Sunday, May 29, 2011

Writing matters

It's been my great privilege to spend the last few days at the Reading Matters conference on literature for children and young people, here in Melbourne. I was working, in my day job - hanging out up the back, tweeting and doing other web stuff.

But here are some thoughts of my own, nothing to do with my work persona (@SLVLearn).

There was, inevitably, some reference to the recent debate about the male-focused definition of "literary fiction" in this country and elsewhere that often excludes women writers and their work, and the response from some women writers and publishers to establish A Prize of Our Own (a title, by the way, that I adore, though I'm not quite sure what Woolf would actually make of it).

It's allied to criticisms of the focus on literary fiction generally at the expense of other writing, including genre fiction, as it's only on rare occasions that a Wolf Hall or a Temple will take out the big prizes and attract the same number of column inches in the book supplements of our major newspapers.

And of course, we're still at the point where writers for young adults or children are seen as being somehow less serious and less literary than writers for adults.

At the same time, I've been reading Ursula Le Guin's essay on 'The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction', and thinking about male and female narrative traditions. I've posted elsewhere on that.

Bringing those threads together, I wondered whether or not we're seeing a similar gulf develop in YA and children's literature between YA literary fiction, and genre fiction or fiction for younger readers.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to draw a parallel between the tedious middle-aged public-school male narrative* that usually exemplifies literary fiction generally, and its YA equivalent. There is no similarity in terms of writing, theme, intent and worldview.

Literary YA fiction most often (but not always) involves urban contemporary stories: quite often about young people in difficult and even harrowing situations. It also, happily, features beautiful and inventive writing.

And many of the titles you'd categorise as YA literary fiction are by women. We are blessed to have amongst us women who can write books like This is Shyness, Raw Blue, The Red Shoe, Stolen and Graffiti Moon. These are books that change lives, change minds, and there is nothing more precious.

But I'd hate to see the industry around these authors project onto their books the same values and mythologies that have limited women writing in other spheres, and other genres, or to privilege YA literary fiction above genre writing for young adults, or above writing for younger age groups.

We know from the work of Ursula Dubosarsky, for example, that YA books can be as fine as any published in this country (or elsewhere, for that matter), and that writing about events in the past can offer extraordinary imagery and insight.

We also know that gifted writers can write across genres and age groups, according the the demands of their story.

As Jane Burke said during the conference, the definition of YA is largely to do with the age of the protagonist: the writing must only be about truth and story and character - not markets. Nor, I suggest, genre labels.

Just as YA and children's literature struggle to be acknowledged as equivalent to literature for other audiences, here's hoping that good writing will always be valued by those who think about, talk about, read and write books for children and young adults - no matter what other labels we might apply to it.

[* Later qualification: Obviously, I'm not suggesting that all fiction written by middle-aged men is tedious! David Malouf, for example, can win any prize going, as far as I'm concerned. I had in mind a certain strain of fiction produced by some members of a generation of British and US authors, in particular.]

The carrier bag versus the spear

Been worrying lately about the narrative structure of my work in progress, Tragédie.

The core of the problem is obvious to me. I'm used to inventing stories, usually adventures for younger readers, which I build from event to event to a climax, alongside the characters. Or something.

But in this case, I'm working with real historical events, a woman's life which, extremely eventful though it is, just kind of petered out at the end. (You can read more about Mademoiselle de Maupin here.)

I'm writing it in an episodic way, as my interpretations of the events come to me - not in any particular order, and interspersed with purely fictional passages in her voice.

I also have a formal structure of five acts plus prologue, the same as the tragédies en musique in which she appeared  on stage in Paris.

My question - to myself and also to my PhD supervisor, Lucy Sussex - was, basically, is that OK? Is an episodic approach enough? It feels a little uncomfortable to me, because it's not what I'm used to, but that's part of the point of a doctorate.

Lucy suggested I read Ursula Le Guin's essay 'The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction', from her brilliant collection of essays, Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989).

