Celebrating The Short Story was a day dedicated to the short form that took place at Huddersfield University on Saturday 5th of December 2015 in collaboration with Comma Press. Below is a transcript of the panel discussion featuring the chair, Michael Stewart (MS), and short fiction writers Claire Dean (CD), David Constantine (DC), Michelle Green (MG) and Stuart Evers (SE). Towards the end of the event, the audience asked questions, including Ra Page (RP) from Comma Press.
MS: In 1914, the Strand magazine, one of the leading literary magazines of its day, would pay up to £350 for a short story. To put that in perspective, the average annual salary of a family doctor at that time was £400. To project that forward one hundred years to now, the average annual salary of a family doctor is £150,000. That would mean today a writer could potentially submit a story to a literary magazine and receive £135,000. Things have changed. What I want to talk about is the reversal of fortune for the short story. At that time a lot of writers saw the short story as a cash cow. It was perhaps something that they did to pay them to have more time to devote to more serious literary endeavours such as the novel. It seems to me now that the status of the short story and that of the novel has been reversed. So I want to ask first of all, does the panel agree that there has been a reversal of fortune, and if so, why do you think this is?
CD: Michelle and I were just having a conversation about this. The question I get asked more than anything else is, when are you going to write a novel? I have no intention of writing a novel. I love writing short stories.
MS: Can you say why though?
CD: Partly because I’m stubborn. And I don’t want to feel pushed into something because it’s what the market demands. There’s this idea that you’re not a proper writer unless you’ve written a novel. That the short story is a training ground for writers. I’ve heard this again and again. As though, when you grow up you’ll write a proper story. I don’t want to feel like I have to do something to get a publishing deal, because major publishers might let you get two novels in and then let you slip out a short story collection. I don’t make a living from writing. I make a living from writing-related activity. I’ve no interest in being a bestseller. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But all my favourite writers are short story writers. And that’s the form I love the best.
MS: David, what do you think? Why is the short story now less revered and less remunerated?
DC: I really don’t know. I guess it’s a marketing thing. It’s a publishing thing. They decide. I think they are probably simply wrong when they say what the reading public want. I think they are quite timorous. The one I really resent is the one Claire has already alluded to, that writing short fiction is a sort of apprenticeship.
MS: Which in itself is a reversal, isn’t it? Because the origins of the short story go back thousands of years to folktales. Those are its antecedents. So in a sense it is a much older literary form than the novel, which is only a few hundred years old.
SE: I’m not sure I agree with that.
MS: How so?
SE: In fact, I know I don’t agree with that. The short story as we know it is a very new form. The folktale is a very different thing. It’s an oral tradition. They eventually got written down but the reason they were short was so people could memorise them. I think the short story as we understand it, and this is something Philip Hensher found when was putting together the Penguin Book of the British Short Story just recently, is that when he looked at stories from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and really a lot of the nineteenth century, they are not what we would call short stories.
MS: They are ‘shortened’ stories.
SE: Yes. What we understand as a short story has a very small history.
MS: Are we talking about lyrical stories here? Are we talking about the modernist writers? Or are we going back to Poe?
SE: Yes, that’s the birth of the short story. When you are talking about Strand magazine, what you have got there, you have people who are desperate for short stories, and people want to read them because they don’t have anything else. Their way of consuming any sort of fictive entertainment was pretty much at that point just down to what they were reading. I think you are right, that the British tradition of the short story has been, I’ll do one this weekend and I’ll send it there and get some money for it. That’s why we in Britain don’t have a particularly brilliant history with the short story. Whereas Ireland and America, what you’ve got there is this huge appetite for high quality fiction.
MS: So why such a difference then? I mean in lots of ways English culture and Irish culture are similar.
SE: The Irish literary scene is quite small. They understand the oral tradition. Also, it came out of a nationalistic necessity. If you read Dubliners for instance, it is very much coming out of a nationalist movement. That’s part of where the Irish thing comes from. Whereas America, it is trying to come to terms with this immigrant culture and the American century. Those twin things, patriotism and identity, weren’t happening in the UK. We weren’t as interested in examining our culture or where we fitted in the world. We were still trying to deal with the end of empire and the birth of the commonwealth. Having said that, I think now there is a change of emphasis. There are publishers now publishing first time short story writers. I’m very lucky to be one of those. We are also seeing for a first time in a long time, British short story writers making a career out of it, such as Adam Marek or Helen Simpson. But for a long time there weren’t really any British short story writers of any kind of note.
