Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Orange Prize "Forgets" It Ever Remembered Short Stories

When I was one of two authors commended for this year's Orange Award for New Writers, I was stunned. To be singled out, together with the 3-book shortlist! I didn't even know The White Road and Other Stories had been put forward. And while this was something that was very hard for me to internalise on a personal level, not being one of those who thinks her stories are better than anyone else's, it was instantly obvious to me what a wonderful thing this was both for short story collections and for small independent publishers. All around me were novels and mainstream publishing houses. And there was my little book!

There was already a slight tinge here because in the press release announcing the shortlist, C E Morgan and I were commended with wonderful words but our books were not mentioned. Had people seen that something which had "and other stories" in its title was being given a special mention, what a boost this would be!

The Award for New Writers is for: "all first works of fiction, including novels, short story collections and novellas, written by women of any age or nationality and published as a book in the UK." In the Award's first year, in 2006, Nell Freudenberger was shortlisted for her story collection, Lucky Girls. The following year, Yiyun Li's Ten Thousand Years of Good Prayers made the shortlist. Since then, no story collections have been shortlisted. No novellas have even made it to a shortlist.

I went to the Orange Prize ceremony tonight full of joy: joy at my book having been given the kind of attention I never dreamed of, and more than that, joy at the spotlight being shone on short stories. First, I was pretty surprised by the event which was less a literary celebration than a party where the champagne flowed and pretty young things in very short skirts hung around and chattered amongst themselves. Here and there were well-known faces, but it wasn't quite what I was, perhaps naively, expecting. And it wasn't really a celebration of literary fiction: the awards part of the evening was done in less than half an hour, a very quick affair - no readings from any of the books, no taste of beautiful words to whet our appetites.

Of course, I had hoped that C E Morgan and I would get a quick mention. After all, Kate Mosse, co-founder of the awards (and the only person to say the phrase "short stories" all night) talked about how the New Writers Award was to give writers with potential some recognition, a little (or quite big) push. The Award's judges had thought we deserved a little bit of the fairy dust, right?

Nope. One of the judges talked about the judging process before announcing the winner, mentioning that there were 80 books that she and her fellow judges had to choose from. I waited, breath held, as she talked about what a shame it was to whittle it down to three. Three? I thought. But... but... We had been forgotten.

And not only that. When she talked about how she had read the 80 nominated books during her work trip in Africa, she said that the 80 "first novels" had really kept her going.

I felt like I had been slapped in the face. A double blow. Was mine the only short story collection in the 80? I highly doubt it. But we had been "disappeared", swallowed up. You remember us... and then we're gone. We're too short, perhaps. Too slight in comparison. Maybe it is about everything we - and the poor forgotten novellas - are not. How hard would it have been to have taken that extra 30 seconds... to have remembered?

I was deeply upset. I was nearly in tears on the bus home. But not for me. This has already given me a boost, taken me to a new place, gained me entry to rooms I would not have been allowed into. But in this week when my wonderful and tireless publishers, Salt, are desperately trying to survive and are forced to beg people to buy Just One Book, when those who seek great writing should be flocking to Salt and all the other independent publishers out there - in this week, what would a mention have done for them? What could it have done? There were journalists there, I could have talked about Salt, this would have been a story, something a bit different in this world dominated by novels and large publishing houses.

Don't think for a moment I begrudge the novels anything. I have read one of the shortlisted, The Personal History of Rachel Dupre, by Ann Weisgarber, and it is beautiful, powerful. I love great writing, however it comes, in whatever shape or size. But don't mention us, don't look for one second into the corner that short stories are so often made to sit in, don't shine that light and then so rudely turn it off, turn your back. It is as if you never noticed us at all.

What all this makes me wonder is why - when it is hard enough to try and compare one book with another and to call one the "best" - we writers of short stories and novellas allow ourselves to be packaged together with the novels? Short stories should stand alone, or, at the very least, put us with the poets, please. We shouldn't have to compete in this way. Don't make us think we're important, and then so clearly show us that you really don't care. It's cruel. It really is.


Anonymous said...

