Wednesday, 5 July 2017

REFORMATION 500

On an October day in 1517 an obscure 33 year-old friar in an obscure German town pinned up a public notice. The world hasn't been the same since. Martin Luther's famous 95 Theses were not a programme for violent revolution - simply an invitation to fellow academics to discuss some aspects of church practice that Luther questioned. How, then, did this end up rending the seamless robe of Western Christendom and plunging Europe into devastating wars of religion that lasted 130 years? The Reformation was a bubbling cauldron of political rivalries, social discontent and intellectual conflict. The eastern border was menaced by a resurgent Ottoman Empire, under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent. The houses of Habsburg and Valois were locked in a war for the control of Europe. Communities were devastated by sweating sickness and syphilis, diseases hitherto unknown. State rulers were rethinking their relationship with the pope and questioning the nature of his jurisdiction. The opening up of long distance sea routes to East and West brought exciting new commercial possibilities but it also gave rise to a sense of unquiet, as people realised that the world was not the place they had always supposed it to be. Academics were asking new questions, exchanging their hypothetical answers via the revolutionising medium of the printed word. Everywhere there was a miasma of anxiety, a suspicion that old certainties would no longer serve. Among the more popular books of the period were works of satire, scepticism and humorous jibes directed at the clergy who, it was widely believed, did not measure up to the ethical standards they promoted in their sermons (e.g. The Ship of Fools, The Decameron, In Praise of Folly, etc.). Change disturbed people to such an extent that they were ready to listen to the prophecies of apocalyptic doom-mongers. Yet, despite all this unease, few were bold enough to challenge the doctrinal basis of the Catholic church. This was the only thing that gave cohesion to sixteenth-century life and to discard it would be to throw away the only belief system which made society work. To support that system (and their own status) church leaders defended with mounting ferocity the ancient truths. They made bonfires of books and men. They extended, wherever possible, their political power. And, then, along came Martin Luther. What he did was aim an arrow at the theological heart whose beating kept alive the febrile body of Latin Christendom. He exposed what he believed to be the intellectual and spiritual inconsistencies of the system. And people all over the continent read his protest. It seemed as though there was a sharp intake of breath across Europe as people came to realise that they did not have to believe what they had always been told to believe; that there was another - and more ancient - kind of Christian truth and that, in embracing it, so many of their questions were answered and their anxieties stilled. This liberating truth empowered the individual. It inspired many to face hardship and even death. It profoundly changed societal relationships - not least those between men and women. It transformed, not only what people did when they went to church. It affected the whole of their lives. In the words of the historian Jacques Barzun
'It fostered new feelings of nationhood. It raised the status of vernacular languages. It changed attitudes towards work, art and human failings ... by emigration to the new world overseas, it brought an extraordinary enlargement of the meaning of the West and the power of its civilization.'
It prepared the ground for the cultivation of democracy. The Reformation sundered church and state. It made possible the evolution of secular society. Yet, paradoxically, its aims were the reverse of this. Far from de-Christianising society, it aimed to provide humanity with a clearer vision of God, one from which the mists of 'false' doctrine had been rolled away.

What that dynamic vision was will be the subject of a conference to be held from 16 to 20 October in the magnificent setting of Lee Abbey, on the North Devon coast. The relaxing yet also stimulating setting of this beautiful place will enable us, through talks and seminars to explore in depth the history of the world-changing events being widely celebrated in this centenary year - Reformation 500. For full details go to leeabbeydevon.org.uk .
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Monday, 26 June 2017

Z is for ZERO TOLERANCE

If we are proud of our profession we should be intolerant of anything that lowers its standards or brings it into disrepute. Let's list a few things that are in danger of doing that.

(1) Cheapening our glorious written language. Of course, English is a living thing. It grows, evolves and develops to meet our changing needs but that does not mean we should be slipshod in our use of it, as though structure, conventions and rules don't matter. For example, 'crisp' is a perfectly good adjective - sharp, onomatopoeic and meaningful. 'Crispy' is flabby and does not mean the same thing. Attaching the suffix 'y' to a word usually suggests modification - 'yellowy', 'dreamy'. Good King Wenceslaus did not venture forth on a night when the snow was 'deep and crispy and even'. Another sin against good English is throwing away perfectly good words - e.g. 'convince' is not a synonym for 'persuade'. If you persuade someone to do something against his/her better judgement you have not convinced him/her. Perhaps the biggest crime is making a nonsense of grammar in the interests of political correctness. For example, 'Every member of the group must look after their own equipment' - yuk!

