Are You Distinctive?

The Guardian books blog alerts me to an outburst by the author Susan Hill. Hill has been asked to contribute a story to an anonymous exhibition of short fiction. This was the response:

I`m furious. I`m hopping mad. I`m spitting venom. So this will be a rant. I feel like ranting. One way or another I have been a published writer for 50 years. I also have a good degree in English from the days when you had to read difficult writers to get one, a lot of difficult writers, writers who are better than I could ever hope to be.  I  read them, studied how they did it, learned my craft from them because that’s how it works.

Today I was asked if I would write a short short story. It would be part of a Fringe Festival – dread words – and would go up on some walls in an exhibition of similar short short stories, but without my name attached to it.  Names, you see, are invidious. They might indicate to people that the story was worth reading. There would be others writers up there… well known ones, but none of their names would be visible either and there would also be stories by any old body who thinks they should be up there, nay probably has a human right to be up there,  and who has written a short short story – with special emphasis on those who have written them and who are marginalised, displaced, disadvantaged, bottom of the heap, discriminated against, asylum seekers. Oh  yes,  and school children of course, though probably with priority given to those from sink and failing ones. It’s all part of the democratisation of the language and of literature and of writing and of fiction. Alice again. ‘All have won and all shall have prizes.’  But language is already democratised, each of us claims to be part of that great free world of speaking words every time we open our mouth.

But in the mad world of those with well-meaning but lunatic desires for egalitarianism in absolutely everything my fifty years writing 43 books, learning my trade and re-learning it, practising my craft, hoping to improve, reading the best to learn from them,  putting out words in a careful order every day of my life, working with the talent I was given by God – none of that matters a jot. Every one of those others has just as much right to have their stories up there as I do, because, you see, they have written them – oh yes, and they’re disadvantaged. Maginalised. Whatever.

Give me strength!

An anti-PC diatribe – how daring that is in 2010! But surely a simple ‘no thanks’ would have done?

Don’t get me wrong – some of the worst ideas in the arts (not to mention politics) have come from posturing anti-elitism, from poetry slams to self-publishing. But this exhibition – and we’re given no details of it, we can’t verify whether there is a selection criteria or not – sounds like an interesting idea, with good precedents. Fiction competitions are routinely judged blind. So what’s the problem with anonymous short stories exhibited in a building, with a mixture of published and nonpublished authors?

You can’t argue that bad authors will get exposure they don’t deserve, because visitors to the exhibition won’t read past the first para of a bad short story. There is a good chance that talent will shine. It could also provide an insight into how many writers truly have developed what everyone says a writer needs – an original and distinctive voice.

Would you be able to recognise an extract of Susan Hill’s fiction if it was taped to a wall full of extracts from other nameless authors? Of Toby Litt’s? Of Julie Myerson’s? Of your own? I think that’s the question that has sent Hill into such a breathless frenzy.

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One Response to “Are You Distinctive?”

  1. Lynn Bridge Says:

    I just ran across your post, months after you wrote it. I think that the idea of having unattributed “writing on the wall” is a wonderful premise for a gathering. I would have loved to have been there!

    As a visual artist, I walk into a museum and look at the art work without ever looking at those little cards on the wall that tell me what I’m supposed to know. I DO have respect for the study of art history, but making people dependent on names and qualifications and learned explanations can be inhibiting after awhile, and can detract from the direct experience of reveling in the art.

    It is true that an old hand in such an exhibition runs the risk of being outshone by an unqualified upstart, but that is also the way of religious faith, business acumen, social networking, etc. Oh, and science, too.

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