Thursday, July 18, 2019

Best British Short Stories 2019 arrives.

My author copy of Best British Stories has arrived! Well, it arrived a few days ago, but I've been so run off my feet that I haven't had a chance to post about it until now. It looks wonderful, and I discover that the list of contributors I posted before (and which I copied from elsewhere) wasn't comprehensive, and one of the names missing is that of Ruby Cowling, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for recently publishing another story of mine, 'Consequences and Alternatives' in the Short Fiction Journal.

One of the things that's been keeping me busy is the questionnaire for sales and publicity that Salt have sent me about the novel they are due to publish in February. It's one of the hardest things - summing up your own work!

Friday, July 05, 2019

'Kiss' in Best British Stories 2019

Today Best British Stories 2019, which includes my story 'Kiss' (first published on MIR online in December), has arrived from the printers and is available to buy from Salt. Needless to say, I'm pretty thrilled at being in this prestigious anthology edited by Nicholas Royle, and can't wait to read the stories by the other contributors, Vicky Grut (whom Ailsa Cox and I published twice in our [discontinued] story magazine Metropolitan), Julia Armfield, Naomi Booth, Kieran Devaney, Nigel Humphreys, Sally Jubb, Lucie McKnight Hardy, Robert Mason, Ann Quin, Sam Thompson, Melissa Wan and Ren Watson.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Reading group: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Warning: plot spoil.

We all loved Richard Yates's first novel Revolutionary Road, which we read not long after this American writer, contemporary with Updike, was rescued from obscurity and republished in this country. As a consequence, three members of the group, John, Mark and Trevor, went on to read this, his later novel, the story of the lives of two sisters, the daughters of divorced alcoholic parents, a weak father and a flighty mother. Ever since, whenever Yates has come up in conversation, Mark and Trevor have praised it, suggesting that it's even better than Revolutionary Road, so last month I suggested it for our group discussion. (However Trevor didn't make the meeting, and there were only five of us there to discuss it.)

I did find it a compulsive read. There is something about Yates's prose, elegant yet direct, his way of getting straight to the heart of things and pushing on economically through time, that makes you read quite breathlessly, eager to know how things will turn out. As I said to the group, it's prose to die for, as is Yates's stunning facility of empathy. The only trouble was, ultimately I found it profoundly depressing - at which Ann nodded firm agreement.

The novel begins with this stunning statement: 'Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce.' This is followed by an extremely touching, indeed moving, portrayal of the two little girls on one of their infrequent visits to their father in New York, a headline writer for The Sun newspaper, and being shown by him around his workplace. Afterwards:
As they walked out across City Hall Park in the spring sunshine he held them both by the hand. They both wore light coats over their dresses, with white socks and black patent-leather shoes, and they were nice-looking girls. Sarah was the dark one, with a look of trusting innocence that would never leave her; Emily, a head shorter, was blond and thin and very serious...
 '... the Sun's the best now, right?' Sarah said.
'Oh no, honey; the Sun isn't really much of a paper.'
'It isn't? Why?' Sarah looked worried.
'Oh, it's kind of reactionary.'
'What does that mean?'
'It means it's very conservative; very Republican'
'Aren't we Republicans?'
'I guess your mother is, baby. I'm not.'
He had two drinks before lunch...
The book then traces in linear fashion, from the perspective of the younger Emily, the two very different subsequent lives of the sisters - Sarah's marriage to a man who will turn out to have beaten her, and Emily's own journey through relationships with one man after another, neither life ending well, as the first sentence states.

Mark was astounded that Ann and I, and John who agreed with us, should find the book so depressing. Weren't we uplifted by the wonderful prose, he wanted to know?  Somehow we weren't. This book is less satirical than Revolutionary Road (and therefore has less of the objective humour and tonal bounce), and it also lacks the same dynamic story arc, a point with which John strongly agreed. It seemed simply an extremely linear exposition of that first sentence, with each relationship of Emily's failing in more or less the same way that the previous had. I do agree that the depiction of each relationship was compelling, but I found that they added up to an overall flatness and air of predictability, and I could sense the author's own pessimism and sadness coming off the page like a miasma. (The events and characters are closely connected to those of the author's own life, as Mark acknowledged.)

