Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Who's Afraid of the Big Short Story?

The BBC insists that it is not cancelling but postponing the broadcast of Hanif Kureishi's story Weddings and Beheadings (shortlisted for the National Short Story competition), and implies, interestingly, that its motives are not entirely political but also literary. On Radio 4's Today programme this morning, John Humphrys reports that one BBC concern is that if broadcast of the story were to take place during the current crisis (concerning BBC reporter Alan Johnston), this would affect the way 'the story would be perceived'.

But this of course begs all sorts of questions. For one, does the BBC - as some of us have long suspected - not consider that short stories should be perceived in any political light? Are short stories not meant to be political? Are they supposed to remain in some kind of cosy tea-and-buns English-heritage world of 'entertainment'? Kureishi, interviewed this morning by Humphrys, refuses to budge from his position, insisting that the move is censorship, stating that the BBC 'should be committed to relevant and contemporary work', and that one of his jobs as a writer is indeed to write about the contemporary world.

But what about the feelings of Johnston's family? asks Humphrys. And here we get to the nub of the matter. What about the feelings of Johnston's family when Humphrys introduces the item by reminding us that a little-known group has claimed to have killed him? What's the difference? Well, of course we know the difference: good fiction makes us live and feel the truth of our contemporary world in a way far beyond the scope of news bulletins. This is the power of fiction; it is the power of which the BBC and much of our media nowadays, committed to bland entertainment, seem afraid.

But I am delighted to find the short-listers in this competition kicking up against this media stranglehold, on the short story in particular. First Julian Gough, now this, and later on in today's programme, Jonathan Falla using the publicity afforded by the competition to draw attention to the dire status of the short story within British culture: a publisher to whom he sent his short-listed story (offering a collection) replied that he had not even scanned it, since short stories are so hard to sell (something Salt would not agree with).

On the surface of things, the radio commitment seems like a brake on the possibilities of this competition, but in the event it seems to be exposing some of the important questions about the short story in Britain today.