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 films...so 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 “...in 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.