Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Homes for stories

Once the prizewinning poet Gillian Allnutt said to me, 'Isn't it great when people get what you're trying to do?' She meant editors of course, specifically, at the time, the editors of literary magazines. It was a thought that became more poignant to me, first as serious print lit mags dwindled, and now as a story 'zine' culture supported by the web has emerged, in which, as AL Kennedy has remarked, editors so often set the agenda for authors by running pre-themed issues. As I've written before, this is a culture which is basically not serious on the most fundamental literary level, since an editor looking for stories to fit a theme is by definition not first and foremost looking out for literary innovation, or interested in an author's own literary agenda. (I worry that we contributed to this culture when we published the apparently themed issues of the short-story mag Metropolitan; the fact is, as I've written before, we never thought up themes beforehand: each time we simply chose the stories we considered the best or most exciting, and then, for marketing purposes, thought up a theme which encompassed them all.) In this culture, and in the competition culture which has grown up alongside it, literature pushing at the boundaries of convention - and therefore arguably failing in conventional terms, and thus needing a special kind of literary attention - can get sidelined.

So when Horizon Review was announced, and editor Jane Holland set out her aims, I was excited. She would not be prescriptive, she said. What she would be looking for in the work sent to her was 'openness: to the physical, to the wider world, to ideas and language, and to the possibility of failure'. This was somewhere for me to send my stories, I felt, this is someone who might be attuned to 'what I am trying to do' - to stretch narrative boundaries to explore the contingency of our sense of reality - and 'would get it.' I sent her a story, 'Possibility', and she did indeed accept it.

Writing a post at the time I said that in a literary climate where such serious magazines exist the short-story writer will usually find a home for his or her stories. Yet even as I wrote it, I was aware that Jane had also said this: 'I don’t want Horizon to be a cosy refuge for writers looking for allies and a comfortable place to sleep'. I'd be pushing my luck to send another for a while, I felt. Yet the sense that Jane 'would get' my new story, 'The Choice Chamber', overcame me and I sent it to her anyway. Yesterday she sent me an email in which she said that she would love to turn it down because she didn't want me to look like a Horizon fixture, but she had liked the story so much that, alas, she was forced to accept it.

Now, as far as that story is concerned, that's a literary home.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Ah.... my plans change then. I was about to submit a story, but my work is so very diffrerent to yours, I now know it won't appeal at all to the editor!

Elizabeth Baines said...

No, send it! As Jane said in her original manifesto, she is open to all types of writing, and I thought the stories in the last issue were all very different...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

If I could learn to spell 'different' (see above) I might be in with a chance!


Vanessa, being able to spell - and type! - has instant appeal as far as I'm concerned. Ditto a strong, writerly grasp of grammar and punctuation. (I once had to write a slightly stiff rejection email to a published writer - an acquaintance of mine - who had sent me a story which needed so much editorial help it looked like a sixth-form effort.)

So do try me with your work and don't worry about styles or themes. I want good writing, not someone from the School of ... [insert latest literary fad here].

Thank you so much for this vote of confidence, Elizabeth. Jen at Salt sent me the link.

I thought recently of producing a themed issue but didn't - as you quite rightly assume - want to tie myself down in any way. Besides, what tends to happen, going on my past experience as an editor, is that either my mood or something in the air seems to shape various themes within each issue. Themes emerge naturally enough in a literary journal, in other words; why try to force them on writers?

Perhaps being both a poet and a novelist myself helps with such decisions.