Saturday, 5 October 2013

To cut a long story short . . . . Kathleen Jones on short fiction

The short list for the BBC National Short Story Award has just been announced and it's a shocker!  There are no men on it... (David Gilmour take note)  At £15,000 this is one of the most valuable prizes in literature, and it emphasises the short story's status as a literary art form.  The high value we place on the short story is a big contrast with its lack of appeal as a commercial publishing prospect.  Fewer and fewer publishers are accepting them and then only as a gesture towards their best-selling authors.  Newspaper and magazine outlets have also dwindled.

But, readers like short stories and writers like writing them.  The result is a flourishing Indie-publishing scene for short fiction - not just in book form, but also in E-zines and blogs and Facebook groups.  People are reading Flash fiction on their mobile phones and downloading stories onto their I-pads from sites where you can read any kind of fiction from erotic to murderous, and cozy to experimental.  There are markets for the short story everywhere on the internet.  Unfortunately very few of them pay anything.

It's also a very female-centred scene, reflecting the BBC shortlist.  The chair of the judges, Mariella Frostrup, said that the genre was perfectly "suited to the innovative brilliance of women writers", but I'm reluctant to accept that sexist statement and would be interested in the opinions of others.  Personally I think perhaps it's because the form suits our crowded lives - juggling relationships, children, house-keeping, work and writing. From the reader's point of view too, the short story suits our fast, peripatetic life-style.  Katherine Mansfield, who spent her life moving from place to place, desperate for a cure for her TB, wrote that if the house was on fire you could hope to finish a story before the staircase was properly alight, but the house would have burned down (and you with it) before you finished the novel.  She started several, but didn't get the time to finish any of them.




Some of Mansfield's stories are included in a new collection - Love, Loss and the Lives of Women - (currently only 99p!) edited by Victoria Heslop, which includes stories by some of the most iconic writers - Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Alice Walker, to name a few.  And among this selection of 100 'best' is a story by an Indie author - the first self-published author to be awarded a major literary prize - Avril Joy, whose moving story, Millie and Bird, won the Costa Award last year. Avril is still Indie-publishing, but there's a new awareness that self-publishing and quality writing aren't necessarily in opposition and I think her inclusion in this anthology demonstrates that.

There's a new  website, www.cutalongstory.com which is asking writers to register with them, with a view to selling their work on i-phones and other devices for proper money.  The link came from Northern Arts, so presumably the site is arts council approved.  I'm cautious, but I welcome any kind of initiative that might put some money in my pocket, so I've registered.  I'm also submitting to E-zines such as Word Bohemia,and Cafe-Lit  Then there are small independent publishers such as Salt and micro-publishers like Nightjar Press who specialise in short stories.  It's amazing what you can find when you go on the internet.

Word Bohemia
There are some very good Indie authors publishing short fiction - some of them members of Authors Electric and - shock, horror - even men!  Here's just a few to try.  If Literary Fiction's your bag then take a look at Avril Joy, Catherine Czerkawska, and Elizabeth Stott; if it's crime that curdles your blood then John A. A. Logan's your man. Susan Price is lurking in graveyards for a shiver or two, and Cally Phillips does Advocacy and stories in Scots.  If you're interested in experimental fiction you have to take a look at Dan Holloway.  If it's mainstream, but a little different, try Wendy Robertson and if contemporary 'heart-warming magical realism' makes your heart beat then it's got to be Tahlia Newland.  You can find three of my short stories (including one which features necrophilia) on both Kobo and Kindle.  You can also find me at Chapters Indigo - Canada's largest online retailer.

I'm now working on a series of interlinked stories set in an Italian Piazza.  I've been trying to persuade my family for months that all that wine drinking and sitting around watching the 'Passagiata' was really research. . . but I'm not sure they believe me!  Below is a small vignette from my journal.




August

La vedova Viviani has arrived with the man to repair the boiler.  He walks onto our terrace, a few polite steps behind her, and pauses theatrically, putting his toolbox down on the table and spreading his arms wide as if to embrace the horizon. ‘Che panorama meraviglioso!’  He stands for some time admiring our miraculous view, while Marie-Louisa gets her breath back after the trek down the steep path through the olive grove.

She wears black, like all the other widows in the village, but her dress has sprigs of blue and yellow flowers on it and cream lace at the throat.  Her lively gaze takes in my unswept terrace, the book face-down on the chair, and is captured by the plum tree, which is looking dry and bare this year. ‘Il povero albero,’ she says, putting a hand up to touch a desiccated leaf.


‘No rain,’ I say, a little defensively, as if she’s criticising the way I look after her property. ‘Il Sirocco.’ The terrace furniture is covered in a light orange dust that has blown across the Mediterranean from Africa.  

‘It is cruel, cruel!’ she agrees.
I offer coffee, which the boiler-man accepts but Marie-Louisa declines.  She is diabetic, overweight, and has a heart condition.  She has to be careful. 

Shades of expression flicker across her face as she sits in my chair and looks round at the landscape.  I can sense a lifetime of memories  running like a video behind her eyes. She was here as a child when the fascists shot the boys beside the path at the bottom of the olive grove in 1945. It is her wedding furniture that clutters my bedroom with polished chestnut wood and pink marble. She told me once that when she and her husband lived here, they had seven sheep in the olive grove to eat the grass and give them a supply of ricotta. I found the hut they were kept in once, collapsed in a heap of wood and corrugated iron under a thicket of encroaching blackberries.


