Wednesday, October 29, 2008

FEATURE Does the Short Story Need Saving?

JANET TAY researches the history of the short story and asks why it keeps playing second fiddle to the novel when it is the prose’s equivalent of the lyric poem

FOR SOMETHING that is regarded as the poor cousin of the novel, the short story has always received mixed reviews. The Arts Council England and Scottish Arts Council funded a research project for it, thanks to a campaign initiated by the writer Margaret Wilkinson in 2002. Jack Livings in Newsweek talked about how Stephen King was yet another author who had commented on the fragility of it. A.L. Kennedy says it gets bad press but mainly no press at all, which is worse. Aida Edemariam wrote in The Guardian in 2005 that the British attitude to it is that it is ‘somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing ….’

As early as 1909, an anonymous reader wrote to The New York Times Saturday Review of Books that short stories ‘render to the seeing eye the tone of time, the drama of a lifetime, the romance of youth far more perfectly than the crowded canvas.’ The reader wanted to find out why short stories were unpopular when in his or her opinion, ‘a great many writers put a finish and a charm into their short stories which their novels lack.’ Nearly a hundred years later, the reader’s sentiments are still echoed by many writers, readers and even editors and publishers. Bob Thompson in his 2007 article in The Washington Post quoted Margaret Atwood, with reference to the difficulties in trying to début with a collection of stories, who said: ‘With a young writer, they’re always going to say: “Well, this is a lovely book of short stories, dear, have you got a novel?” ’

What is it then about short stories that seem to deter publishers from promoting them wholeheartedly, especially since they seem more accessible to the busy, modern reader who might derive more satisfaction from being able to read and finish one story while juggling a hectic schedule? Assuming that the short story is an easier genre to read or write, however, is a misconception. As Edemariam said in The Guardian, ‘[it’s] like privileging the marathon, or the 1,500m over the 100m. [...] [A] short story is prose’s equivalent of the lyric poem.’

Like that anonymous reader in 1909, I too was curious as to why the short story was in danger of obscurity or at the very least, placed in a position that was precariously second to the novel. If Edemariam’s comparison of the short story to the lyric poem is accurate, then the simple answer to my question on why the short story appears to be less popular than the novel is that it is inaccessible to the majority of the reading public. Perhaps only academicians or literary enthusiasts would revere the short story in the same way poetry has become celebrated by a select few. Julian Gough surmised that contemporary readers don’t seem to like unconnected short stories—as opposed to ‘short stories assembled on an organising principle’—because life is fragmented enough, and people ‘like art to make sense out of chaos but without denying the chaos.’

A project funded by Arts Council England and the Scottish Arts Council included research with over 70 writers, agents, publishers, event organisers and retailers on writing, agenting, publishing, marketing and selling of short stories, carried out by Jenny Brown Associates. Book Marketing Limited (BML) researched publishing, sales and lending figures, as well as reading and buying patterns of short stories across the U.K. The report by Jenny Brown Associates and BML may shed some light on the popularity of the short story. An editor of a small press said that ‘as a reader, you orient yourself in a new world, and your brain has to work very hard until you’re into it. You have to do that work all over again with each short story, but with linked stories you already have the context.’ The general sentiment with editors was that ‘readers are getting lazy.’ An author thought that ‘most readers prefer novels, partly because they can become ‘lost’ in the world of the novel, but partly because they are “afraid” to tackle a short story, feel they won’t “get it” ....’

The fact that the Arts Council England and Scottish Arts Council made the effort to fund the research is to be commended. For those of us who read short stories without realising the danger of its declining popularity, the report by Jenny Brown Associates and BML seems to indicate that it is indeed almost all gloom and doom for the genre, at least in the U.K. The report concludes that the the most effective way of keeping short stories alive seems to be the creation of a major award for a single story or a collection of stories. Happily, the National Short Story Prize (now renamed the BBC National Short Story Award) was born in 2005 with a generous first prize worth £15,000, won by Clare Wigfall this year. There is also the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the world’s richest prize for a collection of short stories, with €35,000 for prize money, which also had its first winner, Yiyun Li, who débuted with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, in 2005. It seems that in order for the short-story genre to be taken seriously, you have to put your money where your mouth is.

Some independent publishers whose sales thrive on short-story collections feel that the pessimism surrounding the short story by mainstream publishers and editors become self-prophesising. If one thinks that the short story is hard to sell, then little or no effort or budget would be expended into its marketing. Agents and publishers would be less inclined to accept manuscripts of short-story collections from first-time writers, causing the number of short-story collections to dwindle. If these collections fail to make their presence felt in bookstores, readers would not be exposed to them and there would be no opportunities to even try to educate the reading public on the form.

In recent years, thanks to the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, writers like Yiyun Li and Miranda July have had the opportunity to showcase their excellent first collections to the world. This year’s winner, Jhumpa Lahiri, whose first book was a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories and has won the Frank O with her third book and second collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, is a laudable example of how there are success stories despite the short story’s grim outlook. But how many Jhumpa Lahiri’s or Yiyun Li’s are there? Relying on the rare success stories to give one hope is like saying there’s money to be made from publishing books because J.K. Rowling made hundreds of millions from publishing when most writers know that it is a tough business and many writers don’t even earn enough royalties to quit their jobs so they can write full-time.

The reality is, as long as the quality of writing is excellent, it doesn’t really matter what genre you write in. The main problem with this genre bias is that the short-story writer seems to have more of a burden to bear when it comes to even getting a foot in the door of an agent’s office or a publishing house compared to the novelist. This is not to say that novelists can get away with writing bad novels, but rather that novelists would have a better chance of proposing their manuscripts to agents or publishers compared to the short-story writer who would first have to overcome the obstacle of prejudice towards short stories before even having the chance to show their work to anyone.

The problem, it seems, isn’t that the standard of short stories are on the decline. This is obvious even as contemporary award winners still display excellent writing. Tobias Woolf in a July 2008 interview in The Guardian was asked whether he was ‘fearful for the health of the short story’ but stated that ‘it’s as robust as it can be.’ Instead, the problem is declining readership, Woolf says, ‘simply returning to where it was in the past, as something that appealed to a relatively small part of the population.’

William Boyd in his article, ‘A Short History of the Short Story,’ also portrays the short-story market in an optimistic light. He says that ‘the American market is still large and remunerative,’ possibly also shaped by the increasing creative writing courses in the U.S. and the U.K. He believes that more young American writers are turning to the short story and more American publishers are publishing collections, and that U.K. publishers will also follow suit. However, there must be teamwork among agents, editors, publishing houses and even schools and libraries to promote and publicise the genre as well as educate the reading public if there is to be any real progress in giving the short story its rightful place next to the novel. One of the most vital myths to be debunked is that it is a practice ground for budding novelists. Woolf says that some Joyce and Hemingway stories show that ‘perfection is attainable.’ Anyone who has read Maupassant’s ‘The Necklace’ or Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ would agree, and understand the unforgettable experience of reading a literary snapshot of life that provides a sudden surge of clarity or emotion, and leaves an imprint in the mind years after it has been digested.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya.

Reproduced from the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine


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