Monday, May 26, 2014

The mother in 'Compass and Torch'

Now and then one is pulled up short by the sexism inherent in the odd literary-critical comment. I've been shocked on a couple of occasions by interpretations of the female character in my story 'Compass and Torch' which is on the AQA GCSE syllabus, most recently by the BBC Bitesize website page designed to help students revise the story.

The story concerns an eight-year-old boy and his father, who don't see each other very often, as the father and the boy's mother are separated, setting out awkwardly and self-consciously together on a camping trip on which a lot consequently rides in terms of cementing, indeed repairing, their precarious relationship. As they unpack the car there are two flashbacks, located in the child's consciousness, featuring the mother, the first when he overhears her talking to her live-in boyfriend about the coming trip and about the father's general conduct as an absentee father, and a second one in which the father picks the boy up for the trip from the mother's home.

BBC Bitesize tells us that the mother

is presented as an angry and embittered person. Her anger is spoken to her current partner, Jim, and is directed against her former husband whom she regards mockingly as having made a poor effort to act as a father to his son. "There was a choke in her voice now, and suddenly a kind of snarl: 'You wouldn't expect him to start now, would you - accommodating his child into his life?'" (ll. 24 - 26)

Well, OK, the mother is angry. But angry why and in what way? I'd say she's chiefly angry about what she sees as the father's inability to be a better father, both as an absentee parent and previously, before the parents separated - there is italicisation that isn't replicated on the Bitesize site on both the word now implying a previous, similar situation, and on life, implying an inability by the father to adapt to fatherhood. This last, the father's inadequacy, is something that the incidents on the camping trip go on to support, but the critic implies it is just the mother's view: he says she 'regards' the father as putting on a poor show as a father. One can extrapolate that this, the mother's sense of the father's inadequacy, was one of the reasons for the breakdown of the parents' relationship in the first place, and thus that the mother's comment on the irony (ie if he didn't do it when they were together, how is he going to do it now?) indicates that her anger is also about the irony of the general situation. Nevertheless her anger  - I don't think it's just anger, but I'll come to that - is directed towards a particular (and very important) issue, the fact that her son and his father aren't close.

However, the wording of the Bitesize commentary implies something different. She is an angry 'person' we are told, implying a general anger typical of her personality, with a possible resulting implication that she doesn't have justification for anger on this particular occasion. There is something pejorative about this in itself, and once 'angry' is paired with 'embittered', a word generally used pejoratively (it generally implies an unjustified, self-centred resentment), we can be in no doubt about the critic's negative view of the mother. Thus he (I'm kind of assuming the critic is a he, but I may be being entirely unjust) sees the mother's ironic comment as 'mocking', with its hints of cruelty and a position of cool superiority. This last runs completely counter to my own view of the situation and my literary intentions. I see all of the characters, including the mother, as caught up in a painful situation and suffering. The mother, as I say, is not simply angry. There is a 'choke' in her voice, which surely - well, I intended it anyway - implies that she is beginning to cry. One of the things I am trying to say in this story is that it's just about impossible to shield children from their parents' unhappiness. So when the boy comes downstairs and hears his mother saying this thing about his father he is not only upset on behalf of his father, but also catches his mother's unhappiness. He hears the choke in her voice, and 'the light seeping through her fuzzy hair made the bones of his shoulders ache'. The BBC Bitesize tutor/critic does note that the mother tries to shield the boy from what she has been saying about the father, but does not seem to see that this is one of the ironies on which the story pivots: the mother stops (and is alarmed and ashamed that the boy may have heard) because she wants the child to have good relationship with the father. In fact, the critic states that the most obvious judgement of the mother's sudden silence and change of manner is that the mother is being 'hypocritical', and agrees with that judgement, before going on to state that, actually, I present it as 'more complex'. The mother's 'behaviour', he/she tells students, 'is what adults do when they try to protect their children from the ugly truths of the adult world.' This is a vague phrase, including no sense that the mother is trying to hide not only the discord between herself and his father but also her own unhappiness from a child she understands will in turn be made unhappy by both of these things ('wrenching a look of bright enthusiasm onto her face'). It is the boy's happiness she is concerned with here.

