Monday, May 26, 2014

The mother's to blame

Now and then one is pulled up short by the sexism inherent in the odd literary-critical comment. It may of course be that I'm true to my blog name and a total bitch, and my female characters follow suit, but my breath has been taken away on a couple of occasions by interpretations of the female character in my story 'Compass and Torch' which is on the AQA GCSE syllabus, most recently by the BBC Bitesize website page designed to help students revise the story.

The story concerns an eight-year-old boy and his father, who don't see each other very often, as the father and the boy's mother are separated, setting out awkwardly and self-consciously together on a camping trip on which a lot consequently rides in terms of cementing, indeed repairing, their precarious relationship. As they unpack the car there are two flashbacks, located in the child's consciousness, featuring the mother, the first when he overhears her talking to her live-in boyfriend about the coming trip and about the father's general conduct as an absentee father, and a second one in which the father picks the boy up for the trip from the mother's home.

BBC Bitesize tells us that the mother

is presented as an angry and embittered person. Her anger is spoken to her current partner, Jim, and is directed against her former husband whom she regards mockingly as having made a poor effort to act as a father to his son. "There was a choke in her voice now, and suddenly a kind of snarl: 'You wouldn't expect him to start now, would you - accommodating his child into his life?'" (ll. 24 - 26)

Well, OK, the mother is angry. But angry why and in what way? I'd say she's chiefly angry about what she sees as the father's inability to be a better father, both as an absentee parent and previously, before the parents separated - there is italicisation that isn't replicated on the Bitesize site on both the word now implying a previous, similar situation, and on life, implying an inability by the father to adapt to fatherhood. This last, the father's inadequacy, is something that the incidents on the camping trip go on to support, but the critic implies it is just the mother's view: he says she 'regards' the father as putting on a poor show as a father. One can extrapolate that this, the mother's sense of the father's inadequacy, was one of the reasons for the breakdown of the parents' relationship in the first place, and thus that the mother's comment on the irony (ie if he didn't do it when they were together, how is he going to do it now?) indicates that her anger is also about the irony of the general situation. Nevertheless her anger  - I don't think it's just anger, but I'll come to that - is directed towards a particular (and very important) issue, the fact that her son and his father aren't close.

However, the wording of the Bitesize commentary implies something different. She is an angry 'person' we are told, implying a general anger typical of her personality, with a possible resulting implication that she doesn't have justification for anger on this particular occasion. There is something pejorative about this in itself, and once 'angry' is paired with 'embittered', a word generally used pejoratively (it generally implies an unjustified, self-centred resentment), we can be in no doubt about the critic's negative view of the mother. Thus he (I'm kind of assuming the critic is a he, but I may be being entirely unjust) sees the mother's ironic comment as 'mocking', with its hints of cruelty and a position of cool superiority. This last runs completely counter to my own view of the situation and my literary intentions. I see all of the characters, including the mother, as caught up in a painful situation and suffering. The mother, as I say, is not simply angry. There is a 'choke' in her voice, which surely - well, I intended it anyway - implies that she is beginning to cry. One of the things I am trying to say in this story is that it's just about impossible to shield children from their parents' unhappiness. So when the boy comes downstairs and hears his mother saying this thing about his father he is not only upset on behalf of his father, but also catches his mother's unhappiness. He hears the choke in her voice, and 'the light seeping through her fuzzy hair made the bones of his shoulders ache'. The BBC Bitesize tutor/critic does note that the mother tries to shield the boy from what she has been saying about the father, but does not seem to see that this is one of the ironies on which the story pivots: the mother stops (and is alarmed and ashamed that the boy may have heard) because she wants the child to have good relationship with the father. In fact, the critic states that the most obvious judgement of the mother's sudden silence and change of manner is that the mother is being 'hypocritical', and agrees with that judgement, before going on to state that, actually, I present it as 'more complex'. The mother's 'behaviour', he/she tells students, 'is what adults do when they try to protect their children from the ugly truths of the adult world.' This is a vague phrase, including no sense that the mother is trying to hide not only the discord between herself and his father but also her own unhappiness from a child she understands will in turn be made unhappy by both of these things ('wrenching a look of bright enthusiasm onto her face'). It is the boy's happiness she is concerned with here.

