the m john harrison blog

Month: August, 2022

things I like about writing

When I stopped writing by hand, I became obsessed with the shapes typing made on the page. I developed a fixed idea of how the rhythm of long & short paragraphs affected the way they would be read. I was particularly interested in the look of single sentence paragraphs in relation to the bigger blocks of text around them. I would remove whole sentences if the page made a shape I didn’t like. I always work single-spaced. I hate double spaced typescript. It makes everything look awkward and vague and wrong; a single page of it gives you no idea whatever of the way the sentences are moving. At first I worked with a thousand words to a page of foolscap, no margin; then, as soon as I moved on to word processing, set out to mimic exactly the look of one page of a B-format paperback. I still use single spacing up to the point of delivery; sometimes after, depending on the editor or the venue. It doesn’t hurt to write like this, in a way that suits you; after all, this is you, not someone else. & these days you can turn it into the industry standard at the flick of a switch. Not enamoured of digital writing packages or house styles–especially where they interfere with grammar & syntax or flow-through, which I’ve always spent rather a long time on, even–in fact especially–when it seems otherwise. Nothing goes on to paper since 1987, unless a publisher insists; & as soon as I’ve sold a thing, I throw the drafts and notes away unless there’s some out-take that looks as if it might be useful another time for another thing, which there usually is. The idea is to provide a fully mystified object, like the books you used to take down from the shelves of an old public library–no dust jacket, no blurb, no genre label, no guidance on how to decode, not even, sometimes, a publishing date: just slightly waterstained boards & a novel inside ready to be unwrapped by reading. You’re ten years old & the whole thing just excites you so.


letting go

By the end of the 1970s, it was common inside the imaginative fiction genres to oppose Mervyn Peake and JRR Tolkien as being representative of more or less “realistic” ways of writing fantasy. That opposition quickly turned out to be simplistic, along with the schism it reflected. All acts of fantasy are equally not-real, however many realistic elements they do or don’t deploy; and most generic acts of science fiction are mimetic in the sense that they attempt to convince the reader there is a world that can be observed during the act of reading: they mimic mimesis. For me at that time, the opposition “fantasy versus realism” was already rolling smoothly downslope through “fiction versus nonfiction” to “writing about things versus doing them” –being alive in the world as opposed to pretending to be somewhere else, & then pretending, as did the supporters of both Tolkien & Peake, that the pretence is somehow more than a pretence.

The unresolved tension in Climbers lay between the fall and the narrator’s discourse about the fall. The difference between falls and discourses–things and descriptions of things or things and discussions about things or discussions about opinions about things–is opened by the narrator’s childhood failure to break through the mirror of the cafe window [pp8/10] to the imaginary world of the car park outside. It closes sixty or so thousand words later with his symbolic failure to break the surface of life the way a cormorant breaks the surface of the water [p232]. One or another aspect of the difference frames every incident in between.

Although a hybrid rose might well be seen as an entry in a discourse on roses, I would have said in those days, the discourse is not the rose. The map is not the ground. The ground is the grounding; anything else–the fantasy-fiction, the realist fiction, the memoir or travelogue, the presentation of a world via any mimetic device whatsoever–is just the thing you say about the ground. The thing you say does not ground the ground: the ground grounds it.

A photograph of a cast is not a broken leg. The ideological framing of a broken leg is not a broken leg. The sociological framing of a broken leg is not a broken leg. The cultural analysis of a broken leg is not a broken leg. The historical & economic analysis of the type of circumstances in which the leg broke is not a broken leg. The story you tell of a broken leg is not a broken leg. The only thing that is a broken leg is a broken leg. That would be what I believed then. It’s one of the more obvious reasons why the last section of Climbers is called “Fall”, not “Autumn”. The fall is still a useful central image for me. Presently I’m interested in the phenomenology of the one I’ve been taking for 77 years: the one that–all evidence suggests–won’t allow you to retreat into rhetoric & discourse on the last page.

This post has not been about generic fantasy, generic science fiction, climbing, or broken legs; or the question of what’s really real anyway. Don’t @ me if you think any of those conversation openers & talking points are an important part of the post. It is really about the decision to accept that there is a world & to live in it, and allow that decision to affect the rest of the writing you do, even (in fact especially) the imaginative writing–because fantasy as we know it escaped its constraints in the 1970s and became the ideological/rhetorical armature of what used to be called the Western world, to the detriment of almost every other system of thought in that world. As we now see.

