Friday, July 31, 2009

Boyd Tonkin on the Short Story

Boyd Tonkin writes in the Independent about the disjunction between our perceptions of the short story as lightweight and the reality of it as a vibrant, and indeed burgeoning, form. He points out interestingly that major figures of our literary canon could be studied via their short stories alone without any loss of impression of their stature, and, pointing to the irony that Alice Munro has won the International Booker but would not qualify for the yearly prize, asks if short stories should now be eligible for the Booker. With a dig at The New Yorker, he takes issue too with the 'template' attitude to short story length (which I've complained about on this blog, with regard to lit mags and competitions) and that other form of lengthism, the prejudice against what Henry James called 'the blessed nouvelle'. He says rightly: 'The only rule is to write originally and well - whether the result takes two, five or twenty thousand words'. Hear, hear.

My own recent article on the current state of the short story here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Plagiarism: Proof and Power

OK, I was a bit rushed yesterday, so here today are some more detailed thoughts about the difficulties around plagiarism.

Many of the current blog discussions centre on internet writing forums, and I have nothing to add to the helpful guidelines in avoiding committing plagiarism offered to participants. But here are some thoughts on the vexed matter of situations where the power balance is more uneven, where professional writers with a platform are in a position to read the unpublished work of unknown, or less well-known, writers without a current platform.

Some blogs have been keen to insist that those with responsibility would be unlikely to filch ideas. But consider this: if you have ever been the editor of a literary magazine or a creative writing tutor, how often have you read a piece and thought, I wish I'd had that idea!? How often have you thought, What a pity that writer hasn't written that as well as they could have done, and: I could write it better! As a past editor and creative writing tutor I've had that response several times. I've never consciously filched someone else's ideas (I want my ideas to be my own) but how many times do you think people have had that response and then either cynically (come on, now, think about human nature!) or unconsciously (think about the subconscious workings of the human brain) gone on to write that idea for themselves?

What if you are on the judging panel of a competition with a well-known filmmaker who is arguing passionately for something whose subject matter really speaks to him and says he wants to make a film of it, but in the end it doesn't win and afterwards never sees the light of day. But then one day the filmmaker makes a film which is uncannily like that piece but doesn't bear the other author's name? Is this plagiarism, ie, did the filmmaker cynically use the idea, or was he so affected by the piece that it entered his subconscious - or did the piece indeed chime with obsessions that were already there? * How can you tell? How can you prove anything, especially if you are an unknown author with no voice and no status? How would you want to - it would all be so unpleasant, and yet maybe there was no malicious intent, so how would that make you look? How would that affect your potential career?

*Edited in: this is why there's no copyright on ideas (and why neither should there be) and why therefore it's so difficult to legislate on plagiarism.

What if you join a TV new writer scheme and the well-known tutor is so impressed by the idea you have entered that he wants to know exactly how you'd do it, and is impressed in turn by that. Your piece isn't chosen for production, but then next time you see the author's work there is your story - with some different trappings, but the important things, even down to the camera shots, identical to yours. Once again, what can you do? Nothing, beyond deciding to feel flattered, because you simply can't be sure it wasn't unconscious, and anyway YOU HAVE NO POWER. What's beyond dispute is that there's no way you can offer your idea to any other TV company, ever.

I don't want to be a damp blanket and scare new writers, but I don't think we should give anyone a false sense of security: these are real cases. Personally, I am very wary nowadays of where I show my unpublished work, and I no longer read unpublished work at readings unless they're going to be recorded or filmed.

Though as I said yesterday, I think the greater general awareness of the problem created by this debate can only be good.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Anti-Plagiarism Day

I'm a bit late to this as I was travelling today. It's Anti-Plagiarism day for literary bloggers, and all the links can be found at How Publishing Really Works.

I'm not so sure there are many easy answers to the problem of plagiarism, since as many bloggers point out it's a matter of ethics, you can't copyright ideas, and it can be hard to prove that mimicry wasn't unconscious (the plagiarist's classic defence).

Some bloggers are keen to reassure people that it doesn't happen very often and not to deter people from taking part in web writing forums, but I have to say I feel somewhat more cynical, having had personal experience of professionals plagiarising the work of unpublished authors and new writing schemes operating as cynical ideas-gathering exercises for the media.

