Seasonal Stories

How many of us have got through this month without giving much thought to story?  I’m not talking nativity here, I’m thinking about how much of our lives is lived as story.

As I ask the question I picture myself at the supermarket on Christmas Eve morning.  It is nine-thirty, and raining.  I am hurrying between parked and parking cars and dodging puddles and wondering if I might be able to find some extra stocking fillers as well as the groceries.

The white-tiled entry-way is mired with muddy footprints.  Like the rest of the crowd, I grab a trolley and rush in.  I’m following a route dictated by my list.  It corresponds to the specific needs of our household and budget and my knowledge of the store.

My general goal is to gather enough to feed us for the next two days (do we really eat so much?), though I’m hoping it might last to the end of the week. Like any good character, I am focused: in this case, on my list and the shelves.  My aim is to get to the till in the shortest possible time. Everything and everyone else is a distraction I don’t want.  My journey is continally hindered by people who run into me, or obscure my view, or dawdle when I am trying to hurry.

Above us, a medley of carols play, though it’s barely noticeable amongst the babble of voices. I’m a woman with a purpose, weaving a path between trolleys and, ‘excuse me, please,’ reaching past the ditherers.

What makes me stop in the midst of all this?  A space.  As I turn right at the end of the meat aisle I find an area of empty floor.  It is unexpectedly peaceful.  The fishmonger is not at the stall, and no one is chosing vacuum-packed sea-food from the end display.  I pause to check my list.  I am in the middle of an aisle, but no one passes. This place is bright, white and calm.

I don’t hurry on, I look about.  I’m intending to orientate myself to the changes at this end of the building, but instead I find myself starting to really notice things.  Like the plastic holly sprigs on the counters, the tinsel and baubles along the walls and the strings of shiny bunting suspended from the ceiling.  Then I realise I am humming along to Band Aid, “It’s Christmas Time”.

Sure, this can be read as commercial cliche, and I can wonder if the heart has gone out of it, but I’m still taking part, because I’m remembering the stories.  Not just the old ones, but the layers upon layers of newer ones, in poetry, history, story and song; and in the memories and observations that I am using to measure it all by.

Nothing stands still.  The fishmonger arrives with a smile.  ‘Sorry about that,’ she says, ‘Can I help you?’

Other customers drift into a queue. I am shopping again.  But that moment when I was overcome by a montage of other Christmases, real and imagined, allows me to see and hear other fragments of supermarket stories forming that morning amongst the trollies and baskets; jokes and arguments.

Getting Engaged.

I’ve just finished The Girl You Left Behind, by Jojo Moyes, one of two books I’ve been reading over the last week. It’s the lighter of the two, and I admit I skimmed some sections. In my defence, this was a novel that was passed on to me, rather than one I chose.  I started it in order to clear some space on the shelf, thinking that if, after a few pages it wasn’t working out, I would give it away.

Something kept me reading.  It had a plot.  There was a little too much coincidence for my taste; some events were too clearly engineered to misdirect us, and the characters seemed predictable, and glossy.  Yet I was hooked.  Why? Well, perhaps because it offered a different view on how society and the media works on the individual.  I did not just want to find out how it ended, I wanted to follow the twists and turns of the story.

I’ve been thinking about this question of reader engagement for the last few days, because I’m struggling with my other read.  It’s a novel I’ve been looking forward to for months.  Other people have loved it, the reviews were good and the blurb on the back seemed to promise the kind of story I love.

It is has strong, flawed characters and lots of interesting and unexpected action, but, and you may have seen this coming, I find myself hoping for sections I can skim.  I want to know what happens, so something is working, but I find it easy to put the novel down.

So far, so obvious.  Yet, it set me thinking about who I write for.  At this point I offer a quote from Stephen King,

Someone – I can’t remember who, for the life of me – once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person.  As it happens, I believe this.  I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader…

‘On Writing’, p256

It’s a quote that is so well worn it’s practically crumbling at the corners, but it is worth a writer thinking about, whether you are publishing or not.  What kind of a read are we offering? Regardless of the message we are sending, how are we hoping to keep it being read?

Famously, Stephen King’s wife, Tabitha, embodies his ideal reader.  This means he has a tangible and fully formed audience he can keep in mind as he writes. Notice I did not say consult.  One of his key rules is that he never discusses a work in progress.

Of course, this ideal reader business may not suit everyone.  I’m sure there are plenty of successful writers who can give us a whole directory of alternative systems.  What I like about it is the way writing for a specific person focuses the mind.

So, here’s me, composing my thoughts into some kind of coherence and posting them onto the net one day, working away at a short story another.  Am I clear about my ideal reader?

Are you?

Tolstoy and the Reading Group

This week we finished reading Anna Karenina.  My conclusion?  You should read it too.  Sure, see the new(ish) film, it’s great, and manages to include the main themes and majority of the story artfully.  I loved the way the scenes intersected with each other, and the way they used theatre and dance.  The casting was, mostly, great too.

Sorry Kiera Knightly, but you were not Anna Karenina.  You are far too thin.  You should have been cast as Dolly, and wouldn’t it have been interesting for you to be playing against your looks at this stage in your career?

Oops, side-tracked.  What I’m trying to say is that this novel is worth reading even if you have seen the film, and regardless of whether you loved or disliked that.

Read it even if you already know what happens with Anna, because the journey is what counts. That’s true in all good fiction, surely, otherwise we’d just read the first and last chapters of any book: the first and last paragraphs of a short story.  Besides, does any reader begin reading about Anna Karenina without knowing her ending?

Read it because Anna Karenina is a gloriously huge story.  I’m not just talking about how many pages it fills, I’m thinking about how the whole thing works.

