Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Iris Murdoch, Terry Pratchett, over or under the roll, and more

At the end of last month, I asked if anyone had any questions. I've already answered one--about writer's block (a followup to this coming soon)--so I thought I'd tackle some of the others.

"Have you read anything by Iris Murdoch?" (from Barbara Sanchez).

No. I keep thinking I have. Then I keep meaning to pick something up, but I never do. Why? I don't know. Possibly because I've formed the impression that on some level her work is a little cruel. Possibly because most of the titles I've looked at persuade me that they're Serious Works About Anguished People, with a little twisty humour and irony thrown in. No doubt I'm wrong. But tell me what you think of her, and which novel I should start with.

"What, if any, is your favourite conspiracy theory?" (from Jennifer in Pittsburgh)

I like ancient Catholic conspiracies--the stuff of bad novels. Only I wish someone would write a good one. (It's on my list; one of the things I'll get around to if I live to be 120 with all my faculties intact.) Generally speaking, I don't think Grand Conspiracies are common; the human animal is incapable of keeping secrets, organisations doubly so. And the larger the organisation, the less able it is to keep things both organised and secret. When people talk about government conspiracies, I laugh. When people genuinely think that a corporation (like, oh, say, Amazon) is conspiring against a particular group, I laugh. Sometimes I laugh bitterly, but I can't take the notion of coordinated, secret action seriously. Idiotic policy with unexamined prejudices, yes, mistakes, yes, security weaknesses that the Powers That Be wish to collude in hiding, yes. Planned and efficient conspiracy, no.

I tend to think of those who believe in conspiracies are being a little developmentally arrested. It's a teenage thing, a paranoia thing, an untreated schizophrenia thing. But, oooh, if someone wrote a really, really good novel about the Catholic hierarchy keeping an enormous and powerful secret I'd be first in line. The Catholics, after all, really did run the world once upon a time. (And, yes, I read The Da Vinci Code. It sucked. His characters give cardboard a bad name. But I read it, all the way through. I watched the film, too; it was worse.)

"Boxers or briefs? Toilet paper over or under the roll?" (from The Promiscuous Reader)

Let me just say that when Kelley and I started living together resolving the second question was, ah, interesting. I hadn't had to deal with the notion before--which of course made me wonder if it was cultural/national or whether I had simply trampled roughshod over all previous girlfriends without even noticing. I prefer to think it's the former, but sadly am prepared to accept that this time I noticed because Kelley is as determined as I am.

"What do you think of Terry Pratchett?" (from Janine)

I've struggled through the first half of two of his novels. His humour and mine simply do not mesh. His popularity is a puzzle to me.

"Favourite poems that might make a good short film?" (from lonelypond)

Huh. That's a cool question. It makes me think about the difference between literature and film (a novel is about what people think and feel, a film is about what they say and do) and why I hate so many feature films so much--it's because they're trying to do what novels do, which is pointless. If you want your audience to think about what they feel, write a book. A film, in my opinion, is supposed to be a two-hour (or less) rollercoaster ride that is pure sensation. Pure fun. Some really long films work well because I can watch the DVD at home--but I can't sit in a theatre comfortably for much over two hours. And the long films have to be very, very good: Laurence of Arabia, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Most films these days are Serious Films About Anguished People and, frankly, a load of crap.

I'm not very familiar with short films, except the animated variety (which I like). So it's tricky to consider what kind of poem might make a good one. Poems are moments--emotional and contemplative, rarely action-based. The story behind the poem, or what I imagine to be the story, is what would make the film. What's the story behind Shelley's Ozymandias? What's the story behind many of Sappho's poems? What's behind Masefield's Cargoes, Grahn's Edward the Dyke, Oliver's Geese? I wouldn't mind seeing those on film--gotta be some sex or violence, though, not just bloody angst.


So that's it. Feel free to ask more questions, here in the comments or by sending email to asknicola2 at nicolagriffith dot com. Feel free, too, to suggest conversations we could have in the future.



  1. His characters give cardboard a bad name. Hahahahaha!!

  2. Cool to read your answers! I wouldn't really have thought that you might harbor a Catholic Church conspiracy thing, but then, it does make perfect sense.
    Of course my favorite conspiracy theory is Area 51. Oh yeah, the government's been hiding alien corpses and space ships there for 60 odd years and nothing verifiable has leaked out...

  3. "I don't think Grand Conspiracies are common; the human animal is incapable of keeping secrets, organisations doubly so. And the larger the organisation, the less able it is to keep things both organised and secret."I will agree that it's difficult and uncommon. Certainly you've summarized the view I had for many years.

    Then the Stealth Fighter was "acknowledged" in 1988, after 10 years of development, construction, and deployment -- which took everyone by surprise.

