Monday musings on Australian literature: Are short stories on the rise?

Today I’ll dip my toes into the muddy waters that comprise short stories. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m rather partial to short stories. Why, I wonder, are they still pretty much the second class citizen of the literary world? Marion Halligan said, on the release of her latest collection, Shooting the fox, that her agent’s initial reaction to receiving the collection was:

Oh, Marion, short stories?

Marion says, though, that while publishers have traditionally not liked short stories, “they may be changing their minds”.

And so, today, I’ll talk a little about short stories. I’ve wanted to write on them for a while but the subject is so vast I’ve kept putting it off. Should I talk about short story awards? Or favourite short stories? Or favourite short story writers? Or collections? Or? I will probably visit some of those topics in future posts, but today I’ll just talk a little about Halligan’s belief (or is it simply hope) that “they may be changing their minds”.

Is there any evidence? Well, there may be (though I don’t have the statistics to prove that what I say here represents real change or just a continuation of the status quo).

Short story collections

There have been some critically successful collections of short stories published in recent years, of which the best known is probably Nam Le‘s The boat. It’s a beautifully diverse and accomplished collection which I read not long before I started this blog. Not only was it was shortlisted for awards, but it won some significant ones, that is, it won awards that were not specifically targeted to short stories, including, in 2009, the Prime Minister’ Literary Award for fiction and the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year. Tim Winton’s collection of somewhat connected short stories, The turning, won the New South Wales Premier’s Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in 2005. But then, Helen Garner won for Postcards from Surfers in 1986, and Beverley Farmer for Milk in 1984. So, is there anything new to celebrate? Perhaps, because the exciting thing about Nam Le is that The boat is his first book … a first book of short stories that won major awards! Change afoot? Or an anomaly?

Irma Gold in an article on short stories in Overland suggests that more short story collections are being shortlisted for awards, and cites this year’s Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards as evidence. She also notes that the publishers of these shortlisted works are mostly small – Black Inc, Salt Publishing, Black Pepper and Affirm Press. Are small publishers the only ones willing to take a risk on short story collections – like Affirm Press’s gorgeous Long Story Shorts – by emerging and lesser known writers? Whatever the answer, thank goodness for small publishers!

Short story anthologies

Short stories continue to be published in literary magazines, large and small, but their success as a genre feels (rightly or wrongly) more solid if they are published in books which readers are willing to buy. And there does seem to be quite a lot (my best scientific measure) of anthologies being published.

There are annual editions by such (small, again) publishers as Black Inc, Scribe (which has done two anthologies now) and the Griffith Review. In her Editor’s Note for Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2 , Aviva Tuffield writes:

Those dwindling opportunities for single-author collections concern me, both as an editor and as a reader. Many of the foremost novelists in Australia today – Gail Jones, Kate Grenville, Peter Carey, Joan London, Peter Goldsworthy – began their publishing career with story collections, but this trajectory no longer seems available. Yet short stories are vital training grounds for our writers …

Two points. First, Tuffield doesn’t seem to agree with Halligan that things might be changing, and second, are short stories only to be valued as “a training ground”? If that’s how we see them, then they will remain second-class citizens – won’t they? I suspect Tuffield does like short stories in themselves too … but I wonder whether this “training ground” idea is held by many readers?

Then there are anthologies compiled by an editor, often on a theme, such as Families (ed. Barry Oakley, 2008, in Five Mile Press’s series of “topic” oriented short story collections) and Brothers and sisters (ed. Charlotte Wood, 2009). These anthologies are (I’m guessing) the bread and butter of short story publishing: they are clearly easier to market. They have been around for a long time (and I’ve read many over the years), but they tend, in my experience, to focus on works by established writers (and often, though not always, use stories previously written and published). Good stories, usually, and good reading, but probably a less useful indicator of the health of short story writing and publishing in Australia.

So, where does all this leave me (us)? Nowhere, really, I think, in terms of resolving whether Halligan is right or not – but at least I have finally written a post on short stories. There will be more.

In the meantime, what do you think of short stories and their health (here or in your country)?

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Are short stories on the rise?

