Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Short Story Collections on TV?

So, I'm at home today with bad sinus pain across one side of my face, and to take my mind off it all I watched the wonderful Culture Show episode for World Book Night about 12 debut novelists, including the excellent Jenn Ashworth. It was wonderful to watch a whole hour celebrating first-time novelists, hearing about their books, about their stories. But all the way through, that little voice in my head which is rarely satisfied kept whispering "What about debut short story collections? Where are the short stories?" Now I understand that this was a programme about novels - but the phrase "literary fiction" was used several times, and the novel is not the only form under that heading.

Several of the new novelists featured write short stories - Deborah Kaye Davies' short story collection, Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful (reviewed on the Short Review here) won Wales Book of the Year in 2009 and she is also a published poet. I think it was Evie Wyld who mentioned in her interview on the show that she wrote short stories but wrote this novel because she was told that "publishers don't want short stories". No surprise there then.

Instead of grumbling and moaning too much, I wrote a tweet on Twitter asking who would like to see a similar TV show about short story collections - and the roar of response was deafening! It really cheered me up, and fuelled by this I fired off 3 emails to people I know with BBC connections, and also to John Mullan, the host of the Culture Show episode and very well known for the Guardian Book Club. As I write this I remember that he was the person who interview short story goddess Lorrie Moore last year about her must-have Collected Stories, an event I went to and which will stick in my mind as one of my short story highlights. So I have no doubt at all that he appreciates what an amazing short story can do.

I am writing this blog because doing all this in 140-character bursts on Twitter is rather restricting, and also to canvas more opinion. There was one tweet in reply which seemed to think there was quite enough short story coverage on radio and TV but I don't think those of us who disagree are just being paranoid. What do you think? Please comment below, perhaps I might need a petition in order to get the BBC - or another TV channel (Sky Arts? Mariella?) on side, so don't hold back!


Celeste85 said...

Great idea, I think it's a much under-publicised and under-appreciated form. It's also probably the best way to catch new writers early in their careers, as short stories are where we all start.

BRIDGET said...

And there has be an audience...many of us love reading short stories. I still remember the Penguin collection of English short stories I was given at 12 and I am sure I have been influenced by those writers. And then think of all the creative writing classes up and down the country, the post graduate courses at prestigious universities and the beginner taster sessions held in a church hall. There is a thirst for writing and reading...and short fiction quenches it...

Marisa Birns said...

Oh, wish US television would have such a program!

I think your idea is brilliant, and am very impressed how quickly you've set things in motion. :)

Tania Hershman said...

Lyndsay, thanks so much for your support, that's a good point about short stories being often where a novelist starts, although it would be nice if those who love writing short stories didn't quite feel the pressure that there is now from publishers to write novels if they don't want to. Of course, anyone should write whatever they like! Poetry, stories, novels, shopping lists (which are sometimes also flash stories...)

Bridget, beautifully put! Thank you!

Marisa, hold your horses, nothing's happened yet and nothing may happen, we will see!

writehandstokie said...

Bravo Tania, Writing was my guilty secret until 2 years ago when I discovered just how many other people share it.I was a runner up on the 'This Morning' short story comp of 2010 and am having my first short story published next week.

Tania Hershman said...

Writehandstoke, great to meet you and congratulations!! No need for writing to ever be a guilty secret, there are many, many of us here who share your love for it. May this publication bring you many more.

Carola Huttmann said...

As you already know I love the short story form and support any move to widen its appeal. I don't have TV, but always ensure I catch any short stories and/or discussions broadcast on BBC radio. I wish you every success in contacting the TV bods with your idea and look forward to learning the outcome.

Vic said...

I think this would be a brilliant idea- possibly through a tie-in with the BBC National Short Story prize? TV literature programmes & bookclubs tend to shy away from short story collections- probably because they're harder to cohesively summarise and discuss. It's easy enough to capture one 'social question' from a novel, which can then form the basis of a discussion. But if there's a short story collection of 10-12 stories then you're looking at 10-12 times as many possible discussions... Maybe if the programme focussed on one story per collection (with a wider discussion of technique, links, etc. between the stories). Or the shortlist from something like the BBC SS prize, or the winning stories from a bunch of UK-based s.s prizes then it could be focussed in better in the way current formats work.

Even better- a series of themed short story discussions, e.g- ghost stories past & present, romance, flowers, weather, outsiders and so on and so forth. With downloadable anthologies/readings to accompany the programmes.

seventydys said...

