A happy ending for the short story
Publishers are excited at the perfect format for the new generation of e-readers, writes Claire Coughlan
Despite financial gloom and predictions of apocalypse, 2012 already has one bright spot on the horizon: it's been dubbed 'the year of the short story' by publishers Bloomsbury, which is launching five collections of stories -- one every month until May.
Founded at the end of 2011 by Limerick-born publishing executive Aoife Walsh, whose passion is short stories, The South Circular aims to embrace all things digital.
The Stinging Fly is a long-established journal and latterly publishing press, that has notably supported emerging short-story writers at the beginning of their careers, such as Kevin Barry.
This acclaimed publication is the brainchild of Penguin editor Brendan Barrington and it provides a stimulating mix of memoir, essay and short story.
A literary journal comprising poetry and short stories, which is published biannually by The Munster Literature Centre.
Originally started in The Sunday Tribune, this boost to writers starting out, which is edited by Ciaran Carty, has launched the careers of now well-known authors such as Joseph O'Connor.
Tellingly, there are some standout debut collections included on the list, that are being lauded alongside those from more well-established voices, such as Diving Belles, by young writer Lucy Wood, and Once You Break a Knuckle, by the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, DW Wilson.
Bloomsbury says that "the re-emergence of the genre has been embraced and enhanced by the digital revolution, from giants like Amazon, with their Kindle Singles programme, to snappy start-ups like Shortfire Press selling individual stories along the iTunes model".
Aoife Walsh is a young Irish publishing professional who is editor and publisher of recently founded Irish online journal The South Circular, which is aimed at discovering up-and- coming writers and will publish for the first time in the spring. She agrees that digital publishing suits the short story form.
"I just felt that it should be possible to present short fiction in a digital way. It just seemed really obvious to me. People talk about attention spans diminishing and people wanting an instant hit and I felt that it must be possible to satisfy that need, but in a respectful and creative way, so that you're not diminishing the value of short stories by presenting them digitally."
Eimear Ryan, who won the Hennessy prize for her sensitively written story Caterpillar at age 21, is also enthused about digital publishing for the short story.
"I think as a form it's well suited to digital publishing," she says. "Most people wouldn't read a novel on a smart phone, but a short story is much more manageable -- they're the perfect length for a commute, too. It'd be great to think that e-readers could get more people reading short fiction."
In Ireland, it seems that the short-story genre has never waned and there are myriad thriving print journals which publish the form, as well as substantial prizes dedicated to it, such as The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Dublin Review, The Davy Byrnes' Prize and The Sean O Faolain prize.
In terms of Irish writers, 2012 sees new collections from acclaimed short story writer Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, as well as newcomer Jamie O'Connell, a 27-year-old writer from Cork, whose collection Some Sort of Beauty, a fresh, engaging and powerful set of stories, will be published by Bradshaw Books in the spring.
O'Connell says that although his stories are autobiographical, he's very aware of not writing for therapy's sake. "Writing for therapy doesn't work as art -- you have to have moved beyond an issue, become a spectator of it, to write about it without having a skewed perspective."
But why are short-story collections not as widely read as novels?
It could be something to do with the challenge of the form, O'Connell thinks.
"The short story requires more concentration than a novel, as a reader is repeatedly introduced to new characters and scenarios. It's the challenge for the short story writer to create a collection that is as unputdownable, like that of a book with a single narrative arc."
"I think the only real distinction [between being a short story writer and being a novelist] is that people who walk into a bookshop have never heard of you, whereas they might have heard of you if you're a novelist," says Colin Barrett, whose story, The Clancy Kid, was recently short-listed for the prestigious Bridport Prize in the UK and, unusually for a writer without a novel or a collection of stories yet published, has managed to secure an agent for his work.
Winning or being short-listed for a short-story prize can certainly help a writer along their career path.
For Dublin writer Susan Stairs, whose acclaimed story, The Rescue, being short-listed in 2009 for the high-profile Davy Byrnes' prize -- one of six stories chosen by American writer Richard Ford -- was a "huge boost".
"It also gave me great confidence to see my name alongside that of more established writers and then being published in the collection of short listed stories allowed my work to be read by a wider audience."
Being known as either a novelist or a short-story writer is immaterial to Stairs; she just wants her work to be read.
"I love the process of writing, of stringing words together that allow readers to paint pictures in their minds, that allow them to do the 'writing' themselves," she says.
"If I can succeed in doing that, in whatever form, I will be content."
Eimear Ryan feels similarly about both forms. "I've just finished a short-story collection and am in the early stages of writing a novel, although the sheer word count required for a novel intimidates me a bit. When you're used to writing short stories your instinct is to cut down, compress, rather than expand," she says.
"It's very rare to make your name just a short story writer -- only a handful have done it, Alice Munro being one. William Trevor is inspirational, in that he's known primarily as a master of the short story, but also writes very fine novels."
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