Sunday, June 29, 2008

Short Stories in a Vacuum

I'm invited this Thursday to the award ceremony for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, and I've been thinking again about the comment made by last year's judge A L Kennedy:
The magazines that used to print stories have largely disappeared and they're left to be harried by endless small-scale competitions that merrily dictate size, content, themes and title options.
I rather think that that word 'merrily' sums up the shift in culture which this situation reflects. I've won one or two short-story competitions, and some writers of my acquaintance have won several apiece, and I won't deny that it's great publicity for the writer and great acknowledgment for individual stories when this happens, but this doesn't stop me thinking that a short-story culture primarily generated by competitions is never going to be as serious as that mainly supported by serious literary magazines.

One can't easily write into a vacuum and I would suggest that that's what this recent culture has created, a vacuum, in spite of those defining strictures - titles, themes, etc. These are simply not serious parameters. As I've said before, a serious piece of writing is not primarily characterized by its subject matter (although current marketing trends could have you thinking so). Take any subject - as these single-story competitions do - and you can approach it via any number of literary modes, traditional or experimental, any number of voices or narrative approaches. Writers entering competitions are basically taking pot luck: who knows if the one or two judges (so often writers) brought in, or indeed the anonymous early sifters, will share your literary agenda - or, more to the point, if they don't (since the odds are that they won't) how likely would it be that they'd be prepared to give it a prize however brilliant your story may be on its own literary terms? Personally, I'd never send a story into a competition which I hadn't already written anyway, but I hear all the time of writers writing stories specifically for competitions, and, as I've said before and as I think A L Kennedy is indicating, one wonders what this - a writing life of adapting to expectations which are after all usually only second-guessed- is doing to deflect them from their own potential literary agendas (and to very little avail when they don't win).

A serious literary magazine, on the other hand, will be based on a recognizable literary agenda and provide a nurturing community. (It's true that magazines sometimes run these competitions, but when they do I'd say they are a departure from truly literary concerns and are simply money-making schemes: we don't want your story really - though we'll stick the one the judge chooses in - what we want is your cash. When we were running the short-story mag Metropolitan our funders frequently suggested to us we ran competitions to raise money; for the reasons I'm outlining here we never did). In a climate where a lot of different literary magazines exist the talented short-story writer will usually find a home for his or her stories. I'm thinking of Ambit and the London Magazine, I'm looking back further to mags like Bananas and The Transatlantic Review. But I'm also looking forward and hoping that the forthcoming Horizon Review heralds a new flowering of serious lit mags supported by the web. This new online journal espouses the tradition (it's named after Cyril Connelly's 1940s Horizon) yet its editor Jane Holland looks forward to even greater possibilities afforded by the web:
I’m not interested in becoming too prescriptive about the sort of poetry, fiction, critical prose or literary oddities I’d like to receive from contributors. I’m not positioning myself either left, right or dead centre of the mainstream. What I will be seeking, however, in the work received, is an openness: to the physical, to the wider world, to ideas and language, and to the possibility of failure.

It may seem strange to be discussing failure here. But a willingness to take risks, even quite dangerous ones, is something I admire and encourage in writers. Literature without risk is like a meal without salt: predictable and unappealing. It’s important to bear in mind though that any risks should be based on the percentages, not taken at random or to extremes. Don't try this at home, etc.

I don’t want Horizon to be a cosy refuge for writers looking for allies and a comfortable place to sleep. I want it to prickle with energy, both negative and positive; to challenge preconceptions about the writing of poetry and fiction; to question methods of criticism and modes of thinking in a frank and open manner.

I tell you, I read that and I knew this was the place to send my most recent story (and indeed she accepted it) and I didn't have to send it off to some competition with that sinking feeling of chucking a bottle with a message off a cliff into the sea...

* Postscript: Jane Holland's statement about risk is an important one in relation to the competition culture. As she is implying, the risk of failure is built into experimentation - not only the failure of acceptance created by the conventional expectations of others but true aesthetic failure. But who wants to risk failure in a competition? Thus competitions can contribute towards a conventionalization of our short-story culture...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fiction as Thesis

I like the way The Guardian gives the right of reply to (admittedly selected) artists criticized in its pages, and today I'm particularly taken by Anthony Neilson's reply to Michael Billington's critique of his new play Relocated (Jerwood Theatre Upstairs). I don't know the play, and I tend to admire the thoughtfulness of Billington's writing and his commitment to championing political writing, but Neilson says something which strikes a deep chord with me, and which I believe also has implications for the ways in which we read prose fiction.

