Brief encounter

The favourite artform of Katherine Mansfield and Chekhov will never die, but the short story needs help. Peter Stanford assesses new research into our reading habits and says it's time for action
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

'My publishers never said anything out loud to me, but I knew that they would have been very pleased if I had told them I was now writing a novel." Rachel Seiffert had been short-listed in 2002 for the Man Booker Prize for her debut, The Dark Room, a collection of four interlinked stories, and as her follow-up she was contemplating a volume of short stories. "I think I even voiced my concern to them," she recalls, "because I am not immune to the British view of short stories as 'not proper writing'. Certainly I was aware that publishers do not value them as highly as a novel."

In the end, Seiffert decided to buck publishing wisdom and her second book, Field Study, out this month (Heinemann £12.99) is made up of 11 freestanding stories. "I'm attracted by the precision of short stories and the challenge to write sparely," she says. "I rarely read a novel that I don't regard as having gone off at a tangent and therefore as being too long. But the reality is that after The Dark Room I was researching various topics as themes for the full length novel I knew I should do, and as I worked through them I found that they were all in fact short stories, though I would say no less interesting for that."

Seiffert's status as a Man Booker nominee and one of Granta's "Best of Young British" authors may have given her more freedom to do as she pleases. Yet the conventional wisdom in the publishing industry is that short-story collections don't sell, don't interest readers and should be resorted to only a) as a sop to keep a best-selling author on side until his or her next novel or b) to plug a gap in the catalogue when the same best-selling author is experiencing writers' block.

A short story collection by a well-known name will, on average, notch up between 25 and 33 per cent of the sales of that writer's full-length novels, and new research by the Arts Council-funded Save Our Short Story campaign reveals that the number of collections of short stories published by mainstream British publishers has "fallen significantly" in recent years. They now account for only 2.5 per cent of the adult fiction market, and 1.1 per cent of library loans in the same category. There has been a growth in the number of small independent publishing houses producing collections, but commercially their impact is limited. They are, it seems, taking on the material their bigger rivals don't want anymore. Of the 100 best-selling short story collections in 2002, the research shows, the vast majority was from mainstream houses, with Frederick Forsyth's The Veteran pipping Catherine Cookson's The Simple Soul at the top of the pile.

The survey also asked readers why they didn't try more short story collections. Two thirds said it was more by accident than design that they preferred novels, with only one in five arguing that they liked something longer to get their teeth into. A quarter of respondents did, however, say that they found short stories harder to read than a novel. The short story has an image problem that may lead to its extinction.

Such fears led, in 2002, to the founding of the campaign (www.saveourshortstory.org.uk). One of its main aims has been to increase the number of outlets in magazines as a first stop for short stories and a way of whetting the public appetite once again. The campaign has its own on-line anthology, Endangered Species, edited by Val McDermid. Two new stories are added each month - by well-known names like Ian Rankin, Ali Smith and Helen Dunmore as well as gifted novices - and sent out to subscribers.

Compared with the North American literary scene, the options here are limited. The Independent on Sunday continues to champion new short stories, but such commitment is rare. There, major popular magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and Harpers include short stories as a matter of course. There are a host of literary publications and web sites that take them. In Canada, there is a high level of national and provincial government support for short stories as a way of developing the country's writers of the future. Collections have been a standard route for making a publishing debut for writers before they go on to novels - the reverse of the situation in Britain.

In an encouraging sign for the renaissance of the short story some are now beginning to find their way to this side of the Atlantic. This month Animal Crackers, a first collection by Hannah Tinti, editor of the American magazine One Story magazine, appears (Review £10.99), and from young New Yorker Joshua Furst - already lionised by established names like Jay McInerney - comes Short People (Heinemann £12.99), linked tales of adolescence told with often disturbing candour.

The many opportunities in North America for perfecting the form are increasingly attracting the attention of British authors. Alan Beard is a case in point. His collection Taking Doreen Out of the Sky was first published by the Birmingham-based Tindal Street Press in 1997, before being picked up two years later by Picador. Going the Distance (Tindal Street £7.99), a collection he edited and contributed to, is likely to be his last offering to the UK market. "I've never had trouble getting reviews - and often very good ones. But I only write short stories and when I approach British publishers, they always say the same thing: 'Come back when you've done a novel. We'd be very interested.' So I have decided from now on to aim my work at the States and not bother with the UK. Already I've had a positive response from several magazines there."

The ebullient Wendy Perriam, with 15 published novels to her name as well as a Literary Review Bad Sex prize, is publishing Virgin in the Gym, her second collection of short stories (Hale £18.99). "If readers could just get over their prejudices, I know they'd enjoy short stories as a form," she says.

Her plea is echoed by Nicola Beauman, managing director of Persephone Books, an imprint that specialises in reviving neglected works by 20th-century women writers. The Casino by Margaret Bonham (£10), first published in 1948, is the latest of a long list of collections it has dusted down. Previous candidates have included Mollie Panter-Downes (two collections based on her contributions to The New Yorker), Elizabeth Berridge and the patron saint of the genre, Katherine Mansfield. "This busy world is crying out for more short stories rather than less," claims Beauman. "They're marvellous. We run a shop which gives me good hands-on feedback, and I get so frustrated when readers tell me that they like to get stuck in to a novel or that short stories are no sooner started than they've finished. If we followed that logic through we would dismiss the entire work of Katherine Mansfield and a good deal of Chekhov."

If Beauman is predicting a renaissance in short story publishing, Rachel Seiffert is more circumspect. "It's hard to tell other readers and writers what they should be doing," she says. "I can only talk about my own reading habits, and there I often find myself preferring the short stories of writers like Alice Munro and Annie Proulx to their novels. Perhaps it's all about finding a rhythm in reading and writing. Short story then novel, short story then novel - that sounds just about the right mix to me."

Comments