Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The BBC National Short Story shortlist: my assessment of the stories

Further to my earlier post about the BBC National Short Story shortlist, here are my thoughts now that I've actually read and listened to the stories, and also to the Radio 4 interviews with the authors.

Because of other commitments, I listened to one of the stories before I read it, and vice versa with the others, so I'm not sure it's possible to make true comparisons between the stories, since, as Radio Producer Michael Fox commented to me on Facebook, reading and listening are very different experiences, and I'd say it's likely that the experience of a story you have first becomes the primary one, affecting your later experience of the same story in a different medium. Here goes, however.

I have to say that not one of the five stories left me emotionally moved or aesthetically admiring as winning and shortlisted stories of earlier years have done - say, Kate Clanchy's 'The Not-Dead and the Saved', Jon McGregor's 'Wires' or Sarah Hall's 'Butcher's Perfume': these were stories I found moving precisely because they are dynamic and innovative at the level of language and/or structure. Every one of this year's crop was written by an author known so far for novels rather than for short stories, and this seemed to be reflected in stories that, in the majority, were not language-dense. At least three of them operated, on first impression, more on the level of plot than on that of language or innovative structure and used a predominantly conventional 'tale-telling' mode or tone.

One of the least conventionally 'tale-telling' in authorial tone was 'Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets', by Zadie Smith. This was the story I first encountered on the radio. Ironically, as the Radio 4 interviewer pointed out, Smith is a writer of pretty hefty novels, and she has only just begun writing stories. She expressed in her interview a delight with the opportunity that a short story provides to be more glancing and implicit, to get away from explication and a knowing authorial third-person. However, the implicitness of her story as it was broadcast, a story about an ageing Brooklyn drag queen stepping into a shop to buy a corset and into a maelstrom of racial prickliness - did not reside in linguistic or structural patterning so much as the dramatic mode which in fact Smith uses in her novels, a prose heavy on dialogue and action in which the meanings are conveyed implicitly in the actions and the junctions between the speeches. While we were not always told what was going on in the characters' minds, and had to infer it from their speeches and actions, there was nevertheless in the broadcast that strong sense of an author pulling the strings and forcing the characters together for her own indisputable ends/meanings, which Smith with characteristic frankness identified in her own novels. The broadcast version of the story, in its essentially dramatic mode, while showing the subtlety and uncertainty of social interactions, is unquestioning about the nature of reality - in other words, realist, something which seems echoed in its title, which, however McSweeney-ironic, could smack of the patrician and old-fashioned.

On the other hand, when I listened to the broadcast I was actually confused about those authorial meanings: as the reading unfolded I was clear that something subtle and uncertain was going on between the characters, but I wasn't clear what, and although by the end I knew there had been a misunderstanding, I was left feeling that I'd missed something about its precise nature, and why it had happened, and also wondering if the narrative treatment of Miss Adele's ultimate distress were simply melodramatic. The reading by Noma Dumezweni was excellent: she did great service to the dramatic mode, brilliantly realizing the voices for which Smith has such a wonderfully acute ear, and the whole thing was indeed vibrant and concrete with a sense of social reality. Dramatically-constructed stories, as I have said previously on this blog, seem best suited to radio broadcast, but inevitably a reader of the dialogue on the page approaches the story without this help, and I wondered whether someone doing so would have had quite this satisfying and immediate sense of vibrancy. However, reading the text later showed me that the radio broadcast had indeed ironed out something quite crucial. Inevitably, all of the stories were cut to fit the 35-minute slot, and not only did I now find that linking moments clarifying the situation on a simple factual level had been excised from the broadcast version of this story, but there is, I discovered, a recurring structural element outside the action and dialogue that operates with the essential short-story implicitness for which Smith was aiming, but which was cut. Every so often the prose, located in Miss Adele's viewpoint, takes on a free indirect mode in which we are carried back via her intimate memory to her childhood, memories which are overlaid on the current situation and which, by implication, colour Miss Adele's view of it and of the other characters, and motor her own responses. In a few brief (unfortunately easily excised) strokes this gives Miss Adele a whole painful deep history, clarifies the way she is dealing with the present situation and the responses of others to her, and makes her consequently far more moving. It gives the story an interiority and a deeper, resonant and more satisfyingly psychological meaning than the more 'out-there' pantomime style of the broadcast conveys, makes it less realist and indeed less linear. There is a kind of disruption in this leitmotif (so you can see why it might have been ironed out) - it disrupts the otherwise stage-set realism of the story - but it's an important, aesthetically dynamic disruption, essential to the story's meaning which was lost in the simplification and emollience of broadcast.

