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‘She is a major writer’… So says one of the blurbs on the cover of a paperback short story collection. But just what does it mean? I’ve read the collection. I enjoyed it. It purports to show, in chronological order, the ‘collected’ works of a single writer (if you’ve been reading the blog recently you might guess who). I didn’t think there were any great stories in it. None of them took my breath away, like some by other writers have: by their sleight of hand (A Canary For One), their clever plot twist (Weep Not My Wanton), their unexpected ending (A Horseman in the Sky), their poignancy (The Little Farm), their point of view (The Fall), or their uncanny insights (Arabesque-The Mouse). I could (as I’m sure you know) go on! And all those stories I referenced have other qualities too that made me sit up and take note.
But the stories in the collection were enjoyable stories. What made them not ‘great’, and made me wonder in what sense their creator was ‘major,’ is perhaps more to do with me, than with them. They were written from a class perspective that is so far removed from my own, in both time and place, that it’s hard to relate to, or care about. More than that, the narrators and characters in the stories are never pushed, to revelations, reactions, and perceptions that match any of the heightened emotions in the stories I’ve cited. I got no sense of tragedy. There was none of Aristotle’s pity or terror, for me, in these stories. Could that too, be something to do with the distance in time and space from my world of the world in which they sit? In fact none of them are any further away than the other stories I’ve cited. If an urgency or desperation has been lost it has been lost in the same time frame as that in which the other stories have retained it. In fact, Bierce, who wrote A Horseman in the Sky, had been dead –we now know – for almost a decade by the time the first of the stories in the collection I’m writing about had been published.
One story stood out from the rest, but only in that it was different from them. It was not different from stories in general.
The cover blurb says also – ‘she is what happened after Bloomsbury….the link that connects Virginia Woolf with Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark’. And I realise that I have no idea what that means, any of it! That this is a limitation in me, I have no doubt, but might it also reveal something about the ‘ownership’ of literature, and in whose hands the ‘gift’ of words like ‘major’ once lay?
I don’t know if people enjoying popular culture – whatever that is, or has been – discuss it. I know I talk with people about what I’ve been reading, and they with me. There was a time, when for discussions of that nature to be printed, they needed to be between people who were of a certain class, whatever the subject of the discussion. It was, in any given discussion, and probably still is, and rightly perhaps so, that the writer was of importance to the people doing the discussing that made the writer ‘major’, however minor, in the wider world, they might have been.
I was copying up a couple of days ago a story that had been sparked by the recollection of a statement I think was attributed to Raymond Carver – or was it Chandler? It was that if ever you were stuck for the beginning of a story, you should have a man holding a gun come through a door. Having copied it up, I wondered, if variations on that theme (as the story in fact was) might form the basis of a collection….It wouldn’t have to be a man, nor a gun, and not necessarily a door……but it would have be someone, or something, with something, and making an entrance.
Here’s the story I was copying up…a little reflective, flash fiction…..
But what about the rest of the collection……….?
Through Carver’s Door
An attractive looking middle-aged woman came through the door of the cafe holding a shopping bag.
She seemed familiar but Carver could not place her. She looked from side to side before settling her bag on one the chairs at the next table, and seating herself beside it. She rummaged in the bag and brought out a bulging leather purse. Then she turned her attention to the menu.
Carver watched her covertly. A waitress came over and took her order, and it was after that when she looked for the first time, at Carver. He saw recognition reconstruct her face. She was trying to place him. He turned towards her, expecting her to speak, but not sure yet if he wanted to be recognised. It was as if her face had not resolved itself into focus.
You’re Carver, she said, Carver Johns. He could see that she wasn’t quite sure, but he knew now who she was. Her voice had deepened and softened. Yes, he could remember her.
Would that be a good thing, he asked? As if he could deny it now. She relaxed into a smile, sensing his recognition.
It wouldn’t be all bad.
That’s something, he said, and smiled.
Was it too late for apologies? They would need explanations, limitations, negotiated boundaries, reciprocation.
