Friday, May 04, 2007

Guest Article: Julian Gough on Short Stories and Winning the National Competition

For some reason which must be to do with the engaging and off-the-wall character which informs his writing, Julian Gough has decided to privilege the Fictionbitch and this blog by offering his funny yet acute take on winning the prize and on the short story in general, for posting below. Since my last post stirred up something of a row, still ongoing, in the comments section, about why short stories should be beleaguered, Julian's (previously written) piece is apposite and timely. Many many thanks, Julian, and all power to you, I say.

Here is the piece by Julian Gough:

Twelve hours after the announcement of the winner of the National Short Story Prize for 2007, I was still on the piss with A S Byatt. What a mind! I’d never met her before. I might never meet her again. Obviously I had to try. But she told me firmly that she is extremely married. So this might be shaky, due to heartache and champagne.

Some people worry that the short story, like the vole, is declining due to loss of habitat.

I am here with news of joy. It is going to be OK.

The modern short story is often to be found hiding in a novel, often an Irish novel. English novels tend to go for the one broad arc, like a cast iron bridge by Brunel, with some curlicue and filigree to give texture. The Irish novel tends to have a single structuring principle, which is used to give a different kind of unity to a thousand shards of story, mosaiced. The English novel is made of iron and is cast, the Irish novel is made of everything and is assembled. You see it in the many styles of Joyce’s Ulysses, the many sources and voices of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, the various islands and incidents of Swift’s Gullivers’s Travels.

A fugitive short story could hide comfortably in any great Irish novel. A character could just open his mouth in a pub, and the story could inhabit his mouth like a cave. I’ve hidden short stories in the mouths of characters, deep inside novels, myself.

No, no need to worry. The short story is merely hiding out in the novel until it is safe to come out. And soon it will be safe to come out. Because the internet is creating a vast new habitat that has not yet found its final shape, or final inhabitants. Cyberspace is ripe to be colonized by the small and nimble vole of the short story, who will change his form to suit the new terrain. But it will still be short, and still a story. It’s going to be alright.

Meanwhile the people creating the biggest problems for the short story are the short story writers. Especially the dead ones. Because Chekhov was so good, so revolutionary, contemporary short story writers think that they can be revolutionary by copying him. They copy him: and the revolution doesn’t happen and the audience wanders off. Because that’s not how you do it.

Chekhov didn’t have a television. He didn’t have broadband access to everything ever right here and right now always on and ever ready. Chekhov wouldn’t write Chekhovian short stories if he were alive today. He’d write something else.

If you are a writer, maybe you should stop showing us in meticulously observed and realistic detail the realistic things which we (after a century of Chekhov’s subtle influence) meticulously observe ourselves every day, and which tell us nothing new about the world or ourselves.

Go wild. Wilder. Rip it up and start again. You can’t make a mistake, because there aren’t any rules yet…

A suggestion. If you want to go forward, go much further back. Take a running jump at it. Don’t read Ian McEwan. He’s very good, but he is of no use to you. Kill the father, and embrace the grand father. Read Rabelais. Read Erasmus. Read Aristophanes. Read somebody I’ve never heard of, someone out of print for the past three hundred years, who has just been put up online by Project Gutenberg, or Google Book Search. And rip them off something rotten. Steal it, take the wheels off, rebuild the engine, see if it can be converted into a seaplane, collide it with Krazy Kat, or Swedish jazz, or Somali hip hop, or the stories your mother tells about working on the production line at a pea canning factory in Germany when she was nineteen.

The spark of art comes from banging things together.

There is a potential downside to making it new. The publishing industry might have problems recognizing its merits, and will definitely have problems marketing it and selling it through channels which are friendlier to industrial product in standard packaging (Pink and pale blue and lime green for chick lit, dark orange flames against black, with gold type, for SAS memoirs… just slot book into package.)

I spent seven years having a go at revolutionizing the novel. At the end of it I had no money, no publisher, and was homeless. But I had some bloody good art, and that has to be enough for you because it may well be all you will get.

I was lucky. Halfway through writing my novel Jude, I realized I needed to step outside it, and write a short story. I needed to see where Jude had come from, and why he had left on the quest of the novel. So I wrote “The Orphan and the Mob”. And I wrote it as well as I could. I wrote it insanely meticulously (draft after draft, polish after polish, building in layer after layer), considering how it was a short story and would never earn me any money. And then it won the National Short Story Prize. And I cried.

