The short story is a powerful literary art form.
Writers who can move, involve and perhaps change their readers while creating a believable world and convincing characters in a handful of pages, with every word earning its place, have pulled off a considerable achievement. For the reader, nothing lingers in the memory like an effective short story. Most of us probably remember the short stories that made an impression on us at school – in my case it was George Mackay Brown's The Wireless Set, Ray Bradbury's A Sound Of Thunder and Alan Sillitoe's The Disgrace Of Jim Scarfedale.
Yet many readers remain resistant to the form. As long ago as 1936, George Orwell wrote in Bookshop Memories that "the kind of person who asks the librarian to choose a book for them nearly always starts by saying 'I don't want short stories'."
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Nothing has changed. I found the following snarl on a publisher's submissions page: "We rarely look at short story collections and almost never by new authors; whatever the proponents of short stories would like to think, they simply don't sell in this country unless the author has a pretty outstanding previous publication record."
Reader resistance to the form is puzzling because short stories are so suited to modern living; you can read one during the bus or train commute or in the gaps between work and study, child-rearing and socialising. And the short story has a long Scottish heritage; Walter Scott, John Galt and Margaret Oliphant were writing them early in the form's development.
Today, Scottish writers as diverse as Candia McWilliam, Ronald Frame, Kenneth Steven, Dilys Rose and William Boyd produce arresting short fiction. Boyd is prepared to go out on a limb for the form. "Fiction, for me, is all about liberating my imagination," he wrote in the introduction to his collection The Dream Lover, "and that liberation seems to function particularly appealingly in the short story form."
There is some evidence for a resurgence of interest in the short story; there are growing numbers of competitions, with the money- spinning National Short Story award at the apex of the pyramid. The Book Trust has a dedicated short story website that's linked to the award and the short story is a staple element of booming creative writing courses in universities.
National Short Story Week was begun in 2010 by Ian Skillicorn, who had been involved in recording and producing short stories for audio broadcasting. Designed to promote the reading, writing and enjoyment of short stories, this year's event runs from November 12-18. There will be events UK-wide and some of the regular short story competitions have fixed their timetables so that the winners are announced during the week.
National Short Story Week has a dedicated website and the internet is proving vital in the survival of the form as literary journals – whose numbers are declining in print – spring up on the web. In truth, these are often as precarious as their paper relatives and even less likely to make money. There are also less formal online sproutings of short fiction. Books, films and TV series have their own dedicated fan fiction sites and while these tend to focus on sci-fi, vampire and other cult themes, I was delighted once to find a Dad's Army fan fiction site. There's an offshoot of fan fiction called slash fiction which I gather is not the sort of thing we're likely to hear in church. Very short fiction – flash fiction – is well represented on the web, and is perhaps ideally suited to it; many flash fiction pieces will fit on a smartphone screen.
The very first short stories were tales told round the camp fire. Outside Thoughts is a Glasgow-based group that is trying to return the short story to its oral roots through performance. "We decided to try and liberate short fiction and make it more accessible," Thomas Crawford of Outside Thoughts told me. "We search Scotland for the best stories, hand them over to talented performers and organise reading nights. We then upload the recordings as podcasts for everyone to enjoy." The approach is modelled on podcasts produced in the US by the likes of the New Yorker, itself perhaps the gold standard of short story outlets.
So, new formats, new technology and new approaches are breathing new life into the form, yet some genres of short story continue to flourish in old-fashioned print. The traditional women's magazine short story has fewer outlets than it used to, but publishers DC Thomson organisation and Women's Weekly still publish large numbers of short stories.
Sci-fi short fiction is well-catered for in the US, while outlets such as Interzone survive in the UK. Other genres – such as the ghost story and short crime fiction – have disappointingly few UK outlets.
For literary short stories, however, the picture remains troubled. Probably more literary short stories are being written than ever before, yet there are fewer homes for them. Literary journals struggle, while the British Council New Writing volume, which also showcased poetry and novel extracts, is no longer produced. The annual Scottish Short Stories volume was discontinued after 1998. Chapman, Scotland's flagship literary magazine for new work, remains excellent but appears all too rarely; council-supported publications like NorthWords Now and The Eildon Tree are valuable but must be regarded as fragile. Others, such as Cencrastus and Cutting Teeth, have gone. More recently, Markings has bafflingly had its Creative Scotland funding withdrawn. I've no wish to join the queue of those having a pop at Creative Scotland, but a study of its website suggests it has little interest in literature generally, never mind the short story.
Great short stories are still being written and published in literary magazines internationally but these stories are often missed by the movers and shakers of the literary world. Many Scottish writers of short stories (myself included) necessarily publish the bulk of their work in journals in England, Canada, the US and elsewhere. It is important to bear this in mind; the health of the short story, its breadth and variety, cannot be judged by published single-author collections alone.
So let's celebrate the short story and use opportunities like National Short Story Week to sell the form to a sceptical public. If Creative Scotland is prepared to pay me a hefty fee to produce a lavish report examining ways of promoting the short story and tackling reader resistance, I won't say no. Meanwhile, here's an idea for nothing.
Imagine a Booker-type short story award for which the short-list is compiled by an editorial board that scours the collections and anthologies and literary magazines to find gems that would otherwise be lost. Unlike a prize-winning novel, the winning short story could easily be published in its entirety in a newspaper or magazine or online. Such an award would honour not a book, a journal or a magazine but a single, winning story, a carefully structured dance of language just a few pages long, that stays in the mind and haunts the reader's imagination as only short stories can.
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