Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘radio 4

It’s a curious business, when the content of a short story anthology is made up of stories in competition with one another. If you haven’t heard the BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of each of the ten shortlisted stories in the annual, BBC/Booktrust-sponsored, increasingly high profile and, for this Olympic year only, International Short Story Award, or if you’ve not yet caught up with the podcasts or got hold of the anthology, stewarded by Comma Press, featuring all ten finalists, you may now be curious as to why the Bulgarian writer, Miroslav Penkov was declared the winner of the £15000 prize. In one sense, the answer is simple to the point of idiocy: the judges got it right. Penkov’s story, East Of The West was the best of the bunch, and the runner-up, Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Sanctuary, was entirely deserving of that recognition. That’s easily declared, but the reasons why you might reach that conclusion, from reading the anthology, are a whole lot more complicated.

To read an anthology compiled in these circumstances at this precise time is to seek to pick out a winner, but once the fifteen grand’s worth of kerfuffle has passed on by, the book remains a short story anthology. Even though no overlying thematic concern has guided the writing of the ten stories; even though, beyond what the selection says about the judges,

Clive Anderson, chair of the judges

the programming of the stories as they appear in the anthology derived from no stronger editorial line than the alphabetical order of the writers’ surnames: still, the stories speak to each other, as in any other collection. Writerly concerns overlap and individual creative decisions coalesce by the accident of their mutual proximity into something that resembles a trend. Emotions, gathered in one place, spill out in another and it becomes hard to work out if the story in front of you can take sole credit for your response. Leave aside all this, and we still have the essential truth about short stories that the best grow in their absence: it’s not when we scrutinise them but in those sudden, private moments when we find that they are scrutinising us, that the power of an individual piece is felt. In such a context, picking a winner should be like punting on raindrops sliding down a windowpane: this one may win, or that one, but all that tells you is that it’s raining outside. There was little to guide us as to the outcome from the previous year’s winner, D.W. Wilson’s The Dead Roads, nor from 2010’s selection by, David Constantine, so it all comes down to the stories themselves. Read as a form guide, the anthology mocks the very process it belongs to, while, read as an anthology, it exceeds its reach.

That there are stand-out stories shouldn’t deter anyone from investigating what is going on, thematically and within the writing, in the eight also-reads. Escape plays a persistent role in just about all the stories, the tone set by Lucy Caldwell’s opener, Escape Routes and reinforced by Julian Gough’s The iHole. Escape here – and in the closing story, A Lovely and Terrible Thing by Chris Womersley – is the objective itself, with a destination, or life beyond the moment of release, not a consideration. Caldwell’s Belfast story of the friendship between a young girl and her babysitter, whose ability to connect to the narrator through gaming contrasts with his wider sense of alienation. It articulates a world that’s very close to that of adults but utterly cut off from it as well. The references to gaming and youth depression suggest a nowness to Caldwell’s writing, but Gough’s lovely take on a post-CERN near-future, in which recycling is replaced by the mass production of personal, portable black holes, stands out more clearly as the shortlist’s outstanding depiction of the Way We Live Now. I felt Gough’s pursued the grand narrative arc of his satire too far, and the detail and comedy became too broad, in comparison with a recent Will Self story, iAnna, which makes the comment on technology and contemporary culture while remaining with the characters.

The three stories set in Australia each capture painful hours in the breaking up and holding together of families. M.J. Hyland has a tense father-son rapprochement in Even Pretty Eyes Commit Crimes. Carrie Tiffany depicts a child negotiating a path to a future with an absent father in Before He Left The Family. Womersley balances a supernatural tale, that might almost be lifted from an M.R. James treasury (and evokes Paul Auster’s Mr Vertigo), with a portrait of a father cut off from his family due to his daughter’s medical condition. Each manages to present a reality more convincing than is conveyed by Adam Ross, whose In The Basement uses the device of the extended dinner party anecdote rather more theatrically than I was comfortable with, though it’s equally the type of thing Truman Capote or, again, Auster might have done with the same yarn to spin.

