Thursday, April 26, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Yawning Over Short Stories?

Not that much talk about the short story, though. Admittedly I'm in a hurry this morning, but one newspaper report on the National Short Story Competition result , announced yesterday, is all I can find.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Coming Up Trumps

Congratulations to Julian Gough, perhaps the least well known of the shortlisters, for winning the National Short Story Competition. I heard his story, The Orphan and the Mob, on Radio 4, and it was indeed for me a true short story: something luminous and apparently miniature holding something huge and profound, texturally complex yet vivid, patterned and musical and rich with allusion and, above all, a close attention to language. And, in that these qualities were preserved, beautifully adapted for radio. A great winner, plenty of controversy to set people talking about the short story: maybe the competition has come up trumps after all.

I am privileged to pull up here Julian's comment on my posts on the subject, a fascinating description of his response to the radio adaptation process:
"I'm glad you liked my comments on the problems of pushing highly individual works of art down distribution channels designed to handle a standard product.

I have very recent experience of the process, having had my shortlisted story ("The Orphan and the Mob") cut to fit the BBC's thirty minute slot.

Not having read the small-print, I hadn't realised the BBC were going to cut my story until they'd already abridged it and recorded it. The deed was done with no input from me whatsoever. And as you say, when you take out bits of a short story, it isn't the same story any more. A story is about the arrangement of parts, about particular rhythms and resonances, and all of that is totally altered when bits are cut out.

In my case, they removed all the swearing and a lot of the biological detail. Jokes were shortened. (Three variations on a comic riff would be cut back to one, so there was no sense of a riff at all).

So what they broadcast wasn't my story. It was something else.

But... but... but... having been through the process... and having been furious at first... I have come round to another way of looking at it.

Because the finished broadcast was superb. It wasn't my story, but it was great radio. At my suggestion they had cast Conor Lovett, the finest Beckett actor of his generation, as the 18-year old Jude. The BBC had started by auditioning 18 and 20 year olds straight out of drama school. When I reacted with horror, and suggested Conor Lovett, they auditioned him and loved him and cast him. Trust me, the lack of ego required to do that, and the sensitivity to the writer's suggestions, would never occur in, say, the film industry.

And the abridgement was, in its way, terrific. It was sensitive to the rhythms of the piece, and when it changed them, as it did, it managed to find new rhythms that worked. Usually slightly faster, more staccato ones, because of the cuts, but that gave it an energy which a linear medium like radio needs.

They took out some of my favorite Irish swearing ("Ardcrony ballocks!") and all mentions of urethral sphincters (and the original had a lot of them), but I can understand that, at three thirty in the afternoon, if the BBC broadcast my story intact, it would probably not get its charter renewed. Do you really want the playgrounds of England to resound to cries of "Ardcrony ballocks!" I think not.

And much of the cutting made it work better for radio. You can't pretend a short story is best transferred intact to radio. It isn't. My story ended with a purely visual sequence, where Jude, as he leaves the burning orphanage, hears the scratched orphanage single clearly for the first time. We read his uncomprehending and phonetic version of the lyrics,

"Some...
Where...
Oh...
Werther...
Aon...
Bo..."

and we realise (but he does not) that it's "Somewhere over the rainbow..."

Well all that just cannot be done on the radio. The bilingual puns ("Aon bo" is the Irish for "One cow") and all the rest only exist as words on paper. They've got to go.

But this is radio: And what they replaced all the description with was simply this: the song itself, rising over Jude's final words (which are, unknown to Jude, from the Wizard of Oz, and from Yeats' "Leda and the Swan", and which work fine on the radio.)

And with Conor Lovett's truly extraordinary delivery, and Judy Garland's actual voice, I think the BBC created a moment that was better, more emotionally powerful, than my original. I really did feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck, and along my legs, no kidding.

And that is why, even though the BBC cut off my ballocks and removed my urethral sphincter, I think they should have their charter renewed. They can't win, trying to broadcast tough art in daytime slots. But they do as good a job as anyone could, and the alternative isn't a Nirvana of great art broadcast uncut to millions at lunchtime. It's no art broadcast at all.

A bit of me would like everyone, everywhere, to hear all of it, at all hours. But that's a child's wish. Everyone everywhere doesn't want to hear it, urethral sphincters and all.

