Friday 7 July 2023

Repetition in Paul Stephenson's 'Hard Drive'

Paul Stephenson's noted for his use of forms. The forms aren't often traditional. The most common device is repetition of words/phrases. I'm rather allergic to repetition, so I thought I'd focus on this aspect of his work. Here, after an introduction borrowed from another article of mine, I'll list some examples from "Hard Drive" and try to classify them.


According to Tannen, "Repetition ... is the central linguistic meaning-making strategy, a limitless resource for individual creativity and interpersonal involvement" ("Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue and Imagery in Conversational Discourse", CUP, 1989). Various technical terms are described on the Wikipedia page on rhetorical repetition (Anaphora - repetition at the start of lines, Epistrophe - repetition at the end of each clause, etc). The list of effects below comes from Al Filreis' Repetition page and elsewhere.

  • Sound/ritual - "Primitive religious chants from all cultures show repetition developing into cadence and song" (Filreis)
  • Providing structure - "a refrain, which serves to set off or divide narrative into segments, as in ballads, or, in lyric poetry, to indicate shifts or developments of emotion. Such repetitions may serve as commentary, a static point against which the rest of the poem develops, or it may be simply a pleasing sound pattern to fill out a form." (Filreis)
  • Unifying - "As a unifying device, independent of conventional metrics, repetition is found extensively in free verse, where parallelism (repetition of a grammar pattern) reinforced by the recurrence of actual words and phrases governs the rhythm which helps to distinguish free verse from prose" (Filreis)
  • Emphasis of the succeeding phrase - "Sometimes the effect of a repeated phrase in a poem will be to emphasize a development or change by means of the contrast in the words following the identical phrases" (Filreis)
  • Indicating closure - the final line being a repetition of the first or penultimate line
  • Generating expectation - which can lead to surprize
  • Backtracking - an indication that a path of enquiry has ended (failed), that one has to go back and try again
  • Habitualisation - In "Flesh and Blood Repetition and Obscurity in Gothic Poetry" (Sara Deniz Akant, Wesleyan University) it's suggested that a way of making the strange familiar is to repeat it - "poetic repetition does not aim to provide the reader with a resolving grasp on something that is obscure, but rather to make its inherent obscurity a continual source of his pleasure."
  • Sheer pleasure - In "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" Freud wrote that "repetition, the re-experiencing of something identical, is clearly in itself a source of pleasure."
  • Emphasising the significance of context over content - Because of context, the 2nd occurrence of a phrase won't have the same meaning as the 1st (in villanelles but also with "and miles to go before I sleep")
  • Contrasting with change - In "Nietzsche and Philosophy", Gilles Deleuze distinguishes between Platonic repetition (which effects semblance and strives towards unity) and Nietzschean repetition (emphasizing divergence and difference). Repetition is part of the "same/different" binary that drives narrative. Narrative stands between repetition (where the text is the same) and random juxtaposition (where there's no repetition). Narrative keeps some things the same (the context, the characters, etc) while changing something else. The longer the sequence where the division between mutable and non-mutable remains stable, the more likely the sequence will be considered as narrative - foreground against background.

Monet and Warhol are amongst the artists who have produced series of similar works. Monet's paintings of haystacks and Rouen cathedral emphasise the differences. Warhol's repetitions sometimes dilute the image's meaning.

There are attendant risks. As with many rhetorical devices (but especially those used by preachers and politicians) repetition can evoke distrust in readers. Beginners use much repetition - once end-rhyme is rejected it's one of the easier ways to sound poetic, to carry on when you've run out of things to say. It might be merely verbose, unnecessary - first-draft scaffolding. It's used by people who used to write short poems but now want to write longer ones - each repetition is like a new start. It can give fragments spurious unity - the repeated pegs on a clothes line of imagery. It's a way to induce trance. It can degenerate into sing-song echolalia. Or it can be plain boring.


In Lexical Repetition in American Poetry Alan H Pope points out that repetition is commonly used. In "Ariel", Plath uses reiteration in 23 of the 40 poems. In Stevens' "Harmonium" at least 26 poems use repetition (6 begin and end with the same line/stanza). Stevens' longer poems (and some of Eliot's) repeat a central argument or statement (each time with perhaps a different, more complete understanding). Poets with oratory styles - Ginsburg in "Howl" for example - exploit repetition.

Helen Dunmore's Glad of these times uses it. "The Art of Falling" by Kim Moore (Seren, 2015) has much too. For example, the first 7 couplets "In That Year" begin with "And in that year". The 8th and final couplet is "And then that year lay down like a path/ and I walked it, I walked it, I walk it". It's also used by less mainstream poets - see for example "We needed coffee but ..." by Matthew Welton (Carcanet, 2009)

Hard Drive

Roughly, I'd classify the poems that use repetition as follows -

Psychological realism

  • "The Thesis"
    It was June and I had to see a student.
    A Tuesday morning and I had to see several students.
    I knew something was wrong.
    I called and asked a friend for help.
    I was far away, and I had to see a student.

    She said she'd go round and ring the bell.
    I tried to listen to the mouth of the student.
    He or she was seeking my approval.
    I knew something was wrong.
    It was June and I was seeing a student
    (and so on for 2 more stanzas)

The repetition works for me here. It's used in a standard way, as it might be in literary prose. It's 'backtracking', 'contrasting with change'.

Lists and Tables

  • "On mailing a lock of his hair to America, belatedly"
    Would his hair be worth it?
    Would his hair provide comfort?
    Would his hair cause upset?
    (and so on for 10 lines)
  • "We weren't married, he was my civil partner"
    By which I mean in the past.
    By which I mean mine, belonging to me.
    By which I mean one night came into my life.
    (and so on for 15 lines)
  • "Cause (2016)"
    Soft heart failure/ Hard heart failure/ Short, sharp heart failure /
    Rich heart failure/ Poor heart failure / Clean heart failure /
    (and so on for 15 lines)
  • "Better verbs for scattering"
    To dizzywind the ashes
        To kindrelease the ashes
            To roxette the ashes
    (and so on for 8 stanzas)
  • "Other people who died at 38"
    include the Thracian Gladiator, Spacticus
    and Roman Emporer, Lucius Verus

    include the painter Caravaggio
    and the painter, Dora Carrington
    (and so on for 5 more stanzas)
  • "Grief as two sides of the Atlantic ocean"
    This side me. That side them.
    This side ten o'clock. That side five.
    This side mobile. That side cell.
    This side pub. That side bar
    This side getting on with it. That side too.
    This side telling everyone. That side no one.

