Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between


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All the books I’ve never read

booksSo, that was another year, and now we do it all over again. I don’t really go in for resolutions, but the last couple of years I’ve urged myself to read more. Specifically, more books. I’m going to try again this year. Like most of us, I spend too much time on the internet, and I harvest up articles like a curious vacuum cleaner. The Pocket app tells me that last year I read 4,318,693 words. (I doubt I read all of them, there was a lot of scanning and skipping.) Pocket helpfully points out that this word count is like reading The Great Gatsby 92 times. Presented with this fact, I found myself thinking I’d rather have read The Great Gatsby 92 times. Or indeed any 92 really good books. (Pocket also adds that if the pages from those books were stacked end to end, they’d make it past the top of the Empire State Building. All I can say is that would be a terrible filing system.) Continue reading


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My word is my Bond (For Litro Magazine)

Fleming007impression

How Ian saw James

We’ve all had the sensation of seeing a film adaptation of a favourite book and thinking that the characters aren’t being portrayed as we’ve always imagined them; that the story isn’t being told properly. For the authors who first wrote the words the sensation must be much stronger and stranger, and there have been adaptations both loved and loathed by their original creators. The difference for writers is that they get the chance to respond in their own writing.

I started to think about this again recently as I came to the end of my sequential read-through – interspersed with plenty of other more nutritious reading – of the original Ian Fleming Bond books. I’d read a couple before out of sequence, but it’s fun watching Bond change and yet stay the same across a decade of stories. He never stops being a snob, a sadomasochist, a misogynist, a xenophobe, a homophobe: as Blofeld calls him, “common thug, a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places”. And until things start to fall apart for him towards the end of the series, he rarely displays the levels of character complexity that he does in his debut Casino Royale

Continue reading over on Litro


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Based on a true story

This tiger is real and would probably bite you.

A real tiger (not CGI)

I was interested in the most recent revelations (perhaps too strong a word) about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and this piece by Robert McCrum as I’d been thinking a bit recently about the importance of being able to identify what’s ‘true’ in stories and, as McCrum puts it, our “profound, unconscious need to know what genre we’re in.”

I’ve written before about how weird the process of making things up is – that as a novelist it’s not enough to lie convincingly, but rather you have to create interesting semi-patterned fabrications like the delusions of a conspiracy theorist. And if you get it right, the reader will join you in the conspiracy. As Dom Grelsch says to Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas: “Anything is true if enough people believe it is.”

If any book tests the boundaries of genre it’s Cloud Atlas, but even so we have developed tacit cultural agreements about what is and isn’t considered plausible within our stories. At one extreme, in Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, Daniel Everett writes about the Pirahã people who never tell stories about subjects beyond their direct knowledge, and always demand evidence based on personal experience. (Everett, a former missionary, has all sorts of trouble explaining Jesus to them.) But at the same time, forest spirits can literally take the form of people and animals, and be present even if unseen. Continue reading


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A Number of False Doors (For Litro Magazine)

A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.” – John Updike

So, the notes are back from my editor and I’m embarking on the final (this time I mean it) rewrite of my novel. It’s had its fair share of revisions in its life: characters have come and gone and the ending has changed more than once. Usually each change feels more right than it did before, but sometimes I dig up an old draft and feel I’ve lost something along the way. With all the changes that a book goes through, how can a writer be sure that they are opening the right doors?

Continue reading over on Litro


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Socialists, eugenics and time travel

A bit of a longer post this time. A recentish piece by Jonathan Freedland on socialism’s past enthusiasm for eugenics got me thinking about (sorry that should read ‘has given me an excuse to write about’) one of those literary Fabians, H.G. Wells, and how he provides an interesting case study on this topic.

A neon sign, Venice

At the turn of the 20th Century, Wells was an enthusiastic eugenicist. In 1904 he wrote:

“The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.”

Eugenics was by no means only a socialist preoccupation, but Freedland rightly recognises that neither was it at odds with the Victorian-Edwardian Fabianism that it prospered under, with their love of Science and Progress and Planning and Engineering, and other grand ideas starting with capital letters. Of all Wells’ fictional work, The Time Machine (1895) is a useful little prism through which to examine the reasons that eugenics held such allure for ‘progressive’ thinkers in the late nineteenth century. Continue reading


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Franzen, a correction

An old typewriter

Not so good for producing e-books

Oh dear, according to Jonathan Franzen we are imperilled by ebooksHe is not the first to fret about Kindles, and won’t be the last. It’s not a great surprise that most of the internet appears to disagree with him: presumably those who do agree have followed his example of sealing up their ethernet ports.

It is entirely Franzen’s own business to not like ebooks, and as a recent Kindle-purchaser I can see that both formats have pros and cons. But just as in science we should run at great speed away from arguments of personal incredulity, when highly esteemed writer types make pronouncements we should remember, as Christopher Hitchens would have it, that they too are mammals. The problem with Franzen’s utterances is not that he dislikes ebooks, but more a sort of misunderstanding of what an ebook is and how it behaves in the wild. Continue reading