Posted on 25th November 2010

Posted by Sophie

A decade of wonderful short stories

For short story readers the last decade or so has been a wonderful time. Worldwide, short stories remain a significant part of publishers’ output and just as satisfyingly, a multitude of great short story collections by UK-based writers have been published and the number of UK magazines and journals publishing short stories, both online and in print, has snowballed.

Looking at a list of high-profile writers who have published collections in this period, some might find it hard to resist attaching the ‘golden age’ tag to the last ten or fifteen years and who could blame them. Here’s a few writers pulled at random- Janice Galloway, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, J.G.Ballard, A.L. Kennedy, Hanif Kureishi, Helen Dunmore, James Lasdun, Jim Crace, Alison Macleod, Helen Simpson, Will Self, Peter F Hamilton, Peter Ho Davies, Rose Tremain, Alasdair Gray, John Connolly, Ali Smith and countless others, all producing great short fiction. And interestingly, most of these collections contradict the perceived time-honoured staple of publishing folklore – the short story collection is a warm-up publication for a writer before the all-important debut novel. Not always the case, dudes. More and more, it seems, writers are publishing short story collections after establishing themselves with a novel or two.

And with so much irresistible fayre on offer it’s no surprise that some fantastic short story writers have remained largely undiscovered.

With that in mind, here’s half a dozen writers that merit a great big bit of uncovering:

Alan Beard has just published a new collection of stories ‘You Don’t Have to Say’. If it’s anything like his first collection ‘Taking Doreen out of the Sky’ then scoot very quickly to the nearest boutique and get a copy as soon as you can. Mr Beard invites Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, dirty realism comparisons but he has very much his own style and terrain – cul-de-sacs, pubs, football, factories; daily frustrations and battles– and perhaps owes as much to John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and David Storey as anyone else. His writing is spare, full of silences, gaps and brutal at times. But there’s also an understated compassion often lurking in the most surprising places.

Stanley Donwood is best known as Radiohead’s album cover artist. ‘Slowly Downward’, subtitled ‘A collection of Miserable Stories’, is an unsung marvel. Yes, Donwood likes to wallow in gloom but he injects plenty of wit into his downbeat take on everything and it ends up as brooding, surreal, occasionally hilarious and quite unlike anything else.

Tania Hershman’s debut collection ‘The White Road and Other Stories’ brilliantly demonstrates her completely fresh approach to storytelling. Each story in the collection has been inspired by an article from New Scientist magazine. It’s a great mix of moving, mirthful and unforgettable. Defy anyone to read ‘Go Away’ in all its 150-word glory and not guffaw in a gigantic manner. Her comic touches really stand out, as does the diversity of characters and situations- it’s almost as if most of humanity is on show in this slim volume. Remarkable. Hopefully it won’t be too long before she has another collection published.

Instruction Manual for Swallowing’ by Adam Marek is published by the excellent Comma Press and has such a courageous scope to it (robotic wasps, flesh-eating zombies alongside very recognisable humans) you want to give Mr Marek a standing ovation just for giving it a go. Bizarre, unruly, unsettling and in the end entirely affecting, he explores a hinterland that seems to be a mixture of the future and the past and hovers somewhere between the conscious and subconscious. He’s been compared to an enormous range of writers -Ballard, McEwan, Dahl, Burroughs- don’t know about all that, seems to this reader to be a complete original.

Nik Perring’s ‘Not So Perfectpublished by Roast Books is an addictive combination of simultaneously cuddly and uncomfortable stories which often hint at everyday familiarity and then, suddenly, completely upset that particular apple cart. There is a great warmth and humanity throughout even in the more unnerving stories and Mr Perring’s knack for ‘defamiliarizing’ the everyday, to use short story critic and academic Charles May’s term, is a wonder to behold.

Sarah Salway’s ‘Leading the Dance’ is full of the fierce, razor-sharp writing that characterises all her fiction. It is, also, more disturbing and gasp-inducing than it first seems. The settings are, on the whole, very domestic and private but that does not dampen the seismic impact of what’s related. Sarah Salway is brilliant, perhaps without peer, at showing how the tiniest incident or most benign-seeming conversation may trigger the wholesale dismantling of lives. Not sure how available this is- it was published by Bluechrome Publishing who have been quiet for a while. Some smart cookie should snap it up and give it the fanfare it deserves.

Most of these writers have plenty of other stories published in the thriving and ever-expanding online and print magazine world mentioned earlier and it’s a great way to sample and enjoy theirs and other writers short stories.

There are many more short story writers who deserve major uncovering – Vanessa Gebbie, A.C.Tillyer and her brilliant  ‘A-Z of Possible Worlds’, Nicholas Royle (surely deserves a major audience by now!), Gwendoline Riley, Padrika Tarrant, for instance. And even more to be discovered in the next few years, no doubt.

A great time to be reading short stories, indeed.

Joe Melia is the co-ordinator of the Bristol Short Story Prize.



Michael Allen

5th February 2011 at 15:40

Joe Melia’s survey of modern short-story publishing seems to me to have been written while wearing heavily rose-tinted spectacles.

Yes, I dare say the big names that he lists have published collections of short stories in the last few years. But how well have they sold? Do the figures really justify the claim that short stories are ‘a significant part of publishers’ output’? Or are such collections, all too often, loss-makers which drain away profit? Would any of the partner publishers or agents in this Arts Council enterprise care to give us some figures?

And since when, I wonder, has a collection of short stories been seen by publishers as a warm-up for a first novel? How many modern publishers are prepared to consider, and will enthusiastically publish, such a collection, from a previously unpublished writer? Can we have a list?

I have the very distinct impression that the only reason why the big names that Joe Melia mentions have been able to publish short-story collections is because they are established names. And are their publishers really overjoyed when an author produces such a book? Or do they sigh heavily and say, Oh well, I suppose we’d better do it or he/she will just go off somewhere else.

If this is a good time to be writing short stories – and I suspect it is actually a time of unparalleled opportunity – it is only because of the facilities now offered for independent self-publishing in ebook form via Kindle, Smashwords, Pubit, and so forth. And to work through those media you don’t need agents, publishers, Arts Council support, validation by judging panels, or any other say-so from anyone. All you need is talent and lots of hard work. For those that can provide these, readers are there to be found, and sales are there to be had. For further info, start by reading Joe Konrath’s blog (A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing).

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