Saturday, 4 April 2009

Did I really help save the short story?

In 2002, in a cafe in Newcastle, myself, Claire Malcolm of New Writing North, Kate Griffin, then Arts Council England North East Literature Office, and writer Margaret Wilkinson spent a happy hour drinking coffee and eating cake whilst thinking how to promote the short story. (Margaret having raised the issue of how few outlets there were.) By the end of the meeting we'd decided not to do something simple like start and fund a magazine, or give grants to writers of stories. We had, instead, decided the only thing which might possibly work was a Save Our Short Story campaign - an urgent campaign to protect an endangered species.

We began with an Emergency Summit of writers, editors and publishers in Newcastle. (This had the longest lunch of any Emergency Summit ever as I made the mistake of taking participants to the restaurant of the then newly opened BALTIC, where the service was - later!- notoriously slow.) We then followed it up with research, publicity, events, anthlogies, stories you could get by email and so on, bringing on more and more supporters including writers such as Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. Kate and Claire put huge amounts of time into it, and one day Kate and I were able to celebrate have the mick taken out of us in the TLS. (Small measures of success, I know...)

The Campaign grew and grew and in due course we passed it onto the Book Trust and Scottish Book Trust who moved it onto another level again, introducing the BBC National Short Story Award, amongst other things. You can read all about it here.

So I was really pleased to read James Lasdun's lead article for The Guardian today about the flourishing of the short story internationally, including renewed interest from publishers, and some exciting sounding new writers. I'm not claiming much credit for the Campaign, of course, but I do look back and think we played a role in promoting the art of the story and bringing it to people's attention in a fresh and arresting way. It started with a writer (Margaret, who is a fine exponent of the craft) describing an issue, committed people putting their heads together and then identifying some concrete actions for change, supported by a strong coalition of passionate people - in the face of some saying either there was no problem, or that you couldn't change things given the way publishing had gone. Whether the blossoming of short stories is merely cyclical only time will tell, but I think the current health shows you can change what seems permanent.

1 comment:

Claire Malcolm said...

I know, it's interesting to think back on how things start isn't it? My main memory of that summit day was the photographer coming to take a photo of the writers and bringing along handcuffs which he tried to get Jackie Kay to sport (the short story in chains seemed to be his take on the idea..I think he may have been Italian..?). Needless to say Jackie did not take well to the suggestion.

Interestingly though the Bookseller still managed to have a poke at the Short Story Award this week but I think that was more to do with the BBC/Hanif Kureshi debacle the other year.

I think that the campaign did have a long term effect on publishers - there are more short story collections now and I think along with things like McSweeny's there has been a slight hipster-ish new interest in the form.