Monday, 8 December 2014

I.A. Richards' influence

Of all the theorists I find myself most in tune with I.A.Richards (1893-1979). He thought that there was nothing unique about aesthetic judgements and tried to ground judgement in psychology rather than aesthetics. He reacted against the bravura, impressionistic reviews of the times, and the Platonic aesthetics. For him, works of art didn't possess "Beauty" as a quality that artists tried to communicate to us with greater or lesser clarity. Rather, the works have effects on us - we see beauty in the works. In Wikipedia it says that

  • "modern reader-response criticism began in the 1960s and '70s ... Important predecessors were I. A. Richards ..." (Reader-response)
  • "The work[s] of English scholar I. A. Richards ... were important to the development of New Critical methodology" (New Criticism)

So Richards was the predecessor of both reader-response theory and New Criticism, which is interesting because in Wikipedia it also says that

  • "Reader-response criticism ... stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism" (Reader-response)

Richards published Practical Criticism in 1930. It was ahead of its time and remains an interesting book. In it he analyses differences between individuals' responses to poems (rather judgementally, to modern eyes) which they studied without being aware of the author, context or biographical information. I can see how this experiment about reader response might easily lead to a NewCrit desire for more objectivity, seeking more evidence from deeper within the poem, wringing as much as possible from each word and space.

Reader-response theory

I think the basic idea of this is that each reader gives meaning to the text - i.e. to find "the" meaning of a text, you need to see what many people say about it. Each reader will interpret a book differently each time they read it (which can lead some reader-response theorists to adopt an extreme relativist position), but in practise there's a fair amount of agreement amongst readers, which is why we can sometimes get away with the idea that books have fixed meanings and values.

If a lot of people in positions of power or influence (competition judges, syllabus designers, anthologists, publishers, etc) say that a book is good, that's as good as you're going to get. There may be other groups of readers who think that the book is bad even after having read the justifications advanced by the first group (the reasons the first group give for a work being good may be the very reasons why the second group think the work is bad). Movie rating sites like Rotten Tomatoes have critics' and public's ratings to acknowledge this difference.

Splitting readers into only these 2 groups may be a fair way to assess the impact of (say) Joyce's "Ulysses". More generally there are many other reader communities whose members' views on certain works may be closely aligned with others in the group but very different from the opinions of those in other groups. For example rhyming poetry or stridently feminist novels may split the readership into "interpretative communities". Some texts might appeal to many types of readers (perhaps for different reasons), others may have niche appeal.

What I like about this reader-response approach is that it sounds largely descriptive and uncontroversial to me. The theory underlies (or even undermines) other theories, because theories derive from the views of individuals or particular communities with influence. One need only consider texts like "Satanic Verses" or once-famous writers who've passed into obscurity to see that concepts like "good" are at least to some extent relative, and contextual. The web has provided ways for more "interpretive communities" to develop.And I like how the approach respects the individuality of readings. How one interprets and combines those differing interpretations is more controversial.

Using psychology and sociology one can gain a better understanding of audience reactions. We're more aware than ever that films which used to scare audiences may now amuse us, that Art may become Kitsch, that work which might have been ground-breaking in its day may not even be considered as good nowadays, that "mainstream" is just another genre, that academics don't have the last word. There's been a resurgence in using experimental psychology to evaluate reader responses. The results of these psychology tests can be of use to writers. Less formally, workshop-based writing is aware of reader reaction.

New criticism

The New Critics in the USA studied texts closely, trying to filter out individual reactions, the authors' intentions, history and cultural contexts. Taken to the extreme, it led to boring analysis (or maybe deconstructionism), and the excluded themes (political, cultural, psychological) were just those that people became interested in during the 60s. It emphasized close reading (Richards' student, William Empson, read very closely), and treated poems as aesthetic objects detached from society. The critics' notions of objectivity seem rather subjective (even self-serving and elitist) nowadays. One might think that close reading is a useful (perhaps indispensable) first stage when analysing any text, but people often have little patience nowadays to delve at this level of analysis for long, preferring to look for purpose, voice and intent. Once they've decided what the text is about, they might then seek details to support their hypothesis.

