Sunday, January 09, 2011

The State of the Short Story...

Reading the 5 stories shortlisted for last year's National Short Story Award, (they can be downloaded here, but you need to buy the book to read them, I have to thank shortlisted author Jon McGregor for the elegant Comma Press book which he gave away in a Twitter competition) it is tempting to read them with an eye on the "state of the short story." I think this would be wrong for two reasons. First, the BBC's involvement must have an impact on the type of stories that make the final shortlist. "Most of us, I think, recognize that a good story is, in part, one that you can hear in your head" says James Naughtie in his introduction. To which one might reply "really?" Certainly all 5 of this year's winners you can imagine making good radio, which is not true of all stories. Secondly, in winnowing down what was probably quite a large shortlist, I imagine that the winning selection are those which are most obviously achieved, and if there's not exactly conformity on the list, neither are they particularly diverse.

Three of these stories, by David Constantine, Aminatta Forna and Sarah Hall are highly specific on their location (the first two even in their respective titles, "Tea at the Midland" and "Haywards Heath") whilst Jon McGregor's and Helen Oyeyemi may not name their locations, but are very firmly placed. Only one of the stories, McGregor's is anything but realist, and his, along with the winner by David Constantine are the only two that are obviously stand-alone pieces - the others could easily be extracts from a longer work. All apart from McGregor's are anecdotal; I don't mean that in a bad way, rather that they are recognisable episodes, in recognisable situations. I thought all but one of the stories would probably have made any longlist that I'd have put together, simply because of the quality of their writing, the fifth was more prosaically written. I can understand why David Constantine's won, as its probably the most contained, possibly the most accomplished of the five, though I found it was also the one story that had definite designs on the reader. In "Tea at the Midland" a couple are having tea at the Midland hotel in Morecambe overlooking surfers in the bay. We are overhearing their conversation. They are having an affair, or rather, this may be the end of the affair. The scenario is a familiar one, there's more than an echo of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", yet I'm not sure I believe in the characters. My favourite of the 5 is probably Sarah Hall's "Butcher's Perfume", a perfectly formed coming-of-age story that embeds its revelation naturally. I should listen to the BBC version, to see if they had to censor its robust language. Aminatta Forna's story, "Haywards Heath" is more a radio play than a story, and indeed was broadcast. She's the one writer I'd not previously heard of from the list. Jon McGregor's "If it keeps on raining" is in a style that would be familiar if you've read his novels, as in those, he carefully unwraps a mystery, never quite giving it all away. It's a delicate high wire act, and perhaps is the only one of the five that hints at the short story as a non-realistic as well as a realistic form, whilst its "block" paragraphs increase the awareness of the story's poetry. Lastly, Helen Oyeyemi's "My Daughter the Racist" is a serious story, set in an unnamed third world country, which nonetheless makes you laugh.

Thinking of recent short stories I've heard or read, there's nothing here as amusing as David Gaffney's Powerpoint stories, or as mystical as Clare Massey's wonderful fairytale, "Feather Girls" , or as pungently raw as Toby Litt's recent Manchester Prize Winner "John and John". Certainly worthy of our attention, and always identifying a well-tuned shortlist, the BBC's national prize isn't - and probably doesn't want to be - the place to go to check the pulse of the British short; but it's a decent enough benchmark for quality, which all writers of short stories would be well advised to read, or at least listen to.

5 comments:

litrefs said...

Given the entry requirements, I've never looked upon these BBC offerings as especially typical. After all, the authors made their names by being novelists or poets first (otherwise they might never have had a book published).

Perhaps significant in 2010 was that the BBC did a week of Tania Hershman's Flash pieces, and that the Bridport Prize had a Flash section.

Adrian Slatcher said...

They're worth reading (some of them at least). I'm a little ambivalent about flash fiction. Nice in small doses, like haikus, but hardly a replacement for longer stories. I'd like the BBC prize to have a kind of "special mention" to a story that's unlike all the others; a kind of fringe prize. But that's probably hoping too much!

David Rose said...

I haven't read the short list; past experience tells me that anything connected to the BBC is doomed to mediocrity, in part because one of their criteria is understandably that it can be listened to (a good short story simply doesn't work that way), but more to do with the predictability of mainstream taste. The Sunday Times, in an apparently enlightened move, began publishing a weekly story, but the choice was uniformly predictable, "tasteful" and mostly written by novelists.
As it happens, I am halfway through David Constantine's first collection, Under The Dam. I was immensely impressed with his second, The Shieling; I thought, and still think, he is the natural heir of D.H. Lawrence. Yet now, with his first collection oddly, the doubts are setting in. And they seem to cluster round what seems to me to be a certain risk-aversion, a literary tastefulness in descriptions for example, rather like a woman who always wears black so no one can impugn her taste. This wouldn't matter in itself - there are superb stories here - it is just symptomatic of mainstream approaches to the short story. (And as to Social Realism, we may as well be living in Soviet Russia.)
It's sad, and odd, and very English, that the most protean of all literary forms is so under-exploited. Happily,as you pointed out, there are brilliant stories being written; any Comma Press anthology will prove this, apart from the small presses. And I'm sure that under Nick Royle's editorship, the Best British Short Stories anthology will again show that diversity of the work being produced, sadly, away from the mainstream.

Adrian Slatcher said...

It's an interesting paradox that the more there are public initiatives to embrace the short story, the less it feels, to me at least, that the short story is truly embraced. Stories that are difficult, extreme or of a genre seem conspicuously absent from lists that are generally exercises in a certain middlebrow taste. The good will out, of course. Royle's initiative is particularly interesting, as are some of the better anthologies over the last few years, and the willingness of some presses and some authors to concentrate on the form. I think Constantine's a more distinctive story writer than he is a poet, yet the poetic background is clearly important. It is good to see his dedication to the form being rewarded, but yes, they have their own tastefulness. (Not necessarily a bad thing; few contemporary story writers are as good as the eminently tasteful Helen Simpson for instance).

Van Arie said...

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