It’s been a long time, he said, and she nodded. It would need to be, he thought. An expression, hard to interpret, unsettling him, crossed her face.
Do you still like to..? The memories flooded back and he felt his cheeks burn.
Yes, he said, forcing himself not to look away. But I haven’t, not in a long time. It was always such a disappointment.
Not always, I hope.
Then her coffee and scone arrived and he glanced at his watch and saw that he was out of time. He rose and muttered an excuse that he hoped she would not misinterpret, and went over to the counter and paid his bill and smiled across at her as he crossed the threshold. On the table, next to the empty cup and the plate, and the crushed paper napkin that was slowly opening like a pale flower, where he had left it, she saw his card.
It raises some questions, the most obvious being, from what, and into what? There are some equally obvious putative answers: from obscurity into celebrity, for example. There is the more metaphorical option too: from darkness into light. And note that it is the writer that is assumed to be emerging, rather than the writing. Some assumptions stand behind that, I think.
Emerging is a process, and as such might be transposed into a trajectory, and trajectories are a popular attribute of writers viewed over the time-span of their ‘careers.’ But if we’re talking about gaining public attention – careful with my ls there – perhaps the trajectory is ours? Writers might be emerging, but is it our perception of them, as readers, that is changing? A.E. Coppard, for example, was said to have a shed-load of stories written before he was first published. His emergence, arguably, was a reflection of how well he was known, rather than how well he was writing. The same might be said of poets like Gerard Manly Hopkins, and even more so of Emily Dickinson. Do we readers, emerge from ignorance into awareness?
When it comes to ‘getting known,’ which is what ‘emerging’ seems to be about, as the term is currently used, individual pieces of writing could also said to be going through it. Even writers who, as individuals might be seen as being still in the larval stage, can have poems, or stories, that seem to have emerged quite a long way.
I wrote a very short poem a very long time ago, which seemed to emerge, being picked up by more than one publication, including a local newspaper (I suspect the brevity was the attraction). It also won a local competition, and I have since recorded it for Vimeo. (So Still, read by Mike Smith on Vimeo at BHDandME).
A short story of mine has also developed a life of its own…being published – hacked to death, and without my knowledge or permission, put on a website by an editor who removed it when I offered readers of my blog a comparison with the original – he became abusive, and told me it was a rubbish story anyway, which of course, after his treatment, it was! – Highly Commended in a competition, published online, and then in a printed ‘Winners’ anthology (HISSAC 2015), included in CUT’s downloadable short stories, recorded for Vimeo, due out in an Inktears anthology, and, taking me by surprise again, appearing in the Eden Arts online magazine The Carrot#2 http://www.thecarrot.org.uk/category/issue-2-killing/. This story, (The Turkey Cock) has definitely emerged, with or without me!
There are other qualities of emergence though, which might be relevant to writers and writing: vulnerability, and exposure, for example, but those editorials always imply the ‘from obscurity’ trajectory, and it always the writer, rather than the writing. It’s this focus on the singer not the song, that hallmarks our ‘celebrity’ conscious society. We celebrate individuals, not primarily for what they are doing, or have done, but for being ‘known’ …for having emerged. But as writers, should we be striving for our own emergence, or for that of our work? Are the poems, or the stories, or whatever Art form we work in, the means by which we get to be celebrated, or are we the means by which they do?
Meanwhile plans progress for Bordelines, Carlisle Book Festival (http://www.borderlines.co.uk) on the first weekend of September (4th-6th). Today we popped up our pop-up Gazebo for the Pop-up Bookshops. Needless to say it didn’t pop quite as poppingly as we hoped it might, but after a few teething problems it popped well enough, and so we popped it down again. We’ll be popping it for the The Writers Quarter on Saturday 5th Spetember, on the grass outside the Great East Window of the Cathedral. We’ll be selling books by local writers from 10.00am till 4.00pm, so come along and make our day (we’d be blown away if you did – but hopefully won’t be otherwise!).
