Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics on Craig Raine, Bret Easton Ellis and Louise Doughty.

Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty

"Whatever You Love is an incident-packed, emotionally fraught revenge tragedy," writes Susanna Rustin in the Observer. "Set at the English seaside and narrated by a divorced single mother who has just lost her nine-year-old daughter in a traffic accident... Doughty has crafted a subtle thriller." Rustin concludes, "her novel is emotionally raw, sexually frank, psychologically unpredictable."

For Jane Jakeman, writing in the Independent, "Doughty is a courageous writer, willing to explore deeper territory with each book." As with her previous works (Fires in the Dark, 2003; Stone Cradle, 2006) the testing of family relationships "lies at the heart of [the book], but her focus has intensified from group dynamics to the individual psyche."

"Extraordinary events in the final chapters work less well," opines Ophelia Field in the Sunday Telegraph, "forfeiting the reader's empathy both in terms of Laura's likeability and the plot's plausibility." Nonetheless, she concludes "Doughty is masterful at combining the texture of ordinary, smugly middle-class, contemporary life with the hidden cliff edges of violence and hatred."

Heartbreak by Craig Raine

"Based mostly in Oxford and London and in the worlds of academia and media", writes Edmund Gordon in this week's New Statesman of Raine's first novel, this diffuse story of 30 separate narratives "portrays a narrow cross-section of middle-class English society." A poet and critic, "Raine presumably hoped to fashion out of this material something like the free-form, philosophical novels of Milan Kundera", Gordon continues, but, to little success. "Raine appears to be indifferent as to whether the stories in Heartbreak work as fiction; their main purpose is to provide a supporting framework for his thoughts on various subjects."

"Like Kundera... the text is laconic and disjointed, structurally as well as semantically terse, made up of episodes that travel no more than a few pages," writes Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. But "what can seem to be genuine wisdom in the case of Kundera, however, is too often either smartass or banal in the case of Raine."

For Tim Martin, writing in The Telegraph, Raine's approach "is wholly excruciating... [featuring] frequent textual hijacks by tipped-in lit-crit essays, as well as authorial intrusions that veer between mock concern for the reader ("Am I going too fast for you?"), high-table daftness ("Crying has its own rhetoric. We need a poetics of crying") and a welter of passive-aggressive pointers on how to read."

"Compression of metaphor, the gift for seeing unexpected things in other things, is Raine's strong suit... It is what he has always been best at, [but] in an ill-judged moment, it breaks Heartbreak."

You can read Jonathan Derbyshire's interview with Craig Raine here.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

Imperial Bedrooms is for Nick Garrard, writing in the Independent, "a kind of modern noir... Atmosphere is king. Paranoia prevails." A return to the disaffected, amoral Los Angeles characters introduced in his first novel Less Than Zero, Ellis's seventh work is another "dissection of the idle American rich."

"Clay [the protagonist of Less Than Zero] has doubled in age but voice-recognition software would have little trouble picking up his tense present," writes Mark Lawson in the Observer. "He now possesses not only money but a sort of influence, having become an outwardly successful screenwriter."

For Lawson, Ellis "has very much found his rhythm" in a dark and seedy tale of "sex... booze and junk." "In terms of American literary inheritance, [the author] adds the playful self-advertisements of Philip Roth to the ambiguously complicit social reportage of F Scott Fitzgerald; Imperial Bedrooms ranks with his best in the latter register, teeming with sharp details of a narcissistic generation."

For Erica Wagner however, writing in The New York Times, Ellis has "fallen flat" with this novel. "What starts off neat swiftly becomes pat, lazy and effortful all at once" she argues. "Like Martin Amis, Ellis still has a flair for such perfect, surreal description. But, again like Amis, he can struggle to set it in an effective context."

 

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.