Archive for February, 2013

Where the Streets Have No Shame

February 24, 2013

I have never worked on a shop floor, but I know people who have. I also know people who could lose their jobs because of the HMV crisis. Where I live the slow death of the high street is a big issue, much discussed at midweek evening meetings and on Facebook groups by anxious and well meaning people on a quest to turn Levenshulme into Chorlton. The collapse of HMV sent liberal broadsheet writers into one of their frequent fits of pop nostalgia. Throughout January a barrage of thinkpieces appeared on approximately these lines: HMV, eh? Soundtrack to the English childhood, Saturday mornings, bus into town, buying the latest EP from Soundgarden or Prefab Sprout, a bag of pick ‘n’ mix (That’s Woolworths. Ed) jumpers for goalposts, enduring image, hmm? You get the idea.

Bizarre as it was to see the organic cheese and homespun wicker brigade lamenting the demise of a clone-town avatar, a lot of people are going to lose their jobs over this, and could fall between the widening cracks of austerity Britain. And yet I don’t think it is insensitive to wonder if the death of HMV may not be a good thing. A close friend who worked in a local branch told me that her massive store didn’t stock anything approaching a decent range of music. HMV contributed to the crash of numerous independent record shops, which do stock good music and are run by people who love and care about music. No Guardian memorial for these guys – but do check out the film about independent music retailers, Last Shop Standing, produced by my amazing Flashmanesque friend, James Harris.

Furthermore, from what we know, HMV treated its staff very badly. The HMV corporate Twitter account a few weeks back was briefly hijacked by angry shopworkers in the middle of a mass firing. ‘Under usual circumstances, we’d never dare do such a thing as this,’ the hackers tweeted. ‘However, when the company you dearly love is being ruined and those hard working individuals, who wanted to make hmv great again, have mostly been fired, there seemed no other choice.’ Then: ‘Especially since these accounts were set up by an intern (unpaid, technically illegal) two years ago.’

Employers consistently fail to get to grips with social media. (‘Just overheard our Marketing Director ask: ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’’) The digital world is an obvious threat to retail bosses because people can get goods and services more cheaply online. In theory this could wreck the whole high street. Again though, long term, would that be a bad thing? Retail is hard. It is long hours, loads of physical wear and tear, rigid hierarchies, little progression and, in terms of disposable income, you could make more slinging drinks. The retail union USDAW has to campaign regularly on shopworker safety, because counter staff are regularly abused, threatened, assaulted, groped and held up at knifepoint or gunpoint by customers. It’s a hard and grim life. And aside from the forced labour and dubious legality of the whole thing, what hacks me off about Iain Duncan Smith’s retail workfare programme is the self-satisfied rhetoric that he is doing jobseekers a favour. Why do we want to force graduates and the unemployed into a dying industry? One might as well send half the North’s claimant count into ‘voluntary’ placements down the pit mines.

But what’s the alternative? What will the high street look like if we just let the market do its thing? The big supermarkets will stay, because people need cheap food. A bad portent is the multiplicity of payday loan sharks that have colonised English cities like bindweed. More optimistic thinkers have predicted that the death of big chains will leave a gap that independents can fill. I hope so. The ideal situation is that we get rid of the clone towns and have loads of independent food shops and hipster bars. But people have to work hard and step up for that to happen. It is also worth remembering that many independent businesses are run by the same kind of grasping simpleton that has evidently been in charge of HMV’s commercial strategy over the last decade.

My sanguine approach to all this is only dented by the possibility that the internet could also kill the gorgeous L-spaced interweaving of independent bookshops. Every time I go back to my home town, I buy something from the second hand bookshop that has been standing on a little street by the canal ever since I was a boy. Last time I was in there, the genial Pratchett-esque old man who runs it told me: ‘This is only my second job, and I love it. Everyone else is working in places they hate, and struggling to stay alive. If you find a job you love, son, you’ve made it. You’ve won.’

highstreetshops

Insert generic high street decline photo here. (Image: Telegraph)

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The Myth of the Myth

February 17, 2013

Older readers might remember the UK late night comedy show Banzai. This was basically a sketch show, knockabout, childish and even slightly racist in retrospect, that parodied Japanese game show formats. Now, Banzai had this character called Mr Shake Hands Man. Mr Shake Hands Man’s job was to approach a celebrity outside a restaurant or somewhere, shake the celebrity’s hand and try to start some bullshit conversation and keep it going. Eventually the celebrity’s open and friendly exterior would dissolve into an expression of frightened bewilderment as s/he realises that Mr Shake Hands Man is still shaking their hand after a full moment and a half. The object of the sketch was to see how long Mr Shake Hands Man could keep the handshake going.

