Tuesday, 15 April 2014

HappenStance Press

Helena Nelson and I have been e-mailing each other since at least 1999, having noticed each other's contributions in magazines. I recall her telling me about an idea she had to start a press. She'd carefully thought it out of course, but I wasn't at all convinced. She launched HappenStance in May 2005. Now, 9 years later it's time to eat my words and review some matters arising. More details can be found in the various chapters of The HappenStance Story, available free to subscribers.


What distinguishes it from most other presses is that nearly all the output is debut poetry pamphlets. Pamphlets are useful for showcasing a poet, and they're back in fashion. It's a flexible format - some are twice the length of others, longer indeed than some books.

There are few other constraints -

  • Though the press is Scotland-based, a minority of the poets are. Not all of the poets are even UK-based or alive.
  • Age isn't an issue (which can't be said for some other pamphlet presses).
  • Though the poems tend towards the mainstream there are exceptions.
  • Pamphlets can be single-themed or a miscellany.

The Editor

Helena had a book published before starting the press (and in 2002 she won £1000 for being one of five 'new poets' in the BBC Radio 4 competition, along with Jacob Polley). No doubt there were tensions involved with the change of status, both internally (writing vs publishing) and regarding others (poacher turning gamekeeper). In some locked bank vault there's probably a folder entitled "HappenStance: Do not open until May, 2105" where letters, etc are stashed for posterity.

She's open about the gloomy finances, the time required to sift submissions, and the piles of books in her loft. As early as July 2005 she wrote "I have now planned next four pamphlets, which means I could reach financial ruin by January". Readers following the Happenstance blog get glimpses of the juggling involved re family, work, and the press. Her work status has changed during the lifetime of the press (it might well have changed anyway), and she's become a grandmother. She still has essay-articles in "The Dark Horse" and poems in "The Rialto", but I suspect her output has lessened (or at least, she sends to fewer magazines).

The Poets

HappenStance has published over 70 poets - far more than Faber in the corresponding period, I suspect. Some are young and "promising", others are in their 90s having slowly accumulated poems. They're not all debutants: Alison Brackenbury is perhaps the most famous poet, though Peter Daniels amongst others already had a few pamphlets published. Here's a list of people who've continued publishing elsewhere (apologies for any omissions).

AuthorHappenStance publicationSubsequent books (poetry unless otherwise stated)
Patricia Ace"First Blood", 2006"Fabulous Beast" (Freight books, 2013)
Clare Best"Treasure Ground", 2010"Excisions" (Waterloo Press, 2011)
"Breastless" (Pighog, 2011) (pamphlet)
Anne Caldwell"Slug Language", 2008"Talking with the Dead" (Cinnamon Press, 2011)
Niall Campbell"After the Creel Fleet", 2012"Moontide" (Bloodaxe, 2014)
Rose Cook"Everyday Festival", 2009"Taking Flight" (Oversteps, 2009)
"Notes from a Bright Field" (Cultured Llama, 2013)
Peter Daniels"Mr Luczinski makes a move", 2011"Counting Eggs" (Mulfran Press, 2012)
"Vladislav Khodasevich:Selected Poems" (Angel Classics, 2013) translations
Kirsten Irving"What to do", 2011"Never Never Never Come Back" (Salt, 2012)
Gregory Leadbetter"The Body in the Well", 2007"Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) theory
Eleanor Livingstone"The Last King of Fife", 2005"Even the Sea" (Red Squirrel Press, 2012)
Tim Love"Moving Parts", 2010"By all means" (Nine Arches Press, 2012) stories
Rob Mackenzie"The Clown of Natural Sorrow", 2003"The Opposite of Cabbage" (Salt, 2009)
"Fleck and the Bank" (Salt, 2012) (pamphlet)
"The Good News" (Salt, 2013)
Richie McCaffery"Spinning Plates", 2012 "Ballast Flint", (Cromarty Arts Trust, 2013)
"Cairn" (Nine Arches Press, 2014)
Gill McEvoy"Uncertain Days", 2006"The Plucking Shed" (Cinnamon Press, 2010)
"Rise" (Cinnamon Press, 2013)
Matt Merritt"Making the Most of the Light", 2005"Troy Town" (Arrowhead Press, 2008)
"Hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica" (Nine Arches Press, 2010)
"The Elephant Tests" (Nine Arches Press, 2013)
Andrew Philip"Tonguefire", 2005 "The Ambulance Box" (Salt, 2009)
"The North End of the Possible" (Salt, 2013)
Jon Stone"Scarecrows", 2010"School of Forgery" (Salt, 2012)
Marion Tracy"Giant in the Doorway", 2012"???" (Pighog) (pamphlet)

Some are involved with literary development or creative writing - for example, Gregory Leadbetter is now Director of BCU's Institute of Creative and Critical Writing.

A community spirit is emerging. As the poets become less sparsely distributed geographically, the poets sometimes assemble to do readings - one of the benefits of belonging to a stable of poets.


HappenStance is more than just a poetry-pamphlet publisher. Various ideas have been tried to publicise the press, improve the quality of submissions, and attract extra income.

  • Subscribers - By subscribing, people can save 25% on purchases, learn more about the press, and help support HappenStance. It's become a significant, mutually beneficial activity.
  • Sphinx - Sphinx contains interviews and pamphlet reviews. It lasted for 12 issues on paper, the last appearing in 2010. Now it's online only, and there'll be no new pamphlet reviews. Each pamphlet was assessed by 3 people. The procedures described online to evaluate works merit attention.
  • Stories - I think there were 3 story competitions with associated anthologies. There were just over 400 entries for the 2007/08 competition, but it was a lot of work.
  • Writers Forum mentoring scheme - To widen participation, Helena became involved with the Writers Forum mentoring scheme
  • Outreach - Matthew Stewart's second pamphlet was tied in with wine. Clare Best's pamphlet tied in with veg.
  • PoemCards and Samplers - Spin-off merchandizing. The samplers are useful when pamphlets run out.

The Torriano Gathering

In London on 13th April 2014 over 20 Happenstance poets read in order of publication. Helena interpolated the history of the press. Poet after poet (some from North Norfolk or Scotland, one from Spain) took the stage, (Peter Daniels is in the photograph, with Helena). Many poets when they introduced their work mentioned the quality of Nell's editing (even if there were some "comma-wars") and how skillfully she'd managed to foster camaraderie. Several poets said how much publication had transformed their outlook.


No Poetry Book Society selections, but in 2010 HappenStance won a £5,000 Michael Marks award. Chair of the judges Ali Smith admired HappenStance for "the elegance, thoughtfulness and clarity of their design, and the infectious interaction, open-mindedness and energy of their publishing ethos."

It seems to me that the publications are frequently and favourably reviewed in magazines. One poet was featured on Radio 4's Women's Hour. A 2013 pamphlet was praised in The Guardian. Of late some titles have quickly sold out.

The Future

HappenStance's essential aims and objectives seem not to have changed much, though the implementation details have - in a 2006 article it says that "One of Nelson's aims is to be internationalist – a new chapbook series, North & South, will feature one Scot and one poet from another UK country. A further cross-continental series is planned for later".

By avoiding too-rapid expansion, the press has survived while many others have disappeared. In no small measure due to HappenStance, poetry pamphlets are increasingly popular. The digital revolution beckons, though poetry pamphlets are one of the formats least affected by e-readers. Maybe a few more HappenStance books will appear, maybe Helena will finish her Ph.D, but if the future is a smooth continuation of the past, I think HappenStance will still have done itself proud.

