Close reading is one of the joys of academia. You have to read stuff over and over again, you can’t give it the benefit of the doubt, and let it just slide by you. Thus a multiple reading, among the chaos of a weekend when I probably should have been doing something familial, of David Means’ story The Gulch.
Short stories have such obvious pleasures, and yet are – for me – such hedged around with confusion and uncertainty, that I positively love it when someone instructs or encourages me to read one. One – out of so many.
Collections of short stories, it often seems to me, are quite the worst place to read short stories. The presence of so many others, equally good, a few pages to the left or the right, seem to make the piece you are reading embarrassingly contingent, at worst redundant, as if they’re somehow shrugging at their own existence.
It is the wonderful trick of the novel, the bossy, lazy, egotistical novel, to make you feel, as you are reading it, that it is somehow necessary, obvious, inescapable. That they are the only novel in your life. In between readings, if it’s a good one, the novel will percolate, stew, grow, run the laps of your synapses. It’s got stamina. It’s got the time and the space to include its own rereadings (repetitions). Stories, even those as good as The Gulch, demand rereadings – which is a risk: after all there are all those other stories right there waiting to be read.
The DeLillo jag (Point Omega, again, most of The Angel Esmerelda, Running Dog) was academia-related, too. Point Omega, on about the third reading, is increasingly brilliant. What I’m coming to admire most about DeLillo, once I get beyond the pacing and the dialogue (okay: the sentences – even the spaces between the words seem charged, the prose equivalent of the Pinter pause) is the insouciance with which he manages to bring tacky low-rent thrillerish elements into his ascetic, high-flown prose. In Point Omega he actually (okay: not actually at all) brings Norman Bates down off the screen in the plot of the novel. He’s got a serial killer in his book, for crying out loud. It shouldn’t work. It should be like having a clown tumble on stage in the middle of Swan Lake. But somehow he pulls it off. Continue reading
The launch of The White Review, the redesign of The Drawbridge, Areté still going strong, not to mention Ambit. With the sense that Granta, although perhaps a stronger magazine than it was a few years ago, is becoming more international, less distinctly British, the gap is there in the market for a replacement. If I want a literary journal to subscribe to, there is no shortage of options, so which should it be?
It turns out that over the last couple of years I’ve been buying single issues of literary and cultural journals, or magazines, or reviews, or quarterlies, or whatever they happen to call themselves, as if, consciously or unconsciously, I’ve been auditioning them for that very role. It’s time to get off the pot and sign on the direct debit dotted line.
Thinking about the precise elements that I’m looking for leads me to think, too, about what role, more generally, journals play in a reading life. You could go back to Puffin Post, or the NME, or 2000AD, but I suppose the moment that a journal really spoke to me with a genuine intellectual thrill was when in my late teens my parents gave me a subscription to Sight & Sound.
Cinema and I have since had a parting of the ways (it is an estrangement too complicated and bitter to go into here – suffice it to say that I look at a magazine like Little White Lies and wish, wish, wish that cinema and I were still friends) but the memory persists. Today, what I want, what I really, really want is a literary/cultural journal that does what Sight & Sound did then; that makes me feel engaged and informed in a way less parti pris than the cultural sections of the newspapers, and less dissipated and frenzied than the internet-based information channels.
I currently subscribe to Granta and McSweeney’s, and they both still get read, if not cover to cover. They are, though, a resource. (The TLS and LRB get read, from time to time, but I can’t store them – I want a journal that can sit on the shelves, and deserves its space on them; that is a usable resource, in short.) And the McSweeney’s are, of course, fantastically designed – distractingly so, even (as I blogged here). But these are essentially journals pushing new fiction (and, to a lesser extent, reportage and memoir.) Both make a point of excluding critical work. Which is fine, that’s their decision, but for my journal – my dream journal, the journal I want to call home – it is a fault. It somehow loosens them from the thread of history. Granta’s themed issues are often impressively urgent, but issue by issue it doesn’t answer to what I would portentously call ‘the spirit of the age.’
That’s what I’m after: the portentously-called spirit of the age.
So here are the magazines/journals/reviews I’ve bought recently, that I felt might fit the bill: Ambit (#203), Drawbridge (#19), Teller (#1), The Moth (#3), Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives (#4) and now The White Review (#1), to which I’ll also add Areté, although I don’t have a recent issue.
Let’s rattle though them:
Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives – this is a poetry magazine, from Norwich, thus I know one or two of the poets. It is impressively though simply designed, with some intriguing black and white illustrations made in response to the poetry. What it does, it does very well, but poetry is not my core interest or concern. So I pass on.
Teller – I blogged about this previously. It is certainly excellent value, especially considering the wealth of colour images, but the balance of text and image isn’t what I want – there is a comparative lack of weight to the prose selections. Moreover, it doesn’t have a spine, so disappears on the shelf. My ideal journal will call out to me as I pass, demand a second glance. A resource must be accessible, retrievable.
The Moth – I had high hopes of this; again it was inexpensive, but again it was stapled, so hard to keep track of on the shelves – in fact I can’t find my copy to write about it now. From memory, though, the fiction, of which there was plenty, was interesting rather than mind-blowing, and the non-fiction was limited to one interview.
