Monthly Archives: October 2012

Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

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The Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Dynasty is in trouble. In the fading resort of Swamplandia!, the family is reeling from Hilola Bigtree’s death from cancer, and as the Chief’s debts mount up, the children each find their own ways to deal with their terror of the unknown and save the park that is their home. But Kiwi has gone to work for a rival theme park, Ossie has found a boyfriend who may or may not be a ghost, and the Chief has gone AWOL, so it’s down to plucky, 13-year-old Ava, her red alligator, and the mysterious Bird Man to enter the swamp and fix their family fortunes. But the swamps are treacherous, and not everything is as it seems…

Told from both Kiwi and Ava’s perspectives, this is a darkly innocent narration. I love Ava’s voice, her bravado and her bizarre frames of reference that only a girl who grew up in an alligator-wrestling theme park could come up with. Lines like: ‘I could feel the secret rolling between the four of us like an egg in a towel.’

Her grief about her mother is expertly woven into the consciousness of a girl who does not know how to express it, manifesting itself not in passages about how she misses her mother, but in nervous tics, a lack of assurance about what to believe, and a desperate search for affection when she meets the Bird Man.

The gator-swamp is an excellent, other-worldly setting that makes it impossible to know what we as readers can and can’t believe in. Perhaps ghosts are real, if they can create such a lasting impression on a family. Perhaps men can commune with animals, if the Bigtree legacy is to be believed. It reminded me of Life of Pi, the way that the line between magical realism and traumatic experience were blurred.

The story of Louis Thanksgiving, that one heartless reviewer on Goodreads who clearly likes her stories flat and dull and obvious from the outset, was brilliant. Like an orphan from a fairytale, Louis was only adopted to serve as cheap labour on a Florida farm. His background is so starved of love and opportunity that the Depression is, to him, a blessing.

Happiness could be felt as a pressure too, Louis realised, more hard-edged and solid than longing, even… in fact he’d been so poor in Iowa that he couldn’t settle on one concrete noun to wish for- a real father? A girl in town? A thousand acres? A single friend? In contrast, this new happiness had angles. Happiness like his was real; it had a jewel-cut shadow, and he could lose it.

And once you’ve followed Louis’ tragic, wasteful, pointless story to its conclusion, you’ve fallen a little bit in love with him too, just like Ossie. Whether or not he is a ‘real ghost’, you are brought face to face with the injustices of poverty, bad planning and a lack of accountability. That’s why we get the ‘unbelievable’ story of Kiwi going to Harvard, because he could never go – the system is rigged so that of course he could never go. It is a notion more fantastic than a 13-year-old alligator wrestler. In its own, dreamy, teenage way, Swamplandia! is as furious as a much more explicitly political book.

A lot of reviewers have criticised this book for being too dark (stupid), for not properly explaining one of the climaxes of the book (stupid, because everything in life comes with an explanation) and for stranding us with an implausibly happy ending. But if you try to pick out what is ‘plausible’ about this book you entirely miss the point – it is getting tangled up in this problem that makes the book so compelling. And I defy you not to care about these kids. I couldn’t put it down.

Rating:
First line: Our mother performed in starlight.
In a tweet: A dark, murky, terrifying tale of adolescence.

Is the Editor Dead? (Manchester Literature Festival)

I am back in my glorious home town of Manchester for some Family Time, and took the opportunity to catch a couple of events at the Manchester Literary Festival. First up: ‘Is the Editor Dead’: a panel discussion with Michael Schmidt (editorial director of Carcanet Press and PN Review), Lee Brackstone (Faber Creative Director), Peter Hartey (founder of Poetic Republic), John Mitchinson (co-founder of Unbound, the UK’s first crowd-funded publishing house).

It was an excellent line up, and everybody was extremely convincing on the importance of the editor. Lee Brackstone summed up the role of the editor as ‘adding value’. It was also interesting to hear him talk about how after a long career as an Editor, his latest job title has dropped the ‘Editorial’ aspect not because that ‘adding value’ aspect has gone from the job, but because he sees its practice as so fundamentally different now to how it was when he started in the industry; editors now need to be more creative than ever in finding ways to engage readers.

