Modern storytelling, from Blair to Brexit
A book of short fiction from the past 20 years, edited by Philip Hensher, pushes the limits of taste more than form, writes Anthony Cummins
The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story
Edited by Philip Hensher
Penguin Classics, £20, pp432
With many books and hundreds of thousands of words of journalism to his name this past decade, the tag “writer and critic” already sounded limp in the face of Philip Hensher’s industry, even before he took on the improbable sideline of sifting 300 years of British short stories to edit, in 2015, a two-volume showcase running from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith via obscure figures such as T Baron Russell, the so-called “Zola of Camberwell”.
Now he’s back with 30 stories he didn’t have room for. Starting in 1997, the new volume’s Blair-toBrexit timeline pays homage to VS Pritchett, “the greatest of all British short-story writers”, who died that year. While Hensher, speculating darkly on the internet’s deadening effect on literary style, stops short of saying Pritchett’s socially grounded realism is the only game in town, his picks do tend to be in that vein, which at least ensures this is an excellent book for curling up with. Among the treasured names providing tender, bittersweet comedy are Helen Simpson, Tessa Hadley and Jackie Kay, whose joyous story Physics and Chemistry shows two female teachers coupling up against the odds.
Hensher lets us sample the best of the younger writers working in this style, too: Thomas Morris’s All the Boys narrates a stag do in the future tense, signalling seen-it-all-before weariness without sneering, while Lucy Caldwell’s Poison, about a schoolgirl getting her teacher sacked, wears its moral complexity lightly.
Odder things come from China Miéville, whose Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopaedia is a gothic yarn in which language is literally infectious, and Helen Oyeyemi, of whose Angela Carter-ish story Hensher says: “We hardly know what to think of anything that happens or anyone involved.” You sense this stuff gives him the heebie-jeebies; he’s almost condescending when he says Eley Williams, author of last year’s sleeper hit Attrib. and Other Stories, works best when, “against the writer’s best intentions”, she deals with “rich social interaction”.
Hensher seems happier pushing limits of taste, not form. Witness his inclusion of Irvine Welsh’s fable about a homophobe condemned to “walk the Earth as a homosexual ghost buggering your old mates”, or Martin Amis’s post-9/11 satire The Unknown Known, in which a terrorist named Truqbom is involved in a plot to flood an American city with rapists. This “superb examination” of how “the commissars of public utterance have produced rules about words and literary forms” is, for Hensher, “one of the most thought-provoking statements about what may be said about Islamist terror”, even if it seems on a par with Boris Johnson saying jihadis aren’t getting laid.
Clearly there’s a bit of bullishness about Hensher’s business here. But does he sometimes box himself in? When he picks stories from Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero and Mark Haddon’s The Pier Falls – two of the best collections of recent years – it’s hard not to wonder if he ignores their standout tales (Hall’s Evie, Haddon’s Bunny) because they have already been anointed by highprofile short-story prizes.
Hensher’s point, combatively put, is that the true test of a story is how well it goes down with readers; prizes, judged by “provincial dons”, can’t fill the vacancy for, say, a British equivalent of the New Yorker putting new short fiction before a newsstand audience once a week.
Amen to that. But when he flourishes his argument’s smoking gun – the fact that the winner of the 2016 BBC national short-story award, KJ Orr’s Disappearances, contains the redundant phrase: “I think to myself” – it seems madly intemperate: is he really saying this single inelegance altogether strips Orr’s story of value and prizes too?
After the legwork he’s put into these volumes, though, perhaps Hensher can be forgiven for being trigger-happy; having foraged 2,000 pages of tales for our delectation, it could just be he wants a break from short stories now, like a weary host ready to clear away the feast.
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Philip Hensher, above, says the true test of a story is how well it goes down with readers.