Big Impact; Small Story – Where Does the British Short Story Go Next?

An event by The Word Factory, launching The Penguin Book of British Short Stories, edited by Philip Hensher.

Review by Rupert Dastur

Last week saw the launch of Penguin’s Book of British Short Stories, a magnificent two-volume collection, edited by Philip Hensher. The event, held at Picadilly’s Waterstone’s and in association with The Word Factory, was extremely well attended, with over a hundred seats filled.

The panel comprised Hensher, Tessa Hadley, Adam Mars-Jones, Shena Mackay – all short story writers – and the delightful Cathy Galvin, director of The Word Factory and one of the founders of The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.

Before plunging into discussion about short stories and the various debates surrounding Hensher’s assertions and selections, the audience were offered readings from three of the authors included in the second volume.

Surrounded by Christmas decorations and columns of books, Shena Mackay began the proceedings. Stepping to the front, she read in a quiet, but poised and precise manner, her eyes peering over glasses whenever she paused. Mackay, who left school at the age of sixteen after winning a poetry competition, gave an insightful glimpse into a relationship between two young sisters who go to London for some festive shopping. Between the humour (nicknames, fish-net stockings, and lurid eye-liner), were flashes of the underlying currents (‘she saw, mirrored in her sister, her own unsatisfying self’) as well as the poetry (‘a salt-wave of misery’) so integral to a good short story.

Adam Mars-Jones followed with more than a tinge of the thespian finding voice. Although he decided not to read the short story from Hensher’s collection (‘it couldn’t be truncated’), he delivered a powerful piece set at the time of the HIV calamity in the 1970s. It was evident that Mars-Jones knew the piece more or less by heart, passion displaying his experiences of the tragedy and travesty of the aids crisis. His reading centred upon that quintessentially British act of offering a cup of tea, ending with the wonderful line, ‘my teapot has brought more families together than all the councils of England combined.’ Like many of the best short stories, the power of the image was brought into being with tenacious skill.

After straddling this darker past, Tessa Hadley read a piece from Hensher’s collection which she introduced as a ghost story that ‘explored writing, power, men and women, and old age.’ The short story focused on a woman who seemed to see a window, and through this a man writing at his desk. Hadley read with obvious joy and it was a pleasure to watch and listen. We were also given a taste of Hadley’s own short story, the alluringly named ‘Buckets of Blood’.

A brief interlude provided the opportunity for a glass of wine and also a more informal word or two with the panel, during which Hensher illuminatingly pointed out the poor status of the contemporary short story compared with past decades; The Strand (a magazine running from 1891 – 1950), for example, would have paid £300 for a short story, in a time when the average annual salary of a doctor was £450. There was a need, he suggested, to nurture a relationship between writers and respectable publishing platforms, as well rebuilding a readership.

Fifteen minutes later, we were soon being ushered to seats and after two readings by Philip Hensher and Cathy Galvin, we were propelled into a hearty discussion about short stories.

Galvin noted that there was often a sense of desperation that creeps into any talk of the future of the short story. It was, however, an evening of celebration and as such, she asked Hensher what great joys and surprises he discovered in putting the anthology together – a task that allegedly involved the reading of around 20,000 short stories.

One of the fantastic things, Hensher replied, was finding that ‘there was no limit to the variety and creativity of the short story’. He also stated that in sifting through numerous magazines and pamphlets, he was often struck by the appearance of completely unknown names who had published little or nothing else, but had produced a ‘mysteriously perfect’ short story. After citing T. Baron Russell as an ideal example of such gems, Galvin asks Hensher where he found this writer who had made such an evident impression on the editor.

‘The Yellow Book,’ replies Hensher, which he tells us was in print ‘at the highest point’ of the short story form, a time in which there were thirty-four magazines ‘doing nothing but publishing short stories.’ The Yellow Book is deservingly lauded as a magazine that was prepared to test boundaries, discovering, and nurturing new voices – many of which (H.G. Wells being a good example) later became household names.

One of the points that Hensher makes extremely well, and one that is easy to agree with, is that today there are far fewer opportunities for writers to develop and grow their talents with guidance and mentorship. That said, there are some opportunities available, such as The Word Factory’s own Apprenticeship scheme and TSS Young Writers Awards.

After praising the likes of Dickens, ‘a very energetic editor’ who taught as well as published, Cathy Galvin addressed Hensher’s controversial assertions over the role of short story competitions, outlined in the introduction to the short story anthology.

