By DAVID McVEY.
IN THE SPRING 2018 issue of The Author, Michael Bhaskar’s article ‘Not Going Gently’ offered a fascinating insight into the precarious survival of literary fiction and made a powerful case for its cultural importance. Necessarily, he addressed the long form, the novel, but his article prompted me to prod the physique of the literary short story and offer some kind of accompanying diagnosis. There are some vital signs that suggest a form which is zinging with vitality, while others indicate that it ought to be calling for a priest.
I wear two hats here; I’m a writer and a reader of short stories, and I’m also a lecturer in Further Education (I know, that’s actually three hats). In an informal survey I carried out with some of my students, fewer than 40 percent of them — completing a Communication unit in vocational courses — said they enjoyed reading. Any reading, never mind more exacting literary work.
Don’t worry; this isn’t another lecturer moaning about how awful his students are. On the contrary, I think my students are marvellous, lively, intelligent and questioning. I learn more from them and am more inspired by them than I can ever hope to reciprocate. But I’m concerned that such an able and articulate section of society doesn’t feel the need to pick up a book or even a magazine. What hope is there, then, for attracting new readers to literary fiction?
Book sales remain fairly healthy, particularly in the physical format (so much for those doom-saying futurologists a decade ago). Amongst books that sell, short stories are still a minority interest. As long ago as 1936, George Orwell observed that ‘the kind of person who asks the librarian to choose a book for them nearly always starts by saying “I don’t want short stories”.’ Yet back then, in the age of Blackwood’s and the rest, short stories were big business.
Today, few UK literary magazines have any penetration; big beasts like Granta (now with a fee for online submissions — naughty Granta), Iota and Ambit still survive and publish short stories, Iota under the ‘Templar Poetry’ umbrella . In Scotland, the position is dire, with the fine journal Chapman apparently moribund and Gutter recently going under with its publisher, Freight Books, though it has more recently been resurrected in another form. New Writing Scotland survives as an annual publication and there are a few smaller journals, some of them web-based. All the same, for a country with an impressive record of short-story writing, it’s a shocking state of affairs.
Yet, just as markets for literary short stories are shrivelling, the supply is perhaps higher than ever. University Creative Writing (CW) programmes have done much for the literary novel but they have produced a revolution in the short story. Just as its compactness makes the short story an achievable target to read, write or publish, it’s also a convenient form to teach. Given the growing number of CW programmes in Scotland and the UK, it’s safe to assume that more good literary short stories are being written now than ever before. Most, I suspect, are never published. CW academics guide their students towards publishing their novels, but less so short stories. In the nations of the UK we don’t have the tradition common in the USA and Canada of lavishly-produced paperback literary magazines financed by universities, often with involvement by CW students, though usually accepting general submissions. There are some in the UK but not many. Not enough. And there are none in Scotland.
There’s a subculture of little magazines with tiny circulations and (often) short lifespans. Many are online, and here the quality is especially variable. Some digi-journals in which my work has appeared are superbly put together in terms of font and design and artwork and you long for them to be real so that you can touch the paper and the binding. In other cases, a few poems and short stories are hung on rented web space with no editorial nous, design eye or marketing awareness. You go back to one of these amateurish productions six months later (if it’s still there) and find that no item has attracted any comments or likes or recommendations. Perhaps no one but the authors has read them.
So we have short story writers aplenty, many of them producing outstanding work; a very limited number of quality, well-marketed outlets; and almost no readers.
I sometimes fear that the traditional written product (as taught in CW programmes) is on borrowed time and in the future writers (perhaps known only as ‘content providers’) will just create back-stories for gaming, website text and (if they’re lucky) screenplays for tedious HBO dramas with dragons, swearing and gratuitous nudity or dialogue for ‘scripted reality’. For the moment, however, most of us keep producing the old forms — short stories, poetry and novels — stuff designed to be read on the electronic or printed page. But who will read our work?
In his 1932 poem ‘Second Hymn to Lenin’, Hugh MacDiarmid wrote;
Are my poems spoken in the factories and fields,
In the streets o’ the toon?
Gin they’re no’, then I’m failin’ to dae
What I ocht to hae dune.
Gin I canna win through to the man in the street
The wife by the hearth,
A’ the cleverness on earth’ll no’ mak’ up
For the damnable dearth.
In other words, if ordinary people don’t read our work, we’ve failed. It doesn’t matter how clever, witty, insightful or well-written our stories are, if they remain unread, we have failed as writers and potential readers are missing out. There’s a damnable dearth.
For a conference presentation I was giving on this topic, I decided to research initiatives that try to get reluctant readers reading. I soon gave up. There are scores of these schemes, some local, some national, some international. Most focus on pre-school and primary school children, but few address that awkward transition between primary and secondary school when image and coolness kick in and books may be jettisoned. I’m impressed by those who try to get young children and their parents reading together. Clearly, young readers are more likely to stay readers if reading is an accepted practice at home.
I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a working-class home where books were everywhere. There were the usual westerns and thrillers and whodunits, but I was brought up with two older cousins who had nicked some of their schoolbooks. One of those was called Aspects of the Short Story and featured some classic short stories (including Saki and Somerset Maugham) with commentary. I started early on short stories, then.
Perhaps some children who graduate from these parent-and-child reading programmes will eventually become so keen on reading that they pinch some of their schoolbooks. Stealing is unwise, but we certainly need to find new readers somewhere. Here are a few more closing suggestions for action:
∴ Agitate. University and college English/Creative Writing/Art/Design students and staff in the UK: persuade your managers and marketing departments to support a literary periodical. It will promote the institution, give students in various disciplines valuable hands-on experience and possibly bring new income (though probably not). There are many marvellous examples from the USA and Canada to point to and some of them are taken by Scottish and other UK university libraries (I’ve checked).
∴ Proselytize. All of us; be reading ambassadors. Keep plugging books to your children, parents, students, people in the pub, your clients, your congregation, that person sitting near you on the bus zombie-staring at his/her phone.
∴ Connect. Be tech-savvy and try to exploit new IT opportunities to publish our short stories, ensure that they are read and that writers are rewarded.
∴ Irritate. To my fellow-Scots: keep hassling bodies like Creative Scotland about the dire state of literary journal outlets in our country and remind them that this is happening on their watch.
∴ Turn the page and keep reading and writing.
There will always be writers. Thanks to university CW programmes, there are more short stories and short story writers than ever. It’s in everyone’s interests that we work on the demand side of the equation.
David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.