I have more trouble with this category (maybe because I'm wary of list poems as well as repetition!). I'd rather "On mailing a lock of his hair to America, belatedly" were less verbosely a list

Would his hair
  • be worth it?
  • provide comfort?
  • cause upset?
I'd rather "Grief as two sides of the Atlantic ocean" were more overtly a table - making it a page piece, but many of the other pieces already are
This side That side
me them
10am 5am

Why does "Other people who died at 38" bother using the word "include"? Why are there stanza breaks?

Borrowed forms

  • "A prayer for death admin"
    For the message received to establish contact
    and being the designated representative;
    For the formal letter of authorization
    and acting on behalf in matters regarding.
    (and so on for 12 lines)
  • "Grief as the preamble of the Maastricht treaty"
    RESOLVED to establish a day-to-day routine as part of coping

    RESOLVED to implement a policy of continuation in order to promote peace of mind,
    anxiety reduction and sleep
    PAUL STEPHENSON, Minister for Regret and If Only
    (3 pages)

Here the repetition come from the form that's being re-used in popular hermit-crab fashion. I like both the pieces - the first for the contrast of form and content, the second for the combination of emotion and effect - not least humour. Admin as a prop, as pseudo-communication, is an abiding theme in the book.


  • "The hymn of him"
    The app of him, the bop of him, the cap,
        the cop of him, the cup of him, the dip;
    the fop of him, the gap of him, the hip,
        the hop of him, the jip of him, the lap.
    (a sonnet)
  • "Namesake"
    Tod not Todorov. Tod not Tzvetan, son of Todor Todorov Borov and Haritan (nee Peeva)
    Todorova. Tod not Todorov. Not born in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria
    (and so on for 20 lines
  • "St. Pancras"
    I want my time with you
        for a coffee in St. Pancras.

    I wanted my time with you
        over coffees in St. Pancras.
    (and so on, more or less, for 4 more stanzas)
  • Putting it out there - 22 lines, 21 uses of "death" - "worrying myself to death/ about commodifying your death ... check your death for typos ... wait for a box with hard copies of your death ... told how well your death has sold" - death ending up as the book. On one line that lacks the word "death", "it" replaces the word. I don't see why, if "it" is used in one line, it can't be used in more.

I like the idea of "The hymn of him" but the poem runs out of worthwhile one-syllable rhyming words. If the idea is that the poem carries on anyway, I'm not convinced. I don't think I get what the other two are trying to do.


  • "Nurture"
    I was raised as a tomato in a tomato shaped house.
    My bedroom walls were tomato red, the carpet too.

    I was shy, didn't play much with the other tomatoes
    and locked myself away cataloguing my tomatoes.
    Weekdays, I'd run and catch an early tomato.
    My favourite subject was Tomato. I was good at it.
    (and so on for 14 lines)
  • I've seen others use this device. I enjoyed the poem while thinking that it's not hard to do.

  • "Relationship as covered reservoir"
    All the years close to water. By a bulk of water. The hulk of water. Flat water.
    Still water. Being water. Water in the dark. Oblivious water. Obviously   water.
    (and so on for 20 lines)
  • I'm puzzled by this one. The text is aligned on both sides so that the text is a rectangle, like a reservoir.

Tuesday 1 November 2022

Genre-bending talk/workshop

Today’s going to be a mix of light and heavy items, of interactive and chalk-and-talk items. Genre’s a slippery topic, so we’re going to tackle it from various angles, taking it by surprise. Roughly,

  • We’ll discuss Definitions and Classifications
  • We’ll look at a few genres
  • We’ll look at mixing genres in a practical way
  • We’ll look in more detail at particular examples of genre-mixing
  • We’ll predict the next trend

I’ll begin with a quote - "communication is impossible without the agreed codes of genre" ("A history of English literature", Fowler, 1989, p.216). Is genre really that important? We’re going to have to start by discussing what genre is, according to various people


[Discussion] First, shout out some genres (single ones; we’ll deal with mixes later) -
...Answers might be classified under -
  • Subject matter - [romance, thriller, horror, sci-fi, chicklit.]
  • Length - novel?
  • Type - poetry? Autobiography? Poetry book in autobiography section?
What about “book club”? “cozy mystery”, “grimdark”?

I’ve seen some magazine guidelines that say “No Genre Fiction”. What does that mean? It’s as if Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction were 2 different … genres. I can see how this distinction is possible to make between, say, Joyce’s Ulysses and Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, but much of the time such a distinction is hard to make – a well-written whodunnit – maybe The Name of the Rose – is literary too.

Here’s a second approach towards definitions - Wittgenstein wrote that before you start making definitions, you need to understand why you’re making them. Definitions of “Adult” depend on the context. So do definitions of “Woman” (Olympics, writing competitions, Miss World, etc). So let’s ask what’s the point of having genres? Who make the rules? Who benefits?

  • Bookshops (and book-buyers)
  • Anthologisers and competition judges
  • Readers – so they know what to expect. Critics/reviewers should identify genre before criticising - “good of its type”
  • Any help to writers? - Genre helps writers to be experimental in a reader-friendly way, giving them familiar scaffolding. "The effect which many identify with the Postmodern is produced by defeating readers' generic expectations." - Thomas O. Beebee, "The Ideology of Genre".

Even if you don’t want to be confined by genres, we live in a genred world so it’s worth being aware of trends.

A third option is to look at genre lists that various organisations produce

  • Cambridgeshire Libraries have icons - Thriller (Revolver), Crime (Handcuff), Science Fiction (Rocket), Fantasy (castle), Romance (House), Horror (??), SS (short stories), ...
  • Amazon has many, including -
    • Romance – Romantic Comedy, Historical Romance, New Adult
    • Historical
    • Crime, Thrillers and Mystery – British Detectives, Thrillers, Mystery
    • Science Fiction and Fantasy - Science Fiction, Fantasy
  • Literally stories has - Crime/Thriller/Mystery, Fantasy, General Fiction, Historical, Horror, Humour, Romance, Science Fiction.
Some genres (like Crime/Thriller/Mystery above) get bundled together into single categories. "Lord of the Rings" is nothing like "2001 a space odyssey". But SF and Fantasy are often shelved together, as you can see from the shop sign in Stockholm. Strangely however, you won’t find Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro on Fantasy/SF shelves because they're too literary. That's why authors sometimes use different names when writing in different genres – e.g. writing mainstream fiction as Iain Banks and science fiction as Iain M. Banks.


