Renaissance of the short story

Literary Notes: Lee Langley
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HENRY JAMES, reproached for his prolixity, allegedly replied that he would like to write shorter, but he didn't have the time. He knew whereof he spoke. Let no one suppose that it is necessarily quicker to write short fiction than to spread yourself over a greater number or pages.

The essential form of the short story demands a distillation and concentration second only to a poem. The writing can be a lengthy process. What is undoubtedly saved is the reader's time, which may be one reason the short story is enjoying a renaissance. After decades of occupying the Cinderella seat in the fiction family, it is once again a la mode.

Curiously, when the fat, three-volume novel was popular, short stories shared their popularity: Conan Doyle, Saki, Katherine Mansfield filled the shelves alongside Trollope and George Eliot. In more recent decades, book publishers shied away from short stories: they were deemed unprofitable. Literary editors were reluctant to give them space on crowded books pages. Stories sold less well than novels.

All has now changed: there is talk of the short story as "the fiction form of the future"; Saul Bellow says so, citing the busy lives people lead, pushed for time, stressed out. Several leading novelists have produced short story collections: Amis, Barnes, Boyd, Byatt, Rushdie . . . and they sell.

Short stories are being issued in enticing new formats: collections prettily packaged as affordable treats; single stories published in mini-book form (Alan Bennett and E. Annie Proulx) and - newest of all - folded into map- like modules at pounds 1 a time, conveniently designed for slipping into your pocket to read on the train. In a matter of weeks stories by Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse and others will even be available from slot machines at selected tube and train stations.

We live in the age of the short attention span; the sound-bite, e-mail, the mobile phone which brings the workplace to the restaurant table or the beach. None of this is good for literature. Conditions are inimical to the leisurely immersion in the text that reading is all about. But there is an upside to the scene. The exhausted, overloaded reader can plunge into a short story without the problem of trying to remember what stage the plot has reached and who everyone is (pace Tolstoy, when I open a novel and see an extended family tree in the front, I sense a guilty sinking of the heart).

One of the undeniable drawbacks to short-story collections has been the fact that we invest our interest in the characters of story A, only to say goodbye, and start an over again with new people in story B. Acknowledging this problem, Martin Amis was heard to say on radio recently that perhaps the answer lay in linking stories by events or characters.

I speak with the tentative voice of one new to the genre, but when I began writing short stories, I too found, as a writer, a reluctance to sever all connections with my characters when the story ended. Curiosity, like Ariadne's thread, led me to the next story, and the next, and although the stories are independent, two characters reappear throughout, now in a leading role, now as spear-carrier in someone else's drama. By the end, the reader should have become familiar with several lives, glimpsed as in snapshots - or in life - as people touch and drift apart. Threads link people, as they link stories.

The flexibility, the protean adaptability of the short story which can encompass the lean bleakness of Raymond Carver; the dazzle of Garca Mrquez, the humane eye of William Trevor, the tenderness and heartbreak of Alice Munro, gives them, too, the fleeting gladness and sadness of life itself. Short stories are a box of delights: pick and choose.

Lee Langley's first collection of stories, `False Pretences', is published by Chatto & Windus, pounds 12

Comments