For literature's sake, read my book
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 06 August 1999
In short, I've got a book out. It's true that I'm fairly lucky; reviewers have always been pretty kind to my books, and I have a useful, though sometimes rather embarrassing block which means that I can never remember a single thing that reviewers have said within a week. All the same, the week of publication is a nervous time, and I wish I had the self-discipline of those who just don't read their reviews.
This, too, is slightly worse than usual, since it's something no one - no publisher, that is - seems very keen on these days. It's a book of short stories. And putting one together has made me wonder what the problem is with books of short stories - there's nothing like a bit of self-interest in these matters.
Booksellers don't like them. Publishers don't actively object to them, so long as you make it clear that it's a minor piece of indulgence to slip between last year's deeply moving but delightfully quirky memoir of your childhood and next year's ambitious but perhaps rather second- hand historical novel, working title Major Martini's Euphonium. But they wouldn't actually encourage you to write one.
All this I find slightly odd, because readers on the whole are very keen indeed on short stories. No, really; they lap them up when they can find them, in magazines or even in anthologies. They seem to have no particular difficulty in buying something which sounds definitive, anything which can be described as the Collected Stories of a writer. But there's some kind of breakdown in the chain between a writer whose inclination is towards short stories and a reader with a taste for the form, which is difficult to account for.
Certainly, as everyone says, there's been a drying-up of interest from the old outlets. Radio 4 used to have an interest in broadcasting short stories, but you might as well forget it now. Magazines and newspapers which habitually ran a story from time to time now limit themselves to one at Christmas, if that. The excellent New Writing anthologies sponsored by the British Council still take stories, as do such admirable enterprises as the London Magazine, but their future is far from assured.
And if the situation is bad for individual stories, it's even worse for volumes; and something which has always been one of the glories of the literature is struggling for survival. The pressures of the market are irresistible at the moment, and right now, Chekhov himself would be bullied by his publishers into writing a big, boring novel.
This sounds a bit like a selfish whine, but it isn't really. For the moment, someone like me can generally place a story somewhere. But if I were starting out now, I think I'd find the situation pretty tough. And one of the classic forms of English literature, the volume of short stories, is dying off - not because no one is interested in it, but because no one seems to know how to market it.
Some of the most wonderful works of literature are volumes of short stories - Calvino's Ultimo Viene il Corvo, Joyce's Dubliners, Conrad's Typhoon volume. And there are more recent masterpieces; William Trevor, for instance, is a wonderful short-story writer, and his stories make the biggest impact, not in his Collected Stories but in a perfectly judged and balanced little volume such as Angels at the Ritz.
I have a solution. Considering how many literary prizes there are right now, it's amazing that there isn't one for a book of short stories. I wonder how many judges of prizes a couple of years ago read Candia McWilliam's superb collection Wait Until I Tell You and could find no way of recognising its excellence?
The Orange Prize was set up to reward fiction written by women. Everyone agrees that it serves no purpose apart from keeping the more ridiculous sort of lady academic off the streets. If something like that existed for volumes of short stories - if there was even a further category in the Whitbread Prize - then booksellers would know how to promote them, readers would become aware of them, and publishers might not groan at the prospect of one of their star authors turning from the novel to the short form.
Anyway, it's called The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife, it's only 200 pages long, available from all good bookshops for 10 quid, so go and do your bit for English literature.
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