Typical. Cards of Identity* is, quite lidderally, disintegrating between my very fingers.

*Some excellent British post-war weirdness from the back bedroom of the house of fiction, to be filed alongside Rex Warner, William Sansom, Rayner Heppenstall and those lads. Available, I am duty-bound to add, in full and pristine condition at Dalkey Archive Press.


So, I’m doing that thing again where I go to the Midwest and gawp at things for a bit. It’s a bit like academic orienteering, or, well, Challenge Anneka. I’m here to dig through the archives of publishers Calder and Boyars, and, you know, seek inner peace in near-total monastic isolation, probably/most likely polish off the 70,000 remaining words of my PhD thesis, concoct half-baked cultural generalisations, complain about the food and the rest. Items in my “America is So Weird” dossier thus far include Deepak Chopra on the Fox News breakfast programme, advising viewers that the best defence against the global financial crisis is to ask oneself: “What makes me a unique human being?”. Yesterday morning I was roused gently from my slumber by a television infomercial for the Brazilian Butt Lift fitness DVD, comprising the “Bum Bum” and the special bonus disc of the “Bum Bum Rapido”. You can imagine the effect the tagline Higher! Tighter! Rounder! Perkier! had on my delicate hypnagogic state.

Spent Easter Sunday like a crochety toddler in flip flops, chewing my editor’s red pen and squirming in my seat. Making a yah-boo-sucks face at Microsoft Word, letting the Chicago Manual of Style “have a rest” in the microwave (I’m a really excellent editor, though. Honestly. Employ me!). Wondering, idly, will this ever end-slash-will this ever start. And, as usual, now it’s past eleven and I’m macro-photographing my extremely picturesque (if, like me, you’re an incorrigible perv for a well-lit staircase) towel rail and thinking, yes, I could probably-definitely re-read the entire oeuvre of Jim Crace before bed. More as it comes in…


Pin Lady has the Pin of Tomorrow Night – a wicked pin, those who have seen it say. That great hug, when Balloon Man and Pin Lady roll down the hill together, will be frightening. The horses will run away in all directions. Ordinary people will cover their heads with shopping bags. I don’t want to think about it. You blow up all them balloons yourself, Balloon Man? Or did you have help? Pin Lady, how come you’re so apricklededee? Was it something in your childhood?

Balloon Man will lead off with the Balloon of Grace Under Pressure, Do Not Pierce or Incinerate.

Pin Lady will counter with the Pin of Oh My, I Forgot.

Balloon Man will produce the Balloon of Almost Wonderful.

Pin Lady will come back with the Pin of They Didn’t Like Me Much. Balloon Man will sneak in there with the Balloon of the Last Exit Before the Toll Is Taken. Pin Lady will reply with the Pin of One Never Knows for Sure. Balloon Man will propose the Balloon of Better Days. Pin Lady, the Pin of Whiter Wine.

It’s gonna be bad, I don’t want to think about it.
Because of this bloody article, and his idiotic “Contract”, Jonathan Franzen’s face became pinned to the bullseye in the dartboard of my imagination. (Before then, it was Zadie Smith for this bloody thing and yes, you’re right, perhaps I shouldn’t be pursuing my academic research in the manner of of Wile E. Coyote packing an Acme anvil – though I’ve a 5-page square-up as to why prepared, if you’re askin’.)

This question of “consolation” and fiction is not quite as simple as bluster, though, is it, as the copy of Donald Barthelme’s “Sixty Stories” on my bedside table indicates.


If you live a daily life and it is all yours, and you come to own everything outside your daily life besides and it is all yours, you naturally begin to explain. You naturally continue describing your daily life which is all yours, and you naturally begin to explain how you own everything else besides. You naturally begin to explain that to yourself and you naturally begin to explain it to those living your daily life who own it with you, everything outside, and you naturally explain it in a kind of way to some of those whom you own.

– “What is English Literature”, Gertrude Stein

Between the set text (Ian Watt, Raymond Williams) and the seasoning (Steven Moore), ENGL1061 “Introduction to the Novel” students, I hope you’ve taken note.

