‘What’s it about?’

It would be fair to say I struggle with plot. I really do. One of the reasons is that I just don’t care that much about it. It’s never what really interests me.

Some of my favourite books don’t have plots. Obvious examples would include Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, of course, but also more recent examples. Independence Day (Richard Ford), Hawksmoor (Peter Ackroyd), Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), just to take examples at random. These have no plot, in the sense of a sequence of events and situations that lead consecutively to an end. They just give you some life, some vivid representation of what it feels like to be alive.

Whenever I read anything, I am always uncomfortably aware of the clanking plot machinery going on in the background. I just had to abandon reading a bestselling thriller by ‘one of our leading crime writers’ because I could see, not only exactly where it was going, but that that was all it was going to do. Characterisation, description, mood, atmosphere, sense of place: nope, just the story. There might have been some pallid pleasure in finding out if I was guessing right or not about the trajectory, but, ultimately who cares? I could invent my own ending. Who cares what such a bad author wants the story to be? And yet clearly, a great many people do.

I ploughed all the way to the end of a Jeffery Archer novel once, in the vain hope of working out what other people see in him. There were four ‘characters’, all of them simple cardboard cutouts with names attached to them. One of them was going to win an election, and I imagine you were supposed to be busy guessing which one. But again, how could anyone care which of four interchangeably one-dimensional characters ultimately won? The author clearly didn’t: they were simply a means to his tiresome end, and were no more than shop dummies with different coloured suits on. (I think the blue one won, but I couldn’t swear to it.)

There is a theory that men go for plot, women go for character. (A creative writing teacher recently reported that one of his male students had told him he would ‘fill in the characters later’.) I suspect there’s more to it than that, though. People go to books for a huge variety of reasons, and plot is just one of them. But film and TV have prioritised plot over everything else, to the extent that ‘what is it about?’ now can only mean: ‘what is the story?’ I think that’s a shame. Book are about life, and life hasn’t got a plot, it just goes on for a bit, there’s some shouting and drinking and so on, and then it, sort of, stops (round about page 235, just after the chase but before the shock twist that makes sense of it all). Plot is just a lie we tell ourselves that things have an order, a logic, a (deep breath) meaning. Well guess what, they don’t.

I read an interview with Keanu Reeves once. He was having what appeared to be a very, very bad day. ‘What is your new film about?’ he was asked. Long Pause. ‘It’s about the human condition,’ says Keanu. ‘Tell me about your next film.’ Long pause. ‘It’s about the human condition,’ says Keanu, at which point he gets up and starts, slowly and gently, to bang his head against the window. But that’s my answer from henceforth. ‘What’s it about?’ ‘It’s about the human condition.’ End of.

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Outrage as Kindle reduces free samples to first six letters.

Kindle have caused an outcry at their announcement that the free samples will henceforth be reduced to the first six letters of a work. Janine Carapace, Kindle Marketing Director, said earlier today: ‘We have reached this decision based on extensive consumer feedback. People are just too busy to wade through an entire Kindle free sample. They need something more efficient. Time is money. We also felt that if a book can’t ‘grab’ you within the first six letters, then it probably won’t grab you at all. Authors will have to up their games.’

Examples:

A Tale of Two Cities

It was t

1984

It was a

Pride and Prejudice

It is a t

Paul Clifford (Edward Bulwer-Lytton)

It was a

Whitehawk

‘Jamie?’

Peter James ‘to take over Brighton’

Bestselling author Peter James is to be given a free hand in running Brighton, it was announced earlier today. All decisions relating to the city will now be taken by Mr James (63).

Denise McFail, leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, said this: ‘Peter James is one of our best known and best loved novelists. The plot twists, the moral dilemmas, the believable characters: readers just can’t get enough of him. Not to mention the incredible amounts of research he does on police procedure and so on. So it seemed a natural progression that he should be given sole command of the entire city. We are all looking forward to this exciting new era in local politics.’

A spokesperson for Mr James’ publishers (Pan McMillan) said: ‘Mr James is extremely busy promoting his new novel, Perfect People, at the moment, but he will be back in a few months to start getting to grips with some of the issues relating to recycling and parking, for example, which have plagued the city for years. We understand he has some quite radical proposals in mind.’

Local resident Sonia Teeth said: ‘Peter who?’

Reuters.

Julian Barnes to be ‘the new face of MacDonalds’

 

Food giant McDonalds today stunned both the literary and food-retailing worlds by announcing that it has signed up Man Booker prize winner Barnes to be ‘the face of the brand’ in the UK.

