Wednesday, October 30, 2019

News: Edge Hill Prize result and new publications

Lots going on for me on the short story front right now. On Friday we held the Edge Hill Prize Award event in Waterstone's Piccadilly, and announced our winner, chosen by yours truly, last year's winner Tessa Hadley, and writer, journalist and publisher Sam Jordison: David Szalay for his stunning collection of linked short stories, Turbulence. As Sam Jordison said afterwards, these seemingly brief and extremely stylish stories, hinged on the fleeting connections between people on plane journeys, magically pack in whole lives and poignantly inhabit the experiences of an amazing span of characters. David also won the Reader's Prize, which is judged by students and alumni of Edge Hill University, for a single story from the same collection.

And as Tessa Hadley said, when she announced the prize, we had a very long discussion and a very hard decision to make when we met back in September in the foyer of London's Tavistock Hotel: all of our shortlist were wonderful - Wendy Erskine's Sweet Home, which gives us a whole world of present-day Belfast via a fantastic ear for speech and an enviable linguistic dexterity; Vicky Grut's collection of great humanity and empathy, Live show, Drinks Included, which at the same time offers a sometimes Kafkaesque vision of contemporary society; Chris Power's Mothers, which takes us on geographical and existential journeys and displays his great gift of showing through language how memory and the past affect our present-day experience and often the trajectory of whole lives; Simon Van Booy's The Sadness of Beautiful Things, which brings the joyous surprise of being about good heartedness; and Lucy Wood's The Sing of the Shore, a haunting collection set in out-of-season Cornwall, the atmosphere of which lingers long after you've finished reading.

Meanwhile, my story 'Kiss', first published in MIR Online, has been selected from Best British Short Stories 2019 to appear in The Barcelona Review, and I'm finally able to announce that my story 'Saying Nothing', which was longlisted in the V S Pritchett Prize last year, is also a finalist and judge's honourable mention in this year's Tillie Olsen Award, announced today and published in The Tishman Review. And I've been writing a commissioned story for an anthology due sometime in the future from an exciting new press, Inkandescent.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Reading Group: In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Most people in our reading group hadn't heard of 'the other Elizabeth Taylor', eclipsed by her film-star namesake when National Velvet appeared in 1944, just as she was beginning her career as a novelist of middle-class mores. She was however greatly admired, by Kingsley Amis among others, and has been considered a very fine writer. She has recently undergone a revival, and eight months ago Mark read In a Summer Season, her last novel, generally considered her finest, and suggested it with great enthusiasm.

Accordingly, he introduced it to our group in glowing terms. The novel charts the events over one summer concerning a wife in her forties and the members of her household, and circles around the question of love and its relation to sex. Previously widowed, the well-off Kate is still living in the same family home in the Thames valley with a new husband, Dermot, ten years her junior, her son Tom, who is not much younger than Dermot, and a spinster aunt, Ethel, while sixteen-year-old daughter Louisa appears from boarding school in the holidays. This family setup, unusual in the upper-middle-class society of the fifties, has caused something of an (understated) scandal amongst Kate's former neighbourhood acquaintances, and Aunt Ethel's letters to her friend Gertrude are full of (guardedly) salacious speculations about the married couple's sex life. Much of the speculation about the marriage in the village is doom-laden, and it is clear from the very start that Dermot is feckless - a fact that Kate is at pains to gloss over to herself and others, protecting him like a child - and very soon that he is a layabout and drinker. Much of the novel is concerned, in Taylor's characteristic understated style, with Kate's struggle between her own sexual capitulation to Dermot and the competing conventional requirements of her role as a wife and mother. The novel's inciting incident is the return from abroad of a widower friend and neighbour, Charles, and his young adult daughter Araminta, which causes complications within the family and finally leads to a tragedy.

Mark said he really admired the writing and the acuity of the depiction of fifties upper-middle-class society, and in particular the insight into the complex psychology of the characters provided by a third-person narration which is both gently ironic yet, in a free-ranging way, enters, at one time or another, the heads of most of the characters. These are the things for which Taylor is indeed generally admired, but unfortunately, and to my great surprise, for four of us present, John, Doug, Clare and me, these qualities couldn't compensate for other aspects of the book which led us, frankly, to find it tedious.