Smith's story wasn't the only one of the five suffering from this kind of flattening via broadcast. It seems to me that a competition that invites stories of up to 8,000 words - which is long for a short story - yet shoehorns the winners into a 35-minute broadcast slot creates a troubling dynamic, and it's perhaps disturbing that, in a venture dedicated to nurturing the short story as a form, the means of dissemination of the winners suppresses those very characteristics of subtlety and liminality of which the short story is uniquely capable - and when, if a story is truly successful, every word should count.

Precisely the same thing happened with Tessa Hadley's story 'Bad Dreams'. As was pointed out in her interview, of the five shortlistees she has the strongest track record of short-story writing, and I felt that this showed in the economy and mode of her story, which depended entirely for its meaning on this kind of leitmotif patterning. 'A child woke up in the dark', the story begins, and later a new section begins: 'Her mother woke up early, in the dawn' - an echo which not only signals a connection between what has happened to the child in the meantime and the mother's situation or consciousness, but in its changed diction alerts us to consequence, and to something changed or about to. As the shortest, Hadley's was the story that was least cut, but those cuts were, I think, devastating. It's a story about those things in our consciousness we suppress, those things we either don't see or refuse to see about our relationships and our lives, and what carries this meaning with resonance, and indicates by metaphoric implication why the odd things that happen in the story happen, is a riff on invisibility and the inability to see in the dark, most of which was stripped right out for the broadcast. I read the story before I listened to it, so it's not really possible for me to say what impression I'd have got if I'd heard it first, but I suspect a lot was lost. A literal and prosaic reading of the story might lead one to make such deletions - after all, we know it's dark, the first sentence tells us! - but a good short story doesn't just operate on that banal level of information, and those rhetorical devices of repetition and variation carry the psychological and existential dimensions of a story, and hence its emotional impact.

It's tempting as a consequence to dismiss this competition as being in thrall to commercial pressures for realism and simplicity, but the fact is that at the London Short Story Festival in June, Di Spiers, one of the judges and indeed BBC Radio Books Editor, expressed a frustration with the widely-held view (previously expressed on this blog) that the stories best suited to radio are conventional, and that conventional stories are thus best suited to this competition. She wished they received more innovative submissions, she said, and indeed I think this is reflected in the fact that Lionel Shriver's 'Kilifi Creek' was chosen as this year's winner. Although it's clogged with abstract circumlocution, and everything is spelled out - no glancing implications here - and although this was one story where, in my view, the huge cuts for broadcast improved it no end, it was actually interestingly experimental in its conceit, and in spite of the conventionally authorial tale-telling voice, not in the least realist; in fact it was anti-realist. Focusing (pretty uneconomically, in my view) on a moment in a woman's past when she almost drowned, and then moving on to consider how that moment plays out in her later life and consciousness, the story ponders questions about chance, reality and our grasp on that reality that did intrigue me in spite of my dislike of the pretentious and, in my view, self-regarding authorial tone.