Statistical text-analysis has been accelerated by developments in computing.

The common enemy

To me the two approaches aren't opposites. Ostensibly they both attempt to reduce the influence of any one ego. "the Richardsian method of language analysis - sense, tone, form, intention, attitude, irony - was developed in the 1920s to encounter obscurity, ambiguity and allusiveness. It also dealt with sentimentality, ‘sincerity’, stock responses and doctrine in poetry. ... The method aimed at clearing blockages in the communications of any writer, past or present. " (John Paul Russo (Poetry Nation, 1976, No.6).

The approaches have in common some enemies - biographic context, for example. They could both be considered unavoidable strategies when extracting meanings from texts. The main issue is which other approaches (if any) will be adopted too.

The Future

In our post-NewCrit, post-Reader-response (and post-Theory?) age how should readers engage with texts?

  • Form (always a concern for New Criticism) in poetry and prose needs to be analysed more carefully. For poetry, this may require analytical tools that can deal with the structures of modern poetry (psychology experiments to access the value of line-break, discourse analysis, etc)
  • Reviewers needn't fear to use statistics to derive evidence-based conclusions, nor should they hesitate to quote the opinions of others.
  • It should be assumed that writers know the tricks of the trade, that they choose phrases to affect readers rather than for mimetic reasons. Obscurity might be bluff, but as poker-players know, you shouldn't bluff too often - game theory can be applied. Empathy can be carefully engendered, sincerity synthesised. As in computer game design, realism may be sacrificed to improve the player experience. Readers can be flattered by making them think they're clever, that they're sensing something deep, almost beyond words.
  • The Web helps niches survive. A small, scattered group can more easily remain self-supporting, self-justifying. Site like Goodreads encourage multi-interpretations.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

"Reading your comics in Eype" by Chrissy Williams

I sometimes like a poem without having much of a clue why. Such was the case when I read a poem by Chrissy Williams in "The Rialto 81" (2014). What drew me into this piece was that there were parts I understood (and liked), and other parts whose meaning I knew I could look up. I've read her poems before. Some (e.g. from Adventures in Form) I don't like at all, whereas others (e.g from Flying into the bear) have a freshness that marks her out as a name to follow. I've heard her read - she reads well. I felt that there was enough overlap of our sensibilities to spend time on the poem.

Firstly then, is there a stable (perhaps imagined) world behind this poem? There is indeed a place in Dorset called Eype, and it has a beach. The events of the poem could easily belong to a single narrative without needing to change their order. There's a fixed viewpoint. In the title it says "your comics". Readers soon realise that "you" refers to the owner of the comics, though later it seems that "you" is the comic's author too. Perhaps 2 different people are being referred to, perhaps not. The poet's written up some thoughts about poetry and comics on the Rialto site, saying that her partner "writes (but does not draw) comics". Ah. Lines 3-4 refer to the comic -

You'd nudged it towards my rucksack with a grin
when I was trying to pack my bedroll up at midnight

What's the significance of the timing? I don't know, though Jesus said to Lazarus, "Get up, take your bedroll, start walking". If the comic is thought of as a message, a nudged hint, we need to know about the comic characters. I had to look up the names. Juggernaut is a Marvel Comics supervillain, a bit like The Hulk. Hope is a female superhero, "the first mutant to be born after the Decimation, an event in which the Scarlet Witch uses her reality-altering superpower to turn all but 198 of the world's mutants into regular, depowered humans. Hope Summers is an omega-level mutant with an ability of unspecified limits to manipulate and mimic the genes which are responsible for superhuman mutation". Juggernaut is unstoppable, exaggeratedly Male. Hope is an empathetic Female.