Jenny said that she really liked the book, and defended it with the argument that many people do indeed have sad lives. I said that that's OK if all you expect of literature is for it to replicate life, but surely you expect it to do more than that, and once again Mark expressed the view that this book does indeed do more through its wonderful prose and empathy. Jenny also said, backed up by Mark, that she didn't see the ending as depressing anyway: that the book ends on a note of hope when Emily is taken in by the caring nephew who seems to be the one strong and positive character to have emerged from a devastatingly dysfunctional family. For me, though, having followed Emily through her aspirations (and brief successes), her need to be rescued in that way was utterly sad (and the rescue didn't, honestly, ring all that true for me).

Everyone agreed with Mark that, as in Revolutionary Road, Yates's ability to empathise with women is stunning, and his depiction of Emily's feelings and sensations during her first sexual encounter is almost miraculous in its truthfulness. I felt reluctant to say what I did next (but did): as a woman writer, I couldn't help wondering, however, whether the admiration in which Yates is held is due to his ability to empathise with women while at the same time keeping something of an objective distance (which as a man, as Mark said, he inevitably would). A woman writer would be more likely to tackle the women's viewpoints with more interiority - ie to make the reader share the experiences more closely (indeed I think I probably would), and would be consequently, I suspect, less admired. John jumped in and compared this book to Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, which the group discussed recently, in which Cassandra's experience is depicted right from inside her head. Ann had strongly disliked that book, as she had stronly disliked the very interior Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (which we also discussed), and she said now that she did indeed prefer the more objective empathy of Yates to that of Baker. John commented that in fact it made Yates's book, written in the seventies, more traditional than that of the sixties Baker novel. The book is also more traditional, he said, in the way that it begins at the beginning of the women's lives and follows them through in a straight, linear fashion, with a kind of steady accretion. By comparison the Baker plunges you straight into a crisis moment and you have to pick up retrospectively the history that led to it. Most modern novels operate in this way, and indeed most written in that era. This may, John mused, account for the fact that Yates's career was eclipsed by those of writers like Updike.

Ann now wondered whether The Easter Parade is in fact anachronistic. The sisters are children in the nineteen-thirties and Emily would have been embarking on her serial affairs in the late nineteen-forties and fifties, behaviour which seems more likely in the era during which the book was written, the seventies, when the pill became widely available, than then. We women also felt that there was a huge omission in that after Emily's first sexual encounter, seduction by a soldier who, without having even told her his name, immediately disappears, she does not worry for a moment that she's pregnant, a fate that would have been utterly devastating at that time for a woman about to go to university as Emily is, and a fear that we felt would have been routine at that time.

This led on to a much wider discussion about the past difficulties for women that some members had discovered young people now find hard to believe: the fact, for instance, that before 1999 a woman getting pregnant would have to leave her job since there was no statutary maternity leave (before 1944 a professional woman would have lost her job simply by getting married), and as late as the eighties women couldn't get mortgages without the guarantee of a father or husband. We wondered therefore if, even in the nineteen-seventies, Yates, writing basically autobiographically, had been working to update his material in a way that perhaps doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

We pondered the title, which as we read we found a little puzzling, since the Easter Parade, in which elder sister Sarah takes part with her new beau (later husband), occurs only near the start of the book and is a moment of promise and hope that is very much missing thereafter. However, that moment reappears in the form a newspaper photo of the event that Sarah has saved, a poignant and sad reminder of that lost hope and promise, making the title thus quite bitterly ironic.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, June 10, 2019

Writing news.

