Monthly Archives: December 2016

Dear Jon . . . (#14) Re: On Waste Lands of Straight People


‘You’ve got mail,’ said the computer electronically.

‘Read it to me, computer,’ I spoke organically.

‘So many,’ it quothed digitally.

‘So many what?’ queried I fleshily…

I had not thought death had undone so many. -T.S. Eliot

Dear Jon,

Well, I hope you had a merry Christmas time. One way to address your question is to refer you to my very early reading this year in which I made a sally into the 1700s. I read Robinson Crusoe, I read Gulliver’s Travels, I read Tristram Shandy. And the last of these showed me clearly that the madcap and what might be called ‘the experimental’ is inherent to the canon. That cray was there, all the time… Click HERE for the rest of Jim’s bletter.

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Dear Jim . . . (#13) Re: Fiction vs. Nonfiction


In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”[…] In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments[…]” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your last bletter. Sorry this one is late, I blame everyone but myself.*

As to your question: What works of fiction do you feel has taken your imagination and expanded it in this way? the short answer is: None.

The longer answer is: None that I can think of but also I guess all of them sort of a bit but not really all of them dot com.

Which is to say, I don’t remember a work of fiction drastically changing my world view or granting me sudden insight into worlds hitherto unseen. To some extent every book does this a bit but I find the effect one of accretion, one book gives you a look at someone else’s point of view, another someone else’s. It all adds up, but I rarely have that flash of insight from a fiction-book.

So, I am not going all They Came Together** or denying the ability of fiction to expand one’s horizons, or to give one insight into – as in your examples – the life of a black Americans, but for me, it is always non-fiction that cuts new channels in my brain. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans would be the books that did for me what Citizen and Invisible Man did for you.

Another book I would recommend for this reason is The Ruins of Empire which was a fascinating insight into the post-Colonial cultures of India, China, Egypt and the Middle East. That rendered the grievances more, to use that word again, more complexly and personally than I had previously considered.

Perhaps this is because, until a few years ago I didn’t read much serious fiction. I read nonfiction, I watched movies and TV***, and fiction was picked up for light entertainment.

Perhaps it is because non-fiction has a greater power for directed brain thrilling perspective shifts for me. Almost the books which I come back to over and over again in my mind are nonfiction. My intellectual biography could be written in The… titles****: The Theory of PokerThe Selfish GeneThe Problems of Philosophy. I remember where I was when I read them, and how they moved my brain in one direction or the other. I guess these sort of texts amount to a sort of personal canon.

But your question was more precise, about books that helped imagining Others complexly. On that score books like my A-level psychology textbook, played a role. And sections of The Stuff of Thought by Stephen Pinker, especially concerning the idea of taboo. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt is another book that for many reasons was empathy expanding. Some of the Bhuddist literature I’ve read did the same thing in different ways and for different reasons: The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner Mind. Their merits are probably fairly obvious, so the one I’ll pick out to expand on is Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind.

Tricks is an odd grab bag of a book, made up of chapters on each of the things Brown is interested in. It lays out his aesthetic theories about magic and misdirection, gives guides on lie detection and memory tricks, but also contains the science of – and his speculations on – the nature of hypnosis and influence.

The hypnosis chapter combined the science of influence (Milgram, Zimbardo, Ariely, et al.), the ability of the brain to trick itself, and ideas about intentionality and self-justification. The implications go far beyond hypnosis, every human interaction does to some extent the same thing that a Mentalist does with his ‘hypnotised’ subject.

It gave me a far better sense of how I and you and everyone else on planet Earth live their lives. We all do what we mean to do only a tiny fraction of the time, our brains seamlessly filling in the justifications afterwards. Our experiences are largely lies, memories even more so.

The world looks different when you realise no one is in control of even all their actions. That a missed lunch can have as great an effect as someone’s ethical code. It’s a little easier to forgive, and to see oneself in the same position.

I would recommend Tricks of the Mind to almost anyone, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to have the effect on them it had on me, I don’t think it would have had that effect if I had read it a few years later. Personal canons are exactly that.

I know in many ways your personal canon reflect the literary canon quite closely, and you have always a broad respect and interest in that trunk line of culture leading back inexorably towards Gilgamesh. But, I’d be interested to hear how your recent batch of reading all madcap and experimentalist has altered your views on the works of the past?

Yours hypnotically,


*I should also probably point out that ‘imagining others complexly’ is not my phrase, but John Green’s.


*** For example House M.D. was probably one of the biggest fictional influences on how I thought about other people, ethical questions, even epistemology. The way that show used its ensemble cast to create a dialectic on whatever the issue of the week was. There are few shows as entertaining as House that also have the intellectual heft of those first three seasons.

