Sunday, December 10, 2017

Why serious literary fiction like Ishiguro’s is vital in times like these

Kazuo Ishiguro_Drawing by David Levine

Why serious literary fiction like Ishiguro’s is vital in times like these

t’s always entertaining to observe the interaction between the news media and a writer who has just won the Nobel prize. The all-time best was obviously Doris Lessing, who when doorstepped simply rolled her eyes and snorted “Oh Christ”, before turning around to pay for her taxi. Bob Dylanstudiously ignored the whole thing, while Kazuo Ishiguro had clearly emerged from solitary confinement in his study on Thursday (he is in the middle of writing a novel), to face a barrage of questions and photographs. Blinking and bewildered, he described the themes he has spent his life thinking about and painstakingly unpicking: “The way countries and nations and communities remember their past, and how often they bury the uncomfortable memories from their past.”

Such matters don’t lend themselves easily to a soundbite; asking a literary giant to respond to the demands of a 24-hour news cycle is a little like asking a dinosaur to ride a bike. Writing and reading novels are activities that take place in opposition to the frantic, thoughtless rush of modern life. They demand a different quality of commitment and concentration, and a longer time scale. Serious novelists do our deep thinking for us, and find ways to communicate big questions (“the way countries and nations remember their past”) within stories so compelling that readers absorb them without having to try. We read Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day because we want to know whether housekeeper Miss Kenton ends up with butler Mr Stevens, and in the meantime absorb the atmosphere and politics of pre-second-world-war Britain. We are bewitched by the prehistoric, magical landscapes of his 2015 novel The Buried Giant, and incidentally find ourselves thinking about the importance of history to a bewildered, conflicted nation.
This is a time of year when novelists are all over the headlines, not only because of the Nobel, but also with the impending announcement of the winner of the Booker prize. Meanwhile the publishing industry is gearing up with the Frankfurt book fair, the avalanche of books just released on “Super Thursday”, and the rush for pre-Christmas sales.
Amid the autumnal air of bookish celebration, the picture presented by the books industry is far from gloomy: thanks to the popularity of cookery, lifestyle, colouring and children’s books, sales figures for physical books remain surprisingly resilient, despite the onslaught of Amazon and e-readers. On the literary side, the Booker longlist this year was notably strong and diverse, a true reflection of the weird, wonderful and varied writing that is emerging from these weird (and not so wonderful) times.
But all those reasons to be cheerful are set against a backdrop of real anxiety about the future of the literary novel. Writers from Will Self to Howard Jacobson, from Robert Harris to Claire Messud, have raised the alarm about declining attention spans, and the time that people previously spent reading now losing out to competition from digital media.
Eminent publishers predict a long-term decline for the entire industry, as younger people turn to other forms of entertainment. From a personal perspective, such worries feel well-founded: I organise the books events for the Brighton festival, and it’s been interesting to observe the pattern in ticket sales. With a few big-name exceptions, events with literary fiction authors are hard to sell unless they are talking about how to write, or taking part in a discussion panel related to a broader theme. It also feels as though my friends read less than they used to. Parents of young children seem to push their offspring towards books and limit their screen time (hence the robust sales of children’s books), while they themselves spend every moment of leisure time plugged in. Those with older children report that an early interest in reading gives way to the easier, faster-moving temptations of Netflix, Facebook and Instagram.
Working out whether these observations are supported by sales figures is no simple task. The Publishers Association reports a 7% decline in fiction sales in 2016, a decline of 23% since 2012; other sources such as Nielsen BookScan present a less dramatic drop of around 1%, with strong growth in graphic novels and comics. According to Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller, “sales of commercial fiction are in rude health, but there is a general awareness that sales of literary fiction are suffering”.
Why does it matter? After all, there are plenty of issues that currently seem more pressing than the fate of the novel. Fiction can feel like a luxury in a world of nuclear and environmental threat, crumbling political and economic systems, and general chaos. But that is also precisely why proper, challenging reading is so important: to read a good novel is to spend a serious amount of time immersed in the consciousness of another person; to reach out across the barriers that separate us from one another. It is to take the time to cultivate the focus necessary to step back from the distractions of day-to-day life and think bigger. Surely we all need that now, more than ever.

