Saturday, 29 September 2018

Neglected writers - Hempel and Berlin

I've a list of writers that I want to read. Some of them have been rather neglected by readers at large. Here are two whose books I've recently found -

Amy Hempel

"The Dog of Marriage" (Quercus) contains all her stories up to 2008. 400 pages for £9.99. A bargain. Here's a sample (the narrator's a widow, Nashville's a dog)

Here's a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband's bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.
Cold nights I pull his socks on over my hands. I read in his bed. People still write from when Flea had his column. He did a pet Q and A for the newspaper. The new doctor sends along letters for my amusement. Here's one I liked - a man thinks his cat is homosexual.
The letter begins, "My cat Frank (not his real name) ..."
In addition to Flea's socks, I also wear his watch.
It's the way we tell each other.
At bedtime, I think how Nashville slept with Flea. She must have felt to him like a sack of antlers. I read about a marriage breaking up because the man let his Afghan sleep in the marriage bed.
I had my own bed. I slept in it alone, except for those times when we needed - not sex - but sex was how we got there.

It's fast, with jokes and feeling. Names mentioned in the book's introduction came to my mind too - the wit of Lorrie Moore, the concision of Lydia Davis (some of Hempel's pieces are a page long, a few are much shorter). I suppose she's a bit of a writer's writer.

My favourite pieces include "San Francisco", "In the cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" (her most famous piece), and "Weekend".

Lucia Berlin

"A manual for cleaning women" (Picador, 2016) has 43 stories (about 400 pages) for £9.99. She had a lively start to life (3 failed marriages and 4 sons by the time she was 28) and was an alcoholic for decades. From the age of 10 she had scoliosos, which was often painful. For a while she was an elective mute. Her mother had alcohol problems and may well have killed herself. Her output was intermittent - she did many jobs because she needed the money - but she ended up being a creative writing prof, dying in 2004.

As the introduction to the book notes, her stories don't hang around. The first story begins in a laundromat. In the second paragraph the narrator recalls Mrs Armitage from a previous laundromat she visited - "I was a young mother then and washed diapers on Thursday mornings. She lived above me, in 4-C. One morning at the laundry she gave me a key and I took it. She said that if I didn't see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays". It's zappy, with the speed of stand-up or Flash. Indeed, there are pieces which are little longer than a page. All I know of her life is from the notes in this book, but that's enough for me to view the pieces as thinly disguised autobiography - overlapping attempts at using the source material of her life.

There aren't many happy stories. In "Carmen" for example Mona is living with Noodles, an addict. She has kids and she's pregnant. She agrees to be a drug-mule, flies off, nearly gets raped, returns with a condom of heroin. Her waters break as Noodles tries the new supplies. She gets herself to hospital, has a baby girl, but the baby dies moments after birth.

"Point of View" , "A manual for cleaning women", "Toda Luna, Todo Año", "So Long", "Wait a minute" and "Homing" are my favourites, though they're not all stories.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Poets on form

I've done a write-up of "Ecstatic occasions, expedient forms", David Lehman (ed) (Univ of Michigan, 1996) in which poets explain their forms. A mixed bag of scientific and mystical explanations -

  • "Since it is not my custom to capitalize the initial word of each line, I decided to experiment with this convention"
  • "it's foolish to think a line should break so that the reader might rest or so an end word can shiver and throb in order to call more attention to itself"
  • "I broke the poem into quatrains for the purpose of making a better shape on the page"
  • "an eight-syllable line with no regular meter, no counting of stresses. It is almost free verse broken into an arbitrary length. ... I like this form because it leaves the musical cadence almost entirely free to follow the content. ... yet has some of the surface tension of regularity. "

etc. Some of the poets decided not to mention the form even though it was overt.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The Flash Fiction supply chain


More Flash is being written than ever before - by poets (realising that they already write some Flash), by story writers (who can't find markets for their usual pieces) and by an increasing number of specialists.


Literary magazines are increasingly willing to print Flash, and the number of specialist magazines is increasing. The market's big enough to support genre outlets like Flashback Fiction. Short story books often include Flash nowadays, and some authors produce books of Flash.


My impression is that both poetry and prose readers are more receptive to Flash nowadays. If a poetry reader says they like Armitage's "Seeing Stars" or a prose reader likes Borges they can hardly turn their noses up at Flash.


What are the limits to growth of this chain? Are there too few respected outlets? Is the market saturated? Firstly it's worth pointing out that many Flash readers are writers, so it's more of a loop than a chain. Limiting the number of writers will limit the number of readers. Also, Flash grew when the web was already mature, so Flash readers are used to the idea of the best work not necessarily being on paper, so the cost of producing paper magazines isn't a constraint.

An experiment

During August, Spelk has printed a piece of Flash daily, at least doubling its output. I don't think quality has been diluted, and judging by the Comments and Likes, the market is far from being saturated. So perhaps the bottleneck is distribution. Maybe there's space for more Flash magazines, even though Everyday Fiction already prints stories daily, and many other magazines already exist.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Who do you write for?

