TagBlack Static

Some notes on diversity

This Guardian article by John Mullan, published in advance of Saturday’s Culture Show special on debut novelists, has attracted a fair amount of comment in my corner of the bookish internet; I’ll point you in particular towards posts by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Mike Harrison, and Sam Kelly (thanks to Martin Lewis and Paul Smith for highlighting those links). More from me after the programme has been broadcast, but there is one issue I’d like to address here, which is that all twelve of the novelists selected by Mullan’s panel are white. This has been remarked upon in the comments on the Guardian piece, and Mullan has replied that the judging panel were asked to select books solely on merit. Fair enough, but there is still an issue here.

We are talking about a field which can claim Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro as key figures of the last thirty years; by now, we should be at a stage where we could expect the results of a meritocratic process like this to show some ethnic diversity as a matter of course. The Culture Show‘s process has organically produced a selection which is respectably diverse in terms of gender and age; that it has not done the same in terms of ethnicity is a sign that there’s a problem somewhere. Whether the outcome is an artefact of this particular process or an indicator of something more systemic, I don’t know; either way, it is a cause for concern. I suggest that it would not have been considered acceptable if all the selected authors had been of the same gender; it shouldn’t be acceptable that they’re all white, either.

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I blogged last year about an issue of Black Static in which all the stories were by men; having been critical then, it’s only right and proper that I should acknowledge the good work being done in the latest issue. As well as two of the five stories being written by women, the entire book review section has been given over to works by women, as has Peter Tennant’s Case Notes blog for the month of February. Here’s a fine example of a literary institution noticing an issue with its field, and doing something to address it.

 

M.G. Preston, ‘Extreme Latitude’ (2010)

A short tale, told in diary form, of a scientist working at a polar weather station, who is slowly driven mad by a constant humming noise. The story works well enough in showing how the protagonist loses his grip on reality, as his diary entries become ever more frantic; but I think it falls down towards the end, because the supernatural interpretation that’s offered doesn’t quite convince, making it hard to accept the ambiguity for which Preston seems to be aiming. Almost there, but not quite.

This story appears in Black Static 16. Read all my posts about that issue here.

Tim Casson, ‘The Overseer’ (2010)

Depression-era London: our narrator, Darius, was born into a wealthy family, but is now having to deal with the hard economic times and has taken a job in a factory. He discovers a dark secret at its heart, in the form of the mill’s mysterious masked overseer. Casson evokes the atmosphere of the factory particularly well, and the ending takes the story takes the story off in a fascinating new direction. But the metaphorical underpinning doesn’t seem fully coherent, leaving me with the sense of a story containing two or three ideas that sit quite uncomfortably alongside one another, good though Casson’s writing is.

This story appears in Black Static 16. Read all my posts about that issue here.

Black Static 16: Apr-May 2010

On to the year’s second issue of Black Static, and five new stories:

Tim Casson, ‘The Overseer’

M.G. Preston, ‘Extreme Latitude’

Mike O’Driscoll, ‘One Last Wild Waltz’

Alison J. LIttlewood, ‘The Empty Spaces’

Lynda E. Rucker, ‘The Moon Will Look Strange’

The month in reading: April 2010

April was the month of the Clarke Award, and completing the shortlist led me to read my favourite book of the month — Far North, Marcel Theroux‘s tale of survival in the aftermath of environmental change. I also read two great coming-of=age novels in April: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, set in 1960s Australia; and The Spider Truces by Tom Connolly, set in 1980s Kent. And, in terms of short stories, Sarah Singleton‘s tale ‘Death by Water’ from Black Static 15 was my pick of the month.

Black Static 15: Sarah Singleton, ‘Death by Water’

Still grieving over the loss of his wife, Jeanette, Ian Massey visits a succession of mediums in the hope of contacting her — but all they can do is stir his memories of Jeanette. Until, that is, he meets Spark…

This is a very fine story indeed. I particularly appreciate the way that the true depth of Ian’s grief is revealed subtly, in his increasingly desperate search for the mediums; and that the story’s tight structure (alternating between Ian’s present-day visits to a medium and flashback-dreams to key moments in his and Jeanette’s relationship), and the stark rhythms of its prose, add to the sense that Ian is trapped on his current path.

