Sunday, October 18, 2015

Style and the Short Story

I've not been quite sure how to approach this subject - I wanted to talk a bit about the short story in general, partly because of the oft-touted statement that the short is having a bit of a renaissance. I'll touch on that. The point of this blog was always to have some first drafts of my thoughts and ideas, and so bear with me a little, if this wasn't a bit more freeform than usual - I probably need to jot down these thoughts for something longer at a later point.

As a reader, as a writer, the short story has always been important to me. I don't think I know many writers who it isn't. After all, the long haul of the novel is so daunting that a short can seem so much more manageable. I can't really look for the links at present, but you know that there's been a lot of talk about the story's renaissance, though sales remain low. What has happened, I think, as well as seeing an opportunity in these times of short attention spans to hollow out a little space for a short story, is that the rather than apologise for writing and publishing these things, there's been cause to celebrate them a bit. The BBC and Sunday Times short story competitions, the Manchester Fiction Prize, new magazines like the White Review and the Stinging Fly, older magazines with a new lease of life like Granta and Ambit, more grass roots initiatives such as Confingo, Black & Blue, Prole and Bare Fiction, the annual Salt Book of Short Stories, the Frank O'Connor prize, publishers like Comma Press, the Edge Hill prize, Submittable online platform... finally there's a bit of an infrastructure around the story. I applaud it. There was a gap, I think, broadly the mid-90s to early 2000s, when some older regional arts board funded mags had closed, and before cheap and easy DTP made it easier to set up a magazine, when the short story had all but disappeared from public view. Before then, lest we forget, the short story was sent out in a typescript with an SAE.

Yet for all this talk of the renaissance, I'm not so sure so much conversation has gone into discussing the merits of the thing itself. I've been struck, as well, how some of the more lauded collections of recent years have, on reading them, seemed somewhat old fashioned or linguistically disappointing. Every age is both a golden age and a fallow period, depending on your reflection - yet there is something particularly problematic about the British short story that still nags me despite the above infrastructure being slowly put into place. Elsewhere on social media, I keep reading, as well, that the short story is "the hardest form". Well, it's not, not really. What it is, is a genre that is much harder to be original in - and that's partly because so many of the tropes of the form are so well known, and the masters of the form agreed upon. Are you school of Chekhov or Mansfield or Lawrence or Hemingway? Are you heir to Carver or Borges or Ballard or Updike? Are you a fellow traveller to George Saunders, A.M. Homes, Toby Litt or Helen Simpson? The BBC short story prize thinks it knows what short stories are - they're usually written by novelists, are preferably long enough to fill a 20 minute gap on radio, are often first person monologues, and are certainly not experiments with the form on the page, or, God forbid, full of ripe language. Yet all of these tropes are their's not the writers - different prizes will have different scopes. I'm struck that outside of the really big prizes the list of names on many a shortlist is remarkably unknown to me, particularly compared with comparable poetry lists. Reading winning stories, they tend to the narrative, occasionally favouring a more quirky form (e.g. a letter), but generally are stories with a twist, whether its a narrative one or an emotional one.

What I don't see is a lot of innovation, or a general sense of taking the British story to too many unfamiliar places. Yes, they can be set anywhere, but just as British poetry can sometimes seem to be wedded to the anecdotal and personal, the British story seems to prefer a certain distancing - either remote in time or community, either that or the story is young, witty and solipsistic. Its why a story like Hilary Mantel's excellent "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" felt so refreshing. Ostensibly a straightforward tale, this plays with our expectations, uses our knowledge of the subject to elevate the story.

Whereas fifteen years or so ago I could be impressed in different ways by debut collections from Toby Litt, Will Self or Helen Simpson, I don't think - with the exception of David Rose's late arriving "Posthumous Stories" - that I've picked up a collection over the last few years that has both compelled me with the quality of the stories and seemed to take forward the form and language, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. I sometimes think, reading recent prize winners, that sometimes our winning stories are far from being anything new, influences of Carver and Munro and the "New Yorker" story looming large. I wonder if we've even caught up with the playful energy and deep emotional resonance of the America of Salinger, let alone writers of the depth and range of Delmore Schwartz, John Cheever, Thom Jones, Lorrie Moore, Harlan Ellison, Andre Dubus or A.M. Homes. Basically, I still prefer to read American (and other) writers than our own - with some honourable exceptions.

