Wednesday, May 07, 2008

To innovate or not to innovate

I've been thinking about innovation and I've embarked on a series of short stories which are a departure from any of my previous styles. While I love a good plot and I'm a sucker for imagery, I've been getting increasingly cynical about the power of conventional narrative tropes to express our post 9/11 condition of uncertainty. The contingency of story has always been a running theme in my fiction, but now I'm thinking that character and metaphor are closed circuits unable to express our current loss of existential grasp, and above all that narrative arc is just one big - but impotent - authorial con, and in these new stories I've been trying to find a way to question them without ditching them altogether.

It can be really scary doing something new. There's no guarantee that other people will see what you doing - rather than assume you're just making a mistake, failing to achieve the conventions you're actually questioning - or if they do that they'll find it palatable. And no guarantee that you're not failing unless someone else tells you you're not. So it was with great relief that I heard this week that the last one I wrote has been accepted by an exciting new online magazine Horizon Review, named after Cyril Connelly's original Horizon, coming from the Salt umbrella and edited by poet and novelist Jane Holland. In fact, on the Horizon website Jane says that she is indeed open to writing that dares to take risks, and wishes to make the mag a place of question and challenge.

It so happened that the other day, via the Story website, I came across some pertinent comments in an article by AL Kennedy. She says rightly that the magazines that used to print stories have largely disappeared and instead:
they're left to be harried by endless small-scale competitions that merrily dictate size, content, themes and even title options.

Yes, this is the rub. Competitions which impose such restrictions (and that's most of them, as she says) make my heart sink, because they always imply certain expectations or certain acceptable norms, which simply cannot apply to innovative writing, and cannot encourage the innovative urge in writers. Clearly innovative stories do sometimes win competitions, but it seems to me a triumph over circumstance when it happens.


Tania Hershman said...

I applaud your desire to innovate, and wish you much luck. I think the process is as rewarding as the product. I too am trying to let go of certain "restrictions" that are perhaps self-imposed, but also definitely influenced by aforementioned competitions with their word counts and their deadlines. If only I could entirely ignore all need to enter such things, I feel sure life would be rather easier. Anyhow, I highly recommend these journals which publish more experimental writing: Succor, Conjunctions, Sleeping Fish, Noon Annual, Barrelhouse, Redivider. These are some of my new favourites. You can find them on Duotrope.

And congrats on the Horizon Review acceptance!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks, Tania!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I don't understand how you can express anything without 'character'... but thanks for making me think! Congrats on the publication!!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks, Vanessa.

Re character: well, yes, quite. But there is something problematic, for me at any rate. Of course we all love vivid, identifiable characters and/or characters we can identify with, and I have often prided myself in creating them. In many ways it seems the key - because fiction operates on an emotional rather than an intellectual level, and this happens I think when readers relish or identify with characters. But one thing it seems hard to do, yet the most psychologically realistic, and also I think the most desirable in our strange times, is to represent the UNKNOWABILITY of people. Conventional character representation so often fails to do this, and so many times when people praise books for their 'realistic' characters, it seems to me that the characters, or at least the representation, isn't realistic at all: an author's manipulative construct which is simply safe because it's recognizable and easily pigeonholed by the reader.

Two authors who do manage to depict the unknowability of people, I think, are two whom I know you admire: Anne Enright and Sebald. It seems to me that the unknowability of others is precisely what The Gathering is about. But then it's tricky: we discussed this very book in my reading group last night and there were complaints that the characters weren't fleshed out and that some were inconsistent!!!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Also I should have mentioned: that we need to represent not only the unknowability of people but also the the fluidity of character and personality (Fay Weldon has dealt with this a fair bit) but also, most importantly for our times, the fluidity of our PERCEPTION of other people (this last is what I think Anne Enright is getting at in the sudden revelation of a different character for Mozzie in the Gathering: the narrator has changed and so she suddenly seems him differently, or maybe we are meant to see that she has previously had him trapped in just the (distorted) narrative stranglehold which conventional character representation bestows.