Friday, 18 July 2014

Elizabeth Baines and Innovation

Often with authors whose writing I like I wonder why they're not better known. Elizabeth Baines is no exception. But I think she's had a good few months. Recently her work has

  • appeared in "Unthology 5"
  • appeared in "Best Short Stories 2014"
  • won 2nd prize in the Short Fiction magazine's competition

My awareness of her work goes back a long time. When I read "New Stories I" (an anthology edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes, I think, published around 1990) there was a short piece that I like so much I copied it by hand. Also I was a regular reader of Metropolitan an A4 glossy magazine of short stories that she edited with Ailsa Cox. It ceased publication in 1997 after 10 issues. I guess I didn't see her name around for a few years after that. Then came blogs and the publisher Salt, and I saw her name again.

Her publications are

  • A collection of short stories, "Balancing on the Edge of the World" (Salt, 2007). A story from there, "Compass and Torch" is on a GCSE course.
  • A novella, "Too Many Magpies" (Salt, 2009)
  • Her first novel, "The Birth Machine", published by "The Women’s Press" in 1983 and reprinted in 2010 by Salt
  • A novel, "Body Cuts" (Pandora, 1988)

Perhaps she hasn't published as many short-story collections as her peers (though she's won prizes for her stories and plays including a Giles Cooper Best Radio Play Award and received Sony radio nominations). Maybe that's because her career coincides with a downturn in the UK short-story's fortunes. Or maybe people have trouble pinning down her style. Short story writers like Jackie Kay seem to get more attention than her. I don't know why.

Innovative is a catch-all term. It's common for authors to think that they're more innovative than they really are. So much has been done before (sometimes by the authors themselves - Ali Smith's stories are beginning to re-use the same tricks). Novelty for the sake of it soon wears off. Importing something into novels that's already used in another field (diary entries, etc) is a rather weak form of innovation (though it may lead to useful work). Some stories that appear innovative to most of us are mimetic to others. Drugs and mental illness may lead to altered states of mind that are captured by a type of Realism that didn't used to fit well inside literature. Nowadays it's almost as if there's a literary genre for each malady - see for example Madness and Modernism by Louis A. Sass.

Baines is the author of the chapter ‘Innovative Fiction and the Novel’ in the "Creative Writing Handbook", ed John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (Macmillan) so her take on novelty is worth attending to. Over 30 pages long, the chapter includes about 20 pages about collaborative exercises to encourage innovation. She points out that

  • "If our view of ourselves and our world radically changes, then it might be expected that the stories we tell about ourselves will also change, and the way that we tell them" (p.129)
  • "there is this sense now in the West that things are different from how they've ever been before" (p.131)

She suggests that instead of omniscience there's often nowadays a "literature of voices", and that there "has been a concern to expose the constructed nature of both history ... and fiction itself". I think that describes some of her own stories. Elsewhere too she's voiced concerns with language and style -

  • From The Real Thing - "when I pick up a novel that doesn't stretch the form or do exciting things with language, I am overcome by a claustrophobic sense of unreality, the sense of being half awake and unable to shake off an old, recurring, stifling dream. When I read a good novel that does the opposite, overturns my narrative expectations or uses language in new ways, then all at once I feel in touch with something true about our human condition and the nature of the fluid, changing, fragmentary world in which we live. I feel in touch with reality. I feel alive. I tell you, it's the real thing"
  • From an interview - "I’d say that a big aspect of writing for me is the tension between pushing the boundaries and pleasing readers who, in my experience, are generally more comfortable with the conventional. Being inventive with language and structure is what I find exciting … sometimes it’s only by finding new or different ways of telling stories that you can show the truth as you see it. However, I’ve become increasingly aware of the need to find ways of doing this without alienating too many readers."

