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)?

Irma Gold, Two steps forward

Irma Gold's Two steps forward Bookcover

Irma Gold's Two steps forward (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

Irma Gold’s* Two steps forward is, apparently, the last release in Affirm Press’s Long Story Short series. I have reviewed two others previously – Gretchen Shirm’s Having cried wolf and Leah Swann’s Bearings – but, before talking about this book, I must say how much I love the books themselves. I am starting to read eBooks. I recognise they are likely to be the future and they do offer advantages over print books. They take up less space, for a start. You can change font size to suit your eyes. And, eReaders have inbuilt dictionaries which can be useful when you are reading while out and about (or are just too plain lazy to get off your seat to find the dictionary). But, this doesn’t mean I don’t like print books – especially lovely ones to look at and hold like this Affirm Press series. I like their slightly smaller size and their simple, clear, modern design. The three I’ve read also have very stylish monochromatic covers. There’s little, in fact, not to like about them.

Now, though, the book. This is one of those short story collections, like Swann’s Bearings, that has its own title rather than one drawn from one of the stories within. I like that – and the title of this book, Two steps forward, is a particularly clever one, because of course it immediately calls forth the complete saying “two steps forward one step back”. This concept works well for the stories in Gold’s book.

Irma Gold is a writer and editor. She has been published in various journals, such as Meanjin and Island, but this is her first published collection. Well done her, because it’s an engrossing collection. Gold’s writing is clear and warm, and she demonstrates in this collection an ability to handle a range of voices and points of view. There are 12 stories in the book: five are told 1st person, two 2nd person, and the other five 3rd person. Her protagonists are mostly women, but there are a few male voices too. The stories could be described as “scenes from a life” (well, lives, really). Her characters include a single mother hoping for love (“The art of courting”), an empathetic woman working in a refugee detention centre (“Refuge”), a father experiencing his first access visit, after two years, with his 8-year-old daughter (“Tangerine”), an emotionally-neglected teen girl living in a caravan park (“Sounds of friendship”), an old homeless man (“Great pisses of Paris”), and so on. The characters are authentic. You know who they are, what they feel, and what they are confronting:

You notice how thin your lips have become, how the flash of greasy fuchsia looks almost crude. You pull at the loose skin on your neck, and the spongy puffs around your eyes filled with lines, the skeleton veins of a dead leaf. (“The art of courting”)

I want to touch him, but the space between us is fractured. (“Refuge”)

I compose sentences in my head, but none of them work. (“Kicking dirt”)

Says they can’t afford to waste cash on stuff they don’t need, though apparently alcohol is essential. (“Sounds of friendship”)

There’s a painful vulnerability to her characters, as they confront their particular challenges, such as visiting a terminally ill friend (“The visit”), facing a miscarriage (“The third child”), or trying to reconnect with a young daughter (“Tangerine”). Their lives are finely observed, so much so, in fact, that you feel you’ve been there – even if you haven’t. Their triumphs, when they have them, are hard won.

I also liked Gold’s use of imagery. It’s apt, evocative, and is not overdone or pushed too far – which suggests careful writing, good editing, or both:

 A day leaking away with a spill of apricot. Air stung with lavender. (“The art of courting”)

… and Abby catches the cold-barrelled words Mick fires at her mother. (“Sounds of friendship”)

But it was all icing slathered over stale cake. (“The anatomy of happiness”)

The tone doesn’t vary much, but this doesn’t spoil the experience. The stories, overall, have a somewhat melancholic air, as the characters struggle to keep a forwards momentum in their lives ahead of a backwards one. And, there are touches of humour (mostly wry) and some occasional irony (such as a reference to our anthem’s “boundless plains to share” in “Refuge”) that provide relief.

Endings are always hard … at least that’s what E. M. Forster told us in Aspects of the novel … but Irma Gold has handled them well. Keeping with the title, most of her stories have more hope than not – but none are fully resolved. Like life really.

Irma Gold
Two steps forward
Mulgrave, Vic: Affirm Press, 2011
(Series: Long Story Shorts, 6)
ISBN: 9780980790474
Also available in eBook format

(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)

* I was tickled to note in her Acknowledgements that Gold spent some time at Varuna Writers’ Centre.

