The short story still has plenty of life left in itby The White Review / December 17, 2012 / Leave a comment
The short story is an overlooked art form in this country. Too often treated as a proving ground in which writers can try out an idea or advertise their talent, it is among the most vital forms of literary expression. The constraint on length frees the short story from the traditional novel’s responsibility to describe an entire world, making it a mode uniquely appropriate to our fractured, alienated and accelerated twenty-first-century existence.
Responsibility for the form’s neglect lies partly with the difficulty of publishing a collection of short stories. This disregard is exacerbated by the relative scarcity of outlets to which the short story writer can submit her work. The US has a plethora of journals devoted to promoting the short story form (the Paris Review, n+1, McSweeney’s, the Believer, Zoetrope, Tin House), and Ireland is served by the brilliant Dublin Review and Stinging Fly. Here there is Granta, but its consistently high standard is guaranteed by the fact that it largely publishes established writers. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find Craig Raine’s Areté, the venerable Ambit (where JG Ballard was fiction editor many years ago) and Litro in print, and the likes of 3:AM Magazine and Untitled Books online. All are worth seeking out.
The White Review joins these publications in their efforts to encourage the form by launching, with the generous support of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, a short story prize. We’re offering a £2,500 award to the best story by an unpublished writer, and we’re aiming to promote short stories that actively engage with the particular opportunities offered by the form. As an illustration of that, and a prompt to any prospective entrants to the prize, here are five collections that we admire, and which together demonstrate the uniquely versatile nature of the short story form:
China Miéville, Looking for Jake (2005)
China Miéville is among the most inventive fiction writers at work today, and Looking for Jake is a showcase for the manifold possibilities offered by the short story. This collection of 11 stories written between 1998 and 2004 includes a graphic story illustrated by Liam Sharp, a satire on the commercialisation of Christmas and an epistolary account of wandering streets that reappear in different cities to fight and mate with each other. Miéville’s brilliant imagination and experimentation shows that the limits of the short story form have barely been tested.
Joshua Cohen, Four New Messages (2012)
This is 32-year-old American writer Joshua Cohen’s seventh book, making him one of the most prolific young writers around. He is also one of the most exciting. In Four New Messages, Cohen’s anarchic and expansive style, which has earned him comparisons to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, here addresses the topic of our times, the influence of the internet on contemporary attitudes, mores and actions. Sex, family relationships, identity—these themes are treated in language as rich as it is playful.
Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories (2009)
Lydia Davis is another American writer operating on the borders of fiction, prose poetry and philosophy. Her work is typically very short and pithy, foregoing the structural framework of the traditional “realist” narrative in favour of formal ingenuity. Davis’s “body of work,” says James Wood of the New Yorker, “is probably unique in American writing, in its combination of lucidity, aphoristic brevity, formal originality, sly comedy, metaphysical bleakness, philosophical pressure, and human wisdom.”
DW Wilson, Once You Break a Knuckle (2011)
DW Wilson’s writing reminds the reader of the cardinal virtues of the short story. His ability to conjure a scene, an atmosphere, a society through a character’s employment of a piece of slang or particular syntactical construction recalls Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor and even Hemingway. This collection of loosely connected stories takes a familiar subject—the articulation of blue collar, North American, masculine existence—and lends it a terse beauty.
Iphgenia Baal, Gentle Art (2012)
Experimentalism in literature is often confused with obscurantism. Iphgenia Baal’s collection of sharp, mad stories demonstrates that radical new forms of fiction writing can close rather than widen the gap between author and reader. Incorporating sketches, collages and a welter of typefaces, Gentle Art is a perfect illustration of the innovative means by which the short story can adapt to a new era without having to retreat onto the internet. This is a book to be carried around and consulted. It deals in moments.
To find out more about the White Review Short Story Prize, click here