Billington complains about the 'general thesis' of the play, thus, says Neilson, not only misunderstanding the nature of his play but revealing an acceptance of the kind of play - the 'play-as-thesis' - which Neilson goes on to condemn:
This is the great danger of the play-as-thesis. It assumes that the play is an expression of the playwright's character. And, since playwrights desire approval as much as the next person, it leads to dishonest and complacent work. A play should reflect life as the playwright sees it - not as they, or anyone else, wishes it to be. If one sees a world in which there are no permanent truths, it is dishonest to fabricate them for the sake of approbation. Worse, it is a dereliction of duty. A play-as-thesis is by nature reductive, an attempt to bring order to the unruliness of existence. But bringing order is the business of the state, not the artist.
Interestingly, a Guardian book blog yesterday by Sam Jordison echoes something of these sentiments in relation to JM Coetzee's Disgrace in particular (which he finds too much a novel-as-thesis) and Booker winners in general.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Fantasies of Real-Life Readers

Another novelist complains about the tendency of readers to read her books as autobiographical. Self-described 'mum-lit' author Kirsty Scott joins the protest on the Guardian books blog.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

It's Just a Middle-Class Money Thing...

Reviewing The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness for The Guardian today, Frank Cottrell Boyce makes an articulate case against the 'age-banding' of books for children. Actually, he says, the disaster has already happened in the categorization of books for 'young adults': there have always been adult books which teenagers have enjoyed, but these were books which teenagers chose for themselves. Then:
Some time ago, someone saw that trend and turned it into a demographic. Fortunes were made but something crucial was lost. We have already ghettoised teenagers' tastes in music, in clothes and - God forgive us - in food. Can't we at least let them share our reading? Is there anything more depressing than the sight of a "young adult" bookshelf in the corner of the shop. It's the literary equivalent of the "kids' menu" - something that says "please don't bother the grown-ups". If To Kill a Mockingbird were published today, that's where it would be placed, among the chicken nuggets.

This is not just a question of taste. It seems to me that the real purpose of stories and reading is to take you out of yourself and put you somewhere else. Anything that is made to be sold to a particular demographic, however, will always end up reflecting the superficial concerns of that demographic.
Exactly: books are for stretching you, growing you, educating you - for adults, too, which is why I've always questioned any publishing marketing philosophy based on the notion of simply catering for an already established need, of which the proposed age-banding is just the latest form. Simon Juden, chief exec of the Publishers Association is being disingenuous when he argues for it as a philanthropic gesture towards children and their parents: 'We don't want a child not to be bought a book as a present because the adult doesn't know where to start'; and it is depressing that critics of the 'No to Age-banding' campaign on the Guardian books blog appear to have swallowed this wholesale and in their clamorous endorsement of such 'help' for parents have revealed a regrettably blinkered - if not I'm-alright-Jack - view of the matter of children and reading:

In another comments thread on a post by Michael Rosen on what might be done to encourage the enjoyment of reading, commenters repeat the view that it's the parents' responsibility to teach children reading, not the government (and this is why age-banding is such a good thing: to help parents in this task). Well, I don't know which world these people are living in, but in the one I taught in for several years and in which my partner still works as an educational psychologist, there's a whole population of kids out there who don't and/or can't read because their parents don't or can't read and in some cases, particularly with boys, actively discourage reading as effete and middle-class. There's a very thoughtful post over at Juxtabook (recommended by one of the Guardian commenters) which I too would recommend to you as a wholly accurate and moving depiction of the relationship such children have with books, but I disagree with his conclusion that age banding would be useful to their parents. In my view it's about as useful and attractive to them as fags to non-smokers, because they simply won't be going into bookshops in the first place. And Simon Juden of course knows this last - it's the already book-oriented classes (and the publishers' golden goose) which age banding is targeting.

And as for those children's-book buying middle classes: do Simon Juden etc really think that aunties going into the bookshop to buy presents for Christmas and birthdays constitute the main bulk of the children's book market? And not those kids let loose in the children's departments on Saturday afternoons seeing and grabbing and ignoring or influencing the adult choices (and dropping like hot bricks anything labelled with an age range other than the ones they'd like to be identified with, which might well not include their own)?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Amazon Trickery

I replicate the blog written by Clare Sudbery for Bookarazzi:

Amazon has been removing the “buy button” from some of the Hachette Livre books and also removing some of their titles from promotional positions such as “Perfect Partner”, in order to apply pressure on them to give Amazon even better commercial terms than it presently receives.

Larger British book retailers already receive the most generous terms in the English-language world from publishers, including Hachette Livre. Of the “cake” represented by the recommended retail price of a general book, major retailers including Amazon already receive on average well over 50%. Despite these advantageous terms, Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at the publishers' expense. (You may have read in the press a few weeks ago of Amazon’s penalties against Bloomsbury and its authors). If this continued, it would not be long before Amazon got virtually all of the revenue that is presently shared between author, publisher, retailer, printer and other parties. (Again, you may have read that in the USA Amazon has been demanding that it should take over the printing, initially of print-on-demand titles, dictating its own royalty terms to publishers and authors). Hachette Livre are politely but firmly saying that these encroachments need to stop now. Declining all additional terms demands is the approach that HL take with all major retailers, and it is particularly important in relation to Amazon.

