‘A Prolonged Kiss’ shortlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2021

In very exciting news my short story ‘A Prolonged Kiss’ has now reached the shortlist for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2021. This is the world’s biggest and most prestigious prize for an English-language single short story, with the winner scooping a slightly surreal £30,000 prize.

The shortlist features some amazing writers published in some fantastic outlets:

Rabih Alameddine – ‘The July War’ (Paris Review, subscribers only)
Susan Choi – ‘Flashlight’ (The New Yorker, subscribers)
Laura Demers – ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (Granta online, free to read)
Elizabeth McCracken – ‘The Irish Wedding’ (The Atlantic, free to read)
Rachael Fulton – ‘Call’
and me.

So I feel this is a success I share with The Lonely Crowd, the indie journal where my story was published, thanks to its editor John Lavin. The story was published in Issue 12 of the journal, which you can buy here.

Here is the 15-strong longlist in full:

Rabih Alameddine – ‘The July War’ (Paris Review, subscribers only)
Jamel Brinkley – ‘Comfort’ (Ploughshares, subscribers)
Susan Choi – ‘Flashlight’ (The New Yorker, subscribers)
Susannah Dickey – ‘Stuffed Peppers’
Laura Demers – ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (Granta online, free to read)
Louise Erdrich – ‘Oil of Emu’
Rachael Fulton – ‘Call’
Jonathan Gibbs – ‘A Prolonged Kiss’ (The Lonely Crowd, purchase here)
Allegra Goodman – ‘A Challenge You Have Overcome’ (The New Yorker, subscribers)
Rachel Heng – ‘Kirpal’
Daniel Mason – ‘A Case Study’
Elizabeth McCracken – ‘The Irish Wedding’ (The Atlantic, free to read)
Gráinne Murphy – ‘Further West’
Adam Nicolson – ‘The Fearful Summer’ (Granta 152, subscribers)
Mark Jude Poirier – ‘This Is Not How Good People Die’ (Subtropics)

This is obviously a huge boost, and my thanks go out to the judges, Yiyun Li, David Mitchell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Romesh Gunesekera and Andrew Holgate.

The winner will be announced on July 8, 2021.

How should one read a short story collection? On ‘Intimacies’ by Lucy Caldwell

So Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies was one of my May reads, but I’ve split off into a separate blog to write about it, because I found it so interesting. I’ll say straight out that it is a great collection of stories, which much of the same calm, wry, politically and socially observant writing as her debut collection, Multitudes, but the reason I want to write about it (and not just it) is something different from just the quality.

I’ll also say second out that I met Lucy last year, when she kindly agreed to talk with me, and Michael Hughes and David Collard, for the Irish Literary Society about my poem Spring Journal and its connection to Louis MacNeice, of whom she is a great fan, as evidenced by her Twitter handle @beingvarious, and in fact the great anthology of contemporary Irish short stories of the same title that she edited; and she was kind enough to say some words about the book, which were used for a blurb. So I am in her debt for that.

And but so…

Short story collections.

I own maybe 100 single-author individual collections, as opposed to anthologies or Collecteds, but I’ve got no idea how many of them I’ve read in their entirety. I do read plenty of short stories, not least because of A Personal Anthology, the short story project I curate, which pushes me weekly in all sorts of directions, some of them new, some of them old, but when I do read stories I mostly read one, two or at most three stories by a particular author at a time.

This partly comes down to the practicalities of reading. A short story you can read in the bath, and a long decadent bath with bubbles and candles might stretch to three or four, depending on the writer. Or, as I have done this afternoon, sitting outside in the garden, reading ‘Heaven’, the final story in Mary Gaitskill’s seminal Bad Behaviour, a story which… but now’s not the time.

But seriously: what a story!

What I generally don’t do is read collections in order, from start to finish. I appreciate that this might be annoying for authors, who presumably put some effort into sequencing their collections, but a collection isn’t like a music album – not quite – which lends itself almost exclusively to listening in order. (I remember when CD players came out, and the novelty of random play. It’s not something I would ever do now, and I find it annoying that it seems to be a default setting on Spotify.)

