Saturday, November 09, 2013

Single shorts from Nightjar

I don't know whether it was a deliberate reminder, but the day after my post on the publication of short stories in individual volumes, two new Nightjar Press chapbooks came slipping through my door, presumably from Nightjar publisher Nicholas Royle. For a few years now, Royle has of course been publishing chapbooks under this imprint devoted to the format, each volume containing a single story.

Genre-wise, the imprint is also devoted to the uncanny. I say genre, but of course the uncanny can be conveyed via a wide range of types of writing and, inevitably, I like some of it more than others. My narrative interest is above all psychological. By this I don't at all mean that I only like writing grounded in psychological realism, with complex and believable and 'identifiable-with' characters etc; no, no, I love a good surreal story, and am very ready to be lost in the uncanny. A good uncanny story operates of course by tugging on a reader's fear or uncertainty, and it seems to me that therefore the best uncanny stories are those that unsettle us by touching on serious existential fears rather than simply giving us a brief and therefore safe thrill of horror. (Others, I know feel differently, but quite frankly I've had far too many real-life scares to be interested in looking for a thrill of horror.) I'd say that stories grounded in psychology do the former, and those that hinge on circumstance and plot tend to do the latter.

The two new Nightjar stories exemplify for me this dichotomy. In Hilary Scudder's story, M, the first-person narrator flees from her husband, of whom she has been very afraid, to meet her lover, M. Before fleeing she leaves her husband a letter, daring (in her euphoria at escaping) to wish him as much unhappiness as he has caused her, indeed to wish him an agonising death. But as she approaches the place where she has arranged to meet her lover, things take a dark turn: it is not the cafe-bar scene she expected, but a dank and deserted docks... It's hard to say any more about the story because what counts in the story is what happens (and if I told you I'd spoil more or less everything about it). But what does happen happens to our protagonist. Rather than resulting from her psychology (either her idiosyncratic psychology, or the psychology we all share), the dangers she faces are out there, external to her. The final twist, while it does indeed provide a jolt of horror, is basically contingent: it could have happened, or it couldn't; chance is what determines that it does, rather than its being an inevitable consequence of the specific psychology of any of the characters or of human nature in general. There is an overall message - that it's hard to escape the horrors of sexist men - and the story is certainly vivid, with elements associated with the genre - a protagonist suddenly lost in a dark and threatening place, with lush glimpses of an erotic but sinister hidden world - guaranteed to give that bolt of thrill, and I'm sure lots of people will love it.

M John Harrison's Getting Out of There is for me a story of a quite different order. It couldn't begin in any more ordinary setting or situation: a web designer moves from London back to the small seaside town in which he grew up, takes a room in a run-down house and sticks most of his belongings in a lockup 'with untreated breeze-block cubicles of different sizes, behind doors that were little more than plywood.' So far so quotidian, indeed seedy. But what's not ordinary is the prose. This is how it begins:
Hampson came back after some years, to the seaside in the rain, to this town built around a small estuary where a river broke through the chalk downs. Everything - everything people knew about, anyway - came in through that gap, by road or rail; and that's the way Hampson came too, midweek, in a rental van, unsure of what he would find for himself after so long.
and right there at the beginning you know, from the rhythm, from that description of the gap in the chalk and the river taking everything with it, hinting already at gaps in reality and a sense of inevitability - not to mention that phrase 'everything people knew about anyway' - that you're in the hands of a master. This is a story about alienation: Hampson's alienation and everyone's alienation. When strange things start to happen, which they do, there's the possibility that Hampson is going mad, but we can't simply pass it off as this: the evocation of the world around Hampson, seen through his perspective, draws us into his psyche, we share his psyche, and are drawn right into the experience. What's most unsettling for the reader as well as Hampson is the disruption of reality, the uncertainty as to whether or not the phenomena are out there or not. As I interpret it, this is is a story precisely about the horror of the ordinary, about our fear yet need for it. The horror is partly within ourselves, in how we can deal with the world, and for me this makes it a deeply resonant story, one which both comments on and transcends the genre.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Austen modernisations, really?

Is there anything that better illustrates literary fiction's contemporary enthralment to the market than HarperCollins' series of Jane Austen modernisations? As John Mullan points out in the Observer, Austen's novels are specifically about the manners, modes and social constructs of the time in which she was writing, all of which have now gone by the board. He outlines them all and shows how Austen's plots hinge on them entirely: the formality of naming which creates the crucial romantic misunderstanding in Sense and Sensibility, the rigid rules of sexual behaviour which, adhered to or breached, can create commitments and misunderstandings that would never happen now (Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility), the unbreakable trap that marriage was, the fact that a single woman had lost her chance of it by the age of 27, and so on...

I  suppose people will object that it's the characters that can be replicated, that the interest is in seeing those same characters negotiate a different set of social circumstances. But this is to subscribe to a pretty naive concept of 'character' and, more crucially, of what a novel is. Most of us, I guess, have been told that we are like a certain older relative, that we share their character, and many of have us felt that indeed we are and do, and in that sense we can see character as something that is passed down through families, determined by our genes, and therefore given and constant. But we are not in fact those older relatives: we may share certain personality traits but we are also formed by the different things that happen to us and the different society in which we live. Change the circumstances and you change the way a person is going to a behave, and thus in turn their character. And what is a novel - that most social of forms - but a depiction of the way people behave (action) when a certain set of social circumstances is applied to them?

