I wrote a blog entry, but didn’t post it, the day after the launch of Charlie Hill’s pamphlet, Walking Backwards, last week. I didn’t post it, because it was simply a description of the event, with some kind words on Charlie, and on each of the other contributors. It served no real purpose, unlike the launch event itself.
For this was no ordinary book launch – it was a generous celebration of reading and writing, and in particular, of short fiction. It was Charlie Hill’s night, of course, but also invited to read were Alan Beard, Hannah Swingler, Peter Haynes, Melanie Whipman, and me. In the audience were many other writers, too. There is a distinctive Birmingham literary scene which is vigorous, fresh, bold, (and insufficiently well known beyond the city-region – but that’s another question altogether).
One of the things highlighted by the event, and this wouldn’t have been so clear had it simply been a traditional one-writer-launch, was the social function of short fiction when read aloud. Alan Beard, who is a world class short story writer, drew little spontaneous gasps from the audience when he read his powerful prose. His style has the concentrated imagery of poetry, and benefits from being read aloud, the better to savour his careful, spare selection of each and every word.
Hannah Swingler, who is a poet, too, read work which required declamation – performance prose, if you will. Peter Haynes surprised me with his teasing, affectionate civic musings. I am more familiar with Haynes’ writing than with Swingler’s or Whipman’s, and regard him highly, but he struck the right tone for short fiction as performance, showing a clever awareness of his audience, and the setting for the event. Melanie Whipman, winner of the 2017 Rubery International Book Award for her short story collection, Llama Sutra, was an assured performer of her work, bringing humour and an engaging lightness of tone which was absolutely right for a short story performance event.
Which brings us to Charlie Hill, who conceived the evening. I can’t say that I asked him why he chose to invite five other writers to share his book launch, but it felt to me that it was a way of placing his short stories in a wider context. He’s a bold, ambitious writer, with a very acute sense of place. At his last book launch, Hill was asked about his use of real locations in his work, and he seemed taken aback by the question. I get that. Writing fiction is about ideas, explorations, insight, and craft, amongst other things, it just happens to be done in a particular time and a place. That he chose to end his three short readings with his story Of Atoms and Curses and Souls, was fitting. It is a story that demands to be read aloud. For it is about one cataclysmic event in one city in 1940, and it is about the entire world and all the people in it. A little thing and a big thing all at once. Isn’t that what the short story at its best is meant to be?
If there is an audience for the short story – and clearly there is – it shouldn’t take the singular occasion of a book launch and the generosity of one writer to make it happen. The loss of Tindal Street Press was a great blow to the city and to the British publishing ecosphere more widely, but there are ways and means of bringing our literary culture out of our writing rooms and into the world, and if we have to do it ourselves, why not?