Sunday, September 23, 2012

Stories as jokes

Good points in a Guardian article by Kirsty Gunn in response to comments by Clive Anderson, chair of the judges for the BBC International Short Story Award, the shortlist of which has just been announced. Anderson's chief comment, she reports, is 'that what the short story must have – its overriding and most important feature – "is a twist" ', an old-fashioned and extremely limited view of the short story and its possibilities. Anderson is of course not really making a considered literary point here: he's the front man for a marketing campaign, and in such circumstances there's always a rush to the lowest common denominator and the populist. The one shortlisted story I've heard so far, Lucy Caldwell's Escape Routes, doesn't appear to me to conform to his dictum, and I can't imagine that such a criterion would inform the choice of judge Michele Roberts, for instance. Still, as Gunn implies, this possible misrepresentation by Anderson is the problem:
That speaks to a larger concern – which is the way literature in the UK is constantly made safe and understandable, diluted and commoditised, by those who don't have the first idea about form or voice or point of view or emotional landscape or any of those things real writers concern themselves with before they even sit down and think about inventing a story.
As Gunn also implies, the comments of the chair of judges for a prize of such prestige will be taken as literary, and a statement of serious intent - or not serious, as Gunn points out: 'A great short story,' says Anderson, 'can combine the structure of a good joke with the impact of a miniature masterpiece', and Gunn comments: 'It's what our culture wants to do to art: break it down, play it for laughs. Make us feel we get the joke. It's the approach that stops us taking it seriously.'

A great pity if a good shortlist of subtle stories is belied by the crass but influential words of the chairman, and their literary project sidelined.
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