Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Where Are they Now?

Last week I immersed myself in short stories in preparation for workshops I would be conducting at a Short Story day hosted by the National Short Story Campaign. One of the things I did was revisit metropolitan, the short-story magazine I co-founded and co-edited with Ailsa Cox (and which the two of us co-published with John Ashbrook).

It was an experience both exhilarating and depressing, and a sober illustration of the problems which exist nowadays for unknown but talented writers of serious literature. I was newly stunned by the standard, originality and energy of the stories we published, and I have to say grabbed by them in a way I wasn't by the stories in many published collections. Several literary agents were too at the time, and picked up several of our writers. Yet what struck me last week was how few, even so, have yet made it as mainstream authors.

Some have made it into mainstream publication, although few are known for their short stories. Roger Morris is known for his critically-acclaimed Macmillan New Writing novel Taking Comfort and - perhaps better - for his Faber crime novels. Susan Davis and Paul Magrs publish fiction for young adults. [Edited-in correction: Paul has also published 10 mainstream novels for adults, two of which were already placed with mainstream publishers, along with a collection of stories, before we published his story, so doesn't in fact qualify for this list of 'unknowns'.]. Daniel Davies (if indeed it is the same Daniel Davies) has published a novel with Serpent's Tail. Art Corriveau's novels have been published by Penguin, but his short stories are published by an independent press. The agent of the brilliant Tamar Yellin failed to place her collection of stories or her novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher with any British publisher, but after they were published by the American Toby Press, the latter won the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize and the former was short-listed for the first Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The novels of Nigel Pickard, Robert Graham and Frank Downes have come from small presses.

And what about the others? One, Fi Francis, has sadly died - such a loss to literature - and I was recently astonished to be told that another, Penny Rendall, has given up writing. But even allowing for such tragedies and contingencies, it's a shameful fact that so few of the following names aren't better known as writers of fiction, although many have made names for themselves in other fields: Judith Amanthis, Marion Baraitser, Alex Barr, Kate Barry, Kirsty Brackenridge, Madeleine Cary, Dave Downes, Frank Downes, Michael Eaude, Molly Firth, Veronika Forster, Iain Grant, Vicky Grut, Atar Hadari, George Hawthorn, Hilaire, Graeme Hodgson, Rose Hughes, Robert Lawlor, Roderick Lowell Huntress, Mairead Irish, Simon King-Spooner, Kath Mackay, Camden McDonald, Menzies McKillop, Jim McLaughlin, Char March, Heather Leach, Georgina Lock, Paul Marshall, Mindy Meleyal, Rowan Metcalfe, S Morrisey, Graham Mort, Ravinder Randhawa, Karen Rosenberg, John Sitzia, Helen Smith, Amanda Szekely, Mandy Sutter, Kanta Walker, Cathy Wright.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Freedom of Speech

A small quiz:

Which of the following do you find most worrying?

1. The foiled firebomb attack this weekend on the home-cum-business premises of Gibson Square publisher Martin Rynja, who in a determined stand for freedom of speech is about to publish Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina, a novel about the Prophet Muhammad's relationship with his child bride, and which Jones insists honours the Prophet and his wife.

2. The fact that on being sent the book for a cover quote by a previous publisher, American academic Denise Spellberg, according to Shahed Amanullah, editor of a Muslim website, made a 'frantic call' to him denouncing the book as 'incredibly offensive', which resulted in a furore, with those who had not read the book also denouncing it and issuing 'warnings'.

3. The fact that 2. caused the book's previous publisher, the giant Random House, to withdraw from publication altogether.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

E-Lit: a Red Herring?

Interesting article by Andrew Gallix on the Guardian books blog this week, asking whether e-literature can ever be innovative in the ways which have sometimes been supposed.

It's a point which writer and Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher and I have often discussed: the fact that while hypertext is so astoundingly non-linear, no real way has yet been found to apply this to fiction on the web without losing words in favour of other media such as pictures and music. Responding to the article, Adrian makes this point again, and notes rightly that my Manchester-Festival commissioned blogstory last year (which had to take the form of a real-time blog) was inevitably more conventionally linear than my writing for print, since the blog is essentially a linear, sequential form. (Adrian offers his own piece on this post, but the links don't seem to work, and I'm not sure if this is his joke...)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Things You Can Sell and the Things that Make You Swoon

God in heaven help us, the Guardian magazine runs a feature today on fashion in literature: 'Chic Lit', actress Emily Mortimer dressed in clothes echoing female characters from fiction (she's a writer's daughter too - John Mortimer - geddit?); journalist Helen Gordon writing as if authors from Austen to Douglas Coupland wrote about fashion simply to relish it, rather than (often satirically) as signifiers of their characters' personalities and conditions; and - most telling of all - books recently in print displayed next to the latest fashion accessories (a full page spread, for instance, in which Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Life is suspended on a string next to a Gucci bag - why?)