I did find the two remaining stories conventional and realist, however. Rose Tremain's 'The American Lover' moved back and forth between the past and the present as a woman injured in a road accident recalls her youthful affair with an older man and traces the route from that to her present situation, but within the flashback sections the prose descends into a stark tale-telling mode (this happened, then that happened), with little subtext or resonance, that failed to keep my attention or to make for me convincing connections between those past events and the present. Although one can make a logical argument for those connections, which Tremain did indeed do in her interview, within the story they weren't organic, and it felt to me that the woman's accident was not the inevitable consequence of the early events, but could have happened anyway or indeed could have not happened. In her interview, like all of the shortlistees, Tremain was asked how autobiographical the story was. In my view that's a question that, for literary as well as personal reasons, shouldn't be asked of an author in public, and here it contributes to a suspicion of populism, a pandering to the populist tendency to read fiction as autobiography. But in Tremain's case it was illuminating: yes, the early part was autobiographical, she confessed. We can conclude (in fact, I think she may have actually said) that the woman's injury wasn't, that this had been devised as a symbol of the emotional damage at the heart of the story, and it felt to me just that: something artificially added on and not earned by any deeper resonance elsewhere in the story. This - very much the longest story in the bunch - was another where the cuts often actually improved the prose, removing repetitions that added nothing to the story's deeper meaning and thereby improving the pace. Even so, once again there were omissions that did detract from the story, once again removing crucial elements that carried the meaning. The 'present-day' level of the story takes place in 1974, and references to the miners' strikes, omitted from the radio version, may have seemed, on a prosaic reading, to be dispensable (and maybe even unsuited to a tale rooted in sixties sexual freedoms and callousness), but they create a contrasting atmosphere that underlines, on an important emotional level, the story's concern with emotional hardship, dissolution and strife. In one scene omitted from the broadcast, the protagonist receives a slap on the face from a nurse and '...the mark became a bruise and the bruise took a long time to fade', one moment in the past time-level that is truly emotionally resonant, symbolic of lasting emotional damage. This was cut for the broadcast, leaving the story even less resonant for me than the text version had been.

Francesa Rhydderch was the one less-well-known of the five, graduate of a BBC creative writing course, and although I'm very keen to see non-'celebrity' authors making it to the shortlist in this competition, I'm afraid her story did seem to me that of someone still learning the art. Her story, set in the 1920s in a small town in Wales, deals with events when a professor comes to lodge in the house of a taxidermist and the effect he has on the taxidermist's daughter. It seemed to me to suffer from a thematic uncertainty that was underlined in the promotion. Listening to her radio interview, I heard that the story was about several things: taxidermy as an interesting and detailed subject in its own right, death, resurrection, the position of women in 1920s Britain and 'the process of creation', but there was no mention of the one thing the general publicity tells us it's about, ie a young girl's sexual awakening. In her interview Rhydderch spoke of 'putting two things together' (the memory of the young girl's brother killed at the Somme, and taxidermy). I can see that in theory the process of taxidermy might be a symbol for keeping lost or dead ones alive, but this notion wasn't in my view borne out by the workings of the story, in which the man whose province is taxidermy won't use the dead brother's name and replaces his presence in his room with the results of his craft, while the character who is keeping the son's memory alive, the daughter, is for the main bulk of the story excluded from the taxidermy processes (this was the part of the story that concerned women's status), taxidermy being for her a focus of exclusion and denial, and in one crucial scene, of discomfort. In fact, a contradictory notion to that of taxidermy as loving resurrection is perhaps suggested (and vividly prefigured in an early reference to the mother's almost savagely gutting a goose): that the heartlessness of the professor was symbolised in the emptiness of the eviscerated taxidermy specimens. Furthermore, it is the taxidermy chemicals that the daughter uses to try and commit an act of poisoning. Neither did I find, beyond this mechanical plot connection, any organic or thematic connection between either the brother's death or taxidermy with the other strand, that of the daughter's sexual interest in the professor. I was unconvinced by her attempt at poisoning and remain to this day unsure of whom she was chiefly trying to poison (the professor, for betraying her with her mother, or her mother for having sex with the professor, or both). Much was made in the interview of Rhydderch's research into taxidermy, as if this were the core of the story, but, significantly, scenes describing the processes were drastically cut for the broadcast of the story, including the very passage we heard, uncut, during the interview. This was another long story (over 6,500 words), and it was interesting that Rhydderch said she'd felt that the 8,000 word allowance of the competition gave her an opportunity to 'cover more bases' and (ironically, in view of the fact that I found the character's motives unclear) to go into more depth. I found the result unfocussed and loose, and in fact the radio editing did much to correct some infelicities of prose. All of the five stories but Smith's were set wholly or chiefly in the past, but in spite of Rhydderch's statement that she doesn't want her stories set in the past to be thought of as historical, and wants rather to achieve for them a 'modern emotional idiom', (and in spite of the interviewer's strong agreement that this story was indeed timeless), I found her story the most historical in tone and atmosphere. I'm not sure therefore that, in the context, I understand her phrase, and the fact that her fairly ordinary characters living in rural Wales in the 1920s dine on goose with 'Jerusalem artichokes, glazed parsnips and ... celeriac mash' (a line judiciously cut for the broadcast) seemed to me, hailing as I do from rural Wales, nothing more than an anachronism.

