Big Issue Fiction Edition

Currently available from your friendly Big Issue vendor – The Fiction Edition 2017. This comes out once a year and is a best seller for The Big Issue and great for the writers involved (including yours truly this year) because it has a wide readership. As well as some ‘big names’ like Matthew Riley, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, other writers are selected through a submission process – there are 14 stories in total. I got stuck into my copy, reading the other writers’ stories on the long commute home from the launch, and was totally absorbed. The short story is a really great way to fill in time this way. What a pity, then, they are not included regularly in magazines and newspaper as they were in the old days (I am always amazed when I read about the writing life of authors in the 50s, 60s and 70s and they seemed to have actually been able to make a living from selling short stories to these outlets). Now you have to submit to the rare anthology by people like the Margaret River Press, to competitions or to literary magazines – all of which have fairly small readerships.

Stories that stood out for me in this issue were Toni Jordan’s beautifully paced and atmospheric ‘Sound is a Pressure Wave’ (gorgeously spooky) and Nina Cullen’s acute and funny story about a mother and daughter trying to overcome misunderstandings while doing a meditation session together, called appropriately ‘Breathe’. I also liked Emily O’Grady’s ‘Blue India’ where your sympathy is first with the father/grandfather who visits his son’s family for Christmas from his care home, but as the story progresses your sympathy is tested. On a similar theme of aged care, Allison Browning writes a beautifully poignant story about one partner of an elderly gay couple having to make the awful decision on behalf of the other. Couples is also the theme of

Nina Cullen and me (r) with BI vendor.

Romy Ash’s story ‘I Bought These Dogs to Show Him How to Love’ where a young city couple encounter a rough-around-the-edges older couple who are selling their service station business to them ‘in the middle of fuck-off nowhere’. The young couple are maybe seeing their future in the bickering older two, but nah, they’re not like that. Understated and done mostly through dialogue, this is great short story craft.

The the Big Issue vendors will keep a few copies of the fiction edition to sell alongside with the usual editions over an ended period of time.

A Book for All and None – Clare Morgan

a book for all and noneWhat do you make of these strands: female academic (40ish) with an interest in Virginia Woolf asks to meet male academic (60ish) with speciality in Nietzsche view to exploring possibility that Woolf was influenced by the work of Nietzsche; in 19th century, Nietzsche develops romantic interest in Lou von Salome, although she is involved with Paul Ree (ménage a trois?); Walter Cronk CEO of CronkAm is involved in shonky deals in post-invasion Iraq, has affair with obliging middle-class Julie, travels to Kuwait and Iraq where he confronts the violence of the region (Oh, and he is the husband of aforementioned female academic); Virginia Woolf goes to stay at remote sea-side cottage; male and female academic develop romance as they follow up their academic hunches …?

I have read reviews that say Morgan‘s novel is ‘neatly plaited together’ and that it ‘unfolds like a paper-sharp origami’ – I’d say Morgan tries to force together disparate threads that were never going to fit; the result is misshapen and terribly dissatisfying. If ever the truism ‘it is not the sum of its parts’ applied, it applies here.

And what a pity because there is some beautifully insightful writing in this novel but Morgan does not do justice to her material. If you tease out the storylines you see that there is more than one novel’s worth of material. The affair between Raymond (the male academic) and Beatrice (the female) is subtle and sad. Raymond has an interesting family background that has left him damaged and reclusive; Beatrice is a reserved woman, elevated by the rise of her husband into a world she is not interested in. However, the development of this relationship is abbreviated so the really quite nauseating relationship of Walter and Julie can be examined, and so that Walter’s pretty unbelievable exploits in Kuwait and Iraq can be played out. What on earth is torture, multi-national shenanigans, Iraqi politics etc. doing in a book about Virginia Woolf and Frederick Neitzsche? If there is a link, Morgan doesn’t make it clear, or I’m being dense.