Can we do better than Amazon? Is there a hierarchy? What I mean is when you define what type of thing a Shetland Pony is, it’s in the genus Equus in the family Equidae in the class Mammalia, etc. Is there a similar taxonomy for literature? What’s at the root?

The trouble with this approach is that SF/Erotica and Erotica/SF are same. What we need is not really a tree, but a grid, with Column headings SF, Erotica, etc. and Row headings SF, Erotica, etc. So you can have a cell for the sexy astronauts. But suppose they’re gay? We really need a 3D spreadsheet. At least.

We could go on trying to define. People have tried to establish clearer uses of the word “genre”, restricting its meaning and using “mode”, “style” etc to describe other aspects of a text, but it’s never caught on. So I think we’re stuck with genre.

It’s all a bit of a mess. Definitions only take you so far, which is why people still look in the vegetable section for tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s also why agents like comps – comparison titles – books that are like yours in style, thus bypassing the definitions problem.

That said, although “genre” is fuzzy, I think it’s still useful. It helps me decide where to browse in bookshops. And many books fall clearly into some genre or other. Which is good news, otherwise we couldn’t discuss genre-bending.

Guess the Genre

OK, so let’s apply our genre-identification skills. I’ll just you the first sentence or two of a book (maybe the final sentence too), and you tell me the genre -
    • This would be the last time Matilde visited town before the killings broke out in earnest.
    • Oh, and thanks to you, too, Mom. You’re the absolute best, as well.
    (“Ghosts” GX Todd) (Gun)
    • A poor widow once lived in a little cottage, in front of which grew two rose trees.
    • They stood in front of her window, and every year they bore the loveliest of red and white roses
    (Snow White and Rose Red, Grimm brothers )
    • The day had started out well for Sergeant Hamish Macbeth
    • Hamish grinned. He had a feeling that something good had come his way at last
    (“Death of an Honest Man” MC Beaton)
    • ‘Why does he have to live in a cave?’ Cayle muttered rebelliously as she and Zist waited impatiently outside.
    • The music they make is compassion, and their song is for all Pern
    (“Dragon’s Fire” Annie and Todd McCaffrey)
    • I am a lawyer. I am in prison. It’s a long story
    • When everything is inside, we exchange high fives and jump in the ocean
    (“The Racketeer” John Grisham)
    • It began quietly
    • Wonders to explore
    (“Eater” Gregory Benford (SF Thriller))
    • Daddy had been away for two years, and now he was back again! Mummy smiled all day long, and the three children were happy too
    • Goodbye, little Caravan Family. We hope you’ll have lots more fun!
    (“The Caravan Family”, Enid Blyton)

That was a bit more than a game. It’s useful to know how to quickly make readers think that a text belongs to a particular genre, because then you can surprise them. For example, you can flick into fairy-tale mode when a character reminisces about an old romance.

Genres of famous books

I’m going to give you book titles and you’re going to tell me the genre

  • "Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy" – SF + Humour. But not real SF. Hard SF. SF Purists?
  • "Neuromancer" (William Gibson)
  • "The Time Traveler’s Wife" (Audrey Niffenegger)
  • "Harry Potter" – YA/Adult (different cover)
  • "Old Testament" – fact/fiction? poetry/prose (abcedarian) The Lamentation of Jeremiah
  • "Panto" (comedy, satire, romance)
  • "Hunger Games" (Suzanne Collins)
  • anything by WG Sebold (Fact/fiction - CNF)
  • "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" (Susanna Clarke) - “Clarke’s epic alternative historical novel imagines 19th century England if magic, (and more importantly, magicians) existed openly. Part fantasy, part pastiche, part realist historical novel, part romance”

Making new genres, part I

Having noted earlier some different ways of using the word “genre” (not just subject matter), I’d better mention how genre in the the sense of length/style is fluid. There have been some recent developments

  • free verse so free that it’s prose. Increasingly, poetry books contain undisguised prose
  • Haibun
  • Vikram Seth – The Golden Gate (590 sonnets)
  • short story collection or novel? "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan , "Olive, Again" by Elizabeth Strout, etc.
  • Novella-in-Flash – newest addition

Making new genres, part II

Basing on biology/evolution -

  • mutation – change one feature
  • arrested development - sketch. Flash? Neoteny. My “List of Characters” piece
  • new habitat – put cowboys and indians in space
  • chimera/blends – rare in biology except at a low level. The most contrived blend I’ve heard about was when an editor make a list of bad gangs of people – pirates, etc – and a list of novels that were out of copyright – “War and Peace”, etc - and tried to find a combination that worked, keeping as much of the novel as possible. The result, written by Seth Grahame-Smith and published in 2009, was “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. One critic said that it was 85% Austen, 15% Grahame-Smith and 100% terrible, but it sold well and was made into a film.

    It seems quite easy to spawn new sub-genres. Magic Realism, Historical whodunnit, Rom-Com, Dark Comedy, “rural psychedelia” (Tom Cox). Faction. No sooner did “Gothic” establish itself than we got “American Gothic”, “Seaside Gothic”, etc. In 2019 Northern Gothic (Liverpool, etc) was trendy. The same splitting up happened to Gay fiction. Since Harry Potter Magic has been mixed with ever more things – e.g.“Rivers of London” – magic + whodunnit, etc).

    The rule seems to be that a new mix (e.g. “Zombie comedy”) is hard to sell. If you go to an agent saying your book is unique, you won’t have a chance. You may have to wait for a break-through novel before pitching your work in a new genre.

  • Hermit crab
    Exercise - Write down some standard formats for texts (recipe, shopping list, horoscope, etc).
    List some standard plots.
    A “Hermit crab” text is when content slips into the shell of another form. E.g. GCSE Science Experiment to Test the Durability of a Chemical Bond between Romeo and Juliet (Hannah Wood)
    Try some combinations. Sketch the plot.

An example of genre-mixing – Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall

How do you avoid a mash-up becoming mush? I think it’s sensible to mix no more than 2 genres, and maybe it’s better to have one of the genres dominating. "The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" mixes 2 genres though it's much more comedy than SF - Adams would do anything for a laugh. In other works the balance is more delicate. Stuart Turton said that the test readers of his “Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” thought that there was too much sci-fi so to satisfy reader expectations he added in some conventional whodunnit structure. He reckons the final version is 80% mystery and 20% sci-fi.

Literary writers have similar issues dealing with readers’ expectations. As an example I'll look at Sarah Hall's "Mrs Fox" which won the 2013 National Short Story Award and has been frequently reprinted. We're introduced to a working childless couple at the end of a day - meal, bed and sex. A day or so later the wife, in the course of half a page, turns into a fox. He deals with the practical consequences. She leaves. Later he regularly goes to see the partnerless fox with cubs in the wood. Will he have to let her go completely? The end.