Amazon has grown very rapidly since it launched and it now makes some 16% of all book sales in Britain. The creativity, value and range offered and the standards of service that have made Amazon so successful, are respected. At its present rate of growth, which was 30% last year, Amazon would become the largest bookseller in Britain in about three years. The retail market for book is not increasing and therefore much of this growth would inevitably come at the expense of “bricks and mortar” booksellers. This is of course not a criticism of Amazon, and no publisher can or should tell the public where to shop. However, it is a concern that more and more traditional booksellers are having to close their doors, with skilled individual booksellers losing their jobs, and this is due in part to Amazon’s aggressively low pricing on prominent titles. Therefore, despite their limited role in respect of these changes in the retail landscape, Hachette Livre are determined not to provide Amazon with further ammunition with which it could damage booksellers who offer a personal service, browsing facilities and other valuable benefits to the reading public.

Amazon’s reputation to date has been built on range, service and honest recommendations to customers. Their current actions represent reduced range and service together with distorted recommendations – effectively creating a breach of trust between Amazon and its customers, particularly its “Prime” customers who have paid to have free delivery on a comprehensive range of books."

Hachette Livre is a large umbrella organisation, which encompasses the following publishers:

Little, Brown Book Group (includes Abacus, Virago, Sphere, Piatkus, Orbit, Atom)
Orion Publishing Group (Orion, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Gollancz)
Headline Publishing Group
Hodder & Stoughton (includes Sceptre)
Hachette Children's Books (includes Franklin Watts, Orchard, Hodder, Wayland)
Hodder Education Group
John Murray
Octopus Publishing Group (includes Bounty, Cassel, Conran Octopus, Hamly, Gaia, Mitchell Beazley, Miller, Philips)
They also have subsidiaries in India, Aus, NZ...

This isn't the first time Amazon has used this tactic. Earlier this year Amazon.com removed Buy buttons from selected books of publishers who refused to switch their Print-on-demand publishing to Amazon's newly bought POD company (see Bookseller story here (http://tinyurl.com/3efuy5)). They really are bullies.

Amazon and the supermarkets have consistently been putting the squeeze on publishers in this way, making it harder and harder for independent publishers to operate, not to mention small bookshops (who don't have the same muscle and can't compete). The ultimate losers are the authors, who get a smaller and smaller slice of the pie. I got 70p per book with a cover price of £10.00. When books are sold at a discount, the author gets significantly less than that (percentages vary according to contract, but they're typically less than 10% of cover price).

Things you can do to help:

Contact Amazon (http://tinyurl.com/4skfzf)
Copy this post, or write your own, on your blog / website / via email
Boycott Amazon (alternative book sources: localbookshops.co.uk, abebooks.co.uk, bookdepository.co.uk, Waterstones.com, Play.com, actual physical bookshops, or where possible buy through authors' and publishers' own websites).
Write to newspapers
Contact the competition commission (email: info@cc.gsi.gov.uk This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )

Monday, June 09, 2008

Review: Inglorious by Joanna Kavenna

Seems to me that the awarding of the Orange New Writers Prize to Inglorious by Joanna Kavenna is a gloriously heartening sign that timid conservatism does not always rule in the contemporary literary world.

This book, which was sent to me by Faber and which I had only just finished reading when it won last week, is a delicious anti-novel, breaking many of the rules which writers are so often taught to stick to and sidestepping many of the (same old) conventions publishers seem to believe the reading public requires in its books.

For a start there's no story or action in the conventional sense: and that's the point, the wonderful, clever and to me totally gripping point. Rosa Lane, 'thirty-five and several months', is a successful journalist in a settled relationship, but once she begins grieving the death of her mother this life comes to seem to her no longer a structured story but a state of stasis - 'She had spent the previous ten years in a holding position'; 'Instead of seeing herself as the centre of her own small world, with the city as a backdrop to her life, she began to see everything as a fractured mess.' Rosa quits her job and immediately her life begins to unravel as, comically and painfully, she becomes further mired in stasis, increasingly unable to act, enraging her friends who want her to do something, merely walking around the city and observing everything with an alien's vivid eye, thinking herself into greater and greater intellectual contortions steeped in literary references, and making hilarious To Do lists which she never carries out and which sum up her existential muddle:
Things to do, Monday

Get a job.
Wash your clothes
Go to the bank and beg them for an extension....
Read the comedies of Shakespeare, the works of Proust, the plays of Racine and Corneille and The Man Without Qualities...
Clean the toilet.
Rosa's alienation creates an ironic commentary on contemporary society and her flights of fantasy makes for splendid social satire: 'We can do you an appointment for Thursday,' the bank clerk tells Rosa, and as she clips off to arrange it Rosa riffs silently:
We can do you an eviction on Tuesday, she thought. We can do you a spell in a reform centre for the fiscally incompetent on Wednesday.

