Tuesday, 28 January 2014

William H Gass on reading slow

"I went over a little story called 'Ping' [by Samuel Beckett] one day with the idea of reading it aloud. It’s about six or seven pages, but it is a half an hour or more in the reciting. If you do it properly, well spaced, larded with silence, then it’s overpowering. You gotta wait, you know, and wait, and wait, and wait, and we just don’t do that sort of thing—the world turns—who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation? A lot of modern writers, I remember saying, are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motorboats. The connections are all spatial and all at various, complicated, intellectual levels. They stand to literature as fastfood to food."

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood

Why did legendary writer Alice Munro get hate mail for her realist short stories? Find out in this interview by Margaret Atwood - Munro's first public appearance since winning the Nobel Prize in October 2013 (17 minutes).

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Today Will Be A Quiet Day

Once upon a time I didn’t enjoy short stories. It was laziness and something else: despite an extensive literary education (English literature degree, creative writing MFA, library job, books for breakfast) I had never learned how to read a short story for anything other than plot. Reading Amy Hempel’s short stories has changed that.

They are short, sometimes very short, and at the end of each I have to pause to take in what I’ve read, and usually read them again. The meaning isn’t always apparent, so I read slowly, absorbing every sentence, every word, to pick up the nuances. I'm a beginner again, feeling my way. I’m not page turning to find out ‘what next?’ Reading these short stories is more like contemplating a poem.

This sounds dull. But Hempel’s writing isn’t at all. Her voice has “something to do with stand-up comedy, contemporary poetry, celebrity magazines, visual arts, the West, and the popular song” according to Rick Moody in his essay 'On Amy Hempel'. One-liners, references to pop and celebrity culture, the shallow side of California: all those things I love. But it is necessary to pay attention, particularly at the beginning of Hempel’s stories: there’s no traditional set up, no gentle easing into a scene. Today Will Be A Quiet Day’,  from her first collection Reasons To Live  propels the reader straight in with a disagreement:
“I think it’s the other way round,” the boy said.
How’s that for a first line? We’re given information that is partial at best. No name, no indication of what the boy is talking about, no setting. What this does is force us to read the next line to orient ourselves as readers. What is the other way round?

“I think it’s the other way round,” the boy said. “I think if the quake hit now the bridge would collapse and the ramps would be left.”
Ah. So we’ve entered this story half way through an argument about the effect of an earthquake on a bridge. But it would be tedious to read a repeated line, so Hempel omits it. Hempel’s stories seem as pared down as possible – like poetry -  giving the reader only what is absolutely essential for the story. She’s a slow writer (four short story collections in twenty years) – but I like to think she’s spending her time cutting, honing and polishing her sentences until they are as minimal as they can possibly be. Hempel just drip feeds the reader what they need to keep reading, to build up a picture of what’s going on. The next sentence tells us who the boy is arguing with:

He looked at his sister with satisfaction.

OK, so this is a brother and sister arguing. What’s more the boy is enjoying the argument – we can tell by the word “satisfaction”. Now a third character jumps in:

“You are just trying to scare your sister,” the father said. “You know that is not true.”
“No, really,” the boy insisted, “and I heard birds in the middle of the night. Isn’t that a warning?”

We’re eight lines in, and though we have no names, no time of day, no descriptions of what the characters look like, we do know there are three people in the scene: a father and two kids, and we can tell quite a bit about this family’s dynamics, which is what the story is about, plus we have a tone of voice: annoying younger brother, a father who is trying to be authoritative. The boy is needling his sister – and the father knows he’s doing this on purpose: we suspect in fact that he’s quite enjoying it. We don’t know where they are yet: they could be together watching something about earthquakes on TV (though why would that scare the sister?) or perhaps they are on the bridge itself. The next two lines give us the information we need:

The girl gave her brother a toxic look and ate a handful of Raisinets. The three of them were stalled in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Finally the setting is revealed: they’re in a car on the bridge. We can go back and read the opening again, with more understanding, and this time round, can hear the needling tone of the younger brother, sense the girl’s mood.

Tempting as it is to do line-by-line analysis of the whole story, I’d rather you read the story for yourself. The other thing I particularly noticed in this story is Hempel’s wonderful ear for banter between children: this story teems with the sort of talk that parents/adults tune out. But it’s not saccharine or cute in any way – it’s well observed, well listened to, which saves it from being sappy:

“Can I have one?” the boy asked, meaning the Raisinets.

