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There is a 1937 collection of H.E.Bates short stories, Country Tales, to which the author has added an introductory essay called The Writer Explains. Though only four pages long, it throws light on a wide range of issues that might concern us as writers, and even eighty years later holds much that resonates with current experience.

Bates asserts the supremacy of the short story: ‘…it is in every way a finer means of expression…..than either the novel or poetry.’ He bemoans the lack of newspaper and magazine support for the form (in the UK), and cites the importance of other forms of publication: ‘The existence of the short story seems to depend largely therefore on its survival in volume form’. He gives a reason for writing: ‘…for pleasure, and out of a passionate interest in human lives.’ And he writes about his development as a writer: ‘I had the choice either of repeating myself……or of consciously trying to widen my range of sympathy and develop myself’.

This last undertaking, the transition from a writer of ‘the dreamy world of the subjective’ to ‘a wider, harder, more objective world,’ is one that, in some form or another, I suspect any self-conscious writer must eventually confront.

And those outlets he complains about the lack of – and the poor rates of pay: how, I wonder, would he regard the upsurge of magazines and journals devoted to the form, yet which pay nothing. Curiously, he compares the short story to the ‘heroic couplet’ in ‘the age of Pope’, which, perhaps unintentionally raises the issue of to what extent the writers of those times were actually commercial in any real sense. The sonnet was a form that writers of Shakespeare’s time used to show off to each other, surely, rather than to make money from? And even a writer as late as George Moore, according to one biography, was priming the pump of his publications with inputs of money that eventually ate up the value of his Irish landownings.

That assertion of the ‘fineness’ of the form is still relevant, especially in the context of Bates’ associated remark that it is ‘still in its infancy’, something that his writing contemporary, A.E.Coppard, was entirely at odds with – tracing it back to the oral tradition. Bates attacks this idea vehemently in his The Modern Short Story, fearing that it might lead to writers not being paid for their work. Digital recording, podcasts and streaming, and those non-paying magazines, might be seen as proof of this pudding. But also, could be seen as a return to the days when those who want to write do so, among other reasons, for the pleasure of entertaining each other, rather than for money (making them, according to Doctor Johnson, of course, ‘Blockheads!’).

There’s perhaps an irony too, in the title of the collection in which this introduction appears, for that ‘Tales’ was the term that Coppard always used for his short stories, and which so irritated Bates that he condemned it in his history of the form.

It seems to me that when we are interested and engaged in the making of things, be they wooden chairs, or clay pots, or short stories, the means of making must interest us to a much greater degree than they do those who only sit upon them, or fill (and empty) them, and read them!

There’s a poem by Me, showing on the Acumen Website (a guest poem!). Guest people, it is said, are like dead fish…after three days, they stink. Hopefully the poem might hold up a little bit longer. Here’s the link: http://www.acumen-poetry.co.uk/richard-weiser-mike-smith/

You can find more poems by him, Here.

A recent editorial bemoaned the fact that poets ‘can’t’ read their own work these days – can’t read it well that is. If that’s true, might the reason be that we’ve been persuaded – or at least some of us have – that the poem is a thing of print and writing, rather than sound, and speaking.

Writing, that oh so useful recording system for saving the memory (dumbing down you might call it), has been confused with the practice of putting words together, and perceiving them that way. The solitary, silent imagined-voiced reader has (or perhaps had for a while) supplanted the hearer of the real voiced speaker. And as we consume our poetry that way, so we begin to think of producing it that way too. Gone is the voice music that made poetry memorable, and that brought emphasis and meaning in the right place, and in the right tone of voice and at the right volume, tempo and pitch. If you haven’t written with that in mind then you will have difficulty foisting it on whatever you have written. And if the rhythm, and the stresses are broken or absent, or inconsistent (or inappropriately consistent) then read out loud – never mind the whistles and bangs of a performance that will distract us from, rather than focus us on the words – the language will be broken too.

Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet, told me once, that the length of his lines was mostly controlled by the stretch of his breath. A reminder, perhaps, that poetry is of the body’s making as well as, and maybe more so than, of the intellect’s.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the experience of hearing someone attempt to read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem as if it were a ‘rap’. It wasn’t a rap, though, and hadn’t been written as one, and it fought back, imposing its own rhythms and music on the reader. Though not the intended ‘liberation’ he might have been expecting, it was a useful lesson, at least for this listener, in the power of a good poem to fight its corner, and win.