The genre? Magic realism? I guess so. But what can go wrong with Realism? What can go wrong with Magic?

  • The power of a realistic story would be destroyed if the protagonist could just use magic to get what they want - no struggle, no empathy.
  • How does the author stop the magic becoming a slippery slope (why doesn’t he change too?), and the magic being reduced to realism (i.e. hallucination, madness, illness – it’s all a dream)?

She carefully chooses the narrative voice, and anticipates the reader’s objections. It’s a tricky balancing act.

The Realism aspect dominates. She keeps the magic to half a page. Unrealistically he doesn't freak out (but then, nor does Kafka's metamorphed man). At first he tries to keep her as a pet. He tells neighbours and her workplace that she's left him. Fair enough, but there's no mention of curious friends or relatives - a gaping plot loop-hole.

The fairy tale element is strengthened by a lack of worldly detail. We never discover the man’s name or what work they did.

There are compromises. Yet readers go along with the story. Many are moved by it. They understand the rules of the game. The advantage of the magical element is that the situation can be applied to any relationship where one partner changes (has mental problems or out-grows the relationship, or dies) and the other partner has to cope, has to decide how his love will adapt - will he let her go?

The narrative voice tries to steer readers away from disbelief of both the realistic and mythic elements, it tries to counter objections. Actually there are two narrative voices blended together - his realistic point-of-view and a detached, more mythic/meta viewpoint. For example, before any magic, there's this - Her pubic hair is harsh when it dries; it crackles against his palm, contrasts strangely with what's inside. A mystery he wants to solve every night. There are positions they favour, that feel and make them appear unusual to each other. The trick is to remain slightly detached. The trick is to be able to bite, to speak in a voice not your own.

In a realistic story, the man might query his sanity. In a more intellectual meta-story he might think he's trapped in a fable. The author tries to pre-empt both of these possible reader expectations. After the wife becomes a fox, he locks her in the house, and researches in the library, wonders whether he's mad. Then

He returns home with medical texts and a slender yellow volume from the twenties. There is little correlation to myth.

An extra layer is introduced here - the "slender yellow volume" is likely to be "Lady into Fox", David Garnett's 1922 novella, whose plot points Hall knew. I presume she wants readers to know that she knew. At the end of Hall's story

He has given up looking for meaning ... One day, Sophia might [...] enter the kitchen and sit at the table. I dreamt of the forest again, she will say ... To watch her run into the edgelands, breasting the ferns and scorching the fields, to see her disappear into the void - no - how could life mean anything without his unbelonging wife?

His lack of panic (which at first seemed unrealistic – something the author had to do to make the fantasy angle work) and undemonstrative, slightly detached (though sincere) love may be the very factors that made her leave him. The conflict of genres replicates the difference between the two people.

Predicting the next genre trend

When researching I noticed that genres come and go. Here are some details and opinions that might give us insights into future trends -

  • Historical -
    • "The historical novel flourished in the mid-20th century but it went completely out of fashion", Alison Weir, "Writing Magazine (June 2018)"
  • Romance - Romance is the most profitable genre, according to Ferah Heron. It’s price-sensitive - E-books caused an increase. Bridgerton (Netflix. Color!). Definition? It needs 2 people falling in love and a happy ending. Harlequin needs that meeting to happen very early, and has other timing requirements. In "Romance: Find your pigeonhole" Jess Morency, Writing Magazine" (March 2022) it says
    • "Regency romance is a complete genre in its own right ... and there's now comedy Regency too" Linda Hill
    • “I think [chick lit] died in the 1990s" Anne Williams. “In the 1990s, "publishers were asking authors to transcribe books from first to third person as the former was seen as 'too chick lit'” - Jenny Bent
  • Horror - Horror boomed in the 1970s and 1980s before collapsing in the 1990s because of lurid covers and video nasties. Overtaken by “paranormal romance” … So people renamed it “psychological thriller”, weird fiction (Writing Magazine, 2018).
  • Crime
    • “the detective story proper only begins with Edgar Allan Poe and his Chevalier Dupin” (Peter Hutchinson).
  • Autofiction – Started in 1977.
  • Uplit – a hit in 2021.
  • Flash – It’s been around forever – the bible and before – but in 1992 it acquired a catchy name and has carved a niche. It's reclaiming material from other niches (free form poetry, etc), and has periodicals specialising in Historical Flash, etc,
  • Fan-fic – less a genre, more a lifestyle. All genres are there, and mash-ups are the norm. #crossover is the simplest I suppose. There’s #Drarry for the sub-genre involving Draco and Harry Potter relationships.

I conclude that -

  • If market trends change, you may not need to change your text - just say it's in a newer genre.
  • It's sometimes not too hard to adapt a text to keep up with market trends (as with chick-lit)
  • The Flash bandwagon is worth jumping on. You may already have written some without realising

Where are the clues for guessing the next trend?

  • Films? - But StarWars didn’t help SF novels
  • World events? - Covid? Do we really want a load of killer plague books? But maybe readers want escapism (cottage core) or whodunnits set during the Great Plague, or stories where doctors are heroes.
  • Best-sellers – Urban Fantasy? Will Richard Osman’s success encourage cosy crime? I’m afraid so.
  • Minority stats – In 2018, out of over 4,500 SFF books published only 5 were by UK BAME writers! Surely that situation will change. Fast change is possible - in the 2010s only 2% of children’s authors were BAME. Now it’s 20%.

Or maybe try things at random -

Exercise: Can everything be mixed with everything else? Let’s play Mix’n’Match (use earlier offered genres)
I think Film-noir + Comedy is tricky. So is Slapstick + anything.


Most places accept genre mashups. In particular Bending Genres Journal - “We seek thrilling, fanciful, oddball, unusual, stunning fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction pieces.Think Olympics on a case of Red Bull. Think October in April. Think Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey. … A world not quite right? Yes, that is Bending Genres.”