Firstly, there was the matter of structure. Taylor is on record as saying that she had no interest in plot, and we did indeed find the book lacking in form to an extent that made it unengaging. It is quite some way into the book that the inciting incident occurs, and before that the (acutely depicted) events seem there for nothing more than to portray the setup. Kate visits her mother-in-law in London and defends Dermot from his mother's criticism, and, watching the wives meeting their husbands from the train while back home the potatoes are on simmer, wonders if this is really the life that women should be leading; Kate and Dermot go drinking and Dermot encounters the prejudice of the former friends of Kate's late husband; Aunt Ethel discusses the couple in her letters to her friend and plays music with schoolgirl Louisa; we accompany Tom to the factory where he (unwillingly) works for his grandfather, and which he is expected to take over one day; Louisa hangs around the local curate with whom she is in love. Long before Charles and Araminta appear on the scene (and even for some time after it, before the complications get going), I was thinking, Oh no, not another cocktail before dinner! It was hard for a very long time to work out what the novel was about. John noted something else, a seeming lack of care in the revelation of information: Taylor writes, he said, as if she is talking to a friend who knows her and already has the background information (which the reader has not.) For instance, on her journey back from Dermot's mother-in-law, Kate encounters one of the young girls who are interested in her son Tom, who, discussing the plight of those girls like herself who have large feet, asks, 'Doesn't Lou despair?' This is the first-ever mention in the book of Louisa, whose attitude to her own big feet Kate goes on to muse about, but it is several lines into the paragraph before it starts to becomes clear - though not in fact entirely certain - that Louisa must be her daughter. I also felt that, despite - or perhaps because of - Taylor's lack of interest in plot, after such a length of seeming plotlessness, the book suddenly jerks into plot in a way that seems overdramatic and even artificial. And as for the final chapter, a kind of coda in which the tragedy is overturned with a (somewhat low-key) happy ending, everyone agreed that they had seen it coming all along.

Secondly, Doug said he found really irritating the way that the narration moves without warning from the viewpoint of one character into that of another, quite often within a single paragraph so that, now and then, for a moment you don't even realise the viewpoint has changed - and I'm afraid it struck me as inept and amateur.

We did agree with Mark that for a book written in the fifties by a middle-class woman about middle class mores, it is striking in tackling the emotional impact of sex (and for which the book is renowned). At one point Kate, having been to bed with Dermot in the afternoon, is called by him into the privacy of the dining room, away from the rest of the family:
He shut the door behind her and pressed her close to him as he did so.
'It will all begin again,' she thought in a panic, and felt tired and light-headed with desire. She gave him a quick, dismissing kiss and turned away. While he was fetching her a drink, she sank down on the window-seat and closed her eyes, as if she had come downstairs for he first time after a long illness and had found herself too weak for the effort.
'We should leave our lovemaking till the dead of night' she thought. 'and bury it secretly in sleep.'

Ann was the one other person present who liked the book. Like Mark, she relished its acute depiction of that society, and particularly the way that Taylor makes digs at it in every direction, letting no character off scot free, which for Ann, as for Mark, made the formlessness acceptable. For Doug and me, however, and I think for Clare and John, the irony was not nearly savage enough to make the material palatable, or the lack of story arc beside the point. As John said, Muriel Spark would have made something much more sparky out of this material and situation.

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

Friday, October 04, 2019

Mechanics' Institute Review - The Climate Issue

Here's the magnificent new issue of The Mechanics' Institute Review, in which I'm delighted to have a story, 'Dreaming Possibility'. This issue is themed around the subject of climate. As a writer I'm not normally keen on themed anthologies - I'm always too busy doing my own thing to have space to respond to other people's thematic agendas (I don't know if that's arrogant!). But climate and the environment are subjects I'm fired up by anyway, and which constantly surface in my writing, so it was no hardship - indeed it was an exciting pleasure - to sit down and write a story to submit specifically to this anthology. It's a story about intuition and magical thinking, and features a Cassandra-like narrator who has intuited environmental disaster from an early age and has been treated as pathological as a consequence.

The Creative Writing department at Birkbeck University, who publish the Review, organised a lot of activities around the publication of this launch - for the authors there was an enjoyable workshop for brushing up skills in reading work to an audience, a party for all the contributors and editors, and finally the official launch in the amazing eighteenth-century Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury (which is unfortunately threatened, and there's a campaign to save it). There are also three Citizens' Assemblies during October, on the subject of climate change.*

Here I am at the party with fellow contributors David Wakely, Tarquin Landseer and Sarah Barr, all of us clutching our newly-minted copies.

*Due to unforseen circumstances these Assemblies have now been cancelled. It is hoped they can be reconvened in the spring as a one-day symposium/conference.