I’d like to recommend…

…a short story I’ve just read by A.M. Homes, called The Chinese Lesson.  It’s available to read for free on the Granta website, at the moment, because she’s just won The Women’s Prize with her novel, May We Be Forgiven.

This short story was the precursor of that novel, so for those of you who are not generally tempted by the short form, reading it might provide an useful taster.  For the rest of us, don’t be put off by the idea that I’m recommending an excerpt.  This is a beautifully told story, nicely balanced and elegantly written.

I read it yesterday, and the essence of it is still with me, despite an afternoon out with friends and some mundane jobs in between.  Am I tempted to get hold of the novel, now?  Well, yes, even though it would have to join a long queue of outstanding reading.

In an interview on the Granta site, Homes says that she uses short stories to begin working out ideas for her novels.  It seems to me that thinking about short stories in this way could be a useful addition to my arsenal of answers to that eternal question, ‘So, what is a short story?’



Who Listens?


postcard 1We’re eight of us, at a party and Hayley says, ‘Well, would you believe they do glass bottom boat trips in Scotland? We went last summer, and it was amazing.  Worst weather of the holiday, but I suppose the fish don’t mind.  It was lucky I’d packed two sets of wet weather stuff.  I thought I was never going to get my boots dry. It was worth it though.  I’d never have thought there was stuff like that on our coasts.’

Our attention begins to stray within a sentence or two.  It shouldn’t have.  Hayley’s a patient and attentive listener to our stories, so it would have been polite for us to return the favour.  But we are all reminded of our own sea adventures, and soon there are splinter conversations all round the table.

It might be that we are just the worst kind of friends, with no manners.  Because it’s only as we are debating the best age for having ears pierced, and I happen to notice Hayley’s head’s turning left-to-right-to-left, following the banter between Jean and Harry on either side of her, that I realise Hayley didn’t describe the amazing part of her trip in the glass-bottom boat.

Perhaps she had poor timing.  It was late, and there were more empty bottles on the table than full.   The mood was getting more boisterous, perhaps a little competitive.

Besides, it’s the nature of conversation in a general group gathering to shift through subjects rapidly.  Sometimes we contribute, at others the focus of interest shifts topic and we’re left behind.  Conversation, you might point out, is about interaction, not monologue, and some of us have a better grasp of that than others.

Photo by Betty M. Powell Copyright, Argus Communications.  Harlow, Essex, England.

Photo by Betty M. Powell
Copyright, Argus Communications. Harlow, Essex, England.

Now though, I’ve placed Hayley on the page.  And in case we’ve forgotten, let me remind us that with writing, every mark or gap counts.  Hayley’s experience is no longer something that has faded from consciousness by the next morning, it is now the focus of attention.  That party exists, no matter how sketchy my two paragraph description is, for as long as this page exists.

Hayley, with all her strengths and weaknesses has begun to take form in fiction.  I suppose, in that case, I could allow her to tell you the story of her trip on a glass-bottom boat and the epiphany she experienced.  You could say I owe her that much, for placing her on the page in such an unflattering manner.  Perhaps we all do.  There are times when even the most reticent of us gets distracted from the next person’s narrative, aren’t there?

I could set things right.  I know all the details.  But that’s not what I set out to do here.  Interested as I am in Hayley, on this page she exists only because I’m thinking about how conversation works or, all too often, doesn’t work in fiction.

The plain fact is that Hayley is not good at telling stories, or jokes, for that matter.  Now that I’ve written her down, we can see where she’s going wrong.  Actually, they’re pretty much the same mistakes we all make in live conversation, digression, starting in the wrong place, giving more detail than necessary, pedantry, launching into monologue instead of interacting.

Monologues are fine, of course, in their place.  But unless on stage, or giving a lecture, they’re not a group activity.

So to get back on topic, and state the obvious: conversations are messy, especially when they involve more than two people who know each other well. Trust me to state the obvious, but sometimes we need reminding, that one of the tricks to creating life-like conversation on the page is to break it up.

All too often in fiction I read the kind of focused exchanges that rarely happen to me in real life.  Each speaker takes turns to provide nicely balanced sensible prose following the theme of the story.  I don’t know about you, but that’s yet to happen to me.

Contents, Covers & Judgements

Nevil ShuteThe other day I received an email survey about book covers.  A publisher, trying to discover what makes me want to buy a book put together some images and a few tick-boxes.

There were attractive pictures, plain covers, abstract designs, portraits of the author…need I say more?  All I had to do was indicate which I thought was most appealing.

Really, that’s all?  But how do I do that honestly?  Is the cover the thing that draws us in?

When I scan a row of bookshelves I’m reading the spines, and I think I’m mostly concentrating on the authors.  But that’s because I tend to look out for books I’ve heard of or read about, so I’m not really browsing, so much as seeking.