MS: Following that theory to its logical conclusion then, given our fall from grace and the end of empire, we should really now be embracing the short form?
SE: Well, there are small publishers taking risks now. But we don’t have any short stories in major newspapers these days. We don’t have a magazine like The New Yorker. We have Granta, but that’s an international magazine. We don’t really have that magazine culture that those countries have.
MS: I guess the rise of television is another factor. As a phenomenon it has provided a platform for mass storytelling.
SE: And radio.
MS: But we were promised, weren’t we, with the advent of the e-book and the digitisation of literature that the short story would have a resurgence. That length would no longer be a consideration in the marketing of fiction. That’s not really happened, has it? Why do you think that is, Michelle?
MG: I don’t know. I think it’s maybe a wee bit early to decide, that’s it: digital publishing has failed, it’s not working, because there is still a lot of jostling going on, trying to figure out different platforms and how they are working. And of course there is the big overarching jostling going on, the drive to monetise digital space. On the other hand, to open it up and the ‘information should be free’ ethos that some people have got. Personally, this Kindle versus physical books, I just have no real passion for that argument. To me they are two different ways of reading. Particularly, you know, I have different access issues at different times, due to health issues. There are times when reading off an e-reader is easier, and when the physical book is easier. I don’t really understand the passion behind that debate. One versus the other. I’m shocked at how few bookstores there are in England, moving from Canada. I’m absolutely blown away at how few bookstores there are here.
MS: Have you been to Hay-on-Wye?
MG: Yeah, except if you go to Hay. That’s it. I lived in a very rightwing, very arts-hostile part of Canada, and the number of bookshops, second-hand, specialist, niche, in that extremely rightwing, hostile, totally isolated town, like in Hay, that was just a totally normal thing. I don’t know what it is about Britain.
MS: I’ve certainly seen that in my lifetime. I grew up in Manchester and an area called Shudehill, David you’ll remember this, it was full of second-hand bookshops specialising in Science Fiction, Horror, Crime, and so on. You go to Shudehill now and it’s wine bars and restaurants.
MG: Paramount Books are still hanging on aren’t they? Two days a week they do their thing. But that’s it. I’ve been in Manchester for fifteen years, and it’s been close, close, close.
DC: It’s the same in Oxford, where I live. There’s really nothing now except for the Oxfam bookshop, which is very good. They can’t afford the rent. It’s not that there’s a demise in the interest in reading. They simply can’t afford it. Large collections from the university now go to Oxfam. The libraries don’t want them. And they are sold for a fair price. That’s not knocking Shudehill, where you could buy books very cheaply.
SE: To go back to your original point, I think the thing about length is kind of a misnomer. Laurie Moore, a great American short story writer, said something like people think the short story is perfect for now because it is short and therefore requires less concentration, less time. When in fact everyone who reads short stories knows that isn’t true. You have to read them slower. You have to read them in a different way. You have to be prepared to work that bit harder. Particularly if you write the kind of short fiction that I do. It does require a bit of a step back, otherwise you won’t get everything. If you read it at the same pace as you would reading a thriller or any kind of novel you are going to miss stuff. With digital the length doesn’t matter, but at the same time, the opposite is happening, books are getting longer and people’s attention span for long books is growing. Look at the success of Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, those books are huge. People want that immersive experience. The short story offers a different kind of experience. Not better or worse, just different.
MS: It’s closer to poetry in that sense, isn’t it? It’s a more distilled form.
DC: The only thing about length I would say is, you shouldn’t write something that feels abbreviated. There is a difference between something being short and being abbreviated.
MS: That goes back to the writers such as Maupassant, who were really writing summaries of much longer stories: telling rather than showing.
DC: You might write a story of 16,000 words or one of 2,000 words. I would hope in both cases that that is the length they have had to be because the story required that length of expansion.
