In Theory

I am a white, middle-classish, cisgender male living in a western democracy. You could, quite successfully, I think, argue that there is no other more privileged position in regular global society.

I want to be clear that just approaching the subject of this vlog/blog feels like I’m appropriating it. Today’s book, however, did move me on in my understanding of something that can sometimes be hidden from view, something seen as abstract.

I became interested in feminism and identity politics only because I couldn’t figure out any good reason why significant sections of the population appeared to be excluded or segregated from having a regular hassle-free life.

Thus, on my journey to understand I’ve been handed various books. Like you, I take nourishment from the books I read.

A few weeks ago I was handed Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele. This book explores what queer theory is; something I’ve heard other people talk about and figured, wrongly, that it didn’t apply to me.

I’m still no expert, but I’ve learnt a little bit more about what it is to struggle with who you are and how society relates to that. Mainly, I’ve come to understand how queer theory is important to all of us, no matter how sure we are of our identities. I think that’s valuable; I think we can all get behind that.

Find yourself a copy.

Vlog linked below:

 

Food Writing

Reality Hunger was released in February of 2010. I think it’s important to date these kinds of things because in this post-modern culture it’s very easy to forget that there was a time before certain objects, certain phenomena.

Reality Hunger is arranged into numbered sections, most, if not all, are not the words of its author, David Shields.

‘6

I need say nothing, only exhibit.’

For a still forming Creative Writing student at the University Of Gloucestershire, Reality Hunger was important. It was taught almost immediately as part of a transgressive class by Dr Martin Randall. We were encouraged to buy a copy and read it. Many of us came away confused as to what the appropriate reaction should be.

We would talk about it in the pub or the SU, between lectures or walking home from a party. Sometimes it would come up if we stumbled across each other’s paths in town.

’69

There are two sorts of artist, one not being in the least bit superior to the other. One responds to the history of art so far; the other responds to life itself.’

Our gradual consensus centred around Shields’ idea of ‘brickolage’; of forming text or narrative through others’ work. Sampling with a keyboard and words instead of a set of decks and some old soul records.

Myself and a fellow student formed a writing performance group called The Jolly Autocratic Committee and wrote a twelve-minute long performance piece constructed out of found language. I’ll share it with you at some point in the future.

‘204

As a preamble to their performances, traditional storytellers in Majorca would say, “It was and it was not so”.’

At the front of things, however, my writing almost totally dried up for six months. Reality Hunger hit me hard enough to shatter what I thought I should be doing as a writer. I had to rebuild.

It is probably the most important book I own. It was devastating and inspiring. It still is.

‘315

While we tend to conceive the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they’re actually chaotic and opaque. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner , no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances. There’s no internal spectator of a Cartesian theater in our heads to applaud the march of consciousness across its stage’

If you have your own Reality Hunger story to tell, let me know in the comments.

Main Vlog below.

And Now For Something Completely Similar

I have a fascination with machines. My last writing project Autoeclectic was mostly about me seeing whether I could truly carve out a career writing about some of these working, almost living things.

I couldn’t. In the end, the subject didn’t mean enough to the people I wanted to write for; that is to say, you, dear reader.

I do, however intend to write sci-fi in the future and as part of this I tend to alternate my reading between lit-fic and sci-fi.

I’ve been struggling my way through Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 for the best part of a couple of months. It’s only been the in the last couple of days, however, that I’ve been able to hold down why.

As always, I want to hear and read your opinions on the featured book, this blog, and anything else you feel is even tenuously linked to this particular subject matter.

Check out the latest vlog below.

Core Memories

In a sentence this long you don’t necessarily remember the details of what you’ve been told but you certainly feel them.

‘Until I was 16 or 17, I had heard practically nothing about the history that preceded 1945. Only when we were 17 were we confronted with a documentary film of the opening of the Belsen camp.’

I’ve read quite a bit about the life and work of W.G. Sebald in the last couple of days, but it seems to me that the above quote taken from a Guardian interview conducted in September of 2001 is right at the centre of his work.

Austerlitz, Sebald’s last book, seems to mumble at you from the dark corner of a rural pub or bed and breakfast. Indeed, the main narrator gains all of his story told through a series of meetings with the book’s main storyteller, Austerlitz.

Austerlitz tells the story of how he discovered that he had not been born and raised in the hills of Wales but had a whole other life he had forgotton, had rediscovered through his love of architecture. I sometimes wonder whether Austerlitz is an imagined character that the narrator has created in order to deal with the revalations of his past

Always, though, we are put in the place of the young Sebald, discovering a past revealed.

It’s no surprise that the first time I read this book it was copy from lecturer, friend, and sometime mentor Dr Martin Randall that it was full of pencilled notes about labyrinths and mazes. The book is somehow a maze that continues to reveal right up until the book’s core, an eleven-page sentence. Here we learn how a rumoured holiday destination became a ghetto, how it later became a death camp, and how each step from rumour to journey, to hell-reality seemed as easy as stepping from one room to the next.

I’ve always said that this sentence is a remarkable achievement for its grammatical accuracy. Now, having read it over and over again for a few days I’m not so sure. What I am totally sure of, though, is that as a device for disorienting and pushing the reader outside and beyond the words on the page it is close to perfect.

In a sentence this long you don’t necessarily remember the details of what you’ve been told but you certainly feel them.

GradeProof

When Garry Kimovich Kasparov was controversially beaten by the IBM Super Computer Deep Blue, something new entered the culture. Despite claims that Deep Blue may have had some human help, the victory was a symbolic one. The undiscovered country that had been promised by so many writers and fantasised about by so many economists and capitalists may have actually begun.

