After finishing Such Fine Boys, I began work on a new novel (see Blog Hop below). But a novel is a long haul and I sometimes break off to write a short story or poem. I now have a book-length collection of stories, which I’m currently editing for publication. Watch this space!
Meanwhile, I’ve been entering some of them for the annual Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition. I’ve been a member of this group for five years now and usually I enter just one story. But in 2014, torn between two, I decided, on payment of a small fee, to submit both. So imagine my double surprise when one of them took first prize and the other came highly commended. The judge was Jim Kelly, a crime writer from Ely, and the winning stories can be read, together with his Introduction, in Encounters 2014, an e-book available from Amazon. I was also pleased to be a prizewinner in 2016, when the judge was local author Deborah Mehler, and in the 2017 competition, judged by Helen Marshall, who teaches Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University. Again, the winning stories can be read in Seven Sins 2016 and in Rituals 2017, also available from Amazon. Alternatively, you can read many of these winning stories, including my own, on Cambridge Writers. Simply click on the link to Members and then on the images of the prizewinners.
Where do I go for inspiration? Well, one of my favourite independent bookshops is Gay’s the Word in London. Conveniently situated at 66 Marchmont Street, just a short distance from King’s Cross, it’s a great place to drop in and browse on your way to the British Museum or into town. The staff are always friendly and the range of books is wide, covering every genre of queer literature. But it’s more than a bookshop, of course; for many it’s a community, a refuge and a lifeline.
I am grateful, too, for the support I’ve had from Gay Authors Workshop, a London-based association of lesbians and gay men who are poets, dramatists and fiction writers, and delighted that a story of mine has now been published in the latest anthology from this group, A Boxful of Ideas.
May 30, 2019
Bones of Contention: an occasional series
(3) Point of View
Is this the biggest bugbear of the lot? Are you irritated, like me, by readers who raise an eyebrow at any change of viewpoint? By those who say, “I was just getting interested in Kate when Hugh poked his nose in”? Or worse: “The whole thing should be told from Harry’s viewpoint”? Perhaps you feel like retorting, as Ian McEwan did to Philip Roth in another context, “But that’s the novel you would write; it’s not the novel I want to write.”
Which is not to say there are no issues here. Point of view is a daunting topic to which reams of literary theory have been devoted, and blame for this is often laid at the feet of Henry James, the author credited with promulgating the idea of the “commanding centre” or “controlling intelligence”. But James, it seems, is misrepresented; he was not interested in issuing “laws” of fiction. The real culprit, it’s said, is Percy Lubbock, a Jamesian critic who took it upon himself to interpret the Master’s ideas in a prescriptive way. Lubbock’s axioms particularly annoyed Forster who, in “Aspects of the Novel”, argues that everything depends on the writer’s ability, in his famous phrase, to “bounce” the reader into acceptance. And Forster’s rebellion is now general; few writers now subscribe to the “old rules”, a shift attributed to many factors: to the influence of cinema, of literary modernism, to the theory of relativity, to the world as revealed by twentieth-century physics and quantum theory. Like Blake, the modern writer seems to deplore “single vision”.
But is that the end of the matter? Do we now believe that “anything goes”? Some critics say, with regret, that we do; that in our rush to abandon the old rules we have slung out the baby with the bath water. They argue that it’s acceptable to change viewpoint if there are good reasons to do so, but not if the change is wanton, careless or in violation of the logic of narrative. Multiple viewpoints, they claim, particularly when they occur within a scene, or worse, within a paragraph, confuse the reader through loss of focus. James himself, without laying down rules, writes that he can see “no breaking up of the register … that doesn’t rather scatter and weaken”.
And yet, and yet, and yet … do we underestimate the reader? Think of what we cope with on television or in the cinema, where long stretches of narrative pass without a hint as to who or what we’re watching. And think of the loss if writers abandoned multiple viewpoint. How would Stephen King write at all? Or David Hewson, who claims that he wrote his first three books, all bestselling crime novels, without being aware that an issue called “point of view” even existed? Think, too, of Clarissa Dalloway’s party, where the viewpoint passes from guest to guest in a brilliant panorama that would be sadly reduced, would shrink to tunnel vision, if the viewpoint were confined to the hostess. Something similar happens at the Ramsay’s dinner party on Skye. James was after a particular aesthetic effect, but fiction is surely a broad church, and Woolf’s use of multiple viewpoint does not, in my view, scatter and weaken. Rather, it opens up and enhances.
I apologise for the length of this. I’m going to take a break now, but I’ll be back when the bug bites; this is an “occasional” series, after all. Meanwhile, please share your own thoughts, on this or any other topic.
August 6, 2019
Bones of Contention: an occasional series
(2) Show don’t tell
I’ve been thoroughly irritated by this advice ever since an agent accused me of ignoring it. It seems to me a neat formula trotted out blithely. So I want to examine and challenge it. First, is the distinction between showing and telling as clear as this maxim suggests? We might concede that we see a kind of distinction here, but is it easily spotted? Showing is surely a form of telling and vice versa; the two blend almost imperceptibly. Open any piece of fiction and I guarantee you will find long passages where the line between showing and telling is blurred almost to the point of invisibility.
But even if we grant the distinction, is telling always to be avoided? Clearly most writers don’t think so. Again, open any piece of fiction. I suppose we might agree that direct speech is stronger than reported speech, but aren’t there occasions, even here, when the latter, for the sake of stylistic variation, is preferable? David Lodge goes further and suggests that telling can be used very effectively as the main mode in a narrative: “The summary narrative method seems to suit our modern taste for irony, pace and pithiness” (The Art of Fiction, Chapter 27). Moreover, as he argues, without an element of telling a novel could become interminable, or its effects ruined (see his previous chapter on Fielding’s expert use of summary).
