Small Forms, Huge Potential

There is good news and bad news surrounding the short story. Every other month the literary world seems to suggest either its death or its resurgence, and it’s hard to know whether either of these proclamations are remotely accurate.

This year, Momaya Press which exists to promote and publish the short story, celebrated its tenth anniversary at an event in London. Momaya runs a themed competition every year which attracts international entries and it’s quite an honour to be selected for its annual anthology. (This year the competition theme is Captivity

The event was fascinating for writers interested in the art of the short story. Some of those whose entries were in this year’s collection were asked to say a few words about their writing and it was interesting to see just how much those involved championed the genre, over the longer form.

Reasons were many and various, from those who say they simply don’t have time to contemplate writing a novel and so feel more comfortable tackling the short story, to those who extol its particular ability to take a snapshot of the human condition. One of the judges credited the short stories of Guy de Maupassant, read (in translation – tut, tut!) for his French A-Level, for getting him back into his abandoned habit of reading fiction.

And whilst some of the writers at the event admitted to dabbling in the dark side of novel writing, most wanted to proclaim themselves true champions of what they believe is an under-rated form.

There were comments from those in the publishing industry too, some of whom were on the judging panel for this year’s competition. It is still true, unfortunately, that in these days of tight margins and squeezed budgets, publishers are no more likely to take a gamble on a short story collection from an unknown author than they ever were. But the double-edged sword that is Amazon means that it is easy for writers to make their work easily and cheaply available, and it has ever been simpler for readers to access it.
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When the mistress of the form, Alice Munro, won the Nobel Prize for Literature it was seen as a boost for the genre and will undoubtedly have renewed interest in it. (Check out this fascinating video)

There was also a strong suggestion that in these days when so many of us are working harder, the short story has a renewed appeal to people who may want to download something they can read from start to finish on a bus, train or Tube commute.

So there is room for optimism, which is good news for those who do appreciate the charms of a well-crafted short story. I would urge caution, though, to anyone who sees it as an ‘easy’ option. Like all forms of writing it has its traps and any new writers should make sure to read widely, well beyond the magazine market, for hints on how to do it. If anything, it’s harder to do well than the longer form, so take any feedback on board while learning the craft. Do it well, though, and the miniature masterpiece you may produce will be worth the effort.

Who are your favourite short story writers? What do you admire about them?

Barbara Henderson

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9 comments for “Small Forms, Huge Potential

  1. 9 December 2013 at 5:12 pm

    I’m sure you’re right, Barbara, when you say that it’s not an easy option, in fact I wouldn’t have the courage to try! The thing is that, whereas a novelist can be afford to be self-indulgent and even wasteful with words, the short-story writer has to be much more focused because he/she will be subjected to much closer scrutiny. Personally I see the short story as potentially a much more dramatic form than the novel, since in a novel there is a danger of a very heavily charged scene overshadowing the rest of the story and assuming perhaps a more important position than it should if one looks at the story as a whole.

    • 10 December 2013 at 8:22 pm

      Good observations, Tony. I think that is why it takes me as long to craft a short story I’m happy with as it does to draft a novel!

  2. Chris Allinson
    10 December 2013 at 5:30 pm

    I recall last spring when Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz won the £30,000 Sunday Times Short Story Award, scooping the world’s most valuable short story award for ‘Miss Lora’, a tale set in 1980s New Jersey.

    Literary editor of the Sunday Times, Andrew Holgate, said at the time: ‘If the test of an outstanding short story is that it deepens with every reading, then Junot Diaz’s ‘Miss Lora’ passes that test with flying colours. It is a rich, precise and challenging story whose emotional pull becomes more and more apparent with each revisit.’

    Sadly I missed that emotional pull as I couldn’t finish the story the first time round. Maybe I’m too comfortable with the dark quirk of William Trevor and Beryl Bainbridge, with their emotional pull on first reading.

  3. 10 December 2013 at 8:25 pm

    That’s interesting.Certainly there seems to be a general increase in interest in the form, after a long lull. Competitions like the Sunday Times’ do help.

  4. 13 December 2013 at 2:02 pm

    As one of the co-authors of the new OCA Short Fiction module at level 2, I was interested to read Barbara’s comments and replies. Hopefully, this module will encourage students interested in the short story. The three of us who wrote the module enjoyed the research, the issues that arose, and the resulting negotiations that took place before the module was up and running.
    As a tutor I am looking forward to reading students’ work. Good luck to whoever is embarking on Short Fiction

    • 13 December 2013 at 3:22 pm

      I hope the module goes well, Liz. I’d echo the good wishes to everyone embarking on it!

  5. 16 December 2013 at 11:10 am

    Living in the remote Ethiopian Highlands, I’m usually decades behind everyone else in my reading. (I’d never heard of Junot Diaz.) One of my favourite short story writers is the little-known American writer, Breece D’J Pancake (1952-79). I have his collection, ‘Trilobites & Other Stories’, published by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd in 1992. I am impressed by his Hemingway-like compact prose. He uses neither metaphors nor similes, yet one is left with a sense of rich imagery through his clever choice of words: ‘A long time before me… the Teays [River] flowed here… I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl.’

    Writing short stories is certainly a challenge. I’ve been wrestling with the genre for years and have only published one short story at Ether Books (www.etherbooks.com), the new mobile social network platform that publishes quick reads.

    It’s good to know the Open College of the Arts has a short fiction module. When I can, I’d like to give it a go.

    • 16 December 2013 at 12:14 pm

      Interesting name – will check out Mr Pancake (really?)! Thanks for the recommendation. Good luck with the story writing – it will be worth persevering!

    • Chris Allinson
      17 December 2013 at 7:56 pm

      I have just downloaded the Kindle edition of the Stories of Breece D’J Pancake – thanks Kate for the signpost. I checked him out, and read a 1983 NYT review by Joyce Carol Oates. Then I read ‘The Trilobites’ online from a Wikipedia link. Almost as ‘iceberg’ as Hemingway.

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