Do bad reviews make us better writers?

The big gossip story today is the review of Jacqueline Howett’s book on Big Al’s Books and Pals. Well, not the review itself – which was not very favourable, by the way – but the author’s reaction to it. She didn’t take too well to the review, and I can understand her very well. Anyone who writes has at some point felt upset by feedback. But it got me thinking: why do we feel so angry at bad writing? What is it about writing that makes us so upset if what’s written is not to our taste? (I rush to add that I have not read Jacqueline’s book and in no way can I comment on her writing in particular at this moment.)
It isn’t about the money because I have also felt angry at books I hadn’t had to pay for. Is it about the time? Do I feel angry to have wasted my time reading something that wasn’t worth it? Probably not. I have been known to waste my time on less important things than reading bad books. I think one of the issues here is the high expectation we place on a Writer, with a capital W, and the disappointment we feel when that expectation is not fulfilled. Maybe subconsiously we feel that the fact of writing somehow elevates the writer over the rest of us and that it is similar to a sacred ritual. Especially when it comes to published books. Self-publishing is quite a recent phenomenon and a lot of readers still feel that if something is published, it definitely deserves to be, if so many people who are involved in the process and who are specialists in their area all agreed that it does. Maybe we need to get used to the idea that not everything that gets to be in print is guaranteed to be good, just like not every TV programme is worth watching, and not every garment in the shops is of good quality.

Or is it about the service? The modern way of living is based around providing a service. When we don’t get good service, say in a restaurant, or a shop, we get angry. We have hundreds of TV shows all based around the concept of being judged, or reviewed. Come Dine With Me, The X Factor, America’s Next Top Model, to name just a few. So when we read a book that we think is substandard, we get upset and we voice our anger. I wonder whether this is the right way of encouraging anyone to get better at what they do. The contestants in any of the above mentioned shows don’t seem to get any better after they have been ‘reviewed’ and who is to say that the writers that get bad reviews would get better at writing? On the other hand, in the world where anyone can now publish anything, how else would we separate the good from the bad?

The Education Secretary Michael Gove thinks children should be reading 50 books a year. Nothing wrong with that in principle. There have been heated discussions about library cuts, quality v quantity and and the danger of turning books into numbers. As a mother of two boys, I think maybe we should all just relax and allow our children to develop their love for books naturally. Well, maybe with a tiny nudge when required. As a challenge, Gove’s idea might work for some. Kids do love a challenge and a game. But with the whole ‘should’ attitude we run the risk of putting our children off books for a very long time, if not for life.
I have always read a lot and this year I have challenged myself to read one short story a day. But there have been years when I read less than usual. I spent more time thinking, or writing, or just watching the telly. There was one Chrismas that my fiance and I spent on the sofa, watching five or six seasons of 24 all at once.
Some people will always read. Others will prefer sports, or films, or the new popular hobby of socialising. And no amount of challenges will make them love books. Our job as parents and teachers is to make literature available, whether it’s in the libraries, at school, at home or on the Internet. If we enjoy books, our children probably will.

A great life

Every day I watched them from the cafe. The chair creaked whenever I shifted around, always the same chair, at the same table. The owner, Manuel, recognised me on the second day and on the third I stopped telling him what I wanted. The coffee in tiny cups appeared as if by magic as soon as I finished the cup before.
There were three of them, two taller boys, tanned and dark, and a shorter younger boy of about six who always had a toy with him. He reminded me of someone but I could never work out of whom. Sometimes they played in the waves, on some days the older boys carried a tray of sweets around and the shorter boy dragged his feet behind, bored.  It seemed that instead of burning his skin, the scorching heat only made him lighter, as if soon he would just vanish in the yellowness of the day.
I watched them as I read my book, as I wrote in my journal, as I chatted to other holidaymakers. It was too late for me, I kept thinking, and besides, I had a great life. I had my company that by now could function almost without me. I had a big house, two cars, friends, a string of affairs that didn’t require too much commitment. A villa here, in Spain, and another one in Australia. I had a great life.
One day the boys approached me with their tray. I bought a lollypop and I offered it to the blond boy. He accepted timidly, staring at me with his light eyes that looked yellow in the sun. After that, he came every day. We didn’t talk. My Spanish was basic; he didn’t speak English. He sat at the table and played with his car and I bought him ice cream and juice, and sometimes food. Then I wrote or read, and all the time I watched him, raking my brains for a face that would explain who the boy reminded me of. I still couldn’t tell. All I knew was that when I looked at him, I felt as if I’d known him for years.
Manuel told me that the boy’s name was Michael, that he was an orphan, and that the parents of the other two boys had taken him in. ‘English name?’ I was surprised. ‘His mother. American. Dead now,’ was the reply. I called a local solicitor I knew, an Englishman who had been living here for over a decade. It wouldn’t be hard to get it all sorted as long as the family agreed. They were poor, he said, and he’d have a much better life with me. I wasn’t so sure. I was too old to change now, too old to care for somebody else.
Michael came every day now and watched me as I pretended to read. His yellow eyes seemed to be asking me something, what, I couldn’t tell. On my last day I told him I was leaving. Manuel had written the Spanish words down for me on a napkin and I read them slowly, pronouncing every letter. The boy looked at me for a minute, then he got up and left. I watched him join his brothers on the beach.
Two hours later, I knocked on a shabby brown door with a broken handle.

