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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam