Celebrated Trinidadian novelist VS Naipaul says that female writers are ‘unequal’ to him. It’s their ‘sentimentality, the narrow view of the world’. There’s more but I can’t be bothered to quote it. Life’s too short. What really pisses me off, though, is not so much the idiocy of his comments but the fact that the literary establishment will continue to keep its tongue lodged firmly up Sir Vidia’s arsehole, routinely describing him as ‘the greatest living writer of English prose’, among other obsequious encomia. Will they finally disown this shambling, self-regarding, boorish idiot? Will they fuck.
Google ‘I hate short stories’ and you very soon find yourself wading thigh-high through dismaying outpourings of bile. I’ve nothing against outpourings of bile, of course; that would be hypocritical. But you’ve got to at least try to make it entertaining, euphonious bile that isn’t a chore to read. If it can be funny and enlightening, so much the better.
Horror novelist Sarah Pinborough declares on Facebook: ‘… short stories are pointless to me as a writer… I don’t like doing them (I’m too busy) and they pay like shite for the amount of thought, effort etc.’ The editor for whom she is engaged in this pointless expense of thought and effort for ‘shite’ reward, Jonathan Oliver, comments on her comment: ‘Cheers Sarah. Glad to hear you’re enjoying it.’ He appends an ambiguous emoticon that could be either a smiley or a sad face. Does he owe her the kindness of ambiguity? Does he fuck.
Enigmatic author JF Quackenbush writes in Wet Asphalt: ‘I don’t like short stories. I have never made this a secret.’ He (I assume, although I don’t know why) goes on to argue that short stories are ‘a marketing tool, not a sensible aesthetic unit’. Is that the case? Is it fuck. He adds, ‘Nobody makes money from short stories and most people don’t have any interest in short stories.’ It’s hard to argue with him there, once you’ve allowed him the kind of exaggeration associated with generalisation, although he must be aware of the huge cash prizes available for a tiny minority of short story writers that exist in the UK and presumably also on his side of the Atlantic. Plus, as he very well knows, top – as well as top-shelf – magazines pay handsomely for fiction, and more modest publications pay what they can. He then opines that literary magazines are publishing stories that amount to no more than ‘pablum’, which, when cast out into the world, acts as bait for agents (he puts it less elegantly). Do agents sit around reading literary magazines? I mean apart from Granta. Do they fuck. They ought to, of course, they ought to be reading Ambit and Warwick Review and London Magazine and Wasafiri and numerous others, but they’re too busy calculating their auction bids for the latest celebrity memoir.
Quackenbush thoughtfully concludes: ‘Because short stories are nothing more than a vehicle for recognition by most writers, they don’t matter.’ He excludes Twain, Borges, Kafka and Marquez from his general argument, by the way. They’ll be relieved. ‘I am a writer. I have a decent resumé myself,’ he adds. Are we rushing to find out what he’s written? Are we fuck.
The Guardian Books Blog is always good for a bit of lively debate. ‘Is the short story really the novel’s poor relation?’ asked Chris Power in March 2011, while a sub helpfully captioned a photograph of JG Ballard, one of our greatest short story writers, ‘… short stories are “loose change in the treasury of fiction”’. The remainder of the quote reveals what Ballard actually meant: ‘… the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit’.
Glasgow-based writer and critic Richard W Strachan writes on his blog, ‘I hate short stories – I hate writing them, and I hate reading them.’ But, you know what, he’s joking. He was just in a paddy because he was finding his latest story hard to write. That’s the way to respond to the difficulty of one of our most demanding literary forms, with humour rather than blatant disrespect.
Meanwhile, back at Sarah Pinborough’s Facebook page, the reluctant author reports that her short story is finished, at just over 10,000 words. Nice little earner, but has she earned our respect as readers? Has she fuck. As for the story itself, let’s reserve judgment until the anthology for which it was dragged out of her, like a barbed hook from the mouth of a trout, is published in October.
I wouldn’t normally look at an ad, but the one on the back of today’s Observer New Review is worth a minute or two of your time. It’s an ad for the Kindle. It’s basically a big picture of a Kindle ‘open’ at page one of William Boyd’s novel Ordinary Thunderstorms. My eye was drawn to the mistake in the first line. An en-dash is used with the words either side closed up to it. The same mistake is repeated on line three and then again, twice, in line seven. If you want to close your words up to your dash, which is conventional American rather than British usage – you use an em-dash, so called because it’s as long as the letter ‘m’. The en-dash – well, you can work it out.