  Alice O’Keeffe is a freelance literary critic and journalist based in Brighton,

Portrait of the artist / Colm Tóibín / I work very deliberately, with a plan

Portrait of the artist

Colm Tóibín 


Colm Tóibín talks about writing a Broadway show, giving up poetry at 20 – and why writers would be good at running military campaigns

Interview by Laura Barnett
Tuesday 19 February 2013 18.17 GMT

 Colm Tóibín 

What first drew you to writing?
When I was 12, it was agreed I would spend some hours studying every evening. I discovered rhyme and began to write poetry. I did this until I was 20, when I realised the poems were no good.
What was your big breakthrough?
When Serpent's Tail agreed to publish my first novel, The South. I'd just spent a year in Barcelona and got the news on my way home. After landing in Dublin, I sat alone in the airport bar for an hour, just trying to take it in.
Do you suffer for your art?
Suffering is too strong a word, but writing is serious work. I pull the stuff up from me – it's not as if it's a pleasure.
What's more important in fiction: story or style?
I'm against story. I remember [the painter] Howard Hodgkin really disliking being called a colourist. People love talking about writers as storytellers, but I hate being called that: it suggests I got it from my grandmother or something, when my writing really comes out of silence. If a storyteller came up to me, I'd run away.

 Writing tends to be very deliberate … Colm Tóibín. Photograph: Kim Haughton

How do you know when a book is finished?
You're often wrong. I work very deliberately, with a plan. But sometimes I come to a point that I planned as the end and it needs softening. Ending a novel is almost like putting a child to sleep – it can't be done abruptly.
Do you read your reviews?
Not if somebody has told me in advance that it isn't good. The only time I've ever learned anything from a review was when John Lanchester wrote a piece in the Guardian about my second novel, The Heather Blazing. He said that, together with the previous novel, it represented a diptych about the aftermath of Irish independence. I simply hadn't known that – and I loved the grandeur of the word "diptych". I went around quite snooty for a few days, thinking: "I wrote a diptych."
What advice would you give a young writer?
Finish everything you start. Often, you don't know where you're going for a while; then halfway through, something comes and you know. If you abandon things, you never find that out.
What work of art would you most like to own?
Titian's Man With a Glove. It's in the Louvre – right by the Mona Lisa. I'm probably the only person who's looked at it in 100 years.
What's the biggest myth about writing?
That there's any wildness attached to it. Writing tends to be very deliberate. A novelist could probably run a military campaign with some success. They could certainly run a country.
What are you writing now?
I'm close to finishing a novel. And I have a play [an adaptation of The Testament of Mary] opening on Broadway in about a month. There's a daily phone call from someone saying: "If we cut this sentence, would it break your heart?" Most of the time, I'm very good and say it wouldn't.
What's your greatest ambition?
To write better.

In short

Born: Enniscorthy, County Wexford, 1955
Career: Has published nine novels and short story collections, including Brooklyn, The Master and The Testament of Mary; as well as various non-fiction works, the latest of which – New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families – is out on 7 March. His next novel will appear in the autumn.
Low point: "No lows and no highs – writing has just been a gift."

'Portrait of the artist / Rankin / I wouldn't want there to be another me'


Portrait of the artist



'I wouldn't want there to be another me. I've been a bit of a nightmare in my life'

My best shot / Rankin / Beautyfull

Interview by Natalie Hanman

Tuesday 14 November 2006 00.18 GMT


What got you started?
I saw W Eugene Smith's work at the Barbican art gallery a long time ago. I was completely inspired to be that kind of photographer.
What was your big break?
Photographing Björk for Dazed and Confused in the early 1990s. It was the first time I earned a substantial fee for doing something that I loved.
If someone saw one of your photographs in 1,000 years' time, what would it tell them about the year 2006?
Digital retouching has a massive influence on photography now. People looking back at this period in time will see that everything is enhanced - from TV programmes to people. Some of my photographs try to reject that.
Is your work fashionable?
No - I think the most important thing in photography is that your work survives the test of time.
Who or what have you sacrificed for your art?
My personal life, until recently.
What's the greatest threat to art today?
Commerce. We all earn far too much money.
Does an artist need to suffer to create?
It certainly helps if you're going through a difficult time, whether it's financial or personal.