See also

Monday, 7 April 2014

Poetry and Maps

In the past I've tried to compare map-making to writing poetry. In my poem The King it says

trying to preserve the angles, the shortest distances,
the areas, but he can't have them all or even any 2

alluding to the idea that map-makers have tried several ways to represent the globe on a flat surface much as poets try to flatten experiences. In Obscurity (published in Sol) and especially New Pastorals - A Streetmap I went into more detail, pointing out that "Sometimes (as in maps of the Metro) connections may matter more than accurate distances and directions - they are spacialisations of time rather than depictions of space ... In tourist maps as in poems there's a balance between mimesis, knowledge and the formal requirements of the medium. Clarity of purpose doesn't imply stylistic monotony. Symbolism and Realism can be mixed, viewpoints can change (from plan to elevation, from absolute to personal), keys can be set up or recommended narratives and connections highlighted.". I ended the maps section rather grandly by writing "A poem is a map to assist in locating oneself in one's evolving world of language, as one slowly discovers a voice. Our poems increasingly have the gaudy colouring and po-mo stylistic variety of city maps."

My interest in this topic was rekindled on reading "Tears in the fence" (No 57 Summer 2013) where the ever-readable Andrew Duncan makes some worthwhile points about Fiona Sampson's Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry

  • The idea of a map involves shared space. It places poets in relation to each other and must select technical features to be the dimensions of the map - its north and south. This must be very provocative to poets - who like to see themselves as autonomous and perfect, even if they habitually place everyone else in a shared space. Location at one, any, single point must irritate people who see themselves as present over whole areas where that spot is not. Poets like to think of the world as something that fits inside their poems, rather than vice versa (p.112)
  • Sampson's faithfulness to individual texts is like travelling by candlelight, a terrain of handkerchief-sized plots, snug in low visibility. This is the opposite of a map that puts local patches together in one set of uniform relations. (p.114-5)

There's also "Language is not a vague province": Mapping and Twentieth-Century American Poetry, a fine dissertation by Alba Rebecca Newmann which goes much further than I ever could. She points out that

  • Within literary criticism, the seductions of the terms associated with cartography — map, mapping, itinerary, travelogue, guide, discovery, exploration, power, representation — are palpable. ... Unfortunately, well-versed as we are with simile, analogy, and metaphor, it is almost too easy for literary critics and scholars to say "This maps X onto Y," or "This text is a map of that culture or that experience." The limitation of much of this literary scholarship is its failure to investigate how maps themselves operate — not only what they describe, but how they establish relationships and organize knowledge
  • there are three cartographic ways of asserting authority or structuring knowledge that are particularly significant to the interdisciplinary study of maps and poems. These are: (1) maps articulate boundaries; (2) they delineate paths; and (3) they establish relationships.
  • it is poetry’s ability to reveal unexpected proximities, (or distances) —conceptual, etymological, visual, aural — that is most significant to our conversation about poetic condensation as a cartographic practice. In the relatively small space of the page, the juxtaposition of words, lines, and images creates a field of associations.
  • Understanding maps as artifacts, as rhetorical objects embedded in culture, does not allow our analysis of them to stop with a reading of their details or declarations. So, too, with poems. Once we have concentrated on what is on the page, we then must turn to talking about what is not on the page, and why: what circumstances, cultural or otherwise, may have contributed to the production of this utterance.

In her poetry classes she sometimes hands out maps for evaluation before giving the class poems. I hadn't thought of doing that. Sounds like fun.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Sentimentality in literature

The case for

A misunderstanding of Victorians (Dickens included) is blamed for the over-reaction against sentimentality, leading to the warnings that budding writers receive about the dangers of sentimentality. True, it might be mere tear-jerking, but all emotion and feeling evoked by literature is to some extent manufactured or induced. It's not all misery porn. Fickle fashion dictates what an acceptable level of inducement is, and how obvious the artifice should be.

  • In his book "In Defense of Sentimentality", Robert Solomon aims to rehabilitate the concept of sentimentality both in life and in literature
  • In In Defense of Sentimentality, John Irving writes that "as a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether"
  • George Santayana thought that people who objected to sentimentality "probably have only notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value". Amit Majmudar in A Note on Sentimentality makes a similar point - "mushy-gushy moments are an actual part of real lived life".

The case against

The arguments against take various forms -

  • Some think that sentimentality results from a potentially dangerous failure of observation - sentimentality, Mary Midgley argues, centers around the "flight from and contempt for, real people".
  • Pragmatically it might not be a good strategy to use, especially if readers are experienced and/or cynical, and if the work seems auto-biographical
    • Readers might feel that the piece is more therapy than art.
    • Readers might be inhibited from saying what they think - critical response is blunted.
    • Readers might worry that the poet has revealed things about others that they shouldn't have.
    • People nowadays seem not to feel they've experienced something unless they take a photograph. Some poets do a similar thing - writing up emotional events from duty rather than necessity. This isn't an issue that should concern readers generally, but with from-the-heart poems, such impressions matter more.
    • Using one's own memory hoard may lead to running out of material.
    • If the reader's jolted out of the poem by an unusual or difficult line, the spell's broken.
    • When the poems depend on delivering an emotional payload, the rest of the poem might appear as mere set-up. Once doubt is sown in the reader's mind by one poem, other poems become vulnerable.
    Use of understatement is recommended because it makes the writer seem in control of their material, though too much understatement may lead to the author/persona getting the treatment Meursault received in L'√Čtranger.
  • There are also aesthetic arguments which are often variations on the "show not tell" adage. In practise, sentimentality is usually associated with non-sophisticated techniques that attract criticism. Maybe simple poetry is more likely to be interpreted as deep and strong rather than bland and unambitious only if the poet's already famous. Some academics prefer works that they can spend pages analysing and decoding - it makes them feel useful. Some writers know this, and write accordingly. Of course there are many, more acceptable reasons for telling it slant. Centuries ago, Demetrius wrote "ambiguity may often add strength. An idea suggested is more weighty: simplicity of statement excites contempt". Perhaps simplicity's underestimated - "The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity" - Wittgenstein.

Poetry or prose?

When people fall in love they sometimes start writing poetry as if they're the first people to feel that way. However genuine the expression, however simple and strong the words are, the texts will have questionable value to readers unless the content or the method offers something different.

Death is less frequent than love, but more reliable; no-one's exempt. People affected by death talk about it. Some write about it, perhaps making it their first public work - a eulogy perhaps. Eulogies needn't be original - so much is performative - but even there, some characterising anecdotes help. At wakes, some of the best anecdotes are exchanged, honed by retelling. In such situations there are even people (not just those touched by Lady Di's death) who write poetry.

Part of the technique of writing about strong subjects might be to let the content show through. In this respect poetry has disadvantages as a vehicle. It can be viewed nowadays as pretentious, contrived. The shape of the text raises expectations that encourage inauthentic readings. The clutter of meter, rhyme and line-breaks compromise word choices and risks distracting readers. Is it possible to offer an opinion on the poetry without taking the content into account? I'd hope so - after all, if the author's classifying the work as poetry, they're buying into the brand. Risks abound, especially when poems don't quite work. Prose is less risky.

In poetry there might be "syntactic curry" - features (like broken syntax) added to disguise the quality of the ingredients. Perhaps the realisation of this is why poets tend to write more simply as they age (though there are numerous exceptions - Blake, for example). Auden never again wrote anything as baffling as "The Orators". Kathleen Jamie's poetry is growing in simplicity. It seems to me that Jorie Graham and Denise Riley write most simply when writing about something that strongly affected them emotionally. Brenda Shaughnessy's "My Andromeda", about her son brain-damaged at birth, has a more transparent style than her earlier books. It's still marketed as poetry, perhaps because even though "poetry doesn't sell", it sells better than flashes of creative non-fiction - anecdotes, mini-essays and journal entries.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Recent UK Flash Fiction

Flash: history

Long ago people wrote contes, vignettes and fables. In continental Europe they've never stopped writing them, but in the UK and the States these genres all but disappeared - the desire to categorise texts as prose (preferably a novel) or poetry squeezed the region where these texts existed. Texts in the format of recipes or shopping lists became poems. Anecdotes and vignettes couldn't be prose-lineated in poetry magazines because they weren't "Prose Poems" - a term that had rather been taken over by surrealists and erstwhile experimentalists (Baudelaire, Russel Edson etc.) So they got a line-break make-over too.

