Wednesday, 12 August 2009


I found Gerry McCarthy’s article ‘Brief Lives’ in the Sunday Times Culture mag last Sunday both interesting and irritating. It was ostensibly a review of a new study of Irish short fiction by Heather Ingman – A History of the Irish Short Story. It was hard to tell where Heather’s book and Gerry’s ideas merged or diverged.

If some of the views expressed were Heather’s, I’d be worried about the accuracy and/or breadth of her research, but I won’t know until I read the book. I think they may be Gerry's own thoughts.

This is from the article:
“Banville’s collection of short pieces, Long Lankin, was his first book.... Enright similarly kick-started her career in 1991 with a book of short fiction, The Portable Virgin. Both immediately moved on to writing novels.
Short stories have become apprentice pieces: the small-scale canvas where a budding writer starts off, and where they experiment with different styles and voices. Just as film-makers begin with short writers begin with short tales and move on to novels.”

Just because a writer starts with a book of short fiction doesn’t mean they will go on to write novels. Many don’t. Claire Keegan and Philip Ó Ceallaigh spring to mind – both have produced two successful collections of stories each, with not a sign of a novel.

And short stories are not ‘apprentice pieces’ (what an irritating notion) – they are a different genre to novels and are a highly crafted art in themselves. Many novelists wouldn’t even attempt to write a short story knowing that it’s a difficult genre to write well.

More from Gerry:
“[William Trevor is] almost the only prominent writer with a preference for the short form and its nuanced observations.”
Gerry further says about contemporary short fiction books “ most cases, they are stepping stones to a novel”.

No! John McGahern loved writing short fiction as did Edna O’Brien earlier on. The aforementioned Claire Keegan is a prominent, gifted and committed short fiction writer. There’s also Kevin Barry, Philip Ó Ceallaigh, Mary O’Donnell, Mary Leland and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. These are all contemporary Irish writers deeply tied to the form.

I really object to this dismissal of the short story as something reduced and unimportant compared to novels. It’s a common stance and it’s disappointing to see this narrow view presented once again in The Sunday Times, which actually publishes a new short story every week.

Gerry McCarthy also misunderstands the world of both writers and publishers with this view. Anne Enright writes stories all the while she is writing novels. Many writers do. And larger publishers seem reluctant to publish collections, though writers would like them published. Ah, I could go on and on but I feel dispirited to be discussing this topic YET AGAIN!

If you want more, see The Rumpus for a lively debate on the short story and its status here.


Totalfeckineejit said...

As a short story fan I would have to agree with you, WRW, and it is not a little galling to see yet another uninformed mauling of this jewel of a genre.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Depressing. And so untrue, it is untrue! There us this myth, that somehow the novel is a grown up story. What utter bollocks.

I have a theory that has not yet hit The Sunday Times, and that is this: The short story is in many cases what a novel would have been had it been left to its own devices. The difference is padding. Side alleys and twisting corridors that end up in the same place the short story would have finished.

How much of this rubbish is being peddled by the Universities, who find it easier to teach short stories, but who really want novel writers to emerge because the Uni will get a bigger credit for a bigger wordage??


TFE - uninformed - that's it. I despair. People writing about the genre who know little or nothing about it. WHY!?


Vanessa - yes, I might add 'unnecessary padding'. I have written a novel and it was a flabby exercise compared to short story writing. It was also easier though it took longer (a year).
I love novels - I have nothing against them - but I love short fiction more and I just want it to be understood & celebrated as a genre.
Thanks for your comment.
N x

Rachel Fenton said...

As a writer of novels and short fiction I love them both, but I would never say I had ever thought to use short fiction merely to get a novel published, they are completely different disciplines, and I approach each with a different set of tools. I value each separately. I don't see novels as flabby bigger versions of short stories either (not the way I write them - ha!). I think there's room for both. I absolutely agree, however, that short stories get elbowed out by novels in terms of critical appraisal, which is just plain wrong - not to mention short sighted (no pun intended). I write all disciplines simultaneously. I personally find it easier to write short fiction but that by no means diminishes it in my opinion. I don't think novels are more worthy. I think there is a great skill, intrinsic to short fiction, that is lacking in many novels, but that needn't be the case either.
People should simply accept them as different and be glad there is such scope for variety of creativity.

Niamh B said...

I'm not sure if it's because I'm more interested in them in recent years, but I think short story collections are becoming slightly more prevalent in book shops nowadays, it could be just that I notice them more.
Novels and Short fiction are different things, and you're right one doesn't necessarily have to lead to the other, equally writers don't have to be tied into one box or the other - as you prove with the successes in poetry v's fiction.

Liked the Indieoma story by the way, maybe you could expand it into a novel?


Hi R - Yes, acceptance is the key thing but so many critics have a v narrow view of fiction.

Niamh - that boxing off pisses me off, it's like you're only allowed to do one thing but if that one thing is short fic you'd better get to that novel.

Uiscebot said...

I think the problem comes from thinking the short has to be consumed as a collection, and then it's the same size as the novel. A lot of collections are inconsistent and therefore not as easy to market and therefore a bit dismissed by Publishers.

They are treated as a stepping stone though, and the fact that they are perceived as easier means there's a lot of terrible ones out there.


Hi Colm
I can't say I've come across a lot of terrible ones. I can see that even ones not to my taste are usually well-written.

I do agree that collections are better dipped in and out of rather than swallowed whole, as such.

I know lots of VG short fiction writers who will probably never have a collection published, mainly because publishers (except some small ones) are so reluctant to publish them in general.

Pure fiction said...

It didn't even occur to me when I read the article to feel annoyed at how innacurate it was. But you're right, of course - what a load of nonsense.
Still, I wouldn't say a novel is a flabby version of a short story, (ahem - speaking as someone who has written a novel) But trying to write a good short story is incredibly challenging. Then again, so is trying to write a good novel.


I didn't mean to imply that I thought the novel was a flabby short story - it most definitely isn't - what I meant was that the lack of concision required in novels (the padding) makes for a flabbier end product, just because of word count, sub-plots, more description etc etc

It is hard to find many similarities in the 2 forms really, other than that they are both fiction and as Colm so rightly pointed out, they end up at similar sized books and that may be what confuses people - readers and critics alike.

Ferdinand said...

This debate has maybe gone cold by now, but I thought it was worth mentioning that Heather (who is, to declare an interest, my wife) didn't say at all what readers here may have been led to believe she said m- in fact, she said the opposite. I would suggest getting the book, which is well worth the read... Though I am biased...

heather ingman said...

I have just been told of Gerry McCarthy's article in the Sunday Times. His views on the Irish short story appear to be the exact opposite of mine. In A History of the Irish Short Story I treat the short story as a serious art form and trace its evolution from C19. I do not see short stories as springboards for the novel. I would not have spent four years of my life researching the Irish short story if I did not think it a serious art form.
Heather Ingman.


Hi Ferdinand and Heather - thanks a million for clarifying that. I did have my suspicions that the thoughts were Gerry's alone and I said as much in my original post. It's a relief to hear from you that that is indeed the case.
I couldn't imagine an academic book about the short story being inaccurate in that way. The thoughts were too pat and throw-away to have been based on any research.
Congrats on the book - I'll have to get it from Santa, I think.
Thanks again,