Simon Prosser, publishing director of Hamish Hamilton, blogs for us in the final week of November, as Penguin Shorts (our celebration of short form fiction) comes to a close.
In the micro-climate of literary fiction, if you gaze upwards, you might only notice the bigclouds: the 800 pagers, like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, moving in stately progress from the horizon to dominate the scene. But look a little more closely and you will notice a succession of smaller, nimbler clouds, scudding fast across the sky with grace and determination. These are the signs of a different weather-system, within which Lydia Davis – the world’s greatest micro-story writer – wins the Man Booker International Prize; Alice Munro receives the Nobel; and Zadie Smith’s short story The Embassy of Cambodia is a Waterstones Book of the Month.
In non-fiction too, the resurgence of the essay, in J.J. Sullivan’s Pulphead or Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want To Know, in magazines like The White Review or our own Five Dials, challenges the bulky mass of the monograph or definitive biography. Tweets, like starlings, signal the arrival of new short missives from across the territory.
What is it that makes us relish the short as well as the long?
Writing on Lydia Davis, Ali Smith describes her, delightfully, as ‘a reader’s writer, who reminds you, in a world that likes to bandy its words about, what words such as economy, precision and originality really mean. A two-liner from Davis, or a seemingly throwaway paragraph, will haunt. What looks like a game will open into deep seriousness; what looks like philosophy will reveal playfulness, tragicomedy, ordinariness; what looks like ordinariness will ask you to look again at Davis’s writing. In its acuteness, it always asks attentiveness, and it repays this by opening up to its reader like possibility, or like a bush covered with flowerheads.’
The appeal of the short is not that it’s a pragmatic solution to feeling time-poor. In some ways it’s the opposite. The best short-form writers beguile us into spending more time reading less, and into reading more into, and out of, fewer words. The tension between what you are given (in extent) and what you might get (in satisfaction) is a source of the pleasure. Readers of poetry have always known this, and writers of short or condensedwork rely on a similar happy attentiveness from their audience.
In this sense short writing is to literature what the Slow Food movement is to gastronomy, offering us an alternative to racing through thrillers, immersing ourselves in epic histories or tunnelling into elaborate social novels. These too have their delights, but sometimes it pays to slow down, and to spend some time examining the flowerheads.