Hensher’s belief is that these large sums of money should be used more evenly to develop multiple talents rather than just the single winner. As he puts it in the introduction, ‘ With the same money, the newspaper could develop any number of short story talents by, for instance, commissioning and running a short story competition every week for £1000.’ Galvin, who is one of the founders of the Sunday Times EFG Award with its £30,000 prize, rightly pointed out that she had first run a weekly short story in the Sunday Times Magazine and when that had been shunted (the politics and economics of a magazine, one presumes) she had fought hard for some kind of short story survival – the result being the Sunday Times EFG.

‘Did I do the wrong thing?’ Galvin asks, frankly and openly.

With equal honesty, Hensher replies, ‘Yes. You did.’

There is the briefest of pauses and then the explanation tumbles forth. One the main arguments Hensher makes is that too often the judge or judges of short story competitions simply do not have the depth of knowledge and understanding of the short form that many editors have spent years attaining. How, then, are they to sport true short story talent? He also pointed out the ongoing support that an editor of a publishing platform can provide, noting that one of the group on the panel, Tessa Hadley, had herself benefited from being published twenty-one times through The New Yorker – ‘there’s no way,’ stated Hensher emphatically, ‘that a competition can do that.’

Galvin serenely asserted that she both agreed and disagreed. On the one hand, it was true that competitions were more limited. However, it was better to have short story competitions than nothing at all – which may well have been the case with the Sunday Times, had Galvin not worked so hard for continuing support of the form. Moreover, the structures and politics of magazines do not always adhere to literary reason or ethics.

At this point, Tessa Hadley stepped in to suggest that short story competitions were not a problem, so long as there was a balance – a co-existence between development and reward. Perhaps what we need, she suggested, was a short story magazine.

‘Do we need a new short story magazine?’ asked Glavin, turning her attention to Adam Mars-Jones.

Mars-Jones was quick to admit that he was much more of a short story writer in the past, but not so much today. He was now concerned with the longer form – something he says was a struggle when he was working on his first novel. ‘One of the criticisms,’ he says of his first novel, ‘was that it read like a collection of short stories’ – a common label applied to debuts.

The author continued to relate the way in which he now preferred to keep his pen on the paper, whereas short stories are ‘defined by the edges’ and have a ‘different texture’ from long fiction. What’s more, ‘I’m morbidly averse to the switch of perspective which the short story does so well. I’m just not compatible with the short story at the moment – though I recognize it as the place to start for a writer.’

Cathy Galvin reclaimed the conversation and again brought the lens to the ‘desperation’ that seems to arise whenever there is a discussion concerning the short story.

‘Well,’ returned Hadley, ‘people still seem to be writing them’ and she pointed at the multitude of creative writing courses, groups, and retreats. People seem to love the short story and plenty of people begin there. ‘But there is a problem when it comes to earning from it. I know lots of people who publish short stories first, but it’s well-known that they don’t sell so well.’

‘Everyone in this room needs to buy a copy here,’ jumps in Hensher, indicating the stack of the new Penguin anthologies.

‘It is important,’ Hadley adds more seriously, ‘that people buy short story collections.’

Switching both tone and direction, Galvin asks the panel which writers they have found most inspiring.

Tessa Hadley teases about the impossibility of the question and then steals Alice Munro followed by Elizabeth Bowen, and Eudora Welty, adding at the end, ‘But I don’t like Henry James!’

Hensher gazes at the short story anthology before him. ‘To be honest I was a bit brutal and didn’t put anyone in that I didn’t passionately adore. But for this question, let’s go foreign: Chekhov, Calvino, Cheever, and Leonardo Sciascia.’

Speaking up, Shena Mackay offers Truman Capote, Mansfield, Nabokov, and the less well known Angus Wilson.

Mars-Jones highlights W.W. Jacob’s classic horror short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (you can read it by following the link to The Short Story here).

Hadley suggests there is something about the short story form that makes it well-suited to elements of the supernatural, to general murmurs of agreements form the panel.

With a few final words of consensus, time is called and the event is tidily wrapped up. Aside from a few technical issues which were profusely apologised for, the event was a huge success with some extremely interesting discussion. Cathy Galvin, the panel, and The Word Factory, should all be applauded for providing such an engaging evening.

Whatever the future may hold for the short story, it is clear that people are interested in reading them, writing them, and discussing them. Hensher’s anthology is a testament to the form’s endurance and also importance within the long tradition of British writing. Long may the short story survive and flourish.

The Short Story Review / Rupert Dastur / 22nd December 2015