  • Sometimes you have to stick to the tried and trusted genre rules. If you intend writing a series (and many genre writers do) it would be silly not to
  • Genres are often mixed. Readers are usually fairly adaptable. The problem is not so much the quality of your writing as the timing of your book release. The first example of a new genre-combination may have trouble. After that it gets easier.
  • Is any combination possible? Looks rather like it. And more than 2 genres can be mixed. My guess is that it’s easier to mix genres in longer pieces. But Alex Davis (in Writing Magazine, March 2022) wrote "Short story readers tend to be a bit more amenable to writers playing with genre and doing things differently - novels have a different readership and are prone to different market forces. ... But short stories are an accepted place for experimentation, and as such you can merrily blend genres or indeed move your tale from one genre to another"

I began with a quote, so I'll end with one by Erica Wright- “Genre’s just a vehicle. Drive it like you stole it”

See Also

Tuesday 5 April 2022

"Mrs Fox" by Sarah Hall - compromised genres

"The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" mixes genres though it's much more comedy than SF - Adams would do anything for a laugh. In other works the balance is more delicate. As an example I'll look at Sarah Hall's "Mrs Fox" which won the 2013 National Short Story Award and has been frequently reprinted. We're introduced to a working, childless couple returning home in the evening - meal, bed and sex. After a day or so of morning sickness the wife, in the course of half a page, turns into a fox. He deals with the practical consequences. Later he regularly goes to see the partnerless fox with cubs in the wood. Will he have to let her go? The end.

The genre? I guess it's Magic realism. But how does the author stop the magic undercutting the realism, and the magic being reduced to mere hallucination?

The realism aspect is hard to sustain, though the author tries. The author keeps the magic to half a page. Surprisingly, the man doesn't freak out (but then, nor does Kafka's metamorphed man). At first he tries to keep her as a pet. He tells neighbours and her workplace that she's left him. Fair enough, but there's no mention of curious friends or relatives - a gaping plot loop-hole.

The fairy tale element is strengthened by a lack of worldly detail. We never discover the man’s name or what jobs they did. However the fox acts more like a pet than a human. And there's no obvious happy ending or moral.

So neither genre is sound. Yet readers go along with the story. Many are moved by it. The advantage of the magical element is that the situation can be applied to any relationship where one partner changes (has mental problems or out-grows the relationship, or dies) and the other partner has to cope, has to decide how his love will adapt - will he let her go?

The narrative voice tries to steer readers away from disbelief of both the realistic and mythic elements. Actually this task is performed by two blended voices - one from his point-of-view (in whose context the realism seems plausible), and a detached, more mythic/meta viewpoint (which makes the magic seem appropriate). For example, before any magic, there's this -

Her pubic hair is harsh when it dries; it crackles against his palm, contrasts strangely with what's inside. A mystery he wants to solve every night. There are positions they favour, that feel and make them appear unusual to each other. The trick is to remain slightly detached. The trick is to be able to bite, to speak in a voice not your own.

We're told little about either of them - myth is diluted by too much unsymbolic detail. We're told that she had "some kind of mass removed, through an opened abdomen", that she has a job and leaves the house untidy. She was once unfaithful. After her transformation their cleaner lets herself in. He pushes her out with such urgency that she thinks he's crazy. In a realistic story, the man might indeed query his sanity (thus normalising the story). In a more intellectual meta-story he might think he's a character trapped in a fable. The author tries to anticipate both of these possible reader expectations using the protagonist's viewpoint. He locks the fox in the house and researches in the library, wondering whether he's mad.

He returns home with medical texts and a slender yellow volume from the twenties. There is little correlation to myth. He is no thwarted love. Most upsetting is the repetition of one aspect: an act of will.

So if myths are to be believed, she's not afflicted - she has chosen to become "other" to him. The "slender yellow volume" is likely to be "Lady into Fox", David Garnett's 1922 novella, whose plot points Hall knew. She wants readers to know that she's read it.

Where do our sympathies lie, and do they change in the course of the story? He worries about her, and following the transformation the fox sits at the man's feet. When trapped inside the house, the fox doesn't scratch desperately to escape. He lets the fox go, tries to forget. When he finds the fox, "He waits to hear his name, just his name, that he could be made un-mad by it". The fox leads him to her den. He stays a respectful distance away. At the end of the story

He has given up looking for meaning ... One day, Sophia might [...] enter the kitchen and sit at the table. I dreamt of the forest again, she will say ...
To watch her run into the edgelands, breasting the ferns and scorching the fields, to see her disappear into the void - no - how could life mean anything without his unbelonging wife?

He's still hoping that reality will reign, though the use of the eye-catching word "unbelonging" suggests that he now knows that she doesn't belong in his world. His lack of panic (which at first seemed unrealistic - a device forced upon the author to make the myth aspect viable) and his undemonstrative (albeit sincere) love may be the very factors that made her leave him. The conflict of genres elegantly replicates the difference between the two people.

See also

Saturday 25 December 2021

David Almond's "A kind of heaven" and "1982"

"A kind of heaven" and "1982", the stories that start and finish David Almond's story collection "A kind of heaven" (Iron Press, 1997), share many features -

  • The Point-of-View (PoV) is of a pre-pubescent boy, Tom (with a friend Askew), whose mother isn't well. The parents seem to love each other and the boy, though the whole family isn't often together. The boy has dreams.
  • There's a mentally scarred war veteran who the father has sympathies with.
  • The setting is in NE England by the sea, with coal gatherers on the beach. The boy goes with his father by bus to nearby Newcastle. On a bridge the mother yells to the boy "Race/Beat you to the other side!"
  • The father has been to Egypt and had promised the mother trips overseas
  • The cold war and the threat of war are backdrops.

There are significant differences too

A kind of heaven1982
3rd person1st person
The noisy showman veteran Harris, long known to the father, specialises in self-harmThe quiet, begging veteran, appeared only after the mother was hospitalised - representing rotting Nature?
The veteran fancies the motherThe veteran is thought to fancy the boy's friend
The boy and his father seek the veteran to help himThe boy and his friend seek the veteran wanting to get rid of him
The boy repeatedly visits the city with a parent. He sees crowdsThe boy repeatedly goes to the dunes with friends
The mother isn't visibly ill yetThe mother is in hospital
At the end he pricks himself with a needle, whispers "I feel nothing. I'm fine"Near the end he scares the veteran away and tells his father that mother will be fine
The boy ends in his room, aloneThe boy ends on the beach with a friend, being called away by his father

I don't think that the second story is sequel to the first. Perhaps the two stories should be read as if they're a single piece, one story informing the other.

