Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Rachel Fenton Question and Answer Session With a Multi-Award WinningShort Story Author

Rachel Fenton  is a multi-awarded short story writer.   One joy the Internet brings to readers of the world is the ability to discover wonderful  new to them writers.  Were it not for the internet I would never possibly have read anything by Fenton as I don't have access to print literary journals.   I have so far have had the great pleasure of reading two of her short stories, "Ladder to the Moon" and "The Bull Calf", upon both of which I have posted.  Today I delighted to be able to share a Q and A Session with her.

Official Bio

Rachel J. Fenton was born in 1976 and grew up in relative poverty in South Yorkshire. She has a BA in English Studies from Sheffield Hallam University, where she studied under the tutelage of E. A. Markham before relocating to Auckland in 2007. Winner of the 7th Annual Short Fiction Competition (University of Plymouth) and the 2013 Flash Frontier Winter Award, she is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Short-listed for the 2013 FishInternational Poetry Prize (judged by Paul Durcan), the 2012 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize, Binnacle Ultra-Short Competition (named honoree), the Fish One Page Prize, the 6th Annual Short Fiction Competition, and the Kathleen Grattan Award, other listings include the Bristol Prize, and the Sean O’ Faolain International Short Story Prize.

Recent publications include the journals The Stinging Fly MagazineShort Fiction #7;JAAM #30, #31; brief #44-45, #47; French Literary Review #18Cordite Poetry Review;Pank; and Metazen; and a comprehensive list can be found at

AKA Rae Joyce, she is an AUT award winning graphic poet, was mentored by Dylan Horrocks, is featured in New Zealand Comics and Graphic Novels (Hicksville Press), Two Thirds North, The Poetry BusFlash FrontierThrush Poetry Journal, and was 2013 Artist in Residence at Counterexample Poetics. Between 2011 and 2012, she wrote, drew and published a page per day of the epic web-comic Escape Behaviours.

A.  Can you tell us a bit about your writing routine? Do you typically set aside a certain period to write, always write in same place, do you listen to music while you write, do you need solitude to write?

My writing routine has changed a lot over the last year or so, since my youngest child started first Kindergarten and now school, so I’ve gone from cramming thirty-six hours of writing time into each weekend to having thirty hours spread over five days each week – I think I was more productive when I had more restrictions, to be honest, but the quality of my work has improved since my routine changed.
I’ve also changed where I work, from any quiet corner basically, and often sitting on the bed for more hours than is good for one’s gluteus maximus, to having a desk squished in behind the dining table, at the window where the first sun of the day enters.
I’m very sensitive to music and it can invade my concentration, so I tend to prefer writing in as close to silence as is possible living within earshot of a busy road in the burbs, and save my music for when I’m drawing comics. I work best in silent isolation. 

B.  If you could give your eighteen year old self one suggestion, what would it be?  

Fight back.

C. "in the name of a humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favour of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
What is your reaction to these very famous lines from "The Death of the Author" by Roland Barthes?

To respond reveals Barthes' paradox, telling the reader to respond to him, the writer, by disregarding, that is to say not responding, to him. A metaphor for much of life, I think. I remember sitting in a Critical Theory seminar where this essay was being discussed, being the first of my peers to, if not spot it, articulate the paradox. It was the first time I felt intelligent and valuable for that as opposed to 

my appearance. There are as many myths for women to overthrow as there are paradoxes. So often, the birth of the female intellect is at the cost of her appearance. Society should learn to stop ignoring women by looking at them and instead take notice of them by not looking at them, to read them without reading them. That's a beautiful paradox.