The persona, seeing dogs on the shore below ("the fisherman's line is being bothered by a mixed troupe of dogs") starts thinking about them - "is it just me who drags dogs into everything?", further encouraging the identification of the persona and poet. Perhaps "drags dogs into everything" is supposed to bring to mind "drags God into everything". The persona recalls how Superman's dog missed him when he went away. Is it this aspect of dogs that the persona drags in?

Dogs lead to Cats, then Children. After "[Superman] didn't want kids" there's a sudden switch - the persona changes the subject, feels cold, thinks "not yet, not yet" then there's

Please dogs, there's so much sea to write.
Today, I just want to listen to it.

Given that these lines end the poem, I think we're entitled to read much into them. Why plead with the dogs? The persona is "in an armchair", the "fisherman sits tending his line" - i.e. they're both sitting, both thinking about lines. The fisherman (symbol of Christ, of hope - the poet's half Italian, so may be familiar with catholic symbolism) is disturbed by a "mixed troupe of dogs" (a Juggernaut is a wagon carrying statues of Hindu gods. Note also that the poem's first line is "I see Juggernaut's foot stamp down on San Francisco - St Francis liked aninals"). The dogs are stopping a catch - "fisherman tending lines - fish - sea" corresponds to "poet tending lines - words - world". But the dogs' noise is also disturbing a more direct contemplation of the world by the poet.

In the Rialto article one of the lessons deduced from the comic world is that "economy of line is paramount ... Comics are at their most successful when the maximum effect is produced by every line and unnecessary lines are eliminated". This poem seems to follow that guideline. I've needed to mention just about all its details, except for the mysterious purple light.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Poeticisms

Laughable aren't they. They come in several varieties. Let's deal first with the most easily identifiable -

  • Poetic words - these are the easiest to detect. Some people seem to think that words like "gossamer", "palimpsest", "lozenge", "lambent", "shimmering", etc have intrinsic beauty, or trigger poetic thoughts in the reader
  • Poetic things - everyone thinks rainbows are beautiful, so a poem that mentions them will be beautiful too
  • Form-driven rhyme - most famous poems rhyme, and rhyme is the most obvious feature of many old poems, so poems must rhyme at all costs, even if all you can think of to rhyme with "love" is "dove".

I suspect the problem with all of these is that the original reason for using these features has gone (or at least has become diluted). People are copying old tricks without asking themselves if they still work - all style, no substance. Even if there are still valid reasons, over-use can reduce the effectiveness of a trick. Other, less obvious features that have lost their force include certain types of

  • Imagery - some images are especially tempting to poets: how some things at night are more easily seen if not looked at directly; pebbles that look so beautiful in the water lose their beauty when dry; how you can see the darkness for a moment when you turn a light on in a dark room; how a pre-natal ultrasound scan resembles a radar screen
  • Linguistic constructions - "An abstract noun in the possessive case followed by an adjective and a concrete noun ... is a nineteenth century favorite ... In the twentieth century it was succeeded in favor by another phrase ... in which the first noun is usually concrete and the second abstract. Thus: 'the pale dawn of longing'", "Anatomy of Criticism", Northrop Frye.

As this latter quote suggests, it's partly a fashion issue - metaphors become dead metaphors, ugly becomes the new beautiful, and the young generation react against the devices of their elders. Wordsworth thought the poetic diction of eighteenth century writers artificial and unnatural - features that he thought should be avoided if possible (though note - artifice is welcomed by some other poets). Poe ("There is a distinct limit... to all works of literary art - the limit of a single sitting") and Pound ("To break the pentameter, that was the first heave"), The Movement and LangPo tried to cleanse the language of the tribe too.

Not all devices that are commonly used deserve to be described as "poeticisms". Over-use is in the eye of the beholder. People who read a lot of modern poetry may notice trends invisible to less avid readers. There are lists of common contemporary devices, amongst them being

Some of these devices (like beginning many lines with "Because", or writing poems that are a list of commands or instructions) are the result of standard workshop exercises and might be striking to readers who've not seen that trick before.

