Monthly Archives: May 2010

A vision of Europe


I don’t watch much television, and when I do, it’s usually that I have shirts to iron and I kill two birds with one stone. Last night was no exception, and the Eurovision final was on. As I watched the 25 shortlisted songs/countries, I couldn’t help reflect on what a huge, draw-out affair it has become. The first I remember hearing of the European song contest was in 1977, when my great-grandfather told me how Marie Myriam had won the contest with “L’oiseau et l’enfant”. He was very proud of the fact that France had won, even if the singer happened to be from Portugal. So many Portuguese people live in France, many with dual citizenship, that it was never an issue. At the time, the contest was still a small-do, even if already attracting a large audience. For us living on the border of three countries (France, Belgium and Luxemburg) and with a mixed gene pool, the contest was as natural as crossing the border to Luxemburg on Sundays to go and buy cheap petrol.

The fact that there are 39 contestants today (unless I am wrong) merely reflects the geopolitical changes that have occurred in Europe over the last twenty years: fragmentation of larger countries such as Yugoslavia or Russia, merging of others (Germany) and entry on the political and international scene of members of the former Eastern Block. It’s all in good faith and it’s all about singing. Is it? I don’t think this particular contest exacerbates regional frictions. In fact I find it interesting to notice that thirty years down the tract, neighbours still support each other (which is exactly the opposite of what can sometimes happen at the political level). Romania gave Moldavia an excellent rating, and – overall – the ex-Yugoslav republics supported each other. But I can’t help wonder if the event hasn’t become just a little too big. It had to be split to fit everyone and, let’s face it, it does drag on a little. I can’t also help notice – with a tinge of regret in my voice – that most contestants have dropped their native tongue for English. I can understand why from a marketing perspective (After all, I doubt a song in French or Turkish would remain on European charts for too long these days) but wasn’t part of the fun listening to languages you would never dream of hearing in any other circumstance? I must be getting old.

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Literary fiction or gothic horror?


Having recently released “The Wings of Leo Spencer” I am confronted again to the old battle of genres, and I can’t help feeling annoyed about it all. Okay, I understand there has to be a market for a book, and marketing is all about defining your target audience. I have been in business long enough to know the process and to understand the impact of a well targeted marketing campaign. Bookstores have to place their books somewhere. Placing them next to each other in a completely random manner would certainly not generate a huge amount of sales: customers would be lost. Distributors have to group their books in categories to make it easier for their buyers. No problem there. And of course, we are all attracted to certain genres – my brother and sister-in-law certainly epitomise this fact: their house is full, floor to ceiling, with fantasy books. And not any kind of fantasy, just to make it a little harder.

When I wrote “The Wings of Leo Spencer” I had young adults in mind. That’s it, I’ve said it. Young adult fiction. Fine. Except that reviewers, as well as my publisher, are very clear: it’s for all ages. I accept that. In fact, I’m pleased about it. The protagonists share their time between our world and another world (Heaven), similar to the world we know but different at the same time. So it’s fantasy after all. Young adult fantasy – or simply fantasy according to my publisher and my reviewers. I’m happy with that, although I don’t like being pigeonholed. At least it gives me something to tell readers when they ask me where my book fits in the literary world. Now, I have just finished writing another novel (in French, entitled “Metaphore du Rapide”) and things are a little muddled here: a huis clos, adventure, mystery, or literary fiction? Probably a mixture of the four, but early reviews were pushing for literary fiction. And that’s where I can’t help laughing.

Literary fiction: I have a problem with the term. Does this mean that all other books – the proper genre ones – are not literary? Aren’t they written with words? The Merriam-Webster online definition for “literary” is “relating to books” or “relating to literature”. So? “They’re not as beautifully written,” I often hear say of genre novels. Rubbish. I know many genre novels that are a gem. Was “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee young adult fiction or literary fiction? It was both, and my argument is that literary fiction doesn’t exist. It’s all fiction (as opposed to poetry, or non-fiction). I profoundly dislike judgements about “high” and “low” literature… it’s all about writing, telling a story, sharing something with the reader… There are many ways to do that, and some works fall into neat categories, others don’t (making them harder to sell. okay…) So what am I arguing for? First, “Literary fiction” is nothing but another genre (and the idea is not new). And let’s change its name: something like general fiction would suit me fine.

