Sunday, 8 April 2007

Keep It In the Family

I have been heard to utter phrases like "I hate womag stories. I hate the trivial, clichéd plots, the crude, obvious characterisation, the awful twists in the tail, the banality…"

It's also true that I've said "I would like to drown all womag writers in a sack in the nearest canal." I have been accused of being extreme in this regard (though I don't know why.)

What has puzzled me for a long, LONG time is why these awful, awful stories are popular, and also why it should matter to me so much. Why can't I just forget about the womag market, the cheap and cheerful chick-lit novels, the button-pushers? Why do I care?

An easy response is an elitist one; something along the lines of "Well, I am intelligent, educated, worldly, and require depth and subtlety in the material I read, whereas ordinary people (he means not-very-bright) can be palmed off with any old crap."

The trouble is I know intelligent people who write womag stories, and I know intelligent people who would like to sell womag stories but cannot perfect the skill. (Phew, that was close, I nearly wrote "perfect the art.")

Finally, finally, I have begun to understand the cruel attractiveness of the simple, the cliché and the button-pusher. The answer is not intellect, it is sloth. The answer is not intelligence, it's lack of courage. The answer is not education, is lack of self-confidence.

I have been reading the excellent Ruth Padel on poetry. I am to poetry what the womag reader is to middling-serious literature, (not even "lit.")

Why is it so damn hard? this reader (moi) says. Why on earth should I want to work at understanding something?

It's interesting that I think this with poems (and plays?) and yet with short stories part of the pleasure is the layers, the allusions, the subtle metaphor and the implicit message. I like to read that, I like to write that, with short stories but throw in some line-breaks and I turn to a pathetic, gibbering idiot wanting a few rhymes and some easy-peasy instant-gratification.

Padel says: "Being difficult to understand does not make a poem good. But nor does being easy. Very often, what is easy to understand is simply flattering the reader, confirming what he or she thinks."

Bingo! Like the first metaphor I actually got (with a nudge from teacher) oh way cool, I'm a genius. (But keep the metaphor simple, have a ship plough the waves, I get that.)

Padel: "If people resent poetry they think is "difficult", they become vulnerable to what is instantly easy, what makes them feel safe."

T. S. Elliot pointed out that liking a bad poem and thinking it is good, was very different from enjoying a good poem. Someone who has not read many poems is "always liable to be taken in by fakes" and may "prefer the sham because fakes and kitsch are more easy to assimilate than the genuine article."

Padel asks: "But what is wrong with poems flattering me, confirming my beliefs, consoling my sorrows? What's wrong, for example, with Patience Strong."
Millions of people have turned to the simple "poetry" of Patience Strong, and, it seemed, gained solace from it. As Padel says: "At your peril do you despise what people hang on to in pain. No one who has not been in a position where they have to depend on Patience Strong has the right to knock her. If you want to call her verse 'sham' you better have good arguments."

I hear the same arguments over womag stories. Millions of people love them. They keep people happy. Women read them for light relief. They don't want death and disaster, they don't need doom and gloom, they just want to be entertained, taken out of it for five minutes. How dare you criticize that!"

In a famous set-to arranged by the Times, a modern poet (Simon Armitage) was pitted against a businessman who liked "traditional" verse. The business man (Padel says) wanted poetry to be entertaining and thus "played to the gallery" (give them what they want.) Here is an example:

When I was but a boy
The dark was full of dread
I trembled then as monsters filed
To loom beside my bed.

When the businessman looked at Armitage he wanted to: "Restructure it so a great many more people might enjoy it."

Before I continue, a small aside. I give a talk meant to puncture my own balloon. It's called, "Tries Hard, Could Do Better." And it lists my growth as a writer from a level that was truly pitiful:

Why don't you choo-choo, diesel train.
Why can't you puff and wheeze?
Why can't you be like the steam-trains were,
Oh won't you tell me please?

The audience is supposed to laugh, laugh with me and at me. It's OK, I say, I have improved. But after my talk I get a rush of excited buyers. They want to buy the stuff I have just used as an example of how shittily I once wrote.

Padel points out that the businessman was using the market approach to poetry. The instant appeal school. The-more-people-like-it-the-better-it-must-be school. I seemed to be experiencing something similar. But WHY? Why when I stand up and say, "Listen to this AWFUL 'poem' of mine (ha-ha) people love it. Why?"

Children love us to repeat fairy-tales. Not only do they not mind repetition but they actively seek out the exact same story (and don't make a mistake.) This condition is so strong that I have entertained children on cruise ships with the game, "Knickers!"

I tell a story. They have to shout "Knickers!" every time I make a mistake. "Twice upon a time..." KNICKERS! (and so on.)

