Simon Armitage seems forever young, but he’s now 48, a testament to how long he’s been in the public eye as one of our favourite poets. I first encountered him in the early 90s. I’d given up on contemporary British poetry after a thin diet that was the Morrison/Motion Penguin anthology, thinking it wasn’t for me. Somehow I then came across Armitage, and snapped up the first 2 books, “Kid” and “Zoom”, like an adolescent rock band these early works still resonate with me. Formal, funny, contemporary, irreverent, but also truthful and deeply felt, his poetry struck a genuine chord with people who, in the cliche, don’t usually read poetry. Yet I’ve never felt of Armitage as a gateway drug to contemporary verse, rather that he’s a one-off, a poet to his fingertips. Even more recently, seeing him read from “Seeing Stars” (a very different collection), I’ve been impressed by the compression in his work, every line does a job, and he somehow manages to fit more into a poem than most of his contemporaries. He’s moved into longer works in recent years, and from “Dead Sea Poems” onwards there’s always been a yearning away from the quotidian towards something more spiritual. His background as a probation worker, his love of music, and his continuing identification with his Yorkshire background have survived his adoption by Radio 4 and others. Lyrically, he may remain accessible, but his mixed-media projects, such as his 9/11 film, “Out of the Blue” or his young offenders’ sung opera “Feltham Sings” are rare examples of hybrid forms being more than the sum of his parts. He’s as close to a poet of my generation that there is, and remains an important touchstone; an older literary brother, even if not specifically an influence.
I first read China Mieville in an anthology of new “fabulist” writing (Conjunctions 39) and he stood out for me. I was surprised to find that he was a London-based writer, and also that his best known works were “fantasy” as its a genre I usually avoid. Reading “Perdido Street Station” his vast second novel was a revelation. Although his imagination is second to none, his books always feature strong characterisation and seem oblivious of the usual genre boundaries. This ability to rethink genre fiction was most apparent in his fascinating noir detective SF story “The City and the City”. Since that book he’s written a young adult novel “Kraken” and a new novel “Embassytown”. Unusually, Mieville is also a political theorist, and active in left-wing politics, and this adds a further dimension to his multi-layered work. Increasingly popular amongst a non-fantasy as well as a fantasy audience, he’s one of the most exciting talents in British fiction.
So different have the American and British poetry scenes been in the second half of the 20th century that finding a poet that straddles both of them seems miraculous. Thom Gunn was a British poet who initially came to fame as part of “the movement” but moved to San Francisco in the late 1950s. His poetry is clear, lucid and often formal, but with a willingness to cover subjects that are far from the usual staid ones. Therefore a poem such as “On the Move” is an observational piece about Hell’s Angels. Being in San Francisco made him a writer in tune with the counter-culture which would have been unimaginable for his British peers, and in 1992, with many friends having died from the AIDS epidemic he wrote the brilliant. “The Man with the Night Sweats” – it was one of the first and best artistic responses to that tragedy. He’s a writer I’ve enjoyed reading since then, but have recently gone back to, impressed by the calm authority of his writing. Gunn died in 2004, and there doesn’t seem to be a biography him yet.
Without a critical culture, is there, in fact, a culture? Literary criticism seemed to be something from the distant past when I was growing up, and though I managed to avoid much in the way of “literary theory”, it clearly coloured a lot of those of my age and slightly older growing up in the academy. Coloured, but not necessarily overwhelmed. Discovering James Wood’s criticism was like a light going on contemporary literary culture. A couple of years older than me, he is therefore younger than the generation he began writing about, and his perspective has always been engaged, but at one remove. Although he takes big themes (religion, satire), he never ignores the books or the authors themselves. UK educated, but US based he seems to span the best of both cultures. Often called “the best literary critic of his generation” I sometimes think he is the only literary critic of his generation. His essay collection “The Broken Estate” (2000) is a touchstone, but when he criticises a book it stays criticised, the value in his work being his deep engagement with particular books and writers. The author is not “dead” in Wood’s writing, but worthy of serious interrogation. Wood’s criticism is also highly readable, despite its depth. He has also written a novel, “The Book Against God”, a small, dignified debut.
Wikipedia on James Wood
James Wood’s writing at the London Review of Books
Several years ago I was speaking with a journalist friend who told me he’d just interviewed an exciting new French novelist who was little known in Britain. The name must have rung a bell since I picked up his first novel, (“Whatever” in English) when I saw it remaindered on Charing Cross Road. By the time of his second (“Atomised”) and third (“Platform”) novels Houellebecq had done what was unheard of, crossed over into being an English language bestseller. Perhaps its not surprising, after all, the success of counter-cultural enfant terribles like Irvine Welch had clearly not gone unnoticed across the channel. Houellebecq seemed to manage to mix that Anglo-Saxon beat writing with a European sensibility. In those first three novels he creates (or recreates) an archetypal loner, a late 20th century version of Camus’s L’etranger. Houellebecq’s overwhelming thesis, that sex is a capitalist commodity in the contemporary world seemed to resonate with an oversexualised age. Yet his novels are more subtle than that. Houellebecq’s heroes are not the existentialists of old, but with an added American pop culture sensibility. Their unhappiness is similar to John Self’s in Amis’s “Money.” Not afraid to address contemporary taboos, his importance has been restated in 2010 with his latest novel (not yet published in English) winning the Goncourt prize.
