Thursday, 24 April 2014

When should a writer consider their reader?

How can I know what you will make of this view?

This week somebody asked me how much I think about my audience when I write. It reminded me of a pithy line I’d heard from Peter Blair, (editor of Flash: The International Short-short Story Magazine) the week before: ‘write with the door shut; edit with the door open’. I don’t know if this is a quote or something he came up with himself, but his co-presenter, David Swann, agreed that at the first draft stage, the audience shouldn’t even be in your head – rather the writer is in a kind of trance. 

There was a mix of the descriptive and prescriptive going on in this conversation. It made me reflect on my own writing practice and the point at which I take the reader into account. Peter suggested that writers may take fewer risks if they bear the reader in mind too early. Interference of the audience in the mind of the writer at the start of the creative process seemed like a dangerous thing. David, who was a fountain of potential writing mottoes that evening, claimed that a poem (or a short story – both were up for discussion) is not a machine, but a tree, something that grows organically rather than being designed to do something. We could extend his metaphor, and say that the editing is a kind of pruning, when we start to think about the garden in which the tree will stand.

This conversation took place as part of a free seminar put on by the Open University, the last in their series on the short story in the 21st century. (I’d recommend looking out for future variations on this, as they had excellent academic speakers and free wine). The focus of this seminar was flash fiction and the oral short story. Peter Blair began by giving a swift but thorough history of the short-short story, identifying parables, fables and folk tales as precursors to the modern form, but revealing some surprising turns along the way. I for one had no idea that short-short stories, or flash fiction, had flourished in 1930s-40s America. Like many trends in literature, it seems to have risen and died away over and over again. You can find the full story (groan) in Peter’s entry on flash fiction in the new edition of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

But back to writing with an audience in mind. There is a really good article by Anita Mason here in the Guardian this week about where ‘literary’ fiction sits in relation to genre fiction (it is the hub of a wheel, with genres as the spokes, she argues). I wonder whether writing within the stricter structures of a particular genre counts as, or at least involves, considering the audience earlier on in the process than just sitting down to write ‘in a trance’? In those cases, these thoughts would be limiting, but probably in a useful way. Genres have limits, and breaching them brilliantly is hard to do. As Anita Mason points out, literary fiction does not have a particular goal. This may make it harder to write, or not, but it certainly allows for writing first drafts ‘with the door shut’.

This brings me back to another discussion that arose at the seminar with Peter and David: the difference between prose poetry and flash fiction. Peter suggested a continuum between prose poetry and flash, with the more lyrical and less plot-based writing being at the prose poetry end. However, as noted in the genre article above, literary fiction is not necessarily bothered about plot. Tastes and styles of flash fiction vary to a mind-boggling degree, but include the plotless, idea or image led, the obscure, the lyrical, the downright poetic. As David pointed out, one of the delights of writing short-short stories is that one idea, or phrase, or image, can result in a page of words. This could have been said about poetry. Indeed, many writers (including David) have presented the same series of words as a poem, prose-poem or piece of flash fiction depending on the audience, and encountered no objections.

Which brings me back round to the audience, and when to consider your reader. The person who asked me at what point I do that had very recently, and independently, read some of my work. The best time to consider his response was definitely in that conversation, several days after an unprompted reading, finding out how he reacted to my words with no clue as to my intentions. If only the writer could experience their work from that distance, I used to think, but one of the beauties of creative writing is that you can’t. The story, or poem, that somebody reads, is a product of your words and their mind, and there is little you can do to anticipate what that combination will create.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Cognitive Disfluency: reading on paper versus electronic content

Penny arcade machines - too simple to be memorable?

The debate rages on about digital publishing, with a large proportion of the noise being made by consumers of literature – or at least of words placed in entertaining order. Is scanning online content changing the way we attend to the printed word? The slow reading movement seems to think so. What is it about real paper books that their defenders prefer, and do the aspects they pick out point to a fetishisation of the book-as-object – already being played on by publishers such as the Folio Society?

It is interesting watching those who prefer paper try to explain why: the smell and feel of a book, especially old or second hand; possession of an object, unchanging; portability or, conversely, heft; the satisfaction of coloured spines on bookshelves like old friends, as reminiscent of times past as fragrances and popular songs. All this, I sometimes feel, is like pointing at roundabouts, clocks and Frisbees when trying to explain one’s preference for circles over triangles.

There is undoubtedly something different about reading on paper. My own experiments with smartphone, laptop screen and e-reader versus print-out or actual book have taught me that ‘content’ (for that is what we must now call it) sticks in my memory much better when I read on the latter, so I restrict electronic reading to things I won’t mind forgetting. There is also a distinct shift at each stage when I transfer my own words from notebook scrawlings to screen to print-out, and then finally seeing them printed in a book or journal, which is an experience common to all writers I’ve consulted. Your own story seems to acquire some weight, some seriousness as an object, as it goes through these stages.  Certainly, a little like reading a story aloud, faults with the work – be they typos or clumsy expression – often only become obvious once it is printed. All this may just be down to cultural programming, but it is telling.

One explanation that really appeals to me about the difference between reading electronically and on paper involves the notion of cognitive disfluency. This is the idea that, when content is harder to digest, due to font or complexity of expression, we absorb it more deeply. Oliver Burkeman has a lovely article on the phenomenon here. Experiments have shown that students given the same material in harder-to-read formats do better on recollection tests than those given the same material in a form they can digest more quickly. I remember being upset to hear that electronic versions of books would not retain the font and layout choices of their printed precursors, and I can now justify my misgiving; as much as fonts give us subliminal messages about how we should treat a text, they can also determine how deeply we process it.