John spoke of the role of editors as tastemakers and curators of books, rather than gatekeepers. I think that’s how most people perceive the archetypal editor, but he went on to elucidate some of the problems for that editor in today’s industry, where retailers detail what thy want and publishers try to make a square book fit these round holes. He described the dispiriting experience of working with an author only to find that WHSmith say ‘books about China don’t sell’ or something else depressingly general. As he rightly pointed out, this isn’t a model that encourages innovation, and his new start up/upstart Unbound aims to redress that balance, allowing readers to pay for books that they want tone written. There is still an editor, so there’s an element of curatorship, but the retailer is taking a back seat.

I hadn’t always been convinced by the concept of Unbound – to me it seems that you still have the problem that the author who is best at selling their proposal via various online media is the one who will do well, rather than an interesting proposition for a well-written bit of fiction. Unbound has a number of well-known personalities doing projects with them including Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Robert Llewellyn (Kryten off Red Dwarf) and I wonder whether the Unbound model needs that level of celebrity to encourage interaction from readers. Would they be as generous to somebody they’d never even heard of? Still, it’s definitely an interesting experiment, and lord knows the editor needs more of those.

Michael Schimdt was in danger of sounding a bit like the voice of the Old Guard when he attested that he would prefer to be edited by Virginia Woolf, sell only 80 copies a year in the first 3 years, but his book would be Ulysees, than be ‘Top of the Pops’ (oh yes I quote) for a couple of months. But he’s not wrong that the kind of trend-led publishing that at its most extreme has led to black and grey erotica all over Waterstones is anathema to innovation. Furthermore his point that publishers used to be smaller and more specialist meant that you were able to have diversity in literature even while you retained the model of an editor is almost exactly what Lee suggested in his way. There is space for specialism. If you wrote scifi, you’d go to one place, literary fiction another, women’s fiction another still, and in that way you weren’t sending out 93 manuscripts and basically waiting for a trend to hit.

It was only really Peter who proposed an alternative, very bravely putting his head above the parapet to argue that as people are increasingly moving online to discover what to read next (in part driven there by the homogeneity of contemporary publishing) the the algorithm, rather than the editor, is going to have a bigger part to play in matching reader interests with available writing. But of course, this isn’t a wholly democratic process, with those controlling the algorithms being able to control what gets recommended to whom. A request from the floor to expand on this process further didn’t really get to the bottom of how this process was open to abuse, but the various small-scale furores around amazon reviews and goodreads ratings are a flavour of it.

So is the editor dead? Despite essentially asking 4 editors, the jury still seemed to be out. Everybody was united on their desire for this notion of ‘curated content’, but the truth is that has already rather gone out of the publishing window. As John said, if you’re going to work for one of the Big 5 publishing houses, your job as an editor is essentially to find and make best sellers for retailers. I think the panel were right to suggest that this does create a space for somebody else, whether that’s online communities or smaller independent publishing houses, to come in and offer that curatorship, but so far there haven’t been many out-and-out success stories of this actually happening. In fact, given that these were all smaller(ish) publishers speaking, it would have been interesting to hear from an Editor at one of the Big 5, to see whether they feel ‘dead’ in that more commercial atmosphere. At the end of the evening, I definitely got the feeling that nobody wanted the editor to die…but nobody reassured me that it wasn’t on the cards. And in fact, it seems like this editorial death might be what the industry needs to revitalize itself in smaller, and more diverse forms.

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(I was going to work in a Lion King analogy with Mufasa as the editor that teaches our young Simba reader the skills he needs, but it takes his death to makes him realise the importance of Mufasa/the editor, then the self-serving 50 Shades phenomenon of Timon and Pumbaa come along and suggest that maybe books don’t need to be cared for and curated, but then he sees the error of his ways, but I ran out of time and energy, and that picture made me sad. Still, The Lion King as a publishing industry allegory. I think you’ll find it’s pretty powerful.)

SORRY

It’s been tumbleweed city over here at the moment, mostly due to a combination of flatmates moving, a lot of work on, and Borderlands 2 hitting the shelves (I am quite the renaissance lady). Shame, shame, shame on me.

Despite the best of new school year resolutions, September was a bit of a lost cause, but October will not suffer the same fate!

Anyway, I’m getting back on the book horse, but until then, console yourselves with this terrible cheesy author photo of Proust. Just because.

So you're nonchalant already!

 

Discovered via this Flavorwire article.