Ali Smith Posts

Book Post 35: 21 April – 19 May 2019 / Trade list

Book Post 35 is being uploaded after a month. It focuses on the trade list. This include some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

20 May 2019

“The Penguin Book of the British Short Story: Vols 1& 2”, edited by Philip Hensher

Penguin Book of Short StoryPhilip Hensher’s The Penguin Book of the British Short Story: Vols 1& 2 is a fabulous collection of writing. It does a broad sweep from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith, along the way including William Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Max Beerbohm, P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Roald Dahl, V.S. Pritchett, Naipaul, A.S. Byatt, Ali Smith et al.  Here is Philip Hensher in The Guardian writing about this project: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/06/british-short-story-philip-hensher-anthology , 6 Nov 2015.

Putting together such collections is always a subjective exercise. Philip Hensher too Vol 2recognises that such anthologies are subjective collections as is evident in his analysis of similar exercises undertaken by literary stalwarts like A. S. Byatt and Khushwant Singh. Every editor has their own principle of selection.  Hensher has been criticised for his selection of writers, at times seeming almost arbitrary on whom he includes or excludes preferring to rely on “canonical classics”. ( FT Review: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/462cdbcc-7f0b-11e5-98fb-5a6d4728f74e.html#axzz3zeTphElu , 6 Mov 2015) Yet he writes magnificently on the publication history of the short story in Britain. It is pure delight for the literary historian and a lay reader. He charts the rise of the short story as a form published first in periodicals and singly. The practice of anthologizing stories began in the early twentieth century when some of the best authors who had earlier been published in journals found it possible to put together a volume for sale by a publisher. Also the length of a short story continues to be a debatable point. It could be from 2,000 words to more than 30,000 words. He observes that a short story was usually written as single stories in journals by unestablished writers and these could be “very much stranger and more experimental than stories in a collection for a mainstream publisher”.  As a form what made the British short story unique was its capacity for topicality, written as a commentary on a topical situation. But now the principal outlet for short stories seem to be competitions. These may offer reasonable prizes but at times these are funded by the eager contestants paying to enter.

There have been discussions about how relevant are these two fat volumes of short stories. Is there any point in buying these hardback print editions when a) most of these stories are available freely online and b) there is little diversity and inclusiveness and male writers outnumber women, not a true representation of modern British writing. Frankly, I think there is. There is something to be gained by reading familiar writers and discovering some unknown ones in this structured manner. Also it helps in organising oneself to read all those contemporary authors who were left out for various reasons such as David Constantine, AL Kennedy, Helen Simpson, Clive Sinclair, Rose Tremain, and Hanif Kureishi. It becomes even more problematic when the article, “The” is used in the book title, implicitly stressing this is a definitive collection of short stories from Britain.

All said and done these volumes are set to be a literary landmark. Buy them for your reading pleasure or academic interest — it is immaterial. They will make a wonderful addition to any personal or institutional library.

Philip Hensher The Penguin Book of the British Short Story ( Vols 1 & 2) Penguin Classics, Penguin Random House UK, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 1400+ 

9 Feb 2016

Ali Smith – “How to be Both”

Ali Smith – “How to be Both”

How-to-be-BothIt is like everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see, in perspective,for miles. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re all also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both — the close-up happenings and the bigger picture.  (p.53)

This is a novel ( if you can call it so) that is cleanly divided in to two parts. The first part, set in the 1960s, is narrated by George, the conversations she had with her mum especially concerning art and life with her father and at school after her mother passed away. Her mother, Dr Carol Martineau, an economist journalist was not  exactly famous, but was prominent — “she had quite an important job at a think-tank and occasionally published opinion pieces in the Guardian or the Telegraph and sometimes also the American papers in their European editions, and a lot more people knew who she was after it was unveiled in the papers about the guerilla internet stuff.” Of all the whacky things her mother was known to have done, the craziest was the spontaneous trip to Ferrara, Italy she took her two children to. She wanted to show them the frescoes painted by Francesco del Cossa ( 1435-77). The second part of the book is narrated by Francesco, set in Renaissance Italy, describes the life of the artist, apprenticing to his father and later earning his own commissions, most notably the frescoes at Ferrara.

Much of the experience of reading the book depends upon the level of engagement the reader has with the book. Also it does not seem to matter to the quality of experience gained, if you read George’s story first or Francesco del Cossa, either which way it will work. This experimentation with the form and content is much in keeping with Ali Smith’s views on the topic. In a lecture that she delivered at the Edinburgh Writer’s Festival in 2012 – “Style vs Content: How should authors approach the task of writing a novel today?” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHOSXziim9A ) she explored the issues about form, style and content and the task of a reader. Ali Smith quotes Jane Austen who wants her readers to be clever. Ali Smith goes on to say that style is important and integral to the art of a novel, but it is not a language. It is derived from the Latin word that means it is a stylus or a writing implement.

How to be both has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. It is a well deserved spot in the limelight. If it wins the Booker, remains to be seen. I hope it does!

Ali Smith How to be Both Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 380 Rs. 599

9 October 2014

 

Ox-Tales, Profile books

Ox-Tales, Profile books

This is a comment I wrote to a friend who asked, “I was looking for a good book of modern short stories – European and or American. preferably written in the last 10 years. could you recommend anything?” There is a set of four anthologies called Ox-Tales, published by Profile Books and Oxfam. It consists of 38 short stories by contemporary writers. I think it is a mixed bag, but sounds very promising. I am itching to read it. It should be available in India soon, if not already. Hachette India is now representing Profile Books Ltd in India. Some of the authors are: Kate Atkinson, Beryl Bainbridge, William Boyd, Jonathan Buckley, Jonathan Coe, Geoff Dyer, Michel Faber, Sebastian Faulks, Helen Fielding, Giles Foden, Esther Freud, Xialou Guo, Mark Haddon, Zoë Heller, Victoria Hislop, A.L. Kennedy, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi, John le Carré, Marina Lewycka, Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Morpurgo, David Park, DBC Pierre, Ian Rankin, Vikram Seth, Nicholas Shakespeare, Kamila Shamsie, Lionel Shriver, Helen Simpson, Ali Smith, William Sutcliffe, Rose Tremain, Joanna Trollope, Louise Welsh, and Jeanette Winterson.