Philip Hensher is a man who likes lists and appears on many. These include the 2003 Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists; the 2008 Man Booker and 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlists for The Northern Clemency, his ‘shameless page-turner ‘ of a novel, which also won Best Book in the CWP’s Eurasia Region; the IoS Pink List of the most influential LBGT people.
Influential. He’s certainly that. The current Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University (previously, he taught at the University of Exeter) describes himself as a novelist and journalist. As a journalist, writing for the Independent, Mail on Sunday, Spectator, Telegraph and Guardian, his articles have explored a wealth of political, historical and, as one would expect, cultural subjects. In 2007 he won the Stonewall Prize for Journalist of the Year. As a critic, reviewer and Booker judge in 2001, his thoughts, at times controversial, on a range of literary and philosophical issues, have established him as a Big Name. His nine novels have garnered literary prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award (Kitchen Venom) and the Oondatje Prize (Scenes from an Early Life which was also shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize). His entertaining book The Missing Ink postulates the case of pen v. keyboard while the libretto for Thomas Adès opera is another of his accomplishments.
And then there are the short stories. I met Philip Hensher at ‘The Importance of the Short Story’, a Bath Literature Festival event chaired by Alex Clark, where he, Clark and Georgina Hammick spent a comfortable hour on the podium sharing revelations, juicy anecdotes about the genre and writing in general – and a passion for lists. He’s just edited the mammoth two-volume Penguin History of the British Short Story, starting with Defoe (Vol.1) and ending with Zadie Smith (Vol 2). This was a two-year project and, although the final result is highly acclaimed, the choices have attracted controversy. But, with 20,000 stories to consider for circa 100 places and 160 authors culled to 70, it’s obvious some firm favourites would be omitted. I’ve not seen the first volume but I do have the second which does have an eclectic flavour: canonical greats such as Graham Greene and Zadie Smith share spine space with Adam Marek and Jack Common, an author I’d never heard of. In fact, there were several writers I first experienced through the anthology, which was Hensher’s intent. He deliberately chose to focus on the writing itself, so that a single wonderful story, even if it was the sole representation of the author, took precedence over the search for the best story written by an acclaimed writer, hence no Hilary Mantel . Rather than working his way through collections and anthologies, Hensher’s reference point was the medium in which each story first appeared and, for the earlier stories, this was the magazine, periodical or journal. Much of the excellent introduction highlights the glorious past of the short story writer who could make a decent living from the genre. The Strand was especially generous, paying W.W. Jacobs £350 for one story in 1914 which would be c. £36,000 in today’s money according to an historic inflation calculator – just topping the EFG Sunday Times Award, self-proclaimed as the world’s richest story prize. For Hensher that’s the problem and his exasperation is evident when he argues the prestigious £30,000 prize could be better used to develop the talents of many more writers.
At the Bath Literature Festival event Hensher claimed he began his massive undertaking from a ‘position of not knowing short stories.’ It’s true that novels constitute the main body of his work but it’s evident he has an attraction to and considerable talent for the short story form. ‘Dead Languages’ from his 1999 collection The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife was selected by A. S. Byatt for The Oxford Book of English Short Stories while The Emperor’s Waltz, his novel from 2014, follows in the tradition of Gaskell and Faulkner in its structure of unconnected or parallel narratives but is, in many ways, a series of inter-woven stories – or so it appeared to me. The writing emerges from wry observation with an opening line: ‘You will have brought your own towels, and bed linen,’ Frau Scherbatsky said in her lowered, attractive, half humming voice, ‘as I instructed, as I suggested, Herr Vogt, in my telegram’, echoing the rhythms and syntax not just of Weimar Germany but of the country I know today. So, it’s not surprising that with several years of flirting with the form he has returned to short stories and now has a collection to tempt, tease and entice. Tales of Persuasion will be out on April 21st.
Interview by Jane, April 18th, 2016
The blurb for ‘Tales of Persuasion’ reads, ‘Backdrops vary …from turmoil in Sudan following the death of a politician in a plane crash, to southern India where a Soho hedonist starts to envisage the crump and soar of munitions’. Is this, in some way, a connection to the short stories of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that were written as an immediate response to current events? Please would you tell us more about ‘Tales of Persuasion’, how it came about and your thoughts on the collection?
