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  • To discover and promote previously unpublished writers.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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Who Says a 12th Century Benedictine Monk Can’t Be Sexy? – The Brother Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters

Benedictine IlluminationMurder just isn’t what it used to be.  Pick any thriller or mystery off the best seller lists and you’ll see that murderers no longer need motive. They kill for pleasure. Greed, power, lust are quaint vestiges of a distant past. Nowadays everyone is a psychopath, sociopath, masochist, sadist… a diagnosis is de rigueur. It’s rather disheartening. Which is why I recommend taking a step back…  all the way back to the 12th century.

Ellis Peters was the pseudonym of British author Edith Pargeter (1913-1995).  Her most popular series starred the crime solving Welsh Benedictine Brother Cadfael.  It consists of approximately twenty books – all still in print.  But good luck finding them at your local B&N!  I’ve been scavenging my copies at used bookshops.  The result?  I  started with Saint Peter’s Fair (#4 in the series) and am now halfway through The Virgin in the Ice (#6).  So far I’m happy to report that the gaps in continuity haven’t been all that hard to fill in.    In fact, I’m quite enjoying the treasure hunt quality reading these has taken.

If you’re a fan of  the mysteries of Agatha Christie and Alexander McCall Smith then the Brother Cadfael Chronicles could be for you.   This is not Hilary Mantel’s gritty version of Tudor England.  Peters’ narrative lacks the plot convolutions and urgent pacing of the more recent Mistress of the Art of Death books,  or even of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.   Her’s is a kinder, gentler medieval period that readers visit with a warm cup of tea at the ready.  (Keep in mind that these books were written by a middle aged authoress who received the British Empire Medal for her work in WW II.    They were adapted by the BBC Radio.  They weren’t meant to raise the pulse rate of anyone under 85).

Ellis Peters wrote mysteries in a different time for a different audience.  She wasn’t competing with television shows like CSI or Criminal Minds, – shows that focus on the evil men do to their fellow man.  The Brother Cadfael stories, like Christie’s and the more recent Smith’s, present the reader with a compelling puzzle.  The puzzle is neatly solved in the second to last chapter, and all loose ends are tied up in the final pages.  Everyone get’s to go to sleep at the end of the night without checking the closet for serial killers.  There’s something to be said for that.

Set during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda (which lasted some 10 years), the novels are located primarily at  or around the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter and Saint Paul in the town of Shrewsbury, England.  The war features prominently.  Characters declare themselves as “Stephen’s ” or “Maud’s”.  Events are shaped by political aspirations and machinations.  City walls need to be rebuilt, refugees sheltered and war crimes take place on the peripheries.  Ellis does a nice job of integrating the war without indulging in the horror and, overall, demonstrates a real sense of the period.

Rhodri’s two nimble little Welsh boatmen went to work briskly, hefting the heavy bales of hides and the wool-sacks with expert ease, and piling them on the jetty, and Rhodri and Cadfael addressed themselves pleasurably to watching the lively scene around them; as many of the townsfolk and the abbey guests were also doing.  On a fine summer evening it was the best of entertainments to lean over the parapet of the bridge, or stroll along the green path to the Gaye, and stare at an annual commotion which was one of the year’s highlights…

“A thing worth noting,” said Rhodri, spreading his thick legs on the springy boards, “how both halves of England can meet in commerce, while they fall out in every other field.  Show a man where there’s money to be made, and he’ll be there.  If barons and kings had the same good sense, a country could be at peace, and handsomely the gainer by it.”

“Yet I fancy,” said Cadfael dryly, “that there’ll be some hot contention here even between traders, before the three days (of the fair) are up.  More ways than one of cutting throats.”

“Well, every wise man keeps a weapon about him, whatever suits his skill, that’s only good sense, too.  But we live together, we live together, better than princes manage it.  Though I grant you,” he said weightily, “princes make good use of these occasions, for that matter.  No place like one of your greater fairs for exchanging news and views without being noticed, or laying plots and stratagems, or meeting someone you’d liefer not be seen meeting.  Nowhere so solitary as in the middle of a market-place!”

“In a divided land,” said Cadfael thoughtfully, “you may very well be right.”

– from Saint Peter’s Fair.  Parenthesis mine.

St. Peter’s Fair, which seems a decent representation of what to expect from the series as a whole, contains quite a bit of dialogue similar to the excerpt above.  It’s a refreshing contrast to the current market glut of first person narratives.  The characters  are engaging, if surprisingly forward thinking for their time.  Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine who retired from the world after having lived a full life in it, is a shrewd detective with the gift of being able to get on with everyone.  Other characters recur throughout the series, like his good friend Hugh Beringer, the deputy sheriff, to provide assistance as needed.  These relationships are convincingly handled and provide some funny bits as well.  Peters created a very familial, heartwarming sense of friendship and community between characters that makes up a large part of the series’ charm.  And while you may not be surprised by the outcomes – all the good people are clever and kind, all the bad people are eventually punished – you will be entertained. Think good returns for relatively little investment…  And in these times, who can argue with that?