Iowa graduate, American novelist and short story writer A.M. Homes is a writer that crept up on me. I’d occasionally come across one of her remarkably elastic short stories online or in a collection and always marvel at her inventiveness. She’s a satirist, but owe something to the more experimental writing of Kathy Acker. For me, she’s one of the writers who manages to get to the heart of contemporary America. Her debut collection “The Safety of Objects” is remarkable, and I prefer her stories to her novels, which have often been on controversial subjects. Yet her 2006 novel “This Book Can Save Your Life” was an international bestseller, as well as a remarkably powerful book. Without the sentimentality of some of her male peers, she’s probably the best – and funniest – contemporary stylist writing in America today.
Bruce Chatwin would have been 70 this year, the same as John Lennon, yet his published novels came late in a life, which was also tragically curtailed. From when I first read “On the Black Hill”, the most conventional of his books, and “The Songlines”, his truly innovative travel book primarily about the Australian aboriginals, he’s been one of my favourite writers. A very English writer (and very English gentleman), he seems to step out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh, yet his sensibility is an acute one. His books are all minutely observed and meticulously crafted. Even his essays, collected in two collections, also published by Picador, have the same immediacy of his longer works. With Chatwin you are intensely involved from the first word, as his co-conspirator. You see what he sees. If he sometimes among the poshest of contemporary writers, because of the circles he moved in, his background is actually quite déclassé compared with his friends. Unusual for an English writer, he seems to write unencumbered by social positioning, his obsession with “nomad” cultures perhaps giving him a sensibility that filters into his work. His death, in his forties, robbed British letters of an important counterpoint to the generation that came after him, but was writing around the same time, but like that other writer of a few short books, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the quality of his prose remains paramount. Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography, and now, the collected letters have rounded the picture we have of a key writer of the last thirty years.
I came to Roth late, with 1997’s masterful “American Pastoral.” His was a name I’d seen on bookshelves for years without getting round to reading him. I’d just started my MA in novel writing, so was looking for inspirational contemporary books. “American Pastoral” is just that – a tour de force on late 20th Century America. Part morality tale, part historical novel, its scope is only matched by its languages. It was Roth’s way of writing, long sentences, with umpteen clauses; a story told at one remove, to his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, as if viewed through a magnifying glass. The book’s that followed, “I Married a Communist”, “The Human Stain” and “The Plot Against America” were almost as good. I’ve not yet gone back to Roth’s earlier novels – though I look forward to doing so – and of course, Roth keeps on writing, his latest books being shorter, but perhaps no less interesting. He’s been published for over half a century, and in my continued love affair with American fiction, is my late muse.
Philip Roth on Wikipedia
Matthew Welton’s poetry first appeared in magazines, and alongside a number of Faber poets in their shortlived Faber Firsts. These poems and more formed his first collection,
“The Book of Matthew” from Carcanet. Well-known within the Manchester poetry scene, the collection only told half the story, as his mesmerising live performances, with all poems read from memory, and frequently including games, cover versions and, more recently, live sampling, have always taken the “poetry reading” in a different direction. Though not a prolific poet, his second collection, “We needed coffee…” (an abbreviation of it’s typically long title) collected not just new poems but collaborations and commissions. Another Manchester poet included in “Identity Parade” his best work defies description, always a good sign for a poet, even if the influences of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams nod in a classically modernist direction. More recently, he’s been collaborating with photographers and artists, yet everything he does has both a seriousness and a playfulness, which I’ve always responded to with enjoyment.
It must have been a review of David Mitchell’s debut novel “Ghostwritten” that made me go straight out and buy it. I read it in one stretch, marvelling at his ingenuity, the quality of his writing and that here was a novelist, a contemporary of mine, who was seamlessly mixing a highly readable story with some of the tricks and experiments of writers like Calvino and Borges. In his works since that debut, his willingness to experiment has equal to obvious talent. At times, Mitchell seems capable of writing anything. Since then he has also become a bestselling author with the immense “Cloud Atlas”, a Russian doll of a novel; and the coming-of-age novel “Black Swan Green.” Add in Murakami influenced “Number 9 Dream” and the recent Japan-located historical novel “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” and he’s clearly one of our leading writers, with five powerful novels in less than a dozen years. For all those in publishing who insist on writers writing the same book again and again, Mitchell is an obvious answer – he doesn’t even write the same book within the same book, and “Cloud Atlas” was not only a tour de force and Booker shortlistee, but Richard and Judy’s book of the year. What is so pleasing, other than the sheer pleasure of reading his multi-layered books, is that seem so without compromise. Though primarily a novelist, the structures of “Ghostwritten”, “Cloud Atlas” and even “Black Swan Green” cleverly hide what could easily have been a series of novellas or short stories. Post-modernism and metafiction are absorbed in his work to the extent that the reader doesn’t even notice they are there. I recognised the 80s upbringing in “Black Swan Green” (essentially a novel about divorce and adolescence), whilst also applauding a writer who clearly grew up reading everything from fairy tales to SF. In the often hermetically sealed world of British fiction he remains a touchstone.