Monday, December 22, 2014

Resisting writing into expectation

Great news yesterday that my story 'Looking for the Castle' is to be included in Unthology 7, due from Unthank Books in the summer. Editor Ashley Stokes had been deciding between two of my stories and this is the one he has finally plumped for, and I'm pleased, as it's by far the more complex of the two, another of the stories in which I've tried to do something more ambitious in the short story form than previously. ('Clarrie and You', which Unthank also published [Unthology 5] was another). One of the strange paradoxes of my writing life is that sometimes the things I've found easiest (and quickest) to write have been the easiest to publish or broadcast, and have received the most acclaim. Sometimes, I know, this is just because the thing happened to work right from the start, and the ease of conception comes out in the writing, but there's often the sneaking suspicion that the ease comes from, not exactly superficiality, but familiarity: a reliance on tried and tested short-story codes. In these instances I feel that the reason the thing was so easily accepted was because I was writing into a borrowed reality - other people's, rather than my own. Then I feel I've cheated myself and my deeper aim in writing, which is precisely to question the ready-made realities.

The short story form is famously capable of exposing ambiguity and uncertainty, but there's also a danger of using its compactness to shut things down, to present a satisfying (but ultimately stifling) take on the world. In 'Clarrie and You' I wanted to show precisely how any 'take' on the world can be mistaken, and in order to do that I had to include a convoluted plot including a secret, a real challenge for the short story form. 'Looking for the Castle' is similar, but this time it's not a secret creating a false view but the difficulties of memory and lack of understanding. It was one of the hardest of my stories to write, and I'm hugely grateful to both Gerard Donovan, who judged the 2014 Short Fiction Prize and chose it as runner-up, and now to Ashley Stokes, for seeing what I was trying to do.

Crossposted to my author blog.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A question of culture?

We wondered if we were suffering cultural blindness when we read Turbulence by Chico Buarque in our reading group.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Reading group: Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Unanimous praise for this book in our reading group, and a pondering on the fact that it hasn't been more popular.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The BBC National Short Story shortlist: my assessment of the stories

Further to my earlier post about the BBC National Short Story shortlist, here are my thoughts now that I've actually read and listened to the stories, and also to the Radio 4 interviews with the authors.

Because of other commitments, I listened to one of the stories before I read it, and vice versa with the others, so I'm not sure it's possible to make true comparisons between the stories, since, as Radio Producer Michael Fox commented to me on Facebook, reading and listening are very different experiences, and I'd say it's likely that the experience of a story you have first becomes the primary one, affecting your later experience of the same story in a different medium. Here goes, however.

I have to say that not one of the five stories left me emotionally moved or aesthetically admiring as winning and shortlisted stories of earlier years have done - say, Kate Clanchy's 'The Not-Dead and the Saved', Jon McGregor's 'Wires' or Sarah Hall's 'Butcher's Perfume': these were stories I found moving precisely because they are dynamic and innovative at the level of language and/or structure. Every one of this year's crop was written by an author known so far for novels rather than for short stories, and this seemed to be reflected in stories that, in the majority, were not language-dense. At least three of them operated, on first impression, more on the level of plot than on that of language or innovative structure and used a predominantly conventional 'tale-telling' mode or tone.

One of the least conventionally 'tale-telling' in authorial tone was 'Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets', by Zadie Smith. This was the story I first encountered on the radio. Ironically, as the Radio 4 interviewer pointed out, Smith is a writer of pretty hefty novels, and she has only just begun writing stories. She expressed in her interview a delight with the opportunity that a short story provides to be more glancing and implicit, to get away from explication and a knowing authorial third-person. However, the implicitness of her story as it was broadcast, a story about an ageing Brooklyn drag queen stepping into a shop to buy a corset and into a maelstrom of racial prickliness - did not reside in linguistic or structural patterning so much as the dramatic mode which in fact Smith uses in her novels, a prose heavy on dialogue and action in which the meanings are conveyed implicitly in the actions and the junctions between the speeches. While we were not always told what was going on in the characters' minds, and had to infer it from their speeches and actions, there was nevertheless in the broadcast that strong sense of an author pulling the strings and forcing the characters together for her own indisputable ends/meanings, which Smith with characteristic frankness identified in her own novels. The broadcast version of the story, in its essentially dramatic mode, while showing the subtlety and uncertainty of social interactions, is unquestioning about the nature of reality - in other words, realist, something which seems echoed in its title, which, however McSweeney-ironic, could smack of the patrician and old-fashioned.

On the other hand, when I listened to the broadcast I was actually confused about those authorial meanings: as the reading unfolded I was clear that something subtle and uncertain was going on between the characters, but I wasn't clear what, and although by the end I knew there had been a misunderstanding, I was left feeling that I'd missed something about its precise nature, and why it had happened, and also wondering if the narrative treatment of Miss Adele's ultimate distress were simply melodramatic. The reading by Noma Dumezweni was excellent: she did great service to the dramatic mode, brilliantly realizing the voices for which Smith has such a wonderfully acute ear, and the whole thing was indeed vibrant and concrete with a sense of social reality. Dramatically-constructed stories, as I have said previously on this blog, seem best suited to radio broadcast, but inevitably a reader of the dialogue on the page approaches the story without this help, and I wondered whether someone doing so would have had quite this satisfying and immediate sense of vibrancy. However, reading the text later showed me that the radio broadcast had indeed ironed out something quite crucial. Inevitably, all of the stories were cut to fit the 35-minute slot, and not only did I now find that linking moments clarifying the situation on a simple factual level had been excised from the broadcast version of this story, but there is, I discovered, a recurring structural element outside the action and dialogue that operates with the essential short-story implicitness for which Smith was aiming, but which was cut. Every so often the prose, located in Miss Adele's viewpoint, takes on a free indirect mode in which we are carried back via her intimate memory to her childhood, memories which are overlaid on the current situation and which, by implication, colour Miss Adele's view of it and of the other characters, and motor her own responses. In a few brief (unfortunately easily excised) strokes this gives Miss Adele a whole painful deep history, clarifies the way she is dealing with the present situation and the responses of others to her, and makes her consequently far more moving. It gives the story an interiority and a deeper, resonant and more satisfyingly psychological meaning than the more 'out-there' pantomime style of the broadcast conveys, makes it less realist and indeed less linear. There is a kind of disruption in this leitmotif (so you can see why it might have been ironed out) - it disrupts the otherwise stage-set realism of the story - but it's an important, aesthetically dynamic disruption, essential to the story's meaning which was lost in the simplification and emollience of broadcast.

Smith's story wasn't the only one of the five suffering from this kind of flattening via broadcast. It seems to me that a competition that invites stories of up to 8,000 words - which is long for a short story - yet shoehorns the winners into a 35-minute broadcast slot creates a troubling dynamic, and it's perhaps disturbing that, in a venture dedicated to nurturing the short story as a form, the means of dissemination of the winners suppresses those very characteristics of subtlety and liminality of which the short story is uniquely capable - and when, if a story is truly successful, every word should count.

Precisely the same thing happened with Tessa Hadley's story 'Bad Dreams'. As was pointed out in her interview, of the five shortlistees she has the strongest track record of short-story writing, and I felt that this showed in the economy and mode of her story, which depended entirely for its meaning on this kind of leitmotif patterning. 'A child woke up in the dark', the story begins, and later a new section begins: 'Her mother woke up early, in the dawn' - an echo which not only signals a connection between what has happened to the child in the meantime and the mother's situation or consciousness, but in its changed diction alerts us to consequence, and to something changed or about to. As the shortest, Hadley's was the story that was least cut, but those cuts were, I think, devastating. It's a story about those things in our consciousness we suppress, those things we either don't see or refuse to see about our relationships and our lives, and what carries this meaning with resonance, and indicates by metaphoric implication why the odd things that happen in the story happen, is a riff on invisibility and the inability to see in the dark, most of which was stripped right out for the broadcast. I read the story before I listened to it, so it's not really possible for me to say what impression I'd have got if I'd heard it first, but I suspect a lot was lost. A literal and prosaic reading of the story might lead one to make such deletions - after all, we know it's dark, the first sentence tells us! - but a good short story doesn't just operate on that banal level of information, and those rhetorical devices of repetition and variation carry the psychological and existential dimensions of a story, and hence its emotional impact.