A writer friend of mine used to talk about people wanting ‘to have been’ writers, rather than simply ‘wanting to be’them.
What they aspired to was sitting on sofas in chats shows, not to facing down the blank page and getting a job done. It’s a persuasive argument, and one with more than a hint of good examples in it! Earlier this week someone described The Writers Quarter, and in particular its workshops, as being for ‘would-be’ writers. I was apoplectic. The clue is in the name The Writers Quarter. It’s for writers. I can’t share with you what I hit my ‘bitbox 2015’ – the file where I dump writing till I find somewhere for it go – with: I don’t know what cleaning products you have in house. Suffice it to say, I find the term patronising, and I try to avoid it. You’re a writer, in my book, from the moment you put pen to parchment, pencil to paper, or finger to keyboard, however badly.
Here’s what I might say about The Writers Quarter, with or without an apostrophe.
Borderlines, Carlisle Book Festival draws nearer, and with it The Writers Quarter…not just for ‘would-be-wanna-be-could-be-should-be-mighta-bin & aren’t-being’ writers, but just for writers, and their readers – for am-being-will-be & already have-been writers, for published, private, public and unseen writers, for practising, practised, and made perfect writers (who’ll be very few); for you, me, he and she writers, and for exceptionally talented other Great Apes, who might have put digit to keypad, or stylus to tablet….
There’s a lot to tackle: what about Crichton Writers Flash Fiction Forum (Saturday 5th, lunchtime in the Fratry), where you can bring along and try out your up-to-500-word fictions and join in a debate about what flash fiction, might, could, ought, should, is, has or will be. Then bring ‘em along to our evening celebration at The Fratry, when David Gaffney will be revealing the winners of our L’al Crack Flash Fiction competition…among other delights!
If you are, aren’t, pretend to be or want to be a ‘would-be’ writer, why not come along to one of our workshops, and be an actual writer instead? We have a wonderful ‘would-be’ range of actual writers to engage with you, from the poet Josephine Dickinson to the military historian John Sadler; from the poet, playwright and short story writer (and a few etceteras) Vivien Jones(on writing ‘would-be’ memoir) to the successfully self-publishing Ruth Sutton. Carlisle Writers Group will be looking at the ‘would-be’ short story (Sunday 6th Sept at the Cathedral), and Marilyn Messenger – in the Border Galleries at Tullie House, on the Saturday afternoon (5th Sept) – will be encouraging you to engage with antique letters as a source of stories and inspiration.
There’s a chance too, to hear Martyn Halsall, Poetry in the Cathedral (Sunday), Marian Veevers, on Crime writing from archive sources, Janet Queen on Writing the Landscape (both in the Cathedral, Saturday 5th), and David Kinsella on self-publishing online (Tullie House, Sunday), and Sue Fox & Irene Sanderson (Book Building, at Tullie House on the Saturday). Tom Harper will be leading a thriller writing workshop at the Crown & Mitre on the Saturday morning. What’s not to like? What’s not to do? And, also on the Saturday, we shall have, for ONE DAY ONLY, a pop-up bookshop for local writers in the Cathedral grounds, courtesy of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop (and friends). – if you want details of how to get involved with the pop-up as a writer, e-mail BHDandMe at email@example.com
You can find the full Borderlines programme here: http://www.borderlinescarlisle.co.uk
In Ernest Bramah’s 1929 Short Stories of To-day and Yesterday, there are four tales extracted from his Kai Lung stories. Kai Lung is a storyteller from the time of an ancient Emperor of China …well, maybe the Emperor himself wasn’t all that ancient!
Told in an even more ponderous and pedantic style than the more contemporary stories in the same volume (from Max Carrados Stories and The Specimen Case), Kai Lung’s Chinese tales appear at first sight to give a simplistic, caricaturist’s version of that Imperial culture. You might even say that, in keeping with period in which Bramah was writing, there’s an imperialist’s hand at work, a racist’s even. This is the China of the Mikado, and Bramah makes reference to W.S.Gilbert and what he might do with a tale that Bramah himself is trying to tell!
