Saturday, 10 January 2015

The short story, in sickness and in health

Here is Philip Hensher in a Spectator review of a short-story collection: ‘Superficial signs of success and publicity – such as Alice Munro winning the Nobel, or the establishment of another well-funded prize – are widely mistaken for a resurgence. But what has disappeared – and disappeared quite recently – is the wide spread of journals willing to pay for a single story … writers in this country are reduced to giving away their short fiction for nothing, or to collecting it from time to time and persuading their publisher to bring out a volume for minuscule advances. It is scandalous that short-story writers of the talent of Helen Simpson, Jackie Kay, Gerard Woodward, Ali Smith, Shena Mackay and A.L. Kennedy have never established a firm relationship with a journal which, like the Strand with Conan Doyle, would regularly publish their stories. But there are no such magazines in this country.’

To which a fairly widespread response was: but the short story is resurgent: see the large number of readings, organisations, websites, magazines, etc, now promoting it.

Maybe both are right. Two different publishing models are being referenced here, and the differences between them are to large degree determined by money. Put simply, when writing and reading were more central to the culture than they are now, there was more of it around. In 1902 the Strand magazine paid Conan Doyle up to £620 (in today’s money, around £66,000) for a single episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles. To found The English Review in 1908, Ford Madox Ford raised £5,000 (in today’s money, over half a million). A consequence of the money was stable, long-term relationships between writers and editors, publishers, magazines. In tiny pockets this model still survives – in, for example, as Hensher points out, the long-term association between certain story writers and The New Yorker – but the new model, now that writing-&-reading have been shifted out to the periphery, is increasingly focused on competitions. The Book Trust website lists 76 of them in the UK. As Hensher points out in his Spectator piece, ‘With the funds one Sunday newspaper makes available for its annual short-story prize, it could afford to pay handsomely every week for a short story’ – but no, rather than pay many authors a reasonable sum, it chooses to pay one author a staggering sum. Competitions do many things effectively: they provide publicity for the sponsors and the genre itself; they provide money (through the entry fees) for the small presses or magazines that run many of them; they act as a filter, offering a select number of names to interested but time-strapped readers. What they do not do is foster the kind of long-term writer-editor relationship (as between, say, Carver and Gordon Lish) that was integral to the old model.

The latter kind of nurturing relationship is perhaps now more available in the creative writing industry than in publishing. This would make sense, given that it’s towards there that the money has shifted.

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