It's tempting as a consequence to dismiss this competition as being in thrall to commercial pressures for realism and simplicity, but the fact is that at the London Short Story Festival in June, Di Spiers, one of the judges and indeed BBC Radio Books Editor, expressed a frustration with the widely-held view (previously expressed on this blog) that the stories best suited to radio are conventional, and that conventional stories are thus best suited to this competition. She wished they received more innovative submissions, she said, and indeed I think this is reflected in the fact that Lionel Shriver's 'Kilifi Creek' was chosen as this year's winner. Although it's clogged with abstract circumlocution, and everything is spelled out - no glancing implications here - and although this was one story where, in my view, the huge cuts for broadcast improved it no end, it was actually interestingly experimental in its conceit, and in spite of the conventionally authorial tale-telling voice, not in the least realist; in fact it was anti-realist. Focusing (pretty uneconomically, in my view) on a moment in a woman's past when she almost drowned, and then moving on to consider how that moment plays out in her later life and consciousness, the story ponders questions about chance, reality and our grasp on that reality that did intrigue me in spite of my dislike of the pretentious and, in my view, self-regarding authorial tone.

I did find the two remaining stories conventional and realist, however. Rose Tremain's 'The American Lover' moved back and forth between the past and the present as a woman injured in a road accident recalls her youthful affair with an older man and traces the route from that to her present situation, but within the flashback sections the prose descends into a stark tale-telling mode (this happened, then that happened), with little subtext or resonance, that failed to keep my attention or to make for me convincing connections between those past events and the present. Although one can make a logical argument for those connections, which Tremain did indeed do in her interview, within the story they weren't organic, and it felt to me that the woman's accident was not the inevitable consequence of the early events, but could have happened anyway or indeed could have not happened. In her interview, like all of the shortlistees, Tremain was asked how autobiographical the story was. In my view that's a question that, for literary as well as personal reasons, shouldn't be asked of an author in public, and here it contributes to a suspicion of populism, a pandering to the populist tendency to read fiction as autobiography. But in Tremain's case it was illuminating: yes, the early part was autobiographical, she confessed. We can conclude (in fact, I think she may have actually said) that the woman's injury wasn't, that this had been devised as a symbol of the emotional damage at the heart of the story, and it felt to me just that: something artificially added on and not earned by any deeper resonance elsewhere in the story. This - very much the longest story in the bunch - was another where the cuts often actually improved the prose, removing repetitions that added nothing to the story's deeper meaning and thereby improving the pace. Even so, once again there were omissions that did detract from the story, once again removing crucial elements that carried the meaning. The 'present-day' level of the story takes place in 1974, and references to the miners' strikes, omitted from the radio version, may have seemed, on a prosaic reading, to be dispensable (and maybe even unsuited to a tale rooted in sixties sexual freedoms and callousness), but they create a contrasting atmosphere that underlines, on an important emotional level, the story's concern with emotional hardship, dissolution and strife. In one scene omitted from the broadcast, the protagonist receives a slap on the face from a nurse and '...the mark became a bruise and the bruise took a long time to fade', one moment in the past time-level that is truly emotionally resonant, symbolic of lasting emotional damage. This was cut for the broadcast, leaving the story even less resonant for me than the text version had been.

Francesa Rhydderch was the one less-well-known of the five, graduate of a BBC creative writing course, and although I'm very keen to see non-'celebrity' authors making it to the shortlist in this competition, I'm afraid her story did seem to me that of someone still learning the art. Her story, set in the 1920s in a small town in Wales, deals with events when a professor comes to lodge in the house of a taxidermist and the effect he has on the taxidermist's daughter. It seemed to me to suffer from a thematic uncertainty that was underlined in the promotion. Listening to her radio interview, I heard that the story was about several things: taxidermy as an interesting and detailed subject in its own right, death, resurrection, the position of women in 1920s Britain and 'the process of creation', but there was no mention of the one thing the general publicity tells us it's about, ie a young girl's sexual awakening. In her interview Rhydderch spoke of 'putting two things together' (the memory of the young girl's brother killed at the Somme, and taxidermy). I can see that in theory the process of taxidermy might be a symbol for keeping lost or dead ones alive, but this notion wasn't in my view borne out by the workings of the story, in which the man whose province is taxidermy won't use the dead brother's name and replaces his presence in his room with the results of his craft, while the character who is keeping the son's memory alive, the daughter, is for the main bulk of the story excluded from the taxidermy processes (this was the part of the story that concerned women's status), taxidermy being for her a focus of exclusion and denial, and in one crucial scene, of discomfort. In fact, a contradictory notion to that of taxidermy as loving resurrection is perhaps suggested (and vividly prefigured in an early reference to the mother's almost savagely gutting a goose): that the heartlessness of the professor was symbolised in the emptiness of the eviscerated taxidermy specimens. Furthermore, it is the taxidermy chemicals that the daughter uses to try and commit an act of poisoning. Neither did I find, beyond this mechanical plot connection, any organic or thematic connection between either the brother's death or taxidermy with the other strand, that of the daughter's sexual interest in the professor. I was unconvinced by her attempt at poisoning and remain to this day unsure of whom she was chiefly trying to poison (the professor, for betraying her with her mother, or her mother for having sex with the professor, or both). Much was made in the interview of Rhydderch's research into taxidermy, as if this were the core of the story, but, significantly, scenes describing the processes were drastically cut for the broadcast of the story, including the very passage we heard, uncut, during the interview. This was another long story (over 6,500 words), and it was interesting that Rhydderch said she'd felt that the 8,000 word allowance of the competition gave her an opportunity to 'cover more bases' and (ironically, in view of the fact that I found the character's motives unclear) to go into more depth. I found the result unfocussed and loose, and in fact the radio editing did much to correct some infelicities of prose. All of the five stories but Smith's were set wholly or chiefly in the past, but in spite of Rhydderch's statement that she doesn't want her stories set in the past to be thought of as historical, and wants rather to achieve for them a 'modern emotional idiom', (and in spite of the interviewer's strong agreement that this story was indeed timeless), I found her story the most historical in tone and atmosphere. I'm not sure therefore that, in the context, I understand her phrase, and the fact that her fairly ordinary characters living in rural Wales in the 1920s dine on goose with 'Jerusalem artichokes, glazed parsnips and ... celeriac mash' (a line judiciously cut for the broadcast) seemed to me, hailing as I do from rural Wales, nothing more than an anachronism.

