Sunday, September 23, 2012

Stories as jokes

Good points in a Guardian article by Kirsty Gunn in response to comments by Clive Anderson, chair of the judges for the BBC International Short Story Award, the shortlist of which has just been announced. Anderson's chief comment, she reports, is 'that what the short story must have – its overriding and most important feature – "is a twist" ', an old-fashioned and extremely limited view of the short story and its possibilities. Anderson is of course not really making a considered literary point here: he's the front man for a marketing campaign, and in such circumstances there's always a rush to the lowest common denominator and the populist. The one shortlisted story I've heard so far, Lucy Caldwell's Escape Routes, doesn't appear to me to conform to his dictum, and I can't imagine that such a criterion would inform the choice of judge Michele Roberts, for instance. Still, as Gunn implies, this possible misrepresentation by Anderson is the problem:
That speaks to a larger concern – which is the way literature in the UK is constantly made safe and understandable, diluted and commoditised, by those who don't have the first idea about form or voice or point of view or emotional landscape or any of those things real writers concern themselves with before they even sit down and think about inventing a story.
As Gunn also implies, the comments of the chair of judges for a prize of such prestige will be taken as literary, and a statement of serious intent - or not serious, as Gunn points out: 'A great short story,' says Anderson, 'can combine the structure of a good joke with the impact of a miniature masterpiece', and Gunn comments: 'It's what our culture wants to do to art: break it down, play it for laughs. Make us feel we get the joke. It's the approach that stops us taking it seriously.'

A great pity if a good shortlist of subtle stories is belied by the crass but influential words of the chairman, and their literary project sidelined.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Promotion and criticism

I hardly dare say this, but the fuss over R J Ellory's 'sockpuppetry' has me feeling distinctly uncomfortable and with alarm bells ringing. Of course his behaviour (in posting glowing Amazon reviews of his own work under a pseudonym and trashing that of his rivals) is highly reprehensible. But the thought immediately occurs to me: how far different is posting glowing reviews of your own work from the business of promoting your own work, as we authors are obliged to do nowadays? Well, yes of course it's different, but really, honestly, when I'm engaged in the business of promoting my own work I feel as though I'm doing something very similar. Because really, who am I to say my work is any good/worthwhile? Surely, that's for others to judge. Obviously you don't actually say that, that your work is good, but just standing up and shouting about it carries that implication. Doesn't it? Well, if it doesn't, if all you're doing is metaphorically standing there sheepishly and saying, Well I'm not sure if it's any good, but please, please take a look - well, frankly, now that I've thought about it, I'd rather boil my head than carry on being so ruddy beseeching. Actually, to be honest, I'll go further and admit that doing any of the tasks of promotion, asking people to review my books, putting word out about my readings etc etc makes me feel like a prostitute. I wish I could have the dignity of doing what I did right at the start of my writing career - hide right away behind my work and simply send it off into the world, where others could sing its praises or not. And as for Ellory, clearly he's responsible for his own actions, but the thought occurs that a culture in which the onus is on authors to get their books sales has surely paved the way for such actions...

And then there's the other side of it: his trashing of his rivals. Oh dear. Big bell ringing here. In the context of his glowing reviews of his own work, his negative reviews of his rivals sure look bad. But there's something worrying at stake here. Ellory may well have been on a campaign to do his rivals down, but he may well also have truly considered his rivals vastly inferior to himself - after all, we authors may be swilling in angst but we need a certain confidence about what we're doing, too, or we couldn't go on, and often have strong and negative opinions about those who are doing it differently. Yet I have read objections to Ellory's statement that he 'wholeheartedly regrets the lapse of judgement that allowed personal opinions to be disseminated in this way', on the grounds that he is still however holding to those opinions. Well, maybe he is being disingenuous here, clever - taking an opportunity to publicly reiterate those opinions - but the reaction to this worries me: are we writers not allowed to hold negative opinions of the work of other writers - or at least, if we do, must we keep them to ourselves, and resist engaging in literary discussion that promotes our own agendas at the expense of that of others? Well, yes, I guess that's increasingly so: as others have pointed out recently, in a situation where authors are expected to market and promote their own work, and reliant on each other for cheerleading, we are ending up with a backscratching culture in which true literary discussion heads for the drain..