‘Death by Water’ is the first piece of Singleton’s work that I’ve read; I’ll have to keep an eye out for more.

Links
Sarah Singleton’s website
Index of my Black Static 15 posts

The month in reading: March 2010

I didn’t get as much time to read in March as I’d hoped, and so read relatively few books last month, but the pick of the bunch was And This is TrueEmily Mackie‘s debut novel about a son trying to come to terms with his changing relationship with his father, and about the treacherousness of memory.

Other highlights from March were  Suzanne Bugler‘s fine character study, This Perfect World; Alex Preston‘s tale of the financial world, This Bleeding City; and Alastair Reynolds‘s sf adventure, Terminal World. And Simon Kurt Unsworth‘s ‘The Knitted Child’ was a simply beautiful short story.

Black Static 15: Daniel Kaysen, ‘Babylon’s Burning’

A relatively short piece in which the narrator, a poetry translator named Daniel, reluctantly goes along with his brother to a party at the International Security firm where the latter works. This organisation worships ‘the Gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood’, and it seems those gods answer back. Whilst at the party, Daniel discovers that he has a gift for prophecy, and is offered a position at the company; he doesn’t want to accept, but the temptation may be too great…

I’m undecided about ‘Babylon’s Burning’. On the one hand, Kaysen’s writing is great (though the short paragraphs don’t always allow it to flourish); on the other, I don’t find the story particularly interesting (and the biblical coding of the names feels gimmicky to me in a story so short, where it doesn’t have room to blend in). I really don’t know which side of the fence to come down on, so… I’ll stay in the middle.

Link
Index of my Black Static 15 posts

Black Static 15: Simon Kurt Unsworth, ‘The Knitted Child’

A young woman suffers a miscarriage, and her grandmother knits her a doll to replace the child she lost. It’s no ordinary gift, though, because the old woman has magic, and her doll is sentient — but it has no way to communicate.

This is such a beautiful story. For a start, Unsworth’s prose has the rhythm of classic storytelling — one imagines ‘The Knitted Child’ being great read aloud. The tale as a whole is a highly evocative portrait of grief, made perhaps all the more so because we see much of the story from the knitted child’s viewpoint; so, we experience not only the family’s heartbreak, but also the doll’s frustration and sadness at not being able to act — at not being able to be in reality the child that it wants to be in its mind.

‘The Knitted Child was the first of Simon Unsworth’s stories that I’d read; it will not be the last.

Links
Simon Kurt Unsworth’s blog
Index of my Black Static 15 posts

Black Static 15: James Cooper, ‘Eight Small Men’

It never ceases to fascinate me how different people can have such different views of the same story. As an example, Des Lewis liked James Cooper’s ‘Eight Small Men’ very much, whilst Jonathan McCalmont didn’t. I’m somewhere in the mddle of those two views, though falling more on the negative side.

Cooper’s narrator is Victor Farnsworth, who is visiting his dying foster father, Aubrey Bunce. The bulk of the story takes place a quarter-century earlier, when Victor and his older brother Franklyn lived with Aubrey, and Aubrey’s wife Edith (whom the boys called ‘the Matron’) and son Edwin (nicknamed Roach). The Matron’s household rules are strict and her punishments draconian; Roach gets his share of the latter, and in turn bullies the Farnsworth brothers — until, after one incident, tragedy strikes.

The key issue I have with ‘Eight Small Men’ is that, to me, it doesn’t manage to evoke the emotions underlying its events at the deep level which is necessary for the greatest effect. When I read about the treatment meted out to the boys, I reacted with disgust, as one would expect — but the feeling of what that was really like to the characters involved didn’t radiate from the page. Similarly, Victor’s major psychological transformation is portrayed ‘at a distance’, so its affect is weaker than it might otherwise be.

I also haven’t yet come to a satisfactory interpretation of the tale’s supernatural overtones (to which the title refers, though I won’t dwell on that). An iffy start to this issue of Black Static, then, but there are still four stories to go.

Links
James Cooper’s website
Index of my Black Static 15 posts

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