‘After my own heart’: an occasional post after Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence

I was reading Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence last night, in the way that you’re supposed to, dipping into it, looking for something to snag my interest – either the writer of the sentence in question, or the sentence itself, or something Dillon might have to say – and I alighted on his section on Elizabeth Bowen, whose stories I also happen to haphazardly reading at the moment, because I’m reading Tessa Hadley’s stories, Hadley being a fan and literary descendent of sorts of Bowen… and, anyway, I read this passage:

As I write, I’m two thirds of the way through A Time in Rome, which [Bowen] published in 1960, and I think I have found, again, a writer after my own heart. How many times does it happen, dare it happen, in a life of reading? A dozen, maybe? There is a difference between the writers you can read and admire all your life, and the others, the voices for whom you feel some more intimate affinity. Could Elizabeth Bowen be turning swiftly into one of the latter, on account of her amazing sentences?

Which is marvellous, and sparked two particular thoughts, last night, and has sparked a couple more, this morning, as I sit down to write, on a Bank Holiday Sunday morning, at just gone 8am. There’s one, on the phrase “after my own heart”, that I really want to get to, so I’ll try to dispatch the other ones briefly.

Firstly, the word ‘affinity’, which is obviously an important word for Dillon: it was the name of Dillon’s next book, after all. It could just as easily have been the title of this one. What interests me about the word, however, is its aura of neutrality. When we think of the connections that get built between – as here – us as individual readers, and particular writers, we tend to look to one or the other as the active agent in the relationship. Either the writer is a genius – they seduce me, impress or overawe me – or I love the writer, I find something particular in them. But an affinity is bipartisan, and objective, as if unwilled by either. The chemical usage of the word is the most critically productive one, especially after Goethe applied it to human relationships in Elective Affinities, but in fact the original meaning was to do with relationships – in particular relationships not linked by blood, such as marriage, or god-parentship. I suppose, contra Goethe, what I like about the term is that these affinities that Dillon is talking about seem to be un- or non-elective, but weirdly, inexorably fated.

(NB I haven’t read Affinities yet, so maybe Dillon goes into all this in his book.)

The other brief thought from this morning was that, although Dillon does talk about Bowen’s fiction in his piece on her, the sentence he picks to write about is from her sort-of-travel book A Time in Rome. And this made me think of the death, last week, of Martin Amis, and how much of the online critical chat had an undercurrent of favouring the non-fiction (the journalism, and the first memoir) over the fiction (with a few exceptions, usually involving Money), and I wondered if anyone had really considered, at length, the legacy of writers that had written both fiction and non-fiction, and what it meant when one was favoured over the other. Susan Sontag wanted to be remembered as a novelist, but isn’t, and won’t be. It would surely appal Amis if he felt that it was his book reviews and interviews that we remembered him for. Geoff Dyer does talk about this a bit with reference to Lawrence in Out of Sheer Rage, but I’d like to read something broader. If a writer has a style, and that style is to an extent consistent over their fiction and non-fiction, then what are the conditions by which they become remembered, and stay read, after their death, for one rather than the other? Or, alternatively, is there a difference in terms of how a similar style applies to fiction, and non-fiction?

Now to the original point I wanted to make. Dillon’s paragraph on his relationship to Bowen is lovely, and I’m sure many readers will relate to it, as I did, but I was particularly struck by the phrase a writer after my own heart. “After my own heart” – it’s a strange and wonderful idiom, and sent me – it’s a Bank Holiday weekend – to the dictionary. ‘After’, after all, is a preposition that, like most prepositions, has a variety of different uses.

“After my own heart” could, for instance, have a sinister intent, as with hounds after a fox. The writer in pursuit of the reader’s heart. But it doesn’t mean that. It means “after the nature of; according to”, a usage going back to the Bible (“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit”, Romans 8:1-2) – though the specific usage of “a man after his own heart” isn’t recorded until 1882, when it appears in, of all places, The Guardian, attributed to one G. Smith. 

But the other meanings or uses of ‘after’ hover around the word. ‘After’, too, in the sense of “after the manner of; in imitation of”, as it’s used in art history – for example, Picasso’s The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velázquez). I remember a novel called After Breathless, by Jennifer Potter, that I read simply because it was inspired by A Bout de Souffle, my favourite film. “After my own heart” as critical interrogation.

