‘SURELY THE POETRY IS IN THE PLOTTING.’

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They say you should never arrive too early. We thought fifteen minutes before the start was safe, but apparently not as the photographer seemed to have become welded to his position in front of us with the lens aimed directly at my friend and I. We tried to seem busy. Talked. Scribbled in my notebook a little. I felt as if I’d returned to my university days. Finally I lifted out my phone and took some photos! That seemed to do the trick as the photographer moved and at last I could concentrate on my surroundings watching the rest of the audience gradually enter in twos or threes.

When nearly full with three hundred eager writers and their friends a hush fell on the lecture room as the three ‘stars’ of the evening entered. Three highly distinguished authors with many worldwide successful books between and with an intimate knowledge of the UK and US markets.

As an entrant to the V. S. Pritchett Memorial Prize short story competition  I had been invited to the awards evening at the Royal Society of Literature (RSL). The society was founded nearly 200 years ago by King George IV to ‘reward literary merit and excite literary talent’. New fellows use Byron’s pen or Dickens’s quill to sign in and the sense of history was palpable from the surroundings alone, set near Somerset House at the Royal Institute of Art, London. 

V. S. Pritchett  is regarded by the RSL as one of the country’s finest short story writers and the society set up this prize in 2000 to commemorate his birth. 

The judges for this year’s competition were Philip Hensher, Adam Mars-Jones and Rose Tremain and before the prize -giving there was a discussion between the three of them about the short story. Here are a few snippets of what they had to say. 

As author of 16 books, including award-winning ‘Restoration’  and numerous short stories Rose Tremain has been published in over 27 countries. She believes that writing short stories is the closest a fiction writer is to being a poet. She thinks that short stories can be considered a form of poetry in themselves. Philip Hensher, the chair of the discussion, disagreed strongly with her comment, asking how stories such as the Sherlock Holmes ones could ever be considered poetry? At this Adam Mars-Jones interrupted quietly and said, ‘surely the poetry is in the plotting’. 

Rose Tremain considers it essential on not knowing yourself where the story is going and that this is part of the journey, telling your reader to come along and find out. Endings can vary and some be such as Mark Twain’s ‘snapper’ tales which have with a real bite at the end.

‘The fictional becomes real, the real becomes fictional,’ said Rose Tremain.

Her stories often start with an image or as a result of overheard conversation. Once during a particularly bad  winter storm in America she heard one man say to another that it ‘is really good for roofters’ and from this one sentence she wrote a short story.

As for the fictional becoming real, Rose Tremain read from her short story ‘The Housekeeper’, where the Daphne du Maurier’s fictional Mandeville Hall is recreated as reality with Daphne du Maurier becoming a character in the story who visits the hall one summer.

Adam Mars-Jones, a novelist and also book, film and theatre critic, has just released his memoir ‘Kid Gloves’, admitted he has not written short stories for decades although he considered them a good tool for learning. His co-authored collection of short stories on people living and dying with AIDS was published in 1987.

He mentioned his dilemma of wanting to write one particular story about AIDS but was stuck as he did not want to use the word AIDS – even then, before the world of texting and emailing, he felt it was too shouty, too powerful and would dominate the story. In an epiphany one day he realised he could just substitute that word with another, in this case ‘slim’ and after that he could write the story. It was imbued with a a sense of humour which worked very well.  

Philip Hensher, who has written numerous books including his semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Northern Clemency’, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, has recently edited the two rather large  tomb-like volumes of ‘Penguin Book of the British Short Story’, considers the short story as a ‘witness’ on topical current events surrounding us, such as the World War II short stories. He reiterated the ‘immediate topicality’ of short stories and their ability to address urgent social issues. However he did recognise that the best short stories could also be totally irrelevant to current affairs.

Markets for short stories were discussed at length and I never knew how vibrant and well-paid the short story market was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Between 1890 and WWI there were at least 34 magazines in Britain printing short fiction. One of those mentioned was the ‘Strand’ magazine which had a huge circulation and could as a result pay handsomely for stories. In 1914 when the average  annual salary was £ 400:- a year the ‘Strand’ paid £ 350:- per story. Imagine selling a short story for £ 27,000:-!!  As Philip Hensher says ‘No wonder there was eager competition among writers; no wonder the best writers of the day, including Rudyard Kipling, DH Lawrence, Bennett, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells, placed the form at the very centre of their creative practice’.

There was disagreement about the expose these magazines offered to ‘experimental short fiction’ with Adam Mars-Jones believing the magazines did not afford many opportunities early on for this kind of fiction whereas Philip Hensher felt strongly that they did, although they would lead with a ‘safe story’ and often put the unusual experimental ones on the back pages of the magazine.

