One of the most exciting developments in the book world in recent months is the meteoric rise in popularity of the short story. Previously the poor relation of the novel, short-form fiction is finally getting the recognition it deserves; perhaps as a result of the pandemic, people have had more time to read fiction and try their hand at writing it. Whatever the reason, the short story is back with a vengeance.
This is music to the ears of many writers, who recently might have struggled to find a market for their short fiction. In March, a new UK press, Scratch Books, the first to specialise in short stories, was launched, with its first publication, Reverse Engineering, featuring stories by such writers as Sarah Hall and Jon McGregor. High-profile competitions such as the BBC Short Story Competition and The Good Housekeeping Short Story Competition have helped raise awareness of the form, and provide an incentive for writers to submit stories that might otherwise have languished on the hard drive. Excitingly, independent publishers such as Greenteeth Press, Salt Publishing and Acid Bath Publications are producing short story collections featuring stories from both established and emerging writers.
It’s not only in the indie world that short stories are enjoying success; mainstream publishers are also getting in on the act. Writers such as Wendy Erskine, whose brilliant collection Dance Move was published this year by Pan MacMillan, and Frances Levison, whose innovative Voice In My Ear was published by Jonathan Cape, have recently made their way onto bestseller lists.
Perhaps our attention spans are shorter these internet-soaked days, or we’re looking for a literary equivalent of the box-set binge-watch. Whatever the reason, as a lifelong short story fan, I’m delighted to see the resurgence of an art form that boasts such giants as Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Shirley Jackson, Roald Dahl and Guy DeMaupassant among its canon.
If you are a podcast aficionado (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) there is a wealth of short story content to be mined. The New Yorker’s podcast The Writer’s Voice continues the US magazine’s long-standing tradition of championing literary short fiction, featuring writers such as Tessa Hadley and Lauren Groff reading their stories. The excellent Backlisted podcast often reviews short story collections, and released a special episode on 21st February exploring the form, and The Guardian Short Stories Podcast features interviews with and readings from a wide range of authors such as Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.
There really has never been a better time to try reading and writing ;short fiction, and if you are keen to try your hand, here are a few tips to set you on your way:
Start in the thick of the action. A short story doesn’t need a long introduction – you need to grab your reader straight away.
Keep your cast list short. Two or three characters is probably enough.
Make sure your protagonist is changed by the events of your story - capture the turning point.
Don’t feel that your ending needs to be ‘tidy’. Sometimes it’s enough to show that life for your character will be different from now on – you don’t need to put a bow on it.
Nic Benson has been immersed in books and literature all her life. Over the past twenty five years she has worked as an English teacher, a bookseller and a school librarian; has run writing and reading groups; completed various residential and university-based writing courses, and recently gained a Masters in Creative Writing at York St. John University. Find out more.
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Imagery by Calvin Priddell via Unsplash