Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
In suburban North London near the end of the Northern Line, in a small maternity home at the top of Hampstead Heath which later became a NHS nurses’ residence.
What sorts of books were in your family home? What did you read as a child?
Plenty, and an eclectic mix, but not entire walls or rooms of them. Always a fresh haul from the local library. My mother’s shelves had one of the very first Penguins: André Maurois’ Ariel (about Shelley). My father’s included rows of Pevsner’s Buildings of England, which always accompanied us on country walks and holidays. He knew German, went to German conversation classes until the end of life, so there was also some German literature in the original.
I vacuumed up the contents of the library (my first was Friern Barnet, not long ago saved from closure by a community campaign). I was a scattergun bookworm although I did early on develop a taste for classic science fiction (Verne to Bradbury). Also piles of books about cricket (again, always from the library). Somehow I fell in love with a collection picked up for a few pence from a jumble sale: Best Modern American Humour, in effect an anthology of the great New Yorker wits: Parker, Thurber, Benchley etc. I loved them then. Still love them now.
Why journalism after Cambridge?
It wasn’t an immediate choice. I started down the academic route, did a couple of fixed-term lecturing jobs, but had to face the reality that I enjoyed writing (relatively) short and fast for immediate publication more than the deferred-gratification of long-haul scholarship.
To what extent has the profession changed since you began your career at the New Statesman?
As a staff writer and features editor, I started on Community Care magazine – the weekly for social services and probation staff, at that time highly profitable thanks to classified job ads – before joining the New Statesman as social affairs editor. Later I moved to the books desk, and went from there to The Independent. On one level, the business has changed beyond all recognition. New media, new platforms, online free-for-all, decline of print circulations: we all know the story. But I’m sometimes amazed that so many of the core activities – e.g. reviewing books, writing about authors, finding in literature a way to raise and debate wider issues – not only persist more or less unchanged. They reinvent themselves in the digital domain with only minor changes to the traditional formats. That said, the ever-open door of the internet means that high-quality criticism or reviewing has to fight much harder to prove its value (cultural and economic). It confronts a destructive pincer movement led on one flank by the aggressive populists (everyone’s a critic, it’s all just personal opinion) and the other by the financial might of online corporate PR (you will like, and buy, only what we thrust in your face every hour).
From journalism to books, how easy was the transition?
Every piece of writing or editing has to be subdivided into manageable and discrete chunks. That’s true of a 2000 word feature or a 100,000 word book. Lift one brick at a time, but don’t lose sight of what the completed building has to look like.
To what extent is being a critic essential training for a would-be writer?
Not essential, but incredibly useful. Let’s just stick to English writers of the past two centuries: from George Eliot to TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf to Angela Carter, George Orwell to Martin Amis – the greatest authors are so often the greatest critics. Not in every case, of course, but so frequently as to blow out of the water the nonsensical idea that too much literary analysis somehow douses the creative fire. Above all, writers have to be readers – voraciously curious ones.
Your views on book publishing?
I’m pleased, but not wholly surprised, by the endurance of the physical book and the survival of a strong independent sector after decades of conglomeration. I’m delighted to see the digital snake-oil merchants – the sort of overpaid pseudo-experts who predicted the total demise of printed books by, say, 2018 – get their comeuppance. I’m angry that the corporates return extremely healthy profit margins to shareholders but squeeze authors’ incomes at every turn. And I’m dismayed that giant tech actors with a minor and diminishing interest in books, readers and writers – Amazon above all – should have an effective stranglehold on the entire market.
How important are prizes for books and translations in particular?
Hugely important. Look (for example) at the effect of their Man Booker International Prize win – for The Vegetarian – on Han Kang and Deborah Smith. Here was a left-field novel by a previously untranslated South Korean writer which sold in scores of thousands and even enabled Deborah to found her own specialist imprint, Tilted Axis Press. Arguably, prizes have become too prominent a tool for audience development in international fiction. To supplement their impact I’d like to see regular, rather than one-off, promotions in bookshops and media – perhaps in the form of an annual “translation month” timed for when it might do most good. February, maybe?
Books that changed your life?
Not the same question as “books you really loved”. I’ll choose just one. After I’d become a social policy journalist, I thought that I’d put any professional engagement with literature behind me and could just read for relaxation like everyone else. Then on my daily commute I began a modern classic that, for some unknown reason, I’d so far missed. And I realised that I still wanted, and needed, a deeper immersion than leisure reading on its own could give me. That was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in the old Penguin translation by Helen Lowe-Porter.
Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they in reality?
I have no dogmatic position. The key factor surely is that all students must receive an honest prospectus, understand what such a course can and cannot deliver, and experience a programme with intellectual integrity that challenges, stimulates and stretches them – whatever their career path in the future. It goes without saying that these courses should never be an understaffed cash-cow for cynical departments on the look-out for easy fee income.
What are your favourite literary journals?
Asymptote, Words Without Borders, The White Review, n+1, Wasafiri, Paris Review.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? And social media?
Decades of journalism teach you not to be too precious about the kit, the desk, the light, the noise or pretty much anything else. As long as the machine to hand functions, and stays connected, I’m happy. I’m a (very) latecomer to social media, in part because for years I had my work email always available in print and so fielded quite as much feedback as I wanted. I recognise the usefulness of social media but can’t say I love the air you often have to breathe online. Did that perpetual state of seething outrage always exist, unvoiced and unacknowledged, or have the interactive platforms generated a fresh kind of frenzy? We still don’t really know.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
London on a day in August 2028. To see if sanity has returned or if we’ve turned into North Korea.
Five favourite prose authors?
Anton Chekhov; Albert Camus; James Joyce; Virginia Woolf; WG Sebald.
Five favourite poets?
William Blake; WH Auden; Wallace Stevens; WB Yeats; CP Cavafy.
Five favourite feature films?
The Leopard (Visconti); Raging Bull (Scorsese); North by Northwest (Hitchcock); 2001: A space odyssey (Kubrick); La Dolce Vita (Fellini).
Five favourite bands?
Bob Marley & The Wailers; The Clash; Led Zeppelin; Velvet Underground; Bruce Springsteen & E Street Band.
Your chief characteristic?
Curiosity (I hope). Irresolution (I fear).
Your bedside reading?
Just now, the selected letters of Horace Walpole in the new edition from the extraordinary Everyman’s Library.
γνῶθι σεαυτόν: know thyself.
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