Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jenny Diski: Not a Well-Behaved Guest

A very interesting article by Jenny Diski in today's Guardian, in which she recounts her recent 'sacking' as the guest editor of a student fiction anthology, for coming up with a different 8, out of the 15 pre-selected for her, from the ones the regular student editors wanted, and for her introduction, which failed to conform to the spirit of encouragement which, it turned out, the publication is intended to provide for 'new and developing student writers'.

This incident hinges on several important issues.

Firstly, the question of the guest editor. Students, anyone: never invite a guest editor unless you are going to hand over all editorial control to them for their issue! (This is why Ailsa Cox and I never had guest editors for the short story mag metropolitan, in spite of hints from our funders that it might be the politically correct or indeed exciting thing to do: we had our literary and aesthetic vision, indeed mission; on a marketing level we branded our mag with what I think was our distinctive vision; and we were NOT going to water any of that down.) It looks to me as if the student eds of this publication felt somewhat similarly, and indeed the editorship they handed Jenny Diski was a pretty toothless one, since they had already selected 15 from god knows how many, from which she was to reject only 7. One wonders: since Diski's views about this 15 were so very different from theirs, how many of those who didn't reach the final 15 might have found Diski's approval? (And this is a question which indeed arises every time you hear of the entries to major competitions being sifted beforehand, sometimes by less experienced sifters - as I'm always saying, ad nauseum.)

So why did they ask her? Looks like it was a marketing strategy, and I guess it usually is: a big name on the cover will sell more, full stop. But also the name of a serious literary novelist will create a halo of literary quality over the contributions to the book. But then Diski didn't play this last game: she said quite openly in the introduction that while all of the 8 stories in the anthology were competent, only a few met her standards for good, necessary writing. It's to Diski's credit and, if she's right about the stories, best for her reputation that she stuck to the guns of her own literary integrity. Personally I'd have balked somewhat earlier and bowed out, rather than lace these stories and their writers with this declaration of mediocrity in a publication which is presumably intended to sell (and you can absolutely see why the student editors wouldn't want to include it). Perhaps Diski doesn't expect the anthology to be on the open market, as her final statement in the Guardian article implies an inhouse circulation: 'I'm [sorry] that they thought a plea for serious writers to write seriously wasn't what new writers want to hear.'

But you know what? Diski has voiced the best-kept secret, the fact that there are lots of competent writers, but really good writers are quite rare. It's a fact which the funders of new writing, especially those with a community agenda, always deny, and which writers themselves collude in keeping quiet because it's just so scary (if it's true, how much smaller are my chances of being one of the great ones?). It's possible, too - as I think Diski may be implying - that encouraging merely competent writers to think they are good is a way of preventing them becoming good. Or are great writers great from the start anyway? Don't hit me for asking the question, please - it is a question which, as I've said before, occurred to me on the one or two occasions I came across school age literary geniuses.
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