So, in the William Boyd, either they should have used em-dashes, to mimic American style, or they should have inserted spaces either side of each dash, to render the correct British usage.
Picky? How about this, then? At the end of line eleven there’s a great big empty space. Is it the end of a paragraph? No. Is the empty space forced by some unfortunate combination of hyphenated adjectival phrases? No. Is it just an empty space? Yes.
And in case you missed it, there’s another at the end of line twenty.
The opening page of the printed version of Ordinary Thunderstorms is not littered with mistakes like these.
But there are six mistakes on the first page of the Kindle version, if this ad’s anything to go by. Is it a good ad? Does it tempt me to give up on the book and switch to Amazon’s ‘electronic reading device’? Does it fill me with confidence that they have even the remotest idea what they’re doing? Does it fuck.
Commonword is launching a new short story anthology authored by its Womanswrite group. Are there any men in it? Are there fuck. Virago is celebrating more than thirty years of publishing books for and by women. Does it publish any men? Does it fuck. Myslexia is a magazine for ‘women who write’. Will you come across any stories by men in it? Will you fuck. The Orange Prize for Fiction celebrates ‘excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world’. Can men enter it? Can they fuck.
Do women like it when female authors are referred to as ‘women writers’? Do they fuck.
So Morrissey is writing his autobiography and is keen to see it published by Penguin, but only if they’ll agree to publish it as a Penguin Classic. Anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with Morrissey’s career and his many peculiar pronouncements over the years will not be greatly be surprised by this. It’s par for the self-aggrandisement course.
Who comes out of this story the more sad, sorry and desperate? Penguin, of course. Determined to win the battle for the wordsmith’s signature, the publisher seems happy to agree to his absurd request and make his book an instant classic. The Smiths planned to release a single, ‘You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet, Baby’, which was aborted. Penguin should abort their plans to sacrifice their standards just to make a fast buck. Will they, though? Will they fuck.
The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2011 has been won by American author Anthony Doerr, who pockets £30,000 for his story ‘The Deep’. If you were running the ‘world’s most valuable short story prize’ and you also had the editorial pages of the Sunday Times at your disposal, you’d print the winning story, wouldn’t you? In its entirety. I mean, you wouldn’t print an abridged version, would you? Not when the story’s only 6000 words. That would just be a bit crap, wouldn’t it.
Never mind. You can read the full version on the Sunday Times website, which you’ll find behind its paywall.
In the same place, under the heading Fast Fiction, you’ll find a number of short stories. Could they make them sound any more disposable if they tried? Could they fuck. Has the Sunday Times actually paid every single one of those writers for their stories, which we have to pay to read? The lesser-known authors as well as the famous names? Has it fuck.
Michel Faber’s column in the Author, Author slot in the Guardian can’t go unremarked upon. I don’t know if they post it online; I feel too bilious to go looking for it. ‘A few days ago, watching a TV show,’ Faber begins disingenuously, like we don’t know that the adaptation of his doorstop novel The Crimson Petal and the White is currently showing on BBC2, ‘I got tears in my eyes.’ Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by his apparent lack of insight into how this opening might be received by the neutral reader, since he goes on to admit that ‘I’m tough to crack. Pathos and poignancy are, to me, tactics and techniques; in my work as a writer I fetch them from my toolbox and use them as required’.
What about pomposity, condescension and narcissism? Presumably they’re not to be found in his toolbox, since they all appear to be part of his make-up. Someone – his agent, his editor, his publicist, his wife? – should advise Faber on how his public pronouncements come across. ‘The mere fact of my novel being filmed means very little to me’; ‘But listen: I want to tell you a story’; ‘But, to my surprise, I’ve just seen something on TV that I feel has its own artistic integrity and its own emotional power’.
Has he got the slightest clue what he sounds like? Has he fuck.