Some layouts are poeticisms too. Centred layouts (especially on coloured paper) are suspect. But if poeticisms are over-used devices, devices copied without thought or reason that hope to take a ride on the power of older poetry, then using regular boxes of text risks being a poeticism. When a "shape poem" is made of rectangular stanzas, you can see from the other side of the room that it's trying to look like a poem; you don't even need to read the words. When you read the words, the shape often makes no sense. It did in the olden days when people wrote in standard forms with a fixed number of syllables per line, but imitating appearance without the motivating cause isn't a good idea.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Winning story competitions

The Judges' PoV

Time - In 2014 the Bristol Story competition attracted over 2,500 entries. The Bridport receives over 6,000. If one person read all those stories it would take them several months. In practise the task is often shared, and not all the stories are read from start to finish, but it's still a lot of work, so judges will seek any excuse to reject a piece. Don't make it easy for them.

  • Easiest is to reject a piece because the author failed to follow the instructions. In my limited experience it's not unusual for 10% of entries to be eliminated for this reason.
  • Many other stories fail because the first and last paragraphs/pages aren't good enough. Not infrequently the judges only read that much of a story - in many cases they don't need to read any more than that.

Boredom - It's a relief to find something a bit different to relieve the grind of reading dozens of competent stories.

Reputation - Judges don't want to damage their own reputation (presumably they want to judge again). Equally the competition organisers want people to enter in subsequent years. So the choice of winners need to be convincing to the kind of people who enter such competitions.

Judges' Reports

Online reports often point out common subject matter (if you write about the death of old parents, expect competition from similar stories) and lack of a turn (or a change in the main character) as reasons for competent stories not winning prizes.

Your PoV

Judging is usually a two-stage process - a short-list is generated, then winners are chosen. In some ways it's similar to applying for a job - first you fill in the application form making sure that you don't make silly mistakes. The aim is to survive the first cull. Only if you get an interview can you begin to be individualistic.

Although the first prize is likely to go to a standard story, there's scope for diversity if there are several prizes, especially if an anthology is being produced. A variety of styles will enhance the judge's reputation and will encourage further entries in future years. So you might enter a piece aiming for the anthology rather than the first prize.

The judges are likely to be able to appreciate a wider range of styles than those they write in, but don't expect too much generosity if you send an avant-garde piece in.

Your story

The simple guidelines on how to write an effective short story apply, only moreso - an eye-catching title, a character one can empathise with, a paraphrasable plot, a single PoV. First-person narratives are recommended (in the "MsLexia" article, Jill Dawson is quoted as saying that "It’s no coincidence that the top prizewinning stories were all written in the first person"), adding at least one strange character helps, and you needn't fear that dramatic life events will appear melodramatic.

How many stories?

Given the chance element, perhaps it's worth entering more than one entry. In the "Writers Write" article Alex Keegan says "For most competitions I enter at least three stories, and so often it's my third-string, the one I perceive as weaker which brings home the bacon".

Where to send them

Two places to look for UK and some non-UK options are

Other articles

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Poetry, voice, and discourse analysis

"Language and Creativity: the art of common talk" by Ronald Carter (Routledge, 2004) analyses fragments of dialogue from various contexts to show how conversationalists are creative at a linguistic level - one example provided is

A: Yes, he must have a bob or two.
B: Whatever he does he makes money out of it, just like that.
C: Bob's your uncle.
B: He's quite a lot of money erm tied up in property and things. He's got a finger in all kinds of pies and houses and stuff
(p.2)

Carter points out that "the most frequent forms of linguistic creativity include: speaker displacement of fixedness, particularly of idioms and formulaic phrases; metaphor extension; morphological inventiveness; verbal play, punning and parody through overlapping forms and meanings; 'echoing' by repetition, including echoing by means of allusion and phonological echoes" (p.109).