The reason why I don’t tend to read collections in order, is partly because I like reading stories in isolation. I think it’s a Good Idea. If – to be reductive about it – novels are a writer doing one big thing, slowly, and stories are writers doing a small thing, over and over, then there is a risk, in reading a collection in one go, of seeing a writer repeat themselves. After all, they most likely wrote the stories to be read individually. Read me here, doing my thing, in The New Yorker. Read me here, doing my thing again, in Granta. And here I am, doing something similar but different in The Paris Review.

Some collections of stories are just that: agglomerations of pieces that have individual lives of their own, published here and there, and their coming-together is primarily a commercial rather than an artistic act. Some collections are more integrated than that, more self-sufficient or autarchic, having no particular dependence on anything outside of its little biosphere.

As I tweeted about the theme of this blog, John Self mentioned David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son as two collections that operate like this, that need to be read in order. He’s right, though annoyingly I don’t have either to hand. The Vann I think is in a box in the loft, and I’ve never owned a copy of Jesus’ Son, despite it being a touchstone of sorts. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is another example, with its famous ambiguity as to whether it’s a novel or a collection of stories, but that has the oddity that I think you could read it in any order.

There must be others. I might think further and come back to this. You might have thoughts yourself.

So once you’ve leaned away from the idea of reading a collection in one go – to avoid the risk of diminishing marginal returns – then the need to read them in order seems somehow weaker. So that’s what I do. I take a collection down from the shelf, a new one or an old one, and I scan the contents page; I consider the titles; I look at the page-length. I make my choice.

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May reading 2021: Offill, Machado, Murata, Slimani, Kristof, Spark

Seven books, mostly quite short. I re-read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill for what was at least the third time. I think I picked it up as I’d been reminded of it by Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This, which I wrote about last month, and is written in a somewhat similar format. While the fragmentary form in Lockwood’s novel is clearly intended to represent consciousness fractured through Twitter and social media, Offill’s book is less online, and more about consciousness fractured through modern life in general. Offill is more constrained, more zen. The narrator’s brain has filtered the world. Lockwood’s narrator can’t filter the world, and insists on adding to it, interpreting it.

Lockwood’s book, as I said in my post, is unnerving, even enervating to read. Offill’s is restful, even when it turns dark. 

Nevertheless, it’s odd that the book seems to lose its way after the halfway mark. It can’t do the melodrama it has promised, through its story of marital breakdown, but it performs a wonderfully neat pirouette to avoid the collision. This happens in the superb chapter 32, in which the narrator confronts her errant, adulterous husband and his ‘other woman’, but undermines her own description with a viciously precise creative writing commentary: “Needed? Can this be shown through gesture?”

The scene that follows reminded me of the equivalent one in Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. But, where that is brilliantly visceral, this one just crumbles. That said, I suppose the temporary ‘failure’ of the novel is justified by its premise. The narrator is somebody who needs to be in control. That’s what’s behind her compulsive marshalling of facts, which she parcels out in those fragmentary paragraphs. When she loses control, the narrative dissolves into a swamp of entropy and only gradually, and it’s not entirely clear how, works its way back out. She reads a self-help book about surviving adultery, which she sneers at, but which – maybe – helps.

For sure, this book is not a self-help book about fixing a collapsing relationship. For all the nuggets of wisdom it purportedly contains, it’s never clear how they do it, the two of them, the couple and their daughter, beyond moving to the country, the “geographic cure”, which seems a surprisingly old-fashioned resolution to such an untraditionally presented story. 

It reminds me of one of my all-time favourite books: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. Similar in the fragmentary form, similar in the obsessive relay of facts, and knowledge, and wisdom. (Rilke! The Voyager recording!) All of which is weaponised, and then irradiated. Literature as series of fortune cookies. Knowledge is reducible, and manageable, and transferable, and this is at once a good and a bad thing. (It reminds me, too, of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I never did/still haven’t finished.)

All three books, or four, counting Lockwood, though perhaps that one less, are about the uselessness of knowledge in the face of the world. Forgert Rilke, forget wisdom. If you want to save your marriage, simply move to the country, get a puppy, chop firewood. Which is lovely, but… really?