In conclusion, I'd say that there are strange tensions created by the parameters of this competition. One could view the fact that longer stories are encouraged for submission and seem to be favoured in the judging as implying that the judges are admirably above the requirements of radio, and that the subsequent need to squash the stories into less than 35 minutes (intros, credits and music taking up at least a couple of minutes) (I'd say around 4,000 words) is an unfortunate byproduct of their literary freedom. However, the suspicion arises that longer stories are simply favoured as they can be sure to fill up the slot and can always be cut (and, although no minimum word limit is stated, it doesn't look in that case as if stories shorter than 4,000 would have stood much chance). Yet, as I have said, the essence of the short story is economy: the best short stories are often indeed much shorter than 4,000 words, and a good short story should be difficult, if not impossible, to cut without serious loss. There's a novelistic feel to this shortlist, not simply because the authors are also novelists, and although it succeeds splendidly in drawing public attention to the short story as a form, it fails to showcase properly its unique possibilities, or the ways in which those are indeed being explored by writers in the UK today.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Real books TV

I got so fed up with dumbed-down TV books programmes I just about stopped watching them - well, I wasn't even sure there were any, any more - but on Tuesday evening I chanced on BBC's The Secret Life of Books, an episode presented by the ever-incisive Bidisha, and found it a revelation. In an exceptionally thoughtful programme, Bidisha re-examines Jane Eyre, recounting the differences in her attitudes to the book as a teenager (when, like so many, she saw it chiefly as a romantic love story with a fine and triumphant heroine) and as an adult (when she saw Jane as subservient to Rochester and racist in her blindness to the rights of Bertha, the wife incarcerated in the attic), and then setting out to examine these attitudes through discussion with others. Arguing her adult view with Rebecca Fraser, author of Charlotte Bronte: A Writer's Life, who stoutly and convincingly defends Jane as a mould-breaking heroine, Bidisha is left with her view of Jane as a woman adjusted, but still unable to accept Jane's, and the author's, attitude to Bertha, seen as Other and conveniently disposed of at the end of the novel. Until, that is, she talks to academic Terry Eagleton, who convinces her that this must be seen in the context of the prevailing attitudes of Charlotte's time.

What was so refreshing and satisfying about the programme was its unashamed intellect, the way it created a narrative out of an intellectual journey. Clearly, there was staging in the presentation of this intellectual journey - Bidisha would have already completed it before the programme was put together - but for once it was a TV staging that was intellectually useful. I do hope it points the way for book programmes to come.

Bidisha didn't mention Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, which critiques Jane Eyre by taking Bertha's point of view. For anyone interested, our reading group discussion of Rhys's novel is here.

And, also for anyone interested, my own story 'That Turbulent Stillness' is a tongue-in-cheek examination of the teenage reaction to the Brontes that Bidisha describes. It's published in Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, ed. A J Ashworth (Unthank books).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

BBC National Short Story shortlist

I knew in mid-August, when I received an email from Booktrust's publicist, intended to get me excited as a blogger about the announcement of the shortlist for the BBC National Short Story award a month later, that of course once again I had failed to make it. The email clearly meant that the shortlist had been chosen and shortlistees informed - the publicity machine and publication and recordings requiring at least a month's preparation. Actually, I never expect to get anywhere in this competition, and most years I think wearily, 'Is it really worth my bothering to go through the motions?' And the main thing that puts me off is the bit on the form where you have to say whether you are the author or the author's publisher entering the story. I always wonder: why is this distinction made such a fuss of? Why are publishers allowed to enter stories on behalf of authors? The entries aren't anonymous (you have to declare your most recent publications - or your publisher has to); if you're a sifter, or a judge, how likely are you to overcome the temptation (conscious or unconscious) to be influenced by the endorsement of an established publisher? One year, I asked my hard-pressed small publisher to enter me: she generously and readily agreed, but I know it was a huge hassle on top of all her other work, and I didn't feel it was fair to do it again (I suppose the big publishers have publicists etc to deal with all the form-filling bother), and I'm left thinking every year: do I even stand a chance whatever the standard of my story?

