2017 was a remarkably challenging year. However, despite the challenges of difficult socio-economic circumstances, political warmongering and the continual disintegration of values in our society, the artistic and beautiful still managed to triumph and blossom. I don’t maintain utopian ideals. I do not believe humans are perfectible or that government or law can fix the issues that stem from our human condition, but I do believe that there is a glimmer of hope, and that hope is what we must hold onto in 2018.
I believe one of the greatest of these glimmers in 2017 was revitalisation of the short story form in the UK. The short story has long been neglected by writers and publishers here, whereas it is still held in high esteem in the US, often viewed as a kind of ‘rite of passage’ by which authors can win accolades and critical acclaim before they go for the big novel pitch. There are far more markets in the US for the short story form as well as anthologies collating the best of specific genres. The ‘Best American’ literary series epitomises this outlook, treating the short story much in the same reverence as the sonnet of Elizabethan England, whereby a writer could not really claim to be a poet unless they had written one.
But even in the US, the short story has been in danger for a while now. More and more markets are starting to close and many newer markets are not able to offer professional paying rates. Publishers put out fewer single-author short story collections each year. Extremely long-standing and well-reputed markets remain open, of course, such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Shimmer, and Analog. However, this creates issues in and of itself, because these markets are so prestigious many new writers feel they represent pipe-dream ambition. With diminishing opportunities, a greater number of authors feel there is no point in writing short stories, as no one will publish them and no one will read them. It’s not the publishers’ fault by any means, but a result of economic, societal and philosophical changes, and these changes are far from over if the current political climate in the West is anything to go by.
But all is not lost, because there has been a miraculous recovery of the short story.
Firstly though, why is the short story so important? Well, I believe it is its very concision that makes it valuable. Writing is healing. We’ve known this for millennia. Writing is both therapy for the writer and reader, especially when it achieves the pre-eminent quality of inducing catharsis. Catharsis often comes at the end of a story, and the power of short stories is that they are endings and nothing else. Sure, there are structures and formulas and ways to de-construct them, but I honestly believe that the greatest short stories are the ones that feel like walking into the end of a movie, where everything is rich with meaning but you do not have the full context. A good friend of mine once told me to watch the third season of Twin Peaks: The Return without first watching the original seasons 1 & 2. ‘It’ll add to the weirdness,’ he said. ‘And make it even better.’ Boy, was he right. Piecing together the missing history of the series in the implied dialogue and imagery was one of the most joyous aspects to watching that momentous television event of 2017.
So, the same is true of good short stories. You come into the movie with ten minutes left, and while you wonder what the hell it’s all about, you feel this cataclysmic swell of emotion that defies logic-driven attempts to fill in the gaps and create ‘plot’. With a short story, a good one, as with poetry, you get straight to the healing part without having to wade through plot and narrative mechanics. Of course, good novels and long-form narrative make the plot and narrative enhance the emotional experience, but that’s an essay for another time. I think this can be summed up best in the words of Dan Coxon, the editor of The Shadow Booth (more on this anon), in a recent interview with LitReactor: ‘There’s nothing better than a short story that evokes a strong emotional response in the reader but defies all attempts to pin it down.’
The tradition of short stories dates way back, as far and if not farther than Ovid, with his eclectic and electric collection of tales Metamorphoses, one of the books that most greatly influenced Shakespeare. The first time I personally realised the incredible potential of the short story was when I read a piece by Raymond Carver called ‘Are These Actual Miles?’. I would later learn Carver contributed to the revitalisation of the short story in the 80s. In this story, the state of a disintegrating marriage is symbolically represented by the condition of a car. This tale made apparent the power of the image to tell a story, without the need explain it with clunky narrative exposition. The naturalistic dialogue, and the way it created such a rich sense of character, was also a wake-up call to me, as hitherto I’d hardly used dialogue in my storytelling. After that, I was inspired by the ‘daughters of decadence’ – the astonishing female writers of the 19th century whose short stories are shining examples of stylistic excellence and emotional power. In particular, the works of Olive Custance (the featured image of this article in case you were wondering), Olive Schreiner, Victoria Cross and Charlotte Perkins Gillman. The often fantastic and phantasmagorical ideas of these writers were always nuanced and subtle, and deeply influenced my own approach to how Fantasy should be written. I later discovered Thomas Mann, Stephen King, and a sea of other phenomenal writers employing the short form.