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an eye-opening account of an abusive relationship that turns expectations of the sub-genre on their head. The formal invention is impressive and effective, but some things do get lost. The book is a persuasive account of a subjective experience – of being gaslit and abused – and what I missed as a reader was the objective dimension. The ‘woman in the dream house’ – the abuser – remains something of an enigma. What was she like? What was her problem? Of course, this lack, this absence, may well be partly due to the ethical and legal aspect of memoir writing. The ‘woman’ presumably must remain vague in some aspects so she remains unidentifiable, and can’t sue. (I covered some of this in my review of Deborah Levy’s Real Estate.) For all its inventiveness, the book delineates the limits of what memoir can do.

I enjoyed Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, which I read after listening to Merve Emre and Elif Batuman discussing it on the Public Books podcast. I didn’t agree with everything they said, but I was intrigued in particular about their description of the book as ‘an adultery novel’, i.e. a story build on a simple narrative model of thesis – anthesis – synthesis. I was preparing a workshop on plot and structure in novel-writing (for London Writer’s Café, hopefully more to come in the Autumn!) and thought it would be interesting to see how the novel managed this.

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March & April Reading 2021: Lockwood, Moore (Lorrie), Levy, Moore (Susanna), Nelson, Garner, Hall, Musil

At the start of 2021 I began an open-ended Twitter thread listing and commenting on my reading as I finish each book. This was supposed to help with these monthly round-ups, to save time, which clearly didn’t work at the end of March, as I didn’t post a round-up at all. So, for this two-month round-up I’ll be picking and choosing and expanding on those thoughts on some but not all of what I’ve read, rather than going through it doggedly.

It took me a bare couple of hours to read No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, and I’ve spent at an hour elsewhere reading reviews and thinkpieces about it. Which only goes to show, as someone on here pointed out, that it’s the least well-titled book of the year. Unless she means it ironically. Or post-ironically. Or whatever. 

I did really like the book, but also I found it exasperating and even anxiety-provoking. The short, fragmentary sections are clearly designed to mimic Twitter, but unlike Twitter you seem to have to read every one of them, as if there is something to ‘get’ from each of them.

This was confusing. On Twitter, after all, you skim through a dozen tweets in as many seconds before you deign to give one your more considered attention, sometimes scrolling back up to read one you initially skimmed over. Your micro-decisions about what to give your attention to are affected by names, and digital paratexts like avis and retweet and like counts. You don’t get that with tweet-length paragraphs on the page of Lockwood’s novel, but equally the usual narrative paraphernalia that allow you to speedily and efficiently navigate a story are also absent. Even Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation had more flow and propulsion across its narrative islets than this. 

Of course you acclimatise, and for a while you drift through the novel, picking up little dopamine hits for identifying memes and moments. The incest advert. The plums poem. But the pace of reading picks up, and the drifting becomes sliding, and it takes a great line to slow you down. Thankfully there are plenty of great lines.

Then Something Happens, plot-wise, and this is where the real challenge for the novel lies. Having established a vehicle of utter affectlessness in the first half (even while critiquing and despairing over the same), can it step up and deal with a subject that demands genuine emotional engagement?

Well the answer is no, for me at least. The emotion is there, and if you’ve read the interviews and perhaps even if not you’ll know it’s real, but the novel simply cannot express it. None of the usual, traditional functional parts – the filters and switches – are present, or work as required. It’s as if the book knows it’s trapped, and wants to break out of the trap it’s built for itself – and that’s part of the project after all, that’s what so many of us want to know: is there a way through this way of being, that will lead to another, better one?

What’s missing is the connective tissue. Now, the online world, when we are in it, does contain a connective tissue, of sorts: what gets called ‘the discourse’ (as in: the discourse is particularly toxic this morning). The discourse is the suspension (in the scientific sense) in which the individual tweets float, and take their context, and to which they all, infinitesimally, add. 

