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Early in 2005, in one of those literary world teacup-storms, Ali Smith and Toby Litt were castigated for saying, in the introduction to a collection they'd jointly edited, that "On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking - as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell." This was followed by a clarification: it wasn't the subjects that disappointed, so much as the approaches used. "We found it hard to understand why writers with nothing to lose but time and the cost of postage were so unadventurous." Later in the year, Smith's novel The Accidental was shortlisted for the Booker prize. nuttyxander and others kept enthusing about it, so I bought myself a copy, but haven't quite found the time to read it yet. Fortunately, in one of those serendipitous moments that make Christmas worth it after all, hawleygriffen sent me Smith's 2003 collection The Whole Story and Other Stories.

Having more-or-less devoured it in the space of 48 hours, I think I have a slightly better understanding of where her criticisms of other women writers might be coming from. This is not an unadventurous book, and not a quiet one, either. It exults. There are stories about the everyday world (a visit to an art gallery), about the bizarre (seeing Death at a railway station, falling in love with a tree), even one ghost story (a Scottish pipe band of ghosts, in fact); what binds them together is the energy and verve with which they are told. Smith's prose fizzes--informal, naturalistic, striking, free-associational, finding beauty in unexpected places--but what strikes you most of all is the delight she takes in (re)creating a world made of stories.

'The Universal Story', which opens the collection, could be a mission statement. The title is ironic; if you hadn't guessed from the contradictory overall title of the book, the opening lines make it pretty clear:
There was a man dwelt by a churchyard.

Well, no, okay, it wasn't always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.

Though, to be honest, nobody really uses that word nowadays. Everybody says cemetery. And nobody says dwelt any more. In other words:

There was once a woman who lived by a cemetery. Every morning when she woke up she looked out of her back window and saw--

Actually, no. There was once a woman who lived by--no, in--a second-hand bookshop. (1)
Every act of storytelling is an act of exclusion. The bookshop, once we get to it, turns out to be the real centre of this story, or at least a moment in the life of the bookshop does. But it's not the whole story or the universal story; it can't be. The bookshop owner, a man buying a 1974 edition of The Great Gatsby, the book itself, a fly sitting on the book, and the woman the man is buying the book for all take a turn in the spotlight, Smith showing us how every participant in a moment came to be there.

The woman the man is buying the book for is an artist (his sister, in fact), given to making boats out of unusual materials, such as flowers. Noodling around for a new project, she hits on the idea of making a similarly ephemeral boat out of copies of The Great Gatsby. For the artist, the reasons for that particular choice are obvious (So we beat on, she'd said. Boats against the current. Borne back ceaselessly into the past. Get it? (10)); for Smith's story, the reason seems to be an argument about the partialness of stories. Gatsby is a Great American Novel ... but it is no more universal--cannot be more universal--than any other story. None of the stories in 'The Universal Story' quite begin or end, but that's the point: every story we know or tell is made from the loose ends of the stories we don't.

For Smith, acknowledging that is important. It's not as explicit in most of the other stories in the collection, but it informs all of them. It's in the juxtaposition of bookshop customers in 'Gothic'; it's in a story like 'The Book Club', with its ramble through the corridors of memory. It's in the narrator of 'Erosive', whose first action is to ask, "What do you need to know about me for this story?" (115) And it's in the viewpoints Smith uses, which, when they're not first-person, are dizzyingly omniscient, swinging (in, for example, 'Paradise') with complete control from a wide-angle view of a Scottish town to the individual stories of three sisters who live in it, and back out again. And somehow, amid all the pyrotechnics, Smith still creates people you care about and events you remember.

There are several stories, for example, couched as dialogues between lovers. The characters are stripped of all identifying features: there is only a 'you' and an 'I'. Half-way through each of these stories, everything flips, and the you becomes the I, and the I becomes the you. What captivates is the way these stories are portrayals of the limits of intimacy and trust in relationships. The protagonists test their boundaries, and test each other. My favourite of these stories is the most romantic (although perhaps it doesn't seem so at first glance), 'Believe Me':
I am, I said. Don't you believe me?