Although the short story market in the UK is languishing it is still vibrant in the US, the ‘New Yorker’ being a prime example of excellent literary short fiction, the writers agreed.

Another issue quickly discussed by the judges is the seeming unpopularity of the short story by the general public. Rose Tremain feels that the short story requires more effort from the reader as it is often full of original thinking and written in a tight structure which results in the reader having to peruse the work critically. This can be considered exhausting and as a result puts off potential readers. Novels by contrast she says resembles ‘a bouquet’, far easier to read with less expectation on the reader. 

After an evening of interesting discussion and readings the winner and runner-up to the £1,000 Royal Society of Literature V.S.Pritchett Memorial Prize 2015 was announced. Following on Philip Hensher’s earlier point about topicality both stories were strong on current issues, one based in China, the other in Ukraine. 

The sponsor’s of the prize, Christopher and Jennie Bland, announced the winner– Jonathan Tel with ‘The Seduction of a Provincial Accountant’. Unfortunately he was in San Fransisco writing a story about the current crisis in Syria so his agent picked up the £ 1000:- award. The runner-up was Nick Sweeney with ‘Traffic’. 

All in all, my friend and I had an exciting inspirational and enlightening  evening surrounded by so many like-minded people and listening to ideas from successful writers about the short story. Wine and refreshment afterwards were most welcome! 

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36 thoughts on “‘SURELY THE POETRY IS IN THE PLOTTING.’

  1. Jacqui Murray says:

    This sounds like a wonderful evening. Congratulations to you on the shortlist! That gathering of like-minded souls–I miss it. I’m going to a writer conference in January just to get that feeling again.

    • Annika Perry says:

      I have never gone to an event like this before so was probably more excited than many others in the audience! It was such fun and a good learning experience so I hope to attend more such gatherings. There is a big county literary festival each year but I’ve been too shy to attend – no excuses any more! Enjoy yourself in January. Will you post about it? Hope so.

  2. Carol Balawyder says:

    That sounded like a very special evening, Annika. How inspiring. I liked what Rose Tremain said about it being essential on not knowing where the story is going and that this is part of the journey.
    I find this very encouraging especially since I often find myself discouraged when I don’t know where I’m going.
    But I’ve also found that when I let go and simply have faith the story will take me where it needs to go.

    • Annika Perry says:

      I’m cheering here Carol as I too tend to let the story lead me ahead, often turning away from my possible scenarios. It was great to hear Rose Tremain supporting this notion and as a former lecturer at the University of East Anglia and now its Chancellor, she was very clearly spoken and organised in her train of thoughts – hence the ease it was to take notes from her comments. It was an inspiring evening and I came away buzzing with ideas and excitement.

  3. rod says:

    Children often us to tell them a story, so I found it odd when a bookseller told me that he couldn’t think of any collections of short stories for children – with the exception of compilations. There will be some, no doubt, but it seems they are very rare and I find that strange.

    • Annika Perry says:

      This has me thinking, Rod and although I have seen some short story competition aimed at children, they are very rare. I recall searching for them when my son was young but only found, as your bookseller said, compilations of short stories and these were collected under various age groups titled accordingly – 5, 6 and 7years-old. Interesting point.

  4. Peter R says:

    Wow; you must have been taking notes in shorthand, or have a very good memory. The poetry is not only in the plotting. A story, like a poem, should leave the reader emotionally sated, be that joy, fear, or any other emotion the author wishes. Too many stories, both short and long, leave much of their emotional strength hanging in limbo. Not yours though, from what you’ve posted here.

    • Annika says:

      Ah thank you Peter, I do try to emotionally involve the reader in my stories – those are the ones I enjoy and become engrossed by. Poetry or not it seems to work! Yes, I was using a bit of shorthand and also writing very fast, scribbling away. As I was the only one doing this I was quite self conscious to start with but then got carried away. Reminded me of my journalist days!

    • Annika Perry says:

      Thank you Mary and I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the evening, it was highly informative and an air of occasion around it. My entry was called ‘The Whiteout Years’ and I am thinking of featuring it here on my blog soon – keep an eye out! Wishing you a lovely weekend. 😀

      • maryannniemczura says:

        Hahaha – “The Whiteout Years” – that sounds like writing term papers and using whiteout for all the errors. I have never tried a short story although I have written articles for professional journals. All the best for you weekend.