The point of the novel seems to be that this way of connecting with the world is leaving us adrift and unfulfilled. But when Lockwood gets to the second part of the novel, when tragedy drags her away from the Portal and immerses her in real life, the novel doesn’t change. It’s still written in that atomised, fragmentary style. Is that because this is the only way the narrator can think the world into being? Or is it intended to show the inability of ‘interneted narrative’ to represent the deep continuum of real life? Would it have been a failure of form if Lockwood had ‘reverted’ to a more traditional narrative style to cope with what happens ‘off-screen’?

No One is Talking About This is a tragedy of form, because although it allows me to empathise with the narrator when she is feeling sad about her unconnectedness, it fails to make me empathise when she suffers genuine tragedy. And it’s the form that engineers that failure.

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore was an impulse re-read. It has such a wonderfully idiosyncratic form – four short stories followed by a novella, all featuring the same three characters in different versions and permutations: anagrams of themselves, in other words. Here’s what I said when I read it for the first time on holiday, back in 2013. “These people are us! They are us squared!” is clearly me trying to channel Moore. But it’s true that Moore does use humour to set up devastation. And in fact I’d forgotten quite how bleak the end of Anagrams is. 

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Occasional review: Real Estate, by Deborah Levy

I remember the first Deborah Levy book I read, and where I acquired it. It was Beautiful Mutants, in its splendid Vintage paperback edition, with its Andrzej Klimowski collage cover, and I bought it from a remaindered bookshop in Tenterden in Kent, where my grandmother lived. Tenterden had a good old-fashioned sweetshop, and it had this bookshop, with two low-ceilinged rooms, at the far end of the high street, which I used to try to try to get to whenever we visited.

I’ve always preferred bookshops to libraries. I know how that sounds, and I do love libraries, but it’s true. Books are things I want to acquire. Reading them is not enough; I need to have them. There are reasons behind this beyond mere materialism: I want to be able to read the book in my own time; I want to be able to put it down and pick it up again; I want to be able to write in it; I like to read books I believe I will want to read again; I want it there in my house to remind me I’ve read it, so I can reread it if I want. And yes, book is a statement about the person who buys it. Books are part of the way I interact with the world. This is the way we make culture out of art, by sharing it, and sharing through it.

I love new bookshops, and I love secondhand bookshops, and I love the book sections in charity shops, and each of these venues offers something slightly different as an experience to browser and buyer, but I have always had a fondness for remaindered bookshops.

Remaindered bookshops (good ones – are there still good ones? perhaps there were more of them in the days of the Net Book Agreement) give you two fine things: a sense of getting something new, for cheap, a bargain; and a sense that you’re getting something that perhaps has slipped under the radar, that didn’t sell as well as the publishers thought, that is likely to be something you haven’t heard of, that you might want to take a punt on, that is perhaps not quite first rate, but all the more interesting for that, a potential future cult classic.

I can’t remember all the other books I bought from that shop in Tenterden, except for a book of the graphic design of Neville Brody, and a hardback collection of letters written to George Bernard Shaw by ordinary members of the public. I don’t think I have either of those two books any more, but I do have the Levy. 

(How I wish had written in the front of all my books the details of where I got them. Imagine the Perecesque autobiography those details would tell.)

I do know where I got the newest Deborah Levy, which was sent to me by the publisher. Real Estate is the third of Levy’s ‘living autobiographies’, sort of diary-cum-memoir-cum-essays. I read the first, Things I Don’t Want to Know, and reviewed it for The Independent when it came out, in 2013, published by Notting Hill Editions, but I don’t know where my copy is. Either I reviewed it from a digital copy, or I lent or gave it away. I certainly wouldn’t have charity-shopped it. I didn’t read the second instalment, The Cost of Living, but having now read Real Estate, I’ve ordered a copy. 

Real Estate I enjoyed hugely, and more than I was expecting to. I’ve been reading Levy since the early 90s, and loved Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography, though not so much Billy and Girl, I seem to remember. (I can’t find my copy of that either, to update my thoughts.) I was less taken with her second wave or renaissance books, Swimming HomeBlack Vodka (stories) and Hot Milk. I felt she had toned down her exuberance but lost the craziness – the burning zoo, the “Lapinsky is a shameless cunt” – that seemed to carry crackling danger in every sentence, every page. The newer novels were tilted off their axis, certainly, but either didn’t entirely find their footing or didn’t take to the air. 

