A very English mystery and the nature of criticism

By , 23 February 2007 6:15 pm

I have an interesting mystery story to recount today, and one which has caused me to reflect on the whole business of critics and criticism. But before I do let me institute what I hope will be a recurrent theme, of delivering unsolicited praise where praise is due. I have a local computer shop, who in the four or five years I have known them, have unfailingly delivered the goods, whether it be in repairs or upgrades. This time, they have doubled the speed of my computer, improved its graphics no end and boosted my Mac for a very modest price. If you’re in the Swansea area try Swan CD Limited and tell them I say they are a good thing. My only reservation as a conservationist is that their logo looks like a swan being bisected from the rear by a chainsaw.

Now to the mystery. I was planning to write on lots of things this week but then the extraordinary business of Joyce Hatto emerged. Although this is basically a tale of classical music it has given rise to some questions in my own mind about critics and criticism.

The background is this. About this time last year, a number of classical music magazines (including the Gramophone which I have read without fail for twenty three years) started to lavish praise on the piano recordings of one Joyce Hatto. It was an edifying tale of a woman, now in her 70s, who had given up professional public piano playing a quarter of a century earlier on account of cancer. Yet now she was releasing discs through a small record company owned by her husband. And what discs! The critics stumbled over themselves with fulsome praise at this triumph of persistence and talent over illness and neglect. The quality was astonishing: how did an elderly woman, with this thirty year battle with cancer, manage to grapple with the most athletic works in the repertoire? The quantity was also astonishing. At the time of her reported death she had ‘recorded’ around 100 discs. (As will become obvious any mention of Ms Hatto requires much use of the word ‘reported’ and many inverted commas). There was also the matter of the range. There seemed to be nothing in the classical repertoire from Bach to the notoriously spiky Messiaen that she was not able to play as well, if not better than the best. As one critic said: ‘Joyce Hatto must be the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.’

Anyway, a week ago the story exploded. You can read it all on the Web and a good lead is the Wikipedia article on her. Someone attempting to put one of her discs on to Itunes found that it was recognised, but as being by someone else. Very soon, the web was buzzing over which of her discs had been copied from which other recording and now there doesn’t seem to be a single genuine Joyce Hatto recording known. They appear to be all borrowed – and slightly tweaked – from other discs. It is, we are told, the greatest fraud/hoax in the history of classical music recording. What the motives were (or even who did it) is at the moment unclear. More revelations are promised.

Now, I am a writer, not a musician, but there are aspects of this that have intrigued me. Central to the story are the critics, who are frankly, trying to keep a rather low profile at the moment. They are the ones that told us how great this woman was, how we should buy her discs and how revelatory her playing was.

Here I need to say I have no axe to grind: such critics as I have had, have been kind to me. But several points do arise.

1) The critics were naive to the point of negligence. In hindsight, that there was fraud or something like it, going on should always have been considered possible. One or two comments, should have set alarm bells ringing. It was, we read, very hard to pin down any Hatto style; she was clearly such a modest pianist that she let the music speak for itself. Hmm. And did no one really question where the great works for piano and orchestra that were being released actually been recorded? A hundred musicians do not fit into a garden shed. And why were there no recent accounts of her playing? Why so few interviews? Was it really just modesty? From the Christian point of view perhaps the most revealing comment was something to the effect that ‘we don’t expect fraud in the music business’. Sorry guys, sin makes its ugly way everywhere.

2) The critics failed at the task they claim to be best at. They signally failed to notice that the recordings were identical to existing ones. Now if the pirated material had come from obscure Bulgarian pianists, one might have forgiven the oversight. But the ones she/he faked, often aren’t obscure. I have a couple: the list of pianists hijacked is starting to look like a who’s who in modern pianism (Previn, Ashkenazy, Hamelin to name three well-known names). In some cases, there were only three or four other versions of a piece around. Yet these men, (and it is mostly men), who regularly blind us with detailed references to the record catalogues and intimidate us by their erudition, failed to notice that these were one and the same.

3) The critics appear to be – how shall we say it? ­- inconsistent. A point was reached towards the end of last year, where this lady could clearly do no wrong. Every recording was awarded superlatives. This is now looking very curious, because some of the recordings that were hijacked were not so highly praised when they first came out. The myth had swept objectivity before it.