Shared symbolism

Both stories mention sea (as an opportunity to escape) and stars (always there in the darkness). The two main symbols are -

  • The war veteran - In "A kind of Heaven" when his father sees the veteran, the father whispers "Jesus. Jesus Christ". In "1982" when the boy asks father who the stranger was, he says "Jesus Christ, Tom!". Here's an example of where having 2 stories helps - one "Jesus Christ" exclamation might be chance, but not 2. The veterans have taken on the burden of mankind's suffering maybe. In "1982" perhaps Askew is projecting his homosexuality onto the veteran, making him suffer.
  • The cold war - In "A kind of Heaven" the coldness matters. The boy's father suggests that the current friction is a "my bomb is bigger than your bomb" flare-up in a war that never ends. In "1982" the boy's friend Dan takes the threat of war seriously. There are tank-traps on the beach, but they won't keep the guided missiles out.

A kind of heaven

There are some first times -

  • It begins with "Why had he been so scared? She seemed well, ... the day he encountered Harris for the first time" (linking her health and the veteran)
  • Later, hearing his parents talk about their past, "for the first time Tom understood his isolation, his exclusion from them. The heaven they described was theirs, and could only be in memory, in the years between the war's end and his birth" (helping explain his private experiments with pain)

The boy is curious about pain. It's a connection between his mother and the veteran. He's experimented by getting his friend Askew to prick him in various places with a needle. He pricks himself. When he overhears his parents making love "He heard what sounded like her cry of pain"

The father has shown the boy a constellation called "The archer". It's usually known as Saggitarius. The boy shows it to her mother who says she can see it but he doesn't think she can - it takes time, though once you've seen it, it's easy to see again. It reappears at the end of the story - a random alignment that at any time might lurch into action - like war, like her illness.

At the end, in his bedroom that night he looks out - 'How long would it be until the stars dispersed, until the arrow was released? .... He whispered "When will it begin?"'. As he turns to be bed, the lost needle pricks him. 'Would her pain be similar to this ... What would happen when she could not calm it, when there was no peace? ... Would her fear be similar to this? ... "I feel nothing," he whispered'.

So impending pain/war is a theme, along with cold/warm - cold outside is contrasted with cosy warmth inside. He ends in denial, a loner.


There's a sex triangle that's absent from the other story - friend Askew dislikes "nancy boy" Dan, the boy's other friend. His plan to get rid of the veteran is to use Dan as sex bait then act as witness to get the veteran convicted. Once, on the beach, the boy said of Ashew that "I saw he was burning with desire". Later "Askew embraces the boy", saying "You're bloody beautiful". Later, Dan reassuringly puts his arms around the boy. Dan's worried about war. The boy's anxious about his mother's return from hospital. In one dream the boy helps his mother give birth to a baby - herself.

The beach is where there was another revelation - "We were on the beach together, my mother and I, when [her illness] first showed itself"

The father had carried a photo of his wife to Egypt. It got him through the fighting. The boy steals the photo from his mother's purse having saved it from the sea - it comforts him.

At the end, when offered the boy, the veteran "stared down at us, as if willing us to see the true depths of his exhaustion. Then he turned his face towards the empty sky, opened the red gash of his mouth, and truly like an animal began to howl". This relates to -

  • earlier, when the father had described politicians as "animals, howling for blood"
  • an early passage from "A kind of heaven" when the colours in the sky "made the emptiness above them bleed". In the next paragraph it's written that there's "No time since men were exhausted or made mad" by war.

I presume that the veteran never approached the boy.

As in the other story, impending war and his mother's illness are related themes. In this story, the boy's more pro-active, maybe older than the boy in the other story. He starts to dominate his father


In a book about Almond by Don Latham, "David Almond: Memory and Magic" it says that "Almond was born in 1951 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a former coal-mining town in northwest England. He had a large, extended, and very close-knit family growing up. ... When he was eight, his younger sister, Barbara, died. And when Almond was fifteen, his father died. In addition, his mother suffered from a progressive and debilitating form of arthritis.. There was a Roman Catholic influence to his upbringing too. Some of these autobiographical elements inform the stories.

Especially when symbolism is used, several questions can be asked of stories.

  • What/Who changes in the course of the story? Where is the crisis/resolution? - I guess one boy decides to stay inside - warm and alone. The other decides to go out to see friends, no longer walking with his father
  • Are there tell-tale sentences (signalled by a break in the PoV strategy) where the author tell us what the message is? - "The archer" seems rather contrived to me, and in "1982" the final description of the veteran sounds forced.
  • When do symbols meet? - both stories pile symbolism into the final paragraph or so, adding to the worries about the mother's illness.

Thursday 3 December 2020

Empathy and literature

Language and content

You want readers to care about your characters don’t you? You want them to feel what the characters feel. If getting readers to cry is your aim there are web pages to help you – see for example "How to make readers cry in six steps". According to Becca Puglisi

  • When readers start to care about the main character, they’re going to be invested in what happens to him. And they’re going to keep reading to make sure everything turns out okay.
  • When readers recognize the character’s emotional state as one they’ve experienced in the past, it creates a sense of shared experience.

She points out that “There are two facets of emotion in fiction: conveying what your character is feeling and evoking emotion in your reader.”. This distinction is worth bearing in mind - however clearly you describe a tragedy, readers might be unmoved. Robert Frost wrote, "no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader" which has some truth. Readers can easily feel manipulated rather than sad when they read tear-jerkers.

A piece of literature depends partly on the power of words and partly the impact of what those words transparently represent. Strong content might suffice to evoke emotion. When Wilfred Owen stated that "The poetry is in the pity" he was expecting readers to respond to the recounted experiences emotionally. Once there's emotion, empathy might develop.

Even when the genre (essay, whodunit, etc) foregrounds the content, some readers prefer to engage with represented people rather than words, I've just finished a detective novel - "The Dark Lake" by Sarah Bailey. Here are 2 goodreads comments about it -

  • Three stars because I did like the story but I probably don't like Gemma enough to want to read anymore about her
  • The female protagonist both broke my heart in ways and had me rooting for her

There's an expectation in more literary work that characters should at least contribute. My latest rejection slip from a literary magazine said "I don't care about these characters yet".

But characters aren't everything. There can be compensations. A review of "The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" by Stuart Turton admired its ingenuity, then said "The price Turton pays for this is a loss of emotional engagement on the reader’s part. But as an intellectual thriller, the book can’t be faulted, and in the end, it’s the story that triumphs".

