Not an Odalisque

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“I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse”

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I don’t like books about walking a long way in cold climates. I know why people read them, it’s all about the resilience of man and the discovery that while we feel weak and worn during the slog to the office, we would shine if truly challenged. All the same, it’s not a surprising discovery that if you get very cold your toes fall off, and not everyone gets to make friends with the Dalai Lama at the end of it. Often, you just die, and even if people briefly think that was noble, it isn’t going to make you feel like it was a better idea than staying home and making model planes.


However, in the last few weeks I’ve obsessively imbibed apocalypse stories. The Year of the Flood, Life As We Knew It, Jericho (trust me, you have to be obsessed to finish that), Survivors, The Death of Grass, All Fall Down (about the Black Death, which felt like the end of the world) and other plague books set in the future and the past (in the case of Doomsday Book, both). They tell us the same things as long-walk-in-the-cold books, that we can survive extreme conditions—the breakdown of society, little food, no energy—and, because it’s easier than that, that we can survive every day life. Why the obsession? I think my everyday has something to do with it. I’m looking for stories of people surviving what I’m surviving. Cold. Uncertain food supplies. And more cold.

This is my first winter in the Very Cold Flat. The windows are cracked and single glazed and there are no radiators in the lofty rooms. Mankind lived without central heating and double glazing for thousands of years, I realise, and they did it without little electric heaters on wheels, but everyone was doing it. People wore clothes appropriate to the temperature, and if you looked silly in the jumper your granny knitted, so did everyone else. Not now, though. I’m the only person I know who can see my breath in every room of my house, and most of my friends don’t wear mittens to bed. There’s something debilitating about cold. I don’t want to leave my warm spot, in my warm bedroom, and go to the cold living room. I don’t want to get chilled styling my wet hair, which has led to the discovery that I have a natural centre parting. I don’t want to take off my mittens to wash up. I can’t do laundry, because in these temperatures my clothes will never dry. I guess I’m not getting hot and sweaty in my three pairs of socks, anyway.

Ap 2

It’s not just the cold, though, it’s the money. I’ve been sick for a long time, and that doesn’t combine well with temping and self-employment, so it’s months since I made enough to cover the rent. Being sick is thrifty in its own ways—expenditure on coffees, drinks and meals out has fallen significantly—but you can’t stop eating. The lover’s been helping by cooking and hiding left overs in the fridge and freezer (a machine I’ve considered turning off, since the temperature dropped). Some days he surprises me with pats of butter or bags of bagels. It’s lovely. It does, however, mean that my fridge currently contains a lump of goat’s cheese left over from Christmas, half a bottle of tonic and cucumber that failed to become a crudité on New Year’s Eve. Food appears, or doesn’t, according to the vagaries of the lover and his train times. Yesterday I finished the Christmas cake for lunch.

My cupboards don’t seem bare, there’s probably something edible hiding in there somewhere, so I sent the lover off to the arctic region of the flat to make a list of what I have: eleven types of flour, oils, the Christmas chocolate haul, £50 worth of tea and six jars of homemade jam (one with added glass shards). That would be great, if it wasn’t for the final problem in my post-apocalyptic kitchen—the oven died on Christmas day. I wonder if you can make bread in the microwave? I’ve been munching luxury Christmas cake, Finest biscuits, Hotel Chocolat chocolates, all the time wishing for a good, solid, vegetable dish.

Pictures by James Chadderton. Aren't they amazing?

Pictures by James Chadderton. Aren’t they amazing?

So what have I learned from my apocalypse research that could improve my situation? I’ve learned to stockpile tinned food and bottled water, although I think I’d go for dried lentils and chick peas, and raisins, since they’ve got more calories by weight, and if you’re not near a source of fresh water you’ll die anyway. That’s something I should have done earlier, though, in the supermarket trips of yore. I’ve learned that when the apocalypse comes, one usually finds oneself in the company of a trained fighter and someone who knows a lot about how to make and repair things. Unfortunately, I’ve ended up with a scientist who has a gammy hip, and an asthmatic audio-engineer who’ll be useful only if the threat is the aliens from Mars Attacks. If it got really bad, I could rush across the country to my father, who may be more resourceful, but the same memory always puts me off: when he came to drive me home after I broke my collar bone and elbow, and he didn’t let me off loading the car. Maybe that’s the kind of determined approach that would get me through the end of the world, but I think I’d rather share my lentils with someone else.

