Kevin Doyle Blog

Writing and activism

Posts Tagged ‘Short Stories

Carousel Aware Prize for Independent Authors (The CAP Awards)

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cap-indieThe emergence of low-priced electronic publishing has been a big challenge to the book industry. The cost of publishing has dropped, eBook readers are much improved and as a result there is a huge increase in the number of independently published works available to the public. Many people have bemoaned this development but there is no denying that eBooks are here to stay. They will never replace hardcopy books – and that’s a good thing – but they are now a significant part of the book market.

As a creative writing teacher, I’ve always encouraged people to write. A lot of people wonder if they should write. Generally, I say ‘Give it a go’. Lack of confidence can be a barrier but writing as a medium for self-expression is a lot more accessible and natural than some of us are led to believe. To date I’ve never come across anyone who didn’t benefit in some way from writing about something that mattered to them.

The rise in interest in writing has dovetailed nicely with new, less expensive options with the result that there are large numbers of new books entering the marketplace every week. Some of these new writers are aiming to compete in the traditional book market while others are more experimental and not too interested in sales. Others again are just happy to record a memoir or a family saga or a person’s struggle against adversity. The beauty of eBooks is that anyone can join in and it doesn’t cost the earth.

But it’s tough out there, make no mistake. There’s a massive of amount of good reading material available now. Plenty is available online and lots of people, even writers, give away their work for free. Meanwhile all of us are competing against the reality of social media which voraciously soaks up a lot of spare time.

This is where the new CAP Awards come in. Launched this year by Carolann Copeland of Carousel Writers’ Centre, the Carousel Aware Prize for Independent Authors (The CAP Awards) is innovative and timely. Focused on the ‘indie’ book market in Ireland, it has five distinct award categories: Best Junior Book, Best Young Adult Book, Best Short Story Anthology, Best Non-Fiction Book and Best Novel. As you can see the categories cover a broad range of interests and in all twenty-five books have been shortlisted for the 2016 CAP Awards.

The CAP Awards are not the last word – far from it – in terms of what is good or great out there in the world of indie book publishing but they are a very welcome effort to identity the fact that there is a lot of talent in this new area and it deserves to be taken seriously. I have been shortlisted in the Short Story Category for my collection Do You Like Oranges?

The judge in the Best Young Adult Book category, Claire Hennessy, in writing about the CAP Awards pointed out there are different and varied reasons why authors choose to go down the indie publishing route. For me it was in part to do with the particular stories in my collection. All the stories in Do You Like Oranges? had been previously published in recognised journals and the title story had won a runners-up prize in a prestigious award in the UK, but from the outset I found I had difficulty selling the stories to an Irish publisher. Some of this was timing: my stories were about a difficult time in Irish political life when the police had engaged in ‘heavy-handed’ tactics against dissent in the country. As the Troubles came to an end publishers were leaning more towards forgetting about that time rather than dwelling on it.

Layout 1I decided to publish the stories in eBook format in part to move on. Having one’s writing published is often, in a way, a means of parting with that particular work, and so it was for me. From my perspective as a writer, it was a good move to published Do You Like Oranges? The revolution in electronic publishing facilitated that and has made these stories available to a big audience around the world.

My thanks to Carolann Copeland and the CAP Awards committee, the charity AWARE and all the judges for taking the time to get this award up and running. While I can only guess at the amount of work involved, I have no doubt that it must have been considerable. I wish all the other writers shortlisted in the different categories the very best of luck on the night. Whatever happens these inaugural awards will be a big success for indie publishing in Ireland.

 

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Don’t Mention The War at Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival

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2003 invasion of Iraq

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Sometimes the best way to get your hands on the cream of short story writing for the year is to get along to the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival, held in Cork.  This year the short list of six writer (see below) for what is regarded by many as the most prestigious prize for the short story in the world, included five writers from the United States.

There is no doubt that the short story is a valued form in the States.  Publications such as the New Yorker have in particular promoted the discipline and must be credited for their support for the short story over the years.  Frank O’Connor himself benefited enormously from US patronage when he struggled to make a living here in Ireland all those years ago.  Furthermore we cannot easily dismiss writers of the caliber of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jane Anne Philips and Annie Proulx – to name just a few of the accomplished writers who have penned stories from over in the States.

But – and here’s the thing – it stuck me forcefully this year, with the US having such a strong presence in the final shortlist, that there is something wrong.  The United States after all is at war.  Actually it is fighting not just one war but two – in Iraq and Afghanistan.   These wars, it must be underlined, are major conflicts.

