Prospect is launching a major new annual award designed to honour Britain's finest short story writers and to re-establish the importance of the story as a central literary form. The National Short Story prize will be the largest award in the world for a single storyby Alexander Linklater / September 25, 2005 / Leave a comment
A couple of years ago, Prospect began publishing short stories in every issue (click here for the Prospect fiction archive). It was hardly a revolutionary move. It may in fact have been a conservative one. It was, in one sense, a harking back to the principles of the Enlightenment and Victorian periodicals which originally gave rise both to the essay and to the literary short story—two of the foundational forms of modern prose. Prospect was launched a decade ago as a magazine of the essay; it represented no great leap for us to become a magazine of the story too.
Yet in another sense, by running with the short story, we are kicking against a herd mentality among magazines and publishers. At some time during the last 20 years, the short story came to be viewed in Britain as culturally redundant and economically unviable. One minute literary people were reading VS Pritchett or Angela Carter, children were growing up on Jackanory and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected were a household favourite; the next minute, the whole idea of a “story” had become somehow embarrassing. What went wrong? Two things, at the same time.
First, British literary journals ceased to matter. Gone are the days when a fine, small magazine such as Ian Hamilton’s New Review could foster an author such as Ian McEwan who made his name through his stories. Brave attempts are being made by recent publications such as Zembla or Wasifiri, but the only creative writing magazine of genuine importance left in Britain is Granta, which, arguably, is not even a literary magazine, covering a broad range of narrative journalism and general non-fiction, as well as fiction. Of this type—the high-end generalist magazine—Granta is joined only by Prospect in running short stories in every issue.
Secondly, and crucially, the bottom fell out for short stories in the popular—and particularly women’s—magazine market. Back in the 1980s, Cosmopolitan could give 12 pages in an issue to fiction, and almost every lifestyle magazine on the stands ran stories. Then, in the 1990s, they were wiped clean off the pages of the women’s glossies. Today, some editors will tell you that their readers remain as passionate about fiction as ever, that the curious phenomenon of the book club keeps booming, and that their customers might well read stories if offered them. But the mass market won’t now bring back short…