The case is though, I am sure, that Bramah was not trying to give us any picture of China, or Chinese culture, but was hitching a ride on popular notions of it, on popular ignorance of it in fact, in order to have fun with the malleability of his own language. With tongue firmly in cheek, I believe, he constructed stories filled with sonorous pedants, gauche young men, and desirable, and very clever, young women, who in wonderfully ponderous circumlocutions, fight battles of wits with each other.
The Story of Hien is representative of the selection. Here’s a sentence from a ‘fight’ scene: ‘And to impress Tsin Lung with his resolution he threw away his scabbard and picked it up again several times.’ Bramah himself joins in the game, larding their conversations, and his narratives, with cod proverbs that all have more than a touch of comic irony: ‘However high the tree the shortest axe can reach its trunk.’ The ability to do this, comes not so much from a colonial arrogance and contempt for other races and countries, as with the great void of knowledge about real places, that allowed fictional constructs to rush in and populate them. Nowadays we know so much about everyone, and everywhere, or like to think we do, that we cannot make up fictional countries and peoples without someone calling foul, and without causing offence. (I tried something like it in ‘Turnip Farm Number Three,’ which I wanted to inhabit a totally fictional and unspecified country, and involve entirely uncorroborated, unchecked, un-researched and made up ‘facts’ – you can find it in Nine Arches Press Under The Radar #15. http://ninearchespress.com/magazine.html)
The purpose of these fictions, and contemporary versions of them, was and is, of course, to examine ourselves. In Shakespeare’s time they could be set only a few hundred miles away, like Prospero’s Isle, but by Bramah’s day, the far side of the world was almost too near to pull off the same trick. Before his life was out, space itself had become ‘the final frontier,’ and we could let our imaginations run riot there, in both actions, and words. Here’s Bramah making a meal of Thang-Li, wise and dignified father of the beautiful Fa-Fei. The eminent gentleman (see how easy it is to slip into it?), has got himself stuck in a hollow tree whilst spying on his daughter, and two would be suitors. In a long, protracted conversation, Thang-Li is trying to persuade them to pull him out – but not by his pigtail!
‘Yet, if this person may without ostentation continue the analogy, to grasp him firmly by the shoulders must confer a higher distinction and would be even more agreeable to his own feelings.’
Language, rather than people or place, is where Bramah is really going, and it is the language of those around him, only slightly skewed into the pompous and the pretentious. In fact, the pleasure of reading the Kai Lung stories, comes down largely to trying to work out exactly what anybody means! Word on the Wicki is that Bramah’s Kai Lung tales remained in print for a hundred years, and they may still be for all I know! It’s worth pausing here to reflect that Gordon Lish, that famous editor who cut text to the bone, was not working in an English tradition. The English of the English, to borrow a phrase, is a rich stew of origins and usages, and the more, is often – think Gilbert and Sullivan – the merrier.
Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop has sponsored a pop-up Bookshop for The Writers Quarter, as part of Borderlines, Carlisle Book Festival. Here’s a sneak preview of the banner…look out for it on our Gazebo, in the Cathedral grounds on Saturday 5th September….If you’re a local writer and would like to offer your books for sale through the pop-up, please get in touch with me, by e-mail on brindleyhd@aol (using the subject line FofF Pop-up).
As I work towards the end of Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected short stories, I’ve reached The War Years section. The bulk of the collection is behind me now, written during the twenties and thirties. The last two sections combined are smaller than The Thirties, and I’m struck by a sense of her trajectory being on a downward curve. That isn’t to say that the individual stories are not strong, but that the sense of an ending coming is so much stronger.
The second story in The War Years section is departure though, an experiment in storytelling that appears nowhere in any of the preceding sections. Oh, Madam… is a true wartime story, far more than the preceding Unwelcome Idea, set in an oddly British, rather than foreign and neutral, Dublin. It’s not the time and place that make Oh,Madam… so innovative in Bowen’s work. It is the choice of narrative voice, and perspective. This story is in effect a monologue. Not merely a first person narrative, it is one half of a dialogue spoken between a housemaid and her returning mistress.