Today the reality is an economic one. We’ve all sleep walked in to big data, marketing companies that know you better than your parents and ongoing democracy flavoured mechanical issues, but currently stumbling over the horizon is a new type of AI.

We’ll probably complain more about the soon to be unemployed driver’s and operator’s protests than the loss of our driving abilities when our cars, busses and trains become automatic. We may even joke about the disappearance of accountants.

It does seem certain though, to anyone paying the right kind of attention that the industrial economy is about to turn around and mug the working man. What happens next is going to be interesting.

What happen’s though, when we allow AI into our creative lives? There are more than one or two apps out there that claim to improve the writing of the everyday. The New Yorker has already published a piece on the Hemingway App, showing it to be unfavourable to the Nobel Prize winner’s own work. I think I’d prefer it if the app was a guide to where to get drunk and fight.

The app is however, the best part of twenty of my hard-earned. As you’d expect there are free versions. In the best tradition of lazy blogging I picked the first suggested free match, an app called GradeProof.

As is the norm these days when starting the app you are required to sign in. I should probably set up a standalone FB account just for the purposes of apps. (Is this a good idea? Let me know in the comments.)

After signing in, the app takes you through a tutorial process. This is by far and away the best bit of the app. I spend hours wrestling with free picture/video/general editing apps and if I had a penny for every time I’ve wanted to break my phone, break my laptop, break the table my laptop is on and set fire to the house, I’d probably have about £2.36.

The tutorial takes you quickly through the basics of spell checking then asks you about what part of your writing you’d like to improve. Again, this is excellent. Because I’m a writer trying to pick holes in something that I feel might be a threat to me, or my rather marvelous editor I, like The New Yorker writer before me, went straight for the stylistic jugular.

Again, the app is helpful and simple. After finding my way to the ‘Papers’ section it gave me a variety of ways to add a new document. It then showed me step by step how go about this.

Now, here’s where things got clever. After selecting the document it gave me a choice between which type of English I’d like to use. The document I had selected for the app’s delectation was an excerpt from Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Sleeve’s rolled and fingers clicked I set to asking how the app would reword the passage I’d chosen. Then a snag. Everything had been too good to be true. The app asked me whether I wanted a 7-day free trial. After seven days I’d be eligible to pay £7.99 a month.

Bugger.

Well, in the name of lazy blogging I decided to delve deeper into this fridge full of picnic-type snack ideas.

I went for the free trial.

Here’s the excerpt I chose:

He didn’t owe them explanations. He intended to survive, he had one good reason to survive, and he didn’t care whether they tagged along or not. Both men hung onto their rifles. That was something at least, and Mace was a big man, strong across the shoulders, and with hands that could have spanned one and a half octaves of the pub piano he said he played.

Here’s how GradeProof presented it:

gradeproof 5

 

 

The first sentence passed. No suggestions, no edits. Ian, you’ve done well.

The next sentence, however looked like this:

gradeproof 6

Oh, dear, Mr McEwan.

The next two sections proved to be almost as problematic. And then things got interesting. The changes suggested, for example, weren’t absolutely settled on. Even though I’d chosen to change various words the app would still highlight those words inviting a sense of unease with one’s choices. Sometimes there was only one choice, and sometimes that choice was bat shittingly mad. Take for instance, the suggestion of the ‘non’ instead of ‘not’ at the end of the sentence. Clearly there is still more work to do.  After making things simple and taking the first choice for every edit, I found myself at the tail end of a masterpiece. Possibly.

Here’s a screenshot of the email that shows which choices were made along with the finished passage:

Gradeproof

He didn’t owe them explanations. He intended to live, he had one good ground to live, and he didn’t like whether they tagged on or non. Both manpower hung onto their rifles. That was something at least, and Macer was a big human being, potent across the shoulders, and with men that could make spanned one and a one-half octaves of the saloon forte-piano he said he played.

Yeah.

Brilliantly, because I’ve obviously missed the point of this app (clues in the name) it then offered to search THE WHOLE OF THE INTERNET to see whether I’d plagiarised any part of it.

The result:

gradeproof 7

Quite.

One final thought; in David Shields’ frankly genius book Reality Hunger he suggests to the reader that there could be a new type of writing using samples and ultimately what he refers to as brickolage.

He compares this move to how hip-hop and dance music culture formed out of record collecting sample culture. Perhaps, in a slightly Dada way this app could be the writing equiv of a set of mixing decks.

Maybe.

Suspension Bridge

The Bridge is my favourite of Iain Banks’ fiction novels. After seeing it on a friend’s book shelf I read it in a near panic one humid summer’s afternoon in London. It’s short and drags you along by throwing more and more questions into your path. It is exactly the type of novel I want to read, exactly the type of novel I want to be able to write.

It has been claimed by at least one source that it is actually set within Iain M. Banks’ (his sci-fi writing alter-ego) Culture universe. It’s more likely that Mr Banks’ was just trying out some of the ideas that would later make it into those novels.

Set between three aspects of the same man, The Bridge explores his waking life and a history of it, and a coma world where the present in the story is set.

In the coma the man lives on a vast bridge, suggested to be hundreds or even thousands of miles long. He is psychoanalysed by day and dreams at night.

One of these dreams involves him trapped on a smaller mobile bridge that keeps him forever just a few paces away from his desires. There’s a Marxist analysis of this that’s fairly obvious but I think upon re-reading it this time I was more struck by what a feminist might say. If you think you can further my understanding of this excerpt from that POV, please let me know.

In the mean-time, I mostly love this section for the end. As Mr Banks always did best he leaves the reader with a very powerful image.