But no. According to the critic, the mother is thinking of herself and lacks concern for the boy. (It is interesting that he uses the word 'behaviour', implying that she is not well-behaved.) It is true that the boy knows what the mother will be saying, which means that he has heard her saying it in the past. Rather than seeing this (as I intend) as proof of the enormity of the problem to the mother and the household, which will inevitably filter through to a child constantly alert to his parents' broken relationship, the critic sees it as proof of the mother's lack of concern for the boy. 'The mother is also presented as selfish' we are told in no-uncertain bolds. She cries, for goodness' sake, when the boy and his father are leaving! (Crying's no amelioration after all - it's a sin!) (Well, actually, she doesn't just cry - she is once again trying to stop herself doing so but the child sees that 'her eyes are bulging and wobbly with tears'). To the critic this indicates not the extent of her distress, but a selfish dereliction of maternal duty, and it is this, specifically, that to the critic 'spoils [the boy's] enjoyment of the weekend', rather than (as I see it) the child's more general apprehension of the adults' pain and the father's inability to relate to him. He ends his revision note on the mother by stressing the use in the story of the word 'unforgivable' to describe the mother's warning to the father not to camp too near an edge, and the implication, which the boy picks up - and which distresses him - that the mother doesn't trust the father with the boy. He seems to overlook the fact that, since the flashback is contained within the boy's point of view, this is just the boy's - momentary - judgement of his mother. As far as I am concerned it's an instance of the complicated emotions all parties experience in such situations - after all, in the next instant the boy feels he doesn't want to leave his mother and doesn't want after all to go with his father. But as far as the critic is concerned, it's my overall judgement of the mother (which he seems to justify by calling 'unforgivable' an 'adult' word), and it's clearly his. Clearly, in this critic's view, mothers are not allowed the human emotions of unhappiness and anger. Any failure to shield their children from their emotions is simply unforgivable, and any attempts they may have made to do so before failing need not be acknowledged. A less-than-perfect mother is a Bad Mother. (In the light of all this, a pretty pejorative halo surrounds the critic's reference to the mother's 'current' relationship, and a feckless woman moving from partner to partner is potentially conjured.)

This is sexism, and this is what students studying this story for this exam are being taught by the BBC.

You can read 'Compass and Torch' on East of the Web (where it was first published), and it's included in my collection Balancing on the Edge of the World (Salt).

(Crossposted to my critical blog, Fictionbitch

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Unthology 5 pre-order

It's now possible to pre-order Unthology 5 (which includes my story 'Clarrie and You') from Central Books. The book will be published on 27th June and will soon be available from the Unthank Books website and from Amazon.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Best British Short Stories 2014

I'm thrilled to have a story in this year's volume of the wonderful series Best British Short Stories, published by Salt and edited by Nicholas Royle. The stories in these anthologies have always been published for the first time in the previous year, and my story in this one is 'Tides, Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told,' which was published last autumn in the online magazine The View From Here. I love the covers of these books, too!

Best British short Stories 2014 will be launched at the London Short Story Festival on Friday 20th June 6.30 - 7.30 pm, at Waterstone's Piccadilly.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Reading group: Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Warning: partial plot spoiler (or improver).

This was Jenny's suggestion, a book she had on her shelves but had never read, the story of two thirteen-year-old girls in a small Merseyside town just after the war, an unnamed narrator and the malevolent Harriet, who during the school summer holidays set out to beguile then humiliate Peter Biggs, an unhappily married middle-aged man they have encountered all their childhood on their forays to the beach, and whom they call the Tsar. Initially, as she waits for Harriet to return from holiday, it is the narrator who first encounters the Tsar on the beach this particular summer and becomes obsessed with him, simultaneously attracted and repulsed, but once Harriet returns, the campaign begins, motored by Harriet's insistence. Right from the start we know that something drastic happens in the end, as the first chapter opens with the two running from 'the dark house' screaming and the narrator's mother asking 'if I was sure it was Mr Biggs', and what follows is a retrospective account of the events leading up to that.

However, we all found that on a first reading, this narrative trajectory, and the motives of the girls, weren't as clear as I have made them above, and a lot of the meeting was spent actually working out those motives (since everyone but me had read the book only once). Introducing it, Jenny said that although it was such a short book physically, in the experience of reading it she had found it quite long, and most of us nodded. Mark had said beforehand that he thought it was very obviously a first novel (it wasn't Bainbridge's first published novel, but it was the first she wrote, originally turned down for its 'disgusting' characters, later of course published for that very reason, its transgressive characters). I thought that there was indeed a lack of narrative focus, as did John. John thought that even though adolescents experiment with formal language, the overall narration was too formal, which is a novice writer's error, and there was an uncertainty of tone. The narrative isn't an internal monologue, but it's not clear from what vantage point it's being addressed, or to whom. Everyone agreed with this. I said that in addition there are basic errors in story-telling: I wasn't even clear on my first reading that the book wasn't entirely linear, that the second chapter moves back in time. Immediately after the dramatic escape which forms the first very short chapter, the second chapter begins thus:
When I came home for the holidays, Harriet was away with her family in Wales. She had written to explain it was not her fault and that when she came back we would have a lovely time.
The simple insertion of an 'earlier that summer' would have prevented me from reading this as an aftermath scenario with Harriet explaining that whatever had happened with Mr Biggs was not her fault (rather than making a simple apology for being away when the narrator comes home from boarding school), and forming the notion that both girls had been sent away because of the incident concerning Mr Biggs. Once I realised my mistake, I needed to go back and start again, which inevitably contributed to my sense of a lengthy and somewhat rambling narrative. Perhaps as a result of this, a significant past event which is mentioned near the beginning - the fact that the girls have already been in trouble for going in the sand dunes with Italian prisoners of war - didn't seem to me to be mentioned until much later on  in my reading, which surprised me: indeed, I wondered why it hadn't been mentioned earlier, and it was only on a second reading that I realised that the mention did come early. As a result, its narrative impact was reduced for me. I wasn't the only one: Trevor, too, thought it was mentioned much later, and the group were generally muddled about when certain events had happened, ie in what order.