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Tong Tik-Sang: a prolific writer!


I recently came back from a short trip to Hong Kong, during which I visited the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, a space dedicated to the cultural heritage of the former British Colony. The museum is located in Shatin, in the New Territories. What particularly attracted my attention was a temporary exhibit dedicated to Tong Tik-Sang (1917-1959), a playwright, and Yam Kim Fai (1913-1989), a performer, who worked together for many years and are said to be the most significant figures in Cantonese Opera. Tong Tik-Sang wrote over 400 scripts/plays/operas during his too short career, a number that can’t fail to impress even the most prolific of today’s writers. His plays have a reputation for having a tight plot with vivid characters and complex emotions, often featuring love stories between scholars and ladies of immense beauty. Tong became the most popular playwright in China and Hong Kong in the fifties. Many of his scripts were also made into movies, ranging from popular comedies to pieces of high artistic value. Something that I found particularly interesting was that Tong penned many tailor-made scripts. He worked with a number of artists and performers that he knew well, and was able to create a piece that would suit their personality and the colour of their voice. For example, he wrote “A Forsaken Woman”, “The Story of Tung Siu Yuen”and “Snow in June” for famous artist Fong Yim Fun; she played characters suffering great misery and sorrow, because of her vocal style characterised as heavy nasal tones and a sweet but sad voice.

Yam Kim Fai learned Cantonese Opera at the age of fourteen! She worked hard to develop her skills and was soon promoted to the principle male role. She is regarded as the most important performer to ever grace Cantonese Opera. She and Tong worked as a team for the delight of their audiences. Yam kept working in the industry over four decades, developing an interest in film. From 1951 to 1968 she starred in no less than 300 movies, another very impressive number. She played a very important role in the development of other Opera singers.

The exhibition is on until 27 September 2010. If you happen to be in Hong Kong, do not miss it. The exhibit shows a number of fascinating artefacts, including calligraphies and paintings by Tong as well as recordings of his plays, with Yam in the main role.

 

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The ebook epiphany


I recently went on a five-week round-the-world trip, a mixture of work, family visits and holiday. My biggest problem before leaving for the trip, apart from how I was going to pack clothes for the cold of a Northern Hemisphere winter as well as the heat of the Caribbean, was how many books I could take with me. Of course books can always be bought during a trip, but I hate having to leave them behind. I love to read, but I also love books as objects. I even like to smell them to make sure they’re right! The pleasure of reading is enhanced by the pleasure of holding something in my hand that I can look at, carry around with me, and re-read as I wish. However five weeks of reading wasn’t going to work with the grand 22 kilograms of luggage I was allowed to schlep around. After giving it some thought, I decided that it was time to try and buy an ebook. The idea of being able to store 5,000 books on one small device was appealing – definitely more reading that I could achieve in five weeks! I chose the Amazon Kindle, because of its ability to buy and download books from anywhere around the world.

When the device arrived, I downloaded the few books I had wanted to read for a while,  noticing that their price was half what I would have had to pay for the printed version, and off I went. I thought I would not really enjoy the experience, but there was all this reading I was so looking forward to. To be honest, it took me about a day to be fully comfortable with reading from my ebook. After that, it was as if I had always read books electronically. And the beauty was that it all fitted on one small device. My friends in Australia showed some interest: they had not seen many ebooks yet, but some of them had thought about buying one. On the plane, several flight attendants stopped by my seat to ask what I was doing, and left impressed. In France, everybody thought I was coming from another planet: An ebook, are you kidding me? My mother and my best friend swore they would never read a book electronically. And anyway it’s not as if they could do it: the ebook revolution still has to hit the country! In the States, during the second part of my trip, I regularly came across people with ebooks, indeed many with Kindles.

I am hooked! I have come back and keep buying electronic books and reading them on my Kindle. I still buy and read printed books though (Old habits take a long time to die). I have asked my publisher how fast they can organise to have my latest novel available as ebook on a number of platforms. The ebook revolution has finally hit me. And there is no turning back!

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Theatre Value Meal: Small, Medium or Large?


