Book Review

The Open Pen Anthology (edited by Sean Preston)

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Open Pen is a free literary magazine that publishes new writing. It is distributed in various bookshops both within (and outside of!) London and has put out around fifteen print issues since 2011. In addition to this, Sean Preston (the man behind the project) has arranged multiple readings and literary events, published a lot of online content and put out a flash fiction magazine on a hipsterish mini-printer that no longer exists. Preston and his associates have been busy.

Here, in The Open Pen Anthology, they celebrate and collate five years’ work in an intriguing (and occasionally frustrating) collection of old and new material, all of it produced by writers they’ve published in the past. There’s some great stuff here: a couple of starkly moving pieces, some stories that’re very funny, others that are impressively weird, some that are truly perceptive and a couple that offer a very familiar vision of the contemporary world. The collection’s biggest weakness is the fact of its geography: this is an East London book with a bit too much rigidity, for where the stories fail, it is when they deny or ignore this. The pieces in The Open Pen Anthology that truly excel are those that don’t seek to transcend the hipster scene: Preston does a far better job editing and selecting from his fellow self-defined East Londoners than he does when opening up his postbag to those from outside the trendy bubble.* There are, of course, exceptions.

The standout writer in this collection is Xanthi Barker, whose ‘Love in the Time of Ketamine’ I wanted to hate for its title’s nauseating echo of Marquez** and hipsterish normalisation of drug use.*** [Un]fortunately, though, Barker’s story is a nuanced and moving piece about the failure to come to grips with grief, with adultery, with guilt and with adulthood. Barker’s second contribution, ‘Baby Faces’, is similar in tone, this time about a relatively new couple going to Thorpe Park for a day trip after the woman gets an abortion. Another story of regret, of confusion, of flashes backward and forward into a life, of youth and meaningfulness questioned  with an alert understanding of nuanced emotion. Barker is a Hemingway for the digital age (see ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, Papa’s similarly bleak post-abortion story, link here), i.e. a little more open, but still terse. We don’t get told how her characters feel, we see it, we read it, we understand it.

In The Open Pen Anthology, every writer – bar those included for flash fiction – democratically gets two pieces included. This is great for all the contributors I enjoyed (another special mention for Jo Gatford, who produced the shortest pair of stories in here, both of which are gentle, exploratory pieces with a sharp edge of undefined menace), but something of an annoyance for the few writers I found less inspiring. There’s a lot of stories here, though, and for every piece I didn’t rate, there was something else I did.

Kate Smalley Ellis’ contributions were great: ‘Lazylegs’, a brief piece about a man loitering at home while his partner is at work, hiding in the bathroom as their flat is burgled. This is scary without being violent, using threat in the way that bad writers always fail to do. Violence, whenever it occurs in this collection, always detracts, and the weakest pieces in here are those that try too hard to be something their authors don’t understand. Whether you write what you know or know what you write, there’s no one here who knows enough to write crime or violence with believability. (Unless you count minor drug possession, which I’m not in this example). Smalley Ellis, though, writes about threat and creates fear, and then in her second story, ‘Great Uncle Ron’, she writes about teenage sexuality. The first person narrator has spent the night with her friend (and secret lesbian lover), then ends up being taken, unasked, to a family funeral. This veers towards the scandalous, but never feels far enough from reality to diminish Smalley Ellis’ skill: didn’t we all do reprehensibly inappropriate things when we were teenagers? Yes, we did, so (#spoiler) cunnilingus in a freshly dug grave isn’t unbelieveable AT ALL. ‘Great Uncle Ron’ is instead a heady, fun, piece about social awkwardness, the search for an identity and the pleasures that can be found in the lives and bodies of others.

Ian Green’s ‘Laika’ is an impressive story about a reclusive war criminal finding partial redemption by adopting a stray dog****, R. M. Clarke’s ‘Tender Care’ is the undisputed flash fiction hit of the collection (gorgeous little piece about the end of a relationship), whilst Max Sydney Smith’s ‘The Heart of Sunday Morning’ is a sexy Kundera/Thirlwell-esque text about love and friendship and recreational drug use in the era in which we all (some of us reluctantly) live.

Given the length of the anthology, it’s no surprise that there are a few duds, but I want to use my space here for praise to the pieces that stood out. Barker’s stories were both great, and with her, Smalley Ellis and Gatford, Sean Preston seems to be dramatically championing the contemporary female writer, especially if you notice (like I did) the overall 1:4 female to male ratio of his contributors. The three strongest writers in here are all female, none of whom (according to their bios) have a publishing deal yet.

The Open Pen Anthology is an exciting collection, and where it is weak it emphasises broader weaknesses within contemporary literature: i.e. mediocre white men getting published way too easily.

I’m a white, male, middle class writer who’d love to be published. But I don’t think, intellectually, I can push to be published when male voices continue to outweigh female ones despite the merit. I don’t want to get published just because I’ve got a dick in my boxers and can lift a keg of beer: if female voices with mounds more talent than me are being ignored, let them get noticed. I don’t want success as I define it unless it comes from a position of equality. I don’t want to get published in preference to anyone who isn’t evidentially shitter than me.

Perhaps the anthology’s gender balance reflects the bias of the submissions Preston receives. Maybe far less women send him work, but all of it is fucking knock out. If he’s reading this, I’d love an answer to that in the comments.

All in all, a good collection, and a great reflection of East London’s vibrant literary scene. Once I’ve sorted myself out just a little bit more, I think the the moment has arrived for me to try and join in.

This is a good book to have been published.


* I’m writing from within the trendy bubble. Look at my fucking hat in tha piccy below.

** The man immorally holding Isabel Allende’s owed reputation.

*** KEEP IT DISCREET, says the man whose rejected texts have titles such as ‘Blame it on Cain’ and White Lines /// Black Truffles. NB: I’m far less rock ‘n’ roll than I used to be. I have a dog now, someone I’m responsible for. Someone who needs me. Someone to love.

**** I’m just a sucker for anything with a dog in these days. Because of my dog. Who is amazing. This is him again:

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3 comments on “The Open Pen Anthology (edited by Sean Preston)

  1. Sean here. Insightful, as I’d hoped.

    The ratio is 1:2 in the book. That’s probably true of our submissions as well. It’s more balanced than that in the magazine itself, so you’re more likely as a writer that has submitted to us to be published in Open Pen if you’re a woman. The real issue I’ve found is attracting submissions from working class writers, and in particular nonwhite working class writers.

    Fascinated by the Papa/Barker comparison. Have always been drawn to her fiction and often wondered why, exactly. I think that’s it. Glad you liked KSE’s stories as well. She controls the tension of her stories so well. Never comfortable reading, but you sear right through them.


  2. Pingback: Never Seen The Sea by Holly Watson – Triumph Of The Now

  3. Pingback: One Thing by Xanthi Barker – Triumph Of The Now

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