In the 1980s, the recovery began. Steve Wasserman writes "Flash began in 1986 with the publication of Shapard and Thomas’s Sudden Fiction and the Housemartins’ first LP. Most of the stories in this volume are not Flash-sized, some being as long as four pages. Six years later, Tom Hazuka and the Thomases (Denise and James) came up with another name, Flash Fiction, and put it on the cover of their anthology of slightly shorter pieces. ... In the early noughties things start hotting up for Flash. ... it flowers because Flash is ultimately good for writers, good for those running literary competitions, and for online magazine editors".

Those final comments are especially pertinent. Magazines want to keep subscribers happy by including their work, but only a few short stories can appear in each issue. Many Flashes can appear in each issue, and flash fiction has a fast turn-around. It's no coincidence that Flash flourished when internet usage did -

  • The internet burgeoned, and along with it much of the social media and self-publishing platforms that we use today. Along with this, our screen-attention shrank. (Wasserman)
  • flash fiction fits new media. It's why they're so popular in China where they read whole novels on their phones these days. I like the convenience of them myself. When one appears in my FeedReader I know it's not demanding that I make a cup of coffee and settle down in a comfy chair for an hour. I can stop what I'm doing and take a story-break of a couple of minutes. (Murdoch)

As Nicholas Royle pointed out in his introduction to the 2013 Salt Best Short Stories, "Flash" has established itself on the UK cultural landscape - Chester University publishes a very worthy Flash magazine, there's a National Flash Day and a Bridport Flash competition.

Flash: definitions

What is Flash?

  • The Bridport Prize's web site suggests that Flash "contains the classic story elements: protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications and resolution. However unlike the case with a traditional short story, the word length often forces some of these elements to remain unwritten: hinted at or implied in the written storyline"
  • Calum Kerr, who is editor and creator of National Flash Fiction Day, wrote "In Flash you have language used as it is in poetry, but to drive a narrative rather than an image. A story goes from A to B, whereas a poem tends to stop at A and have a really good look at it" (quoted by Wasserman)

But in practise Flash isn't a genre or a mode. There isn't even much agreement about length. As Jim Murdoch points out, the guidelines vary widely - "Flash Fiction anthology decided that they would include only stories that would fit on a two-page spread of the typical literary magazine, or 750 words; MicroHorror draws the line at 666; Right Hand Pointing won’t consider work over 500 words; Jerome Stern who edited MicroFiction, drew the line at 300 words or less; The Abilene Writers Guild Annual Contest sets the limit at 250; Dogzplot define 'flash fiction' as anything up to 200 words … and then there are the Drabble, the 69er and the Nanofiction magazines and, finally, the e-zine OneSentence publishes stories that are exactly that, one sentence long."

Types of Flash

Because the term "Flash" has caught on, it's subsumed other types of short prose, but even in its most standard guise it has identity problems. Short stories are sometimes described as a hybrid genre, with features of both poetry and prose. Even moreso, Flash is a genre that risks falling between 2 stools. Steve Wasserman writes "The biggest problem I think I have with the form is that, like speed-dating, it invites connection, intimacy, and promise in a very swift and immediate way, but almost always leaves this reader feeling unsatisfied". He writes "Maybe the problem for me is that I enjoy the language of some Flash pieces, but don’t feel the narrative is being driven far enough", pointing out that "The form often produces a very cursory development of a writing prompt idea, beloved of workshops and Twitter: first day in the tattoo parlour; conversation with a sword-swallower; ... They’re a bit like open-ended 'jokes', but lacking punchlines: St Peter as a Geordie". Jim Murdoch also sees Flash as related to the joke, pointing out that " This is not meant to trivialise the format either, far from it. Like all forms of writing it has its good and its bad exponents. I don't believe that flash fiction is a joke – in the bad sense of the word – but I do believe in its most straightforward expressions it owes a debt to the humourists of the past.

Both Murdoch and Wasserman identify other types of Flash.

  • It’s often very High Concept writing, the metaphorical turned literal, but not necessarily literary. Although Flash says: if Kafka, Borges, Calvino, Carter, Marquez, Rushdie, Winterson can do it, why not us? (Wasserman)
  • Prose-poem flash: the language in these pieces is so dense and allusive that one often needs to (and indeed wants to) re-read the whole thing as soon as you’ve come to the last line. (Wasserman)
  • Uncanny Flash: this is Flash that leaves you feeling destabilised and enchanted. You wonder if someone has spiked your tea with Rohypnol or if everything tangible and intangible is but a dream. This can sometimes happen in Flash that reads like a fairy tale (Wasserman)

Despite his reservations about the genre, Wasserman singles out Tania Hershman for praise. Let's consider her work now (in terms of its relationship to the genre) along with that of a few other writers who've produced books recently.

Some UK Flash writers

So there are venues now, but what appears in them? The practitioners define the genre. Here are some books by 3 of the best -

  • "My Mother was an Upright Piano" by Tania Hershman (Tangent, 2012)
    Tania Hershman is Bridport's flash fiction 2014 judge, has had a series of her flash on BBC radio 4, and is a tireless campaigner for short stories. She writes poetry too.
    This book contains 56 stories. The publications list is over 30 titles long ("London Magazine", "Smokelong Quarterly", "Vestal Review", etc). The shortest story's about half a page and the longest is 4 pages, the median being around 300 words, I suspect. Her earlier book, "The White Road and other stories", had a story 102 words long, and stories thousands of words long. There's uniformity of style, with characters and no linguistic instability (language is transparent); the pieces are clearly Fiction rather than essays (p.93 excepted) or lists (p.125 excepted). There's often a 3-part structure, and the SF guideline of changing only one feature of reality at a time is commonly adhered to.
    I'd recommend "the short tree has its hand up", "trams and pies", "forty-eight dogs", "underground", "waving on the moon", "if", and "containing art".
  • "All the Bananas I've Never Eaten" by Tony Williams (Salt, 2012)
    Tony Williams is a poet (genre-breakingly so in All the rooms of uncle's head) as well as a story writer.
    The 72 pieces in this book were written "over a few short months" and have appeared in "Flash Fiction Magazine", "Under the Radar", etc. Many of the pieces here are scaled-down short stories. All have narratives, the narrational duration being anything from minutes to years; there's always some backstory. I'd recommend "Anya's complaint", "Ol' blue eyes", "The blinds", "Banjo players", "Better than cod", "The whales", "No longer covered in the training material" and "The division room".
  • "The Half-Life of Songs" by David Gaffney (Salt, 2010)
    In his top flash fiction tips in the Guardian, Gaffney addresses the Murdoch/Wasserman point, writing "If you're not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or "pull back to reveal" endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel – the drum roll and cymbal crash. Avoid this by giving us almost all the information we need in the first few lines, using the next few paragraphs to take us on a journey below the surface."
    "Sawn-off Tales", his earlier book, comprised 58 stories, each exactly 150 words long. This book has more variety. Some of the 50+ stories have been published in "Flash" magazine, "Riptide" and "Ambit". I'd recommend "I Liked Everything" (though it's a rather atypical piece), "Remaking the Moon" and "Gelling".

All these books contain stories that are clearly Flash and clearly Fiction, establishing a mainstream for the genre. All the books have flash fiction that's been published in non-specialist magazines.

McGregor and Davis

Neither of the books below are marketed as Flash. They have a wider range of styles and story lengths than any of the above books. Their neighbouring genres include the essay (à la Borges) and poetry

  • "This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You" by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury 2012)
    Fleeing Complexity" is a single 10-word sentence. "Song" comprises 13 words (2 sentences). "The Remains" is 3 pages of sentences about the state of a body where over 50% of the sentences are "Have yet to be found". There's a long piece presented as an official report.
  • "Varieties of disturbance: stories" by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)
    Davis is an American who won the Man Booker International prize in 2013 and is frequently mentioned when the possibilities of short prose are discussed. This book has 57 stories, over 30 of them published in magazines (Fence, Harper's, etc) and anthologies. "Collaboration with Fly" is only 15 syllables. Plot is frequently replaced by another organising principle - themed sections, lists, etc. Some pieces are like a diptych - 2 juxtaposed paragraphs. I like "Idea for a Short Documentary Film" (a 2-liner), "The Busy Road" (a 3-liner) and "Getting to Know Your Body". There's an austerity, an intellectual rigour that's also present in McGregor's work.
    "Grammar Question" is a 2 page essay about questions like whether "his body" or "the body" is appropriate for a dead person. The essay mood/mode haunts several these pieces, the passive mode providing distance. "Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality" is a 40 page long report.