Just got the February Prospect. It’s a good magazine; I look forward to it. The first thing I always turn to is the short story. Increasingly, however, it’s a story plucked from a collection by author X that just happens to be on the verge of publication. So, instead of being a story written on spec by author Y that was sent in and happened to appeal to the magazine’s fiction editor, or a story commissioned by the fiction editor from author Y, because the editor has a nose for this and is confident of getting a good story out of author Y – instead of these, either of which would be great, what we get instead is marketing. We get a story from author Z’s forthcoming collection. Complacent, lazy editing.
Worse still – and this has happened a few times since Alexander Linklater, a strong supporter of the short story, left the magazine – we get, not a short story at all, but a novel extract. Novel extracts make stories excerpted from new collections look like the stuff of Pulitzer Prizes. Again, it’s marketing, not editing, and it serves no one. For the reader it’s inconclusive, unsatisfying, it goes nowhere. For the publisher it’s a shop window – an empty shop window. And as for the magazine, it stops being a bold, incisive publication presenting original work by compelling voices writing specifically for that magazine’s editors and readers, and becomes no more than a conduit. I’d rather have three empty pages. I’d rather they drop the fiction slot than take the piss.
Is this the same magazine that helped revitalise the short story in the UK by co-founding the National Short Story Award? Is it fuck.
In the Observer, novelist Edward Docx writes about genre vs literary fiction. Well, no one’s run a version of that story for a couple of weeks, so we might as well trot it out again. Docx starts promisingly. He notices that everyone in his train carriage has their nose in a book. Great! What’s more, they’re all novels. Super! Ah, but what’s this, they’re all reading the same book. Or at least the same author. They’re all reading Stieg Larsson. Bah!
The sight of everyone reading the same book, whether good or bad, just makes me think of all the good books going unread. But Docx’s problem is he doesn’t like Larsson. He’s no good. Him and Dan Brown. Rubbish. There’s good and bad in genre fiction, Docx argues, uncontroversially, and Larsson and Brown are junk. It’s a point of view. But then he goes on to state that even good genre fiction is ‘a constrained form of writing’. Is he joking? Is he fuck.
Even when he argues that bad literary fiction is more annoying than bad genre fiction, his reason for this is itself so annoying you just want to slap him. Bad literary fiction has been cooked up in a fancy restaurant rather than a burger bar. It ought to be better. Docx’s own stuff, by implication, is made from ‘carefully sourced’ ingredients and brought to the table in a manner that is ‘original, surprising, beautiful, clever and delicious’. Tell John Franklin Bardin, Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler they’re just flipping burgers. Dismiss Derek Raymond, Dashiell Hammett and Chris Petit as kebab sellers.
All Docx’s arguments, if you think any of them stand up even for a nano-second, collapse once you check out the slideshow of author photos on his web site. This is a man who loves one thing above all others, above the Michelin-starred dinners of literary fiction, above the occasional brilliantly flipped burger – himself. Is it possible to take such a narcissist seriously? Is it fuck. He can’t even spell. His list of beloved ‘fine contemporary novelists’ includes one I’ve never heard of before – Proux.
Docx’s new novel is out in April. Will I be buying it? Will I fuck. Will I even bother to pick it up in Waterstone’s and check out the blurb? Will I fuck. Will it get a nice review in the Observer? Probably.
I see there’s an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda at Stratford. I am reminded of the time I encountered the acknowledged master of the macabre short story. Covent Garden, the 1980s. He sat behind a table signing books. I took some photographs. Some time later I wrote a story in the vein of his Tales of the Unexpected. I sent it to him, explaining that I had been inspired by seeing him signing books in Covent Garden. He wrote back. Did he thank me for sending him the story and find the good grace to say one or two nice things about it, despite its clearly being rather poor and derivative? Did he fuck.
He said he didn’t much like it and that if I had started it after his visit to Covent Garden, I had not spent anywhere near long enough on it. A story like this needs at least six months, he said. Not only that, but there were three rules for the writing of such stories and I would do well to observe them. Firstly, he wrote, it should be entirely believable. Secondly, there should be no extraneous words, sentences or paragraphs. And thirdly, there should be an underlying vane of humour running all the way through.
The way he spelt vein – wrongly, like a weather vane – made me think of a cock.
Do all of his stories obey his precious rules? Do they fuck. Did he endear himself to a novice writer who had respected him and admired his work for years? Did he fuck.