Monday, March 16, 2009

The realism of readings

Issue 2 of Horizon Review is now live, and it includes my new story, 'The Choice Chamber'.

It's not a realist story in any way - quite the opposite, but you don't realize that until the end. Funny thing, realism, or should I say, funny word, or anyway funny how people take it. Last night Carys Davies, Mike Barlow and I did our reading at the Huddersfield Festival. (That's us above taking part in the Q & A.) In the introduction my third prize in last year's Raymond Carver competition was mentioned, and it became clear in the Q & A afterwards that it was consequently taken for granted that I write only realist stories and that Salt - unlike Comma, it was stated - publish realist stories in general - and this in spite of the fact that Carys read from one of her anything-but-realist contemporary fairy tales. It's so far from the truth that we three were a bit gob-smacked for a moment - Salt is nothing if not a broad church for writers, as we quickly told the audience when we recovered. As I said - to everyone's apparent surprise - my Carver prize-winning story is not a realist story. In fact, it's a story which self-consciously challenges the concept of realism, which is what I'm doing generally now in my short-story writing.

Part of the problem, I think, is the all-too-human tendency to pigeonhole, which is quite a stumbling block if you're trying to do something subtle which maybe doesn't shout out about its 'category', or which indeed is intended to break down those categories. And it depends how you read things, anyway. As John and I were speeding back down the motorway afterwards, John said he didn't read Carver as realist anyway.

It seems to me that realism is predicated on the assumption of an objective reality (about situations, characters etc) on which the author is intended to be taken as an authority. This is a notion I am always challenging in my writing - it's a core thing about my writing: the contingency of reality and the contingency of viewpoint - however psychologically convincing I may succeed in making the characters or vivid and real-seeming the situation. Even the story I read out last night, 'Condensed Metaphysics' - which was indeed called by someone last night 'a slice of life' realist story - is intently concerned with this, the fallacy of the notion of an objective reality. Perhaps the problem for this story is that it is now known to be based on a real-life incident, which I had admitted at the start last night, but I think my account on Vanessa Gebbie's blog of how I turned that real-life incident into a story shows precisely that the story is not after all about a real-life incident but the ideas in my own head.

As you can maybe tell from the above, we had a great discussion with a lively and attentive audience in the pub cellar bar we were moved to because of some technical hitches. Cosy and warm with red lighting - hard to see faces for the Q & A, but it didn't seem to matter! See how (realistically!) dark it was without a flash:

We had a great time. Many thanks to the festival for inviting us.


Tania Hershman said...

How odd that people should assume that Salt publish realist stories... where do people get that from? I have said it before and I will say it again: people love labels, they love neat and tidy pidgeon-holes, and beware those of us who can't squeeze ourselves into one or another. On the other hand, we writers have to let go of our work and let it be read in any way someone chooses to read it, that's not up to us. What may be surreal to one reader may be very real to another (if their lives have taken a surreal turn!). I am still puzzling over the comment someone made about my book: "I love the one-page story about lust". I have absolutely no idea which story this is!

It sounds like the readings went really well, wish I could have been there!

Elizabeth Baines said...

That's it exactly, I think, Tania: the contingency of realism!