In Padel's book she mentions MSG. Monosodium Glutamate, a probable carcinogenic artificially sharpens flavours. Because the tastes are more obvious, more people enjoy the dishes. The result? MSG in most of our Eastern restaurants. But, Padel points out, people who care about health and who have developed palates don't want MSG foods. They want real food, healthier food, more honest food.

Does the fact that more people prefer meals with MSG make them better?

Padel says that poetry's MSG is the cliché. When I read a cliché I groan. I hate the damn things (like I hate womag stories with their clichéd set-ups and stock and stereotyped characters) so why do so many people like them? Padel says: "Clichés appeal instantly and make people feel safe. They help society hang together." Stand in a bus queue and you might well swap clichés about the weather. It's non-threatening and superficial contact. It makes us cosy. "Worn words about silver linings, the darkness before dawn, pots that never boil, can make us feel we're together, part of a community. The words mean little; what is sustaining is the temporary contact."

Clichés are clichés precisely because they are over-used. They are second-hand ideas, second-hand writing, unfresh by definition. They are not your thoughts but a thought you borrowed. The reader isn't listening, the meaning doesn't impinge. They "know" what you mean, like the child knows what's coming in that fairy-story.
When I started writing short-stories I tried to reproduce what I imagined the reading public wanted, murder mysteries, twists, enigmatic horror with the answers held back, happy-endings after a misunderstanding was resolved.

What I wasn't doing was speaking from the heart, and definitely not the soul. I was giving them what they had always had, what I imagined they always wanted. On top of a lack of experience I was handicapped by a lack of honesty or integrity. I wasn't writing stories, I was concocting prose trying to get published.

My early short-stories were: a story of a spaceman with an unusual way of having sex (from an old joke)… a man and a woman on a train and he keeps missing the come-on (from another joke)… a twist in the tail about a man being interviewed for a job (it's to be the public executioner)… a man who doesn't know he's dead… an eternal triangle story where the female narrator knows the husband is wrong. There is no other man… that's because the wife's affair is with the narrator! Another story, opening with disembodied dialogue, relies on its "success" by the revelation in the last paragraph. It's called cheating folks.

My early successes were: a woman with a magic credit card, an old soldier having a heart-attack on a train, a widow talking to her husband's ghost, all fairly obviously plotted, all "comfortable" to read, nothing too challenging. One of those stories I quite like still and I remember the first-reader (at a large competition) seeking me out at the prize awards to thank me for writing it!

I got better. My stories came from deeper inside, became fresher, richer, more complex, a little more challenging (but not too much.) Now I was winning competitions all over the place. Yippee, I was a writer.

I got better. And found I didn't sell. The "market" wanted more-of-the-same and awarded its accolades to the shiniest pieces. I learned that what a boot-camper would one day say was true: "The best way to win short-story competitions is with womag stories, womag characters but with a little bit of language to open and close."

This writer wasn't advocating this as an approach. Instead it was a sad reality.
In the UK much of the market is aimed at the beginning and improving writer and the stories that win the competitions are rarely "challenging". Competition readers choose stories they believe they could write (on a good day, downhill, with a following wind)

Genuinely good stories, though, are too far off, too "above" so they are condemned as "pretentious" or "wilfully obscure" or "fancy for fancy's sake". The result is magazine stories that are more or less all the same, easy to read, even easier to forget.

Do this test. Think of some stories you read in February or March. Remember any?

Most winning stories, many magazine stories, are SAFE stories, stripped off most errors, MFA or MA polished, highly competent but lacking fire, balls, drama, guts.

So what does the new writer learn? Well, there are the pinnacles: £500 winner of this, $1,000 winner of that, published in:

So the new writers aspire to write the same bland, forgettable fiction that is winning and placing. Give them an opening type they'll be familiar with, don't be afraid of stock language or a few clichés, just keep that prose flowing. Push a button or two, just don't make it too obvious, and finish with a flourish, maybe a bigger moment. If you can use one or two sentences they might call "brave" then go for it, those editors and judges will love that.

Elementary writing, writing that's safe, stock, comfortable, like the stuff the readers are reading now, that writing makes them feel cosy, loved, respected. When Jackie and Jack read these stories, they are affirmed. See, they understand. They get that old-school metaphor, they recognise the headmaster. This writer connects.

Of course he does. He says your wife is pretty, your team is the best, your house is lovely, and you look good for your age. No challenge, nothing new, nothing that is "dangerous" or disconcerting. Hell, this is so good, you might have written it. Pass it on to the shortlist, all is well with the never-changing world.


Kathmcg said...


Have you ever eaten in The Fat Duck, in Bray?

