by Nicholas Royle
Between 1995 and 2009 I wrote a regular quarterly column for Time Out magazine reviewing short stories. I scoured little magazines, anthologies, collections, other magazines and newspapers, and over 14 years I wrote more than 40,000 words about short stories. How is that possible, you might wonder, when, as we are always being told, no one publishes short stories in the UK any more? Well, the truth is they do. Short story writers don’t always get handsomely paid, or even paid, but there are plenty of editors accepting work for publication. You hear writers at conventions bemoaning the lack of markets for short fiction and it’s true that in most cases you will not make a lot of money writing stories, but there are opportunities for publication and even the occasional a bit of cash.
When Time Out stopped paying for the column, any sensible person would have stopped writing it, but I carried on, because, for a while at least, they were still happy to publish it. It was only when they finally ceased printing my round-up that I stopped producing it. The final column, which never appeared, covered Andrew Losowsky’s brilliant little collection The Doorbells of Florence; David Eagleman’s collection Sum (later to become hugely successful, obviously not thanks to my review), which was good but not as good as Losowsky’s; a cheeky little chapbook by Tony White, ‘Albertopolis Disparu’, commissioned in connection with his role as writer-in-residence at the Science Museum; issue nine of Succour, an excellent magazine I had described in an earlier column as ‘Granta for the Facebook generation’, featuring outstanding stories by Laura Joyce, Joel Lane and Jonathan Hamnett; Ambit 196, containing a notable debut story, ‘Bridges’, by Sara Langham; and other anthologies and collections. It was a rich haul, but it always was.
When Time Out finally lost interest in short stories, or assumed its readers had, I wasn’t inclined to suspend my continuous and wide-ranging survey of the field, so I needed a new outlet. A keen reader of the Best Short Stories anthologies edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes between 1986 and 1994, I had long thought the series was overdue some form of resurrection, especially given the renewed interest in the short story in the UK. The success of the Save Our Short Story campaign and the popularity of the National Short Story Prize and Manchester Fiction Prize, among others, were evidence of this surge, if that is not overstating it, of enthusiasm for the short form. I approached a few publishers, thinking there was a good chance one of them would be up for this. I had edited a number of original anthologies some years earlier and was aware that publishers’ patience with these had largely run out, but this was different. This had a USP. It was promising readers the best; everyone wants the best, don’t they? Don’t they? After all, editor Stephen Jones recently celebrated twenty years at the helm of Best New Horror by publishing a Best of Best New Horror. If genre fans would support an annual reprint anthology, why wouldn’t mainstream readers?
If I had thought it would be straightforward, I was disappointed. I don’t know why I’m always surprised to be disappointed after more than twenty-five years in the business.
In the end it came down to timing. When I approached Salt (for the second time, I thought, although Salt had no recollection of my first approach, and when I checked, I could find no record of it), they had already lined up a Best British Poetry series and so my idea was the perfect fit at just the right time. We were in business.
A prominent industry professional expressed doubt that the Best British Short Stories series would be taken seriously, because it didn’t have a name like Faber, Penguin or Picador behind it. I offered a vulgar one-word rebuff to this opinion and I meant it, too. Salt was the only publisher out of those I approached that had the balls or the vision to take it on. They have probably published more short stories in the last five years than Faber, Penguin and Picador combined.
So, the first volume in the new series, dated 2011 and reprinting short stories by British writers originally published last year, is out. It includes stories that first appeared in literary magazines Ambit, London Magazine, Warwick Review, Wasafiri, Riptide, Pank, New Welsh Review, and in the Sunday Times Magazine and the Guardian. There’s a story from an online magazine, the Adirondack Review, and one from Five Dials, which is published as a pdf document and may be downloaded for free by subscribers. Two stories are reprinted from publications – one print, one online – associated with prizes/competitions; one story appeared in a science fiction anthology and another in an author’s collection. And one had been a stand-alone publication in the form of a chapbook.
I have already begun reading widely for the 2012 volume, which will come out this time next year, unless of course no one buys the 2011 book and the publishers are forced to cancel the series before it’s had a chance to get going. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but this guest blog is an opportunity to help make sure it doesn’t and I’m grateful to THRESHOLDS for it.
I think short stories are special. There’s a particular intimacy you get with a short story, partly because you usually read it in a single sitting. I’m assuming you read sitting down. You may not. You may be lying in bed or in the bath or standing up in a railway carriage, or, maybe, like me, you do most of your reading while on the move – on foot. Yes, walking. I do most of my reading while walking, and no, I never bump into anything. Or step in anything. Wherever – however – you read, you probably read an entire short story undisturbed, which is how most writers would probably want you to read it. That’s quite different from how most people read novels – a little here, a little there. It’s a different, more intimate experience.
Also, precisely because short stories are short, writers tend to feel more inclined to take risks, try something new. There are some risks taken by some of the writers featured in The Best British Short Stories 2011. Let’s make this series a success and provide a further boost for the short story in the UK today.