almost a decade on...the short story today
Almost a decade ago, shortly after I began work on my first story collection, a national campaign was launched. That campaign was named Save Our Short Story. It was founded in response to what many regarded as the seriously parlous state of the short story in Britain. In 2004, a special report was commissioned by the Arts Council which agreed that drastic measures had to be taken to ensure the form's survival in the UK. The short story was officially considered an endangered species.
Had I known about the campaign, or had I read the results of that report, I would perhaps have felt an element of foreboding in regard to my choice of literary form. Certainly, the report makes interesting but rather depressing reading. Amongst other things, it concluded that UK authors were being actively discouraged from the form by agents and publishers, mainstream publishers were buying fewer and fewer collections, marketing teams were unsure how to market collections, advances were low and sales poor, bookshops rarely included collections in their promotions, the sale of translation rights for UK collections was negligible, magazine publication outlets were shrinking, there were no high-profile prizes open to the form, and the general public were, on the whole, unaware of the existence of most collections and their authors.
Hmmph. Good thing I was oblivious of all of this until it was too late to reconsider!
Today, almost a decade on from the campaign launch and the recommendations of that commissioned report, what is the state of the British short story? Is it experiencing the golden literary renaissance that the media would like us to believe? Does it still require support? This was the opening question I asked my panel at the story event 'Making Short Work: Why Short Stories Matter' that I curated at the Free Word Centre a couple of weeks back. It triggered a fascinating evening of discussion.
My panel consisted of my long-time editor from Faber Lee Brackstone; editor Clare Hey from the electronic story publishing house Shortfire Press; Di Speirs, head of readings at BBC Radio and closely involved since the beginning with the BBC National Short Story Award; and finally, two authors I love and admire who are both avid supporters of the short story form, Adam Marek and Ali Smith
I think everyone who was there that night would agree that the evening was an exhilarating celebration of the short story. Prior to the event, tickets had been in such demand that we had to make a waiting list, and the audience alone included a number of notable writers, journalists, prize committee members, and magazine editors - who ever said people weren't interested in short stories?
'The short story,' pronounced Ali early on, 'is in an incredibly healthy state. It's flourishing'. It was an encouraging start to a discussion which, while acknowledging areas that could still benefit from improvement, also recognised that great strides have been made over the past decade for a form that is developing in new and incredibly exciting ways.
So first, let's look at what has changed? The thing that the 2004 report recommended as having the greatest potential to resurrect the British short story was the foundation of a high-profile story prize. In recent years, not just one but a number have emerged - the BBC National Short Story Award, The Sunday Times EFG Bank Award, the Manchester Fiction Prize, the Edge Hill Prize, are a few of the larger ones.
Having been the recipient of one of these (the 2008 BBC Award), I'm often asked what I think about literary prizes. Essentially I'd have to say that I don't feel wholly comfortable with writing being judged and evaluated in this way, but I've seen from experience how important the recognition of an award can be in terms of raising an author's profile (case in point, had I not received the BBC award, chances are I wouldn't be Book Trust writer in resident today) and thereby potential sales; the eventual outcome will surely be that story collections will become a somewhat more viable prospect for a publisher. This, in case you've been wondering, is why a number of these awards are only open to published writers. This might seem unfair to some, but is a deliberate decision in order that the prizes honour and bring attention to 'those working at the coal face,' as Di put it, providing possibilities to make the hard graft of story writing worth it for a professional author. While ten years ago writing stories was essentially a labour of love, nowadays there are real opportunities to make a mark on the literary landscape with them. Imagine how many authors this must have inspired to reconsider the form.
Something that the 2004 report could not have predicted was how the dawn of the digital age would impact the short story. In many ways, the short story is ideal for a number of the exciting new technological platforms that have opened up recently, and which have the potential to drastically change the way we encounter a story. They provide new opportunities to take the short story out of the collection and make it more widely accessible, in rather the same way that the broadsheets did at the turn of the last century. Clare Hey has had the closest experience of this through her founding of Shortfire Press and via her work, most recently, on the development of a digital app called Papercut, which offers stories that embrace alternative media including video and audio. Indeed, these are exciting times, and the new technologies (electronic stories for mobile devices, story apps, story podcasts, etc) do offer unlimited potential and just might be the answer to the question of how to attract new readers. However, while Clare celebrated the fact that such platforms 'offer lots of opportunities for the writer to think away from the page - not to denigrate the page, but it's an exciting moment to examine the boundaries,' one audience member worried at how such 'bells and whistles' might erode the very special nature of a short story in terms of the individual input it requires from the reader. In response to this, Ali made a brilliant point, in noting that, 'whatever we do to it, however we read it, the short story - all story - is all about voice. Voice and dialogue. The dialogue you have with the story and the dialogue we hear in the story. So nothing that we do - all the bells and whistles - is going to touch the form, it's just going to encapsulate it all.'