In conclusion, I'd say that there are strange tensions created by the parameters of this competition. One could view the fact that longer stories are encouraged for submission and seem to be favoured in the judging as implying that the judges are admirably above the requirements of radio, and that the subsequent need to squash the stories into less than 35 minutes (intros, credits and music taking up at least a couple of minutes) (I'd say around 4,000 words) is an unfortunate byproduct of their literary freedom. However, the suspicion arises that longer stories are simply favoured as they can be sure to fill up the slot and can always be cut (and, although no minimum word limit is stated, it doesn't look in that case as if stories shorter than 4,000 would have stood much chance). Yet, as I have said, the essence of the short story is economy: the best short stories are often indeed much shorter than 4,000 words, and a good short story should be difficult, if not impossible, to cut without serious loss. There's a novelistic feel to this shortlist, not simply because the authors are also novelists, and although it succeeds splendidly in drawing public attention to the short story as a form, it fails to showcase properly its unique possibilities, or the ways in which those are indeed being explored by writers in the UK today.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Real books TV

I got so fed up with dumbed-down TV books programmes I just about stopped watching them - well, I wasn't even sure there were any, any more - but on Tuesday evening I chanced on BBC's The Secret Life of Books, an episode presented by the ever-incisive Bidisha, and found it a revelation. In an exceptionally thoughtful programme, Bidisha re-examines Jane Eyre, recounting the differences in her attitudes to the book as a teenager (when, like so many, she saw it chiefly as a romantic love story with a fine and triumphant heroine) and as an adult (when she saw Jane as subservient to Rochester and racist in her blindness to the rights of Bertha, the wife incarcerated in the attic), and then setting out to examine these attitudes through discussion with others. Arguing her adult view with Rebecca Fraser, author of Charlotte Bronte: A Writer's Life, who stoutly and convincingly defends Jane as a mould-breaking heroine, Bidisha is left with her view of Jane as a woman adjusted, but still unable to accept Jane's, and the author's, attitude to Bertha, seen as Other and conveniently disposed of at the end of the novel. Until, that is, she talks to academic Terry Eagleton, who convinces her that this must be seen in the context of the prevailing attitudes of Charlotte's time.

What was so refreshing and satisfying about the programme was its unashamed intellect, the way it created a narrative out of an intellectual journey. Clearly, there was staging in the presentation of this intellectual journey - Bidisha would have already completed it before the programme was put together - but for once it was a TV staging that was intellectually useful. I do hope it points the way for book programmes to come.

Bidisha didn't mention Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, which critiques Jane Eyre by taking Bertha's point of view. For anyone interested, our reading group discussion of Rhys's novel is here.

And, also for anyone interested, my own story 'That Turbulent Stillness' is a tongue-in-cheek examination of the teenage reaction to the Brontes that Bidisha describes. It's published in Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, ed. A J Ashworth (Unthank books).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

BBC National Short Story shortlist

I knew in mid-August, when I received an email from Booktrust's publicist, intended to get me excited as a blogger about the announcement of the shortlist for the BBC National Short Story award a month later, that of course once again I had failed to make it. The email clearly meant that the shortlist had been chosen and shortlistees informed - the publicity machine and publication and recordings requiring at least a month's preparation. Actually, I never expect to get anywhere in this competition, and most years I think wearily, 'Is it really worth my bothering to go through the motions?' And the main thing that puts me off is the bit on the form where you have to say whether you are the author or the author's publisher entering the story. I always wonder: why is this distinction made such a fuss of? Why are publishers allowed to enter stories on behalf of authors? The entries aren't anonymous (you have to declare your most recent publications - or your publisher has to); if you're a sifter, or a judge, how likely are you to overcome the temptation (conscious or unconscious) to be influenced by the endorsement of an established publisher? One year, I asked my hard-pressed small publisher to enter me: she generously and readily agreed, but I know it was a huge hassle on top of all her other work, and I didn't feel it was fair to do it again (I suppose the big publishers have publicists etc to deal with all the form-filling bother), and I'm left thinking every year: do I even stand a chance whatever the standard of my story?

Well, I guess one should reserve judgement unless one knows the ins and outs of the process, but this year's shortlist - Zadie Smith, Lionel Shriver, Rose Tremain, Tessa Hadley and the one less-well-known author Francesca Rydderch - even had chair of judges Alan Yentob being asked on Front Row last night if the reputations of the authors had influenced the judging. Of course Yentob denied it: these were simply the best stories, he insisted, and said (I think - I was driving as I was listening) that one might well expect such proven masters of fiction to produce brilliant stories, which is undeniably true.

But the press release I received makes me uneasy. We are told in the accompanying email that the shortlist is 'glittery', and the press release refers, in popular-culture terminology, to an 'all-star lineup', as well as stressing as a virtue the fact that some of these authors have been shortlisted previously. It's understandable: I know from my own time as an editor of a literary magazine the temptation - indeed necessity - of drawing readers (to serious literature) with big names and suggestions of glamour, and I'd like to think that that's all that's going on here, and that those in a position to promote the short story as a form aren't ending up sacrificing it on the altar of 'celebrity' or the status quo.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Two reading group discussions

Here are the reports of our last two reading group discussions (with injections of my own subsequent thoughts on the second):

Ironweed by William Kennedy


The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reader inequality in our technological world

So there's a book I want. Quickly. I'm away from home, in Wales at my writing retreat. There's no phone line, no internet at the house but I have the marvel of the dongle - well, marvellous when it works, that is, which it often doesn't, apparently due to atmospheric conditions. (Sometimes it works when we're inside a cloud, though, and sometimes it doesn't when the sky is clear, so maybe it's a question of user overload as well.) But anyway, on this particular day when I want the book, it's working and I go to Amazon and click, hey presto! And then the next day I realise what an idiot I've been: one-click sends my book to my home address in Manchester, and I won't be home for another six days. So, because I need the book so quickly, I swallow the extra expense and order it again, this time making sure I give my address here in Wales. Round about the same time I get an email from Amazon telling me that my first order has been delivered. So I wait to hear that my second delivery, to the Welsh address, will follow quickly after. I do get an email telling me that my order is being processed but then: nothing. Finally, two days after I placed the order, I get an email telling me that the book will be delivered in Wales on Saturday morning (yesterday) - four days after I placed my order. Saturday morning I watch out for the sight of the red postal van crawling up the mountain towards me. It never comes. Sunday today, and I'm still without the book while it sits unread in my hall in Manchester. And I'm going back to Manchester early tomorrow anyway...

I don't know if this is an ominous sign of the Post Office slowly withdrawing its services from outlying areas, but it sure seems to indicate that when it comes to the difference between town and country, technology doesn't create the democracy that's so often claimed for it...

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Remember those days, long before your teachers ever asked you to write about literature, long before you ever read a review, long before that whole critical apparatus struck up in your brain, when a book was simply an experience that grabbed you, took you over emotionally and bodily, so you came out at the end drenched in its world, not thinking but feeling, a bit changed and simply better for having read it? Well, that's what All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber) has done for me, a confessedly autobiographical novel about the suicide of a father and sister, conveying a passionate sorrow yet bouncing throughout with wisecracking wit. I have no doubt that it's absolutely brilliant, but I don't want to start thinking about why, don't want to have to detach myself in that way and turn into an object for examination something I think of as an experience through which I laughed out loud while simultaneously tears ran down my cheeks and into my lap.

And I'm not sure I could say why it's so brilliant: there's a kind of alchemy in the way Toews melds tragedy and comedy as messed-up narrator Yoli (Yolandi) visits her hospitalised elder sister Elf (Elfrieda), a beautiful and brilliantly successful pianist who yet has tried to take her own life as their father did before her, and as Yoli struggles to give her sister the will to live and looks into their Mennonite childhood for the sources of her depression.

