Sunday, 24 May 2009

"Short stories don't sell"

The rubric of this post is an old prejudice that British publishers have never quite abandoned. Once upon a time, every respectable magazine in Britain and the USA would have its weekly short story, a piece of fiction intended to bring contrast to the mundanity of the news.

But in Britain today, as far as I can see, there is little appetite for new, contemporary short stories of a literary type in publications that are sold in mainstream bookshops. Even for stories written in English. And publishers tend to shy away from collections of stories by one author, unless this author already has a monumental reputation.

When you look at webpages such as this one, you can be impressed by the number of publications listed. But you should beware of long lists where apples, pears, plums and doughnuts are all lumped together with little discrimination. So translations, already at a disadvantage, are bound to suffer. On that list there are serious publications such as London Magazine, Chapman and Stand. But some publications have a drum to beat or axe to grind, and if you subtract those, you are left with far fewer. When you read that Your Cat Magazine and Your Dog Magazine publish stories, you begin to wonder what the level of literary sophistication is. I get the feeling that the Story Website is keener to get on board as many people as possible, as opposed to fostering the short story as a subtle literary genre, in the footsteps of Katherine Mansfield, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and so on.

And Nordic translations. The Norwegian author Frode Grytten (whose work I will be discussing in another post) is one Nordic author whose translations into English reflect this rather depressing trend. Grytten has published many short stories (collected in one volume) in Norway, plus one crime novel. His novel was snapped up immediately in the current British crime wave; but only one of his 103 stories has appeared in English, and this was, curiously, from a book of interconnected stories, rather than a self-standing one.

Do contemporary Nordic short story authors have a "valid entry visa" to the UK? Are they not kept away from our shores by a vicious circle: never heard of him, therefore not interested.

Until the fad of publishing short stories in general magazines, or ones devoted exclusively to short stories, returns to Britain, will all the Nordic authors writing short stories, in effect, be shut out of Britain? What is the solution? How can short stories from Europe as a whole be popularised in Britain, so that they are regarded as normal works of literature, not things exclusively for the Readers' Digest or for sci-fi aficionados? Should the Arts Council do more in this area?

Surely, our age of haste and short attention spans means that commuters could read short stories just as happily as thick novels. Not everyone wants to have to carry around electronic equipment to read a book on the train or bus, when you could buy a book of stories that does not rely on the presence of electricity. You may be able to cram a hundred books into a reading device, but you can't read a hundred books at once, and a book of 25 short stories would also give the same pleasure as it did to people in previous epochs.


David McDuff said...

I think the Internet may be changing some of the accepted "status quo" attiudes towards short fiction in English, at any rate. Sites like Classic Reader offer copious selections of short stories for an indeterminate readership that is certainly out there. Also, there are many sites devoted to work by new and aspiring short story writers. So the genre cetainly isn't dead, and the possibilities opened up by the Web may give it new life.

Eric Dickens said...

The short-stories section of Classic Reader looks very good for obtaining a large variety of stories. If this type of online exposition could be linked up with some kind of POD system, you could in effect print your own anthologies, if the thorny problem of thousands of tiny copyright transactions can be solved.

I personally would prefer that solution, and carry a self-collated paper anthology around on public transport to having one of those electronic readers with a hundred novels in it. The pick-'n-mix aspect appeals to me. So, a couple of Mansfield, five Chekhov, a few Maupassant, one or two Kipling, then glue on the covers and Bob's your uncle.

David McDuff said...

I actually prefer to read books on a reading device - preferably a small one like my old Nokia E61i, as a text file under eBook Mobile, with the font turned up to maximum. I've got through a lot of books that way...