Skip to Content

Is this a revival of the short story?

14 December 2009

Is it possible that the short story is at last getting a new lease of life? The form, long beloved of writers, seems to be reaching new audiences through the Internet and benefiting from new opportunities in the form of prizes.

There used to be a good market for short stories in a wide range of magazines, which provided continuous demand, but this is no longer the case and there are very few remaining magazine outlets. Even the women's magazines, for long a bastion of short stories, hardly publish them now, as they've been abandoned in favour of true-life stories, mostly written by journalists.

The short story remains, but it's a truism of publishing that short stories don't sell and you have to be an emerging talent of major proportions to get your first book published if it is a short story collection. Ian McEwan's first book, First Love, Last Rites, was the exception that proved the rule. Even later in an established career, publishers groan at the thought of a short story collection, even from big authors such as Maeve Binchy. Readers mostly don't like them either, for the simple reason that they prefer a full-length novel in which they can get to know the characters, immerse themselves in the plot and generally lose themselves. Escapism is a major reason why readers go for fiction.

So, what's been happening? First there was Story, the campaign for the short story: 'We believe that the short story is one of the most exciting and important literary forms, that can and should reach the widest possible readership. We believe that the short story matters,' says its website.

The latest news is that Kate Clanchy has emerged ahead of a strong shortlist to win the £15,000 ($24,399) BBC National Short Story Award. Best known as a poet, Clanchy received the award for The Not-Dead and The Saved, about a mother and her terminally ill son. It is only her third attempt at the genre. Di Speirs, judge and editor of readings, BBC Radio 4, said: 'Judging this award on behalf of the BBC since its inception, I have been keenly aware of the growing strength of entries - not just in volume but in range and depth and poise. Year on year, acclaimed writers from other disciplines have been drawn to try their hand at it and I am delighted to see this broader appeal paying such dividends now.'

It's very good to see public recognition of the short story form and the BBC award will certainly encourage writers and also give readers a good opportunity to encounter some really good short stories on the BBC website (although this is only sadly through podcasts, rather than in written form).

Which is of course the other great reason why short stories are back in the news - their short length makes them perfect for the Internet. Something as short as a story can be read on screen without discomfort and this means that writers have a whole new online market for short fiction.

This week Amazon announced that it will sell two stories, one by Christopher Buckley and the other by Edna O'Brien, exclusively through its Kindle store. The stories have been selected and edited by the staff at The Atlantic, the venerable magazine that once published short fiction in its print pages monthly. Priced at $3.99 (£2.50) each, the stories are only available on the Kindle, Amazon's electronic reader, and will not appear in the print version of the magazine.

The Atlantic's editors plan to offer about two Kindle stories every month. The magazine now only has an annual fiction issue and stopped publishing monthly fiction in 2005, so it is interesting to see its traditional role being revived in this way.


Including a number of articles

Podcasts of this year's shortlist