The writing life is good for me at the moment. My big news is that next year the wonderfully dynamic Salt will publish a new novel, which of course makes me very happy indeed.

Meanwhile, to add to my happiness, two more short stories have been taken by highly respected publications. Not so long ago I read the style guide of a literary magazine (which shall be nameless) and it prompted me to write a story that deliberately subverted some of the writing rules it laid down. The result was 'Consequences and Alternatives',  now the featured story for June in the online Short Fiction Journal. It's an attempt to show how you sometimes need to break away from those old writing rules in order to make connections and to think in more radical ways, ie that more disrupted modes are sometimes necessary to convey life, in particular contemporary life.

There is a something of an environmental theme in that story, but I'm now at the editing stage of a story that will appear in the Mechanics' Institute Review print anthology #16, the theme of which is Climate, and my story for that tackles climate change head-on. The anthology will be published in September.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Reading group: The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Once again I'm afraid it's a while since we had this discussion, and a lot has happened to me in the meantime (both on a day-to-day-living level and with regard to writing), so as I begin this report I'm expecting my memory to be hazy.

What I remember most distinctly is that Trevor, who suggested this book, talked and talked about how much he loved it, and we were all swept up by his enthusiasm until later one or two caveats emerged. Set in seventies south London (and later, west Kensington), it's the first-person narrative and coming of age story of Karim, the son of an Indian father and an English mother, and his negotiation through a  changing family situation and the changing mores of the time as his father leaves his mother for another woman, Karim's life becoming divided between three family houses, and as Karim tries to find his way in the world as an actor and playwright.

We all agreed with Trevor that the prose was wonderfully vivid and witty, the characters brilliantly drawn, some with searing harshness and others with touching compassion. Trevor spent a lot of time recounting the particular situations and characters that had tickled him, and we all fell in with this, and there wasn't really a lot of objectively critical discussion for some time. Then I said that I didn't feel there was much of a story arc (although I didn't particularly mind that), and others agreed, and someone said that that was perhaps linked with the fact that the ending rather petered out (with which others also agreed), without any real conclusion. I note that some critics have seen the book as a picaresque adventure, but that somehow wasn't how it struck me, perhaps because there really wasn't that sense of striking out and away into the world that tends to characterise picaresque novels - Karim is very much embedded in the communities that already surround him at the start - his own cross-cultural family, and their artistic and hippy-bourgeois neighbours, who indeed push and aid Karim into the theatre. (And indeed the title refers to Karim's father whose activities and behaviour set in motion the course of events for Karim.)

Ann noted the amorality of the book (which is not simply sexual - Karim doesn't have much of a conscience about anything for much of the time), and I said that I thought that that was a pretty typical attitude of the period. Others demurred, and reminded me about the saying that if you remembered the sixties you weren't actually there. This is true of course, but I do think it was an aspiration of the seventies, that attitude of overthrowing all the old moral shackles, by which many people tried to live their lives, however unsuccessfully, and that the book brilliantly captures that.

At this point Mark, who had been unusually quiet, spoke up. He said that although he had had the very same mixed parentage as Kureishi - and indeed has the same name -  he simply couldn't identify with the experience depicted in the novel. Growing up in north Manchester, at a later date, he had suffered the kind of racial abuse that seems only to glance at Karim, and none of the ready social acceptance and mobility, and we all came to the conclusion that the book really only depicts the cultural particularity of London at that time.

Ann (I think) also commented that the book was very apolitical - which I thought was another aspect of the insularity of the hippy attitudes of the time, though I don't think people were very convinced.

And that's all I can remember, I'm afraid.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Reading group: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel spark

This will be a short report, as there was a unanimously positive verdict from our group (no argument to report), and it's a fairly light read which however we all enjoyed immensely.

