The Short Story, UK, December 1999

From Tim Love -

In the Christmas catalogues that came through my door I noticed just one poetry book amongst the cookbooks and footballer autobiographies: Ted Hughes' "Birthday Letters". But one book's better than none at all - there were no short stories. Why? The publishers say there's no demand for them. This week I received the latest issue of Staple magazine. Usually it prints poetry and stories, but this was a poetry-only issue, because the editors said that they had to save money and by producing such an issue they could publish as many writers as usual in fewer pages. Poetry has a National Library at the South Bank, a National Poetry Day, and a Poetry Society that's become efficient at winning grants. If TV wants a token poet for a show they can choose the jolly Roger McGough, the safe hands of Seamus Heaney, or the controversial Tom Paulin amongst others. Short stories can offer little in reply. Poetry suits the attention span of modern media, and a poem conveniently fits on a computer screen.

Perhaps the publishers are right in thinking that in the UK short stories have had their day. Market pressure may not be to blame - sometimes at recent short manuscripts meetings at my local writers group there were no short stories! If the art of the short story in England isn't to die, a demand for it will need to be pump-primed.

For glimmers of hope we need to look elsewhere. In the States hundreds of stories are still published each year in literary magazines. In Scotland one of the brightest newish writers is A.L. Kennedy, who started with short stories. I can't see any improvement next year for the short story, but the World Wide Web and e-mail, already the main medium for some writers, will become an increasingly significant alternative to workshops and paper publications.

From Jack Alster -

Tim Love is right in bemoaning the lack of opportunity for short story writing in comparison to the many outlets for poetry. But if the States can produce magazines which include short stories, then why not here?

The blame must be placed on publishers for their lack of adventure. It's the old disease of a fear of risk and a desire for the lazy buck. The short attention span of modern life, the large numbers travelling on trains etc. make the short story the ideal medium of a 'quick read'. So we could do with a number of magazines - some dealing with cheapo writing and others with more ambitious work.

However, things are perhaps slightly better than Tim makes out. Two years ago the Ian St. James short story competition had two and a half thousand entries and Malcolm Bradbury brought out his anthology of 'Modern British Short Stories'. He also published two collections of short stories from the Creative Writing Class at the Univ. of East Anglia. In addition, most writers' groups have short story competitions. Incidentally, Bradbury's anthology includes the following: McEwan (who started as a short story writer), David Lodge, V.S.Pritchett (primarily a short story writer), Fay Weldon, Rose Tremain, Angela Carter, Salman Rushie, Kazio Ishiguro, Kingsley and Martin Amis, J.G.Ballard, Graham Greene, Beryl Bainbridge, Doris Lessing, etc. etc. Not bad for a form that is 'dead'!

Tim Love -

True, it's not all doom and gloom but the trends all seem to be going the wrong way. As Jack says, there's still a lot of writing going on, though lately regional and genre anthologies seem to have taken over from general collections. Taking up some of Jack's points

Solutions? Two come to mind
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Tim Love, December 1999