Monthly Archives: May 2014

Why don’t men read fiction?

Years ago I was pitching a book to an agent. He wanted more non-fiction, like my first published work; I held the common authorial prejudice that you haven’t properly made it until your fiction is in print.

He turned down my novel, and one of the reasons shocked me (even more than his inability to appreciate my genius): how little fiction is bought, despite dominating review sections. The split is an estimated 70-30 in favour of factual.

A further shock: hardly any men buy fiction. This man reckoned only about 10% of novels or story collections were purchased by blokes.

At first I didn’t quite believe this; then I got to thinking about the men I knew, specifically those who read books (sadly, not everyone does; you’d think it was part of the acceptance criteria for becoming an adult, but it’s an imperfect world).

And I realised, it’s true: most never read fiction. Some haven’t opened a novel, not one, since school.

They prefer books on history, humour, science, psychology, sociology, crime; at the fag-end of the spectrum, sports autobiographies, most of which barely count as books. Even relatively easy-to-read genre fiction – crime, fantasy, horror – is literary anathema to most men.

So great is the male aversion to fiction that you’d actually notice a man who does. Spotting a novel – any novel – on their desk, you’d almost do a double-take, maybe feel a little tingle of complicity: “This guy’s kind of like me. And we’re a small, special minority.”

Why don’t men read fiction? Nature, I think, trumps nurture. I don’t want to think that, having grown up in an era when it was assumed environment played a far greater role in shaping character than biology.

But it must be. The sexes consume more-or-less identical material as children; however chauvinist society remains, it doesn’t push little girls towards fiction and boys towards factual. Our parents read us the same fairy-tales; we study the same literature throughout school, up to adulthood.

There’s no overt pressure on teenage boys to throw away their novels. Indeed, there’s none on grown men. Nobody slags you off for reading fiction, or seems to care one way or another; they’ll just say, “Oh, I’d have no time for that.”

Yet by early adulthood, most males have lost interest in fiction. The cause, I’m sure, is genetics, neurological wiring, hormones, or some combination thereof.

Boys and men are, in general, more convergent and linear in their thinking; this would naturally draw them towards non-fiction. The most frequent male criticism of fiction is that it’s “not real”, “made-up”. Men seem to like straight narrative lines, provable facts, reportage – an architecture of external reality.

Women, by contrast, are more divergent thinkers, and also more attracted to the life of the mind: internal reality. What individuals think and feel is as important as a flat record of seismic events.

Most men are probably accurate when they say they find fiction boring: all that interior monologue, metaphor, obliqueness, tangents that don’t obviously go anywhere. And it is, by definition, invention; this never took place, they reason, so how can it mean anything?

They’re missing out on an awful lot, though – something much more profound than the accumulation of information, useful as that may be. Human culture has yet to discover a better way of capturing those moments, sensations or thoughts that happen all the time, yet paradoxically are almost inexpressible. We can’t put them in words – nobody can, not even novelists themselves – but we recognise them when somehow encapsulated by fiction, and are glad.

Noel Gallagher famously said he prefers to read about “things that actually happened” because fiction “isn’t fucking true”. But he’s wrong: real does not necessarily equate to “true” in art. Real is prosaic and quotidian; truth is universal and eternal, and so is fiction.

Oh, about that novel: several years, two agents and dozens of submissions later, it finally got published…nobody bought it.

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The (few!) joys of freelancing

Contrary to presumption, freelance writing isn’t all beer and skittles. The pay is miserly, you’re never off the clock and as for the company…that gag you thought up about Eamon Gilmore’s hair, which would be hilarious in an office, isn’t so much fun when you’re telling it to yourself. Then replying to yourself.

But there are benefits to working from home: for starters you don’t have to stay there. Hop in the car anytime and go wherever you like. On a whim, I point the Batmobile north towards Gort, then north-west to Kinvara, then follow the coast south. The day is shining-fresh, sunny after rain.

The soft, shimmering light is magical, and sunshine after rain is even more so: everything looks in clearer focus, every detail super-real, like a picture doctored in Photoshop. Filter tool – sharpen – apply – save.

