Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Winterson Dares to Say it

In a sidebar column accompanying a Guardian article (today) on the effect of the Blair administration on the arts, Jeanette Winterson is quoted thus:
Blair is only interested in popular culture and not the arts. He is by nature and mission a leveller, and art asks people to be more than they are, better that they are; it asks for intensity, concentration and effort. Blair worries too much about elitism to recognise art's power to change lives.
Unfortunately, you can imagine that some people will give this statement scant intensity or concentration, for Winterson herself has sometimes been accused of elitism, for her challenging, uncompromising and sometimes extremely daring prose, and indeed for her very insistence on art as corrective and transformative. She takes a moral and evangelizing stance to literature which is easily dismissed when clearly stemming from her proselytizing religious background, and in a culture where government and big business go hand in hand to 'please' and pander to 'choice'.

It gets harder and harder to say some things. In a comment on my post below, Alan Kellog makes some points about why short stories are so hard to sell which, though true, made my heart sink, feeding as they could into prejudices against the short story form. And recently, after a reading by short-story writer Chrissie Gittins, several of us discussed an issue about short stories which I felt I could hardly replicate on my blog for fear of doing the same. Several commentators, we noted, had recently pushed the short story as ideal for our age of rush, when people don't have time for long novels, and I have done it myself when selling the short-story mag metropolitan. Yet I know I was wrong, and the other day all of us, all short-story writers, felt strongly that this not only did a disservice to short stories but reinforced the cultural expectations which are squashing them: short stories, more than novels, require the intensity, the concentration and attention which Winterson identifies - and which nowadays seem to many people a BAD THING.

But the Bad Thing in reality is a culture and a society in which this state of affairs can occur, in which people, including Tony Blair, see freedom only in placation and passivity. And as Adam Curtis recently showed in his stunning BBC film The Trap, such 'freedom for the people' is in fact nothing of the kind.


mythusmage said...

On Good Stories

I recall an incident in a game of Dungeons & Dragons way long ago. One player decided he wanted his fighter character to become a thief, because being a thief was cool. Our Dungeon Master (as the moderators are called) proceeded to tell him all the things his character would need to do and learn to become a thief.

Upon learning this the young man exclaimed, "But that's hard!"

Our DM observed calmly, "If it was easy, everybody'd be doing it."

Telling stories isn't easy. Telling stories with economy and panache is a bitch. Telling stories with economy and panache that actually entertain people is a talent few can even fake well.

But, getting those words down in a half-assed sensible way, and getting them read by others, and having your writing appreciated. That almost makes it worth it. Getting paid for it is even better.

All that said, the only way to get more stories published is to get more stories published. Publishing needs more fiction magazines, and fiction magazines for the general public. That's what it comes down to. Magazines with a reputation for good writing and good story telling, that appeals to the street joes of the world.

That's what it comes down to, you want to succeed as a story teller, you need to sell your story. There's no getting around it. There's a good reason why Howard Philip Lovecraft is still read to this day. He engages the reader and keeps them engaged. His prose can be purple, his situations lurid, but when he's on, he is spot on.

Who among this year's award winners is going to be remembered years from now? How well will they sell? Who among them really can tell a good tale and compose with skill?

We have forgotten why we write, most especially why we write fiction. It's not to impress, it s to entertain. For craft without story is empty and sterile. When you pen your stories always remember that something is supposed to happen. And if you can't get anything to happen in your narrative, at the very least make it an interesting tour.

Vanessa G said...

I read the comments on the other post, and wanted to weep.

To precis... 'publishers ought to be publishing what the readers already read'... and 'Writers have forgotten that their job entertain the masses.'

And third rate writers can write gems of short stories...ouch.

Like anything it depends on your definition of 'gems'. When I was eleven, I thought Enid Blyton wrote 'gems'... and she did, for the audience I was part of then.

And it also depends on whether you believe that all writers have to be writing for the same audience... 'the masses'. I guess that's a valid viewpoint...

but if we were all writing for the masses, we'd start chucking away William Trevor, surely? Which particular 'mass' reads him? And the old classics? (What IS a classic anyway? Actually, why bother to define it? It's a tad elitist.)