Still, I think that making a noise about it in this way is probably just about the best thing to do: plagiarism is made much easier when people generally aren't aware of the problem.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Style Isn't Everything

I didn't catch Martin Amis's Guardian review of John Updike's posthumous collection of stories last weekend, but my curiosity was aroused when I saw the letters this week strongly disagreeing with his assessment that in this final book Updike had lost his ear.

Some readers of this blog will be aware of my own ambivalent feelings about Updike's writing. My repeated reading of Rabbit, Run at the age of fourteen was most surely one of the things which set me on the path of writing - I couldn't keep away from the book and its breathtaking prose, fluid yet concretely vivid; it was like stepping into a new way of being, which is of course what every teenager wants. Needless to say it is thus a fundamental part of my own mental/creative landscape, and if I have learnt anything as a writer, some of it I learnt from him. However, while I still cannot look at many of its paragraphs without, as Amis says, 'incredulous admiration', revisiting the book as an adult has been a troubling experience, and some of the reasons for this are unintentionally implicit in Amis's piece, which I've now read.

Amis begins his piece by quoting a small section from the new book and pointing out what he deems 'one infelicity and one howler' (which I'll discuss in more detail below), and goes on later to quote many apparently 'clunky' sentences and phrases. Dismayed for both Updike and himself (he says it's of 'increasingly urgent interest to the present reviewer, who is closing in on 60'), Amis calls this book and its apparent loss of form 'the portrait of the artist as an old man'. 'Age waters the writer down', says Amis, and his 'broad impression is that writers as they age lose energy (inspiration, musicality, imagistic serendipity)' but make up for this in craft. The loss of Updike's energy he accepts as given, therefore. The loss of craft he perceives puzzles him, and he wonders if this is due to Updike's increasing physical deafness - as if Updike, of all people, would ever lose his memory of verbal sound.

Well, now, excuse me while I put my face in my elbow and try not to laugh at the psychic precariousnes of literary machismo. If we do accept that this book represents a loss of form, why should it not be the result of illness rather than age per se - Updike died of lung cancer, with which he battled, and there must have been a period of loss of health before he was diagnosed? Amis does indeed refer to the need to copyedit and is aghast that the errors he sees in this book have slipped through this necessary stage. Personally, I'm getting a picture of Updike too ill to do that work (though one senses a deeper horror on the part of Amis at this indication that the superman writer may have ever needed to do it rather than having sprung fully-formed with cryptonite verbal immunity intact). But also why should it not have been the result of a lifetime of stratospheric literary success - getting written out (and it is maybe this which is worrying Martin). What about those older writers with no such ennui, whose lives have prevented them writing the stuff which, by the time they reach their sixties, they still have backed up? What about Marilynne Robinson? What about those who get older and madder and stronger, like Milton? It's true that old people get ill more often than the young, but Amis is wrong to conflate the two, infirmity and age, and in doing so he provides an unfortunate boost to the regrettable cult of youth and the dismissal of older writers which dominate our literary life.

But what if, as the first letter-writer suggests, the prose in this book of stories represents rather a deliberate change of style on Updike's part? When we experiment we often fail; was Updike merely failing in order to fail better? Indeed, as Amis points out, the stories in this collection are arranged chronologically, and the final story - towards which, in the writing process, Updike would have been working - is, according to Amis, 'quietly innovative'.

And what if, as all three Guardian letter-writers suggest, the prose in this collection is not, after all, bad?

