Sunday, June 29, 2008

Short Stories in a Vacuum

I'm invited this Thursday to the award ceremony for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, and I've been thinking again about the comment made by last year's judge A L Kennedy:
The magazines that used to print stories have largely disappeared and they're left to be harried by endless small-scale competitions that merrily dictate size, content, themes and title options.
I rather think that that word 'merrily' sums up the shift in culture which this situation reflects. I've won one or two short-story competitions, and some writers of my acquaintance have won several apiece, and I won't deny that it's great publicity for the writer and great acknowledgment for individual stories when this happens, but this doesn't stop me thinking that a short-story culture primarily generated by competitions is never going to be as serious as that mainly supported by serious literary magazines.

One can't easily write into a vacuum and I would suggest that that's what this recent culture has created, a vacuum, in spite of those defining strictures - titles, themes, etc. These are simply not serious parameters. As I've said before, a serious piece of writing is not primarily characterized by its subject matter (although current marketing trends could have you thinking so). Take any subject - as these single-story competitions do - and you can approach it via any number of literary modes, traditional or experimental, any number of voices or narrative approaches. Writers entering competitions are basically taking pot luck: who knows if the one or two judges (so often writers) brought in, or indeed the anonymous early sifters, will share your literary agenda - or, more to the point, if they don't (since the odds are that they won't) how likely would it be that they'd be prepared to give it a prize however brilliant your story may be on its own literary terms? Personally, I'd never send a story into a competition which I hadn't already written anyway, but I hear all the time of writers writing stories specifically for competitions, and, as I've said before and as I think A L Kennedy is indicating, one wonders what this - a writing life of adapting to expectations which are after all usually only second-guessed- is doing to deflect them from their own potential literary agendas (and to very little avail when they don't win).

A serious literary magazine, on the other hand, will be based on a recognizable literary agenda and provide a nurturing community. (It's true that magazines sometimes run these competitions, but when they do I'd say they are a departure from truly literary concerns and are simply money-making schemes: we don't want your story really - though we'll stick the one the judge chooses in - what we want is your cash. When we were running the short-story mag Metropolitan our funders frequently suggested to us we ran competitions to raise money; for the reasons I'm outlining here we never did). In a climate where a lot of different literary magazines exist the talented short-story writer will usually find a home for his or her stories. I'm thinking of Ambit and the London Magazine, I'm looking back further to mags like Bananas and The Transatlantic Review. But I'm also looking forward and hoping that the forthcoming Horizon Review heralds a new flowering of serious lit mags supported by the web. This new online journal espouses the tradition (it's named after Cyril Connelly's 1940s Horizon) yet its editor Jane Holland looks forward to even greater possibilities afforded by the web:
I’m not interested in becoming too prescriptive about the sort of poetry, fiction, critical prose or literary oddities I’d like to receive from contributors. I’m not positioning myself either left, right or dead centre of the mainstream. What I will be seeking, however, in the work received, is an openness: to the physical, to the wider world, to ideas and language, and to the possibility of failure.

It may seem strange to be discussing failure here. But a willingness to take risks, even quite dangerous ones, is something I admire and encourage in writers. Literature without risk is like a meal without salt: predictable and unappealing. It’s important to bear in mind though that any risks should be based on the percentages, not taken at random or to extremes. Don't try this at home, etc.

I don’t want Horizon to be a cosy refuge for writers looking for allies and a comfortable place to sleep. I want it to prickle with energy, both negative and positive; to challenge preconceptions about the writing of poetry and fiction; to question methods of criticism and modes of thinking in a frank and open manner.

I tell you, I read that and I knew this was the place to send my most recent story (and indeed she accepted it) and I didn't have to send it off to some competition with that sinking feeling of chucking a bottle with a message off a cliff into the sea...

* Postscript: Jane Holland's statement about risk is an important one in relation to the competition culture. As she is implying, the risk of failure is built into experimentation - not only the failure of acceptance created by the conventional expectations of others but true aesthetic failure. But who wants to risk failure in a competition? Thus competitions can contribute towards a conventionalization of our short-story culture...

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