It is 'a good thing' is it not, that there are a few unmassed writers still keeping their heads above water...for even the masses would baulk at an enforced diet of pap.


TitaniaWrites said...

"writing for the masses" brings tears to my eyes too. This reminds me of a short story writing Masterclass I once attended at an American summer writing workshop where the teacher (highly thought of, apparently) told us all that we had to write for "the lady on the bus". He ripped apart a short story I had written because I didn't explain exactly what was going on in the first paragraph - and he said he wouldn't read any further to find out and neither would the lady on the bus.

That story was later broadcast on Radio 4 and published in a Route anthology, so someone was prepared to read past the first para.

I don't want masses to read my story, I don't even expect half of those in my writing groups to enjoy it. And the lady on the bus... well, that depends on her taste, doesn't it?

Damien G Walter said...

Well after my first comment met with the disapproval of the censor I'll give it a second go.

Its really great that people write for themsleves, but the question remains of why, if nobody can be persuaded to buy your writing, should they be forced to subsidise it through their taxes?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Damien. What censor do you mean? (I haven't received any previous comments from you here as far as I know, if this is what you mean).

Vanessa G said...

Damien makes an interesting point.

I wonder if he is related to the owner of a small guesthouse I stayed at five years back, who, when I said I was doing a part time certificate in Creative Writing at University, did a John Cleese impression.

he went scarlet, dropped the tray from which he was serving pre-dinner drinks, and launched into a diatribe aganst people like me who were a waste of public money.

(The fact that I was funding myself was not aired. I couldn't get a word in edgeways.)

Where does the sentence 'if nobody can be persuaded to buy your writing' come from? So far, the writers I know of in this discussion are poly-published (hey, did I just invent a word?).

I know of no writers who expect public funding... maybe a few who have been awarded grants, and good for them.

I'd like some too.


Julian said...

Hi Elizabeth,

Sorry this is so late, life has gone up about five gears in the past week, and I have had to pedal like blazes just to avoid being thrown off the bike.

Here's the piece the Guardian asked me to write, and then turned down because they didn't like the tone... It read like a blog, apparently... I would imagine you would find this less of a negative than they did! It's light, it's fast, and gives a flavour of the day, I hope... Feel free to give it a title if you want, it's yours now. You'll probably disagree with almost everything in it, but that's fine too.

I should have emailed it, but couldn't work out how to, so I hope it's OK just to send it in as a comment. My email is juliangough at gmail dot com.

Oh, and do of course stick in hypertext links if you feel they might be useful (to Project Gutenberg and Google Book Search, for example, which are mentioned in the piece).

And only put it up if you like it enough. I won't mind at all if you decide it's not for you after all.

Got to run, more mania, flying to Ireland to do a TV show tomorrow. They're very excited about me winning the prize. My mother, who lives in Tipperary, is posting me thirteen articles she's cut out of the papers...

Incredibly silly, isn't it? Prizes are so random and absurd. Like being hit by lightning.

Best of luck with everything,


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.

Ms Baroque said...

You go girl!

To Damien, I'd say there is "nobody" and then there's "the discerning few" - and great, huge, enormous shifts in thinking have occurred through books "nobody" read.

In other words, I'm really pretty surprised at this popular hubris that if the unshaven masses haven't heard of something it might as well not exist!

How many people actually read most of the early texts that made our civilisation what it is, when they first came out? If reader figures are all that matters, the lottery and the government should be funding Jeffrey Archer and Mills & Boon.

Much great art is recognised as great only after the fact. Of course, much is recognised immediately - and much bad art is wrongly lauded, and then John Donne languished in obscurity for 300 years till TS Eliot revived him. The fact is, sales figures are no indication of how important, influential, true something is going to turn out to have been. (Some things, of course, do date, but are very important to their own time.)

