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.

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