Monday, 6 April 2009

"TAPAS FOR THE MIND!?"



I got the first proofs of my forthcoming short story collection on Friday - which is very exciting - and I'm working on them now, trying to read through the MS one word at a time. It's laborious but satisfying work. After a long immersion in poetry writing, it feels good to be back in the thick of short stories again. How I love short fiction!

James Lasdun - for whom I have a soft spot since I was told he championed my first collection when on the Frank O'Connor jury back in 2005 - had a great article/review in Saturday's Guardian.

He talks in the piece about the muddled position of the short story in the literary world, wondering if 'it may be that people regard it as somehow highbrow or artsy; an insider sport for practitioners and aficionados only.' But he also feels that 'there are signs that the form may be about to come into a new prominence. At any rate publishers seem to be embracing the form with new enthusiasm.'

I find it hard to know what to think about the position of the short story; I've been hearing that it's about to be the next big thing for years and it never quite seems to happen. Maybe it depends how we define 'prominence'? The short story is alive and well in certain areas: the worlds of the writing workshop, of small publishing houses and of literary competitions, for example. But as a form that the general reader/book-buying public embrace, it seems to win out only when stories are packaged as an anthology, with various already-famous writers attempting the form. And I say 'attempting' quite deliberately. There are those well-known writers who should definitely walk away from the short story and stick with the novel.

One such new anthology Midsummer Nights is based on the theme of opera, and it was reviewed relatively favourably in Sunday's Business Post. But I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when the reviewer concluded the piece by saying '...this book is full of tasty little appetisers that will hopefully find you going in search of more. Think of it as tapas for the mind.' Presumably the 'more' is the novels of the writers of the stories who include Colm Tóibín, Ruth Rendell, Sebastian Barry and grammar queen Lynne Truss.

I wish that more reviewers of short fiction collections were indeed afficionados of the form. I can't count the amount of reviews that I've read by reviewers who clearly have no love for, or real knowledge of, what short fiction is. Often they lament the very shortness of the stories (!?) and they seem to want to be reading a novel, instead of accepting that the story is as different to the novel as the poem is. James Lasdun reckons the short story trails 'into the House of Fame a humble fourth after novels, plays and poetry.'

That's why places like The Short Review are so very important. There, genuine story lovers read and review contemporary and classic collections and their enthusiasm and specialist knowledge is both palpable and refreshing. There would be no point in me, for example, reviewing chick lit as it's not a genre I like; similarly only true lovers of the short form should be considered to review it.

Anyway, it's back to the proofs of Nude for me. And I hope that, come September, when it's sent out to greet the world that I get reviewers who, if they don't exactly like it, at least understand where it's coming from and treat it as more than mere literary tapas.

9 comments:

BarbaraS said...

Proofs - urgh, that's the bit where I cringe and wonder if I really wrote all that stuff... I bet you don't think that about these lovely stories.

I can't wait to read it, going on the strength of the story, 'Jackson and Jerusalem,' that I taught to the CW class here. They raved about it, as I did... so you've a lot to live up to, lady!

On the subject of short stories as a genre: too long have we looked at short stories as a stepping stone to novels - they're just not the same animal at all. It's like saying that poetry is some kind of short hand for something else - it isn't, it is what it is and that's that. I personally think that poetry and short stories have much more in common, than the wide expanse of the novel has with the short story. It's wrong to wish that short stories were something else... and I know you've said it more eloquently yourself here, so I'll just get my coat :)

Enjoy the proofs - you're almost there!

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

I'm not cringing much!! It's great. I think maybe because I had to lose 6 stories from the original MS so I'm left with ones I'm relatively happy with. Talk to me again when I've reached the end, for an update on that...

You'e exactly right. Poetry is what it is. Stories are what they are. My Ma used to encourage us to say to ourselves: 'I accept myself'. I'd like to encourage readers and reviewers to say 'I accept that a short story is a short story.' And then to enjoy it FOR WHAT IT IS!

Tania Hershman said...

Good luck proofing your proofs, your eyes will start to go screwy by the 4th round...!

And the short story, ahh, not something I ever rant and rave about :) First, I completely agree with you, whever someone talks about the imminent renaissance, I have to bring them down to earth. Saying that Juhmpa Lahiri's collection topping the NY Times charts signals a new interest in all things short story is like saying Margaret Thatcher paved the way for many more women in government (not implying anything at all about content, more about theme!) I see no sign that this is true in any way - are publishers clamouring for the next emerging short story writer?

Tapas??? Can you hear me wail? Urgh. This attitude, that the short story is somehow a warm-up, sorbet in between the meat and potatoes, is utterly infuriating and, as you say, a mark of a non-short-story-loving reviewer. Thank you for highlighting The Short Review, almost all our reviews are short story writers as well as readers, so to say we love the form is probably an understatement. I do suspect most of our readers are writers too, but I am certainly not complaining. I have had a few emails from those who hadn't thought they'd liked short stories, only to be swayed. More power to those who sway!

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Indeed, Tania, publishers are NOT clamouring for the next short story writer. Yes, collections are being published and, thankfully, some of them are reviewed, but publishers are still generally suspicious of short story writers. As are agents and reviewers.

Eimear said...

Richard Ford's introduction to the most recent Granta American Short Stories said something interesting about publishers' attitudes to short story writers - they're either subjected to stern treatment, or are taken on with the bullying insistence that a novel’s in the works.

Very interesting Guardian article. I share his puzzlement that short stories haven't become the main attraction in our attention-deficient age. It's something I love about short stories - that you can take twenty minutes and enter this total self-contained world that just kind of stays with you the rest of the day.

Oh, but tapas are delish. :)

Totalfeckineejit said...

Good luck with the proofvreading Nuala,althoughhard work it must be an exciting step nearer the completed article.The stinging fly ,which I bought for poetry, has bowled me over with it's short stories and i am now a big fan of the genre.They are the real deal and rarely disappoint the way many novels do.In fact a lot of novels would perhaps have been better as short stories,it's never the other way round.
Good luck with the book .we'll all be Nudists this year!

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Eimear - indeedy, I've nothing against a nice selection of foody tapas. Preferably in Barcelona! ;)
Richard Ford's intro to the Granta anthology is full of gems.
I do think smaller publishers are more accepting of writers as short fiction writers only. Thank God for them.

Total - it is completely exciting to see your stuff laid out as a book. I always get a thrill from that.
LOL re 'nudists'!

E.P. Chiew said...

Great post, BTW! I had to laugh at the quote from James Lasdun -- I too was like, really, short stories arriving as a welcome form in publishing houses? Where? Where?

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Hi Elaine, and welcome. Yes, I know. James (see how I'm now on first name terms with a man I've never met?!) lives in New York and they do seem a bit friendlier towards the story in the US. Less scared of it than over here. Maybe that's what he's referring to. He reviews 5 books in the article but that's hardly a deluge, is it?