The Intelligent Narrator

Something that occasionally crops up in literary discussion is the issue of the unreliable narrator, where the reader gains the perception that whoever is telling the story is being economical with the truth.

Perhaps the opposite of that trope is the intelligent narrator.

Having seen the film adaptation some years ago, I finally read Fight Club, the debut novel by Chuck Palahniuk. The story is told in the first person, and it takes a little time to become accustomed to the style.

But what shone through for me was the intelligence of the character telling the story.

Sure, he makes some questionable decisions, and that’s part of the charm of the book. However, his decisions are always based on his own logic and knowledge. For instance, he knew the chemistry involved in making explosives; he didn’t simply mix ingredients together and hope for the best.

I’ve long been drawn to novels where the narrator knows what they’re doing – or at least gives the appearance of such.

I was reminded of Layer Cake. This was based on the book of the same name by JJ Connolly, and could feasibly have been set in the same universe as Fight Club, such are the parallels in their styles.

Here, the unnamed narrator takes the same approach to selling narcotics as a chief executive might approach a legitimate business deal. He isn’t bumbling through life, and has a clear plan to leave the lifestyle by the age of 30.

And in the film adaptation of Trainspotting, Renton appears to be the most educated among his friends. I can’t speak for the novel, but I imagine he’s very similar in that.

Perhaps the most intelligent narrator in fiction was also created by Irving Welsh. In Filth, part of the story is told by a sentient tapeworm.


Last week’s entry was about the problem of enjoying Graham Linehan’s work while disagreeing with his views. Since the entry was posted, it’s been reported that West Yorkshire police have given him a verbal warning about harassing someone online.

The whole issue led to some civilised discussion with friends. It seems our consensus is to try to separate the creator from the creation, so I think that’s the tack I’m going to take for the moment.

 

 

 

 

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The Linehan Problem

For a long time now, I’ve been a fan of Graham Linehan’s TV shows, including Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd.

Over the last couple of years, however, it’s emerged that he holds views that I disagree with, explored in an opinion piece from 2016, while this and other matters are still debated on his own Twitter account.

This entry is not to discuss the views themselves, but to question how to react to his writing in their wake. Can I still rate Moss playing Countdown as one of my top sitcom moments? Am I allowed to imitate Mrs Doyle offering a cup of tea?

I accept that some artistic expression can change from from acceptable to offensive in as little as a decade or two. Last week, I saw John Cooper Clarke on stage. He included a poem from 1993 about a person he described as a ‘disgruntled transsexual’, containing outdated stereotypes, as did the introductory patter.

In Clarke’s case, only that poem was problematic, and he at least acknowledged how much controversy it causes today. For this reason, I don’t have the same problem enjoying his work as I do with that of Linehan, whose opinions I’m far less willing to accept.

An odd disconnect struck me while writing this. I’m also a fan of the musician Peter Doherty, who has a long criminal record, yet this doesn’t seem to factor into whether or not I can appreciate his work.

Perhaps the passage of time will determine whether a given person’s personal life overshadows their artisic work.

That said, a journalist friend has stopped using the Gill Sans font in her zine. Even though he died in 1940, she has an ethical problem with its inventor Eric Gill who was accused of abusing his own daughters.

An article in The Guardian from last year asks similar questions about Gill as I ask about Graham Linehan.

Adapting to Film, Adapting to Change

On Saturday, I went to see a performance of Benidorm at the Edinburgh Playhouse, based upon the ITV2 comedy of the same name. It even featured some of the actors.

The TV series is already rather theatrical in nature, like a Carry On film with a more modern attitude. As such, it transferred very well to the stage.

Sometimes, though, adapting a story from one medium into another is a hit-or-miss affair.

Those I enjoyed include the 2004 film Layer Cake, then I discovered it’s so closely based on the novel by J. J. Connolly that it even contains direct quotes. Similarly, The Thirty-Nine Steps worked as a mock radio adaptation performed on stage, even though the plot was stripped down to the bare essentials.

Yet I was disappointed by the film version of one of my favourite books, Starter For Ten, perhaps because it deviates from the first-person point of view. And the 2016 Dad’s Army movie opened to lacklustre reviews, with The Guardian asking why we needed a film version of a much-loved TV series.

One classic case of an author disowning a film version is Roald Dahl’s reaction to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He disliked the plot changes and musical numbers so much that no other screenplays of his work were authorised until after his death.

A few years ago, I posed a question to Irvine Welsh at a book signing about his thoughts on adaptation, considering how many of his novels have been on the big screen. He replied that he considered film to be a different medium and he accepted that changes sometimes had to be made.

‘And,’ he concluded, ‘it never hurts book sales.’

Right Now or Write Later

The V&A design museum in Dundee officially opened its doors on Saturday. I’d been fortunate enough to win a ticket in the ballot so I could be among its first visitors.

However, this entry is not a write-up about the experience. Rather, it’s about the balance between reporting on an event as a punter versus enjoying the experience in person. This thought was prompted by a colleague who asked me to take lots of pictures while I was there.

As regular readers know, I do sometimes report on events for this blog, but my style has changed over the years. When I used LiveJournal, I would write about anywhere I’d been: music festivals, airshows, boat trips, and so forth, often taking dozens of pictures.