I thought of this when I read the latest gushing profile of John Gray, UK literati’s favourite celebrity philosopher. John Gray is an intellectual Mr Shake Hands Man. He has one big idea – that religious fundamentalism, New Atheism, neoconservatism, and various apparently secular philosophies are just a derivative of doomed Christian utopianism – and he has spieled this out into numerous books, articles, lectures, reviews and collections over what seems like the last two thousand years. Norman Geras has a collection of his greatest hits:

[The] idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence.

To believe in progress is to believe that… humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals.

Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world… but their core belief in progress is a superstition.

[T]he belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as [Professor A C] Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal – a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species.

When contemporary humanists invoke the idea of progress they are mixing together two different myths: a Socratic myth of reason and a Christian myth of salvation.

Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.

Get the idea? The argument that progress is an illusion, and that humanity is doomed to a cyclical and meaningless existence, is certainly one that becomes convincing after listening to Professor Gray reiterate this sort of thing year after year. Get a hundred pages into Black Mass and you’ll see what I mean.

Norman has taken this idea apart and raises two basic objections. One is that there obviously has been some kind of progress, if you count liberal secularist frivolities like longer life expectancies, the extinction of terrifying diseases, the acceptance of democratic frameworks, individual liberties and human rights. The world is a better place in night and day differences compared to fifty years ago, never mind thinking in centuries. The second point Norm raises is that belief in progress doesn’t always have to be about grand sweeping millennarian ideas. I would bet that almost no one in the progress industry – politicians, aid workers, doctors, scientists – thinks of progress in this way. They just want to make a difference. Clearly, Gray wouldn’t oppose these small steps. But he doesn’t admit to that, perhaps because the admission would introduce qualification and nuance into his own grand theory, and people would pay less attention to him.

Gray has recently introduced something that’s almost hopeful, that jars with the smug chin-stroking tone of most of his work. That is the idea that we should focus on the here and now. As he says: ‘Without the faith that the future can be better than the past, many people say they could not go on. But when we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.’ This is all good, I’m all for living for today, in fact my main objection to religion is it treats lived life as a mere prelude to what comes after. But Norm’s ahead of both of us here, too, and points out that it’s a natural human impulse to look to the future and to plan for it. From his response:

However, as Gray is evidently resistant to this notion, perhaps I’ll just leave it at this: even if we were to listen to him and fasten our attention on the present, take meaning from the here and now, human beings seem to have an impulse to do things better – better next time than last time, avoiding that mistake, introducing this modification, and so on. They also, many of them, want good things for their children, sometimes better things than they had themselves or perceived they had. For these kinds of reason, living in the present already contains something of thinking about the future; the present can’t entirely shut the future out.

So if Gray’s really asking us to forget what’s up ahead, he’s fighting immutable human instinct in the same way that he accuses the critics of religion of so doing.

John Gray

‘It Is A Storm Indeed’: The Bell Jar

February 16, 2013

‘The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence,’ William Styron wrote in Darkness Visible, his short and devastating memoir of mental illness. ‘It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.’