Vinyl or MP3?
Vinyl because the sound quality is better. MP3s because I'm as lazy as every other person in the world.
What one song would you choose as the soundtrack to your life?
The one song I always go back to is I See a Darkness by Will Oldham. Johnny Cash does a version that I particularly like.
What's your favourite film?
Cinema Paradiso - emotionally it takes me on a journey each time. It makes me cry, and I do like a cry. I'm a bit of a baby, really.
What cultural tip would you give a tourist about Britain's arts scene?
Don't believe the hype.
What work of art would you most like to own?
Pretty much anything by Damien Hirst.
Best thing you've seen on TV recently?
Prime Suspect.
Who's the next you?
I would never want there to be another me. I wouldn't want to inflict that on the world. I've been a bit of a nightmare in my life.
In the movie of your life, who plays you?
Marc Warren. He would play me very well - a skinnier and better-looking me.
What would you do if your eyes failed?
Blag it and buy an auto-focus camera.
Who do you envy?
My son. He's got his whole life ahead of him. I envy that innocence and potential.
Who would you most like to work with?
Sean Penn. I'm trying to direct films at the moment and I'm very attracted to him creatively.
In brief
Born Glasgow, 1966
Lives London
Career In 1991, he co-founded Dazed and Confused magazine. A book of photographs of his favourite model, Tuulitastic: A Photographic Love Letter, is published this month
High point 'My first exhibition, Female Nudes'
Low point 'I don't have any - it's been pretty much up all the way


003 Portrait of the artist / Thea Sharrock / 'Bureaucracy is the greatest threat to art today'

004 Portrait of the artist / Marin Alsop / It's still unusual to see a woman conducting an orchestra

Saturday, December 9, 2017

My friend Kazuo Ishiguro / ‘An artist without ego, with deeply held beliefs’

 ‘Ish’ and Robert McCrum at the Faber office in London in 1989.
Photograph: Caroline Forbes

My friend Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘an artist without ego, with deeply held beliefs’

Last week, the British novelist was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. His first editor at Faber recalls the rise to greatness

Robert McCrum
Sunday 8 October 2017 08.30 BST

ne minute, the old friend I know as “Ish” was sitting at his kitchen table, doing emails, having not yet showered or washed his hair. Half an hour later, the world’s media was snaking up the path to his house in Golders Green, north London. “How on earth did they know where I lived?” he puzzled, reviewing a day of “bizarre” events. It was, he says, not until the news was confirmed by the BBC that he began to compose himself to address the great honour bestowed upon him by the Swedes.

Last Thursday, Kazuo Ishiguro – a writer I’ve known for close on 40 years – was awarded the 2017 Nobel prize for literature. Precisely at noon, among its gilt-and-white mirrors, the Swedish Academy’s spokeswoman stepped in front of the international press with a short statement about its prize for “the English writer… Kazuo Ishiguro, whose novels of great emotional force have uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”, followed by allusions to Austen, Kafka and Proust. Then, the usual mayhem: how, what, when, and why?
In this Brexit year, a result described by Radio 4’s Front Row as “a big win for British writers” has a special piquancy, a reminder that our literature expresses a uniquely global vision. Moreover, this citation places my friend in a canon that includes Samuel Beckett, Doris Lessing, William Golding, Seamus Heaney, VS Naipaul and Harold Pinter, the literary superegos of modern poetry and prose in English. Ish’s first reaction, he told me much later that day, as the hullaballoo began to fade, was frank disbelief. Was it a hoax? Was it fake news?
Inevitably, in private, he found the whole affair both “surreal” and richly comic, the “last thing I expected”. Never mind the abyss of the academy’s citation, there’s a persistent note of quiet enjoyment at the ironies of the human comedy present throughout Ishiguro’s work, a theme expressive of a uniquely English and Japanese sensibility.
Britain’s newest literary Nobel laureate was born in Nagasaki in 1954. His mother, who is still alive and taking immense pride in her son’s achievement, survived the atomic bomb. His father, an oceanographer, moved his family to England in 1959, settling near Guildford, Surrey. Ish has always said that his parents didn’t have the mentality of immigrants because they always thought they would go home. He was 15 and still the only non-white kid in school before a final decision was made to stay.

