldschmidt’s novel about a young astronomer has been reviewed in the New Scientist as well as lesbian magazine Diva, an unusual combination of review sources. A former academic at Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory and London’s Imperial College, Goldschmidt’s experiences inspired her character’s  ground-breaking discovery.  Goldschmidt has a wise and sensitive way of reading: ‘Jeanette may as well be invisible. She’s standing on the stage in the auditorium in front of about two hundred other astronomers… But she can tell no one’s listening’.

The theme of ambition rolled along in Thompson’s excerpt in Burnt Island, which sounded colourful and ironic. Thompson’s sixth novel focuses on Max, a writer who has sacked his agent and his publisher due to their disloyalty. He has travelled to a blustery island in order to pen his legacy but is filled with doubt: ‘What would he do to make it, what would it take?’ 

As the event continued, it became clear these authors write from experience.  An astronomer pondering astronomy, a novelist satirising other novelists. But this fact helped solidify the authors’ identities. On the question about the link between science and writing, Goldschmidt stated that in fiction ‘you set up the laws of your own universe’. Thompson, who wrote her Ph.D. on Henry James, stated that her book was ‘a homage to the act of creativity’.   

Though time passed swiftly, the cramped venue made for tricky viewing.  Called the Writer’s Retreat (or rather, the Writer’s Re-Tweed, considering the weird circle of tweed bags on the walls), the authors’ stage should have been elevated. The writers were mere talking heads above the audiences’ own craniums. It’s a good thing the book festival is all about listening, not looking. 

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EIBF: Gavin Hewitt ‘Europe on the Brink’

Such are the wonders of modern technology, that I was able to use my phone to read Gavin Hewitt’s latest BBC post on Europe outside the Baillie Gifford Theatre before listening to the man himself inside it. The BBC post concerns the recent .3% growth in the Eurozone with Hewitt briefly breaking it down by country – Germany and France strengthening/Greece, Italy, Spain still struggling. From this he draws a fairly obvious conclusion: ‘Confidence in the Euro and the wider European project depends on being able to deliver jobs’.

As it turns out, close-structure, balance and fairly obvious conclusions are Hewitt hallmarks. His lecture began with the issue of youth unemployment in Europe and a series of dire, country-by-country, statistics. He then returned to the early days of Euro-profligacy to remind us of the great building boom in Spain (which resulted, for instance in the building of airports that had no airplanes); Ireland throwing up houses with 300,000 of them never occupied; Greece following the Onassis advice ‘If you borrow, borrow big’. Hewitt examined the origins of the EU project: its attempt to balance German power, the fudging of its own deficit rules to ensure that Italy and Greece got in, the romance of the project against the practical problems of making it work. Eventually, the lecture melded seamlessly with the BBC post and the discovery of ‘some green shoots’. Hewitt concluded that ‘Europe is in a period of profound change and upheaval’ which didn’t have anyone jumping out of their seats.

Was there a hint of faint praise when chair Andrew Franklin thanked the speaker for his ‘very BBC synthesis’? The lecture was expertly delivered, as you might expect, and leavened by a series of interesting anecdotes. However, there was nothing in it that audience members with even a passing interest in Europe wouldn’t have known already.

Franklin had more on his plate at the start of the Q and A session when he encountered the chair’s worst nightmare – male audience members who want to give speeches of their own rather than ask a question. Here the first peroration was on the EU as a club for politicians and diplomats and the second on the ‘Balkanisation of Britain’ and something else about immigration. Franklin pluckily attempted to elicit questions but people aren’t easily deterred when they have prejudices to air.

The chair proved to be a quick learner and from then on chose mainly female interlocutors. He was rewarded with a series of precise and intelligent questions. To a question on where the Euro will be in ten years, Hewitt answered that it would still be around in some form though perhaps not shared by all seventeen countries that currently use it. Europe, he said, can’t just be an idea, it has to deliver and unemployment must go down. On Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s relationship with Europe, Hewitt believes that it will struggle because of the three words at the heart of the European project: ‘Ever closer union’.

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Another Scottish literary renaissance or just a lot of nice reviewers?

Recently the latest edition of one of Scotland’s bright new literary magazines dropped through the letterbox. Its arrival is something I look forward to. The magazine is not light reading – 170 pages dense with new poetry and short fiction, lots of black on white, writers of all ages and at all stages – but is well worth the effort if you want to know who is doing what in contemporary Scottish literature.

Eventually I will work my way through all of it and find (if past editions are anything to go by) good writers, promising writers, and a few whose work I’ll pass over rather quickly. I always begin my exploration, however, in medias res because that’s where the book reviews are. These pages would catch the eye anyway as they are the only part of the magazine that is in colour: a rather fetching and (as it turns out) appropriate sky blue in this edition.

The reviewers use pseudonyms that favour literary birds and animals – Kes, Tarka the Otter, Bear of Little Brain etc. This should provide the perfect cover (pun intended) for forthright assessment. The reviews are well-written and engaging and appear to be by people who know of what they speak. However, after while a pattern emerges. If you read the first novel reviewed here ‘the way that you look at [the world] will have changed’; the second is ‘an extraordinary clever enterprise’; the first short story collection is ‘highly accomplished’; poetry collections are invariably ‘assured’ or ‘inventive’ or ‘rich’. I glanced back at a previous edition in case the reviews in this one were anomalous, but there’s it is again: ‘enthralling and compelling poetry’, ‘work that is enjoyable and admirable’, ‘clever, uncomfortable novel’, ‘an indefatigable chimera of a book’ etc.

