In the last few years, the British short story has been given a real leg-up. For a time, it was thought that the passing of Somerset Maugham, Saki, Orwell, Kipling, Mansfield, Woolf, Wodehouse and many more heavyweights far too numerous to list, marked the collapse of the short form in everything but literary journals and ‘The People’s Friend’. I am talking about the UK in particular, as this determined neglect did seem to be an exclusively British trait; in almost every other country, writers and readers have been creating and enjoying short stories without pause. But, for a time here at home, it really did seem that fiction only existed as a full-length novel and that the short story was floating upside down, gasping for its last breath somewhere out in the doldrums. Then, in 2005, along came the BBC National Short Story Award to reverse this indifference, and all at once everyone was talking about short story writers, and how this exquisite, jewel-like form cuts with the sharpness of a rapier, taking skill and artfulness to master.
And didn’t we all bask in reflected glory, enjoying real financial accreditation at last (£15,000 prize money is not a sum easily dismissed), revelling in a public re-discovery of something that we had known all along? Of course we did. We do. And, even better, a fair few women and even the odd humorous writer have taken their share of the awards. Wonderful. Exciting. Career affirming. Aspirational. All that.
So why do I feel guilty? Why do I ultimately aspire to something a little different? Certainly I want to publish more short fiction, work towards publishing a collection, or even in my wildest dreams win a serious award, but at the back of all the affirmation, I harbour a niggle.
And I know I’m not alone. Go on, admit it. Don’t let me be the only one confessing. Oh, it’s not a full-blown, beat-ourselves-with-sticks guilt; there is no shame at all in being known as a short form writer. Like everyone I get ludicrously excited at seeing my work in print, but way back in the recesses of my mind I enjoy writing short prose so much, that it feels wrong. I worry that I should be growing up, and I suspect critics think it too. That the real challenge is to publish in the mature, fully developed, long form: novel, memoir, creative non-fiction, whatever it may be ... just so long as it is over a hundred thousand words, and takes the reader several days to get from beginning to end.
Intellectually we know that short stories are respected, but will our work be more respected if we’re in there for the long haul? Will we, as writers, have an easier time of it if we get one humdinger of an idea and continue to work with that for a couple of years? Or three? Or in my case, coming up for the sixth year (so dispiriting) but I keep on plugging away at the ‘big book’ because of this persistent, infuriating, frustrating, unfounded, downright misguided suspicion that short stories aren’t where I should set my sights.
You see, my theory, based on nothing academic — no more than a hunch — is that writers, and readers too, are raised on short stories, and that is the nub of the problem. We begin at the moment that we can understand two sentences strung together. Making a narrative is how we humans make sense of the world; we look at past, present and future, in other words, a story arc. And we do it every day, many times a day, without even knowing that’s what we’re about. You hear a noise, you explain it. You see someone walk past your window, so you justify it. The phone rings in the small hours, and before you’ve even reached for it, you know it’s an emergency.
So we start very, very young. And if we are lucky enough to have adults around us who appreciate the value of words, we tumble headfirst, thrillingly, into the glory of a lifetime’s pleasure of stories. Even the very memory of my Pa turning a page of Beatrix Potter, opening an Alison Utterly book, or tracing the black outline that was Miffy (what was it about rabbits?) sends a frisson down my spine. Children’s books are made diminutive for little hands, they are of necessity, concise, precise and pithy; designed to be swallowed whole, delighted in, and wondered at in one enjoyable sitting.
All this persuades us that we are at the start of a progression and, in time when we are older, we will move towards something longer and more testing. When we are too young to even turn the pages without risk of tearing them, or feeling poorly, we might have stories given to us in the oral tradition, just enough to be assimilated and mulled over from intriguing beginning to satisfying end. Religious scriptures come in huge indigestible tomes, but we learn the individual stories of the Bible, the Quran, the Tanakh at school. Then there were all those fairy story books: the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, the rainbow world of Andrew Lang. My favourite was always the Olive Fairy Book, along with The Arabian Nights illustrated by Edmund Dulac, part of a small library of children’s books bearing a flyleaf inscription to my grandmother, ‘To Mary from your Uncle Reg’. Then I read Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and, for a while, all the Greek myths and legends that I could get my hands on. (You can tell that, although this was the nineteen sixties, I come from a very traditional family.) I’m sure I will have omitted your personal favourites for which I apologise, but this scamper into my memory is simply to serve as an exhibit to prove a point; it isn’t until we are considerably older that we read anything other than short fiction, and almost always for pleasure.
At this juncture, I’d like to bring the adult reader to the bar because there can be guilt too, associated with enjoying short stories. How many times have you bought your one and only short fiction collection of the year, specifically for taking on holiday? “I’ll read it on the train, plane, on the beach, by the pool”, you say, giving it all the deference of the airport novel, “or during those lazy mornings when I can take it easy, getting out of bed only when breakfast is a shout too noisy to ignore.” We qualify the purchase — which we rarely do when we buy a novel — if only as a gentle aside to ourselves, but sometimes, saying it aloud to the assistant in Waterstones, who doesn’t care a jot what we buy, so long as we don’t then run home to order it from Amazon. It’s all illogical because we know that some of the most glorious, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking writing out there comes in a short story. And, even though I am nuts about the form — reading as well as writing it — I, too, forget to buy a collection until I have some prescribed time off in which to treat myself to an ever-so-slightly naughty book of short stories; not illicit naughty, but naughty in a cream cake kinda way because it’s easy to devour and you can pig-out on several, one after the other.
But, you know, you can’t really, and short pieces are not at all like a plate of French Patisserie, even if they might look as beautiful, superficially. You can’t simply stuff a short story into your mind in two greedy mouthfuls and swallow, it needs to be savoured slowly, re-reading sentences until every word is assimilated and understood, even coming back to it a second time to truly appreciate how your senses are set quivering like fuse wire near a current. As I writer, I know exactly what goes into the making of a short story that has come as near to hitting the mark as I can make it. And it deserves respect.
So, from now on, when I get an idea that will perfectly fit the short form, I resolve not to feel I should be doing something more worthy, more reputable, more suitable to my years or at this stage in my career. I will start to play with this gift of imagination immediately, before the idea that I am abandoning my ‘proper’ job begins to take hold and paralyse me.
And I would love you to revere three writers: Grace Paley, Alice Munro and Raymond Carver (I know they are not from the UK) all of whom have been secure enough in the conviction of what they were doing, to never be tempted to publish a novel. There are, without doubt, others I might have chosen, but these are my role models and my inspiration to never feel guilty about writing or reading the fully developed, adult, sophisticated and undeniably respected, short story form, ever again.
First appeared in Brittle Star, 2013