    I've heard defense types try to back track and say, "everyone knew," about the program after the fact... But there are no contemporary references I can find. I suspect this is a case of people re-writing their memories, a la Ariely's Predictably Irrational, or Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness.

    It helped there was a Poe-like "Purloined Letter" program on could point to whenever there was a leak -- the Stealth Bomber. The existence of the Bomber was known for quite some time.

    But the Fighter? Absolutely Stealthy, in more ways than one.

  4. Having had friends who were ex-members, I'm tempted to believe that the Mormon Church is a pretty far-reaching conspiracy. Of course the same might be said of several religious or political groups. Brotherhood of the Bell was pretty cool (and skeery) for its day.

    Dovetailing in with the writer's block question, how do you know when to quit and walk away?

  5. "one could point to..." Sorry. Thoughts ahead of fingers again.

  6. for poetry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Christabel'...or someone who had the balls to try and adapt 'Kubla Khan'.

  7. Over the roll, of course. Why would anyone ever want to reduce the accessibility of TP? When you need it, you need it then. I don't want to be feeling around the part I can't see fishing for the end. Put it up front, I got places to be!

  8. I REALLY LOVE this Q and A bit....:)

    A few questions for you:

    Have you seen Watchmen, and if so, what did you think? If not, are you even interested in seeing it, and if not interested, why?

    Another....would you care to share a list of your "Serious Films with Anguished People"? I don't know why this makes me giggle about you, and the fact that you capitalize each word as if it should be a book/movie title itself is giggle inducing enough all on it's own!

    And then, maybe you could express your personal thoughts on why you don't care for those types of flicks. I for one, highly enjoy them, but for some reason it just makes me again, giggle like a school girl to hear you refer to them in this way....

  9. Kubla Khan...that's a really cool idea, Lynne; interspersed with Coleridge's experience writing I'm going to have it in my head all night...and now, on to the actual blog post I was meaning to respond to...agree with your books vs. movies distinction -- one of the more interesting parts of any project for me is finding the medium that suits it...Terry Pratchett is a hoot (but not for all readers, I admit...he didn't click with my partner until Thud -- there aren't enough women and she didn't like the witch books) -- he does manage to work an Ozymandias reference into Jingo and there's The Watchmen and there' many references out there that it might be useful to go back to the original.

    And this is turning into an entry I should have put on my own blog...thanks for answering my I have a few more poems to put in the thought blender.

  10. My two favorite books by Iris Murdock are The Bell and The Sea, The Sea. Her books are about love and power and their use and misuse. She believes in, is fascinated by and often writes about coupe de foudre, love at first sight. You might find that interesting.

  11. On Pratchett...

    I think I have read/own everything to date. The first two (THE LIGHT FANTASTIC and THE COLOUR OF MAGIC) blow. They really, really blow. They're unfunny, silly and hint at xenophobia. The rest range from horrid to ok to sublime.


    HOGSFATHER and a few others I can't think of right now - horrid.

    Everything else - somewhere in between

    I don't always like what he thinks (I'd like to have a conversation with him about the cultural bias in PYRAMIDS) but I always like how he thinks.

  12. The Catholic church has never run the world... at the best it once had great political power in Europe, but the spread of the great european empires came after the reformation and the enlightenment.

    Although, if one is interested in conspiracies involving the hierarchy catholic church, would one be interested in reading about real ones?

    I think that non-catholics are generally completely unfamiliar with this story: research the 20th century heresy called 'modernism' (note: not modernism, as in 'modernity' vrs 'post-modernity', this is different), which was outlined and condemned by Pope Pius X in 1907 (see: but which held together underground among a select group in the church's hierarchy in important positions that held onto their plans with the intention of destroying the faith and dominating the church. They still persist even today. (this link it explain it better too:

    '"And now, overwhelmed with the deepest sadness, We ask Ourselves, Venerable Brethren, what has become of the Catholicism of the Sillon? Alas! this organization which formerly afforded such promising expectations, this limpid and impetuous stream, has been harnessed in its course by the modern enemies of the Church, and is now no more than a miserable affluent of the great movement of apostasy being organized in every country for the establishment of a One-World Church which shall have neither dogmas, nor hierarchy, neither discipline for the mind, nor curb for the passions, and which, under the pretext of freedom and human dignity, would bring back to the world (if such a Church could overcome) the reign of legalized cunning and force, and the oppression of the weak, and of all those who toil and suffer. We know only too well the dark workshops in which are elaborated these mischievous doctrines which ought not to seduce clear-thinking minds." (Our Apostolic Mandate, Pope St. Pius X, 1910).'

    Truth is sometimes bigger than fiction.

  13. RE: Catholic Church conspiracy - have you ever read Mry Doria Russel? (The Sparrow and Children of God)?