I sympathise with Tracey Chevalier as judge of this years Mslexia competition. So many short stories deal in pain, death and loss. Several years ago I remember a similar plea from QWF Magazine for writers to ‘lighten up’ and I guess that the appetite for reading submissions must diminish rapidly when every course is another serving of angst.
The trouble is, looking through the few published short story collections I possess, the overall tone is at best reflective and at worst plain glum. So leaving aside our own internal need to work though life’s more sombre moments, is it so surprising that aspiring writers, faced with the evidence, will conclude that anything with literary pretensions has to contain a good helping of human suffering, and conversely, that upbeat might be seen as down market?
Let’s hope this is going to change. Those short stories that have made the biggest impression on me are those that break what I observe to be the maudlin mould. My personal favourite from the first Bristol Prize collection is a lively nostalgia trip to the sea-side (no drownings, no coach crash, just a hiding from Mum.) The only one I can remember from the Bridport 2007 winners is Toby Litt’s The Fish, where the breakdown of a relationship is made fresh and funny (if not exactly happy) by wrapping it up in one sparkling and preposterous sentence (‘yuk, yuk!’). Even in the latest Yellow Room (where, yes, I hold my hand up to dwelling on serious illness) the stories I think I will remember are not the prizewinners so much as those brimming with life and incident: a conversation on a bus that runs to civil disobedience, a trip to St. Tropez that goes horribly wrong. As a writer I could easily mark each of these down for technical reasons (suspect punctuation, an ending that doesn’t quite satisfy) but as a reader they held my attention to the end.
So, what do I look for in a piece of short fiction? First of all, please, a story, some kind of narrative of events. Too often we are stuck in a microcosm of time, place or emotion. Next, something different. Too many stories deal in the same situations. Even if the death of a parent, child or partner is not on page 1, in most cases I can see it coming. Lastly, and most importantly, something I’ll remember: quirky characters, a fresh point of view, a bold and adventurous style.
Come to think of it, this is not so different from what I look for in a novel, and so what’s the problem? The problem is, that literary short stories, largely ignored by mainstream publishers, are the playground of writers rather than readers. We write for technical merit and artistic effect, something to impress the judges. Tracey C. is quite right to remind us that we need to think of the reader in his or her own right. This way we will reach not just the editor of that small press magazine or the judge of the prestigious competition but ‘the man in the street’. Then, perhaps, even publishers will sit up and take notice.
And what about me? Well I have had some limited success with more upbeat stories, and I hope my latest (now doing the rounds) will make people smile. Let’s hope those judges are prepared to be amused.