That is such a huge disappointment in so many ways. I'm sorry, Tania.

I admire your courage in expressing your dismay. I admire you all the more for your determination to promote short stories and small presses.

Susan Sonnen

Tania Hershman said...

Thank you, Susan. I debated whether to post this, it's always easier to keep your mouth shut and I am not someone who likes to complain. But I feel like I don't really have anything to lose by being honest here, and if it could help short story writers and those who publish us in some way then it's worth it.

Carolyn Jess-Cooke said...

I am furious for you, Tania, not only because I love your book, but because of the principle of the thing. Surely someone else has pointed this out to the judges/award organizers? I am hopeful - as ever - that this ridiculous oversight doesn't mark the status of the short story, but is instead a very disappointing one-off...

Shahnaz said...

Tania, my heart goes out to you. I hate the kind of "literary event" you speak of.

Andrew Philip said...

Well done you for sticking up for the short story, Tania.

Do you really want to join us poets in our ghetto? You'd be welcome, but it's a bit of a media wilderness. Even the marvellous poetry season on the Beeb has all but ignored contemporary poetry, apart from some slight slots on Radio 3.

Tania Hershman said...

Carolyn, apparently someone has just pointed this out to one of the competition organisers so we will see if anything changes. Sadly, this seems to be the state of things in the glittery "literati" world.

Shahnaz, thank you, wish I'd known what it was going to be like. Many many happy thoughts to you for your big day, soon right?!

Andrew, we're already in the ghetto! I don't think any form should be lumped in with any other, but if "they" absolutely have to, it shouldn't be with novels. What a shame about the Beeb's poetry season. Urgh!

Lauri said...

Tania brave of you to speak so honestly. And very sorry your expectations for the night went all pear shape. BUT sometimes from those places great things happen. I think you might shift the ball a bit with this. How about Orange sponsors a contest exclusively for short story collections? And while we're at it one for poetry too? Why do novels always get to be 'Mr Big-man"?

An aside compeletly- last night I was thinking about you being at the awards and I said to my husband, who knows nothing about literary prizes, "My friend Tania is at the Orange Prize Awards tonight." In Botswana we have a series of prizes for the arts also sponsored by Orange and I won it for creative writing last time. So he says, "So why weren't you invited?" I laughed- you really do need such 'blind' people in your corner to keep your spirits up in this crazy game.

Sue Guiney said...

My heart was breaking for you and for the genre as I read this. But I have to say that this just confirms my unease about competitions in general. They are good because of what they can do for a single author -- and your commendation has been fantastic. But the idea that great writing can be compared and judged in this way -- and all of the writing listed in the award must have had some greatness in it -- infuriates me. Maybe the point to remember is, as you yourself said, "the event... was less a literary celebration than a party where the champagne flowed and pretty young things in very short skirts hung around and chattered amongst themselves." They pretend it's about literature, but I would think even Marilynne Robinson would recognize that it really is not. As our grandmothers would say, "oy."

Tania Hershman said...

Lauri, if this brings about even a minuscule shift, that would be a good thing. Why novels? I am still waiting for an answer to that one. And isn't your husband sweet - wish you'd been there too! We could have grumbled together.

Sue, thank you, yes competitions make me deeply uneasy too. And Ms R did seem to sense that about the event, in her very short speech she seemed to be praising the smooth organisation more than anything else!

E.P. Chiew said...

Tania, I recently had a similar brush off on a much smaller scale from a personal friend who is a big big reader When I gave her a volume of short stories to read, she told me later that it reminded her why she detested short stories -- they always leave you hanging in the ending.

I was irritated that she expressed this naive view, and I was further irritated that this was how she chose to show appreciation for my gift.

Then, I took a step back and thought about all the negative things people have said about short stories and short story writers.
-- s.s. writers don't have what it takes to progress to a full length novel
-- s.stories are dull, nothing happens, and often too serious or sad.
-- s. stories don't offer you a full world to experience, merely whet your appetite, like eating a lot of appetizers but no dinner.