‘A storm of murk’ captures perfectly the perceptions of Sylvia Plath’s surrogate narrator. ‘[W]herever I sat,’ Esther Greenwood believes, ‘on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’ Reading the novel is like looking at the world through thick curved gauze. The UN building outside her hotel is ‘a weird, green, Martian honeycomb.’ The audience in a cinema are ‘rapt little heads with the same silver glow on them at the front and the same black shadow on them at the back, and they looked like nothing more or less than a lot of stupid moon-brains.’ New York weather consists of a ‘tropical, stale heat’ interrupted by rain that ‘flew straight down from the sky in drops the size of coffee saucers and hit the hot sidewalks with a hiss that sent clouds of steam writhing up from the gleaming, dark concrete.’ Esther’s own face in the mirror resembles ‘the reflection in a ball of dentist’s mercury.’ The Bell Jar is full of dead fish, suspended babies, signifiers of age and resentment. Sylvia Plath is so much associated with the dramatic, the Byronic, intense and appealing side of mental illness. Here Plath shows us what the condition is really like – the loss of intellectual clarity, the mediocre distortions of life and the evil of banality amplified to unbearable levels. Who could forget that first line: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

Esther Greenwood is a nineteen year old scholarship girl who has won a kind of luxury New York magazine internship in the summer of 1953. Having worked hard all her young life, this pinnacle – sequestered in an all-female hotel, and ferried from one inane social function to the next ‘like a numb trolley-bus’ – doesn’t seem worth the effort, and this disillusionment, compounded by a sense that nothing better or different should be expected, leads to a catastrophic breakdown. Back at her mother’s house, she considers and rejects a series of increasingly wilder life plans (for anyone who’s been there, the tornado of indecision and helplessness in this scene is actually scary) before trying to kill herself. There follows a series of macabre vignettes in macabre comedy as Esther tries, and fails, to end her life in the conventional ways. Slice your wrists? No, she can’t find a free bathtub. Drown yourself in the sea? No, it’s too scary. Hang yourself? The knots are too complicated. These scenes are a comic acting out of Dorothy Parker’s ‘Resumé’:

Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.

After hitting on an almost successful method of self-slaughter – emptying a pill bottle in her mother’s basement – Esther is taken to a private asylum and there she recovers. After two hundred pages under the bell jar, Esther’s prose startles in its weight and clarity. She establishes control and freedom. But: ‘How did I know that someday – in college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?’ Christopher Hitchens pointed out that you can easily read Lolita from beginning to end ‘before noticing that in its ‘foreword’ —written not by the unreliable Humbert but by ‘John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.’—we learn that Lolita has died in childbirth. She’s over before she’s begun.’ Even creepier is the sense that we are ahead of Plath on this one. Early on in the novel we establishes that Plath/Greenwood is writing from a place of future safety – ‘I use the lipsticks now and then, and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with.’ Everyone knows one big thing about Sylvia Plath – that she killed herself in 1963 (a month after The Bell Jar’s UK publication.) We know that the bell jar will be back, to finish the job. We see this coming – but Plath doesn’t.

I have an image of Plath as a practical and very funny person. The beliefs and rituals of an asinine blueblood American elite take on a mordant hilarity through the bell jar’s refracted gaze. It is a hipsterish sensibility, waspish and irreverent, predating Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran by some half century. A highlight from Esther’s NYC jaunt:

They imported Betsy straight from Kansas with her bouncing blonde ponytail and Sweetheart-of-Sigma-Chi smile. I remember once the two of us were called over to the office of some blue-chinned TV producer in a pin-stripe suit to see if we had any angles he could build up for a programme, and Betsy started to tell about the male and female corn in Kansas. She got so excited about that damn corn even the producer had tears in his eyes, only he couldn’t use any of it, unfortunately, he said.

And here is Esther on her benefactress and deus es machina:

I had read one of Mrs Guinea’s books in the town library – the college library didn’t stock them for some reason – and it was crammed from beginning to end with long, suspenseful questions: ‘Would Evelyn discern that Gladys knew Roger in her past?’ wondered Hector feverishly’ and ‘How could Donald marry her when he learned of the child Elsie, hidden away with Mrs Rollmop on the secluded country farm? Griselda demanded of her bleak, moonlit pillow.’ These books earned Philomena Guinea, who later told me she had been very stupid at college, millions and millions of dollars.

And this, from a memory of Esther’s medical student boyfriend, who has taken her to ‘a lecture on sickle-cell anaemia and some other depressing diseases’:

One slide I remember showed a beautiful laughing girl with a black mole on her cheek. ‘Twenty days after that mole appeared the girl was dead,’ the doctor said, and everybody went very quiet for a minute and then the bell rang, so I never really found out what the mole was or why the girl died.