Krys Lee’s The Goose Father has wonderful touches in the slow (but, even allowing for the form, perhaps not quite as slow as the situation demands) epiphany of an austere middle-aged man encountering an unstable but sprite-like young man. This South Korean narrative was the story that gathered me in the most, outside of the top two and the opening half of Gough’s The iHole. Deborah Levy, denied a league and cup double but now freed to concentrate on the Man Booker Prize, lets off the most fireworks in her prose for Black Vodka and, in her narrator, has a character who absolutely commands our attention. It’s adventurous, playful writing but ultimately it’s a sketch of a character that Levy might lend to aspects of future novels. It will also, incidentally, give you a raging thirst for flavoured vodkas.

In the alphabetical sequencing of the anthology, Rose-Innes follows Penkov and dramas viewed from across – and swimming in – rivers feature in both. It’s another example of the emotional chords that can be struck accidentally between stories which each have plenty of their own weight to carry. If there is an arc a reader goes through in reading a short story collection, there might be a science to my being especially receptive to these two stories. So, yes, judging is complex but the most instinctive personal responses have authority in this regard. There are stories that grab hold: Rose-Innes did this with Sanctuary, a family tragedy observed from a series of vantage-points, each one projecting a role onto the narrator of innocent bystander, unwitting voyeur, detective and eventually protector. The detail and intimacy with the land, in this case the South African veldt, has the kind of clarity we’d associate with John Steinbeck, and Rose-Innes would have been my winner had the decision been made on immediate completion of the task of reading all the stories.

What also happens with stories, though, is this: they won’t let you go. East Of The West hefts the history of a people, the Kosovan war, and twenty years of a love story into what still manages to be a concentrated, complete short story. I mentioned the breaking up and coming together of families in other stories but, here, those moments of crisis are the natural order for a family divided by the width of a river but, in that division, also split into two nations and between prosperity and struggle. Tragedy hovers, ill-defined at first but, over the years, it acquires names and accompanies the narrator, Nose, in his every footstep through adolescence and the plans he has for his adulthood. Penkov gives us a character whose emotions, in the extraordinary circumstances of his life and the history framing it, are utterly real. It’s a credit to the BBC’s award and the good fortune that the Olympic celebration made it eligible that this funny and moving short story will come to wider attention.

The afternoon was spent preparing for a lecture on John Steinbeck’s Breakfast. Solidarity; the dignity of labour; Steinbeck’s prose always working up from the land and the people, coming back always to the land and the people; the synapses of the American Left passing this ideal via Steinbeck from the Wobblies and Joe Hill to Woody Guthrie, and on to Bob Dylan, to Gil Scott-Heron, to Angela Davis, to John Sayle, to Michael Moore. Stepping out of this aesthetic into D.W. Wilson‘s 2011 BBC National Short Story Prize-winning The Dead Roads felt a brutal re-entry into the nihilistic realpolitik of 21st century getting high and getting by.

Animal had a way of not caring too much and a way of hitting on Vic. He was twenty-six and hunted looking, with engine-grease stubble and red eyes sunk past his cheekbones. In his commie hat and Converses he had that hurting lurch, like a scrapper’s swag, dragging foot after foot with his knees loose and his shoulders slumped. He’d drink a garden hose under the table if it looked at him wrong. He once boned a girl in some poison ivy bushes, but was a gentleman about it. An ugly dent caved his forehead and rumours around Invermere said he’d been booted by a cow and then survived.

The retina-grabbing intensity in this description of Animal Brooks – road trip companion to the narrator, Dunc, and Dunc’s sometime girlfriend Vic – is somewhat hard-boiled and somewhat in the transgressive vein of a Hubert Selby Jr or Chuck Palahniuk. It’s an impression that barely makes it into the second paragraph, though, as the three companions head across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, towards the Northern Lights, and it becomes clear that it’s the emotions stirred up by their adventures, rather than the adventures themselves, that will define this story.