MS: We are handicapped by semantics to an extent, I suppose. The French term for short fiction is ‘conte’. It has no indication of length. The French word doesn’t define the form by how long it is.
DC: That’s right. The German word ‘novella’ – which was ‘not the novel’ – is a completely different kettle of fish. If you have in mind the nineteenth century idea of the German novella, I’m not sure anyone would want to write like that, which is really a bourgeois belief in order. The symbols that were put in and the leitmotifs that were put in, and an ending which is morally satisfying. That’s as far away from the kind of fiction that interests me as it is as possible to get. I’m happy to be talking about this but in a sense, you know there is a market, but it touches me not in the least. It doesn’t affect the way I write. Whereas, I know Helen Simpson is a case in point. They really did lean on her to present her short stories so that they resembled a novel, in order to sell more copies. If you come from poetry as I do, there is no money in poetry. And if you are talking about translation, there is less than nothing. You couldn’t conceivably be in it for the money. And that is a huge liberation.
SE: That’s how it was for me. I was labouring on a novel for ages. It was awful. I put it away. I didn’t know what I was going to do. The whole time I was thinking about getting published. Money. I was thinking about that. Which publisher will I go to? How much advance will I get? It was at the back of my mind the whole time. My friend is a musician and he took me to task one night and said, the money is not important. If you start thinking about money, that’s it, you’ll kill everything. The most important thing you have to do is concentrate on the work. That is the only thing that is important. This, coming from him was really interesting. He’d spent most of his time trying to get signed. Basically, what happened, they’d been out the night before and they were haggling about money, and they were supporting an Icelandic band. And he asked, how do you make money? and they answered, why would you want to make money? This is amazing. This is what we do. We are playing our music to people who love us. And it changed the way I thought about my writing for the better. Once you stop thinking about it, it’s like a weight off.
MG: This idea about thinking about a ‘writing career’ is something that is very alien to me. I grew up in a family of lots of artists. None of them called themselves artists, with one exception, because they were caretakers and they worked in Tesco and they did whatever numerous different jobs to feed their families, to feed us, but were doing all kinds of artistic endeavour. So I never had any illusion about making money from art. That wasn’t part of my consciousness. I don’t mean to glamorise being skint, because it’s not glamorous, and it doesn’t help your art, but the idea of chasing money in that way, I’d rather make my money elsewhere. I don’t want to think, I’ve written this thing, but it’s not very marketable, but perhaps if I make the main character a man, or whatever, I’ll sell more copies. I have no interest in that. If I do boring things I want to get paid for them but when I do something I love, it is something else.
MS: Having said all that though, there has been a proliferation of prize culture in recent years. With the demise of a paid platform for short fiction, lots or writers aspire and succeed in receiving money through that mechanism. David, I know that a few years ago you won the prestigious BBC National Short Story Award with ‘Tea At The Midland’ and it can be a very lucrative thing.
DC: I want to say to the audience though, if I’ve won something I wouldn’t dream of putting myself in for it again. Most writers probably feel like that. I think of Kafka constantly in this respect. He was an expert in employment insurance, his job was processing insurance claims, and he wrote at night in a state of sleeplessness. It’s interesting with Kafka. Following the truth of what he was. He started off with novels that he thought of as Dickensian. There’s a Dickensian novel about a young man going abroad and trying to make his way. But as he developed his own fiction you see him paying less and less attention to any nineteenth century realist tradition. In pursuit of the truth, as he understood it, he’s not only going into an area where a lot of people wouldn’t even understand where he was going, but also, the criteria for whether this material is truthful or not requires a degree of integrity that is off the scale. When he gives up on a piece of writing, it is hard to see why it isn’t good enough. But he knows it isn’t good enough. In the case of Amerika, he didn’t finish it. In the case of The Trial, he didn’t finish it. He wrote a last chapter and headed towards it but he couldn’t get there. And in the case of The Castle, famously, he never gets there. They are all unfinished because of his integrity. We are either behaving like that, to the best of our abilities, or it isn’t worth it. I was giving a talk to a Creative Writing class recently, and principally the students wanted to know how to get published.
MS: Well, that’s a very common question, isn’t it?