I haven’t taken the coast road from Ballyvaughan to Fanore in a while, and had forgotten how breath-taking this drive is. On the left, limestone hills, grey crouching giants; on the right, the great belly of the Atlantic, blue today, with splashes of green like globules of ectoplasm.

In the centre, me struggling to get my eyes off the scenery and onto the road. And appreciating the fact that instead of working, I’m driving aimlessly through the stark and beautiful Burren.

Next day, off to the woods for a run. No need to imitate those super-people who jog at 5am before beginning their day. The odds on me rising at 5am are only quantifiable by NASA supercomputer.

The fact I run at all is a minor miracle. I’m one of those folks who will never get the endorphin rush from exercise; it’s hard labour, and will forever be. But it’s necessary, and running in the woods is much more enjoyable than plodding around the roads.

You can trick yourself into thinking you’re a movie character: Jason Bourne, maybe, training between missions, or some hero in Lord of the Rings, hurtling towards death or glory. Such are the ways we delude ourselves into doing what’s best for us.

More perks of the self-employed: idling an afternoon watching hurling clips online. Normally, I can’t stand sports bores blathering on about how it contains all the answers to life, is an art-form and so on.

For all that, there are moments of real beauty and magic in sport; some of these hurlers are, almost literally, poetry in motion. What wonderful vision: when you think about the precise neurological and motor actions, how unlikely that such a subtle, sublime coalescence of mind and muscle is possible…

Yet for hurlers they’re routine. That’s the beauty of this machine we call the human being, I guess.

A final advantage of freelancing: time to write. Again, I’ll never get up at 5am to toil on a novel; working for yourself, you can find an hour here and there.

I recently finished a Young Adult story. I write YA thus: pretty much like a book aimed at adults, then take out any too-explicit references to sex, drugs or violence.

And swearing. Foul language is tricky – so tricky that I Googled, “Can you say ‘f**k’ in YA?” The feedback was inconclusive. It seems you can use minor swearwords (not too often), but the biggies – f word, c word, p word, other p word – must be sparingly, if at all.

So I spend a day going through my story, pitching the swearing at an acceptably innocent level. Change “sh*t” to “crap” a few times, replace “motherf**er” with “b**tard”, put back one of those deleted “sh*ts” for extra grittiness. Eventually, I’m happy there’s enough cussin’ to make the book sound authentic, not so much it’ll get banned by Rick Santorum if he’s ever elected.

Yes, this counts as work. Doesn’t it?


Who didst shooteth JR?

Ever wanted to read an episode of Dallas written in a Shakespearean style? More specifically, the legendary “Who shot JR?” episode of Dallas? Yeah, sure you did.

And guess what? Now you can. Players, play on…

 

Dallas in a Shakespearean style’

Episode title: ‘Who didst shooteth JR?’

VOICEOVER: We set our scene, forsooth, at fair Southfork, realm of the great lord, JR EWING. Alas and alack! JR hath been brought low by musket-shot. Ist he about to shuffle off this mortal coil? Find out this night on Dallas! (Sponsored by ‘Out, damn spot!’ stain remover, as used by Lady Macbeth and other homicidal celebrities.)

 

Enter BOBBY, SUE ELLEN and MISS ELLIE, stage left. They art dressed in Elizabethan-style pantaloons and ruff collars, which don’t go at all with 10-gallon Stetson hats. Bobby poureth a huge crystal decanter of brandy for every Christian soul present. Only then doth he notice JR’s unconscious body on the expensive Persian rug.

BOBBY: Hell’s bells! Ist this mine brother JR I see before me?

Miss Ellie screameth like witches on the moor.

MISS ELLIE: Oh, JR! Thou poor, forked creature!

SUE ELLEN: Don’t you mean ‘poor, Southforked creature’? Arf, arf.

A comical drum roll doth rise from the orchestra pit. Enter THE PRINCE (of Texas), stage right. He ist charged with doing the Lone Star state some service by discovering the knave who fireth the shot. The Prince looketh a bit like George Dubya in a crown.

THE PRINCE: Hey-nonny-nonny! What villainy ist here?

BOBBY: Your Majestic Majesty-ness, pray allow me. Mine brother JR hast been shot, though praise Jesu Christu, ist not yet dead. High alcohol levels in hist blood hath acted as some kind of preservative. God save Scotch whiskey! Hoorah!