Now we come to the present day, where many consider the short story redundant. Recently, a close friend of mine, having read one of my short works, smiled and said: ‘This is why I don’t read short stories. They frustrate me.’ He was annoyed, perhaps understandably, that I didn’t specify exactly what happened at the end. Did the characters live? Get blown up? I could see where he was coming from, but it also made me realise how little attuned we are as a culture to this form. Once, it was a mainstay, but somehow we’ve lost the beat of it. He somewhat admitted it himself, perceptively observing that the form had always ‘frustrated’ him. I wonder if schools put more emphasis on this form whether we would change things. But that is also a topic for another time. So much good work is being done in the short story field. For anyone new to the scene, or looking to fall in love with short stories, I would highly recommend the collection The New Black, published by Dark House Press; it represents a triumph of the short story form and this should come as no surprise given that the collection was collated by none other than Richard Thomas, whose own single-author short story collection Tribulations was a master-stroke. I’ve praised this collection in numerous places, so I won’t re-iterate it here, but suffice to say Richard Thomas is one of the best advocates for the short story precisely because he wields it with such efficacy. Another collection for lovers of the Fantastic is Songs of the Dying Earth, which has stories from a number of prestigious authors including George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman. These stories, written in styles creatively imitating Jack Vance’s original ‘baroque’ prose, are inventive, zany and profoundly weird, some of the best speculative fiction I’ve read in a long time.
Gamut magazine, another Richard Thomas innovation, spearheaded an incredible movement to create a quality neo-noir zine. And though, tragically, it will not be going forward into a second year (the take up was not significant enough), the quality of stories it offered, and the number of new voices it discovered, has set the bar exceedingly high for all time. You might think it strange I’m spending time in my ‘hopeful’ essay with an example of a short story market that is no longer running, but Gamut demonstrated that with a clear vision for quality, and aesthetic taste, it was possible to create something unique and beautiful. Whilst it did not gain enough of a following to continue, it set an example, reinvigorating the literary community, particularly in the realms of Speculative and Horror fiction, with a thirst for quality short fiction. I certainly found myself feverishly logging in to the Gamut website during my lunch-breaks at work in order to read the latest article or story. I find it hard to remember the last time I had such a hunger for literary content.
In the UK, we are beginning to cotton on, and new short story markets have emerged. My own effort, 13Dark, clawed its way into existence, introducing three new voices in fiction. What’s unique about 13Dark is that it focuses on longer short stories, those tricky pieces of fiction that fall between the arbitrary boundaries of 5,000 words or less, or 20,000 or more. These longer forms achieve tremendous power and impact precisely because of their added depth and complexity (but they still retain the poetic concision of the short form). I’ve always been a fan of the ‘long short story’ – and it was a delight to showcase such shining examples of it. There will be more from 13Dark in the future, so watch this space.
Perhaps more significantly, STORGY and The Shadow Booth released their début publications last year. STORGY’S epic 24 story collection Exit Earth is a tour de force, treading a dividing line between literary and genre, writing both timelessly about issues of power and humanity whilst also screaming into the present with commentary on the state of technology and contemporary socio-political issues. The Shadow Booth Vol. 1 is a profound exploration of Weird fiction and like 13Dark explored longer story forms. There were many incredible contributions to this collection, notably Daniel Carpenter’s ‘Flotsam’ and Richard Thomas’ ‘White Picket Fences’. I had the incredible fortune to have stories in both volumes, and attended both launch-events in London (they were on consecutive days!). The energy at these events was awe-inspiring (you can check out pictures of the STORGY event here), and there was a real feeling that the short story was once again attaining capturing interest. The fact so many upcoming writers are contributing to the form, alongside more established names, shows that people still thinks there is value in it, and that new ideas can still be expressed within its constraints.
Theodore Dalrymple once said in his seminal work Our Culture, What’s Left of It: ‘Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcend, his own limitations and flaws’. While it might sound lofty, I think it’s most probably true. The short story is a particularly effective way to do this because it is not onerous to write – it can be completed in a few sittings, and refined and refined at leisure. I would argue that in our increasingly time-restricted culture, where we are asked to work more and more with less personal development time, the resurgence of the short story is not just timely and convenient, but a complete necessity for literature to continue to thrive, and therefore, for people to continue to thrive, because good writing heals us, good writing imparts understanding and empathy, good writing is the antidote to total corporate anaesthetisation.
So what are you waiting for? Go write.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to follow @josephwordsmith on Twitter, or alternatively discover more about 13Dark on their Facebook page. To discover his writing, you can check out his work at Amazon.