When browsing pictures of Ernest Hemmingway, there is always one recurrent pose that seems to captivate the spectator: it’s the image of a man sat at his type writer, his eyes fixed on the page, and a glass of drink held carefully in one hand – as if pondering both with equal interest. In time we have come to accept an almost romantic image of the writer and his bottle of whiskey. The trials of excessive drinking and substance abuse have become strangely tangled with literature and the supposed bohemian lifestyle we associate with artists. Of course, Hemmingway isn’t the only person to have followed the mantra of “write drunk, edit sober”; for many writers the accumulation of some kind of vice has fuelled their lives and work, allegedly leading to some of their greatest achievements but also to their downfalls.
In a way it’s easy to understand how such a solitary profession as writing can lead to alcoholism. Trapped alone with your pen and your notes, sometimes a bottle of wine is welcome company. But it isn’t always the remedy of the lonely artist; Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald used to drink together, touring the cafés of Paris in the 1920s and generating ideas as they went. For Fitzgerald, it was a recourse from depression; his failed marriage to Zelda had left him unhappy and self-destructive. But for Hemmingway it was part of the inspiration, allowing him to make “other people more interesting” and cope with the pressures of writing. In her book The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing explores the alcohol problems of many famous American writers. The title is taken from a work of literature penned by another notorious drinker: Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Brick’s line “I’m taking a trip to Echo Spring” is a euphemism for his many trips to the liquor cabinet where the character drinks to cope with depression and anxiety, just as Williams did throughout his life.
It should be noted that drinking isn’t the only bad habit that has accompanied writers to their desks. As well as his alcoholism, Philip Larkin had a weakness for hard-core pornography. He even carefully filed and catalogued the magazines he collected throughout his life in a true librarian fashion. But perhaps the most common form of literary experimentation is the consumption of drugs. In the modern world, drug literature has become a genre in itself: novels such as Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas have taken the substance out of the writers’ lives and put it into the book’s content. Yet modern literature cannot be credited with introducing the topic of drugs into writing; if you consider the Lotus Fruit in Homer’s Odyssey to be a kind of narcotic then it’s a topic that’s fascinated writers for millennia, leading to a long tradition of addicts including S. T. Coleridge and Stephen King.
Besides these writers, there are one group that are consistently associated with drug culture: The Beat Generation. Marcus Brown’s book The Road of Excess tracks the history of drugs and literature and understandably reserves a large portion of the content to discussing Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The Beats were different from their predecessors in that, rather than just taking drugs for the experience, they used them as a symbol of rebellion. It was a method of fleeing from America and finding a psychedelic utopia in its place. But that isn’t to say that drugs didn’t play an important part in their composition; Ginsberg claims Kerouac wrote On the Road with a coffee in one hand and a joint in the other, causing him to write the novel at an incredible speed. All through his career Ginsberg advocated the use of marijuana and even wrote an essay ‘First Manifesto to End the Bringdown’ where he defended it. Ultimately it was their lifestyle that led to the 1960s counterculture and the antics of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
Although there’s no doubt that writers have catered for their addictions alongside their work, the question of whether it actually helped them produce great literature is questionable. Does it displace you from reality and allow you to harness your creativity, or does it simply give you the will and energy to write? From one angle it could even be considered cheating, like using steroids at the Olympics. When recounting his time studying at Oxford, Christopher Hitchens claims “one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials” – a tradition that in my experience has been sadly forgotten. I speculate as to whether the university would ever reinstate such a custom, and if so, I wonder if my essays would get any better.
You are reading a detective story. You have spent hours following the plot of a murder case, carefully solving the hints and clues that will point towards the killer until, when you have finally endured enough investigation, the answer is revealed – it was Professor Plum with a lead pipe in the dining room.
Of course, that was how crime fiction used to work, but the days of country house whodunits are mostly over and have left the gritty narrative of modern crime fiction in their place. With sales of over £90m a year in the UK alone, it has become one of the best-selling genres of book throughout the country, prompting numerous film and television adaptations, and leaving devoted admirers such as myself eager for more. So why is it that even with such rising popularity and a loyal fan base, I still feel the need to refer to crime fiction as my ‘guilty pleasure’?
To begin with, this is due to accusations of crime fiction being non-literary; as a mainstream genre it has sometimes struggled to convince readers of its ‘scholarly’ merit or depth of narrative. Yet this has never been a problem for Ian Rankin, one of the UK’s best-selling crime writers. His latest book Saints of the Shadow Bible released late last year is a perfect example of crime fiction’s ability to blend an engaging plot with wider social issues. The novel continues his popular series of Detective Rebus novels, and deals with the aftermath of a suspicious car crash whilst simultaneously examining the history and importance of the police force. It is alluring plots such as these that maintain crime fiction’s significance through their ability to weave multiple strands and characters together.
Another feature that the genre is celebrated for is the credible settings created by the author, whether that’s the dark underbelly of Rankin’s Edinburgh or the dreary Yorkshire of Peter Robinson’s novels. Robinson’s most recent book Children of the Revolution, deals with the death of a humiliated lecturer and the series of revelations that follow. As usual, however, despite the interesting plot, it is Robinson’s protagonist Alan Banks that remains the most captivating part of the novel. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of crime fiction has always been the detectives themselves, as we marvel at their skill to solve complex puzzles and delve into the realm of their private lives which, as the plot gradually progresses, become just as problematic as the mysteries they are trying to answer.
Any doubt as to the endurance of crime fiction was quickly assuaged recently with the emergence of Scandinavian fiction. Although it has been criticised for its depiction of graphic and bloody violence, many have contested that the novels reflect the brutal nature of actual crime. Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole thrillers fit into this category, and are now some of the most popular books to have been translated. His last novel Police concerns itself with a range of rather dark and disturbing topics which other genres very rarely touch upon. Arguably that is what we have come to expect from Scandinavian writing since Stieg Larsson’s classic The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where the character Lisbeth Salander actually kidnaps and tattoos a man in order to seek her revenge – something Miss Marple could only ever dream of.
In a way, the reason it continues to attract readers is because they know exactly what they’re buying; each story still comes down to the same basic formula: crime, investigation, resolution. As closed as this paradigm might appear, writers have managed to create countless variations over the years, and with a good crime book I still run the risk of not going to bed until the final page has been turned. When writing his own defence of crime fiction, W. H. Auden said “the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” I think it’s time we acknowledged this addiction and stopped shunning crime fiction as trash novels or non-literary. They’re thought provoking, intelligent, and most of all entertaining. So I urge you to pick up a book, feel the satisfaction when loose ends get tied, and maybe you’ll get addicted too.
There can be few more glamorous workplaces, I have always thought, than the buildings of Oxford University Press on Walton Street, with the
grand Neoclassical entrance and fountain in the courtyard. You can even go on a jaunt to Freud across the road for a drink. As John Simpson, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary
, led me through the winding corridors, I caught a glimpse of a sepia photograph on the wall of the old press: bespectacled gentlemen looking back from a room supported by Ionic pillars, which now houses the exhibits of the Museum of the History of Science.
Yet at the end of the corridor was a great, brightly lit room with transparent partitions, behind one of which was John’s office. He now
works almost solely on his computer, which contains a database of the dictionary: gone are the days when he started his career by shuffling index cards.
In fact, technology revolutionised the OED. When John joined the OED after seeing an advert recruiting an editorial assistant, there was little hope for the four-volume supplement he was working on. “When it was completed it wasn’t clear whether the office would just shut down. It didn’t seem to be much of a future contributing more and more supplement to a Victorian dictionary. It was only in the 1980s, just as we were getting to the end of this four-volume supplement, that people started to have the idea that maybe they could put things on to a computer, and that seemed to give the dictionary a future.” Nowadays John receives instant updates from his colleagues in New York about usage of words. “In the old days we had a twenty-volume dictionary in book form, whereas now it is not necessarily for looking up a word but for analysing language and how it ties into the history of the people who use it.”