“No,” his sister said.

“Can I have two?”

“Neither of you should be eating candy before lunch,” the father said. He said it with the good sport of a father who enjoys his kids and gets a kick out of saying Dad things.
The dialogue is very much on the surface: it crackles with corny jokes, family sayings and wisecracks – which a) is fun to read and b) tells us so much about these three characters and the levels of comfort and discomfort they have with each other.
The reason the three of them are on a daytrip in the car together is that the father wants to check that they are OK after one of the son’s friends committed suicide. It would be so tempting as a writer to slip in some heavy conversation, a leaden “on the nose”  question: “How are you feeling son?” “I hurt so much dad.” But people rarely speak like that: how much more often do we sidle up to the real subject by talking about something else? Or argue passionately about things that don’t matter at all, while leaving important things unsaid? So why shouldn’t characters in fiction do that too? The clever thing about this story is that the superficial dialogue – the squabbling and joke telling - is all the father needs to understand exactly how his children are doing.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Carver on short stories

“If we're lucky, writer and reader alike, we'll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. Ideally, we'll ponder what we've just written or read; maybe our hearts or intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before. Our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree. Then, breathing evenly and steadily once more, we'll collect ourselves, writers and readers alike, get up, 'created of warm blood and nerves' as a Chekhov character puts it, and go on to the next thing: Life. Always life.”
- Raymond Carver, from Call if You Need me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Five thousand lads a year

I read a lot of American fiction. And I'm going to be writing a lot about American short stories here: I'm currently half way through Amy Hempel's collected short stories and in a kind of writerly swoon about how wonderful they are. BUT. Though a small portion of my heart will forever belong in southern California, I now live in the north of England. And I do want to be reading stories that reflect where I'm from, how I live right now, that render my experience, my life, or something like it, as art. If that doesn't sound too poncey.

So. It encourages me no end that the short story has some advocates this side of the Atlantic. People like Tania Hershman who tirelessly champion the form. Tania, whose volume of flash fiction My Mother Is An Upright Piano I reviewed a while back does a great job on Twitter (@taniahershman @shortstopsUK, #shortstorysunday #shortstory ) to fly the flag for short stories. Check out Short Stops, a listings website she's set up to promote and celebrate short story writing in the UK and Ireland. Anyway, through #shortstorysunday on Twitter, Tania flagged up Jenn Ashworth's short story 'Five Thousand Lads A Year' .

I'm so glad I was whiling away my afternoon on Twitter, otherwise I wouldn't have heard this great short story about a prison writer-in-residence. I love the way that Jenn (@jennashworth) subtly undermines the confident voice of the writer when he meets a lad he can't reach with his patter, his pamphlet or his poems. The writer reminds us throughout of his achievements - the numerous hits on his website, his (surely somewhat inflated) earning power; the way he is rapturously received at corporate gigs. He's very impressed with himself, and his 'rebellious' long hair, which his wife apparently adores. I recognised the type, the sly send up, and it made me smile.

This story is broadcast as part of BBC Radio 4's Friday Firsts season, it's only on the iPlayer until 17th January, and hasn't been published yet - so listen quick before it's gone.

Saturday, 11 January 2014


Ok, the next collection of short stories could not be a bigger contrast to the elegant, muted fictions of Deborah Levy. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a doorway into an off kilter, parallel world where the worst regularly happens, but where miracles can occur. Reading it felt like having my brain doused in caustic soda.

Petrushevskaya is well known in Russia – practically an institution – but still virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. Her fiction was banned until the USSR fell apart in the late 1980s – only then were her short stories and novel published. These tales – mythical fables and fairy tales – pack a mighty punch. The one that has stayed with me longest is 'Hygiene', a tale of an imagined plague.
Petrushevskaya is particularly good at first sentences: “There once lived a girl who was killed, then brought back to life.” (from 'The Fountain House') “There once lived a woman whose son hanged himself.” ('The Miracle') Bang, straight into the heart of a conflict. Here by contrast is the start of 'Hygiene': “One time the doorbell rang at the doorbell of the R family, and the little girl ran to answer it.” This most innocuous of first sentences lulls the reader into expecting a cosy domestic setting; an expectation that will be met yet distorted in the most appalling way.