        • Annika says:

          We call that ‘tipex’ here,when people still used typewriters and carbon paper. This whiteout in my storyis in the metrological sense of snow whiteout – as will become apparent in the story. Short stories are very different from factual papers or articles I used to write but lots of fun and totally different skill set. You might like it!

          • maryannniemczura says:

            I look forward to your story. We have many whiteouts here in Central New York where lake effect snow frequently causes them. When there is such heavy rain in Colorado, I liken it to “lake effect” and the wipers can’t clean the windshield. Drivers simply pull off the road to wait for the storm to pass. I’ll have to try my hand at writing a short story some day. You can be my inspiration. I laughed at ‘tipex’ and the days when I had to use a typewriter before a computer. Technology has made great strides.

  5. Anonymous says:

    It sounds like a very lively evening, and must have been quite exciting to receive an invitation to what has been the very hub of English Literature since the days of George IV. Congratulations are in order I think, so well done!

    The next question is of course are we going to be able to read the short story which resulted in the invitation in the first place. I certainly hope so.

    Mike

    • Annika Perry says:

      It was very exciting to receive the invitation Mike and being the cynic I am I first thought it was some sort of spam mail! You could certainly feel the history of the place. As to reading my short story, you are not the only one to ask and yes, I am thinking of featuring it here soon on my blog. Thank you asking.

  6. Sherri says:

    What an enjoyable evening for you and your friend, the refreshments too! I found what you shared about the short story market very interesting; the reasons as to why readers prefer novels to short stories generally is something I’ve not considered in much depth before, but now I can see why that might be. I’ve picked up here and there that the short story market is more vibrant in the US than here. Just goes to show how careful we need to be in fine-tuning our reading audience. My memoir takes place in both England and California in the late 70s. I hear that memoir is hard to sell but that it is a sought after genre. Never quite sure how that gels! Have a lovely upcoming weekend Annika 🙂

    • Annika Perry says:

      The discussion was very stimulating Sherri and raised many issues, not all of which I agreed with perhaps. Short stories have for many decades been a poor cousin to novels but that seems to be turning a bit now, particularly since Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature and many big name authors are releasing their own collections. As regards memoirs I have the personal feeling that the interest in this market is strong and even growing, well at least here in the UK. I wish you the best of luck with your book. Wishing you a lovely weekend too and hope you are managing to avoid the Black Friday craziness! 😀

      • Sherri says:

        All very interesting this Annika, many thanks for sharing this with me again for your very kind wishes…I’m especially encouraged about memoir! A lovely weekend thank you, and I hope for you too, and yes, kept well away from Black Friday Madness…thank goodness…and hope you did too!!! I hope you have a good writing week…I need to get back to my revisions, a week long gap I need to put right…

    • Annika Perry says:

      There was so much to relate I’m happy if I managed to convey even just a fraction of the evening and glad to know that you felt a if you were at the event itself. Definitely very interesting time indeed!

  7. Mirja says:

    Congratulations Annika on being invited to this prestigious literary event – and lucky friend !
    Maybe you two should have told the photographer you are a “Scribbler” – not film stars.:))

    Your report of the evening is superb and you managed to high light some important themes
    discussed. I really like Adams’ quote – also your title -. I agree there often is a fine line between poetry and a well written short story. Fun to hear the thoughts of the ‘stars’.

    What is the title of your entry? Is there any chance that at some stage you will let us read it?
    One can but ask…….:)

    • Annika Perry says:

      There was obviously a lot more said though I tried to capture the main elements touched upon – my shorthand got a rare outing! It was interesting when there were mild disagreements, such as the poetry comment – they were all so respectful of each other. As for my entry, I have been considering posting it here as one of my stories a month section of my blog. It’s called, ‘The Whiteout Years’ and rather apt for this season! Look out for it soon(ish)!

    • Annika Perry says:

      We would have been even earlier but had ‘dawdled’ by looking at the Christmas tree, ice rink and lights outside first! I found it was interesting and wanted to share it here on line. Yes, a very enjoyable and thought-provoking evening.

    • Annika Perry says:

      Wouldn’t that be great, Diana! I would just be happier if there was a bigger market for short stories. I know there are the big literary magazines in the U.S. but what is it like for short story magazines on a local state/county/city level – do these exist or magazines that take short stories? I do find there are so many competitions out there though. It was a lovely evening and gave me lots of think about…

      • D. Wallace Peach says:

        I don’t write many short stories, so I can’t speak knowledgeably to your questions. I see occasional submission requests for anthologies and online magazines, but like everything else in this business, I don’t think the authors are getting rich. Just gotta keep writing for the love of it 🙂

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