Thomas Sutcliffe: To cut a long story short...

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There's a good moment in Bernard MacLaverty's new collection of short stories, Matters of Life & Death, when the author tangentially addresses what short stories can do for us and how they do it. It's in a story called "The Clinic", in which an middle-aged man goes for a medical check-up. He may have diabetes and the procedures will take a while so as he rushes out of the house he grabs a book - "something to read, something to pass the time". What he picks up is a collection of Chekhov short stories - and when he eventually finds himself with time to pass, he does what every reader of short stories has done at some time or other: "He did a quick sum, subtracting the page number from the following page number after each story". Short stories have a lot of aesthetic advantages for a writer - offering a kind of monstrance in which literary craft can be disentangled from the clockwork of plot and held up to the light - but they also offer functional advantage to the reader. They're short.

Which can be, in itself, a functional disadvantage for the short story - since it's all too easy to mistake brevity for slightness - and relegate the form to the second division of literature. Apparently it was a sense that this prejudice had got out of hand that lead to the inauguration of the National Short Story Prize, the very first of which was awarded this week to James Lasdun for his short story "An Anxious Man". In contrast to the relatively modest rewards that short stories usually command (in this country at least) he got a cheque for £15,000 - a prize which in itself takes a slightly combative stance on behalf of the genre. Never mind the word-length, it says, feel the weight. And Lasdun's story - which uses the image of stock market fluctuations to pin down the often chaotic unpredictability of our emotional shareholdings - is pretty good, even if you can't help thinking that a £15,000 piece of work might have been more closely combed for stray clichés. It's a piece in which characters "shudder to think", in which prices are "astronomical" and in which, in very rapid succession, the central figure feels his heart "pounding in his chest" and "pounding in his ears". He either needs a cardiologist or a more forceful copy editor.

That's unfair, of course. It wasn't a £15,000 story when Lasdun wrote it - it was just a story. The only problem being that there's no "just" about it. Because, to borrow Lasdun's title, this is an anxious genre - rather awkwardly poised between entertainment and art. James Joyce memorably skewered the former in Ulysses when he sent Leopold Bloom off to the outside lavatory with a copy of Titbits. Bloom looks for something "new and easy" and finds it in another prize-winning short story - "Matcham's Masterstroke". "It did not move or touch him", he thinks, "but it was something quick and neat". He then tears half of it away to use as lavatory paper, making it perfectly clear what kind of literary afterlife Joyce thinks the neat twist deserves.

Against such triteness Joyce, like Chekhov before him, poised the epiphany - a narrative that almost never exceeds the space available for it, but resonates beyond its relatively narrow confines. And, crudely speaking, while the contemporary novel can still embrace narrative satisfactions and crafted conclusions without effectively abandoning its claims to art, the contemporary short story finds it much harder. Most ambitious short stories aspire to what Bernard MacLaverty's reader finds in Chekhov's "The Beauties" - the luminous presence of another world and the sense that its existence continues beyond the end of the story, rather than being entirely consumed by it. Unfortunately, since very few writers are Chekhov there's a tendency for the short story to deliver the Chekhovian instead - a self-conscious refinement which is somehow connected to the inherent fragility of the form - the fact that it occupies such a brief spell of your imaginative life. And I suspect that it's as much that that has marginalised the short story as anything else. Readers can't make that calculation about page length quite as light-heartedly any more because they know that short stories have high expectations of their readers.

Alex Linklater, one of the judges for the National Short Story Prize, put it this way: the novel is a "capacious old whore", he said, whereas the short story is a "nimble goddess", selecting her suitors fastidiously. And rather than telling the goddess to be less stand-offish his solution to her comparative neglect was to pay more devoted court to her. I wonder myself, though, whether a bit more whorishness wouldn't go amiss. We might value the short story more if it was a bit less precious.

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