These days, I’m of the mindset that I report back on only notable places and often don’t bother taking pictures. I did tell my colleague I’d take one to show her the inside of the V&A, but that would be her lot. After all, there had already been many published in local media.

During the five or so minutes I spent taking and sending the aforementioned picture, it reinforced how little I was engaging with the surroundings. I was far happier to see it through my own eyes without the aid of technology. I’ll leave that to the real journalists.

Restoration

I’ve had some computer problems over the weekend. Windows was running slowly and wouldn’t update, and I eventually had to perform a system restore.

Although this has caused lots of short-term chaos, it seems to be a good long-term solution; it already feels like a new machine. Unfortunately, this episode has taken up so much of my attention that I don’t have a full blog entry for you.

However, I did manage to catch up with some reading earlier in the week. I was on a train to Birmingham and back, a total of around 11 hours, so I’m halfway through the short story collection Arcanum Unbounded by fantasy author Brandon Sanderson.

Most authors write short stories of mayble a few thousand words long and that stand alone from each other. By contrast, this author’s short stories are more like novel extracts, while some would qualify as novellas. What’s more, almost all of them link into the same universe, known as the Cosmere.

I bought the book when I met Sanderson last year because there were no more copies of his latest novel left. I’m glad I started with this collection as it’s given me an excellent sample of his style, and now I look forward to tackling his novels when I have the chance.

Patchwork Poetry

Many writers like to post their work on the Internet. People I follow here on WordPress do it regularly.

But it’s important to remember that publishers generally won’t accept work that’s available online. It’s difficult to persuade readers to pay for a book when the material can be found on the author’s website free of charge. That’s why you rarely see my work here.

Today, however, I’m making an exception, as it already appears on a friend’s Facebook page.

The friend in question posted about the patch notes for the computer game The Sims. These notes detail which bugs have been fixed and which features have amended. Out of context, some of the notes sound ludicrous.

I then combined this with a list published by Beloit College to help their colleagues understand the worldview of the 18- to 22-year-olds who enrol in their classes. The Mindset List throws up similar gems that sound ludicrous out of context. I’ve long been taken by the phrase ‘Dean Martin, Mickey Mantle, and Jerry Garcia have always been dead’ from one of the lists, and finding the notes for The Sims was the perfect companion.

The last verse should have a hanging indent, but this is difficult to achieve in HTML. Nonetheless, I hereby present:

Dean Martin Has Always Been Dead

Alien abductions have been disabled on houseboats.
Top Spook is an equal opportunity post.
The bed has been made less lethal.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

‘Dude’ has never had a negative tone.
‘Become Enemies with Child’ wish no longer appears.
Fixed a tuning issue so they vomit at acceptable levels.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Spray paint has never been legally sold in Chicago.
There has never been a Barings Bank in England.
Fire engines maintain functionality in Egypt, China, and France.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Carbon copies are oddities found in attics.
Fish are no longer duplicated in the fridge.
Babies and toddlers will no longer go into a frozen state.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Their parents’ car CD player is so ancient and embarrassing.
An issue caused unicorns to lose their special powers.
As kids they probably never got chicken pox.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Americans and Russians have always co-operated in orbit;
they have never really needed to study at a friend’s house.
Fairy children will no longer stretch into adult size.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

They no longer play detonated pianos.
Televisions no longer play after they are burned or broken.
They have never attended a concert in a smoke-filled arena.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Fixed an issue that could cause a teen to be trapped in a child’s body when travelling to the future at the exact moment of a birthday; they have never needed directions to get someplace, just an address.
Dean Martin has always been dead.

Debunking Popular Writing Advice

Experienced writers often love to give advice to newbies, whether or not it’s solicited. However, there are some maxims where the original meaning has been lost over the years. Let’s look at three of them.

Write what you know

This is great advice if you already know a subject inside-out; for example, the banking system or nuclear physics. In which case, that knowledge can be used in your writing to add a touch of authenticity.

But the phrase is often misinterpreted to mean ‘write what you already know’. Rather, the intent of the advice is to encourage the writer to carry out research. Does your character want to go skydiving, or visit South Africa, or both? Once you know enough about a given topic, you can write about it with more authority.

Honoré Daumier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Advice to a Young Artist by Honoré Daumier, c1865-68
Kill your darlings

This phrase has been attributed to many authors. A lot of people take it to mean ‘remove any phrase you especially like’. However, this only applies to phrases that you like but that don’t fit in with the rest of the piece. If you like it and it works, leave it in.

There is further confusion in the 1791 biography of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, in which Johnson says:

I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: ‘Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ (Full text)

It is possible the word ‘fine’ had a different meaning in the 18th century. It otherwise seems rather strange advice.

Read On Writing by Stephen King

Many writers have been open about their process or daily routine, but few in as much depth as King. As such, his 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is sometimes held up as a gospel for aspiring writers.

However, you are free to ignore what he says about how to write, or indeed what any writer says. Someone I know rewrites as she goes along rather than having a definite first draft; I know of only one major author who does this. Similarly, a number of sources recommend keeping a bedside notepad for nocturnal ideas, but I don’t do this because ideas don’t come to me in bed.