Esther’s ex is a nightmare of conformist male youth, sporty without being athletic, an aspiring doctor who shows little interest in the mysteries of the human body or the human heart. Naturally, Buddy Willard is the most popular boy in high school, and Esther admires him until they get together and she realises how little he really has to offer – by which time their respective parents are already speaking of marriage and childbirth. She only escapes this relationship when Buddy contracts TB, and is packed off to some rest-home in the Adirondacks: Esther gets on with college. ‘I simply told everyone that Buddy had TB and we were practically engaged,’ she relates, ‘and when I stayed in to study on Saturday nights they were extremely kind to me because they thought I was so brave, working the way I did just to hide a broken heart.’ This is the final para of chapter six, and there’s a wicked black humour in it. She’s like the kid at the end of Saki’s ‘Sredni Vashtar’ – while the servants wail about how they will tell the children, she helps herself to another piece of toast.

Part of Esther’s problem is the sense of being railroaded into conformity with a world not worth conforming with. ‘The Bell Jar restores the horror,’ Lionel Shriver wrote, and part of this horror is the horror of the white picket fence. Buddy takes her to watch a live birth, and Esther is horrified by the experience. It’s not just the obvious physical pain but the dead end of parenthood. Buddy tells her ‘in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.’ The suspended babies Buddy shows her, the births that didn’t quite make it, float in glass jars.

And compare Esther’s reflections on maternity painkillers:

Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn’t know what she was doing because she was in a kind of twilight sleep. I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.

… with her intuitions on electro-convulsive therapy:

I didn’t see how Doctor Nolan could tell you went to sleep during a shock treatment if she’d never had a shock treatment herself. How did she know the person didn’t just look as if he was asleep, while all the time, inside, he was feeling the blue volts and the noise?

Nineteen is a powerful and stormy age. The drudgery of family, community, and dreary jobs is hardly reason to look forward. And yet everyone else seems to accept it. Are they insane, or just asleep? After recovery, Esther wonders: ‘What was there about us, in Belsize, so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return? These girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort.’

A shame Plath checked out in ’63. Had she hung on another four years, she could have lived through the sexual revolution. And things are a lot more free and easy than in Esther Greenwood’s day. Still, for UK readers The Bell Jar provides insight and support to young people trying to make their way in a country run by the old that has written off its younger generations. And what would Plath have made of the situation faced by women in Europe’s Islamic communities, obliterated by the niqab, a opaque bell jar annihilating everything but the eyes? The Bell Jar remains a passionate instruction: don’t let anyone else set your expectations for you. Fifty years on, it is a storm indeed. The Bell Jar

The Castle of the High Faces

February 14, 2013

Also: this short story of mine has just been published at the Puffin Review.

The Heart of All Life

February 14, 2013

There’s a PhD scholarship going in crime fiction. I’m not going to be on it – I discussed my supporting statement with the academic lead and he said there was nothing in the essay about how I would challenge the conventions I’ve identified in the genre. Which is fair enough. I have no idea. I thought the essay might of interest to regular readers though, so have reproduced it below – MD

I forget the great thinker who said that there is more of life in the crime fiction genre than in the whole of philosophy. But it remains true. Crime is about transgression, and as Martin Amis said, transgression is at the heart of all life: out of dreams, desire, ambition, hate and love, everyone at some stage wants to step over the lines, and the possibilities for storytelling are endless. Crime fiction is the true radical genre. A single Raymond Chandler novel has more subversive potential than the entire canon of deconstructionist gamesmanship.

Here is the paradox. Why then has the British crime novel become a byword for conventionality and pedestrianism? Half a century on, the novels of Agatha Christie still form the template of the English murder. Up at the Harrogate crime festival last year (held in a towering hotel where the old girl was found after doing her disappearing act in the 1920s) I was struck by how many of the featured authors followed a predictable structure. The murder of an attractive young woman, rendered in portentous italics in the novel’s prologue, investigated by a slightly unconventional detective, who guides us through the hoops of double bluff, MacGuffin and red herring into a successful dénouement. This is comfort fiction, that speaks of Wiltshire cottages, open fires, stacks of library copies, acceptable thrills and happy resolutions. But, as Christopher Booker said of Christie’s novels, these resolutions always dissolve into a kind of emptiness, like the feeling you get after spending a hour completing a crossword. There is more than this out there.

