The Short Story

After the campaign: Shorts in a Time of Shortage
By Robin Grossmann

In Transcript Issue 21, we interviewed Faith Liddell, manager of Save the Short Story Campaign, a collaboration between Booktrust, Scottish Booktrust, Prospect magazine, NESTA and the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. The campaign initiated the annual National Short Story Prize, and set out to rescue the form from a “cycle of negativity” affecting booksellers, publishers, readers, even writers. Faith has since moved on (and is currently director of Festivals Edinburgh), and the campaign was declared a success. But what is the status of the form today?

The National Short Story Prize, now in its fourth year, was initially the only major award for the form in the UK, with a first prize of £15,000, £3,000 for the runner-up and £500 for three other shortlisted stories. And with a recession? The new Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award will give £25,000 to a single story, at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival in March 2010. The 2009 Frank O'Connor Prize - the largest of its kind in the world at €35,000 – was won this year by Love Begins in Winter, Briton Simon Van Booy's debut collection. The Story website lists over 60 competitions with varying prize funds. But is the form thriving outside of award ceremonies dedicated to itself?

One recent success is Deborah Kay Davies’ Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, recipient of (English language) Welsh Book of the Year 2009, and £10,000. This is undoubtedly encouraging, although the collection sidesteps one perceived drawback of the form – the lack of some unifying narrative - by pursuing the same two main characters through each story, from childhood to womanhood. With its glimpses of their lives, but clear progression through time, it utilizes both the breadth of the novel and the episodic digestibility of the modern TV series - the status of which has grown massively in the last 10 years. Television series - the poor sibling of cinema for many years, now on DVD for highly convenient consumption - are now a legitimate subject in broadsheets and literary magazines. Emulating this phenomenon would be quite a coup. But how are people talking about the short story?

Writers have praised how like life it is: brief, broken, somehow whole, like a match in the dark (to paraphrase William Carlos Williams). Haruki Murakami, in his introduction to recent collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman calls: “writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy.” But how is that joy being communicated? This year’s Small Wonder Festival featured a formidable list of speakers including Ben Okri, Michael Faber, Will Self, Owen Sheers and Beryl Bainbridge. Of course many look for answers beyond British shores (although the Short Story arguably faces similar problems in Europe.) Promotional material for Small Wonder describes it as: “an entry ticket to a global journey with writers from Africa, the Caribbean, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Australia, Libya....” The end of Western global economic dominance is now hailed from magazine covers and news features on a regular basis. The hegemony of the English language book market (characterised by the aggressive marketing of bestseller titles, and a poor record in importing translations) will not crumble quickly, but with the inevitable rise of new economic superpowers, competition and a greater exchange of languages will literatures logically follow. And dialogue between nations’ literatures is facilitated best by texts that are easily exchanged: poems fit the bill, certainly, but given the pre-eminence of prose among European, and probably global readerships, the short story seems a natural choice. A very broad and speculative point, maybe; but it has a ring of truth.

A declaration at the second International Short Story Festival (in Wroclaw, Poland) drew attention to the Short Story’s ‘inspiring social role’; might this function be the way forward? At Small Wonder, Amit Chaudhuri, Helen Dunmore and A.L. Kennedy read stories commissioned by Amnesty International. The form may be seen as problematic by many (more ‘prosaic’ than poetry, but without the breadth or breathing-space of the novel). But it might lend itself to the requirements of the near future; a short story can be far more direct than a poem without compromising form, and must be more succinct than any novel.

Yet even with such a heroic mantle, one wonders finally how (or if) the form itself might be saved. Struggles for survival in the print media, caught between the web and the recession, are common. We have no Harpers, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly – although there are many literary magazines (and general titles which carry short stories) committed to giving the form exposure and The Short Story website has a comprehensive list. On the Short Story website, booksellers and publishers offer their insights. Matthew Perren, an independent bookseller, calls the form a “permanent heartbreak” and admits that he can only share enthusiasm through private recommendation slips. Yet on the web, personal advocacy is the norm. Ra Page of Comma Press praises the form’s “moral freedom” (thanks to its brevity); the space to pronounce the scandalous and to publically explore the ambiguities of favourite stories is also there. Even if collections remain unpopular in bookshops, might they thrive online? Again, a speculative mind might remark upon the rise of Twitter (admittedly closer to micro-fiction), the use of mobile phones for education in India, and for reading graphic novels in Japan.

In ‘Principles of a Story’ (available as a pdf from the Short Story website) Raymond Carver gave a stern warning against the use of ‘tricks’ in the production of successful texts. Yet in the promotion of the form, a variety of techniques must be, and are being, tried. The web is a place where the swift exchange of short, largely unrelated materials is normalised. In T:21, an article by Maike Wetzel concluded with John Cheever’s comment that short stories will survive “as long as our experience is distinguished by its intensity and episodic nature”. As methods of distribution for texts become more various, accessible and faster, this statement seems increasingly valid.

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