FICTION: Mother Knows Best by Abigail Seltzer

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She will present me with a thin sheaf of paper after hinting at its existence for days. She will read it over my shoulder until I tell her to stop, and while I read, she will watch my every move. Her smirk will tell me that, like all novices, she secretly thinks she’s produced a gem. She won’t be looking for honest appraisal. She wants to hear that she’s the next [insert name of her favourite author here].

– The problem with people today, she’ll say, is that they don’t know how to appreciate (she says it “a-pree-shee-ate”) proper literature

– I blame the schools, she’ll say. Nobody learns grammar any more. Nobody cares about a well-constructed sentence. It’s all about atmosphere and shock value

– I read a story last week, she’ll say, that had no beginning, middle and end. It jumped about all over the place and I had no idea who the main character was meant to be. And it was full of swear words. Who needs to read “fuck” and “fucking” every second word?

– Who wrote it, I’ll say

– I’ve no idea, someone I’ve never heard of. It seemed to be about a homeless person and a prostitute, I couldn’t work it out. And there was a transgender character. Is that what they’re called?

– Yes, they’re still called characters

– Don’t make fun of me. Anyway, it was all about LGQT people or whatever they’re called

– LGBTQ

– I mean, is that what people really want to read about these days?

– Some do, yes

– And they all had sex together. At least, I think they did. It was impossible to tell, there was lot of detail about piercings. Oh, and drugs

– What about drugs?

– One of them was on drugs. And they complained a lot about not having proper jobs

– Lots of people don’t

– And after they had sex, there was this long stream of consciousness about how bad life is for young people, but it went on about cliff edges and abysses and the whole thing was dreadful

– Maybe it was just a really bad story. Where did you say you read it?

– It was In a book of award winning short stories

– Did you buy it?

– No, I read it while I was in a book shop waiting for your aunt. You know how’s she’s always late

– Yes, I know

– Anyway, it wasn’t just this book. I looked at quite a few

– And?

– Nothing, absolutely nothing I wanted to read. If it’s not about a refugee escaping from a war zone, it’s about a 16th century baker who’s commissioned to make a palace out of bread. Where are the stories about real people? About real lives?

– Refugees are real people, Mum

– I know that. But you know what I mean

– No, I don’t

– There’s nothing for people like me. Intelligent, educated people who like a good well-written story by someone who can construct an elegant sentence using words of more than one syllable. And who knows how to punctuate. What is wrong with full stops, commas and quotation marks I ask you?

– What’s the last book you read that you really liked?

– The last book that I really liked? The one I’m reading now

– And what are you reading now?

– Re-reading. Cranford. By Mrs Gaskell. Now there’s a proper writer

– I’ve never read it

– You’ve never read it? There you are. That’s the problem in a nutshell

– What, that not enough people read Mrs Gaskell?

– Or Dickens, or George Eliot. Or even people like CP Snow. I used to love CP Snow. And Nevil Shute. That was the kind of thing I used to read when I was young. Not stuff about step-families and autism

– Where do you stand on Virginia Woolf?

– Ah, now, she was a literary pioneer. That makes her different. The problem is, she started a trend. Now everyone thinks they can write like that and they can’t

– Are there any contemporary writers you like?

– None that you would a-pree-shee-ate. And another thing, why is it that almost all critically acclaimed modern fiction is written by people from ethnic minorities or creative writing graduates?

– I can’t believe you said that

– I’ll tell you why. It’s because the whole scene is cliquey. A bunch of liberal metropolitan types who look down on writers with the wrong credentials

– So in your literary dictatorship, who would you let write books?

– People who can write things that readers can follow. You really do have to honour the rules of structure

– Why?

– Why? Because that’s what makes good writing, not all these streams of consciousness focussing on one single day in the writer’s life

– There goes James Joyce, then

– As if you’ve read James Joyce

– As if you have

– That’s not the point. I’m talking about modern writers. Anyway, what are you reading at the moment, Miss Clever Clogs?

– A book of short stories by an Albanian writer. You wouldn’t have heard of him

– There you go

– What do you mean, there you go?

– Yet another ethnic minority

– Albanian is a nationality

– Ethnic minority, nationality. I can’t keep up

– So where would you place Camus?

– That’s different. He’s French

What will really happen is that I’ll read her stuff politely and say it’s got some good points but it probably needs editing

And she’ll smirk a bit and say, I know, but it’s only a first draft. But I do think I’ve captured what it’s like to be a young girl in the 1970s, don’t you

And I’ll try not to get drawn in, saying, I’ve never been a young girl in the 70s so I wouldn’t know

And she’ll say, oh, it’s pretty accurate, even though I say so myself. There are some nice turns of phrase, don’t you think

And even though I find it sentimental and trite, I’ll say, it’s a very truthful sounding account

And hearing this as praise, she’ll be willing to say, are you writing anything at the moment?