    • Actually I think we are blessed with a remarkable number of excellent small presses here in Australia, and Melbourne in particular (I think). I read and review a lot of debut Oz fiction and often it is the small presses that are willing to publish quite ‘risky’ books by little known authors, like Ouyang Yu’s The English Class (Transit Lounge) or David Musgrave’s Glissando (sleepers Publishing) or GL Osborne’s Come Inside (Clouds of Magellan). Giving writers ‘a go’ like this is often a launching pad for them, which I think is great.

      • Oh, I totally agree, Lisa. As I said in the post: Thank goodness for small presses. I sometimes think it’s sad when authors make their names and then leave those presses that gave them a start … though it’s understandable, I guess, when the larger presses can often often get them wider exposure. I guess it’s all part of the whole, and the main thing is for it all to mesh well to ensure we continue to have a rich literary scene.

  1. Personally I have read a lot more short stories this year than I had in many years! Mostly they have been spec fic, but I am keen to get hold of books like Arnold Zable’s most recent book and Marion Halligans book too.

  2. I wonder if someone will start using the rising popularity of short stories to “prove” the moral panic about declining attention spans? I hope not; I believe a strong short story requires a great deal of concentration, not less! 🙂

    • Good point … someone did suggest the “time-poor” issue but I’m not sure they went quite to far as to related it to readers’ attention spans! I agree, many short stories do need high concentration.

    • I would have to laugh a little if someone tried this, though I gotta admit I’ve wondered before why more people aren’t reading short stories in place of novels, if their attention spans have been so diminished by mtv and the internet. It always shocks me when I see someone speaking or writing about short stories as the “second-class citizen” you describe them as in your post, since negative statements about a genre will rarely get by without a load of commenters attacking. (I recently read a review of a Karen Russell book that started, [paraphrasing here], “I don’t understand short stories. What’s the point of coming up with a scene and characters just to end it after 10 pages?” SERIOUSLY?)

      It seems that every year or two in the States a story collection gets a lot of attention; but so many of the best (and most frequent) publishers of short stories are small presses. I would love to point more people in the direction of some of the best small presses and their story collections, as I think they’d be pleased/surprised by the quality of the stories there. Often so much more daring and exciting than the stories that get published by the “big six” publishers.

      • Agree totally of course.

        I sometimes read The New Yorker stories but they tend to be by established authors AND they are sometimes excerpts from their next novel but they are never upfront about this. I have no problem with excerpts really, if they work, but I’d like to know. Small presses where some of the exciting things are happening tend to find it hard to move beyond their national boundaries – even in this digital age – it seems.

  3. What I’d like to see is some big publisher selling short stories by ‘Name’ authors on an individual basis. With paper it really wasn’t possible to market individual stories, but with digital it becomes easier to market individual stories. At this point only name authors could sell an individual story. Perhaps we should get away from the concept of a ‘book’.

    • Good one Tony … I think this is happening on a small scale. At least, I think some literary magazines with an online presence are starting to sell individual contributions BUT there probably needs to be more AND it probably needs more promotion

  4. A number of years ago I read an interview with a writer whose name I can’t now remember, who said that in the U.S. publishers at that time were hesitant to take first novels unless the author had published a moderately successful book of short stories first. It was almost like the short stories were a porving ground and a cheap way for a publisher to decide on whether to support an author for a book that “counted.” A very bizarre approach but U.S. publishers have never been accused of being logical. Whether this was true or remains true, I cannot say.

    • That does sound a little bizarre, Stefanie, thanks for sharing. Dso those same publishers willingly publish these “proving ground” collections? And, really, some people can write great short stories but not novels and vice versa. Very few poets write verse novels … are short poems, eg sonnets, training ground for long poems and verse novels? Not a perfect analogy I know but it perhaps shows how simplistic some of these assumptions are – as if the only difference is length!

  5. I love short stories, but when I think about it I realize I really don’t buy them very much. I read The New Yorker every week, but you already pointed out that those are often established writers. I get the magazine “World Literature Today” and often find new things I enjoy in there. Every year, I purchase an anthology or two, but it’s often ones I read in The New Yorker! As I glance over my bookshelves, I see Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor and William Trevor. Not much representation for a genre I supposedly enjoy!