Stories -true and false- are the basis of most of what we tell each other and the short story, at its best, is where storytelling can be at its best; bringing us time & the world in a single dazzling (or dark-making, if you prefer)slice.

Our culture's focus on the novel is partly driven by its centrality as a literary commodity; as well as its obvious virtues as an immersive form. However, a little correction in favour of the short story would be excellent & timely.

Radio is an excellent medium through which to engage with short stories. And a BBC4, Sky Arts documentary on the short story would a superb way to introduce more people to a immense source of pleasure & meaning. Good luck!

dan powell said...

Your questions "What about debut short story collections? Where are the short stories?" were echoed in our house as we watched this. While the programme was a great tour through an intriguing list of books and their authors I couldn't help wondering why short story collections were ignored and said as much to my wife.

Here's hoping you get a positive response from your emails.

Tania Hershman said...

Carola, thank you, fingers crossed!

Vicky, great idea, I got into contact with the organizer of the BBC NSSA, we will see what happens.

David, a BBC4 doc would be lovely, eh? Something specifically on small presses who are at the cutting edge of short story collection publishing would be wonderful... Of course, BBC 2 would be great too!

Dan, good to know the same question was being asked across the land (she says optimistically!). Hoping I get a positive response too. It's madness, this ignoring of the most amazing stories...and so many of them!

Jim Murdoch said...

No, I'd happily watch a programme about short story writers. I have a great many books of short stories and I think it's a crying shame that they get looked down on. I also hate the attitude that short stories are a stepping stone to becoming a novelist and that once you get into novels you'll never look back. I never even started writing short stories until I'd written two novels.

karen whiteson said...

He there Tania,
I think its a totally fab idea, but I would say that wouldnt I seeing as its wot I write. I was at the Lorrie Moore talk w John Mullan also BTW and wasnt she marvellous.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

I am taking time out of an internet-free fortnight (bar one hour this morning, needs must, stuff with publishers) to say this:


And in response to the first comment in this thread, viz, "short stories are where we all start.." - I would ask, is it? Having now done both short and longer fiction, I can say from experience that I understand absolutely why I was told at a Uni course years ago NOT to start with short fiction.

To write a perfect short story (if there is such a thing) - or at least, to aim at it, is a real challenge. To make every word really count - that is hard.

Go Tania!!

Tania Hershman said...

Jim, that;s a very interesting point, I might have to ask you more about that sometime, how and why short stories after 2 novels? Maybe novels are a stepping stone...? :)

Karen, she was marvellous! I can still picture her face and how she read out her story, oh my god, so great!

V - oooh, naughty...! And I think that short stories are not probably where most people start, they probably launch straight in, as I did, aged 7, to the novel. And work "up" to the short story! :) Naughty of me...

Well, no response to any of my emails so perhaps this is premature. Or else... we need to start our own TV station. Ho hum.

Jim Murdoch said...

There’s really not much of a story frankly, Tania. I started writing poetry in my early teens and wrote pretty much nothing else until in my mid-thirties I sat down and wrote two novels back to back. I never intended to write a novel. I simply started writing and when I stopped I had the guts of a novel written. People read it, liked it, but wanted more and so straightaway I wrote the sequel. In some respects although I published them as two novels it’s really only one storyline and could easily sit as a single novel.

Several years after that I thought I’d actually try to write a novel to see if I was a novelist or if these had been a fluke. About a third way through the book I hit a brick wall and had no idea where to take the book. I thought this proved that I wasn’t a real novelist and put the thing aside.

Anyway one day while I was sitting on a bus in the centre of Glasgow I took out my notebook and wrote down the five senses and then wondered if I could do something with them, perhaps a short sequence of poems. Then I thought: What about all the other senses – the sense of humour, the sense of place, of wonder – could I not do something with them? and I went home and without pausing for breath wrote the short story ‘Relish’. Over the next few months I wrote about forty all based on one of the senses. When the quality started drying up I stopped and I’ve only written a handful since. After the break though I went back to the novel with a clear head and a new voice and finished it with little trouble. And after I’d finished that I sat right now within days of finishing it and wrote a play. I think content dictates form. I’ve still not given up the poetry though but nowadays I just start writing and see what I end up with. I even wrote a couple of flash pieces recently much to my great surprise.