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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend of mine gave me a belated Christmas present (for Christmas past): a copy of Roberto Balaňo’s book of essays (Between Parentheses).

Some of them are long, and some are short. Some are direct, and some – like this blog-post- ramble all over the place.

Taking a half-fun, half-business buying trip, in the days when I was a bookseller, from the home of a friend of mine, the two of us drove into Derbyshire, to do the second-hand bookshops (or should that be the second-hand book shops?), and fetched up in a pub at Ashbourne for a lunch. I have always hankered for a high backed leather armchair. I pictured myself, in a dark robe, and possibly a pillbox hat – with a tassel of course, what sort of guy do you think I am? There was such a chair in that pub, and lunching, rather than reading, upon it re-kindled my desire.

Many years later – that’s how we move a story on – when the book business was over – sighs of relief all around – and The Old Stock Room had become The Old Stock Room, as opposed to being the stock room – I decided to turn that old pipe (or cigar) dream into reality. BHD had got himself a dark robe by then, and a sort of pillbox hat, with a sort of tassel. The chair cropped up, at a reasonable price (well, that’s the length of a piece of string, isn’t it?) in the closing down sale of a local furniture store.

I plumped for the chair and took it home – mais! Quelle horreur! It wouldn’t go through the door. There was no way I was going to take the window out. There was no way I was going to dis-mantle (an interesting word that, presumably derived from dis-assembling some sort of oil lamp: with a mantle? And thus not of ancient origin.) the chair and re-assemble it.

Never mind. It fitted in remarkably well elsewhere, and another chair would suffice, until something that would fit came along. Remember Roberto Bolaňo; we’re getting there….

So, earlier this week, looking for a new shirt, as you do, I came across a chair….much cheaper than my original purchase, even at its sale price, but it was just the chair I needed.

So, when you have the chair, you must sit in, and read, and what better read (answers on a plain white envelope sent elsewhere please) than a collection of essays. My book-giving friend – who happens to be the children’s author, Nick Dowson – look him up on Facebook why doancha (because he ain’t there, that’s why! – has come up with collections of essays in the past. Gore Vidal’s among them – he of the saying, I believe, that it is not sufficient to be successful, but friends must fail! (which I rather like).

So, I sat in the chair, and opened the Roberto. (No robe and hat. Sorry to disappoint -What? Oh, go on then!). The book fell open, like a pair of stockinged legs, at an essay that kicked off with the remark that American authors must follow one of two roads – OK, one less travelled, you guessed it – which were way-marked by the novels Moby Dick, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These two, the essayist suggests, nay, asserts, Kowalski-like, mark the only choices available to them, and also the choice that they must make as writers.

Is there a similar parting of the ways, I wondered, for English writers, and specifically for English short story writers? I cudgelled my brains. There’s a photograph of me doing it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Most of the short stories that I like are not in fact by English short story writers, though some of them are. And I’m not sure I could whittle them down to two that stand in opposition, like the Jaws of Borrowdale – I did think about those gates of Gondor, and of the Mediterranean, but thought I’d stick with something more provincial – the way those two great novels are claimed to do.

Stories that one likes, The Dead, Weep Not My Wanton, Blind Love, The Odour of Chrysanthemums, are not necessarily way markers anyway. And it may be that the divisions the essayist is drawing would not be the divisions that I, or you, would chose to draw either. His distinction is between a novel of the exceptional – none of us (well few enough), he says, are like Ishmael and Ahab – and one of the universal. All of us, to some extent, are Huckleberry Finns. I can see, though I hadn’t a paragraph ago, that of the four stories I have plucked out, two are of the individual and two are of the societal… though as I write I’m shifting them about from category to category in my mind.

The fact is, that for me, the great division between short stories is between those that, on having reached their endings, project us forward into our own imaginings, and those that send us backwards into a reflection of what we have passed through on the way to that ending. Some of course, seem to do both. 

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Engagement with any artform is, I suspect, like a journey. With writing I’ve found it to be a journey that takes me past many questions, and some of those questions I have passed time and again. The answers, to stretch a metaphor, are the paths I taken onwards each time, and its them that bring me back to the questions. Every now and then though, I make a different answer, and end up on a new path. I suppose that’s what I must think of as progress. One such question concerns the relationships between writers and readers – or between readers-out and audiences. This question popped up recently over the issue of ‘reading and running’ – where performers do their thing, and then vanish! I’ve seen it at various venues, and it’s not about the ‘guest reader’, but about the open mic readers, the literary equivalents of the ‘floor’ singers we used to have in folk clubs, and probably still do.

I like the sort of clubs where the readers come out of the audience, and go back into it. Carlisle’s Speakeasy, at the Source cafe, was one such. In fact, we rarely had ‘guest readers’ at all. In a situation like that, to go on early and read your own work and then to leave the auditorium is not merely arrogant, but a metaphorical slap in the face to those readers yet to perform. Of course, there are times when we have to leave early, but there’s a line to be drawn between that and ‘reading and running’. Not staying to hear your contemporaries read does carry some implications. Most obvious is that they are not worth hearing, but there are deeper inclinations beyond that. The question is raised, for example, of why you would want to be heard by people who themselves are not worth listening to.

I remember a time when I was (passing a question on my journey) very keen to believe that my work was being read and listened to by people who weren’t writers. That, perversely it seems to me now, seemed to make them a ‘proper’ audience! One can see where such ideas come from. Other practitioners are competitors, commercially speaking, for such an audience, which is, in a sense, fodder to your artistic bank account, and fame. In those days I thought of writing to be read, or heard by other writers as a sort of Baroque exercise. Now I’m not so sure; in fact I’m about as sure the other way. This is why the reader and runner, I think, may be missing a trick. An audience of fellow writers knows a thing or two about what you’re trying to do, and if you hang around they’ll perhaps tell you a bit about it. They’ll give you a lesson or two in how it’s done as well (or how it’s not – which is almost as valuable). Of course, it’s good to see non-writers too, at the events I’m talking about, and to see and hear how they react to the writers who follow you. The supreme confidence that yours is the best work, and that the rest can be safely ignored, might be shaken if you stay to listen, but then again, it might be stirred.

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I finished reading Tolstoy’s War & Peace a couple of days ago, and one element has stuck in my mind since. That was to do with the two epilogues that follow the main story. In case you have skipped them, given up before them, or not given the novel a go, I can point out that the first epilogue carries on the lives of the main protagonists over the next decade or so. It’s a curious continuation, tempting me to think it almost a blue-print for how Tolstoy thinks a private, domestic life ought to be lived. The second epilogue is even stranger. Here the author presents us with a closely argued, circa thirty page long (in my edition) essay about the nature of History and its writing. The content is not what I want to comment on, so much as the placing of the essay. A while back I read, and wrote about ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. Tom Wolfe’s novel also has an essay (in the edition I read), but his is placed at the beginning. The thought struck me that in Wolfe’s case the essay must prejudice our understanding of the story (which it precedes), whereas Tolstoy’s story prejudices our understanding of his essay (which follows it). Looking at another big novel, Melville’s Moby Dick, we see a whole series of smaller essays, about whales and whaling, running through the entire story, like the marbling in good Aberdeen Angus beef. I’m reminded, that whatever scale we are thinking of, from the phrase, through the sentence, paragraph and chapter, to the whole book, in writing, what precedes prejudices our perception of what follows, and what follows amends our perceptions of what has gone before. This fundamental quality of language, that we take it one word at a time in order (despite the attempts of the avante-garde to create alternatives), is probably the single most important element in storytelling, whether in short stories, flash fiction, or doorstop novels, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it holds good for non-fiction prose, and for poetry too!