Wednesday 23 September 2015

Stories from the Uncanny Valley

The uncanny valley effect describes what happens when something is unsettlingly close to being realistic. A nearly realistic wig attracts longer stares than an outlandish hair-do. In a horror movie, a person with slightly odd behaviour (e.g. Norman Bates) can be more disturbing than a plainly mad axe-man.

To me, all "stories" are artificial, it's just that some of them pretend not to be. In "The Best American Short Stories 1996" edited by John Edgar Wideman, two authors describe how their stories begin unrealistically without having a narrative impetus or a single consciousness -

  • "I write hundreds of pages of fragments every year and put them in folders together, hoping they will mate ... I am always groping in the dark when it comes down to actually fitting pieces of these fragments together" (Dan Chaon)
  • "I wanted the story to hinge or unify itself with a series of repetitions and interlocking images: water, birds, flight, God, sugar, junk, and so on. It's something of a contrivance to have Scout kill himself" (Jean Thompson)

I use both of these techniques. Sometimes there's much symbolic interlocking in the language, despite the main character's life falling apart. Just as a painting can be organised around constellations of colour (the blue of a saint's eyes matching the blue of the sky) so a story can have a non-linear organisational structure - the storyline being accidental, emergent; the characters not burgeoning from an inner soul of necessity but constructed as a sop for readers who want a character to empathize with.

In some of my pieces, the voice and or the plot are chosen to give me the chance to combine elements that don't normally co-exist. To say that the character doesn't ring true is as relevant as saying that Wallace Stevens' emperor of ice cream is unconvincing because he's clearly deficient both in marketing skills and leadership. In such circumstances the reality-hungry reader would have an easier time if there were fewer character-like elements - they raise the expectation of characters existing, leaving the reader in the uncanny valley of near-realism. So maybe I should try making the lack of realism more explicit, my intentions clearer. The result might tend towards being an essay or being fragmentary, but that's something I'll have to live with.

Thursday 17 September 2015

Cinnamon Press at CB2, September 2015

Yesterday I attended part of Cinnamon's 10th anniversary roadshow. Jan Fortune entertainingly and informatively introduced 4 writers -

  • Jane Monson was the only writer I knew about. She read from The Shared Surface which I'd already read. Sometimes when I hear a poem I can appreciate it in way that I couldn't on the page. I don't think that happened in this case. The book's promoted as prose poetry, though I think I need to listen to them as if it's poetry, and I think having the text before me would help.
  • Adam Craig read from his novel "Vitus Dreams". It's no ordinary novel. On the night I think it was described as experimental. In the past I would have leapt at the chance to read such a piece. At the moment however, I'm avoiding such challenges. I note that he's going to publish a collection of collection of micro-fictions, which I'll look forward to. Both he and Jane Monson operate on the prose/poetry border, a zone I'm exploring with short pieces too.
  • Maria Apichella read from "Paga" (Winner of the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet Prize 2014, adjudicated by Ian Gregson). These were the night's most accessible poems. One was a love poem to her husband (who was present) written before they'd met.
  • Laura Seymour read from "The Shark Cage". She's finished her Ph.D (on Shakespeare and cognition) whereas Maria Apichella's still doing hers. Though I couldn't take it all in, there was much imagery that sounded interesting, and it wasn't at the expense of a sort of narrative, so I bought her book. Flicking through, I'm impressed.

It would be wrong to deduce from this that all Cinnamon's prose is experimental (some of it isn't even very "literary"). Nor do all their poets have Ph.Ds. What helps keep the range fresh is that several of the books were chosen by external judges.

Saturday 12 September 2015

Nine Arches Press

It just so happens that my pile of things to read has reached a seam of Nine Arches Press publications. Recently I've read -

and not long ago I read

Publishers nowadays have to wear many hats. Jane Commane, who runs the press, is active in social media and is involved with festivals, shows, the magazine Under the Radar, mentoring, and running workshops. The hope is that these activities cross-fertilise, producing more readers and writers, all the time raising the profile of the press. Collaborative activities include

  • Leicester Shindig, a bi-monthly spoken word event organised with The Centre for New Writing & Crystal Clear Creators
  • A mentoring scheme Primers with the Poetry School

Keeping all this going is hard work. Jane was in "Best British Poetry 2011" but I guess writing takes a backseat nowadays, and she's not doing a part-time non-publishing job any more. It would have been fun to try to interview her, but Roy Marshall has done a good job there already.

When one assesses success of a publisher, longevity is a factor (it started in 2008) as is impact ("The Midlands" was reviewed in The Guardian), but in the end the quality of the books is the deciding factor. Buy a few and see what you think. Go to their stall at Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair at Conway Hall, London on Saturday 26th September or have a look online.