Opting for an anthology.

I’d been thinking about prose poetry for some time before I bought The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, back in March. What I mean is, this wasn’t one of those whim-purchases that I generally specialize in. It was a gap in my library that had niggled at my consciousness for some time.

The choices I’d found by trawling the internet were not extensive, but all looked interesting. I whittled my list down by deciding I wasn’t looking for a historical perspective. I’d discovered plenty of well-written articles and essays about that on-line, and then there was a call for submissions for an anthology by The Valley Press. It had a 2018 deadline, but I followed the links and found that the anthology had been published in 2019.

The blurb for it said, Prose poetry is at the cutting edge of contemporary writing, freeing words from the bounds of traditional poetic grammar and bringing the magic of verse to flash fiction.’ That sounded like the writing I was looking for.

Of course, it’s easy to make promises, and I wasn’t so sure about the claim that this volume was ‘ambitious‘ and ‘ground-breaking‘. It felt like a heavy sales pitch, for an anthology promoting brevity.

Maybe prose-poetry needs a harder sell. It is, after all, a hybrid form.

When I mention prose-poetry in classes, many readers haven’t heard of it. Often, those who have aren’t sure what it is. Few have bought any.

If asked, my advice to readers who are looking for adventure, is to try an anthology. That way, we meet lots of different authors, and there are likely to be at least one or two pieces of writing that we will be glad to have read. Single author collections are fine if you’re already familiar with their form, and style, but risky if you’re new to them. Most of my risks are cheap, found in the second hand market.

I thought about that, back in March, when I was dithering over buying this anthology. Do I support writers, as consistently as I do charity shops?

No.

Lately, my buying habit has been so focused on catching up with reading I’ve missed, that I’ve not thought about what’s new. Most of my books are ten years old, or more, and that age-gap is likely to increase as my shelves continue to overflow.

I don’t want my reading to keep up with my book buying. I like slipping across decades and centuries, styles, forms and genres. My bookshelves are also an anthology. They hold enough of a variety that I can dip in at random, choose by purpose, or turn to another title if a first choice doesn’t supply what I’m looking for.

Why else would I want to keep so many books?

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Finding space for another book…

A couple of weeks ago I treated myself to the Stroud Short Stories anthology.  It gathers together, ‘almost every story read at the nine Stroud Short Story events from June 2011 to April 2015.’  I’ve had a lovely time dipping in and out of this collectionIt’s a good cross-section of styles, tones and genres.

With an upper limit of 1500 words, and a minimum of 100 (though few are quite so brief as that), these stories are great for those short reading spaces, such as between trains; in waiting rooms; or instead of watching a pot boil.

Stroud revised (1)So, I hear you say, what does Stroud Short Stories offer?

I can do no better than quote John Holland (the organiser) in his introduction to the anthology:

The event we call Stroud Short Stories (SSS) was initiated by writer and artist Bill Jones in 2011.  The format is a simple but effective one.  Local authors submit stories and the organiser/editor/judge chooses ten, which are read before a large and appreciative audience at the Stroud Valleys Artspace.  There is no winner.  The authors who have appeared on stage (and who appear in this anthology) range from rank newcomers to experienced professional authors.

Holland goes on to say that the stories were ‘chosen not just for their quality, but also for how they contribute to a varied, stimulating and enjoyable evening’s entertainment.’  These, then, are performance stories.

Aside from their entertainment value, this anthology provides an opportunity to think about the differences between stories made for the page and those for the ear.  So it’s earned a space on my bookshelf…

 

A couple of useful Short Story Quotes

Book coverFor those of us trying to understand how short stories work, Barbara Korte’s introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, seems pretty useful to me.

She theorizes that it was through the writers who were experimenting with short stories during this period, and Katherine Mansfield in particular, that…

…the short story acquired the reputation of a form congenial to the modern condition.  Its emphasis on isolated moments and mere fragments of experience, its art of condensation and ambiguous expression seemed ideal for capturing modern life with its hastiness, inconclusiveness, uncertainties and distrust of traditional beliefs.  For the same reasons, the short story was deemed to have an affinity to the first fully technological and industrialized war, which exploded extant norms of perception, interpretation and representation.  Its aesthetic seemed highly suitable for articulating the experiences of the front with its moments of violence, shock, disorientation and strangeness.

She quotes Edmund Blunden, who wrote in 1930:

The mind of the soldier on active service was continually beginning a new short story, which had almost always to be broken off without conclusion.

It’s an anthology well worth a look through, if you’re looking for a reading recommendation.

Trade Report Only.