This creativity performs many functions, amongst them "to give pleasure, to establish both harmony and convergence as well as disruption and critique, to express identities and to evoke alternative fictional worlds which are recreational and which recreate the familiar world in new ways" (p.82). It can be performative, competitive, figurative, space-filling, or for fun. Situations which are less concerned with information transfer (e.g. banter) give more scope for creativity. Often on "the surface and to the outsider (though not to the participants) there is much divergence, disconnection and incoherence. Beneath the surface there is, however, much convergence and coherence marked in a distinctive range of pattern-reinforcing linguistic features, especially repetition" (p.101), and that "how what is said is as significant, if not more so, than what is talked about" (p.105).

This "Common talk has continuities with and exists along clines [aka gradients] with forms that are valued by societies as art. The values which are attached to the art of common talk will vary according to context, time and place" (p.210). The author suggests that "Speakers also often wish to give a more affective contour to what they or others are saying. It is hypothesised here that there are three essential expressive options open to them: the expression of intimacy, the expression of intensity and the expression of evaluation" (p.117). All of these features tend to be increased in informal situations. Shifts along these dimensions are significant and often signposted - e.g. "proverbs appear at a discourse boundary, as if functioning to close down a conversation by summarising an attitude or by indicating a particular stance towards what has been said or to allow a smooth transition from one topic to another" (p.134).

I think we're alert (often subconsciously) to these nuances of register change - to how they're signalled and what their purpose is. At an appointment between a GP and a patient for example, a patient will react to the doctor's invitation to informality, seeing it perhaps as an indication that there's nothing seriously wrong. The GP on the other hand might be trying to extract a less inhibited description of the symptoms from the patient. Friends in discussion are also sensitive to the significance of these switches, or at least they sense the undercurrents that these shifts and switches create.

At a 2014 poetry workshop run with Emily Berry, Jack Underwood said he thought that poetry nowadays was more about voice and less about comparisons. He suggested that participants could try suppressing explicit narrative, using juxtaposition (of registers, tone, etc) to create distances for the reader to travel. The sample poems were mostly by Americans. Here are extracts from 2 of them

  • There are about 35,000 elk.

    But I should be studying for my exam.
    I wonder if Dean will celebrate with me tonight,
    assuming I pass. Finnish Literature

    really came alive in the 1860s.
    Here, in Cambridge Massachusetts,
    no one cares that I am a Finn.

    They've never even heard of Frans Eeemil Sillanpää,
    winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature.
    As a Finn, this infuriates me.
    ("I Am a Finn" by James Tate)
  • It's a travesty of hand-stitching, a decapitation.

    Whose cotton limb? It dangles from my thumb
    and forefinger. The universe slackens in its shadow
    ("Ruminations on 25mm of Cotton" by Heather Phillipson)

There are rapid changes of register (changes of intimacy, intensity and evaluation are evident). Both are presented as if from a single persona, but in general the distinction between this and polyphony isn't clear - polyphony can be flattened into monologue. In Eliot's notes for "The Wasteland" he writes "Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character,' is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem". Sections of the Wasteland read as dialogue even if they're not, and vice versa - "Do/ You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember/ Nothing?"/ I remember/ Those are pearls that were his eyes./ "Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?"/ But/ O O O O that Shakesperian Rag—" or

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?

There's little simile and narrative in these extracts. But need the interplay of registers be at the expense of narrative and form? In the past I think there are many type of poetry capable of exhibiting contrasting registers - the cubist idea of fusing different viewpoints and the use of collage are early 20th century discoveries, but the use of a Fool, a mad person or a cacophonous crowd to depict polyphony go back much further. Many have retained some kind of plot. And what about sound? Poets of many types have suggested that the form and sonics of their poems create a constantly changing, parallel effect to the meaning, that an even-handed dialogue is possible between sound and "meaning".