Le Guin's contention is that the narrative with which we are most familiar - that of events leading up to a major climax - is the male form. She (rather delightfully) retraces the possible narratives that would derive from a hunter/gatherer society: one which relates a great many repetitive daily tasks - the gathering, done by women; and another in which the thrill of the hunt and chase and final climax of the kill is told - by the men, the hunters.

Le Guin argues that the stories of the mammoth hunt are those which are remembered in the cave art and in the ideas that have come down to us about what makes a narrative. Thrilling adventure stories, perhaps, or even those stories in which small things happen but still follow an arc to climax - the story of the Hero and his conflicts. But those, she says, are not the only stories that can be told.

The first tool, she argues, was not a weapon, but a receptacle, a bag or leaf or scoop in which to carry the results of the gathering:
"...the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us."
Should note here, too, that there are a great many modern narratives told by men in which nothing much happens beyond maybe an affair or a slight humiliation, but it seems that when they are told by middle-aged public-school white blokes, that still counts as a mammoth hunt story - to them, and to those that award prizes for narrative.

Hence - well, let's not go there right now.

Been thinking also about some of those novels which subvert that structure. Obvious examples are Atonement, in which the climax in the action arguably comes quite early on, while the narrative itself (as distinct from the plot) slowly reveals and builds to something quite different and equally shattering.

Or Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, which does climb to a peak but in which the central narrator switch hinges on a moment so dramatic that I shouted aloud.

In my case (not that I'm comparing) the episodes in La Maupin's life will appear confused, perhaps happening out of chronological order, as they are remembered by a feverish mind. Not sure yet. Don't want to confuse the readers but I do have great faith in their intelligence.

It is La Maupin's narration and her reminiscence that needs to build, then falter, and again.

It's not an action thriller for kids. It's a life, an imagined but nevertheless real life, filled with too many dramatic moments nobody could never dream up - and, as always, it's the character - the woman - at the core of the story that matters the most.

So although the process of questioning also kicked off some major re-ordering of episodes, and it still feels unfamiliar to me, I'm at peace with it now. Me and my carrier bag.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sarah Waters on authenticity

ABIGAIL DENNIS: So creating that sense of authenticity is very important?

SARAH WATERS: Yes, it is actually, even though I know it’s all an illusion, and we're all recreating the past in a different way, and it's always a process … it still feels important to, well, in a sense almost to give a reader that experience, because I think it’s so important to remember that culture and society are such provisional, such temporary things, because we get attached to cultural and social systems in a very negative kind of way.
And if you take a longer view, and just remind people that these things are always in process, they’re not fixed, and gender’s never fixed, and how we feel about women changes all the time, and how we feel about sex and sexuality and class, these things change all the time … historical fiction can dramatically enact that.
Not that I feel like I've got an agenda with my writing in that kind of way, but it’s a fundamental thing of mine that history is a process, and in a sense a good historical novel is a celebration of that.

Interview by Abigail Dennis, 'Ladies in peril', Neo-Victorian Studies 1:1 (Autumn 2008)

Coming soon, to a City of Literature near you

I'm honoured to be part of this year's Emerging Writers' Festival (note the apostrophe) as a "Living Library" on 4 June. That means you can book a fifteen minute one-on-one session to pick my brains on how to create characters.
Or you can quiz Paddy O'Reilly on structure and narrative (which I do over lunch on a regular basis).
  • Criticism & reviewing: Geordie Williamson, literary critic
  • Poetry & performance: Julian Fleetwood, poet & playwright
  • Editing: Jo Case, editor
  • Drafting & planning: Alan Bissett, novellist & screenwriter
  • Creative collaborations: Warwick Holt, joke writer & freelancer
  • Writing online: Simon Groth, If:Book director & digital writer
  • Translation: Leah Gerber, academic specialising in literary translation
  • Freelancing: Kevin Patrick, freelance writer.
What a line-up, and what a smart idea. You treat us like books you can borrow for fifteen minutes. Ask us anything. But please remember to return all books to the trolley.

And in my day job at the State Library, we're gearing up for the Reading Matters conference, with guests this year including Cassandra Clare, Lucy Christopher, Ursula Dubosarsky, Rebecca Stead, and Markus Zusak. Can't wait.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Keep up

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.

~ William Faulkner

[If only]