A Bad Writer Blames His Readers (Reprise)

The relationship between a writer and a reader is rarely a simple one. And yet some writers have approached it as if it were just that; as if they knew exactly who it was they were addressing all along. In the passage quoted in my previous post, the narrator of Macado de Assis’s Epitaph of a Small Winner directly confronts his readers, pretending to have anticipated their thoughts:  ‘You want to live fast, to get to the end, and the book ambles along slowly; you like straight, solid narrative and a smooth style, but this book and my style are like a pair of drunks…’. These are presumptuous musings, are they not? I, as a reader, may take offence at such an attack on my sensibility. On the contrary, I might reply, I desire nothing more than a style that lurches along like two drunks.

This is not to say that de Assis has made a grave error (he knows what he is doing, the old trickster), though writers have opted for similarly confrontational tactics, without the ironical trimmings. Oa Aayorta has often been criticised for chastising his readers, or attempting to herd them; a charge he has always been happy to accept. ‘I direct my readers, of course. Otherwise, who knows where they might lead themselves. A writer ought to treat his readers like bewildered sheep. It’s either that or chaos’. Carlos Magnificas, meanwhile, has ventured into far more specific realms, often addressing his readers in tones that some would call patronising. ‘My dear stupid reader’, starts one story, ‘I know just what you are thinking. And I can see how you got there. But to say you have missed the point would be to underestimate the gravity of your error’.

This is nothing, yet, compared to the ferocious approach of Ulyana Grinsky, who has a penchant for turning on her readers at unexpected moments. ‘This may be fiction’, she writes in Fox into Gloves, ‘but the thoughts behind are issued from a real beating heart. On this basis, I require readers who are willing to follow my words carefully. If there are any hypocrites among you, I advise you to drop the book now. To my remaining four readers, I have this to say: if you aren’t interested in reading this story properly, or if you lack the ability to perceive its meaning, there is little point in me going on. To my remaining reader: if you ever worked in the educational system, I do not care for you’. Later, in the same text, she berates her readers in a wonderfully hysterical passage: ‘As I come to the end of this section, it dawns on me that few – if any – of you nitwits have any idea what I am talking about. You couldn’t spot a symbol if it was staring you in the face, could you? Lazy bastards: what do you expect of me? Do you want to be spoon-fed or something? What a worthless bunch you are!’

For all that, Grinsky’s books sell surprisingly well. It seems we readers are gluttons for punishment (or else we are well beyond taking anything a writer says personally).

There Were Eggshells

‘There were eggshells in the omelette, so I did what any self-respecting chef would do: I resigned from my job, bought a new car, asked my wife for a divorce, sold my collection of sixteenth-century cookery books, booked a holiday in Croatia, got into a fight with an old friend in a bar at midnight, wrote angry letters to the press, tried to mend my motorcycle, rang my brother for the first time in fifteen years, quit smoking and started again, moved around the furniture in my flat, starting reading a different newspaper, dropped my phone into a public toilet, got fined for speeding twice, went swimming in the sea, broke the little finger on my left hand and started listening to South American folk music.’

According to a source I cannot reveal (because, quite frankly, I can’t remember who it was) this is the opening sentence to a new novel by the Andorran novelist Oa Aayorta. If so, I must confess to being a little confused; maybe even disappointed. I thought, as reported here, that Aayorta wasn’t writing a new novel at all, but was engaged in a spot of rampant marginalia? This sentence suggests, instead, that he has returned to ground covered by previous novels, The Everlasting Evening and The Endless Winter Night, both of which featured the same food-loving protagonist.

For all this, I like the sentence…

Narrative in the Streets

Andy Hunter, who insists on calling me Gregory, sends the following information:

Broadcastr, a project by Electric Literature, just released an iPhone app which automatically plays audio stories specific to your GPS location. The iPhone app is free, and can be downloaded here …We all fall into routines, and travel the same paths every day. The Broadcastr mobile app reveals layers of narrative in the streets around us, connecting us to a wealth of memory we may never have discovered otherwise.

Being entirely unfamiliar with iPhone technology I can no offer no hints as to whether this ‘app’ is as interesting, or as frightening, as it sounds. Secretive man as I am, I dislike the idea of a phone keeping tabs on my location and connecting me to a wealth of undiscovered memories – but I am at least wise enough to appreciate that, as these things go, this may be a rather revolutionary way of meeting the modern reader’s needs.

One ponders just how adept the phone is at linking stories with locations. If I step into a bar in Irkutsk, I am greeted with a sample from Pyetr Turgidovsy’s The Lunatic? Are visits down East End London side streets to be accompanied by fictional re-renderings of Jack the Ripper? Is Oa Aayorta is any way involved in this project?

