It seems reasonable to celebrate, or at least mark, National Short Story Week with a round-up of the stories short-listed for the BBC National Short Story Award as broadcast last week on Radio 4. Unfortunately I missed the first one and also the ending of one of the others, and with a busy week ahead I suspect I’m never going to catch up. But even if Tea at the Midland and My Daughter the Racist have to be omitted, I’m still going to venture a few opinions.
First of all I can say without reserve that every one I heard was faultlessly written and the readers selected by the Beeb perfect in every case for the story he or she told. This is pretty well always the case with short stories on radio and adds hugely to the experience of listening and the impact of the prose. It may or may not have been a conscious decision, but the judges also produced a short-list with a range of back-ground (culture, age or region) so that each story had a unique ethos and stood out nicely alongside the other.
So, rather than critique every one, I’m just going to pick out the highlights. I was particularly struck by the deepening melancholy of If it Keeps on Raining, by Jon McGregor in which a past tragedy, although merely hinted at, creates a sense of loss of apocalyptic proportions. A perfect example of the literary short story, this one had a monochrome feel, using variations of shade and texture to convey its power, in the manner of an art-house film or photograph. By contrast, Sarah Hall’s Butcher’s Perfume, with its lively teenage narrator, was the most colourful and eventful of the stories and the teenage narrator, which I often enjoy in a short story, quickly drew me in. These are my two favourites, but I’ll be fascinated to hear tonight who is chosen as the winner.
In the face of so much flawless prose, it’s perverse I suppose to mount a criticism, but I still feel that this short-list, with all it strengths, has a certain predictability. It would have been good, I think, to see a bit more challenging of our expectations, especially at a time when the short story form is being stretched, compressed or pulled in new directions.
Or is it the place of a national competition to focus on conventional ideas of quality? In the world of longer fiction, received wisdom of what constitutes literary excellence is starting to be discussed rather than assumed. It will be interesting to see if the same happens in the world of the short story.
Meanwhile, don’t forget it’s not too late. The stories are still up there, waiting to be read.