Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Little but Large

I am amazed and thrilled that a book of short stories can win a major award!

Today the Guardian announces that the winner of its first book prize is A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by the Chinese writer resident in the US, Yiyun Li.

Now I now that this book has not come from nowhere - it's already won several major international prizes, including the PEN/Hemingway award - and that the political import of these stories will have helped in this, but these are SHORT STORIES, for goodness' sake.

For years now the short story has been in major decline in Britain, to the point where it's almost dead, and I began this blog lamenting this fact. It's years since the fact that short stories don't sell became established publishing wisdom and many British writers - including me, originally a short-story writer - were forced away from short-story writing into other forms. It's years since, squeezed by market forces, the British print literary magazines, the last great haven of the short story, more or less disappeared (online magazines having yet to achieve the same kind of reputation with the literary establishment). (As I've written before, I've had my own attempt to combat this last decline, but found the battle so hard it left me no time to write.)

Depressingly, I've seen a more general contempt for the short story increase down the years, and signs that people no longer know how to read them. My reading group, for instance, won't touch them: they're not satisfying, some of the members have complained, you can't sink into them like you can with a novel, and anyway how could you discuss a whole book of different stories? They had not entertained the idea that a single really good short story could take as much time to discuss as a novel.

Now wouldn't it be nice if this award meant the turning of the tide?


Ms Baroque said...

I was in a conversation last week where it was suggested - no, posited - no, asserted - that short stories are on the up. Tobias Hill was in the conversation, but I'm not sure if he was the one who said it.

Anyway, maybe this award is the first sign of the thaw..? And it sounds like an interesting book.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I do hope that this is right - ie that stories are on the up!

nmj said...

I love your blog Elizabeth, it keeps me up-to-date with what's going on in writing world. It's strange that short stories don't sell well in the UK, I think they are much more highly regarded in USA. But there are great writers like AL Kennedy and Ali Smith who started with short story collections. When I started writing, about ten years ago, it was short stories, simply because, for me, it was less physically demanding: a short story was like a spark of energy, it would take me months to write one, but it was do-able, I could see an end to it, whereas the thought of a novel terrified me (from the stamina point of view). When I started sending them off, I was told, we love your work, but we want a novel, so I became increasingly disillusioned with the short story format. I got my first ex-agent on the strength of a short story about my illness, which I then slowly but surely turned into a novel over six years, it was such a different way of writing, sustaining the characters & the narrative drive, & I found it pretty gruelling physically. But that is not to say stories are easier to write (a common misperception), it is simply a different craft. And after the novel experience, I felt that I had almost forgotten how to write short stories, but one of these days I will go back to them. And I will definitely order Yiyun Li from library!

Elizabeth Baines said...

That was what happened to me too when I first started: an agent took me on on the strength of my short stories, which I had been hoping to publish as a collection, but immediately asked me to write a novel, which set me on a different course and the collection never happened.

And you're right about stories being no easier to write, although people generally think this is the case. It is true that novels take more physical stamina, because you need to keep going, you can't stop and start in the same way, have a physical and mental rest from the project in hand. But on the creative level stories are harder: not only are stories in themselves an exacting form, to go on writing one story after the other, ie to keep conceiving something new and bringing it to fruition, is a harder creative project than writing a novel, which once it's started, and as long as it's going well, carries you along.

nmj said...

Lordy, I stopped and started many times when I was writing my book, but that's purely down to health constraints. However, the book was constantly in my head, it would not leave go of me, and I felt guilty when I wasn't able to write.

Yes, it is difficult to come up with new ideas for stories. I'm still waiting for a good one.