Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

There could hardly be a better snippet of dust-jacket praise than this to capture this reader's attention:
"Gabriel García Márquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges for a sprawling magic show." - The New York Times Book Review
 And, to some extent, The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, reflects all of these influences. There is an element of the family saga and national history (Marquez), a literary thriller (Eco), and meta-textual play (Borges). There's no reason why these elements cannot cohere in a novel that is both tremendously popular and intellectually challenging, but The Shadow of the Wind does not quite live up the the challenge of this lineage. This is because, whereas Borges, Eco, and Marquez were all writers of the higher order, none of them were sentimental, or prone to melodrama, as Zafon is.

Which is not to say that The Shadow of the Wind is not entertaining, compelling even, but it lacks the clarity and generic playfulness of these other writers. Its strongest element is that of the meta-text, as the narrative of the protagonist and the author of the books he adores merge and coincide, through nested and interpolated stories. The initial Borgesian fantasy, the cemetery of forgotten books, is intriguing but never really examined. The mystery is not hard to anticipate, although many of the details are truly harrowing. But, in the spirit of a book about books and their value, both material and spiritual, The Shadow of the Wind seeks to affirm its own sort of literature, the literature of feeling, of imagination, of trauma described and therefore transcended.

This is why the plucky, sensitive protagonist ultimately marries the beautiful girl and has a son of his own, healing the wounds of the past and refusing to relive its injustices, though at some personal cost. Although one notable character pursues the idea that literature in itself is worthless, this view is reversed by the end of the novel. This is both a celebration of the text and the root of its sentimentalism. Eco and Borges, in particular, were profoundly conscious of the limits of literature, of what words and fictional worlds could and could not do, and played with these restrictions in their fictions. Zafon resolves these tensions, but although the journey is satisfying, all the narrative invention it entails leads to the happy ending, the popular narrative, we foresaw after all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


From time to time one reads about how word-processors transformed writing, breaking writers from the slow and considered process of writing and re-writing tethered to pen and paper, then typewriter and paper.

This mythic writer of old taps out a manuscript, juggles and annotates a stack of papers, contrives to have the whole thing typed cleanly again, and consequently writes with due respect for the weight of every word. Occasionally, manuscripts are left in shoeboxes or on public transport, but so be it.

Then comes digitization, computers, and the manuscript is instantly editable, always live, and we contemplate the impact of the means of production on output.

But it strikes me that another, more significant change is underway in our writing habits and processes, which has less to do with the mechanics of keyboard and screen than the infrastructure of work itself. This is the effect of the digital cloud for writing.

I have always used a personal computer, from an Apple 512KE to a MacBook Pro, to write and revise, but only in recent years have I had access to cloud services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, which allow me to save a manuscript remotely, and to access it almost wherever I go, on either my own computer, a tablet, or another device. In other words, the manuscript is no longer tied to the typewriter, the writer's desk, the study, even the personal laptop. The manuscript goes with you. It's almost as accessible as your thoughts.

For a long time, even with word processors, if you had an idea, reimagined a scene, even thought of the name of a character while you were out, or at work (by which I mean the job most writers take for material support) then that idea had to stick long enough for you to get back to "your" computer. Now, there's a way to reach out to your manuscript, to find yourself writing at odd times and in odd locations. Your creative life can follow you in the cloud, but what kind of discipline is now required? Are thoughts refracted, concentrated, or ephemeral, when you can edit at any time? This adjustment is at once, I think, more substantive than a change in tools, and harder to evaluate. Is the process different when you can craft words virtually anywhere?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why study creative writing?

It's been a few months since I've posted, one of the reasons being that at the end of February I completed the dissertation for a PhD in Creative Writing that I've pursued part-time, with many gaps and hiatuses, at The University of Queensland.

Reflecting on the experience, I have cause to ask myself: why study creative writing? Surely my own experience suggests you don't need to study writing in order to be a writer; why make a detailed study of one's own vocation, at the expense of time and effort a research degree demands?

Some brief, provisional responses:

  • Firstly, every deep, complex field of human activity is, I think, worthy of study. The foundation of scholarship is not necessarily gain – that job, that publication – but interest.
  • Now, you can't teach creativity, but you can, of course, practice it, and practice can strengthen.
  • And practice can also refine. The self-reflection inherent in scholarly practice may not make me better, but it makes me clearer about my interests, my strengths and weaknesses, my influences, and formalizes of my techniques and approaches. Writing about one's own writing helps to refine intuitions and make them explicit.
  • Finally, writing to a task and reflecting on that work not only allows you to apply skills but to experiment, to take risks and write out scenarios and possibilities that test ideas and your personal capacities. Not all writing in the academic context may be publishable, but it is constructive, a workbench for concepts and techniques.

Where this will lead next, I don't know. A new historical mystery is almost finished, and beyond that there are only sails on the horizon, suggestions of destinations. But studying creative writing has at least given me some sense of how I set the sails, what stars I steer by.