Leah Swann, Bearings

Bearings bookcover, by Leah Swan

Bookcover (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

When I read a collection of short stories, I look to see whether there is an overriding theme. It’s not essential that there be one, of course, but it can add to the satisfaction, if only because looking for a theme forces me to think a little more about what I’ve been reading. Well, I didn’t have to look too far with this most recent collection, as the title pretty well gives it away. Bearings, by Leah Swann, is a collection of seven short stories and a novella and, as the back cover blurb says, is about “challenging the course of our lives and keeping a foothold during unpredictable times”. That’s a pretty good description and, I must say, it’s appealing, for a change, to have a short story collection whose title is not that of one of the stories within.

Bearings is the fifth book in Affirm Press’s series, Long Story Shorts. (I reviewed the fourth one, Having cried wolf, a few months ago.) It’s a gorgeously produced series. The books are a little more squat than the usual paperback, and each has a cover designed by Dean Gorissen. They are books you want to hold (fondle even) and look at.

Anyhow, on with the show. This is a varied bunch of stories. Some are told in first person, some third, and the first story is told in the less common second person. The subject matter includes broken families, suicide, grief, foster children, and motherhood. That is, all those things that happen in people’s lives to challenge them. However, as the title suggests, the stories are not totally depressing. Sad at times, yes, but not hopeless. They are more about finding ways to survive the challenges.

The stories grew on me. It’s not that I didn’t like them from the start because I did, but I think the writing got surer and more interesting, less predictable, by the end. Whether, of course, they are presented in the order written I have no idea. Probably not, but that’s how it feels. Of the first few stories, I especially liked “All the mothers”, a first person story about a foster child. He starts off as a naive narrator, not quite understanding what is happening as he moves from “mother” to “mother”. Take, for example, Mr Gordon who sometimes gives him an Eskimo Pie “especially if I have a cuddle”. When Mrs Gordon catches him on Mr Gordon’s knee one day, she pulls him off but he’s mystified: “I keep saying I’m okay, but she doesn’t believe me. Or maybe she’s not listening”. Gradually, of course, he becomes less naive and, more angry. It’s a well realised, psychologically real, slice-of-life story.

The central novella, “Silver hands”, is a little predictable. You can see most of it coming before you get there, but it’s nonetheless a good read because the characters are engaging and the language is fresh. I enjoyed descriptions like this:

His laugh goes up and down the scale like a hammer on chimes.

And this one on a woman starting to see signs of aging:

My skin is drying like the pages of a manuscript lettered with childbirth, lovemaking, nicotine and alcohol, and under it all the bones are losing density. But the letters of my true being are not written here. I am not only my body. I’ve never believed that yet here I am mourning it, sucked into that great big lie, measuring myself by flesh more than ever.

This is (obviously) a first person story. The set up is a marriage in the process of breaking down, but it’s more about how experiences in our past can come back to bite us if we don’t properly address them at the time. There are some “mysteries” for the reader to uncover and Swann plots them nicely. An enjoyable read.

My very favourite stories though are the last two, “The Easter Hare” and “The Ringwood Madonna”. Many of Swann’s protagonists are artists – potters, musicians, painters, writers – and this is so in these two stories. “The Ringwood Madonna” is about an artist who is struggling with motherhood, about how she meets a homeless tagger and engages in her own little act of rebellion. She creates a Madonna poster which she pastes like graffiti on a railway cutting wall. It attracts a lot of attention but an art expert says that holy images should not be sprayed around town. However,

Her graffiti Mary was  – to her – a beautiful lamp in suburban ugliness. A gift. Subconsciously she’d hoped that by creating Mary she would create beauty inside herself, she could see that now. And she had felt warmth when she was creating. Yes. Even joy.

The story’s conclusion nicely resolves some of the conflicts in her life while also making a comment on art as being not only about expression but communication too.

“The Easter Hare” takes place over Easter (of course) and beautifully reflects on the Easter story of death and redemption through a loose parallel describing a suicide and the response of strangers to it. It’s a finely told tale, and its conclusion brought tears to my eyes.