  • "The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him.", T.S. Eliot
  • "The sounds, acting together with the measure, are a kind of extended onomatopoeia - i.e., they imitate, not the sounds of an experience ... but the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture", Denise Levertov
  • "sound enacts meaning as much as designates something meant", Charles Bernstein
  • "sound in its due place is as much true as knowledge (and all that mere claptrap about information and learning). Rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in the shared place", J.H. Prynne
  • "Bunting would say that you should hear the 'meaning' of the poetry purely in the sound ... Word patterns which may at first appear dense and complicated on the page become articulated and clarified, resonating across the poems' structure. The subtleties and echoes of language which hold a poem together are revealed by the process of sounding it", Richard Caddel
  • "The ear is satisfied when the metre is balanced and the rhyme struck, but the sentence is incomplete and the mind seeks its satisfaction in resolution of the sense... By the counterpoint - a kind of suspense - created between the arrangement of sounds and the construing of sense, a pace builds and a drama develops", Michael Schmidt
  • "The classic prejudice persists, however, that sound is secondary to meaning. The prejudice has been challenged by John Hollander, who, seeking to show the relation between sound and poetic meaning, discovers that sound pattern can play the role of an allegory or metaphor of the poem's content the role of sound in language becomes clear only when expression becomes artistic, so that language exceeds its purely representational function", Anca Rosu

Because discourse-based poems emulate speech, they tend not to use sound effects (regular ones, at least). These new-style poems exploit readers' conversational skills, using their reactions as the pivots that articulate the movement within a poem in preference to using their ear for music. The tasks performed in the past by sound can be simulated by register changes -

  • Particular sounds were thought to be invested with particular meaning (within the context of a particular poem, at least). For example an "oo" sound might signify sadness. In discourse-based poems there's a corresponding way to trigger emotion - for instance the switch to an impersonal standard phrase might denote cold-shouldering or distancing.
  • An earlier phrase can be alluded to by use of rhyme. In discourse-based poems, sudden formality might remind the reader of the previous formality, or use can be made of stand-up comedians'callbacks.

Older poems might be analysed by counting beats and identifying constellations of sounds. W.G. Shepherd for example, quoting "Bellflowers, seldom seen now, stellar, trim. by Peter Dale, remarked "Note the triple statement of the el(l) sound counterpointed against the duple m; the narrowing of el(l)'s vowel to ee and i - boldly interrupted by recapitulation of ow; and the modulation of s through st to t". I've seen descriptions of how discourse-based poems work using terms like "shifting planes", "tectonic plates colliding", "slippery", "tonal juxtapositions", "shimmering surfaces", etc. Narrative is compared to melody, and discourse-based poems to atonality. I think that one can be less impressionistic than this. The poems might be studied by

  • re-casting as a multi-voice poems.
  • identifying the direction and magnitude of each jump.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Elizabeth Baines and Innovation

Often with authors whose writing I like I wonder why they're not better known. Elizabeth Baines is no exception. But I think she's had a good few months. Recently her work has

  • appeared in "Unthology 5"
  • appeared in "Best Short Stories 2014"
  • won 2nd prize in the Short Fiction magazine's competition

My awareness of her work goes back a long time. When I read "New Stories I" (an anthology edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes, I think, published around 1990) there was a short piece that I like so much I copied it by hand. Also I was a regular reader of Metropolitan an A4 glossy magazine of short stories that she edited with Ailsa Cox. It ceased publication in 1997 after 10 issues. I guess I didn't see her name around for a few years after that. Then came blogs and the publisher Salt, and I saw her name again.

Her publications are

  • A collection of short stories, "Balancing on the Edge of the World" (Salt, 2007). A story from there, "Compass and Torch" is on a GCSE course.
  • A novella, "Too Many Magpies" (Salt, 2009)
  • Her first novel, "The Birth Machine", published by "The Women’s Press" in 1983 and reprinted in 2010 by Salt
  • A novel, "Body Cuts" (Pandora, 1988)

Perhaps she hasn't published as many short-story collections as her peers (though she's won prizes for her stories and plays including a Giles Cooper Best Radio Play Award and received Sony radio nominations). Maybe that's because her career coincides with a downturn in the UK short-story's fortunes. Or maybe people have trouble pinning down her style. Short story writers like Jackie Kay seem to get more attention than her. I don't know why.