Another best friend

I meet her by accident. I’m buying a new lamp, she helps me choose. Her colleague tries to sell me an ugly expensive model but I stick to the one I like. It happens to be the one my new friend likes too. She doesn’t know it yet. She thinks I’m just a customer. I invite her for a coffee and she stares at me suspiciously. I can’t work out why. I leave my number scribbled on a tiny piece of paper. She looks as if she’ll throw it away the minute I’m gone.
She calls in a week. We get a coffee at the café next to her work. She apologies for being rude last time. I laugh. Did you think I was hitting on you? She smiles shyly. I’m a bit offended. I don’t like her that much today. I won’t call again.
We go shopping the week after. Two girls, similar age, different tastes. I’ve never had a proper best friend, I realise. I’ve had best friends, of course. But not a real one. She is a possibility. We laugh at her reaction when I asked her for a coffee that first time. I do it all the time if I like someone, I say. Don’t you? Especially since we are both foreign here. How else would you make friends? She looks at me as if checking that I’m not making it up.
We now call each other every day. I’ve heard of this before. I remember a friend telling me how she met her best friend. We just clicked, she said. We shop, we drink coffee. We talk about our boyfriends. She splits up from hers and has nowhere to live. I offer her my place and she stays over until she finds a new one. We never argue.
I draw her face and tell her how beautiful she is. We write letters to the Universe ordering a new man for her. We talk about her ex and I tell her she deserves better. She lives on the other side of town and I give her a lift every time we meet for a coffee. She brings me an amber necklace from her holiday and I wear it every day. I’ve always wanted a best friend.
She gets back with her boyfriend. She stops calling. She denies it, but I sense a change. I stop calling too. When I go past her shop one day, I discover that it’s been shut for weeks. The builders that are making it into a café whistle as I leave.

Published in Russian – hurrah!

Got a short story, ‘Halva’, published in a newspaper in Krasnodar, a beautiful city in the South of Russia. I grew up there and I consider it to be my hometown, even though I was born in a place called Rostov, and moved to Krasnodar when I was four. I still remember the train journey and our cat Foka  – don’t laugh, that really was his name! – who had to travel in a bag. Krasnodar is hot in the summer, and gets snow in the winter. It was nicknamed Our Little Paris by a famous Russian writer Viktor Lihonosov and the tale goes that when the cossacks were first building the city, they based it on Paris, with its Champs Elysees.

The story is about homecoming, which is, I have realised, one of the main themes of my writing. I have always had to settle in a new city. First when I moved to Krasnodar and even at such a young age already felt foreign. Then when I moved to London for a few years and eventually to Manchester. So I am always curious about the process of coming home. About the people we leave behind, about our old selves that we abandon, about the barely noticeable changes in us as we start a new life somewhere else that accumulate and eventually make us into a completely different person. I always wonder what my life would have been like, had I not moved from one place to the next.