Now, you may say this has nothing to do with writing. In one sense, that is true. Yet it is undeniable that critics are important to writers. They make careers, they create stars and they live in the reflected glow of those very stars. But in the wake of this debacle for music critics, I am inclined to be a little bit suspicious of book critics as well. They too give opinions, and offer verdicts, and we listen and respect their judgements. Well, I for one, am now minded to take some of their pontifications a little more cautiously. And I do wonder how many musicians, having been mauled by those very critics who lauded Joyce, are now smiling quietly and saying to themselves: ‘well they aren’t so all-wise after all’.

I’m inclined to agree.

The perils of being a writer

By , 16 February 2007 8:13 pm

All in all, it has been a pretty good week. I have had about five nice e-mails on the books, a small cheque from a publisher and mentions from a couple of people that, although they don’t comment, they do read this blog. I also published a long and, I hope, very thoughtful article on ‘speculative faith’ on the (wait for it) Speculative Faith website: although some of the themes will be familiar to my readers here, it is all new material. What else? I’ve got my Macbook up and running with Microsoft Word for Windows using the fun Parallels software. I even had some vaguely enjoyable teaching. But– and here’s the rub – I haven’t got the writing done that I would have liked and the reason is simply because I’m a writer.

Let me explain that paradox. By dint of working late and hard during the week I had managed to make Thursday night free for writing on the Infinite Day. However Thursday afternoon, one of my students asked me whether I had a glossary of geological terms I could give him. It was a single sentence request. I thought about it and decided that he and the other students probably deserved something like that as there are no decent textbooks at our level. Anyway, I thought, I can pull one off the Web, they are bound to exist.

So after supper, I set to work to find this glossary on the web and print it. Assuredly, I told myself, a half hour task. I soon found a good glossary pitched at the right level with most of the terms I wanted from a United States organisation with no copyright attached. I downloaded it and pasted into Word. Now at that point I should simply have printed it and got on with my book.

But as I scanned my eyes over the definitions the writer in me took over. ‘Hang on’, I thought, ‘that’s not the British spelling’. Then, a moment later, ‘Wait, if these words are included, why don’t we also include these others?’ Then after a few more minutes I realised that the style was frequently what I call ‘clunky’; so I set to work tidying the worse paragraphs. ‘Hey’ I said, ‘the kids know I’m a writer and with my name attached, I don’t think I can let anything substandard go’. Then I realised that some of the definitions were far more thorough than others and so I thickened up a few of the thinner ones. So, you can imagine what happened. I finally got it done by ten o’clock and a very fine booklet resulted. But I didn’t get to work on the book.

What was going on here? I think two things. One was professional pride on a matter where frankly it didn’t really matter. The other was that I had found a legitimate displacement activity to stop me from writing. Now here, I don’t want you to get any high-flown psychological fantasies about me ‘not wishing to write’. Let’s be blunt: writing is hard work and after a long day at work, I preferred something else. Those who are outside the writing business consider writing to be easy and there are times in my writing when it as easy as going downhill on bike. But then there are also times when it’s like going uphill into wind on a bike. It hurts and it takes effort. And when faced with that almost anything will seem to be attractive. So if you know a writer then pray for them that their words will come easily. Because sometimes almost anything is preferable to writing: even a geological glossary.

News and a thought provoking adventure

By , 9 February 2007 7:29 pm

First, I shall be doing a very regular spot once a month on Speculative Faith a really nice website to do with Christian fantasy writing. I will probably recycle some of these blogs with expansions there. Do come and join in.

Second, I have acquired a Macbook. However I am unable to break myself entirely from my PC, which has such things as a nice voice recognition package, and so retain a foot in both camps. My first impression of the Macbook is that, while I would not go all the way with the wild-eyed Mac evangelists, I do think it’s got a lot going for it. In particular, and here would-be writers may want to pay attention, there is an excellent writing package called Scrivener, which really does wonderful things for authors. I think, when I start a new book, I will use this. But at the moment, I suspect it is a capital mistake to shift wordprocessing tools midway through a manuscript with a looming deadline.

Third, today, I had an adventure. It doesn’t often happen these days; this is Swansea, not Beirut. Basically, Swansea missed the great British snow yesterday, much to the chagrin of all and sundry. So we all went to work today in the predicted rain, expecting more of the same. However, during the first lesson, snow to fall heavily and to everyone’s surprise, began to stick. The result was something not unlike the Titanic striking the iceberg. There was soon a notice that some of the college buses would be taking students home early; this was followed within a quarter of an hour by news that all the buses would be going and very soon after, that the entire college would be closing down at twelve. It wasn’t quite panic, but it was a pretty feverish evacuation. By now the snow was about an inch thick, which of course, by American terms, is nothing, but in our part of the world without snow ploughs, snow chains, and precious little in the way of gritting equipment it is enough to make a mess of the roads. Especially when, as it did, it arrives without warning.