When you're pondering over whether to keep a line in a poem, do you ever ask yourself if the editor of "Poetry Review" would like it? Or perhaps you wonder what your poetry workshop colleagues would say? I can imagine people disliking this, describing it as "writing for the market". It sounds grubby, but in the poetry world, "market" doesn't have capitalist implications. Essentially, the market is composed of your peers. Pre-empting their criticism is better than belatedly learning from a history of failure.

The phrase "target audience" also has unsavoury associations. For at least part of the writing process I have a target audience in mind. It comes into play for example when I'm wondering whether to spell out an allusion. This "target audience" is perhaps nothing more than a personification of my inner critic - self-criticism is no bad thing.

Perhaps you just enjoy writing for its own sake. It gives you pleasure, the way that singing in the bath gives pleasure to some people. You might decide that you enjoy performing, so you try reading at an open-mic. You don't go down well. You go to workshops and soon gain the impression that your style is old fashioned. You can't get into magazines. If you were really writing for the fun of it (being "true to yourself") such a reception shouldn't deter you from writing on, but there might have been a lingering hope that you were an undiscovered talent. Of course, if you don't keep up with the work of your peers it's no surprise that your quality assurance isn't like theirs. You don't read other people's stuff in case it affects the uniqueness, purity, and authenticity of your voice. But where did you get your voice from if not from other poets? By reading other poets you can discover your influences - maybe even break free.

Singing in the bath may mean that dishes are left unwashed, but you wash them later. Self-indulgence is only a problem when others are involved. I think people need to be somewhat public spirited at workshops if they're going to get the most from them - interested in others' work and open to the possibility of changing one's own poems.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Standard stories, changing fashions

I think I'm more a writer of magazine stories than competition ones. I write competent conventional stories, and I write less mainstream, essay-like, no-4th-wall pieces, neither of which would win prizes. Fashions come and go, doing so at different speeds for different story readers and writers. I'm waiting for my styles to come back into fashion. Recently I've had some opportunities to check on current trends.

Keep the reader interested

Two reviews of Mark Haddon's short story book gave me pause -

  • "Mark Haddon recently called them “beige”: the stories he has had enough of and never wants to read again [] You know the stories he means, pieces in the mode of what might be called received realism, set in a generic present day and written in inhibited, risk-averse prose, containing little to no external action, and usually ending – or not – with some minor calibration of the main character’s mindset, or with some oblique, and by implication significant, gesture" - Colin Barrett
  • "Each story displays the range of Haddon’s imaginative powers, complemented by the author’s urge to keep things happening (in itself, a not-altogether-common trait of short fiction)" - Lee Polevoi

For years I've been trying to eliminate garish excesses from my work, trying to write beige stories, stories where not much happens, hoping that readers will thus be incited to look beyond the surface to see where I've carefully buried things. Perhaps I get mixed up between slight and subtle. Tessa Hadley looks rather slight to me, but I'm told that the details undermine the simple explanations, language and plot. I can't see much in VS Prichett or Anita Brookner either.

Start with a Bang

In "Five Reasons I Stopped Reading Your Story" (Gaynor Jones), one of the reasons she gives is that "You used a killer first line". However

  • In a review of 'Subjunctive Moods' Melissa Fu praises "Bewitching first lines" like ‘I used to be a god.’ and ‘It wasn’t till after we burnt her that Leila began to cause trouble’, writing "Who wouldn’t want to keep reading after an opening like that?"
  • I've been to two talks (by Ingrid Jendrzejewski and Rupert Dastur) recently that suggested the use of long, striking titles.

I'm in Gaynor Jones' side, though I'm feeling out-numbered.

Avoid common topics

I traveled to a workshop with a draft to work on during the train trip about a couple breaking up. One of the first pieces of advice at the workshop was to avoid kitchen sink dramas. Oh well. Another suggestion was to avoid dead babies - they crop up too often in stories. I'm ok with that - there's a low body count in my pieces, though as I age the count increases.

Make it look effortless

Mannerist tendencies fluctuate in popularity. I rather like "Centre Pompidou" pieces where the plumbing shows, but it's an acquired taste.

Make it weird

Nicholas Royle's BBSS anthologies have several New Weird pieces, and in his Irish Times article Ashley Stokes suggests that grassroot level writing's "becoming darker, weird, twisted-out-of-shape, dripping with fear of the end and apocalypse"

Mark Haddon's stories can slip into another genre, especially towards the end. I'm wary of Magic Realism, though I've written SF in the past. Maybe I should try writing new blends.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Unthology 10 launch

Train cancellations and the weather shortened my stay, but I managed to see the Brick Lane area again before attending the Unthology 10 launch in London on July 26th. The story anthology is available as a paper book or on Kindle - see the web page.

The readings made me realise how many good writers there are fighting for just a few places. I don't feel quite so bad now about the run of rejections I've been having.

Monday, 23 July 2018

A UK submission schedule for the rest of 2018

The second half of the year seems to have fewer competition and magazine-window opportunities for me. Here they are -