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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Big Book Chain Chat #9: Short stories


Arja Salafranca - 2010-09-08

In 2008 I researched and wrote an article on the genre of the short story for The Star. I opened with the opinion that “short stories are commonly called the Cinderellas of the literary world. Publishers complain that readers don’t buy short story collections, and so publish few volumes, then bookstores don’t stock them in great quantities. All around it seems to be a Catch-22 situation. But, are things changing? After years of drought, in which you found just a few local volumes published, whether of anthologies or of collections by single authors, 2008 has seen what some are referring to as a renaissance of the genre in South Africa.” I then reviewed four collections of stories that had recently been released, including Liesl Jobson’s flash fiction collection 100 Papers and Zoe Wicomb’s The One That Got Away.

Many of the writers, literary editors and publishers agreed that short stories are a hard sell, and there was doubt among those polled whether we were indeed witnessing a renaissance.

Two years later, and what was a slow trickle then seems to have become a veritable flood. Admittedly the number of volumes being published in this country is small compared with the UK, or the US, a country which still reveres and celebrates the form, but in looking at what went before, I think we’re seeing a delightful turning. This year alone in South Africa we’ve seen the publication of Louis Greenberg’s Home Away anthology, the rerelease of Ivan Vladislavic’s early stories, Flashback Hotel, Henrietta Rose-Innes’s collection Homing, David Medalie’s The Mistresses’s Dog, as well as, from Modjaji Books, the Bed Book of Short Stories by women writers and Meg Vandermerwe’s This Place I Call Home, as well as my debut collection, The Thin Line. Readers who love short stories are finally just about spoilt for choice. Just about. There are still many more short stories that do not find homes in anthologies and many writers who struggle to place a manuscript of stories with publishers, but the doors are cracking slightly, I hope. There’s also the Pen/Studzinski Award, which offers writers the chance of recognition for the form and publication in book form. Not to mention the annual Caine Prize – awarded for African stories.

Yet, short stories, like poetry, battle for recognition and readership, and many publishers are still loath to take them on. We’re told that the South African public prefer non-fiction to fiction, with the  former far outselling “made-up” stuff. And novels predominate in the fiction arena.

So, why do I still write short stories? Why do any of us lovers of the form still write them?

I can only say in my defence that I am drawn to the form, and its brevity. And I enjoy brevity in other forms too: I love reading travel and other essays, I love reading anthologies of collected journal articles and essays. I like being transported briefly to a place – getting my “fix”, so to speak. When time is tight I can pick up a book of essays, read a few, put the book away until there’s time to read again. I love novels – but novels require more commitment and time. I recently heard that it takes the average person three weeks to complete reading a book. I lose the thread – and interest – if I take more than a day or a couple of days to read a novel. I like to enter into a fictional world completely, utterly, stay within it, catch the threads from beginning to end. And yet, increasingly in a time-poor world, you have to make space and room in your life to read a novel.

As US short story writer, Jonathan Papernick, notes in his blog post, “In Defence of the Short Story”:

With less and less time in our busy lives, short stories are the perfect antidote to the workaday world – an expansive, human experience compressed into a package that can be consumed in its entirety in a half an hour, and sometimes in as little as five minutes. Short stories allow us to walk in the shoes of a characters and understand her hopes and fears and dreams intimately without having to make a three or 400 page commitment that may never be met. What better way is there for a reader to understand a young Jewish girl’s sexual dilemma with her crucifix-wearing suitor than to spend four pages in her mind as she works through the complexities not only of her tradition but also of her expectations as a modern young woman, without the reader actually going through the experience herself? How else can we enter the mind of a religious extremist, or an Iraq war vet, or a girl struggling with her weight, or a drug addict or … the list goes on and on. The fact is, we are better people for reading stories, more understanding, humanistic people, able to empathize with those who are not us. This world needs greater understanding, and a well-written short story can pierce the heart like a bullet and stay with a reader for the rest of her life.

I’ve also heard readers say that short stories “drop” them; that you can’t live with the characters or get to know them as you do with a longer work. For others the open-endedness of so many modern short stories leaves them cold, or puzzled. And yet, I like that about short stories – I like that open-ended quality, I like being able to muse on the ending, take a few possibilities and ultimately decide on them for myself. Short stories make you think – make you work. There are sometimes no easy conclusions, and I find that peculiarly satisfying.

But how to get readers?

We need to give short stories the same “push” that was given to local novels about a decade or so ago. That’s when we really saw the start of the enormous numbers of local novels both being published and – most importantly – being read by local readers. We’re hungry to hear our own stories, and a potential market does exist for this form, but we as readers have to make it, or help create it. As I said in an interview with Dye Hard Press:

We need to demand their prominence as readers and writers. We need to ask more magazines to publish them; we need to buy more collections, ask booksellers to stock them, or shop online. We need to read and buy short story collections ... We need to write stories that draw readers in, and very importantly, as writers, we need to read short stories and read widely. As I said before, if you can’t find volumes of stories in your bookshop, go online, there are collections and anthologies out there that don’t make it to our South African shelves. Go explore.

Another avenue of exploration offered can be found in the excellent The Short Review, an online celebration of short stories, founded by the UK writer Tania Hershman which “shines the spotlight on short story collections, new and older, across all genres, styles, publishers and countries. Each month we review 10 books and interview as many of their authors as possible”. Go explore.

Arja Salafranca’s debut collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. She has published two collections of poetry, A Life Stripped of Illusions, winner of the 1994 Sanlam Award, and The Fire in Which We Burn. Her poetry is also collected in Isis X (Botsotso). She received the 2010 Dalro Award for poetry. She edits the Sunday Life supplement in The Sunday Independent and is studying toward an MA in Creative Writing at Wits University.

Further information: http://arjasalafranca.blogspot.com