And the original story still exists on the page for all of those who do.

And my mum rang me after the broadcast to tell me how much she'd enjoyed it. Which was a result."

Friday, April 20, 2007

Fact, Fiction and the Truth

Mark Lawson, chair of the judges for the NESTA-endowed National Short Story Competition (which I note he is calling the Radio4/Prospect prize) gives his take today on the censorship row (over Hanif's Kureishi's shortlisted entry), and in the process makes some acute points about fiction. He worries
that we are imposing a kind of touchy-feely D-notice on authors who achieve one of the main justifications of writing: describing the world as it is... Fiction should not be penalised for understanding fact.
It is as if, as I said earlier this week, we expect fiction to remain in some safe fantasy world which cushions us from reality. Yet here's an apparent conundrum. Earlier this week in the same paper, The Guardian, Mark Ravenhill bemoaned a situation about which I have also often complained: that there is an apparent tendency to look for fact in our literary art, that we seem hooked on plays about real events and real-life people.

But it's not a conundrum really. As I have said before, and as Ravenhill says, there's something of the security blanket about docu-dramas and memoirs. For the audience or the reader of these forms there is I believe a psychological mechanism working whereby we can distance the experience or situation being portrayed: it all happened to someone else, a particular defined person. Although many would claim to love a memoir because it 'described their own experience', the memoir in fact operates as a kind of 'shifting machine' and on the most fundamental level we don't have to identify. Whereas, as Mark Lawson points out, a successful piece of fiction creates a generic situation from a specific phenomenon, ie it universalises and thus forces identification by the reader.

As Ravenhill says, the creative imagination can be thus frightening. It is, as I said in my last post, why a story about a situation can be seen as too dangerous to broadcast when news reports of similar real-life situations aren't. It is why a certain kind of fiction apparently doesn't sell.

It is as if, caught in a world of spin and media-generated fantasy, we become hooked in compensation on 'fact, fact, fact', yet, creatures of our time, we can't really bear the truth.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Who's Afraid of the Big Short Story?

The BBC insists that it is not cancelling but postponing the broadcast of Hanif Kureishi's story Weddings and Beheadings (shortlisted for the National Short Story competition), and implies, interestingly, that its motives are not entirely political but also literary. On Radio 4's Today programme this morning, John Humphrys reports that one BBC concern is that if broadcast of the story were to take place during the current crisis (concerning BBC reporter Alan Johnston), this would affect the way 'the story would be perceived'.

But this of course begs all sorts of questions. For one, does the BBC - as some of us have long suspected - not consider that short stories should be perceived in any political light? Are short stories not meant to be political? Are they supposed to remain in some kind of cosy tea-and-buns English-heritage world of 'entertainment'? Kureishi, interviewed this morning by Humphrys, refuses to budge from his position, insisting that the move is censorship, stating that the BBC 'should be committed to relevant and contemporary work', and that one of his jobs as a writer is indeed to write about the contemporary world.

But what about the feelings of Johnston's family? asks Humphrys. And here we get to the nub of the matter. What about the feelings of Johnston's family when Humphrys introduces the item by reminding us that a little-known group has claimed to have killed him? What's the difference? Well, of course we know the difference: good fiction makes us live and feel the truth of our contemporary world in a way far beyond the scope of news bulletins. This is the power of fiction; it is the power of which the BBC and much of our media nowadays, committed to bland entertainment, seem afraid.

But I am delighted to find the short-listers in this competition kicking up against this media stranglehold, on the short story in particular. First Julian Gough, now this, and later on in today's programme, Jonathan Falla using the publicity afforded by the competition to draw attention to the dire status of the short story within British culture: a publisher to whom he sent his short-listed story (offering a collection) replied that he had not even scanned it, since short stories are so hard to sell (something Salt would not agree with).

On the surface of things, the radio commitment seems like a brake on the possibilities of this competition, but in the event it seems to be exposing some of the important questions about the short story in Britain today.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Piping Up on the Wireless

Yesterday I wrote about the literary restrictions BBC broadcast must inevitably place on the short stories in the National Short Story Competition, but today we witness the BBC imposing a restriction of a different, but maybe not unconnected, kind: political censorship, as Hanif Kureishi calls the cancellation of his short-listed story Weddings and Beheadings 'in the wake of the news that BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston has been killed by a jihadist group'. Kureishi is implied to be furious, and is crying freedom of speech, as authors half-delight in doing on such occasions, knowing full well that if a piece of work is worth banning then it must have hit a true nerve and is probably pretty something.