You're not having an affair, you said behind me.

Actually, no, you're right, I said. I'm not having an affair. It's not an affair, it's much more than an affair. Actually I'm married to a man you've never met with whom I have three children you don't know about.

Ah, you said. (137)
The resolution of the story is note-perfect. But what really strikes me about it (and the other similar stories) is how their form strengthens their impact. One obvious thing is how it affects reader-identification; the absence of gender markers in most of them means that often, it's impossible to tell whether you're reading about a man and a woman, or two women, or two men. So we impose our own preconceptions, and that's always fun. But more than that, I find the way it's couched--'you said'--powerful. 'Believe Me' is a memory I've forgotten but want to remember.

Some of Smith's experiments, inevitably, fail and, of course, some of them won't work for everyone. I had to laugh at the 'review consensus' stated on this page: "Fairly impressed, if not always clear as to what she's up to"--although perhaps the most intriguing comment quoted there is the one by Liz Jensen, from a review in the Independent (no link):
But will you have read any stories? Not stories where things happen, not stories with beginnings and middles and all that palaver. You will have read Writing, much funny, some poignant, all of it deeply, militantly unusual; a series of surreal, loosely connected fragments which somehow manage to inspire delight as well as irritation.
Perhaps she's right; perhaps these aren't really stories. But reading The Whole Story and Other Stories, you get a clear sense of why Smith might be frustrated with work that doesn't take risks, or with too many stories that know only their own existence. Her own writing is constantly exploring, constantly finding new things to say and ways to say it. In 'The Heat of the Story', three women, mostly drunk, go to Midnight Mass, get thrown out, and tell each other stories in the cold of the early morning. 'This is true, I swear it,' they say. And it is; they all are, for certain values of 'true'. But the game can never end. Perhaps, at the end of this book, you won't have read any stories, but you'll have a better sense of the shape of the world. And that, in itself, is a satisfying thing.
She starts walking, anywhere, she doesn't know where.

The street is deserted, except for a man coming towards her on the other side of the road. He is out walking two small Jack Russell dogs in the dark at three o'clock on Christmas morning.

There's a story in that, she thinks as they pass each other by.

It's too dark to see his face. Merry Christmas, love, he calls across the road to her. Have a good one.

The words are full of thaw.

Merry Christmas, she tells him back. All the best. (192-3)
Other reviews:
Rachel Cusk in the Guardian.
Julie Myerson in the Telegraph.
Ann Cummins in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Interview by Jeannette Winterson: here.
Other interviews: here and here.
Another story: here.
EDIT: Christmas story here.
 
 
 
 
 
 
So, I'll be buying that then.
I HAVE POWER!
The power of pimping books, yes. But you knew that, didn't you?
Really interesting post, but if the snippets are anything to go by, it's really not making me go "goshwow", but "ugh" ...

Which, again, interesting, but... maybe just not my thing.

Makes me want to be contrary and try reading some anyway. Heh.
Really interesting post,

Thanks. The book chimed with some ideas I'd been playing with anyway, about why I like the stories I like, and what I like in science fiction specifically. Not ready to air those thoughts in public, really, yet, though. More thinking required.

but if the snippets are anything to go by, it's really not making me go "goshwow", but "ugh" ...

Heh. I quoted a passage from the start of The Accidental and he almost had an allergic reaction. :) See what you think:
I was born in the year of the supersonic, the era of the multi-storey multivitamin multitonic, the highrise time of men with the technology and women who could be bionic, when jump jets were Harrier, when QE2 was Cunard, when thirty-eight feet tall the Princess Margaret stood stately in her hoverpad, the annee erotique was only thirty aircushioned minutes away and everything went at twice the speed of sound. I opened my eyes. It was all in colour. It didn't look like Kansas anymore. The students were on the barricades, the mode was maxi, the Beatles were transcendental. It was Britain. It was great.
I quoted a passage from the start of The Accidental and he almost had an allergic reaction.

Who did?