Taking the tinfoil hat off – momentarily, I promise – and putting my “professional” (ahem) hat on, here is some work-related news:

With impeccable timing, we began a series of seminars called “The Uses of Literature” – intended as an attempt to hash out why exactly we do this bloody thing we do and, of course, to take issue with the unacceptably utilitarian, actually terms of the question itself – on the same day the Comprehensive Spending Review was announced. We’ve done four now, with another tranche of speakers to follow this term, and it’sbeen spirited, heartening and even rather passionate. Heck, we’ve even started streaming ’em online, take a look:

I reviewed Tom McCarthy’s good-but-not-as-good-as-Remainder novel, C, for the Review of Contemporary Fiction here.



Apparently, novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici has launched an “outspoken attack” on the contemporary British novel. Though you wouldn’t know it from this article in the Guardian today, in which Josipovici sticks the boot into Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, all of whom began their careers in the mid-seventies.
To be fair to him, Josipovici appears to be reacting against a much-heralded “renaissance” in the British novel in the 1980s – Dominic Head’s recent book The State of the Novel: Britain and Beyond echoes these sentiments – a perception chivvied along by the introduction of big-money, big-publicity fiction prizes and efforts to caricature the preceding post-war period in British fiction as provincial, parochial and anachronistic. Still, he’s lain in wait a good long while to launch his attack. Josipovici’s broadside seems rather more at home in the old “situation of the novel” turf wars between Malcolm Bradbury, Bernard Bergonzi and David Lodge, than the 2010, now-with-added-iPads, incarnation of this perennial debate.
Josipovici’s book is the latest (although with Barnes et al up against the wall, probably the most retrograde) iteration of recent debates that pitch the contemporary novel against a likely opponent and find the former lacking. For his modernism, see also near-constant speculation on the challenge to the novel’s primacy by non-fiction, the short story, and the entity that threatens not only the form but also the medium of the dog-eared, spine-cracked paperback, the internet. There’s certainly a debate to be had about the forms and functions of fiction today; in the midst of these portents of its own demise, the novel is being laden with moral and cultural imperatives as never before. However, these staged ties in the literary press seem like mere grist to the mill. It’s unclear to what end Grub Street’s hand-wringing is directed – is this ramping up of cultural anxiety intended to give our novelists a kick up the arse or just the opportunity for a little eschatological bandstanding? Let’s just say this isn’t the rigorous, robust debate we need on the fortunes of this most liberal humanist form after the death of liberal humanism.
Though, for sure, it’s gratifying to take pot shots at these “arrogant and self-satisfied” literary éminences grises, I’d question how valid – and indeed how radical – such an intervention is. Though what constitutes this Josipovici’s “modernism” remains unclear (it seems to reside, for the purposes of the Guardian article, in a rather woolly “sense of destiny”) the Amazon preview of the book tells me that he characterises modernism as “art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities”. I would suggest that both Grub Street and Ivory Tower might do similar.

 I met you under the balloon, on the occasion of your return from Norway; you asked if it was mine; I said it was. The balloon, I said, is a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation, but now that your visit to Bergen has been terminated, it is no longer necessary or appropriate. Removal of the balloon was easy; trailer trucks carried away the depleted fabric, which is now stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness, some time, perhaps, when we are angry with one another.


Sed realistas, exigid lo imposible.

Tomemos en serio la revolución, pero no nos tomamos en serio a nosotros mismos.

Millonarios de todos los países, uníos, el viento cambia.

Todo comienza en la mística y termina en política.

(inscripciones en los muros de Francia, “El Corno Emplumado”, octubre 1968)
El Corno Emplumado – a story from the sixties from Anne Mette W. Nielsen on Vimeo.


The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness; to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.

 – Jonathan Franzen, “William Gaddis: Mr Difficult”


The thing that has made the glory of English literature is description simple concentrated description not of what happened nor what is thought or what is dreamed but what exists and so makes the life the island life the daily island life. It is natural that an island life should be that. What could interest an island as much as the daily the completely daily island life. And in the descriptions the daily, the hourly descriptions of this island life as it exists and it does exist it does really exist English literature has gone on and one from Chaucer until now. It does not go on so well now for several reasons, in the first place they are not so interested in their island life because in short they are not so interested. And in the next place because it is not so much an island life.

Gertrude Stein, “What is English Literature”