It goes almost without saying that when I’m writing prose fiction, let alone poetry, I do so with the intention that it should be read aloud. Even when I’m writing essays I take account of how they ‘read’ – and by that I mean how they read out loud. Do they roll off the tongue smoothly, powerfully, and coherently? Or are they fragmented, disjointed, jerky. Do they stick in the throat and choke the reader? Do they run out of breath and mangle their meanings? If you can’t read out a piece of your own writing well, you’re taking a hell of a gamble on whether a stranger – who has no idea what you are trying to say, but only what you have said – is going to be able to, whether in a voice that is being imagined or one that is real. It’s not just about your competence as a reader, but about the piece’s readability.

When I get my copies of poetry magazines, short story collections and journals though, I have to confess, I don’t read ’em all out loud! Words in the mouth and in the ear might still be the home of language, but the ink mark on paper (or its digital equivalent) makes a good holiday residence.

The poem, number four in John Berryman’s Dream Songs, shook me when I first read it (and still does), with its opening words: ‘Life, friends, is boring.’

You can’t say that, I thought, and read on: ‘We must not say so.’ That brought a chuckle, but the line is poignant, especially that ‘friends’, because Berryman was one of our literary friends who took himself away by self-murder. Yet he takes too, the words out of our minds, as he did here for me, and shows them to us. Of all jobs perhaps none is more the poet’s than that.

The ending of the poem is no less powerful: ‘…leaving/behind: me, wag.’ That double entendre, evoking the tail of the dog that has taken itself ‘considerably away’, but also casting the poet in the role of joker, echoes the poignancy of the opening ‘friends’.

In a quiet way this poem is all about isolation, and perhaps not of Berryman only, but of all of us who write, and wonder if can at all help us. The middle lines expand on that boredom. The poet’s mother charges that ‘Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no //Inner Resources.’ And Berryman does confess to the charge.

Yet the very iconoclasm of what bores him amuses and well as challenges us, for it is ‘literature’, and ‘especially great literature’. But not only that, Henry bores him too, ‘with his plights and gripes’, and Henry is Berryman’s proxy in the written world, and we all, in one form or another, must have our own Henries, who gripe and plight, and love ‘people and valiant art.’

There are lovely sounds in this poem, the half rhyme of ‘drag’ and ‘dog’, the stately unrolling of the lines, even when short, that refuse to jingle, but come down on sonorous emphases: ‘…., because I am heavy bored.’ And throughout there are not quite repetitions, like distorted echoes: ‘Peoples bore me./Literature bores me,…’ and beginning the next line: ‘Henry bores me,….’

There would be something sour, I think, about this poem, something of the Malvolio – except that Berryman does not threaten revenge on any of us, but only on himself. And that dog, abandoning him at the end, not only gives us the weak pun of ‘wag’, but is, of course, man’s best friend. Leaving the poem we wonder, will it leave us too, and as what? Here’s ‘Life, friends, is boring’ on YouTube

 

I’m not sure if it’s a symptom of having been writing for so long, or of not being able to write so easily, but I’ve noticed that I’m looking back more often over what’s been written, and looking back further.

I’ve been keeping records of the short stories in particular more assiduously than I used to, setting up a file each year since 2008 to include all the stories written during the year – in whatever state they are, that’s where they go – plus one or two brought forward from previous years for reconstruction, re-titling, tweaking. Distance helps us to see what we’ve written more clearly, to see where it failed, where it was flawed. And they nearly always are flawed, failed stories – otherwise they would have been published, isn’t it? Of course, if they have been published (flawed as they still  might be, almost certainly will have been) we can relax and forget about them, until or if someone wants to re-publish them again. Then we have to decide which side of that argument we are on between Tobias Wolff and H.E.Bates, about whether or not one should tinker with a ‘finished’ tale.

Distance gives us a chance to fix what we realise is broken, and hindsight or experience might just give us the tools to fix it, tools of perception or technique that we didn’t have when the stories were first written. Form and content can both be fumbled, but in my experience it’s usually content that we haven’t understood properly, that I haven’t fully grasped, rather than the form. Form serves content, but good content will stand a messy serving better than poor content served to perfection, at least in the long run. And it is the long run that’s important, isn’t it?

