Bilbao and other icons

I have taken a couple of days off checking the copy edit of my new novel Sphinx and escaped to Bilbao with a Basque mate. So I’m sitting here in a hotel opposite the Guggenheim museum (incredible building) writing this blog. Initially it was to get some respite from the English weather but inevitably it’s turned out to be rain in Spain and sunshine in London.

Coming from theatre I have always been a very co-collaborative writer and, over the years, I’ve even become aware of a kind of performative dialogue in which when pitching story-lines to commissioning editors or potential audience the actual process of telling the story inspires me to develop the plot or solve plot-points along the way.

I also tend to over-write early drafts and then pare back massively with each draft (there are usually 7 or 8 drafts – 4 or 5 of them major rewrites). There are advantages and disadvantages to this, one advantage is often one can arrive a more concise and rhythmically original sentence by paring back the adjectives. The disadvantage is by writing so many drafts one had often having trouble seeing the wood for the trees; Hence the importance of stepping back and looking at the whole shape. I guess it’s my training as a sculptor that has had a big influence. But usually by the time I get to the copy edit I’m having fun. The copy edit is the marked up manuscript the publishers deliver back to the author just before final cut-up with all grammar, fact checking, spelling and sentence structure checked and marked up.

 There are several schools of thought on copy editors. A clumsy and unsympathetic copy editor can altered the ‘voice’ of an author quite considerably in an insidious and sometimes quite subtle way. However a publisher might argue that a copy editor is absolutely essential in rendering a convoluted plot accessible and the final product more commercial. A very important factor in these economically pressured times.

It is a delicate balance, particularly when the author had already an established voice and her/his readership have expectations of that particular style. I think where the great danger lies is when there is confusion (or a mismatch) between the vision of the author from the publisher and the vision the author has of her/himself – whether the author has grandiose literary aspirations or whether the publisher is a callow salesman just interested in placing as many books as possible is a moot point.

Again, we live in extraordinary times and the pressure on publishers from booksellers to develop franchises or clearly marketable ‘genre’ has never been greater. It’s the same dilemma around final cut for film directors. The producers have to answer to the studios if the film doesn’t make back its money and everyone wants the film to reach as broad as possible an audience without compromising the vision. More importantly the punter needs to know what he’s paying to see.

So the more one writes the more one because aware of one’s voice. Re-phrasing sentences through-out a book can actually destroy the natural onomatopoeia of that author’s voice. The pliant author walks a fine line: of acknowledging the finesse and clarity of good editors, yet having vision to know when to fight for their particular essence – Nice to have the three days off before going back in to battle.

Bilbao is a small but sophisticated city fully of fiercely proud (and humorously direct – no niceties here from waitresses etc) Basque people. Once a huge shipbuilding centre but much of the local industry (iron ore and steel was also part of this) has closed down. The notion of building an extraordinary city both as a gallery but also to primarily create a massive tourist attraction was a stroke of genius. Apparently Gehry’s building has already paid for itself. The titanium is a third of a millimetre thick and is meant to last a hundred years. It certainly has an extraordinary reflective quality and the soft hues add greater to the sense that this is an organic building. Gehry has also obviously felt out the location and must have spent time understanding the impact the juxtaposition of such a building in loco. All of this is as powerful a visual statement as the building itself. No mean feat. Norman Foster’s metro is less successful (and I’m a Foster fan – particularly of the Bundestag in Berlin).

 Being a Sydneysider (and having lived within walking distance of the Opera house) I am very aware of magnetism of such icons. The opera house is utterly beautiful close-up as well as at a distance. The tiles actually look like finely veined insects wings. And to link this back to copy editing, I guess you could argue that this is a fanatic example of an original vision that benefited greatly by being compromised against the wishes of its creator. Danish architect Jorn Utzon’s original design had far sharper and higher ‘wings/fins’ to echo sails on the harbour. Personally I think the finished product is far more sublime. Maybe there’s a need for editors after all!

It takes an extraordinary amount of vision and energy to galvanise any local government into supporting such a venture and then, of course, the exhaustive process of actually finding an architect who can design just a timeless monumental structure. I can certainly think of a few disasters. Federation Square in Melbourne would be at the top of my list of hugely expensive well-intended mesh-mash that now looks like Barney Rubble meets Disney.

Function is as important as aesthetics and my only criticism of Gehry’s Guggenheim is it could have embrace music as well as art and had a few more concert halls as public spaces.