Every year the Scottish Association of Literary Studies publishes an anthology of new writing: a gamut of stories, essays, poems and novel extracts. Readers aren’t given a context for any of the pieces, which is good. It means we have fewer expectations and the writing has to work on its own merits.
In the introduction to last year’s anthology, Diana Hendry pointed out that the editors of New Writing 2 (1984) sought to remind readers that NWS was a ‘vehicle for new writing rather than new writers’. It should, then, be a place where the best of Scotland’s scribblers, known and unknown, can be read and enjoyed. To its credit, NWS also pays writers for their contributions (with real money, not just free issues of their magazine).
So far, so good. It was a little disheartening then to read in the introduction to NWS 36 that Susie Maguire, one of this year’s ‘so-called Editors’ (her words), tells us that not one word is changed in any accepted submissions. The editors ‘don’t do any copy-editing – we can’t write to you and say, there’s a little problem with para 1 on page 3, if you could alter that phrasing we’d like the story better – nope. Can’t do that. This is often the reason why things that are in fact exciting, promising… startling or ingenious in concept, may not make the final list.’ I couldn’t help but think of that old proverb: for want of an editor, a story died. There are countless examples of writers who might still be unknowns if not for the behind-the-scenes work of a judicious editor. After all, what would T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land look like without Ezra Pound? At the extreme end, one thinks of Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver. Would the latter be so highly regarded now without the editorial interventions of the former? Still, the NWS approach – which is more like judging a prize – does mean that, if writers want to make the final cut, they have to be at the top of their game.
Of those writers who are playing serious ball here, there is Julie Rea, an unknown to me. Her story, ‘Shark’s Tooth’, has real energy and vigour. The narrator is a teenage girl growing up in a tenement block that, by the end of the story, is bulldozed to the ground. Her life is full of violence, abuse and despair, alleviated only by a friendship and the lines of a poem that lodges itself in her head. Like many of the writers here, Rea tends to milk the pathos, but there is a fine strand of humour too, such as when the narrator remembers her grandmother teaching her a prayer. ‘You’d lie on your pull-down sofa, listening, and she’d say something about heaven, something about bread every day, and there something about no being cunts to each other… and in the prayer, there was a bit about how God was gonnae deliver us from evil, and you think, Well could you hurry the fuck up then.’
On the whole, there is very little joie de vivre in NWS 36. The title of Lynsey May’s dystopian story sums it up: ‘Scars on their Knuckles’. I scoured the pages for laughs, but, alas, there were slim pickings. If I was hunting for tears, I could have wept for hours. It is the poets who inject most of the humour, and the poetry in general is more varied in tone than the prose, which is not surprising, given the sheer number of poets in Scotland at present. The contributions from Donald S. Murray and Juliet Anthill both take a witty look at infidelity. Anthill’s
‘A Night in Fermanagh’ describes a pair of lovers shacking up in a Catholic bed and breakfast and taking joy both in how they ‘rattled the Virgin Mary’ who watches over them at night, and in the proprietor’s air of reproach as she serves up their eggs and bacon in the morning. Murray’s ‘How the Loch Ness Monster Stole My Husband’ blends a wife’s suspicions about her husband’s night time movements with that universal sense we all have that some phenomena must exist, even if there is little evidence to prove it.
As one expects, there are quite a few pieces from tyro writers, which might explain the gloom. Writers still finding their way often fall back on sob-filled melodrama. They also tend to overwrite, stretch their extended metaphors to breaking point, pen wooden characters, and struggle with voice. All that is in evidence. Nevertheless, and regardless of quality, what one hopes from an anthology like this is a glimpse of The Way We Live Now. In this regard, Harry Giles’ prose poem ‘The Worker’ does a fair job. It is about a rather soppy, angst ridden millennial whose ‘busy life consists mostly of emails… the worker, in between emails, checks Twitter…’ It’s a poem trying to be too clever, mixing political theory and psychological self-counselling. Nevertheless, Giles seems to understand the narcissistic impoverishment of the Facebook generation. Other than this contribution, there seems to be a deficit of stories and poems that feature mobile phones or screens of any kind – this, by the way, is a common trait of most contemporary literature, which generally seems to ignore the Twittering classes. I was under the impression that most people spent their waking hours not gallivanting around in boring old reality, but on social media – trolling, sharing, commenting, and the like. Perhaps it’s all too strange for fiction.
There are countless examples of writers who might still be unknowns if not for the behind-thescenes work of a judicious editor.
If there is a lack of digital verisimilitude, there are plenty of stories that embrace a different kind of realism: the working-class experience. All in all, it seems a deeply unhappy one. Apart from Julie Rea’s story, the two pieces that stand out are Becky Carnaffin’s ‘My Sister Lives in a Council Flat’ and Douglas Bruton’s ‘Walk Don’t Run’. Bruton’s story has a teenager revealing her life-pains to her grandmother, who appears to be in a semi-vegetative state. Due to the older woman’s disability, the young girl thinks she can be open about her problems without fear of judgement or recriminations. The conception is excellent. Bruton shows a deft understanding that some stories can only be told under certain conditions – and he has a poet’s talent for creating stark imagery. The denouement, however, is too contrived to ring true.
Bruton’s piece is not about a writer per se, but stories about writers and artists do abound. Brian Hamill’s ‘Thinking These Thoughts’ is about a woman trying to write a story, but too caught up in the need for drama to get started on it. Hamill has a fine way of excavating the lineaments of consciousness; he shows that a story need not be a slave to narrative. Kevin MacNeil’s rather trite ‘Makar’, set in Borges’ Argentina, melds the idea of authorial effacement – ‘only narratives remain’ – with the Zen Buddhist approach to selfhood; Kirsten McQuarrie’s ‘MMM’ fictionalizes an ageing Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and writes her back into Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s life story; and Ian Madden’s ‘Cracks in the Edificeof Sheer Reason’ examines an older writer teetering on the edge of memory. Even the poets are in the market for metafiction. Mark Russell’s poem ‘Drama’ ends in a group of schoolchildren deciding to make a play out of their rumbustious discussion.
Some might think that all this writing about writing is a result of too many authors being churned through the processing plant of creative writing classes – these production line scribes lack the experience of other worlds or simply write to textbook formulae, or so the argument goes. There’s some truth to it. Nevertheless, metafiction is in the bedrock of Scottish fiction. One only need to think of our finest: James Hogg, Muriel Spark, Alasdair Gray, Kirsty Gunn. In Scotland, there is a long tradition of fiction about the art of creation, and the struggle this entails, whether that be economic, political, creative or all three. The conundrum for new writers taking forward this tradition is how they use it to produce work that is original and daring.
Here we come to the central disappoint-ment of this year’s New Writing Scotland. At best, when opening an anthology of this sort, one hopes to find work that astonishes, that uses language in an unexpected and bracing way, or that at least makes you see the world afresh. Julie Rea – and to an extent Brian Hamill – seem the only writers on the right track. Rea certainly is a writer for the future. As for much of the rest, they pass the competence test, but not what could be called the Ezra Pound test: to make it new. Moreover, one can’t help but think there must be something ‘startling’ or ‘ingenious’ out there, but that, for some inexplicable reason, it didn’t make the cut.