The one new element in contemporary crime is the addition of a particularly masculine and driven male protagonist, who drinks too much, has chaotic relationships with younger women, gets in trouble with the bosses, doesn’t play it by the book but, goddamnit, gets results. The troubled cop with his love of the night and the open road is an obvious steal from Raymond Chandler, who captivated the world with his taciturn private eye, streetpounding through a dark and sensual world. Today’s genre writers pay the expected homage, but they fail to reach Chandler’s prose style (I watched a panel at Harrogate and was stunned by the novelists’ disregard for good language) much less appreciate the man’s complexities. Tom Williams’s excellent biography, Something Mysterious in the Light, portrays Chandler as a gentle and thoughtful man, a romantic intellectual in a popular art. He began as a poet, was educated at an English public school and developed friendships with literary Londoners of the 1930s. From his essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

Another line from that piece sums up the state of crime fiction today: ‘The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average – or only slightly above average – detective story does.’

The closest analogue to Chandler today is probably the Floridian writer Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen was an investigative reporter on the Miami Herald before being drawn into fiction in the 1980s. In journalistic yet lyrical prose Hiaasen spiels out long rambling novels set in his home state, featuring a few good guys up against a range of con-artists, exploiters, scammers, thieves, supremacists and corrupt officials of all professions. Hiaasen’s compulsive storytelling and baroque incident takes place against the natural Everglades beauty eaten, piece by piece, by property development and urban growth. When asked by the New Statesman if he considered himself a crime writer, Hiaasen replied that:

All novels are about crime. You’d be hard pressed to find any novel that does not have an element of crime. I don’t see myself as a crime novelist, but there are crimes in my books. That’s the nature of storytelling, if you want to reflect the real world.

Like Chandler, Hiaasen is essentially a muscular liberal with a moral code that informs every word in every line. The Hiaasen code is personified in his most memorable character, Clinton ‘Skink’ Tyree, an ex- state governor driven almost insane by despoliation and graft, who now lives a hermit’s life in deep wilderness, reading Baudelaire and Tennyson, eating crocodile from the national park, and possum from the roads. From Hiaasen’s latest, Star Island:

He’d fled the governor’s mansion with his values intact but his idealism extinguished, his patience smashed to dust. Politics had scrambled his soul much worse than the war, and he left behind in Tallahassee not only his name but the discredited strategy of forbearance and compromise. The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – hijacked by greedy suckworms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose.

Hiaasen’s focus on current affairs, and his many hilarious moments, leads most critics to describe him as a satirist. In fact, what Hiaasen writes is romance in the tradition of Mark Twain, even Thomas Wolfe.

Increasingly radicalism in crime fiction comes from television rather than the novel. The superiority of HBO series to contemporary fiction has been quietly acknowledged. The Wire in synopsis reads like a dull sociological essay, but it had more depth, humanity and emotion than a decade of Booker shortlists. A TV production can have more scope for risk than a  publisher focused on the book group, the supermarket sale and the bottom line. Beginning a US science fiction series, Salman Rushdie said that: ‘In television, the 60-minute series, The Wire and Mad Men and so on, the writer is the primary creative artist.’

One thing The Wire’s David Simon got right was to have at least half his story told from the point of view of the criminals. We then see that they are not one dimensional monsters or pallid victims, but people similar to ourselves who have been shaped by their life experience and by their own choices. It’s when the criminals are in charge that stories become addictive. As far back as the late nineties, HBO was screening Oz, a show set in a maximum security prison that followed a disparate range of convicts as they fought, schemed, pursued vendettas, and dreamed of escape. Creator Tom Fontana, when he pitched the idea, was told by HBO execs that ‘Your characters don’t have to be likeable. They just have to be compelling.’ That advice should hang in frames at every writer’s workstation.