And then the word ‘own’ in the phrase, too: after my own heart. It’s a phrase that is deeply, reverberantly embedded in the language from which it grows. It’s a phrase to conjure with. It’s an idiom, in other words.

My final brief thought, and again someone has probably written on this, but what exactly is the relationship between idiom and cliché? Does an idiom have to pass through the state of being a cliché before it can achieve this linguistic apotheosis? Is an idiom merely a cliché that has freed itself of the negative connotations of overuse – overuse with a single meaning – to allow itself to take on other meanings. Because that’s the problem with clichés, isn’t it? Not that they’re overfamiliar as phrases – as signifiers – but because their overuse has obliterated the meaning the phrase intends. The site of meaning has been rubbed raw.


Books of the Year 2022

Reading habits and outcomes change according to personal inclination, of course, but also according to external factors: life circumstances, temperament and age, the demands of a job. All of which is to say I’ve read fewer new books this year than in the past. I review less than I used to, certainly, and when I read for work (teaching Creative Writing at City, University of London) I’m more interested in the books that came out a year or two ago, and that have perhaps started to settle into continued relevance, than the whizz-bang must-read of the year.

Of the new books I have read, that have made a lasting impression, here are seven:

Ghost Signs by Stu Hennigan (Bluemoose) is an unforgettable journal of the 2020 Covid pandemic lockdown, during which the author was furloughed from his job working for Leeds City Council libraries and volunteered to deliver food parcels to vulnerable people and families. The eerie descriptions of empty motorways and fearful faces peering round front doors evoke that weird time in 2020, but the true and lasting impact of the book comes from Hennigan’s realisation that the poverty and distress he discovers in his adopted city isn’t down to the pandemic at all, but to entrenched government policies that have forced council services to the brink, and thousands of people into shamefully desperate circumstances. It’s a political book, sure, but one written out of necessity, rather than out of desire or ideology, and one that you want every politician in the country to read, and quickly, so that the responsibility for dealing with the issues it raises passes to them, rather than resting with Hennigan. (That’s the problem with writing books like this, isn’t it? That by being the person who identifies or expresses the problem, you become inextricably linked to it, a spokesperson, a talking head, with all the emotional labour that implies.)

(Ghost Signs isn’t in the photo because I’ve given away or lent both copies I’ve owned.)

I heard Hennigan read from and talk about the book at The Social in Little Portland Street, London this year, and the same goes for Wendy Erskine, who was promoting her second collection of short stories, Dance Move (Picador). Erskine is one of the most talented short story writers in Britain and Ireland today, and I’ll read pretty much anything she writes. Dance Move is at least as good as her first collection, Sweet Home, and if you made me choose I’d say it’s better. The stories are muscly, chewy. Erskine has had to wrestle with them, you can tell. They are worked. She takes ordinary characters and by introducing some element that might be plot, but isn’t quite, she forces their ordinary lives into unprecedented but gruesomely believable shapes. These stories are perfect examples of the idea that plot and dramatic incident should be at once surprising and inevitable. But the thing I love most about her stories (I wrote a blog post about it here) is how she ends them:

You are so immersed in these characters’ lives that you want to stay with them, but the deftness of the narrative interventions means that the stories aren’t wedded to plot, so can’t end with a traditional narrative climax or denouement. 

(As David Collard said, in response to my original tweets, “Wendy Erskine’s stories don’t end, they simply stop” – which is so true. Perhaps it would be even better to say, they don’t finish, they simply stop.) 

So how does she end them? She kind of twists up out of them, steps out of them as you might step out of a dress, leaving it rumpled on the floor. In a way that’s the true ‘dance move’: the ability to leave the dance floor, mid-song, and leave the dance still going. 

Take the story ‘Golem’, definitely one of my favourites in the collection. It’s a story that does everything Erskine’s stories do. It densely inhabits its characters’ lives, and it has its comic-surreal interior moments, but most incredibly of all, it manages to end at the perfect unexpected moment. The story goes on, but the narrative of it ends. It departs, exits the room, taking us with it.

Perhaps the best way to put it is that you feel that, yes, the characters are ready to live on, and yes, you’d be ready to keep on reading the prose and the dialogue forever, but no, you wouldn’t want the stories themselves to last a single sentence longer. 

