When short stories were still widely published in magazines, they had the capacity to react to unfolding events, writes Philip Hensher, the novelist and critic who edited these two volumes. Now the principal outlets for short story writers are no longer periodicals — apart from Standpoint and a few others — but competitions. “The dullest short stories I read from the last fifteen years were winners of competitions,” writes Hensher, who sieved through journals, old and new, to source the material for these collections.
He characterises the winning stories of contemporary competitions as “present-tense solitary reflections”, their protagonists “lying on their beds affectlessly pondering; major historical events were considered gravely; social media were dutifully brought in to indicate an eye on the contemporary”. It is a mistake to believe that competitions, rather than a system of commissions, payments, circulation and readers, will generate literary quality. Nobody ever asked Conan Doyle or V.S. Pritchett “to put on a dinner jacket and shake the hand of a retired academic before they could receive a cheque for a short story”.
This unexpectedly fierce critique is in Hensher’s 35-page introduction to these new collections. Contemplating the short story’s long publishing history, Hensher writes that in the late 19th and early 20th century magazines offered handsome commissions to writers, who could make a living and even get rich, as in the case of Conan Doyle. Indeed, looking through the volumes’ acknowledgements reveals that older stories were first published in a variety of now defunct journals, such as the Strand, the Westminster Gazette and the Illustrated London News. Revealingly, many of the more recent British short stories that are reprinted here were first published in the New Yorker.
Hensher goes on to discuss the anthology’s title. While “short” stories vary hugely in length, what is demanded of them is “unity of effect or impression”. He calls the British short story “the richest, most varied and most historically extensive national tradition anywhere in the world”, though he concedes that similar “statements of national pride could be gathered from many nations”. One can certainly imagine a Russian, German or French literary critic taking issue with him.
Hensher pinpoints some characteristically British features. The narrator who shares the best story he ever heard after dinner is a recurring theme, which stems from a fascination with performance. Other recurring themes are “comedy, the tripping up of expectations, the overturning of an established world” as well as “playfulness” and an “outward-facing” tendency to analyse the world.
Hensher chose 90 stories for this collection, published in two beautifully bound volumes. The authors span three centuries, from Daniel Defoe (born c.1660) to the youngest, Jon McGregor (born in 1976).
The first volume is a bit hit and miss. Defoe’s “A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal” is long-winded, but merits its place as one of the first ghost stories. It was published in 1706, long before Horace Walpole’s 1764 The Castle of Otranto, the first gothic novel. Henry Fielding’s “The Female Husband” is interesting because it is a fictionalised account of the arrest of Charles Hamilton, who was tried for vagrancy following the discovery that Hamilton was a woman married to another woman. But while the author is quick to judge and condemn the protagonist, today’s reader is more likely to empathise. The same goes for Wilkie Collins’s “Mrs Badgery”, which was undoubtedly meant to be funny but is a rather sad story of a privileged young man who mocks an old widow. Saki’s “The Unrest-Cure” testifies to its author’s anti-Semitic fantasies, while “Silver Blaze” by Conan Doyle is included — a wasted opportunity, because he did not only write about Sherlock Holmes. Two authors I missed were Virginia Woolf and George Eliot.
“The Farm House” by Mary Lamb, which recounts an idyllic trip to the countryside from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl, is surprisingly modern and refreshing in its direct tone and amusing details. Thackeray’s “A Little Dinner at Timmins’s”, the story of a couple who host an expensive dinner they can’t afford to impress people they don’t like, also still rings true. Hannah More’s “Betty Brown, the St Giles’s Orange Girl: with Some Account of Mrs Sponge, the Money Lender” is a fascinating account of social mobility at the turn of the 18th century.
The second volume feels more consistent. It includes Elizabeth Taylor’s “In and Out of Houses”, about a girl who hops between the houses in her village to tell each neighbour about the other, and George Mackay Brown’s “Three Old Men”, a winter’s tale about friendship. In “Career Move”, Martin Amis interposes the story of a struggling screenwriter with that of a wealthy globetrotting poet. A visit to the pet shop in Adam Marek’s “The 40-Litre Monkey” ends in a gruesome encounter. Zadie Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia” has Fatou, a young domestic worker from West Africa, and her pious friend Andrew talking about the unequal attention paid to genocides in different places: “Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?”
There are some oustanding stories here. That is why I agree with Hensher: newspapers should publish short stories on a regular basis and invest in new writing talent. They could put to much better use the space and resources currently dedicated to banal celebrity interviews.