It's the first-person retrospective account, given in the 80s (when the book was published), of a time in the 50s when narrator Nancy Hawkins was a young publisher's assistant living in Kensington lodgings alongside an assortment of odd-ball and interesting tenants. Although only twenty-eight years old at the time she is referred to as 'Mrs Hawkins' by everyone, due to her status as a war widow, her comfortable physique, her comfortingly straightforward attitude and her tendency to give wise advice. Partly due to her straightforwardness, however, and partly due to her decision, in the course of the novel, to rebel against this profile and lose weight, her home and work life become entangled, in a plot which takes on something of the whodunnit.

We all agreed that the plot (which it would be egregious to give away here) was quite preposterous, but none of us minded in the least, as the delight of the novel was in the voice and personality of the narrator (and, indeed the advice she gives), the wonderful elegance and economy of Spark's prose style (it's a shortish novel, and people marvelled at what she had managed to pack into its pages), Spark's wit, and the evocative portrayal of a world which has gone, some characteristics of which however linger on in modern publishing. (At one point a publisher interviewing Mrs Hawkins tells her: " 'Yes, many of our staff here are in fact fairly interested in books.' " )

Although we deemed the book to be light, we did note that among all of this drollery and outrageous plottery, Spark does touch on some serious issues: beyond the central theme - which is literary pretension - bubble McCarthyism, the status of Polish immigrants in Britain after the war, illegitimate pregnancy, and poverty and the impact of the welfare state and free education.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Reading group: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Due to my second stinking cold of the winter, I was absent when this book was discussed by our group, which I was sorry to be, since I very much enjoyed the book - better, it seems, than most others in the group - and the discussion was clearly an interesting one. John has kindly written up the discussion, and I reproduce his report below, and I'll maybe add some comments of my own afterwards.

Perhaps first, though, I should say a bit about the book. Published in 1962, it opens as Berkeley University graduate student Cassandra sets out for home in the foot of the Sierra hills and the wedding of her identical twin, Judith. For Cassandra Judith is her alter ego, and it soon becomes clear that she is struggling psychologically with her sister's imminent marriage. The book is narrated chiefly by Cassandra, but a short yet not inconsequential section is narrated by Judith.