Conjures some depressing images, doesn't it: publishers scrambling to be part of this latest, dummest kind of promotion, and editors turning manuscripts down because they can't quite see them on such a page... (You think I'm joking?)

Fortunately the Review makes up for this a little with an article from Nick Laird condemning just the kind of ethos in evidence here and showing how destructive it is for serious literature, though once again in making a special case for poetry he is rather dismissive of fiction:
A capitalist society ... teaches its citizens to think in terms of selling. Poetry manages, almost uniquely, to be outside of that, and this allows poets to make real art, without recourse to the market...
And there's a transcript of a speech by the sadly and recently late David Foster Wallace, which is so close to my own agenda in my current writing that (rather than those shoes and bags) it makes me want to swoon...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Three Sisters at the Royal Exchange

OK, so I'm off to the Royal Exchange to see Three Sisters, and I'm excited because I won't ever forget the great Uncle Vanya I once saw there with Leo McKern and Eleanor Bron - the scene where he brings the flowers is still with me, and I can still fill up remembering it. Pure Chekhov, it was, heartbreaking, utterly true to his insight into human longing and disappointment.

I take my seat in the first gallery. I look down. Why does this round stage, which can seem intimate even from the high-up second gallery, look so vast and far away? Across the other side, horizontally to me, is a long dinner table (the table where the soldiers will sit, their conversation undercutting that of the three sisters), and it seems immense yet miles distant, divided from us by (admittedly transparent) pillars. I feel I can't see it properly. I push my glasses up my nose, but I can't see it any better. Already I feel excluded from the space of this play.

The action begins, much nearer to us than the table, directly below: on our side of the stage Masha and Olga sit in separate spaces, Olga on a settle, Masha at a piano, Olga talking to Masha across the space. Well, I know this is the point, that Masha, churning with frustration, is cutting off, but somehow I can't join her, psychologically, in her space. I can't join Olga either, I'm watching them both from outside, and yet without focus: I can't take them both in at once and have to keep switching my attention from one to the other. Partly I think it's the performances, or Sarah Francom's direction, but most of all, I think, it's the set design of this production: presumably symbolically, but visually impossibly, the central space is constantly empty and the characters most frequently separated by this abyss.

It's like a tableau, this production of this play by this playwright whose concerns and approach were above all internal, psychological. And there's no moment of real stillness in a play which demands above all moments of stillness, and all that longing, all that desire, all that erotic tension between Vershinin and Masha, were - from my vantage point, at any rate - lost.

By the second act I had given up. Gauzes hung from the flies to the floor, shrouding the beds - set apart again around an empty space - and cutting us off from the characters and the action. Behind the gauze curtains the faces are indistinct and overall the characters are lost in the infinite space which the curtains define - which again may be symbolic of their condition but precludes the internal focus which the play requires. In the final act tree-trunks descended in true RX tradition, spindly but placed around the edges and cutting off the view of any actor directly opposite the ones you were sitting nearby.

Perhaps it was no wonder that the main laughs from the audience were at the outdated social mores...

Alfred Hickling thinks the problem is the play, but personally I think Chekhov and Stanislavski might just be having a bit of a twist in their graves.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Bit Hard

Yesterday the Sunday Times review was devoted to The Future of the Book, yet I can't find a link on the website - which may seem confirmation of the view expressed by some contributors that print media is getting left behind by the web. But maybe it's me...*

[*Yes it was me: it was The Independent, as Adele Geras points out. No wonder I couldn't find it: silly me!]