If a real apocalypse comes, I’ll probably owe it to the Lover and his wife to stick with them. The lover’s wife, in a fit of insanity, offered to sleep at mine for a few days and give me the use of her house. It’s heavenly. There’s central heating, not one, but two ovens, and even her cat’s warmer than mine. My first night there was so fabulously toasty that I took off my jumper to sleep. I got up in the morning, pressed myself against the radiator, and looked at the snow coming down outside. Then, because the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet, my phone rang. “I just wanted to let you know the heating’s broken,” my boss told me, “bring a jumper.” And so it begins again, but I know I’ll survive, because imaginary people have been through worse.

Written by Not an Odalisque

February 1, 2013 at 2:50 pm

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Dear Reader

with one comment

I’m taking a break from Myths About Sex for a while. Not because there aren’t many more myths to tackle, but because I think it is getting a bit tired. I promise you one about racial stereotyping at some point. In the meantime, we’ll talk of other things.

As you know, I write stories and poems. I even have the first fifteen thousand words of a novel, which I am slowly butchering for short story material, making it ultimately unusable. Writers, as you know, are inherently vain, arrogant individuals, nursing a belief that the world has some interest in what they have to say. Thus I check my blog stats with alarming frequency, ask the opinion of anyone who mentions glancing at it, and thrust my stories into the unwilling hands of potential readers. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but I do seek the opinions of others in the hope of improving my writing. It is finding suitable readers which proves to be the problem.

I can detect bad writing in any genre, but not necessarily good. While the rules of grammar apply equally to lesbian gothic and instruction manuals, the rules of plotting, pace, structure and characterisation do not. We do not expect our instruction manuals to gain speed and intensity or deal with themes of seeming and the unheimlich. If you give me your instruction manual to critique, my input will probably be quite limited.

This must be the experience of all readers. When, say, a detective fiction reader comes across one of my pieces on Writewords (where writers can critique each others’ work), he must feel ill-equipped to comment on certain aspects of it, just as I often refrain from commenting on work which, if I found it when flicking through a volume in a shop, would cause me to return the book to the shelf. Sometimes I share my uninformed thoughts nonetheless. Presumably others do the same. To use this as an excuse to dismiss criticism is dangerous, however. After all, the definition of unpublishable is surely that everyone who glances at it in a bookshop would put it back down.

So how do you distinguish the useful criticisms from the less useful ones? The first reader of one of my short stories completely missed its point because she didn’t pick up on the previous marriages of one of my characters. I amended it. The second reader commented that I didn’t have to hammer the marriages home. Who should I listen to? Another short story provoked strong words on Writewords. It features a rape scene narrated from the point of view of the rapist. Most readers find the victim of the rape perplexing: why isn’t she more suspicious of the rapist beforehand?; does she implicitly invite rape?; why doesn’t she resist more? One person went so far as to say it read like a titillating account of pseudo sexual violence, rather than a realistic account. I had intended to write about the subtleties and complexities of rape, to come to some understanding of what motivates a person to that action and to consider the factors contributing to becoming a victim of it. Other people found in my words a view of rape they disapproved of, one which implied that victims are complicit in their own rape and sexual violence is fun. That is not what I intended to write, but once the text is finished, it floats free, independent of its author’s intentions, so that interpretation is as valid as mine. Oh, dear.

I want a better reader. My ideal reader would be quick enough to notice the references to previous marriages. My ideal reader would feel for my poor, violated character, rather than condemn her for not punching harder and screaming louder. My ideal reader would probably also have to announce their elevated status before voicing their criticisms, to avoid being dismissed along with the ignorant masses.

You wouldn’t be entirely wrong to argue that my writing skills are at fault if I can’t get my readers where I want them. If I were a better writer, this problem would be smaller. That isn’t the whole story, though. Everyone brings their own reading history, their personal history, experiences, beliefs and prejudices to any text. Every writer makes some assessment of who he is writing for, that’s why The Sun uses shorter words than The Guardian. And yet, how do I write for people unknown?

How am I ever going to know whose reading to trust? Would my ideal reader please stand up?

Written by Not an Odalisque

February 11, 2010 at 11:05 pm