Yet without going that far, some fiction clearly suffers from too much showing. I have a suspicion that this is what the English critic James Wood had in mind when he accused Zadie Smith’s fiction (which in general he admires) of “hysterical realism”. He applies the term to writing that “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being” – a remark that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s criticism, in her essay “Modern Fiction”, of writing that is bang-on in every detail but somehow misses the essence.
So I was delighted when a tutor on a writing course, after telling us to inscribe the maxim in capitals at the head of our notes, then instructed us to strike it through. I told him that I had always thought the adage needed reformulating. He said he agreed and we swapped revised versions that turned out to be quite similar. I forget his, but here’s mine: “Show when appropriate, tell when appropriate.”
Next time: Point of View.
June 29, 2019
Bones of Contention: an occcasional series
Write about what you know
I’ve long thought of writing a series of pieces on contentious issues in writing. So I’ll begin with the above. For me, the problem here is the suggestion that we should confine ourselves to writing about what we’ve actually experienced. But surely much of what we “know” comes to us through our imagination. If we were to confine ourselves to the former there would be no historical fiction, no fantasy and a huge reduction in crime fiction. The loss of the first might suit some, but would be unfair to the likes of Hilary Mantel, Marguerite Yourcenar, Guiseppe de Lampedusa, while the lopping of crime fiction, which might bring some benefits, could rob us of fine novels by P.D. James, Raymond Chandler and Dostoevsky. I’ve no idea what these writers “knew”, but I’m willing to bet that many crime novelists have never so much as seen a corpse, much less committed or investigated a murder.
Shakespeare, a jobbing actor-dramatist from Stratford, wrote about war, kingship, a struggle in fairyland. Emily Brontë, stranded in a remote vicarage with a doll for a boyfriend, wrote about immortal love and ghosts that “walk” the Yorkshire moors. Franz Kafka, an obscure insurance clerk, wrote about the horror of waking to find yourself transformed into a giant insect. Of course, you might say that they still wrote from personal experience; they simply projected that experience through figments of their imagination. But wouldn’t they have found the injunction to write about what they knew – with the implication “had experienced at first hand” – rather inhibiting? Thank God there was no one around to counsel them in their day.
Nevertheless I see where the advice comes from: some writing strays too far. The problem comes when imagination fails to match experience; when writers lie about characters or bungle what they don’t understand; when readers find themselves saying “But she wouldn’t do that!” or perhaps “Beautifully written, but I don’t believe a word of it.” How does Oliver, raised in a den of thieves, retain his sweet innocence? How indeed does James’s Maisie, surrounded by corrupt adults? Is it likely that the otherwise flawlessly embodied Becky Sharp would murder Jos Sedley for his money? In my view, then, we should not be urged to write about what we know, but rather about what our imaginations can encompass.
If you have any thoughts on this, please share them. Next time: Show Don’t Tell.
May 30, 2019
What am I working on?
When not diverted into shorter forms, I press on with my second novel. This began with the idea of reworking Madame Bovary in a contemporary gay setting, though it quickly broke away from its origins and assumed a life of its own. My Emma character is called Evan, and though he shares some characteristics with Flaubert’s creation he’s altogether his own person, to the extent that I don’t know how he’ll develop. This is all to the good from my point of view because I don’t like to know where my fiction will lead me. Hence, like many writers, I’m reluctant to say much about it until I’m ready to publish.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
To which genre does it belong? I can think of several, but I suppose the most obvious is queer fiction. Of course, queer fiction now divides into subgenres – crime, thriller, romance, historical, etc. – thus adding another layer of complication. However, I tend to write without any thought of genre. My novel Such Fine Boys is a love story, so I suppose it could be filed under ‘romance’, though I think that would give a false view of it. The work of Michael Cunningham, Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Tóibín and Edmund White gives some indication of the kind of fiction to which it aspires, though the voice, I hope, is my own. Structurally, it splits into four parts and moves from first- to third-person narration via several viewpoints. However, its main distinctive feature, I’d say, is its voice.
Why do I write what I do?
I like the notion of finding an ‘objective correlative’. This rather daunting literary term, popularised and developed by T.S. Eliot in his essay ‘Hamlet and his Problems’, refers to the process by which we invent – or perhaps discover – characters and situations to express – or objectify – our personal experience. Isn’t this why we tell stories? In telling stories we find symbols for our own deepest compulsions; and this is why all writing, in my view, is autobiographical. The characters and events may be wildly remote from us, but we couldn’t write about them if we didn’t feel some deep personal connection.
How does my writing process work?
I sit at my computer from eight in the morning until mid-afternoon. If I’m writing fiction, I start at the beginning and progress line by line, often with little idea about what will come next. I polish every paragraph until it attains a satisfactory shape. This means that I never write more than a few hundred words a day, but for me it’s the only way. I’ve tried writing at speed and then shaping a mass of raw material, but I simply can’t rid myself of the itch to polish as I go along. In the end it comes down to hard work. Arnold Bennett, however, was too harsh when he said he’d rather break rocks; I love writing and none of us would do it if we didn’t feel compelled. Even so, terms such as ‘inspiration’ and ‘writer’s block’ bother me. It’s not the terms themselves – they denote states that do exist – but rather the way they are used to mystify the creative process and sometimes to justify laziness. Certainly there’s a mystery to writing, but it shouldn’t become a fetish.