A Brief Look at the Landscape, by Rodge Glass
Times have changed.
In the 21st century, the short story world is organised. It’s joined up. It fights for its space and fights well. It’s sure to be seen. No longer can lovers of the form complain about being marginalised, overlooked, maligned – no more sad-faced complaints, please, about being seen as a ‘poor cousin’ to the novel by readers and reviewers alike; or lamenting attitudes on the European side of the Atlantic when it comes to the shorter form. We don’t need book festivals to punctuate their schedules any more with panels on ‘the state of the short story’, hand-wringing about ‘what is to be done?’ I don’t say this because I believe the common view in the writing community is that the form is in rude health. On the contrary, you still hear those complaints. But because I think that should be the common view. I believe the short story form in the UK and Ireland in particular is in rude health right now, and to say otherwise is to ignore many factors that have changed the game in the last decade. Yes, writers will tell you that publishers receive the news of their latest collection with an ‘ah yes, very nice, but how is that novel coming along?’ Yes, advances for short story collections remain, in most cases, small change, and it’s a battle for short stories to find shelf space in book shops. But that’s not the whole story.
The truth is, there has been a significant sea change which shouldn’t be ignored. If you are now a young short story writer looking to make your mark, there are an abundance of opportunities out there, and it’s easier than ever in our super-connected online communities to find each other, give and receive advice, make recommendations and share links to this or that competition. And they are myriad. There are now more short story prizes than ever before too, some life-changing in terms of money, opportunity and reputation – I’m thinking particularly of the £30,000 Sunday Times Short Story Award for a single story, won by Kevin Barry in 2012 (featured here), whose debut collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, was published as recently as 2007 by an Irish independent, The Stinging Fly Press, on a small print run. Less than a decade later, Barry is now one of the most revered authors at work in the form, with an international reputation. Then there’s the £15,000 BBC National Short Story Award, which Jon McGregor (featured here) was runner-up in twice, which our own 2013 winner Sarah Hall won in the same year for her story ‘Mrs Fox’, and which is tied to annual publications by the groundbreaking short story-exclusive pioneers, Comma Press of Manchester. (And Comma have two representatives in this book.) Until recently there was also the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, won by Carys Davies in 2015, another prominent, distinctive voice who features in Head Land. (Are you seeing a pattern yet?)
In terms of publications there’s also the recent high-profile history of the short story, Philip Hensher’s exquisite and exhaustive two-volume anthology The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, spanning the earliest niche magazines and going right up to the present day. Hensher includes less than twenty living writers in his vast selection. Four of those also feature here – Adam Marek, the master of the artifice short story, is one of them. If you survey the landscape of short story for just a little while, you’ll start to notice who many of those making the pace are. Where Hensher’s excellent overview aims to take in the whole history of the form from Dickens and Defoe right through the 20th Century and up to the present day, our book aims to give a snapshot of the contemporary short story, zooming in on what it does in the now.
An argument sometimes put forward by doom-mongers is that our greatest prose writers don’t make their name in the form; they treat it like a hobby. Part-time. An indulgence. That couldn’t be more wrong. There are several of the UK’s finest prose writers who have chosen to specialise in short fiction, and have remained with heavyweight publishers while doing their best work. It’s often said that major publishers don’t sign short stories. So it’s interesting, I think, that both Jonathan Cape and Faber & Faber are so well represented in this anthology. Helen Simpson, for example, is a Cape writer who has worked exclusively in the short story, and been widely celebrated for it. (And yes, she features here too.) Ali Smith is a true short story specialist, an expert in both the experimental and the accessible. A.L. Kennedy also has never left the short form behind – though known partly as a novelist, she has published seven collections of stories, which is hardly a part-time contribution. Sure, not everyone will win the $150,000 Windham-Campbell prize recently picked up by Tessa Hadley (featured here, of course), or the worldwide Dylan Thomas Prize won by Rachel Trezise (you guessed it). And anyway, prizes aren’t everything. Art is not judged ultimately by who won what. Prizes, like all shorthand, can be reductive too. But for the short story, prizes occupy a crucial place in the literary landscape. They offer hope. They help writers keep going. To keep writing hard and clear about what hurts – and to resist commercial imperatives. These imperatives are increasingly resisted by independent publishers too. Freight Books, our partner for this, our first ever Edge Hill University Press book, published several first class collections and several story anthologies in 2015, notably from Janice Galloway and Lara Williams; they also run the bold Gutter magazine. Nicholas Royle of Salt Publishing edits the superb Best British Short Stories series which celebrates names known and unknown, often uncovering real gems – including writers who have also featured on our own shortlists over the last decade. Royle, of course, is also a fine short story writer – and yes, he’s featured here too. The truth is, in the world of the short story, opportunities are many and restrictions are few. If you’re good enough, the chances are you will make your mark eventually. It’s not perfect. But not many worlds are that meritocratic.