I think someone should address these points one by one to the general reading public -- the people who say they prefer novels -- let's answer the charges. Because until you address why people can't seem to get into short stories, I don't think short stories will ever get the mention or credit they deserve. It almost seems an enlightened attitude to hear one of my friends say (a friend who happens to be an avid short story reader) -- short stories are actually much harder to write. They are not to be understood as stepping stones to the more lofty grander writing project e.g. the novel.

Lastly, your post, Tania, almost begs for a new and different Orange Prize for the short story. There's the Frank O'Connor already, but is there one here in England itself? What big backer can we get to support this? Bloomsbury? It can be done -- someone with the drive and vision and passion and belief in the short story.

Tania Hershman said...

it never, ever ceases to amaze me, the ways people find to object to the short story, as if it is almost an affront that you present them at all - and this from a good friend who loves to read. Why generalize like that, what a ridiculous remark? I think it says far more about her than about short stories. Shame.

Your points are very valid - what I discovered after writing my blog is that while the Orange Award for New Writers is open to "novels, novellas and short story collections", the Orange Prize for fiction, the "grown-up" prize as it were, is only for novels. The message here is clear "Yes, when you're a new writer, feel free to play around with short stories and novellas, but when you grow up and get serious, it's novels only." I am irate!

I don't really want to spend my time trying to persuade those like your reader friend of why they should read short stories. It is exhausting, as well all know. We do what we can, but frankly they are missing out - all those at the Orange ceremony are missing out on stunning writing, we know that.

Re a British short story collection prize - there is the Edge Hill prize, but I believe that's it. The US has the Story prize, which seems highly thought of. Orange does partner with Harper's Bazaar for a short story competition, but the Harper's woman announcing the winner yesterday seemed delighted when she told us that last year's winner had an agent and "is working on her first novel". Ach, what can we do!

Also, the head of Brand at Orange, who made a short speech, said that extracts of the shortlisted books are being sent out on mobile phones. Hang on... wouldn't short stories be perfect?? I was too demoralised to fight my way through the miniskirted lovelies to try and accost him. Will find his email. Spencer something....

Elizabeth Baines said...

So sorry, Tania. I second Sue's comments about competitions. I'm always saying on my blog that competitions are not a good thing: it's so lovely when you win and are commended, but the focus is always on the winner, and there's an inherent and illogical implication that everyone else in the competition (and, here, other fiction forms) are less good. And the judge's failure to acknowledge the fact any of the entries were other than novels is indeed a very great shame, and must, as you say, reflect an acceptance of novels as the dominant form, or at least the 'norm'.

What a pity , and I was so hoping that you were having the wonderful evening you deserved.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, I was also annoyed by the fact that the Orange prize for non-new writers is only open to full-length novels - it does seem a real prejudice, especially as women seem to excel in the short-story and novella forms

Tania Hershman said...

Elizabeth, it is such a shame, isn't it? And regarding the "full length novel" requirement, do you think they are aware of what they are doing or because this has become the default position in the mainstream publishing world it is just the norm, no-one even considered that the prize might be extended to other forms? Thank god for Alice Munro winning the MAN Booker - even if the judges qualified their choice with that "and yet..." !

Sarah Hilary said...

Oh Tania, I'm so sorry you had this disappointment and the missed opportunity to talk up the short story and Salt especially. Unfortunately the organisers of these events seem to focus on the glitz rather then the substance. And no doubt some "helpful expert told them to keep the words to a minimum as this was a "party". Gah.

In my experience, people who talk down short stories tend to be lazy readers, not prepared to put in the extra effort required by a story that asks of the reader an act of imagination - to fill the page after it ends, to see beyond - novels that hand it all out on a plate don't satisfy me in the same way, but there are readers who don't want to go that extra yard, I suspect.

Please don't let this experience dilute your sense of achievement. You have done a great thing, and will continue to do great things.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Tania, I wonder which it is. The main Orange prize is of course older, and you can understand them not thinking of other prose fiction forms when they set it up, but then they clearly thought of them when they set up the New Writing prize, and so it seems significant that they didn't change the rules for the main prize then.

And Sarah is absolutely right - you mustn't let this affect your sense of achievement.

