independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Short stories that live long in memory

One of the least considered side-effects of a world with a shortening attention span, and viewed in 140-character bites of information, must be the rise in popularity of the short story.

Long the poor relation of the novel, the short story has been creeping up the outside track. When a publisher claims it is "the year of the short story", you can be sure they have a collection or two in the pipeline.

This is indeed the case with Bloomsbury publishers, who have named 2012 the year of the short story, but it's not all just about marketing. The short story has become more accessible to the busy reader of the digital age.

All sorts of new, repackaged projects have emerged to tempt the demographic -- from Penguin's pocket-sized, modern, classic short stories to the flipbook novels that fit in your pocket and Kindle's Singles, Amazon's short fiction content for the eReader.

Bloomsbury Publishers are now halfway through their initiative, which sees them publish a short story every month for six months, along with standalone collections like Jon McGregor's This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You.

And Harper Perennial have been running a website (www.fiftytwostories.com) for three years now that publishes new short stories by new writers.

Perhaps most notably, the prestigious Costa Prize announced a new category for the short story while the Commonwealth Writers' Prize has also introduced such an award, signifying the short story's return within literature.

The short story has stepped into the breach for readers with ever-busier working lives and ever-shortening attention spans; but it has existed for hundreds of years, going through similar phases of reinvention and popularity, most recently in the 1960s, as part of the New Journalism.

The problem is short fiction has never been of commercial interest to publishers -- they simply don't sell as well as novels -- while few magazines offer a home for them.

The best known place is the New Yorker and America's wealth of outlets over the years for short story writers, from Esquire to Playboy, has made it the real home of short fiction.

It has traditionally been a testing ground of novelists and it takes a great amount of discipline to succeed with the short story. You have less time to grab the reader's attention and keep it. With the short story, you have one shot.

But we have our own celebrated short story writers, too. Edna O'Brien won the Frank O'Connor short story award just last year while James Joyce's collection Dubliners is considered one of the best examples of the form, and the Dublin Review Of Books offers a place for Irish writers.

From Ernest Hemingway's shortest of all short stories -- For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn -- to John Cheever's Reunion, which clocks in at under two pages, there is the whiff of something spectacular from short stories at their best.

They are one of the best places to wallow in the simple glory of words.

The form by its nature insists on tautness, essentialness and every word must matter.

There is a sense of anticipation as you race towards the brief end, wondering whether this will be one of those where a single word changes everything, changes the whole story and everything you thought about it, or if it will be one where lives are left open-ended, for you to ruminate upon what happened to the character after the story ended.

It's not a bad way to pass the commute to work.

Read Bloomsbury's short story sampler at www.bloomsbury.com /whatsnew/details/316

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