Textual factors influencing empathy

Several controllable factors in the text might affect who readers empathise with -

  • Point of view (PoV) - What PoV maximizes empathy? Maybe using the first person will have a greater impact. Perhaps readers identify with the only character they can see inside of. Sometimes readers find it difficult to identify with any specific character when the viewpoint's omniscient.
  • Tense - Which tense is best? Maybe the present is more immediate.
  • Style - Metafiction isn't going to entice readers in. Maybe diary entries will.
  • Shared experience - Will they identify with the characters most like them? The only morally sound character? Will women identify with women? Soldiers with soldiers? The identification needn't be complete. After all, "Watership Down" and "Bambi" move audiences. So does ET's demise. But not HAL's in 2001.
  • Leaving space - In a BBC Radio 3 podcast, Samantha Harvey (quoting George Saunders) suggested that authors should leave gaps in the text so that the reader can enter it, and these gaps should provide enough room for the reader to express themselves - e.g. judge a character, because the author hasn't supplied a judgement.

In light of the above factors is it pointless writing a judgemental, third-person piece in the past tense where your main character’s a gay red-headed paraplegic chessplayer from the Isle of Wight? Such questions can be answered experimentally, a fertile area of research. Papers like "The Relationship Between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components" report on some findings, and many experiments have been performed to see whether “I”, “you”, or “s/he” packs the biggest punch. Using EEG and fMRI, researchers have measured effects, sometimes using erotica. I think that the conclusion is that there might be an initial effect when using the 2nd person which is why PR people often use it - "1 in 4 people who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day die of cancer" is less effective than "Hey, do you smoke more than 20 a day? Come on, be honest. If your answer's yes you've a 1 on 4 chance of dying of cancer". Readers soon get used to this trick though. In novels, other factors matter at least as much.

Online and in books are many tips for writers who want readers to experience immersion, and some more theoretical pieces that also consider immersion in computer games and VR. Here are just a few books and links

The reader and the author

The particularities of both reader and author affect empathical reponses to works.

Readers are often aware that they're susceptable to certain pieces. A poetry review by Julia Webb included the comment "As someone who lost a brother first to mental illness and then to death, this pamphlet spoke to me personally". This awareness might make the reader doubt their judgement of the quality of the piece.

Sometimes it's easier to empathise with the author than a character. The phrase "based on a true story" still has an impact. A celebrity's true story has a greater impact still (see Jade Goody, etc). A poetry collection might encourage empathy with the author rather than any individual persona. Some poetry readers much prefer monographs to multi-author works, and start the book by reading the author bio.

Reading habits affecting empathy

A novel reader is going to spend hours of their lives with the characters in the novel. In "The First Rule of Creating Fictional Characters" it says "Imagine if you went to a party and all of the guests were either dislikeable or, worse, deadly dull. How long would it take you to make your excuses and get out of there? Five minutes? Well, it’s the same with reading a novel" and advises writers to "Make the Characters Likeable".

As Roger Cox in "The Scotsman" pointed out "One of the trickiest puzzles short story writers face is how to get readers to care about their characters. The first obstacle is the lack of incentive: if we know we’re going to be spending the entirety of a 300 or 400-page novel in somebody’s company, we don’t mind investing in them emotionally; if we’re only going to be spending 20 or 30 pages with them, however, we’re less inclined to make the effort of trying to tune in to their interior life. And then there’s the issue of space: over the course of a novel, an author can develop the bond between reader and protagonist incrementally as the chapters roll by. In a short story, by contrast, there is much less time to sketch in somebody’s personality quirks and show what motivates them – economy and discipline are key."

In "Why Women Read Fiction" Helen Taylor points out that "Female readers are [...] the main buyers of fiction, members of book clubs, attendees at literary festivals, and organisers of days out to fictional sites and writers' homes". Such readers might read novels to get to know the characters. The characters are like real people but without the complications - you can gossip about them without breaking confidences; they won't phone you distressed in the middle of the night. Novel series and soap operas offer familiar characters (old friends) and opportunities for vicarious experiences without readers needing to waste time learning a new scenario. People who read long, popular novels (especially novel series) love to lose themselves in the world of the book, detaching themselves from their surroundings.

Readers who can cope with short stories are rarer - they need to rapidly acquaint themselves with their new surroundings, knowing that their investment is short-term. Reading a multi-author story anthology is harder still, becoming a lost art for the boxed-set generation.

For poetry and Flash there's a similar the need for agile immersion. More often readers need to tune into something less palpable and enveloping - a tone, a voice, or a mood.

What character traits in readers correlate with rapid immersion? Perhaps -

  • Easy detachment from the world (daydreaming)
  • Ability to concentrate
  • Ability to rapidly deduce worlds, characters and situations from small clues

These are much the same traits that writers need, so it's no surprise that only short story writers read short stories - particularly anthologies.

Empathy as device

Some readers distrust immersion, looking out for the mechanics that the author's used to produce the effect. The above immersion traits may corelate with writers' traits but they're not traits that align closely with empathy - there's too much scope for detachment and switching loyalties.

Besides, empathy has its detractors. In "The banality of empathy" it says "Empathy is, in a word, selfish. In his bracing and persuasive 2016 book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom writes, “Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now… Empathy is biased… It is shortsighted.”

Monday 7 September 2020

Paying for literary success

This article looks at the different ways an author might get single poems or stories published, comparing the situation with the publication of medical articles. There's a trend towards the author paying, rather than the readers.

In the olden days, it was simple for writers. They

  • paid to enter competitions, either getting fame and money, or nothing.
  • submitted to magazines for free. If they pleased the gatekeepers, their work was published and they might have received a few pounds. It was read only by people who bought the magazine.

In the academic world there were periodicals, whose business model was like that of literary magazines, except that they were more expensive, especially for libraries who subscribed to them. Authors didn't get any money, but publication was important for career prospects.

In truth the situation was never that clear cut. When the web appeared, with the potential for free publishing and access, options became even more confusing.

In the olden days, literary journal editors might have been able to accept a good few percent of submissions (sent by post with an SSAE, so submission wasn't actually free). A typical small literary paper magazine might have had a few hundred subscribers. Contrast this with the situation nowadays where a free submission to a web mag might lead to a piece attracting a readership of thousands, many of them "liking" and commenting on the piece. Free access means that thousands of people might read a published poem. Free submission means that the number of submissions has rocketed up, so editors have much more work to do though income streams have shrunk.

Competitions have changed too. Nowadays organisers are much more likely to publish long/short-lists and maybe an associated anthology (e-book), so there's no longer a win/lose binary outcome - short-list appearances are good for acknowledgements pages. And some magazines are charging submitters. Various business models are available

  • A flat "reading fee". This might offset printing or web-space charges, labour costs, and Submittable charges (Submittable isn't free for magazines once submissions are too numerous).
  • A variable fee, depending on how much feedback you want, or how soon you want a reply. Some magazines that usually charge offer free submission during certain months, or until the Submittable limit's reached. Donations are invited.
  • Some magazines that charge for submission offer money for the successful authors - a mini-competition.