DC: Yes, and I could see why they would ask. And I’m not the person to ask. You could see why the tutors would want their students to get published. This came into universities some time ago now, where the humanities are ranked alongside the sciences in terms of impact. You have to prove that the writing is of a quality, i.e. that it has monetary value. And I relish the fact that what I do can’t be seen in that way.
MS: In that sense then, is writing short fiction an act of defiance? Is there a political element to it?
DC: I was very lucky that for 31 years I had a fulltime job which I loved and that made me a living and at the same time I was writing. I’ve been writing since I was 15 and I could not conceive of a life without writing. It’s had little to do with success. I’ve been very fortunate. I was lucky to be in the North East when Bloodaxe were beginning and I met Ra [of Comma Press] when he was beginning. And those two things have been two huge colossal pieces of luck.
MS: So you could have answered the question about how to get published by saying, move close to a publisher.
SE: The true trick, as David says, is to get lucky. When I wrote Ten Stories About Smoking, about six months before, Penguin had had success with David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. People were talking up the short story. There was a market for it. People were buying those books. My book went out at the right time. Six months earlier it wouldn’t have been published; six months later, it wouldn’t have been published.
MS: I was impressed with the packaging of that book.
SE: Yes, it was pretty good.
MS: For audience members who aren’t aware of how it was packaged do you want to just explain?
SE: It was done like a cigarette box. Six months before that wouldn’t have happened. Again it was a quirk. They happened to have some money left with the packager so they got a special deal. The book was in the cigarette box and you opened the box to get to the book.
MS: It wasn’t sponsored by Benson and Hedges?
SE: No. The only stipulation I had was that they couldn’t make it look like a packet of Benson and Hedges, because I can’t stand them. But as I say, it’s that luck thing. The right time at the right place. No matter how good you are, no matter how wonderful, in terms of publishing, you never know. It might just be, well, we’re not publishing people like you at the moment. That actually just happened to me in the US. My last book. A big publisher pulled out because they had just bought a book that they deemed too similar to mine. And that was a bit of bad luck. I got another publisher but the point still stands.
MS: To change the subject back to the lyrical story and the BBC National Short Story Award, I was thinking about something Mark Haddon said when he was interviewed. As you know he was shortlisted this year and he said, he was wanting to get away from the kind of stories that Chekhov and Carver were writing. What he called ‘fragments’ of bigger stories. He was, without using the term, talking about lyrical stories. He said he wanted to write a fully fleshed out story. Do you think that the lyrical short story has had its day? Is it time to move on or for the lyrical story to develop?
CD: I don’t like the idea of the lyrical story being finished. I think there is room in short fiction to write all kinds of stories. I like the lyrical form. I like stories that focus on an image. That’s how I write. If you think about the short form as a challenge for the reader to finish the story, and going back to Barthes and the idea that the unity of the text is in the reader, the idea of an open ending is what makes it so moving and exciting because it’s a creative act to read and to work with that fragment of a story. You create your own version so that every reader creates a different version.
MS: I’m thinking of your stories now, Claire, and how you utilise non-realist elements. It seems that in some way the lyrical story is resistant to non-realist elements. In fact a lot of proponents of the lyrical form are writing about characters very much like themselves and worlds very close to their own. Do you think there is still a snobbery around incorporating non-realist elements in the literary short story?
SE: I wasn’t aware there was one.
MS: Writing that incorporates non-realist elements often gets shunted into a genre. If you write about speculative technology, it gets shoved in the sci-fi box, if you include monsters, it’s classed as horror, and so on.
DC: This never occurs to me. I didn’t actually know what a lyrical short story was, honestly. There are certain ways I try and write fiction. I’m not abiding by anything out there which is telling me this is good or bad. Anything which is a thing which can go on a shelf in Waterstones is a thing you can do without. The only anxiety that matters is how close you are to getting to the truth or undertow. I honestly think it is like starting for the first time, every time. There are no criteria in place that will help me with the new venture.
SE: I would also say that, Kafka, ‘The Hunger Artist’, is not a traditional realist story. ‘Lady With a Lap Dog’ is odd in its way. Even Carver’s stuff, there are weird things that are non-realistic.