Also, I hate sports. I pay for the Sports Council, the Lottery funds lots of sports, my licence fee pays for sports televising. Why the hell shouldn't my, and your, taxes pay for what I find important and valuable?

Oh, and finally: literature is a means of understanding the world. Anything that helps us to find new ways to understand the world a little better - to understand outselves a little better - has got to be a good thing, right?

As to the charge that public finds are subsidising "bad" writing - so what? They're also subsidising bad everything else. You fund the attempt. The subsidy is itself a celebration of the value our society places on artistic exploration.

Damien G Walter said...

That's a shame, I was all set to get indignant about the deletion of my somewhat bad tempered post, but I guess I must have pressed the wrong button or something.

Winterson is just recycling the same elitest claptrap that has underlied public arts policy for too long. It wouldn't be so bad if the 'Art' she was advocating for hadn't become so incredibly sub-standard. Before blaming the Blair government she might want to look to issues of quality and relevance.

mythusmage said...

Folks, you are in business, the entertainment business. It is your job to entertain people, and to do it well. You are competing against other forms of entertainment, and you must do a better job of entertaining they they do to have any sort of audience.

You want to see the reading audience grow, you have to engage people. You need to tell good stories, and tell them well. Interesting situations, engaging characters, prose that evokes time and place. As a fellow workshop participant once told me, don't tell me I have to care about a character, show me why I should care about that character. This doesn't fit in with what you learned in your creative writing class, then that class was taught by a hot house fool.

The real world can be cruel, and either you adapt, or you die. You want people to read you, then you learn how to sell your writing to people. You learn what people are really like, their dreams and asperations. You learn how to speak in a way to gets and holds their attention. You establish yourself as someone who is reliable as a writer, producing work of consistently high quality. Believe me, the common man is a far tougher audience than all but a rare few literature professors.

Expanding the audience for the short story means learning what people like, and producing it. And not only producing it, but doing it well. Using all your skill with language, composition, characterization, and story telling to craft a tale people will want to read. Do that and the short story audience will build.

Now here's your ssignment. You have up to 2,000 words to tell the story. Said story must include conflict in some sort and a beginning, middle, and end. Narrative, characterization is all up to you. How much of the topic, all or a single incident, is up to you as well. The topic? Dungeon crawls. (Means lots of research. :) )

"The burns hurt. Far worse than the burns from any flame. Even with the healing he would have scars on his legs and arms. All about the charred pieces of ooze testified to the ... heat of the struggle.

"Looking at the leader of this naif crew he said, 'This stave of yours had better be some kick ass shit, or you and my sword are having a conversation.'"

Vanessa G said...

One question, M,

You give me a single busload of 'people'. Each one is reading something different.

Which one do I learn to write for?



And that's just one bus....

Damien G Walter said...

Vanessa G wrote:
I wonder if he is related to the owner of a small guesthouse I stayed at five years back, who, when I said I was doing a part time certificate in Creative Writing at University, did a John Cleese impression.

Unfortunately not. It reveals your basic assumption though, anyone who calls writers on being whinging blaggers is clearly just an ignorant commoner. They just don't understand the spirit of creative endeavour! *swoon*

I'm a published writer, a professional literature development worker and I've got enough letters after my name to hit all the trebble word score tiles in scrabble. And I've had a couple of ACE grants as well. None of it matters for toffee - my writing isn't good enough yet to capture a readership and that's just the way it is.

But Winterson seems to have a different philiosophy. Lets get down to the route of her argument. Bottom line - 'literature' is in trouble. Declining readerships, smaller advances, and the short story is basicaly dead. Whats Winterson's explanation? Oh yes of course, its all the governments fault! Nothing at all to do with the 'literature' being so deadly boring that it can't even be given away in libraries.

The answer for literature isn't a change in government policy, its going to require a complete rejuvination of what has become a dull as ditch water cultural relic.

Vanessa G said...

Hey... if what people write is a 'dull as ditchwater cultural relic' then, people... STOP WRITING LIKE THAT!!!!

No one is saying we do, or have to.