Monday, 6 October 2008

The Short Story: Alive and Well?

There’s an article in the latest edition of Writer’s Market UK that grabbed my attention. The Short Story: Alive and Well by Graham Mort claims that, despite being unpopular with major publishers, shunned by the reading public and eclipsed by the novel, the short story is in remarkably good health. I wonder. The article makes much of the ‘burgeoning’ presence on the internet of short story websites. But who reads the short stories on these websites, apart from other writers of short stories? Short story writing might be in good health, but where are the short story readers?

We Brits don’t seem to much like the shorter form, preferring to read a novel (if we read anything at all). At best, we see the short story as a stepping stone – a practice ground for a writer who really aspires to being a novelist. This is a mindset that comes through in Graham Mort’s Writer’s Market article, advocating as it does the short story as ‘an ideal apprenticeship for writers’. ‘The novelist who has developed a track record of publishing short fiction,’ he says, ‘is far more likely to command the respect of a literary professional’. True. But if writers themselves treat their own short story collection as nothing more than an apprentice piece how on Earth can they expect the short story form to command the respect of their readership?

As a writer of short fiction myself I have often peered longingly across the Atlantic to a land where the short story is appreciated for what it is, a unified distillation, rather than always as a poor relation to the more expansive novel. Kurt Vonnegut once suggested that writers should demand better readers, and he has a point. Having read three tremendous short story collections this summer by the Americans Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore and Tobias Wolff it made me wonder whether one of the reasons why the US produces such great short story writers is because Americans respect the short story. Valerie Shaw once pointed out that the novel and the short story are separate entities which share the same prose medium but not the same artistic methods, something American readers seem to understand. I’m afraid we Brits do not.


Jane Smith said...

Paul, the short story is alive and well in the hands of Sally Zigmond, who is a fabulous writer and editor: she used to edit a small literary magazine and is far too modest about her work, but there's a link to one of her blogs on my front page, if you're interested.

Paul said...

Hi Jane. Thanks for that - I'll pop across and say hello!

Scott Pack said...

Ironically we have some of the best short story writers in the world in this country and no bugger will buy their books.

No one has yet been able to explain to me why the Americans embrace story collections with as much fervour as novels and yet we treat them like the runt of the litter.

I would recommend Sarah Salway's Leading the Dance and Charles Lambert's The Scent of Cinnamon as excellent collections from British writers.

Paul said...

Scott, thanks very much for the recommendations. I know Sarah (or at least I used to from her University of Kent days) and I like her work very much. I'll check out Charles Lambert, too. I'm in the middle of Claire Keegan's latest collection - such sublime short story writing! It's a mystery to me why the Americans (and the Irish, of course) 'get' short stories but we in this country are so reluctant to look beyond the novel.