And after debating with myself whether it’s a good idea, I’ll decide it’s only fair to reciprocate. I’ll show her this, and she’ll say, is that about me?

And I’ll say no, it’s fiction

And she’ll say, because if that’s what you think of me, I’d be really hurt. And angry

And I’ll say, no, you know that’s not what I think of you. You’re nothing like that

And she’ll say, so who did you base it on?

And I’ll say, it’s fiction, Mum. It doesn’t have to be based on anybody

And she’ll say, it has to be based on somebody

And I’ll say, well, there may be a bit of you in there. But you write really well

And her face will light up and she’ll say, really? Do you think so?

And I’ll say, absolutely. The stuff you write for the community newsletter is lovely. Some of it is very funny. (Which is true)

And she’ll say, well, I do try to keep things light-hearted. You really think it’s funny?

And I’ll say, yes. Sometimes I laugh out loud. (Which is true)

And she’ll say, maybe I should go to a creative writing class

And I’ll think, please God no. But I’ll say, that’s a great idea

And she’ll say, mind you, I do think they’re a bit of a waste of time. You can’t really teach people how to write. You’ve either got it or you haven’t

And I’ll say, that’s debatable

And she’ll say, Jane Austen didn’t go to creative writing classes

And I’ll say, she might have done if they had existed then

And she’ll say, I very much doubt it. And she’ll say, you know, in my view, if you’ve got any talent at all, the last place you should go is a creative writing class

And I’ll say, well, you were the one talking about going a moment ago

And she’ll say, that was just a joke. I’d never go to anything like that

And I’ll see that look on her face, and say, you’re going to one, aren’t you

And she’ll say, of course not

And I’ll say, you are, aren’t you

And she’ll say, well I wouldn’t exactly call it a creative writing class

And I’ll say, so what is it then?

And she’ll say, it’s just a thing in a place. Forget I mentioned it

And I’ll say, a thing in a place

And she’ll change the subject and say, anyway, you liked my story?

And because I don’t want to push it, I’ll say, I think it’s got a lot of promise

And she’ll go all hurt, and say, is that what you think? Promise?

And I’ll realise that I was being patronising, but to cover it up I’ll get huffy and say, well, what do you want me to say?

And she’ll say, I just want you to be honest

And instead of saying something nice, I’ll say, are you sure?

And she’ll say, I knew it. You don’t like it

And that will annoy me, so I’ll say, it’s not that I don’t like it. I just think your style is very dated

And she’ll say, dated. And give me that other look

And I’ll say, nobody writes like that any more

And she’ll say, like what?

And I’ll say, writing stories that read like fake Jane Austen

And she’ll say, excuse me, how would you know?

And I’ll say, look, don’t get all defensive

And she’ll say, forgive me, but it’s not exactly as if you’re a major published author

And I’ll say, what’s that got to do with it?

And she’ll say, I mean, I’m not rude about your funny modern stuff

And I’ll lose my cool and say, oh come on

And she’ll say, well, I’m not. I try to be encouraging

And I’ll say, you’ve never been encouraging about anything in your life

And I’ll say, you live your whole life as if you’re in competition with me

And I’ll say, you grudge me every bit of success I’ve ever had

And I’ll say, and any small success I’ve had, it’s no thanks to you

And I’ll say, what’s more I’ve just had a short story accepted by String magazine

And she’ll stop crying and say, really?

And I’ll say, yes

And she’ll say, that’s wonderful, pumpkin. I’m so pleased for you. You’ve been trying for so long to get something published

And I’ll feel rotten about the way I’ve just behaved, so I’ll say, thanks

And she’ll give me a big hug and I’ll feel even more rotten because I hate it when she’s nice

And then she’ll say, which story was it

And I’ll say, this one

And she won’t talk to me for a bit after that

And I’ll have won this round

And then a few weeks later, she’ll show me something new that she wrote at her thing in a place, and the whole dance will start over

Or maybe, for a change, when she asks me if I’m writing anything at the moment, I’ll just say, no, I’ve given up on the idea of being a writer. Just to keep the peace

Maybe

Maybe

Maybe

But what really happened was this

*

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Abigail Seltzer

Abigail Seltzer is a displaced Scot living in London. She has been writing for as long as she can remember, now mostly fiction, although she used to try her hand at everything. She has had a short story and poetry published in the Lightship Anthology 2014, flash fiction published online with Visual Verse (as Alex Petrie) and Drabbles. Her first novel was almost taken on by an agent but she couldn’t face doing yet another draft to fix many, many flaws. She is now working on her second – and still playing around with short stories.

If you enjoyed ‘Mother Knows Best’ leave a comment and let Abigail know.
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