Hailed by short story competition judges and critics alike, Vanessa Gebbie has certainly made a name for herself over the past few years. Anyone on the short story scene, so to speak, will have heard of her: she is the short story lovey, graduating to a gig as editor on Salt Publishing’s recent collection of essays on how to write short fiction.
Gebbie’s stories should be top-class. But I’m afraid to say that after reading her debut collection, I was not as impressed as the judges or critics (which include Maggie Gee, Zadie Smith and Alex Keegan). I fear for my own writing career: if I can’t understand what’s so supernova about Gebbie, I’ve no chance of learning from her.
That is not to say that the stories in Words are poor or unmoving. They are original, delicate and illuminating. But they are also clinical and, occasionally, even contrived. Take “Closed Doors”: a story that details the observations of a shoe shiner on the guests in the hotel where he works. Each room has a different guest, a different story, an alternate glimpse at life and how people live it. This premise is so incredibly contrived that I began to think Gebbie had employed it for some greater purpose. When the story ended, I was very disappointed: it felt like an exercise a creative writing lecturer would pull to pieces. (This is made all the more tragic by the fact that Gebbie herself is one of the most respected creative writing teachers in the UK.)
I didn’t like the working-class voices that feature prominently in some stories. To me, they sounded inauthentic and even patronising: the characters sounded stupid and inarticulate just because of their class.
The protagonist in “Cactus Man”, an adoptee who is trying to find out details of his birth parents, knows a lot about botany. The Latin names for houseplants trip off his tongue easily, but Gebbie fails to show why this is central to his character. It remains nothing more than a gimmick.
And yet, Gebbie has won more awards than she’ll have space for in her cabinet for sure. I’m obviously missing something – probably her next book.