This is early Barrie. Self published Barrie. It dates in published form from 1887. It is Barrie before he ‘was’ Barrie, while he was still being published (and more often not published) as Anon or Gavin Ogilvy. He claimed later to be embarrassed by it. But I don’t see anything to be embarrassed by. It stands the test of time. Sure it’s not a complete, polished novel – but Barrie never really went down that route. He was far too experimental to constrain himself fully within the standard ‘forms’ of fiction. Once you understand that you find his writing much more powerful. He doesn’t do straightjackets. And yet he was able to write concise, humorous, popularist fiction which engages as it confuses. And I think we can see the seeds of all this within Better Dead.
When I think about Better Dead, and it is one of those stories whose images stay with me, I am transported back in time. The images, and more importantly the feeling or ‘tone’ it leaves me with is the same as I get from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) or John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps (1915) Which for my money places Barrie if not into a ‘genre’ or ‘style’ then at least onto a ‘spectrum’ in the company of some very good writers. I think it also shows him as an ‘innovator.’
Barrie wrote Better Dead in his late twenties. That’s a time in life when one is still hopeful of ‘making it’ (whatever that might be) and one’s view on the world and one’s place in it is quite different from what it is in one’s forties or fifties (and later I expect, I’ve yet to receive the wisdom of that many years). And doubtless the age that you are when you read something impacts on the ‘message’ you get from it. I have certainly found that works I read in my twenties 'read' quite differently with each passing decade. The relationship between writer and reader changes over time - which is one of the things I find fascinating about the process (both as writer and as reader.)
There is definitely something of youth in Better Dead. I think Barrie was wrong in being later embarrassed by it (though I suspect that, being Barrie, he wasn’t that embarrassed, he was the master of sleight of hand in the respect of critical commentary).
I’ve recently come across something similar but completely different. It’s another young, unknown writer struggling with the iniquities of the social order and political system. She’s ‘doing a Barrie’ in a modern context. She’s called Sara Clark and her work in progress is called The Last Day and is being storyboarded on Facebook. How’s that for a contemporary ‘self-publishing’ option?
It’s not derivative of Barrie, but she’s working on the same spectrum, and for me it’s exciting to know that, despite the commercial constraints of the mainstream – which get harder and tighter with every year – and produce more and more homogenised writing that I am less and less interested in reading – there are still the ‘indies’ out there working under the radar.
We need young writers (we need all writers) to be more experimental, to write more from the heart and to express their angst in written form. This is writing to ‘connect’ emotionally to. Writing to make you think as well as laugh. I urge you to read Better Dead. And to seek out The Last Day. Both will challenge your expectations.
Once you've finished reading please come back and talk about your impressions. Talking about fiction gives it another life. And, for me at least, part of the ‘point’ of such writing is that it connects one mind to another. It’s about sharing of thought and emotion – something we have all the technology but few of the ‘tools’ to do these days.
At M’Connachie’s Talking Shop I hope we can step out of the shadows, stop fearing ‘what people think’ or whether we are ‘saying the right things’ in relation to texts. Literary criticism is not the exclusive province of the classroom or academia. It’s for everyone. It's a way we can meaningfully communicate thoughts and feelings.
All opinions are welcomed here – just engage with the debate, help create the debate, talk about what you read and share what you feel. Don’t be embarrassed. Being too frightened to share your opinion simply stifles debate and freedom of speech. You don’t need to know the ‘rules’ to have a go. I suggest we all need to learn how to express ourselves better – but it’s like learning to swim, you have to get into the water to do it. Whether you’re going to dive (or jump) right in the deep end or just dip your toe in the water, please get wet – read Better Dead and tell us what you think about it.
How to get your hands, eyes and mind on Better Dead.
It’s available as an ebook HERE http://www.unco.scot/store/p130/Better_Dead_.html
(members of J.M.Barrie Literary Society can download it for free by using the Members code JUMBLIS at checkout)
Or online as a McSerial HERE
navigate your way back through the home page http://www.mcstorytellers.com/
via oor McSerials /Barrie section to get the other episodes. It’s finger clicking good!
It is also coming soon in a J.M.Barrie Literary Society paperback edition.
The Last Day (work in progress) is going to be serialised at McStorytellers, commencing on Weds June 28th. If you can't wait, you can follow Sara's progress on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/clarkyslass
I hope to hear from you soon,
Cally Phillips 19th June 2017.
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