Swann describes the mother in “The Easter Hare” as wanting to write an Easter story for her children that is not “bloody and harsh” like the Crucifixion story, as wanting, rather, to “create something gentler for them”. This seems also to be what Swann wanted to create for us. She chronicles the challenges, sufferings and miseries of life but, as her title suggests, her worldview is a positive one, one that believes we can all find our “bearings” if we just take the time to look for them. This collection would be a good place to start.

Leah Swann
(Series: Long Story Shorts, 5)
Mulgrave: Affirm Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780980790429

(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)

Gretchen Shirm, Having cried wolf

Having cried wolf, book cover

Book cover (Image from Affirm Press)

I have come to the conclusion that short stories are the best holiday reading for me. After a day’s sightseeing followed by reading up on sights for the next day, I usually find I have little time left for my reading. Novels are hard to read under such circumstances, but short stories? Well, they are just the thing. And so, on our recent trip to Hong Kong, I took Gretchen Shirm’s first collection of short stories, Having cried wolf.

Gretchen Shirm is a new Australian writer who was awarded the D.J. O’Hearn Memorial Fellowship for Emergent Writers in 2009. The blurb on the back of the collection likens her to Olga Masters, Helen Garner and Beverley Farmer, and I can see that, but as I was reading the stories I kept thinking of Tim Winton‘s The turning. The obvious reason is because, like The turning, Having cried wolf comprises short stories that are connected by character and place. The fifteen short stories are set in (or deal in some way with) the fictional New South Wales coastal town of Kinsale, and several characters reappear throughout, sometimes in their own stories and sometimes in others. It is rather fun, actually, identifying these and picking up the thread of a story as you progress through the book. Despite this, though, the stories do, I think, also stand well alone.

While Shirm doesn’t focus quite so much as Winton does on the description of place, beyond, that is, conveying the sense of small-town life, her themes are similar: the challenges of small-town living and, particularly, of maintaining meaningful relationships. These themes, however – particularly regarding maintaining relationships – are also those of the aforesaid Masters, Garner and Farmer.

And so to the stories. I must say I enjoyed them – though they are not a particularly cheery bunch. Shirm’s writing is tight and sure, with none of the over-writing often found in first-timers. She writes in first and third person, in female and the occasional male, voices. The characters range from early teens to middle-aged and she captures them all well. Her subject matter includes coming-of-age, marriage and separation, sexuality, suicide and some uncomfortable morality. While many of the stories are interlinked, they are not organised in a totally chronological manner. For example, we learn in the first story, “Breakfast friends”, that Alice is separated from her husband, but in a couple of stories later, “The shallows”, we meet her with the boyfriend who later becomes her husband. This nicely replicates I think the random way we often find out about people in real life.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow discussion of the stories but just mention a couple to exemplify some features of her writing. “Small indulgences” for example is a first person story by a rather down-trodden wife. It perfectly encapsulates a woman who has almost, but not quite (as she refuses to colour her hair), subsumed herself to her husband’s needs – and it ends on a delicious if rather sad ironic note. Several of the stories end effectively on metaphors that are subtle but gorgeously appropriate. “Duplicity”, which is about the son of the woman in “Small indulgences”, ends with “There were still no lights on in the house, but by then Daniel was used to the darkness”. And “Breakfast friends” ends with:

The cicada shell is empty now, but inside it was once soft, malleable and not yet formed.

The meaning of that is clear when we read it, but gains added poignancy as we learn more about its characters in later stories. There are many other lovely expressions throughout the stories, such as

… she wants to pour the memory into a mould and leave it there to set.

Why can’t I think like that!

Shirm uses foreshadowing in many of the stories to convey suspense and move the plot along, but she’s not heavy-handed about it. It does mean though that the stories are similar in tone. In other words, this is not a collection of great tonal range but I don’t think that matters, because there’s enough variety and interest elsewhere. There are however a few grammatical oddities that jarred. In a first person voice they can I suppose be forgiven, but there were a couple in third person stories that did bother me. “Peter’s friends swum in the pool” just isn’t right. Is it okay if the voice is third person subjective and that’s how the character might speak? I’m not sure. I’m being pedantic though because overall this is fine confident writing with lovely insights into human behaviour. It does not read like a first collection – and I hope we see more of Gretchen Shirm.

Gretchen Shirm
Having cried wolf
(Series: Long Story Shorts, 4)
Mulgrave: Affirm Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780980637892

(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)