D. UNCHARTED LIVES is a fascinating study by gay psychotherapist Stanley Siegel and straight Newsday columnist Ed Lowe Jr. The text is a mass analysis of how gay men develop through the eight male life passages from 'pre-emergence' to 'mentorin'’. The book is the result of numerous interviews and research. This data is balanced with Siegel's own dramatic mid-life coming out story.
When asked why such a seemingly disproportionate number of creative men are gay this was Siegel's response-  

"I think that because gay men live in a society that is hostile to them, because they are oppressed, have few role models, and in most cases have no legal rights or institutions that support and honor us we became extraordinarily inventive in the ways we live our lives. The process of become gay, of accepting one's sexuality, is a process of living an extremely original life. The apparatus of a creative life begins early, when we feel we are different in some way but have no language to explain the difference. Young gay boys feel that almost always and consequently they often isolate themselves or are isolated by the outside world. Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming highly productive - drawing, writing, creating. Usually this stays with the person the rest of their life and is only enhanced by the challenges they meet later on."
My question is do you think he is onto something?  Is the creativity of Gay men derivative from growing up without role models, from having to create a sense of self?

I'm not a gay man, and I can't begin to address one generalisation with another. I can only speak of my own experience. To focus, then, on these lines: "Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming highly productive - drawing, writing, creating. Usually this stays with the person the rest of their life and is only enhanced by the challenges they meet later on." - I would agree. I had quite an isolated upbringing, geographically and socially cut off from my school peers, for example, as well as feeling very alienated from my family and peers. There were financial limitations, too. All these factors, and more besides, definitely demanded creativity from me.
Albert Bandura posited the theory of learned behaviour, and certainly I looked outwards to learn how to adapt socially and create a sense of self that didn’t mirror the models I had as a child.
E. "It is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art" - from  "Against Interpetation" by Susan Sontag

As a writer, how do you feel when people Interpet your work, attribute meaning to it?, see things in it you never thought about?  

A writer friend of mine is fond of paraphrasing Ted Hughes: “Poets build houses; it’s up to readers how they choose to live in them.” I found this a helpful concept to keep in mind when I published online my graphic poem Escape Behaviours – readers of that had varied interpretations and I enjoyed contemplating their suggested inspirations for my work (the benefit of having intelligent readers is that they elevate your work intellectually!). The first instance of a reader relating their interpretation of my short fiction to me happened last year, when I won the 7th annual Short Fiction competition (university of Plymouth). What was surprising to me was how keen some readers were to read my fiction as straight autobiography. I did have to overcome the urge to tell people, this story’s narrator is not me. But overall, I haven’t had a lot of feedback – I’d be interested to know what it means to other people.

Who is your ideal reader?  

Me – hahaha! Someone sensitive, a little not of this time, a person who lingers over the page…

F.   It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, some PhDs.  Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published?. Is it homogenizing writing styles? Will the day of the amateur writer who comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?  Does it give you pause to know the University of Iowa M A in writing scholarships for students from outside the USA, were for years funded by the C. I. A? 

Great question! Certainly, I’m noticing the advantages other writers with creative MAs have, but I am hopeful that the internet is making it easier for people like me, people who cannot afford to go to university to have a chance to play on the same field as more privileged writers, even if we still have to join a separate dinner queue. I can’t comment on whether an increase of writers with MAs makes for homogeny, there have always been schools of styles – you mention the Iowa program – and all I can do is write how I write and trust there’s a readership for me.

G.  How important is seeing different parts of the world to you in terms of stimulating your creativity?  

I have a complex relationship with geography and culture as inspiration. Other places and cultures definitely stimulate me creatively. However, I have a problem with a lot of writing that in my opinion demonstrates a colonial-like trade in representing other cultures. Certainly, speaking as a Brit, we no longer buy and sell people, and yet we colonise them in our fiction.

H.  Where can we find you online?

My blog is began as a motivational tool and now it’s a journal of my writing progress. Much of my epic web-comic Escape Behaviours is here:; and I co-author a blog with Sara Crowley: I’m also on Twitter as, and Facebook as my comic alter-ego Rae Joyce: - thank you for asking!

I.  Besides reading and writing, what are some of your hobbies or interests. ?

I love crafts, anything creative takes my interest, and had I any spare income I’m sure I could become a clutter-bug of a collector, and I’d dearly like to make pots again and get a swish camera….day-dreaming is clearly a hobby!

J.  Please tell us something about your recent publications and/or works in progress.

My most recent publications have been collaborative poetry with the New Jersey writer and hip-hop artist Jamez Chang – an energising and fruitful partnership that stemmed from joint publication inMelusine, since when Jamez has sampled my voice in his music and I’ve produced art forCounterexample Poetics, the online journal he co-edits. 

