Tag Archives: Dundee Literary Festival

Essays & The Reading Life with Chris Arthur

At the beginning of Chris Arthur’s session today, there was some time devoted to the tricky business of defining the essay as a literary form.  It’s worth discussing because the  association of essays with tedious school assignments appears to be impacting the marketability of the modern, creative essay, which remains a ‘minority interest.’ Publishers are largely reluctant to embrace the essay, in spite of the success of recent collections like ‘Nasty Women.’

So, what is an essay? Chris Arthur is reluctant to fully endorse the ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ label although he concedes that for the moment, it might well be the best compromise. His essay collection, The Reading Life, is a collection of fifteen essays based, not surprisingly, around reading – reading books, reading objects and responding to books as objects.

He says that he begins an essay with a symbol or object because objects are weighted ‘with astonishing cargo.’ It’s the unpacking of this cargo, the peeling back of the layers which drives the prose, taking the reader on a voyage of discovery. The essay is both expansive and introspective and to be effective, it must have an element of accident; it should surprise the writer as well as the reader.

He reads a section from his essay, Scrimshaw (reading a whale’s tooth).

‘One of the most treasured remnants from my childhood is a whale’s tooth. It was given to me in exchange for – and as a distraction for losing – a tooth of my own.’

The whale’s tooth, a gift from Mr Wilson the dentist, becomes the literary springboard for an examination of the art of scrimshaw, that is, drawings engraved  onto the teeth and bones of whales. From there we journey to the ocean and imagine the life of the whale whose tooth was gifted to the young Chris Arthur.

‘Astonishing cargo’ indeed. Objects have provenance and can open up a world of wonder if we only stop to look and allow our thoughts to unravel.

Over the summer I dipped into and very much enjoyed reading Lia Purpura’s lyrical essay collection, On Looking which is on the M.Litt reading list. Purpura says, ‘I called to things, and in turn, things called to me, applied me to their sight and we became each as treasure, startling to one another, and rare.’ Purpura beckons you close, whispers into your ear. Her work feels intimate, as if you have been chosen to go with her and look at the world through her eyes, for a little while at least.

I’m looking forward to reading Chris Arthur’s essays. He has signed my copy of The Reading Life with ‘Life is full of wonders’ and it strikes me that this is an echo of Purpura’s comment about treasure.

However you wish to define the non-academic essay, there seems to be agreement: what awaits the reader is wonder and treasure, wrapped up in beautiful, highly polished prose.

 

 

 

more Goblin

I’ve just finished reading Goblin. The ending is quite emotional, although I’ll say no more about that.

seen next to Archetypal by Joe MacKinnon, and Nursery Rhyme by Lee Robson

The story fits across time and space but is told by a central character, Goblin, whom we meet as a nine year old girl in London at the outbreak of the second world war, and simultaneously as a woman of eighty-one in Edinburgh, in 2011. As a narrator Goblin is tricksy and creative, lending the book a level of Gaiman-esque fantasy and more classical unreliability. We read the story of her life through the book, but are rewarded with new morsels of information each time the tale goes around its axis. Goblin’s identity warps over and over (especially in her younger years) but the character stays the same, constantly growing. The book has adventure, humour, romance, mystery and heartbreak; all the good stuff.

As a debut novelist, Ever Dundas’ personality, ideas and values feel clear to me through the text. There’s a strong animal-rights theme; I feel like half the named cast in the book must be non-human, and looking past the end I catch a “thanks to all who work to eradicate speciesism” in the acknowledgements. I’m looking forward to meeting her, I’m hoping my impression of the person behind this book is correct.

My only regret is my own impatience, buying the Kindle version rather than waiting for a hard copy to come in the post. ebooks can’t be signed, and worse still they can’t be lent out or passed on as gifts, which means I’m going to have to buy at least one more copy.

New books to read

I’ve done very well over the years, at collecting books that I mean to read. The list grows.  When I moved to Dundee I deliberately left all my books, including a respectable collection of comics and graphic novels, in a box in my generous mum’s attic, bringing only my laptop and Kindle as reading material. Even with that I have several unread texts, works that I’m midway through and picking up from time to time, the most recent focus being on Archetypal by Joseph MacKinnon. Until today:

Three new texts have come into my hands, two of which in paperback. The third, Goblin by Ever Dundas, is new and wasn’t in our local Waterstones yet. As I sit to write now I’m half-way through it, and it’s great.

Ever will be speaking at the First Writes event as part of the Dundee Literary Festival later this month, and I’ll be conducting an interview with her afterwards, which will hopefully make its way onto the Dura website.