At the same time as all this, there is an explosion in interest in the form from students in our universities. Creative Writing courses are popping up all over the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, both the North and the Republic too. There are more readers and writers than ever. In terms of academic attention, there’s more of that too, with many of the leading lights in the form now working within academia, crossing over between creative and critical work and back again. Hensher, Hadley, McGregor and many others find reasons to work in universities, often passing on enthusiasm for the short story form to the next generation. I’m writing this in the week that the European Network for Short Fiction Research is holding its latest conference, bringing together critics and short story practitioners at our own Edge Hill campus in a field which is growing and evolving with speed. There’s no shortage of interest, or lack of quality either.
In this introduction, this cheerleading list, I feel I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the current literary landscape. I’ve not mentioned the many fora, websites, live literature nights, courses and the like which show time and again the appetite for the form. I’ve not mentioned the continuing strength of short fiction in Ireland, who contribute giants like Colm Tóibín and Claire Keegan to these pages as well as exciting newcomers like Madeleine D’Arcy. I’ve not covered the extraordinary strength in depth in Scotland, another powerful and distinct tradition represented here by the likes of John Burnside and Kirsty Gunn, amongst others. Why, you might wonder, am I mentioning all this – aside from because it gives me an excuse to namecheck some of the writers in this anthology? And to show that it’s not just me who thinks they’re worth celebrating? Because I believe that the Edge Hill Prize is a part of the short story’s success story over the last ten years. That culture change. That shift from the margins, inwards. And I think this book is a small part of that too. Head Land exists to celebrate the contribution our Prize has made, give it a home between covers and, most importantly, to return people to the work itself.
Despite the many others listed above, the Edge Hill Short Story Prize remains what it was ten years ago: the only UK & Ireland prize for a singleauthored collection that exists. We also run a parallel prize for our MA students, represented in Head Land by Carys Bray, a previous winner of that award and now a successful prose writer in her own right. There’s a third award too, The Reader’s Prize, awarded by the students themselves to their favourite of each year’s shortlist. Much of the credit for the existence of all these must go to Ailsa Cox, the world’s first Professor of Short Fiction, who has been running the Prize since its inception. When the Creative Writing team came up with the idea of setting up an in-University Press, it seemed natural for the Short Story Prize to be the subject of our first publication, and we’re grateful to Ailsa for giving us her blessing. Happily, this coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Prize. Once the first project was decided, my co-director James Byrne and I set about appointing students to the various roles – and since then, those students have been getting on with the business of publishing. My own contribution here has been minimal. The credit goes to the interns. They have selected and sifted the stories, engaged with the authors, organised the events and pushed for the publicity. Which was the whole point in the first place. To empower students, so they can get meaningful experience in the publishing world, and prove they can do a great job when given the opportunity.
And so, finally, to Head Land. But why this name? Well, there is no overarching theme in this book, no crowbarring of these stories into some forced stylistic approach or trend. I’ve read too many introductions where editors seek to find unity where there is little. No, when putting the book together we simply invited a selection of writers who have won or been shortlisted for the Prize over the last decade – some of our favourites, some we felt should be recognised – and asked those writers to donate a single story from their nominated collection to this anthology. Which means that what holds the stories together is quality, not content. In some cases, writers chose the particular stories themselves. Their favourites. Ones they felt represented their work in the short story form best. In some cases, writers liked the idea of our press team making the selection. Which they were happy to do.
As with any collection of voices, there is diversity here, it’s hard to summarise without being reductive, and I don’t want to single out any particular story either. What’s important is to hear each writer’s voice, to observe the place they occupy in the landscape. Because that’s what a great short story writer is – someone who occupies a unique space on the page. Who can be mistaken for no one else. Whose sentences can only be their own. So, Head Land it is then. We hope you like it. If you like it, tell others about it, about this form, these writers. Search out their other books and also those featured on our shortlists who don’t appear here – this is not a Best Of, after all – just a selection. A taster. A sample. And most of all, a celebration.
– Rodge Glass, Reader in Literary Fiction, Co-Director of Edge Hill University Press
You can now pre-order Head Land at the official Freight Books website here.
Head Land will be published 22nd September.