Sunday, 14 October 2007

Matthew Tree – writer found niche market

An Englishman who as an adult decides to learn Catalan and reaches such proficiency that he can nowadays earn his living as a writer of his adopted language - that is quite a remarkable personality. However, not all interesting writers write good stories.

In literary theory there are many things which the experts disagree about, but in one aspect there is almost consensus; when analysing a text you are to work with it in its own right while leaving the author and his intentions to the side. If I apply this perspective to the two books which I have recently read by Matthew Tree, I feel that there is not much substance left. At the same time, since Mr Tree rarely describes anything without revealing a firm opinion about it, I believe to have learnt a lot about him as a person. Admittedly, I am not yet the right person to evaluate how well he makes use of the Catalan language, but neither do I feel comfortable with his story-telling technique, nor with is selection of topics and details to comment on. Therefore I am happy to have read the books in Catalan and thus, at least, had a chance to practise my new language.

In CAT – Un anglès viatja per Catalunya per veure si existeix, Mr Tree describes what he experiences during a 30-day roundtrip by public transport in the geographic region of Catalonia. To some places he goes for the first time, while to others he has already been and decides to come back. He meets quite a number of people, a few of them being old friends but the majority being random encounters.

Whether Catalonia exists as a cultural entity is indeed an intriguing question for anyone who arrives here as an immigrant and wants to be integrated into local society. I was hoping that this book would offer Mr Tree’s point of view on which places I ought to go to understand, let us say, the 'soul' of Catalonia. Unfortunately, it does not and I believe the reason for that to be all the time spent on explaining travel itineraries, the author’s mood or the background of his friends. There simply is not enough energy left for telling us about the places the author visits and even less how they contribute to the alleged objective of the book - i.e. to see whether Catalonia exists.

In La puta feina we are being presented examples from Barcelona on how deceitful, lazy or sexist bosses ruin the lives of their employees. Mr Tree repeatedly reinforces his message that we should liberate ourselves from the humiliating jobs where so many of us spend a big share of our time. Only in the very last pages of the book, where he outlines a soluciò final - a realistic alternative to paid work - did I finally find something which I recognized as fresh and original. Many a writer has been inspired by the problematic relationship which exists between employers and their staff. To me, Mr Tree’s stereotypical and superficial reflections on the matter would possibly be enjoyable in a blog, but I can not understand how someone could agree to publish them as a book.

Some people seem to think that Mr Tree would be able to earn more money if he would write in English, but I think that it is the other way around. Like any creative entrepreneur, he has built a niche for himself in being a foreigner but writing in Catalan and that is what makes his books sell. To use myself as an example, if I buy further books by Mr Tree, it will not be for their literary qualities, but only because I am interested in him as a phenomenon. And that special status, I judge, could only ever be achieved in a language like Catalan, with a strong craving for international recognition. I dare to bet that no Swedish publisher would ever treat a foreigner writing in Swedish in this benevolent way and I interpret the fact that Mr Tree’s books have not been translated to other languages as an indication that I am right.

A few days ago, Mr Tree launched a new book where, apparently, he proves that God does not exist – a topic which I am usually easily motivated to read about. However, I want for such delicate a matter to be treated with a level of seriousness that I have not seen in Mr Tree's aforementioned books and I am confident that that he has no intention to change his style. For his skills in Catalan and also for his success in making a living of something he likes to do, Matthew Tree is an inspiring example. Chapeau! Having said that, before I buy his new book I will remind myself to see it as a discussion on the life, needs and body functions of its author - and not at all about the existence of God.


Matthew said...

Hi Mr Wirdheim,

I don't normally reply to the (few) blogs that mention my books, mainly because they either praise or damn them for extra-literary reasons and it's easier just to let them knee-jerk themselves off into cyberoblivion.
Your commentary, however, is an attempt at serious literary criticism and what writer wouldn't leap at a chance to reply directly to a critic? I would highlight just two points. 1: You clearly don't like my style of writing and my opinions strike you as dull and unoriginal. Well, I can hardly fault you there: we all have our tastes in writing and we all think we are absolutely right about them (myself included). And that's that. I can only lament that you are a reader with whom my writing hasn't worked. A failed connection.
2. What I did find odd is that, besides, you should have gripped the wrong end of the stick - as regards my books - so firmly and so persistently. I have received my fair share of criticisms, but never before has anyone failed to understand the type of book I have been writing in each case. CAT is neither journalism nor is it an attempt to explain the soul of Catalonia to outsiders, God forbid. (The subtitle is ironic). CAT is an autobiographical account of a journey by a neurotic and quasialcoholic Catalan resident, using the stimuli of frequent changes of place to provide material for his writing. This is clearly marked in numerous references to my insecurity, uselessness as an expert commentator, use of psychiatric medication, etc. and was understood by every reader and critic whose opinions have reached me to date. (These being quite a lot: the book went into seven editions and spent a year on the best-seller lists).
As for 'La puta feina', I actually describe the book near the beginning as a 'pamflet', Catalan for a rant, a written personal shout of protest. And that is precisely what it is. The criticisms I received were that the book was actually better than that and that I shouldn't have put the book down by calling it a 'pamflet'. But no one has ever compared it to a BLOG, for heaven's sake. I once wrote a blog for a TV series I scripted and presented, and didn't like the experience at all. Indeed, I dislike blogs in general. I don't have a blog on my website. They are usually egotistical attempts either at being a self-styled expert on whatever or at writing a real-time diary. 'La puta feina' is neither thing. You're a blogger, you might have noticed that.
Finally, I took to heart, ouch!, your dig at me not having been translated into any other language. In fact, that's not entirely true. The novel 'Privilegiat', written after CAT, was published in Spanish and English chapters appeared in literary magazines in Scotland and Canada. A chapter of CAT recently appeared in a German anthology of Catalan writing.
But that's beside the point. With the exception of 'Privilegiat', the autobiographical 'Memòries!', and a collection of short stories, none of my books would translate easily, because they are mainly non-fiction dealing closely with Catalan themes. A typical reaction to CAT from a major British publisher: 'This is very well done, but it's too small for us'. Just so.
However, I now have two full-length books in English and a third in progress, as I am more interested in publishing directly into English than in getting translations done of my Catalan books, which I wrote with a Catalan language readership in mind, and no other. Most writers write for their linguistic community initially, not for The World. It's only human.
You will find that the new book is neither rant nor CATish, being based on nearly two years of intense research. But yes, it does contain autobiographical sections, personal opinions (on occasion) and so forth. The idea is always the same: write from the ground up; never pretend expertise; allow full rein to all appropriate writing registers; don't write unless you ARE THERE (as Burroughs used to put it). The same author claimed all writing is autobiographical, be it fiction, be it non-fiction, be it whatever.
Thank-you, at all events, for not knee-jerking off in your articles.
Goodbye for now and greetings from the niche.