Pretty depressing article by John Walsh who believes like Sven Birkets (who in 1994 examined how students now respond to Henry James) that the way in which the internet has taught us to read is resulting in a loss of the ability to engage with serious fiction:
It seems that we may be losing the capacity of "settling into" a book or - more importantly - in the stream of somebody else's thoughts in a way that readers (and writers) once took for granted ... Now, many serious writers complain, challenging fiction doesn't appeal; "difficult" novels don't sell. Adam Mars-Jones's massive and beautifully written novel Pilcrow, published earlier this year, sold only a few hundred copies, and there have been several similar casualities. Although, traditionally, every Booker winner invariably becomes a world bestseller, the 2008 winner, Anne Enright's The Gathering, made the briefest appearance in the top 10 before disappearing. It had a narrative of sorts, but was broken-backed in structure and its strength was the narrator's wry, funny, piss-taking tone - exactly the kind of thing that Prof Birkets' students hated in Henry James.

To sell now, books evidently need to be big on plot and incident, short on interior monologue - the sort of titles the Richard and Judy Club strenuously promotes.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Question of Vulnerability

Anne Enright continues the week's Guardian theme of authors' vulnerability at public readings, particularly when it comes to the Q & A.

Apart from Norman Mailer, it once seemed to her:
I asked a question myself once. The writer was Norman Mailer, and I had just had enough of him - standing up there thinking he was someone, when every single thing he said was pants.
Enright challenged him:
He was advocating sex to the (manifestly anti-sex) audience. What a great activity. He couldn't praise it enough; metabolically, spiritually, possibly even financially. I put up my hand and waited to catch his eye.

I was a bit pink and tingly, indeed, as I got ready to break through the fourth wall that exists between performer and audience, between the one who is known and the one who is not. When my turn came, I found the act of speaking sort of mortifying and dreamlike. I said: "If you're that keen on sex, then why are all the sex scenes in your books so unhappy?" And he said: "Why are you so angry?"

Enright is telling this story ironically, first and foremost against herself, since earlier in the article she says, 'Long experience tells you that it is the angry people who ask about anger'. 'You have to hand it to Mailer,' she acknowledges, ' - now there was a man who was made for the Q & A.'

But she can't resist adding: 'The prose he read, I am delighted to report, was dire.'

Tee hee.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Writing on the Wall

I was in the doctor's this morning (nothing serious) and for some reason nothing was moving, and the wait was an hour and a quarter. At one point I looked up from my book and there were eighteen of us waiting, all in silence. One other person was reading a book, two others were reading waiting-room mags, but the other fourteen were sitting staring at the walls for one and a quarter hours.

Maybe they were the deep thinkers. Or maybe they were just too worried about their health...

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Just L'il Ole Me with the Power to Ban Books

I'm a bit late with this one, what with being stuck in the hills and that, but I can't resist it:

So on being presented by The Guardian with Carol Ann Duffy's poetic response to the banning of her poem Education for Leisure, Pat Schofield, the external examiner whose complaint led to the banning, had this to say:
"...a bit weird. But having read her other poems I found they were all a little bit weird. But that's me".
Correction: that's an external examiner whom we'd expect to be able to understand poems.

But then that's our education system, it seems.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Save Me from the Short Story

This week the books blog Vulpes Libris pays tribute to the short story while yet paradoxically providing an insight into the general prejudice against the form. Yesterday's post was a round-up of favourites (and the Bitch is pleased to have her own collection offered by the esteemed Dovegreyreader). However, the blog's coordinator Leena ended up asking for contributions from other bloggers, since she drew a blank with her fellow foxes, who confessed to little interest in or knowledge of the form.

While today's blog offers an appreciative review of the great collection The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets by Sophie Hannah, it also includes a contribution from Elaine of Random Jottings who, although going on to recommend several (canonical) short story writers (including the lengthy stories of Henry James), says this:
My main problem with this genre is that the narrative can be over far too quickly and just when you are getting interested in the characters and situation you turn the page and find that that is it, you have come to the end. I have lost count of the number of times I have done this and thought, oh damn just when it was getting interesting. When I am reading fiction I like something solid, something I can really get into so I somehow feel cheated with a short story and irritated that I am not going to know what happens next. I gather that short stories are regarded as being an art form on their own, incredibly difficult to write and anybody who can do them properly is regarded as a literary giant. This may be true but when I pick up a collection of short stories and find they are described as ‘exquisite vignettes’ (and yes this has happened), my main reaction is to run screaming from the room.
There is of course a whole essay to be written about the implicatons of this for the ways in which we read and our expectations of what we read...