But no. According to the critic, the mother is thinking of herself and lacks concern for the boy. (It is interesting that he uses the word 'behaviour', implying that she is not well-behaved.) It is true that the boy knows what the mother will be saying, which means that he has heard her saying it in the past. Rather than seeing this (as I intend) as proof of the enormity of the problem to the mother and the household, which will inevitably filter through to a child constantly alert to his parents' broken relationship, the critic sees it as proof of the mother's lack of concern for the boy. 'The mother is also presented as selfish' we are told in no-uncertain bolds. She cries, for goodness' sake, when the boy and his father are leaving! (Crying's no amelioration after all - it's a sin!) (Well, actually, she doesn't just cry - she is once again trying to stop herself doing so but the child sees that 'her eyes are bulging and wobbly with tears'). To the critic this indicates not the extent of her distress, but a selfish dereliction of maternal duty, and it is this, specifically, that to the critic 'spoils [the boy's] enjoyment of the weekend', rather than (as I see it) the child's more general apprehension of the adults' pain and the father's inability to relate to him. He ends his revision note on the mother by stressing the use in the story of the word 'unforgivable' to describe the mother's warning to the father not to camp too near an edge, and the implication, which the boy picks up - and which distresses him - that the mother doesn't trust the father with the boy. He seems to overlook the fact that, since the flashback is contained within the boy's point of view, this is just the boy's - momentary - judgement of his mother. As far as I am concerned it's an instance of the complicated emotions all parties experience in such situations - after all, in the next instant the boy feels he doesn't want to leave his mother and doesn't want after all to go with his father. But as far as the critic is concerned, it's my overall judgement of the mother (which he seems to justify by calling 'unforgivable' an 'adult' word), and it's clearly his. Clearly, in this critic's view, mothers are not allowed the human emotions of unhappiness and anger. Any failure to shield their children from their emotions is simply unforgivable, and any attempts they may have made to so before failing need not be acknowledged. A less-than-perfect mother is a Bad Mother. (In the light of all this, a pretty pejorative halo surrounds the critic's reference to the mother's 'current' relationship, and a feckless woman moving from partner to partner is potentially conjured.)

This is sexism, and this is what young people studying this story for this exam are being taught by the BBC.

You can read 'Compass and Torch' on East of the Web (where it was first published), and it's included in my collection Balancing on the Edge of the World (Salt).

(I'm crossposting this to my author blog, Elizabeth Baines.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Edge Hill Prize shorlist

The Edge Hill Prize shortlist echoes the pattern of the longlist, with five of the six finalists published by small presses. A Celtic flavour shows up even more strongly at this stage, with two Welsh publishers, Parthian and Seren, and the very new Northern-Irish Whittrick press represented. Of the authors, one is Welsh, two are Irish and one Scottish. Represented here too are those publishers appearing on the longlist as true champions of the short story with multiple entries: of the small presses, Parthian and Salt and of the mainstream, Cape.

The shortlist is as follows:

  • David Rose, Posthumous Stories (Salt)
  • Rachel Trezise, Cosmic Latte (Parthian)
  • Bernie McGill, Sleepwalkers (Whittrick Press)
  • Jaki McCarrick, The Scattering (Seren Books)
  • John Burnside, Something Like Happy (Jonathan Cape)
  • Wednesday, May 07, 2014

    It depends what you know about a book before you read it

    Our reading group discussion of Bainbridge's Harriet Said, her first-written novel but not her first published. An interesting case, we found, of the difference that being told the background to a novel makes to one's experience of reading it, which has implications for the power of blurbs and publicity.

    Monday, May 05, 2014

    Do we need to worry or not?

    There's been much reaction on the web to Will Self's Guardian article concerning the death of the serious novel in our digital age, most of it negative, with many commenters objecting that on the contrary, the internet has promoted the serious novel. However, I'm surprised that people can have managed to take such a clear message from the article (ie that the serious novel really is dead, once and for all): I've always been an admirer of Self's views and his clarity of mind, but I've read this article twice now, and I still can't find a clear thread, or be absolutely sure of Self's ultimate view of the situation. It should be noted that it is in fact an edited version of the Richard Hillary lecture he'll deliver tomorrow, so his argument will have been truncated, but it does seem to me that, rather than a successful analysis of the current situation (which in a time of such rapid technological change is probably impossible), it's more an expression of our uncertainty and anxiety about it.

    Self does assert categorically that 'the literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes.'  He goes on to 'refine his terms', as he puts it: he doesn't mean 'the kidult boywizardsroman' and the 'soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy' which he notes are in 'rude good health'; he is talking about
    The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.
    I don't argue with most of this as a definition of literary fiction, but I'm not sure what he means by a novel's ability to 'enact self-analysis'. Perhaps he is talking merely about the intellectual content and verbal and structural patterning of any serious work of prose fiction, but I suspect he is really thinking of a very specific kind of novel, postmodern and self-referential, indeed the kind of novel he writes himself, especially as he then goes on to introduce the notion of 'difficulty' as an aspect of the serious novel. What about those novels that fulfil all the other criteria in the passage above with no difficulty or challenge for the reader? Are they not 'literary'? So it's never clear precisely in this discussion whether we're talking about a particular type of serious novel or something wider. 'The advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself', he says, but this is a point which (if true) must surely apply to books of any form in any medium.

