Boyd Tonkin: Short-haul fiction, long-term benefits

The Week In Books

Friday 31 July 2009 00:00

Here's a star-spangled shortlist of leading writers who have published, or soon will publish, works of fiction since the last Man Booker contest: Kazuo Ishiguro, AL Kennedy, Ali Smith, Will Self, Chimamanda Adichie, Alice Munro. None of them could have featured on this week's long-list. Of course, the final name gives the game away. Canada's doyenne of the story that packs an entire life, and world, into 20 pages might already have won the Man Booker International Prize for career achievement. But the annual competition still shuns volumes of short fiction. Which means as well that first-rank debut collections, such as (this year) Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, never stand a fighting chance. Should that rule now change?

British publishers still tend to treat collections of short stories as low-status makeweights which either give a foretaste of the "proper" work to come from gifted newcomers or – for established players – keep their name on the shelves while a long-haul novel cooks. Yet the habitual laments about the form's invisibility here have reasons to pipe down a bit. Works such as Ishiguro's linked tales of "music and twilight", Nocturnes, and Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck have ridden high in the charts. Beyond the Man Booker's cultural ambit, major-league publishers this summer offer collections from outstanding figures such as Egypt's Alaa Al Aswany (Friendly Fire) and the Bosnian-American Aleksandar Hemon (Love and Obstacles).

The Caine Prize for African Writing uncovers treasure after treasure from all over the continent while restricting eligible entries to short fiction alone. In the Manchester-based Comma Press and Salt Publishing in Cambridgeshire, Britain has two high-performing specialist imprints with a robust commitment to the briefer forms. This September will see the next edition of Small Wonder at Charleston in Sussex - a festival dedicated to the great fiction that so often comes in modest parcels.

Could any curious newbie read their way through the landmarks of modern narration without ever tackling any piece longer than 100 or so pages? You can easily imagine an eccentric but high-powered syllabus tailored for the short-winded students of today. Tolstoy would mean compressed masterworks such as Hadji Murat and The Kreutzer Sonata rather than War and Peace; James The Turn of the Screw, The Beast in the Jungle and many other marvels in place of The Golden Bowl; Conrad would stand up as sturdily as ever with nothing longer than Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer on the list.

Then move on to Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, Kipling, Borges, Lawrence, Nabokov, Singer, Babel, Katherine Mansfield, all the way through to Italo Calvino, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, Ingo Schulze and the younger Ian McEwan. Whenever anything that matters has happened in global fiction since the 1870s or so, you might plausibly argue that short-ish bursts of innovation have announced the shift of sensibility before the bigger bangs arrived.

Although the Booker spurns stories as such, medium-sized novellas can creep in under its fence. I was among the judges who raised this a fraction to let Anita Desai's flawlessly twinned pair of tales, Fasting, Feasting, onto our shortlist. This year, another sort of jury might have done the same for Geoff Dyer's East-West double-header, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

A credible slimline canon of literature must embrace the mid-length narrative, James's "blessed nouvelle", rather than tying up itself up in the ridiculous American ideology of the fixed-length short story. This ritualistic literary bondage, as favoured by US taste-makers such as The New Yorker magazine, has a lot to answer for. Any tale calls for a fitting shape and rhythm, but fiction is more than precision engineering. The only rule is to write originally and well - whether the result takes two, five or twenty thousand words.

P.S.Corporate apologies seldom come more abject than this. After Amazon's unilateral removal of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm from its Kindle e-readers after a screw-up over digital rights, cyber-warriors for freedom exploded in anger and scorn. Now Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (left) has grovelled deep and hard. "Our 'solution' to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received," he whimpered. Unplacated, Pierre Assouline of Le Monde, most magisterial of literary bloggers, writes that since Amazon also deleted customers' own notes on the two books, "the privacy of the reader is violated as never before". When the company gets round to releasing the Kindle in Europe, this episode will not be forgotten.

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