When I first met him in the lobby of Faber & Faber in 1979, I was a young editor looking for new talent. Hot from the new UEA creative writing course – where his tutors included Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury – Ish carried a guitar and a portable Olympia typewriter in a neat blue case. With ragged jeans and long hair, in thrall to Bob Dylan, he was writing songs, and it was his ambition to become a performer. (He still plays the guitar most days.) But he’d already acquired the amateur spirit of the English literary tradition. Until he became a rock star, he would write fiction, to which end he had studied at UEA. It was three of his recent short stories (A Strange and Sometimes Sadness; Waiting for J; and Getting Poisoned) that he was offering to me at Faber.
I have not looked at these in years, but I cannot forget their haunting strangeness, the unique quality of his writing to this day, a weird mix of classic English and minatory Japanese prose. Although there was inevitably some influence from Ian McEwan, they were unmistakably the work of a young writer with a new voice. I quickly signed him up, and was soon after delighted to receive, from his agent Deborah Rogers, 100 pages of his first novel, for which, without hesitation, we paid the extravagant sum of £1,000.
When A Pale View of Hills, a short, disturbing account of a Japanese family’s emigration to England, was published to much acclaim in 1982, the critics began to place Ishiguro in a then-unfamiliar genre: the English fiction of writers, such as Salman Rushdie and Timothy Mo, whose lives had exotic, non-English beginnings.
Ish, however, was always hard to pigeonhole, being neither one thing nor another. He was unfailingly attentive, watchful and reserved, a man of deep politesse, highly attuned to the nuances of any situation. He made no fuss about things, either in life or in writing. He generally seemed like that rare being, an artist without ego, though I knew that he was inwardly dedicated to deeply held beliefs and attitudes. One constant in his character and career has been his humanity, good humour and natural expression of civilised values.
In his first years as a writer, Ish’s day job was working for the Cyrenians charity in Notting Hill, where he met Lorna MacDougall, a social worker. When they married in 1986, the itinerant Irish writer Des Hogan was a witness at the wedding, improvising a bouquet by tearing a sprig of cherry blossom from a tree on the way to the register office. Many of Ish’s values were formed at this time. Identifying “more closely than perhaps I should with those social workers”, he remains part of that 70s generation whose idealism had nowhere to go.
Ish might identify with the marginal. In 1983, however, his true status was clarified when he was chosen for Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, the youngest of a group that included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. He wasn’t a British citizen, so he took a practical decision to become one. “I couldn’t speak Japanese very well,” he has said. “But I felt British and my future was in Britain. It would also make me eligible for literary awards.” He’s still seen as Japanese in Japan, and celebrated as one of their own.

Ish’s next book, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), my favourite among his novels, is one of the titles that secured his reputation. Set in postwar Japan, it describes the agonising life of a painter confronting the secret shames of his past.
It won the Whitbread prize, and Ish became integral to the book scene. One former Faber colleague remembers his tip for surviving in literary London: “When you get together with other writers it’s fine to bash agents and publishers, etc, and never to talk about the work itself, but always to refer to one specific page, just to let them know you had in fact read it!”
Such discretion comes naturally. Ish has many theories about the creative process, though he rarely discusses his own work in depth. I have spent hundreds of hours in his company, sitting over his typescripts, but have never, so far as I recall, come close to an in-depth conversation about what he’s up to. Yes, as a songwriter, he revels in the first-person narrative; and yes, there is a quasi-gothic side to his imagination; but that’s about as far as he’ll go. I think he cherishes the mystery of his art, though that will never prevent him from deeply researching his next subject.
I knew something was up when, some time in 1987, he told me he’d been reading PG Wodehouse and began enthusing about Right Ho, Jeeves. Two years later he delivered The Remains of the Daya novel about a butler, partly set in appeasement Britain, that only he could have written, a book described by the Nobel committee as braiding the themes of “memory, time and self-delusion”. The Remains of the Day won the Booker prize in 1989, and was followed by The Unconsoled (1995), possibly his masterpiece, a hypnotic novel about the trials of a travelling concert pianist, partly inspired by Ish’s life on the literary promotion circuit.
We have remained friends ever since, and although I no longer edit his work, Ish and I always meet to catch up, usually over a Chinese meal, a tradition in our long relationship. My friend is witty, loving and discreet, with deep reserves of wisdom and sympathy. In a frantic, fretful and unstable world, he is a voice of sanity, decorum, humanity and grace. The Swedish Academy should be proud of themselves.