    He takes for granted that in the age of soundbites and instant access to information, people are more impatient with certain kinds of difficulty, plumping for entertainment rather than serious engagement with the complex or the unfamiliar, a view that seems borne out by the fact that the larger publishers are increasingly unprepared to publish such fiction. But as Self himself indicates, the current state of book publishing is an economic effect of the new technology as well as late-20th-century capitalism and such developments as the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. It's not necessarily indicative of a sea-change in the attitude of the public towards reading (though we shouldn't discount its possible effects on that). Self harps back to a golden age (ie when he was a young man in the early 80s) when 'the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour'. He immediately qualifies this, however: 'This is not to say that everyone walked the streets with their head buried in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse, nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn't alive and snorting' (by god, he has a good turn of phrase!), before going on to claim contradictorily:
    However, what didn't obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. 

    I'm not so sure about that: I spent my teenage years in a small northern town, and for a lot of that time I sensed that quite a number of people around me righteously thought me an uppity snob (as well as air-headed) for my difficult-novel reading, and that I needed to be taken down a peg or two. He sees what he calls the 'serious' novel becoming 'an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group', but having taught in secondary schools and married into a typical northern working-class family, I'm not sure that challenging fiction has ever really been much else. As Self himself points out, general literacy in the West is a historically recent phenomenon, and after referring to his youth as a golden age in reading, he reveals that his agent, placing his first novel, told him to accept its publication as a paperback original, as it was 'nigh-on impossible for new writers to get published - let alone paid'; in other words, those economic sea-changes were already taking effect in publishing, altering the revered physical character of new books and causing what Self calls 'the concertinaing of the textual distribution into a short, wide pipe'.

    Self sees 'serious' novels as needing in the future to be subsided, but the truth is, I think, that the more challenging fiction always has been. Once upon a time publishers with money were prepared to subsidise it for a minority audience, but in this age of rampant commercialism they're no longer prepared to. In response, we see the rise of small publishers prepared to pick up the slack, but there remains the serious problem of adequate remuneration for writers, necessary if we're to keep a serious literary culture going. Self is almost bitter about the current solution found by most writers, teaching on the burgeoning Creative Writing courses, 'care homes' to accommodate 'writers who can no longer make a living from their work' and where PhD students with unpublishable novels aspire to be paid in turn for the 'midwifery of still-born novels.' And yes, as Self says, and as I've often commented here, the whole buzzy culture of the internet is destructive of the kind of privacy and solitude that is essential for both the reading and writing of serious novels.

    So yes, there's a big problem, but we can't assume that technology won't overcome it. Self would probably call me a naive 'populist Gutenberger' for saying so, and yet he declares that as a practical novelist he doesn't feel depressed about it all, and, unaccountably in view of his gloomy prediction, concludes with a statement that he feels 'safe ... to go on mining'.

    Saturday, May 03, 2014

    Edge Hill Prize long list

    I was busy when the Edge Hill Prize long list was announced recently, but I now have time to consider it and its implications. Once again the prize committee have done us the favour of longlisting all eligible titles, thus giving us an idea of the current state of short-story publishing.

    As last year, small press entries far outnumber those from larger publishers, but the list is even more weighted towards the former. Entries are up on last year (44 this year; 37 last year) and in spite of the increased overall number, total number of entries from larger publishers stays the same (only 8), and the number of large publishers entering is down (4 as opposed to 5).

    Once again the Celts come up trumps, with 6 Irish publishers entering a total of 8 books, 3 Welsh (Parthian alone fielding 4 books), and 2 based in Scotland including the established Canongate. Only 2 of the independent presses are based in London or internationally, and 9 are based in the English regions.

    The increased number of entries could indicate greater publisher awareness of the prize (there are many small publishers this year I've never head of), or that indeed more short story collections are being published (or both). In any case, it's interesting to see science fiction and fantasy featuring on this list, hailing from not only that established veteran of genre, Gollancz (at least I'm assuming their 2 entered books are genre), but also small presses dedicated to the genre, Yorkshire-based PS Publishing and Michigan-based Subterranean. Also interesting is the presence of a publisher, Spinetinglers Elite, appearing to be an author-packaging service for self-published authors, based in Northern Island, and, also based in Northern Ireland, the 'mostly digital' Whittrick Press.

    Champions here, along with Parthian, are Salt, with likewise 4 entries. It's a shame to see Comma, the publisher dedicated entirely to the form, fielding only one book, and I suspect this is an effect of cuts in funding *. Surprising too that for the second year running Faber has no entries, and I hope that doesn't mean that, in the current economic climate, Faber, that home of literary excellence, is losing its commitment to the form. Cape, however, with 3 entries, preserves its reputation as the large publishing-house promoter of serious short-form fiction.

    *Edited in: Comma lets us know in the comments below that the fact that they have only one single-author collection to field this year is just a result of the way their publishing programme has fallen out. Comma is a great publisher of translated short stories, on which they have concentrated this year, along with anthologies. They say that next year they'll be doing more single-author collections, which is great to hear.