I write short stories as they occur to me, so occasionally, intermittently, and set off by some particular idea. Sometimes I see somebody in the street, and wonder about their life – a pair of people who probably didn’t belong together, for instance, set off the story “Under the Canopy” about a seriously ill man and his irresponsible carer. Sometimes a piece of interesting information will come my way. When I discovered that Silvio Berlusconi was serving out some community service working in a home for Alzheimer’s patients, I wondered about how one of the patients might regard the interesting fact that the Prime Minister was now looking after her – “A Lemon Tree”. Or sometimes I wanted to perform a variation on a classic short story, bringing my experience of a first day at work to meet a short story on a similar theme by the great Malachi Whitaker (“A Change in the Weather”). I didn’t have a plan for the collection – it was written here and there over 17 years, but at the end I brought all the short stories I could find together and chose the ones I thought worked, and worked together. (I dropped about 7 that would have looked odd, or that I didn’t much like any more – one of those, embarrassingly, is the story about Sudan which was published a few years ago). In the end I was struck by how many of the stories were about somebody changing, or being changed by influences or by things going on around them. So there did seem to be an idea about persuasion. I chose the cover. It’s sometimes hard to work out whether the one doing the persuading is being met by strong resistance, and is carrying on anyway.
- You’ve been quoted as saying that the short story is in a state of crisis. This is contrary to perceived opinion that the genre is enjoying something of a renaissance. Please could you expand on this.
Well, I don’t know what the renaissance is, considering that it’s almost impossible to get anyone to pay you to write a short story. The outlets that used to exist, even twenty years ago when I was starting out, have more or less disappeared. They’ve been replaced by short story competitions. Competitions are fine, so long as they come along with a marketplace. If that’s all there is – no. For me, literary competitions are the equivalent of overseas aid. They act as a paternalistic view by outsiders of what the target ought to be doing, rather than where the real opportunities lie. They encourage corruption, in the sense that they direct writers to choose a particular sort of subject rather than another. No-one serious about winning a short story would indulge in broad comedy or irresponsible violence (two of the strengths of the British short story in the past). And they drive out ordinary market forces. A newspaper which is paying a large sum to reward a short story, once a year, doesn’t see any reason to encourage the publication of short stories as an ordinary part of its endeavour. I know people say that the short story is undergoing a renaissance. Most of these people are the people who run short story competitions.
- Do we value the great stories of 50 years ago or do they seem old-fashioned? Please would you talk about the cultural and stylistic shifts of the short story?
Durr. Literature isn’t old-fashioned. Literature is a living thing and goes on being a living thing. Is Homer old-fashioned? The crappy short stories of 50 years ago are old-fashioned – I would name H.E.Bates. The great ones, like V.S. Pritchett or Elizabeth Taylor, are never going to seem quaint. I think one stylistic shift of the short story has been an unfortunate one. The great short stories of the past are really interested in the connections between people and can be pretty crowded with characters. A very peculiar notion that’s sprung up recently is that the short story is predominantly about a single person’s reflections. I judged a short story competition recently and about 90% of the entrants were mostly about someone on their own, walking down a street or sitting in a room, thinking about the past. Every single one of them was terrible. If they’d been told to write a short story about seven women on a bus having an argument or a fight in a pub, they might have got somewhere.
- Stories written in the first person, present tense – your reaction?
Some are fine and some are not very good. It’s a fashion which arrived fifteen years ago. It rules out any kind of action, because of course it’s idiotic to write, “I am getting up out of the chair. A madman is running at me! He has a knife! I am holding up that place mat of Whitstable as a temporary shield! Oh no! It is falling to pieces!” I think it’s popular because it’s the easiest way to write. Everyone knows how to talk in the first person. So it serves the inexperienced author, who has forgotten that the thing is to please a reader. Lots of readers can’t stand it. I think if I ever met a reader who claimed that they couldn’t stand the third person past tense, I would wonder about them – well, let’s face it, it never happens.
- At the Bath Lit Fest event you talked about your fondness for the ghost story and indicated that as most authors write them, you probably could have filled ‘The Penguin Book of the British Short Story’ just with ghost stories. What is about the ghost story that lends itself to the genre?
The ghost story works best when it hints at stuff, when the implications are still resonating when the story ends. It’s a great opportunity for the short story – a novel is going to have to go into detail. Many of the best and most terrifying of M.R.James’s short stories finish with the narrator saying that he can’t go on telling what he knows, since it’s too horrible to recount.
- At the same event you and Georgie Hammick shared an enthusiasm for lists in fiction. Lists are often seen as unimaginative, ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ and possibly a bit of a ‘cop out’ – how would you counter this perception?
I think you mean “showing” rather than “telling”. Lists of objects are brilliant in suggesting the world around a character – we shape the world in our own image, and if you could look inside a stranger’s handbag or on their bedside table, you could make a neutral list of what you found and still have a pretty good idea of what sort of person they were. One of the errors of beginning writers is often to think that you need to set out the emotions of characters, to explore the inside of their heads, and only to talk about the solid facts of the world when emotions happen to play upon them. I don’t know why you would think it’s a cop-out – I think the patient collection of physical facts is exhausting labour. Anyone can go on about Oh God I Feel Terrible I Want To Die. It takes some investment to write a list which accounts for everything in the fridge of a seriously depressive individual. (Three bottles of milk, half finished, one clotted with mould, seven bars of chocolate, three different ready-meal lasagnes, three left-over spoonfuls of a lamb curry on a plate, insulin, a bottle of vodka and a jar of foie gras that somebody gave as a present last Christmas, eight months ago).
- You have received many awards and honours. Which gave you the most joy and why?
I think perhaps the award of an honorary doctorate by Sheffield University in 2015. It was such a joy because it was so unexpected. I had no idea they held me in any esteem, or knew who I was. I grew up in Sheffield, and the university was a wonderful presence, a place of thought and inquiry that I could sneak into from the age of 14 onwards – the library, the concert hall, the drama studio, even the swimming pool and the Students’ Union bar…I don’t know what people do who grow up miles from a good university, but Sheffield University made me realize very early on that there was such a thing as being serious and thinking independently. I went somewhere else to do my degree, but Sheffield University did the spadework. So it was really nice of them to give me anything at all. Prizes are nice and they come or mostly they don’t come and you never give them a moment’s thought, but the honorary degree made me almost tearful with gratitude.
- You’ve been nominated for a Booker and, in 2001, were on the judging panel for the prize where there was a very strong shortlist and longlist. How difficult was it to reach a consensus and, in your view, did the best novel win?
Yes, we did a good job, I reckon, in identifying the talent. Some years the Booker panel has done a totally lamentable job and shortlisted people who haven’t done anything good and who aren’t going to do anything. But the novelists we shortlisted either had a substantial reputation and had done something excellent – Peter Carey and Ian McEwan – or were at the beginning of what would be a stellar career – Ali Smith with her first novel, David Mitchell with his second, Andrew Miller with his third. I actually don’t think the winner of these prizes matters all that much – it’s the longlist and (especially) the shortlist that matters and that writers can take advantage of. I was pretty pleased to give the prize to Peter Carey’s Kelly Gang – it’s an astonishing novel. We didn’t reach a consensus, we reached a point of pleasant disagreement and produced a winner. I hold much the same view about consensus that Mrs Thatcher did, that it tends to reward everyone’s second or third choice.
- What is the most useful piece of advice you would give a novice writer hoping to be published?
Write about the world and not about the inside of people’s heads, and don’t let your characters be alone for more than three lines. Scenes with three characters are easier and more productive than scenes with two characters. Something should always follow from the end of each scene. Remember what Browning said – we are interested in the dangerous edge of things, the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist. No-one cares about a dishonest City banker who loves money more than his wife and children.
- Which 3 pieces of reading material would you take to Radio 4’s Desert Island?
Buddenbrooks, Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” and Proust. I love the way that after a while you can play with all the minor characters, even the ones (like Johnson’s friend Edwards) who come in for a moment and go out again, never to be seen again. (Edwards is the one who said to Johnson that he tried philosophy when he was young, but he always found cheerfulness coming in).
- What do you think is the best short story ever written?
Ha ha ha. Unanswerable question. One I absolutely love is Chekhov’s “Ionitch”, which is basically the same events happening twice, first hilariously and then heartbreakingly. Or Thomas Mann’s “First Love and Other Sorrows”. Or John Cheever’s “The Day the Pig Fell Down the Well”. Or Elizabeth Taylor’s “A Dedicated Man”. Or V.S.Pritchett’s “The Day My Girl Came Home”. Or Conrad’s “Typhoon” – I can’t think of any more shattering stretch of prose than the approach to the climax in that. Or Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does A Man Need.” Or Katherine Mansfield’s “Daughters of the Late Colonel”. It’s a bit like asking who the best human being who ever lived was, different answers on different days.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and Happy Publication Day for ‘Tales of Persuasion‘ on Apriil 21st.
Interview by Jane Riekemann
Follow Philip Hensher on Twitter @PhilipHensher