(2) Amateurishness. Most professions guard themselves against infiltration by untrained practitioners. Anyone masquerading as a doctor, an engineer or accountant deserves to be exposed and locked up before too much damage has been caused. Today there exists an assumption that anyone can write a book without any sense of vocation as an author or willingness to buckle down to learning the craft.

(3) Manipulation. Language is powerful - and therefore dangerous. The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword. We should, therefore, do everything we can to stop it falling into the wrong hands. There have always been purveyors of social poison. In the past peddlers of such toxic material were largely confined to politicians and journalists who played on racist, sexist, class or nationalistic prejudice for their own ends. Social media has increased this menace to the nth degree but books are not immune to changes akin to hate mail. There is a market, human nature being what it is, for pornography, explicit violence and pseudo-romance (By 'pseudo romance' I mean stories which sugar-coat human emotions and call the result 'love').

(4) Mercenariness. Of course, we all want monetary reward for our endeavours - and quite right, too. That means writing material people will pay to read. But we must resist the temptation to become mere hacks, churning out populist stuff for no better reason than that it will sell. If our output is to have real worth we must believe in it. We should be setting out our stall with honesty and conviction, even if it means offering the public ideas that are unfashionable or unpopular.

We are privileged to be in a position of influence, to affect the lives of others in a multitude of ways. Books have changed the world and continue to do so. But privilege carries responsibilities and one of those responsibilities is self-discipline. That means more than sitting at our desk for hours on end when we'd rather be lounging in the garden or going to the pub. Its about social responsibility and making the world a better place. That is not as ponderous and pretentious as it might appear at first sight. Making readers laugh is as important as making them think. Encouraging others to value themselves is as valid as challenging them to revisit their assumptions. Tapping the well springs of our shared humanity can enlighten people and move them. Truth has many faces and we writers are dealers in truth or we are nothing.

Thank you very much for following these 26 reflections on the writer's craft - if you have. I hope you have picked up a few useful thoughts from among those I've gleaned during fifty years in the bizz.

     'One would never undertake such a thing if one were not
      driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor 
      understand'  
                                               -   George Orwell on writing



Monday, 19 June 2017

Y is for YOU

     If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
     Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
     Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
     'He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'
                                - Thomas Hardy  Afterwards


I would be surprised if, at least sometimes, you do not ponder, as  you write, 'What will the readers make of me? When what Hardy called, "my tremulous stay" in this existence is over will book lovers - perhaps for a few years - go on taking my volumes down from the shelves and think, "He/she really shared our humanity and added something to it"?' We all want to be read, to be appreciated, to be admired. Whether we're pitching an idea to a publisher, sending a MS to an editor or standing in a public forum to defend our work, we want to feel that we have conveyed what we had a burning passion to convey and that readers have, whether or not they share our passion, appreciated our integrity. Or do we?


There is much tied up in that word 'integrity'. Polonius' oft-quoted advice to his son is oft-quoted because it's wise:

          ... to thine own self be true
          And it must follow as the night the day
          Thou cans't not, then, be false to any man.


But we are in the book bizz and there are many temptations to shave bits off our integrity. When we look in the mirror of our latest offering to the world of LIT-ER-A-TURE do we really see ourselves as we are? Or are we confronted by an idealised image? Do we see lurking behind that visage the face of some other writer we admire and try to emulate? Is the mask peering back at us smeared with stylistic cosmetics in order to make it more attractive to our readers? Some while ago I was chatting to a novelist who had centred her latest work on a real historical character whom I have studied. I commented that I did not readily recognise in her work the man I had been researching. Her reply was, 'Nor do I but I've had to turn him into someone modern readers will easily understand.'

Your written work is YOU in words. That doesn't just apply to autobiography or to passionate expression of your convictions. It covers every genre - humour, crime, romance, biography, history, etc, etc, etc.  But the process of writing is an exercise in communication and it is in the act of communicating or translating you into words that distortion can occur. Being true to ourselves means setting down what we genuinely think or believe or feel, not what we'd like readers to think we think or believe or feel - or even what we would like to think we think or believe or feel, if we did not know ourselves better. Whether we are dealing in facts or ideas or character studies, 'truth' has to be the sheep dog constantly nudging us and snapping at our heels when we find ourselves writing what we think our fans will like, or what is currently fashionable or what will sell.

Is that too difficult; a counsel of perfection? Yes - but did anyone ever say professional writing was easy?
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