**** Also Michael Crichton novels.

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Writing Update: Sunday, 11th Dec 2016


Novel Word Count

First draft document: 27,391 words
Zero-th draft documents: 19,512 words
Total Words: 46,903/~90,000 words

That is correct, there has been no movement on the novel since the last update around a month ago.

This can be blamed in part on my having found a job – part time call centre work in Warwick – which led with two weeks of 8 am – 5 pm shifts for training which mucked my schedule about and put a sudden stop to my NaNoWriMo effort to hit the big 50k in one month.

Since then I’ve pretty much been playing catch up on my various commissions and with keeping the blog vaguely up to date. I think on that front I am going to be reducing the blog output to two articles a week instead of three. The regular posting is good exercise but I at the moment I need to conserve my writing energies for the more important Novel / £££s.

But I’m of back to the island home in a week or so for a long Xmas hols, hopefully I’ll be able to get myself back up and running on the novel during my time off.

Other Word Count

As at the time of writing if I can squeeze out a little over 30,000 words before NYE, then I’ll have written 200,000 words total in 2016. It’s a shame more of that wasn’t on the novel, but one needs to stay vaguely liquid to avoid tipping from starving artist to starved. 200,000 words seems like a nice round goal, and doable if I can get myself back into the habit of writing.

That habit thing always seems like the easiest thing in the world when its going well, but I find that it doesn’t take much to disrupt it, and the last few weeks have been frustratingly short on words written by myself. Even losing almost all of my reading time and replacing it with writing I still had one of my least productive months in November.

Fixing that needs to be a priority, though what exactly that will entail, I am making up as I go along. I’ll pretend to remain optimistic and hope that hope follows.

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Dear Jon . . . (#12) Re: Imagining All the People


You’ve got mail! Well, not you. Me, really, but you can read it too.

Dear Jon,

I think that I mostly agree with your thoughts there. There is a lot you say about how words can divide us. How they frustrate debate or inflame resentment. I wanted to engage with this by talking about how words can do the opposite – specifically in relation to the imagination. What you termed: thinking about Others complexly. The imagination is often a slave of the passions too – it can both be something that spurs us onto the better futures that we see for ourselves, or can twist the facts to create parallel universes. . .[click here for the rest]”

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The Best Books For Writers – Part 4: Books on Reading


Previously on… 

Part 1 – Books on Being Writerly

Part 2 – Books on the Craft of Writing

Part 3 – Books on The Writing Life

Generally speaking the advice all new writers get is: 1) Write. A lot. 2) Look over everything you write critically. Ideally with others. 3) Read widely and closely.

If you dropped English after GCSEs and didn’t pay that much attention before them, is that reading is often a really passive activity. Reading closely, which is the main way one absorbs the interesting stuff from what one reads, is a learned skill. These are some books that help guide you towards that.

Part 4 – Books on Reading Like A Writer

1. Top Pick: Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose


Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

Probably the first best book to read on this subject, Reading Like A Writer goes step by step through the kind of things to look for when close reading: words, sentences, paragraphs etc… up to higher level structural things.

As the title suggests the focus is on reading to figure out how a piece works, and to collect examples of good writing in our brains for reference. To that end the book is full of practical examples and comes with a reading list at the back.

2. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism by Various

A huge book with all the key texts in Literary Theory from the Ancient Greeks to the latest trends. Each author and gets an short introduction and biographical note that puts their work in context.

This is probably the best reference for how other people have viewed reading over-seriously throughout history. Like most of the humanities – ideas which are stupid or monomaniacal as individual ideas add up to provide a nuanced and interesting collage of a world view when anthologised.

3. The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

VW’s multivolume collection of critical essays aimed at the reader who has a taste for books but is not concerned with the kind of ‘rigorous’ criticisms of the Norton anthology.

She gives her thoughts on the work of a huge range of literary greats and sidetracks into other bookish musings throughout. Worth reading for Woolf’s prose alone.

4. How Fiction Works by James Wood

A slightly odd book, but informative. This is Wood’s analysis of the realist novel, and gives a readable breakdown of a particular sort of style, raising writerish questions and providing at least one of the answers to them.

I’m not sure I fully trust Wood’s manifesto as being what all fiction should be, but deffo some of it.

5. The Fun Stuff by James Wood and 6. The War Against Cliche by Martin Amis and 7. Many other similar collections.

Plenty of writers – like Amis – have turned critic for at various periods in their lives, some have always and only been critics – like Wood – collections of their essays on other people’s writings are a source of ways of thinking about what you read, and can help prod your brain in interesting directions about books you’ve already read.

5 and 6 are just two examples that I happen to have dipped into and found useful recently. I leave the possible 7s to your personal researches.

Coming soon…

Part 5 – Books on Art and Arting in General



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