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

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.)