    • Oh I love your honesty Amanda … this made me laugh a little! I guess the thing is that if you are a reader who enjoys a wide range of material you probably aren’t going to have every aspect covered comprehensively, and it does sound as though you read short stories regularly even if your physical collection doesn’t reflect that. I bought one of the O Henry Prize anthologies once – about 2007 – I think. I greatly enjoyed it. I also read, semi-regularly, the Library of America offerings. (They are not all short stories, but many of them are). Mostly though when I buy short story collections or anthologies they are Australian.

  6. I haven’t been a big fan of short stories. I used to find them unsatisfying I think because I read so fast and there didn’t seem enough to sink my teeth into. I can appreciate them intellectually. I really enjoyed teaching short story structure to Year 9s for years and I enjoy de-constructing them.

    I especially enjoyed those by Henry Lawson. I still find his stories incredibly powerful despite the fact that they may seem anachronistic these days.

    My son has been researching them so I’ve taken a fresh look at them. Still not a very big fan, but I can see the appeal. I have a collection by a young Thai writer and I enjoyed the cultural difference in perspective.

    • Thanks Magpie! I think that’s the reason many people don’t like them – they’re over almost as soon as they’ve begun. I think I like them the way I like a poem – the way they (the best ones) get you in straightaway and finish, usually, with punch (sometimes truly gutwrenching like Maupassant’s Necklace and Chopin’s Desiree’s baby).

      I got into them when I was a student and wanted to read for pleasure but didn’t want to get pulled into a novel which might distract me from study. Such a good little student I was!

      Why is your son researching them – or, more accurately, what in particular is he researching?

  7. I sure hope they’re coming back, considering the expert writing of Alice Munro, and yes, Flannery O’Connor, whose short stories I’ve been delving into lately. The interesting thing is, I wouldn’t be reading Flannery O’Connor if not for film reasons. Also, there are excellent full-length features that are based on just a short story. Alice Munro’s “Away From Her” comes to mind (film adaptation written and directed by the talented Sarah Polley).

    • Thanks Arti … that’s a great point. I’ve been fascinated by how many films, as you say, are adapted from short stories. It makes sense when you think about it because novels are sometimes too big to adapt well (and, as you know, I’m not equating “big” with “more important” or “better”). Some years ago I was astonished to discover how many Somerset Maugham short stories (in addition to novels) had been adapted. And one of my favourite recent(ish) Aussie films, Jindabyne, was a (loose-ish) adaptation of a Raymond Carver story “So much water so close to home”. (I’ve been thinking film adaptations could be a future Monday musings, or two).

      Away From Her was a great movie — I have the book it comes from, must read it. And Brokeback Mountain was based on an E Annie Proulx short story wasn’t it? Hmmm … much food for thought, thanks so much for raising it.

      • I look forward to your future post on this… you know how fascinated I am with the topic of ‘books into films’. But of course, you’ve raised an additional issue here… it’s not books, but short stories into full length features…. how the two formats meet, and how the screenwriter likely need to expand the plot, adding new characters etc. so in a way taking it much further and the issue of “loyal to the source” would come in. But “Away From Her” is excellent. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed the film much more than the story.

        And btw, a prolific writer whose short stories have been turned into many popular films is sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick: The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report, Paycheck, Total Recall…

        • Ah, Dick too? You could write a post on it too you know, Arti, as I’m sure your take would be different and I think your knowledge/memory for these things is more extensive than mine. I will ponder it though, probably from the Aussie perspective. I think the issue of “loyal to the source” would come in in a different way. With short stories there can be an expansion whereas with novels there’s often contraction to contain them to something manageable!

  8. Hello I read and enjoyed this post a while back but didn’t manage a reply. I do hope you write more about this topic. Things do seem to be opening up for short story collections and with the iPhone application from EtherBooks being roundly noticed (I have stories up soon!) there may be even more avenues. What dyou think of interlinked short stories? I wrote a piece in The View From Here litmag site about them last week. Ciao cat

    • Thanks Catherine … do you mean like Tim Winton’s The turning (in which some were linked and some were not)? I like them … shall go and read your article because this topic interests me.

  9. Pingback: Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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