When did we stop read­ing short sto­ries?

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THEATRE -

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)

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