the m john harrison blog

Tag: writing

don’t ask

A reader will often ask: Mike, what are your greatest influences, in literature, pop music & elsewhere? Who are you a fan of? Readers, though I have lots of favourite authors I am not a fan of anyone. My greatest influence at present is the fiction of descent, ie any story in which it is slowly revealed (but not to the central character) that the central character is dead. I’m also quite interested in Anthony Powell, but mainly for his dry delivery.


Blake, Peckham and “the tree of angels”. The sheer willpower needed to envisage something. Even a memory has to be forced back into existence, and for all your effort what do you get? An artefact if you’re lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye. The exhausting effort to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to see. The exhausting effort to keep focus. The mad daily struggle against all the side issues that offer themselves. The struggle to keep the symbology intact/exact. I don’t care about anything else in writing now, as long as I get that part right. Everything else can follow along, rag tag and bobtail. Everything else is better that way any way.

argument from experience

Recent turns in my life, not directly related, make this, from 2009, seem worth repeating–

I went to one of the infamous Dylan concerts–Leicester de Montfort Hall, I think–as a raw, betrayed, left wing folkie, ready to heckle as soon as that sell-out reneged on his roots, denied his past & picked up an electric guitar. My girlfriend of the time, too. Two funny, smooth, unmarked, optimistic little faces turned up at the stage ready to defend our values, ready to defend our hero against his own bad decisions. By the end of the accoustic half of the show, I couldn’t bear my own anxiety & had dissociated as a defence.

Then a minute into the first electric song, I was electrified too, & so was she. Everyone around us got up & boo’d; but we got up and cheered & danced & kissed each other’s amazed faces. It was Love Minus Zero No Limit & it went through me like a crack in a mirror, & if I played it now–what? 40-odd years later?–& they have been odd years–I would just cry & cry & cry.

So, actually: fuck “Play some old!” Play some old is just very bad advice, which comes from chipmunks & children already afraid of time. Go on! Go where your work takes you, & don’t be forced into yesterday’s postures–already looking strained & meaningless–by an audience scared to move along with you.

Original post, June 6 2009, here.

‘“to thaw” is to ungive

“There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo. Nature will not name itself. Granite doesn’t self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject.” Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian today, as exact as ever. I read him & I think, “No contest.” I’ve no idea what I mean by that, except that at his best he somehow obviates the collision–the war–between prose and things: even when, as here, he’s confronting it, admitting it (both admitting to it and inviting it in). This is everything you want from an essayist and landscape writer. I can’t wait to read Landmarks.

note to self

Won’t do to have them separated for the whole thing. Structure would work better if they were given another chance at each other maybe two thirds through. She comes down to London. Semi-alienated encounter–heavily flagged up for the reader but a bit empty of apparent content–in which neither of them seems able to talk about their actual anxieties. (See 2nd meeting for tone.) He’s too preoccupied to pursue her over it. Tell this from his pov, then when you return to hers, have her write him an email in which she takes him to task about it while admitting that she’s also to blame & still not addressing her concerns. He doesn’t answer. When we switch back to his pov later, no mention is made of it. The ending solves this. Or not. (NB: placed right, the third encounter would also amplify the readers’ anxieties about what’s happening to her.)

acts of composition

If To Kill A Mockingbird originated as some sort of back narrative inside the larger structure Go Set A Watchman (and it did, and now we know that we can’t unknow it) then Go Set A Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel but part of another kind of structure altogether. When the book appears, the complexities of this distinction, including the possibility that many actual prequels and sequels may have originated in a similar but unrecorded process, might be worth an article in themselves. Distinctions like this undermine generalising terminology and force us to return not just to the individual book but the individual act of composition.

learning to skate

The first time you read Love for Lydia, you understand those opening scenes in which she learns to skate not just as a metaphor for life, or love, or sex, but as the beginning of a forty page allegorical synopsis of the rest of the novel. You know, somehow, what’s going to happen. Everything is unutterably lyrical but unutterably full of tension. You don’t know quite what you’re being told, but you know you are being told everything. While Lydia learns to skate, you are learning an emotional symbology. Later on you’ll be mapping every single tragic turn on to those frozen marshes, the bitter air, Lydia’s confusion and blunt self-consciousness as it gives way to elation, the great cry, “I can do it!” She can skate. Lydia can skate! “She went forward in a flash of release, suddenly, as everyone does, all alone, clear and confident at last and free.” Lydia can skate, and everything has already started to go wrong…

“After the death of their elder brother the two Aspen sisters came back to Evensford at the end of February, driving in the enormous brown coachwork Daimler with the gilt monograms on the doors, through a sudden fall of snow.” —HE Bates, Love For Lydia.

abandoned opening

My life built itself round a hallucination, a repeating dream, and one of those events that fills the media for a month or two before vanishing. To start with they had a curious similarity in tone. They were equally distanced and unthreatening, as if it wasn’t actually me experiencing them. In a way, it wasn’t. The person who experienced them came later. My mistake was to think of him as me, as the identity I had constructed by living my life. By then I had an identity all right: but all along it had been assembled…

“Douglas Coupland told Disney that the problem with their films is that they’re too efficient, too seamless. I feel like recently every film or narrative structure is becoming too efficient. There’s no time to be distracted, you know what I mean? There’s no time to find your own time in the narrative.”

Pierre Huyghe interviewed by Doug Aitken


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