Tolstoy is a master puppeteer, controlling characters and balancing ideas all the way through.  He creates a picture of Russia at a moment of change, when its society is still trying to work out what being Russian means.  True, we’re talking aristocrats, largely, but should we dismiss it for that?  After all, what a vast and unlikely collection of ideals they are.

Besides, other great Russian writers will step forward to fill-in the social gap.  What Tolstoy does is recreate imperial Russia with all its fashions, ideas and worries, and he does it so artfully that even though he is criticising, the public mostly loved his story.  Their engagement was such that they waited anxiously for each new section over a period of four years, with long gaps between some of the sections.  Many wrote to him with advice, suggestions and questions.

Okay, Anna Karenina wasn’t written in English, and of course there are technical arguments that can be made about authorship when someone stands between us and the original. However, interesting though that discussion would be, I’m going to count it as something of a sidetrack.  It doesn’t seem to offer much of an incentive to read.

The story remains Tolstoy’s, despite the translators.  If you don’t believe me, compare a few pages.  The structure, the events, the characters and characterisation, those are Tolstoy, and what a joy they are.  From the hedonistic Stiva to that dry stick, Sergei, and all the rest of them, they leap off the page.  Including even, Kostya’s dog, Laska, who leads us on a hunt at the expense of her master’s dignity.

I admit here that there were sections I skimmed through on my first reading. But reading it again for working on with the group I realised I had missed out.    This is a story of many facets.  Tolstoy wrote with care, and edited and rewrote and edited again.  There are sections that could be lifted out and stand-alone as short stories, but they belong within the text.  They are part of a large picture that we, the reader must build.

Tolstoy provides us with scenes so that we can interpret or re-interpret the events.  His is a modern method of teaching, not direct lecturing, but leading us to understand through the questions we ask.

Tolstoy, 1876: “I have noticed that any story makes an impression only when one cannot make out with whom the author sympathises.”

This is a ‘modern’ novel in many ways.  Its subjects are the state of marriage and sex, amongst other things.  It includes a long and detailed description of a woman giving birth to her first child, and an account of breast-feeding at a time when high-class women did not mention pregnancy, but used a series of euphemisms to imply their condition.

What else?  Check out the dialogue.  It’s fresh, believable, interesting and varied.  Conversations flow, not just in one direction, but to include inuendo, gossip and asides.  They deliver information without appearing to clunk, and incorporate actions and descriptions seamlessly.

His descriptions are spare, but telling, and his use of the interior monologue would influence the modernists, particularly James Joyce.  If you want to know more, there are thousands of good criticisms to look at, but don’t take their word for it, or mine, go away and read or re-read it for yourself.

When is a classic not a classic?

www.freestockimages.org "Photo stockImages.org" “Photo Copyright FreeStockImages.org”  www.freestockimages.org

I came across a copy of Alice in Wonderland the other day, published by Ladybird.  It is from a range of imprints called, Children’s Classics.  But, it’s not writen by Lewis Carroll, it’s retold by Joan Collins.  ‘Why?’ I wondered, and then, ‘Can this really be necessary?’

I first read the Lewis Carroll story when I was quite young, and loved it.  I don’t remember it as a difficult read. It was funny, in a way I had never come across before.  I was fascinated by the puns, the word games and the ideas.

Looking back, I see this as a moment of revelation.  Here was not realism, it was not adventure, or fairy-tale, it was something unlike any other book I had been offered.  Wonderland really did sum it up.  But that was a few decades ago, and it’s been a while since I last read it.  Perhaps, I thought, the writing does look dated now.

I fetched my dog-eared copy off the shelf.  First published 1865, so it is a little older than I had assumed.   Here is Lewis Carroll’s opening:

‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do.  Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Surely, I thought, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Actually, I would be happy to offer it as an example of a good story opening.  It creates setting, tone and provides an inciting incident and perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I cannot find a superfluous word.

I opened the Joan Collins re-telling:

‘Alice was tired of sitting by her sister on the grassy bank, and having nothing to do. Her sister was reading a book with no pictures or conversations in it. It looked very dull.’

I read on for a couple more pages, but gave up.  This story certainly did look very dull, despite the pictures.  What had happened to the vivid language?  Where were the colourful characters?  Several of them had actually disappeared – no more Dodo, Lory or Eaglet, only ‘a strange collection of birds and animals’.   This was not the charming fantasy that I remembered, it was little more than a series of linked scenes. The whimsical humour of the story had been cut away.  Incidents have been erased or condenced down to a sentence, and carefully constructed jokes reduced to one liners.

I thought about how often I have pre-judged a peice of writing because of the distance since it was written.  Sometimes, when I open that book I am proved right.  Lorna Doone, which I love, is mostly written in a dense style that can make it hard going at times, but the thing is, it’s worth being patient with.  The language is a part of what creates the world of story, and I wouldn’t loose a word of it.

So I answered my original ‘Why?’ with another question, ‘If I had read a re-telling of ‘a classic’, would it have interested me enough so that I would seek out the original?’  Which led me to wonder who this version is aimed at.  Children do not all progress at the same level, or have the same interests, but surely the way to enthuse them about reading is to provide them with good fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to advocate a purist approach to literature.  I have not forgotten Aristotle’s seven plots, and Shakespeare forbid that I should knock any writer taking inspiration from another text.  But this is not another author putting their imagination into an idea, and giving it a new spin.  It’s not a translation or adaptation either.  I’m struggling to see this as anything other than a reduction.

Here’s the question I want to answer, ‘Is this the standard of writing that we want children to learn from, and therefore grow up expecting from fiction?