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
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