(Note:  This book was read as part of the R.I.P. IV Challenge. I’ve now reached Peril the Second.  If you’re looking for more recommendations for macabre Fall reading, I please follow the link.  The challenge lasts through October, 31st).

Finally! Back to Byatt…

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt has been a hurdle I’ve needed to jump all Summer.  I’m approximately 100 pages in and don’t know why this book is taking so long to get through.  I pick it up and put it down fairly regularly.  (The putting down part is most likely the problem).  My goal is to have it read and reviewed by the October 6th release date here in the States.  In the meantime, here is a comparison between the U.S. (top) and U.K. (bottom) covers.  Personally, I think we got gypped.

U.S. Cover
U.S. Cover
UK Cover
UK Cover

Dig into a good book! (pun intended) Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

Voltaire said to cultivate your garden… so what are you waiting for?   It’s time to go outside and dig up the backyard.  No backyard?  Sign up for a community plot.  If all else fails, do a little guerrilla gardening.

In between pulling up the weeds I recommend Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf.  This very readable book traces how a mail order seed business between two men, John Bartram of Philadelphia and Peter Collinson of London, fueled England’s dual obsessions with botany and empire.

Don’t be fooled by the dust jacket – Brother Gardeners is more than a superficial overview on the lives of a handful of 18th century botanists.  This book is goes into informative detail, despite the huge amount of material it encompasses.  Andrea Wulf covers the years 1733-1820, intelligently choosing to bookend her narrative with the lives of John Bartram and Joseph Banks.  In between we are introduced to men such as Carl Linneaus (the father of modern taxonomy & ecology), Phillip Miller (caretaker of the Chelsea Physic Garden), Thomas Fairchild (who created the first man made plant hybrid), Captain Cook (famous explorer) and a host of others.  Brother Gardeners succeeds in smoothly transitioning from one character to another by employing a strange version of seven degrees of botanist separation.  These transitions help to establish a context for each man’s contribution to what was a botanical Golden Age.

It was in this period of less than a hundred years that the small island of England became the metaphorical and literal greenhouse of the world.  (Interesting aside:  Many of the plants Wulf discusses can still be found in British gardens today – putting a major hitch in the whole native plant movement.  There’s a useful glossary at the end of the book which gives the year when individual  plants were first introduced).  These men and their gardens would ultimately change the landscape of England and its colonies.   They would influence major, seemingly unrelated, historical events.   Carl Linnaeus’ classification system of binomial nomenclature, the colonization of Australia and the infamous mutiny on the Bounty all had their impetus in the quest for botanical discovery.

It’s difficult not to be left with a newfound appreciation for what is often viewed as just the peculiar British national hobby – but was in fact the keystone of a colonial empire.  How so?  Well… if you have slaves in the West Indies that need a cheap and productive food supply you import bread trees from Tahiti.  You can ship New Zealand flax plants to Australia in order to create a niche in the linen industry.  You attempt to break China’s monopoly on tea by sending plants (and willing Chinese planters) to India.  These are just a few examples.

Overall it’s pretty fascinating stuff.  But what makes Wulf’s book so accessible is that Brother Gardeners focuses on the relationships between the men whose stories it tells.  It describes friendships that were based on a common scientific interest and which ultimately transcended nationality, politics and war.  With the current resurgence in the popularity of gardening – demonstrated by the increase in vegetable gardens,  as well as the growth of the slow and organic food movements –  it’s an important lesson for modern day readers to walk away with.

The Rodale Institute’s farm is located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and was founded in 1947.  It is home to the longest running U.S. trial comparing organic versus conventional farming methods.  (They also publish Organic Gardener Magazine).  You can find a whole section on their website on the topic of Global Warming.  It lists several articles on how climate change can be managed, even combated, by sequestering carbon in soil through organic farming.  Their stated mission is to “improve the health and well-being of people and the planet”. [2019 updated: in 2014 Organic Gardening Magazine became Rodale’s Organic Life. In 2017 it went digital only. Later that same year, Rodale’s publishing arm was sold to Hearst. Since then, I haven’t been able to find any update as to its fate, but I think it’s safe to assume it is no more.]

Here’s a link to a video interview with Tim LaSalle, the Rodale CEO, explaining how U.S. farmers can become leaders in the fight against global warming: [2019 update: this page no longer exists]

And here’s the link the main website:

Wulf’s Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession tells us the story of how 275 years ago, because a few men cultivated their gardens, the whole world changed.  Who knows?  If we’re lucky it might happen again.