Sunday, November 04, 2007

Bravura Inconsistency

Gratifying that Saturday's Guardian Review led with an extract from The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, in which Richard Ford asserts the importance of the short story, 'the high-wire act of literature'. The great short story, he says, is an act of daring and audacity, a bravura performance - 'short stories are often good on the strength of sheer nerve' - and it is this which gives it its authority.

I like the thrust of this, but I have problems with the fact that Ford elides the notion of the authority of the short story with that of the 'writer's authority.' While he admits that 'Great stories are congeries of plan, vigour, will and application, but also of luck and error and intuition and even, God knows, sudden inspiration for all of which there is no key', (as I also said recently), the article privileges the notions of conscious writerly decision-making and of the writer's conscious project to exert authority over the reader, 'to subordinate our concerns to hers' (a motive which he says propelled him first into writing). There's something chauvinistic about this, in spite of Ford's self-conscious care to award the writer female gender, a tension which I think deprives the article of clarity. He talks about the 'miracle' of fictive creation, yet so much of his diction leans towards a different concept of the process: - 'what the writer deems important ... authorial decisions ... the story's manufacture' (my bolds).

Interesting that in the same paper Jeanette Winterson writes somewhat differently about the creative process. For Winterson, writing is on the contrary a wholly private matter: 'an explanation, in code, of myself to myself.' What's miraculous about it for Winterson is that 'what begins as private notation becomes language other people can use.' I'm with Winterson on this: it is in this way that fiction exerts its authority, an authority in which readers share - as she says, 'The books we love speak for us and speak to us. I am always in dialogue with books that have affected me.' (Ford agrees with this last, somewhat inconsistently) - and not, as Ford would have it, to which we 'submit'.


Adrian Slatcher said...

An interesting-ish article from Richard Ford, but he did go on a bit didn't he?

Anonymous said...

I'm with Winterson too. While I think that Orwell was on the mark in Why I Write when he listed sheer egoism as first on his list of writer's motivations, and I think writing requires arrogance, that egoism has many forms and mastery over others is not prime among them.

Regardless of how we conceptualise the process, writing is always a dialogue we have with ourselves. For me, Winterson's idea of a code exactly describes it. But for others who envisage their audience when they write, isn't the audience also a creation of their inner language? And isn't it when writers think that audience is a rigid, external thing that they write dead words?

Writers can and do influence others, but only when they invite others to take a journey with them. Not when they tell readers where to go.

(And isn't that a phrase with a double meaning, both appropriate?)