My other favourite short story collection of the year is We Move by Gurnaik Johal (Serpent’s Tail), which is a thoroughly impressive debut, that again seems to show how short stories can be the perfect receptacle for characters: they give us characters, rather than plot, rather even than writing, or prose, or words. The difference between this and Dance Move is that We Move, to an extent, looks like the traditional debut-collection-as-novelist’s-calling-card. I’d love to read a novel by Johal – or for Erskine, for that matter, but equally I’d love her to just go on writing stories, because the more people like her keep writing stories, rather than novels, the stronger and more vital the contemporary short story as form will be.

My Mind to Me A Kingdom Is by Paul Stanbridge (Galley Beggar – publisher of my debut novel, though I don’t know Paul) is an exquisite piece of writing that does live or die by its sentences. (Narrator: it lives). An account of the aftermath of the author’s brother, it is indebted to WG Sebald, in terms of the way it leans on and deals out its gleanings of learning, but also in terms of how its lugubriousness slides at times into a form of humour, or perhaps of playfulness. No mean feat when you’re writing about a sibling who killed himself. A hypnotising read.

My most unexpectedly favourite book of the year was Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell (Faber), which I wrote about for The Lonely Crowd, here. I didn’t know I needed a biography of a Sixteenth Century English Metaphysical poet in my life, but Rundell fairly grabs your lapels and insists you read him. Frankly I’d read any book that contains lines like “A hat big enough to sail a cat in” and “joy so violent it kicks the metal out of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you” in it.

My final new book of the year is We Still Have the Telephone by Erica van Horn (Les Fugitives), which I received as a part of a support-the-publisher subscription. It’s a delightfully sly and spare account of the author’s relationship with her mother. “My mother and I have been writing her obituary” etc. One to file alongside Nicholas Royle’s Mother: A Memoir, and Nathalie Léger’s trilogy of Exposition, Suite for Barbara Loden and The White Dress (also from Les Fugitives) as great recent books about mother-child relationships.

A mention here too for Reverse Engineering (Scratch Books) which is a great idea: a selection of recent short stories accompanied by short craft interviews with their authors. It’s got succeed on two levels: the stories themselves have to be worth reading, and the interviews have got to add something more. It succeeds on both, with wonderful stories from some of our best contemporary story writers: Sarah Hall (at her best the best contemporary British short story writer), Irenosen Okojie, Jon McGregor, Chris Power, Jessie Greengrass etc, and useful commentary. I look forward to reading more in the series.

(Copy not shown in photo as loaned out.)

I’ll include another section here on new books, but new books written by writer friends or colleagues: Cells by Gavin McCrea (Scribe) is a jaw-droppingly raw and honest memoir that bristles with insight, and revelation, and liquid prose. Keeping in Touch (also Scribe) is my favourite yet of Anjali Joseph’s novels, a properly grown-up rom-sometimes-com, that makes you want to get on airplanes, travel the world, travel your own country, wherever that is, talk to people, work people out, and fall in love, which is perhaps the same thing. And Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris (Duckworth) is a novel I’ve been waiting more than a decade to read, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a moving and delicate told narrative of the siege of Sarajevo, that perhaps wasn’t best served by its publication date just as something horribly similar was happening in and to Ukraine. Finally, 99 Interruptions is the latest slim missive from Charles Boyle, who published my Covid poem Spring Journal in his CB Editions. It sits alongside his pseudonymous By the Same Author as a perfect short book – with the same proviso that it’s so damned slim that it’s easy to lose. And indeed barely a month after buying it I already can’t find it to put in the photo. No matter. I’ll find it, months or years hence, by accident, and enjoy rereading it all the more for that.

For various reasons, this was a strong year for me for successfully finishing fat chunky classics that I’d tried and failed to read in the past: the kind of book I usually can’t read unless I can organise my life around it.

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London Consequences 2 – a collaborative novel

Announcing a new and very exciting collaborative writing project: London Consequences 2.

London Consequences 2 is a collaborative novel being written from September to December 2022 by a collection of amazing contemporary writers (see below!). It is organised and curated by David Collard, Jonathan Gibbs and Michael Hughes, and is a creative response and homage to a little-known but very interesting book published 50 years ago called, yes, London Consequences.

London Consequences was a collaborative novel written for the 1972 Festivals of Britain and edited by Margaret Drabble and BS Johnson. Drabble and Johnson co-wrote an opening chapter, and then passed the manuscript on to a series of 18 writers (including Melvyn Bragg, Olivia Manning and Eva Figes) who each wrote one chapter before passing it on, until it returned to the editors, who co-wrote the closing chapter. The published book listed the contributing novelists, but each chapter was anonymous, giving readers the fun parlour-game challenge of trying to work out who wrote what. (There was a £100 reward for whoever could successfully do this – as yet we have no idea if this was collected!)

