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Upon the subject of authorship…

October 12th, 2011 by Peter

You can say many things about William Shakespeare, but it is quite apparent that he never let the truth get in the way of a good story. He was a genius who wrote plays that entertained and if that meant that historical veracity had to give way, on occasion, to dramatic impact or poetic notions then so be it. It has a certain sense of inevitability then, to the fact that so many people are so eager for a good story that they will deny he wrote anything at all.

There are many theories extant today about who may have been the actual author of the works we attribute to Shakespeare. If you’re new to this field of conspiracy you may be suprised to find out that such people as Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain and Helen Keller believed that it could not have been Shakespeare. There are several theories on the authorship question but they’re united by one thing: a refusal to believe that such a literary genius could have been a humble playwright from Stratford-upon-avon. The core of any Shakespearean authorship conspiracy is that, because of his origins and education, he could not have had the knowledge or ability, to write as he did. You can almost hear the naysayers mumbling “Can there any good thing come out of Stratford?”

The theory that first rose to prominence was that the emminent Elizabeathean philosopher Francis Bacon wrote the plays under a pseudonym to allow him freedom to write without jepordising his standing at court. The theory was brought to the fore by Delia Bacon and furthered by Whitman, Emerson, Twain, Hawthorne and Helen Keller. The fact that a lady born in a log-cabin in the middle of Ohio decided that she was in a position to question a great English playwright’s authorship due to his background amuses me greatly; someone call Miss Morisette, we finally found something that’s ironic for her song.

The other theory that is presently favoured by anti-stratfordian scholars is that the plays were written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. The main evidence for this is that people think Oxford was kind of cool but he didn’t real do that much worth writing home about so they have to give him credit for something – clearly that pleb from Stratford couldn’t have written well so it must be his work. Oh, did I over simplify it? Sorry. But the Oxfordian view is undone by many facts, not least that Oxford died in 1604, while new Shakespeare plays were continuing to appear until 1613.

It’s not the place of this blog to detail in depth the evidence in favour of Shakespeare as the genuine author. All contemporary evidence available points to him and all of the presented alternate authorship theories rest heavily on conjecture. James Shapiro has written an excellent book on the subject entitled ‘Contested Will’. The subject has only been pushed to the front of my mind at present by the forthcoming film ‘Anonymous’ that is set to give mass publicity to the Oxfordian cause. The main problem I have with this, beyond the fact that it’s just another conspiracy theory, is the fact that here is possibly the greatest literary figure of the last millennia being attacked and assailed, post mortem, by people who simply refuse to accept that someone so seemingly pedestrian as the bard could have reached such hieghts of achievment. The film itself looks highly entertaining, I may well go and watch it, but please, please, please, don’t suggest that it is anything more than a fiction. We have a large body of evidence to say that Shakespeare of Stratford was the author of the works attributed to him, just because our vision of him doesn’t meet the vision of an author in our celebrity obsessed time doesn’t make him any less the author.

If, over the course of human history, we have learned anything about genius it should surely be that it crops up often in the least expected people and the least expected places. It is not dependant on education or on high birth or anything else; the truth is that you can’t predict when and where genius will appear or how it will show itself, which makes it all the more important that every soul gets given the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

On facebook, narcissism and the nature of modern culture…

March 5th, 2011 by Peter

I was reading a post from Nathan Bransford the other day and in it he gave reasons, all of them sensible, why authors should have facebook pages. I’ve considered this question before and always resisted creating one on the grounds that it feels like asking people to become fans or some such thing, a notion that I am in no small way uncomfortable with.

I think this comes from my notions on the nature of modern culture and the narcissistic elements involved in it; I understand that if my work sells, if so much as a single person lists me as a writer they like or my books in their books they like, then I should have facebook pages. If I don’t facebook will create them for me and I will have no control over them. I would be thrilled if someone did feel that way about my work, it’s just the fact that making a facebook page seems to be like trying to create your own fan site. Then you’re expected to invite people to like you; woah, no, please, anything but that.

The idea of asking someone to like me on facebook is almost as alien to me as that of asking someone to read my books. I just don’t. If they do then I am pleased, but they should do so because they want to and not because they’ve been asked and feel obliged to. I want people to read my writing, but only because they want to. Unfortunately this notion seems very at odds with a society in which you have to push your work at people to be seen at all.

My solution? I have created a facebook page for myself and a facebook page for The Volga Ruby, I will continue to create them as and when I publish new books. I’m not using facebook to invite anyone or asking anyone to like me because, frankly, I’d feel awfully needy and more than a little undignified.

This raises the philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If I don’t invite anyone then my page with have a pitiful zero likes, so I have decided to settle on the compromise of writing this post. In it I explain that these pages exist, but I make no effort to cajole you into liking them; if you read this post and don’t like them I will never know. If you do like my writing then I’d be very grateful if you did but it really is entirely up to you, the good reader.