Erik Wirdheim said...

Dear Mr Tree,

Let me first of all say that it is an honour for me, one of many self-styled experts, to receive a writer’s comments on my blog.

I agree that we all have individual tastes to what kind of writing we like, but want to add that, at least in my case, more temporary factors like expectations also influence our reading experience.

When I first came across your writing, in the short story ‘L’aprenent ambulant’ of ‘Contes per parlar’, issued by the ‘Secretaria de Política Lingüística’, I had no expectations on your text and maybe that is why the connection felt so strong and positive.

‘CAT’ I bought in a book store without knowing anything about it. To hear that I “have gripped the wrong end of the stick” makes me feel like a consumer fooled by packaging. If the book’s subtitle is ironic, I assume that the same must be valid for the whole presentation text on the back-cover - the reason why I selected your book (I have the sixth edition, in case this text has subsequently changed). Marketing is an interesting art, indeed, but if the book had been sold to me on its own merits – something similar to how you present it in English in your comment to my blog – I am confident that my expectations would have been totally different.

‘CAT’ happened to be the first book I ever read in Catalan and I will be happy to come back to it once I have improved the level of my language.

For ‘La puta feina’, on the other hand, I will not give the book a second chance. Here I will sooner accept the “failed connection”.

Finally, regarding the new book about God, I am excited to hear about the two years of research you have behind you, although for the topic chosen that is far from a record. However, since its theme, as presented on your web-page, is as delicate as universal (God is hardly specifically Catalan), I might want to wait for the translation into English before I read it, to prevent myself from missing what every other reader will understand.

You are a reference, Mr Tree - in Catalan literature in general and, on a more personal level, for us adults who study the language. Therefore I will come back to your works. With the right expectations I might even start to like them.

Erik Wirdheim

Matthew said...

Dear Mr Wirdheim,

At this rate, maybe we should just email each other directly.

Perhaps too, we should think about burying the hatchet, or rather throw away our respectives sets of darts.

I'm not suggesting - my jab at 'self-styled experts' notwithstanding - that you're some kind of idiot for not 'getting' 'CAT', but merely pointing out that a lot of people here did. The one who didn't (I remember her well) thought as you did that it was some kind of journalistic essay and felt let down.
Possibly because of the misleadingness of the blurb, about which, I see, you are disarmingly right (I've just looked at it again). Publishers tend to regard this part of a book as their domain and my only excuse is that at the time I must have been too grateful for being published to question that.

Now, I try to exercise more control, with mixed success. For example, I'm not entirely happy with the official blurb for 'La vida després de Déu', some of which is at odds with the intentions of the book.

Despite which, Mr Wirdheim, I have no doubt you will understand it perfectly well. In fact, you might even find there are advantages to reading a book of this nature in Catalan, given that its English 'equivalents' (Dawkins, Hitchens etc.) tend to be weighed down by exclusively Anglo-american references and a kind of irrritatingly snappy transatlantic style that, happily, has no equivalent in the language of Quim Monzó.

I'd like to know what you make of it. Even if you hate the thing and yourself for having spent 16€ on it, you can always have the satisfaction of blasting it out of the water in full public view. I mean it.

Well, back to my niche I go.

Erik Wirdheim said...

Dear Mr Tree,

Thanks for warning me about the blurb (sounds like slang to me so I was amazed to find it in the dictionary) of 'La vida després de Déu'. Most likely, I would have bought the book even if you had not recommended me do so, but now I surely will. A comment on it in this blog will follow. Realistically, however, I will have your new book as Christmas reading so, please, be patient with me.

Already before that is it my intention to make a comment on Quim Monzó, but to learn from your remarks about knee-jerking, I will have to push myself to exemplify when I do. This might only be a blog, but it deserves better than the empty praise I had originally reserved for your fellow writer.