That final point is something that I (and some of my friends) empathize with. The pieces I like most from her story collection are "Leaf Memory", "A Glossary of Bread" (based around definitions of words for "roll"), and "Going Back" (shades of Woolf). Within these texts is the world recognisably this world? Yes. Are there characters? Yes. Can one identify with them? Yes. Is there a fixed sequence in which to read the pieces? Yes.
It's not language-based Formalism, or chance-based. She doesn't write pieces like Lydia Davis, Beckett, or like Guy Ware's "All Downhill from Here", or like many of Jon McGregor's pieces in "This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You". But neither are they mainstream. Here are summaries of 3 stories that aren't in her book

  • In "Falling" (East of the Web) the character falls 3 times. The falls seem to relate to feelings of insecurity - doubts about her boyfriend and her self. After the 3rd, she wonders if she'd died after the 1st, whether she was dreaming. Or maybe she'd died after the 2nd fall. Or maybe she died in the 3rd episode, an observer not wanting to see a death, wondering if he was dreaming.
  • In "Tides or how Stories do or don't get told" (East of the Web) there's much reflexive comment - "And I can't yet see how to tell the story, or where to go from that moment ... I could pick the time he betrayed me. ... I could tell that story, the time it ended between us. I could make it a feminist re-telling of a fairy tale ... once ... he nearly died. I could tell that last too, as a complete and rounded story ... Would I mention my sense then that nothing had meaning and that my life after all was no story, or would I lie, since he recovered, and make those symbols fit a narrative arc with a happy ending? ... We joined hands in the dark, in the oncoming rush of all the possible stories". There's confusion about feeling when recalling an event and feeling at the time of the event.
  • In "Used to Be" (Carve magazine) two middle-aged sisters are on their way to an amateur film-set. "I used to be a writer who decided for her characters what they were thinking. ... I used to write in measured sentences ... I used to hide behind the third person ... I no longer trust metaphors ... I used to believe in plots". The author/narrator is also a reader, having to assess the veracity of her sister's stories, and of her own story - "in spite of what narrative so often tells us, nothing, including our personalities, is stable, but fluid". The journey of bridges and missed turnings becomes a metaphor ("And flashing past with the bridges are all my selves") then becomes another story to tell when they arrive at the set. Her sister suddenly takes her role seriously, identifying with the part - "the tyranny of stories, the way they take you over with their own internal logic and their pull towards drama, you say one thing and the story turns it into something else".

In each of these pieces, betrayal by a partner (or suspicion of it) comes to echo a distrust of reality. Selective memories are used in the construction of self. As psychologists have shown (see for example Mind, Brain and Narrative by Anthony J. Sanford and Catherine Emmott (CUP, 2012)), similar mechanisms are used when comprehending a story - its shape, its message, its characters. Narratology becomes tantamount to self-analysis. Storylines are reconstructed, exploiting defects in memory and awareness. In this sense, her stories' structural novelties are character-based. The epicentre of disruption is inside a character even if it manifests itself as perturbed language, or as linguistic certainties of definition contrasting with the willed vaguaries of recall. I think this emphasis helps her avoid alienating too many readers. Even when she's not being innovative she's good at depicting characters.

She's well aware of how commercial pressures affect works - she thinks of her "The Birth Machine" as being in 2 forms, the differing structures targeted towards certain audiences. In her Unthank interview she says that "I guess there's a current popularity for weird and quirky stories, and flash fiction is certainly having a moment". As far as I know she doesn't do much Flash, and she's not devoted to the weird. In "Balancing on the Edge of the World" middle class people dominate, usually in English urban settings. Separated parents with children are often depicted using a female PoV. Early on in the stories we're introduced to all the cast. There are few loners or loonies. There's little about death - no first loves, no punchlines. The originality's in the form, the language.

The major publishers may not welcome innovative novels, but there's room in magazines for non-standard stories. It can't do any harm that Nicholas Royle, who trawls the magazines for "Best Short Stories" material, has had an innovative novel published. On her Other work page she writes "My advice to anyone thinking of starting up a print lit mag is, Don't, unless, like me, you've got an unstoppable compulsion to do so and you're a workaholic. And do it for a limited period only, unless you've got a private income (you don't get paid to do it) and nothing else to do with your life.". Though she's no longer a magazine editor, she's well aware of the magazine scene, not least the online ones - "East of the Web", "The View from here", etc. Perhaps it's in these publications, rather than in novels, where we should look for innovation. See her short story page for a list of what might be in her next book.

Further reading

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