The difficulty, and danger, with analysing a prizewinning story is that you could grab hold of it with the trembling, clenched fist of the struggling writer and view it in terms of: “So this is the style and subject matter my prose has to sleep with if I want it to win any prizes.” Alternatively, there’s the news media reading of the story, which will focus on the money that one writer has won, and the names of the slightly better known writers that were passed over by the judges. It was a syndrome that found perfect expression recently when the Nobel Prize for Literature went, not to Bob Dylan, nor even the likes of Thomas Pynchon or Les Murray, but to Tomas Tranströmer. I compared the deflated response of headline writers – expecting a Dylan v Keats Revisited pseudbath – to that of the papers ten years ago when a Premier League footballer revealed to have had an extramarital affair, having hitherto been masked by privacy laws with speculation growing, was revealed not to be an international superstar but the journeyman midfielder and Blackburn Rovers captain, Garry Flitcroft. The Sun‘s banner headline – “IT’S GARRY FLITCROFT” – was an Ozymandian masterpiece.

IT'S D.W. WILSON

As silly as the discussions can get when short stories are subject to the supertrooper beams from an event that news editors consider might interest the public, let’s not pretend that any light at all shone on the form doesn’t make a welcome change. The scope for “IT’S D.W. WILSON” headlines was off-set by a week of scheduling, within Radio 4’s Front Row, of a reading and podcast of each of the five shortlisted stories. Listeners had the opportunity to form unfiltered opinions of the works themselves, within a medium which has traditionally bypassed literary hierarchies to allow the stories themselves to flourish. Fresh from completing a PhD at the University of East Anglia, the prize represents a hell of a way to announce your entry into the industry and – while it’s hard to shake the idea that Wilson is casting himself as the “university kid” with whom Vic “bops around [on the West Coast]…who wears a sweater and carries a man purse. Her dad showed me a picture of the guy, all milk-jug ears and a pinched nose that’d bust easy in a fight.” – you can imagine the man purse being put to good use with the cash prize. We can celebrate his good fortune but we can’t afford to have it colour our reading of the story.

It’s the way Wilson gets the machine of the story to work that makes The Dead Roads a significant new presence in our short story universe. The story is told with the benefit of hindsight – it’s set in 2002 and the potentially fatal dramatic high point, that turns out to be merely chastening, is flagged up in the breezy opening sentence – but it’s withheld from us what that benefit provides. By the end, Dunc appears suspended in a moment we know has gone by. He’s arrived at what seems a resolution regarding his relationship with Animal, the archetypal small town childhood friend you never grow up fast enough to get away from, and thereby his passing into adulthood; particularly definitive is his awareness of how he feels about Vic, who seems to slip like mercury between the gazes of all the men in the story. Yet there’s no sense of to what, beyond this moment, any of this has led. We just know that, on a mountaintop, Dunc has acquired a vantage point on his life he may never attain again.

Wilson prods the themes along with each new disclosure of character among the three road trippers, and Walla, the Native who acts as a mirror to the group and a plot catalyst for the story. If our initial impression of Animal was of a thuggish creature of base instinct, egregious in his overt pursuit of Vic, Wilson provides him with stepping stones towards a greater complexity:

He’d packed nothing but his wallet and a bottle-rimmed copy of The Once and Future King, and he threatened to beat me to death with the Camaro’s dipstick if he caught me touching his book. His brother used to read it to him before bed, and that made it an item of certain value, a real point of civic pride.

The role of the T.H. White re-telling of the Arthurian legend seems to reach beyond Animal’s protection of it as an emblem of family comforts. We later see him struggle through it, “finger under each sentence”, and for all its painstaking nature, his attachment to the book is a notable contrast with the more intelligent but infuriatingly passive Dunc, who senses he should have been able to accompany Vic to university but instead has ceded that side of Vic to the man purse carrier, just as he seems to be ceding her raw, pleasure-seeking side to Animal. Vic clearly seems to be a Guinevere in this equation but Wilson avoids too easy and crass signposting of plot parallels with White’s epic.