Well, I guess one should reserve judgement unless one knows the ins and outs of the process, but this year's shortlist - Zadie Smith, Lionel Shriver, Rose Tremain, Tessa Hadley and the one less-well-known author Francesca Rydderch - even had chair of judges Alan Yentob being asked on Front Row last night if the reputations of the authors had influenced the judging. Of course Yentob denied it: these were simply the best stories, he insisted, and said (I think - I was driving as I was listening) that one might well expect such proven masters of fiction to produce brilliant stories, which is undeniably true.

But the press release I received makes me uneasy. We are told in the accompanying email that the shortlist is 'glittery', and the press release refers, in popular-culture terminology, to an 'all-star lineup', as well as stressing as a virtue the fact that some of these authors have been shortlisted previously. It's understandable: I know from my own time as an editor of a literary magazine the temptation - indeed necessity - of drawing readers (to serious literature) with big names and suggestions of glamour, and I'd like to think that that's all that's going on here, and that those in a position to promote the short story as a form aren't ending up sacrificing it on the altar of 'celebrity' or the status quo.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Two reading group discussions

Here are the reports of our last two reading group discussions (with injections of my own subsequent thoughts on the second):

Ironweed by William Kennedy

and

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reader inequality in our technological world

So there's a book I want. Quickly. I'm away from home, in Wales at my writing retreat. There's no phone line, no internet at the house but I have the marvel of the dongle - well, marvellous when it works, that is, which it often doesn't, apparently due to atmospheric conditions. (Sometimes it works when we're inside a cloud, though, and sometimes it doesn't when the sky is clear, so maybe it's a question of user overload as well.) But anyway, on this particular day when I want the book, it's working and I go to Amazon and click, hey presto! And then the next day I realise what an idiot I've been: one-click sends my book to my home address in Manchester, and I won't be home for another six days. So, because I need the book so quickly, I swallow the extra expense and order it again, this time making sure I give my address here in Wales. Round about the same time I get an email from Amazon telling me that my first order has been delivered. So I wait to hear that my second delivery, to the Welsh address, will follow quickly after. I do get an email telling me that my order is being processed but then: nothing. Finally, two days after I placed the order, I get an email telling me that the book will be delivered in Wales on Saturday morning (yesterday) - four days after I placed my order. Saturday morning I watch out for the sight of the red postal van crawling up the mountain towards me. It never comes. Sunday today, and I'm still without the book while it sits unread in my hall in Manchester. And I'm going back to Manchester early tomorrow anyway...

I don't know if this is an ominous sign of the Post Office slowly withdrawing its services from outlying areas, but it sure seems to indicate that when it comes to the difference between town and country, technology doesn't create the democracy that's so often claimed for it...

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Remember those days, long before your teachers ever asked you to write about literature, long before you ever read a review, long before that whole critical apparatus struck up in your brain, when a book was simply an experience that grabbed you, took you over emotionally and bodily, so you came out at the end drenched in its world, not thinking but feeling, a bit changed and simply better for having read it? Well, that's what All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber) has done for me, a confessedly autobiographical novel about the suicide of a father and sister, conveying a passionate sorrow yet bouncing throughout with wisecracking wit. I have no doubt that it's absolutely brilliant, but I don't want to start thinking about why, don't want to have to detach myself in that way and turn into an object for examination something I think of as an experience through which I laughed out loud while simultaneously tears ran down my cheeks and into my lap.

And I'm not sure I could say why it's so brilliant: there's a kind of alchemy in the way Toews melds tragedy and comedy as messed-up narrator Yoli (Yolandi) visits her hospitalised elder sister Elf (Elfrieda), a beautiful and brilliantly successful pianist who yet has tried to take her own life as their father did before her, and as Yoli struggles to give her sister the will to live and looks into their Mennonite childhood for the sources of her depression.