In 2003 the United States led coalition invaded Iraq. It deposed the regime there and installed another one.  Massive civilian casualties were suffered and many atrocities occurred.  It was discovered that torture and the ill-treatment of prisoner by US forces was rife – recall the Abu Ghraib revelations.  In sum Iraq has been bombed into a relic of what it was once by the US war machine for dubious and long discredited objectives.  Then there is the war in Afghanistan.  Attacked in 2001 it has been in a state of crisis for nearly 9 years.  Again the casualties have been massive.  Torture has been rife and there is the ongoing plague of drone bombings which have in fact escalated in intensity since the Barak Obama’s election.  Significant numbers of civilians have been massacred.  We are talking here of outrages as serious as what Guernica represents to modern warfare.  Now however it seems as if atrocities of the scale of Guernica have become so commonplace that they are hardly commented on any more.  But they are still outrages and they are still happening.

What has all this got to do with the short story?   Well, for me, it is this.  Here, on this occasion in Cork, we have five US short story writers shortlisted for a prestigious international award.  These are very good writers – some are new and have produced debut collections while others like TC Boyle and Ron Rash are established.   But is there one significant story about the above wars in the collective output from these writers?  Well, so far, if it is there, I haven’t been able to find it.  And by the way if someone does find such a story, then do let me know.

The pat explanation of course is that stories or literature (and art), if you want, are above these base matters.  Or another generous explanation might be that the material for stories about these wars has yet to filter down through the great sponge that is contemporary life and civilisation.  In other words, with regard to US output these stories will come in time – as indeed they did when we look back at the invasion of Vietnam by the US.

The above points are indeed reasonable.  Or are they?  Do they explain the avoidance of these US wars – that’s the question? Or maybe avoidance is too strong a word – is it?   ‘Omission’ perhaps?  Lack of interest perhaps?  Well what then?  Why silence about such important and vital events?

I accept that this blog observation of mine is not a scientifically valid study of contemporary US fiction and it’s engagement with war.  Fair enough. Nor is it intended to be of course!  And perhaps there is an explanation, or part of one, in the process of selection for the Prize – from long list to short list even.  There were, I think, over twenty US writers on the long list so, maybe, along the way the writers of war stories were weeded out.  I don’t know if that is so.  And so maybe I am getting the wrong end of the stick here?

But my main point has been taken up elsewhere too.  The dearth of novels about the current US wars has already been previously noted.  US writer and small press publisher, Tony Christini has pointed out in a number of articles that there is serious lack of material emerging in the States to do with the current wars.  Tony Christini’s points to a number of reasons for the paucity of fiction relating to these wars.  Publishers are business people (as we all know – don’t we?) and as such they are uncomfortable with any rocking of the boat.  And on the writer side, a focus on these wars  can lead to the stigmatization of the writer as ‘political’ or as ‘having an agenda’.  Apparently such qualities are good for your career.  So is the issue censorship or perhaps more worrying still: self censorship?

Returning to the collections at this years prize, something else struck me though.  And this in some ways is the most disturbing thing.  It is not just that the collections concerned here don’t touch on the various wars now being waged by the USA.  Rather there is also the inverse problem: this indeed is even more damning of the state of writing in the US to my mind.  What I mean is: the picture that emerges of the Untied States from the collective output of the shortlisted US writers for this years Prize is of a society NOT at war.   Indeed the concerns of many of the characters is rather of a world not unlike our own.  (Note that Ireland is not currently at war or in the process of invading any other countries – that I know of anyway.) What I mean is that the characters obsess about normal and everyday concerns (mean neighbours; bad parenting and so on and so forth).  And perhaps this is the double injustice of the literary output from the States as exemplified by this shortlist.  In these times the ugly truth of a nation at war and a society driven by a voracious military-industrial complex is not only not being examined, it could even be argued it is being airbrushed from the picture we are being offered to see of that same society.

As a short short writer myself and as someone who has always admired Frank O’Connor’s engagement with the political, I must say I am unsettled by what I’ve read, and by this short list.  But lastly let me say a few words about the worthy winner, Ron Rash.  His stories in this collection are a cut above the others IMHO – going by the US entries anyway.  While I couldn’t find any stories in his collection, Burning Bright, about the current US wars, this in a way is not surprising since his work has a focus on the southern, US Civil War dynamic.  Fair enough I suppose.  Indeed Rash’s collection points out well the problems in what I am attempting to draw attention to here and I accept that. Burning Bright is very good in its own right and indeed all the collections are worthy.  It’s just as I say: how can you, you know… (… THE WAR).  It’s still on everyone, isn’t it?  Right now.

The Short List:

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (Picador UK, 2010) by Robin Black
Mattaponi Queen (Graywolf Press, 2010) by Belle Boggs
Wild Child (Bloomsbury, 2010) by TC Boyle
The Shieling (Comma Press, 2009) by David Constantine
Burning Bright (HarperCollins, 2010) by Ron Rash
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009) by Laura van den Berg

Note: TC Boyle had to withdraw from the final contest due to an his inability to travel to Cork for the Festival.

The Long List is here.  (Scroll to the end.)

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