THE PRINCE: Aye, mine CSI alchemists and necromancers doth concur. Art there witnesses to this fell deed?

A POLICE OFFICER armed with a gilt-edged sword and Kevlar jacket steps forward.

POLICE OFFICER: One fellow didst see all, my liege, but his evidence ist unusable in thine court. ‘Tis naught but a tale told by a madman, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

BOBBY: Yep, that’s Cliff Barnes for you.

Suddenly JR stirreth and reacheth out a hand.

JR: A horse, a horse…mine kingdom for a horse…

SUE ELLEN: Good old JR – a cowboy to the last. And I meaneth that in both senses of the word.

The Prince espies BING CROSBY’S DAUGHTER lurking offstage.

THE PRINCE: What about yon maid standing hence? She has a lean and hungry look.

MISS ELLIE: Yes, I didst thinketh ‘twas Teri Hatcher for a minute.

THE PRINCE: Come hither, wench!

Bing Crosby’s daughter enters stage left, looking as guilty as Pope Innocent X when they found out he didn’t quite liveth up to his name.

THE PRINCE: Now is the hour of my discontent. Discontent that I hath not cracked this case, that I dost resemble George Dubya, and that my crown ist starting to feel very heavy under these studio lights. Fie, woman! Give thine confession.

Bing Crosby’s daughter bursteth into a veritable river of tears.

BING CROSBY’S DAUGHTER: A pox on all your houses, ‘twas me! I didst give the rogue a belly full of lead, ha ha ha!

THE PRINCE: How cometh it to pass thusly?

BING CROSBY’S DAUGHTER: JR hath promiseth to leave Sue Ellen and marrieth me. He wast all romantic when it suiteth – ‘Oh, Bing Crosby’s daughter, shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ and so on. Then I discovereth he spaketh with forked tongue.

SUE ELLEN: Hey, thou art welcome to the creep. I never liketh him anyway.

THE PRINCE: Bailiff, throw yon wench into the stocks. She hath loved, not wisely but too well. Much, much too well. And now, dear friends, we must end our play in the traditional fashion.

They all stab, poison and choke each other to a bloody end.

VOICEOVER: This wast the final episode of Dallas, but make sure to tune in on the morrow for its replacement, A Midsummer Night’s Celebrity Dance-Off. A good night to all, and to all a good night!


Shiver me timbers – I’m a Young Adult author

I now stand before you as a bona fide Young Adult author. My YA debut, Shiver the Whole Night Through, will be released by UK-based Hot Key Books in November, but we made it official today.

Quick blurb: it’s the story of a bullied youngster who begins a strange relationship with the coolest girl in town – the strange part being, she’s dead. Aidan gets drawn into a dream-world of magic, desire, hope and revenge. He’s not sure if beautiful Sláine is a ghost, a demon or the figment of his imagination – but someone seems to be taking care of the bullies… Part mystery, part romance, part horror-fantasy, Shiver the Whole Night Through mixes elements of TwilightTwin Peaks, Let the Right One In, teen-detective movie Brick, and classic Gothic revenge stories.

And it’s blimmin’ great, so go pre-order fifteen copies right now.

So I’m to be published in Young Adult – which, to be honest, I never thought would happen. Let me explain.

About seven years ago I wrote an article for Declan Burke’s excellent crime-fiction blog, http://crimealwayspays.blogspot.ie/, bewailing the fact that writers are discouraged from exploring different genres. “Stick to what you’re good at,” the cry goes. (Unspoken postscript: “And what the market wants.”)

The piece moaned about how I wanted to write books of all sorts – everything from “high literature” to spoof cop stories to sci-fi dystopia to God knows what – but The System refused to let me. It wanted to pigeonhole authors. And journalism, I whined, was just as bad: many people couldn’t accept that you wanted, or were able, to write serious comment pieces and funny columns and artsy book reviews and straight interviews.

Scoot forward a few years, and I’ve brought out one non-fiction book (GAA Confidential), two crime novels (Even Flow and The Polka Dot Girl) of very different styles and types, one comic novel (Cold! Steel! Justice!!!) and now Shiver the Whole Night Through.

