“Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait”
So said Mavis Gallant, who is one of the world’s greatest short story writers. Or was, until she died recently at the age of 91.
I think stories can wait to be written too. They shouldn’t be forced. You don’t have to rush to read them and you don’t have to rush to write them.
Mavis herself waited many years to discover that people liked her stories. Her agent had been selling them to The New Yorker without telling her. Mavis couldn’t afford to buy the magazine but read a copy in a library one day and found one of her stories in it. Eventually The New Yorker published more than 100 of her stories, more than any other writer apart from John Updike or S.J. Perelman.
I read a very sad blog last night by a writer who was struggling to increase her output from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 to meet the demands of a ravenous publisher.
Wait! Take a step back!
Writing is not manual labour. It’s the least effective way in the world to earn money. It would be illegal if it weren’t self-inflicted.
Hanif Kureishi can vouch for that.
“It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer.”
He was talking at the Bath Literature Festival, taking time off from promoting his latest novel and from his job at Kingston University where he teaches creative writing. Well, not really taking time off. Writers never take time off. He was pretending to take time off but really he was “working in the market.” He was making headlines.
“Creative writing courses are a waste of time.”
he announced. His students, he said, were talentless.
“A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”
I disagree with him. I think you can teach how to tell a story. Syd Field has been doing it successfully for years (and many books for writers have copied his ideas). But I acknowledge that Hanif has a fair point. Writers get very anxious about style.
“They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’”
Yes! Fuck the prose. That is a very profound point. Fuck the prose because what matters is the story.
I am putting these ideas out there because I want to refer to them in my next book review without cluttering it up with a lot of literary theory.
Talking of which, I want to leave you with another quote, this time from Stephen Fry’s book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled. Stephen Fry, you could say, was fucking the prose but in a different sense. He was fucking the prose and loving the poetry. But he still insisted that all his readers follow his first golden rule: Take Your Time.
“Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords.”
That quote was not quite the one I wanted but I love it. Oh, wait, here is what I wanted to him say:
“It can take weeks to assemble and polish a single line of poetry. Sometimes, it is true, a lightning sketch may produce a wonderful effect too, but as a general rule, poems take time. As with a good painting, they are not there to be greedily taken in at once, they are to be lived with and endlessly revisited: the eye can go back and back and back, investigating new corners, new incidents and the new shapes that seem to emerge.”
Actually he goes on and on and on about taking your time.
So, summing up. Stories can wait. It’s a nightmare making a living. Fuck the prose. Take your time.
That’s the literary theory. A book review will follow shortly.
How time flies! I’ve been meaning to review this book for so long that I’ve almost forgotten what the stories are about or why I thought they were so good.
I’ve had it at least a year.
And what a year it’s been! This time last year I was looking back on my career as a writer and remarking on how little I’d written.
Well, and during the Christmas holiday last year I wrote a story called Scandal! I was very proud of it and thought it was quite deep but I’d rushed it onto the page in only three days and I thought I should let it settle a bit before publishing it. In March or April I re-read it and decided it could be quite special if I was patient enough to let it germinate for a while and come to full maturity.
And it is germinating still. But let me assure you, it’s good!
Apart from that, and a fiery little outburst some months ago, I have had another fallow year and I’ve spent more time reading than writing.
I haven’t even been reviewing what I’ve been reading. Instead — and this is the point, in case you are wondering why this review is so far all about me and not at all about Remittance Girl — I have been studying how the professionals do it. I’ve discovered that book reviews should really be all about the reviewer rather than the book, as in this adorable example from Leo … someone-or-other. It’s very clear he’s a Leo, don’t you think?
In case you are thinking … Aha! She can talk! … Let me tell you at once that I’m not a Leo. Just a little crab.
And as a little crab, I often crawl sideways along the shore, staring goggle-eyed at the overwhelming tide of creativity all around me.
Remittance Girl is perfect company for me on my travels because she is a writer’s writer. She is literate, reflective and wise. She is a discriminating reader and draws upon her reading to stay fresh, inspired and quirky.
Whether she’s erotic or not, I’m not sure. She writes about erotic experiences. She is a storyteller. And she is fascinating.
The problem with reviewing collections of short stories is that there is so much to comment on that it’s hard to keep the review fairly short and still put in lots of information about me. But, as if reading my mind, Remittance Girl has solved this problem by including a story set in Limehouse, London, which I happen to pass through every day on my way to work.
In the old days, Limehouse was London’s Chinatown, full of shady warehouses, brothels and opium dens. This provides the backdrop for a rather prickly story about a profligate young man and a seductive Chinese woman called Mai.