The boiler-man has spread the innards of the old German boiler over the terrace in neat rows.  ‘They are very good, these old caldaios,’ he says to Marie-Louisa.  ‘They last well.’  He is scraping soot and rust from the firing plate with a wire brush.  ‘With care you can maybe get another ten years out of it.’


I think he is being optimistic, but she nods.  She doesn’t have the money for things like that.  Our rent is her pension.  She lives in a small apartment next to her daughter and between them they manage the olive grove. ‘It is hard,’ she told me last time she was here, as she stood at the foot of a tree, watching Paula perched on a branch with the chain saw.  ‘It is a very hard life.’


Copyright Kathleen Jones 2013


When not sitting in the Piazza, Kathleen Jones can be found blogging at A Writer's Life and at www.kathleenjones.co.uk

Her fiction includes a novel, The Sun's Companion, and Three and Other Stories

She Tweets at @kathyferber




PS - If you write crime fiction, why not enter the Margery Allingham Short Story Competition?



14 comments:

JO said...

I love short stories - both to write and to read. Maybe Mariella Frostrup was struggling to think of something to say - her comment is completely meaningless!

Lee said...

Short stories may suit our lives today, but the best of them are not good because they're short. They function in different ways to longer forms of fiction -- especially in terms of compression and layering. Plot is secondary, sometimes almost irrelevant. I like to think of the short story as the narrative equivalent of lyric poetry. That is to say, I'm not interested in a quick fix -- a short story that you read once, think 'clever' or 'nicer twist', and promptly forget.

And yes, I do write them on occasion. I'm about to post a new one, in fact.

Kathleen Jones said...

I agree Jo - and not just meaningless but actually sexist - if you turn it round and have a man say it .....
Lee I like your definition of a short story as 'the narrative equivalent of lyric poetry'. I write a lot of poetry and I think the two are linked. Prose poetry is flash fiction/auto/biography!
Will check out your new post when it's up.

Dennis Hamley said...

I think - and know from experience - that the short story is a more difficult form than the novel. Jan Mark, consummate short story writer, said it was 'virtuoso' writing' and she was right. Be that as it may, I've written scores, published two collections of my own and edited two anthologies for OUP, so it's not entirely a female-centred scene.

Dennis Hamley said...

By the way, when I say 'two collections of my own', I don't mean the two selections on Kindle.

Al said...

I love reading short stories, but somehow whenever I try my hand at them they threaten to turn into novels!

Lee said...

Heheh, Al, and I sometimes think my novels would work a lot better as a series of short stories!

Jan Mark--yes, a writer who is sadly missed. But I didn't know she felt that way about short stories, and I've never read any of hers, so I'll have to get hold of a collection. Any suggestions?

Dan Holloway said...

It's great that people are realising that there are great short stories within the self-publishing world (the difficulty of getting them published in the mainstream combined with the fact that writing them is a completely different skill from writing novels so that being a great novelist says nothing about one's shorts - when it comes to difference, I should point out that whilst some of my novels are experimental, I've never written an experimental short - they are all on the spectrum from lyrical literary to transgressive - means that there are probably more great self-published short writers than novelists). It's very sad that the NAtional Short Story Award isn't one of them

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Very interesting piece of analysis and many thanks for the mention!I love the short story form, but tend to think that story ideas come from a different part of my brain. Lee's right, I think. When began to write stories and plays I stopped writing poems and have only very occasionally gone back to that form but I still write stories from time to time. Interestingly enough I'm just about to have a small collection of four short stories published in eBook form by the Hearst Corporation - they are experimenting with releasing mini collections of stories on all platforms and then promoting them to their magazine readers - so it does seem to me as though things are changing, or at least the mainstream perception of short stories and their marketability is changing. (Love the piece about Italy as well - want to BE there!)

Dennis Hamley said...

Lee, of Jan Mark's,I would try 'Feet', 'Nothing to be afraid of' (ghost stories for younger kids)and 'In Black and White.'

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said...

Thanks, Dennis. Will do.

Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks for all your feedback and recommendations. Have just been told about a site that lists most short story outlets.
http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fblog.taniahershman.com%2F2013%2F09%2Fuk-and-irish-lit-mags-list-sept-2013.html&h=6AQEzAX2O

Lee said...

Hi Dennis, I'm not sure you'll get to see this comment, but I'll write it anyway in order to work out a bit of my thinking. I managed to get hold of a secondhand copy of Jan Mark's In Black and White and have now read almost all the stories - thanks again for the suggestion! You're right that they're very well written - pacing, dialect, word choice, etc. Of course they're of their time - and not just the English currency - so they might not easily find a wide readership today, but this in itself wouldn't bother me. No, the real problem I see is that they're lightweight in the way that an Alice Munro short story, say, is not. Perhaps I'm being unfair by comparing apples to oranges, but as a writer I'm happy to go back and give them a second or third look to study just how they're constructed, but as a reader, I frankly wouldn't bother. Furthermore, they're all written to a similar pattern and soon become rather predictable. Also - but this may be a question of personal taste - I like my ghost (and horror) stories to have a strong psychological element. The things we're most afraid of, I feel, are the dark sides of our humanity.