Monday musings on Australian literature: Short Stories, 1920s style

“A good short story is a work of art, and a joy of forever!” So wrote the author of The Sydney Stock and Station Journal’s “Our Book Column”, back in March 1920. I hadn’t planned to write about this topic today, but the various discussions of short stories I found while researching Trove distracted me. You all know how much I enjoy short stories. I couldn’t resist delving a little deeper – and by a little, I do mean a little, but still, I found some interesting ideas and perspectives.

Back to my opening quote. I love the fact that it comes from a stock and station journal. It suggests that short stories were widely popular then – in those days before television, and even radio (which started around 1923-1924 but of course was not immediately available to everyone everywhere). The writer (or writers) in The Queenslander’s Literature pages wrote frequently about short stories in the early 1920s, usually in reference to published collections or anthologies, most of which were not Australian. I’m mentioning them here though, not so much for the books being reviewed or promoted but for the commentary they provide on short stories. Here’s a fairly random selection of comments from The Queenslander.

  • On the value of short stories: “A book of short stories is usually a boon, and when the short stories are good it is a distinctly pleasant possession”. Well, duh – though I do like the idea that short stories are “a boon” by their very existence. Do readers still feel this way?
  • On the first of a planned annual, clearly international, anthology, The Best Stories of 1922: “In their first collection, “The Best Short Stories” of 1922″ (Jonathan Cape) they include some that certainly ought never to have got beyond the page of the magazines in which they were originally printed, and merely mention in a second-class a great number of others that must be considered with the year’s best. It may be, of course, that they were handicapped by the copyright. A few of the stories, however, are really first-class, including “Seaton’s Aunt,” by Walter de la Mare”. I like the fact that the writer doesn’t pull punches about the mixed quality of the selection.
  • On a growing interest in English language short stories: “For a great many years the short story was supposed to be the special property of the French writer, and for a generation the short story had only two notable exponents in English—Kipling and “O. Henry,” masters for all time. Recently, however, there is hardly a British or American writer of note who has not sought to excel in this special field, and one concludes that the English-speaking world is at last waking up to the value of the short story.”
  • Another par on the growing interest in short stories: “That the short story has gained a hold on the imagination of the English speaking peoples is very evident, for scarcely an English or American mail comes in without a book or two of short stories from the publishers. One of the latest is “Thirty-one Stories” (Thornton Butterworth), collected by Ernest Rhys and C. A. Dawson Scott, and containing stories by such writers as H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, John Russell, Aumonier, Galsworthy, May Sinclair, and others.” One of the things I enjoy about these articles is seeing the writers they include – some I know, some I don’t know, and some I’d forgotten about.
  • And another one in the same year on, yes, the popularity of short stories: “The world evidently cannot have too many short stories. Almost every author of note has published, or is publishing, a volume of short stories, and occasionally some discerning publisher collects a number of short stories of various authors and the result makes a very readable book.” The article mentions a recently received American collection called Marriage, which includes stories by Hergesheimer and Booth Tarkington among others. I wonder how these stories would read today?

Other articles I found talk about fostering and encouraging local writers. Evening News wrote in 1921 that it would continue to publish short stories by Australian authors in its Sunday News edition, as part of its “policy of endeavoring to give a stimulus to native literature”.

The writer of The Western Mail, probably the Fairfax I mentioned in a post earlier this year, praises the stories of Dowel O’Reilly whose humour, he says, “never degenerates—as is the case with some Australian writers—into the unedifying antics of sheer larrikinism”! The Western Mail was not so pleased with the stories of Elizabeth Fairfax. I’ll quote this par in full:

We have received from the publishers, (Melville and Mullen Pty. Ltd., Melbourne) a copy of “Garden o’ Memories and Other Stories,” by Elizabeth Fairfax. Reprinted from the pages of various Australian periodicals, the stories contained in this little volume are no better and no worse than the majority of their kind. Whether they were worth reissuing is another matter altogether. Perhaps “Time and Tide” is the pick of the bunch, but they are all of them afflicted with an incurable tendency to sentimentalism in its most advanced stage.

The book has a frontispiece in colour – and a pictorial cover design.

Hmmm … sounds like the cover might be the best part.

Finally, something practical. Here is the writer in The Argus responding to a query regarding how to get short stories published. S/he writes: “It is only possible to find publication for the stories if they are equal to the standard required by the editor to whom they are submitted. The stories should be typewritten on one side of the paper only, and a stamped and addressed envelope should be forwarded with the manuscript for its return in the event of its proving unsuitable. The manuscript should be addressed to the editor of the magazine or newspaper to whom it is to be submitted, and on no account should a copy be sent to two papers at the same time.”

I’ve filled this post, I know, with excerpts from newspaper articles but I do enjoy these insights into the thinking of a different time. I hope you get something out of them too.

13 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Short Stories, 1920s style

  1. Interesting that close to a hundred years ago, the short story form was muscling in ~ for better or for worse ~ love your line ‘sounds like the cover might be the best part’ !

    I’m sure many of us can relate to the quote: ‘One of the things I enjoy about these articles is seeing the writers they include – some I know, some I don’t know, and some I’d forgotten about.’

    Add to this the perusing of long and short listed, commended and winning entries from writers who have entered competitions ~ always with a keen eye for someone we will recognise.

    Then there is the checking of the number of entries actually submitted ~ all hopeful of a place, me included. Validation. That resounding echo: ‘We hear you… we know you are there… you are not writing into a void.’ Though mostly, we are. The sheer volume of entries attests to the popularity of the craft (if not the standard).

    Last night I attended an event ” a new series of readings by authors and actors held every two months, celebrating the best short story writing at home and overseas.”

    Reading from their collections were Paddy O’Reilly, Gregory Day, Elliot Perlman and Maxine Beneba Clarke. A special line up indeed. Powerful testimony to the craft!

    Thanks so much for the great post.

    • Oh wonderful Julie … I wrote about that event just as it was starting a month or so ago. I’d have been there if I lived in Melbourne. I don’t know Gregory Day (is that embarrassing to admit?) but the other three would have drawn me.

      • Oh yes, so you did, Sue. I just reread it! Sitting there last night I was reminded of another Melbourne event, Slow Canoe Readings, which seems to have disappeared – does anyone know?
        Gregory Day is new to me too – he read from his collection, The Madeness.

        • Oh good … glad for me, not for him, Julie, that I’m not so out of it I didn’t know him. Haven’t heard of Slow Canoe Readings. Sounds intriguing though.

  2. Takes me back, alright … those publishing companies, those publications ! Ah, the good old days, eh, Sue ? [grin]
    Yesyes, I know: well before my time …

        • The great days of the short story when it was a genuinely popular form! Interesting to see De La Mare’s Seaton’s Aunt mentioned which is one of his best “uneasy” stories and one of the best of its kind. The death of magazines and the non publication of stories in magazines that used to carry them have hobbled the popularity a bit….perhaps online fiction can bring about a revival. I like short stories too (ghost stories only work as short stories) and would hate to see them completely marginalized.

        • Thanks Ian. I know de la Mare of course, but I don’t know that story. Will try to check it out. I think literary journals still publish short stories but they are not regular features in popular magazines and papers are they. I suspect online short fiction is growing but I haven’t researched it enough to know if it is having any sort of significant impact.

    • That’s what I thought too, Stephanie. Interesting isn’t it. But also interesting is that I couldn’t find by-lines on the pages, though I might have missed them as scrolling around digitised newspaper pages in Trove can be a bit clunky.

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