The best things come in small parcels - but try telling that to the novel-guzzling public. As her latest book hits the shelves, Scottish author All SMITH sings the praises of the short story. Words: Ali Smith
Q: What's the difference between writing a novel and a book of short stories?
A: Well. how long is a piece of story? Apart from the obvious answer to this — that a novel‘s a lot longer than a book of short stories — and the fact that. generally. if you’re writing a novel. there’ll be more sleepless nights over a longer period of time. and that the two are totally different forms . . . to writers who write short stories. this difference is a lot more serious than just a jokey opener for an article like this.
Ask any bookseller the question. I asked three — one from Waterstone‘s. one from Dillon's and one from an independent bookstore. All three said the same thing: the difference between novels and short story collections is that short stories notoriously don’t sell. As one bookseller told me: ‘People love novels. lf Margaret Atwood writes a collection of short stories. they sell all right. But if she publishes a novel. we can‘t order enough of them.’
Yes. but. Publishers tell bookshops that short stories don‘t sell by putting a lot less marketing money behind them. Publishers regularly tell writers that short stories don't sell by being a great deal more reluctant to accept collections from them than they are novels.
So. what‘s the difference now between a novel and a book of short stories?
Think of Borges. who said that if
any story was worth telling. it was worth telling as shortly as possible.
201'"! "31' 4—18 Mar 1999
Think of Raymond Carver. the brilliant American poet and short story writer who died in 1988. The short story was his form. When he died. he was summed up all across the western world by a rash of obituaries all repeating what a shame it was. a lost opportuniy it was. an unfulfilment. that he‘d never got round to writing the novel; what a disappointment he‘d only written in the short form. Nobody would dream of saying such a thing. for instance. about the poet Ted Hughes.
In fact. there's not such a world of difference between the short story and the poems Both are highly concentrated forms: both can be spatial and momentary in a way the novel can only dare to be when it runs the risk of alienating much of its readership from its narrative.
Thank God. then. for writers like Alice Munro and Grace Paley. who know the strengths of the short story form. And thank God too for the rare publishers (like Granta. practically alone in this country) who will happily and courageously publish. against the trend. short story writers like Deborah Eisenberg. without demanding the obligatory novel from her.
The general publishing moritorium on the short story collection filters helplessly down into the bookshops through their book buyers. and it’s often hard even to find collections. tucked away with the anthologies of sea stories at the back of the shop. No self-respecting bookshop would ever do such a reductive thing to its poetry
If a story is worth telling, it's worth telling as shortly as possible
stock, for instance. or its drama shelves.
But wherever I go, wherever I do readings or talk to people who love books. I ﬁnd the same thing. People
love short stories. People are passionate about them. aficionado about them. We need somehow to pass this passion on to both the publishers and the shops — maybe something like a Booker/Orange prize — something substantial. something exclusive to the short story collection (no such prize exists) — would be a good, artificial. endlessly useful publcitiy stunt. It‘s something that would allow the publishers and the sellers to market a whole range of collections on a more high profile basis, and would highlight the short story as a challenging. difficult. satisfying and separate form. a form in its own right, demanding separate attention. It would also highlight the notion of the collection as a form too, which is a whole other exciting ballgame.
I predict that if such a thing materialised, money would immediately appear from nowhere in publishers’ offices for commissioning collections. More collections would magically become visible. the history of the form would fill several shelves at the front of shops and. when we went to look for them, short stories — this most modern and most neglected of forms — there they’d be.
Other Stories And Other Stories by Ali Smith is published by Granta on Thu 11 Mar. priced £9.99.