And I'm not sure taking the novel apart helps, or even quoting from it although I long to: perhaps it's better to tell you that when I sat reading it (snuffling and dabbing and nose-blowing and cracking out laughing) and gulped out hilarious bits to my partner he looked at me with stony-faced puzzlement, but that when he then read the book he too was laughing out loud (and shedding secretive tears). It's the very tragic context in which the sometimes wild, sometimes deadpan wit occurs that gives its punch, socking a life-affirming shock amidst the sorrow; and there's a two-way current: the affirmation throws into greater relief the heartbreaking situation and Elfie's denial of life (well, OK, maybe I am thinking about how it works now). It's a truly poignant doubleness that is summed up thus as Yoli sits talking to her cousin Sheila, whose sister Leni also committed suicide:
...Sheila and I sat on her bed and talked about our sisters, Leni and Elf, and their unfathomable sadness, and about our mothers, Lottie and Tina, and their perpetual optimism.
It's Toews' voice and way of looking at the world that rip through the tragedy, finding an aching hilarity and saving humanity and community in the midst of the direst situations. As the grieving and desperate Yoli and her mother fly to the funeral of a dear aunt (who has gone and died in the midst of it all) and discuss how they can save Elf, the following hilarious situation arises:
Then a man in the aisle began to complain that somebody's kid had bit him in the ass when he'd stood up to get something from the overhead bin. It was true, I'd seen it, a three-year-old was marching up and down the aisles, bored out of her mind, and suddenly came face to ass with the guy and just opened her mouth wide, chomp, and the guy screamed, he hadn't known what hit/bit him and the little girl stood there with her arms folded across her chest while her mother apologized profusely in a posh British accent, ordering the kid to say she was sorry. I won't, insisted the little girl, also with a lovely accent, and the mother said you will and the girl said I won't, you will, I won't. Finally the guy whom she'd bitten said it really wasn't a big deal, just a big surprise, that's all, and let's be done with it. But the mother was relentless, kept insisting that her kid apologize, you will, you absolutely will, until a whole bunch of people from seats 14A to 26C all yelled out she won't!
OK, I'm quoting now, but hey, read the book and get the full force of that in its context.

Yoli keeps looking for answers. Is it some chemical imbalance in Elf's brain? she wonders, plumbing the medical staff for reasons. Is it their family history within a repressive Mennonite community? Is it the tragedy of that community's history? Yolis' grandfather, she tells us, survived a massacre in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 by hiding in a manure pile and was then sent  with other Mennonite survivors to Canada.
When my mother went to university to become a therapist she learned that suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next to the next, like flexibility or grace or dyslexia. My grandfather had big green eyes [as does Elf], and dimly lit scenes of slaughter, blood on snow, played out behind them all the time, even when he smiled.
'Are Mennonites a depressed people,' Yoli asks, 'or is it just us?' She doesn't alight on an answer, but the book (OK, now I'm thinking about it) moves towards one. It begins with an image of the house Yoli's father built with his own hands being towed away due to pressures from the Mennonite community, after which he spends the rest of his life sitting in his new house staring across at the empty space left behind. Loss of home and cohesive community are at the root of it all, and the motif keeps recurring. 'I'd like to take Elf back to Toronto,' she says:
I'd like for us all, my mother, my sister, my kids, Nic [Elf's devoted husband], Julie [Yoli's best friend and cousin], her kids - even Dan and Finbar and Radek [Yoli's exes and/or on-off partners] - to live in a tiny isolated community in a remote part of the world where all we have to look at is each other and we are only ever a few metres apart. It would be like an old Mennonite community in Siberia but with happiness.
Another patient on the psychiatric ward tightly clutches her handbag which carries only her house key, warning people not to steal it from her, unknowing or denying that her son has sold her house behind her back. An image too of beleaguered pioneers recurs. 'Our platoon had taken another unexpected hit,' Yoli says at one tragic moment, and when the worst finally happens: 'It was time to circle our wagons. We've lost half our men and supplies are dwindling and winter is coming', and the novel ends with a positive assertion of home and community.

Yoli's life is a mess, her humour is sometimes wild, and the prose moves at breakneck speed. But there is nothing slapdash or uncontrolled about this book. It's acutely structured and every word counts. The survivors in Yoli's family survive through that pioneering spirit and the saving grace of language and wit. This novel, with its mordant and skewering wit, is indeed a triumphant circling of the wagons.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

13th International Conference on the Short Story in English, Vienna, July 2014

The biennial Conference on the Short Story in English brings practitioners and academics together, and I've often wished I could attend: being a full-time writer can be a pretty lonely business, and if you're not connected to a university, as I'm not, it can sometimes feel as if you're writing into a vacuum, unsure of the relevance or validity to the wider world of what you're trying to do. Ironically, however, a writer not affiliated to any university hasn't much chance of being funded for conferences (the Arts Council and the Welsh Academy to which I belong don't recognise conferences for funding purposes), and I've never been able to afford to pay for it myself. This year, however, I was invited to read and so I dug into my savings and went. It did indeed turn out to be a boost to my confidence in my concerns and aims as a writer.

There were so many events running simultaneously, including readings by writers and papers from academics, that one constantly had to make difficult choices, and I think this did create a bit of a divide. Although I wanted to support my writer friends and to hear and meet those I'd so far only read or heard of, I tended to choose panels over readings, as I was keen to know the latest thinking on the short story.

The buzz-word, I quickly discovered, is 'liminality': the general focus was on the short story as a prime locus of ambiguity and disorientation, and immediately I was fired up, since the preoccupation in my recent short stories has indeed been with uncertainty and fluidity (something that I find general readers sometimes struggle with, but which I'm constantly seeking ways to make palatable to them, as I passionately feel it's a truth about experience that we ignore at our peril). It was interesting too, to find literary studies being linked to Cognition Theory and studies of the brain which prove the role of reading in firing 'empathy neurones', and thus, as one speaker pointed out, of the importance of fiction, currently downgraded in our educational systems.

Panel highlights for me were:
  • An exceptional panel in which Ailsa Cox talked about the figure of the author in Alice Munroe's stories - another thing I've been preoccupied with recently in my writing: the role of the presence of the author in a short story - and Michelle Ryan-Sautour about the complex and problematic way in which it operates in Angela Carter's 'Black Venus.'
  • A panel on 'Death, Violence and the Art of the Short Story' in which Sabrina Voeltz spoke about the American death penalty and Joyce Carol Oates' 'Death Watch', and Michael Trussler used Nathan Englander's 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank' to consider issues of difficulties of articulation, in particular of the Holocaust.
  • A very enjoyable and moving panel for me (Welsh-born to a Welsh mother and Irish father) in which Ray French, who shares exactly the same background, and Kath Mckay talked about conflicted identity in second-generation Irish writing, and Moy McCrory considered the figure of the Banshee and its implications for the role of women in literature.
  • A plenary session on Epistemology, Cognition and the Short Story. Especially interesting to me was Carmen Birkle's paper on The Epistemology of the Medical Gaze in 19th-Century American Short Fiction, since the medical gaze and its assumption of knowledge and power is precisely the subject of my novel The Birth Machine.
I attended two stimulating workshops, one run by Clark Blaise in which we looked at texts including Hemingway's 'Cat in the Rain' and talked about the short story, and a second in which Vanessa Gebbie provided inspiring exercises to kick-start the creative spark in writers feeling blocked. I did go to some readings, and was moved by Robert Olen Butler's story 'Mother in a Trench', swept away by the wit and energy of Ida Cerne, tickled by the sly wryness of Alan McMonagle and moved by Paula McGrath's second-person story.

An anthology of stories by writers participating in the conference, including my own story, 'Where the Starlings Fly', edited by conference director Maurice A Lee, is available here.