Original writers:
Paul Ableman
John Bowen
Melvyn Bragg
Vincent Brome
Peter Buckman
Alan Burns
Barry Cole
Eva Figes
Gillian Freeman

Jane Gaskell
Wilson Harris
Rayner Heppenstall
Olivia Manning
Adrian Mitchell
Julian Mitchell
Andrea Newman
Piers Paul Read
Stefan Themerson

The original novel features a middle-class London couple, Anthony (a journalist) and his wife Judith (a mother and housewife) on a single day – Easter Sunday, 1971 – as they navigate the capital, and their relationship with each other. It was published in 1972 by the Greater London Arts Association, with a cover price of 65p.

The idea for this new project came about in a strange and serendipitous way. In April 2022 I turned 50, and Michael Hughes gave me as a present a copy of London Consequences, which I read and very much enjoyed. I tweeted that it would be a fun idea to do a contemporary version, to which David Collard, who knew the original, responded by throwing down the gauntlet. We should do it, he said. 

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Occasional review, of sorts: Dance Move, by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is the second story collection from Wendy Erskine, following Sweet Home, which had some killer stories in. Dance Move is a more consistent and impressive collection, I think. There are some stone-cold classics in it, five at least that I feel I will be reading for the rest of my life, and certainly none that don’t leave an impact.

There are three things that impress and astonish me about Erskine’s writing, and that’s what I’m going to write about in this blog post, which isn’t really a review. (There’s a single spoiler right towards the end).

So, here’s what I love about Erskine’s stories:

i) the ‘realness’ of the people that she writes about.

I want to say you can barely call them ‘characters’, they’re so real, and yes I know that sounds cheesy. But they are the kinds of people you simply don’t read about in most contemporary literature (or not the literature I read, anyway). They make most characters in books look like they’ve either been put there for a reason – because the writer wants to make a point: character as sock-puppet or a straw man – or else they’ve been put there for no reason at all: the writer can’t imagine anything other than a faceless avatar of their own desires and fears.

Erskine’s characters aren’t like this. They are the reason why people mention Chekhov around her name. The characters are ‘ordinary’, but not in a fill-the-blanks way, or a central casting misfits way (like those model agencies that recruit ‘interesting-looking’ ugly people), but in an organic, from-the-inside-out, seemingly verifiable way. Because – cheesy again – nobody in real life is entirely ordinary. They’ve all got some weirdness going on. That ordinary weirdness is what Erskine’s characters have got.

ii) the very un-Chekhovian twists she gives her narratives.

The gun not hanging over the mantlepiece, but in the attic. (And you can be damn sure that if the gun’s going to be fired, it’s not because Chekhov said so.) The faded pop star’s call out of the blue for one last gig. The sister/sister-in-law’s mega-expensive party. These interventions hover around the surreal, while remaining entirely believable. I don’t mean formally or programmatically surreal, but surreal in the way they affect the characters’ lives. They are at once overwhelmingly weird, and able to be taken in the stride. They are surreal in context, not form.

And iii) the way she ends her stories.

She ends her stories brilliantly. You are so immersed in these characters’ lives (that Chekhov thing again) that you want to stay with them, but the deftness of the narrative interventions means that the stories aren’t wedded to plot, so can’t end with a traditional narrative climax or denouement.

(As David Collard said, in response to my original tweets, “Wendy Erskine’s stories don’t end, they simply stop” – which is so true. Perhaps it would be even better to say, they don’t finish, they simply stop.) 

So how does she end them? She kind of twists up out of them, steps out of them as you might step out of a dress, leaving it rumpled on the floor. In a way that’s the true ‘dance move’: the ability to leave the dance floor, mid-song, and leave the dance still going. 

Take the story ‘Golem’, definitely one of my favourites in the collection. It’s a story that does everything Erskine’s stories do. It densely inhabits its characters’ lives, and it has its comic-surreal interior moments, but most incredibly of all, it manages to end at the perfect unexpected moment. The story goes on, but the narrative of it ends. It departs, exits the room, taking us with it.