For all the Arthurian overtones, for all that it steers away from the transgressive towards something nearer the dirty realism of Tobias Wolff, for all the Hemingwayesque nada of the competitive posturing pit where men try to show that they are men, for all, indeed, that the shadow of Steinbeck doesn’t entirely depart over the course of a reading, a story lives and dies in the quality of its sentences. In Animal’s reaction when Walla points out that he’s just put diesel in a petrol tank, we can see how this story, about seeing things the way they actually are, will stay with us when we’ve forgotten how we came across it in the first place:

Animal stared straight at the Native guy, as if in a game of chicken instead of wrecking his engine with the wrong fuel, as if he just needed to overcome something besides the way things actually were, as if he could just be stubborn enough.

Attempts by writers of short fiction to break into the news cycle might seem to have the makings of the most genteel heist movie since Getaway Driving Miss Daisy but, since BBC Radio 4’s decision to reduce from three to one the amount of short story slots in its schedule, this real time narrative has developed.

As previously discussed here, a petition, launched by the organisers of National Short Story Week, was signed by writers, listeners and broadcasters. In what was seen as a partial U-turn, Radio 4 announced that, in the proposed shake-up, the Sunday evening short story slot – hitherto used for repeats – would feature new stories. Now, the Society of Authors, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and actors’ union Equity have come together to send letters to the Chair of the BBC Trust and the Director General to urge a further climbdown. The letters call into question whether the decision to cut back on the commissioning and broadcast of short fiction “[is] in breach of the BBC’s Charter and, in particular, its duty to stimulate creativity, cultural excellence and its duty to monitor the delivery of public services.”

Let’s consider the proposed change. At its root is a decision to expand The World At One, currently in the 1.00-1.30pm slot, by 15 minutes. This is, of course, a recognition of the broadcaster’s burgeoning impulse to deliver more and better news programming, allied to the world’s capacity to provide it and the audience’s appetite to consume and indeed participate in it. It’s a symptom and product of rolling news formats and the sleepless news buzz and spectacle from the Twittersphere. We know the news doesn’t stop, and the ways in which traditional media outlets have had to adapt their once eternal fixities is now itself an engine for yet more news; it’s the “epiphenomenal” shift Will Self discussed on a star-studded Newsnight broadcast on the day the News of the World’s closure was announced. Like that newspaper, the short story’s weekday afternoon interventions in the business of the world, as brought to us by the BBC, seem also to be falling into the tectonic fissures.

As many of the petition’s signatories pointed out, however, reducing short stories on Radio 4 is not just a denial of work to writers and actors – as disheartening and damaging as this is, it’s not the platform for a compelling case when there are Hell-in-a-Handbasket roadsigns popping up all over the country – but also a needless assault on what should be a perfect symbiosis of form and medium. Radio is considered an ideal medium for short stories: naturally, because the culture of spinning a tale derives from the same oral traditions that inform speech-based radio. Furthermore, radio is enhanced by the nature of the short fiction it broadcasts. Each story in the Afternoon Reading slot occupies twelve minutes of airtime, and that translates as roughly 2000 words. In units of short story measurement, this makes the broadcast story a vignette. Even this is too rigid a definition, though, because these are no decorative contemplations of the passing moment, as a vignette is often entitled to provide. Narrative and pace matter in a Radio short: when I wrote The Prisoners for its eventual broadcast in March 2008, I found it helpful to organise the story into two-minute movements, each taking the characters and listeners deeper into the story. The sense is of a journey of regular progressions, even if, as with an M.C. Escher staircase, that journey leads us nowhere in particular.

As a sidebar, The Prisoners has since been re-edited for my Flax online chapbook, a signal that short stories may be taking some of the tricks learned for the radio into the world of Kindle and the iBookstore, where beguiling but bite-sized may prove the order of the day. There is scope to think back to another epiphenomenal moment, this time contingent on the arrival of radio, when the three-minute pop song emerged towards mass consciousness.

