There was quite a lengthy period in the history of publishing when the short story was held in higher regard than the novel.
A glance now at the collected works of Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, or Vladimir Nabokov, shows the huge volume of short stories they produced alongside their novels.
Authors such as Katherine Mansfield, O. Henry, “Saki”, and Sherwood Anderson published short stories exclusively, in some cases famously being unable to manage the novel form when they tried their hand at it.
Aside from being a playwright, when it came to prose, Anton Chekhov was entirely satisfied to focus his art on the perfection and development of the short story alone.
In his memoir, A MOVEABLE FEAST, Hemingway makes it quite clear that he and F. Scott Fitzgerald turned to the sale of short stories to magazines whenever they urgently needed to keep the wolf from the door; Hemingway only being more stringent in his ideals than Fitzgerald by refusing to change the ending of a short story just to make a sale.
The short story, not the novel, was the cash-cow of their day.
And later on, artistically, from Alice Munro to Ali Smith, the decision to balance an output in novel form with an almost equal output in the form of short story collections is clearly evident.
At the time I started writing short stories in the early 1990s (influenced to do so on a creative writing course at Aberdeen University taught by William McIlvanney, whose story collections I had admired) it seemed that short stories were somehow just “in the air”. Wherever I looked in bookshops or libraries, I saw that James Kelman, Bernard Mac Laverty, A. L. Kennedy, Milan Kundera: all their first books published were story collections.
It seemed to be the acknowledged rite of passage.
Novelists like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud stressed how important to them were their story collections, like THE MAGIC BARREL.
“Put together a dozen and you’ve got a book,” they said.
And Raymond Carver’s reputation as a master of the short story was, by then, solidifying into something of legendary proportion, renowned for the tightness and spareness of his vision (though it wasn’t yet common knowledge that his editor Gordon Lish had been carving down Carver’s stories before publication, often against Carver’s will and to his great upset, until they were about half their original length)…and all Ray Carver published, in the way of fiction, was the short story.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that 1993, the year I started writing short stories seriously, was also the year the short story zeitgeist perhaps reached its international and cultural zenith, if that can be defined as influence on other art forms, with the manifestation of Robert Altman’s multi-award-winning film, SHORT CUTS, based on nine Raymond Carver stories (and one poem).
Maybe a lot of people caught the subliminal bug and started writing their stories that year.
More fundamentally, though, around that time in the early 1990s, there seemed to be a sense that within a 20-page-or-so short story there could be hidden, as within the pulsing egg-yolk heart of a neutron star, a terrible potential for power which was out of all proportion to size.
It seemed that Chekhov, Carver, Mac Laverty and Kelman had made it the atomic art form.
This was the shocking, half-felt potential of the short story that obviously had kept artists clutching in its direction again and again over centuries, if not millennia.
To catch lightning, not just in a jar, but in a jar so small that the compression and confinement and pressure might bring to bear such weight on the captured atom that the detonation in the mind from such an event might be potentially limitless.
How many times did Chekhov chase that mystery towards the horizon? Nabokov made those journeys too.
Not like the novel where you can take years to gather the lightning into one area, like herding thousands of sheep; no, Chekhov had to catch a single bull of a lightning bolt and get it in that jar…or else watch it escape to the limitless horizon and cause a storm out of all reach.
Those far-off storms are pretty, and much safer…but they leave the jar sadly empty for posterity.
Throughout the 1990s, having studied the method of the masters, I too gathered my atoms…I met the great lightning catcher, Bernard Mac Laverty, one night in 1998 and I told him I loved his story collection, THE GREAT PROFUNDO.
He poured me some wine and told me to love my own book instead.
He told me to sell my stories to editors, and gain “credits”…and become “known”…
So I did as that fine man told me…I took my stories and sent them to the editors of literary magazines and anthologies…the first two I gave away happily for free…then they started paying me…£15 was my first price for one of these atoms or short stories…then £20…then £25…then £60 became my rate…I disposed of several varied atoms at that price…then in the year 2000, as though in some sort of millennial burst of confidence, my price shifted to £165 when editors, A L Kennedy and John Fowles wanted one of my short stories for a paperback anthology to be published by the London publisher, VINTAGE, which was to be distributed and sold in most countries of the world, from Japan to South America, from Africa to Europe, where my work would share space with stories by Alan Warner, Louis De Bernieres, William Boyd, Alasdair Gray, Edwin Morgan, and Rose Tremain. There was my name on the red back cover of the book alongside their names, my atom spliced with their atoms, and there was the book, NEW WRITING 9, reviewed in the British and Chinese press and taught on the degree syllabus English Literature course of Sofia University in Bulgaria.