MS: Well, some of Carver’s stuff approaches non-realism without actually getting there. I’m thinking in particular of the one with the yard sale.
CD: ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’
MS: Yeah, that inside-out image owes something to the surreal.
SE: And remember, ‘The Dead’ starts with the line ‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally rushed off her feet’. One of the greatest short stories of all time starting off with something that is obviously nonsense. I rejoice in different narratives and different genres. I’m influenced by television, poetry, stuff in translation. Anything. And anyone who was snobbish about there being non-realistic things wouldn’t be any kind of critic who I would pay any attention to.
CD: I think it’s interesting though. The categories come about… for instance with my stories. I’ve had a story published in a book of horror with a ridiculously dramatic cover, a screaming face with blood dripping from it. The story of mine that’s in that book in no way fits with that image. My stories have gone into fantasy anthologies. But I don’t think the categories really exist.
MG: And they change. You know, ‘women’ was a category not so long ago. ‘Gay and lesbian’ is supposedly a category. That’s a marketing thing.
CD: It exists for publishers. But for writers, I’m not sure they definitely do exist.
MS: But the short fiction that seems to win all the prizes reflects a bias against non-realism.
SE: I think prizes are not worth thinking about until you win them. You win one and you think, that’s great, and then you enter another and you don’t get anywhere. My wife always goes down the list of shortlisted writers and says, do you know who isn’t here? And then lists all the writers that I love, and they’re not on there. And that’s how we get over it. Because if I’m thinking like that, what’s Julian Barnes thinking? What’s Hilary Mantel thinking? It’s important not to take those things too seriously. However, they are very good for deadlines. Saying the deadline for this competition is this, is a really good way to get a story out there.
At this point we took questions from the audience.
Audience: Stuart, I think you are being very pessimistic about the magazines that our out there in this country. There are a lot of opportunities.
SE: Sure. There are story outlets but they don’t have the same cultural cache that The New Yorker has. There are a lot of magazines here that publish really good work and the content is great. I’m not pessimistic about short stories. [Turning to panel] are you?
DC: Not about short stories themselves. I’m really not. The rest is of interest, but it’s not critical. If there was no access whatsoever to any kind of publishing I would still carry on writing.
MS: You do want to be read though?
DC: Of course I do but I would write whether anyone wanted to read me or not.
MS: But isn’t the purpose to communicate a feeling, a thought, or something, to someone else? Isn’t that what you are doing when you are writing?
DC: Well, yes, some of my most gratifying experiences in my entire life are when total strangers have taken the trouble to write to me to tell me something that I’ve written has moved them.
MS: Job done.
DC: No, I don’t think this is ‘job done’. I feel that there is a proper human contact going back and forth. I felt like this when my wife and I were editing Modern Poetry in Translation. We got poems sent in from every quarter of the globe. They wanted to be in a magazine that mattered to them. It’s been around for fifty years, in English. And again, it is a counter-culture, it is political in that sense. Because those poems passed frontiers. We didn’t make any money out of it. We didn’t have any money to give them. We gave small fees to some people. There was an Israeli who said please give my fee to Physicians for Peace. A guy in India said, I don’t want the fee, give it to this charity. You’re in a zone where it doesn’t enter into it. And that is liberating. It clears your head.
MS: So, we’ve established that we are not pessimists then.
Audience: I wanted to pick up on something you [Stuart] said about the short story being a very modern form and you discounted what was being said about its origins being the folktale. Do you really think there is a complete disjunction or do you think in some ways the modern short story is shot through with other forms?
SE: There is always an overlap. Obviously, but I do think what we write and publish as short fiction now… I mean, if you read the Brothers Grimm for example, no matter how wonderful they are, and they really are wonderful, I think I buy a new copy of the Brothers Grimm every year, with different illustrations and all the rest of it, when you read them they just don’t conform to what we understand as a short story. They’re vicious, they’re unpleasant, they are very very short, and often they just stop. Bang! There we go. While I don’t think they are completely different, I think they are the antecedents, but the modern short story as we understand it, from Chekhov right through to Zadie Smith, they are in there, and obviously Angela Carter has rewritten some of them, but if you put them side-to-side you’ll know instantly that one is a short story and one is a folktale. But I think that’s where the fascination comes from turning folktales into short fiction. Kirsty Logan did it recently in a fantastic collection. There’s a guy called Ben Loory and he wrote a collection of stories called Stories for Night-time and Some For The Day. They are again, based around folktales which he has reinvented. I don’t think necessarily that they are poles apart but I think it’s important to split them in two.