Hmm, reading the snippets from the shorts above and the short you linked to I was curious about how the hell she would manage to sustain that sort of style at novel length, and had been wondering if her writing changed dramatically at different lengths. But the short sentences and the repetition are still there.

It gives the bits of her prose I've seen a flat sort of feel, very, well, textual. This plainness and flatness of the language/grammar, and the dialogue-like structure makes the story you linked to (and some of the snippets) read like a play. The use of the present tense in the final snippet gives that impression too. Reminds me of a collection of shorts I've got by Ethan Coen, some of which literally are in script form, some of which are stories, but retain the pared down feel of a screenplay. Reading stuff like that makes me very aware that I'm looking at a page reading text. I'm also kind of curious to read the shorts (less so the novel).
Who did?

Whoops. Graham did.

This plainness and flatness of the language/grammar, and the dialogue-like structure makes the story you linked to (and some of the snippets) read like a play.

Interesting--I didn't get that at all.

I'm also kind of curious to read the shorts (less so the novel).

Natch. ;-)
I want to own her 2001 novel Hotel World. I find the concept of writing about losing words quite interesting.
You see, I've forgotten this allergic reaction, but trust Niall implicitly about the accuracy of his recollection. Really.
Oh, that's kinda fun. Playing with the language in a way I like. On the other hand, my reader ear says the rhythm of the sentences isn't quite right, but I'm not sure I can put my finger on how.

I went to read the linked story you put at the end your post, and found it almost impossible to get past the text and into the story. I could immediately see what the reviewer was saying about reading Writing. The prose was deliberately flat and affectless, with past perfect tense to present tense shifts that I *noticed* because they were flagged with a big fat brush. I kept forgetting there was a story there, because the sentences caused me to stop and look at the writing, over and over again.

I quite liked section 3, but that might be because my readerbrain decided I only needed to read the first sentence of each paragragh. "we put it in the incinerator" "we threw it off the cliff" ... to get the lovely sense of what was going on there. When I tried to read each paragraph, I bogged in the language again.

It's really interesting to examine that sort of reaction, for me, as a writer, because it's one I can use to limited effect, and examine what's being done and how, but I think as a reader I need the story far more than the writing.

I'm reading Michel Faber at the moment -- now there's some fun stuff!
I think what I'm doing is enjoying the writing and then piecing together the story in hindsight. Maybe. Anyway, I like that story about as much as the others in the collection, and it seems fairly representative.

I'm reading Michel Faber at the moment -- now there's some fun stuff!

Ah, I should badger someone I know to lend me that. Maybe I can trade them for 20th Century Ghosts...
P.S. Story by her that I haven't read here.
I went and read that as soon as I finished your post, last night. Well, G and I both did :)

You have the power of driving people to read!
last night

*blink*

These time zones are crazy.
I like that :-)

Loved the darkness of it, and the realism (being so bored you manage to convince yourself about the side effects of pain-killers, or the wrestling on the sofa and forgetting your pain).

