Boyd Tonkin: Short-haul fiction, long-term benefits

The Week In Books

Here's a star-spangled shortlist of leading writers who have published, or soon will publish, works of fiction since the last Man Booker contest: Kazuo Ishiguro, AL Kennedy, Ali Smith, Will Self, Chimamanda Adichie, Alice Munro. None of them could have featured on this week's long-list. Of course, the final name gives the game away. Canada's doyenne of the story that packs an entire life, and world, into 20 pages might already have won the Man Booker International Prize for career achievement. But the annual competition still shuns volumes of short fiction. Which means as well that first-rank debut collections, such as (this year) Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, never stand a fighting chance. Should that rule now change?

British publishers still tend to treat collections of short stories as low-status makeweights which either give a foretaste of the "proper" work to come from gifted newcomers or – for established players – keep their name on the shelves while a long-haul novel cooks. Yet the habitual laments about the form's invisibility here have reasons to pipe down a bit. Works such as Ishiguro's linked tales of "music and twilight", Nocturnes, and Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck have ridden high in the charts. Beyond the Man Booker's cultural ambit, major-league publishers this summer offer collections from outstanding figures such as Egypt's Alaa Al Aswany (Friendly Fire) and the Bosnian-American Aleksandar Hemon (Love and Obstacles).

The Caine Prize for African Writing uncovers treasure after treasure from all over the continent while restricting eligible entries to short fiction alone. In the Manchester-based Comma Press and Salt Publishing in Cambridgeshire, Britain has two high-performing specialist imprints with a robust commitment to the briefer forms. This September will see the next edition of Small Wonder at Charleston in Sussex - a festival dedicated to the great fiction that so often comes in modest parcels.

Could any curious newbie read their way through the landmarks of modern narration without ever tackling any piece longer than 100 or so pages? You can easily imagine an eccentric but high-powered syllabus tailored for the short-winded students of today. Tolstoy would mean compressed masterworks such as Hadji Murat and The Kreutzer Sonata rather than War and Peace; James The Turn of the Screw, The Beast in the Jungle and many other marvels in place of The Golden Bowl; Conrad would stand up as sturdily as ever with nothing longer than Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer on the list.

Then move on to Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, Kipling, Borges, Lawrence, Nabokov, Singer, Babel, Katherine Mansfield, all the way through to Italo Calvino, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, Ingo Schulze and the younger Ian McEwan. Whenever anything that matters has happened in global fiction since the 1870s or so, you might plausibly argue that short-ish bursts of innovation have announced the shift of sensibility before the bigger bangs arrived.

Although the Booker spurns stories as such, medium-sized novellas can creep in under its fence. I was among the judges who raised this a fraction to let Anita Desai's flawlessly twinned pair of tales, Fasting, Feasting, onto our shortlist. This year, another sort of jury might have done the same for Geoff Dyer's East-West double-header, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

A credible slimline canon of literature must embrace the mid-length narrative, James's "blessed nouvelle", rather than tying up itself up in the ridiculous American ideology of the fixed-length short story. This ritualistic literary bondage, as favoured by US taste-makers such as The New Yorker magazine, has a lot to answer for. Any tale calls for a fitting shape and rhythm, but fiction is more than precision engineering. The only rule is to write originally and well - whether the result takes two, five or twenty thousand words.

P.S.Corporate apologies seldom come more abject than this. After Amazon's unilateral removal of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm from its Kindle e-readers after a screw-up over digital rights, cyber-warriors for freedom exploded in anger and scorn. Now Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (left) has grovelled deep and hard. "Our 'solution' to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received," he whimpered. Unplacated, Pierre Assouline of Le Monde, most magisterial of literary bloggers, writes that since Amazon also deleted customers' own notes on the two books, "the privacy of the reader is violated as never before". When the company gets round to releasing the Kindle in Europe, this episode will not be forgotten.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice