At the Edge of the World

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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.

DH: Which format and medium do you like to write in most?

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: Performance poetry seems like the most vibrant aspect of our contemporary culture, and there’s a been a great resurgence in short fiction with (amazingly, in view of our generally dumbed-down culture) some really innovative writing, such as Ali Smith’s and Jon McGregor’s, finding its way into mainstream publishing.
DH: You’ve said that when you started writing a lot came from a sense of personal injustice whereas now you are more searching to uncover universal truths. That’s a subject I’m fascinated by, so I hope you don’t mind me exploring. I think the first thing I want to ask is what kind of a bridge, if any, you see between the highly personal and the universal. Is one a progression from the other (as Plato would claim)? Is the universal best expressed in a different way from the personal? If so, in what way?  I think there can be a great value in an increasing awareness of the universal as one explores the particular but I’m very nervous of trying to explore the universal. I worry it can make me lose focus, make my writing too general and in being general and trying to speak *of* everything end up speaking *to* no one. Do you find yourself drawn into flights of fancy and do you find yourself refocusing the questions you ask? Because it seems to me that you avoid what I consider to be the trap at the end of that arc – self-indulgence and writerly flab.

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: To sum up what happened: because of a Women’s Movement scandal in which I inadvertently got caught up, the feminist press who had just accepted The Birth Machine, my first novel, felt they had to dump it. (You can read what happened here). They did go ahead with it in the end, but things were very precarious and when they then said that the book would have to undergo a single but radical structural alteration to make it more suitable for a women’s market (and in my view drastically change its message and disrupt its rhythm and tone), I didn’t have a leg to stand on. (It was an ultimatum: they said they wouldn’t publish if I couldn’t agree.) I felt creatively crushed: the book they published was simply not the book I had written. As it happened, after the book was published others went on attempting to silence me and to pressure the publisher over me, and it wasn’t reprinted although it had sold out and been dramatised for radio, and I ended up without a publisher. This was frankly a huge setback for me at a time when I had been really going somewhere in my writing career – published in lit mags and anthologies alongside Angela Carter, J G Ballard, Michele Roberts and co. Basically, it seemed, others had set out to destroy me as a writer and had succeeded. I lost not only my footing in publishing but a lot of confidence personally and as a writer. But I learned a lot about the external pressures that can bear down on a writer regardless of talent, the chance turns on which a writer’s fortunes can depend, as well as the way ‘leftist’ groups can operate to the personal detriment of their so-called members. (It’s not that I hadn’t read Animal Farm, but there’s nothing like personal experience to teach you how such things work on the emotional level!). I was terribly despairing (and depressed) for a while, but then I found the strength to pull myself together: for a while I concentrated on radio drama (where no one had heard  of squabbles between literary feminists, or cared, as mainstream publishers seemed to, about the ‘taint’ of  having been published by a feminist press!) ) and, with Ailsa Cox as co-editor, I ran the short-story magazine Metropolitan. Eventually I went back to writing prose and found another publisher, Salt. Looking back, the whole thing is a lesson in the need for fortitude and resourcefulness in a writer – and also patience:  in spite of the censorship, The Birth Machine had gone on being studied in universities and having a continuing reputation, and finally Salt asked to reissue it last year, restoring my original version. Above all, I’d say the episode  illustrates the way that literature can be squeezed by ideologies, both conscious and unconscious.
DH: Where is publishing heading in the right direction and where in the wrong?

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!

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7 Responses to At the Edge of the World

  1. Viv says:

    Very interesting.
    Thank you both.

  2. danholloway says:

    Thank you – I think you two would get on like a house on fire.

  3. Jo Carroll says:

    This is a fascinating interview – thanks to you both.

  4. I’m sure we would, Viv! Thanks to you and to Jo for reading.

  5. Great interview, Dan and Elizabeth – I should have known the two of you would have so much to talk about and so intelligently too!

  6. danholloway says:

    Thank you, Tania! I love discussing things with Elizabeth though when we met up I came over all fanboyish and got a little bit tongue-tied!

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