I should really go buy myself a copy of The Whole Story and Other Stories, shouldn't I?
Having now read it myself I can say that yes, it is representative of the stories in the book so yes, you should go buy it. Except that actually what you should do is buy her previous collection, Other Stories and Other Stories (or her first collection, the title of which escapes me), and then we can swap. :p
You're tricksy, aintcha? OK, will do when I go post-Christmas shopping.
I do like Smith's own style to some extent, the experimentalism of it, but damn, yeah - I remember that story! I know, or at least I think I know, exactly what Smith and Litt were getting at when they expressed their 'disappointment' with women's writing, and by doing so I thought she (Smith) had quite cleverly taken the subject of 'women's fiction' and sidled herself into a box marked 'other' - it certainly hasn't done her harm in terms of publicity for her own fiction. Like the 'glamour model' of the literary world, I saw her comments as something not so much for the common good as a bit of self-empowerment.
It is not just the 'domestic' as a subject that occupies many women writers, but yes, generally you do see more of a certain 'approach and style' in women's writing, that perhaps has something to do with this expectation of domesticity that women have, this inward-looking instead of outward, the examination of personal relationships, the shifts in a character's mindscape as they react to things around them, and yes, a desire to be nice and please people and find yourself lacking. It doesn't have to be about cooking, cleaning and raising kids - Bridget Jones doesn't do much of that!
Okay, so maybe Smith is pushing at boundaries here, urging her fellow female writers to be brave, to experiment with form, and maybe ideas will follow. Not a bad thing? At the end of the day, if women write fiction for women, and women read it, isn't the objective achieved? And if women try to shake off their 'domestic'attitudes, might they not lose their voice? I don't want to read aga sagas, bad chick-lit, hen-lit or any of those tired, over-marketed female friendly books more than the next person (unless I'm on holiday). What I wouldn't want is for the majority of women writers to all start losing their peculiar flavour and all start sounding a bit like Ali Smith.
And that story about falling in love with a tree? Sounds awfully like Joanne Harris's Dryad (BBC short story competition last year)http://www.bbc.co.uk/endofstory/story_pdfs/jonne_harris_dryad.pdf
Mmm, what do we make of that?
I know, or at least I think I know, exactly what Smith and Litt were getting at when they expressed their 'disappointment' with women's writing

I think it's important to say that they weren't talking about 'women's writing' in the abstract--it was an observational report. Based on the stories they received, a disproportional amount of the ones they didn't like for reasons x and y seemed to come from women. That way around.

At the end of the day, if women write fiction for women, and women read it, isn't the objective achieved?

I think the point is that there's no harm in doing that, but it shouldn't be the only choice available. And that maybe Smith feels that too many women writers feel that it's the only choice available.

And that story about falling in love with a tree? Sounds awfully like Joanne Harris's Dryad (BBC short story competition last year) [...] Mmm, what do we make of that?

Well, for starters that Smith's story was written at least a year earlier. :) But reading Harris's piece, I'm not sure there's much common ground other than the basic idea.


I think it's important to say that they weren't talking about 'women's writing' in the abstract--it was an observational report. Based on the stories they received, a disproportional amount of the ones they didn't like for reasons x and y seemed to come from women. That way around.

Yes - should have been clearer. However I do like the backtracking they do in their letter following that article... ooh no, it's _both_ genders we were talking about, no, not women at all... When in fact it was the submissions from women that they had specifically mentioned!

I think the point is that there's no harm in doing that, but it shouldn't be the only choice available. And that maybe Smith feels that too many women writers feel that it's the only choice available.

...and let's not forget it was _their_ anthology to edit, so they can put whatever they wanted to in it. And quite a lot of those stories were by women anyway... but the _point_ was made wasn't it - rather pointedly. I kind of felt they were courting controversy for controversy's sake.


Well, for starters that Smith's story was written at least a year earlier. :) But reading Harris's piece, I'm not sure there's much common ground other than the basic idea.

Ha ha, yeah realised that after! Whoops.
damnit.
I have to stop reading your reviews, it just makes me want to read it now, and i already have too many things i want!

Thank you though, i always like to here what people think, espesially you, of things espesially if they are interested, i always finds it makes me interested to, even if i may not understand it all, being a bear of very little brain.
I have to stop reading your reviews, it just makes me want to read it now, and i already have too many things i want!

Mwahahaha. My work here is done.

(Thanks. :)
The quotes from Abi Smith sound like they are lifted straight from Joanna Russ.
The quotes about unadventurous writers, or the quotes from the stories themselves?
The quotes themselves. That technique of making a statement, and then saying "but no, this is what really happened...." several times is quintessentially Russ.
Roll on the Collected Stories next year, then. :)
Fingers crossed.
At least we know who to blame if it all goes horribly wrong, eh?
Yes, I thought it was just like Russ. Those later novels she did in the late seventies like 'We who are about to' and 'The two of them'. I liked it in Russ, I'm kind of less interested twenty five years later.

Yeah, that's me, miss hard to please.
Most things written by men are also unadventurous. IMHO.