A novel and its characters, as I discussed in a previous post, are also, supremely, constructs of language: to change the language of a novel - an essential part of the project in any modernisation - is to destroy its soul. And as Mullan points out, when the Marianne of Austen's Sense and Sensibility is finally driven to swear it is a most dramatic moment, but Joanna Trollope has her 'using the F-word on page 6, so when things turn really bad what extreme words does she have left?' Swearing means something different nowadays: it doesn't indicate the same thing about situations or characters, and the fact that Trollope's Marianne swears does not make her the same character as Austen's.

I really can't see what's actually being replicated here. Except for one thing: the lovely glow that a best-selling classic lights in the heart and a publisher's bank balance.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Single shorts

Philip Hensher hopes that Penguin's issue of a single short story by Zadie Smith as a hardback and ebook indicates that we are 'at the beginning of a golden age of possibility, where writers can write at whatever length they choose'. I'm not quite sure sure that, as one commenter on the Guardian site points out, Penguin putting out what amounts to a Christmas-market taster from a novelist with Smith's profile is an indication of this, but I do hope, like Hensher, that the rise of the ebook is causing a sea-change in our attitude to the short story.

I have complained before on this blog about the fact that the manner in which short stories have generally been published in this country militates against the kind of reading that many short stories require. Many short stories need to be read as what Hensher calls 'exquisite singularities', and not 'as a chapter between chapters' in a collection. In recent years of course, we have had the market-driven rise of collections of linked short stories, in which individual stories are most supremely subsumed to the whole. Such collections have their charms, but I think they have pushed out the kind of short stories that are off-the-wall original and can't be repeated - which indeed the greatest short stories often are. As Hensher says, due to economic considerations, 'we don't publish books in the way they were conceived,' and this has been especially true for the short story.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Norman Geras

I am late in making a tribute to Norman Geras, author of Normblog, who died on 18th October. Partly this is because I haven't been blogging at all (I've been immersed in writing), but partly I have felt too affected to feel up to making any public statement. Norm was the husband and father of my dear long-time friends writers Adele Geras and Sophie Hannah. For many years I didn't in fact know Norm personally - whenever I went to Adele's he'd be at the university or up in his room working - but I got to know him somewhat after I started blogging in 2006. By the time I first talked to him at the Manchester blog awards (which he'd won the previous year) and for which we were both shortlisted, I was of course already entirely smitten with his blog, which as countless others have said, was an oasis of calm and reason in an internet world of increasingly knee-jerk reaction. He couldn't understand, when I first talked to him, why I had two blogs - my author blog as well as this critical commentary blog. I explained the kind of conflict that I and I think other authors feel between the need don a promotional hat for our work and the need to be free to challenge such market forces. He still thought I should have the courage to combine the two blogs. I didn't - I went on finding it politic not to - but I always felt that by not doing so I was falling short of the intellectual rigour that Norm personified.  Norm was frankly an intellectual giant, and I always turned to his blog, as others have said they did, to see what he made of any issue. I am going to miss dreadfully his incisiveness and reason, his intellectually tough yet humane presence, and the online world is vastly poorer without him. Fortunately he will still be with us in the form of the Normblog archive which is being kept open, a vast repository of reason and enlightenment. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

Literary labels

The excellent online magazine The View From Here kicks off its autumn season today, and I'm chuffed to be in the fiction slot, The Front View, with a new story, 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told'.

I suppose you could say that 'Tides' is a bit of a metafiction, but I hesitate to use that word because it sounds as if the story is far more experimental, hermetic - whatever - than I think it is. A short while ago the reading group I'm in had a couple of writing-group sessions, and I brought this story and made the mistake of calling it metafiction, and I think it put people off and they approached it fairly critically. (I think they liked it in the end, though!). See, that's the danger of labels, yet they're what we're stuck with in this marketing literary culture...

Anyway, I'd be really interested to know what other people think. You can read the story here.

Many thanks to Kate Brown, Fiction Editor at The View From Here.

Crossposted with my author blog.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Novel as language

In today's Guardian Review Zadie Smith writes:
What's this novel [her latest, NW] about? My books don't seem to me to be about anything other than the people in them and the sentences used to construct them.
And my reaction is Exactly! That's exactly how I feel about my own work, and I bet loads of other writers feel this too. A novel (or a story) is a construct, a construct of language, and the literary novel is above all about language: it's perhaps the defining characteristic of the kind of fiction we call 'literary'. Characters are supreme constructs, manifest not only in the narration (language) that conjures them, but in their dialogue (language), which is where people most self-consciously, and on a day-to-day level, construct reality about the world and themselves. None of it's real, but, as Smith (a wizz at dialogue) indicates, what we're engaged in is nevertheless a search for reality, the reality of the world that language constructs.

