Saturday 19 May 2012

Odes to the Big City - a preview of a preface.

I originally planned to plan the next book and no more, but I couldn't help myself write a little.

The following part is the current rough draft of the preface I plan to use, as I say in the text, it is as traditional to skip a preface as it is to write.

In the preface, I lay put my scheme for the book and talk a little about the book's theme and the relationship between a reader and writer.

I put it in a word-cloud generator and got this - pretty, eh?

Wordle: Preface to Odes to the Big City

The following few words are some of the hardest I have ever written.

On the Essence of a Book and This Book in Particular.

The first thing people do after you tell them that you are writing a book, is ask; ‘what is it about? To which the answer given must always be a lie, a misunderstanding or a partial truth. This is an inevitable result of ‘what is it about?’ being a bad question. Were somebody to ask me that question, I could try and answer in a number of ways. 

Firstly, I could simply state the plot. Some would say that although this is the most common way to describe a book, it is the least useful. They would claim that the actions of a plot are nothing more than mere mechanics, a coat hanger for the smart jacket of tailored writing. 

Nonsense. If a novel cannot fulfil the basic obligation of interesting things happening to engaging people, then it is a failure. I consider it a direct and deep insult to be given a book where nondescript characters do nothing. Forget style, forget propriety, forget clever - Story is All.

In the case of this book, the story is about a deluded poet who moves into the Big City to seek his fortune. He is constantly under threat; of starvation, of brutal crime or of equally brutal justice. In the seedy underbelly of London, our poet needs as many true friends as he can get and needs to avoid the attention of powerful enemies. All he has in his favour is a dopey smile and fecklessness, his is not going to be an easy time. 

However, for those who do fancy a little bit more of a warning as to the main theme of this coming work, I can explain it in one sentence. ‘Odes to the Big City’ is about the complicated relationship between an author, his time and place and his writing. 

In the book we see our poet, Inspired by his own poetic vision of the Big City and oblivious to the chaotic and messy truth of it. We see other writers, straddling the High Lives and the Lowlifes, writing for money or for prestige, using writing to secure their places in the world and knock a few others off their perches. We also see the people who couldn’t give the slightest fig for the spats of writers, nor have any time for writing in itself. They couldn’t care what a writer writes or what readers read, they just want to stay warm and full.

This theme is given greater resonance through the attempt at writing the book as if it were an eighteenth century novel, and not just one set then. How does a writer trying to write as if from a different time (though pretty much the same place) relate to their own time and place? I  intend to follow as close as possible the quirks and features of the mid-eighteenth century novel; from the idiosyncratic capitalisation and short chapters with long titles, to the types of characters and scenes an eighteenth century reader would expect.

Originally I planned this first chapter to tell the story of how I ‘found’ the manuscript after rummaging through the second hand bookshops near Charing Cross. I was going to praise the ‘anonymous’ author and pretend that ‘Odes to the Big City’ was a relic. This would have fit in perfectly with one way of starting an eighteenth century novel, ‘The Man of Feeling’ starts with a man saving the manuscript from a parson who is using it for gun wadding. Novels later in the century, such as the gothic and sentimental often had a ‘frame’ for their story and the found manuscript is not an unusual one. It would also excuse me from having to talk about the awkward fact that this is an eighteenth century novel written by a twenty-first century man. Avoiding that fact is the act of a coward.

As much as I try and make this book an eighteenth century one, I am typing it on a computer and listening to mp3s. Even were I to lock myself in some rural hellhole, wear nothing but heavy duty re-enactor’s clothing, use nothing but period implements and a library consisting only of books available at the time, I’d still not be able to write an eighteenth century book. Even if I were rich enough for a classical Eton education, instead of my ordinary state kind, I’d Still not be able to write one. It is simply Impossible. There is no way I can think and act in a way completely eighteenth century, and even if I could, I couldn’t interact with others who could, or in a manner appropriate to the period. 

Which brings me back to the theme, of the author’s relationship to his time and place. Although I cannot fully recreate the past, in trying to do just that I am having a conversation with it,  a living engagement between the past and the present through which I can look at both the story, and the writing of the story in different ways. 

Which brings me back further when I said, ‘Story is All’. There hasn’t been much yet. This is because convention demands, if I follow the mid-eighteenth century example, that I begin the book by providing the reader a context for the work. Henry Fielding in ‘Joseph Andrews’ describes his idea of the ‘comic-epic in prose’. Johnson in his work on Shakespeare, contextualises debates on the celebrated playwright before we see his works. Samuel Richardson explains the morals of his characters before we are thrust in their heads, and so with this book, I try to explain what it is I am set out to do. As it is traditional for writers of the time to write a chapter like this, so it is traditional for the readers to skip it. I will certainly not be quite so direct again.

I started this chapter by asking the question ‘what is the book about?’ and declaring it a bad one. This is because a novel is only ever about anything when it is read. There are entertainments, like the theatre, where the audiences’s imaginations are limited by the physical presence and performance of the actors. We may wish to imagine Iago a thousand ways when we read ‘Othello’ but when we see it performed, Iago is the man standing on the stage, dressed in the costume he has been put in, saying the lines in the manner that the director and the actor have agreed already. The audience cannot affect what is in front of them. A novel is different altogether.

If this page is a stage, the writer and reader meet here as equals. The reader is not like an audience at a play consuming the entertainment, but like the actor is a vital participant, a performer. Where I as the writer need to provide clear direction and an engaging script, it is the reader’s job to act that script. To add breath to it and give it life. I may be able to describe with great clarity the dress of a character, the gait, the tone of their voice, but the performance of such can only be achieved by the reader. In this sense, a novel is not created by a writer, but an act of co-creation by writer and reader.

It is for this reason that the essence of a book, what it is about, can never be truly answered by anyone but the individual. Perhaps, when the book is finished, you might be able to tell me. However, at this early stage, as we enter the unknown hand in hand, I hope we can develop the rapport and trust that good relationships are built on; for just as you trust that I tell the tale well, I trust you to read it well also.
Onwards in trust then.
Adam Stevenson

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