‘We considered quite a few names,’ a spokesperson said, ‘the usual suspects like Chris Moyles and Carol Voordeman and that fat one off Big Brother, but somehow Julian just increasingly seemed like the inevitable choice. We think he’ll give our customer base a new and enriched sense of the ways in which time and memory interact, in which the single, lived moment, the moment lived in time, is refracted and distorted through desire, memory, fantasy and, ultimately, hope. In a sesame bun.’

Barnes is believed to have agreed to lead a team tasked with designing a new meal experience, one that poses a delicate fusion, or interposition, between trans fats and the melancholy but essential realisation of how partial, how illusory, is the intangible relationship between the individual and what he calls his history, how history itself represents only the willed imaginings of the remembering mind. The team are aiming to bring in the new Barnes Meal Deal at below the £4.99 price mark.

A spokesperson for Mr Barnes was unable to answer questions relating to the remuneration package earlier today. ‘Let’s just say it makes the Booker look like a meat raffle,’ he said.

Important: Words that people MUST stop using immediately.

Munch

No one ever ‘munched’ anything. People eat. They, on occasion, may eat with a certain relish, possibly even an unattractive avidity. And of course some people are just nasty eaters. But ‘munching’? Don’t believe I’ve ever seen it done. It has a cloyingly false ring to it. It has a wet-lipped, smacking-your-chops feel, a cartoonised version of pleasure. It’s like watching Keanu Reeves trying to ‘act’. Coupled with ‘delicious’ (‘He munched a delicious sandwich’,) its baleful power is monstrously amplified, morphing it into an intolerable, unprincipled assault on all that is decent. Stop it.

Grin

I think Martin Amis says somewhere that if you do ever see someone grinning, run like the wind. It simply would not be an acceptable expression, in any imaginable circumstance, the sole exception perhaps being that you are a spree killer toying with his victim whilst The Carpenters plays quietly in the background. As for the ‘mischievous grin’ which seems to survive in some secret bunker of the collective unconscious, I pray I may never witness it. And if I ever do, I’m going to smack it square in the gob.

Laugh (as a verb of speech: “What?” he laughed.)

Try it some time. Just try doing it. You’ll find that you are either laughing or speaking, but if you are achieving both simultaneously you are playing with forces you barely begin to comprehend: you are a profoundly troubling new development in the species. Anatomically it is just not on the cards, but there’s more: to ‘laugh’ a comment would be to behave in such an unendurably smug manner that you wouldn’t survive the week without injury or – better – death. How could anyone bear the company of anyone else for even a minute if people were ‘laughing’ their comments to each other? There would be a species extinction event, as perfectly tolerable conversations descended into spurting, gleeful slaughter, sickening orgies of bloodletting. Is that what you want? ‘He joked,’ ‘he chuckled’ and ‘he chortled’ are just the gibbering idiot cousins of ‘he laughed’ and should never be approached from behind.

Jot (as in ’to jot some notes’)

Jot. Jaunty little number isn’t it? ‘Oh I just jotted some notes down.’ It’s not the same as ‘making’ some notes, no, ‘jotting’ is the pepped up, bright-as-a-button, prettiest-cheerleader little sister of ‘making’ notes. ‘Jotting’ exists on a wholly different plane of being, one that is composed entirely of bubble gum and gymkhana trophies and neat little notebooks with shiny pink covers. ‘Jotting’ is an activity which only the pert, the primped, the intolerably perky are qualified to perform. If you see someone ‘jotting’, or even just suspect that they are about to, break their fingers. This simple, robust precaution should be sufficient to prevent any further incidence, at least temporarily.

‘Make’. ‘Make’ notes.

I have spoken.

Nothing To Fear

 

A study by psychologist Adah Maurer in 1965* showed that childhood fear of ‘wild animals and spooks and the supernatural’ peaks at age 6, and has largely disappeared by age 11 and 12, to be replaced with a fear of ‘people’ (ie, bad people). The study suggests that what we fear as young children is improbable, fanciful events, such as being mauled by a bear or seeing a ghost. What we fear as older children is starting to reflect our more adult understanding of the world: there probably isn’t really a bear outside, or a monster under the bed, but there could easily be a bad man nearby. The six year old fears live on in masquerade form as Halloween.