Work-in-progress comprises of a short story for an anthology, several comics, including a graphic interview with Adnan Mahmutovic for Flash Frontier, the fiction zine I’m currently features editor for.  

I.  What motivated you to move to New Zealand?
Too many things to explain concisely!

J.  Have you been to the Katherine Mansfield Home Museum in Wellington?  If so tell us a bit about the experience please. 

I have been to Wellington twice but haven’t made it to Mansfield’s home, much to my shame! In mitigation, I have read her complete works several times. She wrote so sensitively of class disparity and is perhaps my favourite deceased writer (that’s meant to sound better than it perhaps comes across!).

1.   how and when did you begin to write? 

I wrote my first story out of my head when I was six. My teacher didn’t believe I’d written it, called me a liar and shamed me into keeping my writing a secret. As a teenager I wrote illustrated stories for relatives, stage plays for highschool, and had a few articles published in a local newspaper. I attempted my first novel when I was nineteen. It took me until I was almost thirty to believe in myself enough to push myself to publication. But I’m learning all the time, so every day feels like the beginning. 

2.   How impacted is your creativity by the cycles of the seasons?  By the reversal of season patterns in the Southern Hemisphere?

My creativity isn’t impacted, as such, but my productivity is – I cannot write when I’m cold and low atmospheric pressure triggers migraines, which is an issue in a place where sunshine and rain are interspersed so frequently! The main difficulty arising from the location shift is remembering the seasonal difference when setting stories in either hemisphere – spring lasts six months in my head and it takes effort to remember that it’s March to May in the UK and September to November in NZ, and to then untangle this confusion for the rest of the year... my brain is anchored neither to England nor New Zealand.

3.   Who are some of your favourite contemporary short story writers, poets or novelists?  What classic writers do you find yourself drawn to reread.  If a neophyte writer in your primary focus were to ask you who to read, what might you suggest?

My favourite contemporary writers change all the time. The books on my desk currently include Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington, and everything by or about the Brontes and Mary Taylor. I'd suggest reading Tina Makereti, Patricia Grace and Robert Sullivan as an introduction to New Zealand literature

Middlemarch is the classic I return to, and that would be my first suggestion to a neophyte writer, with an instruction to follow it with as much contemporary fiction as is possible to consume. 

4.  Frank  O'Connor in The Lonely Voice:  A Study of the Short Story said short stories seem to be about marginalized people, the lonely, those with with little voice in society.   Do you think h

My favourite contemporary writers change all the time. The books on my desk currently include Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington, and everything by or about the Brontes and Mary Taylor. I'd suggest reading Tina Makereti, Patricia Grace and Robert Sullivan as an introduction to New Zealand literaturee is on to something illuminating about the format?  Why is there so much loneliness in the short story?

It’s the nature of the beast; writing stories is such a solitary act. Introversion and self-reflection seem to be the first response upon writing them. For myself, socially awkward and ignorant in my experiences, I write to escape myself, to empathise and connect with others, to experience lives I’ll never live. It’s all about trying to understand, which suggests the desire follows a feeling of not understanding, an outsider-ness.

5.  I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics.   How big a factor do you think the Irish Weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers.?   I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on tropical island, for example. 

I think it boils down to the people with the power in the publishing world: white, middle class, English speaking people, on the whole. New Zealand has a great tradition of self-publishing, so many of its home-grown talents don’t really get a look-in on the mainstream international scene. Huiapublishes some of New Zealand’s finest contemporary writers, but many of them write in Māori.Scott Hamilton’s blog is a fantastic resource for finding under-appreciated Pacific literary gems. 

6.   Many cultures are permeated with references to seemingly supernatural creatures, some kind some manavolent.  Do you feel any sense of these entities in the world you look out on in your daily life or in your writings?  Do you sense a continuity between the natural and supernatural worlds.  Is a belief in the supernatural just escapism and wishful thinking?  Is the belief in occult systems the refuge of the powerless?