Ambit – Ambit comes with a significant pedigree (look at that issue number – it’s been going for over fifty years!) and still upholds its support for the new and untried by refusing to commission anything. Everything it prints is unsolicited. Ambit looks good and feels good in the hand, with some b&w illustration. #203 has one thrillingly good short story (‘The Way We Live Now’ by Paul Goddard) and some equally good poetry, but really it’s the poetry/prose balance that put its out of my sweet spot, plus the only critical pieces are short poetry reviews. A remarkable and admirable publication, to be applauded for so doggedly carrying the torch for experimentation, but it doesn’t tick enough of the boxes for me, right now.
The Drawbridge – Although this is #19 in some ways it’s #1, as this intellectually out-looking journal has just relaunched in a new book-ish format. Previously, it came as a broadsheet newspaper and, I have to say, I preferred it that way. There was something exotic about reading short pieces of fiction and sometimes provocative non-fiction in this format: their length seemed to fit the constraints of the page layout. The new-look Drawbridge is, by contrast, an all-out luxury item – one issue of it costs as much as a year’s subscription to the old – and the artwork is now given proper space, not pressed into proximity with the text like photos and adverts in a newspaper, as previously.
What benefits the visual, however, harms the textual. The size of the page (19x26cm) simply doesn’t suit single column print – there’s too much white space; double column text might work better – and the exuberance of the colour images jumping out between each short stretch of prose seems to dominate proceedings, and suck energy from the words. The great benefit of the photo essay in Granta, by contrast, is that it keeps the visual element strictly constrained.
As for content, The Drawbridge is ambitiously international, with names like David Means, Mario Vargas Llosa, Italo Calvino and Julio Cortázar on the cover of this issue (together with others that I felt I ought to know but didn’t), though two of those are dead, and the Vargas Llosa piece is a squib about fear of flying that would certainly never have got published without his name attached. Such cosmopolitanism does, however, mean that it doesn’t feel particularly British or English – which is not a criticism, just that I’m after something that feels like it’s looking at the world from a particular cultural-geographic standpoint.
The final comment on the journal is that, like Granta, it gives each issue a theme, which to my mind is a demerit. Granta, at least, refuses to limit its themes to a single category (the last four are ‘Aliens’, ‘Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists’, ‘Pakistan’, ‘Going Back’). The Drawbridge sticks to nouns, often abstract (‘Flight’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Action’, ‘Money’) which often seems like a way of hedging their bets – appearing to be adventurous in their editorial process while keeping things vague enough to let any old thing in.
Areté – Another serious contender for the ideal journal, which I occasionally buy and often consider subscribing to. It is intellectually rigorous, with a pleasing balance between fiction and criticism; definitely British in outlook, though hardly parochial; featuring an impressive list of contributors; and elegantly presented, with a defiant lack of qualms about having no visual element whatsoever. If something has stopped me signing on the direct debit dotted line, it is the occasional snarky tone, with its combative ‘Our Bold’ sections and willingness to enter into internecine literary warfare that, though admirable in some respects, can be tiresome for the general reader.
By now I think I’ve worked out the criteria for my perfect literary quarterly:
- content should be largely divided between new fiction and new critical/non-fiction writing.
- visual art and poetry are secondary, and neither is indispensable.
- good design is more important than artwork.
- finally, it should situate itself historically and geographically, should look forwards and backwards in equal measure, should consider the portentously-named spirit of the age, and should do all of this from somewhere that feels rooted in the British intellectual heritage.
All of which is a preamble to the announcement that I have found what I hope will be the journal of my dreams, although, as it’s only at the first issue, that declaration of love could turn out to be drastically premature.
The White Review is a new British-based journal that fulfils all of these personal requirements. The first issue (170pp, 17x24cm – just that crucial bit smaller than The Drawbridge) contains three interviews (Tom McCarthy, Paula Rego and publisher André Schiffrin – whose name they misspell at one critical point) plus an illuminating discussion about cut-up innovator Brion Gysin, two stories, a handful of poems and prose-poems, one photo section with accompanying essay, and five further essays ranging from the critical to the reportage. That balance feels almost perfect to me.
The artwork, of which there is not too much, is all black and white, which I think in the end is preferable to the distraction of colour. The design is superb, with a marbled bookmark carrying the table of contents and an ingenious cover that folds out to form a poster (though its very origami-like beauty means it’s sadly at risk of damage over time, as it gets put in and out of bags, pulled on and off the shelf). At £14 – roughly the same as The Drawbridge but significantly more than £8 Areté – it’s expensive, but feels worth the money.
I haven’t read all of it yet, but everything that I have read was stimulating and felt like it belonged together with the other pieces. The interview with Tom McCarthy, especially, was a pleasant surprise; he came across as less arch than he has in other contexts, and set me happily scribbling notes and graphs into response to his comments about character and narrative. It’s neat, too, that one of the magazine’s two stories, ‘Beyond The Horizon’ by Patrick Langley, gives a nice echo of ‘C’, with its anonymous short-wave radio transmissions pulsing out through a fractured contemporary world.
