photo by Kim Diep
(Through the lens of The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award Longlist)
by Steve Wasserman
It’s the “Year of the Short Story” (YOTSS). So we are told (mainly by Bloomsbury). Certainly, there’s no denying that YOTSS has shot out of the media-sprung starting gate at a strong clip, with a handful of vibrant, even wonderful collections (Englander, MacLeod – i.e., Alexander, Keret, McGregor, and Woolf – Jan rather than Virginia, who is no longer with us in case you hadn’t noticed).
In some not altogether spurious way, this year’s Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award (#STEFG12 for the tweeps) could be seen as the Olympics of the single short story. If you want. And I do want, much more than I want the actual Olympics in a couple of months time.
Equivalents? Well, doesn’t STEFG12’s salary-sized prize feel almost gold medal-ish, at least for most cash strapped writers? Don’t certain names on the longlist have that big-hitting literati weight that we expect from a Brobdingnagian award? Aren’t its judges cultural movers and shakers? Even the awards dinner inOxford, I have been told by past attendants, rivals Booker and Pulitzer in nosh + posh.
Now the maths. I calculated after a furious session of Googling and long division, that the average age of the STEFG12 writer is 50 (47.368 if you take 94 year old Diana Athill out of the equation). So perhaps this longlist doesn’t reflect where the short story form is heading, but rather where it has come from, straddling as it now does a century of ferocious Anglo-American (though mainly North American) activity and the less sure-footed, technology-shaken noughties work, which already seems to have passed us by in the blink of a computer monitor.
This is maybe the reason why I find myself lapping up every single story on the longlist, almost without exception, and feeling bowled over by a large number of them. I doubt a Granta/NewYorker 20 under 40 crew would be able to produce such a consistently good bunch of tales, but then having just inched out of that bracket myself, I’m almost behoven to make this point.
For this longlist, I’ve tried reading the stories as if they were the first short stories I’d ever come across, and thus collectively, a kind of template for what the short story form is, or was. Might these twenty writers and their output constitute, if we could only parse the codes therein, a kind of short story DNA which other writers or readers could refer to when assessing the notion of “quality” in the form?
If so, here are ten reference points, ten codes for The Short Story 2012. Ten because you probably wouldn’t want to read more than that, but also because the genetic code of us short story writers and readers consists of 64 nucleotide triplets. And if you’re happy to get number-crunchingly kabbalistic with me, 6 + 4 = 10.
The Short Story in 2012 is…
Lonely: Frank O’Connor’s 1963 designation of the short story form as a medium for allowing us to listen to “the lonely voice”, both our own and of others, won’t go away, even though some writers and critics have occasionally tried to argue it away in the last fifty years. It won’t go away because in the midst of our social attachments, we are fundamentally a lonely species, and as a society becoming more so thanks to our screens and machines. One little story floating around in an ocean of tomes and other texts phenomenologically mirrors that inchoate sense of ourselves in the Grand Scheme of Thing as small. And we are small but also riven by our own complexity, so feel misunderstood, underappreciated, lonely. STEFG12 gives us a number of O’Connor’s “submerged population” groups: an Iraqi refugee (Mihinnick), a Kurdish goatherd (Malone), a Chinese immigrant (Kwok), elderly relatives in the grip of dementia or illness (Lee, Kay), unnamed soldiers (Donoghue). But even the non-submerged characters are swamped and isolated by their own subjective experiences. Reading alone, we keep company with these lonely joys and sorrows.