I think the seemingly simple act of imagining is the equivalent to a portal to alter-realities. If we want to understand our reality in its entirety we must explore to its edges and beyond. Belief as antidote to ignorance is troublesome, however, particularly where organised religion is involved, and certainly the powerless are sometimes taken advantage of in this context. Interesting question – I’m not sure I can answer it adequately.

7.  These are loaded question coming from me, but with the decline of print reviews, are book blogs becoming more important?  Professional critics have denigrated book bloggers as reviewers without credentials, book bloggers have replied professional reviewers just don't like bloggers doing for free what they ask money for doing? Reviewers do it for money, bloggers for love.  What is your reaction to this?  Do you join book tours or send bulk mailings out asking for reviews?  

This goes back to the earlier point I made about privilege and those with power, and farther to Barthes’ paradox; the way I see it, there are two basic factors involved in the demise of print reviews. Firstly, economics, and secondly, and more pertinent to the context of this question, the internet have rendered many print publications obsolete. On the positive side, this move has been good for addressing the class imbalance in publishing, but on the downside, it means that new writers simple aren’t earning from their work. And the same follows for reviewers. 

Think of it this way – humour me – if books were fire, what would you need? (Fire needs oxygen, fuel and heat). You say love, but love plus books equates to only two of the elements needed – one cannot live on love and books, one needs fuel, so, in the society we have, that fuel is money.
I’m at a point in my life where I’m going to have to give up the majority of my writing time in order to find paying work. I would rather earn from my writing, but that doesn’t seem possible. Paradoxically, the internet has been the means that I could publish and a limitation.

I have taken part in blog tours and enjoyed them, and the least writers can do is to support each other, but I haven’t sent out work for review – I have no collected fiction or physical books to peddle yet. Blogs are a lifeline for writers, a bridge between writers and readers. We all need readers, just like Barthes.

8.  When you write, do you picture and audience or do you just write? 

As the great late Bruce Lee said, “Don’t think, feel.” I would add write. I don’t know what I feel until I can read it back.

9.  Assuming this applies to you, how do you get past creative "dry spells", periods when you have a hard time coming up with ideas or when things seem futile? 
I haven’t had a dry spell, quite the contrary; I know I’ll die with many stories unwritten.

10.  If someone says to you, "I prefer to live life, not just read about it," what is your reaction inside?  (Besides cringing!)

Someone has actually said this to me! I think my expression related all my criticism at that time. Now I’d say, why live only one life? There are myriad choices in any library, book shop, and online – reincarnation at your fingertips.

11.  What are the last three novels you read?  Last three movies?  Do you have any favourite TV shows?  Are there literary works you find reverberate in your mind in happy or in dark times?
Tom Vowler’s That Dark Remembered Day, Jane Gardam’s God on the Rocks, and I’m part-way through Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. 

Moonrise Kingdom, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Red House.

Favourite TV shows include ForbrydelsenBron/Broen (The Bridge), Borgen, and Top of the Lake

I think moments or lines rather than whole literary works reverberate for me, Marian McAlpin fleeing her own party in Atwood’s The Edible Woman, Joseph’s paw-like, bandaged hands in Angela Carter’s Several Perceptions. Often I remember ludicrous moments that fit neither into happy or sad times; escapes?

12. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons.” I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines.  American heroes were all victors; they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by Spanish or American Rulers. How has the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, shaped Irish literature? In America it seems somehow the best short stories writers like Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers, all writers admired by Irish authors, had their sensibilites shaped by the defeat of the south in the American Civil War.  Feel free to apply this to your heritage.

I think it would be appallingly insensitive of me to attempt to speak for the Irish, given my birth country’s oppressive relationship with that country. I think experience undoubtedly shapes people, individually and as nations, but I don’t feel generic labels helpful, beyond making the historian’s work simpler.
I’m from an underrepresented class of writers, but by no means one more deserving than any other. I write because it’s a privilege may working class women don’t have. I’m thankful I have a voice. Britain is good at drowning out those it doesn’t wish to hear criticism from with the bellowing of its self-perceived triumphs.