This list isn’t solely to blow my own trumpet – well, it is, but only a bit – it’s also to demonstrate that The System, about which I fumed so violently back then, actually isn’t so closed-off after all.

The System has now allowed me to publish books in four distinct categories, and who knows? Although Young Adult is where I’m concentrating my efforts for the foreseeable future, maybe someday I’ll take another detour, go somewhere completely new again. (That “Freddie Krueger-meets-Noddy” idea just demands to be written…)

Same in journalism: I contribute everything from “serious” think-pieces and radio reviews in the Irish Independent to book blogs in The Guardian to interviews with movie stars in the RTE Guide to a “man’s-eye view” column in U magazine to…you get the picture.

To return to that Crime Always Pays whinge-fest, this pigeon was indeed encouraged to fly. I think I owe The System an apology.

So, uh…sorry, dude. Sincerely.

 

  • Shiver the Whole Night Through is published by Hot Key Books in November 2014. Big thanks to editor Naomi Colthurst and all the team over there, and my agent Mildred Yuan at AP Watt @ United Agents (that’s right, I also finally got an agent after years of looking!). And to you, the (hopefully) future reader.

Kiss and (no) make up

I recently read a rather strange article in a newspaper, where the guy was commenting on that recent “No Make-up Selfie” trend. And his essential argument was: “This is a bad idea, because women don’t look good naturally, and should always wear make-up. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is, get over it.”

Now, it should be pointed out that the writer was a sports sub-editor, which suggests he doesn’t actually know that many women and has probably never had a conversation with one who wasn’t his mammy. Therefore his views on womankind maybe shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

It did annoy me, though. I tweeted about it: “Personally I’m attracted to women as they are, but whatever floats your boat.” For me, the fairer sex is, well, the fairer sex; yiz all don’t need to be slapping on the, uh, slap to look good.

Women look good anyway. They start from a base-level of looking good. If anything, make-up gets in the way.

Maybe some guys need a measure of cosmetic enhancement to find women attractive. I like women just fine in their natural state.

Not that I’m completely averse to make-up. I love my false eyelashes, my kohl, my hot-red lippie… Eh, that was a joke. Sort of.

I don’t mind make-up on women either. But in moderation, you know? A dusting of colour around the eyes to give that smoky, sexy, spooky vibe: good. Your skin slowly suffocating under half-an-inch of orange-coloured cement: bad.

(You stealing my false eyelashes and hot-red lippie to use for yourself: even worse. Don’t get between the D-man and his bag of beautifying tricks, I’m warning you.)

In fact, moderation is good in all things. Alcohol, exercise, licking the skull of a certain toad found in the Louisiana swamplands in order to induce narcotic euphoria and/or psychotic breakdown: whatever you fancy, it’s good to “take it handy”, as we say here in Irishland.

And when it comes to women’s appearance, moderation is even more important. Because women are always being told how to look, how not to look, do this, do that, don’t do the other. Pushed and pulled from one extreme to the next, backwards and forwards, upside-down and inside-out, until you don’t know what’s what anymore.

There’s nothing wrong with make-up, or doing your bikini line, wearing nice clothes, getting your hair did, getting your nails did, shaving your armpits, whatever you want.  (Nothing wrong with not doing any of those things either.)

But again, in moderation. Or to put it another way, to see these things as accentuating your natural beauty, maybe as little treats to make life that bit nicer, and most importantly, as something you wanted to do…not something you absolutely must do, to be complete.

It really kisses me off how women are constantly being told by advertising that there’s something fundamentally wrong with them, and how they look – but hey, thank God, our product can fix that!

Well, isn’t that a fortunate coincidence, Mr Dead-Soul Corporate Pimp. The very thing that’s disgusting and distasteful in millions of women, and you happen to be selling the “cure”.

Gah. To hell with you, Mr Dead-Soul Corporate Pimp, and how you prey on women’s insecurities to fatten your bank balance (and how you create those insecurities in the first place).

The most laughable, depressing irony of all is that the people behind this stuff are so often hideously ugly themselves. Really, genuinely horrible. I think Tom Ford is about the only designer I’ve ever seen who didn’t make me want to regurgitate last night’s half-pint of Pappy Van Winkle’s finest Kentucky bourbon.