And that brings me to the next juddering misalignment – of all the interconnections that might have been made, why force a connection of ideas between Nietzsche and Woolf? And the ridiculous thing is, that it isn’t even a literary influence that Morgan finally reveals (I won’t spoil the extremely far-fetched denouement by saying any more).

I can only conclude that these disparate topics are some pet interests that Morgan wanted to explore, so she jammed them all together (the acknowledgements say that Morgan spent a year in a friend’s ‘lovely’ villa in Cyprus to write the book – in her shoes I’d explore my pet interests too).

Quite a lot of the book is spent on portraying Nietzsche’s mental deterioration as he begins his pursuit of Lou, and the consequences of this, and this was all well done. And the relationship of Raymond and Beatrice had potential but there was too much distraction from other parts of the book to make this really work. The parts on Virginia Woolf were less developed, leaving her a wafting, insubstantial character.

Clare Morgan is a creative writing academic at Oxford and this is her first novel. I know a writing teacher who always asks his students to define ‘whose story is it?’ – I wonder if Morgan can answer that question or if she even thinks it matters.

To story, or not to story

Here are two passages from the journal Kill Your Darlings about writing. The first by Laurie Steed bemoans the conservative nature of Australian fiction writing, and the second taken from an interview with the Scottish author Andrew Nicoll (The Good Mayor) by S A Jones has a dig at meandering no-story, literary fiction.

The thing I’d say about Laurie Steed’s argument is that there are outlets for experimental fiction and there is plenty of literary fiction written in an urban setting. In fact most of the grants available go to this type of writing, and so they should. Where are the “traditional, restrictive modes of storytelling” that are so exclusive? For twenty or thirty years the literature board etc has ruthlessly rooted this out. Only recently has it made a feeble comeback.

While Nicoll’s critique of literary fiction is harsh, and probably sexist, he does have a point that that much literary fiction is overworked, precious and dismissive of the story-telling imperative. Great, enduring literature melds the two. In Australia, with the exception of few of our top writers like Peter Carey and Kate Grenville, we haven’t worked out the formula for literary best sellers. Where are our Ian McEwans or Zadie Smiths?

I was also fascinated by Nicoll’s suggestion that the success of crime fiction is a hunger for novels with story. I’ve often pondered what readers see in the procedurals or the blood and gore serial killer stuff, but it’s true there is an undoubted satisfaction in the unravelling of threads and the depiction of relationships, often fairly mundane ones, against a world of menace and danger brought back to order at the end. The huge popularity of historical fiction could also be attributed to the desire for story (on an epic scale).

“Thematically, much of Australian literature has for too long been focused on what Jo Case described in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings as ‘bush and beach’. It’s been locked in traditional, restrictive modes of storytelling both culturally exclusive and gender biased. These modes are of little relevance to a predominantly urban contemporary Australian society, shaped as it is by multiculturalism, globalisation and neoliberalism. More importantly, regionalist literature is driving away a potential readership, a readership that can readily find more relevant and compelling characters, settings and narratives in various other media.”

– Laurie Steed

“I am bemused by the obsession with writing everything in the present tense. I’m told that this is supposed to create immediacy but it just creates neuralgia. I mourn the death of story. Page after page after tedious page where nothing happens and nothing is supposed to happen, just a failed drunk and an angry lesbian sitting in a cellar watching mould form while they internally agonise about the meaning of life. Stop! I get enough of that at home, I don’t want to read a book about it. That’s why the only books that sell are detective slasha shockas; because people know they are going to get a story. Why can’t we have stories that actually have something to say about the human condition too? Homer managed it, Dickens managed it. But the critics go along with it. I don’t know whether it’s symbiosis or parasitism but it’s a self-serving daisy chain. They tell people what is good and worthy and people buy the books, but they don’t buy them twice.”

Andrew Nicoll interviewed by S A Jones

Who pays for the editing?

I was interested to note some comments in a review of S J Finn’s new novel This Too Shall Pass in the Australian’s Review section by Sue Green. The reviewer thought the novel had great potential but that it was let down by insufficient editing by the publishers.