13.  If you could live anywhere in the past for six months, or forever, and be rich and safe, where would you pick and why? 

Rest assured I live in the past; the past is before us, read any newspaper! I’d like a modest income, and safety, yes please.

14.  Amazon - as a reader I like it a lot-  but is it a monster slowly taking down small publishers and independent book stores, controlling what books succeed? Is it bad for authors?
It is a fact, and it is only a service, it cannot do anything without demand; so, for anyone who perceives it as a monster, I’d suggest they stop using it. I rarely use it, and then only for the rare times I buy Kindle books (less than a dozen in total!), instead preferring to put my money where my mouth is and buying from as many small and Indie publishers and book sellers as possible, though I do venture over to the Book Depository from time to time – what a hypocrite I am. 

It’s another paradox for authors – what complicated existences we lead.

15.  Are you open to e-mail, Facebook or Twitter, contact with your readers or do you fear stalkers or don't want to be bothered?

My preferred contact with readers is via my blog and Twitter – I do respond to all polite comments. I used to welcome e-mail, until a fan-cum-self-declared-friend sent me an abusive misogynistic tirade. I don’t see contact as a bother, per se. If someone’s gone to the effort of reading my work it’s reasonable they should want to express that and I’m inclined to express my thanks in return.

16.  A while ago I read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge - few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors - he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him - so if Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in Ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most referenced poets by Irish writers last year was Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? Why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse.  If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet?  (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.). Some of this may just be a story about a poet with a stable marriage, a job and no substance issues may seem dull compared to wilder lives.  

I wonder how many of us are living more quietly than we wish and seek vicarious satisfaction from the perceived chaotic lifestyles of the bright literary flames who burned-out young? (Sorry to answer a question with a question). The chaotic territory could be, in part, down to biographers choosing the choicest cuts to emphasise, or it could be down to writers being, as a friend of mine recently described me, “All the feels”. The admiration may be little more than being dazzled by fire and hanging around to warm our hands. Or it may be awe of those who live in a way we fear – loss of control is intoxicating to some. Who knows? (Another question, albeit rhetorical – again, apologies!).

17.  Is a certain amount of suffering good for a writer?  

Yes. Misery is very productive. If not misery then experience - the broader the better – though I’m trying to justify the quantity of misery I’ve had in my own life here, you understand. 

Alternatively, of course not – many happy writers have done marvellously. Excuse me a moment whilst I think who they are…

18.  Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please. 

I’ve attended creative writing seminars in university, and I went to a poetry workshop given by Jackie Kay, when she visited Auckland last year as part of the Writers and Readers Festival. I’m not sure this is enough experience to make me a spokesperson for them. I think they are helpful for stimulating ideas, but I also think one can recreate the stimuli for oneself.

19.  Make up a question and answer it please.

Is it true you know the graphic diarist and purportedly favourite graphic poet of Dylan Horrocks and Grant Buist, Rachel Jones?

Yes. Rachel Jones and I are like this *crosses fingers*. 

20.  Not long ago I was sent several very hostile messages from Irish writers demanding to know why I had posted on the works of other writers and not them.  Some suggested I had been influenced by some sort of shadowy group to ignore their work. I was informed there is a small elite group who decides who gets reviewed, published or receives grants and it was also suggested they had sent me negative feedback on writers I should ignore. What is mentally behind this? Is there anything like a Literary Mafia within your area?

Ha! Undoubtedly there are cliques in any establishment, and the literary world is not immune to them. But I’m a fairly down-to-earth lass and such petty divisions, albeit fuel for my writing, don’t interest me to involve myself in personally. (But invite me round for a cuppa and I’ll spill!)

21.  One of the characters in Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, set in Mexico city and centering on poets, says that the main reason poets, nearly all male in Bolano's book, read at workshops is to meet the way disproportional number of women who come to them in search of a tortured soul to nourish.  Is there truth in this?  Why are attendees preponderantly female, or is that not true? Male writers, have you ever used the "troubled artist who feels too much" routine on women?  Ladies, does this persona have an appeal to you?

