The new Penguin Book of the British Short Story is a magnificent production – and at £25 apiece for the two volumes you’d hope it would be. One of the consequences of its magnificence, beyond the 90 writers it includes in its 1,500 pages, from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith, is that 25 pages of it are given over to an extended introduction from the editor, Philip Hensher.
Hensher makes a point of acknowledging as inspiration AS Byatt’s 1997 Oxford Book of English Short Stories (37 writers, some two thirds of whom make it into Hensher’s list) and although her introduction is of a comparable length, she spends much of it talking about her individual choices. Hensher takes a more general approach. I read the introduction this morning, and although I’ve only dipped into the stories themselves, Hensher’s excellent piece gives enough prompts for thought about the short story as a form that I want to get them down right away.
As is traditional in these things, Hensher gives apologies for absence (Anna Kavan, David Rose and Gerard Woodward among them) and boasts of exclusion (HE Bates is witheringly expelled), offers qualms over the wobbliness of the admissions criteria, and attempts at definition, but what I found most useful was the long look Hensher takes at the publishing history of the short story.
As much as any art form, how we experience the story is integral to its make-up, but whereas the novel has, notwithstanding the ancient history of serialisation and the advent of digital technologies, generally offered the same reading experience, the short story has seen a complete upheaval in the means of its delivery. Once, it was read in periodicals of often staggering popularity, sometimes devoted to the form, sometimes showing a more varied mix, whereas now it comes to us by and large in the form of author collections.
Hensher reminds us that until well into the last century the short story was one of the most lucrative forms available to professional writers, and while this is not exactly forgotten it’s worth considering quite far this aspect has evaporated from the legacy of the short story, for current and recent generations. If, pace Dr. Johnson, no man but a blockhead wrote, except for money, then certainly you’d have to be a major blockhead to write short stories for it under the present circumstances.
He avoids repeating the old saw that the short story is always undergoing or on the verge of a rebirth or revival; in fact his assessment of the current state of the form is far from positive. Naturally he puts this down to the lack of outlets willing to pay writers for their stories, commending The New Yorker for giving British writers such as Zadie Smith and Tessa Hadley the time and space to develop the art, where nowhere in Britain is willing or able to.
He is clear, too, that the dominant structural support offered to writers today, the short story competition, is in no way a satisfactory alternative. Continue reading