Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Tale or the Teller?

An aspect of the obsession with an author's credentials (about which I have been complaining) is given articulate expression in today's Observer in an article by Sarfraz Manzoor: Why do Asian Writers Have to Be 'Authentic' to Succeed? Manzoor notes that writers of 'Asian' novels are expected to be the voice of an erstwhile hidden community and that while they are thought to be so their novels are lauded, but that once they are 'exposed' as being not quite of that community themselves - ie mixed race, middle class or Cambridge educated - they can expect a critical slamming.

What is all this about an author's 'authenticity'? Have we forgotten that art is an act of imagination and empathy, that the further away an author is from that which he/she successfully evokes, the greater his/her achievement, both artistically and politically in a world of communities badly in need of bridging? Nowadays this prejudice is linked with the cult of personality which is grounded in the commercial impulse, but it has its roots in the political correctness of the 1980s. Manzoor makes the case that nowadays a white author (as opposed to an 'inauthentic' Asian author) is lauded for empathising with the Asian experience. Back in the eighties, however, a white English vicar empathised enough with a young Asian girl to get a novel about one published by a feminist publisher, only to have it pulped when the publishers discovered there was man behind the pen-name. A similar thing happened when a story about the pain a man can cause a woman, published in a feminist anthology, was discovered to be by the writer John Ashbrook, only that time it was a woman who got it in the neck: his partner, our own Manchester-based one-time novelist and now playwright Elizabeth Baines, who was suddenly 'exposed' by association as an 'inauthentic' feminist writer and quickly dropped by her feminist publishers.

Interesting that such Stalinist-style insistence on personal authenticity and lack of faith in the words on the page should have elided in the intervening years with the trashy commercialist
cult of the Glamorous Author.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

24:7 Theatre Festival

The Bitch doesn't get out much (too busy bitching on the page), but on Tuesday she was taken along to a gathering of actors, directors and producers, organised by actors Dave Slack and Amanda Hennessey, the inspired and energetic founders of 24:7, the Manchester Theatre Festival now in its third year and which takes place the last seven days of July. Now this is a festival run on a shoestring, unlike the major arts festival planned for Manchester next year (see today's post on the Art of Fiction), and I must say that one actor there said she had never heard of it before in spite of now being in her final year of the Salford drama degree, but its reputation is growing and, importantly, this is a festival devoted entirely to local talent and with proven success at nurturing it. Last year two 24:7 plays were nominated for a Manchester Evening News award, one of them, The Hanged Man by Alison White and Dean Ashton, winning.

On Tuesday the Loft Bar in Tiger Tiger was teeming with actors touting their CVs and accosting the somewhat overwhelmed writers whose plays have been chosen for the festival. A local actors' agent was there talent-spotting, and a young actor I spoke to had just been given an impromptu audition out in the corridor and was taken up on the spot, with an interview with a casting director lined up for Friday. And just as I was ready to leave I met three guys who asked me to talk to them about writing a screenplay.

Such a buzz, such a sense of opportunity through simply going out and making contact with others and doing it for yourselves! I came away feeling most uncharacteristically unbitchy and reflecting on the sad difference between this world and that of prose fiction, with its closed structures and smaller opportunities policed by the chosen few, the editors and exclusive literary agents and all-powerful booksellers.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Is It Cos I Is An Old Git (ie Over 25)?

Adrian at The Art of Fiction draws our scathing attention to UEA's New Writing Ventures. It's mis-named, as so many of these schemes are, because, as he points out, it's not primarily about writing itself. The focus, as usual nowadays, is the status and real-life identity of the author. As opposed to the National Short Story contest, this time it's 'emerging authors' being courted, those who have not had a 'dedicated publication of their work, ie a novel or a collection'. You must give a short account of your 'writing life' (!), and strictly no pen names or c/o addresses allowed. (Don't these people know that good fiction writers are constitutionally incapable of sticking to facts and are the world's experts in creating alter egos?) And it's a development project: does this mean your work can be too good to qualify, ie you wouldn't benefit from the nice little year-long mentoring scheme set up with the funding, and which of course is the real focus of it all? This scheme makes a point of avoiding the current trend for ageism - for once there's no upper age limit - but as always the stress is on the wearying, drearying obsession with new faces and new names. What about those increasingly numerous writers who've published one or two novels and then been dropped because publishers are hooked on the marketing notion of The Next New Thing - who ever sets out to help them? It's now accepted publishing wisdom that a novel by a new author is easier to sell to bookshops than one by a second- or third-time author, so every exciting new writer given a leg-up by these schemes is a mid-list has-been in the making - it's only a matter of time.