A couple of years ago I went to Krasnodar for the first time in ten years. There were many things that I discovered, many things that I had wanted to see and that had disappeared. I saw a few friends, walked a few streets I’d missed. I realised how different I had become, how English, in a way. Having spent ten years feeling homesick for Krasnodar, I was now longing to come home to Manchester. And then it struck me that what I was looking for wasn’t there anymore, but that it had always been inside me and I could take it anywhere with me. So now when I feel nostalgia, I go to a middle eastern shop which reminds me of the markets in Krasnodar, or I buy some Halva or I make some Armenian style dish, or I just put on some music like Zemfira and I feel happy, not sad.

Am I commitment phobic when it comes to novels?

I’ve been thinking about the novel I’m supposed to be writing for my MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. I say ‘supposed to be’ because for the last few weeks I’ve been writing a lot of short stories and flash fiction, but no novel. I can’t say I’m blocked, quite the opposite – I’m writing more than ever and I’ve been asked a lot why I look so glowing. But the novel has been resting. The last time I worked on it I realised that every time I write it for a period of time and then leave it, the next time I come back to it I sound different. As if the protagonist has multiple personalities. Which might be the solution. You might say, don’t leave it, keep writing it every day. But that’s the thing – I write and then I feel as if I have emptied my tank of thoughts and sentences and I have to leave it while I re-fill.
With my self-imposed One Story A Day challenge I don’t feel the need to not write. I like the freedom of short stories, so that must make me commitment phobic when it comes to novels. To make matters even more complicated, I’ve been avoiding reading novels too. I just don’t want to commit. What if that writer’s style influences my thoughts too much! And now the guilt feelings come flooding in: does that all make me a bad person? A bad reader? A bad writer?!
It is as if being just a short story writer – at least for now – makes us somehow worse than ‘real writers’ – the novel writers. The fear that publishers would not want to take me on without a promise of the real thing in the future. That writing short stories is just a preliminary step, sort of like being a trainee writer. That’s quite similar to relationships, I think. If you only have flings and one night stands, society would generally think worse of you than if you are in a committed relationship. And if I am in a commited long term relationship (engaged, as it is), then why can’t I commit to a novel? And should I?
In the meantime, I’ve been reading short stories and my favourite for this morning is World Enough and Time by Linda Mccullough Moore (The Sun Magazine).

Day 1 of the Write One Story A Day challenge

Well, it’s Monday! I have just listened to the New Yorker podcast with Daniel Alarcon reading a short story by Roberto Bolano called Gomez Palacio. I loved it and I plan to find his other stories and novels and read them. So that’s part one of my challenge done for the day. Although I will probably end up reading a few more today. And as for part two, well, I was already reminded this morning – thanks Steve Galbraith! – to write a story today, so I wrote a flash. I’ll leave it to rest for a few hours so that I can re-read it and edit it with fresh eyes tonight.
I’ve been feeling slightly nervous at the challenge I’ve set myself. What if one day I’m not well? What if my mind is blank? What if the kids have one activity after another and I don’t get a chance to write? What if… The one thing I know about myself is that I am very competitive. In a good way. So if anyone wants to take up the challenge with me, I will be very happy. Any takers? Come on Steve, I know you want to!

Obsessed with short stories

I really am. I have even started downloading podcasts from places like the Guardian short story podcast and the New Yorker onto my i-pod and then taking it to the gym to listen to while I’m pushing weights.

What I love about short stories, both writing and reading, is how sneaky they can be. They don’t require the same long-term committment as a novel, but once they grab you, that’s it. The strength of their punch knocks you out. The images stay with you forever, often even the ones you didn’t like that much.

It’s a bit like agreeing to have a coffee with an ordinary guy, thinking that it would never lead to anything and not even bothering to dress up or wash your hair, and then boom, and he somehow turns out to be your guy. Although of course I always wash my hair. Every day.

As you know, I get bored easily. I get passionate about things, I fall in love with places, people, bright colours, new ideas. And then I often burn out and change focus and all my opinions. And that’s where the short stories are great. I have read about the one short story a day challenge for a year on Dan Powell’s blog and I think I’ll try that starting from tomorrow. It’s a good time to start, a Monday. I will probably end up reading ten on one day and just one on another.

And to be particularly cruel to myself, I’ll make my challenge harder: I dare myself to read AND write one short story every day for a year. I’ll keep you updated so that you don’t let me give up.