There are, of course, contexts and quibbles in the reviews that these short extracts don’t represent. There is even the odd review that seems to be edging towards the negative before the author realizes where it is going and recovers it. Read collectively, however, the reviews give the impression that most books published in Scotland these days are somewhere between good and great. A trip to the Scottish Poetry Library to examine other new (or newish) Scottish literary magazines that include reviews reveals that this is the standard way. Just about everybody likes just about everything.

So, are we in the grip of another Scottish literary renaissance? It would certainly be nice to think so. There is much to celebrate in Scottish literature these days including, incidentally, the number of fine new literary magazines both in print and online. But is everything as good as the reviews suggest or are there other factors at work? Perhaps animal-names don’t really provide much cover and nobody wants to risk getting stink eye at future literary events; or the reviewers are writers themselves and sense that the roles could easily be reversed; or everyone who reviews for these new magazines is just a nice person and doesn’t want to cause unnecessary hurt; or reviewers are assigned books they are predisposed to like; or the majority of people who gather around new literary magazines are young and less prone to cynicism than those who have been in the reviewing business for years.

I would like to think, however, that the explanation isn’t just circumstantial and that there is a broader philosophy at work. In an article in The Atlantic called ‘Book Reviews: A Tortured History’, Sarah Fay alludes to the fact that book reviews have often been seen as either too positive or too negative. On the too positive side, she cites Poe (‘We place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright’) and Elizabeth Hardwick (‘Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns’).

Hardwick herself had a reputation as a ‘snippy’ reviewer though perhaps not when compared to – say – John Gibson Lockhart who eviscerated Keats’s ‘Endymion’ in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Lockhart’s review was originally published under the pseudonym ‘Z’ and ended with some advice for the young poet/apothecary: ‘It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to plasters, pills and ointment boxes..’

Scotland does not lack for a disputatious tradition in book reviewing, but is it being replaced by a new reviewing culture that accentuates the positive?  The new way (if that is what it is) would certainly have met with John Updike’s approval. Fay cites Updike as supporting ‘the nice-guy approach to book reviewing, one that favoured and coddled the author and limited the reviewer’.  She paraphrases his ‘rules of reviewing’ as:

1.       Don’t review books that you have any personal connection to

2.       Quote the book

3.       Quote the book

4.       No spoilers

5.       Quote the book

6.       Review the book, not the authors reputation

7.       Praise unsparingly

8.       Leave tradition, school of criticism and political/social ideas out of it.

9.       Remember that books are meant to be enjoyed

10    Quote the book

For the record, I have no idea where I place on the positive/negative scale. Friends occasionally tell me that I was too nice to this or that book, but I also have a three page letter from an author who considered me too thick to appreciate his genius and an e-mail from another referring me to reviews of his book that he thought more enlightened than mine.  In an age where creative writing courses and writer’s groups have made writing more of a team sport and less of a lonely pursuit, where the number of writers constantly increases while publishing options shrink, why not try to be supportive and positive when reviewing new work? And if there is an occasional hankering for a perfectly executed literary skewering or the sight of a reviewer fending off an angry writer in an Edinburgh howff, so be it. The past, as they say, is a foreign country. 

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EIBF: Scottish Life and Society

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Donald Smith, Margaret Mackay, Ted Cowan

 

EIBF: Scottish Life and Society

‘Scottish Life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology’ is a remarkable 14 volumes arranged by theme. It is, as Donald Smith from the Scottish Storytelling Centre said in his introduction, ‘an epic treasure trove’ which involved 267 contributors who penned 433 chapters and 3.5 million words. The themes are Farming and the Land; Scotland’s Buildings; Boats, Fishing and the Sea; the Food of the Scots; Scotland’s Domestic Life; the Working Life of the Scots; Transport and Communications; the Individual and Community Life; Oral Literature and Performance Culture; Education; Religion; the Law. The first volume is an introduction and the last a bibliography.

Sadly, Editor Sandy Fenton died in 2012 and it was left to his co-editor Margaret Mackay to see the great work to fruition as well as introduce it to a full house in Peppers Theatre at the EIBF. Mackay came to Scotland from Canada in 1967. Like Fenton, she viewed Ethnology as an international subject and worked with him to show ‘how Scottish phenomena fitted into wider European patterns’. Together they set out to create ‘a book series for Scotland’s future’.

Professor Ted Cowan described himself as ‘an unrepentant historian doing Ethnology without realizing it’. His particular interest is Dumfries and Galloway: ‘a place nobody goes, a place nobody knows’. Cowan is concerned that the traditional culture of his home area is quickly dying out. In particular, he has been recovering local sayings in Wigtownshire and testing them against folk memory. ‘Face like the far end of a French fiddle’, for instance, has elicited many a blank face in Wigtownshire audiences. Another previously uncovered record has an Irish immigrant to Dumfries and Galloway interrogated by the local authorities: ‘What day did you arrive? St Patrick’s Day. Where are you from? Downpatrick. Where did you land? Portpatrick. What’s your name? Patrick Fitzpatrick.’

A lively Q and A session revealed some fault lines between the panel members. A question on the influence of the Kailyard School was answered by Donald Smith who believes that Kailyard is overstated and authors like Barrie, need to be reassessed. A question on whether this generation will leave any material of value drew a stout defence of the future of Ethnology from Mackay and a peroration on the baleful effect of e-mails and social media from Cowan.

 

‘Scottish Life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology’ is published by Birlinn.

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