John Walsh: Tales of the City

Little hand grenades of energy and articulate bile - why the short story is worth saving
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The Independent Online

Once, a writer could launch a career with a collection of stories, as if setting out a stall of voices and narrative techniques: think Ian McEwan and William Boyd. Now it's considered a rather quaint thing to do, like collecting lead soldiers or wearing a cravat.

Publishers are unimpressed by story collections, seeing them as a blight on a burgeoning career, like having poison ivy spread across your immaculate front wall. Agents will extract a publisher's advance for stories only if they're bolted onto a proper book, namely a novel. "Must you?" they will say to the writer who has brought a dozen stories to the office, like a litter of scrofulous children. "Can't you re-cast them as half-hour TV plays?"

When did we get like this? I grew up on short stories - Sherlock Holmes, the ghost stories of M R James, the tales of adolescence by Frank O'Connor, the tough-guy vignettes of Hemingway, the toxic social comedies of Katharine Mansfield, the evocation of Irish torpidity in Joyce's Dubliners, the dark hilarity of the insane asylum in Waugh's Mr Loveday's Little Outing. They could be used as a handy, nursery-slopes introduction to difficult or scarily monumental writers (Lawrence, say, or Henry James or Woolf or Kafka.) They could be revelations of the emotional miracles a master of the genre can achieve in 20 pages (see William Trevor, passim). They could be as compact and pungent as poetry, but range over time like an epic film.

When did I stop reading them? It occurred to me this spring, when I was judging a short-story competition for Harpers & Queen, that I hadn't read a story collection in years. Hence my appearance at the Small Wonder weekend, watching a crowd of distinguished storytellers (Zadie Smith, William Boyd, John McGahern, Lynne Truss) attempt to revivify the form.

We sat in a barn a few yards from Charleston - where Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell lived and painted, watched by various lovers and visiting Bloomsberries - and, sometimes overwhelmed by the pong of cattle slurry, heard how shockingly badly we compare to the US (where 1,250 journals publish stories compared to just three in the UK); why we have so little truck with small narratives ("The short story flourished best in underdeveloped countries, like Ireland, Russia and America," said McGahern, "The novel is the representation of a whole world and belongs to more developed societies") and what can be done to improve things.

Most immediately, the National Short Story Prize, a joint initiative by Prospect magazine, Radio 4, Book Trust and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, has been set up, first prize £15,000. Apart from the lure of cash, people may be inspired to try the bonsai novella by discovering how good they sound when read from a stage - less frustrating than a slab of prose from a novel-in-progress, less baffling and opaque than many poems.

One night we had a talent competition, in which 30 would-be writers took a microphone and read a five-minute story they'd written for the festival. Some were pretentious, some were overwrought, some had a Jeffrey Archer-ish twist-in-the-tail, but the good ones were terrific - little hand grenades of compressed energy and articulate bile. And the vast majority were about food. The theme, you see, was Revenge. Every other writer, it seemed, had recalled the proverb about revenge being a dish best served cold, and constructed a story about a wronged wife poisoning her husband's gazpacho. It was a bit literal-minded, but fun nonetheless. The air was thick with Escoffier duck recipes, soufflé de Rothschild, sardines on toast, brandy and spotted dick, almond-smelling cyanide. They mingled in the brain with the smell of pigshit from the farm, and the taste of Chilean Merlot on the tongue. Amazing what a total sensory assault the British short story turned out to be ...

What's in a name

I've been having some fun with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the vast, and vastly readable, 60-volume compendium of 55,000 lives, which is celebrating its first birthday this month. It's going to be available online, so you can call up, in a matter of seconds, a few thousand words on the politician or pigeon-fancier of your choice. Subscriptions cost £195 a year, but the publishers, Oxford, are offering a free taster this weekend (23-25 September). Try it out, on www.oxforddnb.com.

I was allowed a sneak preview and soon discovered a) that I share a birthday with the Kray twins; b) that the polite phrase for irascible old sods, "He/she did not suffer fools gladly," turns up in 71 biographies; c) that only one famous person ever lived in my road in Dulwich - George Davis, a Victorian chemical engineer. Also that Princess Diana was worth £21,468,352 when she died; that The Observer and The Sunday Times were once edited simultaneously by a woman called Rachel Beer, whose incipient madness was signalled by her writing leader articles on the advantages of cannibalism; and that there was another John Henry Walsh, who wrote sporting journalism under the pseudonym of "Stonehenge" and published The greyhound, On the art of breeding, rearing, and training greyhounds for public running, their diseases and treatment in 1875.

This has been the most entertainingly serendipitous browse I've had in years. Do have a go yourself, even if it's only to look up your own name in the DNB and find, with a slight feeling of annoyance, there have been 10 versions of you in history already.

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