In league with the novel’s wayward younger brother
By MICHAEL CAINES
A declaration of interest: I am a Liar. And I am not only a Liar, but a proudly unionized Liar: for I am a founding member of the notorious Liars' League.
This organization's sole purpose is a noble one: to bring together two species of Liar, actors and writers, to entertain an audience for one evening every month with a selection of short stories. The writers write, the actors read (sometimes doing the police in different voices), the audience listens and, as the Liars' League slogan has it, "everybody wins". I'm very much on the fringe of the group but, from that perspective, it appears to be a formula that works.
And as Liars' League approaches its ninth anniversary and its 100th event (not counting those hosted by its offshoots in New York, Hong Kong, Portland, Blackpool and various literary festivals), it would seem to prove something else, too: that that rotten old lie about the short story being dead is the worst one of the lot . . . .
A few years ago, when Liars' League was barely out of the cradle, Neil Gaiman could say this of the literary form he called "the novel's wayward younger brother":
"For at least as long as I've been alive – which at this point is about 50 years – people have been announcing that the short story is dead, and the short story anthology is dead. Like some kind of particularly tenacious vampire the short story refuses to die, and seems at this point in time to be a wonderful length for our generation. It's a perfect length to read on an iPad, your Kindle or your phone . . . ."
I admit I don't fully understand why somebody can't read more than a short story on an iPad, but it's an interesting idea that the Age of the Tablet is, if anything, an age in which the short story can flourish rather than wither. (The Liars' League idea, a complementary one, suggests that the story read aloud can be its own art form. The short story can flourish in many forms, it seems, and in some ways seems more adaptable than the novel.) If that's the case, it doesn't seem to have stopped people saying either that the short story is dead or, perhaps more often, that it was dead and now it's enjoying a renaissance.
This can be, I suspect, a rather heroic, even self-justifying or self-dramatizing stance. I only recently came across Chris Power's fine essay"The Short Story is Dead! Long Live the Short Story!", in which he traces the long history of people saying the short story is dead, and why they've said it – and how, just as often, other people say it's making a comeback of some sort. Just Google "short story renaissance", as Power suggests, and you'll see what he means. Google "the short story is dead", however, and the first thing that comes up is his essay (it was for me this morning, at least).
There's an obvious commercial bottom line, big publishers being understandably wary of trying to stick their fat fingers into these niche markets. On the other hand, it's also all too easy, and all too fallacious, to look back to some imagined golden age, rather than recognize a more complicated history of good periods (the science fiction Golden Age, say) and bad periods (Alan Ross could write in 1963 about the "generally gloomy economics of short story writing" forcing "natural practitioners" such as V. S. Pritchett et al to write "increasingly at novel length").
Not everybody on my train or bus into town is reading Lorrie Moore or Lydia Davis or Jon McGregor or Ali Smith, of course – but some of them are. (And for the others, here are a couple of recently published lists of recommendations for "people convinced they don't like short stories" and those who don't consider themselves to be "English nerds".) The assumption that the short story is on its last legs seems more rhetorically useful than factually accurate. In this way, every success can be made to read as a defiant bucking of the trend. Power observes that invoking the decline of the short story has become a book reviewer's unexamined tic:
"The regularity with which the return of the short story is bruited on the books pages of most national newspapers is remarkable. It is, apparently, just what you have to say when you review a short-story collection. Why? Because that’s what all the other reviewers do. I proclaimed it once or twice in reviews of my own when I was younger for precisely that reason. What it usually means is that the reviewer isn’t thinking about what they’re writing, or that they don’t normally read short-story collections and therefore interpret their personal awakening to what the form can offer (their epiphany, so to speak) as a more general uptick of engagement. Rather than grasping that their own ignorance has decreased, they perceive the form’s quality to have grown. In this sense reviewers are like doctors before the advent of the randomised controlled trial, extrapolating the universal from the anecdotal. When this was the way medicine was done, let’s not forget, doctors killed far more people than they cured."
(By contrast, the TLS regularly reviews new collections – in recent weeks, collections by Helen Simpson, David Constantine and the late Lucia Berlin – without resorting to this tactic.)
In another sense, a pragmatic sense closer to the small but lively world of Liars' League, it's ridiculous to suggest that the short story is dead as long as writing one remains a relatively attainable goal for the would-be author – just as adding to the world's tedious burden of haiku is always going to seem a somewhat lighter task for the aspiring poet than, say, inventing a new and indecently complex verse form. Among the monthly submissions to Liars' League, there are always a few hastily concocted, cliché-infested attempts that border on "and then I woke up, and it was all a dream" territory; but there are also terrific knockabout farces and finely observed tales of woe. I've always found it striking that we end up reading across such a spectrum of talent, from have-a-go heroics to powerful work by professional and might-as-well-be-professional types (Helen Simpson included). And to be told that the short story is dead – or making some sudden comeback – seems even stranger in the light of this almost decade-long experience. My fellow Liars – I salute you!