For the best part of two years I’ve avidly followed Elizabeth Baines‘ superb Fiction Bitch blog, which takes a highly intelligent look at just about all the issues in writing and publishing I’m interested in. I’ve also been aware and rather in awe of her literary talents, with books like The Birth Machine and Balancing on the Edge of the World.
So when I knew I was going to be doing a show in Manchester I was both desperate to see if she’d be willing to be involved and nervous in one of those meeting-your-heroes kind of ways.
The long and the short is that she said yes (here she is, above), gave a fabulous reading from her story Condensed Metaphysics, and even agreed to answer my rambling questions about pretty much everything under the literary sun. Her insightful answers are here.
EB: That’s hard to answer. For me each has its particular satisfactions, and different forms can be wedded to different states of mind, I find. Feeling extrovert and ironic and tough is great for writing plays – for the detachment and muscularity the form itself demands, and also in order to think practically about what’s possible for actors, technicians etc. And, after the isolation of the desk, it’s great to get out there and work with others on productions. And I’ll never lose my sense of the magic of theatre! On the other hand, I also love the introspection and singularity of vision that prose allows, and the immersion of the process. Then again, I’m torn between short stories and novels. I love the comfort blanket of a novel – the way it takes you over and cocoons you, a world you can escape to for months at a time – and the freedom to explore complexity. When I emerge from one I can feel irritated by the restrictions of the short story. But then I’ll rediscover those short-story satisfactions of concentrated language and vision, the world viewed through a tiny vivid-making lens.
DH: In which medium do you think the most exciting things are happening at the moment?
EB: Eek, oh no, I have given the wrong impression here! I wouldn’t ever seek to explore the universal divorced from the personal – I think that would indeed cause one to lose focus. In fact, I just don’t know how you would do it: the personal always comes first in fiction and is the focus. I don’t see any dichotomy, though: if you can’t give the most personal experience universal resonance – ie make it resonate for others – then you’ve failed as a writer, and the greater significance you can give personal experience in terms of politics etc, the more central and crucial you make the personal. What I meant was that when I started writing I was often writing out of a great sense of injustice – injustice I’d often experienced myself – so my writing, although rarely autobiographical in the usual sense, was fuelled by a very personal rage. My reason for writing just feltso personal – a matter, almost, of personal survival. I’ve grown calmer since, and I’m less concerned with redressing the balance for myself and am looking more curiously around me. Whether there’s an obvious difference in my writing is not for me to say, but my chief concern was always, even then, to give the experiences I was writing about universal significance.
DH: Do you think this kind of journey is a common one for writers?
EB: Yes, probably. I think many writers start out writing about the things they badly need to get off their chests and then pan their sights outwards.
DH: On which subject, what do you make of Jonathan Franzen, the Great American Novel, and the attention it gets in the literary media. To unpack, I love your blog because it’s one of the very few places on the web where I know I will find intelligent thoughts about exactly the issues I am interested in. And one of those is the whole time/space male/female epic/intimate dichotomy the cultural media seems to have bought into in a way that I could most charitably call a “who can piss highest up the wall” way. It seems to me that many in the cultural media just don’t understand a lot of very concretised, specific, scalpel-sharp fiction – for example I’ve heard people saying Banana Yoshimoto will never win the Nobel Prize because her writing is too domestic, too simple. Do you think the misunderstanding is wilful, unconscious, or something else?
EB: Well, I have to say I liked The Corrections (I haven’t read Freedom) – I did admire its reach and muscular energy, even as I was irritated by its presumptions, its rounding-up authorial colonisation of viewpoints and characters, its strutting of factual knowledge and its assumptions of the reader’s indulgence of prolixity. Let’s face it, I did always admire those boys who could piss right over the toilet wall to the playground on the other side and send everyone running, though I could have thumped them too. And I am bloody annoyed by the macho, hierarchical concept of The Great American Novel and the way that any other kind of writing or any other way of looking at the world – elliptical, partial, fragmented, or ‘domestic’ – gets marginalised or even despised. I think it’s probably more unconscious than wilful – the consequence of our predominant global and hierarchical mode of thinking. As well as affecting which kinds of books we recognise as significant, it affects the way we view and categorise books in the first place. It’s interesting that my first novel, The Birth Machine, which is concerned chiefly with faulty ‘scientific’ thinking, could only find a home with a feminist press, as its central scenario was that of a woman in labour: because of that, it was seen as a women’s novel – not only by the mainstream press but by the feminist press who published it and consciously, indeed defiantly, marketed it only to women. It’s interesting that now, years later, after the shifts in thinking that feminism did bring about, the book seems to be finding favour with male readers: it’s as if, having absorbed and internalised the ‘feminist’ issues of the book and being able to take them for granted, readers are now free to see its wider issues of logic and knowledge and power. Some prejudices are breaking down, thank goodness, but there’s still a certain phallocentricity: the sex of the author can affect how we judge a book. For instance, male writers like Edward St Aubyn who tackle ‘domestic’ family issues aren’t seen as ‘minor’ in the way that female writers tackling such issues are.
DH: Zooming in, you had some fairly difficult experiences with The Birth Machine. What are your reflections on those experiences
EB: That’s such a huge question! Well, obviously the commercialisation of the industry has had a hugely detrimental effect on the health of literary fiction, and I don’t really see things changing very soon with regard to the mainstream houses. On the other hand, the rise of independent presses in reaction to this – presses like And Other Stories – is perhaps a matter for hope. As for ebooks – I’m really not sure. In theory you can imagine a scenario where ebooks come to the rescue of straitened publishing houses, but it’s difficult to see how when Amazon have monopolised the market and pushed the prices so low.
DH: And finally, in which direction are you turning next?
EB: I’m in the middle of writing a new series of short stories, and I’m talking with a radio drama producer about possible future projects.
DH: Thank you so much!
EB: Thanks to you, Dan!