Impact assessment

Perhaps now that the short prose genres have made inroads under the banner of "Flash" they will separate out again. If volume is sacrificed, should there be a compensatory intensification of the language? People have tried formalist prose, and have adopted more poetic techniques. Lydia Davis' shortest pieces look less like poetry, more like throwaway lines from a story, the sort Vonnegut might have fired off salvos of in a novel. I don't care if these short pieces are poetry or prose, but I do wonder if they're enough.

If Flash is trying to squeeze in between poetry and short stories, have its neighbours noticed? I think Fiction more than Poetry has. Free versers don't seem tempted to free their works of gratuitous line-breaks, but Fiction competitions more often have minimum as well as maximum word-counts now, or (as with the Bridport) have special Flash sections. A short piece recently won the Bristol Short Story prize, and magazines like "Ambit" and "London Magazine" are welcoming the Flash genre.

See Also

Monday, 9 December 2013

Literary Unity

In Problems and poetics of the nonaristotelian novel, Leonard Orr writes "unity in literary works is an essential part of the concept of form, and it must be achieved both through the author's imagination and through the audience, assimilating all of the information, seeing the structure (the beginning, middle, and end), and in seeing that all of the parts serve to inform the whole". Aristotle is behind many of these ideas, and also perhaps behind the idea that the quality of a text can be judged by assessing its unity - the notion that in perfect texts everything is essential. But there have always been "baggy" texts (even Shakespeare's plays are often abridged). Novels in particular have asides, detours, and peripheral atmosphere-building material. More recently, methods have appeared that challenge more directly the classical notions of unity, (organic or otherwise) - "Collage, the art of reassembling fragments of pre-existing images in such a way as to form a new image, was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century" (Charles Simic).

So how accommodating should readers be nowadays about apparently superfluous material? If a stanza of a poem doesn't do anything, do you just skip over it or do you penalize it (or, analogously, when you mark a multiple choice quiz, should you penalise wrong answers)? Perhaps the material's there for other readers, not you. But suppose it affects your enjoyment of the rest of the poem? Maybe it's crass, sexist, derivative, etc. Would you ignore it then? Suppose instead of a bad or pointless stanza it's a questionable line, or word, or line-break?

Obviously, it depends. But on what? The proportion of the whole that's affected presumably, and the nature of the flaw. But also it depends on the type of work being read, the reader, and why they're reading. Some poets (Selima Hill?) tend to write uneven pieces. Others (Heaney?) don't. The perceived unevenness may be because the work is multi-style or polyphonic, the reader not equally at home with the various styles/voices. Some people (especially if they're judging) will judge a poem by its worst line. Others won't mind panning for gold, seeking rare and beautiful wonders. My impression is that

  • Non-narrative, discontinuous poems are more likely to be read with a pick'n'mix approach
  • If one line of a poem is much better than the rest, it's sometimes said to "be worth the admission fee alone", the rest of the poem excused

I don't see why readers should be more lenient with non-narrative pieces, and though I can understand why a good goal in a soccer match might justify going to an otherwise ordinary game, a poem's not a live event - it can be edited. Of course, you lose that process-over-product feel, but process, like product, can be synthesised.

Some discontinuous poems contain a 2-D constellation of quotable fragments. What should fill the gaps between them? Dead wood or padding? Or could some continuity been provided? Options include

  • Nothing - compacted fragments and nothing else
  • White space (to "let the images breath"; to provide space for fields to be generated between the poles)
  • Absorbent text that attempts to magnify/refract the effect of the powerful fragments
  • Text that attempts to provide continuity between the fragments (which may either amplify the fragments or mask their effect). For example, the fragments could be put into the mouth of a mad person, or be notebook extracts.
  • Text that's part of a different, continuous thread.

The reader's strategy can in time affect the poet's writing. If readers are going to ignore (rather than penalize) the bits they don't get, the poet's more likely to add more stanzas or more obscurity - after all, there's nothing to lose. I think the current fashion amongst frequent poetry readers is more indulgent than it was a decade or so ago. Perhaps the increasingly competent and voluminous output of creative writing students makes readers crave for something "a bit different".

Sometimes when another reader and I disagree over a poem, I've asked them about certain phrases only to find that the reader's ignored them rather than try (and fail) to incorporate them into their interpretation. I don't see any problem with a poem containing self-contradictions, but if the reader edits those contradictions away, something's surely wrong somewhere.

Sometimes a reader (for personal/professional reasons) wants to like a particular text. Fragmentary poetry gives such readers more scope to do this - nothing needs to be explained and anything in it might be vital to the poem as a whole, so nothing can safely be deleted. Parts might be there to provide a change of texture, or to make other parts seem, in comparison, lyrical.

Readers may search for a unity (a gestalt, a resolving interpretation) that isn't in the text. They may give up, using variations of the "there are only so many hours in the day" argument

  • "If the poet's not going to bother editing their work, I don't have time to do the editing for them"
  • "I don't trust the poet. If there are so many phrases that make little sense to me, maybe the effect of the other words is delusionary, luck, a mirage. Maybe the poet's trying to bluff me"

I don't mind unresolvable paradoxes. Nor am I against "hopeful monsters" as such though I sometime wonder whether they need to be published - why not learn from them and re-write? I'm less tolerant of padding (in the form of words or space) than many other readers are. Surplus words and line-breaks can make me wary of the other words and line-breaks that at first sight seemed effective. I begin to lose trust in the poet. Before long, the implicit reader-poet contract isn't worth the paper it's written on, so I start reading another book instead.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Point of view - a prose workshop

No course on writing prose would be complete without a mention of "point-of-view" (PoV). There isn't much new to say on the issue (other than it's often called "Perspective" nowadays), but being reminded of the possibilities does no harm - it's easy to slip into habits. Writers probably don't try out different PoVs enough, or try different combinations. So first we'll run through the basic options, broaden them out, then look in depth at a particular first-person situation.

1st person

Example: "I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull" (1719)

As you can see from the example, it's been around a long while. Henry James in his preface to "The Ambassadors" wrote "the first person, in the long piece, is a form doomed to looseness" but in 2002 David Lodge believed that "a majority of literary novels published in the last couple of decades have been written in the first person" ("Consciousness and the Novel", p.86). There's a sense of directness. However, from inside one person you see only the outsides of others so the view may be subjective, untrustworthy. Note that

  • The person needn't be the main protagonist - in "The Great Gatsby" for example, the narrator's a minor character, and in the Sherlock stories Dr Watson's usually the narrator.
  • The narrator may not be very self-revealing. Jeanette Winterson, writing about her "Written on the Body" novel said "the narrator has no name, is assigned no gender, is age unspecified, and highly unreliable. I wanted to see how much information I could leave out - especially the kind of character information that is routine - and still hold a story together". At the other extreme there's stream-of-consciousness.
  • The narrative voice may be very different to the 1st person's voice in dialogue. "Strangely Comforting", a short story by Sadie McKenzie, has a narrator who thinks like this - "Then our eyes meet and my words snag. Vulnerability crouching behind the feral aggression. Me and Kayleigh, united by fierceness masking our fear" but talks like this - "I could be some crazy bitch, just outta pen. I could've just chipped from Holloway. Watch me follow you home an' torch your yard ... Maybe I'll get my brother an' his bredrin to gang you. You up for that?"
  • The first-person PoV can be used in the plural - e.g. "The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides

2nd person

Unusual. It's used in "Bright Lights, Big City" by Jay McInerny ("You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy"). It might sound tedious after a while, though Sarah Hall used it well for "Bees" (a short story in the excellent "The Beautiful Indifference" collection).