Yet always we are asked the question, 'What is your novel about?' and we are always expected to come up with some more concrete answer than the above, to refer merely to the story, or a political or moral theme, as though these are the be-all and end-all of any piece of fiction, when in fact they are common currency, and could be replicated any number of times. The real, defining and unique aspect of any novel is the voice or voices. And yet we do, don't we, we answer in the way we're expected, like dogs on hind legs? It takes a particular level of fame and status to be able to answer as Smith has done (although I'm daring to agree with her here, and wait wincing for the chop), for most of us are in thrall to the marketing machine that grinds along on those clattery superficial and ever-replicable cogs. Answering in the way we are expected, we feel afterwards that we have sold our work short.

And does it affect how we write? As it happens for me, a couple of days ago someone writing a PhD contacted me about one of my very early stories, and commented that I was doing something unusual and interesting with language. I was flattered, but my blood ran cold. For I consciously stopped writing quite in the way I did then. Mostly I think it's a good thing, that my work became more accessible, but it did make me wonder: have I simply been deflected, possible wrongly, by a sense of what's no longer linguistically acceptable in a dumbed-down literary marketplace?

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Space and self

Writing in the Guardian on re-reading E M Forster's Maurice,  Lawrence Scott finds that the novel's plea for private space, psychic as well as physical, has supreme relevance in the age of the internet.
This instinct for withdrawal and obscurity speaks to present critiques of digitised life. In a world increasingly patrolled by online analytics and social media, Maurice's political dilemma still resonates: how might you not be in hiding while not being on display?
I've often written about the way that social media encroach on the time and attention necessary for creative production, but this article has made me think more about the impact on writing process. It's that reference to online analytics that set me thinking. Nowadays we are all out there, on line in more ways than one. Facebook operates precisely to break down the public and the private, and through it we - including our apparently private selves - become sets of fixed data owned by other people. The whole project of writing fiction, though, for me and I'm sure for most others, is precisely to question outward appearances and assumptions, to get beneath the concrete and the quotidian to a deeper resonance, and to question the concept of the fixed nature of reality. We approach a piece of fiction with the sense that there are things to discover in the process of writing, in the unravelling of the story, things about life and truth and even about ourselves, that we haven't yet imagined. This requires a particular openness, to possibility, to ambiguity - we ask what if, we have to slip into other views and other psyches (which is why I also say writing is like acting) - and a certain divesting of ego and identity. So, my question: if we are spending time (for the sake of our book sales) working on fixing on the public consciousness (and the data banks) our particular personalities, do we boost those particular personalities to such an extent that we endanger those creative moments requiring our fluid, uncertain and unpredictable selves? 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What a novel can do to a reader

Here's a funny (or not so funny) little postscript to our reading group discussion about A M Homes's The End of Alice - a novel concerning the murder of a child by a paedophile - and food for thought about the power of fiction.

I have been in Wales, and yesterday evening, my final evening and a beautiful one, I was walking with my partner on the Anglesey coast path. It was my birthday; the walk was a birthday treat my partner had arranged, and it couldn't have been more perfect: the weather was warm, the sea below the cliffs was glassy, the fields were bright yellow with the biggest display of buttercups I've ever seen, everywhere there were birds, and I saw my first-ever ring-ouzel, that summer-visiting member of the blackbird family.

Then, as the path curved towards the next village, we rounded a corner and walked into the click of a camera: a lone man taking a photo and unaware of our hidden approach. He turned away quickly and began walking on ahead of us. In his hand he was carrying something bright and spotted, and as we walked behind him I made out what it was: a piece of clothing, in fact an anorak, the anorak of a small girl. Immediately for me all the calm and warmth drained from the evening. What on earth would a lone man be doing walking the cliffs carrying such a thing? There was no child in sight. And wasn't there something odd about him? On this warm evening he was wearing a heavy waterproof jacket, and his face was unshaven... Where was the child to whom the anorak belonged? All at once I was imagining her in a ditch somewhere, horribly mutilated: they were coming back, all those images prompted by the rape and murder of my own ten-year-old friend on just such a flower-scattered cliffside, images which, though I dealt with that experience in my novel The Birth Machine (or maybe exorcised it) have since become buried, but were resurrected by Homes's novel.

But, I asked myself, surely if this man had murdered a child he'd hide the evidence, he wouldn't carry such a bright, attention-attracting piece around with him. But then, if you'd just murdered a child wouldn't you be deranged, wouldn't you be deranged to have to do it in the first place? And when the man - who was walking quickly, as if to shake us off - suddenly stopped ahead and took a photo of the path ahead of him, the horrific possibility came to me that he was actually documenting the scene of a murder with the kind of perverted mentality suggested by Homes's novel. And I found myself noting every particular of his appearance in case I had to report it to the police.

And then, just as we reached the village, I heard the cry, 'Dad!' and from round the bend ahead a little girl came running towards him, and then into sight came the rest of the man's family, an older girl and a wife. And suddenly the man looked nothing like a sinister child predator, but an ordinary short man, a father kind enough to carry his little girl's coat, and who'd got left behind while taking photos and was simply hurrying to catch up.

But it left me thinking, and a bit shaken. My childhood was ruled by fear of the lone stranger, and when I became adult I saw this (perhaps not entirely wrongly) as linked to racism, and set out consciously to reject it. And I have revelled in the fact that in recent years, the old formalities have broken down and people are generally more friendly and casual and unsuspicious with strangers. But I have now been reminded that actually, that childhood fear was also to do with some terrible things that did happen very close to home, and that it's all too easy to slip into a comfortable false consciousness and ignore the darkness.