Examples include -

  • Into the void - free until submittable limit reached, tip-jar submission for $4.95 and a "Short Story Developmental Edit" for $49.95.
  • Storgy - £5 to submit fiction
  • The Poetry Review - £2 to submit poetry
  • Vestal review - $2 to submit, $25 on publication

Submission might be free for the unwaged. Paper magazines don't always give a free issue to successful submitters.

The Web's drastically affected the academic world too. The "reader-pays" model is hard to sustain as costs of publication rise - as reader numbers shrink, so does impact. Both pay-per-view and high institutional subscription rates reduces readership. Medical publications have the extra complications of Big Pharma influence, and the potentially life-saving significance of wide access to important results. Michaela Panter summarizes the options. Both subscription-based and open access journals may charge a reading fee (typically $50-125). Others charge successful authors "Article Publishing Charges" (APCs). For example, "PLoS Medicine" (Impact factor 10.5) charges $3,000 - it's an open access journal. Some journals only charge if the article needs to be open access ("The Lancet" for example charges $5,000 for this). Some funding bodies (e.g. CR-UK) insist that researchers who they support publish in an open access way. Consequently being a successful, responsible author can lead to heavy expenses.

Both in the literary and academic world, the situation's fluid. Authors are feeling their way through a maze of options. They want to be published quickly and for free in high impact journals that everyone can read, but they nearly always have to compromise. They also need to avoid scams - "predatory journals" publish most/all of what they receive and charge authors.

In the end someone has to pay for choosing/editing submissions, admin, publishing, etc. Small printed literary magazines run by a volunteer or two might survive for a while, but it's not sustainable. Charging for submissions might be the least bad option.

Of course one can bypass the gatekeepers. Any writer can put their work online, and academics can put their work on pre-print sites. But in the literary case, will readers find the work? And how will writers be assessed? Writers need a proven track record of publication. In the academic world the "impact factor" of journals is an indication of the importance of appearing in the journal. Poets and story-writers have a fair idea of which journals matter most.

I'm slowly changing with the times. I never used to pay reading fees. Nowadays I sometimes do - after all, I used to pay for stamps and SSAEs (note that some respectable publications still insist on postal submissions). And I'm much more likely to enter competitions if they publish long-lists and anthologies. There's no longer such a difference between submitting to magazines and entering competitions - both may charge, and both may lead to publication. The "impact factor" of journals is more fluid than hitherto - paper journals no longer have more credibility by default. Nor do free-submission magazines (indeed, charging for submission tends to lead to better submissions, on average, and editors have time to read the entries more carefully). Old paper magazines (like the poetry magazine "Envoi", over 50 years old) are disappearing without being replaced by online versions. I suspect the future will see more "reading fee" web magazines, but who knows.

Friday 24 April 2020

Repossession - Tessa Hadley's "Bad Dreams"

In Tessa Hadley's short story collection, Bad Dreams, several main characters explore a house already familiar to them: Marina to look after an old man whose big house she's been walking past since childhood (soon she's 'gone into every corner' of it); Claire to the house where she grew up (she waits for the rest of the family to go to bed before exploring); and a little girl who wakes from a nightmare about her book (wandering in her flat at night makes everything looks different).

A variation on the theme is when the house is unfamiliar and the owner's away. Sex is offered in these situations. In 'Experience' Laura, recovering from divorce, is house-sitting when she explores the owner's diary and attic - and the owner's married ex, Julian. In 'An abduction' Jane, 15, is given a lift to a house where she willingly loses her virginity to Daniel, then looks around the rooms alone.

In quests, heroes return home older and wiser after facing a challenge. These female protagonists, all in the throes of change, aren't seeking adulation, they just want to hold on to what they had - retracing their steps to their last known position, hoping to be found, the past part of their quest.

Alzheimer patients often say that they want to go home, even when that's where they are. All they want is a place where they feel safe, where everything's familiar. But what if it's changed in the meantime? It will need to be re-explored. A guide may be required, and that guide may help with the future as well as the past. Each of these females has access to an older or wiser female who knows more about the house than the protagonist - the old man's daughter, Wendy, pops in most days; Claire's sister Susan still lives there; the little girl's mother takes over the narrative later; Laura is phoned by the owner, Hana, about her ex; and student Fiona lives in the house where Jane has her adventure, lending Jane a swimsuit though Jane would swim for the boys without one.

Hadley admits to repeating themes. Are there repeated resolutions? Do all these protagonists in time-honoured fashion learn and change? Not obviously so. Marina in 'The Stain' seems unaffected, though she's scared by Wendy's son who doesn't let her out of a car until he's told her about the old man's unpleasant past. She turns down the house that the old man repeatedly offers. ‘I know what my father's like, once he fixes on something,’ Wendy says. Finally we read that Marina's husband knew how 'once Marina got an idea into her head there was no changing it'. Happy with life, she prefers to remain as she is.

Of Jane we're told that 'In a way, she never assimilated the experience disapproving of under-age sex, though to her therapist after her mid-fifties divorce her description of the 'real life' she feels she's missed out on sounds much like that wild night. She missed her chance to break free of her sheltered upbringing.

In the story 'Bad Dreams' the little girl has carefully upset the furniture. In the morning she stubbornly reads the book she's read many times before. Her mother's changed though - she thinks her moody husband upset things. She's 'exhilarated' by this insight into his childishness, 'she seemed to see the future with great clarity, looking forward through a long tunnel of antagonism.'

At the end of 'Flight' Claire 'felt a moment's stabbing sorrow for everything she'd lost and left behind. But she knew from past experience how to push that sorrow down and bury it'. Earlier she'd hidden a present for Susan in the most intimate of places - the bottom of her handbag. Claire later found it at the bottom of her own bag. How did it get there?

Laura's the only one who emerges with profit, claiming that 'after my evening with Julian I knew I came across as older and more experienced. People seemed to take me more seriously.'

So is a leap into the unknown better than a step back in the hope of taking two steps forward? Is it preferable to squat in somebody else's past rather than repossess one's own? After leaping into the unknown you can take what you want and run, leaving no mark - Laura changes nobody, and later in life Daniel doesn't even remember Jane, who had potentially the most life-changing incident. Claire arrives with the most baggage but takes it all away with her, changing nothing, letting the next generation enjoy the house without her.

If there is transformation in these stories, it's not often in the protagonist. When she resists change, there aren't always consequences. Hadley shows us that each house has many rooms, each family, happy or not, has its own dynamics, and each woman her own way of absorbing change.