Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – The long life of short fiction

From the festival programme:

Are short stories enjoying a renaissance? Did they ever go away? What can they do that novels can’t? And how does it feel to write one that works?

The long life of short fiction brought together three critically acclaimed short story writers, all of whose collections I recommend you read.

Little Island Press publish David Hayden’s Darker With The Lights On which I described in my review as “challenging, vital and eloquent; as unsettling as it is intriguing”.

Influx Books publish Clare Fisher’s How The Light Gets In which I described as “personal, prolific and visceral. Relatable, readable and recommended.”

Influx Press also publish Eley Williams Republic of Consciousness Prize winning collection Attrib. which I described as offering “much to contemplate alongside the original plot arcs and feats of expression.”

The event was chaired by Sam Jordison, the first of four he ran that I attended. I wondered if he thought I was stalking him.

Eley and Clare each opened by reading from their collections. David treated us to a new, as yet unpublished work. They then got down to the business of discussing the short story which, as was pointed out, the media regularly declares is either disappearing or enjoying a renaissance.

Eley suggested that there is an expectation that short stories are a sideline to novel writing. Yet readers seek out short stories in journals, or read serialised novels, perhaps due to available attention spans. Usually publishers ask for a novel so kudos to Kit and Gary at Influx, currently in the audience, for publishing these.

Clare agreed saying agents have asked for a novel. She started writing what became her collection for a live art festival. She enjoyed the experience so kept writing them. As short stories weren’t what the big publishers were after she approached a small press.

Sam asked Clare if, as a successful novel writer, this required a different process. Clare described writing a novel as like having a long term illness. Short stories are fun to write.

Sam: Do you have any idea where the story will go?

Clare: Yes. I like to plan but also to rebel against that.

David explained that he creates a story world and allows the language to grow within that. He starts with an idea, perhaps a memory or people he knows. He will then rewrite the story. He is nosy, listening for things that become seeds he can grow, craft and develop. Sometimes he throws them away as they are awful.

Eley compared short stories to poetry. They can pivot on a word. There is a sense of ricochet, resonance, a call and response within the text that can be playful. It’s okay to use unfamiliar words so long as they are looked after, rearranged and played with to effect.

Sam asked about the different expectations of what a reader can take.

Clare suggested that those who don’t read so much may not pick up a short story collection. She too mentioned her work as akin to prose poetry and the importance of an image or a word.

David talked of a novel offering immersion, although not all deliver this. A short story requires a rhythm in the composition. It is more noticeable if the author gets this wrong making it overreaching, overfussy, overworked. When they do work though a short story can be amazing, vivid, alive. The reader is left with a huge amount to cope with emotionally. It can be haunting and discomfiting. Not all readers want this.

The audience were invited to ask questions. It was mentioned that Tessa Hadley has said she approaches a novel as a series of short stories. Another writer stated that writing a good short story is harder than writing a novel. What do our three writers think of this?

David said that Tessa is wonderful as a short story writer and as a novelist. His answer was to do whatever gets the words down.

Clare told us that she did sort of the same thing with her novel which made it easier to write. Both forms are hard in different ways. It is easier to finish a short story but not necessarily to ensure it is good enough.

David mentioned that he is still writing a particular short story after eight years. He likes Anne Williams work. She will take many years to write a half page story to get the rhythm right.

Eley told us that she hasn’t yet finished writing a novel.

Clare suggested a novel was just bigger – a marathon rather than a sprint. With any type of writing, every time you think you’ve found an answer it outwits you.

The authors were asked if ordinary life is better represented in short stories.

Eley suggested the form was better for moments, for immersing the reader in a single experience or thought. With a novel that might cause a whiplash effect, which some writers such as Ali Smith can manage well.

David mentioned Italo Calvino who wrote fabulist short stories. Also Donald Barthelme whose ordinary tales would break out into the uncomfortable. All stories concentrate attention on reality, a world of feeling.

Clare talked of moments of conflict. Novels require background, incidentals. Stories are joyful to read if well done.

The authors were asked to choose their Desert Island Short Stories.

Eley mentioned Jonathan Gibbs’ on line personal anthologies to which more than fifty writers have now contributed.

Clare chose Lydia Davies as her collection is huge.

David chose Dubliners as it was Bloomsday, then changed his mind to add a massive book of folk tales from which so many other stories stem.

  

And with that we were out of time. This was an interesting event featuring three authors whose stories I have very much enjoyed. I hope that others from the audience visited the bookshop and discovered their work for themselves.

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4 comments on “Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – The long life of short fiction

  1. I think these sound fabulous works that would be right up my street!

  2. BookerTalk says:

    What a rich discussion. I’ve not really got into short stories in th sense of wanting to pick up a collection and read it in its entirety. But so many people enjoy them I keep wondering what I’m missing.

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