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Desperate Literature

It’s always been interesting to me that late and early in each year, several news items we touch on at Publishing Perspectives have to do with short stories.

This normally is sustained no longer than the stories themselves are.

Within a week or two, this little confluence of storytelling and issues of brevity is swept into the rest of the new year’s avalanche of news.

But it’s quite distinctive.

  • In France, for example, an independent publisher called L’Ourse brune (The Brown Bear) has been set up to produce “the promotion of short stories by prospective authors.” Martine Paulais, based in Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly in Normandy, says that too many French editors neglect the form.
  • Then in London, there’s a shortlist of short stories–or a short-story shortlist, which is harder to say three times fast. The Costa Book Awards in January name the writers behind a shortlist of three short stories. (The authors’ names are not known until public voting on the stories is finished, so that the vote is “blind” and not swayed by issues of possible familiarity with one of the shortlisted writers.)
  • Also in the United Kingdom (land of literary awards, as you might remember me pointing out in the past), the BBC National Short Story Award program has opened and will, in early October, enrich a fortunate author by £15,000 (US$20,438), and four shortlisted authors by £600 (US$817) each.
  • Then in Madrid, there’s perhaps the most aptly named event, the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize will not only pay a writer €1,500 (US$1,821), but also will send that writer to a seven-day artist’s residency at Umbria’s Civitella Ranieri retreat and provide the writer with a consultation with an agent in London. It’s named, by the way, for the Desperate Literature bookshop that produces the award.

There probably is no real rhyme or reason to the way short-story news gathers in little corners of coverage near the end and beginning of a year, although this year we could be forgiven for speculating that it might have something to do with “the times.” More than once since January 6, I’ve misheard a news anchor or a correspondent and thought she or he had said that more than 100 “writers” had been arrested in connection with the rampage at the US Capitol. Can Rioters Unboxed be far behind?

Awards programs operate on their own fiscal-year model (which is why, in fact, the Costa program in London is about to award its 2020 prizes in 2021). So it’s not just that “startup” factor of the top of the year having arrived.

You wonder if during even more orderly and safe times than these, however, there might be a practical element to short-story activity at an annual changeover.

To be clear, I respect and admire the short form as the entity-unto-itself that it is. I also don’t think the consumer base always gets the efficacy of short stories, many making the Brussels sprout mistake of believing that a short story is a baby cabbage. Of course, sometimes a story is a baby cabbage and an author will go on to develop that story into a book.

Could short story work have to do with testing out ideas that might become bigger projects during the year? Might a short story be a misfire, an intended book chapter that ended with more finality than expected?

Tumult and Traction

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

In a bit of a follow to my column from December 18, I might suggest that there’s an opportunity here in the unholy start of 2021–the angry equinox of lies harvested–not always offered to those who might want to work in shorter forms.

In that December piece, I argued for work as a shelter, a haven, the gift of “a way to work,” as actors say about the approach to a given role. They’re trained to look for “a way to work” on a character’s development by seizing on one or another key factor of that role’s personality for stabilization, traction.

What tends to arrive as we cross into a new year or a new era or a new administration is a clatter of close looks at things.

They seem to drop all around us, like an evergreen’s needles sifting to the ground. An anecdote. An image. A concept. A tightly constructed chord on a piano, one with stress and dissonance in it. A breeze that makes you catch your breath and then disappears. Lovely, dark, and deep.

As it has turned out, 2020 was the bestselling year for print books in a decade, per NPD’s research. That’s not what many might have expected from a year in which bookstores were at times shuttered. The industry, early in the year became increasingly alarmed at the pathogen’s threat, then realized the contagion was helping its business in various ways. Print book sales rose 8.2 percent year-over-year, to 751 million units (copies).

So there was an upbeat surprise coming. And we couldn’t see it then. You wonder if the story you’d have written in March would be the one you’d write in November.

What I’d like to ask you today is whether you’ve ever been surprised in reverse, thinking that a short story might lead to a book (probably the most regularly anticipated progression), only to find that a book led to a short story instead?

Beyond the obvious jaw-dropper of congressional deliberations overrun by domestic terrorism, have you found smaller surprises waiting for you yet this year? Are those clattering anecdotes and images and concepts catching your eye? Do you write short works? And, maybe more to the point, do you do it deliberately?

Let me know what you think. And don’t lose heart. In some years, we get more than one New Year’s Day.


About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com


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