What's the Point of Short Stories?
8th December 2003
My attitude to short stories has changed. The arrival of a literary magazine in the mail used to excite me. In my early days of independent reading in the UK The London Magazine was most exciting of all. Under the editorship of Alan Ross you could often reckon on finding fine writers for the first time - I remember meeting the clear voice of William Boyd and knowing from an early story that he was one of our finest writers. Stand and Iron, from the North of England, felt more parochial, they seemed to have smaller voices inside, but my first publication in Iron thrilled me. It was a sunny day when the postman came. I ran up the street of my village with the magazine in hand, rushing to the phone box so as to phone home.
So that's two answers to the 'What's the Point of Short Stories?' question. Stories are calling cards, the perfect samples. They let the world know of a writer's voice. They also often give writers that first thrill of publication. The subsequent letters page in Iron brought some kind response to my story. It gave me some real authentication as a writer.
I seldom read stories nowadays. The length of a story is generally the same span as I am prepared to give a novel before expecting to be hooked. With short stories I tend to resent having to start all over again just as soon as I am mesmerized. A novel gives the rest of itself as a reward.
Yet I do write stories, and occasionally come across one that is a gem and delight. I write them as a treat to myself. They earn little money (the most I've been paid for a story is fifty pounds from Critical Quarterly, this month I got $25 from The Harrington GMFQ, good for a splurge on some decent wine but not much more.) I write the stories as treats for myself. They are flagrantly non-commercial, a chance to let my imagination wander where it will. Sometimes stories build up as a series, and I sense a novel blooming, but that is neither a requirement nor a wish. I like the fragments of characters' lives that come out. An episode is the whole life in embryo.
Years ago I wrote this weird little number, Birth Pangs at Tea. I keep coming back to it, polishing it, enjoying it. It isn't a calling card, simply an odd little piece that may amuse you. It belongs on my website, as some little quirk of my own character.