When did we stop reading short stories?
Writers are inventive, responsive people, and literary genres have a habit of changing shape as circumstances change. The short story emerged from a miscellaneous bundle of small-scale prose forms some time in the 19th century: it flourished with most splendour in the period of magazines between the introduction of universal education and the rise of the cinema; it went on being supported by publishers’ faith in the single-author collection and a steadily shrinking number of magazines at least to the end of the 20th century.
Since then, things have changed. In putting together The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, an anthology of short fiction written and published in the last 20 years, I was aware that some traditional means of short-story publication have more or less disappeared. Very few periodicals can, or will, pay for a short story. On the other hand, it is possible for a shortstory writer, even a totally untried one, to publish electronically. The tyranny that tied short fiction to periodical publication, or to appear in a collection or an anthology, has been overthrown.
The decline of magazine publication should not particularly matter. A writer can, after all, find a paying readership without much trouble. In theory, literary ecology is now well structured to allow writers of short stories to reach a public, although it would help a great deal if a weekly short story were to become as standard a part of a newspaper’s structure as, say, the celebrity interview, and rather more rewarding.
It would also help if publishers were to let interested readers buy (some) single stories from a short story collection, in exactly the same way that it is possible either to purchase the recording of an entire opera, or, if one’s interest is more casual, just to pay 99p for the Liebestod. The writer could then instantly see which stories his or her readers liked best.
What currently structures public attention towards short fiction, alas, is the literary competition. Literary competitions are, in my view, mostly harmless if they form part of a healthy ecology. There ought to be a number of ways in which a work of fiction is recommended to the market, of which competitions are only one. The problem is simply that there is no market, and that the only readership many short-story writers seem to envisage is that of the members of a judging panel.
Readers have been replaced by patrons who are not even risking their own money, and the results are unappealing. Just as medieval princes paid monks to pray on their behalf, having better things to do, so we pay provincial dons and actors between engagements to sit and read a hundred humourless two-handers about war crimes in Taiwan before declaring one of them to be worthy of the cheque. In my view, short-story competitions have actually destroyed the readership of short stories, by elevating and promoting a style of writing that, demonstrably, nobody wants to read.
Quite a lot of the reading for my book was wasted looking at short stories that had been shortlisted for, or had even won, some very well funded prizes. Very few of these had any literary merit. I quickly came to the conclusion that the judges had no means of assessing literary merit other than the gravity of a subject and what they knew about an author, usually his or her sex.
Sometimes a prize jury would state the usual banality about a short story being a form in which not a single word was wasted, before handing over the cheque for a story containing the sentence “I think to myself, again, what does it matter?”
Literary quality is ultimately subjective; there may even be people who believe the expression “She thought to herself ” the height of meaningfully concise writing.
There is no dispute, however, over the fact that short-story prizes do precisely nothing to recommend a writer to a readership. The rather melancholy case here is a writer called Jonathan Tel. Mr Tel has done very well indeed with prize juries. Short stories of his have won the Commonwealth Prize, the V S Pritchett Prize, and the bestpublicised of all short-story prizes, the Sunday Times award, which hands over £30,000.
Everything that short-story competitions could do for a writer has been done for Mr Tel. He has published two short-story collections, in 2002 and 2009. At the end of November 2017, after his name had been brought to the British public in such magnificent style and the public had had the opportunity to react, I thought I would look at the sales figures of his two books. According to BookScan, in 15 and eight years respectively since their publication, his two collections have sold 17 copies each.
An alternative method of measuring success appeared as I was preparing the anthology. The New Yorker, which has gone on promoting and publishing short stories, published a short story called “Cat Person” by an unknown writer, Kristen Roupenian. They liked it, and they thought that it was likely to interest their readers. It was about a subject very much on the communal mind and in the news, sexual consent, and gave an account of a sad and uncertain wooing.
The story, despite its author’s lack of previous reputation, made an enormous and immediate impact on readers, who were quickly to be found discussing it in all sorts of forums. The publication of “Cat Person” exactly repeated one of the most celebrated reader responses of the 20th century, when in June 1948 The New Yorker published Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. The magazine, in publishing Roupenian’s story, had acutely judged the interests and tastes of its readers.
Publishers quickly moved in, and in the days after the publication of “Cat Person”, it was reported that Roupenian had been offered more than $1 million for a short-story collection. The episode demonstrates that there is, after all, a free, interested and engaged public for short fiction.
The British short story is also still producing masterpieces. The sad fact is that the mechanisms for bringing those masterpieces to a reading public have become grossly defective.
After published ‘Cat Person’, the author was offered more than $1million
ed Philip Hensher (£20) is out now
LEFT ON THE SHELFLa bibliothèque, 1921, by Félix Vallotton, from Books Do Furnish a Painting (Thames & Hudson, £24.95)