The Loneliness of the Short Story Writer
Why Is There Not A Poem On The Back Of Every Till Receipt, Flash Fiction On Every Sandwich Wrapper?
Modern life is composed of snippets.
Brief is beautiful; fast is fabulous; instant is even better. We want our information in 140-character chunks and the 141st automatically generates a warning. We grumble when we stray outside a 4G area, bemoaning the download that takes a few seconds longer. No one even remembers 2G.
If we buy a book we want it on our Kindle within seconds, and even the brief message ‘Queued for download’ irritates us as representing a waste of our super-precious, turbo-charged, ultra-important lives.
We eat fast food, demand our services 24/7, and want to control them all from our iGadgets whilst slouched in our faux-leather, cut-price armchairs.
Our new gods are reality stars, famous for being famous or outrageous. Tradition is an old man’s foible. The theme tune to this crazy carousel is a succession of cloned tinny techno, garage, or Disneyfied pop songs, the lyrics of which invariably rhyme with infantile precision. As Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway in their post-Housemartin days sang: ‘The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun; With Coca-Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.’
And so within this high octane atmosphere of instant gratification, of impatience, and of shrinking attentions spans one might have thought that the short story would be king. An easily digestible, bite size piece of literature that could be consumed during the morning commute or even jammed onto the side of a cornflake packet. It seems an ideal art form for this modern age yet the heroes and pin-ups of the literature world remain the novelists. Short story writers and poets – another word-form that one would have supposed tailor-made for these shrink wrapped times but that remains a niche product – look on from the sidelines in puzzlement and wonder.
It’s not because short stories or poems represent a seedy side of the business – plenty of contemporary mainstream authors do turn their hands to producing a collection. Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Stephen King, or in earlier years Virginia Woolfe, John Buchan and Evelyn Waugh have all produced searingly good examples of the genre but it is for their novels that they are remembered.
And why, despite the online profusion of minor and more lucrative short story and flash fiction competitions, are the bookstores (real and Amazonian) crammed with novels and biographies but with precious few short story or poetry collections? If you find a single shelf you’ll have done well. Why is there not a poem on the back of every till receipt, flash fiction on every sandwich wrapper, or a fable wrapped around every bottle of ‘flavoured hydrating water’ that we buy, and their authors the subjects of glossy magazine features and regular guests on the Graham Norton show? As it is, few outside the immediate world of the arts could reliably name the Poet Laureate but you’d have to have lived in a cave not to have heard of JK Rowling.
Perhaps it is because, as we rattle and bounce through this roller coaster of 21st century life with its ever-increasing pressures of deadlines and targets, of soundbites and shallow philosophy, a wiser, atavistic part of ourselves yearns for something more permanent? Is that why ‘real’ books still outsell e-versions – so we can curl up in the insulted safety of our own bubble, clinging onto something real, and immerse ourselves in a different, better world that will not be over almost as soon as it has begun? So that the part of our brain that has not been given over to pondering ‘tangible deliverables’, ‘cost improvement plans’ and ‘monetised strategies’ can unfurl and luxuriate in a well-crafted sea of bejewelled words and ideas without the need to justify either the cost or the time spent wallowing within it?
Perhaps to address this gap there is a place, recently highlighted in Publishers Weekly, for interlinked short story collections where each tale is stand-alone but the characters reappear so that the whole assumes a novelistic force with the whole being even greater than the sum of its parts. Authors Michael Knight, Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, and many others have all written in this style and their works are well worth the time.
So as we move relentlessly through the intellect-lite, compressed hinterland famously described by Withnail’s uncle Monty as lying between being ‘shovelled up by Labour, shat on by Tories’ we should certainly revel in the lasting art form created by the novelist, but also spare a thought for his equally talented though vastly more impoverished counterparts, the short story writer and the poet, and give them shelf space in our cluttered minds.
You never know, they may give you a brief moment of pleasure.
Born at the age of forty, Bernard Stacey successfully avoided expulsion from school and some years later unexpectedly found himself with a degree and an urge to write. After a stint with Her Majesty’s Forces he now ekes a civilian living tending the sick, and writes despite his current employer’s quite unreasonable expectation that he attends work every day. He drives what he fondly imagines to be a Bentley but is manifestly nothing of the sort.