Innovative is a catch-all term. It's common for authors to think that they're more innovative than they really are. So much has been done before (sometimes by the authors themselves - Ali Smith's stories are beginning to re-use the same tricks). Novelty for the sake of it soon wears off. Importing something into novels that's already used in another field (diary entries, etc) is a rather weak form of innovation (though it may lead to useful work). Some stories that appear innovative to most of us are mimetic to others. Drugs and mental illness may lead to altered states of mind that are captured by a type of Realism that didn't used to fit well inside literature. Nowadays it's almost as if there's a literary genre for each malady - see for example Madness and Modernism by Louis A. Sass.

Baines is the author of the chapter ‘Innovative Fiction and the Novel’ in the "Creative Writing Handbook", ed John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (Macmillan) so her take on novelty is worth attending to. Over 30 pages long, the chapter includes about 20 pages about collaborative exercises to encourage innovation. She points out that

  • "If our view of ourselves and our world radically changes, then it might be expected that the stories we tell about ourselves will also change, and the way that we tell them" (p.129)
  • "there is this sense now in the West that things are different from how they've ever been before" (p.131)

She suggests that instead of omniscience there's often nowadays a "literature of voices", and that there "has been a concern to expose the constructed nature of both history ... and fiction itself". I think that describes some of her own stories. Elsewhere too she's voiced concerns with language and style -

  • From The Real Thing - "when I pick up a novel that doesn't stretch the form or do exciting things with language, I am overcome by a claustrophobic sense of unreality, the sense of being half awake and unable to shake off an old, recurring, stifling dream. When I read a good novel that does the opposite, overturns my narrative expectations or uses language in new ways, then all at once I feel in touch with something true about our human condition and the nature of the fluid, changing, fragmentary world in which we live. I feel in touch with reality. I feel alive. I tell you, it's the real thing"
  • From an interview - "I’d say that a big aspect of writing for me is the tension between pushing the boundaries and pleasing readers who, in my experience, are generally more comfortable with the conventional. Being inventive with language and structure is what I find exciting … sometimes it’s only by finding new or different ways of telling stories that you can show the truth as you see it. However, I’ve become increasingly aware of the need to find ways of doing this without alienating too many readers."

That final point is something that I (and some of my friends) empathize with. The pieces I like most from her story collection are "Leaf Memory", "A Glossary of Bread" (based around definitions of words for "roll"), and "Going Back" (shades of Woolf). Within these texts is the world recognisably this world? Yes. Are there characters? Yes. Can one identify with them? Yes. Is there a fixed sequence in which to read the pieces? Yes.
It's not language-based Formalism, or chance-based. She doesn't write pieces like Lydia Davis, Beckett, or like Guy Ware's "All Downhill from Here", or like many of Jon McGregor's pieces in "This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You". But neither are they mainstream. Here are summaries of 3 stories that aren't in her book

  • In "Falling" (East of the Web) the character falls 3 times. The falls seem to relate to feelings of insecurity - doubts about her boyfriend and her self. After the 3rd, she wonders of she'd died after the 1st, whether she was dreaming. Or maybe she'd died after the 2nd fall. Or maybe she died in the the 3rd episode, an observer not wanting to see a death, wondering if he was dreaming.
  • In "Tides or how Stories do or don't get told" (East of the Web) there's much reflexive comment - "And I can't yet see how to tell the story, or where to go from that moment ... I could pick the time he betrayed me. ... I could tell that story, the time it ended between us. I could make it a feminist re-telling of a fairy tale ... once ... he nearly died. I could tell that last too, as a complete and rounded story ... Would I mention my sense then that nothing had meaning and that my life after all was no story, or would I lie, since he recovered, and make those symbols fit a narrative arc with a happy ending? ... We joined hands in the dark, in the oncoming rush of all the possible stories". There's confusion about feeling when recalling an event and feeling at the time of the event.
  • In "Used to Be" (Carve magazine) two middle-aged sisters are on their way to an amateur film-set. "I used to be a writer who decided for her characters what they were thinking. ... I used to write in measured sentences ... I used to hide behind the third person ... I no longer trust metaphors ... I used to believe in plots". The author/narrator is also a reader, having to assess the veracity of her sister's stories, and of her own story - "in spite of what narrative so often tells us, nothing, including our personalities, is stable, but fluid". The journey of bridges and missed turnings becomes a metaphor ("And flashing past with the bridges are all my selves") then becomes another story to tell when they arrive at the set. Her sister suddenly takes her role seriously, identifying with the part - "the tyranny of stories, the way they take you over with their own internal logic and their pull towards drama, you say one thing and the story turns it into something else".

