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

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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.

To or­der The Pen­guin Book of the Con­tem­po­rary Bri­tish Short Story for £17.60 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

Philip Hen­sher, above, says the true test of a story is how well it goes down with read­ers.

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