Kick, Bite and Voltage: In Defence of the Short Story 8th June 2018 – Posted in: Uncategorised

I am prone, mischievously and only in part flippantly, to claim the short story as the highest literary form, forever offending poets, playwrights, memoirists, novelists. Such a claim rightly attracts accusations of literary snobbery, as if such a hierarchy could ever be quantifiable, or even useful. Each form surely elicits its attendant challenges, in terms of stamina and technique, process and flair. There is no need for a first among equals.

And yet.

Let’s rephrase it: the short story is the form I most admire, the modality I least tire of. When done well, it never fails to astound me, to restore my faith in the power of art to subvert the day’s trivialities, to capture truths other forms can only observe through the bars of a cage. Novels – even the good ones, of which there seem so few – too often lumber and creak with their own contrivance, with a formula that seeks to entertain and distract from the business of being human. Poems, when penetrable, too often require pedestals, their removal from us requiring passive observation rather than the participation a short story demands.

OK, so I’m inviting a beating here, but my honest aim is to celebrate the form without blindly romanticising it. That is, I loathe reductive and equivalence claims to ‘love short stories’, as if each one bore equal merit. Good stories are rare, great ones rarer still. Competition organisers are prone to declare ‘hundreds’ even ‘thousands of fantastic entries’, that judges have an ‘impossible task ahead of them’. My own experience suggests around 5% will be strong, less than 1% outstanding. And we shouldn’t want it any other way. This should be hard. It’s why we do it, for the alchemy to one day prove so efficacious as to find us approaching that lofty echelon ourselves. Think of the great stories – we could compile lists and many would appear repeatedly: these are, for us mortals, once or twice in a lifetime achievements. It’s why we grapple and get our hands dirty.

Likewise, I’m baffled by those who claim to just not get on with short stories. What are we to make of these folk? That they just haven’t read the right ones yet? That the form’s demands on the reader are too great? (Or should we just preserve and treasure its rarefied following?)

Joining Unthank as a commissioning editor has only emboldened my feelings on the short story. A lot of people write stories (it’s often said if as many people who penned them and entered prizes bought collections, the form would be bordering on commercial), and I’ve been privileged to witness this work: I know what goes into writing a collection, what such an endeavour asks of us. I’ve had to decline (such a less pejorative word than ‘reject’) most, and these emails have been hard to compose: I am, I have realised, much more comfortable in poacher’s than gamekeeper’s attire.

But then from nowhere, the act of reading mutates, something stirs in the gut, a sequence of sentences that insist on being re-read. Later you forget you are reading, instead basking in the author’s bravery, their precise and expert braiding of voice and narrative and drama, and you pray the balls all stay in the air until the end, your breath held, the stirring in the gut now elevated to the throat, the need to swallow postponed for just another paragraph. The micro and the macro, sublimely handled, prose functioning not merely on a literal and expository level, but an abstract and affective one. How is the author doing this? Perfectly hewn sentences that are beautiful in themselves. Kick and bite and voltage, penetrating the marrow. A whole always more than the sum of its parts. All this and more I need to feel. It’s instinctive, yes; there is no formula to measure work against. Many would argue a case for subjectivity, for blind spots, which by definition I cannot be aware of.

In short, I have found my first collection for Unthank (to mention nothing of the one that got away), the panning for gold on this occasion fruitful. A book so worthy, one the world may never have had were it not for the passion of small presses. I cannot wait to share it with you.

Tom Vowler

Short Fiction Editor








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