Reading Slumps, New Yorker Profiles and Prizes

It’s one of those weeks when I’m between reads – or at least in a reading slump. I do have a book on the go, Philip Roth’s My Life As a Man, a mid-career book structured in a way that’s somewhere between ingenious and lazy: two long short stories are followed by a novella – which begins with the narrator explaining that he wrote the two preceding stories. While the stories held my attention the novella is just a touch too self-indulgent and vicious (two impossibly mad women weigh on the conscience of a down-trodden Roth-figure), and I’m having trouble finishing it.

So I’ve found myself putting my book down again and again and trawling through the archives of The New Yorker in search of more stimulating material (like this in-depth biography of the couple that inspired Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (it’s not just about him and Zelda)). A New Yorker profile is almost a genre of its own: not quite an interview, not quite a biography, they’re written with the care and flair of an excellent short story yet know they’re non-fiction, and so they flaunt literary boundaries and more often than not beat out the novelists in their creation of character. Take, for example, this excerpt from David Owen’s profile of George Meyer, one of the main writers for The Simpsons (and also the founder of Army Man):

“Meyer is forty-three years old. He has a scruffy beard and straight blondish hair that hangs not quite to his shoulders. His hair often falls across his eyes, and when it does he will sometimes lurch forward at the waist and then violently straighten up to throw it back out of the way. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, and he has big hands and big feet. He likes hats; among his favorites are a wide-brimmed white canvas bucket hat, which he wears to keep the sun off his face, and a baseball cap with a logo advertising a heavyweight title fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield -- a fight that had to be cancelled when Tyson was convicted of rape. For several years, he wore a woven wristband that he bought at one of the seventy or eighty Grateful Dead concerts he attended during the last five years of Jerry Garcia's life. He is a student of yoga and a strict vegetarian. He is a couple of inches over six feet tall, and he looks taller, because he stands and sits very straight. He walks so fast that other people often have to trot to keep up with him. He has an infectious, staccato laugh, which sometimes seems slightly maniacal.”

Way more detail than a fiction writer would ever allow themselves. ‘Show!’ their internal critic / reader of writing-guides would be yelling at them by the third line, ‘Show don’t tell! Put that bit about the hat in the dialogue!’ But there’s something undeniably powerful about setting a character out in full like this, the entirety of the man’s wardrobe aside his mannerisms and peculiarities. It’s the difference between getting a burger and sitting down at a gastro-pub, where you’re full by the fourth course and either bored or extremely engaged by the sixth, picking apart the essence of foodness, studying the components of each dish / sentence, the art of it detached from any relation to hunger / curiosity. This is character done in a way all of us could learn from.

It might be that my reading blues are just the aftershock of our latest competition. As I said on Wednesday, the quality of the submissions was incredibly high, and it was a pleasure reading and rereading the pieces in dialogue with our judge, Francisco Vilhena. If you haven’t yet had the chance, I’d highly recommend having a browse through them for yourself.

Our next competition will be in the fall, but in the interim, I thought I’d let you know about an exciting new writing competition that the National Literacy Trust has launched with Bloomsbury Books. The New Children’s Author Prize is set to unearth brilliant new talent in writing for children - unpublished authors who enter the competition will have the chance to win a publishing contract with Bloomsbury, and first prize includes an advance of £5,000 and an exclusive print run. So if you’ve ever had a go at Children’s Fiction (and I know a lot of you have), start polishing up your work and send some in.

If anyone else has been in want of reading material, look no further than our picks of the week. Blackjack Davey’s latest, ‘Zounds!’, is a hilarious and high-voltage portrait of playing The Learning Zone at the V&A. It’s got everything, vintage Martin guitars, arguing puppeteers and stubble-wary security guards:

‘I needed the money, a baby on the way and my girlfriend experiencing what I thought she said were Higgs boson contractions—the inevitable proof of life—the Godspark of those early amphibious splashes, the reptile underwater stretching its paw towards the light.’

Our poem of the week is ‘Sulphur and Vine,’ a real gem from Lenchenelf. Reading this piece felt kind of like uncovering some major marginalia, the notes on the back of an envelope in Edna St Vincent Millay’s kitchen. It’s a short collection of images surrounding a dishwasher, but comes out feeling like far more than the sum of its parts. A lovely, quick read: ‘More real than her reflection / in hot scoured glass.’

And for any of you more apt to channel a reading slump into the creation of something for others to enjoy (the generous few), be sure to have a look at this week’s inspiration point.