Breaking rules

All Hail the New Puritans

Edited by Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne <em>Fourth Estate, 204pp, £10

This anthology of short stories, titled after a record by The Fall, features a couple of respectable gimmicks: all the stories were written especially for it, and the writers agreed to the ten aesthetic rules laid out in the introduction. "The aim," say the editors, "was to bring together a group of like-minded writers and set them a challenge. Strip their fiction back to the basics and see if something exciting emerges." They go on: "The rules were designed to emphasise what makes recent fiction so original and challenging."

Nah. As Peter Snow would say, it's all just a bit of fun. Artistic manifestos are usually cooked up for publicity purposes, and then junked by their own signatories sooner rather than later. This one (see next page) is no different: consider, if you will, rule 10, which effectively states that rules 1-9 are dispensable. All the same, the commands are sound and coherent up to a point. Rule 5, enforcing "temporal linearity" and banning the use of flashbacks or foreshadowing, would be fairly daft as a general precept, and it implicitly disses Homer for employing in medias res construction in the Odyssey, but it does add simplicity for the sake of the exercise.

The introduction singles out Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie as exemplars whose tricksiness is to be avoided. Rule 4 is a fatwa against "rhetoric" and "authorial asides". A subsection of rule 7 attacks more traditional, "bestselling literary fiction", probably meaning Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Birdsong, with a bar on historical settings: "all our texts are dated and set in the present day". This is to be interpreted loosely. Geoff Dyer's story, "Skunk", begins "In April 1999, I spent several days in Paris . . .", and is a recollection of a walk around the city with a girl who got mildly paranoid from a puff of the dope he shared with her. Dyer is much older than the other writers, which might excuse the retrospective slant.

In Tony White's story, "Poet", perhaps perversely inspired by rule 2 ("We are prose writers . . . we shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms"), a man resolves to win back his estranged wife by writing her a sonnet every day for a year. He spends most of the story setting up his computer with a database of things he loves about her. The account is very techie, very now. But he fantasises that the sonnets will make him famous, and he imagines Tom Paulin raving about them on Late Review. Given that this programme died with the 20th century, "Poet" is strictly historical. White is almost guilty of foreshadowing, too: the man's obsession with technicalities is a clear indication that his efforts will be futile, and carries the kind of dramatic irony to which the introduction devotes a half-page harrumph.

Rule 7 dictates that: "All products, places, artists and objects named are real." Anna Davis's excellent "Facing the Music" is narrated by a Cardiff teenager who, grounded on school nights, must outwit her suspicious mother so that she can go and see the local band Citizen Duane at the club Ifor Bach. As most readers have no way of knowing whether the club, the band and lead singer are "real" or not, they might as well be; and Davis abides admirably by the realistic spirit of rule 7, if not the letter.

Nicholas Blincoe, one of the editors, contributes a story set at a boardgame developers' conference. It is highly doubtful that most of the games described are real products, but perhaps, being prototypes, they don't count as products. Daren King takes more literal care with the New Puritan ethos: his story "Better than Well" is a mood piece that depicts him wandering about his room, zonked both by depression and by antidepressants, staring at the label on his pill packet: "30 fluoxetine caps 20mg. Take one daily. Mr Daren King 04/02/00." The notes at the back confirm that the story was written in February. King is certainly real, and fluoxetine is a real product with notoriously heavy side effects. The simplified style seems like sub-Hemingway until you cotton on that it represents the laboured non-thoughts characteristic of a particular mental state. Then it still seems sub-Hemingway, but criticism is disarmed.

Darkness of tone seems to be part of New Puritanism. In Candida Clark's "Mr Miller", a middle-aged man in a pub confides to the narrator his insight into the meaninglessness of life, based on the lost love of his youth, then goes out and hangs himself from a lamppost. In Ben Richards's "A Ghost Story (Director's Cut)", a film-maker recovering from a crack-up makes friends with a sparky girl who promptly dies in a car crash. In Matthew Branton's "Monkey See", a vice-squad detective and his wife develop a taste for grim, suburban, pay-on-the-door orgies. In Toby Litt's "The Puritans", a couple are lured into making what might well be a snuff movie.

Alex Garland's "Monaco" offers light relief. A Eurotrash beauty watching the Grand Prix spots a photographer's long lens pointing her way and starts to pleasure herself for the camera, cleverly climaxing just as a Ferrari swerves into shot. The editors have wisely put this stylish squib near the front.

There is no specific rule against twist-in-the-tale endings. But perhaps there should be. Litt uses this ghastly device, as does Simon Lewis in his otherwise fairly good "Two Holes". Rule 4, however, does have a clause that advocates "rupturing existing genre expectations" - and if the short story is a genre, the twist-in-the-tale surely falls into the category of expectations to be ruptured.


The New Puritan Manifesto

1 Primarily storytellers, we are dedicated to the narrative form.

2 We are prose writers and recognise that prose is the dominant form of expression.

3 While acknowledging the value of genre fiction, whether classical or modern, we will always move towards new openings, rupturing existing genre expectations.

4 We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides.

5 In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing.

6 We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation.

7 We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day. All products, places, artists and objects named are real.

8 As faithful representations of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculation about the past or the future.

9 We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality.

10 Nevertheless, our aim is integrity of expression, above and beyond any commitment to form.