And it's Homes's novel that has done this for me. And that's the power of fiction.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How much real horror can a reader take?

In the very week that A M Homes won the Women's Prize for Fiction, for her wonderful May We Be Forgiven, our reading group happened to be discussing her earlier novel, The End of Alice, narrated, like Nabokov's Lolita, by an incarcerated paedophile murderer. It's an important book, I think, but for our group its power was somewhat negated by the fact that several members found it just too horrifying to read. An account of our discussion is here on my author blog.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Women's Prize for Fiction

Huge congratulations to A M Homes for winning the Women's Prize for Fiction for May We Be Forgiven, her hilarious, stomach-churning yet moving depiction of the implosion of the American Dream via the disintegrating life of a hapless historian trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard Nixon.

Homes is that really precious thing, most particularly in this age of fearful sensibilities: a writer who dares to break the false boundaries of taste and accepted sentiment in order to explore the complex, sordid yet touching truth about ourselves. There seems to me in Homes's writing a total lack of authorial timidity or self-regard, and I salute her.

In the (just less than) fortnight run-up to the prize I set out to read all of the shortlisted books and I managed them all except Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, of which I've only read a quarter. The thing that struck me most strongly was a transatlantic divide: three of the shortlistees were American and three British, and I found a literary-cultural difference in their books. It's often said that British literature is obsessed with the past, and it isn't only the UK Mantel's straightforwardly historical novel that seems to bear this out. British Kate Atkinson's structural tour-de-force, Life After Life,  is essentially about the horrors of war and plays with the thoroughly contemporary astro-physics notion of parallel universes and alternative lives; however, her focus is historical and the book pivots on a moment in 1910 when the protagonist is born into a Forsterian middle-class idyll about to be shattered by war. While the pivotal moment of Zadie Smith's NW is contemporary, an explicit theme is that of time, and much of the narrative is retrospective examination of how the characters got to the point where they are now.

It's not that the American writers aren't interested in history - Homes's protagonist is after all a historian - but what characterises all three are energetic plunges into the here and now to which history has led us, and a muscular facing up to the huge changes we are undergoing. Both Homes's novel and Maria Semple's very clever and entertaining yet moving Where D'You Go, Bernadette, are steeped in the technology that does indeed saturate our world, and capture the way that it is changing not only the texture of our lives but our psyches. Most urgent is Barbara Kingsolver's stunning Flight Behaviour, set in a place, America's rural bible belt, where climate change is seen as 'God's will' yet is most dramatically experienced.

A great shortlist, and great evidence of the strength of women's writing on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Branding in publishing

Longman's dictionary:

brand n 1 a charred piece of wood 2a a mark made by burning with a hot iron to designate ownership (eg of cattle) b a mark formerly put on criminals with a hot iron 3a a mark made with a stamp, stencil etc to identify manufacture or quality b a class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer c a characteristic or distinctive kind; a variety (a lively ~ of humour)

brand vt to mark with a brand 2 to stigmatise 3 to impress indelibly (~ the lesson on his mind)

branded adj labelled with the manufacturer's brand.

Well, it's obvious which of these we mean when we're talking about branding in publishing, isn't it?
Or is it? The more I think about it, the less sure I am, and the more sure that sometimes we aren't at all clear what we mean.

Our Salt panel at the London Book Fair was centred on the notion of branding, though our focus was on the use of social networking in creating a brand, and we took the necessity of creating a brand, and the concept itself of a brand, for granted. But since then I've been thinking...

What precisely do we mean by a brand, and who or what is meant to be the brand? Clearly when the LBF invited Salt to form the panel on the strength of their success via social networking, they were thinking of Salt's output as a brand, in the sense of n 3b, 'a class of goods', in this case books, 'identified by name as the product of a single manufacturer', and also perhaps as n 3c, since Salt is characterised and made distinctive as a quality literary list. It's pretty obvious that a publisher does need to be brand in these senses - both as a business, and in the case of a literary publisher, for artistic reasons.

But then we Salt authors were there to speak for ourselves, precisely for our individual identities as writers, distinct from each other (we hope) and from all other authors, and it is constantly said now that an author - an individual author - needs to be a brand. It was an idea that was utterly taken for granted in the session on The Future of the Literary Agent I attended later that day. When agent Hellie Ogden spoke of what she was going to do for a new author she had taken on, it was the author's brand she spoke of managing and promoting. But what does this mean? In what consists the author's brand?

All too often, I fear, it means that an author is considered, or expected to be, the manufacturer of a series of one particular kind of novel. I have too often heard writers complaining about being pushed by their publishers to write another novel just like their last (and others of being rejected for not doing so), in other words to conform to their supposed brand, in the sense of 'being marked with a stamp'. Well, ouch! After all, creativity is all about innovation, to be repetitive is to be anti-creative. But even more pertinently, from the business point of view too there's a huge fault in this kind of thinking. Of course we like brands: as humans we take comfort in the familiar, the recognisable, but we are also excited by the new: brands can pall, especially in this era of the restless search of the new. This, I guess, is what leads to the deplorable situation of publishers dropping those they may have pushed into repetition, thus wasting their previous investments, and constantly seeking desperately for the The Next New Author.

