The Rise of the Short Story – Bristol Short Story Prize

TheRISEoftheShortStoryWelcome to The Rise of the Short Story:  a series dedicated to exploring the short story  and its current renaissance.  To that end – all during the month of February some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters will stop by to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’re back into vogue and to (of course!) recommend some of their favorites.

Inaugurated in Bristol, England in 2007, the Bristol Short Story Prize was created by the editors of the Bristol Review of Books (a quarterly magazine – and yes, that’s a lot of Bristols).  I learned about the prize thanks to RobAroundBooks.  Their goal is to… actually, they put it so well I’ll just let them tell you.  Here’s the list entitled “Our Aims” straight from their website.

  • To publish a brilliant short story anthology every year, full of fresh and original writing, and to get it stocked in as many bookshops as possible. This includes high street chains, independent shops and online booksellers.
  • To inspire and encourage writers and readers.
  • To discover and promote previously unpublished writers.
  • To provide) an opportunity for writers to get published.
  • To share our enthusiasm for short stories in as many ways and with as many people as possible.
  • To establish ShortStoryVille as a dynamic and exciting annual celebration of short stories.
  • To inspire young people to read and write short stories through our schools’ projects.
  • To establish Bristol as a short story centre.
  • To raise the profile, support and raise funds for Bristol Review of Books magazine.

After a little back and forth via Twitter (@BristolPrize) with Joe Melia, who is the prize coordinator, I realized I’d found the perfect person to ask to dissect the popularity, the importance and the current cultural relevance of short stories.  And – lucky for us – Joe graciously agreed.

In the UK there’s definitely been an increase in short story activity in recent years – the number of stories and collections being published, the number of reviews, the amount of comment and discussion, the
emergence of the Edge Hill Prize for short story collections, and the explosion in short story events. You
only have to check out the ever-growing list of U.K. and Irish magazines and journals publishing short
stories on Tania Hershman’s website as an example, or look to the emergence of a single short story
category in the prestigious Costa Book Awards. Bear in mind, too, that Tania’s list doesn’t include lots of
the mainstream magazines that have been publishing short stories for decades like Woman’s Weekly. And all this in a country that according to publishing folklore doesn’t give a hoot about short stories.

I think this increase is largely down to the way the internet and social media etc have enabled short story
readers, writers and publishers to connect with each other and share their enthusiasm. Websites like The
Short Review, RobAroundBooks, Threshholds in the U.K., and U.S. ones like Charles May’s blog, The
Mookse and The Gripes, and Books On the Night Stand’s Short Story Project for example. This has
shown just how many people there are who really do want to read short stories.

There’s a great sense of occasion when reading a short story. It’s a real commitment, there’s no room for
daydreaming like you may sometimes get away with in a novel. The reader is completely involved and
the rewards are immense. I love that Stephen Amidon quote about George Saunders : ‘You do not read
Saunders’s stories so much as watch them detonate on the page in front of you’. It’s a brilliant depiction
of what happens when a story works for you as a reader. Or the writer Elizabeth Taylor’s observation that the mighty Alison Macleod often quotes: “the short story gives the reader the feeling of “being lifted into another world, instead of sinking into it, as one does with longer fiction” “.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that short stories suit this current era more than any other because of short
attention spans, the hectic pace of life etc. etc. Short stories have always been relevant – in this era and
every other. Or the idea that they’re great because you can wolf down a story in a lunch break or sprint
through one on a commute. If anything the opposite is probably true, I think. To make the most of
reading a short story you have to ‘slow down’ as Professor Harold Bloom says in his book ‘How to Read
and Why’. Or as Lorrie Moore put it in a Paris Review interview:

“There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we
know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time
they have to read a story. (Though they may have a narcotizing paperback novel in their purse. This is not their fault.) Shockingly, people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.”

If anything, the scoff-it-quick idea may well be a reason why some readers don’t take to short stories. If
you approach a short story thinking “this is going to take me five minutes, it’ll be really quick, I can just
whiz through it and it will blow my mind” then you’re going to be disappointed most of the time.

A defining moment for short stories in the U.K. may be on the way. The much-anticipated Literature
Prize is set to fully unveil itself in a month or so as it aims to become the UK’s most prestigious literary
award. It will certainly get massive exposure. There are big hopes that it will invite short story collections
to be submitted as well as novels. Not before time. Canada’s big literary award the Giller Prize, for
instance, has accepted short stories as well as novels for nearly 20 years. If it happens then there will finally be a major U.K.-based literary award and celebration of fiction writing where novels and short
stories are given equal billing. Literature Prize gang may you have the courage and the vision to do this!
And then, what if the £40,000 first prize were to go to a short story collection? Now that’s a story that would definitely detonate!

Joe recommends:  Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins; Aerogrammes by Tania James; This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor; My Mother Was An Upright Piano by Tania Hershman; The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek. 

And I recommend any of the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthologies (good news for those of us in the U.S.A. – there’s free worldwide postage and shipping).  

Thanks Joe, for taking part!


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