That's not to say that there is nothing good out there, far from it. Novelists' Sarah Hall and Jon McGregor have recently joined A.L. Kennedy and Nicola Barker at proving good at differing lengths, Zadie Smith's "Embassy of Cambodia" may well be the best thing she has ever written. I could wish that McEwan and Self hadn't quite mastered the novel so well, given their past track record in the shorter genre.

A 2-volume collection is out soon from Penguin, edited by Philip Hensher, celebrating "the best" British shorts. They will surely be good books, but with the 768 pages of the first volume taking up only up to the Edwardians, and a 2nd volume, therefore scanning a century of writing, I suspect when we see the final listings, that in Britain as ever, we are overburdened by our past, uncertain about our future and negligent if not apologetic about our present. And the "why?" of this, of course, is that its not enough just to write a good story, or be a decent writer in other genres; the short story is and has to be a platform for change, for experimentation and for different voices - mostly it has to have something to do with style.

And here's where I realise the subject might well be too big for one blog post. Seeing two English language short story writers with international backgrounds last week, May-lan Tan, (Hong Kong via London),  and Mai Al-Nakib, (Kuwait), I was struck, in terms of their work, but also in the conversation afterwards, by how important style as well as subject was to their work. Tan had written two novels before finding the voice that appears in the first story in her collection, - whilst the connected stories in Al-Nakib's book were again deliberate, once she had found the voice and subject. Both were very different writers, but I was struck that both seemed to have a verve, and ambition - in subject matter, but also in their approach to style, that is far from much British writing. Internationalism, which can sometimes be a problem in the novel, seems merely to offer more options and opportunities in the story. The best writing, of any age, of any nationality, will tend to reach for those.  

The plethora of magazines and prizes we have now, and the opportunities being provided by these are important, yet if we are merely revisiting old tropes, like a literary heritage tour, then our best work will fail. In the short story, more than any other literary genre, we surely have the space to take more risks: with form, with language, with subject.... and with style. 

Like I started with, a big subject, and I don't want to knock all the great initiatives to bring up the British short, but at the same time, I'd like to see some sense of critical distance - I do wonder, if a bit like the "workshop poem", the short story (many drafts, tightly controlled) becomes less, rather than more as it gets "professionalised" to fit a particular box/length. I know as well their are acclaimed writers out there I've yet to get round to - and, over hundred stories into my own writing life, how strange they can be, how untapped the potential, how often they fall short of the intention.


More information about the Philip Hensher books - this blog has the introduction from the collection, which should pique your interest. 


Unknown said...

Dear Mr Slatcher,

Thank you for your comments about my forthcoming Penguin Book of the British Short Story. The point of the two volumes was to survey the entire history of the British short story. Volume 1 goes up to 1930, so some way beyond the Edwardians. It was certainly very difficult to make a selection from contemporaries, but since my duty was to produce a survey of the entire history of the form, much of which remains swathed in utter obscurity, it was not going to be appropriate to give the present day more than a certain amount of space. I very much hope at some point in the future to produce a substantial anthology of short stories from the last twenty years. In the meantime, it would have been an utter dereliction of duty to have found space for a fashionable contemporary of limited ability at the expense of D.H.Lawrence. I hope you find things to enjoy in the anthology.

Philip Hensher

Adrian Slatcher said...

Hi many thanks for the comment. I look forward to the two volumes. I had looked in vain for a contents list so I was just going on the blurb as I'd read it. So modernism is in the first volume, not the second, that's interesting. I'd hope Lawrence would be top of any list, but this kind of emphasizes my point a little, that our best stories are perceived to be in the (distant) past. I will be interested to see the choices from the last fifty years in particular.