Many thanks to Sylvia Petter, co-director of the conference, for inviting me to read and for organising such a stimulating week.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Eimar McBride wins Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

Very many congratulations to Eimear McBride for winning the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction with her wonderful language-busting, hugely moving and truth-telling debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

I had been hoping to bring you an interview with her, as the BWPFF very kindly offered me the chance to spend a few moments with the winner (about which I felt very privileged), but unfortunately, as I had not been on the original guest list and the event was full to capacity, I couldn't be accommodated in the end. I was hoping that it would be McBride I'd be talking to, as her book was certainly my own personal favourite. I hadn't read any of the six books before the shortlist was announced, and hers was the one I reached for first. It's my kind of book: intensely involved with language (indeed creating its own innovative language) and psychology, and with the interface between the two. I wasn't that hopeful, though: personal and impassioned in tone, it made, I found, a distinct contrast to the other five books, all of which are fairly traditional, if complex, in narrative mode, in general coolly or carefully narrated and grounded in historical or political research. I thought that this indicated a judging panel biased towards the latter qualities, with McBride added in as a token experimentalist, and I'm thrilled that this didn't turn out to be the case.

This is no traditional story-telling. There is a story, and a compelling one, that of the unnamed narrator's development from her time in the womb to the point just before her death in her early twenties, a life overshadowed by her brother's brain tumour and physical and sexual abuse which lead to her own self-destructive behaviour. But the mode of telling, an address to the brother, with its broken sentences and associative language (here's the beginning: 'For you. You'll soon. You'll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she'll wear your say') brings more than just a story; it brings the state of mind created by that story, morphing and glittering with multiple facets in a way that traditional story-telling struggles to achieve. The bones of the story may be grim, but the headstrong, wisecracking personality of the narrator and the iconoclasm of her language ('a right hook of a look in the eye') transcend that grimness with a huge rush of energy, and the way that McBride captures the nature of experience in the moments before conventional language closes it down is exhilarating.

Do read it if you haven't. (The beginning is probably the hardest bit, and you soon engage with the mode, I found.)

I could hardly, on this blog, not touch on the much-commented fact that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing languished unpublished for 9 years, turned down by many publishers as unmarketable, and was only in the end published (by the small Galley Beggar Press) as a result of a chance conversation. Many have expressed the hope that the success of this book - it's also won the Goldsmiths award for innovative fiction, and was shortlisted for the Folio Prize - will prompt a sea-change in publishing, a new acknowledgement on the part of publishers of the intelligence of readers of which McBride spoke in lasts night's interviews. John Self pointed out astutely on Twitter, with a little prick of this balloon, that had the book been taken up by larger publishers it probably wouldn't have been entered for these prizes (but would have had to give way to more obvious choices). And it's salutary to read today's account by Sam Jordison (one of Galley Beggar's founders) of how even he might have ended up not publishing this novel. Would he, he wonders, have persevered to find the book's 'dark magic' if it had ended up in the huge pile of submissions that the book's success has brought to Galley Beggar, and which all publishers eventually must deal with?

Monday, May 26, 2014

The mother's to blame

Now and then one is pulled up short by the sexism inherent in the odd literary-critical comment. It may of course be that I'm true to my blog name and a total bitch, and my female characters follow suit, but my breath has been taken away on a couple of occasions by interpretations of the female character in my story 'Compass and Torch' which is on the AQA GCSE syllabus, most recently by the BBC Bitesize website page designed to help students revise the story.

The story concerns an eight-year-old boy and his father, who don't see each other very often, as the father and the boy's mother are separated, setting out awkwardly and self-consciously together on a camping trip on which a lot consequently rides in terms of cementing, indeed repairing, their precarious relationship. As they unpack the car there are two flashbacks, located in the child's consciousness, featuring the mother, the first when he overhears her talking to her live-in boyfriend about the coming trip and about the father's general conduct as an absentee father, and a second one in which the father picks the boy up for the trip from the mother's home.

BBC Bitesize tells us that the mother

is presented as an angry and embittered person. Her anger is spoken to her current partner, Jim, and is directed against her former husband whom she regards mockingly as having made a poor effort to act as a father to his son. "There was a choke in her voice now, and suddenly a kind of snarl: 'You wouldn't expect him to start now, would you - accommodating his child into his life?'" (ll. 24 - 26)

Well, OK, the mother is angry. But angry why and in what way? I'd say she's chiefly angry about what she sees as the father's inability to be a better father, both as an absentee parent and previously, before the parents separated - there is italicisation that isn't replicated on the Bitesize site on both the word now implying a previous, similar situation, and on life, implying an inability by the father to adapt to fatherhood. This last, the father's inadequacy, is something that the incidents on the camping trip go on to support, but the critic implies it is just the mother's view: he says she 'regards' the father as putting on a poor show as a father. One can extrapolate that this, the mother's sense of the father's inadequacy, was one of the reasons for the breakdown of the parents' relationship in the first place, and thus that the mother's comment on the irony (ie if he didn't do it when they were together, how is he going to do it now?) indicates that her anger is also about the irony of the general situation. Nevertheless her anger  - I don't think it's just anger, but I'll come to that - is directed towards a particular (and very important) issue, the fact that her son and his father aren't close.

However, the wording of the Bitesize commentary implies something different. She is an angry 'person' we are told, implying a general anger typical of her personality, with a possible resulting implication that she doesn't have justification for anger on this particular occasion. There is something pejorative about this in itself, and once 'angry' is paired with 'embittered', a word generally used pejoratively (it generally implies an unjustified, self-centred resentment), we can be in no doubt about the critic's negative view of the mother. Thus he (I'm kind of assuming the critic is a he, but I may be being entirely unjust) sees the mother's ironic comment as 'mocking', with its hints of cruelty and a position of cool superiority. This last runs completely counter to my own view of the situation and my literary intentions. I see all of the characters, including the mother, as caught up in a painful situation and suffering. The mother, as I say, is not simply angry. There is a 'choke' in her voice, which surely - well, I intended it anyway - implies that she is beginning to cry. One of the things I am trying to say in this story is that it's just about impossible to shield children from their parents' unhappiness. So when the boy comes downstairs and hears his mother saying this thing about his father he is not only upset on behalf of his father, but also catches his mother's unhappiness. He hears the choke in her voice, and 'the light seeping through her fuzzy hair made the bones of his shoulders ache'. The BBC Bitesize tutor/critic does note that the mother tries to shield the boy from what she has been saying about the father, but does not seem to see that this is one of the ironies on which the story pivots: the mother stops (and is alarmed and ashamed that the boy may have heard) because she wants the child to have good relationship with the father. In fact, the critic states that the most obvious judgement of the mother's sudden silence and change of manner is that the mother is being 'hypocritical', and agrees with that judgement, before going on to state that, actually, I present it as 'more complex'. The mother's 'behaviour', he/she tells students, 'is what adults do when they try to protect their children from the ugly truths of the adult world.' This is a vague phrase, including no sense that the mother is trying to hide not only the discord between herself and his father but also her own unhappiness from a child she understands will in turn be made unhappy by both of these things ('wrenching a look of bright enthusiasm onto her face'). It is the boy's happiness she is concerned with here.

But no. According to the critic, the mother is thinking of herself and lacks concern for the boy. (It is interesting that he uses the word 'behaviour', implying that she is not well-behaved.) It is true that the boy knows what the mother will be saying, which means that he has heard her saying it in the past. Rather than seeing this (as I intend) as proof of the enormity of the problem to the mother and the household, which will inevitably filter through to a child constantly alert to his parents' broken relationship, the critic sees it as proof of the mother's lack of concern for the boy. 'The mother is also presented as selfish' we are told in no-uncertain bolds. She cries, for goodness' sake, when the boy and his father are leaving! (Crying's no amelioration after all - it's a sin!) (Well, actually, she doesn't just cry - she is once again trying to stop herself doing so but the child sees that 'her eyes are bulging and wobbly with tears'). To the critic this indicates not the extent of her distress, but a selfish dereliction of maternal duty, and it is this, specifically, that to the critic 'spoils [the boy's] enjoyment of the weekend', rather than (as I see it) the child's more general apprehension of the adults' pain and the father's inability to relate to him. He ends his revision note on the mother by stressing the use in the story of the word 'unforgivable' to describe the mother's warning to the father not to camp too near an edge, and the implication, which the boy picks up - and which distresses him - that the mother doesn't trust the father with the boy. He seems to overlook the fact that, since the flashback is contained within the boy's point of view, this is just the boy's - momentary - judgement of his mother. As far as I am concerned it's an instance of the complicated emotions all parties experience in such situations - after all, in the next instant the boy feels he doesn't want to leave his mother and doesn't want after all to go with his father. But as far as the critic is concerned, it's my overall judgement of the mother (which he seems to justify by calling 'unforgivable' an 'adult' word), and it's clearly his. Clearly, in this critic's view, mothers are not allowed the human emotions of unhappiness and anger. Any failure to shield their children from their emotions is simply unforgivable, and any attempts they may have made to so before failing need not be acknowledged. A less-than-perfect mother is a Bad Mother. (In the light of all this, a pretty pejorative halo surrounds the critic's reference to the mother's 'current' relationship, and a feckless woman moving from partner to partner is potentially conjured.)