Anxious: If you’re lonely, you’re probably also going to experience higher levels of anxiety. Short stories are rife with the so-called modern plague. But also reading short stories is more anxiety-provoking than spending time with the novel. We arrive in media res, like the narrator of Jackie Kay’s ‘These Are Not My Clothes’, who compares herself to “a bloody baby”. The character, along with the reader, is on her way in, but also, as a resident of a retirement home, on her way out. For us, it takes paragraphs, maybe even pages to work out what is going on, and when we do, the story ends. With short stories, we are always somehow “on our way out”, and have almost no time to tarry. Often, the route is not only short but nasty and brutish too: rape (Donoghue), car accidents (Lara, Shriver), humiliation (Citkowitz, Kwok, Athill), chemical warfare (Malone), suicide (Lee, Preston). So why do we put ourselves through it? You could also ask: why do people eat habanero chillies or watch horror films? Building tolerance for ambiguity and anxiety seems to help us become more human, more fully ourselves.
Surprising, subversive, (and sexy?): In a recent talk about short stories at UCL, Alison MacLeod drew our attention to the “subversive impulse that is, arguably, crucial to the short story”. Short stories, she suggested, are “unstructured spaces for wild wit; for surprising-ness; for the unconscious, even idle (as in V.Woolf: ‘Be Idle’) sense of process; for the hold-your-nerve narrative gamble”. These 20 stories exemplify this surprise and subversion, not necessarily through plot (the short story often says phooey to plot), but rather with unexpected juxtapositions and almost non-sequitural links that feel part of our surrealist inheritance. The “bins and beds” cleaner in Robert Minhinnick’s story is treated to a come-hither flash of his colleague’s underwear, triggering associations to Andalusian peaches, Lorca, and statues outside the Baghdad Museum. Diana Athill’s ‘A Hopeless Case’ is so studded with unsayable truths and the heady rush of guilt-ridden seduction that I had to open a window or two whilst reading it. Almost all these stories jangle sense and sensibility, often destabilising the reader, wrong-footing our easy assumptions.
Preconception-reversing: And it is only by being wrong-footed, shaken and stirred, that our sense of the world can come to feel more yielding, fluid, enchantingly mercurial. The London Underground is plastered at the moment with Amy Chau’s Battle Hymns of The Tiger Mother. We now know that cultural artefacts can in a matter of days create stereotypes (Easton Ellis’s yuppies, Helen Fielding’s 30-something Bridgets). But the imagination behind a single short story can, David-to-Goliath like, overturn the conventions created by another imagination, both projecting zeitgeists out into the world. Jean Kwok reconfigures our Tiger Mother demonisation/sanctification. Scientists are connection-finding artists too, we discover in Alison MacLeod’s ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’, and are all bankers to be vilified, asks Alex Preston in ‘The Bridge Over Shuto Expressway No. 1’.
Linguistic Umami: If the short story often says phooey to plot, then what are we reading for? Well I’m reading for language, as in when I’m eating, piquancy and bite matter. I have no problem applying Masterchef-criteria to each eyeful of STEFG12. Give me language that is well-seasoned, punchy with BIG FLAVOURS, but still served with finesse; gooey, puddingey loveliness, if it works; sentences you want to stick your face into, take running jumps at, marry. Often it’s no more than a series of well-placed, deft little phrases following one after the other: a day “brambled with if onlys” (Shriver), a “new and precarious” happiness (Pollock), the use of the word “mithering” in Jackie Kay’s story, or the “delicate scrap of mesoderm” soon to become a heart in the “dangling button on the thread of life” we call a baby (MacLeod). Linguistically, the short story has everything I love about poetry, as well as everything I need from prose.
Right here, Right Now: One could say, to coin a Jon Kabat-Zinnism, that the short story writer is simply paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment. Even if embitteredly looking back ten years, as in Shriver’s epistolary ‘Prepositions’. The wounded ambivalence that this character feels towards her friend manifests on the page right in the very moment in which she sits down to write her letter and we sit down to read it. Because we supply the back-story whilst the writer gets on with providing the front, there is often a sense of being swept along and away by these narratives. I felt this most keenly and deliciously in two stories about a group of men (one set in Wales, the other on an oil field in the Middle East) going on a bit of a bender. The latter, Barrie de Lara’s ‘Dinner at Benutti’s’, describes a bender of Bacchanalian proportions. The government might consider using this story as part of their strategy to curb binge-drinking. Wouldn’t work – but just in case you’re reading this, Dave, worth a punt. The compression chamber of the short story delivers these heightened moments, these hits of intense experience, again and again.
