Conference Report: ‘The Child of the Century’: Reading and Writing Short Fiction Across Media

Nicholas Royle, image by Image by Julian Baker:

Nicholas Royle, image by Image by Julian Baker:

The European Network for Short Fiction Research held its conference entitled ‘The Child of the Century’: Reading and Writing Short Fiction Across Media, on the 13th and 14th of May at Edge Hill University. The organizer, Ailsa Cox – a graduate of Lancaster University – is Professor of Short Fiction at the Department of English, History and Creative Writing, a practising short story writer, the editor of the journal Short Fiction in Theory & Practice and founder of the annual Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story.

The call for papers had invited contributions among other things on intermedial transformations and migrations of short fiction, including the impact of new technologies on its writing and transmission – so I had to be there. I unfortunately could not attend the first day because I wanted to be at the Campus in the City – of Lancaster – on the 13th to hear Dafydd Jones and Demi Rabbette read out their collective translation of Anouilh’s Antigone, produced under the guidance of our translator in residence, Frank Wynne, and the fascinating discussion that followed it. But even having missed the first half of the conference, I found the papers and discussions involving published authors as well as theorists and students in creative writing very rich and stimulating. I gave a paper on Éric Chevillard’s blog and book series l’Autofictif, which (also) contains snippets of narrative (and) fiction and received excellent questions – but I leave that for the article that should one day happen.

Let me just speak about two talks which were of particular interest to the questions raised by the Authors and the World. The keynote, or rather guest author Nicholas Royle read out a short story, ‘Brittle’, which he had written for the occasion, and which I would call a modular narrative in the sense in which, as he explained, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates is: only the first and the last chapter (here: page) are fixed, and the order of the ones in-between can be modified. I will not try to sum up this piece either – as someone else noted in another talk, a good story can never be summed up, it can only be expanded – you will hopefully be able to read it in publication one day.

The story was followed by a discussion on Royle’s work and methods. It was a delightful walk into the forest of fiction writing with many detours and bifurcations, which I am, again, not pretentious enough to try to summarize. There is, however, a project he participated in that particularly struck me and which raises fascinating questions about the nature and purpose of writing, literature, authoring – and the human body: Shelley Jackson’s work entitled ‘Skin’. Royle is a word in Jackson’s story: Jackson called for candidates who would be happy to have a word of her choice tattooed on their body. The word is part of a piece of fiction; each word is on a body, each on a different body, of people who don’t know each other. Only the participants, the ‘words’ will ever be given to read the entire story and they are bound by contract not to ever reveal it to anyone else. The condition of participating in the project is keeping it secret. It will never be published anywhere else in any form, and if the author dies before the project is completed, the existing version is considered final, and the biding conditions remain in force. And Shelley explains: ‘participants will be known as “words”. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the words they bear, but as their embodiments. […] Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.’ No comment – there is too much to say for a modest blogpost; I’ll let you ponder if you care (feel free to comment below!).

I will say more about Micaela Maftei and Laura Tansley (Camousin College, Canada, and University of Glasgow respectively), however, who spoke about their experience of co-authoring short stories. They met during their postgraduate studies in Creative Writing at Glasgow, clicked and started working together, first on theoretical papers and then on fiction. Interestingly, despite living and studying in the same place, the collaboration happened from the very beginning mostly through emails. This turned out to be an advantage, however, when Micaela moved to Canada, at which point the only major change in their communication was that she went back eight hours in time compared to Laura. Their methods did not need to change. And their work could continue to evolve in the same vein it had begun: their respective voices are not identifiable in the texts, they say; they don’t collate passages each written by one of them, but shape them all together, sending them back and forth and commenting on each other’s drafts and amendments. It is a third voice that emerges, while they each keep their own individual voices for their other, individual projects, without any disturbing interference.

The authorial love story thus continues across the Atlantic, and we could conclude that they lived and wrote happily ever after. Except that publishers don’t seem to believe in authorial love stories, and they insist that this can also only be one of domination and oppression, with a lead and an extra, and that it is bound to turn out to be a short story with a bad ending. And of course they don’t want to invest in what they see as a fragile relationship.

This story is nevertheless still ongoing and Micaela and Laura haven’t yet given up on finding an open-minded publisher to consecrate their union. Being one voice in two bodies and not matching the typical authorial image of a single person, they do wonder how exactly they would enact the role publicly when it comes to that. There are no available conventions and trying to match the existing conventions for single literary authors can easily generate misunderstanding. How would they go about public readings, for instance, to avoid giving the impression that specific passages can be associated with a specific person between them? It seems that the explanation about their mode of functioning will for a long time be needed – and might for a long time receive sceptical reactions.

Erika Fülöp


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