Perhaps the best way to put it is that you feel that, yes, the characters are ready to live on, and yes, you’d be ready to keep on reading the prose and the dialogue forever, but no, you wouldn’t want the stories themselves to last a single sentence longer. In this she’s the opposite of Alice Munro, who has the miraculous ability to extend her stories beyond where you think they surely must end. (Think ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, or the incredible ‘Train’, from Dear Life.)

(NB, Wendy talked at her Social reading about ending stories, and it was great, and I thought I’d taken some notes, but I don’t think I did, so some of this is probably stolen from her. The only note I did take, I now see, is “against central casting”, which I now see I did steal. So it goes.)

In fact there’s one story in Dance Move where I wanted Erskine to ‘go Munro’, to stretch the possibilities of narrative: the opening story.

[Mild spoiler follows]

‘Mathematics’ introduces us to Roberta, a cleaner, likely cognitively impaired after a childhood accident, and happy enough in the circumscribed world of her job and life. (So far, so Chekhov.) Then, on a job, she discovers a primary school-aged girl in a hotel room, abandoned by her mother.

Six pages in, and Erskine has blown the floor out from under her story. Roberta tries to return the girl to her mother, via her school, but ends up looking after her. The ‘stakes’, for a story by Wendy Erskine, are incredibly high. So much could go wrong. We are so willing them to go right. Erskine has done something she doesn’t normally do: she has reached up out of the page, grabbed me by the hair and pulled me down into the story, forcing me to connect emotionally with the story. Normally she is too cool for that. (And that’s fine. I like her for that.)

And the story succeeds. Erskine pushes it just far enough, and then she does her brilliant effortless thing of deftly stepping out of it, ascending, quitting the room, leaving the dress on the floor, giving just enough for us to be sure that Roberta will go on with the narrative, on our behalf. 

But, BUT, I wanted, I really wanted the story to continue, and for the floor to be blown out again. I wanted that rush again. Damn.

Thanks to Picador for the original proof copy of Dance Move. I was very happy to purchase my own copy of the hardback at Wendy’s brilliant reading at The Social, London, last week, though I had to leave before I could ask her to sign it.

Books of the year 2021

Here then are my best books of 2021 – which I’m limiting to books published in that year.

(Of books read for the first time and not published this year that I loved, I’d mention Sandra Newman’s wondrous The Heavens, Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, M John Harrison’s Climbers and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.)

Looking at this stack, I see some powerfully good writing, some fine novels and short story collections and memoirs variously entertaining (Royle) and painfully exposing (Dochartaigh). Overall, it seems quite a middle-of-the-road selection, and if it seems to me slightly disappointing then perhaps that’s because all but one of the books are by writers I have already read, and so fully expected to enjoy. (Some of the writers, it has to be said, I know personally to a greater or lesser degree: Claire Fuller, Gavin McCrea, Chris Power, Nicholas Royle.) 

So let’s say it wasn’t particularly a year of great discovery for me, which is a shame, and something that only really occurs to me as I write this round-up. Books can offer reassurance and comfort, and they can offer the thrill of the new. They are something you can settle into, or something that can unsettle you as it broadens your understanding of the world, and of reading as an endeavour and an experience. Newman’s The Heavens – the only one of those four ‘old’ books mentioned above that was by a new-to-me writer – surprised me as it unfolded, which is perhaps even more rare than surprising you from the off, with a rollicking premise or an unprecedented, irrepressible voice.

The one new-to-me writer on the ‘best of new books’ pile is Kerri ní Dochartaigh, whose memoir Thin Places I read in its entirety on the penultimate day of the year – so it’s possible that it benefits from recency. I didn’t completely love it from the start – there is a tendency, especially in its prologue, towards purple prose, and imagery that seems to be scattered into the prose too incautiously, like herbs in cooking – but it settles into its telling and the rationale of its narrative approach becomes more convincing the clearer it becomes.

The book is the story of a life lived under the shadow of the Troubles and the trauma induced by it, even when the author flees from her home town of Derry. She has a petrol bomb thrown through her bedroom window at the age of 11, her best friend is brutally murdered at the age of 16, her family breaks up and disintegrates, she experiences abusive relationships, addiction and suicidal thoughts. All of this is approached through what might be termed nature writing, as is common elsewhere, but this is done very much in the abstract, through the experience of remembering or recasting experience, rather than trying to take us through the experience as they might have happened. It is contemplative, rather than immersive. It helps, too, that Dochartaigh frames her story through a consideration of the damage that Brexit has done and is still doing to Northern Ireland. She looks outward, and onward, as well as inward, and back. There is repetition in the prose, but this takes the form of slight, extended echo, rather than insistent stuttering. If the writing is intended or effected as a process of healing, then that is because she uses language to stitch sentences – not to close wounds but to fashion bandages. You can see the work the words are doing.