The person at the door warns of a spreading plague, advises on body bags and offers to forage for food because he has immunity to the dreadful disease. The family turn him away, and from there, life deteriorates fast. The father of the family goes out each night to procure food, spraying himself with cologne on his return, and burning his clothes. No one else leaves the apartment. But one by one the family become infected and are nailed up in their rooms. Only the family cat seems to be alive, and we assume it has survived by eating the corpse of its former owner. I’m not going to give too much away – just read it -  but suffice to say this is a tale with a proper beginning, middle and end. (And if you like stories about people being entombed alive, once you read this, try Poe’s 'The Cask of Amontillado' )
Horror in literature is surely most chilling when it’s closest to the reality of our own experience. This story seems entirely real and imaginable in its domestic detail of an overcrowded apartment simmering with family conflict. It calls to mind too some of the horrors that people in Russia and the former USSR have experienced over the last century. The siege of Leningrad. Stalinist purges. Starvation. Appalling things experienced by Petrushevskaya herself (see this article by Alexandra Schwarz [@Alex_Lily] ) Perhaps writing about real horror can only be done obliquely, using the realms of fantasy, or fairy tale to explore what is too awful to write about directly.

What redeems this story - and this collection - for me is that even in the midst of utter horror, it contains a twist of hope, threaded into it like a message in a stick of rock – only visible at the very end.
Thanks Yelena Furman and Dawna Kemper who recommended Petrushevskaya, and Benjamin Wessel who reminded me about Poe.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

cover of Black Vodka by Deborah Levy
The first story that’s grabbed me this year is ‘Shining a Light’ by Deborah Levy, from her excellent collection Black Vodka. It's one of those you read and think huh? when it ends, because, well, what just happened? The events of the story are as follows: a British girl, Alice, goes on holiday to Prague, the airline loses her suitcase, she befriends a group of young Serbs, and goes for a day out with them. And that's it.
But there's a hidden arc, or movement in the story, which starts with the loss of something relatively trivial - Alice’s suitcase – a minor aggravation which means her mobile phone will be unusable because her charger is in the lost bag. We are reminded of this loss as she dances in a park with her new friends “in the blue dress she has worn for three days”, and again when she goes for a swim with them at a lake near Prague and meets Alex “a famous brilliant terrific genius composer of electronic music” who is curiously uninterested in her mobile phone problems. As she waits for him in the woods, feeling panicky in case he’s got lost, both she and the reader understand Alex and her other new friends have suffered far greater losses; their names, possessions, homes, identities, families. “She wonders if there are people hiding in the woods because they have lost their country and their home and their children and their sister and cousin and she thinks Alex might have lost his brother and father because of something he said earlier.”

It’s beautifully and subtly done; a tale obliquely told through objects lost and vivid impressions of a couple of summer days. There is no preaching here. All the stories in this collection are worth lingering over and rereading.

Black Vodka is published by And Other Stories  a small publisher which focuses on work that is "collaborative, imaginative and 'shamelessly literary' ". It relies on subscriptions from readers to continue its work - can you help?

Recommended by Simon Savidge over at Savidge Reads - thankyou!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Short stories

Happy New Year and welcome to the year of the short story. Only this afternoon journalist Bim Adewumni (@Bimadew) suggested that we should all give up "snobbery regarding short stories and essays". Yay!

Yes, this blog is written by two characters from a big fat novel (that be Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens) and big fat novels are my all-time favourite way of consuming fiction. But inspired by my former teacher and awesome novelist Susan Chehak Taylor (@stchehak), as well as being naturally poised at the cutting edge of the zeitgeist, in 2014 I will mainly be writing about short stories on this blog. I want to discover what it is about those brief works that can conjure up a universe in so few words. So I'm compiling a list of must-read short stories, with the help of friends on FB, Twitter and elsewhere, and am hoping that you too, dear readers, will rally round with further suggestions. If you've got ideas for short stories I need to read this year, please post them here. Bim recommended Sarah Hall's story Mrs Fox, which won the BBC national short story award in September, which will do nicely for starters.

No doubt life will hurl multiple spanners in this direction, but as Bim says, short stories "seem a perfect match for our hurried existences". (listen here from 40:53, available til 8 Jan 2013) Let reading commence.