And on this morning's BBC Today programme fellow short-lister Julian Gough, who made clear that his story too has profound political undercurrents, gave somewhat excited and rebellious voice to the idea that forcing literature into marketing time-slots is crazy: 'The art gets mangled going down that pipe.'

You can't hear Jackie Kay talking about her story yesterday, as the links on the BBC website seem in fact to have got mangled. Broadcast yesterday afternoon, it was the beautifully captured perspective of a Glaswegian man in despair and intent on committing suicide but slowly pulling himself together as he gets involved in the practicalities. For me, though, it was less subtle than many of her other stories, and you can just imagine that clever Jackie pitching it, with its single focus and repetitions, specifically for the parameters of radio.

Monday, April 16, 2007

National Short Story Competition

The shortlist for the National Short Story Competition was unveiled on Friday, and I'm wondering whether the fact that I can't find any news reports about it is yet more evidence of our national lack of interest in the short story, or of the fact that news editors, like me, find the competition an uninspiring creature. Last year, its first year, this competition attracted over 1,400 entries, but this year only 428 entered, presumably discouraged by the establishment status of last years' winners. Well, OK, nothing wrong with sorting the wheat from the chaff (ie ensuring the seriousness of entrants) and signalling from the start that this is to be a competition of status, but the suspicion arose then that there was a focus on a certain kind of status, and at the expense of innovation for which the short story can be a supreme vehicle.

It's hard to comment on something you went in for but failed at, without looking as if you're crying sour grapes, but (Bitch that I am) I'll go ahead anyway.

In fact there are names on this year's shortlist which are unfamiliar to me *, and clearly it is only by listening to the stories (all this week on Radio 4) that we'll be able to judge, but the fact that the shortlist consists of five men and one woman with a story about a man fails at this juncture to reassure that the establishment flavour has been dispelled. Jackie Kay, the one woman and the only writer on the list whose short stories I know well, is indeed a brilliant short-story writer: her stories are lucid, tight, vivid and utterly humane. And here's an important point: they work beautifully on radio.

For this is the unacknowledged requirement of any story submitted for this competition: it needs to work on radio, broadcast being part of the prize. Stories with a conversational voice like those of Jackie's work on radio, stories with strong characterisation (again like Jackie's) work on radio, as do monologues and stories without too much dialogue allowing a credible reading by an actor. There are stories which definitely don't work on radio: strongly non-linear stories, stories with typographical patterning, or any kind of innovation which can't be picked up easily by the ear. It is hard not to conclude that certain kinds of stories would be out of the running.

Here is one of the competition rules:
'By submitting a story Entrants agree that the BBC may in its sole discretion edit, adapt or abridge it for the sole purposes of broadcast.' (My italics)
Well, as far as I'm concerned anyone who can make a rule like that simply doesn't understand the nature of short stories - that the perfect short story is a web of connections, all of its parts perfectly orchestrated, that it has to be the length it is and not a scheduler's required minute count.

As last year, the judges' comments have betrayed a similarly reductive and slightly defensive approach to the short story. On Radio 4 Monica Ali spoke only of the range of subject-matter covered in the shortlist. On the BBC website chair Mark Lawson again stresses subject matter, stating that
this year's selection makes very clear that there is no connection at all between word-count and the scale of subject-matter or characterisation that can be achieved
and James Lasdun (also last year's winner), when asked what was the essential value of the short story(admittedly he was being rushed), reacted like a rabbit caught in the headlights and could only come up with 'Economy.'

* Edited in: As last year, every author on the short list is however a published novelist.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

A long time ago, when I was hardly a writer, I was taken to a talk given to a Science faculty by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut shambled onto a stage where an old-fashioned blackboard had been placed. He picked up the chalk and proceeded to draw. He drew waves and wiggly lines and arrows dipping in and out of the waves. He was drawing for us the creative process and his own imagination. I don't know what that scientific audience made of it, but it was the moment which crystallized for me what writing was all about: about making connections, and finding forms to show those connections, and, in the service of that, daring to be brave and eccentric and not to give a hoot for the expected conventions.