In my last post I commented on the trend towards the familiar, and so this might seem like a contradiction, but it's not. We get bored easily, but we don't want real change, we're not interested in real literary development, and in the age of the cult of youth and personality we are frankly frightened of the kind of change that overtakes dewy young faces as the years go by. We want a new brand of the same product: tales of youth adorned with pics of authors with sulky pouts and slides in their hair and little-girl cardigans. (Apologies to Gwendoline Riley, but then I never said I wasn't a bitch; now there's an author who managed to publish a very short novel - see 'Odds and Ends' in the Art of Fiction - and I suspect it wasn't simply on the strength of her prose, good as it is.)

But so it goes, to quote the great man (now there's a supple subversive literary mind inside an old shell).

Everyone's at it, no one can avoid it: the esteemed Ra Page ain't above it all, indeed his whole publishing venture seemed founded on the practice of eschewing established practitioners of the short story in favour of persuading established practitioners of other forms - poets and playwrights - to give it a go. Anything to be able to say you're offering something new in the way of authorship as opposed to simply writing.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Death of the Short Story

This post on Adrian Slatcher's excellent blog The Art of Fiction set me thinking:
The Usual Suspects
I'd forgotten Nesta's short story prize almost as soon as it was announced, because it seemed to be offering nothing more than a "beauty contest" for established prom queens, and so, it seems, that has come to pass, with William Trevor, James Lasdun, Rose Tremain and Michael Faber on the 5 person
shortlist. I'm sure they're all fine, and good luck to Rana Dasgupta in such distinguished company. The reason I lost interest as soon as the prize was announced was because it wasn't clear what "record of publication" actually meant - and whether publication in such a small magazine as our own would count. I hardly want to bother mentioning the prize really. I'm impressed that they got such a distinguished list from 1400 entries or so; I wonder if they were anonymously judged? I like James Lasdun's fiction, and he's a writer's writer more than a popular success, so I guess it would be good if he gained a little popularity out of it. Certainly at least 4 of those 5 writers could ring up the editor of Granta any day of the week and get a story placed there; and probably anywhere else as well; so I'm not sure that the prize actually "helps" the short story. I just hope the stories are good.

Adrian is being far too nice. And he's trying the old tactic of refusing to give the thing significance, but, let me tell you, there are tart things that just have to be said about this and they are pretty important for anyone who cares about the short story as a serious and dynamic literary form.

The short story was once the supreme form for innovation in this country and America, for pushing the boundaries of what fiction can do with language and structure. Well now, William Trevor and Rose Tremain are excellent short-story writers of their kind, but they're not the kind who are interested in extending the language and form of the story beyond the conventional and familiar. The morning of the short-list announcement there was an interview with Alex Linklater, one of the judges, on Radio 4's Today programme. Linklater spent the entire interview trying to defend the short story from the notion that it's just a short (and inferior) version of the novel, but he didn't have much in the way of ammunition and not once was the issue of innovation touched upon. The same day the Guardian published the beginnings of all five short-listed stories, and lo and behold, four of the five authors were also if not primarily novelists, and each of the five stories had a conventional, scene-setting, omniscient-author start, and Michel Faber's began in the most conventional (and hackneyed) way of all: someone waking in the morning.

In response to the criticisms of Comma publisher Ra Page (reported in The Guardian), the judges responded somewhat disingenuously that they merely chose according to merit. Well, it depends of course what you consider to be merit, and one can't help wondering if they were seeking out the kind of merit represented by this list. Adrian wonders, ironically I presume, if the stories were judged anonymously. You had to include your publication record in your application, and it was possible for publishers to enter their published authors, and the form seemed to me especially geared to this last. (So now you know I entered: my grapes are not so much sour as bitter.) Few publishers now publish short fiction by anyone not already well-known as a novelist and Comma to my knowledge is the only one dedicated especially to the short story form and to writers specialising in the short story, so you can see the way the wind was blowing.

I wish like Adrian I could decide that none of this matters, but it matters too, too much. It's all part of the drift in our culture towards the comfortingly familiar and away from the strange and the challenging. In my opinion this competition, which was heralded as contributing to the revival of the short story, has in fact contributed to its death.