The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher, was published in 2018, following on from The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, also edited by Hensher, which appeared a few years earlier. This contemporary collection shines a welcome spotlight on an increasingly neglected literary form, though the stories themselves are a mixed bag, with a scattering of genuine gems balanced by a clutch of meretricious duds and the rest somewhere in between. Foremost among the duds must surely be Kazuo Ishiguro’s contribution, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, which reads like a badly-plotted sitcom with the comedy removed and is unlikely to persuade anyone encountering Ishiguro for the first time to try one of his many excellent novels.
Ishiguro’s story is taken from his 2009 collection Nocturnes. In fact all but three of the stories in Hensher’s selection are taken from collections by their authors rather than from magazines or periodicals – the exceptions appeared in Granta and the New Yorker – which on the face of it seems a surprising decision. Exactly how contemporary (defined by Hensher in his introduction as post-1997, the year of Blair’s election success and Diana’s death) are these stories, given that many of them are set in the last century or at an unspecified time? In fact, considering how few of the stories mention mobile phones or computers or other recognisable insignia of our digital age (less than a dozen out of 30 in total), I suspect that a large number of them were written prior to Hensher’s start date of 1997.
Hensher justifies his approach on the grounds that the short story has all but disappeared from the contemporary magazine or periodical, crowded out by the welter of self-published stories available for free online. This is certainly a fair point: very few magazines or periodicals today provide a paying market for short stories, to the point where it’s virtually impossible for a short-story writer to make any money from a single story unless it happens to win a competition. The editorial board of the literary journal or magazine has been replaced by the judges’ panel of the literary prize.
And here Hensher is spot-on in his assessment of the dearth of opportunities available to the contemporary short-story writer. He rails against the value of short-story prizes such as the Sunday Times or BBC awards, pointing out that the winning stories in such competitions invariably appear to have been chosen on the grounds that they address some ostensibly important social or political issue or are regarded in some other way as ‘worthy’ rather than because of any intrinsic literary merit they may possess. Few of these stories, as Hensher rightly says, have any popular appeal and even fewer contain any humorous or comic content, something that seems to be anathema to the literary judge. Identity stories about gender or ethnicity on the other hand are particularly well-placed to get a favourable reception.
Hensher’s introduction makes a number of other valuable observations about the contemporary short story, such as the rise of so-called flash fiction or micro-fiction and the suggestion that publishers could benefit from the popularity of such fiction and its more extended cousin by marketing appropriately-priced digital versions of such stories. Indeed, as I argued in the introduction to my own short-story collection, published as an e-book in 2011 to universal indifference, the short story would seem far better suited to our modern digital age, with its many competing demands on our time, than the novel. It’s always been a mystery to me why so many people will happily plough through a 500-page novel of dubious merit but show no interest in an elegantly-crafted story of intricate design that it takes a fraction of the time to read. Perhaps there’s an analogy with the dipsomaniac who eschews the lunchtime pint or post-prandial tipple in favour of the weekend bender. More likely it’s precisely the fragmentary nature of modern life that gives the long novel, with its countervailing sense of continuity and immersiveness, its appeal.
Hensher also makes a number of puzzling remarks, however. For example, he objects to a certain prize-winning story because it contains the vernacular phrase ‘I think to myself,’ which he regards as a careless redundancy. Yet he includes in the collection a story by Jackie Kay in which that selfsame expression occurs. Similarly, he objects to the ‘absurdly prevalent mode’ of the ‘single character monologue written in the second-person present tense,’ which he says ‘has become completely conventional while hardly ever appealing to a paying customer’. So why does he include a story by Helen Oyeyemi written in the second-person present tense? And why include Hilary Mantel’s story about a novelist researching her family history or Gerard Woodward’s story about a short-story writer forced to pen a political speech in an unnamed police state – one of the best stories in the book – when ‘I did not need to trouble about the many stories…that incorporated a novelist as the main character. These seemed fairly deadly to me’?
Sometimes, too, I wondered whether he had got his facts quite right. Can it really be the case, for example, that the two volumes of short stories published in 2002 and 2009 by Jonathan Tel (winner of the Commonwealth Prize, the VS Pritchett Prize and the Sunday Times award) had sold, according to BookScan, a combined total of just 34 copies prior to 2018, when the introduction was written? Hensher uses this fact, if fact it is, as evidence of the failure of prize-winning stories to appeal to a popular readership.
One thing I’m sure of: the literary short story may be ailing but it isn’t deceased quite yet, as attested by at least some of the stories in this uneven collection. Perhaps, to adapt US critic Mary McCarthy’s famous remark about Nabokov’s extraordinary jack-in-the-box novel Pale Fire, the literary short story isn’t dead, it’s just playing possum.