I bet you wouldn't want to eat there every day. You'd be longing to come home to a bacon sarnie after a while.

There's a place for Fat Duck type cuisine, and an equal place for bacon butties. Likewise, a place for cutting-edge challenging fiction, and an equal place for women's mag stories.

We need to find our own niche in writing. That's not to say we shouldn't sometimes try something different. But we should also respect those who inhabit different niches - even if the grub there is not to our taste.

als said...

Hi kathmcg,

not sure i agree with the idea we should respect those who 'inhabit different niches'


respect has to be earned, deserved

taste is one thing - personally i'm not a great fan of Dickens, but i can pretty much respect his writing - it's just not to my taste

the chick-lit stuff my wife reads (she also reads 'better' books, but would entirely agree with your argument, i'm sure) isn't just not to my taste.

it's really not very good.

and, yes, i speak as a writer only published in the small presses, whose made the sum total of £500 from my writing, who will in all probablity never have a book published.

doesn't stop me knowing that some of the writers earning silly money are churning out lowest-common-denominator rubbish which insults its audience by patronising them, stuff that takes very little thought to write, and even less to read.

i don't believe there's a duty to respect anything just because it's is published.

of course, it's possible to say 'right, it's so easy, you write something that crap, then'

well, you know what? that is becoming more and more appealing.

i've got a female pseudonym all lined up...

by the way, kath mcg, good to see a non-bc person (i presume) on here

Kathmcg said...

i don't believe there's a duty to respect anything just because it's is published.

Oh no, me neither. But respect the authors, give them their due, for getting there. And if someone's book sells millions, or a short story writer is featured in every women's fiction special, then respect them, for they are getting something right.

lowest-common-denominator rubbish which insults its audience by patronising them, stuff that takes very little thought to write, and even less to read

Those who feel patronised should read something else - they probably aren't the target audience anyway.

Takes little thought to write? Does it? The pieces I've written which took least thought were flash fiction, written to prompts within a time limit. I've never managed to get those published anywhere except non-paying ezines.

Getting a story to sound as though it was effortless is hard work and takes real skill - whether your story is aimed at a women's mag or a high-end lit mag.

Non-BC? Yes.

The Boot Camp Diaries said...

I have never read a womag story with the slightest literary worth, or originality, or the slightest mental challenge.

Whether they take "skill" or not is hardly the point, the end result is poor, IMO worthless.

As for flashes being "easy" or mindless, or taking no thought, and then not placing, that may be your experience but it is not mine.

I won three competitons last year (for STORIES, not flashes) and all three were won with flashes written as BC exercises.

But "flashing" is a method of generating raw material, it need not, in itself generate stories. I have seen hundreds of quality flashes and remember many. I cannot imagine a womag twist in the tail story staying with me for an hour, never mind days or weeks or months.

Incidentally, your defence of womag stories seems to be saying that there are people out there who like or "need" such low-end writing.

But that's the point Pavel makes. It's cheap and a false "like" swapping familiarity and comfort for any meaningfulness.

And the comparison is not womag v high-end literary, but womag and Mills & Boon v almsost anything else.

Even half-decent crime books, or SF, or middle-of-the road general fiction can actually engage the brain better and for longer than a womag story


Hetty said...

The point that seems to be missing here is that even if womags didn't publish the type of light fiction they do, they wouldn't be replacing it with literary shorts. Those womags that have stopped taking fiction have replaced the stories with true life tales. They know their readership, because they study them carefully and it isn't patronising to suggest that some people prefer light fiction.

One womag did publish Alice Munro and she didn't seem to suffer from the association.

The main point is that if you took away light fiction, those readers wouldn't suddenly start reading Saul Bellows.

Kathmcg said...

Thanks Hetty - I'd forgotten about that Alice Munro story. It was in a Woman's Weekly Fiction Special a couple of years back.

Which reminds me - WW always include a few stories from their 'best-sellers collection' in every fiction special. These often include crime stories by top names (current issue has a Dalziel and Pascoe story in).

And I've read several women's mag stories which have stayed with me a long time - they are not all cheap twists in the tail, these days. Those cliched plots Alex wrote about are on the magazines' not-wanted lists now. Things have moved on.

Hetty said...

I've read quite a few flash stories here, there and everywhere and very few are as memorable as you suggest Alex. They're a bit like hors deuvres. They taste okay and might curb your appetite for a short time, but they're no match for the main course, which is a good, meaty story.

Perhaps it's a matter of approach, Alex. You approach flash fiction as a medium of which you approve so you remember them. You approach writing in womags as a medium that you despise, so aren't really engaging in the stories at all.

Jem_C said...

