Ten Questions for the 'Story' Campaign

'Story' is the UK campaign to celebrate and promote the short story. The campaign, a collaboration between Booktrust, Scottish Booktrust, Prospect magazine, NESTA and the Small Wonder Short Story Festival, will administer the new National Short Story Prize. The five stories shortlisted for the prize will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 prior to the winner being announced in May 2006.

Faith Liddell, Project Manager of the UK 'Story' campaign, talks to Transcript about 'the short':

1. 'Story' is the successor campaign to 'Save our Short Story'. Have you succeeded in saving the short story?

Yes, I think the short story was saved. The initial campaign certainly drew attention to its plight and the research it commissioned highlighted not just the issues that prevented the short story from thriving but the fact that writers loved writing short stories and readers relished reading them. There was no intrinsic aversion to them, just a lack of opportunities for writers, a lack of exposure on the part of readers, a sort of cycle of
negativity in the systems that connect readers and writers and a general lack of profile for the form. These are the things we are trying to address with the new campaign that is all about celebrating the form.

2. Story is rightly concerned with promoting the short story on a very practical level, in responding to the situation as depicted in the 2004 report compiled by Jenny Brown Associates on the state of the short story in the UK. But why is the short story worth saving? Raymond Carver suggests that the joy of the short story, for the writer and the reader, lies in its precision. The website of the 2nd International Short Story Festival, which was held in Wroclaw, Poland, in October 2005, talks of the short story's "inspiring social role". What is Story's sales pitch for the short story?

Ali Smith's latest story in Prospect gave a brilliant resumé of all the things that great writers have said about the form, from Todorov's notion that the wonderful thing about the short story is that it is so short, it doesn't allow us the time to forget that it's only literature and not actually life, to William Carlos William's idea that the short story acts like the flare of a match struck in the dark; that it is the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people's lives. Writers are passionate about the short story and there is no better sales pitch than their words and of course their short stories. The short story is one of the great forms of modern literature. It should be written, read and relished. Most importantly for our purposes, it should be published. We want to return it to the once popular and vibrant and thriving form it was, one that writers will instinctively turn to, readers will crave to consume and publishers will fight to put into print.

3. Why is the Story competition only open to established writers? Given that the report on the state of the short story expressed concern that a short story prize might not attract many entries, why not throw open the gates to unpublished writers as well?

The new National Short Story Prize is open to published writers which does not necessarily mean established ones. When we set the Prize up in partnership with NESTA, BBC Radio 4 and Prospect magazine, we were confident that its profile and impact would ensure a large number of entries and we were right. We have had well over a thousand entries and are astonished and delighted with this level of response. It is important to point out that this is a prize for the very best exponents of the short story, for truly exceptional work and we expect the winner and runners up to be writers at the peak of their form. There are many prizes for unpublished work (see our website for details) but in a literary prize scene where the Man Booker, the Whitbread and the main Orange Prizes all exclude short fiction, there was no major award for the short story. Well, now there is, and it has been a focus
for raising the profile and value of the short story among writers, publishers, agents, booksellers and the reading public, in our culture as a whole.

4. Our focus for this issue of Transcript is on short stories written by men, and in particular stories by men which display a particularly 'male gaze'. It seems that women are more likely to read short stories than men. How can we increase the male readership of this form?

The pattern is similar to fiction reading as a whole but there are obvious ways we can begin to address this - by writing and publishing stories that appeal to them; by getting them into the magazines and newspapers they like to read; by encouraging writers who already appeal to them to write in the short story form and, as always, by marketing effectively.

5. The most common reason given for why people read short stories in magazines but not in books, is that this reading is 'accidental' rather than deliberate - the stories get read because they are there. Is there any way to increase this accidental reading - something like Poetry on the Tube for the short story?

Yes, the short story was once a truly 'popular' form and its decline has certainly been associated with its eviction from the pages of magazines and newspapers where it was encountered and enjoyed on a huge scale. Finding new ways of creating these encounters, these points of exposure to the short story by a broader readership is a focus for the campaign and we are experimenting with various approaches including direct door drops of themed collections, short stories on buses and a research project where we are looking into the booming contract publishing business as another outlet, placing stories within the pages of companies' staff or consumer magazines.

6. One of the main factors for the decline of the short story in the UK would appear to be a decline in the number of literary magazines, the traditional home of the form. Do you know what the reasons for this decline might be? Do you see a role for the Internet in replacing or supplementing the literary magazine as a forum for the short story and perhaps other forms of literature as well?

The best literary magazines have been and continue to be an excellent vehicle for supporting, developing and promoting new talent especially for the short story and poetry and yes, a more vigorous literary magazine culture would help the whole enterprise. However it is the magazine culture of the US that we really look to with envy, and publications such as the New Yorker, Harpers and Atlantic Monthly that are seen as the models for supporting and propagating the work of short story writers and indeed for developing individual talents and raising the bar for the whole short story form in the US.

In the end what writers need is to be able to make enough of a living out of focusing on the form to allow them to continue to explore and develop their skills and talents and they need quality, committed publishing outlets to
do that. It could be through literary magazines. It could be through broadsheets. It could be through a more supportive and positive book publishing sector. We hope that in time it will be through all of these and, of course, literary magazines may have much to gain from the success of our own campaign.

7. Literature in translation comprises only a very small percentage of the UK book market. Do you see more of a market for translated short stories than for translated novels or poetry?

Not particularly. We are committed to promoting short stories in all their quality and diversity and include a bibliography of short story publications in the UK, including works in translation. The same issues that plague the novel in translation will be issues for the short story too in terms of attracting a readership and therefore investment from publishers. Where we may well have the advantage is in the relative ease and cost of translating a single story. Once again, developing opportunities, places for these stories to go is the essential task for us. We are also keen to generate as much creative exchange as we can between writers of the short story from different cultures and languages, and the burgeoning short story festival scene in Europe (including the short story festival Small Wonder in Charleston) is essential to that. After all, we also want to extend the reach of the short story in the UK and get our most interesting voices in short fiction heard, translated and read elsewhere.

8. In the U.S. the short story continues to thrive. Do you have any sense of how the situation in the UK compares with the situation in the rest of Europe?

My understanding is that it is actually very similar. Discussions at last year's short story festival in Croatia highlighted almost identical challenges in many European countries. In fact the short story campaign here was seen as a major initiative and potential model that other countries might look to emulate. Canada and New Zealand both seem to have reasonably thriving short story cultures but both have a higher level of government investment in their publishing and writing sectors.

9. Is Story involved with any partner organisations or festivals outside the UK?

Yes, we are in regular contact with specialist festivals and broader literature festivals internationally, suggesting writers and ideas, providing contacts and looking at ways of collaborating on promoting the short story and its best exponents.

10. Are you accepting entries for the short story competition in languages other than English (Welsh, Gaelic, or other languages spoken by UK citizens or residents)?

Entries are limited to stories written in English, however stories simultaneously published in Gaelic or Welsh can be included.

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