Friday, November 11, 2005

R.P. Burnham and The Long Story

On 13 May I mentioned that a commenter had drawn my attention to the work of R.P. Burnham, who is the author of a collection of essays called The Least Shadow of Public Thought: the Small Press and the Art of Fiction; he is also the editor of a journal called The Long Story.

Subsequently, Mr Burnham sent me copies of both his collection of essays and issue 23 of The Long Story, and I have been reading both with great interest. The essays were all written between 1983 and 1992, and the collection was published by the Juniper Press in 1996. It is now (so far as I can discover) out of print, so you will have to search libraries and the net to find a copy.

Let's have a closer look at the essays.

I don't think I have ever read a book about writing which has ended up being so heavily annotated with pencilled comments; and this I regard as a mark of quality. Certainly I learnt a great deal from it; and, more to the point, perhaps, it gave me food for thought in relation to what, if anything, I am trying to do when I write fiction myself.

In his introduction, Burnham tells us that his essays offer a different perspective on the writing of fiction from that which is presented in the 'ubiquitous writing programs of the colleges and universities'; and that is an excellent start. Implicitly or explicitly, he tells us, his essays 'suggest that Modernism and Post-Modernism has been a disastrous mistake.' In other words, if I understand him aright, he believes in the more old-fashioned methods of telling stories. And so do I.

Burnham comments that, out of every 100 submissions to The Long Story, 95 read as if they were written by the same writer. The little literary magazines and the big commercial publishers, it seems, have at least one thing in common: in each case there is a kind of approved style of writing which gains you entry to the club; but in the process you end up writing something which feels to the reader like a manufactured product rather than the work of an individual. So Burnham's essays are, he says, addressed to those few writers who 'want to be true to their own individual voice and vision.'

That said, he does not claim to be 'normative', which I take to mean prescriptive. He hopes not so much to advise writers on how they should write, as to make people think -- especially if they've been fed three years of creative-writing-course propaganda.

The first essay, on Moral Fiction, is not as forbidding as it sounds. It describes (usefully, if you intend to submit to The Long Story) Burnham's preferences in fiction. He is not really interested in stories which observe the 'modern rules' about point of view, neutral narrators, dramatising not telling, and so forth. Unlike many modern theorists, he believes that it is useful for a story to have a plot; perhaps one which concerns the struggle for human dignity. And, above all, he wants vision, which he sees as an invitation to the reader to share the writer's humanity.

The second essay is an attack upon what Burnham calls 'bourgeois aestheticism', which ensures, as he sees it, that the complete truth about the society that we live in is never told. At the heart of bourgeois aestheticism, he says, is the the principle of never getting involved. Hence he argues for committed fiction; fiction which at least reveals which side the author is on, and which shows some commitment to life. Burnham wants fiction with emotion in it: tell the truth about the particular, he says, and the universal will find expression.

The whole thrust of this second essay is to widen the boundaries of acceptable literary practice. Burnham wants to read more fiction which deals with the dispossessed and the poor in the USA. (Try Noah Cicero.) 'I take it as axiomatic', he says, 'that any writer who is lionized by the New York literary establishment is far more likely to be a genial, middle-browed bourgeois booby than a writer of any serious consequence.' Right on, brother. But he will, he says, happily consider publishing a story about a banker's vacation in Acapulco, provided the writer can make it a larger vision of what the banker's journey here on earth means.

The third essay begins with another attempt to describe what Burnham admires, and hence what he is looking for as an editor. 'Though we are not at all interested in science fiction, adventure, detective, adolescent bedroom farce, and other forms of popular fiction, anything of a serious nature will get a close reading.' Furthermore, 'we publish at least two stories each issue that are not exactly up our alley but which we think are exceptionally well done.'

The remainder of the essay (1986, and hence long before the internet) deals with the role of the little magazine and the small press in publishing the work of writers who would otherwise never get a look in.