The rediscovery of broken leg reality may, paradoxically, by putting acts of fantasy back in their place, reinvigorate and repurpose them. For forty years or so, fantasy made itself the frame through which everything else was visualised, organised & valorised. It became the uncontested lingua franca of economics, advertising, media, corporate environmental exploitation and politics: even science had to be storyfied towards its shadowy fictional other if it wanted to be represented at all; fantasy informed the edutainment of the toddlers who grew into the Randistas, disaster capitalists and conspiracy theorists who are now helping to rot & dissolve civil society. It led to the pure manipulated fiction in which we’re condemned to live. A bit of fantasy makes life bearable; it can be quite helpful in making metaphors; but once it becomes your explanatory framework, you are addicted. One narrative’s too many, a hundred aren’t enough. Someone’s always out there with the Unicorn Brand ice cream van, waiting to take your money and top you up.

You’d think that fantasy writers were ideally placed to identify and engage this abuse of their metier–reaffirm and strengthen the distinction between the real and the fantastic to the benefit of both–but somehow they don’t.

One thing we learn is that we’re in no way insulated from the state collapses we’ve been taught to associate with Those Other Kinds of Countries. Between now & the end of next winter, we’re looking at half a dozen crises that aren’t even being admitted to, let alone addresssed, by politicians whose panic, incompetence, greed, epic self-fictionalisation and disconnection from practical, infrastructure-level administration are systemic & nothing to do with Johnson except inasmuch as he became their public face. You can regard this as simply the chaos likely to arise when entitled morons, rendered unemployable by a poor Oxford degree in an impractical subject, get power; or you can detect behind their clownish conversion of childhood psychodrama into politics the determined application of deregulation-based disaster capitalism. The end result is the same. Poverty, disease, sudden bafflingly huge price rises for basic commodities, shit in the rivers. In addition we have a diffuse, disorganised group of opposition parties, each too afraid or too obsessed with their own single-issue Theory of Everything to work together to change the situation. This makes the 70s look like a time of prosperity and stability. Meanwhile, as the Tory body totters from one organ failure to the next in a climate crisis during which control of basic infrastructure will mean everything, the infrastructure is being encouraged to fall apart. It’s a disaster. How can politicians across the board be forced to acknowledge this & take responsibility? Politics is still all about being the entertainment; it’s all about the ratings, all about its own self-regard, just another expression of UK celebrity culture.

four forty five

The windscreen of a parked car just out of view across the road reflects the late afternoon sun, directing it at an oblique angle into our front room and projecting the shadow of a window box of pelargoniums on to the net curtain inside. The silhouettes of the pelargoniums appear sharply delineated and surrounded by a strong but diffuse white light; but in places the original clusters of flowers can be made out through their own shadows, as if a dull red bleed is part of the projection. Such a theatrical effect from such a simple set of circumstances.

another unused opening

There have been two mysterious events along the High Street since we came to live here. I say “mysterious” to mean: ask as we might, we couldn’t get anything out of the woman in the cheese shop over the road about what happened in either case. The first was a loud bang at perhaps three in the afternoon, followed by the sound of falling glass and a car alarm going off. Everyone came out of their shops and looked in the direction of the accident and shook their heads; but afterwards no one seemed keen to say anything about it.

The second event was less easy to parse, and took up much of a late afternoon and evening. Across from our sagging town house is an old mews, wider than an alley but not wide enough to be called a street, that runs past the back of the butcher’s for a few yards before diving steeply out of sight towards the river…

sea view 2021

West Bay is heaving today. Plenty of tragic masculinity on show, from the man I thought I heard calling his daughter out for her posture (until I realised he was actually telling his wife how his employers viewed current affairs), to the one in the black singlet, sleeve tats & camouflage cargo shorts who was clearly in love with his dog. Lots of dog language being spoken—not by the dogs, but as elements of a nonverbal language spoken by their owners, the basic statement of which is always, “My dog is more strikingly crossbred than yours.” Then a woman in a skinny top—worn with athletic shorts, orange knee-length compression socks and retro brown leather hiking boots—answers her phone to say, “Yes, I do. But the lasagne’s not quite as good quality. Oh, ok… I know, I know, but they didn’t get it wrong like that, did they?” Then, “Yes, well he is.” A hundred gulls, wheeling up from the sand below the promenade, will remind each other in later years, “We picked that little town clean &, at the end of the long afternoon, turned west along the coast to the next.”