Tag Archives: literature

What comes next?

‘Oh God, think of all the Covid books’. If you were on ‘writing’, ‘poetry’ or ‘publishing’ Twitter during any one of the last lockdowns, you probably saw that sentiment a lot. At least, I did. I remember thinking I was not so bothered about the prospect.

Of course, there are already plenty of Covid-inspired books out there already: memoirs, essays and journals especially, but also poetry. Lots of people wrote a little bit of something every day and presumably learnt something in the process which they now want to share with other people.

I am not that excited to read many of these. But you don’t have to read anything. The world-weariness of a phrase like “I can’t wait for all the Covid books” disguises a kind of social media induced attention overload. Twitter is a constant catalogue of new books you will never have the time to read. Social media makes you think you have less time than you do (or imagine that you have more time than you do, which amounts to the same thing).

In any case the effect of pandemic on literature won’t be straightforward. Look at the Second World War. To put it very crudely, in the aftermath there was a huge appetite for fantasy and science fiction, but also a new kind of ‘kitchen sink’ realism. Perhaps they would have happened in some form anyway, but the war must have had something to do with both: the sense of disorientation, but also the bomb it put under social relations.

However tempting it is to read the 50s, 60s and beyond through the lens of what came next, many poets in this period must have been ‘war poets’ in their own way. To live, to be young, during total war, would be have your whole outlook on life shifted and shattered. But also the course of your life. Someone like Gavin Ewart, for instance, today best known for his ‘light verse’ , burst on the scene as a teenager in the 1930s, went to war, came back and got a job in advertising, and didn’t publish again until 1964 (after which, he published a lot).

Rather than worry about all the inevitable books about the pandemic, it might be worth worrying about the books which won’t be written, because nothing else is on people’s mind, or because what they had been going to write doesn’t make sense to them any more, or even because their whole life has changed and writing doesn’t seem a priority right now.

To put things very crudely, again, we are good at remembering wars, but less good at remembering their aftermaths. We see the casualties, but we don’t always see the long-term impact on the people left behind. I don’t think Britain likes to see itself as a war-torn nation: war is something that happens only to soldiers, and only in other places. I don’t think we like to see literature as circumstantial, either. It is more gratifying to everyone involved to talk of stories or poems as things which change lives, rather than something made by them. Think of all the Covid books implies a kind of (understandable) despair that the pandemic ever happened.

While I’m Here

  • One collection of poems I’ve read and enjoyed which (in part) responded to the pandemic was Sean Wai Keung’s sikfan glaschu: more about that here.
  • Thank you to Dave Bonta who included an excerpt from the last blog on his Poetry Blog Digest. I recommend digging around Dave’s website/s.
  • Speaking of war, I am about halfway through this pretty remarkable (and chastening) footage of an RAF attack on Berlin. My grandpa was an engineer in a Lancaster like these.

The Memory Police

Like all ordinary people I worry I am not making a thorough enough record of the books I have read. I do not know when I started having these compulsions: I have not always been like this, and the fact is the worry is never motivating enough to sustain any commitment to one method. Instead, every now and then, I tell myself I am going to come up with a new way of keeping track, whether that is a personal reading diary, or a blog like this. After a few weeks, the compulsion burns off.  

My most recent attempt to find a method was a reading diary: I resolved to make a brief note on every book I finished, month by month. Like all the others, this attempt has fallen by the wayside. Which in retrospect makes the first entry, The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, from December 2020, rather fateful: the novel is about memory and loss, and memory, loss, and literature.

Since the beginning of lockdown in 2020, I had been on a run of reading or rereading classic science-fiction: lots of John Wyndham and H. G. Wells, trying pulp classics like Dracula (fun beginning, fun ending, otherwise a stodgy detective novel) or I Am Legend (very different to the Hollywood film) for the first time.

I also wanted to expand my own definitions of ‘sci fi’ beyond the usual suspects. Ogawa is one of Japan’s most acclaimed novelists, but I think it is fair to say she does not have a big profile here: The Memory Police was shortlisted for the 2020 International Man Booker Prize (for works in translation), but the original was published in 1994. It is a remarkable book.

I also felt I had to read it for professional reasons: one of the quotes on the cover compares it to Nineteen Eighty-Four, a story deeply concerned with memory, and the struggle of the individual to defend those memories from an overweening state, and which I have a responsibility to through my day job.

In the novel, which is set on an unnamed island, long since disconnected from the mainland, the intimidating Memory Police play a role in policing the islanders’ relationship with the past: those who continue to hold onto it live in constant fear of being found out and disappeared.  

Beyond those superficial similarities, however, they are very different books. The Memory Police has been described as a ‘dystopia’, but it is more like a slow, icy nightmare; comparisons have also been made with Kafka (who also came under my expanded definition of ‘sci fi’). Entire categories of objects regularly disappear. They literally depart, as in one memorable image of the petals on all the island’s flowers flowing downriver, but they also lose their meaning for the inhabitants before they finally go, so that by the time they are gone, the islanders do not even know what they are missing. In the case of human possessions, the islanders will often set about destroying the next set of objects, seemingly without instruction, burning photographs and books in their gardens.

There is none of the world-building, none of the political, social, or even psychological mechanisms you might expect from a ‘dystopia’. These things just happen. The Memory Police themselves have a walk-on role. They are a threat, especially to the few islanders who have the ability to remember, who they hunt down mercilessly, but otherwise seem to largely mind their own business.

This could be a comment on indifference. But it means the novel reads like a meditation on memory, on holding onto objects and the histories they carry like smells. On what it means to resist decay.

Memory is not a theme science-fiction has any exclusive domain over. Because of its cultural status, it is easy to forget that Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ‘literary’ a book as any ‘literary fiction’: Nathan Waddell writes in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four that the reason the novel has achieved that cultural status it has is not simply because the problems of power it poses but because of how engaged the book is with the process of writing itself, ‘with how literary production can be influenced by the most diabolical pressures.’

In The Memory Police, the connection between memory and literature is far more explicit: the main character is a writer, attempting to write a book which is slowly slipping away from them, who finds themselves having to hide their own editor from the Memory Police.

But in the absence of the normal dystopian trimmings, in the facelessness of the enemy, and in the novel’s sustained focus on ordinary, domestic life (much of the book is spent describing the process of constructing the editor’s hideaway), the pressure the characters are under feels far more diffuse than in Nineteen Eighty-Four, more akin to time itself; less ‘diabolical’, but seriously chilling.