The British short story needs saving

This grand literary tradition is being killed off by vapid competitions

Features

05 Apr 2017

‘The British short story is probably the richest, most varied and most historically extensive national tradition anywhere in the world,’ Philip Hensher noted in his outstanding introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story in 2015. And yet, he added, after describing how he selected the very best short fiction from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith, this tradition is perilously near to dying out because there are so few publications which make a space for it anymore.

Few publications thrive as long as The Spectator and many have died out altogether. Now, short stories are most often written with a view to winning writing competitions by writers who have studied creative writing used to having their work judged by a committee of their peers. The problem with relying on this method, Hensher argues, ‘as a means of developing talent, rather than the response of a paying public is that they reward what they think ought to be good, and not what contains any real energy. Repeatedly, reading short stories rewarded by competitions, I was struck by present-tense solitary reflections, often with characters lying on their beds affectlessly pondering… [which] preceded, by a very long way, the social interaction which is is the proper subject of fiction. There was nothing there at all, apart from a fervent desire to win £30,000.’

When I first read this (having been bought Hensher’s two volumes as a Christmas present thanks to a Spectator special deal) I felt like punching the air. Finally, I thought, someone who is as sick of vapid short stories as I am. I had written a whole volume already which, I know, will never win competitions and nor do I want them to – I want them to find readers, ideally devotees of The Spectator.

I was inspired by the delicious, vicious, satirical work of Saki (my favourite is Sredni Vashtar but Hensher selected another brutal and brilliant offering, The Unrest-Cure, for his first volume) and Evelyn Waugh (most particularly his brutal little tale, Mr Loveday’s Little Outing). And last year, my story, Julia’s Baby, was selected by The Spectator’s brilliant commissioning team and published in its bestselling Christmas issue.

I am now collecting support to prove there is still a market for the great British short story. I am working with crowdfunding publisher Unbound, which makes books happen by adopting the method that Samuel Johnson used to publish the first ever dictionary. Those who want to back an artistic project they fervently believe in pledge money up front. When that book is published, all the names of those who did so are printed in the back. If you, too, would like to help Make Short Stories Great Again please consider pledging here for my collection, Bad Romance, and straight away you’ll see your name appear online here among many illustrious Spectator folk.


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