Mainstream horror  – vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts – puts these six year old fantasies centre stage. Far from being an attempt to scare us, it is an attempt to soothe us, to tell us that everything is alright. By deliberately relocating the object of fear from a real life possibility (such as, for instance, lonely death), to a carnival of grotesques, familiar since early childhood, it seeks to persuade us that our fears, really, have no validity. We are playing with our outgrown terrors, inventing colourful and exotic versions of fears we have long since overcome. Practising, perhaps. Pretending.

Recently, horror has embraced simpler, gorier, sillier scenarios: the Saw franchise for instance, and The Human Centipede. But again, these are pantomimes of fear, tongue firmly in cheek (literally, in the case of The Human Centipede). Horror fiction, no matter how extreme it strives to be, cannot of course compete with the visceral, sickening jolt of real life – what you can see on the news any day of the week – and makes no attempt to do so.  Most of the time it is content to stay in safe, comfortable territory, with clearly defined, clearly identifiable monsters, and rules for how they can be defeated. These monsters have become set, made rigid and inflexible and harmless through constant re-use. They are nursery figures, unchanging, well-understood, unthreatening. If we fear what we don’t understand, then we have nothing to fear from this kind of horror fiction, because we understand it all too well. We should do: we lived it (when we were six). Mainstream horror doggedly lumbers on, preferring to become a kind of heritage spectacle of creaky old tropes.

This is perhaps why it is so easy, and so tempting, to parody it. The history of horror parodies is as long and respectable as the genre itself: as early as 1824, a mere 6 years after the original, a spoof called Frankenstitch was a popular hit in London. Jane Austen parodied Gothic romance, the 18th Century’s version of horror, in Northanger Abbey (1818). Horror has danced uneasily hand in hand with parodies of itself since its inception. Southpark: The Ungrounded, a spoof of the Twilight  franchise, is a notable recent example. The teen slasher phenomenon has always had a knowing sense of its own absurdity, and is happy to parody itself.

I would hope it doesn’t need saying that some horror fiction is excellent, and is the result of a serious-minded attempt to grapple with fundamental human issues: fear of contagion, shame, defeat, disgrace, loss of status, loneliness. Spend any time at all in the genre and you will find work of depth, brilliance, daring and originality. But such writing will always be marginal to the genre, and for the most part mainstream horror fiction is content to be unreflective, undemanding and uninvolving. Everyone will have authors and stories they champion: for the record, I would defend Stephen King’s Apt Pupil to my last breath as a great piece of writing, of any kind. But it would be hard to claim, on current evidence (Human Centipede, Twilight, The Walking Dead) that this is a genre that is currently in robust good health, bursting with new ideas. Box office may be great: creatively, though, what you hear is the sound of bottoms of barrels being scraped, again and again. In troubled times, people seek the familiar, and that’s what these old stories deliver. Not fear, but actually the opposite of fear: certainty.

The fundamental problem, I think, is one of shape. A monster story really only has one way to go. It doesn’t matter whether vampire, mutated lizard or psychotic torturer: a monster is a monster is a monster. They will attempt to harm us, we will be partially defeated by them, then we will mount some kind of fightback. We will succeed, but they will come back in the final frame. Ready for their sequel. There just isn’t much else a monster story can give you, because monsters, by definition, are not human and so do not share human characteristics. They remain stubbornly ‘other’, unavailable for psychological inspection, in much the same way that a plank of wood is. What motivates a zombie? What motivates a psychopathic torturer? Questions in fiction are always ‘why’ questions: why did he do that, why did she think this? But mainstream horror fiction takes away the possibility of these ‘why’ questions by removing the very quality that would make them germane: psychology. A ghoul or a vampire or a psychopath hasn’t got any psychology, because if they had they would become human, and if they were human they would be messy, complicated, unpredictable. Real. Horrifying, in fact.

If you have only got one story shape at your disposal, things are going to get repetitive fast. Once you’ve been on one ghost train, the next one is not likely to hold too much in the way of surprise. Mainstream horror fiction is, seemingly, condemned to endlessly re-enact the same few tattered nursery fantasies, never quite being able to render them as anything other than fancy dress outfits, put on in a spirit either of nostalgia or kitsch or affectionate mockery. But what any of this has got to do with fear – real fear, the kind of incapacitating, debilitating anguish that grips us all sometimes in the middle of the night –  is far from obvious. For that, you will need to look outside of the genre. Because mainstream horror fiction doesn’t appear to want to scare us at all, but rather to reassure us.

Unless you’re six, of course, in which case you probably shouldn’t be watching it.

(*Maurer, A: What Children Fear, Journal of Genetic Psychology, Vol 106, pp265-277)