As a reader I find I’m more often reading stuff that’s been around a while. I don’t hang on the coat tails of literary any more than any other fashion. Even when I’m responding to an up to date review it sometimes works out that I end up reading something that was published a while back. Recently I bought a copy of Yiyun Li’s ‘essays’ (Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, HH2017) on the back of an LRB review – not something I can usually afford to do – but I ordered the short story collection too, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which is already a decade and more in print!

Unless we’re doing it for the money, and getting it, we might, as writers, be interested in people who find our short stories ten years down range, and think they’ve been worth the wait. And, as writers, we might be pleasantly surprised, looking back over ten and more years, to find we still think our writing worth reading, and worth fixing where necessary.

I seem to have spent most of the day re-writing pieces of work. An essay for Vicki Heath at Thresholds, short stories for a long overdue Inktears Showcase. At least both re-writes seem to have worked. The essay just needed some additions, which I already had in mind. But the short story is a different matter. Though I’m a putter in, a short story remains like a metaphorical Jenga tower, a pile of bricks, a house of cards…add too much in the wrong place and it loses its balance, its coherence, its focus, point, structure. The whole thing falls to pieces in an instant, and the better story it is, the more fragile it is, the more vulnerable to overloading and collapse.

Cheer Up. Nobody’s Forcing You.

A friend of mine recently had an exceedingly good poem rejected (with positive comments) by a magazine. Rejection slips can tell you a lot more about your writing, and not all of it negative, than acceptances are ever likely to. You’ll never know, probably, why something has been accepted, but you might get an inkling of why it was rejected – and that might turn out to be an element you wouldn’t want to change!

I decided to do some statistics – I keep a submissions log, on an Excel spreadsheet, adding a new sheet each year. This year’s, 2017, had, on 15th June, 54 entries, which cover 47 pieces of work (some are duplicated, having been sent out more than once). Of these, 20 are ‘out’. 2 were longlisted, 1 shortlisted, and two taken for publication/performance. 1 special case had been brought forward from an earlier sheet because it had been included in somebody’s Top Ten Stories of the last ten years (Liars League), and I wanted to see it on the current sheet, for a bit of encouragement. 12 have not been sent anywhere. 16 were rejections.

I don’t how that compares with your submission log – a writer friend once told me she had never, ever had a rejection slip (I told her it was time she did…I mean, let’s do the thing properly, hey?). Neither do I know if what I’ve shared here helps, hinders, or just puzzles, but rejection is one of the things that most of us who write have to live with. I might also add that acceptance, when it does occur doesn’t bring with it any changes, or at least it hasn’t for me. I don’t expect it ever will. Nothing happens as a result of it. Except, perhaps, – and this is best pay-off of all, though you have to take it in faith – that somewhere, somebody reads something they wouldn’t have had the chance to read, and says to themselves, and perhaps to someone else too, YES! That’s how it is in the world.

I’ll repeat my writing buddy Kurt’s exhortation, quoted from I can’t remember who: You ain’t beaten till you quit!

I’ve been playing that back of a fag packet game (though not on the back of a fag packet – fags are cigarettes in English argot, btw) of writing down my ten favourite short stories. The list is, well, fluid, but several stories are always there:

The Little Farm – H.E.Bates

Weep Not My Wanton – A.E.Coppard

The Fall – V.S.Pritchett

Arabesque – the Mouse – A.E.Coppard

The Blush – Elizabeth Taylor

Monsieur Seguin’s Goat – Alphonse Daudet

The Dead – James Joyce

The Magic Shop – H.G.Wells

Fitter’s Night – Arthur Miller

Sorting Office – Vivien Jones

 

It would be easy to go on for another ten…..And I could justify all of them for one reason, or several.

A variation on the game struck me though while I was writing. What about the top ten collections? Curiously enough, when I started to think about that, I found it harder to compile, and was surprised to find that they weren’t necessarily the collections in which the stories above might be found, even when they were by the same author.  It was also the case that only a half dozen of the forty or so collections on my shelves really stood out from the others. In fact, only two of them include a story from the above ten, and another is by the author of one from above.

