So, Gravity, then. I’ve been wanting to write something about this ever since I saw it on Tuesday, but for various reasons haven’t got round to doing so. This isn’t a bad thing, because it’s given me a bit more time to think about what I wanted to say. Here goes. Oh, and there will be minor spoilerage, so if you haven’t seen it yet, look away now. Also, if you’re a friend of mine and you thought it was wonderful, you might also want to look away now. I’d hate this to come between us.

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Funny Stuff

Filed Under Rants | 17 Comments

There was a really interesting piece in The Huffington Post yesterday on “what makes a good short story”, by Heidi Pitlor. Heidi is the series editor of the mighty annual Best American Short Stories anthology, so she can safely be taken to know a little of what she writes. There’s plenty of excellent advice in there, particularly this paragraph:

Here are some things I’m always glad to read: loathsome, despicable characters (who says we readers all crave likable characters?); bone-scraping emotional honesty; a strange, off-kilter voice; unreliable narrators; surprise; a solid command of language; a story written with urgency and profundity; great, weird titles (titles matter); the assigning of language to something I have never thought about but should have. Humor.

It’s that last word that leapt out at me – especially as it wasn’t the first time she’d used it in her piece. Here’s an earlier paragraph:

Here are some things I wish I saw more frequently: humor, genre-bending, humor, risk-taking, a more direct addressing of real world matters, humor.

This reminded me a little of the time when Tracy Chevalier was the judge for the Bridport Prize and reading her report, you could detect a bit of a cry for help, having been given a final list to choose from whose subject matter was almost exclusively pretty grim. I hasten to add that most of the stories were excellent (most especially Vanessa Gebbie’s “I Can Squash the King, Tommo” and Toby Litt’s “The Fish”, an extraordinary piece of weirdness that somehow snuck in undetected), but having read the anthology, I can sympathise with her comment here:

It was fascinating, if not a little dispiriting, to find out what subjects people choose to writing about these days. Certain themes recurred with almost monotonous regularity: aging and problems with elderly parents, suicide, road kill (yes, really!), illness, religious faith.

and especially this:

If only writers could be a little, well, jollier about it! Sorely missing from the entries was humour, with the honourable exceptions of “Ghost Lights,” which made me laugh aloud, and “The Fish,” with its surreal subject matter and bravura style (there is only one full-stop, at the end of the story). Otherwise, reading the stories made me more and more depressed. While I’m not in a position to chastise – I myself am not known for many laughs in my books – I would like to make a plea to future writers: humour is good! Not only that, but a funny story is so much harder to write than a sad one. Let it be a challenge to us all. I will if you will.

Judging by Heidi Pitlor’s remarks, there still aren’t enough short story writers around who have accepted that challenge. I wonder if it’s because if you write humorous stuff, you don’t get taken as seriously. There haven’t been many out and out funny stories in the shortlists for the BBC NSSA award, for instance, although Julian Gough’s wonderful “iHole” from last year’s shortlist was a rare exception (and this wasn’t the first time he’d made the shortlist – he won in 2007 – so perhaps he has some kind of pass :) ). Is it simply because, as Chevalier says, it’s more difficult to write a funny story – or is it because the primary stage readers are trained to weed out that kind of thing before they get near the judges?

Why does this matter to me? It matters personally because there I think humour is massively important as a storytelling tool, and most, if not all, of my stories have an element of humour in them. I can’t see that changing, frankly, because that’s the way I am. I’m incapable of staying serious for very long. So does that mean that, however much I improve as a writer, I’ll always be regarded as a bit of a lightweight? And should I care?

[Thought I’d have a bit of rant every now and then to liven things up. I’d be interested to see what you think.]

We live in strange times. William Boyd’s Bond novel, “Solo”, is just about to be published, following in the footsteps of – amongst a surprising number of others – Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver. Sophie Hannah has recently been commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new Hercule Poirot novel. This isn’t by any means a new phenomenon. After all, “Virginia Andrews” has churned out considerably more novels since her death than prior to it. (BTW Did you realise there were quite that many? I didn’t. Whew.) But there seems to be more of it about now than there used to be.

Here’s what’s bothering me.

I have no problem with the idea of taking an existing character or set of characters and reusing them. It’s what literature has done ever since people started telling stories to while away the hours sitting around the campfire. But the whole point of creating stories is to add value to the material – to bring in something new. And I worry that any work generated to meet the demands of a dead author’s estate is necessarily going to be limited in terms of what the new writer can bring to the party.

On the contrary, I would argue that the only truly creative way to go when writing any sort of sequel, prequel or whatever is to mark out your own territory by heading off in a completely new direction.

The initial germ of an idea for “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens” (ah, here we go) was actually a creative writing consequences game in which I started playing with the idea that, a couple of years post marriage, the Darcys hadn’t had any kids yet and that Wickham might not necessarily be quite such a bad guy. Then the alien concept came along, and that immediately opened up the possibility that Wickham was a hotshot deep cover alien hunter. In this new worldview, the elopement with Lydia was actually to protect her from alien kidnap and all the concomitant probing and stuff. The entire plot of “Pride and Prejudice” was henceforth up for reinterpretation.

I’d like to think that Jane would have approved. But I’m actually not that bothered. As I’ve said, my main concern was to use her characters as a starting point, not a straitjacket.

In fact, all the best Austen spinoffs are the least reverent and most outrageous ones. I normally try not mention “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (because of all that, you know, daring to turn up in print while I was still writing mine), but it’s surely got to be more interesting proposition than “Murder at Pemberley”. Best Austen film? Got to be “Clueless”. And so on.