We were all clear by the meeting that the novel was precisely about that transition period in girls' lives when they are becoming sexually focussed and intellectually strong yet are still in many ways children - an important topic to address at the time Bainbridge was writing, as Mark and Clare pointed out, since up until then adolescence hadn't been recognised as a developmental stage, and children were expected simply to turn overnight into adults. However, we are not told until a good way into the book that the girls are at that significant age, thirteen, and I was much exercised at the start in trying to work out what the protagonist's age was as she veered between on the one hand gnomic pronouncements and subtle observations (was she an older teenager? There's an early reference to their leaving school) and, on the other hand, childlike behaviour, becoming sure I was reading about a small child when a two-page description of the alternative walks to the sea is presented in terms of a child mapping her environment and includes this line conjuring a picture of innocence: 'I sang as I began to climb the slope among the trees, "All through the night there's a little brown bird singing, singing in the hush of the darkness and the dew ..." It was practically the only song I knew all through...' If I had known the simple fact that the protagonist was thirteen years old, I would have been able to read her behaviour as adolescent ambivalence rather than the possible result of author inconsistency, and my experience of the book would have been much smoother. A consequence of this uncertainty was that I was unsure of the tenor of the narrator's early lone encounters with the Tsar, plumping for the idea of her as an innocent and consequently entertaining the notion that the first chapter depicts a drama of innocents violated by a paedophile. Reading then the girls' campaign with the Tsar through this lens, I was less aware of their sexuality and the strength of their obsession which motor the narrative trajectory, constantly unsure of their motives at any given point, as I think were most people in the group, and missed thus a sense of narrative thrust.

Most people said similarly that they hadn't been grabbed by the book, Ann summing it up by saying that although the subject matter was extremely interesting in theory, somehow the book didn't grip or convince. The one exception was Trevor, who had really enjoyed it. We were exercised by the girls' attitude to their parents, inevitably in adolescents ambivalent but seeming on occasion not to ring true. Harriet's father is violent, and no one in the group found convincing Harriet's matter-of-fact attitude to that, her superior view of him as needing to be handled and pathetic in his anger, nor the fact that both girls use, without irony or comment, his epithet for her mother, 'Little woman.' Indeed, both girls at moments have a protective and superior attitude to their parents which didn't seem realistic. However, having read the novel a second time, I suggested that this was meant as an illustration of their naivety - they are in fact misinterpreting their parents and their own situation. Initially people didn't seem convinced by this, but as the discussion progressed they came to embrace it. Although it was clear to everyone by now that the girls set out to target the Tsar, I suggested the possibility that there was a conscious authorial irony about this; that the narrator is meant to be unreliable, and that - as Jenny, accepting the idea, said - he is simultaneously targeting them, a fact of which the girls are unaware. Everyone in the group then thought of moments pointing to this, such as the way that at the start the Tsar constantly seems to be where the girls are walking, as if placing himself in their way (which, when I first suggested it early on, drew the comment that he was just a bloke out walking there anyway), the fact that he tells the narrator about his unhappy marriage, and various actions betraying his selfishness. I have to say that on a second reading this last irony seemed quite obvious (and the Tsar quite manipulative), and the narrative arc much clearer and more dynamic as a result. John now said that he wondered if the writer was trying to show through the girls' attitude to their parents that the parents, wrapped up in their own concerns and leaving the girls very much to their own devices, had left them vulnerable to the Tsar. Harriet's father's bad temper could be taken as an effect of the not-long-finished war, as well as the less than even temper of the narrator's father who cleans the house manically and bad-temperedly in his old ARP uniform, and one could extrapolate that the parents (and the Tsar himself) are thus damaged by the war and incapable of protecting the girls. The trouble is, however, that the narrative focus of the novel is so narrow - sticking closely to the perspective of the thirteen-year-old narrator - that there is little indication of this. The whole thing takes place too faithfully in the enclosed bubble of childhood, with little of the social or political contextualisation a more expert writer could indicate. All we know of any of the adults' backgrounds or pasts is that once upon a time the Tsar glamorously visited Greece, and the war is presented solely through the girls' consciousness as 'a long time ago', which contributes to the air of vagueness and lack of focus. Jenny now remarked that, having discussed the book, she felt it was a better book than she had thought, with a lot more in it, and people agreed. However, we couldn't escape the fact that it had lacked focus for us, and, although the prose is snappy and lyrical, there really is something about the nuts and bolts of the composition that defocuses everything on a first reading, we found.