What this book is portraying of course is an emotional breakdown (shock-horror: a 'dark' subject!) but it is done with such lightness of touch and such linguistic relish that there is nothing gloomy about it - quite the contrary. And Rosa is an anti-hero: you want to wring her neck at times, but that's the point - she's involving; I at any rate was utterly hooked on knowing whether or not she would ever kick-start her life again. In any case, it is Rosa's vivid and witty imaginings which power the book and render it buoyant and dynamic . There is a story, of course, on the emotional and imaginative level, which is the real level for fiction, after all.

So, great that Faber published it in the first place, and the fact that it won should dispel the nervousness implied by its packaging (an American paperback edition was blatantly 'chick-litty', and I'm not sure that the 'ironic populist' English edition [above] works for any market).

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Error of Age Banding

Three cheers for Philip Pullman, Anne Fine and Adele Geras for their beautifully articulated objection to publishers' plans to 'age band' books for children, which you can find at their dedicated website - where you can add your name to a list of objectors. I replicate their main points here:
  • Each child is unique, and so is each book. Accurate judgments about age suitability are impossible, and approximate ones are worse than useless.
  • Children easily feel stigmatized, and many will put aside books they might love because of the fear of being called babyish. Other children will feel dismayed that books of their ‘correct’ age-group are too challenging, and will be put off reading even more firmly than before.
  • Age-banding seeks to help adults choose books for children, and we're all in favour of that; but it does so by giving them the wrong information. It’s also likely to encourage over-prescriptive or anxious adults to limit a child's reading in ways that are unnecessary and even damaging.
  • Everything about a book is already rich with clues about the sort of reader it hopes to find – jacket design, typography, cover copy, prose style, illustrations. These are genuine connections with potential readers, because they appeal to individual preference. An age-guidance figure is a false one, because it implies that all children of that age are the same.
  • Children are now taught to look closely at book covers for all the information they convey. The hope that they will not notice the age-guidance figure, or think it unimportant, is unfounded.
  • Writers take great care not to limit their readership unnecessarily. To tell a story as well and inclusively as possible, and then find someone at the door turning readers away, is contrary to everything we value about books, and reading, and literature itself.

Monday, June 02, 2008

A Bookseller Tells it Like it Is

Belatedly I commend to you this devastating post at The Age of Uncertainty. Its author, Steerforth, who has been a beacon of sense and sensitivity in a world of bookselling madness has now given up his position as a Waterstone's branch manager and lays out his sobering reasons why.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Winehouse and Raleigh

How curious, some of the reactions to the fact that Amy Winehouse lyrics appeared on the prac crit section of this year's Cambridge English Tripos. What a pity that the Cambridge university spokesman fuelled the complaints of The Campaign for Real Education that this was 'dumbing down' by commenting that 'Cambridge dons live in the modern world' (which has been represented by some journalists as meaning that they'll do anything to look up-to-date), instead of sticking to the examiners' excellent justification: 'The idea is to assess students' abilities at dealing with unseen writings from across the field of English literature' - ie, as Mary Beard indicates, to assess their ability to think for themselves (which is the real education, don't you know, all you Campaigner folks!).

As it happens, both Professors John Sutherland and Michael Dobson show that the Winehouse lyrics stand up well to the comparison with Raleigh which the question required:

Look at this stanza and ask yourself: is it from a 15th-century poet, or a 21st-century chanteuse?

Tho' I battled blind,
Love is a fate resigned
Memories mar my mind,
Love is a fate resigned.

In a blindfold test (another favourite prac-crit technique) a lot of readers, I believe, would think it's of Elizabeth I, not Elizabeth II vintage. It's Winehouse, of course. Top marks to whoever set the paper. (Sutherland)


Both lyrics, in their different idioms, are in fact highly conventional, and each lapses blurrily at times into the poetical cliches of its own day (Winehouse's phrase 'the final frame' in this context perhaps risks confusing the vocabulary of the pop video with that of snooker); but both are clearly the work of writers with an assured grasp of those conventions, and acutely aware of the needs music imposes on, and finds within, language. (Dobson)

In any case, I'd have thought that the ability to discriminate for themselves between good and bad literature is a skill we would rather like those grads most likely to end up running our publishing houses to have.

Though, considering some of the trends in publishing, and the fact that
A student who sat the paper said: 'It was really bizarre. I sat there looking at the paper in shock. I wouldn't consider a controversial pop singer a literary figure'
you wonder if this exam was a case of shutting the stable door too late.