If you want to know more, read

3rd person

Example: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

A wide range. There's often an attempt to sound objective. It can be

  • from a particular character's viewpoint ("privileged" "limited") in which case it becomes rather like a first person piece.
  • from a few characters' viewpoints - "Third person dual",etc
  • omniscient, with the hidden narrator able to see inside the characters
  • omnipresent but not omniscient - objective, like a passive camera.

The following table covers most of the alternatives mentioned above


How many of the boxes in that table correspond to viable combinations? What features doesn't this table cover? To help answer those questions, let's try an exercise.

Exercise 1: What's the PoV?

PoV isn't always as simple as the above options might make you think. Look at the extracts below. Describe the narrators, how much they know, and their relationship to "you" or the reader. Try to place the extract in the right box of the table above.

  1. Now Alan is putting a dish in the oven. 'Forty-five minutes,' he says, looking at his watch. He takes off his apron, hangs it on the back of the door, and heads for the living room. 'Seven-fifteen, the highlights. You two stay and natter. It'll be ready at eight.'
    'Highlights?' says Agnieszka, puzzled, wondering why Alan wants to watch a programme about hairdressing.
    'The cricket,' says Alan, turning on the TV. 'First day. India all out for only 198 and we're already 64 for 1. That's a lot of wickets for the first day. England are doing pretty well.' He's almost rubbing his hands. I can smell the garlic.
  2. The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn't eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen's telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbours' closeboard fencing.
    'Harold!' called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. 'Post!'
    He thought he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday
    Upstairs Maureen shut the door of David's room quietly and stood a moment breathing him in. She pulled open his blue curtains that she closed every night, and checked there was no dust where the hem of the net drapes met the windowsill. She polished the silver frame of his Cambridge portrait, and the black and white baby photograph beside it. She kept the room clean because she was waiting for David to come back, and she never knew when that would be. A part of her was always waiting. Men had no idea what it was like to be a mother.
  3. For some probably economic reason it was usually a woman who was chosen for this particular duty, and Grady gave as his motive in selecting Tess that she was one of those who best combined strength with quickness in untying, and both with staying power, and this may have been true
  4. Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
    When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, "But I thought he was a boy?"
  5. Let's go to Rupi's brothers now
    They've been patient for so long, hidden behind the mouth of the underpass. The ferns are cool against their backs. Their soiled clothes blend so well against the wall. They are almost as invisible as we are.
    Now, this is what they've waited for.
    This is the moment I wanted you to see. I hope that you too have a taste for the unusual. For the brutal.
    If you look now, out of the corner of your eye, maybe you'll see the rest of us, sitting on the canal edge, perched upon the roofs, laid out along the top of the walls
  6. No. I don't care what your agenda is. I'm Miguel. I'm telling you about Pepito. I will have to tell you because he can't, not now, and I think he is important, in his way. So just for a few minutes, still the buzzing, OK?
    Pepito's island? Oh, it is beautiful. We always knew that.
  7. Strange to say, I expected more from literature than from real, naked life. Jan Bronski, whom I had often enough seen kneading my mother's flesh, was able to teach me next to nothing. Although I knew that this tangle, consisting by turns of Mama and Jan or Matzerath and Mama, this knot which sighed, exerted itself, moaned with fatigue, and at last fell stickily apart, meant love, Oskar was still unwilling to believe that love was love; love itself made him cast about for some other love, and yet time and time again he came back to tangled love, which he hated until the day when in love he practiced it; then he was obliged to defend it in his own eyes as the only possible love.
1. 1st person but omniscient too? 2. 3rd person, dual-privileged. Foreshadowing - the narrator knows the plot. 3. The narrator doesn't know everything. 4. The narrator's in complete control, claiming even to know about the reader. 5. Narrator and reader are participants. 6. Narrator hears readers' questions. 7. Changes PoV.

I hope that these real-life examples ("24 for 3" (Jennie Walker), "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" (Rachel Joyce), "The World of Pooh" (AA Milne), "Dead Fish" (Adam Marek), "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" (Thomas Hardy), "The Carob Tree" (Vanessa Gebbie), "The Tin Drum", (Gunter Grass)) show that the simple 1st- 2nd- 3rd- person description of PoV needs to be elaborated upon, which is what I'm going to do next.

Extra characters

Whenever there's an attempt at communicating there's a sender and a receiver even if they're only implied


  • I mentioned earlier that the "I" needn't be the central character. If the narrator's a character who experiences the events of the story, they're called an "internal narrator", but they might not be in the story at all. They might be the author, or an unnamed character, or a storyteller. Here are some examples -
    • "Are you sitting comfortably? Now I'll begin". (BBC)
    • "I should point out I found out about all of this at a much later date. I'm not part of the story yet" (Jim Murdoch)
    • "Now befaw we go too fah down dis road let's you and me get a few tings straight: I'm yer narratah ... whad I say goes" (Jim Murdoch)
    Sometimes the author butts in (for example, hundreds of pages into Zadie Smith's "NW", there's a surprize "Reader: keep up!"). An anonymous, unreliable narrator is used in a chapter of Ulysses.

Tense complicates matters. In a first person story, the main character may also be the narrator, but if it's told in the past tense it might be as if they're 2 different characters. For example, in "A Summer Bird-cage" by Margaret Drabble

  • The narrator makes brief appearances early on, saying things like "I still remember the way she said that".
  • Chapter 5 begins "I now find myself compelled to relate a piece of information which I decided to withhold, on the grounds that it was irrelevant, but I realize increasingly that nothing is irrelevant." On the next page it says "It is only now, at the time of writing (or rather, indeed, rewriting) that it occurs to me ...".
  • On p.207 the narrator arrives and stays - "As I sit here, typing this last page".

In total the narrator addresses the reader for about a page, but that's enough to add another layer to the novel. And what about this? 1st or 3rd? "In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing." (1605)


The "you" might be one of the characters in the story (especially in epistolary pieces) or it might be the common reader, or it might be more specialised. Italo Calvino in "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" plays with the options. Even if there's not an explicit "you", there are assumptions about the reader. The "implied addressee" might be an assumed child (in children's literature), a literary reader, etc.

"You" might be addressed to you, the reader (a bit like Miranda Hart in her sit-com). Here's an example -

As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner. I suppose they thought I was just the build for it because I was long and skinny for my age ... You might think it a bit rare, having long-distance cross-country runners in Borstal but you're wrong, and I'll tell you why" ("The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner", Sillitoe, p.7)

Sometimes narrators act as if they're being asked questions by someone who's never identified - as in the Gebbie example earlier.

Involvement with the story

Sometimes readers find it difficult to identify with any specific character when the viewpoint's omniscient. If readers aren't directly addressed they might be tempted to identify with one of the characters, but who? The only one we can see inside of? The only morally sound character? What PoV maximizes immersion? Such questions can be answered experimentally, a fertile area of research. Using EEG and fMRI researchers have measured effects. Sometimes they use erotica, but we'll gloss over that. I think that the conclusion is that there might be an initial effect when using the 2nd person which is why PR people often use it - "1 in 4 people who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day die of cancer" is less effective than "Hey, do you smoke more than 20 a day? Come on, be honest. If your answer's yes you've a 1 on 4 chance of dying of cancer". Readers soon get used to this trick though. Other factors matter at least as much.

Mixing things up

Different sections of a story can have different points-of-view. It's not uncommon to have "I" being a different person in alternate sections or chapters (see for example "The Book of Human Skin" by Michelle Lovric, "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn, or part of Sartre's trilogy).

Or the 3rd-person narrative may take on a flavour of the voice and opinions of the character concerned, in free indirect style. Here are examples of speech modes from Wikipedia

  • Direct speech - He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. "And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?" he asked.
  • Reported speech - He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speech - He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

Here's another example of Free indirect speech, adapted from one by Emma Darwin - Emily was one of those people who hates confronting liars. She put down her coffee. What a bastard he was! He was obviously lying. She picked up her coffee again and said how sweet it was of John to be so helpful. Note the transition from narrator voice to the character's voice and back again. As Emma Darwin says, it helps turn tell into show. Jane Austen uses it.