Anyway, I decided to head home very quickly afterwards and it was soon pretty obvious that driving conditions were atrocious, and getting worse. It was compounded by the fact that very few people here are used to driving in snow, and either take it too fast or in the wrong gear, and that almost everybody had decided to head back at the same time. I had to make some hard decisions about what route to take to get home as both the main possibilities were over winding hills that I suspected (quite rightly, as it turns out) would be log-jammed with traffic stuck on slush. So I slithered my way with a trusty old Peugeot along the road I normally take home and at the foot of two hundred metre hill that that lies at the back of our house parked the car safely on what was now becoming a rapidly deserted road. I acquired a couple of plastic bags from the nearby supermarket and put them over my socks and then set off over the hill on the snowbound minor road.

The road I took is an odd little one that seems to bear no resemblance to the fact that it is within the Swansea city boundary; along much of its length it is a deep, winding, narrow road shaded by trees, with fields either side and you could be in the very heart of Wales. Now, with the snow bending the branches and utterly devoid of traffic it was a pleasant, and almost exhilarating walk. Yet far away over the snow and under the grey clouds, I could hear continuous sirens as the police tried to deal with the crashes and clogged roads.

One of the things I thought about, as I trudged up through the snow, was how very easily a little flicker on the weather systems had taken a routine Friday and turned it into utter chaos for everyone. Within ninety minutes, a city of a quarter of a million people had totally ground to a halt. Perhaps it is a legitimate task of fantasy, or at least a subgenre of fantasy, to remind us in our comfy, cosy worlds that the only grace of God separates us from utter disaster. It was Will Durant who said that ‘civilisation exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice’. There are a lot of provisos that I would want to put on that statement, but it doesn’t hurt us to be reminded once in a while that things are far more fragile than they seem.

On cosy murders

By , 2 February 2007 7:48 pm

Readers, I present you a puzzle. I have in my mind the detailed outline of a super series of books which, based on what I now know about publishing, ought to do stunningly well. Now before I come onto my puzzle let me outline the books. They are set in an imaginary but picturesque part of South Wales, not a million miles removed from where I live, in a more or less present day setting. The protagonist is an ungodly university-based geologist, in his early 30s, with more than the usual hangups about life, women and most things but with some sort of traditional morality which stops him from having the language and behaviour that gives a writer problems. He lives in a wonderfully picturesque and rundown cottage given to him (with strings) by his aunt in wooded countryside that runs down to the sea. There he lives alone with a battered Land Rover and a black dog who out of sheer perversity he has named ‘Snowy’. As the book opens we see how, in order to supplement his meagre income, he is forced take on as a lodger an American theological student who has a living faith and a very different attitude to most things.

So we have the ‘buddy movie’ thing and also the conflicts over belief. During the course of these books it will transpire that our naive right wing American actually, has something going for him. All this, course, is mere background to the murder story that emerges involving a sinister and powerful figure in the science world with a lot to conceal. Book 1 ends with the murder solved, and the murderer dealt with, but hints that there were people who protected him. In book two we are introduced us to our American’s beautiful sister and glimpse more of this sinister group of people who get up to a lot of skulduggery.

Isn’t it just wonderful? I could see it running for about five or six books; each 100,000 words longs with only gentle violence, but full of deep and pious comments on life and the universe. (and the dog). Can you imagine the television series? ‘Fantastic,’ I hear you say, ‘what’s the problem?’ Quite simply, it is this. I just can’t get excited about the idea. Oh, if it was between writing these books and being unemployed I’d do them. And if you offered me a million dollars I’d write them. But somehow, I just can’t fall in love with the books.

Now it could be this is because, deep down inside me, there is a genuine artistic streak, and I’m not simply a hack writer. My guess is that it’s not that, but possibly something related. I think it is that I believe that writing should in some way push against barriers and the job of the writer (and particularly the Christian writer) is, to use the phrase often used of preaching, ‘to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable’. Interestingly enough, I suspect, the worst and probably most accurate criticism of Christian writing from outside the faith, is that it is simply too cosy.

And even murder stories can be cosy.

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