The Oxford Book of English Short Stories
edited by AS Byatt (OUP, Oxford, 1998)
When I was trying to get in touch with Johnny Marr to ask him to contribute to PP13, I was put in touch with his PR, who turned out to be Janice Bullman (née Warren) whose excellent short story ‘This is the Sound When a Dog Cries’ we published in PP8 in 2008. Strange, huh…?
She has also recently edited Punk Fiction, a collection of short stories by music journalists, writers and musicians each taking a song from the punk era as their starting point. The musical influences range from the Ramones, to Iggy Pop and The Stooges, to The Sex Pistols, to X-Ray Spex and much more. And it’s ultimately a joyful celebration of that era and an attempt to capture why it meant so much to a whole generation. As Marr himself puts it in the introduction to the book: ‘The punk movement began as a covert reaction to the uninspired drabness of the UK’s straight culture; it was sharp and funny and switched on. It was about excitement and subversion and being young. But mostly it was about ideas.
PF contributors include the newly appointed editor of the NME Krissi Murison, Kele Orereke (Bloc Party), Paul Smith (Maximo Park), and Kate Jackson (formerly of The Long Blondes).
It’s true that in part the collection demonstrates that being in a band or loving music doesn’t necessarily make you an exceptional fiction writer, but there’s a lot of interest and energy in the stories, even when they don’t quite hit the mark. (That boring old adage about writing about music, if not strictly meant in this sense, does hold water, and there’s a sort of inevitable self-consciousness to the writing at times.)
But there are notable exceptions. Billy Childish’s ‘action time and vision’ is a funny tale that captures those listless random happenings that are the mainstay of teenage life as you set out, ever-hopeful that something good will happen. It’s funny and the language flows along in an addictive, catchy way.
Cathi Unsworth’s ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’ is very plainly written, but that only serves to make the final horrific climax more terrible and unexpectedly moving, and she captures the narrator’s pity but desire to distance herself from her central character very well – the unalterable distance between the poor and abused, and those who are more fortunate.
The stand out contribution from the musos was definitely Alison Mosshart’s (she of The Kills, and now of The Dead Weathers) short, ‘Psycho Killer’. The tone is a familiar suburban mundane, but not even trying to be funny, which is the usual resort of this type of voice, and it’s strangely effective. Mosshart is tapping into the classic legend of middle-of-nowhere America: a couple, loners, aimless misfits with regular bouts of extreme and casual violence. Reading it, I considered that perhaps Mosshart was one of the few to really successfully bring together the two worlds of music and language. I don’t actually know if she writes lyrics or not, but after reading her story, I’m assuming she must do. At times it was like reading the words to a song on the record sleeve, before you know the tune:
‘He and I have our differences. We argue. Yes. We curse and we fight. We never apologise. But we used to. We used to.’
‘“I’m too bored now,” I says. “But even if you want me to take it out on you I won’t. I just can’t sit in this hotel with you, like this, any longer … I was talking to my boy.”’
Influences of Easton Ellis, and even Salinger, maybe, in some more obscure way.
Overall this is a really good collection, that’s also a bit of an education in punk, if you, like me, don’t know an awful lot about it. Plus buying it helps raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust, so doubly worth a purchase.
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If Punk Fiction is a rebellious fiction party of school truants, AS Byatt’s selection of English short stories is more like a masterclass. I picked up this collection of short stories in Clerkenwell Tales (a new bookshop on Exmouth Market, that PP really recommends).
Almost everything in here has been written with what Sebald described as ‘acute, merciless observation’, and I also liked what Byatt had to say about the English short story in her introduction:
‘I found, reading in bulk, that I was developing a dislike for both the ‘well-made tale’ and the fleeting ‘impression’. Manuals on how to write short stories … stress unity of form, stress that only one thing should happen … Many of the stories in this collection break all the rules … The workmanlike English story is even-toned and neatly constructed. The great English story is shocking – even the sparest and driest – and hard to categorize.’
One is left nodding one’s editorial head vigorously at this. And Byatt’s choices live up to her introduction. I haven’t read the entire collection yet, but it’s hugely enjoyable and, as I said, something of a masterclass to anyone interested in fiction writing. Some favourites so far:
Aldoux Huxley; ‘Nuns at Luncheon’ – a consideration of the art of writing and storytelling as much as anything, but also social satire, grotesque and sharp.
Ronald Firbank; ‘Tragedy in Green’ – very funny and deliciously tongue-in-cheek
Thomas Hardy; ‘A Mere Interlude’ – a morality tale at its heart. Beautifully written, as if effortless.
Angela Carter; ‘The Kiss’ – a very short tale of exquisitely controlled writing.
I heartily recommend this to anyone interested in how to write short stories, or, more simply, anyone who values the most exceptional fiction writing. It’s a treat.