I don’t remember that much about Things I Don’t Want to Know, and will reread it, to see how the three books operate together, but here’s what I think about Real Estate: it’s a swift, sure, clean, clear account of and reflection on Levy’s world, post-success, post-marriage, with both of her daughters now left home, leaving her to consider how she will make the most of her fully independent life at an age (she turns 60 in the course of the book) when one might hope she can fully capitalise on her promise, and success. 

The title refers to the question of house ownership, as a dream and as an anchor, an aspect of self-identity and self-worth. During the book Levy writes in two sheds in two different people’s gardens, packs up her dead stepmother’s apartment in New York, travels to Mumbai for a literary festival, and decamps to Paris for a nine-month fellowship; she visits a friend in Berlin, and rents a house in Greece to write in for the summer. She is also haunted by the family house where she was once happy, and then unhappy.

All the while she cultivates her dream of a “grand old house with a pomegranate tree in the garden”, furnishing it in her mind with articles and objects she has accumulated over her life that would deserve their place in this ideal dwelling.

If Levy is playing ‘dream house-hunting’ then that’s fine with me. In a way, she herself is living a dream that belongs to many of the rest of us: a writer comes into well-deserved success after early years of promise, and middle fallow years, finding the literary superstructure bending itself as if by magic around her and to her and lifting her up. (Mumbai… Paris… Greece… what writer wouldn’t dream of that! What writer wouldn’t at least consider the painful end of a marriage a fair psychic payment for this other daydream…)

She uses the house metaphor to bring in other themes and issues: the difficulties female writers face, the lack of self-knowledge of male writers who turn up at festivals with their wives in tow as assistants, who corner you at parties with self-centred wining.

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Notes on creative writing: How long should a chapter be?

The second in an occasional series of posts reflecting on bits and pieces I’ve learned teaching Creative Writing both previously at UEA and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and now, at City, University of London, where I run the MA/MFA Creative Writing, which is now recruiting for September 2021 entry.

How long should a chapter be?

This is a question I’ve been asked in class by novel-writing students, and it’s not a stupid question. Chapters are odd things, that we tend to take for granted, and that most of us won’t have thought properly about until we try to write one. Or, once we’ve started writing one, when we ask ourselves when we are supposed to stop.

The best way of thinking about chapters (like so much else in writing) will be to think of it from the reader’s point of view. A reader sees chapters first of all as way of measuring a book. A book is divided into chapters like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange is divided into segments. Eat one segment, and you might get an immediate sense of whether you will want to eat the whole thing in one go, or spread the pieces out. Chapters give a sense of scale, then, and also a sense of rhythm. Even though chapters aren’t necessarily all the same size, like Chocolate Orange segments, they will tend to be more or less the same.

Once upon a time, that decision – of how many chapters to ‘eat’ in one go – wasn’t left to the reader. In the Nineteenth Century, novels were usually serialised, published one chapter at a time in weekly or monthly periodicals, and only collected as a book once they were finished. (It wasn’t just commercial novels that were serialised. Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were originally published this way.)

This led to two results for novels: they tended to get longer, as writers padded out and extended storylines that were proving popular with readers; and novelists learned to end chapters on a cliff-hanger, an unresolved plot element that would not just make readers want to know what happened next, but would stick in their heads for the week or month until the next instalment.

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‘Spring Journal’ a year on: anniversary and review

On Friday 19th March 2021 it will be one calendar year since I lay on a sofa, phone in hand, and had the idle thought that one could tweet about the impending coronavirus pandemic, and the lockdown that had just started, in the form of a mash-up with / homage to / pastiche of Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. I created a new account (that’s one of the things I love about Twitter as a creative platform; you can put ideas into action with no planning or forethought), grabbed my MacNeice Selected Poems paperback from the shelves, to copy those famous opening lines, and posted two tweets, that same evening. Here they are:

And here are the corresponding opening lines from MacNeice:

Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire, 
  Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew 
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals 
  And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew 
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums 
  And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass 
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches 
  Not raising her eyes to the noise of the ’planes that pass 

I carried on Tweeting my version of MacNeice in sporadic bursts over the next few weeks (I particularly remember standing in the aisle at Sainsbury’s Tweeting about standing Tweeting in the aisle at Sainsbury’s) and maybe the whole thing would have fizzled out if David Collard hadn’t asked if would like to feature the poem on his online salon A Leap in the Dark, which ran on Friday and Saturday evenings right through lockdown, on Zoom. It was a typically generous offer, but David’s stroke of brilliance was to invite, or persuade, Northern Irish novelist and actor Michael Hughes to do the readings – a canto a week, starting in early April, and running through until I had matched MacNeice’s 24 cantos. Michael read the final canto as part of a full read-through of my poem on Friday 28th August.

As it happens, the anniversary of the poem’s inception coincides with the first review of the book of the poem, which was published by CB Editions in December, after a typically nimble quick turnaround by Charles Boyle.

Tristram Fane Saunders in the Times Literary Supplement starts by setting the poem against the responses from more famous names (Don Paterson, Paul Muldoon, Glyn Maxwell), and is generous in his estimation of how my poem measures up to its inspiration and model:

aiming somewhere halfway between cheap pastiche and serious homage, Gibbs hits his mark. He nails Autumn Journal’s casual, yawning metres and late-to-the-party rhymes, its balance of didacticism and doubt. 

You can read the whole review here.

(And if you have the print copy of the paper, you can have the additional thrill of turning the page to find, recto to my review’s verso, a review by Michael Hughes himself, of Anatomy of a Killing, by Ian Cobain.)

This anniversary also coincides with the vigil for Sarah Everard and protest against male violence on Clapham Common, so appallingly handled by the Met Police, which I mention only to point out the obvious fact that the pandemic only brought to the surface frustrations and inequalities that had been brewing and burning for much longer. And that if it felt like the six months during which I wrote the poem happened to have given me material to bounce at MacNeice, as it were, as a sounding board, then that’s missing the point. Whenever this had happened, these things or something like them would have happened, because they’re always happening.

The lines that Charles Boyle chose to put on the back of his edition of ‘Spring Journal’ were these:

Too many are dead, but jobs are dying too, all over. 
  The virus reveals the flaw 
In our way of living: the rich fly it around the planet
  And dump it on the doorsteps of the poor. 

And the fact that the murder of Sarah Everard, and the way it triggered deep-lying anger about structural misogyny in our society, seems to repeat what happened last year when the murder of George Floyd did the same for structural racism, only goes to show that we are stuck in a cycle. The anniversary puts us no further forward in the kind of world we want to live in, and nothing to show for the lesson of so many dead.

As I wrote in August, in the penultimate canto of my poem, addressing MacNeice:

And then autumn will come,
  And I’ll pass back the baton,
Let you handle your natural season,
  And I’ll be there waiting, in March, when you’re done.
For as long as there’s something vicious looming
  Beyond the horizon, and just as long
As we keep on getting things hopelessly wrong,
  We can keep this thing turning, from poem to poem.

Notes on creative writing: using cinema as a model for writing prose fiction even though I’m not that big a fan of cinema

The first in an occasional series of posts reflecting on bits and pieces I’ve learned teaching Creative Writing both previously at UEA and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and now, at City, University of London, where I run the MA/MFA Creative Writing, which is now recruiting for September 2021 entry.

I teach how to write of prose fiction, as that’s what I write. I’ve never written for the screen, and don’t watch that much film or television. All the same, there are some instances in my teaching where I lean on cinema, rather than novels or stories, for examples and instruction. 

One of these is to do with plotting and plot arcs. I’ll write about that another time. The other is to do with writing scenes between characters, and specifically to do with handling dialogue. 

The fact I’ve already used the word scenes suggests that I’m thinking in visual terms. After all, in our ordinary life we don’t consider the stuff we do, and our interactions with other people, as scenes all. We’re too much in them to think of them like that. But, even with a first person narrator, it’s useful to think of interactions between characters in a written narrative as scenes – discrete elements, with a start and a finish, and a reason for being. 