“Mai seemed to be very much at home. She stepped delicately to a low table supporting two bronze lions in the Chinese style and put the flame from a small oil burner to three slender sticks of what Gerald learned later to be incense. Then, when the sticks were sending up hair-like tendrils of sweet-smelling smoke, she took up a small metal rod and struck it against the body of one of the lions. It chimed sweetly.”
It’s the stuff of fantasy. And yet it is very concrete and the descriptions are precise. There are sensual moments. You can see even from this very brief excerpt that Remittance Girl knows how to appeal to your senses. But at its heart the story is deeply philosophical. It is sharp and to the point. It ought to be, for it is called ‘The Pipe of Thorns.’
You must be prepared for sexually explicit passages. But, heavens above, who isn’t these days? But here, as in so many of her stories, the truly adult theme is what Remittance Girl does with this explicitly sexual encounter. She gives it a twist so brutal that young minds would instinctively shy away and shut down.
So these are adult stories, adult in the sense that they question and challenge our preconceptions and predilections. They can be delicate and they can be brutal. But they are never gratuitous, for they show all the seriousness of a writer who takes writing very seriously indeed.
The early lives of authors have always interested me. Not just authors but artists, actors and musicians too. Trying to earn a living by artistic means can be a titanic struggle and a real test of character. We take it for granted that Shakespeare wrote, directed, performed and produced his own plays. We pay homage only to the works, forgetting the huge entrepreneurial effort he put into building his career and scaling the uppermost ranks of English society.
And what of Noel Coward? When you listen to the exuberant, hilarious dialogue in Private Lives you might think, like me, that he was born successful. How could it be otherwise when every line he writes exudes confidence and social savoir faire? Well, it’s true that at the age of 24 he caused a theatrical sensation with his play The Vortex, of which he was the star, the author, the director and the decorator. But the following year he was spat at in the street when people didn’t like Sirocco.
Such is the precariousness of success.
No-one can doubt, though, surely, the enduring appeal of Private Lives. It is not only entertaining, it is an essential resource. When infuriated by your lover, don’t stutter platitudes or seethe in awkward silence. Snap with panache. Prick him with needle-sharp sarcasm. Be sexy. Destroy him with lethal one-liners.
Private Lives picks apart the complexity of sexual relationships with rare candour and precision. It is funny because we recognise the truth of every word. It exposes with ruthless flippancy the vanities, the vulnerabilities, the secrets and the lusts of the two central characters. Packed with passion and brilliantly performed by Paul Scofield and Patricia Routledge, two of England’s most distinguished actors, this audio edition makes it possible to listen to their riveting quarrels again and again and enrich your own private life with their biting wit. Although written in the 1930s, the play is astonishingly modern. You can lift entire phrases and drop them seamlessly into your own erotic bickering. Your lover will find you at once more sexy, more sassy, more classy and more desirable.
You can find this production on AudioGo, the home of BBC audiobooks. There are different versions of the site for different countries, so make sure you are looking at the site applicable to where you live.
And if, like me, you listen on the go, you can impress your fellow passengers with frequent worldly smiles and the occasional guffaw, before going home and scintillating with your lover.
On those days when you have your most rapturous sexual experiences, you can’t help feeling deep in your heart that there is nothing trivial or superficial about sex. If you are going to talk about it, you are going to be as articulate as you can. If you are going to write about it, you want to find the very best words. And if you are going to read stories about it, you want them to be chosen by Kojo Black at Sweetmeats Press.
The very best writing flows like music. Sex is a lot like music too. It has sounds and rhythms. It is amplified and enriched by the synchronous movements of your body. So it makes perfect sense to have a sexual anthology themed to music, and to the idea that your body is an instrument that can be strummed.
Since it is an anthology compiled by Kojo Black, you would expect “Strummed” to include some of the very best writing, conveying, through its sounds and rhythms, the pleasure and profundity of sex. And you would be right.
Here is an example of some beautiful musical writing by the very refined and very sensual Harper Eliot, from her story “And the Midnight Trio.”
As he reached the angular shape of her hip, he kissed her shoulder, pausing there to let her feel the rough stubble on his chin.
It was moments like these, always moments like these, that allowed Violet to escape the mundanity of day to day life. She wasn’t sure when exactly she had agreed to sit and live with boredom, but she went to sleep each night with the wish that she was living a more extraordinary life. Meanwhile she made no attempt to create any constant excitement, living instead off feelings such as these, the stubble of his chin grazing her milky flesh.
The other stories have moments like these too. The writing is not grandiose or pompous but it touches you. It sinks into your subconscious and resonates there.
In “On the Highway 17” by B.Z.R. Vukovina we meet a folk singer called Cob who knows in his soul that he is going to be famous. Cob’s journey has a mythic quality that is expressed not just through the juxtaposition of black bears, totems and the rugged beauty of the Canadian landscape, but also in rhythms like these:
Cob heard the water before he saw it: a faint buzzing that intensified like a swarm of insects, steady without the monotony of mechanisms, always on the verge of crashing, of waves, like the string of a guitar plucked hard, once-and-forever.