But in good business practice a brand will maintain a constant while simultaneously refreshing and evolving. And is it not the case that serious authors do this anyway? The brand of a serious author consists after all in voice or style - which as T S Eliot averred is embedded in personality - or maybe something even more subtle, a particular characterising talent or energy, which in turn can give rise to the refreshment of literary variation.

Come back, you abandoned literary mid-listers, all is, or ought to be, forgiven...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Memoir and fiction: it's how we read them

Here's a great article by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the crucial matter of the different ways in which we read fiction and memoir. I agree with it all and have said most of it myself on this blog at one time or another, so I don't want to add anything, so please just go and read it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

London Book Fair

So I went to the London Book Fair. Someone once said - I'm sorry, I don't remember who - that a book fair is no place for a writer, but it's perhaps a sign of the times that this year there was a strong emphasis on self publishing, with seminars on things like how an author needs to be an entrepreneur, and Advanced Marketing for authors, and there was a dedicated Author's Lounge for unpublished authors  - though I'm not quite sure who they were supposed to be networking with: each other? I somehow can't imagine a load of agents and publishers coming down to be networked with, though I did attend a session there entitled The Future of the Literary Agent, in which Hellie Ogden, who has recently joined  Janklow and Nesbit, talked of a new relationship between authors and agents in which authors appointing agents want to know what agents can do for them. The whole tenor of this session, at which Andrew Lownie of Andrew Lownie Associates also spoke, was that it's a whole new world in publishing, with agents taking a much more active and creative role in managing the careers of their authors, and many publishers getting left behind in a quickly-changing digital ethos, overtaken by e-self-publishing and the kind of enterprise Andrew Lownie himself has - apparently very successfully - begun, trialing books as ebooks and via print on demand.

The Authors' Lounge for this event was vastly overcrowded, with people standing and sitting on the floor, and I did take a photo to show you, but I'm afraid when I got back to my very cheap hotel with absolutely no room whatever in the bathroom, the iphone (on which I'd taken the photo) slid off the pile of towels on top of the lavatory cistern into the loo (which made it in the end a very expensive yet inconvenient hotel). I know it's a cliche, dropping your phone in the loo when you're drunk, and I can't deny I'd had a glass or two, but still...

I was at the fair to take part in a Salt panel on How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring. Branding was a key word at this fair. The great message of our panel was that we all have to be ourselves, yet we all need to be a brand, indeed we need to brand ourselves, so figure that one out, dear   Readers. In fact, our great chair, Elaine Aldred is going to blog about the event, and I'll link to her post when she does.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Edge Hill Prize long list and what it shows

Last year, or maybe the year before, the Edge Hill Prize (for a published short story collection) began publishing their longlist. This move is to be welcomed, chiefly and most obviously because it gives publicity, and introduces us, to a larger number of excellent books that may otherwise get no attention whatsoever, but also because it provides us with some measure of the current state of short story publishing. This year the Edge Hill longlist is larger than ever, and it does indeed paint an interesting picture.

It does seem that the locus of short story publishing in Britain and Ireland is now firmly the small presses, and that there are more small publishers than ever in existence producing excellent work. Of the 24 publishers represented on the list, 19 are truly small publishers. It's even more interesting to look at the proportions for the longlisted books: 37 books are listed, but small publishers have produced 29 of those, Salt and Comma being responsible for nine between them. Perhaps another interesting fact is that six of those 19 small publishers - Doire Press, Arlen House, New Island, Stinging Fly, Blackstaff and Lilliput - are Irish, two (Parthian and Old Street) are based in Wales, and another (Freight) is Scottish, reinforcing the notion of the short story as non-conformist.  Perhaps to my own shame I hadn't actually heard of Doire, Freight or Lilliput, or indeed of some of the remaining ten: new to me were the Valley Press based in Scarborough, Route which operates from Pontefract, of all places (I'm prejudiced - I once lived there!), Skylight, Elsewhere, Tightrope (Canadian) and Odyssey (US, I think - they charge for their books in dollars, at any rate). The two I haven't yet mentioned are the northern-based Pewter Rose, and the Bristol-based Tangent.

It's perhaps to be noted, though, that the bigger publishers are still producing short stories - two longlisted books come from Pan Macmillan, and Bloomsbury has fielded no less than three. Interesting, though, that Faber, which one thinks of as the home of literary fiction par excellence, and which has triumphed in this prize in the past (their authors Claire Keegan and Sarah Hall have both been overall winners), appears to have nothing to enter this year (Junot Diaz, the only short story writer they seem to have published this year, failing to be eligible as he's not British-born).