In each of these pieces, betrayal by a partner (or suspicion of it) comes to echo a distrust of reality. Selective memories are used in the construction of self. As psychologists have shown (see for example Mind, Brain and Narrative by Anthony J. Sanford and Catherine Emmott (CUP, 2012)), similar mechanisms are used when comprehending a story - its shape, its message, its characters. Narratology becomes tantamount to self-analysis. Storylines are reconstructed, exploiting defects in memory and awareness. In this sense, her stories' structural novelties are character-based. The epicentre of disruption is inside a character even if it manifests itself as perturbed language, or as linguistic certainties of definition contrasting with the willed vaguaries of recall. I think this emphasis helps her avoid alienating too many readers. Even when she's not being innovative she's good at depicting characters.

She's well aware of how commercial pressures affect works - she thinks of her "The Birth Machine" as being in 2 forms, the differing structures targeted towards certain audiences. In her Unthank interview she says that "I guess there's a current popularity for weird and quirky stories, and flash fiction is certainly having a moment". As far as I know she doesn't do much Flash, and she's not devoted to the weird. In "Balancing on the Edge of the World" middle class people dominate, usually in English urban settings. Separated parents with children are often depicted using a female PoV. Early on in the stories we're introduced to all the cast. There are few loners or loonies. There's little about death - no first loves, no punchlines. The originality's in the form, the language.

The major publishers may not welcome innovative novels, but there's room in magazines for non-standard stories. It can't do any harm that Nicholas Royle, who trawls the magazines for "Best Short Stories" material, has had an innovative novel published. On her Other work page she writes "My advice to anyone thinking of starting up a print lit mag is, Don't, unless, like me, you've got an unstoppable compulsion to do so and you're a workaholic. And do it for a limited period only, unless you've got a private income (you don't get paid to do it) and nothing else to do with your life.". Though she's no longer a magazine editor, she's well aware of the magazine scene, not least the online ones - "East of the Web", "The View from here", etc. Perhaps it's in these publications, rather than in novels, where we should look for innovation. See her short story page for a list of what might be in her next book.

Further reading

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Organising a poetry collection

There aren't many lessons to learn from how I put my poetry collection together. Mainly I picked twice as many poems as were needed, and let the editor do the rest. I started with a poem about birth, ended with a poem about death, and tried not to jump around too much in the middle.

Below are some more comprehensive notes. They all suggest that the first and final poems matter. Some suggest breaking the book into sections. All suggest that linking devices should be used - character, theme, setting, imagery, form or even contrast. Levine suggests that if poems are "written more or less in the same creative period", they might work well in a sequence. For some poets, books have more cohesion than that. Fiona Sampson said that "Really I write books of poetry; I don't write individual poems. ... It's only really when I'm over the brow of the book that I can see what kind of collection it is that I'm writing. Then I can rewrite it all", ("The Next Review", No.5, p.13). For the final sequencing, people often suggest printing a poem per page and laying them out on the floor.

The article from the Iowa Review (you might not have access to the online version) looks at structuring ideas from many published books. The others are more practically oriented.

The Poetry School offer for a few pounds a downloadable Towards a collection course by Pascale Petit. Clare Pollard's Putting a pamphlet together is free. There's even a book - Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems edited by Susan Grimm.