More praise for short stories

Short stories are not adequately commercial for small bookstores to maintain a dedicated shelf. Nor for the big publishers to risk publishing many collections, except by well-known and established writers. And all the big news stories in literature are about novels. I doubt whether any writer makes a living out of short stories. Is it possible? Let’s face it – few writers make a living from their writing.

Yet short stories are not going away. Enough of us are reading them, buying collections, writing them, enjoying them and blogging about them to sustain the survival of the form.

9781907773440frcvr.inddWhat’s to like about the short story?

The form allows as much creativity as any other; of genre, style, plot and voice. They can be dark, as many are in the Salt collection (see below). They can be easy to read but have a sharpness just beneath the surface, as Elizabeth Taylor’s do – many were published in the New Yorker.

They often contain a moment of revelation and understanding in the last paragraph. This is not always comfortable. In Hilary Mantel’s story Winter Break she presents a deeply unhappy pair locked in the coping mechanisms of an unhappy marriage. The shock of the five last words indicates their inadequacy to deal with an experience on holiday.

Short stories are not novels-lite, yet the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader feels she has had the experience of reading a novel within one story.

We can be introduced to new writers through reading short stories; be given a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provided with insights into different approaches to writing in a digestible length.

Short stories also provide a platform for writers not visible in other forms, especially for novice writers and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions such as Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa.

There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s on: see for example Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle edited by Elaine Showalter and published by Virago.

I often read a short story or two as I make a transition from one novel to another. They are like the best palate cleansers, worth savouring in their own right.

Some recommendations

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. These three recommendations all do that.

  1. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series

203 BBSS2015This is an annual series published by Salt. The 2015 collection has lots of dark obsessions and inverted takes on the world by inadequate people. I read these stories feeling as I do when I think I have found a new friend, only to discover too late that they are clingy and obsessive.

Nicholas Royle has a sharp tongue for those publishers that don’t help the short story project, a taste for the eerie, macabre and mysterious, and for the stories of Julianne Pachico. His useful introduction notes the growth of on-line publication of short stories, and celebrates the democratic approach of Salt Publishing.

Best British Short Stories 2015 edited by Nicholas Royle. Published in 2015 by Salt 238pp

  1. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel

203 Assof MT coverNo commercial risk to the publisher in this collection, even if many of the stories have been published elsewhere. The title story appears in the Best of British Stories and even caused ripples among the most somnolent of the House of Lords. The story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and published in the Guardian review. Lord Timothy Bell and other Conservatives called for the police to investigate, and the word treason was mentioned. Mantel remarked that she was more interested in respect than taste in her writing. A short story piqued Thatcher-lovers – brilliant! Fiction produced apoplexy while the actual extra-judicial murder of Osama bin Laden was barely questioned.

There is a very dark strain through her stories and some are truly shocking such as Winter Break and The School of English. Mantel shows us the dark deeds of which her characters are capable and the women who are frequently the victims of abuse administered in subtle, gradual and calculating ways. Her stories have the power to make one uncomfortable without being far-fetched.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel. Published in 2014 by 4th Estate 288pp

  1. Subtly Worded by Teffi

201 Teffi coverI referred to these stories recently in my post on Bookword in St Petersburg. and picked out two: Tolstoy and Rasputin. I wondered if the description of the meeting were true, and one reader left a comment to say that Teffi did indeed meet Rasputin.

Many of her early stories are variations on the theme of the biter being bitten, little denouements which are nicely satisfying. Later she came to portray people in Paris, the White Russian emigres among whom she lived between the wars.

I came across this collection in July on the blog called JacquiWine. Her review inspired me to buy the collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp

Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.

Support for Short Stories

We should note and applaud the significant role of Indie publishers in supporting the short story. The platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great or popular.

203 Galen Pike coverI’m looking forward to reading The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, published in 2015 by Salt.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Grebble (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

And BBC Radio4 occasionally broadcasts short stories, such as Tolstoy, a version of which can be found in Teffi’s collection and Hilary Mantel’s infamous Assassination.

For those who enjoy writing short stories there are many competitions to enter, not just the big ones mentioned above, but other respected competitions: the Exeter Writers and Bristol Short Story competitions, Mslexia (for women writers), and numerous on-line publishing possibilities (twitterati will see them in their time lines more or less daily, but beware of supplying publishers with free copy. Writers should be paid for their produce, just like car manufacturers and dairy farmers.)

Related posts

An excellent article about differences in writing short stories and novels by Paul McVeigh from the British Council’s Voices Magazine.

My first post on this topic was called In praise of short stories and was published in November 2013. I’ve reused some portions of that post here,

I’ve mentioned Salt Publishing already six times on this blog so here’s the link to the website and you can order books direct from them.

Here’s a list of 13 short story collections from Bustle’s site.

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories? Where do you publish your stories?


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Filed under Books, Reading

10 Responses to More praise for short stories

  1. My favourite short story writer is William Trevor, because in every word, it is plain that he cares about his characters. I have just read The Redemption of Galen Pike and thought it was wonderful, especially both the opening and the eponymous stories. I love Sweet Home by Carys Bray, also from Salt, because I enjoy reading about families and the vagaries of domestic life. Her characters are beautifully and discreetly drawn.

    My own short story collection, When Planets Slip Their Tracks, is due to be published by Ink Tears this year and its general theme is the events that tip ordinary lives out of kilter.

    Thank you for this lovely, interesting post in celebration of the short story. I also love to dip into them between novels, both in my reading and my writing.

    • Caroline

      Iagree that William trevor is another short story writer to be enjoyed.
      Glad you like Galen Pike, my copy has just arrived. When will I get to read it??
      Let us know when your story collection is published. Congratulations in advance.

  2. marianne coleman

    Thanks Caroline I particularly like reading short stories so it is great to have your recommendations.

    I must just mention Edith Pearlman whose collection Binocular Vision I would rate as being as good as any that I have ever read. Although they are very short, unlike say those of Alice Munro, they are incredibly dense and benefit from reading more than once.

    I have just bought her latest collection called Honeydew.

    • Caroline

      Yes I agree about Edith Pearlman. I reviewed Binocular Vision for the Older Women in fiction series.
      I have not yet read Honeydew, but it is on my list of many many books to look at!
      Thanks for the reminder. xx

  3. The Teffi is amazing, isn’t it? I reviewed it and absolutely loved it. Short stories are hard to get right, but when they are right they’re amazing.

  4. Thank you for the kind mention, Caroline, and for drawing attention to Teffi’s stories. I’m glad you enjoyed the collection – all the more fascinating for its diversity.

    My mother was a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories, always dipping in and out of one of her books. I resisted reading her for quite a while, but now I feel as if I’ve discovered a new favorite author!

    • Caroline

      I love your blog and you seem to share some of my tastes. Elizabeth taylor is another one. I have the huge collection of her short stories by my bed, published by Virago, and I often dip in between novels. Glad you got to Elizabeth taylor in the end. She should not be missed. You may know that I have reviewed all of her novels on this blog.

  5. Eileen

    I love short stories too – particularly when I am travelling.
    Took with me on my recent trip – ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ by Raymond Carver and then while I was away bought ‘Under African Skies’ edited by Charles R. Larson in a really great bookshop in Cape Town.

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