From 3rd person the voice can switch from one limited viewpoint to another. Or there can be long monologues or flashbacks (whodunits, with long witness-PoV sections, have put this device into the mainstream). Harry Potter novels dip into various minds in limited third person sections, I think. The narrative can zoom in ever further, giving us a character's interior monologue and physical perceptions as they occur.

Near the start of "Moon Tiger" by Penelope Lively (Penguin, 1988) we read that "The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally ... So, since my story is also theirs, they too must speak - Mother, Gordon, Jasper ... Except that of course I have the last word. The historian's privilege". The PoV-switching continues throughout the book. Sometimes a paragraph is followed by a paragraph describing the same events from a different viewpoint. The viewpoint may differ slightly (both 3rd person privileged, but from 2 people's viewpoints) or the viewpoints might be 1st and 3rd person.

And over there if I am not mistaken is this chap who might wangle me a ride up to the front if I play it right
She smiles - the glossy lipsticked smile of the times. She approaches his table - a neat figure in white linen, bright coppery hair, high-heeled red sandals, bare sunburned legs - and he rises, pulls out a chair, clicks his fingers at the suffragi.
And looks appreciatively at the legs, the hair, the outfit which is not the get-up of the average woman press correspondent.

At least it is to be assumed that that is what he was doing since he tried later to get me into bed (p.69)

But what about "inconsistent PoV"? The change in PoV needn't be extreme to be distracting. What about these?

  • Frogs could be heard croaking as we neared the pond
  • When one feels tired, a cake will give you quick energy

Or suppose in a first person piece you read "She felt ashamed". You might say "hey, hold on, how does the narrator know this?", but even famous authors (Dickens etc) can be inconsistent. Gunter Grass in the example earlier changes PoV between one sentence and the next. Hemingway in his much praised "Hills Like White Elephants" twice breaks the "rule" of objectivity. If you can surprize readers with a plot-twist what's wrong with surprising them with a narrative switch? See Francine Prose's "Reading like a writer" for other examples.

Other media

  • Media Studies has taken over from Eng Lit in some places. The courses overlap when it comes to PoV. The default for film is "3rd person objective". Can you think of some interesting alternatives? There's split-screen (which I've tried in prose); subtitles used as in "Annie Hall" to show an alternative, simultaneous PoV; "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; voice-overs; jerky, hand-held scenes in "The Blair Witch Project". How about "What Maisie Knew" (2012)?
  • There are first-person shoot'em'up computer games too. Sometimes you can choose your viewpoint. Perhaps e-novels should let you do that too.
  • You can also get ideas from paintings - Cezanne's multiple viewpoints, Breugel's multiple-narrative street scenes


As you can see, things are getting complicated, which is why straightforward "PoV" is out of fashion. A 1st person and a 3rd person story may have more in common than two 3rd person stories have. As well as knowing who's doing the seeing we need to identify who's doing the narrating, where they are in relation to the story-space and how much they know about the characters and plot.

People have tried organising the possibilities into a diagram or table. It can help identify untapped possibilities, or show how certain stories resemble each other

Stanzel decided to consider 3 main aspects

  • MODE - narrator ... reflector (telling a story or manipulating?)
  • PERSPECTIVE - internal ... external ... authorial
  • PERSON - 1st person ... identity ... non-identity

If you had 2 of these you could construct a table - maybe with "1st", "2nd", "3rd" as column headings, and "internal", external" as the rows. It would be interesting to think of novels that would fit in the cells of the table. But what can you do with 3 factors? A 3D table? Stanzel decided to have each aspect as a diameter of a circle - "Stanzel's typological circle". People elaborated this until it became rather occult.

Genette sliced things up another way, using "focalisation" (omniscient; 1 person, "camera") and voice (1st person, etc) and considered these to be independent features. It seems fair enough to me. Let's see if some diagrams help

This is a standard "objective" scenario, like a film. There's an invented world within which the action unfolds, and a passive camera is there to record events, unable to see inside people, though close-ups are possible.
In this alternative there are dotted lines around the person to denote a see-through boundary; 3rd-person privileged. Other characters could be added - some with see-through boundaries, some with solid boundaries.
Let's move the camera to make it 1st-person. We'd better keep the person's boundary see-through
Now let's move it so that the narrator's outside the story, able to see the plot from various angles - the storytelling scenario. But there's still an assumption that the storyworld is stable, that a passive camera records the unfolding events.
But sometimes the narrator doesn't want us to believe in the storyworld - it's all a game inside the narrator's head - "The French Lieutenant's Woman" perhaps. The narrator will survive even if the story is abandoned, restarted, redrafted, etc.

How to choose a PoV

There are many factors to consider. For example

  • In what way is the PoV you're choosing going to limit you?
  • It's easier for readers to assume that the narrator is the author. If you're male and the main character's female, is 1st person too risky?

The good news is that it's never too late to change. And of course you can keep various versions on file. Alice Munro often revises her stories between their original publication in a periodical and the republication in a collection. For example, she frequently writes a story from both the third-person and first-person point of view before deciding which to use in the final version. Changing from 1st to 3rd person might not be a big deal. Changing from "objective" to "omniscient" is another matter.

Exercise 2 - choosing a PoV

You're settling in to your new student room. There's a knock at the door. Someone cute asks if you have any sugar. You offer them in for a tea. Narrate until the moment the tea is poured. Do it twice, from different perspectives. Pick the option most natural to you, then one that's challenging.

Special first-person PoVs

family.jpgI'd like now to focus on particular 1st person PoVs because they're increasingly popular. The narrator can be dead - there's "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak, where the narrator is Death, and "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold, where a young girl, having been killed, observes, from some after-life vantage point. Narrators can be mad, or animals (Ian McEwan had a pet ape as a narrator).

Or the main character can be a child. Writing from a child's point-of-view isn't easy. Done well though, it can be effective and affecting, so that's what I'm going to focus on.

family.jpgIn his film, "A story of children and film", Mark Cousins suggests that children's been dealt with in film more often than in novels. Maybe so, though novels are catching up - a judge of the 2013 Man Booker competition said there were a lot of child-PoV entries. Most stories of this type use a third-person-priviledged point-of-view, though a first-person treatment is possible. Some people (me included) rarely produce child-centred stories, which is odd - after all, we were all children once. Two story collections I've read have a fair proportion of child-centred stories, so I thought I'd bring the authors' views into the discussion. Some writers raid their own pasts

  • "The key, I think is memory: quite simply, remembering, never forgetting what it was like to be a child - ... when I was in my early twenties I made a conscious vow ... never to forget what it was like to be a child ... But I do also happen to have a very good memory: ... 'Leaf Memory' is based on a real-life memory of my own, aged two years and two months" - Elizabeth Baines

Exercise 3

Write 100 words about your earliest memory. Do it twice - first in a language closest to the way you thought at the time, then using your current powers of expression.

My memory's nowhere near that good. I'm a parent, which you'd have thought should be useful in this context, but childlessness may have advantages. Parents have less time to write, but that's not all - in "The Psychologist" March 2009 they reported on a survey that found that parents are no happier than childless couples. In fact, once the children leave home, parents are sadder. One begins to wonder what the point of children is.