With best regards, and inherent awkwardness,

Peter.

A Long December…

March 4th, 2011 by Peter

I’ve just added a new piece to the short stories section, titled December.

It is my first piece of contemporary short fiction.

Libraries…

February 25th, 2011 by Peter

I was just reading the Guardian’s books website’s article about Roy Clare being forced to apologise to nine year old Library campaigner Jessica Trueman. Mr. Clare is the Chief Executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, while Miss. Trueman is a nine year old girl who has been campaigning to save her local library from closure. Mr. Clare, who is obviously a man under some stress given the present situation, made the mistake of comparing Miss. Trueman’s anger at her local library being threatened with closure with the tears shed by teenage girls upon the break-up of Take That.

It’s a very unfortunate incident. I’m sure that we can all understand that everyone says things that they regret at times. The fact that he made regrettable comments is understandable in the context of a man with a difficult and stressful job venting, however he is in a position of respect and should be thinking carefully before he makes comments at people who have very valid complaints, especially when those people are children.

The fact that Jessica Trueman feels so impassioned about libraries is wonderful; in this age of x-boxes and youTube and movies in 3D, a young lady feels strongly enough about books to campaign like this. Jessica Trueman should be applauded, not mocked, and I find it highly worrying that the man who holds the position as Libraries Chief doesn’t seem to find her endeavours the same.

I think in the big debate about libraries sometimes people are forgetting about children. Most adults have some source of income, if they lose libraries they don’t lose the chance to read because they can go and buy books or borrow from the personal collections of friends. Children who like books often read at an almighty rate; I remember when I was a child I’d take out whole piles of books from the library and within days was nagging my parents to make another trip. For children the library is often where they discover books, it’s where they experiment and find new stories and new books and it stimulates the imagination. As young Jessica puts it:

“Books are special. You can read amazing stories and learn about history and different places in the world.”

What concerns me is that if we, as a society, fail to provide easy library access to the young what happens in a generation or two’s time when we see a real decline in reading? There are so many other things competing for people’s attention now but none of them can match books’ ability to inform, entertain and expand the mind. The last thing we need as a society is for reading to become the pursuit of an ever smaller minority.

Miss. Trueman’s anger at the closure of her library is nothing like the tears shed by young girls, all of those years ago, over the break up of Take That. How can the head of our libraries compare the millenia old pastime of reading to the transitory passing of another pop music act? Plus, while John Major had no ability  to reunite Take That, Mr. Cameron does have the power to help with the library closures. Yes, the economy is in trouble and cuts were needed but Libraries are an area where the net contribution to society is surely greater than the cost? Not only do libraries provide books but they also provide other services to the community, play a major role in education, and provide jobs.

I’m the first to say that I think the library system needed reforming in some ways, but that reform should not mean reducing the access people have to books, especially not the young.

Links:

Guardian: Libraries chief apologises to schoolgirl over cuts protest

Literature and Censorship? Never the Twain should meet…

January 7th, 2011 by Peter

The great American writer Mark Twain said once that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter”. Here was a man who understood the power of word usage, it’s something in the craft of the writer that they know the importance of words. Hemingway drafted and redrafted the last sentence to A Farewell to Arms over forty times, why? Because he recognised the power of getting words right.

It has been in the news today that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer has been censored. Nowhere on the cover of the book does it say that you are purchasing a censored edition, it’s more than possible that people will buy this book and not even realise that they’re reading something that is not only heavily censored but that would also be directly against the wishes of the author. How can I speak for Mark Twain, you ask? I don’t need to, though anyone who has written will know that they want their original story to remain, Mark Twain had words on the matter himself and they were not pleasant. When a mistake was made in the printing of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court he said of the typesetter “I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray”. Those are not the words of a man who would later want his work to be heavily changed in an act of cringe-worthy literary vandalism.

The words nigger and injun have been removed from the texts and replaced with slave and Indian. How can this be? The word nigger appears 219 times in Huck Finn because a major theme of the book is racism, if you remove that word then you strip the book of its power. It’s an absurd attempt to white wash out of history something that people should know.  If you find the word so offensive that you can’t read the book then here is a solution – don’t read the book. It really is that simple. Don’t change it, don’t mess with what someone created and don’t try and whitewash history so it doesn’t look so ghastly. The book is portraying history and real social attitudes and when it comes to history what we do not remember we are doomed to relive. If society finds Huckleberry Finn so offensive then it’s a sad indictment upon our insistence on political correctness and the desire to live in our comfort zones; if society finds the book offensive that shows all the more why we need it in it’s raw and undiluted form. It is offensive because parts of history are offensive and because racism is offensive and I don’t think we as a society should forget that.