Swimming in the intersubjective sea: What does it mean to be a human being in the midst of other human beings? These stories tell us. It’s hardly ever a clear-cut state of affairs. A woman (Tamara Pollock’s ‘Elsa’), whose foreign boyfriend’s voice sparks “a trembling hum in her head” which slides “undeviatingly to her groin”, is slightly bored and irritated by his incapacity to express himself in faultless English. We’re not surprised when a few pages later it is revealed that the head to groin hum “bypasses her heart”. A couple in a queue discuss fruit and funerals in A.L Kennedy’s ‘Late In Life’, but there are complications that lie in their age difference, which radiates out slowly to almost everything around them.
Stuffed to the gills with portmanteau emotions: A friend introduced me to the idea of portmanteau emotions: sadangry, worriedproud, needykind. Characters in these stories are hardly ever experiencing just one emotion, or another, but rather a continual intermingling of feeling-states, so that you might tune into their sadness on one reading, their anger the next (depending on your own sensitivity to different emotional registers).
Making the political personal: I’m not a big reader of International News pages, but I can’t get enough of Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, in which BBC journalists write “short stories” (that’s how they sound to me) about the people they’ve met and the places they’ve visited. They feel like short stories because for a space in time, the internecine group-focus suddenly hones in tightly around one or two individuals. Although we see ourselves as allied to various groups, we feel ourselves peculiarly singular. Martin Malone’s ‘Valley of the Peacock Angel’, Robert Minhinnick’s ‘El Aziz’, and Emma Donoghue’s ‘The Hunt’ made me want to read the history books and newspapers from where these stories draw their blazing inspiration.
Fun: I don’t think the F-word is much used in discussing literary fiction, but it’s a powerful motivating force in the general reader no matter how strong their self-improvement tendencies. If I’m not having much “fun” with a story, not getting a good dollop of pleasure every few sentences or paragraphs, I’m probably not going to want to read it again. And short stories need to be read a number of times before they begin to reveal what it is about that particular story that we need to hear. Time constraints meant that I have only read the STEFG12 longlist once. It’s not enough. We’ve only just begun.
Steve Wasserman is a psychotherapist. He co-runs the only Short Story Book Club in the village UK along with Megg Hewlett; co-teaches Mindfulness Based Writing with Dr Kerry Ryan; and co-records a podcast called Read Me Something You Love with you (yes YOU, eyeballing-the-screen-at-this-very-moment Thresholds reader, so get in touch on Twitter or readmesomethingyoulove AT gmail.com).
To find out more about this year’s Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award: http://www.booktrust.org.uk/prizes-and-awards/5
The following stories were consulted for this piece:
- Diana Athill – ‘A Hopeless Case’
- Kevin Barry – ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’
- Evgenia Citkowitz – ‘Business Class’
- Will Cohu – ‘Two Bad Thumbs’
- Emma Donoghue – ‘The Hunt’
- Jackie Kay – ‘These Are Not My Clothes’
- A L Kennedy – ‘Late in Life’
- Jean Kwok – ‘Where the Gods Fly’
- Barrie de Lara – ‘Dinner at Benutti’s’
- Tom Lee – ‘The Current’
- Toby Litt – ‘The Sandy’
- Alison MacLeod – ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’
- Martin Malone – ‘Valley of the Peacock Angel’
- Robert Minhinnick – ‘El Aziz: Some Pages From His Notebooks’
- Linda Oatman High – ‘Nickel Mines Hardware’
- Alison Pimlott – ‘Five Year Diary’
- Tamara Pollock – ‘Elsa’
- Alex Preston – ‘The Bridge Over Shuto Expressway No. 1’
- Lionel Shriver – ‘Prepositions’
- Johanna Skibsrud – ‘Fat Man and Little Boy’