This is sexism, and this is what young people studying this story for this exam are being taught by the BBC.

You can read 'Compass and Torch' on East of the Web (where it was first published), and it's included in my collection Balancing on the Edge of the World (Salt).

(I'm crossposting this to my author blog, Elizabeth Baines.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Edge Hill Prize shorlist

The Edge Hill Prize shortlist echoes the pattern of the longlist, with five of the six finalists published by small presses. A Celtic flavour shows up even more strongly at this stage, with two Welsh publishers, Parthian and Seren, and the very new Northern-Irish Whittrick press represented. Of the authors, one is Welsh, two are Irish and one Scottish. Represented here too are those publishers appearing on the longlist as true champions of the short story with multiple entries: of the small presses, Parthian and Salt and of the mainstream, Cape.

The shortlist is as follows:

  • David Rose, Posthumous Stories (Salt)
  • Rachel Trezise, Cosmic Latte (Parthian)
  • Bernie McGill, Sleepwalkers (Whittrick Press)
  • Jaki McCarrick, The Scattering (Seren Books)
  • John Burnside, Something Like Happy (Jonathan Cape)
  • Wednesday, May 07, 2014

    It depends what you know about a book before you read it

    Our reading group discussion of Bainbridge's Harriet Said, her first-written novel but not her first published. An interesting case, we found, of the difference that being told the background to a novel makes to one's experience of reading it, which has implications for the power of blurbs and publicity.

    Monday, May 05, 2014

    Do we need to worry or not?

    There's been much reaction on the web to Will Self's Guardian article concerning the death of the serious novel in our digital age, most of it negative, with many commenters objecting that on the contrary, the internet has promoted the serious novel. However, I'm surprised that people can have managed to take such a clear message from the article (ie that the serious novel really is dead, once and for all): I've always been an admirer of Self's views and his clarity of mind, but I've read this article twice now, and I still can't find a clear thread, or be absolutely sure of Self's ultimate view of the situation. It should be noted that it is in fact an edited version of the Richard Hillary lecture he'll deliver tomorrow, so his argument will have been truncated, but it does seem to me that, rather than a successful analysis of the current situation (which in a time of such rapid technological change is probably impossible), it's more an expression of our uncertainty and anxiety about it.

    Self does assert categorically that 'the literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes.'  He goes on to 'refine his terms', as he puts it: he doesn't mean 'the kidult boywizardsroman' and the 'soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy' which he notes are in 'rude good health'; he is talking about
    The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.
    I don't argue with most of this as a definition of literary fiction, but I'm not sure what he means by a novel's ability to 'enact self-analysis'. Perhaps he is talking merely about the intellectual content and verbal and structural patterning of any serious work of prose fiction, but I suspect he is really thinking of a very specific kind of novel, postmodern and self-referential, indeed the kind of novel he writes himself, especially as he then goes on to introduce the notion of 'difficulty' as an aspect of the serious novel. What about those novels that fulfil all the other criteria in the passage above with no difficulty or challenge for the reader? Are they not 'literary'? So it's never clear precisely in this discussion whether we're talking about a particular type of serious novel or something wider. 'The advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself', he says, but this is a point which (if true) must surely apply to books of any form in any medium.

    He takes for granted that in the age of soundbites and instant access to information, people are more impatient with certain kinds of difficulty, plumping for entertainment rather than serious engagement with the complex or the unfamiliar, a view that seems borne out by the fact that the larger publishers are increasingly unprepared to publish such fiction. But as Self himself indicates, the current state of book publishing is an economic effect of the new technology as well as late-20th-century capitalism and such developments as the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. It's not necessarily indicative of a sea-change in the attitude of the public towards reading (though we shouldn't discount its possible effects on that). Self harps back to a golden age (ie when he was a young man in the early 80s) when 'the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour'. He immediately qualifies this, however: 'This is not to say that everyone walked the streets with their head buried in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse, nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn't alive and snorting' (by god, he has a good turn of phrase!), before going on to claim contradictorily:
    However, what didn't obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. 

    I'm not so sure about that: I spent my teenage years in a small northern town, and for a lot of that time I sensed that quite a number of people around me righteously thought me an uppity snob (as well as air-headed) for my difficult-novel reading, and that I needed to be taken down a peg or two. He sees what he calls the 'serious' novel becoming 'an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group', but having taught in secondary schools and married into a typical northern working-class family, I'm not sure that challenging fiction has ever really been much else. As Self himself points out, general literacy in the West is a historically recent phenomenon, and after referring to his youth as a golden age in reading, he reveals that his agent, placing his first novel, told him to accept its publication as a paperback original, as it was 'nigh-on impossible for new writers to get published - let alone paid'; in other words, those economic sea-changes were already taking effect in publishing, altering the revered physical character of new books and causing what Self calls 'the concertinaing of the textual distribution into a short, wide pipe'.

    Self sees 'serious' novels as needing in the future to be subsided, but the truth is, I think, that the more challenging fiction always has been. Once upon a time publishers with money were prepared to subsidise it for a minority audience, but in this age of rampant commercialism they're no longer prepared to. In response, we see the rise of small publishers prepared to pick up the slack, but there remains the serious problem of adequate remuneration for writers, necessary if we're to keep a serious literary culture going. Self is almost bitter about the current solution found by most writers, teaching on the burgeoning Creative Writing courses, 'care homes' to accommodate 'writers who can no longer make a living from their work' and where PhD students with unpublishable novels aspire to be paid in turn for the 'midwifery of still-born novels.' And yes, as Self says, and as I've often commented here, the whole buzzy culture of the internet is destructive of the kind of privacy and solitude that is essential for both the reading and writing of serious novels.

    So yes, there's a big problem, but we can't assume that technology won't overcome it. Self would probably call me a naive 'populist Gutenberger' for saying so, and yet he declares that as a practical novelist he doesn't feel depressed about it all, and, unaccountably in view of his gloomy prediction, concludes with a statement that he feels 'safe ... to go on mining'.

    Saturday, May 03, 2014

    Edge Hill Prize long list

    I was busy when the Edge Hill Prize long list was announced recently, but I now have time to consider it and its implications. Once again the prize committee have done us the favour of longlisting all eligible titles, thus giving us an idea of the current state of short-story publishing.

    As last year, small press entries far outnumber those from larger publishers, but the list is even more weighted towards the former. Entries are up on last year (44 this year; 37 last year) and in spite of the increased overall number, total number of entries from larger publishers stays the same (only 8), and the number of large publishers entering is down (4 as opposed to 5).

    Once again the Celts come up trumps, with 6 Irish publishers entering a total of 8 books, 3 Welsh (Parthian alone fielding 4 books), and 2 based in Scotland including the established Canongate. Only 2 of the independent presses are based in London or internationally, and 9 are based in the English regions.