And I'm not sure taking the novel apart helps, or even quoting from it although I long to: perhaps it's better to tell you that when I sat reading it (snuffling and dabbing and nose-blowing and cracking out laughing) and gulped out hilarious bits to my partner he looked at me with stony-faced puzzlement, but that when he then read the book he too was laughing out loud (and shedding secretive tears). It's the very tragic context in which the sometimes wild, sometimes deadpan wit occurs that gives its punch, socking a life-affirming shock amidst the sorrow; and there's a two-way current: the affirmation throws into greater relief the heartbreaking situation and Elfie's denial of life (well, OK, maybe I am thinking about how it works now). It's a truly poignant doubleness that is summed up thus as Yoli sits talking to her cousin Sheila, whose sister Leni also committed suicide:
...Sheila and I sat on her bed and talked about our sisters, Leni and Elf, and their unfathomable sadness, and about our mothers, Lottie and Tina, and their perpetual optimism.
It's Toews' voice and way of looking at the world that rip through the tragedy, finding an aching hilarity and saving humanity and community in the midst of the direst situations. As the grieving and desperate Yoli and her mother fly to the funeral of a dear aunt (who has gone and died in the midst of it all) and discuss how they can save Elf, the following hilarious situation arises:
Then a man in the aisle began to complain that somebody's kid had bit him in the ass when he'd stood up to get something from the overhead bin. It was true, I'd seen it, a three-year-old was marching up and down the aisles, bored out of her mind, and suddenly came face to ass with the guy and just opened her mouth wide, chomp, and the guy screamed, he hadn't known what hit/bit him and the little girl stood there with her arms folded across her chest while her mother apologized profusely in a posh British accent, ordering the kid to say she was sorry. I won't, insisted the little girl, also with a lovely accent, and the mother said you will and the girl said I won't, you will, I won't. Finally the guy whom she'd bitten said it really wasn't a big deal, just a big surprise, that's all, and let's be done with it. But the mother was relentless, kept insisting that her kid apologize, you will, you absolutely will, until a whole bunch of people from seats 14A to 26C all yelled out she won't!
OK, I'm quoting now, but hey, read the book and get the full force of that in its context.

Yoli keeps looking for answers. Is it some chemical imbalance in Elf's brain? she wonders, plumbing the medical staff for reasons. Is it their family history within a repressive Mennonite community? Is it the tragedy of that community's history? Yolis' grandfather, she tells us, survived a massacre in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 by hiding in a manure pile and was then sent  with other Mennonite survivors to Canada.
When my mother went to university to become a therapist she learned that suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next to the next, like flexibility or grace or dyslexia. My grandfather had big green eyes [as does Elf], and dimly lit scenes of slaughter, blood on snow, played out behind them all the time, even when he smiled.
'Are Mennonites a depressed people,' Yoli asks, 'or is it just us?' She doesn't alight on an answer, but the book (OK, now I'm thinking about it) moves towards one. It begins with an image of the house Yoli's father built with his own hands being towed away due to pressures from the Mennonite community, after which he spends the rest of his life sitting in his new house staring across at the empty space left behind. Loss of home and cohesive community are at the root of it all, and the motif keeps recurring. 'I'd like to take Elf back to Toronto,' she says:
I'd like for us all, my mother, my sister, my kids, Nic [Elf's devoted husband], Julie [Yoli's best friend and cousin], her kids - even Dan and Finbar and Radek [Yoli's exes and/or on-off partners] - to live in a tiny isolated community in a remote part of the world where all we have to look at is each other and we are only ever a few metres apart. It would be like an old Mennonite community in Siberia but with happiness.
Another patient on the psychiatric ward tightly clutches her handbag which carries only her house key, warning people not to steal it from her, unknowing or denying that her son has sold her house behind her back. An image too of beleaguered pioneers recurs. 'Our platoon had taken another unexpected hit,' Yoli says at one tragic moment, and when the worst finally happens: 'It was time to circle our wagons. We've lost half our men and supplies are dwindling and winter is coming', and the novel ends with a positive assertion of home and community.

Yoli's life is a mess, her humour is sometimes wild, and the prose moves at breakneck speed. But there is nothing slapdash or uncontrolled about this book. It's acutely structured and every word counts. The survivors in Yoli's family survive through that pioneering spirit and the saving grace of language and wit. This novel, with its mordant and skewering wit, is indeed a triumphant circling of the wagons.