Short stories and other units of distraction
By ANDREW IRWIN
Does the short story have a bright commercial future? Maybe not – but let’s enjoy it anyway. That seemed to be the message to take home from the recent London Short Story Festival. Only in its second year, the festival is growing, with sixty-five writers involved and dozens of events to attend. The organization of, and transition between, these events was broadly slick but had just enough hiccups (microphones that just wouldn’t stay on; the shrill hiss of feedback from the speakers; passing vehicles that prevented the panel’s audibility for decent stretches at a time), to make the whole thing seem likeable.
Salt used the festival’s first event to publicize its latest anthology, Best British Short Stories 2015. The authors of three stories, selected for the volume, K. J. Orr, Alison Moore and Helen Simpson, read extracts from their work, giving the listener faith that the form has merits beyond brevity. Character portraits are often sharp, passing details become charged with signification, and each line has to work hard, compressing action and exposition.
Simpson’s story, “Strong man”, about a woman waiting for, and then chatting to, a Russian refrigerator repairman, was particularly evocative. The story lasts only a few pages, but, as the discussion turns to the Russian President and the narrator’s thoughts turn to her own past, personal and political histories subtly intertwine.
Listening to stories, despite the nostalgic bed-time implications, is probably not the best way of experiencing them – especially in a crowded room. Too many variables are introduced – whether the speaker is charismatic, whether the room is noisy, whether your mind wanders for a second and you lose the thread. But the Salt event nicely laid out the tenor of an anthology that sounds well-worth reading.
Nikesh Shukla, who was chairing the event, began by jocularly encouraging the audience, in a distinctly Husserlian mode, to bracket the world. Instead of hand-wringing about the commercial viability of short stories, we should instead assume that they do matter and move on from there. The stance works well enough for a single talk, but, from a broader perspective, it’s impossible not to suspect that the market for short stories will remain a niche. Clearly people are keen to write short fiction (when the writers in the room were asked to raise a hand, at one point, about three-quarters of the audience did so), but wouldn’t they be better advised to turn their attention to the more sellable novel?
Comma Press is seeking to change the way that we consume short fiction with the launch today of its new digital platform, MacGuffin. Jim Hinks was at the Short Story Gatekeepers event to explain what this entails. The idea seems to be twofold – first, to provide a space for writers to self-publish their work (poetry, as well as fiction), and second, crucially, to increase the overall size of the reading market. All stories on MacGuffin appear both in print and audio versions, designed to appeal to commuters, who look for discrete and downloadable units of distraction.
The result, if MacGuffin succeeds, will be a democratic approach to writing, with direct routes from author to reader, without the need for a publisher in between.
This is obviously no new idea – as long as there’s been the internet, there’s been self-publishing. But, as the cliché goes, Apple didn’t invent the Mp3 player – it just made it inviting.
Not everyone will think that the democratization of writing is a good thing, however. The result seems likely to be a market flooded with noise. As David Foster Wallace said (in David Lipsky’s Although Of course You End Up Becoming Yourself), “there are 4 trillion bits coming at you [online], 99 percent of them are shit and it’s too much work to do triage to decide”. It’s not clear that more bits is preferable to fewer. Still, if MacGuffin succeeds in increasing interest in fiction, and particularly in short fiction, it will be an admirable feat.
One of the platform’s most distinctive features is the presence of open-analytics – allowing anyone to see how a story is being read, including how far readers get before giving up. It’s a daunting piece of information. But Jim Hinks had some words of comfort: while the site is in beta, they’ve been testing these tools out on a number of the greats, now out of copyright. It seems that James Joyce doesn’t fare too well when it comes to drop-out rates.