Ad Lad said...

That sucks, but to be honest I'm not surprised.

The short story will always be considered the poor relative of the novel, despite the fact that less is very often more.

I think the only way the short story can make a real come back with the reading public is if mainstream media once again start publishing them.

But I can't see it happening because the two pages of advertising is far more lucrative to magazine publishers than two pages of fiction.

The only big circulating magazine that bucks this trend is Playboy.

Short stories cunningly disguised as a novel, that's the way forward I reckon.

Sophie Nicholls said...

Tania, I hope you can feel very proud of your achievement, which is a huge one and deserves to be celebrated - in your own way and on your terms!

I love your book.

Very best wishes,

Tania Hershman said...

Sarah, yes, you're right, there are people who don't want to do any "work" while they are reading, although the payoff might be greater when they are done, and that is their choice, I know that. I am trying to keep this in perspective and keep trying to feel joyous about the commendation, but will probably be a little hard for a while.

Elizabeth, of course, the Orange Prize is older, forgot about that, I am sure it never crossed their minds to change/update the entry requirements.

Ad Lad, nice to meet you, thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes, it sucks. And yes, you are quite right about two pages of ads being more lucrative. I have to say that I mostly look upon those linked-short-stories-pretending-to-be-novels with a little disdain - be what you are and be proud! I am sure it is the publisher's decision not the author's, most of the time. Ali Smith's Hotel World is obviously linked short stories. Olive Kittredge is tenuously linked short stories! I don't know what the answer is. If anything, this has been another of these instances where I am all the more determined to only write short stories! My stubborn streak!

Sophie, you are lovely, thank you so much for popping in here and for commenting! I love the picture on your blog of your outdoor "room of your own", looks wonderful.

Jenzarina said...

Well I wasn't at the awards so I'm still at the stage of 'Wow! Brilliant for Tania, brilliant for Salt Publishing and brilliant for short stories.' I'm always looking for good short story collections so now I've stumbled across this post I can support Salt and buy your book. (I take it we're allowed to buy more than one book!)

I've already posted on my own blog about Salt's campaign. One day I would love to have my own collection of short stories published by Salt.

Congratulations again and please ignore what short-skirted media types witter about. Don't let them take away from your achievement.

Susannah Rickards said...

T, you are honest to post this. That they couldn't startle the short skirted guests with anything so highbrow as an extract says it all really. There is a prevalent boorishness, as though market value is the only value one should have.

Your achievement stands. It is an enormous plaudit for you and for the short story that people who couldn't care less for the form were so taken by your work whilst ploughing through all those novels.

Unknown said...

you are our hero, Tania. I'm so thankful for you. Please don't be too sad, we're fighting the good fight. All of us, together.

Pippa Goldschmidt said...

I feel for you. It must have been so disappointing and horrible at the ceremony. But hold onto the fact that you WERE commended. That means a lot!

Anonymous said...

It's good that you were there for all of us, Tania, and congratulations. Think of the next stepping stone you're going to be reaching!
Yes, it's the easy way out for people to concentrate on novels because a novel can hide acres of rubbish and it doesn't show. A short story has to be on its best behaviour throughout.
Short stories are becoming more popular, in spite of the almost-persecution - it brings out the secret rebel in us.

Unknown said...

Having received your collection in the mail from Salt yesterday, I thought I'd check out your blog. What an awful shame to read that your well-earned recognition at Orange has been so tinged with frustration. And justified frustration. I truly believe that short stories are a lot harder to write well than novels are, requiring a very particular skill not inherent in all writers. It's such a shame that the general public and competition organizers don't recognize this. People like you may help change this. You certainly have my support.

Tania Hershman said...

Anon - thanks so much. And yes, novels can grip you with their plot so that perhaps you are more forgiving than with a short story. I love that about short stories being on their best behaviour! And if they make us feel rebellious, what a thrill... !

Johanna, first, thank you so much for buying my book, I really appreciate it and Salt does too. And thank you also for your sympathy and understanding about this situation. There are many of us who are simply baffled by the attitude to short stories that my experience here demonstrates. Something will have to be done!