A great writer has gone. Everyone else has said it, so I may as well: So it goes.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Cult of Youth? Pff!

An unnamed editor and Arrow publishing director Kate Elton are to be congratulated for flying in the face of the cult of youth and, respectively, rescuing from the slush pile and publishing the memoir of 96-year-old Harry Bernstein. And hooray for Bernstein, I say.

Here's what Bernstein has to say:
If I had not lived until I was 90, I would not have been able to write this book. It just could not have been done even when I was 10 years younger. I wasn't ready. God knows what other potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive well into their 90s.
Interestingly, the International Herald Tribune reports: Because Bernstein's book arrived without a cover letter from an agent, Elton said, "it had none of the overhyped pitch that you sometimes get with these things, and I read it without knowing what I was getting at all" which makes one wonder if agent hype sometimes gets in the way of a book's chances with jaded or cynical publishers.

Mind you, this book is a memoir, the current golden egg laying goose of publishers. Bernstein, a lifelong writer who has only now achieved his breakthrough, tells us:
I realized ... why I had failed in writing novels. Because I turned away from personal experience and depended on imagination.
I know what he means: that had he confronted his personal experience via fiction, then his fiction might have been more successful, but the statement is unfortunately in danger of feeding into the current prejudice against fiction or 'imagination' in favour of memoir and 'fact'.

Thanks to Grumpy Old Bookman for the link.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Google Book Search

In yesterday's Guardian John Lanchester tackles the issue of copyright and Google Book Search in a wide-ranging and thoughtful article which counterbalances the alarmed views of publisher Nigel Newton expressed in the same paper a year ago. Lanchester points out that there is no breach of copyright in GBS: if publishers do not join the book-scanning programme then only a tiny snippet of text of any of their books in print is available, yet the books are drawn to public attention and links provided to shops and libraries where they are available - which seems to me more like a service and free advertising than anything, as Kate Hyde points out on her blog. And if publishers do opt in, then only 20% of a book is available online, and you have to buy it or borrow it from a library to read the rest.

The real area of contention, says Lanchester, is those books which are still in copyright but out of print, and which 'Google wants to make available online.' His implication seems to be that Google wants to make them available online in their entirety: 'It seems to me this would mean, in some crucial sense, Google was actually the publisher of the book.'

When I recently discovered on Google Book Search two out-of-print short-story anthologies in which my work had appeared (courtesy of the participating Library of the University of Michigan) I was delighted - work which had been seemed to slip off the face of the earth was suddenly current again! - and when they disappeared off GBS a week or so later (as a result of the ongoing dispute?) I was disappointed. How many people will come across those publications if they are not reinstated on Google? In fact the books appeared in the usual Google formula: only a tiny snippet of the contents page of one was readable, and nothing of the other. Personally, though, I wouldn't have cared a fig if they had appeared whole. Actually, I'd have been happier: one of those stories of mine is not available to read anywhere else, the publishers are never going to reprint those books, and I can find only one used copy of one book and four of the other for sale on the web. Neither the publishers nor we contributors are going to make any more money out of those books, and I for one would rather those stories were still being read.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Identity Crisis

I haven't read Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, so I can't comment on Natasha Walter's review in last week's Guardian, but I am very interested in McEwan's reply to it this week. While acknowledging that the review was generally positive, he takes exception to the fact that Walter conflates one character's views of anti-nuclear campaigners with his own as the author - or indeed as a real-life person: Walter pronounces, 'You cannot judge a novelist for his political views'.

One would need to read the novel to be able to say whether there is a true distinction in attitude between character and author, but McEwan is a sophisticated and more than conscious enough writer for me to believe that there is, and for me his closing statement strikes a true chord:
I sometimes wonder whether these common critical confusions arise unconsciously from a prevailing atmosphere of empowering consumerism - the exaltation of the subjective, the "not in my name" syndrome. It certainly seems odd to me that such simple precepts need pointing up: your not "liking" the characters is not the same as your not liking the book; you don't have to think the central character is nice; the views of the characters don't have to be yours, and are not necessarily those of the author; a novel is not always all about you.
I have written previously here about the way that the Cult of Personality - powered, as McEwan indicates, by commercial imperatives - and the consequent appetite for memoir and the focus on the author of a fiction rather than the book, are eroding our understanding of the nature of fiction and the fictive process. This in turn erodes our appreciation of fiction and devalues it and leads to a situation in which, if he is to be believed, a publisher can persuade James Frey against his wishes to allow his work of fiction to be marketed as a memoir.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Literary Magazines and Online and Print Literary Communities