The novel that surprised me the most – that felt most like a discovery – was Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19, which weaves and leaps with the strangeness of its voice: weirder and more vivacious I think than in Pond, her debut. It is a – possibly – autofictional account of a life lived in thrall to books, with quite simple anecdotes put through the wringer of this way of telling: swerving and recursive, like a childish Beckett making itself sick on sweets. This (non-) story then takes a capricious and absolutely unpredictable left-turn into an account of a ludicrous fictional character called Tarquin Superbus. I said in my original Twitter response that it left me in a state of energised perplexity – “I want to read it again, to see if I can understand it. But I don’t want to understand it” – and although I haven’t yet reread it, I have picked it up and glanced at it, and I do still very much want to reread it.

For the first time in 2021 I built a Twitter thread responding to all the books I finished (you can start it here), with the idea that this would help me with my monthly reading round-up blog posts, though unfortunately it replaced them rather than aided them. I only got as far as May, and then stopped. There were of course reasons for this, but I’m not yet sure how I will proceed next year. 

As I’ve said before, this thread, and those posts, only offer a partial account of my reading: they are the books I read from cover to cover, and there are plenty of books I thoroughly enjoyed that I didn’t read completely, most obviously essays and short stories. It is noteworthy that the two short story collections that show up in this pile are ones that lend themselves to reading in full: Brandon Taylor’s phenomenally good Filthy Animals because of the linked stories following a trio of characters that thread through the book, and Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies because of a more subtle narrative development that means the stories seem to kind of drift into autofiction towards the end, or rather seem to abandon plot development for a more thematic cluster of concerns. Read out of sequence they might seem rather the less for it. I wrote about Caldwell’s book here.

The continuation of my A Personal Anthology project (now approaching two thousand individual short story recommendations) means that I read lots and lots of short stories, but these rarely get mentioned. It would be great to think of a way to make this happen.

My job teaching Creative Writing at City, University of London, means that I also read a lot to work out what books I want my students (undergrad and postgrad) to be reading. This means I half-read a lot more books than I read in full. I half-read a lot of creative non-fiction this year, as I worked up to the launch of the MA/MFA Creative Writing, with its non-fiction strand. You can read about my selection process here.

I’m starting 2022 with a side-project to read Finnegans Wake a page a day in a group read organised by Paper Pills aka @ReemK10, and I have one other idea that may or may not come to fruition. Looking at my 2021 reading I feel the lack of a big classic in there – a Middlemarch, Proust or Magic Mountain. Another Mann is a possibility (Buddenbrooks or Joseph and his Brothers), and with every year that passes the fact of not having read Anna Karenina seems to loom more darkly. Two immediate work reading projects mean that I can’t think about that now.

Finally, my reading is always at odds with my writing. I am close to finishing a first draft of a novel that should have been done a year ago, but then I tell myself that I wrote a book-length poem in 2020 (Spring Journal, which you can still buy of course from the publisher, the brilliant CB Editions), and I launched a postgraduate degree in 2021, so perhaps 2022 will be the year it gets submitted. 2021 did also see the shortlisting of a story of mine – ‘A Prolonged Kiss’ – for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, which was thrilling. You can find the story in its initial publication in The Lonely Crowd, and listen to it read brilliantly on Audible.

Notes on creative writing: crowd-sourcing a Non-Fiction reading list

One of the most fun parts of the job of being a lecturer in Creative Writing ­is putting together reading lists. As Programme Director for the relaunched, redesigned MA/MFA Creative Writing Programmes at City, University of London – which is still open for application for this September – part of my job is helping assemble a reading list for the Non-Fiction workshop strand. 

Last week I pulled together a bunch of the books I think would work well on the course, took a photo of them and posted it on Twitter, asking people what books they’d have on their reading list.

I posted the photo on Thursday afternoon, and at the time of writing the tweet has had over 260 replies, almost all of them suggesting books, often multiple books. If you want to read the full thread, it’s here.