It's ridiculous to say that a whole sector of publishing is worthless because the stories are "comfortable" and don't challenge people. After a long, stressful, busy day, people don't necessarily want to sit down and read something "challenging", something that makes them feel uncomfortable. To suggest otherwise is like saying sofas are unworthy pieces of furniture, the people who make them are unimaginative and the people who sit on them, lazy.


JP Maloney said...

Interesting views.
I wouldn't read women's magazine stories. If people do, and enjoy them, then fair enough. It's not as though if these stories didn't exist (as someone pointed out above) a nation's libraries would find themselves suddenly out of Hemingway novels.

I think writers of "chick lit" deserve at least some respect, because formula or not, it is just not that easy to write 80,000 words.

There is also the implicit assumption from the detractors, one bordering on snobbery, that these authors could do "better" if they tried harder, that they are deliberately self-limiting to make money. Perhaps not. Perhaps they are producing the best work they can. If so, good on them.

They also don't make much money. I know one "successful" womag author with 30 novels on the shelves, yet she needed an Arts Council grant to fund a literary novel. I don't believe it has to this day been published. Given that, I couldn't blame her for writing chick lit novel #31, entertaining a few thousand people and keeping herself in bread and milk.

Kathmcg said...

You're right, Jem, and your sofa analogy is far better than my Fat Duck vs bacon butties one, although we are saying exactly the same thing.

Cheers, she said, slobbing back onto several cushies while fat from a white-bread bacon sandwich dripped comfortingly onto her copy of Fiction Feast.

Kathmcg said...

JP - we simul-commented.

I also misspelt cushions. Brain obviously gone to mush as a result of reading too many women's mags. Or was it the other stuff that did it?

Hetty said...

JP, it's a big assumption to make that womag writers are only writing womag type stories. I know plenty of writers who write for womags but are also at home writing literary shorts that are often placed in competitions. Ideas for stories, when they come, don't immediately classify themselves as womag or otherwise.

The Boot Camp Diaries said...

ALS made the point that "some of the stuff" (I think 99%) is "not very good".

That's half the point. It's crude, cheap PACKAGED junk.

You can order from Mills & Boon IN BULK. You can just say "give me 32 M&Bs a month"

How can anybody pretend that stuff that's so similar that it can be packaged in such way could be of even the most trivial worth?

After the success of "The Bad Mother's Handbook" (I make no comment on the worth or otherwise of that book, but I did read it) we then saw DOZENS of similarly-titled books... one shelf in Tesco had about 15 (maybe more) of these and the titles were like playing word-swap... The Book of the Mother's Bad Hand" was about the only title not there.

And of course they were all the same pastel shades, "Give me Lilac!" Give me Lilac!" and little cartoon stick-people.

This copy-cat crap is not WRITING, it's sausage making, and it patronises people. It says they are too stupid to have any discernment. The manufacturers KNOW that their demographic will consume this stuff.

Incidentally, chicklit, ladlit, grannylit or whatever I consider to be two or three leagues better than the typical womag story, so please DON'T conflate the two.

Ruth Padel made the point that good poetry is simply better (when compared to the cheap and cheerful rhyming-or-not that some people call poetry)

and she makes the point that freshness is essential to get genuine feeling, genuine thought

the cliche, the stereotype, the crude cheap twist are for material that isn't meant to last more than five minutes.

The idea that some poor dumb species, the tired "housewife" after a day's work, or the working woman after her commute is so FUCKING DUMB that all she can cope with is some shite story about "John going to school and he's worried how people will treat him..."

Wait, ho ho ho, he's the HEADMASTER

Wow, I never expected THAT!

How MORONIC do you have to be to believe that that's entertainment?

A few weeks ago I posted the openings to half a dozen womag stories and without fail everybody knew the ending, eve though that ending was a twist.

That's the point my article makes. The reader seeks affirmation, belonging. She sees the ending coming and gets a miniscule thrill that she was right.


The Boot Camp Diaries said...

Hetty talks of flash stories "here there and everywhere" maybe not being good.

She misses the point. The womag stories in Women's Realm" or "Take a Break" or in Fiction Feast" etc are THE PINNACLE of the genre

These are THE VERY BEST, the stuff being published by PROs! Imagine the stories failing to make it into print.

The best of that best is still criminally weak. The characters are off the shelf, the dialogue is banal, the twists are crude.

To make the comparison with flashes read in ezines is dumb. What about the flashes or shorts in New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, The US University Magazines, The OHenry, The Pushcart Collections, Best American Short Stories, New Welsh Review, Planet, Chapman, Stand, London Magazine, 7Q, Cadenza, The Bridport Anthology. The weakest stories in Peninsular were better than the best womag stories.