Burnham is blunt about disliking popular fiction: 'I distrust works that become too popular, and I distrust works that aim to be popular.... In reading submissions I look for the work that burns with sincerity... independence of spirit and courage of conviction'. Such writers, says Burnham, can only find a home in the alternative press; and they may be read by only 300 or 400 people; but at least they will prove that 'the government, the mass corporations, and the mass media have not been able to fool all 240 million of us.'

The next essay is entitled Literary Seeing, and it touches upon a point which has been troubling me recently (as you may have noticed from recent posts): namely, how can fiction compete with other media, such as movies and music?

Burnham's view (which I don't altogether share) is that if movies fill most people's need for a story, then literature's claim for attention must be based on something else. And he therefore welcomes literary experimentation -- but not experimentation in the direction that it has gone in recent years, which he thoroughly dislikes. 'The ludicrous notion that deliberate obscurity signified artistic worth became fashionable,' he writes, 'so that if one could say, "I don't see the point of this piece," that was supposed to be a measure of its greatness.' If this is the price of keeping literature alive, he says, it is better to let it die.

Burnham believes that there are, in principle, other ways to develop fiction which may be better than those found so far; and he suggests that the most suitable subject for fiction is the inner response to the outer world.

I don't recall that Burnham actually mentions the stream of consciousness technique in this context, but perhaps I might mention here that there are, if my memory is not deceiving me, at least two bestsellers -- or at least famous books -- in which the highly literary device of stream of consciousness was used within a more traditional narrative. One such instance occurs in William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, and another (a much more commercial context) in Ken Follett's The Key to Rebecca.

Next comes a consideration of The Aesthetic Moment, in which Burnham rightly emphasises the fact that 'while technical devices, form and genre are the flesh and bones of an art, emotions are its soul.... The artist must present an intrinsically moving subject universal in scope, and the appreciator must bring to the work the willing suspension of disbelief and the intelligence and humanity to enter into the artist's world.' I agree.

There follows a valuable discussion of The Neutral Narrator and the Empathetic Narrator, in which Burnham attacks the (apparently well established) concept that the author should stay well out of the action and simply show, not tell. Oddly enough, the great Thomas H. Uzzell also pointed out that some of the great writers of the past were very much inclined to comment on the action. Uzzell recommended that the extent to which this should occur should be left pretty much to decide itself, according to the author's temperament; and I can offer no better advice than that.

This discussion of technical aspects of narrative broadens out in this essay into a criticism of the capitalist system and its effects. Academia and the large media outlets, says Burnham, are already in the pocket of the large corporations; and it very much suits the interests of the large corporations to have the writers and intellectuals 'too busy squabbling over questions of form and expression to notice what the rascals are up to.' What a modest word that 'rascals' is.

That being Burnham's view, you will not be surprised that he goes on to argue, as he has before, for literature in which the author is committed to a particular view, and which leaves the reader in no doubt what that view is.

I could go on a lot longer about this chapter on the role of the narrator. It is, I think, much the best in the book, and my pages are covered in scribble. He sums up by pointing out that no one is surprised to find that an essay writer has something to say; why should there not also be fiction where the writer has something to say?

Some light relief is provided, towards the end of the book, by an imagined interview, conducted by Litbiz magazine, with William Shakespeare and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (simultaneously, both men having been nabbed at the Meatloaf Writers' Retreat). This is fun, and has Shakespeare, for instance, saying that 'we can't change the world, but we can write and if successful get a job teaching somewhere.' His poem 'Shall I compare Ya to a Summer's Day' has recently been chosen for inclusion in The Best Loved Poems of the Creative Writing Teachers of America Anthology.

The final essay is devoted to The Reader and the Writer. Here Burnham argues for a mutual respect between reader and writer. And I have an uneasy feeling that such respect is not only lacking in some of the cruder commercial novelists (I will name no names), but also in the literary elite, where the object is not so much to entertain or move the average reader, but to impress the highbrow critics -- rather a different audience.

'Literature is not mathematics,' says Burnham, 'and there is no such thing as an iron rule.' I agree. And he adds, on the final page, 'The small press, even conceding that a large percentage of it is adolescent, or too academic, or in pursuit of private agendas, or merely the front for a group of writers who are pals, is still the only place in America where it is possible to find literature not written from an economic motive.'