The two ways that I think of film as a useful guide to writing prose scenes is firstly in terms of dialogue, and then in terms of pacing. Some creative writing students dislike dialogue, and can write whole scenes with none of it at all. For others it’s the best way into drafting. You imagine your characters talking to each other, and that helps you drive towards your planned plot development. It’s easier, in a way, to make a character say something than do something. There’s less at stake. 

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February Reading 2021: Bennett, Rainsford, Galloway, Clark, Bonnet, Didion, de Kerangal, Levi

This post is built out of my year-long reading thread on Twitter, but expanded. You can read January’s reading round-up here.

I followed Claire Fuller’s Uncommon Ground with The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Two books about twins, which I read – in part – for a thing about twins in literature that I hope to be able to share soon. I was impressed by Bennett’s book without particularly being captivated by it. The characters were strong, and the through-line from generation to generation allowed her to cover a lot of ground. (The plot: twin light-skinned African-American girls in the Deep South of the 1960s go their separate ways, one passing as white, one staying black, their stories reconverging when their daughters meet, these two cousins having been entirely unaware of each other’s existence until they met.) 

The narrative is shared out, and I liked seeing the daughters’ lives given as much space as their mothers’, but somehow I felt the novel didn’t have a true centre of gravity, a moral place from which it was being told. Which means the novel’s climactic moment (no spoilers) didn’t really have the emotional punch I was expecting, and wanted This is one of those books that feels rather as if it’s a treatment for a television series. The characters are there, but the work needed to make them really count is not; it’s as if it’s been delegated to a hypothetical director and cast. (Book not pictured as it was a loan, now returned.)

Another twins book was Redder Days by Sue Rainsford, like Bennett an author I hadn’t read before. This was a weird, slippery novel that comes on like an eco-dystopian fiction (shades of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood), dropping us into an ailing world that’s reeling from the impact of some kind of viral cataclysm, and is now waiting feverishly for the oncoming end, a true apocalypse the characters call ‘The Storm’. 

But with its isolated setting and tight character list – centred around a pair of adult twins, their mother, and a guru who has drawn them out to a remote commune to await total destruction – it’s more local in its emotional dynamics than global.

This has a stronger narrative drive, with scenes following the twins Adam and Anna scraping by in their gradually unravelling survivalist commune interspersed with journal entries written by their guru, Koan, about the onset of the virus, of which he alone saw the danger from the first moment. 

The exact nature of the virus is left unclear, both in its origin and its effects. It seems to turn people into violent zombie-like automatons, but also to turn on themselves, licking at their skin where the red shows through like a cat, until they lick the skin right off. This is all described in a way I’d call poetically evasive, and often compellingly so, but at times I did wish for a bit more clarity. More to the point, why do the characters always have to talk like this too? Living the life they do, I’d have thought Anna and Adam might have been a bit less gnomic in their conversation. At times the writing reminded me of Don DeLillo, king of gnomic evocativeness, but I did want a bit more groundedness.

I read The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway too quickly, so as to be able to discuss it with a PhD student: looking for the angles, the quick and easy lessons. It’s not a novel that reads smoothly. Why should it be? It’s a novel about what was probably at the time called a nervous breakdown, as Joy, a single woman only barely getting by as a drama teacher and working weekends in a bookies battles anorexia and alcoholism on a remote Scottish council estate. The book is as fragmentary as her mind, with some really effective typographical play, including some of the most imaginative use of margins (and restrained at that: it wouldn’t work if there was more of it) I can remember seeing.

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Fiction Friday at The Common Breath

The editors Kirsten and Brian at The Common Breath kindly invited me to contribute to their Fiction Friday segment, with a series of bookish questions to answer.

Click here if you want to find out what book most influenced me as a young person, the books that get me through hard times, my favourite literary character and novel ending, my idea of a great novel, and a book that disappointed me.

(Clues in the cover image, but you’ll have to work out which is which, and – oh horror! – which book couldn’t I actually find? Where is it! Where is it!)