Friday, April 21, 2006

The Death of the Short Story

This post on Adrian Slatcher's excellent blog The Art of Fiction set me thinking:
The Usual Suspects
I'd forgotten Nesta's short story prize almost as soon as it was announced, because it seemed to be offering nothing more than a "beauty contest" for established prom queens, and so, it seems, that has come to pass, with William Trevor, James Lasdun, Rose Tremain and Michael Faber on the 5 person
shortlist. I'm sure they're all fine, and good luck to Rana Dasgupta in such distinguished company. The reason I lost interest as soon as the prize was announced was because it wasn't clear what "record of publication" actually meant - and whether publication in such a small magazine as our own would count. I hardly want to bother mentioning the prize really. I'm impressed that they got such a distinguished list from 1400 entries or so; I wonder if they were anonymously judged? I like James Lasdun's fiction, and he's a writer's writer more than a popular success, so I guess it would be good if he gained a little popularity out of it. Certainly at least 4 of those 5 writers could ring up the editor of Granta any day of the week and get a story placed there; and probably anywhere else as well; so I'm not sure that the prize actually "helps" the short story. I just hope the stories are good.

Adrian is being far too nice. And he's trying the old tactic of refusing to give the thing significance, but, let me tell you, there are tart things that just have to be said about this and they are pretty important for anyone who cares about the short story as a serious and dynamic literary form.

The short story was once the supreme form for innovation in this country and America, for pushing the boundaries of what fiction can do with language and structure. Well now, William Trevor and Rose Tremain are excellent short-story writers of their kind, but they're not the kind who are interested in extending the language and form of the story beyond the conventional and familiar. The morning of the short-list announcement there was an interview with Alex Linklater, one of the judges, on Radio 4's Today programme. Linklater spent the entire interview trying to defend the short story from the notion that it's just a short (and inferior) version of the novel, but he didn't have much in the way of ammunition and not once was the issue of innovation touched upon. The same day the Guardian published the beginnings of all five short-listed stories, and lo and behold, four of the five authors were also if not primarily novelists, and each of the five stories had a conventional, scene-setting, omniscient-author start, and Michel Faber's began in the most conventional (and hackneyed) way of all: someone waking in the morning.

In response to the criticisms of Comma publisher Ra Page (reported in The Guardian), the judges responded somewhat disingenuously that they merely chose according to merit. Well, it depends of course what you consider to be merit, and one can't help wondering if they were seeking out the kind of merit represented by this list. Adrian wonders, ironically I presume, if the stories were judged anonymously. You had to include your publication record in your application, and it was possible for publishers to enter their published authors, and the form seemed to me especially geared to this last. (So now you know I entered: my grapes are not so much sour as bitter.) Few publishers now publish short fiction by anyone not already well-known as a novelist and Comma to my knowledge is the only one dedicated especially to the short story form and to writers specialising in the short story, so you can see the way the wind was blowing.

I wish like Adrian I could decide that none of this matters, but it matters too, too much. It's all part of the drift in our culture towards the comfortingly familiar and away from the strange and the challenging. In my opinion this competition, which was heralded as contributing to the revival of the short story, has in fact contributed to its death.
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