Oh, crikey, yes, there’s nothing sexier than a troubled soul! Heap them upon me; let me heal all of them! But perhaps Bolano’s femmes were all poets, attending as workshop-ees in lieu of being invited to host the workshop? Your man sounds like he is nourishing his own fantasies.

22.   Tell us a bit about your non-academic non-literary work experience please.

Most of my life has involved trying to work my way out of financial crises and I’ve had varied jobs: clay pigeon trapper, gardener, junior in a hair salon, mural artist, cleaner, manager of a dry cleaners, factory worker, bakery assistant, sweet shop assistant, office administrator, classroom assistant, unqualified teacher working with kids with special needs and learning and or behavioural difficulties.

  Tell us something about your educational background, please. 

I left high school with nine GCSEs, not including maths, was discouraged from further education by both the school careers advisor and my local college but signed up for A Levels anyway, dropped out and enrolled in a foundation arts course, followed by a HND in Design, followed by a fine art degree which I abandoned due to personal and financial reasons. I graduated with a bachelors in English from Sheffield Hallam in 2007, having completed my math CGSE (finally) the previous year, when I was also diagnosed with dyscalculia.

23.  Who are three dead writers you would like to do a q and a session with?

Thomas Hardy, Katherine Mansfield, Mary Wesley.

24. Quick Pick Questions

A.  tablets or laptops or smart phones?


B.  E readers or traditional books?

Traditional books.

C.  American Fast Food- love it, hate it, or once and a while?

Hate it.

D.  Cats or dogs?

Too contentious! 

E.  Best city to inspire a writer- Paris, London, Dublin, or?  

Auckland, Sheffield, Wellington.

F.  Walt Whitman or Willam Butler Yeats?   


G.  Roberto Bolano or Gabriel Cruz Marquez?

Let’s see what Bolano is all about.

K.  Winter or Summer? Day or Night?

Winter but warm. Sunset.

I.  Would you rather witness opening night for Waiting for Godot, King Lear, Playboy of the Western World or Ubo Roi?

Oh, cruel choice! Ubo Roi is the only one I haven’t read.

25.  How important is it to you to have readers?  Does it matter?

In terms of the personal enjoyment I get from writing, it’s not important to have readers, but in terms of wanting to make a career out of writing, and enjoying giving other people enjoyment through my work, it’s important.

26.  From Paris Review Interview with Alberto Moravio in which he was asked to talk about the state of the Italian novel-

"That’s a pretty large question, isn’t it? But I’ll try to answer. I think one could say that Italy has had the novel, way back. When the bourgeois was really bourgeois, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, narrative was fully developed (remember that all that painting was narrative too) but since the Counter-Reformation, Italian society doesn’t like to look at itself in a mirror. The main bulk of narrative literature is, after all, criticism in one form or another. In Italy when they say something is beautiful that’s the last word: Italians prefer beauty to truth. The art of the novel, too, is connected with the growth and development of the European bourgeoisie. Italy hasn’t yet achieved a modern bourgeoisie. Italy is really a very old country; in some ways it looks new because it’s so old. Culturally, now, it follows the rest of Europe: does what the others do, but later. Another thing—in our literary history, there are great writers—titans—but no middle-sized ones. Petrarch wrote in the fourteenth century, then for four centuries everybody imitated him. Boccaccio completely exhausted the possibilities of the Italian short story in the fourteenth century. Our golden centuries were then, our literary language existed then, had crystallized. England and France had their golden centuries much later. Take, for example, Dante. Dante wrote a pure Italian, is still perfectly understandable. But his contemporary Chaucer wrote in a developing tongue: today he must be practically translated for the modern reader. That’s why most modern Italian writers are not very Italian, and must look abroad for their masters: because their tradition is so far back there, is really medieval. In the last ten years, they’ve looked to America for their masters."

My question is designed to draw responses - it seems literary cultures are strongly impacted by continuity.  The literary culture of American seems to have much more shallow roots, to assume a less cultured audience. Contrasting Indian literature, which has older roots than any other culture, it seems to really begin about 1920. The continuity of Indian literature was destroyed by the British rule and writers at first had to use English formats.  So what is a very old culture, has a shallowly rooted literary tradition less than 100 years old.  Something similar happened in Ireland which has a new literary culture on top of cut off old roots?  Question is just react to this, is it nuts or onto something about the differences in literary culture.