Anyway, many congratulations to those writers on the longlist, and if you'll permit a little indulgence, very special congrats to those on the list I happen to know personally: Carys Bray with Sweet Home (Salt), Nuala Ni Chonchuir with Mother America (New Island), Tania Hershman with My Mother Was An Upright Piano (Tangent), Jackie Kay with Reality, Reality (Pan Macmillan), Adam Marek with The Stone Thrower (Comma), Jonathan Pinnock with Dot, Dash (Salt), Jane Rogers with Hitting Trees With Sticks (Comma) and Tony Williams with All The Bananas I've Never Eaten (Salt) 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The underlying pattern

I'm pretty averse to Rules for Writing (OK, I know there are basic rules, but I hate the way they get fetishised and lead to the samey-ness that often dominates lit mags and short story prize lists and the kind of literary tyranny that results), but I like, as I think most writers will, this article on story archetypes by John Yorke, from his book on the subject which comes out next month. It's descriptive rather than rule-making, with a nice eye on both the excitement of subverting the archetype he describes and the endless mutability of the underlying pattern:
It seems impossible to understand how, with only eight notes in an octave, we don't simply run out of music. But just as tones give rise to semi-tones and time signatures, tempo and style alter content, so we start to see that a simple pattern contains within it the possibility of endless permutations. Feed in a different kind of flaw; reward or punish the characters in a variety of ways; and you create a different kind of story.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How close are we to androgyny?

Interviewed about the newly announced longlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), Natasha Walter, one of the judges, says that she was struck by the number of women writing from male viewpoints. Like Telegraph writer Sameer Rahim noting a similarity in the Costa winners, she sees this as possible evidence of a move towards the fulfilment of Virginia Woolf's wish for women writers to be seen as androgynous rather than as women. Others, however, including me (see this post), suspect a different implication. Kira Cochrane writes:
If a woman adopts a male perspective, it seems their story is still more likely to be respected, and read as universal. The author Naomi Alderman is well aware of this bias, and notes that the women who have won the Booker include: "Hilary Mantel writing about a strong man [Thomas Cromwell]. Pat Barker writing about the first world war and men's experiences. AS Byatt, yes there's a woman in it, but actually a lot of Possession is first-person writing as a man. Let's look at their names: Hilary, Pat and AS. These are names a man can read on the train and you don't necessarily immediately know that they're reading [a book by] a woman."

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Reading group: Roger Fishbite by Emily Prager

A bit belated - I forgot - here's the link to my latest reading group report: a discussion of Emily Prager's Roger Fishbite, a re-write of the Lolita story and a book which I think has been sorely underrated, mainly, I'd say because, unless I'm mistaken, people seem to be noticing brilliant prose less and less nowadays (or muddling it with high falutin' abstraction).

Thursday, January 31, 2013

What makes you think you know me?

In a Guardian article today about Ricky Gervais's controversial new character Derek, Mark Lawson notes this:
Performers such as Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield used to argue that actors should be wary of giving interviews because the profession demands the ability to disappear within a part. But contemporary actor-comedians such as Gervais, not only chat-show regulars but also constantly visible on social media, are as far from that mysterious ideal as it is possible to be. The risk is that a proportion of viewers will always be judging the public personality – and, in Gervais's case, controversy – as much as the work. It's intriguing to speculate about how Derek would be received if played by an unknown actor.
I have often argued on this blog a similar case regarding writers: the fact that, if novels don't exactly get judged purely on the personalities of their authors (though I suspect they often do), our celebrity culture does mean that very often it's the novelist rather than the novel that gets attention. In a books marketing climate depending on social media it's unavoidable: authors are now pretty much required by their publishers to have a profile on social media.

It's a conundrum: as I have pointed out often enough, many writers write precisely because they find social interaction more difficult than the page, and most writers write precisely because they find social interaction inadequate: it's solitary contemplation that produces original thought and it's the calm of the page where those thoughts can be properly transmitted and appreciated. This last is a point made strongly by Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. (Tania Hershman, who it seems is also currently concerned with these issues, alerts us to a moving film of Cain speaking.) Cain doesn't in any way suggest we give up social interaction, but pleads for more space for the privacy and contemplation necessary for creative production.

Here's another thought. If the recent 'sock-puppetry' scandal has shown us anything, it's that you can't always trust who someone is online anyway, and I'd say you can't always know who someone is online even when they're using their own name. Another thing the scandal showed was that there's now a whole culture - especially among authors, or at least those authors who were up in arms - of obsession with honesty and being up front, but it seems to me that writers, above anyone, are capable of fictional manipulation - either consciously or unconsciously - when it comes to their online selves. I'd go further and say that we never really know a person from any of their fundamentally public appearances.

I've been thinking about these issues a fair bit since I discovered in the pages of Nicholas Royle's new novel First Novel (which plays with the issue of the difficulty of knowing what's fiction and what isn't) a character (appearing intermittently and briefly) who answers to my description and bears my writing name. Other characters in the novel are recognisable as real-life people to those who know them in life, but their names are changed, and other writers are mentioned, but only as the authors of their books - they do not appear as characters (except maybe Paul Auster, though if I remember correctly that's only in the narrator's imagination). People keep coming up to me and suggesting it's outrageous and asking me if I feel weird about it. The answer is: no, on reflection, I don't (though their reaction does make me feel weird - it's not me, folks, it's a character!). I haven't discussed it at all with Nick, and he may have other things to say about it, but as far as I can see, it's a kind of literary joke about the knowability of anyone with any kind of public profile. Who is this Elizabeth Baines? No one really knows: it's significant - and funny - that the glasses of the EB in the novel flash at one point with the reflections of a glitter ball. For one thing, as Nick knows, it's a pen name, the name behind which, in the beginning, when I first started writing, I hid my real identity. But it's all very complex: in fact, I wasn't so much hiding as naming my deepest, most private, contemplative self, the self that (with luck) emerges on the page, and delineating and protecting it from my social identity - which in turn makes it ironic that it's now become the name for my public profile, and the active promotional side of me as a writer, as well as a name by which people know me on a social level after all. 