The boss of a certain clothing chain which shall remain nameless even declared that “fat and ugly” people weren’t welcome in his store. Which, given that he resembles the rotting orc general at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, is kind of hilarious.

Now there’s a man who could do with some make-up. And when I say “some make-up”, I really mean “being entombed alive inside a lead casket”.

 

  • First published in U Magazine

Dear Diary…

Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, Alan Bennett, Sylvia Plath, Andy Warhol…the list of great diarists is a long and distinguished one. The name of Darragh McManus, sadly, won’t be added to this list anytime soon.

Not because I never kept a journal – au contraire, I compulsively documented my life for several years during the 1980s. But reading back over them now, the material simply isn’t very good. And despite my overweening egomania, I fail to see why anyone would want to know about my so-called life back then.

That’s the problem with adolescent diaries, I guess: they’re self-absorbed, melodramatic, whiny, indulgent and, well, a little boring for everyone else. To be honest, they’re even boring for me to read, and I’m the main character.

Here’s a fairly typical entry: “Went to bed consumed with anger, fear and anxiety.” I didn’t note precisely what series of events had induces this hellish triumvirate of negative emotions, which was threatening to spoil my night’s sleep in March 1988; it was probably nothing, or next to nothing, and the reaction was no doubt completely disproportionate.

These journals were clearly inspired by the publishing sensation which was, and remains, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Everyone at school loved that book, and half of us had promised to emulate Adrian by keeping our own.

I did so, from late 1986 to January 1990. (The entries just end, dead, at the start of the month; no explanation is given. I’m assuming this is because the Leaving Cert was looming into view, five months down the line, and obsessing over the minutiae of each pointless Groundhog Day tends to get in the way of remembering Boyle’s Law or how to decline the French verb “to listen” in six different tenses.)

Rereading old teenage diaries is funny, and cute, sometimes intriguing, often sort of disturbing. All the memories this stuff stirs up, like murky silt at the bottom of a river-bed.

I’d never realised I still hated certain people who were horrible to me back then – but apparently I do! It was almost refreshing, in a strange way, to feel that loathing swell up again, like greeting an old pal you hadn’t seen in decades. So this is all healthy and positive, right, Doctor Freud?

In a similarly strange way, I didn’t fully recognise myself in these pages. Was I really such a narky little fecker, always fighting with everybody? (And I mean everybody: parents, siblings, best friends, girls I had a crush on, God, you name it.)

Why were parts of my diary written in such a pompous style? Why had I such a nebbish fixation with statistics? (“Went to see Romeo & Juliet at The Belltable. The actors playing Romeo and Mercutio were really tall: I’d say one was about 6ft 1, the other 6ft 2½.”)

Anyway, life in the eighties, as described in these pages, was about as grey, dreary and tedious as I remembered it. One entry describes “a great day” spent mooching around shops in Limerick – not buying anything, just mooching – with the high-point a twenty-minute joyride up and down the escalators in some unnamed store.

Another wacky adventure sees me dossing the last class in school and hitting for the bus-yard where I “shared a fag with (name redacted) and threw spuds at the wall.”

Throwing spuds at the wall! No wonder I recorded all this stuff for posterity.

Ah no, it wasn’t as bad as all that. Every Halloween, for example, seemed to find me and my chums up to some harmless, but reasonably inventive, devilment: setting a carved turnip “head”, replete with candle, on the road to freak out drivers; doing likewise with a leaf-filled bag, set in the shape of a fallen body; “borrowing” bales of hay for the bonfire; goading each other to climb down into an open crypt in the graveyard; setting off illegal, finger-endangering bangers which (name redacted) had sourced in France somewhere…

Ugh. Okay, I lied. Except for Halloween, it was as bad as all that.

Still, this stuff will be put to good use. The reason I’m rereading the diaries is as prep for a story I’m writing, which is set in the 1980s. And in the novel-memoir crossover style currently à la mode, I’ll be basically regurgitating real events, thinly disguised as fiction, to save myself the bother of having to make things up.

So good news, bullies of the past: if you were mean to me in school, I’m about to make you famous…

 

  • First published in the Irish Independent