  • "having no children myself means that I've never fully grown up. I'm at the age where many of my friends are wondering why hostile, sulky delinquents from outer space have occupied their teenage children's bodies. And what do I do? Easy, I side with the kids. ... Basically, I can't grasp the crisis from the parent's viewpoint, however hard I try" - Charles Lambert

Writing's hard enough as it is without burdening oneself with extra handicaps, so why should authors restrict themselves to a child's viewpoint and vocabulary? It's fair enough in children's fiction but what about fiction for adults? Let's look at each restriction in isolation

  • Viewpoint - Though children might not understand what's going on, and might be unable to be involved in the scene, they have certain advantages as observers - like cameras, they might see things from a new angle and might be ignored by the protagonists. The child might not understand what's going on, but readers are likely to. The difference between the character's and the reader's understanding can be exploited for laughs or for more serious effect. On the BBC's web-site they give the example of this - a child bursting into his parents' bedroom, upset to find them wrestling naked on the bed. Successful writers consciously exploit this irony
    • "children can have instinctual knowledge which we adults can lose, and these insights yet gaps can be the stuff of dramatic conflict and motor a story" - Elizabeth Baines
    • "one of the things I'm doing when I choose to use children as the channel through which the narrative is seen is what Henry James did with Maisie; I'm exploiting their clear-sightedness and innocence. Children see everything, but don't necessarily understand any of it. Whether they're protagonists or witnesses, they tend to be one step behind - or to one side of - the attentive adult reader, which sets up an interesting narrative gap through which the unsettling elements can squeeze." - Charles Lambert
  • Language - Children may not have a wide, intellectual vocabulary, but that needn't be such a restriction. They can be original in their use of words, less restricted by convention and social mores.

A way round both of these limitations is to use a fluid 3rd-person priviledged point-of-view, rather as in the Joyce example below. Alternatively, if it's written in the past tense, the narrator can gloss over these difficulties (the author can create an adult character who recalls an amazing amount about childhood), though it dilutes the effect.

Exercise 4: Guess the age!

How young can you go? "My Mother's Dream" (Alice Munro) is from the viewpoint of someone before their conception, then as a foetus, then a baby for most of the story, which is probably beyond the call of duty. Try guessing the age of the children in these extracts, and the supposed age of the narrator.

  • Maisie received in petrification the full force of her mother's huge and painted eyes - they were like Japanese lanterns swinging under festival arches
  • After a while of playing, Mary gets bored and speaks on the phone. She always twirls the cord around her finger and gets her whole body wrapped up in it. It’s silly. Sometimes I don’t think she’s really a grownup. Maybe she’s just playing dress-ups.
    Daddy walks in with a big smile on his face, and Mary skips up to him like a little girl and gives him a kiss on the cheek.
    “Did you go to see your mother today?” That’s Daddy speaking to Mary, not me. She nods and does doll’s eyes and hangs her head to the side making a stupid groaning sound. She sounds like my Ted in the mornings.
  • Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...

    His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

    He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

    O, the wild rose blossoms
    On the little green place.

    He sang that song. That was his song.

    O, the green wothe botheth.

    When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.
  • We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at a gate and bashed it with his stick. It was Misses Quigley's gate; she was always looking out the window but she never did anything.
    - Quigley!
    - Quigley!
    - Quigley Quigley Quigley!
    Liam and Aidan turned down their cul-de-sac. We said nothing; they said nothing. Liam and Aidan had a dead mother. Missus O'Connell was her name.
    - It'd be brilliant wouldn't it? I said
  • The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes were weak and watery.
  • MARCH 25, MORNING. A troubled night of dreams. Want to get them off my chest.
  • Saturday January 3rd
    I shall go mad through lack of sleep! My father has banned the dog from the house so it barked outside my window all night. Just my luck! My father shouted a swear-word at it. If he's not careful he will get done by the police for obscene language.
  • 'Is that your name?' I was bold enough to ask the Miss more prone to mirth.
    'Eleanor is what I was christened but people call me Ellie.'
    Idly, I said, 'That's not what my mother calls you.'
    'What does she call her?' enquired the one who was not Ellie.
    'Not just her, both of you.'
    What does she call us?'
    Her dress smelled of corridor.
    The sisters awaited an answer. Ellie, dried dribbles of Wall's ice-cream on her frock, seemed as eager to know as her sister.
    A curler in her hair, a clip between her teeth, my mother held her breath,
    'She calls you …' I paused to accord the phrase the respect with which I had always heard it uttered, 'She calls you "the Misses Linster".'
    Though obviously the cause of amusement, I wasn't sure what was funny.

The extracts are from "What Maisie Knew" (Henry James; the child's 7), "The Book" (Jessica Bell; the child's 5), "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (James Joyce), "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" (Roddy Doyle; the boy's 10), "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (James Joyce), "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (James Joyce), "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4" (Sue Townsend) and a story by Ian Madden; the child's 6 years old. Authors often seem to have over- or under-estimated the child, but kids have an irritating habit of not acting their age - one moment they talk like an adult, next moment they sulk like a baby. In any case, one shouldn't expect dialogue in literature to be like Real Life - it has to be artificial to some extent but how much? It can be difficult to convince the reader of the narrator's age.


Let's see how the experts do it

  • Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.
    "Was I minus numbers?"
  • A shadow made me start as my mother's face loomed towards me where I lay, eight months old, tongue-tied, spastic and flailing on my course rug, on the warm lawn, in the summer of 1947 - in an English country garden. My father was playing French cricket with Miranda and John, and I could hear a tennis ball
  • Early one morning as we were beginning our day’s play in the back yard, Jem and I heard something next door in Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy—Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting— instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:
    “Hey yourself,” said Jem pleasantly.
    “I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said. “I can read.”
    “So what?” I said.
    “I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin‘ I can do it...”
    “How old are you,” asked Jem, “four-and-a-half?”
    “Goin‘ on seven.”
    “Shoot no wonder, then,” said Jem, jerking his thumb at me. “Scout yonder’s been readin‘ ever since she was born, and she ain’t even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin’ on seven.”
    “I’m little but I’m old,” he said.

Note that these extracts tell the reader the age of the child. Kids tell each other their ages, so it's not too artificial. It gets round one problem when writing such pieces.

Problems and criticisms

  • It's very tempting to slip out of character for a few paragraphs. A commonly used way to include an adult's viewpoint is for the child to be an uncomprehending messenger - e.g. to have the child find an adult's diary and read it (Paula Sharp calls that a hackneyed device though!). Here's Elizabeth Baines' approach
    • "The story 'Power' ... strictly, use[s] a child narrator, ie, the voice is that of the child as a child, and in this case in the present tense, as the story is happening. This is the most restrictive way of adopting a child's viewpoint, with least chance for authorial intervention. The main way I get round the restriction here is to splice the child's narrative with the mother's phone calls on which the child eavesdrops."
    • "In 'Star Things' ... the child is constantly and innocently quoting things her parents have said"
    She notes however that "the children's voices in these stories aren't entirely naturalistic, I do take linguistic licence, as they're not intended as straightforward dramatic monologues"
  • Even the best adult books with child narrators risk being treated as if they're children's books
  • One has to be rather careful about using material that can be traced back to a particular child - moreso than with consenting adults.

Special Needs

Authors have tried combining age limitations with other features - in particular, cleverness. In a sense, these writers are having it both ways; they can exploit the freedom and freshness of the child narrator without having to make too many compromises regarding vocabulary or intellect.

  • "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" (Mark Haddon) has a clever, autistic 15-year-old narrator
  • "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (Jonathan Safran Foer) is held together by Oskar, a precocious and obsessive nine-year-old polymath
  • "How the Light Gets In" (M.J. Hyland) has a highly intelligent, damaged 16-year-old
  • "Flowers for Algernon" (Daniel Keyes) doesn't have a child narrator, but the IQ and language of the narrator change in the course of the novel.

Exercise 5

Describe an adult situation from a child's PoV. The child can be special if you wish.


  • Try things out! Write multiple versions. Mix versions.
  • Don't be dogmatic.
  • Watch films and play computer games.

Discussion Points

  • Are child-narrator stories usually autobiographical?
  • What other devices do authors use to bring an adult perspective into child-narrator stories?
  • What 1st person child narrator novels/stories have you read? Did they work?