Daniel Green at The Reading Experience reacts more negatively than the Bitch, to say the least, to the news of Laurence Johns' new literary venture. He concentrates on a point the Bitch skipped over, Johns' statement made in answer to the question, What on earth would possess anybody, in the age of user-generated content and online communities, to engage with the expense and practical difficulties of a print magazine?: 'Reading is not something you do in front of a computer'. Green pours scorn on such a statement, pointing out that plenty of us are doing that just now, engaging in debates about literature at our computers.

Well, this last is true, of course, but one would hope that To Hell with Publishing will include a substantial element of online activity, as do US McSweeney's and innovative UK publisher Salt. Green says:
If Laurence Johns was truly interested in bringing readers to writers, he'd save himself money, and inevitable failure, by publishing those stories in a form accessible to readers who do spend at least some of their time "in front of a computer" but are nevertheless "people who love reading."
My reactions to this are mixed. Having once published a print literary magazine (in the days just before literature took off on the web) I have always said precisely that, that I would never do it that way again now that there is the web. But then, as Johns says, people do like a book to hold (and take to the bath), don't we? And how much of what we read online is literature, the primary thing, as opposed to debates about literature? And isn't it actual books which are generating discussion online? And as for community: well, I love this online literary community, but isn't it primarily a community of readers, rather than of Johns' concept of readers and writers interacting - and isn't it in the main reacting to the output of the mainstream publishers which, as we have established, are instrumental in suppressing our writers' most innovative and challenging work?

In the midst of all this comes news today of the possibility of an Arts Council-funding threat to one of our longest-running print literary mags, the London Magazine, which DJ Taylor, echoing Johns, claims 'prints work of genuine merit that would otherwise have difficulty finding a publisher'. Well, again, I have mixed feelings. Having once been published by the London Magazine I have a reflex reaction of loyalty, and I'm with Taylor when he points out that it's outrageous that such a project should suffer - nay, be killed off - for the sake of the Olympics. On the other hand, I have to say that the story I had printed there, and indeed any of the stories I have had printed in traditional print lit mags, have never had the kind of international attention given to those I've had published in an online magazine.

I can't help thinking that there has to be a new model (which maybe the London Magazine could embrace), a blending of the virtual and concrete literary worlds. I suppose it remains to be seen whether Johns' venture will be one answer.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Hellish Good Writing Gets an Alternative

The Observer reports an interesting and potentially exciting answer to an author problem discussed here recently, the difficulty of getting one's most innovative or challenging work published in an era of rampant commercialisation.

Rare book dealer Laurence Johns, Faber editor Lee Brackstone and Kevin Conroy Scott of the Wylie literary agency have launched a new project, To Hell with Publishing, which will embrace a limited edition traditional print literary journal, events with music and readings, and independently published books. The mission behind it all is, according to Johns, to create a literary community and to 'make it easer for writers and readers to communicate', as well as to allow authors to 'wrest back their creative freedom from the accountants' and to 'show work that ordinarily trade and mainstream publishers wouldn't publish', all beside finding 'space for new writers.'

This sounds great, and as far as the Bitch is concerned is truly innovative, at least in concept, since up to now, as I have pointed out previously, most alternative 'new writing schemes' have been concentrated on new writers, rather than on writing, and there has been no outlet for the work by more established writers which mainstream publishers, in their wisdom or folly (Who knows? But we should get a chance to judge for ourselves), deem uncommercial.

As the Observer points out, there's a clear precedent in the activities around Dave Eggers' US McSweeney's magazine, but there are already moves in this direction in the UK. My own publisher, Salt, is using innovative techniques to sell poetry and short stories and is about to begin a similar series of events in London's Whitechapel Gallery.

On Friday a standing-room-only Salt reading in Manchester provided the opportunity for several of us Salt authors to get together and plan further events, and seemed to prove that there are audiences eager to interact with writers in creative communities of this kind. (And it's not that it was non-commercial: a fair number of the authors' books were sold.)