‘Oh, madam……..Oh, madam,here you are!’
Even the opening is radically different, for the title is echoed twice in the first four words. I can’t remember seeing another story in this collection, or indeed any other, where this technique is used. To reference a title tends to ‘use it up’ rather than emphasise it. It is often a revelation to reach the reference that will throw the title into sharp meaning, but here is a repetition that we must be reluctant to categorise as ‘mere’. It’s worth noting too, that the title includes those three dots that will come to signal the mistress’ words, and their implied meanings.
The house has been blitzed, and Bowen, in the maid’s, not the mistress’ voice, speaks. Rows of dots mark where unrecorded replies are made, and from the responses to them we guess, perhaps with less certainty than people who lived through the blitz would have guessed, what has been said.
‘I don’t know what you’ll say. Look, sit down just for a minute,
Madam; I dusted this chair for you. Yes, the hall’s all right really;
You don’t see so much at first-only, our beautiful fanlight gone.’
The subtle introduction to what has happened is remarkable. Only at that fanlight do we get an inkling, which makes us revise our understanding of what we have previously been told, about why, for example, the chair needs dusting. Bowen winds us in to a fuller understanding of what has taken place, exactly as madam is wound in, with the words of her maid. Even that comma, after ‘only’, signals the hesitation that comes before the revelation.
There is nothing remotely like this in any of the earlier stories: not the perspective, not the voice, and of course, not in the subject matter. In a Bowen short story context, this is a shot in the dark, an experiment in form, and a response to entirely new circumstances in the world around her. If short stories truly are about situation, as Florence Goyet suggests, then here is an actual situation unfolding before the writer. If the earlier stories are reflections upon what is, and has been the norms of Bowen’s life, her class perspective, here is a story about what is happening now, a response rather than a reflection. In that sense it is a journalistic, as much as a literary story.
Yet the detail of the content, as opposed to its location and ambience, is still the same. Bowen is looking at the minutiae of daily life in the sort of middle class household that employed staff, and travelled extensively, and had connections that would allow them to move to the country to live with ‘her ladyship,’ as the unvoiced mistress does here. She is also examining the relationship between the two women, and the relationship between them and the house that has been blasted.
‘Oh, I’m quite all right, madam. I made some tea this morning. …..Do I? Oh well,
that’s natural, I suppose.’
The unreported comment is implied by the question that follows it, but Bowen becomes more overt as the maid talks about other houses that have been hit.
‘Little houses aren’t strong, madam.’
She is talking of her sister’s house, and of the poorer houses throughout the city. Yet what is more striking, is Bowen presentation of their differing attitudes to what they must do next.
‘But you couldn’t ever, not this beautiful house! You couldn’t ever….
I know many ladies are.’
The thought precedes the outburst, but her lady is abandoning the house. It is the maid, who has already offered, referring to the fallen plaster, to ‘have it all off in a day or two.’ Her lady is made of less stern stuff though, and after the discussion of what needs to be removed, it is the maid who offers to stay to whatever bitter end will follow: ‘That really is what I’d rather, if you have no objection.’ This is the strongest indictment so far in the collection, I feel, that Bowen has levelled against her class, and though we perceive it through the maid’s words, it is not an indictment brought by the maid herself. Perhaps because neither is named, they become representative, rather than being characters, yet the maid’s voice is not stereotypical, nor a caricature. Angus Wilson,though, in his introduction, cites it as an example of a ‘fault’ in Bowen’s ear:
‘…on the level of the H.M.Tennent matinee performance that it became.’
I’m not familiar with this, but, if he’s suggesting the maid’s voice is lacking credibility, then perhaps there’s a fault with my ear too. Perhaps the passage of time has blunted both the voice and the hearing, but however accurate, or stereotypical the voice may be, it is what the maid has to say that makes this story worth our attention; not necessarily because of its meaning, but because of its method of approaching the content.