Nobody has yet come up with an explanation for why it is that we might scan, or at least speed through, electronic text, in a way we do not when reading printed words. But it appears that we do, and reading in print does readers (and, depending on the content, the authors) favours without us even noticing. Perhaps it is this extra level of engagement, a necessary intimacy with the style and specific layout of a story or novel or essay in a book, which is the intangible thing that paper-preferers attempt to point to when they argue for the bound form of words.

Cognitive disfluency goes beyond pure presentation though. This article suggests that where causal connections are not spelled out and the reader must make inferences, descriptions of situations also ‘stick’ better than in more obvious variations. This has repercussions for the way we write and read fiction. As a writer obsessed with ambiguity, I relish the thought that making my readers work harder will make them remember my stories better. Does this mean that spelling out what is happening in a story means it has less impact on the reader, however gripping the plot? Mischievously, I rather hope so.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Short stories: reading, reading aloud and listening

Stories may be layered, not linear

One of those pieces of advice that comes round again and again for writers is to read your draft work aloud – ideally to a real live human audience (imagined audience or cat will not do). This advice gets repeated because it works. Katherine Mansfield, a consummate short story writer, used to read her stories out over and over again, in much the same way she practiced pieces on her cello. She was listening for faults in rhythm, phrasing; correcting down to the syllable. It is a terrifying and wonderful revelation to read a story aloud to others and instantly be able to see so much of what is wrong with it and how to improve it.

Even read aloud in the writer’s own voice, a story can take on another life from the one it has on the page. So what happens when someone else reads your story aloud? And especially, what happens when that someone is a trained performer, an actor? Last night I was present for readings of three of the six stories short-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2014, where actors read (and in some cases very much performed) the stories while their authors sat with us in the audience. I had not read any of the work beforehand, and was there with Tania Hershman mainly to see her friend Marjorie Celona’s story ‘Othello’ read and to meet Marjorie herself. Asked in the Q&A at the end whether any of the writers were inspired by the actor-readings to write for the stage or screen, Marjorie was honest. No, not at all, she said, but what I do want to do is hear my work read aloud to me again! Away from the stage she said she thought the actor (Damien Molony, of Ripper Street, doing a convincing American accent) made her story funnier than it was on the page.

It is true that the audience laughed often during’ Othello’, both at and with the characters, and this was partly due to the energy, timing and intonations of Molony’s delivery. But at an event like this, where a £30k prize glistens in the distance for the winner, it is impossible not to wonder how I would respond to the same work on the page. The humour in Celona’s story is undoubtedly there in the writing, but I suspect that, read at home, alone, rather than listened to amongst a wine-fed audience, the humour would come across as darker, and would therefore contribute more to the tensions that rise and fall in the story, and to the sadness that ultimately seeps in to take its place.

Jonathan Tel’s story, ‘The Shoe King of Shanghai’, was read by Lesley Manville. I am a Manville fan, but she stumbled over words just slightly too often, so that I (and I sensed others) became distracted by the reading. Even if she had read it perfectly, Tel’s is exactly the kind of story that should be read on the page, because so many lines demand an immediate re-read, to check that you’ve not misunderstood. He takes the reader through a landscape that shifts as in a dream, with elements sometimes nonsensically combined – something I enjoy as long as it is towards some end – such that the only clear conclusion one can make is that you have to reach your own conclusion about what has happened. This, then, is the kind of story that is meant to read, as opposed to heard.

The last story of the evening was Adam Johnson’s ‘Nirvana’.  This was performed by two actors, Tom McKay doing most of the work as the male protagonist/narrator, and Amy Hamilton providing the voice (in direct speech only) of his partner, a woman recently paralysed and bedridden. Johnson has done something brilliant in this story, combining humour, sci-fi, and guaranteed heart-string action such that the audience is whipped along, skipping from tragedy to speculative humour and back again without pause for breath. In the brief discussion afterwards, Johnson described short stories as ‘meaning-making machines’. 

I was certainly moved by this story, but I worried about the interference of the reading. MacKay and Hamilton were both so engaged, they practically acted it for us, to the extent that, when the male narrator wept, Mackay did too, and cracks and the timbre of distress were added to voices when the written text did not describe the same. I do think I would find the story just as powerful on the page, but again, the bringing to life of characters by the actors was done so well that I genuinely cannot judge, and it will be a long time before I can forget that particular delivery, for good reasons. 

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on the short story in the 21st century, in which Jonathan Taylor (lecturer at Leicester University and editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud) argued that the reading aloud, or performance, of short stories at proliferating live events is changing the way writers write them. Stories are becoming shorter, more linear or plot driven, converging towards the guidelines for a 15 minute slot on Radio 4. It’s true that on the occasions when writers write for a listening audience, they may bear this in mind, but I don’t think Taylor’s claim generalises to contemporary short stories beyond that. Certainly last night’s readings showed how three different and polished styles take to performance with differing degrees of success.

There is a difference between telling a tale and reading a short story aloud – storytelling as an art form is something distinctive, epitomised by the likes of Hugh Lupton and taught on courses that are all about performance without reliance on a script. Tales are short stories of a kind, but not all short stories, especially contemporary ones, are tales as such. They can be beautifully written pieces in which not a lot happens. The beauty of the form is that it does not have to linear, or plot driven; it is flexible and can be challenging. Listening to a short story read aloud can require concentration but is a deep pleasure, whether the story was designed with this in mind or not, but we should be wary of judging stories on how well they work aloud.