People noted too that there was really no sense of eroticism in the girls' pursuit and campaign of humiliation of the Tsar, although there was eroticism in the relationship between the two girls, which seemed like a lack and left the girls' motives and feelings towards the Tsar unclear. People did think, though, that, as Clare said, the relationship between the girls was beautifully and accurately depicted -  the power of the one (Harriet) over the other, the love-hate dynamic tinged with sexual and existential longing. John said that overall, however, he found the book emotionally cold, and others agreed.

It's a book, in other words, that is better read in hindsight, through a knowledge of the end. It's interesting in this light that it's often written about as having been inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder case concerning two New Zealand schoolgirls similarly locked in a folie a deux, on which the film Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet, was based. If you approach the book knowing this connection (which I didn't at first), you know from the start that the girls have committed a murder, and the whole thing is imbued with a far greater urgency than if you lack this expectation. In fact, I'd say that it's a tall claim that the book is based on the real-life story (rather than vaguely inspired by the general idea of girls in an intense relationship murdering an adult): the Parker-Hulme story is really very different, with an entirely different dynamic. In fact, Harriet Said suffers from the comparison, since the Parker-Hulme murder was committed, and planned, to prevent the girls being separated, thus making the erotic relationship between the girls the pulsing centre, and the murder itself more organically inevitable than it is here. One wonders therefore if that somewhat spurious connection was flagged by an editor, author or publicity department aware that the book is indeed better when read in the light of it.

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

Friday, May 02, 2014

Launch of Emma Unsworth's Animals and the question of clothes

I don't think I've ever been to such a well attended launch as Emma Unsworth's last night at Waterstone's, Deansgate, for her new novel, Animals (Canongate)

Emma warned us beforehand that the book was 'filthy', and the extract she read didn't disappoint in terms of anarchy and bad behaviour. Animals comes recommended by Caitlin Moran who calls it 'Withnail with girls', but Emma reckons her best recommendation comes from her mum who told her dad, when he said he wanted to read it, 'No, you don't want to read it, Frank.'

Emma had generously invited others to read at the event, Robert Williams, Greg Thorpe, chef Mary Ellen McTague, and the music-and-words duo Les Malheureux that is writers David Gaffney and Sarah-Clare Conlon, so it was a very full and buzzy evening.

Those who know me well will know that I'm bonkers about clothes and dressing up - though I know you wouldn't think it, the old rags I wear most of the time (since I spend most of my time writing), and pop out to the shops in, or the samey safe things I pull on at the last minute to go out because I've been writing up to the wire and just haven't got time or space in my head to think creatively about clothes. As a result, my wardrobe and trunk and many drawers are stuffed full of charity-shop finds I hardly ever wear. Anyway, I'm in that haitus where you've come to the point in a big project when you can't go any further with it as you're waiting for your first readers' comments, and you don't want to push it from your head by working on other things (and don't have the creative energy anyway). Sometimes I spend such periods sending stories off, but I have no stories I'm ready to let go without further work, so yesterday I actually did some wardrobe sorting (for the first time in a long, long time) and discovered clothes I'd long forgotten about, but which seem to have come back into fashion! Trouble is, though, of course, nationwide or global fashion is never the same as the look sported by particular groups, and quite often, as last night, it's so long since I've been out that I've no idea what people are wearing. So off I went safely dressed in black leggings and leather jacket, most curious to see what folks were wearing to literary dos nowadays. And it turned out: anything and everything. There was Emma looking like Marilyn Monroe in her little black dress, there was novelist Jenn Ashworth in the most glorious fuschia-coloured tights, writer Maria Roberts with a fabulous bright-yellow jacket, and outfits from suit jackets to pretty dresses to sporty gear. 

I know what you're thinking: 'And as a writer she's supposed to be serious-minded!' But the two things are linked, in my view, the clothes and the literature. In the Manchester lit scene it's individual creativity that's all the rage.