The OED looks both ahead and backwards in time. When asked for his opinion on new words, John answered that he would level-headedly wait for five or ten years for a word to take root in the language before including it in the dictionary. “We don’t get blinded by excitement as soon as we hear something new.” This does mean the OED is ever growing in size, as old words are never removed but marked as rare or obsolete; “Someone might reclaim it in the language or it might develop in different way.” I thought it might be interesting if the staff of the OED began a trend of reviving forgotten words, but John believes in the natural selection of language, that words grow out of fashion for a reason. Neither is he attracted to flashy words. “They might be fun but they’re not central to the language. I find those more fruitful,” he says.
Since he had such a close relationship with words, I asked John whether being a lexicographer affected his appreciation of literature. “I find it really hard to read novels,” he said. “You read it word for word, word by word, rather than reading the whole sentence or the whole paragraph or the whole chapter. Is that word in the dictionary? Should I make a note of that? It rather spoils your reading experience initially.” After he while he learnt to stop continually looking over his shoulder for entries. This must be a common problem for lexicographers, since they have to keep an eye out as the meaning of words evolve imperceptibly every day. “Even though the dictionary looks like a monument of fixity, it’s actually very dynamic and changing and, to some extent, subjective. You should think of the dictionary as something that can always be improved. In fifty years’ time the way you write a definition may be different from the way you write it now because we’ll be in a different culture then, and there’ll be different nuances that affect a definition.”
As John looks forward to his retirement in October after a near forty-year career with the OED, I wanted to know where he thought the dictionary was heading. “I think in the future, the dictionary will not just be something for looking up words,” he says,“but one of the hubs that people use to find their way around the mass of knowledge on the internet.”
There is no such thing,
As (cocktail) society.
Half-price, hacky hour.
What’s on this week
Sunday 1st Week (April 21st), 10:00am – 11:30am
A chance to relax at the Pitts Rivers Museum – a space to draw, study or stand and stare.
Monday 1st Week (April 22nd), 7:00pm
Keble Cafe presents some of the hottest contemporary poets.
Tuesday 1st Week (April 23rd), 8:00pm
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
A screening of the cult classic at the Moser, for Wadham Arts Week.
Wednesday 1st Week (April 24th), 2:00pm
Introductory Life Drawing
Undress your inner artist with Keble Arts Week’s beginners’ session in the Keble Music Room.
Thursday 1st Week (April 25th), 1:00pm
Art-inspired Bake Off
Get baking in Wadham Kitchen. Supplies supplied.
Got an event you’d like us to cover? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tata’s expression as she looked into her vanity mirror was one of academic scrutiny. She had decided not to wear the plastic tiara with glittery rhinestone hearts, opting for a more subdued purple feather boa that looked marvellous against her platinum wig. Some fine lines around the eyes, perhaps, and hands rather wrinkled from excessive tanning in the seventies, but overall quite fabulous for an 83 year old.
A withered hand shook as she reached up to pencil in her nonexistent eyebrows. She could not stop thinking about what her neighbor Gloria had told her that morning. Tata had been smoking as usual during their morning coffee visits, outfitted in curlers and a bright fuchsia robe. Gloria had refused the offer of a cigarette, and instead was employing her hands with a deck of cards, laying out a game of solitaire in perfectly even rows.
“I’m telling you, Ta, as plain as I see you now.”
“Darling.” Tata’s voice was full of condescension and concern.
“He was tall and dark, and he had a long black cloak and a huge pole with a bendy metal thing at the end. Like a crescent moon.”
“The angel of death does not visit members of the Red Hat Society.”
“I’m telling you, Ta, I went to the counter to make myself some toast and there he was. Right in the middle of the driveway, facing me. He sort of looked from side to side, and then walked right past my begonias and back into the street. I’m telling you, Ta, he was there.”