What the house, and the life within it, has been is obliquely probed, as well as what it has become. Coming to a story like this, at this moment in a collection, and perceiving it to be so different makes it like a mirror, for mirrors show what stands behind us. The stories that stand behind, that went before this one, seem homogenous in their differences. But if we go on beyond Oh, Madam, we get to Summer Night, and it is as if the mould has been broken, for here again, Bowen is trying a form that we have not seen before anywhere in the collection.
Reading Elizabeth Bowen’s early short stories, those in her first published collection, I experienced a growing irritation. The stories were written in the second decade of the twentieth century, so comparisons of their characters’ lives with our own are difficult. In material terms her upper middle class lifestyles are not so far removed from our average working class ones. Even someone on half the national average wage might manage to eat as well, and dress as well, and be housed as well. Someone on the full national average wage might expect to do so. Many of us will have travelled as far, or further, and as often, though not, perhaps, for so long. We’re unlikely to have maidservants cooking and cleaning for us, at least not full-time. Yet for Bowen’s characters, the phone, the radio and the motor car, though already invented, are virtually unheard of in these early stories. What we take for granted would seem very grand, I suspect, to most of them.
It is not material comforts that make these people stand out for the reader of a century later than the writing. It is the ideas which she puts into their heads, revealed in thoughts and asides. It was these ideas that irritated me, and they must have irritated Bowen too, for they were what she chose to present, rather than take for granted and ignore. They are the ideas that control how the characters behave within the situations she imagines; the ideas that limit the characters’ appreciation of each other, and of themselves.
Sometimes it is only an emphasis, indicated by italics: ‘Gardening?‘
Sometimes it is more explicit: ‘Cicely was a fool: he’d teach her.’ ‘Damn it all,’ he said querulously, ‘I can’t get used to another woman at my time of life.’
These two are the brother and sister from ‘The New House,’ but the married couples fare no better. In ‘The Shadowy Third,’ Martin’s second wife is introduced to us as ‘The only woman of value to him,’ hardly a ringing endorsement. His thoughts: ‘What a funny little woman she was!’ The petty disparagements – Martin belittles where his wife has planted some flowers, and confiscates a thimble that reminds him of one owned by his first wife, replacing it with one that does not fit – undermine the relationship in a series of verbal eye-rollings.
Written when Bowen was in her teens or early twenties, these stories fix a piercing eye on both the selfishness and the limited vision of the partners, whether they are engaged, newly wed or long married. Even strangers, coinciding rather than meeting at lunch exhibit similar tendencies. Towards the end of the story ‘Lunch’ the animated conversation has drawn to a climax. ‘He turned towards her quickly, his whole face flushed and lighted up for speech.’ But a car has pulled up. In it is the person she had intended to meet. Calling his name, ‘she […..]dived to gather up her sketching things.’ The conversation, and the stranger are instantly forgotten.
What Bowen has shown us, in the thought, speech and actions of her protagonists from a hundred years ago, is not so difficult to compare with the same attributes of our own characters, or of ourselves. Perhaps it’s that fact which is the root cause of my irritation.
I’ve just had a stroke of luck (rather than the luck of a stroke). I’ve found my copy of Blount’s Glossographia!
It’s one of the first English language dictionaries (interpreting hard words) ever to be published. I’d never heard of it, of course, but stumbled on this tatty copy at a book fair many years ago. There’s no date of publication, but textual clues suggest 1659, and pencil notes from previous owners suggest 1674. Oldish then, compared to most (let’s be fair, to ALL) of the other books on my shelves. The printing could be much younger, though the layout is early. The paper is poor, thin, and without the chain lines of that thicker C18th version. The ink, in places, has started to rub off!
More surprising perhaps, is that it cost me £2 (two quid!). Of course, it is a tatty copy. The title page and prelims (whatever they were) are missing, and had been for a long time: An (arguably) C18th century hand has written in black ink ‘Blount’s’ above the heading to page (1) ‘A’….