Mark chose this book, and mentioned its solipsism when he put it forward.
Spoilers are required. The title gives the game away a little, it’s no surprise that someone gets married, but if you want to come fresh to this book don’t read this, or the blurb, or the biographical notes on the author.
At the meeting Mark introduced the book almost with an apology. He admitted he had tried to read it some years earlier. He had quite liked it, but had not reached past 20 or 30 pages. His attitude was that the first section of the book seemed very subtle.
However, the author was well known at the time of publication, 1962. And probably most people reading at the time did know a thing or two about the author, and perhaps came to the book with very different expectations than our own. In terms of events, the book was judged by the group in general to be slow moving, and retrospectively, at least in the first half, too subtle. There is a sense, if you don’t recognize the context, and the when and the why of the events, that not much is happening. Later, speaking for myself, I realized how much subtle information was being introduced. It was generally agreed that, in terms of its prose however, the book was an easy read, too easy in that it was a quick read, making it too easy to miss important information, and did not seem deep.
One of blurbs called the book tragicomic. There was agreement that there are some good one-liners, but it certainly isn’t hilarious.
Ann said, bluntly, that she found the book very dated. I suppose I agreed in a sense. It was to me about a strange distant world. There’s a grandmother figure with traditional values, and as someone said, to general agreement, the others are rebelling against her – but it’s a pretty ‘middle-class’ rebellion. The father is retired, an ineffectual intellectual, but who also owns what they call a ranch. If it is a ranch it’s presumably run and managed by someone else – but perhaps they just mean a ranch house. A couple (from over the border) are living in a gatehouse and function as servants. The main family seemed more English than American. The wife is dead, and he seems to be drifting, and likes an occasional drink. None of them relate to the people in their town, and are like English gentry in this way. Doug said he found all the characters very strange. Someone said one of the main characters is ‘nuts’ – but others pointed out that all the other characters know this person is nuts.
Doug said the writing was brilliant, but he didn’t like it. One member of the group didn’t finish it, but said they had wanted to, just didn’t have the time. Everyone agreed that this meant missing the best bit.
The book is in three sections, divided between the voices of identical twins Cassandra and Judith. It was agreed that Judith, who comes in late, has ‘a real voice’, a different more factual voice, and gets on with the story. Whereas Cassandra is self-involved, living in her own head.
There are two outsiders, both doctors, and both, in their own ways, more part of the ‘real world’, the world outside the family.
Significant things happen, but early on I didn’t know they were happening. I don’t know much about weddings. I got it that the bride had a white wedding dress, but (spoiler alert) I didn‘t know that other female guests weren’t supposed to wear white, and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Another important event seems to be that a glass gets broken – I still don’t know what all that’s about. Perhaps they had a set of two dozen and with one broken they’ll have to throw them all away.
I imagine this book was well known at the time, and it’s useful to know the context. Dorothy Baker was well known, and could be said to be part of the Hollywood elite. She was married to a well-known poet. In 1938 she published Young Man with a Horn (about Bix Beiderbecke, a (real-life) jazz trumpeter, and one of the first famous early white jazz musicians.)  This was made into a film starring Kirk Douglas. In 1942 she published a book Trio, that proved too scandalous for the times, and a play based on it, produced by her and her husband, was quickly shut down because of protests. It is in this light, perhaps, that the subtlety of the present book should be viewed. The author was clearly a modern woman, had lived, and knew about the modern world but wrote the book in the early sixties, before the 60s really got started, and perhaps did not want to (again) create too much of a fuss. She died fairly young in 1968.
There was some agreement that the book was interesting, but not all that enjoyable. I said I thought the women in the group might have got more out of it, understood the mores better, but they didn’t seem to feel strongly about this.
The group in general liked the book in the end. I must admit I read the first half or so with some enjoyment, it did feel modern (considering the author was born in 1907) and interesting, but I started to wonder if anything much was ever going to happen. Plenty does happen; I just wasn’t alert to the clues.
If you’ve read this account I don’t know whether you might, or might not want to read the book. It is about women’s lives. The two women are very different. These women could exist today, though, as someone said, the characters reactions, and their society in general, would have been very different.
One member, Jenny, said she thought it was clear from very early on what was going to happen – quite the opposite of my own reaction. This certainly isn’t a gentle book in the end. When the new husband comes in towards the end there are some very dramatic and peculiar goings on...

EB: I have to say that I do agree with the rest of the group that the book (perhaps, as John says, because of the author's previous troubles) may be too subtle for its own good. I too missed some of the clues early on in the novel as to what was propelling Cassandra, thus missing some of the subtext, so that conversations and events seemed more mundane than I could see in retrospect they were meant to be, and nothing much seemed to be happening. I missed a crucial clue on the second page when Cassandra says that the bridge she can see from her Berkeley window 'took on the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium that is crowded and airless'. Since up to this point she has talked, in a zippy, witty tone, only about leaving early for her sister's wedding, I took this to mean she just wants to get out of Berkeley to the wedding as soon as possible, and even though in the next few lines she says 'my guide assures me I'm not a jumper; it's not my sort of thing', it didn't occur to me that she is suicidal. The realisation only came to me later, and when it did her behaviour seemed much more explicable, and she seemed a more sympathetic character. (I don't think this is plot-spoiling, as I'm sure the author intended us to realise this from the start.) In this context, the deliberate (and dangerous) smashing of the glass by Cassandra that John mentions is understandable, and the fallout of the incident indicative of the push-me-pull-you relationship between the sisters that is at the heart of the book. With reference to this last, I disagree with John that the book is about anything so anodyne as 'women's lives'. As I see it, it is rather about the more unusual symbiotic relationship between a particular pair of biologically identical yet psychologically different twins, and their difficulty in achieving individuation in adult life.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here