I couldn’t reply to all of suggestions, but I thought it would be useful to collate the responses, to see which writers get picked the most, and which books mentioned. 

Before I go into the suggestions, I’m going to share a few thoughts about what makes a good reading list, and what kinds of books I like put on them. 

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Instead of June reading 2021: the fragmentary vs the one-paragraph text – Riviere, Hazzard, Offill, Lockwood, Ellmann, Markson, Énard etc etc

This isn’t really going to function as a ‘What I read this month’ post, in part because I haven’t read many books right through. (Lots of scattered reading as preparation for next academic year. Lots of fragmentary DeLillo for an academic chapter I filed today, yay!)

Instead I’m going to focus on a couple of the books I read this month, and others like them: Weather by Jenny Offill, and Dead Souls, by Sam Riviere. I wrote about the fragmentary nature of Offill’s writing last month, when I reread her Dept. of Speculation after reading Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This (the month before), all three books written or at least presented in isolated paragraphs, with often no great through-flow of narrative or logic to carry you from paragraph to paragraph. 

Riviere’s novel, by contrast, is written in a single 300-page paragraph, albeit in carefully constructed and easy-to-parse sentences. And, as it happens, I’ve just picked up another new novel written in a single paragraph – this one in fact in a single sentence: Lorem Ipsum by Oli Hazzard. I haven’t finished it, but it helped focus some thoughts that I’ll try to get down now. These will be rough, and provisional.

Questions (not yet all answered):

  • What does it mean to present a text as isolated paragraphs, or as one unbroken paragraph?
  • Is it coincidence that these various books turned up at the same time?
  • Does it tell us something about ambitions or intentions of writers just now?
  • Are fragmentary and single-par forms in fact opposite, and pulling in different directions?
  • If they are, does that signify a move away from the centre ground? If not, what joins them?

Let’s pull together the examples that spring to mind, or from my shelves:

Recent fragmentary narratives:

  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (2021)
  • Weather (2020) and Dept. of Speculation (2014) by Jenny Offill
  • Assembly by Natasha Brown (2021) ­– in part, it jumps around, I haven’t read much of it yet.

And further back;

  • This is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson (2016) A brilliant memoir written in block paragraphs, but allowing for a certain ‘through-flow’ of idea and argument.
  • This is Memorial Device by David Keenan (2017) – normal-length (mostly longish) paragraphs, but separated by line breaks, rather than indented.
  • Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (2015) – a series of long-ish numbered paragraphs, separated by line breaks.
  • Unmastered by Katherine Angel (2012) – fragmentary aphoristic non-fiction, not strictly speaking narrative.
  • Various late novels by David Markson, from Wittgenstein’s Mistress onwards
  • Tristano by Nanni Balestrini (1966 and 2014) – a novel of fragmentary identically-sized paragraphs, randomly ordered, two to a page. The paragraphs are separated by line breaks, but my guess is that the randomness drives the presentation on the page.

Recent all-in-one-paragraph narratives:

  • Lorem Ipsum by Oli Hazzard (2021)
  • Dead Souls by Sam Riviere (2021)
  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (2019)

And further back:

  • Zone (2008) and Compass (2015) by Mathias Énard
  • Various novels by László Krasznahorkai, of which I’ve only read Satantango (1985) – a series of single-paragraph chapters.
  • Various novels by Thomas Bernhard, of which I’ve only read Correction (1975) and Concrete (1982)
  • The first chapter of Beckett’s Molloy (1950) is a single paragraph, as is the last nine tenths of The Unnameable(1952)
  • The final section of Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922)

So, my thoughts:

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

In very exciting news my short story ‘A Prolonged Kiss’ 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)
Susan Choi – ‘Flashlight’ (The New Yorker)
Laura Demers – ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (Granta)
Elizabeth McCracken – ‘The Irish Wedding’ (The Atlantic)
Rachael Fulton – ‘Call’
and ‘A Prolonged Kiss’ by me.

On Thursday 1st July the London Library hosted an online event with the six shortlisted writers and judges David Mitchell and Andrew Holgate which you can watch here.

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 was announced on July 8, 2021, and it was ‘Flashlight’ by Susan Choi, which I absolutely can’t argue with as a choice. It’s a phenomenally strong story, wonderfully shaped, with great scene-writing and dialogue, and some feather-light touches of brilliance in the plotting. I read it, frankly, in awe and envy, and I love it!

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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