The word does jar me and it’s certainly not a word I would use. I am taken aback a bit everytime I read it; it crops up a lot in old books in much the same way that anti-semitism does. It makes me stop and think, especially when it’s an author I love. I think about why they’re using the word and what the social attitudes were at the time. I think about what is says about society a hundred years ago and what it says about society now. I think about how far we have come from the time that those books were written in the same way that hearing it in a hip-hop song makes me think about how far we have still to go. The word stings; the word should sting.

As a child I would read children’s versions of classics but they were never marketed as the real deal. They were an introduction aimed at readers not yet old enough to read the length or language of the real deal. I loved those books. I think such books are a great way of introducing young readers to classic texts and hopefully encouraging them to read the real thing as they grow, but censoring words to protect modern sensibilities is an entirely different matter. This is not simplifying a text to be read by a younger audience, it’s changing a text to try and hide the truth of history.

What gives anyone the write to change someone’s work in this way? Surely the final copy of an author’s work is sacrosanct? You have the right not to read what offends you, if you’re a parent you have the responsibility not to let your child read what you think is bad for them, but who has the right to change and publish in this way? The author crafts what they want their novel to be, they choose their words carefully and they do so for good reasons and while the reader has a right to decide whether they read those words or not surely that does not give any person to change the work and publish it as though it were the original. We have the freedom to choose whether we read a person’s work but that does not give us the freedom to change it.

I’m firmly of the opinion that to censor literature in this way is a negative thing. What are your opinions on the matter?

Links:

NYTimes Books: Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You

NYTimes debate: Do Word Changes Alter ‘Huckleberry Finn’?

Bulgakov…

December 17th, 2010 by Peter

This book should be read by pretty much everyone. Not only one of the most enjoyable novels I have ever read but also one of the most beautifully written; chapter four is a vivid description of the city of Kiev in 1918 that is at times poetic and lyrical and yet entirely immersive as a piece of descriptive writing – it takes you there in a way very few writers ever can. It’s definitely worth a trip to your bookstore.

New review of The Volga Ruby

December 1st, 2010 by Peter

The Volga Ruby by Peter Jobes << Violet Crush

“Although The Volga Ruby is an adventure that involves the Tsar, Russian politics and the future of entire Russia, it’s surprisingly a very cozy mystery, the one that should be read curled up under a blanket with a cup of chai.”

There is a new review of my book today over at Violet Crush today. Many thanks to Violet for such a positive review.

Happy Birthday, Sir Pelham…

October 15th, 2010 by Peter

I have somehow allowed it to get to almost midnight without posting in celebration of the greatest comic writer ever born. (Yes, even greater than Dan Brown. Sir Pelham actually intended to be funny.) Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born on this day in 1881. If you’ve not read his books then you’re missing out on one of the finest delights in the English language. His stories of upper class England offer fine comedy, complicated plots, memorable characters and perhaps the world’s most famous valet. I can think of no other author whose works have brought me such untainted enjoyment and fun as P.G; his cast of blundering twits, wealthy Lords, intimidating aunts and a variety of fiancées, never cease to entertain. One should also note that he was, for some time, the scorer at that most august of institutions The Hollywood Cricket Club.

If I could advise on one book to read just to delight in fine humour and beautiful use of the English language it would be Thank You, Jeeves, or to break away from the more famous Wodehouse characters there is the highly entertaining Big Money. The ability to write books that delight and offer such a pleasurable escape from the stresses and pressures of everyday life set P.G Wodehouse as a class apart.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill…

August 4th, 2010 by Peter

“Rather heavy reading at the begininng but it is exceedingly interesting later. G. K. C style is very impressive and smooth.

He is witty and philosophical throughout the book. (an absurd philosophy) The last chapter is of particular interest with its moral.”

- H. C. Baker, 1946

When I’d finished  Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill I found the review above pencilled in after the last paragraph. I like that 64 years ago this person read the same copy and thought  they’d make a note of their views on the book; perhaps they then passed the book on or perhaps they kept it and just wrote the review for their own memory, but I’m thinking they probably didn’t suspect that over six decades later someone would publish it on a computer (which at the time had existed solely to crack Enigma) and make it visible to the world.

I found the book a very good read, I’d definitely agree that it was both exceedingly interesting and philosophical but I didn’t think it was heavy reading at the start. It was amusing and fun but I particularly liked how Chesterton managed to play with so many styles; the whole concept was comic but at the same time he played with action and stirring speeches, particularly from the Adam Wayne character, that were at the same time Shakespearean in style and yet surreally amusing. The author really gives free reign to his imagination and creates an action comedy that at the same time manages to make pithy commentary on human nature.