The reviewer’s comments that “how better for [the author] had she been given mentoring, tough editing and closely supervised rewriting” show a pie-in-the-sky notion of Australian fiction publishing.

I believe the average print run for a work of Australian fiction by a new writer is 2,000 and (I read recently) the average sales for said work is around 1,000.

A writer nets 10% of the cover price of their book – so, that means, a writer would receive around $3,000 for something they have probably worked on for several years.

This shows the tight, tight margins for fiction publishing. It is just plain uneconomic for a publisher to spend very much at all on a new work, whether this be in editing or in marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this situation is bad and short-sighted, but it’s a reality.

When you look at the cost for editing, you see how expensive it is. If an editor charges a modest $60 per hour, on the tiny margins of a first novel, 10 hours or 20 hours would eat into any profits, and that amount of editing on a manuscript of 80,000 words is miniscule (the editor needs the time to read the ms for a start!).

The fact is, these costs fall back on the author. I know authors who pay for an editor go over their work before submitting it to a publisher. After all, this compares favourably with the cost of a manuscript appraisal ($500 and upwards), mentoring ($1,500) or a university creative writing course ($8,000 – $10,000).

Mentoring and the uni course are the only places you are going to get “closely supervised rewriting”.

I can see where Sue Green is coming from – often you read a book – even from a well-known author, and think it could have been a much better, even brilliant, book, if only…

But whatever happened to the notion that an author’s works and career build over time? I know I’m being utopian here – the brutal reality is that an emerging author usually only gets one shot at it, when everything is stacked against them. This can only be terribly detrimental to the maturity and diversity of our literary world.

A year of short stories

Last year I decided to dedicate myself to reading a short story a week for a year. That may not seem like much but, although I write short stories myself, they’re not my preferred reading matter and I felt guilty about it – how can I expect other people to read my stories when I don’t read theirs? – so I forced myself into a regime of at least a story a week (see the list of stories I read in 2010 under “Weekly Bread” link at right). After completing the year these are my reflections.

Short stories are hard to find

I had to go out of my way to find short stories to read – I wanted to read both classics and contemporary. I had some collections I’d already purchased such as UTS student anthologies and Best of Australian Stories. I also had the odd collection of short stories on my book shelves (and mostly I hadn’t read these). However, on the whole, I had to search out stories from other sources. I did buy a few collections, mostly anthologies, that I thought had a variety of stories of which I was bound to like some: Jeffrey Eugenides’ My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead and A S Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories, were two. The local library was also another obvious place but, as I discovered, short story collections make up a miniscule portion of the fiction holdings, plus they are hard to find being shelved in with the novels. In the end I also scoured the secondhand bookstores for collections to buy.

Contemporary short stories are published in the literary journals but I find these too expensive to buy to read one or two stories. There are hardly any stories published in cheaper sources such as women’s magazines (remember the old days when Woman’s Day and Women’s Weekly regularly ran short stories?). The Big Issue is a notable exception with its regular annual fiction special.

Genre stories are even rarer

Literary stories have outlets in literary journals and the annual short story anthologies, however genre stories don’t appear to have a home. Surely there is as wide a readership for crime/speculative/thriller stories as there is for novels in these genres but this market isn’t catered for as far as I can see. When they do publish stories, genre writers publish them in their own collections – Joanne Harris’ Jigs and Reels, for instance. There is the odd big anthology in the library like the very enjoyable and high quality Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women and Nightshade: 20th Century Ghost Stories, but there are not as many around as I would have expected.