Trade Report Only, that’s the title of a cracking little story that I’m looking forward to sharing with the reading group later on today.  I’d never come across C.E. Montague until I opened up the Penguin Book of First World War Stories.  That’s not so surprising, since it seems that he’s primarily remembered for his autobiography, Disenchantment.  I won’t need to repeat the reviews on that, since apparently the title sums it up neatly, and you can easily find summaries of it on the internet.

However, on the grounds of the short story I’ve just read, I may have to add Montague to my list of authors to look out for.  I’m not going to sum up the story plot here.  That would definately be a spoiler, and I’m hoping you might decide to get hold of a copy of this to read for yourself.

Trees in the Fog,by Yann Richard, on wikimedia.org

Trees in the Fog,
by Yann Richard, on wikimedia.org

Why?  Well first, because as we head for the centenary of the outbreak of the war, why not try a prose account of it as well as, or even instead of, the more usual poetry.  But secondly, there are lots of literary reasons to look at this particular one, too.

It’s a first person narrative that was originally published in 1923.  Our narrator, the sergeant of a mining unit who have been posted to an orchard at the edges of the battle (no, this is not a story of the trenches) is an educated man, he is both sympathetic and poetic. Atmosphere, imagery, symbolism and classical and biblical allusions all come into play.

It begins:

No one has said what was wrong with The Garden, not even why it was called that name: whether because it had apples in it, and also a devil, like Eden…

Is it dated? Well, in the sense that the characters speak differently to the way we would today, yes.  Call me a purist if you like, but I prefer that.  I can never quite settle into historical fiction or faction where the characters have twenty-first century voices.  And in case you are wary of coloquial writing, don’t let that put you off, the dialogue, like the prose, is concise and  to the point, and is used sparingly.

‘Gawd a’mighty!’ Looker shrilled at the entry of Toomey, ‘if Fritz ain’t sold ‘im a pup!’

You can read this story for the plot, or like one of the war poems, you can reread and follow the treasure hunt. I promise you that’s well worth the effort.  I’m looking forward to discovering if the reading group share my enthusiasm.

If you never were in the line there before the smash came and made it like everywhere else, you could not know how it would work on the nerves…

Who Reads Short Stories?

I do.  I have a fairly good collection of them now, but I think I must be in the minority, if the state of our local library and bookshop shelves are anything to go by.  To find any short story collections or anthologies in either can take a lot of searching.  Asking for a specific title or author is a matter of luck, or ordering in.

Whatever might be said about the role of the publishing industry in supporting, or not supporting, short fiction, the hard truth is that few people choose to read it.  Most British fiction readers prefer the novel, and the public book-shelves reflect this.  I say this because I have talked to a lot of readers over the last ten years, both as a tutor of creative reading groups, and creative writing groups, and because I know that what my students have told me mirrors my own experience.

As I grew up the print I read got smaller, the illustrations disappeared and the books got thicker.  I read one or two collections of ghost or horror stories as well, but mostly my friends and I bought, borrowed and swapped longer and longer narratives.  We were aiming for novels.  School too was pushing us that way.  They asked us to write short stories so that we could demonstrate our understanding of punctuation and grammar, but for literature, we would study, The Novel.

Our first grown-up novels were like contraband, passed around secretly.  Before long we were reading them openly.  I might occasionally go back to a childhood favourite, but in secret.  In public, I did not go near the children’s shelves again, and neither did my friends.  By the time we left school I had a strong novel-reading habit.

I did read a few short stories as I came across them, mostly in magazines.  I remember some Katherine Mansfield stories, and a collection by a modern writer.  I remember because of my disappointment.  I could see that the sentences were well written, and I knew that these were important writers, but surely these were not stories.  Where were the plots?

No wonder I didn’t get them.  I had approached those two collections exactly as I did a novel.  I turned from one story to the next, often without pause, simply because the pages were numbered consecutively.  It was a long time before I went back to them.  It took a night class and a new approach to writing before I read them as I should have.

I wish I had learned earlier that I did not need a degree course to appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted story.  We learned the skills in English Lit at school.  I just hadn’t understood how to adapt them.

Now, when I teach creative reading or writing groups I say, approach short stories as you would a poem.  The great British short story writers of the 1920s and 30s knew this.  H.E.Bates, in his book, The Modern Short Story, (1972) wrote that, after the first world war the new generation of writers, ‘needed and sought as a form something between lyric poetry and fictional prose.’  He credited Katherine Mansfield and A. E. Coppard in, ‘assisting the English short story to a state of adult emancipation.’

His study may be forty years old, but I cannot disagree with his analysis.  I only wish that more people could see it.