Gloria’s hair was unwashed, and her face looked bare without her customary peach lipstick and understated clip-on earrings. Tata couldn’t tear her eyes away from the empty little dots in Gloria’s earlobes, little pinpricks in an otherwise complete human being. She felt a sudden urge to shake her friend, but thought better of it.
“Gloria, you simply must pull yourself together. I am attending a cocktail party this evening and I suggest you come.”
But Gloria had opted to stay home with her husband, and now in the dim twilight Tata felt crushed by the buzzing silence of an empty room. Part of the reason she was going to the party was romance. She had left her fourth husband twenty years ago when he had begun to show signs of age. It was the little things which had begun to burrow into her soul and stifle her spirit; a few grey hairs, a creaky walk, a tendency to forget where the car keys had gone. She missed him now—but there would be someone new at the party, someone tall and preferably dark, mysterious with an edge of danger. The thought made the corners of her mouth crease as she shakily rimmed her bloodshot eyes with blue liner. A trail of smoke drifted upwards from the almost extinguished Virginia Slim clutched in her left hand.
She suddenly thought better of not wearing the tiara, and in turning to reach for it realised that she was not at all surprised to find someone sitting on her bed.
He was tall.
He was dark.
He had an air of mystery.
“Well, sugar, where have you been all my life?”
The next morning when Gloria came round for coffee she found Tata’s body lying on the pink duvet. Though her boa was slightly askew her wig was still perfectly in place, topped with the tiara. In one of her hands was an extinguished cigarette stub, and across her thin face was an incandescent smile.
Paper Darts is a not-for-profit online magazine devoted to new art and literature. It is also a publishing agency and, in the website’s own words, a community. Thus far, four print issues – the latest comprising a glorious 96 pages – have been released (and they’re really pretty, check it out at paperdarts.bigcartel.com). Online content is published sporadically but often; a quick skim through the website will reveal new poetry, short stories, drawings, non-fiction pieces and a wonderful plethora of other bits of art. In fact, a quick skim through the website usually turns out to be no such thing. Here is The Oxford Student in conversation with the executive director and co-founder, Jamie Millard.
OxStu: So Paper Darts began as a grassroots project, handmade in your living rooms with a sewing machine. Now it’s got a lively, aesthetic website, its own hiring agency, and a publishing press. What happened?
Jamie: It began handmade and small, because I guess, that’s how things begin – especially when you have no resources and not a lot of experience. We always knew that we wanted to have a beautiful website and a robust online community, so as we found more time to learn new things and discover our voice and aesthetic, we were able to build out the organisation to better match our original vision. We still feel scrappy sometimes – we’re still called scrappy, actually – but it’s that dedication to self-taught expertise and ability to elbow our way into closed circles that means Paper Darts perseveres.
As for the agency, it wasn’t really part of the original plan. We’ve always loved what we do at Paper Darts and have poured all our energy into making everything we touched have a certain je ne sais quoi. Others started to take notice and began approaching us to see if we’d be interested in lending the “Paper Darts mojo” to their projects. Now it’s another vital piece of Paper Darts.
OxStu: ‘With a beer in one tentacle and a book in another, Paper Darts is taking back the lit scene’ – from whom?
Jamie: From the Noid. Okay, not the actual Noid per se, because he has to do with pizza, and as much as we wish everything had to do with pizza, this has to do with literature. PD is taking back the lit scene from the Boredoms (to be renamed as something catchier later). From some lame notion of what kinds of writing are “fit for publication.” We want excitement. We want fun. We want something fun to read on the internet during stolen breaks at work. But seriously, PD takes back the lit scene from the stigma that literature is boring, rigid, and not relatable to the masses.
OxStu: So should avant-garde or alternative literature be accessible to everyone?
Jamie: I have no idea why anyone would think it shouldn’t be. Everything that is artistic should be accessible to everyone, which is why we publish so much online for free and don’t turn a profit on our print publications (that’s not to say that we don’t hope to someday make a little scratch doing this). It’s up to the consumer to decide what kinds of art they want to consume, which is why not everyone in the world reads Paper Darts. But it’s there for when they come around and realize how cool alternative literature is.