And there was the statement on the first page of the book:
“An anthology which promotes the best in contemporary literature. It brings together some of our most formidable talent.”
Next, it was PICADOR paying me £400 for another short story, this time chosen by Toby Litt and Ali Smith to be placed in another paperback anthology with worldwide distribution, where my short story shared space with short stories from Muriel Spark, Fay Weldon, David Mitchell, Edwin Morgan, John Berger…this time the reviews were in the Indian and London Press.
So it seemed to all be true then, what Mr Mac Laverty had told me, the way to try to make your way in this world as a writer was to disseminate your short story atoms far and wide.
Around this time, I was even invited to open the jar and release one of them in public live at the Edinburgh International Book Festival…£75 to read the story at a microphone…£80 expenses…£60 for publication of the story in EDINBURGH REVIEW.
I had gathered my atoms then, I had loved my own book…I had gained my “credits” by selling my short stories one at a time…I had followed all of Mr Mac Laverty’s good advice…surely now, like my idols, I could get a book of my short stories published? By this point I was selling every story I sent out, several times finding two editors who both wanted to buy the same story…so how could I fail to get a book of short stories published somewhere in Britain at that rate?
My atoms were ready, and in alignment.
But it was precisely at this point that my atoms all hit the wall.
There was no way Mr Mac Laverty could have known it but, by the time he gave it, his advice was already seriously out of date.
I found out though, when my first literary agent sent me a list of my short stories she had read, underlining the 3 she had “loved best”. “But,” she also hand-wrote on the letter, “I just can’t shift short story collections”
Another agent told me that editors “say they like them but pay peanuts for them”.
The next agent told me “sometimes they publish a story collection now, just to keep a writer happy, if he/she has been successful commercially with their novels, but the collections don’t make money for anyone.”
I started to notice then, the statements in literary agents’ details: “No short story collections.”
So, I let it happen; I let them all convince me then that short story atoms, compressed neutron stars of terrible disproportionate power…were out of date and uncommercial, a dead loss in the modern UK publishing scene.
I forsook atoms then, and turned instead to the writing of 5 novels, which took a number of years.
But, in 2008, after my fifth novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, was completed…something inside me started to grow and rebel again, something intransigent that didn’t care about what was “shiftable” or “in fashion commercially in Edinburgh or London”…some feral proton in the nucleus of an atom’s atom within my gut…started to “shift” itself…and I began to listen again, unfettered, to that internal voice...
It wasn’t easy after several years of only writing novels, I had to learn all over again the gears and mechanisms of the short story.
But, over 18 months between December 2008 and summer 2010, I opened the jar 9 times to chase down 9 new lightning bolt short stories across the plain of the inner, storm-ravaged mind.
They’ve been jarred for 2 years now, secretly, these 9 new short stories.
I can feel their specific gravity emanating from the molecules of the glass that holds them.
It’s time to let them go. I’m preparing the ignition of the release mechanism now.
The plan is to take these 9 new atoms and splice them with a stabilising bond-element, that short story I sold to PICADOR for £400 at my “distribution peak”, the one that went off in a paperback sold as far away as Japan, South America, Africa, Australia, it took PICADOR and THE BRITISH COUNCIL behind a book back then to arrange distribution like that…but today of course with epublishing…I can take these 10 short stories…gather them safely in an ebook… and project them into the world any day soon in the form of a short story collection entitled STORM DAMAGE, which seems an apt title to me.
There is no-one left to tell me now that this will be an “unshiftable” commodity worth only “peanuts”.
On the contrary, I am in correspondence with readers, who enjoyed The Survival of Thomas Ford and say they wish to see the next book…just as soon as I get these 10 atoms into optimum alignment.
So, back now to the electron microscope to fine-tune their molecular harmonies.
And look…how many of us are sending our mighty atoms out there now, far flung electronically, heralded on by the symphonic melodies of these new, rapturous cosmic winds!
GHOST TRAIN & OTHER STORIES by Chris Longmuir, MANIAC & OTHER STORIES by Debbie Bennett, A QUIET AFTERNOON IN THE MUSEUM OF TORTURE by Catherine Czerkawska, COLONEL MUSTARD IN THE LIBRARY WITH THE CANDLESTICK by Dennis Hamley, HEAD AND TALES by Susan Price, MADE IN CHINA – A FAIRY TALE FOR THE INTERNET AGE & OTHER STORIES by Stephanie Zia, THREE by Kathleen Jones, LAST MAN OUT OF EDEN by Dan Holloway, PRESSURE FALLING by Mark Chisnell, VOICES IN MA HEID by Cally Phillips
“Not shiftable” indeed!