MS: You could argue that someone like Flannery O’Connor, for example, was writing the beware-of-the-wolf-that’s-out-there story?
SE: Yeah, I take the point. I just don’t think it is particularly helpful to put them together. My kid is reading ‘Cinderella’ at the moment. He loves it. But it feels like a different genre to me than short fiction.
CD: I disagree.
SE: You’re allowed to.
CD: I’ve been researching fairytales and folklore for the past ten years and they have fed into my writing at every point. They have really shaped the way I write short stories. I write very sparse short stories. I’m drawing on the celerity of the fairytale form. With the Grimms, and from the sixteenth century onwards, people were collecting folktales, but then there was the writing of the literary fairytales as well which drew very much on the oral traditions. You get the patterns and the repetitions and the stuff that Propp drew on. I think that’s there in the bones of the short story, maybe just for me, but maybe for other writers too, maybe because I’ve worked with the form, I see that. There is something about the fragmented nature that is possible in the short form in those fairytales.
SE: I don’t dispute any influence, I just don’t see folktales as short stories.
CD: It’s not linear. It’s messy. And at different points in our history we have captured them and pinned them down in different ways but the same themes come up again and again and the same patterns. The same resonances resurface at different points and sometimes the technology we use, such as print technology, did affect the fairytale form and it did fix it. Angela Carter said it, that print technology gave the author a god-like status, the author of unique one-offs. Stories just aren’t like that. That’s partly why I have no concern out of making a living from it because it is communal material. In the oral tradition we all took material from the pot and added our own things to it. Tolkien talked about the bones of story and how it’s all about how you serve up the soup. People have kept throwing things into the pot over the years and we all serve up the soup differently, adding our own experiences or where we are at the moment or whatever is happening around us in the world. We come up again and again and draw on this communal pot so commodifying that doesn’t make sense.
MS: I was just thinking then about that Ursula Le Guin story, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. That seems to me to be steeped in a folklore tradition. And I was also thinking of some AL Kennedy stories as well. There is one called ‘A Perfect Possession’ about these fairytale wicked parents who lock up their child.
MG: I just wanted to pick up on something you were saying about scarcity. That there is space in there and that there are common elements that are thrown in. I find that really interesting because the way I read short stories and the way I write short stories is really influenced by being told stories, orally, hearing them. Then starting to write, for performance I guess. When someone is telling me a story they are performing and there is a lot of space in there for me to step into. It’s something that I recognise when I read a short story off the page, there is a lot of space. The ones that really grab me are not really drawn out. When it is done in a way that grabs me there are skilful points and a lot of space in-between and I get what you are saying from that, that spoken word perspective and that cross-over.
RP: If I can just pick it apart a bit more. One of the articulations that folktales and short stories are different is that with a folktale characters are more totemic. They are emblematic. They represent some ‘thing’. They don’t have an internal world. They don’t have psychologies. As opposed to modern short stories where every character has an internal psychology. Psychology doesn’t really apply to the characters in a folktale. Sometimes you get this weird combination. We published a short story by Sara Maitland called ‘The Moss Witch’ about a scientist who has psychology and lots of motivation with things going on internally and she meets a moss witch who is just a witch. I remember trying to work with a film crew, pulling it apart and rewriting it as a script.
MS: It was for this festival here, wasn’t it?
RP: Yeah, that’s right. And there was no way we could really do that in the normal way because normally when you adapt something you ask, what is the character’s motivation? You can’t do that with a fairy story. It’s not what they are. It’s an inappropriate question. Do you, Claire, agree with that definition?
CD: I agree that there is no psychology, yes. And I think the most liberating thing about working with fairytales is that you don’t have to explain. No one has to explain why the horse can talk. Particularly when I’m writing for Comma commissions and I try to bring realism into it more, sometimes I struggle with it. I don’t know how much I need to put in. How much I need to explain. Sometimes I think I’m way off getting that balance right. They are different but I feel one has fed into the other.
