Monday 25 February 2013

Pretending to like poetry

There are many reasons why people might say they like a poem, but if someone says they like a poem of yours, think twice before asking them why - it's likely to be embarrassing for both of you. The odds are that inter-personal expectations of behaviour affect what people say more than the desire for aesthetic authenticity. This isn't easy to prove, but if everyone who said they liked a poem read the book that the poem came from (or even bought it) the world would be a very different place.

How much does the public - or even poetry audiences - understand about poems?

  • Jon Stone wrote on his blog "I'm still not sure, when I look around at poetry audiences, how many really notice or care about texture or music, and how many are jonesing for their next hit of clarity"
  • Wayne Burrows in his Thumbscrew article suggests that "'Most people', quite simply, don’t know about poetry".
  • Housman wrote "I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry, are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them, but something else in it, which they like better than poetry".
  • Harold Munro wrote "The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true".
  • In the Rialto they said that "During a recent research project into reading habits conducted at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, a cross-section of the public nominated poetry to be the most annoying category of book currently published .... after a sustained period of reading poems, thirty six complained of headaches or migraine, twenty-seven suffered indigestion, and two became argumentative resulting in violent exchange .... eighty-two of the hundred people tested did fall asleep for prolonged periods at some point during their reading of poetry"

If anything, I think that experienced poetry-readers (even reviewers and judges) have more reason to dissemble. If they don't understand/like something that for career, personal or reputation reasons they feel they should praise (e.g. Rilke's poems), what else can they do?

A combination of ambiguous statements and use of the Forer effect can effectively mask blind spots and inconvenient opinions (the Forer effect - used by fortune tellers - is when a person who's described in a phrase that could be applied to many people, think that it's especially applicable to themselves). How about "A sensitive, controlled writer"? Or a writer "with understated insight"? Suggesting that a work has "subtle irony" (or subtle anything, because "subtle" can mean "just a bit of") is safe, as is "deceptively deep" or "repays rereading". Then there are the unfalsifiable phrases that one might find in wine reviews - "muscular yet silky".

Friday 22 February 2013

Some short-story book suggestions

I've looked back through the write-ups I've put online of short-story collections. Here are collections that I'd most recommend to others - sometimes because of a particular story or two, sometimes because of the variety and general quality, sometimes because they're especially "good of their type".

Sunday 17 February 2013

The return of the short story?

Is the short story making a comeback in the US? See the New York Times' Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories and Clifford Garstang's response. Charles May's why some short story writers don't want to write novels is worth a read too. The points they make are that

  • Novelists new and established are now producing collections
  • Specialists like George Saunders are gaining respect
  • The way that the internet killed the music album has helped people accept the short story (Kindle Singles).

But then Salon published Sorry, the short story boom is bogus. See also Charles E. May's comments.

I've seen few signs of recovery in the UK. The National short story award doesn't help a whole lot. I'm glad that Salt is producing a Best British Stories anthology each year, and that Flash is making inroads (e.g. there's a Bridport prize for it).

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Experimentation and Conformity

You feel jaded, fed up of writing the same old stuff. You realise that you re-use plots and techniques, that you're writing self-parody. So you decide to experiment.

I sometimes write things I neither like nor understand. Maybe my powers of criticism and appreciation have fallen behind my imagination. Maybe what I've written is a Hopeful Monster, its stubby appendages the wings of future generations. Maybe what I think is unfinished (a mere sketch or draft) can be treated as a finished work (there are precedents for this in Art and Evolution). Time and amassed criticism might eventually conclude whether the pieces are dead ends, indulgences, Ugly Ducklings or discoveries.

Though I liked Jon McGregor's This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You (with its deletions, repetitions, one-sentence stories, etc) less than his glorious So many ways to begin, my admiration of his work didn't lessen - it's good that he tries new things out. Ditto my reaction to Tania Hershman's more recent pieces in "My Mother was an upright piano" - reviewed by Jim Murdoch. Readers need to learn how best to deal with these pieces, perhaps coming to some kind of concensus. For those of us with far fewer readers and less time, evaluation of our non-standard pieces is hard. I tend to pass the buck to magazine editors.

Of course, what's experimental for you may be old hat to others. Maybe you're escaping from private clichés only to indulge in public ones.

On The Awful Truth Helena Nelson lists 27 "recurring Contemp Po features". Mike Young lists 41 more on Moves in Contemporary Poetry.

Personal affectations are what help identify you, they're part of your personality, your voice. If you start exploring without the means to assess what you're doing, without awareness of what others have already done, you might end up lost, with only a pile of rubbish as proof of your efforts. Public fashions and mannerisms can constitute a style (e.g. Mannerism). Avoiding fashionable traits may merely tempt you to use unfashionable ones, or to use plainer language (itself a trait).

Awareness of one's habits and of contemporary fashions is probably a good idea long term, though it can be stultifying at first. Using these features consciously and judiciously should be our aim. As Eliot wrote - "We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time".

Friday 1 February 2013

Literary Salon

On Jan 30th I did a talk for the Leamington Spa Literary Salon, in Leamington's Real Tennis club, which is in the city centre. We have a court in Cambridge, but I've never been. Before the talk I had a chance to watch a few points being played - looks like a mix of tennis and squash.

I read 2 poems from "Moving Parts" and 2 stories (one from "By All Means") to an audience of 40 or so, talked about creating characters (the risks of using family, etc), and tried to provoke a discussion about the state of poetry and short stories in the UK, especially regarding sales. I said that a long time ago all literature was poetry but now it's barely read. Though cultural people are polite about it, they don't feel obliged to read the latest poetry book in the way that they'd watch a film or read a talked-about novel. My limiting definition of poetry quite rightly came into the discussion.

I tried to approach it rather like an upmarket, cultural stand-up gig (indeed, I was followed by a stand-up comedian/ artist, who was jolly). Having read about how stand-ups can have bad experiences, I was rather apprehensive about dealing with an unknown audience. It was the first talk of that type that I've done - useful practise. On How much should writers charge for events? it suggests fees of £150 but the groups I know couldn't cope with that (Jeffrey Archer spoke to our local writers group for nothing), and anyway it was good to see so many people coming out for the evening. See An evening of short stories, poetry and comedy for another write-up.