Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, Wordsworth Editions

A marked modernity about this book strikes you on first reading. The voice throughout has a deprecating wit and a knowingness about male shortcomings; so much for our time and so little heard in her own. Read it without knowing the author, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this an unlikely post-modern take on the transatlantic Edwardian.
The veil drops on a little delving. Wharton was borne of such a privileged background, in New York one-hundred and fifty years ago, that it was her true family name that became synonymous with the phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ Family affluence assured she grew up wanting for nothing, which included early room-to-room electricity, the telephone and regular tourism. Fortunately, money hadn’t been bestowed upon a dullard, Wharton’s considerable talents encroaching into landscape art, interior design and related works of non-fiction, making her something of a forerunner to, say, Jocasta Innes.
Her wealth, allied to her work as something of an anti-Victorian Smart-Setter, reversed the usual life trajectory of struggling writers; being that she didn’t seriously turn to short fiction until she was almost forty, when she surely didn’t need to turn to it at all. After 1901, at the peak of her powers, having completed building of her own home, (in Lennox, Massachusetts), designed to her own specifications, she set to work on a couple of novels; ‘The House of Mirth’ hotly followed by ‘Ethan Frome.’ This strong, independent woman of means now reached a position where she could write because she wanted to, rather than out of grinding necessity. A position most women would rightly envy today.
David Stuart Davies’s Introduction to this addition to Wordsworth’s ever-lengthening Mystery & the Supernatural series relates the childhood terror she drew upon, after ‘a near fatal attack of typhoid fever at the age of nine.’ Brother and sister playmates gave her a book featuring the tale of a robber. Apparently, its effect actually caused a relapse in her condition. She awoke from it feeling haunted and troubled, unable to sleep alone nights. This, at least, connects her to most other writers, who, far from a subsequent life of self-denial, actually revel in, and utilise, such old fears for their work as a form of catharsis. A failed marriage to a less intellectual philanderer only appears to have emboldened her creatively, showing the extent a woman could achieve then, unencumbered by male society’s expectations.
Throughout, Wharton is exceptional at the suggestiveness of place to each character, (and so to us) and their reactions are never less than subtly authentic. It is clear she knows these people well; their witty, self-deprecating dialogue and half-spoken mutual understanding in conversation revealing the voices of the set she herself moved among early last century. Every tale here is a literary gem, but the second half contains ‘Bewitched,’ ‘Mr. Jones,’ ‘Pomegranate Seed’ and ‘All Souls,’’ that must be considered classics of the genre.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Drowned Out Voice – A warning to the e-curious

The online queue of aspiring writers – committed and otherwise – is growing at a phenomenal rate.  This situation – for that is what it is – begs many new questions.  One I wish to focus on concerns a transparent void, once filled out of necessity.
  Prior to the Net, it had been the responsibility of hardcopy publishing houses to oversee the proofreading and editing of a new author’s work, alongside those already on their books.  Now, new technology has enabled the rookie to do this him or herself, with no recourse to a second, professional opinion.
  Yes, this situation predates the Net.  Virgin’s publishing arm dispensed with the nit-picking inconvenience of having a proof-reader/editor back in the late 80s’.  This became discernible in their youth fiction range, where a horribly obvious ‘typo’ appeared on almost every other page.  (I say ‘horribly obvious’ in that the offending misspelled word was often a simple noun of no more than two syllables).  Taking a leaf out of Virgin’s cost cutting exercise, other publishers quickly followed suit.  The result has been the greatest misuse of print English since the 17th century.  Only the likes of Harper Collins – a publishing house with whom I have other issues – and their many subsidiaries, maintain a high level in print grammar; especially in the lines of biography and other non-fiction.
  For mischievous checkers here, and as an up-loader to Amazon Kindle myself, I am as guilty of typos as anyone.  Although my own errors are miniscule compared to those let through by Virgin for a generation, and typical of most writers who can’t afford their own staff.
  This is symptomatic of a larger problem.  The every-man-for-himself approach may be deemed the democratisation of literature; where everyone capable of forefinger typing can have a voice on a par with everyone else.  In truth, this merely ensures the market drowns beneath a welter of voices of varying quality and legitimacy.  This, of course, begs a secondary question: who says which literature is ‘legitimate’?
  The answer is simple and one that brings us full circle - it must be the publisher.  So, the solution is for unapologetic quality control administrators on respected literary sites who have real experience in proof-reader editing.  Yes, this will mean rejection for some rookies.  That’s tough; but as has always been the case, if you are serious about writing, then you go away, improve your writing style, and come up with a proposal or six that can, somewhere, gain acceptance.  The rest of us can continue plying our wares on Amazon.
  I don’t knock all users.  It is wonderful, and probably necessary, that a man or woman of any age, any background and any home, who harbour a real talent, can access a vehicle to advertise and display their work to anyone else.  But, imagine this same situation before the Net; a situation where everyone who submitted got published; where submission alone was publication.  Who among us, as buyers, would partake of such longwinded, unfocused searching?  To eagerly spend our hard-earned cash on anything and everything, taking such a chance on unlimited product, whatever the quality?  All authors would quickly lose what credibility they had – as would the book trade.  Perhaps, in the end, endless opportunity is no opportunity at all.
  The problem lies in the fact that the Net is not a writer’s one-stop shop. It is a single, gigantic entity made up of an unlimited number of websites and users.  The ultimate democratisation, and, right now, the ultimate mess.