SE: To come back to your point about what you should put in and what you should not, I think one of the things I always think about if I am writing anything like that is Bill Murray talking to Harold Ramis. Harold Ramis wrote and directed Groundhog Day. It was like the third day on the set, Bill Murray was going through his second divorce and was a complete nightmare, he went to Harold and said, all this is rubbish, change it. And Harold said, what do you mean ‘all this’? That’s the whole explanation to why you are living the same day over and over again. Yeah, I know, it’s rubbish. Get rid of it. And now there is no explanation as to why that is happening. It just is. Once you realise that, it is liberating. Let the audience or the reader get that on their own.
MS: Are you ever tempted to bring non-realist elements into your stories, David?
DC: What you call totemic, I call figurative. In quite a lot of my stories, I could show you the real base, but actually the characters in them are figurative. I mean, they are what they are but at the same time they are emblematic and they are like characters in fairytales. They’ve got a sort of aura around them which is more than the background from where they have come. And some of the stories I’ve written are more like fables.
RP: The character in ‘Trains’ is a mysterious character.
DC: They are usually real people at the back of them. With the process of memory over a long period they clarify like constellations. The way constellations are clear once you know what to look for but actually the stars themselves are not like that. There is that point of clarification. I do think a lot of fiction should be working towards the figurative. Not to release itself from its realities. I think that’s how things get read again and again and why we can read The Iliad, that extraordinary scene at the end when Priam gets back to find his son killed by Achilles and he goes down on his knees and he begs him and he lifts up this man’s hands and kisses his hands. These are the hands that have killed his son and he begs him to let him have the body back. And Achilles looks down on him and remembers his own father who he has left at home and should be attending to and there is a figurative moment. This is our fate but it shouldn’t be like this. That I have killed your son and I am not protecting my own father. This goes right back to something like the eighth century BC but then you go forward to something like ‘The Dead’. The end of that story. Michael Furey is in the garden dying for love. He is tubercular and shouldn’t be out in the snow. That’s a figure, don’t ask me what of, but it’s a figure. Brecht’s lover and collaborator, Margarete Steffin, who he got to know in 1930 or 1931, an extraordinary linguist and a poet, a communist like him, you see her name again and again as a co-writer of the major plays. She put him right. He was a bourgeois son of a factory owner. She told him what it was like to be born in the tubercular slums of Berlin. She made him write in that way that was intelligible to working people, she died in Moscow fleeing from Hitler, and one of the most beautiful poems he wrote at the end is precisely what I said. It’s a very short thing. He puts her up in the stars and he calls her the Constellation of Steffin and he looks up and says, I believe I hear a faint coughing. That’s how she died, with blood in her mouth, of tuberculosis, and she for him is up there in the stars as a figure in his life. An unforgettable figure who did all these amazing things. And this thing about memorialising is a big thing in writing. Memory clings better in figures who have been somewhat relieved of the peripheral details and the incidentals. But if it goes too far it is just abstraction, which you don’t want. Nietzsche said that you could tell the story of a person’s life in three anecdotes, he meant three figurative instances. When this person was most himself, most herself.
MS: I’d go further and say one anecdote.
DC: Yes, possibly.
MS: The job of the short fiction writer is to find one.
DC: Yes, indeed it is.
MS: You talk about figurative writing and related to that is symbolism. You talked earlier about Lawrence [in an earlier event], a writer well known for his use of symbolism. And symbols figure largely in your work.
DC: As long as when we talk about symbols we never mean, this stands in the place of that. There’s that Mary McCarthy anecdote. She’s running a Creative Writing class and she asks one of her students how she is getting on with her story and she says, fine, I’ve finished. I’ve just got to go through and put in the symbols.
MS: Your stories often accrete around a symbol: a well, a cave, a shieling.
