Thoughts On Some Short Stories In A Literary Journal

It seemed a good idea to read more short fiction and it seemed an even better idea to read some the winning stories from a competition of some kind, so I did. These are my competition, I reasoned, and I should know the enemy. They’re not the enemy, of course – we’re all in this together – but it is a valuable thing to familiarise yourself with the type of thing that gets published, especially if you can’t work out how to get your own stuff published. That doesn’t need explaining really, although it’s something I should do more and the fact I haven’t done it enough probably speaks for itself.

And so there were comments from the judges in this journal which shall not be named. Reasonable comments, hints about what most of us are doing wrong and how we could try to do better – I say “we” because I think I entered this competition, but can’t remember. Much of this was unobjectionable, except perhaps the comment that most stories were about masculinity or written from a man’s point of view, and that’s not objectionable per se, it’s an observation which must be a true observation and that’s fine and actually quite interesting. But if there’s some implication that stories about men were marked down somehow, purely because of their subject matter, then this is a problem for me as I think there can always be good stories about any subject, even your least favourite subject or point of view, if you’re willing to take the time to read properly. (Not saying I always read properly, by the way.) And it must be said that this comment was probably more about diversity of voices and stories and the dominant patriarchal narrative and so on, which is fair enough, but it just sounded a bit dismissive. Perhaps I was being sensitive.

Also, it was subtle, but the comments from the judges encouraged writers to do things differently – to veer away from gritty realism – and, in this context, the point about men’s stories possibly makes more sense and I was just being silly. A little bit silly, maybe.

But it got me thinking about the comments critics sometimes write about stories, and I’m thinking about novels mostly here, and these criticisms are sometimes in that category where the supposed weakness is that the story isn’t actually another story. This cowboy story would be better if there were fewer cowboys, because I don’t like guns, I like smart dialogue, and the characters are all so aggressive – that sort of thing. It’s a cowboy story – this thing I just conjured in my head, for the sake of argument – of course there are going to be guns and swearing and possibly deaths. If you don’t like that, that’s fine, but on its own terms, as a cowboy story, is this one any good? The answer can of course be that it isn’t. It’s full of clichéd violence and the character development never really happens and the whole thing is so derivative it’s like you’ve already read the book. These seem like proper criticisms to make.

It made me think of when I was very little, in the first couple of years of school, and so many of the stories which were read to us were about what it’s like when your mummy has a baby and how the family changes and how magical it is and so on, that I asked mum if she was going to have a baby. She said no. I may have asked her how she could be so sure – wasn’t this sort of thing happening all over the place? Stories for a certain audience, written about subject matter which is meant to appeal to them, too obviously trying too hard to appeal to them, when it becomes its own little genre, well, it tends to turn me off, and I think I can trace this feeling back to the experience of these new baby stories.

Authors all have an audience. It may be just the writer themselves. Or maybe their friends too. If they are more successful there will be a proper readership, and it is a balancing act to know how to avoid alienating the people who like your stuff while maintaining the creative space to do things very differently or at least to produce variations on an established theme. As I read the first two of the three featured stories in this journal this thought occurred to me – in much more caustic terms – as St. Kilda was mentioned in the first couple of paragraphs of each. Right at the beginning. One of these two stories mentioned the Espy as well, also on the first page, as if even more points were available for more than one gratuitous funky Melbourne references.

This is not about Melbourne. It’s about what you write about and how you present it and which things turn off a reader, and I have to say I was turned off.

But, like I said, oversensitive. Perhaps I was having a bad day. Almost certainly there was a big fat streak of jealousy in there which was prompted by the question: what’s so good about these stories? And it would be good to say that my stuff is way better than this stuff, but that is not true at all. I particularly enjoyed the third story – the one without St. Kilda in it – and the other two were very good and interesting to read and showed some of the different things you can do with the form if you think about it creatively.

Anger – very, very mild anger, more like a briefly pouty period really – turned to mischief when I decided to write a story in the style of an imagined successful submission to a literary magazine. It amused me to think of a story about a woman who works in some kind of shelter with homeless women, and she does art in her spare time with found objects and she’s having an exhibition of installations, and they’re trying to pull down the heritage listed old house that she shares with other women, and she’s pregnant somehow, and … well, it became silly. I didn’t know what to do with such a story and couldn’t really write it because I feel sympathy for the kind of people I was thinking of writing about, even if the satirical point was meant to be that these are the stories which get noticed and are therefore more about the judges than the subjects, the point was that I just couldn’t do it. What I wrote was brief and insubstantial and it wasn’t very good, but it ended up being an honest attempt at something real, because at that moment it was more important to not waste the opportunity to get some practice writing a proper story of some kind.

That’s enough for now. I have a lot to learn and the way to learn is by doing and by reading what others do. I also want to avoid cliché and gratuitous things: that’s what I’ve learned, and that’s what I’ve taken far too long to say here. You can never avoid these things completely, but the important thing is to try.

Published in: on February 18, 2014 at 7:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

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