The editors of The White Review set out their stall by referring to La Revue Blanche, a Parisian review of a century ago that rode the rising wave of Modernism, which epoque they honour with translations of two poems by Rimbaud contemporary Charles Cros (the translations presented, as they should be, alongside the originals). The names popping up in the other essays – George Steiner, Milan Kundera, Primo Levi – and the views taken on post-War German architecture and contemporary uprisings in India, show a cosmopolitan view, though certainly nothing to frighten the horses. Areté perhaps gives a stronger sense of its own, as opposed to a borrowed, or received identity.
Enough. I want to get back to reading, and to writing, which is the point after all. The upshot of my search? Reader, I subscribed to The White Review – though with a definite intention to do the same to Areté when funds become available.
Last week, in class, after we had discussed the Raymond Carver story ‘Gazebo’ I asked my students if they had read much else by that writer. All at once the class bloomed as they started sharing their favourite Carvers. Sometimes they could remember the titles, sometimes not, and never the names of the characters. What they did was retell the stories, a process that was something more than a simple plot summary or a paraphrase: they imbued their telling with a vital sense of narrative momentum, and enthusiasm. They told the stories excitedly. The others listened eagerly.
Then, on the train home, I read Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’, in which he laments the passing of the oral tradition (linking it to the rise of the novel), rather as he laments the loss of aura from the work of art in his more famous essay.
Later I thought back to the conversations I had had with my fellow tutor P as to what stories we were thinking of setting our students in this seminar. The conversations consisted in large part of us recounting favourite stories that the other didn’t know. In this we did exactly as those students, with their Carvers. I told P Lorrie Moore’s ‘Dance in America’, he told me ‘True Short Story’ by Ali Smith. I don’t know if P rushed out to read Moore, but I got hold of the Smith as soon as I could.
True, we did include some elements of analysis in those conversations – the stories we set were supposed to highlight particular themes: plot, characterisation, point of view and so on – but by and large, and at base, we said what happened to the characters in the story.
In thinking back on these varied experiences of retelling favourite stories (as speaker, listener and witness), and comparing them to the usually more measured terms in which the students discussed the stories I had set them in class, I got to thinking about that ghostly chimera of a holy grail that publishers like to speak of: word of mouth.
What is word of mouth? It’s saying, ‘I’ve just read a great book,’ yes, but it’s more than that. ‘It’s a great book’ will usually meet the rejoinder, ‘What’s it about?’ which can be answered in one of two ways. Either, ‘It’s about human despair in the face of mortality’ (thematic summary) or ‘It’s about a character whose mother dies and they go on a road trip to meet their father and… and… and…’
Word of mouth, true word of mouth – the good stuff, that actually sends the recommendee skipping off to the nearest bookshop or library – involves the impassioned retelling of a story. A word of mouth recommendation of a novel carries in it wisps and echoes of Benjamin’s lost oral tradition. The recommender becomes, in some minor way, a storyteller him- or herself – and the quality of their storytelling can be taken as a measure, in this instance, of the quality of the story retold.
Basically, a story retold with passion, concision and balance is likely to be a good story – because it’s been remembered, and internalised, and is rewarding to retell. That’s how word of mouth works. In recounting a short story or a novel for a friend, you are essentially filleting it for its story. The story in the story.
Compare this now to a book review. The perverse, insidious thing about book reviews, as everyone knows, is that they absolve the person reading it from actually reading the book. In non-fiction, obviously, this can be because the review summarises the book’s argument (oh, so that’s her take on New Labour/Modernism/weeds) but it happens with fiction reviews too. The difference is that the fiction review ties up a plot summary (though, compared to the word of mouth recommender’s, a thoroughly dispassionate one) with an aesthetic judgment of the work, even an explanation of it. Now here’s Benjamin:
Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one recounts it […] The most extraordinary things, marvellous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connections among the events are not forced on the reader.
In pop psychology terms, a book review offers closure that a word of mouth recommendation doesn’t. The book review gives us a story in the form of an autopsy report, the word of mouth recommendation in the form of a big wriggling bundle of characters, events and themes, thrust into our arms with the injunction to see what we make of it.
Obviously, there are stories that resist plot summary, and I’m rushing off right now to follow up P’s non-summarised recommendation of David Means (story in the New Yorker here) to test that out, but I’m talking about the broad middle ground here, the home of the ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story’ story.
A final thought. When someone asks you what your novel is ‘about’ (and again that’s always the terms in which the question is posed), they usually do so apologetically, acknowledging the reductionism it implies, but you should be grateful to them.
Even if you’re still writing your novel, and you’re all tangled up in the middle of it, lost in a wood made insistently of trees, think of this: they are asking exactly the same question they would ask of someone who’s just read your – published – novel: ‘What’s it about?’
Think of the answer you would want that person to give. That answer, if your novel ‘tells a story,’ involves – however briefly and reductively, but hopefully enthusiastically – telling the story of your story. That’s where the oral tradition lives on, in word of mouth.