OxStu: As a not-for-profit venture, Paper Darts is run on a voluntary basis by staff members with outside jobs. How do you achieve this kind of time-management? Any tips?
Jamie: Our group of volunteers are all friends. We enjoy each other’s company. We trust each other. We don’t mind spending hours each day emailing each other and then hours on the weekend meeting to discuss submissions and projects, etc. So enjoying each other’s company is a big part to making all of it seem manageable and energising. Also, when you’re in control of something – responsible for setting the vision – it makes it much easier to execute tasks and keep everything going. We’re doing this because we love the opportunity and we love the actual physical work we get to do on a day to day basis.
OxStu: And where next for the magazine?
Jamie: We’ve been doing more partnerships lately and we foresee more of that in our future. What goes into a “living” magazine? What makes a magazine worth holding in your hands instead of reading online? There are so many projects and angles to tackle, we just need to pick one first.
OxStu: And, finally, the octopus: why?
Jamie: We’ve got so many tentacles—more than eight, usually—helping us make Paper Darts a reality. That’s a combination of dedicated unpaid staff, interns, volunteers coming on for one project or one night, and mentors and community leaders that are willing to share their insights with us. Paper Darts is a flexible, ever-adapting creature, and the octolady represents that very well. (Besides, other multi-legged creatures are gross. Spiders, centipedes? No thank you.)
The Paper Darts website can be found at: http://paperdarts.org
Submissions are considered here:
On Wednesday evening last week, I decided to do something brave. I went to a poetry reading. Attending poetry readings does inevitably feel brave (people are often very honest, and that can be unnerving), but that courage can pay off. This wasn’t just any reading: Wednesday, 6th February was the launch of the Oxford Poetry Society’s termly journal, ASH.
(I’m still trying to work out the origin of the title, but my best guess is that Leonard Cohen quote, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Plath or Eliot had something to do with it.)
Upon arrival at Turl Street Kitchen, I was directed upstairs to find copies of the journal waiting by the door. The cover was simple, title and theme emblazoned in cream on navy – this careful minimalism betrayed an aesthetic concern visible on every page. Each had involved much painstaking work of cutting-and-pasting, resulting in the journal’s hands-on look.
A crowd slowly gathered – eclectic, full of anticipation – as I began to peruse the journal itself. A curious mixture of photography, interviews, commentary, poetry and prose, much of it takes the form of newspaper-style cuttings over black-and-white grainy photographs. The bright central spread (Explorers, a photo essay by Rey Conquer and Milan Terlunen) stands out. It is two half-dressed adolescent males, a backdrop of daffodils and beech hedges, almost provocative. A couple of poems follow this theme, some explicitly sexual, but the ones which caught my eye leave more unsaid: Ella Thurston’s two contributions are highlights (A house, warmed and Unexcused). Nor would it be fair to pass over Maisie Lawrence’s For Belle and Sebastian – the band’s lyrics are crammed in as though page space is limited (it is), but the verse will bring a smile to the face of any fan. I didn’t see that coming.
As to the readings themselves, many came straight out of ASH, but there were also numerous original pieces presented, and these were exciting. They had titles like i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry and Fucking Juliette Binoche; their timbre was fresh and original. The single piece of prose – about antidepressants and snow-geese – was dark – very – but phrased beautifully and sparkling with black humour.
After a couple of hours of readings (set against soft percussive music from someone’s laptop) the impression I came away with was, overwhelmingly, one of community and support. This may sound like an odd thing to derive from what was ostensibly an evening of performance, but the rapt attention paid to each speaker testified to a very kind, concerned ethos. The editors spoke with fervent sincerity of their love for ASH: we heard how they nurtured new poets and tried to give people confidence in their work, bringing contributors out of anonymity and into the warmth. A quick flick through the latest issue suggests that they are succeeding.
To submit your work email email@example.com
PHOTO / Denis Collette