Interestingly, despite the fact that it is still notably difficult as a new author to break into the publishing world with a story collection, that is exactly how all three of us authors present that evening had started our careers - perhaps this is what makes us such militant supporters of the short story. We were keen to share the good side of our personal experiences in the hopes of encouraging new writers. One side-benefit that we all appreciate is the closely-knit story community and the nurturing support we feel we've drawn from it - I might point out that I met both Adam and Ali at dedicated story festivals. All three of us believe that the opportunities today are much greater than they were a decade ago. 'If you create something of value and beauty and strive to create an emotional experience,' promised Adam, 'then whatever format you're writing in, the market will appear for you.' This was seconded by Ali, who had been shocked on a recent visit to a writing class at UEA to learn that new writers are still being told not to write short stories: 'If you write,' she had told the group, 'and what you write is good, it doesn't matter what the form is, you will get published. And if you write short stories, and your short stories are good, you will get published.' Be true to the writer you are, was likewise the message Lee wanted to share, 'The analogy that I always use is that you're either a race horse that runs over five furlongs and sprints and wins the St Leger, or you're a Grand National runner and you run over three and a half miles and you're a stamina horse. Take Alice Munro - there are many, many writers who have only found their voice in the short story form.' I can testify that the man is not all words - he's never pushed me to turn my attention away from stories. 'Write what needs to be written,' is the maxim he's always stood by. Take heart, aspiring story writers!
All that said, it was acknowledged that in the past decade, it is international collections that have set the tempo for short story publishing in Britain, with collections from authors such as Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Pettina Gappah, for example, gaining significant exposure, while those by UK authors have fared less well. It's fair to say that, for better or worse, the short story in the UK is very much an international voice. As Di noted, not enough British collections cross her desk, 'There is still a sense that people are happy to look abroad - so you get fantastic collections from around the globe and they get a lot more profile than they did a decade ago. I'm not sure we've cracked it really in terms of what happens in our support of the British writer yet.' Why this might be, is difficult to say. 'It's the hardest form, but it's one the greatest writers are drawn to. There's a deep vein of love for the English short story,' ruminated Ali, 'once publishers wake up to this, they'll be onto a winner.'
In the interval, I happened to be talking about this with an editor from Granta. We discussed Nicholas Royle's comment in his introduction to Best British Short Stories 2011 that he'd found it difficult to select pieces for inclusion from some of the more high-profile UK literary magazines such as Granta because he'd struggled to find stories from any British authors. Granta, I should point out, is planning a 'Britain' issue in the new year, so with any luck Nick Royle should have more luck there for his next anthology. It would be good though if more of those few remaining magazines and literary journals that do still publish stories might equally make a concerted effort to support the British voice. This could make a big difference in terms of raising the profile of British story authors both here and abroad.
Another area that we agreed could see improvement was the support booksellers could give short fiction. The 2004 report concluded that for story collections to be more visible in bookshops could make a great deal of difference to sales, but it is still rare that you walk into a bookshop and see a collection out on one of the tables or included in a 3 for 2 promotion. I'm heartened to note that the Sunday Times EFG Bank Award has this year announced a partnership with Waterstones. I personally don't believe that readers don't like short stories, I think it's simply that most of the time they are not exposed to them. And yet this is also where the new platforms that are emerging could provide new opportunities - 'In trying to do different things,' commented Clare Hey, 'I hope we might interest different people in reading short stories.'
What I've shared here is just a fraction of the evening's discussion. Following an interval, Adam, Ali and myself each read a story - being able to share a work in its entirety with an audience is something very special, and is another reason why short stories are so unique. I read a new story set in New Delhi about an Indian father, Adam shared a crazy, off-beat tale about standing up to a chicken killer, and Ali had us all giggling with her brilliantly witty story 'Last'. I know, I know, I'm biased. I know I love short stories. But it was a fascinating evening. So I'm thrilled that we will in the near future offer a podcast of the discussion in full for all those of you who couldn't be there with us. I do encourage you to find a bit of time to listen if you can. I hope you'll enjoy it. I hope it will inspire you to go and search out and write new stories. Long live the short story!