Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What's Happening to Short Stories?

Anyone who ever read Metropolitan, the short-story mag I co-edited with Ailsa Cox, will know that I am no hater of conventional short stories. When it comes to form I am open to all comers - conventional or experimental, stories written within a recognizable tradition or wildly innovative: as long as a story work on its own terms, as long as it makes exciting use of language and I like what it's saying it'll please me. I've written both ways myself - and both kinds of story find their way into my recent collection - though I suppose I have to confess to leaning in ambition towards the more off-the-wall, to needing ultimately to stretch the form for what I really want to say, and that when I have written more conventionally it has sometimes (though not always) been because of the pressures of the market.

Which is why my pleasure at the recent rash of high-profile short-story competitions - and the seeming resurgence of the short story which it seems to indicate - is somewhat tempered by a fear that it is the conventional short story alone which is being endorsed and that innovation is being given the thumbs down, inadvertently or not. If so, it's especially disheartening when one would expect competitions to provide a counter to market forces, but perhaps expecting competitions to be immune from market forces is naive. Others have commented on the classical nature of Jhumpa Lahiri's short stories (winner of the Frank O'Connor Award), and the same could be said for the stories in Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields, winner of the Edge Hill Prize. Keegan's are wonderful stories in an Irish tradition I love and indeed feel a great affinity with, and I would urge everyone to read them. They are, though, very firmly within that tradition - elegaic yet wry, lyrical yet controlled - and Keegan's writing has been compared to that of William Trevor, John McGahern and indeed Chekhov.

I am especially thrilled that Clare Wigfall has won the BBC National Short Story Award. I have been recommending her book since I discovered it and what judge Martha Kearney calls her amazing 'ventriloquism': she seems able to inhabit any voice, any psyche and any world or historical period, and the stories are nothing if not moving. Her winning story, 'The Numbers', is marked by this chameleon-like ability and by a striking, original and deeply resonant motif. I defy you to read it without ending in tears. However. Personally, I wouldn't call this story conventional, yet superficially it displays conventional elements, and one wonders if without them it would have got so far in this competition. Although there are subtle foreshadowings the story is basically linear, and the narrator tells her tale in the time-honoured mode of intimate and homely recollection. Above all there's a (wholly admirable) classical authorial restraint. And here's Martha Kearney, writing about judging the competition:
The perfect short story arrests the reader’s attention immediately and then goes on to illuminate an entire life through one scene or a few actions.
Me, I would say that that's one type of short story. And that idea of the 'perfect short story' worries me dreadfully, both within this sentence, where it implies that there's only one kind of excellence, and generally, implying possibly a certain kind of stasis, a stylistic impasse. Yet surely the short story is precisely the place where we can tear down our traditional expectations of prose. Really, the last thing I want to write is a 'perfect' short story, and whenever people describe any of my stories as 'perfect', while I'm always pathetically flattered, I have a sneaky feeling I've failed.
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