The trees ended.
He emerged from amongst them and approached Winnie, who was already standing on the slick, rocky edge of the white rushing water of the (“They call it the Dead Horse.”) river.
The other stories in the collection are more prosaic but the impression they make is no less emphatic. We meet several highly creative cellists in “Well Played” by Stella Harris. There’s a rampant rock chick in “Raw” by Amélie Hope. And in “The Vicar’s Organ” by Percy Quirk we meet the plain spoken Mrs. Evans and the even more plain spoken Mr. Creasey.
“You’re a horny little slut, Mrs. Evans,” he said to me, smirking. My nipples were dark and erect. I could already imagine his hands on my breasts, roughly kneading them, hurting and exciting me. “Get on with it,” he said, gesturing impatiently with his hand.
I unfastened my skirt, again folded it, and laid it next to the blouse on the sofa. I was down to my stockings and knickers.
“Leave them,” he told me. “I will only use your mouth today.”
One of the advantages of reading an anthology is that you get variety. Variety of phrase, of image, of voice. Variety of situation and, let’s be blunt, variety of sexual position. There are different insights and different obsessions. But one of the particular advantages of a Sweetmeats anthology is that the stories are relatively long. They have time to evolve.
I have only given you a hint and a taste of them here. A few chords and motifs. To get the full effect you really need to dive in deeper. So get the full works and immerse yourself in this stereophonic symphony of sex.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I recommend the Kindle version of this for two reasons.
1. It’s free.
2. You won’t realise how long it is until you start reading, after which it won’t matter because you’ll be hooked. Although the little percent sign at the bottom of the page will stay in demoralisingly low single figures for so long that you might think your device is broken.
There’s a third reason for recommending it. It’s awesome!
It’s not erotic but, on the other hand, it’s hardly decent. At least, it doesn’t seem decent to me that a middle-aged Victorian gentleman (he was just the right side of 50 when he wrote it) should be able to get so effortlessly into the heart and mind of an excitable young maiden in the first flush of youth and dissect her vacillating intentions with the precision of a modern micro surgeon.
How dare he! Yes, and make us love her! And love him too for his audacious charm!
Trollope is sometimes looked down on by arbiters of quality in Victorian fiction. I often hear people apologising for liking him. The trouble with Trollope, you see, is that his books are so hugely enjoyable; and they are without a scar or a blemish so there is nothing for the critics to critique.
Sometimes his works are not even looked on as fiction but as social history. Why? Because his plots are not fanciful. They are robust. And his characters are intensely alive. So when you read him, it is like looking at real life.
Except it isn’t. Everything is much simpler and clearer and funnier than real life because Trollope is so sharp, so witty, so light. He has the driest sense of humour of any Englishman I’ve met and, believe me, I’ve met some very dry Englishmen in my time. Yet you take in every word and nothing is above your head. It just falls into place beautifully.
And there I should end because the book is quite long enough; you don’t want to delay starting it a moment longer.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Oh, this book is sensational! Sensational and sad. At first I was suspicious of its sadness. The sentimental, drunken Sebastian, suffocated by privilege and mired in wealth, was not someone I could feel sorry for. Charles Ryder, who becomes besotted with Sebastian and the vast estate of Brideshead Castle that Sebastian calls home, was a bit lacking in judgement, I felt. Those snooty English upper classes don’t deserve our pity, I wanted to tell him.
But the whole point of reading is to broaden one’s horizons, and mine were in need of broadening. For this book is a work of profound and sophisticated intelligence, engaging the full scope of the human imagination and the very best of all our feelings.
“My theme is memory,” Charles tells us, “that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of wartime. These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me.”
Memories can, indeed, be profound but it is seldom that a writer can bring them alive on the page as vividly and with such compelling credibility as Evelyn Waugh does in this deeply moving novel.
I worry that perhaps the novel is overshadowed by the television series and the films that have been made of it. A flickering image on the screen has more influence and stirs us more deeply than words that have to be read. But I heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves literature because it is more subtle and more sophisticated than the films and because Waugh’s integrity and conscience resonate within it. It is a work of very great beauty by a writer who, when he writes of things that matter to him, cannot tell a lie. I was moved by it and it made me see Waugh very differently from the image I had of him after reading a few of his more satirical books.
This book will be in my mind on my journey back to China. I am already seeing my journey differently after reading it. I wonder if my parents and my home and the surroundings that were once so familiar to me will ever seem the same again.
I will certainly never look upon a stuck-up Englishman in quite the same way again. But I’m not yet ready to become a Roman Catholic. Sorry, Evelyn. Five stars, though. Perfect job!