The truth of it all is this: as difficult as it is nowadays, if you really want to know a writer, try to forget the public profile and look at the work for what it is.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Prize Change?

I'm a bit behind with this, but I'd like to note here the interesting list of finalists for the International Man Booker, and the official statement which is a declaration of fulfilled intention to reverse a tradition:
The previous incarnations of the prize have included a large cluster of well-known and indeed expected names, from Doris Lessing and Milan Kundera to Amos Oz and Joyce Carol Oates. There is, however, nothing familiar or expected about the list unveiled today.
The statement points out that the list (below) includes only two well-known names and quotes the prize administrator as saying that the judges were chosen, and a larger number appointed than previously, in order to allow the panel "to read in far greater depth than ever before.”
This is presented as such an innovation that it's wearying confirmation that our prize culture relies too heavily on the known and approved (and so, probably, previously hyped). It would be nice to think, though, that this development - along with the great surprise finds of this year's Booker shortlist - are signs of permanent change.

Here's the list:
U R Ananthamurthy (India), Aharon Appelfeld (Israel), Lydia Davis (USA), Intizar Husain (Pakistan), Yan Lianke (China), Marie NDiaye (France), Josip Novakovich (Canada), Marilynne Robinson (USA), Vladimir Sorokin (Russia) and Peter Stamm (Switzerland).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Giving it to the students

A deeply-thought article by Rachel Cusk in yesterday's Guardian Review, considering the value of teaching creative writing - not only for students, but also in relation to the creative well-being of teacher-writers and our culture in general.

With searing insight she identifies the impulse which sends students flocking to courses:
Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language; the student feels a need to assert a 'true' self through the language system, perhaps for the reason that this same system, so intrinsic to every personal and social network, has given rise to a 'false' self
and her article is steeped in a need to honour that. Market-driven publishers, she points out, do not always do so - publication is not always 'an assurance of quality', and this justifies the need for the kind of academic haven for writing which painting and music have always enjoyed:
academic institutions offer a shelter for literary values, and for those who wish to practise them
But what of the writer-teacher? With unerring precision, she puts her finger on a conundrum here:
the role of teacher, like that of parent, effectively ends what might be called creative unself-consciousness. The teacher/parent is under pressure to surrender, as the phrase goes, the inner child, to displace it into actual children, to become scheduled and reliable in order to leave the child irresponsible and free. For a writer, who may have fought every social compulsion to "grow up", whose inner world has been constellated around avoiding that surrender, this is an interesting predicament. Like the child, the creative writing student is posited as a centre of vulnerable creativity, needful of attention and authority. So the writer is giving to others the service he might customarily have given himself.
Some writers will be creatively diminished by this, she says, others made bigger, enriched, and in a perhaps politic gesture, she leaves it there, so it's a conundrum that remains unaddressed in the article. Yet I suspect it's one that's crucial to the whole subject: more than once have I given up teaching creative writing for the sake of my own writing self, and thus the sake of my own writing - exciting as I do find teaching, exhilarating and stimulating as the writing community of a university can be - and I can't remember the number of times other teacher writers have said to me - or announced at readings - that if they had my opportunity (a partner prepared to foot the bills) they'd do it too. Cusk rather brushes aside the need for money that leads published writers into teaching, listing it as only one reason alongside possible others. Last September I heard a complaint (in a workshop discussion at a two-day celebration of the 60th anniversary of Stand Magazine) that, while it is now essentially the academy that funds literary writers, writers - especially poets - seem reluctant to acknowledge their academic affiliations in their  biographies; on the contrary, they were taking the money and running. Other reasons that bring writers to the academy, says Cusk, are an interest in the subject and a desire for social participation, and (again in contrast to the Stand complaint) a desire (of which she rightly seems not to approve) for the professional profile that attachment to an institution confers, and for the way it can 'ward off the suspicion of amateurism and the insecurity of creative freedom'.

It occurs to me that every reason Cusk lists is essentially selfish: she doesn't include a love of teaching for its own sake, or a desire to bring other writers forth into the world. I'm pretty sure from this article, and her previous piece for the Guardian, that Rachel Cusk has these last qualities and is one of those brilliant and committed teachers of creative writing, but the overall view of creative writing teaching she provides is, in spite of her project of defence, less heartening.

Is it possible that those writers most able to divest themselves of their self-oriented writing identities for their students are the ones who find it most difficult to keep going at both?  And if it is, what does it mean for students, for the academy, and for literature? I'd call it more than 'interesting.'