Here is the first section Amis quotes
... Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land
pointing out the rime riche of 'prior' and 'prime' and the clunkiness of both sentences ending with 'his land'. And here are some others, full of the rhymes and repetitions with which he charges Updike:
ants make mounds like coffee grounds ...
polished bright by sliding anthracite ...
my bride became allied in my mind ...
except for her bust, abruptly outthrust...
Finally:
Let us end these painful quotes with what may be the most indolent period ever committed to paper by a major pen (and one so easy to fix: change the first "fall" to "autumn", or change the second "fall" to "drop"): "The grapes make a mess on the bricks in the fall; nobody ever thinks to pick them up when they fall." The most ridiculous thing about this sentence, somehow, is its stately semi-colon.
Well, I must say that here, out of context, and in the context of Amis's criticism, these sentences do seem to me pretty dire, but if you haven't read the book (and I haven't) they are out of context. And what strikes me about Amis's criticism is that he is not allowing for context. To Amis, it seems, repetitions and rhymes must always be bad and must always be unintentional. Well, now, tell that to a poet. Tell that to a writer of lyrical prose rather than the kind of pared-down yet glittering, forward-thrusting prose Amis himself writes, and previously written by Updike (and which of course I admire). It's a matter of style, and of mood, and of the things you need to say. Sometimes you do need a moment of clunkiness, you need to pull the reader up short, create a sense of dissonance, upset the world of your own prose, sacrifice its musicality for something deeper. Sometimes you want to loop the reader back to a previous moment, to reassess an earlier meaning - the major function of rhyme and repetition. I don't agree with Amis that the mere sound of the repetition of 'prior' and 'prime' in the first piece he quotes is offensive. I agree that it doesn't work, but this is because the two concepts linked by sound here are opposite, the sound pattern therefore cutting across the logical meaning of the prose rather than strengthening it.

I find it very interesting that Amis finds that (woops, two 'finds!)
now, denuded of a vibrant verbal surface, [the stories] sometimes seem to be neither here nor there - products of nothing more than professional habit. Then, too, you notice a loss of organisational control and, in one case, a loss of any sense of propriety.
Well, to get back to my earlier point, it's that lack of propriety that has latterly disturbed me about Updike's writing. Yes, I admire his prose, but I can't read this kind of thing in Rabbit, Run without wincing:
When confused, Janice is a frightening person. Her eyes dwindle in their frowning sockets and her little mouth hangs open in a dumb slot
not out of any knee-jerk feminism, but because of the way the beautiful, biting, wondrously precise prose (that 'dwindle', that 'slot'!) makes love to the mentality, Rabbit's, giving rise to this viewpoint.

Style isn't everything, you know.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

SF winner of Edge Hill Short Story Prize

Congratulations to both SF author Chris Beckett and small publisher Elastic Press: last night Beckett's collection of stories The Turing Test won the prestigious Edge Hill Prize over shortlisted collections from mainstream publishers by Ali Smith, Anne Enright, Sheena Mckay and Gerard Donovan. The Turing Test is a book of 'fourteen stories featuring, among other things, robots, alien planets, genetic manipulation and virtual reality, but which focus on individuals rather than technology, and deal with love and loneliness, authenticity and illusion, and what it really means to be human'.

Anne Enright won second prize with her collection, Yesterday's Weather. Chris Beckett also won the Readers' Prize, voted for by local reading groups and MA Creative Writing Students.

The judges, who read the shortlist selected by Edge Hill staff, were James Walton, journalist and chair of BBC Radio 4’s The Write Stuff, author and 2008 winner Claire Keegan and Mark Flinn, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Edge Hill University.

James Walton commented: ‘I suspect Chris Beckett winning the Edge Hill Prize will be seen as a surprise in the world of books. In fact, though, it was also a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand. Yet, once the judging process started, it soon became clear that The Turing Test was the book that we’d all been impressed by, and enjoyed, the most — and one by one we admitted it.

This was a very strong shortlist, including one Booker Prize winner in Anne Enright, and two authors who’ve been Booker shortlisted in Ali Smith and Shena Mackay. Even so, it was Beckett who seemed to us to have written the most imaginative and endlessly inventive stories, fizzing with ideas and complete with strong characters and big contemporary themes. We also appreciated the sheer zest of his story-telling and the obvious pleasure he had taken in creating his fiction.’

As I have commented previously, the stress of the Edge Hill Prize (which is the brainchild of my former co-editor Ailsa Cox), is on not only great writing but cohesive collections. At the award ceremony (which I attended) Mark Flinn said interestingly that the judging process had taught him that the short story collection takes us back to the song cycle of the past, in that it is more than a collection of narratives but involves an overall unity, and that Chris Beckett's collection in particular achieved this.