    The increased number of entries could indicate greater publisher awareness of the prize (there are many small publishers this year I've never head of), or that indeed more short story collections are being published (or both). In any case, it's interesting to see science fiction and fantasy featuring on this list, hailing from not only that established veteran of genre, Gollancz (at least I'm assuming their 2 entered books are genre), but also small presses dedicated to the genre, Yorkshire-based PS Publishing and Michigan-based Subterranean. Also interesting is the presence of a publisher, Spinetinglers Elite, appearing to be an author-packaging service for self-published authors, based in Northern Island, and, also based in Northern Ireland, the 'mostly digital' Whittrick Press.

    Champions here, along with Parthian, are Salt, with likewise 4 entries. It's a shame to see Comma, the publisher dedicated entirely to the form, fielding only one book, and I suspect this is an effect of cuts in funding *. Surprising too that for the second year running Faber has no entries, and I hope that doesn't mean that, in the current economic climate, Faber, that home of literary excellence, is losing its commitment to the form. Cape, however, with 3 entries, preserves its reputation as the large publishing-house promoter of serious short-form fiction.

    *Edited in: Comma lets us know in the comments below that the fact that they have only one single-author collection to field this year is just a result of the way their publishing programme has fallen out. Comma is a great publisher of translated short stories, on which they have concentrated this year, along with anthologies. They say that next year they'll be doing more single-author collections, which is great to hear.

    Sunday, April 27, 2014

    Pelicans to fly back

    I find it exciting that Penguin are to bring back their non-fiction imprint, Pelican. How can they have gone, cheap books to feed the intellectual hunger of the masses? What does it mean that they did? And what does it mean that, as reported by Paul Laity in the Guardian, some of the early Pelicans sold 250 million copies in total, print runs of 50,000 being standard, whereas 'these days a publisher would be delighted if such a book made it up to 2,000 copies'? That by the end of the eighties, when Pelicans disappeared, we had become a culture hooked on entertainment rather than intellectual inquiry, or that, with more people going to university and a proliferation of media, we had other ways of getting our intellectual fulfilment? Penguin believes there's still that hunger and still a need to fulfil it with cheap books. I can vouch for that last. I had been to university, and I had even studied philosophy, but I'll never forget the night I was babysitting and learned for the first time about Hegelian dialectic (and was absolutely hooked), from a Pelican which has long gone now - I suspect one of the kids has gone off with it.

    Those above are the Pelicans we have left. Notice we have two copies of the Uses of Literacy; we usually give away books we've doubled up on, but neither of us will part with our copy. That copy of mine with the Lowry on the front is forever linked in my mind with the view from the desk where I wrote my Education Diploma dissertation - luminous green leaves coming out in the very high trees, and two wood pigeons trying to make a nest which kept dropping to bits on the ground - and with the feeling the book had left me with: that my whole sense of the world had been adjusted and confirmed, and that everything at last made sense.

    Saturday, April 26, 2014

    Novels about writing.

    It's interesting that, as John Dugdale says in today's Guardian Saturday Review, 'literature about literature' is booming. It's not only the novels openly depicting the great writers, of which there has been a spate lately, he says, but fictions depicting more generally the world of writing and writers, such as Hanif Kureishi's recent The Last Word and a forthcoming novel by that wonderful writer Edward St Aubyn about the world of literary prizes. Last year, of course, Nicholas Royle published his much admired novel about the world of University Creative Writing (in which yours truly - or rather an approximation of yours truly - makes a couple of cameo appearances).

    I think it's no surprise, and I've never understood the prejudice against it. 'Oh God, novels about writing!' a literary agent once commented to me with a groan - though I don't think he was expressing a personal prejudice, rather a general industry perception at the time of the unsaleability of such books. It was a wrong perception, I think, and one based in a view of writers and the public as Us and Them.

    I don't think for a moment the public sees it like that. I remember as a child from an ordinary background avidly reading novels with an eye on the notion of becoming a novelist myself: I didn't feel the least different from the novelist I was reading and his or her world: the greatness of the writing drew me right into his or her psyche, and I identified, not just with the characters, but with the writer, and any novel about writing would have really pressed my button. And how many people, ordinary people, have you heard casually mentioning they could write a novel/wouldn't mind writing a novel one day? Plenty have said it to me: it's usually the first thing they say after they learn I'm a writer - milkmen, shopkeepers, the lot. And what about the plethora of Creative Writing students? Most of the casual commenters won't bother, and aren't even saying it seriously, but it shows that the whole idea of novel-writing is interesting to them and that they certainly haven't written it off as something that excludes them. Apart from that, though, story-telling is hard-wired in us; we're all story-tellers and we all tell stories all the time - to entertain, to promote or save ourselves or others etc etc, in our day-to-day lives. And in turn we are affected by the story-telling of others - the images they have of us, the truths and lies they tell. So many dramas - soaps that people are entirely hooked on - are subtly based on the notion of story-telling as the engine of life, the effects that people can have on each other's lives by the stories they tell about others and themselves. Who could not be interested in that? (And I have to say it's a major theme for me in my writing.) Novel-writing is the dramatic extension of that (and after all, a major storyline of Neighbours once was a character - a very ordinary girl - becoming a novelist): it's the stories we tell set in stone (or paper or Kindle), and how much more dynamic can be the effect of that? Which is why the window cleaner tells me he wants to write a novel. Novels unpicking the effects of published and unpublished stories, as Royle's so cleverly does, can only therefore be interesting to all.

    Friday, April 25, 2014

    Spectacle versus words: it's not just Jamaica Inn

    It's always fun to criticise things wittily on Twitter, and I can't deny that I enjoyed the tweeting about BBC1's dramatisation of Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, which received around 800 complaints for poor sound quality, viewers saying that the dialogue was inaudible and they simply couldn't tell what was supposed to be going on. I took part myself, but all along my heart was sinking for everyone involved in the production. Yesterday's Guardian article by Hannah Ellis-Peterson reveals that there is now tension at the BBC, with the various departments hugely upset and trying to fend off blame. Script-writer Emma Frost (who was first reported as being upset that her dialogue - greatly praised by the Du Maurier estate - had been mangled) was pleading for sympathy for sound operator Matt Gill who she said 'is crying' (I must say I was almost crying too when I thought of him); those who had seen previews reported having no problem with the sound and suggested that the glitch came in transmission, but those responsible for transmission claim it's an 'artistic issue', with actors, dialogue coach, and (by extension) director being held variously to blame.

    Television drama production is a highly collaborative project, and it seems to me that it's a waste of time, and unfair, to try blaming one party, and my sense is that this fiasco is the culmination of a trend in film drama production that's been building for some time, and a salutary awakening. In recent years I've found myself missing dialogue in the cinema, and I've truly wondered if my hearing was going - especially as those around me seemed quite happy even while sweet packets were rattling all around - to the extent that I've had my hearing tested, only to have it found perfect. When I wondered about it to a companion he said to me: 'But no one else wants to hear all the words like you do.'