 

Perfect Ten – Vivien Jones

Travellers – L.A.G.Strong

Provencal Tales – Michael de Larabeiti

Presence – Arthur Miller

Tales of Mean Streets – Arthur Morrison

Lettres de Mon Moulin – Alphonse Daudet*

*the collection is in a French edition, but I have most of the stories in translation too.

There’s something about the way we assess a collection that’s different from the way we assess a single story. Not necessarily that all the stories in a collection must push against the same door, it’s more to do with some collections being very satisfying as a whole, but not throwing up a single story that stands out. Other collections might have an outstanding story, but the collection as a whole disappoints.

My late father in law, a catalogue bookseller of international repute, used to tell me that to make a catalogue ‘sing’ you simply had to remove the dross…what was left would look much better, and something similar must be true for collections of short stories, and of poems for that matter. There’s another issue of context: stories that won competitions – a one off flash-in-the-pan event – might not stand up to the re-reading that makes a collection one you go back to time and time again.

Coming back from a writers gathering in Dumfries recently, a group of Facets of Fiction Workshoppers fell into discussion on this, recognising that children – and the child in us perhaps – like to read, and to have read, the stories they have remembered, not those they have forgotten. We re-read, not to find out what happens next, but to re-experience the telling of the story. That we might get more than just that is a bonus that some stories, and some readings, give us.

It’s all subjective, of course, which is the way it should be, must be, if we are to assess on what the stories mean to us rather than in relation to some arbitrarily set standard (that will almost certainly be based on what they mean to some other individual).

 

Cut Up – A Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop,
by Mike Smith
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Many of the Writing Workshops I’ve attended are based around the idea of trawling the subconscious and heaving up some piece of writing that has been snagged by whatever hook the Workshop facilitator has fashioned.
The ‘Cut Up’ session, one of the workshops that I devised for the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, takes a totally different approach. It’s a Writers’ Workshop, but not a workshop that aims to produce, there and then, a piece of writing.
In fact it’s based on our abilities as readers, and on the belief that as readers, we perhaps know more about stories than, as writers, we realise we do!
As the title suggests, I take a short story – working with one that’s out of copyright, and hopefully unknown to workshop members – and cut it into pieces. Usually these are paragraph sized or similar, but the theory would hold good with sentences, or even chapters if working with longer prose forms.
Splitting the workshop into groups of between two and (preferably no more than) five, each group gets a full set of the story pieces, and reconstructs it. Practice has shown that the larger the group, the more difficult the task.
Some of the things that I think we know are what beginnings and endings look like. We know too when things are being introduced for the first time, and when they are being referred to subsequently. We know who is telling a story, and who it is being told about. We might even have ideas about to whom it is being told, and from that might deduce why it is being told, and why by that particular teller, and in that particular way!
Several lessons usually come out, and I hope that such was the case with the Mary Mann (1862-1929) short story, Little Brother. Those lessons include the functions of beginnings, and the importance of endings. The malleability of ‘middles’, and the effect of changing the order that information is given to the reader.
The workshop is not a competition to see which group can rebuild the story quickest, but rather an opportunity to examine those ‘facets’ of fiction: Narrative Voice, Location in Time and Place, Ambience, Function of Beginnings, Endings, and, arguably least of all in the short story, Characters.
When it works well, and in the case of Mary Mann it seemed to, it leads to discussions on all of those facets, and more generally on the use, and misuse, of detail, and the usefulness, and otherwise, of theory itself when we confront the tricky business, not of writing a first draft, but of knowing what we have written, and whether or not it works, and if not, how we might make it! It’s a technique that can tried with almost any story, and stories being what we might think they are, will throw up the same sort of lessons, about the same facets of fiction!

BHD’s salacious story of dark veined Cubans and smooth skinned Connestogas (cigars!) Hecho A Mano is among Liars Leagues’ TOP TEN STORIES of all time (well, their first 10 years!)…. You can vote for it too….on the link below!  Hecho a Mano, by the way, means  – roughly translated – a hand job!

http://www.liarsleague.com/liars_league/2017/04/vote-for-your-top-liars-story.html

OK. So. Me’s in the Threshold’s Features Competition Longlist.  Clap, clap, clap.

I tole him. Get a life. It’s a long list for cryin’ out loud. Whaddya wan? A fanfare? Sheesh!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long List! I ask ya? He’s so pleased wit’ himself. Pathetic! Whatcha gonna do?