Thursday, July 24, 2014

13th International Conference on the Short Story in English, Vienna, July 2014

The biennial Conference on the Short Story in English brings practitioners and academics together, and I've often wished I could attend: being a full-time writer can be a pretty lonely business, and if you're not connected to a university, as I'm not, it can sometimes feel as if you're writing into a vacuum, unsure of the relevance or validity to the wider world of what you're trying to do. Ironically, however, a writer not affiliated to any university hasn't much chance of being funded for conferences (the Arts Council and the Welsh Academy to which I belong don't recognise conferences for funding purposes), and I've never been able to afford to pay for it myself. This year, however, I was invited to read and so I dug into my savings and went. It did indeed turn out to be a boost to my confidence in my concerns and aims as a writer.

There were so many events running simultaneously, including readings by writers and papers from academics, that one constantly had to make difficult choices, and I think this did create a bit of a divide. Although I wanted to support my writer friends and to hear and meet those I'd so far only read or heard of, I tended to choose panels over readings, as I was keen to know the latest thinking on the short story.

The buzz-word, I quickly discovered, is 'liminality': the general focus was on the short story as a prime locus of ambiguity and disorientation, and immediately I was fired up, since the preoccupation in my recent short stories has indeed been with uncertainty and fluidity (something that I find general readers sometimes struggle with, but which I'm constantly seeking ways to make palatable to them, as I passionately feel it's a truth about experience that we ignore at our peril). It was interesting too, to find literary studies being linked to Cognition Theory and studies of the brain which prove the role of reading in firing 'empathy neurones', and thus, as one speaker pointed out, of the importance of fiction, currently downgraded in our educational systems.

Panel highlights for me were:
  • An exceptional panel in which Ailsa Cox talked about the figure of the author in Alice Munroe's stories - another thing I've been preoccupied with recently in my writing: the role of the presence of the author in a short story - and Michelle Ryan-Sautour about the complex and problematic way in which it operates in Angela Carter's 'Black Venus.'
  • A panel on 'Death, Violence and the Art of the Short Story' in which Sabrina Voeltz spoke about the American death penalty and Joyce Carol Oates' 'Death Watch', and Michael Trussler used Nathan Englander's 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank' to consider issues of difficulties of articulation, in particular of the Holocaust.
  • A very enjoyable and moving panel for me (Welsh-born to a Welsh mother and Irish father) in which Ray French, who shares exactly the same background, and Kath Mckay talked about conflicted identity in second-generation Irish writing, and Moy McCrory considered the figure of the Banshee and its implications for the role of women in literature.
  • A plenary session on Epistemology, Cognition and the Short Story. Especially interesting to me was Carmen Birkle's paper on The Epistemology of the Medical Gaze in 19th-Century American Short Fiction, since the medical gaze and its assumption of knowledge and power is precisely the subject of my novel The Birth Machine.
I attended two stimulating workshops, one run by Clark Blaise in which we looked at texts including Hemingway's 'Cat in the Rain' and talked about the short story, and a second in which Vanessa Gebbie provided inspiring exercises to kick-start the creative spark in writers feeling blocked. I did go to some readings, and was moved by Robert Olen Butler's story 'Mother in a Trench', swept away by the wit and energy of Ida Cerne, tickled by the sly wryness of Alan McMonagle and moved by Paula McGrath's second-person story.

An anthology of stories by writers participating in the conference, including my own story, 'Where the Starlings Fly', edited by conference director Maurice A Lee, is available here.

Many thanks to Sylvia Petter, co-director of the conference, for inviting me to read and for organising such a stimulating week.

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