Beware the editors of collections

I thought I’d purchase couple of anthologies and that would give me a head start in having a large number of stories to read. It hadn’t occurred to me before to scrutinise the editors of anthologies – I’d just look at the table of contents and if there was a couple of writers I liked, I might buy the book – but I learnt my lesson when I bought the Oxford Book of Short Stories edited by A S Byatt. Like a lot of people I loved Possession but I’d forgotten how dry and intellectual I found Byatt’s other novels. After sampling a few of the stories in the Oxford book I realised I didn’t see eye to eye with Byatt – I just don’t like the pieces she selected. To compound matters, I experienced the same thing with Jeffrey Eugenides’ collection. It’s supposed to be a collection of love stories but it’s as though Eugenides thought he’d have the last laugh on any sap who bought the book on the strength of the subtitle “great love stories from Chekhov to Munro”. I’d say these are stories that have a relationship at their centre and that’s about all. It’s also American-centric. However it does include an Alice Munro story I’ve wanted to read for some time, the great “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.

The best of the crop

Reading a lot of short stories from a wide variety of sources concentrated my thoughts on what I actually like about a short story. Unlike a novel I don’t invest so much in a short story so I can afford to read something I might otherwise not read, which is a good thing. On the other hand, lack of investment means it’s easier to give up on one story and move on to another.

On the whole I like a story that is a story, ie has a story arc and enough substance to sink my teeth into. For this reason I thoroughly enjoyed many of the fantasy stories in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women especially “The Lake of the Gone Forever” by Leigh Brackett and “The Ship who Sang” by Anne  McCaffrey.

I also appreciate beautiful, intricate writing in a short story, writing that might be too rich or tiresome in a longer form. In this category I loved “Bridge of Sighs” by Gail Jones, “The Kiss” by Angela Carter, Ted Hughes’ “The Rain Horse” and Annie Proulx’s quite magnificent “Testament of the Donkey” from her collection Fine Just the Way It Is.

Then there are the uncomfortable, sad themes I might baulk at in a novel such as Peter Goldsworthy’s “Shooting the Dog” and Eva Hornung’s “Life Sentence”.

Stories that hang in my mind and I’m not sure why are: Barbara Hanrahan’s “Tottie Tippet” set in 19th century South Australia and with an unforgettable narrator, the unlikely-named but moving “The Slovenian Giantess” by Penelope Lively, a completely unsettling story by Joyce Cary about a father and his daughters called “Growing Up” that I was amazed to find included in a 1964 anthology meant for schools, and a similarly unnerving story “The Fog Day” by Amy Patterson set in Papua New Guinea.

It was an enlightening experience to read so many stories, and one I’m going to repeat in 2011.

If you want to be published …

Kalinda Ashton, whose debut novel The Danger Game has caused a bit of a splash here and overseas (it’s longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC prize) made some useful remarks re writing in an interview with Stephen Romei in The Weekend Australian Review (4-5 Dec 2010).  Aspiring writers have heard if before but it is salutary to say it again, especially, as Kalinda does, in a nice pithy way:

  • If you want to be published for fame and fortune … choose another profession.
  • There are no short cuts, so be ready to experiment, fail, abandon, cut, reverse and shift point of view.
  • Get used to spending a lot of time alone, often frustrated or blocked, or approaching structural change with deep dread.
  • Find a reason to write apart from to get published or merely because you need to express yourself [such as] a genuine desire to do something, say something, question something in your work.
  • Persist, and finally
  • Do not think that being published changes everything, because it doesn’t.

The Danger Game is published by Sleepers Publishing and you can buy a copy from Readings here.

Courses a substitute for writing?

The British writer Emma Darwin on her blog This Itch of Writing muses on how creative writing courses have become a substitute for actually writing. I’ve thought this for quite a while (and myself been guilty of indulging in the drug).

The latest tempter to purvey its wares is the Faber Academy which has set up shop in Australia. It’s offering exclusive (ie competitive) short writing courses for the select few and charging accordingly. I heard a figure of $6,000 for a six month course. The classes would be small and they’d include intensive individual tuition. That’s attractive – anyone who has done a postgrad creative writing course at an Australian university knows that classes there can be very large for workshops  – sixteen to twenty or more students.

But such is the demand there’s a plethora of other short courses to choose from run through evening colleges, state writers’ centres and, increasingly, by private individuals.

