Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Diverse Writing

I think it was Eno, possibly in an interview but maybe in his book "A Year With Appendices" who made the distinction between two types of artists. Ones such as himself who were always trying different approaches, different pieces of work and ones like Joni Mitchell (I think he gave her as an example) who continue re-articulating the same deep track. One can argue about this of course (surely Joni's development of her songwriting from folk to pop to jazz shows a genuine diversity of practice, whilst Eno's reputation could arguably be said to rest on his electronic ambient soundscapes.)  There's some truth in it certainly: there are artists who continually explore a single (if not simple) idea such as James Turrell's light sculptures, and then others who turn to different modes and materials (think of Hirst or Emin's constant shifting of their mode, if not their method).

In writing I think its not so much that writers don't do different things, but that they become defined by some aspect of what they do, to the extent where it can be difficult for them to be noticed when do anything else. Yes, we might note Hilary Mantel's diverse portfolio of very different books before "Wolf Hall" but it will be interesting to see how, once she completes the Cromwell trilogy, a future non-historical novel might be received. Her success has come to define her, so that her French revolution novel can be included as example of her mastery of historical writing, whilst her other earlier novels (and her current book of short stories) may seem less vital as a result.

For short story writers - despite the diversity of the form - it seems even harder to slip out of what's expected. In an early Helen Simpson book there was a single fantastic story amongst the tales of middle class life; a perfectly good story I seem to remember, but its overshadowed by the majority of her work. Even young writers I know become easily defined by a particular theme - Zoe Lambert's war stories; or Adam Marek's quirky fantasies.

I've always been of the Eno school, shifting between different things, different aspects, even though I could draw some quite straight lines between my work - whether in poetry fiction or other forms. Yet as the majority of my work remains unpublished I'm not sure I have a particular persona to how my writing is perceived. By coincidence this autumn I've got three stories being published, and another couple of poems. For those who might think I generally write about an everyday contemporary life not unlike my own (which I sometimes do) the stories couldn't be more different - what they share is a sense of other place, of other lives, and hijack purportedly realist scenarios for something a little odder. I'll write more about them when they are published - but if you lined them up alongside my last published story - last year's "The Cat", and recent poems - I don't think there would be a sense of any coherence whatsoever. Even potential structural similarities seem redundant.

I don't think its that I'm particularly diverse, just that the ad hoc nature of my publications means that there's been little chance for anyone to see a coherence or a range to my work - which, just as I did in "ordering" my poetry collection a few years ago - is there, if not always obviously so.

Its the Booker Prize ceremony this evening - I'm out of the country so will be checking on the web when I get back from dinner - I don't think there's been a particular buzz about one book or other this year, despite this being the first year when American books are included, and the absence of too much historical fiction. Perhaps Ali Smith's is the one novel that I've heard people talk about, though not necessarily entirely complimentarily. It seems a list that has reverted to what some of those lists of the 80s were - full of solid potential. One will rise above the others of course. I'll be interested to see which way things go.


Tim Love said...

"For short story writers - despite the diversity of the form - it seems even harder to slip out of what's expected" - perhaps it's the publishers rather than the writers who impose that uniformity, hoping that the collection and hence the writer will then become more marketable.

Anonymous said...

I wondered about that. Seems some writers seem to have a clear idea about the "book" of stories they are writing (a bit like poetry sequences). Though I imagine even then they might keep back a non typical story for other purposes.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m in much the same boat. For the first twenty years I only write poetry and one ever thought of myself as a poet. But in my mid-thirties I found myself having written two novels that came out of nowhere and then a few years later I wrote a couple of plays and a bunch of short stories. And you’d probably think they were written by four different people. I suppose there must be a coherence to my work—it all emanated from me—but I’ve basically just followed my nose and written what felt right at the time. From a marketing point of view it’s a bit of a nightmare though. There’re people who love my poetry but won’t take to the stories and there’re those who connect with the books who’ll find the poems too slight. I’ve always held that content dictates form. That’s why my last two novellas were written entirely in dialogue. And there’ll be those who’ll hate them for that one simple fact. But what can I do? I write what I need to write and it comes out how it wants to and all I can say is that as long as I can keep churning (bit of an exaggeration there) the stuff out I really don’t care that much what shape or form it comes out in.