Right now the intelligent audience is held by Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, about a bumbling middle aged eccentric who, after a terminal cancer diagnosis, makes a spectacular entry into the drug world with his high-powered blue meth. The premise is farfetched – an executive told creator Vince Gilligan that his pitch constituted ‘the single worst idea for a television show that I have heard in my whole life’ – but, in execution, it’s compelling and sometimes terrifying. Protagonist Walter White justifies every step into the darkness with the lie that he is simply trying to protect his family. But, as he delves deeper into the New Mexico crime scene, and rejects opportunity after opportunity to get out, we realise that darker motivations are at work. Walter White was once a top scientist, whose research contributed to Nobel prizewinning projects, but who has ended up teaching bored stoners in a local high school. From his point of view, the civilised world hasn’t recognised his talents and all that’s left is to fulfil them outside the system. He is like the narrator of Walt Whitman’s ‘The Learn’d Astronomer’, quoted in the series:

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

And there is a lesson for us there too. Crime writers don’t have to plod through the Harrogate procedural syllogisms. We can walk out of the panel discussion and gaze in perfect silence at the stars. The stories are out there, sprawled across the sky in radical profusions: they are all around us, waiting to be picked up.

thelearnedastronomer

(Image: tumblr)

Hemingway’s Shoes

February 4, 2013

One of the most famous short stories is just six words long. A great literary anecdote has Ernest Hemingway pioneering this immortal flash fiction:

Apparently, Ernest Hemingway was lunching at Luchow’s with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were ‘FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.’ A beginning, a middle and an end!

The story sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. A long exploration by the Quote Investigator blogger, who traces the provenance of famous literary quotations, found no evidence that the ‘baby shoes’ story was Hemingway’s original idea. Versions of it had appeared in different forms of public media, going back to the 1910s.

Flash fiction is popular with books editors, because it fills space, and not too much space to deter the casual reader. You can crowdsource it on Twitter, offer a prize and hey, that’s one part of the literary review that you don’t have to write. And it gets results. Extreme brevity can spark up flashes of genius. The principle of the unwritten – Hemingway’s iceberg – is fired up by radical constraint. I remember one day my timeline was full of some six-word-crime-novel competition, and some of the entries were scarier than anything from Søren Sveistrup or Jo Nesbo.

The downside of the flash fiction is that too often it reverts to a basic narrative arc. The obvious deduction from Hemingway’s ‘baby shoes’ story (not the only possible, but the one that immediately occurs) is that the unfortunate infant has died. It’s what Lee and Herring called the ‘pull back and reveal’ or ‘And then I got off the bus’ joke. Restriction of the form makes its content big and obvious. To illustrate what I mean, here’s what Jeffrey Archer came up with, when asked to write some 140-character ‘Twitter fiction’ for the Guardian:

‘It’s a miracle he survived,’ said the doctor. ‘It was God’s will,’ said Mrs Schicklgruber. ‘What will you call him?’ ‘Adolf,’ she replied.

Do you see? The baby is safe, which is great – but, oh no, he grows up to be Hitler! Archer has subverted your expectations and thence the literary magic arose. (I like that the master storyteller makes a point of identifying the mother as Mrs Schicklgruber, the old Hitler family name, before deciding that maybe this is too subtle and just really spelling it out for the Guardian’s witless readers.)

So I can understand then why the novelist Nicholas Royle told me that ‘twitter fiction is neither big nor clever. It’s not ambitious, not impressive and certainly not satisfying. In short, it’s bollo[cks].’ I have written flash fiction myself, but in retrospect, my flash stuff also relies too heavily on the pull back and reveal. And yet there’s possibilities here. Didn’t Faulkner say that the writer should be able to see the world in a grain of sand? I wonder how far down you can compress before you lose the capacity for narrative altogether. Maybe the ultimate flash story would just be an ‘=’ symbol?

So flash ain’t for everyone, and its best proponent is probably the Manchester writer David Gaffney. Get hold of his first collection, Sawn Off Tales, in which he creates glimpses with the scope of alternate worlds. And he does a killer last line. The one I’ll always remember is: ‘The publicist wouldn’t stop crying.’

hemingwayshoes

(Image: Dr Sean Kenniff)