Well, I’m not going to try to plot the timeline of Britain’s literary tradition. I will say that Britain’s culture has always been influenced by the cultures outside of itself – with or without those other cultures’ blessings.

Contrasts are all that are possible; comparison would necessitate a simplification, and one can only compare to one’s own culture, rendering the act of comparison a colonial act.

27.      How important is social media in the development of the career of writers?  Do you have your own web page and if so why?  Do you think it is good business savvy to post free samples of your work online?  Can you estimate how many hours a week you are online?

It’s necessary for writers starting out to have an online presence, I think, if only to give readers and potential publishers opportunity to locate them. I don’t have an author website other than my blog currently - the general consensus seems to be, choose a platform you’re comfortable with and do it well. I don’t think it good business savvy to post too much of your own work on your own blog, unless, like you, one is reviewing and developing an archive in that sense. But it’s helpful for readers if they can see at a glance what your work is about. I probably spend around twelve to twenty hours a week online, depending on whether I’m researching or socialising with online friends.

30. Reading Paul's response to one of my questions, I thought of a new question I wanted to ask.  I know this is kind of a rambling question, it is designed to draw a similar styled response.

I was reading your answers again.  I think there is one sort of big difference between the reader and the writer.  As you know, true reading is not passive but involves a creative process.

Readers do read within a tradition, seeing works as part of a great conversation, part of a hopefully ever deeper culture, writers see themselves as starting from ground zero, without a conscious relation to a tradition.  Also readers or especially reviewers, I am not a reviewer- I just post stuff- put a limit on a writer’s work when they talk about it or find meaning in it, thus breaking the writes sense of pure creation.  A writer might well truthfully say, "I just write", but you cannot really just read.

Is there a built in divide between writers and readers?  Is this is what the resistance to interpretation is at least in part about?

Writing, although a solitary act in conception is in fact a collaborative act – otherwise, why would writers edit their work? It’s meant to be read, even if that reader is only the person who wrote it. A reader brings their own experience to the writing, which is how readers find so many meanings in a work that their author hadn’t intended. I don’t think readers can limit a work, quite the opposite. Interpretations are infinite.

32.  Is the notion that someone is a writer of "Women's" literature just one step above calling their work chic lit?  Statistics show that women read much more fiction then men, why is this so?  Is it patronizing to refer to a work as a great work of literature by a woman, a gay, a person of color as no one ever seems to say War and Peace is a great white men's work?

It’s patronising and reductive to label women in any way, perhaps this is why women consume more fiction than men – escapism.

33. If you found out that a favourite writer of yours was grossly bigoted would you lose interest in them?

I think I try to separate the work from the writer, and unless they were bigoted in their writing I don’t see a reason not to enjoy their work. Take Philip Larkin, for eg, who had some peculiar and unpleasant opinions personally but whose poetry is wonderful.

34.  Is the large number of pedagogical professionals involved in literary reviewing a limiting thing, with the reviewers stuck at the intellectual, cultural and emotional level of their pupils? Does the need to "teach" literature force interpretations and paraphrasing as the standard modes to view literature? Or worst yet, political interpretations based on biographical data?

It’s not limiting so long as there are so many people involved in the process. To suggest students limit their teachers is unfounded, I think, and I’m sure many teachers would say they glean far more from their students that vice versa. The key is to be open to learning, and in that sense teachers are always students.


I offer my great thanks to Rachel Fenton for taking the time to provide us with such interesting very well considered responses.

I will be following her career as best I can from now on and expect to see more of her on The Reading Life in the future.


chillcat said...

Great questions Mel and thoughtful answers Rachel. I especially liked the question about Frank O'Connor's comment that short stories are about marginalised people. Maybe yes?

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks for reading, Cat. Mel asked some very thought provoking questions. In reference to the O'Connor question, I wonder if writers are drawn to giving voice to those without one in society...