Late last year I went to see “God of Carnage” at the Sydney Opera  House Theatre. The play, by Yasmina Reza, the famous French playwright, which won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play, was indeed excellent – and very Reza. Small thinking bourgeois fighting over a variety of issues and revealing who they really are. I had a blast and the audience was in stitches. Interestingly enough, Reza declared in an interview that she was slightly miffed at people laughing at the play when it was supposed to be more drama. Never mind, the play is well structured, satirical, and a real feast for the eyes and the ears.

The reason I’m bringing it up today is that I have noticed over the last few years a tendency for theatre (certainly in Australia, but also around the world) to become more well-behaved, almost bland. What I mean by that is that “big” scenes seem to disappear and are being replaced by scenes that are more manageable for the audience, less scary, but at the same time not always as interesting. What I liked in Reza’s play, among other things, is that it was BIG. I don’t want to spoil it for those who have not seen it, but there are in particular two scenes that fit the “big” description. Characters behave outrageously, and are not afraid of doing so. Emotions are expressed. Anger is not contained. Shame is revealed. The acting is big. It is both funny and riveting, and so much of the characters is on display that you’d need ten minutes of dialogue to reach the same effect. I don’t mean that all theatre has to be that big, but it would certainly benefit from bigger display of emotions, actions and ideas. Theatre is to shock, to force people to think, and not always to please or be well-mannered so as not to hurt the audience’s feelings. Shamelessly I can say that I like it big. And by contrast, big scenes make you pay more attention to the more subtle ones. Could we please have more of this “bigger” theatre? I’ve been a fan of Reza for  a long time, and once again, she has delivered.

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Of the importance of detail


So this is it! My first blog. Ever! I spent a good part of yesterday building the tool and its structure, but was too tired by the end of it to start blogging straight away. This morning I woke up with anticipation and here I am, at the keyboard, in a mixture of fear and excitement.

I have just finished reading the third book of the famous Stieg Larsson Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest). Yes it took me a while. I enjoyed the books, don’t get me wrong – I couldn’t put them down, even if I found the third one not quite at the same level as the other two (Trilogies… maybe this will be the subject of another blog) – but as I turned the last page I started reflecting on what I liked and what I didn’t, something I always do with books. This is the writer in me and I have long stopped trying to justify it. When one starts to write and indeed learn how to write, one thing you keep hearing all the time is detail, detail, detail. Blocks of detail. There is no denying that filling your writing with meaningful detail is indispensable, and in fact, gives your writing an edge, an element of truthfulness that wouldn’t otherwise exist. But the important word here is meaningful. Far too often in Larsson’s books I found myself glazing over, reading through an excruciating amount of detail that I simply did not need to know! For example, the background behind the “Section”, or “The Wennerstrom Affair”. When this happens at the beginning of the book, this is deadly. And this is exactly what’s happening here. Books one and three especially take forever to take off. Once they have, they’re there for the long run, but you have to leave the tarmac first. Another example of too much detail is when Lisbeth Salander goes to Ikea to buy furniture. Why do we have to go through the Ikea catalogue, with detailed references for each item, before Lisbeth can finally furnish her twelve room apartment? Do we need to know the brand and memory size and other features of the computer she’s about to buy? Probably not. By the end of the first book, if someone mentioned to me coffee or open-sandwich, I would have jumped at their throat. Do Swedes really drink that much coffee, at any time of day or night, at least thirty cups of day, and do they only feed on open sandwiches? I doubt it (and in fact I know they don’t.) By the end of the first book, I think all the protagonists are totally coffee’d out because they don’t drink as much of it in the second installment. But they surely start missing it because here they are again getting their coffee fix in the third book (and more open sandwiches). They are also extremely lucky – especially when you consider the vast quantities of coffee they drink – to always hit the pillow and fall asleep straight away!

All this to say one thing, beware of the detail you write about: it’s got to be meaningful, and right – and not repetitive. I can’t help wondering if some more editing wouldn’t have been necessary. Maybe Larsson’s untimely death is the reason why it wasn’t done? I loved the books. Probably wouldn’t read a fourth installment right away, but loved them nonetheless and did learn something from them. I now wish I had read them in Swedish (I can read Swedish). It’s a shame we have lost such a great author so early.

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