Monday, 27 April 2009

Proper

There's an interview with Ishiguro in today's Guardian, during which the interviewer, Decca Aitkenhead, says: "I wonder if some of his (Ishiguro's) semantic unease stems from a worry about the popular perception of short stories as not quite "proper" literature." And it struck me that one of the problems of the general reluctance to read short stories - according to Ishiguro, in the same interview, the UK market market for short fiction is a fourth that of novels, though I would have put it lower - isn't that it's perceived as not quite proper, but the opposite; that short stories are seen as "literary" in a possibly off-putting way. The popular perception of short stories is that they may be short but they aren't stories - they're would-be poems or exercises in style of some kind. When short stories really were popular - in the days of Somerset Maugham and Daphne Du Maurier - their status as literature wasn't an issue. People read them to see what would happen next. I can't help wondering, as well, if the fairly high figure for short story sales in the UK that Ishiguro quotes isn't skewed by the presence of, among other things, Stephen King's short fiction, which is often, incidentally, far more highly regarded than his longer work.

8 comments:

Madame Arcati said...

There is no perception that the short story is not quite proper. Shena Mackay's lauded name is largely built on the form. I'm afraid Decca has invented a point for a discussion point. It might be more correct to say that a collection of short stories is harder to market - Mackay has got round this problem by concocting weird titles, such as Dreams Of Dead Women's Handbags.

Charles Lambert said...

You're absolutely right. And I think I may have used Decca's invented point to make a point of my own; that there may still be a market for - and shortage of - the kind of short story that used to have general appeal. North American writers like Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore (and a hundred others) are both widely read and highly regarded because their work squares up to the main issues without sacrificing narrative drive.

TOM J VOWLER said...

What a great title, Dreams of...

I think many people are put off early on by a bad or ordinary collection. The investment needed by the reader of short fiction has to be greater than that of a novel: new characters, different plot, setting, style and even genre.

It's not until you read a wonderful collection that a love for the shorter form flourishes. I think it is largely in the UK that short is regarded as inferior, though I remain hopeful of this changing. I've just helped judge a short story competition; if the same number of people who wrote short fiction bought it, things would be different.

Charles Lambert said...

You're right about the reader's greater invesment, Tom, and even more right about more people people writing short stories than reading - and buying -them, more's the pity. perhaps people should eb obliged to show the receipt of a redent collection (ideally mine) before they're allowed to enter comps...

Nik's Blog said...

I think you've made a very good point.

Charles Lambert said...

Especially the one about people buying my book, Nik!

Nik's Blog said...

Absolutely.

Rod Duncan said...

Interesting article and interesting discussion.

I was invited to contribute the third booklet in a series of one-sitting reads branded as 'Crime Express' brought out by Five Leaves - a nottingham based publisher. Fifteen or sixteen thousand words each. The series seems to be selling well enough.

I'd suggest a book like Jake Arnott's The Long Firm, is in fact a collection of linked short stories - even though it was sold as a novel.

It will be interesting to see what the digital revolution does to the short story market.

Rod