In praise of short stories – “hand grenades of ideas.”

Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.  Paolo Bacigalupi.

It has been a stupendous week for short fiction. Today’s blog is in celebration of Alice Munro being awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Sarah Hall winning the BBC National Short Story Prize. It also seems to be a year for women short fiction writers, for all on the National Short Story Prize shortlist were female.

For me a page of good prose is where one hears the rain. A page of good prose is when one hears the noise of battle…. A page of good prose seems to me the most serious dialogue that well-informed and intelligent men and women carry on today in their endeavour to make sure that the fires of this planet burn peaceably.   John Cheever.

Munro is the thirteenth woman to have won the award since its inception in 1901, and didn’t expect to win, partly because of what could be seen as an undervaluing of the form. On winning, she said “I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art.” 

I remember a time, until quite recently, when it seemed that the short story was in decline, or certainly out of fashion. The genre seemed to be in free-fall, and there were campaigns to ‘Save Our Short Stories’. Publishers were blamed for not offering collections, and they in turn criticised the reading public for not buying and so investing in the form. With today’s burgeoning list of short story competitions, some of them extremely high profile, like the BBC’s national offering and The Sunday Time’s EFG private bank award, the situation seems to have changed. But as Ursula Le Guin states so clearly, below, we need readers:

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.
 Ursula K. Le Guin

I have been enthralled by a whole range of short stories it has been my great fortune to have read during the past eighteen months: Work by my favourites Kevin Barry and Sarah Hall, but also Helen Simpson, Jon Gower, Matthew Francis, Claire Keegan, Lavinia Greenlaw, Edith Pearlman, Ali Smith… the list could go on. It seems robust and innovative as a form, and I’m excited that publishers, including small presses like my local publishers, Cinnamon Press, are championing both the writers and the form.

In an article in The Guardian ‘We Need a Story Laureate’, Sarah Hall gives an overview of the state and general health of the short story in the UK, “..if not gloriously ascendant in Britain, then airborne and at reasonable altitude,” she says, in a recommended read: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/11/sarah-hall-short-story-laureate

So let us celebrate this week’s achievements, and support the form through being good readers as well as writers!

“For the source of the short story is usually lyrical. And all writers speak from, and speak to, emotions eternally the same in all of us: love, pity, terror do not show favourites or leave any of us out.”  Eudora Welty, On Writing.

To hear extracts from recordings of the BBC shortlisted stories, please go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0079gw3

For further information on UK short story competitions, deadlines, and where to get the forms, go to: http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/adults/short-stories/prizes/

Alice Munro wins the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-24477246

Thresholds, ‘the international home of the short story’ has links to short stories you can read online, including work by Kevin Barry, Helen Simpson, O Henry and others at: http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/9019-2/

4 responses to “In praise of short stories – “hand grenades of ideas.”

  1. Thanks for the links, Kaite – very useful. Perhaps one of the reasons short stories are rising in popularity is they lend themselves very well to the e-format – Kindle, Ether, etc. Where you might not have bought a book of short stories in the past, it’s now easy and convenient to download and read a short story in your lunch hour, or whilst commuting. Which is all to the good for those of us who love the short story format.

    • Thanks for that, Jenny. The impact of new technology hadn’t occurred to me re-short fiction. I’ve certainly seen comments by readers so pushed for time they are reading shorter formats, enjoying finishing the narrative in snatched periods like commuting.

  2. A great blog, Kaite. I am a short story fanatic. But quite a lot that is written about the short story – whether reporting its imminent demise or (sometimes almost in the same breath) its phoenix-like resurgence – tends to be rather stale and repetitive. So it was good to read Sarah Hall’s piece, which was fresh and true.

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