The iPad…

July 24th, 2010 by Peter

A review of an iPad? Gosh, how new and innovative, eh? I bet no one has reviewed one of those yet. I’m not writing one of those desperately happy blogs written while the adrenaline of getting a new gadget is still there; I simply don’t think you can review a product after a day or two’s usage so I’ve waited for two months before writing about it. You’ll also note that this is not a technology blog – however the iPad’s relevance to a blog on writing and reading is that it is huge in terms of potential to make ebooks more mainstream and actually rather useful for writing on the go too.

What has surprised me most is that it hasn’t been addictive in a ‘must use this just because it’s new’ kind of way, in fact, it’s pretty much just slotted into life. It’s been decidedly useful because it’s functional and a good size. Critics argued that it was all hype and we all had a variety of devices that did these things anyway but the iPad does them well and is functional. For instance email – I can boot up the computer, which with XP takes roughly enough time to grow a beard, then load the browser and go check my email or I can flick the iPad on and it is there instantly, just takes a second to check. In fact, once you take work out of the equation, it can do most of the things I use the computer for and it’s lighter and quicker. It’s easy to flick on The Huffington Post or NPR apps and read some articles in a nice format and the newly released Flipboard app seems like it may be the best yet for providing you lots of content in an easy to read way. Yes, I could use bloglines on my computer but why when Flipboard aggregates lots of great content from a variety of content providers and gives me it in a magazine format? I was reading articles about books last night from sites I’ve never even heard of because they were aggregated and just slot right in there. And what of my bible? It’s not been picked up for weeks because I can get all the translations instantly on the iPad and it always remembers right where I left off, I can just pick it up each morning and know that it’ll be at the right place.

So what of iBooks, which seems to have drawn both ire and praise in equal measure? Well, as people will have heard the iPad is not technically an eReader in that it doesn’t use one of those easy on the eye e-ink displays that kindle and others have, but it does have software on it to read books so while the tech world can debate to the layman it is one and the same. I think the thing that’s immediately noticeable about an iPad running iBooks is that it’s a much nicer aesthetic experience than any other eReader I’ve seen. The display is colour for a start and the bookshelf interface – like coverflow did for music – is a great way of choosing books.  People might dismiss this as periphery but it’s important – the tactile and aesthetic experience is something people notice, using an eReader is not going to be the same as picking up a book but it should still be a pleasing experience in it’s own right. The negative side of viewing books on a bright, high resolution display is that prolonged reading may be a strain on the eyes – it’s here that eInk has an advantage because it’s easier on the eye. However it’s not such an advantage as you might think; I love reading books and print books are how I usually do that, the times when an eReader is going to be most useful is when I’m not going to be reading a real book; for me that is things like when I’m a passenger on a late drive or a bus, or when I’m sat on a warm evening in the park but the light is fading, or any other number of times when I may not have a book. It’s perfect for that. Traditional eReaders do not have back-lit screens so can’t do that at all. For all those who say it’s impossible to read from a back-lit screen at length I’d point to Gogol. I mean, I don’t suppose Gogol had an iPad for his bored moments but I did read the whole of Taras Bulba by Gogol on a night journey and it wasn’t a strain on the eyes at all. There are brightness controls built into the app so no need to go to your settings if you want to change them while reading. It’s also great because, living in a town without a bookstore, it can sometimes be impossible to get a new book when you want – but with both the iBook store and Gutenberg offering free classics in ePub format that need never be a problem again. The appearance works too – the way you turn pages and open books feels nice, and that matters to people. If aesthetics and interactivity didn’t matter we’d still be using DOS based computer systems.

This is turning into a lengthy review but I’ve yet to mention the use of Pages as a word processor. I’ve been using it to work on a short story and it’s comfortable to type on, formatting options are limited but I don’t generally worry about formatting until later anyway so for writing it has what you need and has the battery life to last all day, unlike the laptop which is about ready to die after two hours of life. With the iPad I can type on the metro, use it in a coffee shop while in the city and still know that I’ve got plenty of battery if I need it later or if I want to type for a longer writing session.

All of this is before we even get to the music, video, photo and multimedia possibilities – it’s served as a television while I’ve been working several times and it’s great for viewing photos. In short the iPad has ingratiated itself entirely into my lifestyle; instead of being maddeningly addictive it’s just extremely useful. It’s portability saves me carrying a computer around all day and it comes in so handy for all kinds of tasks. I guess that is the genius of it as a device – it’s not that it does things that people couldn’t do already, but rather that it does them very well and mixes that with lightweight and beautiful design and a battery that lasts upwards of ten hours. I apologise for sounding like an apple fanboy here – I do have issues with some of the things apple does, the fact that my 3G iPhone has been rendered painfully slow by their latest ‘upgrade’ being one of them – but what they do well is produce great products with the mix of functionality and aesthetic form that makes people want to use them.

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