You are here:   Civilisation >  Books > The Story Of The Short Story
Magazines such as “The Strand” once offered rich opportunities for budding short story writers

When short stories were still widely published in magazines, they had the capacity to react to unfolding events, writes Philip Hensher, the novelist and critic who edited these two volumes. Now the principal outlets for short story writers are no longer periodicals — apart from Standpoint and a few others — but competitions. “The dullest short stories I read from the last fifteen years were winners of competitions,” writes Hensher, who sieved through journals, old and new, to source the material for these collections. He characterises the winning stories of contemporary competitions as “present-tense solitary reflections”, their protagonists “lying on their beds affectlessly pondering; major historical events were considered gravely; social media were dutifully brought in to indicate an eye on the contemporary”. It is a mistake to believe that competitions, rather than a system of commissions, payments, circulation and readers, will generate literary quality. Nobody ever asked Conan Doyle or V.S. Pritchett “to put on a dinner jacket and shake the hand of a retired academic before they could receive a cheque for a short story”.

This unexpectedly fierce critique is in Hensher’s 35-page introduction to these new collections. Contemplating the short story’s long publishing history, Hensher writes that in the late 19th and early 20th century magazines offered handsome commissions to writers, who could make a living and even get rich, as in the case of Conan Doyle. Indeed, looking through the volumes’ acknowledgements reveals that older stories were first published in a variety of now defunct journals, such as the Strand, the Westminster Gazette and the Illustrated London News. Revealingly, many of the more recent British short stories that are reprinted here were first published in the New Yorker.

Hensher goes on to discuss the anthology’s title. While “short” stories vary hugely in length, what is demanded of them is “unity of effect or impression”. He calls the British short story “the richest, most varied and most historically extensive national tradition anywhere in the world”, though he concedes that similar “statements of national pride could be gathered from many nations”. One can certainly imagine a Russian, German or French literary critic taking issue with him.

Hensher pinpoints some characteristically British features. The narrator who shares the best story he ever heard after dinner is a recurring theme, which stems from a fascination with performance. Other recurring themes are “comedy, the tripping up of expectations, the overturning of an established world” as well as “playfulness” and an “outward-facing” tendency to analyse the world.

Hensher chose 90 stories for this collection, published in two beautifully bound volumes. The authors span three centuries, from Daniel Defoe (born c.1660) to the youngest, Jon McGregor (born in 1976).

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.