DC: The Odour of Chrysanthemums [by DH Lawrence] does precisely that. These are real flowers, precisely located, the time of the year is told. Then these chrysanthemums come in and step by step they keep coming in. Their real significance for the people in the story, like precipitation, it precipitates around, it’s like that. But you can’t say the chrysanthemums equal that. That’s not how Lawrence writes. But the figurative sense accrues in the course of the story, sentence by sentence, until they bring the man home from the mine dead, and one of the miners knocks the vase off and smashes it and there is water all over and she goes down on her knees immediately. It’s completely homely, it’s absolutely what you ordinarily do, a miner’s life, wash the man’s back when he comes back from the pit. Then you wash the dead. These are what they did. At the same time they are luminous, figurative. If there was a religious dimension to it, these are sacramental acts.
MS: It’s almost like a Caravaggio painting, with the significant thing lit, and the rest in darkness.
DC: I suppose if you are an atheist, you still want fiction to have in it the sacramental. By that what I mean is what Blake understands as holy. The holiness of life itself. The luminous moment but never abstract.
SE: Updike said that he couldn’t see any symbolism in his work but other people could. He said that it’s inevitable when you write something that people will go looking for symbols and that there was no point in doing that. One of my favourite quotes, JG Ballard was interviewed by Will Self. Ballard is one of Self’s heroes. Self said to him, what is it with symbols of swimming pools in your novels? And he went through in his very loquacious way all of Ballard’s fiction and Ballard was beside himself with laughter, and Will said, have I said something wrong? And Ballard said, I just forgot. He hadn’t remembered that he’d put swimming pools into all of these stories. It just happened. It had been an accident. It’s in Junk Mail, the collection of Will Self’s journalism. Self has this very long, wonderful theory but Ballard is pissing himself laughing.
MS: But Ballard could be wrong.
SE: I do it myself. My editor came back and said, you do realise you have five characters called Mark don’t you?
MS: Thank God for ‘find and replace’.
MS: Shall we get another question from the audience?
Audience: You have been talking earlier about realism and non-realism and it is still the case that in some way realism is seen as superior to fantasy. It is seen as more literary perhaps. Stuff like science fiction and fantasy is put in the imaginary category, and it is seen as more immature, more for kids. How do you feel about that distinction and is there any way to combine the two forms.
MG: I think Margaret Atwood absolutely combines the two. I’ve never heard anyone call her a science fiction writer but she certainly writes speculative fiction. I don’t know why she doesn’t get dumped in the genre bin because that is what often happens with writing that has different imaginative elements to it. It does for some folk get really talked down. I don’t know why that is. I’ve read a lot of literary work that didn’t do a lot for me.
SE: I’d also mention Ben Marcus. His first collection was very future-based, science-based. Angela Carter wrote lots of imaginative fiction. Murakami is a great example. It’s a bit of a Duchamp idea. I call it art so therefore it is art. You say, this is literary fiction and it is influenced by all those things. It happens with crime writing as well. Look at someone like David Peace, one of my favourite writers, he’s considered a literary writer but he’s written primarily crime novels. He was pushed in the first instance by Serpent’s Tail as a literary writer. He’s put into a different pot.
CD: It goes back to the nineteenth century and the modern era. The way fairytales got relegated to the nursery. Even prior to that, the disenchantment of the world, the disenchantment narrative, where people in the west stopped believing in nature spirits. This rationalist drive forward, I wonder if it comes out of that, this sort of banishing away of magic. I think writers, however, throughout that period have continued to draw on it.
MS: I think it’s important that you say ‘in the west’ because I think it is a different tradition in other parts of the world. In Latin America, in Africa, in India, there isn’t the same reception towards non-realist elements.
SE: Yeah, if you look at Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you know those magical realists, the first story in Rushdie’s East, West collection is absolutely fantastic and while not quite science fiction, it is a fantastical story. I still think it’s down to the way you present yourself rather than an issue with readers not wanting to read stuff that has fantastical elements, because everyone wants to read that. We all want to believe in fairies, witches and the rest of it. That’s what we want. We want to be able to experience that. And I still think reading is the best way to experience that.
MS: I’m looking at the clock, I’m aware the wine is getting warm, and it feels like that is a good place to stop. A big thanks to our panel, to Comma Press for all their help in putting this together, to the University of Huddersfield for hosting and funding the event and to you the audience for turning up from all over the country through hail and hurricane. It’s much appreciated.
And so endeth the panel discussion.