    This is the crux. Television and film drama, such wonderful media for picture-making, have become central to a cultural tendency to privilege image - and indeed spectacle - over words, and thus in effect, as this particular drama shows, over meaning and ideas. The script is no longer of prime importance. It's been a long while now since the Writers' Guild lost its battle for script writers to be named in TV listings (who cares about the writer? Who cares about the words? Who cares about anything but a 'high concept' to sell, and pretty well-known actors to look at, and some nice scenes to watch?). Jamaica Inn certainly looked beautiful, and interesting, and gothically stark etc. But it wasn't just the inaudibility of the words that suffered from the tendency to make this the prime priority. Why did Mary Yellan stomp the cold rainy moors in a tiny velvet bolero jacket more suited to ladies in town? Because it looked so fetching, of course. Why did these country people keep letting themselves get so wet in the rain (all country people without central heating or mod cons know it can lead to an early death), even standing snogging in the downpour when there was shelter nearby they could have run to? Because running water looks so beautiful on film, of course, as Blade Runner so iconically showed. Why did we keep getting time-release shots of the clouds when much time didn't really seem to have gone by? Well, you know the answer...  And all those camera shots of the exceedingly comely Mary Yellan actor Jessica Brown Findlay, and that striking picture of the inn from afar when she was inside it, confused the viewpoint - the novel, and the story, are about the mystery as seen from Mary Yellan's viewpoint - and I believe thus contributed to the sense of not knowing what was going on.

    It's ironic therefore that someone from the BBC hauled up to comment on the news programme pleaded an over-insistence on authenticity, in the process blaming the actors. Actors like to get involved in the parts and be authentic, he claimed, appearing to refer to both the dialect and the inarticulacy of the characters. But this is to misunderstand the job of the actor and the processes involved, and seriously to short-change the professionalism of those involved here. Acting is supremely an art of communication. The job of an actor is to look authentic while in fact being highly inauthentic. The prime focus of an actor's interest is not how he or she feels while playing a part (though of course they have to feel) but how he or she comes across to the audience, and that's what the director is there to guide them about. One of the clearer voices in Jamaica Inn was Brown Findlay's but there was a moment when she had me completely stumped. 'My uncle is a ragger,' she seemed to me to say, and I simply couldn't concentrate for the next few minutes for wondering what on earth she meant (I hadn't read the book). Now it may be that in the Launceston dialect of the era 'wrecker' would sound like 'ragger' (perhaps it still does), in which case Brown Findlay had indeed done a wonderful job of authenticity just there, but authenticity is not exactly useful if it confuses a modern metropolitan audience. The collaborative job of the production team is to make things communicable while authentic-seeming enough not to spoil the suspension of disbelief. This was just one of those moments where that collaborative grip slipped. It's the kind of thing that happens all the time in rehearsals and shooting, and which requires time (and thus money) to sort out. And it's my hunch that the problem here is where the resources are being directed: towards the creation of spectacle rather than those quieter - but all-important - aspects of drama, the words and the meaning.

    And yet. People were so up in arms. Maybe we're not so unattached to words and meaning, after all...

    Thursday, April 24, 2014

    What makes a novelist?

    I have wondered on this blog what makes some people who can write wonderful prose never bother trying to be writers. (I think of the school students I taught whom I naively thought were destined for literary greatness but who never wrote once they left school; I think of adults I've taught who were simply happy to write small pieces privately but had no interest in writing anything ambitious or in being published - I had a hard time believing them, really.)

    It's a question that Guardian reviewer Lee Robson takes David Lodge to task for not asking in Lodge's newly published collection of essays Lives in Writing. Robson answers it himself with reference to the critic Frank Kermode's discussion (in his memoir) of 'what kind of person makes a good novelist'. Kermode himself, a 'champion defeatist', was discouraged from trying to be a novelist by the suggestion that he hadn't had enough real-life experience. He came to the conclusion that people who made good novelists, such as William Golding and Iris Murdoch, were 'people very unlike him'. They had a 'capacity' that he lacked, to write convincingly about things they hadn't actually experienced.

    Robson however points out that both Golding and Murdoch, whose early novels were rejected, had to develop that ability (that they too at one point lacked it), and comes to the conclusion that the novelist is rather
    '...not someone who can [just] mix autobiography and invention, as Lodge ... suggests, but someone whose sensibility contains a balance of the intuitive and the pragmatic, the introvert and the extrovert, the better to create fiction that is neither too personal nor too [mired in technical facts].'
    Which seems about right, if you add in the need for determination and maybe obsession - and perhaps especially in the current commercial literary climate.

    Lodge, it seems, is complaining about the kind of reductive biographical readings of fiction about which I've frequently complained here, those that reduce fiction to mere biography or indeed 'disregard' or devalue it if it doesn't fit known biographical facts about the author. However, Robson in turn complains that this 'blinds him to more desirable forms of biographical insight into the writing - and non-writing - of novels', and points to the life experiences that do indeed make people novelists or non-writers, such as Frank Kermode's unhappy childhood that left him with 'a lifelong sense of himself as a failure', the childhood nurturing that, conversely, gave Philip Roth his supreme literary confidence, and the family habits that fed Muriel Spark's subversive wit.

    I haven't read Lodge's book, but it seems to me harsh to chastise him for not taking on a different project from the one in which he is engaged - Lodge is apparently concerned with our reading of texts, whereas Robson's interest here is essentially biographical and sociological - but I find Robson's point interesting and astute, nevertheless.

    Thursday, April 17, 2014

    Rules for writers that shouldn't be rules

    I've been meaning for ages to post on this (it's been a preoccupation of the WIP that's been keeping me away from this blog), but now I have the time at last I find that someone has already done it so brilliantly I don't need to. 

    The title of the article, 'The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (And Probably Already Have)' is a bit misleading, as its author Susan Defreitas makes clear that the rules she examines, such as Show Don't Tell, Don't Use Adverbs etc do have their place, which is with beginner writers making traditional beginner mistakes such as verbosity, over-explaining, failure to realise the texture of a scene, lack of grounding in reality etc (and also as general notions to go on keeping in mind to avoid such mistakes thereafter). She shows, however (with considerable wit) that such advice taken to extremes can turn writing leaden and unremarkable, and, with quotes from Salman Rushdie and Nabakov, that writers with skill may ignore it with equanimity. 'Language is your Swiss army knife, and you can’t do shit like this with just the knife and the corkscrew.' I particularly like her words on cutting:
    ...beginning writers tend to be verbose. We can’t tell the difference between an essential detail and an inessential one. We’re like golden retrievers romping through Storyland, and pretty much every damn thing we see is a squirrel. 
    But push this advice too far, and again, you’ll get stuck writing mediocre fiction. Because sometimes the things that don’t work are actually important. They don’t work not because they’re the wrong things, but because they’re the hard, ambitious, at-the-very-edge-of-what-you-even-know-how-to-say-things, and the only way to land them is to dig deeper, work harder, and sometimes even (god help you) add rather than cut.
    There's an underlying implication in the article that these rules are indeed being taken too seriously and too widely, and it's a sense of this that made me want to blog about it too. I do come across a lot of writing that seems in thrall to 'show don't tell' and in dire fear of making any statements about feelings or motives, and is either weighed down with over-elaborate, clogged and seemingly mechanical external detail, or simply too stark, either way leaving us without a sense of the emotion, or, as Defreitas says, 'the thought processes giving rise to that emotion.'

    Do read her article.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2014

    It's what you expect and how you read

    Here's our reading group discussion of Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. It's perhaps an interesting insight into the difficulties of innovative fiction. It's a book based on hindsight rather than 'what-happens-next' plot (what happens is given from the outset), with a resulting non-linear structure and an innovative prose style. Opinions in our group were strongly divided, with most people finding the book stunning, but others left cold and unengaged and one even seriously irritated. Most strikingly and interestingly, the two camps had wildly differing impressions of the pace of the book, with those who were positive (and accepting of the premise) finding it urgent and emotionally involving, while those who were negative (and who I suspect preferred to read for plot) found it insufficiently urgent, static and repetitive.

    Friday, February 14, 2014

    Friday, January 03, 2014

    Reading group: The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow

    Here's what our reading group thought of this novel based on the real-life case of the Rosenbergs, charged with leaking the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union and executed in 1953.