Oh, and I should of course refer you to Marcel Theroux's pretty honest guest post on this blog for Faber Academy.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The way we change

Sometimes you get such searing insights into how the world of reading, and of selling books, has changed. At Christmas a relative I visited was weeding his bookshelves, and one of the books he offered round was this 1949 Pan paperback edition he bought from a secondhand-bookshop when he was a teenager. I took it for its classic cover design, but when I got it home I could hardly believe the 'blurb' (below) on the back of this populist publication, which in its structure, language and preoccupations reads more like a (stilted) essay, and appeals to assumed biobliographic and philanthropic interests in the readership rather than to a simple desire for spills and thrills. I particularly like the opening academically-inclined salvo:
THE SAINT VERSUS SCOTLAND YARD was originally entitled The Holy Terror, but its present title was used in the American editions and is therefore now adopted to obviate confusion.
and the assurance that the author is
himself [?] deeply interested in problems of psychology and philosophy
as well as the fact that
Enthusiasts for the Saint are reminded of the Saint Club ... which, besides giving members some amusement, supports the Arbor Youth Club in a heavily blitzed East End area of London
although we are told that Charteris has 'invented new ways of selling books,' and that last, with its carefully-placed contact details,  is probably an example.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Women and winning

So the 2013 Costa winners are announced: they are novelist Hilary Mantel, new writer Francesca Segal, poet Kathleen Jamie, graphic memoirists Mary and Bryan Talbot and children's author, Sally Gardner. While Telegraph writer Sameer Rahim cheers the fact that they are all female and wonders if this makes the all-women former Orange prize (which is still looking for a sponsor) redundant, it occurs to your blogger that the fact that he can find their all-female character so noticeable makes the answer no. He also notes that
three of the five Costa winners have male protagonists – evidence, if we needed it, that the authors are pursuing the stories that interest them and do not feel in the slightest inhibited their gender.
Hm. There are some odd implications here. Could there possibly be a hint that stories about men are more interesting than stories about women, even to women writers? That if women work with female protagonists they are somehow being inhibited by their gender? Even (it could follow) that female gender is essentially inhibiting (unless you escape it with a male protagonist?) Is it true that it still is? How many women writers, I wonder, create male protagonists because they know, consciously or unconsciously, that in our culture the male still stands for normal and the female is, well, female and therefore minority? In fact, you know, for this reason it's much simpler (as a woman), I find, to write with a male protagonist. Bring on a female protagonist and right away you're battling with complex issues and barriers both for your protagonist and her way of being in the world and indeed for your book, not least among the barriers being that it it is known that women readers are happy to read about men but male readers are less keen to read about women. (Even the remarkably sensitive men in my reading group still show this tendency to some extent.) Well, it's less hard than it was, I think, but I do reckon it would be really interesting to study the proportions of male and female protagonists in successful and/or prizewinning books by women.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

First Novel: a seventh novel by Nicholas Royle

How on earth do you review a novel written by someone you know and in which you encounter a character bearing your name and answering vaguely to your description but doing something you never did? This has been my experience on reading a proof copy of Nicholas Royle's new novel, First Novel, published tomorrow, 3rd January, and aptly described on the jacket as a 'fiendish piece of metafiction that blends reality and imagination to unsettling effect'.

Like his author, protagonist Paul Kinder is a lecturer in Creative Writing at a university in Manchester and lives here in Didsbury, the geographical details of which - along with some of the local inhabitants - are made carefully and vividly recognisable to those who know it in life. Unlike his author, who has several novels and many other publications to his name, Kinder once wrote (under a different name) a single novel that sank without trace and is now obsessed with first novels, collecting them from secondhand-book shops and (by default) teaching a course on First Novels. Meanwhile at night he drives around the dogging sites under the flightpaths of South Manchester, ostensibly researching a second novel, and remembers events in London, before his move to Manchester, which led to the breakdown of his marriage.

Interwoven with this narrative are others, in cleverly different prose styles, which are being written, it soon turns out, by his students. A first-person narrative written by MA Novel student Helen describes an encounter with a character who is clearly and unsettlingly Kinder in a house whose details so match Kinder's own it seems she must have been stalking him. Another, presented anonymously, spookily describes an incident Kinder saw two days before from the window of his home study: the harrassment and possible murder of a homeless man. More substantial, and the most obviously fictive, is the story of Ray, an RAF officer posted to Zanzibar in the 60s, and written by Grace, an undergraduate Kinder finds disturbing. But then First Novel is a book that turns the real and the fictive/fictional on end, and all of this culminates in a shocking connection we could never have guessed, and a dismantling of our assumptions about the reality of some important aspects of Paul Kinder's Didsbury activities.

Needless to say, this clever and thought-provoking novel more than touches on the issues with which this blog has often been concerned: the complex relationship between fiction and reality, the sometimes blurred edges between the two and the way that each can deeply affect the other. (Not to mention the issues around the teaching of Creative Writing.) Paul Kinder has difficulty distinguishing between right and left, on and off, and, as the novel progresses, in making choices of action, underlining the important point that not only is fiction contingent, poised on multiple narrative possibilities, reality is too - a point generally belied by conventional narrrative which fixes reality into single possibility. Everything here is under question, even metafiction, and so by implication First Novel's own metafictive status. Paul asks Helen of her own metafictive piece in which he and she appear: 
Would it seem bold taken out of context? If you weren't you and I wasn't me?
As for me: well, this is nothing like the time someone wrote a novel (unpublished) entirely about me without changing my writing name while changing everyone else's names - that really was deeply spooky.  The Elizabeth Baines in First Novel has only a walk-on part and, frankly, she's an imposter.

Though I've a damn good mind to write a riposte...