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.