The spine’s off too..but tucked in, which is good, because it has the word Glossop, a town in Derbyshire(?) in gilt capitals across it…ending in an unlettered space long enough to get ‘ogr’ on, but nothing else -and what’s that beautifully executed ‘P’ doing there anyway? And how are you going to get rid of it…?
Imagine the gilder, hammering away! Perhaps he was a Derbyshire man….getting on famously…G,L,O,S,S,O,’ and that ‘P’ just slipped in (sometime between now and 1659), and there it was…buggered (that’s a technical term in bibliographic circles, I believe).
Which, I have to confess, does endear me to this particular copy, and I’m glad to have it back. There are 706 pages, the last of which bears the inscription ‘finis’, which is reassuring. I have several old dictionaries, and dip into them from time to time. Whatever the age of the book’s construction, the ‘hard words’ it ‘interprets’ are from the mid C17th, and that’s the real interest.
The hardest part of Blount’s is the use of a heavy Gothic script for the actual words….but you can usually work out what they are, from the more easily read definitions (and the order of course). I looked up ‘Gig’, to give a me a link to the next bit, but found instead ‘Gilp (Sax.) a brag, a boast or ostentation,’ which is still a link….but not the one I would have gone for…:
Ambiguous Encounters, Tuesday, 26th May, 6.00pm, The Open Book, Wigtown. Short stories from Marilyn Messenger & BHD http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1508981485
In the world of short stories and writing in general, it’s always competition season, but lately it has been non-fiction competitions that have been exercising my …what should be the word?… Imagination?
In fact the Nottinghill Editions’ Hazlitt Prize, and the Thresholds Features Competition are both currently open for entries. I seem to have spent more time this last six months writing essays, mostly for this blog, but also for Thresholds, than I have writing fiction. Thresholds’ competition has two categories: ‘Author Profile’ and ‘We Recommend.’ Both invite recommendations of a sort, though I suppose one could do a hatchet job on an author! But thinking about what I might submit – I never seem to have anything sitting around just waiting for the opportunity – it struck me that there are a number of assumptions underlying those categories that I don’t necessarily buy into.
The author profile, for example, might be taken as throwing unnecessary attention on the author, rather than on the authored. I’ve written about that here on the blog a few times, for I always have this uncomfortable feeling that knowing about the author’s private life, and even, perhaps especially, about what might have driven him or her to write particular pieces, far from helping, gets in the way of our responses to their work. If someone tells you a story, whatever the medium, you don’t want them to tell you also what it’s supposed to mean, or what emotions and understandings it is supposed to trigger. You want to find out those things for yourself, and in relation to your own past, not to the author’s. Putting authors centre stage is part of our society’s obsession with celebrity – the focus on those who are known for being known of.
That rather brings me to the ‘We Recommend’ essays, for the assumption there might be, and I strongly suspect is, that we are going to recommend a story the reader will have already heard of, and by a writer already popular. It might be argued that to submit an essay on an unread story by an unknown author would be pointless. To submit one on an unpublished story, by a writer who is not even trying to get published would be madness! An unknown story by a known writer would be OK. A known story by the unknown ‘Anon’ might be acceptable. What chance, seriously, is there, that even if the essay was well written, it would be picked up, if the subject was unheard of? I mean, you might be making it all up?
Yet, rather in the spirit of an explorer – think of me as a sort of literary Indiana Jones; which in my case would have to be a Staffordshire Mike Smith – I rather fancy recommending stories that I have encountered working with local writers over the last ten years; some of which are undoubtedly at least as good a read best as any that I have read – including in all those forays I’ve made into the multi-volume ‘World’s Best Thousand Stories.’ In fact, the particular one I have in mind, not only remains unpublished, it has, so far as I know, never been submitted for publication. Now here’s a gem, it seems to me, for a literary explorer to bring back from Darkest Wherever. But will his traveller’s Tale be believed?
If you’d like to check out Mike’s Essays on the Short Stories of A.E.Coppard, you’ll find the collection English of the English, responses to the Tales of A.E.Coppard here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UEONRV6