Emma Darwin posits some reasons for the addiction to such courses, and for serial course attendees. These mostly boil down to getting some form of validation from others (most especially from the tutor). Writing is a lonely task and the road to publication full of ruts, potholes and fallen trees, so you either have to have an overweening belief in your own talent and ability, or Emily Dickinson-like you continue on in private pleasing yourself and some “ideal reader”. The third path is to do a course, hoping to stand out from the pack. In my opinion, creative writing courses are not there to teach writing, they don’t offer anything on the craft that you can’t get (much, much more cheaply) from one of the many creative writing primers (Stephen King’s On Writing, for example). What students want is feedback from someone whose opinion they respect. All new writers know that the only other feedback you’re likely to get is the publisher’s proforma rejection letter. (I’ve heard tell some writers get a nice note with some constructive criticism and encouragement to keep trying – hmmm)

I’m sure as Emma Darwin suggests, the feedback you get from courses could become addictive.  How much easier it is to write a few short stories, or one or two chapters, and get immediate feedback that to slog along  for years on your own with just a small flame of hope to keep you warm at night. People write for different reasons but if it’s publication that is the goal, are courses value for money? A friend of mine got a high distinction for a short story at a top creative writing uni. The lecturer said, when she gave an HD, it meant the work was publishable (brave call). The friend did the rounds of literary magazines but to no avail.

What, I wonder, do the students who are paying top dollar to the Faber Academy expect? I suppose it’s the validation of being chosen and getting in – but no one is paying THEM for their talent. Even if their dreams come true and they get a publishing contract, they are unlikely, in Australia, to make back the money they’ve forked out for the course.

It is all a vicious circle. It is true that some students who do post grad writing courses do get published out of it. Most often, they’ve done a masters and worked with a tutor/writer on their “project” for a year or two, and then been recommended to an agent. On the other hand, plenty of people get published anyway, never having done a course. The plain fact of the matter is, for an emerging writer to get published, he/she needs an entree to a publisher or agent. As is the way with our capitalist culture, paying to do an expensive course is one way to get to the very first step of the Sisyphean task of breaking into Australian literature.

Winners get into Scribe anthology

Scribe has just announced its New Australian Stories 2 anthology. In conjunction with Varuna, Scribe ran a national short story competition and the shortlisted winners of that were considered for NAS2, along with invited submissions from other writers.

Five writers from the competition made it into the anthology. Congratulations to: Claire Aman, Sonja Dechian, Anne Jenner, Jane McGown and Jennifer Mills. (All women – interesting)

This was a great chance for emerging writers to be published alongside more established writers such as Georgia Blain, Marion Halligan, Debra Adelaide, Cate Kennedy and Karen Hitchcock. (Where are the men? They are there – take a look at the complete list of authors at Scribe)

As I recall, to enter the Scribe/Varuna competition cost $40, although you could enter up to three stories (330 writers submitted/825 stories) so you’d have to say it’s stiffer competition for the emergers. The collection is out in December 2010.

Opportunities for manuscripts

In the ongoing round of Premiers’ Awards, Queensland just announced their winners. Coetzee got the fiction gong for Summertime.

The Qld awards are great for having a big number of categories including short story collection (there can’t be too many of these!) which Karen Hitchcock won for Little White Slips.

They also have an emerging writer manuscript award which is great. Not all emerging writers are under 35 and can go in for the Vogel.

ABC books did run an unpublished novel competition for a number of years but, unfortunately, they stopped publishing fiction.

Recently Text Publishing has established a YA manuscript comp but this is open to both published and unpublished writers, nevertheless they should be given credit for providing a space for getting ms noticed.

(This year’s Text award was won by Jane Higgins for a post-apocalyptic action novel The Bridge and last year’s winner Leanne Hall’s This Is Shyness has just come out to good crits.)

Credit should also be given to CAL and Scribe for their fiction prize “for an unpublished manuscript by an Australian writer over 35, regardless of publication history”. Again emerging writers are up against established authors, and the fact that CAL/Scribe are doing this shows how hard it is for anyone to get literary fiction published in this country.