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)?