Books

Put the book back on the shelf

Everyone has a novel in them, they say. That particular idiom doesn’t make any judgement on whether it’s a good novel people contain. If you have ever dabbled in fiction writing, you’ll know how much harder it is than you could have ever expected. Great writers make it seem so natural and effortless. How could we anticipate the hard slog, lack of inspiration and ease with which we slip into cliché and banality? Think about how a good idea suddenly seems thin and flimsy the moment you try and write a chapter on it.

It’s not surprising that many people’s early (and later) efforts at writing are terrible in one way or another. “How Not To Write A Novel”, a new book by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, is something of a prescription for bad writers, setting out “200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them”. From the Guardian’s review, it sounds clever and insightful:

It will have a ludicrous plot, of course, or none. It will have characters who are unbelievable or extremely tiresome, or both. It will be studded with clichés and riddled with the author's prejudices. Newman and Mittelmark make up typical examples of dreadful prose, often so accurately that even the vainest are likely to recognise their own howlers and lapses of taste.

Naturally, this is going to be hard medicine for most of us to take. Such a brutal assessment is pretty confidence-destroying at the outset. Should this book have really been titled How To Not Write A Novel? Is there any point writing at all?

If you have any pride in your writing, you might get a little defensive. Aren’t your efforts at least as good as the appalling dog turds that adorn bookstore shelves everywhere? Think of all the risibly bad books that make it past the publishers for a variety of reasons -- celebrity authorship, easy categorisation, general trendiness. Let’s face it, though. You and I are not celebrities and no self-respecting publisher is going to take a chance on a self-indulgent, badly-constructed debut novel. You need to write something good.

There is a point, however, when it all becomes a matter of personal taste. What Newman and Mittelmark consider inessential digression may be another reader’s climactic scene. We’ve witnessed this before, in countless works on what novels are supposed to be like.

James Wood, acerbic critic par excellence, recently published “How Fiction Works”. It’s full of Wood’s own unique prose style and fuelled with his intense literary passion. It’s also heavily biased towards Wood’s own preferences and tastes -- in particular a love of description and characterisation over plot and story. As Louis Bayard in Salon points out, characterisation and description alone do not great novels make. Even the most sublime writer needs a plot or story to give the words purpose and shape. In the end, we’re free to regard or disregard Wood’s (or any other critic’s) opinion at will.

There’s undoubtedly a lot to be learnt by reading about novel construction and learning some basic dos and don’ts. But in the end, you’ve just got to chance it that someone else is going to like what you do.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

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The husband and wife duo DEGA center their latest slick synthpop soundscape around the concept of love in all of its stages.

Kalen and Aslyn Nash are an indie pop super-couple if there ever were such a thing. Before becoming as a musical duo themselves, the husband and wife duo put their best feet forward with other projects that saw them acclaim. Kalen previously provided his chops as a singer-songwriter to the Georgia Americana band, Ponderosa. Meanwhile, Aslyn was signed as a solo artist to Capitol while also providing background vocals for Ke$ha. Now, they're blending all of those individual experiences together in their latest project, DEGA.

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On "Restless Mind", Paul Luc establishes himself as an exceptional 21st century bard who knows his way around evoking complex emotions in song.

The folk-rock swing of Paul Luc's upcoming Bad Seed is representative of the whole human condition. Following his previous track release in "Slow Dancing", the Pittsburgh singer-songwriter is sharing another mid-tempo, soulful number. This time, it describes the way too familiar feelings of uncertainty and diversion can, at times, sneak up on all of us.

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