I realise there are copyright reasons for all of this and that, at least outside the dark and weird worlds of unpublished fan-fiction, you can’t just grab anyone’s work and do whatever you like with it. But if you can’t do that, I do wonder a little what the point is, especially when there are big-name authors involved. I hope I’m wrong, and I wish the likes of Boyd and Hannah well (although I will admit to continuing to harbour ill will towards Eoin Colfer – I mean, how could he?)

All the same, I would still love to think that one day the Fleming estate will give the nod to someone like, I dunno, Jeanette Winterson and say to her, “Go on, do what you like. It’s all yours.”

Apologies for the peremptory nature of the post title, but quick action is required here. It emerged today (although the press release announcing it is dated a week and a bit ago) that the BBC (who had the stupendous good taste to broadcast my story “The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife” last year) are reducing the number of short stories broadcast on Radio 4 from 3 per week down to 1. I cannot begin to fathom why they are doing this, but whatever the reasons, it’s not good for short stories.

Did I hear you say “We’re not gonna take it”? I thought I did. Good. So here’s what we’re going to do. This is the text of an e-mail I received this evening from Susie Maguire (aka @wrathofgod on Twitter). Please read it and act on it, as soon as ever possible:

The new Controller of Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, will be a guest on FEEDBACK on BBC Radio 4 next week. How very timely.

Would you add your name to a letter/question to ask her?

Would you pass on this email to other writers who care about the health of the short story…?

The more of us, & the better known the writers who sign it, the more likely it is to have some effect.

If so, please find below a short, polite question, proposed by Ian of http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk

Reminder: info on her decision to cut the short story’s presence on Radio 4 outlined here  http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2011/07_july/10/radio4.shtml

If you’d like to add your signature, please email YES to

ian AT shortstoryweek DOT org DOT uk

& cc to me: info AT susiemaguire DOT co DOT uk

NB – It would be really helpful if you could reply within 24 hours so that the question can be lodged as soon as possible. This is by no means the *only* action interested parties can take, but it’s a start, and I hope you might add your weight to it with this (and further suggestions are welcomed)

thanks

Susie

*******************

Proposed question:

We were surprised and disappointed to learn of the decision to reduce the short story output on Radio 4 to once a week from next spring. Radio 4 has been a great champion of the short story for many years. It is one of very few places in the UK where both new and established writers can have their short stories broadcast to a large audience, and where radio listeners can enjoy readings of the short story form. This move comes at a time when interest in the short story is growing, but paid opportunities for short story writers are still scarce. Could Gwyneth Williams please explain:

1) what has led her to make this decision?

2) whether the short stories on Radio 4 extra will be new commissions or repeats of existing recordings?

3) how this decision fits with the BBC’s sponsorship of the National Short Story Award (and indeed if this will continue?)

I know I can rely on you. Thank you. You’re all wonderful. Except possibly you. But I’ll even like you if you act on this one.

Last week I was asked if I fancied being this month’s guest editor for the National Short Story Week web site and I must have hesitated for – ooh – at least a couple of seconds before saying yes. Anyway, the resulting piece is now up on the site – do go and have a look. It turns into a bit of a rant in the end, albeit a very polite one.

In other news, I’m on Google+ if you’re into that kind of thing. To be honest, I’m not madly excited about it at the moment. The “circles” concept strikes me as exactly the thing that a geek would come up with as being really cool, but I’m not sure I really see people making great use of it. Sure, in theory it enables you to post different stuff for different groups of people to see, but I have two problems with this.

Firstly, if a tech-savvy US senator can accidentally post a picture of his todger to his Twitter stream instead of a DM, then sure as hell other people are going to screw up which Google+ circle they’re posting their “look at me I’m so wasted LOL” pictures to. At least on FB and Twitter you know that everyone’s watching.

Secondly, I actually quite like the blurring that occurs in these places. You find out that people you’ve had one kind of interaction with have a whole other side to them and sometimes that’s very interesting. Sometimes it’s weird, too, but there you go. Ho hum. I’m probably just resisting change as usual. We’ll see.

Now listen ‘ere, you lot, he says with a conspiratorial tap of the nose. On checking my site stats (which I do from time to time – oh all right, every day), I’ve noticed that an awful lot of new people have found this site either by a direct link from this post on Teresa Stenson’s blog or by Googling variations on a theme of “Bridport Shortlist 2010″ (see the last post but one for the reason behind this).

Now this is all very nice – and a big “Hi!” to everyone, by the way (do have a look around whilst you’re here) – but I find the scale of it a bit surprising and ever so slightly worrying. I know that the Bridport is – for obvious reasons – pretty much THE writing competition (at least for those of us without an established track record), so it’s inevitable that an awful lot of writers start getting very twitchy at this time of year (I know, I’ve done it myself). But there are other ones out there that are just as deserving of your support, ones in which we all stand a much better chance of being in the money.

So whilst any short story writer or poet worth their salt should most definitely be sending their best work Dorsetwards every year, those of us who are looking to build up a track record should also be going in for as many of the second- and third-tier competitions as we can manage as well. If you’re wondering how on earth you can get enough material together to do this, I strongly recommend checking out competitions like the Slingink Scribbling Slam (running at this very moment) or the Whittaker Prize (which usually starts in March). There’s no better way of forcing yourself to come up with stuff, trust me. And if you need to know what competitions there are accepting entries at any time, the lovely Sally Quilford has done all the work for you: here’s her calendar.

Apologies if this came over as (a) a bit of a rant or (b) teaching Grandma to suck eggs. But when a perfectly respectable, if slightly low-key competition such as this year’s Slingink Prize fails to get enough entries to cover its costs, you have to wonder if we writers are sometimes being a bit too picky. I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about this.