Monday, 29 March 2010

Some Like it Literary

I once attended a short story course at the British Museum, so it was with a sense of déjà view I loitered at the Ashmolean last Friday (as you do), filling in time before a 4pm talk, ‘What makes a Good Short Story?’ It was in a marquee in Christ Church gardens and was part of the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival.

I’ve written dozens of stories, some having a polite reception at writers’ groups, but none deemed worthy of publication. Maybe I’d find out what was missing. In any case, it was sure to be a good for my reviewing.

My delight at a pole position seat opposite Hanif Kureishi was spoiled by noise from behind – three thirty-something men exchanging banter with various well-wishers. No wonder they were over-excited –they were three of the six short-listed contenders for the £25,000 prize for the best short story in the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. The ‘talk’ was in fact a discussion chaired by Cathy Galvin, editor of The Sunday Times Magazine.

A very elderly man, sitting further back, his hands folded on the handle of a walking stick was also identified as short-listed author CK Stead. Another, much younger man in an anorak in the back part of the tent was Joe Dunthorne. I immediately warmed to him, if only because he’d distanced himself from the wise-cracking trio. The sixth author on the short-list, a Zimbabwean woman writer, couldn’t attend.

The complete short-listed authors and stories were:
Will Cohu: 'Nothing but Grass' Joe Dunthorne: 'Critical Responses to My Last Relationship'; Petina Gappah: 'An Elegy for Easterly' ;Adam Marek 'Fewer Things' CK Stead 'Last Season’s Man' David Vann 'It’s Not Yours'

The five judges had read 40 stories ‘filtered’ from over 1,000 entries. Judges present, AS Byatt and Hanif Kureishi and literary editor Andrew Holgate, responded to questions put by Cathy Gavin, Lierary Editor of The Sunday Times Magazine. Lynn Barber and Nick Hornby were the judges not present.

So what qualities did they look for? ‘Concision; compression; poetic exactitude’, said AS Byatt. There are no prescriptive rules about one point of view or one emotion and she tried to judge with a blank mind because the short story ‘can do what it likes’ You could quickly tell whether a story was ‘alive or dead’.

Hanif Kureishi said a good story is one that ‘keeps your attention’with ‘The right words in the right order’ (Nothing new there, then) He usually discarded anything that hadn’t grabbed him after three pages. (Which raised a laugh, but I think three pages is generous for a short story)

Byatt said what she liked about writing a short story was knowing the plot so she so could concentrate on the language. Kureishi said he didn’t get bored as he did when writing novels. ‘It’s satisfying to have ideas that can be that can be realised in a week or so’.

Asked to name a short story writer she admired, Byatt nominated Kipling. Kureishi mentioned O Henry, DH Lawrence, Hemingway and Carver.

About changes in form, Byatt detected ‘a new kind of unreality that fits onto the international’. I was puzzled by this at the time but reading the winning story on Sunday made it clear. Holgreave was disappointed by the lack of experimentation.

Asked if they agreed with the saying, ‘Art divides; craft unites’ Kureishi said the craft should be hidden. Byatt looked for a ‘certain rhythm in the language.’

Holgate read an extract from a story that sounded suspiciously like the stories Byatt said she didn’t like: ‘a particular type of masculine American short story’. It was by David Vann and featured a character called Big Al, with ‘fingers as rough and hard as a deformed carrot’

This type of story, in fact, seemed popular. One extract was about men bonding on a duck shoot. Another, ‘Fewer things’, with an ecological theme, was about a man and son on a remote island.

The humour in Joe Dunthorpe’s ‘Critical Responses to my last Relationship’ was welcomed by Kureishi because it was ‘good to read something that didn’t make me want to shoot myself in the head’. He was the author in the anorak who now had my full support.

Holgate wondered if the genre is too miserable,(which in my opinion is true) and referred to Will Colhu’s story of a man who kills his workmate and Petina Gapper’s story set in a settler camp in Zimbabwe.

Style was important, as one bad sentence could kill a short story, whereas it could get lost in a novel. Holgate said ‘It sticks out a mile.’

What, asked an audience member, were the parameters of a bad sentence?

’Well, said Kureishi, clichés stand out, as does a boring start, so it’s best to put the good stuff at the beginning. A bad sentence? ‘The wrong words in the wrong order.’

So now I know, and there’s nothing much to add except that to my great joy the winner was CK Stead, ‘New Zealand’s leading writer, at the height of his powers’. What particularly pleased me was his age - he’s 77. So maybe that's what's missing as far as I'm concerned: I'm not yet old enough.

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