Authors quoted

The quotes are used (with the authors' permission) from Virtual Booktours that they made - Elizabeth Baines' "Around the Edges of the World" Tour and Charles Lambert's "Something Rich and Strange" Tour

  • Elizabeth Baines won 3rd prize in the Raymond Carver Short Story Competition 2008. Her book, "Balancing on the Edge of the World" (Salt) was shortlisted for the 2008 The Salt Frank O'Connor Prize.
  • Charles Lambert was an O.Henry Prize winner in 2007, along with William Trevor and Alice Munro. Books include "Little Monsters" (Picador) and "The Scent of Cinnamon" (Salt)


  • Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artists as a young man"
  • Hugo Hamilton's "The Speckled People" - people have said "The world here is viewed through the eyes of a child who does not judge, merely details and describes." .... "Though Hugo matures as the story unfolds, the simple, declarative sentences of a child's confused and partial understanding do not. (...) He has made an attempt on something impossible - to show from a child's point of view what a child can't see. To the degree that he succeeds, it's remarkable."
  • Paula Sharp's "Crows over a Wheatfield" - people have said that "the characters are so involving - not since 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or the opening chapters of 'Jane Eyre' has there been a more acute and astute child's view of the world".
  • Sue Townsend's "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4". Comedy.
  • Colum McCann's "Everything in this country must" - this collection's stories have 1st person narrators in their early teens.
  • Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" - has a 10 year old 1st person narrator
  • Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters was written for adults by a 9 year old
  • Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" - has a 6 year old narrator.
  • Emma Donoghue's "The Room" - has a 5 year old narrator.
  • Jessica Bell’s "The Book" - has a 5 year old narrator. See Jim Murdoch's blog for details.
  • "The Life of Pi"? "The Tin Drum"? "Empire of the Sun"?

See also

Friday, 2 August 2013

Diana Brodie: an interview

Diana Brodie's been publishing poems for nine years. I know her because we attend the same local poetry group at her house. Hearing a poem of hers most months, I'm not surprised that she now has a book out. "Giotto's Circle", has been published by Poetry Salzburg. It's available from the Poetry Salzburg site. This interview was conducted via e-mail in mid-2013.

1. When did you start writing poetry? Has your writing gone through recognisable phases? Can you identify any breakthrough moments?

I think that when I was very young I had the idea of becoming a poet. I read a lot, learned poems by heart and sat pensively by the window with an open book. My parents had firm plans for me – a job in my father’s office, starting as near as possible to my fifteenth birthday.

When I was about eight, I had a schoolteacher who was especially good at teaching creative subjects and I so much enjoyed my first lesson in how to write a poem that when I arrived home from school, I went to my room and wrote another, but when I took it to show my mother, she became extremely angry and tore it to shreds, dumping it in the kitchen bin with the vegetable scraps.

Writing a poem was, I think, considered pretentious, "a waste of paper" and seen as "trying to be clever when you’re not". I couldn’t bring myself to try writing a poem again for five decades apart from compulsory homework exercises. I only remember writing a limerick that I had to explain to everyone who heard it.

I had a lot of trouble at home in trying to be allowed to stay at school beyond 15 and the lucky chance came when I was injured in an accident on the way to school (!) and gained the sympathy vote after my sister’s pleadings to my parents that I should be allowed to continue at school and then go to University. I had to pay my own way (and pay board to my mother) though.

I thoroughly enjoyed my university years and ended up with an MA in English. I then trained as a teacher, got married the following year and soon afterwards came to England. I was reading a fair amount of poetry and in our early days heard Auden read his poetry in Great St Mary’s in Cambridge.

The need to write poetry surfaced only in the 1990’s when I happened to meet someone who was talking about correspondence courses and she mentioned that they were available in poetry. I had felt I’d be too embarrassed to bring my inadequate efforts into the light of day so this was the perfect solution. I enjoyed the course, which had an Arvon residential week at the end. This was about the time – 1997 - that the Poetry School was founded in London and I enrolled on Mimi Khalvati’s versification course. After work on a Friday night, I’d catch a train and head for Covent Garden. I have taken Poetry School courses in every subsequent year.

I enjoyed writing and after a few years, the Poetry School asked me to submit for an anthology of a selection of PS poets considered likely to publish a collection at some point (I think most of those selected have done). I was very surprised by this but I began to submit more poems elsewhere and fairly soon had some publications. Another year or so went by and comments became even more encouraging so I decided that if “real poets” thought I could do it, I was under an obligation to try (though it felt for a long time like pretence). So that was the final stage before the breakthrough of a book publishing offer. I wrote a lot, went to dozens of courses and aimed for a book more than a pamphlet. I don’t know why that direction was recommended to me, but that is what happened.

2. Do you write literary prose too?

Very occasionally. I’ve got a piece in this month’s issue of the New Zealand literary journal, Takahe. I’d have liked to have done more but I don’t have the time, having started so late with poetry. The only other thing I do is quite a lot of writing and editing for the Parkinson’s Society, information sheets and handbook or a review. I’ve got a piece in the next issue of the next national magazine.

3. What factors affected the ordering of the poem in the book? Now that you can see them all together do themes emerge that you didn't notice before?

I only understood my poetry when I had several attempts at putting a collection together and realized, for instance, that a poem was often not really about the subject I had originally thought at all. The subconscious does not need to refer to the conscious mind in order to create a metaphor.

The themes I keep finding traces of are Waiting. Waiting to be in the right place, waiting for change and seeing it. Waiting to leave. Looking at ways of leaving. Maps. Jumping. Flying. Landing. Falling.

Also, circles. A poem is often circular beginning with an idea which grows as it develops and then at the end may have a simple or profound conclusion that refers back to the beginning. One thing I love about growing older is that there seems to be so much opportunity for renewing old friendships.

The book is divided into sections, each section title being a phrase quoted from a poem within that section and giving a clue to other themes. Starting with No Ordinary Thing. Poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary, or should do.

4. How does your family view having a poet in the family?

My sister, Wendy, has been very supportive and she has read many of my poems. I think she is glad that these things I write about have now been said which once they never could be. We scarcely mentioned them to each other until we were in our 50’s, long after both parents had died. Three decades, in fact. My mother would have loathed my poetry.

With my husband and daughters, for a long time, there wasn’t much discussion about it and I think it was seen as another example of my enthusiasm for taking courses. When my daughters were teenagers, I took 3 ‘A’ level exams and I often went to evening and weekend courses on any subject that interested me but gradually, poetry became the chief focus. Becoming so immersed in poetry as I have been has been a big surprise. Since I’ve had mobility problems, my husband has been very good about accompanying me on the journeys to Arvon houses or to the London Poetry School and staying in the area until I had finished the course. He knows well the Devon coastal path and Shropshire walking tracks, also the Lambeth area. Our grandchildren are very excited and impressed that there’s a book.

5. They say that blind people compensate by enhancing their other senses. You're not as mobile as you used to be. Have you found that some other faculties are working harder?

Well, the other faculties all have their problems too because a neurological disease can affect everything. It’s challenging physically but I’m extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity, while I can take advantage of it, to have "Giotto’s Circle" published.

6. What advice would you give a budding poet? What have you learnt about becoming a "poet".

I think that a writer’s focus should be not on “becoming a poet” but on writing a good poem, considering all feedback seriously, being able to justify changes you don’t make and those you do. Edit ruthlessly, especially the wordy first stanza that can feel like a huge intake of breath.

Also, make good contacts with others writing poetry. There’s a lot to learn and you can build up useful information that way.

7. Which writers do you re-read? Have you learnt any tricks from them?

I like Fleur Adcock and Raymond Carver. Dennis O’Driscoll. Brendan Kennelly, especially "The Man Made of Rain". I like mystery but also directness.

8. How has your relation to New Zealand and its poetry changed over the years?

At school, I think there was only an occasional mention of any New Zealand poets but that seemed to dwindle to nothing after I was about 12. I bought one paperback anthology of “New Zealand verse” in those years but I didn’t feel interested in it. I’m pretty sure that during my university course – four years at University - there was no mention of them. Of contemporary poets, there were a few of the UK and American “greats” – Eliot, Auden, Wallace Stevens – that was about it and anything else I was left to discover for myself. I didn’t read much NZ poetry for years, then it tended to be expatriates like Fleur Adcock or Janet Frame, both of whom felt very uneasy in a New Zealand cultural climate.

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