What we’re dealing with, then, is a moment to reflect on the way creativity copes with formatting, and the socio-economic agendas that govern the formats. The modern novel, for instance, has been a fluid entity since what’s accepted as its first incarnation, Cervantes’ Adventures of Don Quixote, which appeared in two books. In between the publication of the two, an errant author had attempted to pass off his writings as the next instalment of the tales of the errant knight. Cervantes used the introduction to Part Two to articulate what can only be described as his “beef” with the imposter, trashing his efforts in a manner later adopted by Ice Cube to diss Eazy-E. So half of the first modern novel became an assertion of authorship over the other half. Just as the novel then developed through serial form, via pulp fiction and the impact of the paperback, to the charming, extended treatments for films already in the pipeline that we enjoy today, the short story has taken shape within a different folio, in which magazines, radio and now the e-book have helped align the creases. This means we can – and should – argue as to the value of a short story’s ability to put the handbrake on a busy day and take listeners out of the remorseless nowness of it all, but we can’t pretend this isn’t a call for licensed subversion. We can argue that the BBC’s Charter is, in these terms, a mandate to subvert the hegemonic imperatives of the market and that’s why it is routinely under attack, but we know we still approach it as part of The Establishment, hence the satisfaction when our words get to be heard on its airwaves.

It comes down, in terms of this particular spoke in the news cycle, to the impact of 15 minutes. Each minute is prized territory in a medium and on a station in which a few seconds of silence would create a vignette of panic, while a whole minute of silence would stir nuclear submarines from their berths. Maybe the outcome of this will be an acceptance that there are fewer minutes to spare but that short stories matter enough to make sure they keep filling them. So we look to the formats within this form of writing: Hemingway floated the idea of the six-word story; flash fiction formats of 50 and 100 words, not to mention the 140 characters of a single Tweet, may often be too flimsy to satisfy, but they offer challenges to writers; and could the broadcaster find new ways to make use of the short story’s capacity to surprise and subvert, rather than simply to pleasantly divert?

We don’t know how this will end, so we stay tuned in.

The new Museum of Liverpool opens today, raising a giant stone eyelid towards its neighbour, the Liver Building, as it celebrates its centenary. This is also the moment in which I become a museum piece, as a brief extract of my writing has found its way into the new building to form part of an exhibit celebrating Liverpool as a “Creative City”.

The extract, from the 2008 story, A Different Sky in the Comma Press collection, The Book Of Liverpool, is being used to soundtrack a minute-long film, directed by Lucy Armitage from Glasgow’s 55degrees production company. The passage imagines a walk around a part of Liverpool city centre and the film, which I won’t get to see until I attend one of the museum’s opening events on Thursday, seeks to provide a visual interpretation of the route and the cultures and histories mentioned in passing. In this respect, it’s an interesting sidenote to the conversations about short stories and film I hope to have here. Other Liverpool writers have had films made, based on their poetry. They are Dave Ward, Eleanor Rees, Gladys Mary Coles, Levi Tafari and Paul Farley, fine company in which to wait out eternity as an (admittedly interactive) object gathering dust in a(n admittedly very modern and probably not at all dusty) museum.

Later on today, I aim to be very much alive giving a short story reading at The Blue Cap, Sandiway, Northwich CW8 2DN, again in the company of poets including Martin Daws, Rebecca Goss, Joan Poulson and Colin Watts. The event is hosted by the Vale Royal Writers Group & Dead Good Poets Society and starts at 8pm, £3/£2.

In other news, BBC Radio 4 has announced that changes to its daytime schedule will mean its short story output will be reduced from three to one a week. I had a story broadcast in 2008 and, aside from the exposure, the professionalism, rigour and sensibility shown by the producer, Justine Potter, and reader, Gillian Kearney, made for a rewarding experience, which has helped me in further honing my craft. It’s the reduction of this interaction between different skills that I think could be the most damaging result of the change, but it also runs against what would appear to be a moment of growth and increased relevance for the short story in this country. You can register your voice about this change – find out more here: http://www.nationalshortstoryweek.org.uk/noshortstorycuts.htm


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