Coming To A Margin Near You (Marginalia 6)

In conclusion, let us return to the beginning – which is to say to the future. Oa Aayorta, as originally reported, has joined the worthy ranks of the Marginalists. Whither will this move take him? There is life, plenty of life, in the margins; but success depends very much on the particular approach the writer takes. To boil all of this down to one question: if Aayorta has taken to the margins, to which margins has he taken to? In what, or whose, margins has he been scribbling?

The answer, inevitably, is that we don’t really know. Quite possibly he is following the path of Johannes Speyer and writing in his own margins. Maybe an annotated version of An Everlasting Evening is on its way. Or has he taken to the margins of more recognised masterpieces? Nobody can do a better hatchet job on The Bible than Anthony Panner, I’m sure, but there are plenty of other ‘big’ works just waiting to be ‘written all over’. How about Proust, for example, or Tolstoy; even Wdj Szesz? Let the creative defacement begin…

Considering the case more closely, however, I suspect that Aayorta will have gone down the Mary Mistict line and chosen as his original text a book that is in itself marginal (in the non-canonical sense). A Victorian melodrama, perhaps? Lady of the Eight Lakes by Herbert Sparrow, with marginal notes by Oa Aayorta. This seems very plausible. Or else an Andorran guidebook: Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Andorra, with satirical asides by Oa Aayorta. This is, if anything, too likely. No – the best we can do is to expect the unexpected. If anyone can pull a rabbit out of the margins, Oa Aayorta is the man. One can only wait and see where the old man goes next…

On and Oa (Marginalia 1)

A heaving sea of speculation surrounds the rugged island that is the elderly novelist Oa Aayorta. Large waves toss up drifting rumours: he is writing a ‘twitter’ novel, it will be called A Rather Lengthy Afternoon, the book will be published in the shape of a trapezium (or trapezoid), it will consist of a series of interlinking poems about fruit, it will be his last book – and so on and so forth.

Now for the bracing sea breeze of truth. Oa Aayorta has been treading water for some time now. Contrary to all of these reports, he has not been writing a new novel at all (or at least, not outside of his head). He has instead been taking part in two great traditions: marginalia and defacement.

Two great traditions? Call it one – writing in the margins, or over the words of other people’s novels is, in anyone’s book, an act of defacement. But like so many acts of destruction, it is also an act of creativity. Many of our greatest writers have been prone to a little marginalia. Think of Anthony Panna, or Mary Mistict. Controversial, maybe, but one cannot deny their powers of creativity. Marginalia remains a criminally undervalued genre.

So: Oa Aayorta is ‘treading water’? Let me rephrase that. He may be wasting away his precious afternoons scribbling in the margins of other men’s books; or he may – he just may – be re-inventing marginalia for the masses.

More on this, needless to say, later.

The Shape of Things

Patagonian priests pray by it, Chilean miners cherish it, and Brazilian beach-bums beat drums in its honour. They mull over it in Mexico, praise it in Peru and argue for it artfully in Argentina.

I am talking, of course, about the octagonal novel: the most exciting thing to hit the South-American literary world since Lupez Lupez wrote a novel on a football and kicked it through a publisher’s window.

Why the octagon? I know not. All I do know is that the shape seems to have its followers. ‘Novels will never be the same again,’ wrote one Bolivian critic. ‘Forget the four-sided book,’ sneered another: ‘any self-respecting story these days is safely printed on eight-sided paper’.

Over in Venezuala that may well be the case. But here in Europe we entertain different ideas. Eight-sided novels have yet to take off – but that isn’t to say we aren’t experimenting shape-wise. Circular novels have been doing the rounds for some decades now. Remember Benjamin Yodek’s Mulberries and Mudcakes? That has to stand as one of the most headache-inducing novels of the last hundred years (speaking as one who has a penchant for difficult forms). And what about Boris Bash-Benver’s triangular novel Tripulation? I say triangular – and yet, of course, the book revolved around three circles in a triangular formation. It was, in that sense, multi-shaped.

What of the future? I have heard vague rumblings that Oa Aayorta (Andorran master of strange forms) has abandoned his plans for a ‘twitter-novel’ (praise each and every lord) and is turning his attention to the trapezium (or ‘trapezoid’ as the Americans call it). Over in Norway, meanwhile, Edmund Ek has (apparently) been musing over pentagons. His ex-wife Heidi Kohlenberg claims to have received a long-winded letter from the former firebrand in which he recounts a dream wherein ‘a man flew down from the sky upon a plate of burning food, and said to me: “put the words within the pentagon”‘. Some would take this to have some relation to the headquarters of US defence; Ek has clearly taken it to refer to a pentagon-shaped book. Good on him.

That leaves us with various options. Am I the only one rooting for the heptagon? I can’t think of many books that wouldn’t benefit from being printed on seven-sided paper. Don’t ask me why. Call me a prophet if you will, but part of me can’t help perceiving that this, truly, is the shape of things to come.