It is incredibly important for writers to be able to write at any length.
Some ideas are short, and some ideas are long, and we need to make sure that the good stuff gets to the reader intact, neither cropped nor stretched to fit the publishing industry. This prize is terrific because it brings short stories out of hiding and into the spotlight, brings them to big audiences, at a time when the publishing industry either can’t or won’t.

Whatever you want to write, write it the way you want to write it, write it whatever length it wants to be, and stick it up on the internet if nobody will publish it. Don’t kill it to fit it into an industrial box. Artistically, we live in a golden age of freedom, and that’s terrifying. Commercially, we live with market censorship of certain forms. It’s a pain, but it’s survivable. I’m running out of time, the deadline is here, the champagne is wearing off, so, last suggestions: try comedy instead of tragedy. Ditch realism for a bit, see what happens. Because reality isn’t realistic any more.

Call this reality? Call this realistic? On the piss with A S Byatt, in a place that doesn’t allow mobile phones. A writer born in London, back in London, with an Irish mobile phone stuffed down my left sock and a German mobile phone stuck down my right sock, both phones vibrating with congratulations from England and Ireland and America and Berlin. Vibrating with love from around the one world.

It’s hard, being a writer. It’s lonely. May you all have such a moment in your future. May there be enough love to go round.

Julian Gough


Vanessa G said...



(and PS, it's not a row, it's a discussion, I think.)

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh, sorry!

Shameless said...

This was wonderful, the champagne and all! But, please be careful with Byatt; I want her in one piece when she comes to see me in Lyon at the end of the month! Bravo for these words, which really shake up the whole basket of mixed ideas on the short story.

Sara said...

What a wonderful and inspirational post!
Thank you.

Damien G Walter said...

Julian Gough wrote:
It is incredibly important for writers to be able to write at any length.

I don't agree. The discipline of writing to a format is an important part of the craft. Freedom is a much overvalued part of creativity. Restrictions of format, genre and purpose are essential to creativity, without them the imagination has nothing to anchor itself upon and risks simply swimming around in esoteric circles.

Vanessa G said...

I think there are many ways to work, and we all find the one that suits us. I tend to agree with Julian... I love the freedom of being able to write very short, short, longer, minuscule... it's what makes the writing thing zing (for this writer... not for all, I know that)...and not knowing which length a piece will turn out to be gives a sense of the unknown on every journey.

Now IM writing 'something longer' but still have no idea what it will be...


David Isaak said...

Wonderful article. And I enjoy reading short stories, but I'm not sure everyone is suited to write them. I know I'm not.

And although I agree that everyone ought to write at whatever length suits their needs rather than strapping their ideas and passions to the bed of Procrustes, I'm not convinced that it's "incredibly important" for a writer to be able to write at any length. Not all painters can paint on any size of canvas.

But, still, a wonderful post.

David Isaak said...

Oh, and Elizabeth:
You’ve been tagged.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I don't think Julian is saying that each writer needs to have the ability to write at any length; I think he's simply saying that writers need the freedom to write to whatever length suits both them and their idea (whereas of course media restraints like time-slots put restrictions on this.)

I would agree with Damien that being forced to write to a specific length is very good for the CRAFT of writing: it can flex those muscles of ingenuity. But writing is an art as well as a craft, ie it makes its own rules which are separate from the rules (financial etc) by which the media need to operate. Certain ideas require forms which may not always be catered for by the media, and innovative art/writing most certainly does by definition: it's doing something which hasn't been done before. Many of our tried and tested forms, which do now sit happily in the media, (as Julian points out re Chekhov) were once innovative in this way, and to make them the writers/artists had to write against the prevailing customs and available platforms. Take 'flash fiction': once upon a time you could never get a story that short published; with the advent of the internet it is becoming one of the dominant forms.

Writing against the prevailing custom with regard to length is not necessarily an indulgence, it can take guts, and any good writer who is setting up new rules is nevertheless doing just that, setting up rules (indeed, difficult ones) for him or herself.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, David, I don't usually respond to being tagged, since I have this thing about the Cult of Personality, but since this one's about writing, I'll say a gracious thanks and get around to doing it some time this week.

David Isaak said...

Thrilled you're answering the survey. I believe all writers want to know this kind of nonsense about other writers.

Amanda Mann said...

Fabulous! Thank you.