Well, not any more it ain't. Now we have the internet.

Burnham is a slightly puzzling man to read. I often found that I both agreed and disagreed with him; sometimes even in the same paragraph, and even in the same sentence. But, as I said before, he makes you think: which is occasionally painful but often advantageous.

And now to issue 23 of Burnham's literary magazine, The Long Story.

Well, the nature of the beast is that it contains stories between 8,000 and 20,000 words in length -- an uneasy sort of length in my opinion. As you would expect from what has gone before, the stories are all rather serious in nature. They are, however, pretty varied in content. One deals with the lives of Welsh miners in the 1930s; one give us insight into the political situation in Poland at about the same time; and a third deals with the moral problems of present-day security guards in America.

I can't say that any of the stories struck me personally as outstanding; but that's because, as regular readers of the GOB will know, my taste is ineffably vulgar and I am a man in search, mostly, of cheap thrills. However, even the dimmest reader could not fail to ackonowledge the intelligence, thought, and hard work which has gone into the construction of these eight stories.

I do feel obliged to comment on one point, which I am increasingly coming to think of as a vital factor in the appreciation of fiction: and that is the layout of the words on the page. The Long Story is roughly A5 sized, with very narrow margins, print which might just be 9 point but looks more like 8, and 48 lines to the page. Now -- I understand full well the economic forces which bring about this state of affairs. But personally I believe that Mr Burnham's writers would have been better served by dropping one or two of the stories and giving the others a much more reader-friendly layout.

More information: The Long Story; R.P. Burnham; The Wessex Collective, publisher of R.P. Burnham's novel Envious Shadows.


Bernita said...

I think you have it right: agreeing and disagreeing in the same sentence and paragraph.
Perhaps I have low, low tastes,and an infant mind, but I have found more genuine philosophical examination of reality and illusion, good and evil - those eternal bedeviling questions in popular fiction, such as science fiction and fantasy than anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

Hello Michael and Bernita,
I am the commenter who, after reading Michael Allen's comments on this blog for the first time last May, thought he'd appreciate R.P. Burnham's essays. I've been a contributor to The Long Story in past years (issues 5, 15, 19 & 21). Most, albeit not all, of my work contains some elements of what has come to be called magical realism. A friend of mine writes Science Fiction. I highly her book:
Haint, A tale of Extraterrestrial Intervention and Love Across Time and Space, by Joy Ward
ISBN# 1-41205675-6.
Haint is a kind of post apocalyptic scenario of human survivors living with their canine companions. The story is told from alternating povs: one human, the other canine and the canine's chapters which go into evolutionary theory were my favorite portions of the book. Nothing low or infantile about it. Enjoy, Sandy Shwayder Sanchez

Anonymous said...

Text before commentary. I have not read Mr. Burnam's text, just your commentary.
But from what I read, it's the sam-old same-old. What Mr. Burnham seems to suggest has already been done by establishment people, but
better. One good Jorge Lues Borges story contains all of Mr. Burnham's points, as well as mention of that self-same subject in an intorduction to one of Gunther Grass's novels, especially the part about the "committed writer."
Who in hell has time to analyze the writing process if busy with his/her own work. You drink the night before, you crank yourself up on coffee and hope the muses are friendly. That's the whole thing.
As for modernism being a mistake, it's like saying T.S. Eliot was a mistake, or Edgar Allen Poe.

"The Fanatic" said...

Hi Michael,

You've got a pretty nice website. I've just started blogging myself and you can check out my blog (if you've got the time) at:

It is also "author" related.

Have a great day.

Sincerely, Byron Merritt
Grandson of Frank Herbert
Author of DUNE

Anonymous said...

Grandson of Frank Herbert?

Windance said...

I'm trying to find out more about R.P. Burnham. My father was Roland Putnam Burnham, Jr. I have a half-brother who is RP Burnham, III. Please tell me what R.P. Burnham's full name is. Thank You,
Mary Kay Burnham, Sand Springs, Ok

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