Whence and whither the short story? Notes on Philip Hensher’s introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story

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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.

Britain’s two big-money prizes come under specific attack: the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award (though Hensher stops short of naming it) and the £20,000 BBC National Short Story Award. He takes an (again no-names) potshot at recent Sunday Times prize chair John Carey and that year’s winner, Adam Johnson, who produced “an utterly routine piece of work”. More importantly, he points out that “with the same money, the newspaper could develop any number of short-story talents by, for instance, commissioning and running a short story every week for £1,000”.

Nor do the many smaller competitions that keep people out there writing away fare any better; he quotes the acknowledgements page of a recent small press short story collection, which lists the writer’s placings in The Whitaker Prize, Meridian Summer Competition, Greenacre Writers’ Short Story Competition, the Word Hut, Wells, Fish, Infanca, etc. etc.

Apart from the Fish, have you even heard of any of these? More pertinently, have these competitions – and there are dozens, if not hundreds of them, open to British writers, really done anything to increase the readership of the short story? Self-funding as they are through entry fees, “the possibility that anyone might pay in order to read these short stories seems hardly to be envisaged.”

The competitions don’t help the readership, then, but, Hensher suggests, they also do nothing to aid the development of the form itself: “The problem with relying on competitions as a means of developing talent, rather than response of a paying public, is that they reward what they think ought to be good, and not what contains any real energy.”

Hensher characterises the kind of writing that wins competitions as “present-tense solitary reflections, often with characters lying on their beds affectlessly pondering; major historical events [are] considered gravely; social media [are] dutifully brought in to indicate an eye on their contemporary without disturbing the solitary nature of the character” – which brings to mind Martin Amis’s piece in The Observer, a whacking thirty years ago, on judging a short story competition, which he opens with a representative “string of illiterate clichés”: “The heat was stiffling. Moodly he looked out of his bedroom window. Yes, the day was far too hot to be sleepy. He had to chose. To win, to suceed would be incredulous. But to fail, to loose, would be contemptuous!” [sic, sic and indeed sic, sic, sic, sic, sic]

The paying public, yes, but also – though Hensher doesn’t mention it – the editor. Competitions have judges, judges do a single year’s stint, then move on. The fiction editor of a journal – your Deborah Treisman of The New Yorker – can nurture and guide, where a judge can really only stick in their thumb and hope to pull out a plum.

And while we’re on the subject of The New Yorker, how exciting to see Julianne Pachico published there this very week – this is a writer I sometimes share an office with at UEA, and who I’ve read alongside, at, indeed, the launch of the most recent Salt Best British Short Stories anthology. So props to Nicholas Royle – and to the fiction editors of Lighthouse and at Daunt Books – who published her first. Hensher doesn’t mention the wave of post-Granta literary journals that have made an impact, on my reading at least – The White Review, Areté, Lighthouse and so on – and nor does he mention Royle’s anthologies. To be charitable, this might be down to the length of Hensher’s gaze: it’s not yet clear whether any of these – to my mind – worthy and often excellent publications are really doing anything to boost the health of the short story in terms of the wider reading public.

And while I agree with him in general on the question of the usefulness of story competitions – that they are there for the benefit of writers rather than readers (if not for the benefit of the organisations running them) – it’s worth pointing out that the inaugural winner of The White Review’s annual prize, Claire-Louise Bennett, has progressed from that story to a debut collection, Pond, which has writing in it as good as anything I’ve read this year.

As I say, Hensher touches on these issues, but this is not primarily a ‘state of the form’ introduction, just as it’s not a ‘state of the form’ collection, like Ben Marcus’s recent American one; this is a historical overview. The young(ish) names that are there – Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Tessa Hadley, Jon McGregor and Adam Marek – are not there as representatives of the current generation. They are there because they belong alongside Stevenson, Saki, Bowen, Spark. Anyone lucky enough to find one or both of these books under the Christmas tree will be thrown back into a tradition whose legacy we are today vanishingly aware of.

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2 comments

  1. solitaryproletarian

    On the issue of competitions, I’ve often had similar thoughts on music competitions (and some festivals). Often they merely exist for the benefit of those running them. Artists often benefit a little, if anything, from these kinds of events, and “failure” or lack of acknowledgement at such events can damage genuinely talented and aspiring artists.

  2. Inkposts

    Many good points raised in this post that I’m sure many writers never thought about. I’ve had doubts in the past regarding how beneficial some short story competitions are to the form, so it’s good to read something that provides a little more insight into it.

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