Monday, June 29, 2009

Not Enough Hints for Mrs Golightly

Thinking of Bridport (deadline tomorrow) I recall this article of mine from a while back and published in the Internet Writers Journal.

Please note the article is not sour grapes.

Not Enough Hints for Mrs Golightly

I recently picked up a second prize in a magazine competition, then in the issue announcing the winners I read from a subscriber: "Dee, A Dancer stood head and shoulders above the other competition entries. It's the only time I have ever been moved to give nine out of ten for a story."

PS, this is neither about "my writing" or "my story"...

Another reviewer wrote: "Dee, A Dancer gets under our moral body-armour and imparts an unacceptable feeling which robs our black- and-white judgment of absolute certainty...sensitive writing. A third reviewer wrote "I like the neutral tone to convey powerful stuff," another thought Dee was the most enjoyable story, but awarded marks to another for originality. Then a fifth reader said, despite awarding top marks: "the husband doesn't know what's wrong, fair enough, but I was frustrated that he, the writer, couldn't have dropped more hints that the reader could make sense of".

Yet, to others "Dee, A Dancer was insubstantial." "Depressing and self-conscious" and another "didn't understand the end. Was it only this reader or did others think that the last paragraph had slipped in from another story?" And third critic said "Dee, A Dancer tried confusedly and unconvincingly to relate."

If I ever actually understand that last sentence, I promise to let you know, but ignoring that, the whole experience leads me to wonder and to worry about the state of much of the short-story market. I have talked in the past about the "disease of competence" and at least three editors have confided in me that they daren't "push it too far", that they often dare not print material which taxes the reader at all. They tell me wanting quality is all very fine, but not at the expense of a readership. Though I might pretend to understand this, what this eventually means is that the safer (and often lack-luster) "decent" stories, find their way into the magazines, competitions are often won by these safe and easy (but smoother than the others) stories, and the readers think this is the norm, the top end of the mid-quality literary canon. Beginners imagine these are the story types to aspire too. The result? More blandness, and yet more authors dropping in hints that the character wouldn't know (terrible art, but we must keep Mrs Freda Golightly of Chiswick happy. She votes!)

Alice Munro would struggle, Borges would be laughed out of the room, Carver would be dismissed probably because he was "too thin".

My question is, where, below the top five-six American magazines, and the few dozen magazines based on American University campuses does a writer go if she wants to push beyond the easy-to-swallow general fiction that is often seen in many of the small British magazines?

I can take three of my stories, one near my best quality, rich and literary, a second, lighter, less ambitious, and a third a lightweight, relative failure. If I enter these three in a competition I can predict the outcome. The best flops, the mid-range is short-listed and the make-weight gets a prize! This hasn't happened just once, it's happened maybe five, six a dozen times. Why?

One why is "readers". Many volunteer readers for competitions, those who narrow down four thousand entries to a more manageable couple of hundred stories, have been raised on the mid-range "easy-to-swallow" magazines I've already mentioned. Many are writers or aspiring themselves. Often, I think, they choose, not the best work, not the most enjoyable, but the best works that they could imagine themselves writing. That is, if it's tough, if it's something currently that bit of an extra reach for them, it's dismissed as "arti-farty" or "intellectual junk" or perhaps "self-conscious" or "MFA stuff".

The result? Even if the final judge is Saul Bellow, what he gets to see are those stories where we've put in the crude make-it-easy-for-Freda bits, removed a few allusions, kept it under the glass ceiling. The poor judge gets two-hundred plain vanilla me-too stories, stories that (ask any judge) he can't remember a month later.

But does Ray Carver's "A Few Good Things" get forgotten? Do people forget the baby in "The Shawl" or the abortion scene in "Differently," the fisherman's boots in "The Ledge"?

I know the owners of magazines have a terrible dilemma, but doesn't something need to be done? Reader, ask yourself. Think of the copies of little magazines you have on your shelf, or the ezines you've read. Now close your eyes. What stories do you remember? Which ones got under your moral radar, which ones subverted you, changed you, even if only for a while. Can you remember ANY of the stories?

Someone once said, "Be one per-cent different and they call you a genius, be two-percent different they call you mad; five per-cent different and they kill you." The problem with much of the short-story market, particularly the competition-driven market is "different" never means "tougher", different never means asking the reader to think, to move through emotional application, into a greater realization, change. Different means, the same plus a one-liner, what I can do, with a twist.

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