Fine, but what about the times when I’ve no specific title or writer in mind and find myself, with time to spare, at the book-shop?

Faced with a room’s length of floor to ceiling bookshelves I do not really ‘read the spines’, so what do I do when I scan?  I take in colours, font shapes and, let’s be honest, publisher.  Yes, there are imprints that tend to be more likely to produce the style of fiction I like, and I gravitate first to their logos, even though I know that by dismissing the rest I’m likely to miss something worthwhile.

I’ve certainly passed by A Town Like Alice often enough.  I did read it, years ago, and thought I’d remembered the gist of it, until came my way again this week.

‘I thought you might like these,’ said my mother, passing me four old paperbacks historical accuracypublished in the 1960s.  They were soft with age.  Their browned pages and worn covers carried the kind of stains that came from getting read in the bath, on the bus, or in the canteen at lunch-hour.  They were the kinds of books whose fates I wonder about when I give them to charity shops.  You just don’t see them on the shelves any more.

Presumably, that’s because we won’t buy them.  I’m as guilty as the next person.  What is it about old books that puts us off?  Personally, it’s not hygiene.  I’ve never heard of anyone catching diseases from books, but I’m willing to learn if anyone else has.  pan book

It’s not the cover design either.  I’m sorry, but I don’t see much difference between the four here and the selection I was asked to decide between earlier this week, except of course, they were shinier.  The thing is, three of these copies have been re-released in the past few years.  They contain the same text, but the covers are all different.

I now have three copies of Tom Jones, one of which is a hardback which has lost its dust-jacket, the other two each have very different cover illustrations.  I bought them because I wanted the content, not because there was a picture of a gartered leg, or a rather attractive young Albert Finney.

I do pick up interesting book covers, but then I read a little, from the beginning or middle of the text.  Only if I like that, do I buy.  In my experience, the illustrations chosen all too often bear little relevance to the writing.  Besides, I much prefer to picture things in my own way.

old favouritesSo I’m wondering how publishers measure their survey answers.  Presumably they see some benefit, since I get one every two months or so.  I can’t be the only respondent who ticks as a fantasy reader, just because I’m going in a draw to win some book tokens, can I?

What’s in The Box?

Sometimes, a title just catches my eye.

I’d been sent a list of books for reviewing.  I don’t always take up the challenge.  With so much already on my ‘to-read’ shelf I’m picky about what I spend my spare time on, especially since we’ve adopted a new puppy.  He’s gorgeous, and rewarding and full of energy that needs directing.  I’d forgotten how much attention they need.

So I skimmed down the page in my least responsive frame of mind, and found my eye caught by, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway.  I hesitated, glanced at the thumbnail graphic of the cover.  ‘Nice,’ I thought.  ‘Simple, intriguing.’  I liked the strong colours and wondered if the suspension bridge was in San-Francisco, or Bristol…What do you mean, unlikely?  Book review June 2013

The thing is, I had no idea where ‘the Bohemian Highway’ was.  I liked the sound of it, though, and to be honest, I was hoping it was a metaphor.

Sometimes, do you find this, that sometimes, a title calls to you?  Like, Hills Like White Elephants, or Flesh and the Mirror, or Pumping up Napoleon.  I knew, as soon as I read those titles that I had to know more.

That doesn’t happen so often with novels, as with stories, and poems for me.  Except that now I look at my shelf, I can see all sorts of witty and intriguing titles, Love in The Time of Cholera, Like Water for Chocolate, The Master and Margarita…so maybe I’m showing some bias here, because what I’ve been heading towards from the start of this is the suggestion that poets and short story writers have to work harder with their titles.

Of course, for every rule there are exceptions.  I could research lists that would prove and disprove my theory that short story and poem titles are intrinsically intriguing, but why should you agree with my choices?  Besides, there are plenty of short story and poetry titles that I think mundane, even though the stories proved good, or more than good.

The thing I do want to say, as if you didn’t already know this, is that making a good title can be as tricky as writing the body of the text, long or short, lyrical or not.  It can also be as rewarding.  The right title can do so much more than describe the contents.  For one thing, do we think enough about the tone we’re setting with our titles?

So, take this story, The Shoe Box.  Hmm, so far, so pedestrian (sorry, couldn’t resist that), it could be, Nut Brown Brogues, or how about, Size Twelves, or Worn.  

DSCF4959If, when I saw Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, I had instantly pictured a stretch of tarmac, I would probably have skimmed on past, and then put the list in the recycle bin.  My interest was snagged with the word Bohemian, and the associations that carried for me.

So, I ask myself as I look at Sara Gran’s novel, was that what she intended, when she, and perhaps the publisher settled on this title?  We could ask her, I suppose.  These days authors are mostly keen to interact with their readers.  But don’t we learn more by thinking it through ourselves?