A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Tania Hershman is a short story writer based in Jerusalem, Israel. Her stories have been published in print and online, broadcast on BBC Radio and in podcasts, and won several awards. She is the founder and editor of The Short Review, a site dedicated to reviewing short story collections and anthologies. Her own first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, has just been published on September 1st by Salt Modern Fiction. Tania’s website is www.taniahershman.com and she blogs at www.titaniawrites.blogspot.com .
* Many thanks to Oksana Badrak for the illustration, ‘Winter Fox’ – we thought it would go nicely with the wintry look of Tania’s collection. . .
First, I would like to thank the excellent Vulpes Libris for inviting me to be a guest blogger in Short Story Week – and for having a Short Story Week. Thank you!
Second, I would like to tell you what I will not be talking about. I won’t be:
None of the above, I feel, does anything to inspire readers. Who wants to read the “poor short story” that no-one thinks is really as good as a novel? Do short story writers want to be read out of pity? I don’t think so.
What I am going to talk about, on the assumption that you are all reading this because you have a love for the written word, in whatever form, is what a short story is for me and why I set up The Short Review.
What is a short story and how should one be approached if met in the wild?
To me, the short story is a different from the novel as poetry is from, say, screenwriting. While a screenplay may be described as “poetic” and a poem may have filmic qualities, no-one would categorise them as the same species. So why do short stories and novels so often get lumped together? A short story is not a “shrunken” novel; a novel is not what happens when you keep writing a short story and it gets longer and longer. Of course there are examples of either situation (I tend to feel that most of the fiction published in a certain well-known American weekly magazine is more of the mini-novel variety). A great short story is just that. It has the magic that comes with brevity; it can do things a novel can never do, not despite the fact that there aren’t 700 pages in which to get to know the characters, but because of it.
The main point I want to make here is that if you are a reader, if you love books, great writing, strong characters, complex plots, excitement, emotion, tension, denouement, satisfaction, then you will find all this and more in a short story and in short story collections and anthologies.
This seems like a good juncture to stop and talk a little about me. I have been writing short stories for ten years or so, and last summer I received the life-changing news that Salt publishing had accepted my first collection for publication. (It will be out on Sept 1st.) This was my heart’s desire, my dream since childhood. And, suddenly, it was offered to me. Alongside the overwhelming delight was a sense of blankness: what to do next? All the stories for the collection were already written and I didn’t have a next project in mind.
After thinking for a few months, I decided I wanted to do something short story-related, but that didn’t involve the writing of short stories – and it dawned on me that, rather than blaming publishers for not being keen on first time authors and their story collections, the fault actually lay with reviewers: if the reading public didn’t see reviews of short story collections in the newspapers and online, how did they know what collections they might like and want to buy? Thus, The Short Review was born, and it has grown beyond all expectations, teaching me so much along the way.
The Short Review’s slogan is: “Where short story collections step into the spotlight”. It’s my small attempt to redress the reviewing balance – by giving short story collections and anthologies their own space, away from novels, poetry etc…
The aim was to make the site a one-stop-shop (originally without the shop – although we’ve recently added links to online booksellers) for all things short-story-collection-related. Ten new reviews every month of collections and anthologies – not just new ones but older books, classics, across all genres. To give you a taste, on our categories page, which is constantly expanding, we currently list: Anthologies, Award Winners, Best Of…., Children’s, Classic short stories, Crime, Début, Environmental, Erotica, Experimental, Fantasy, Flash fiction, Funny, Gay Fiction, Historical, Horror, In Translation, Jewish, Lad Lit, Love & Romance, Magical realist/surreal, Novel-in-stories,s Pop culture, Quirky, Realistic/gritty, Science Fiction, Small Press, Steampunk, Young Adult. And our forty or so reviewers are free to make up categories for each book they review, if these don’t fit.
A collection can be listed under more than one category – Funny Science Fiction, for example, or Fantasy flash fiction. To be honest with you, I don’t believe in labelling, in shelving books on one shelf and not another. These distinctions are artificially imposed: my only aim here is to demonstrate what an enormous range there is within the short story.
This is something I wasn’t necessarily aware of until I began reviewing myself. I received, and continue to receive, offers of books by authors I had never heard of and which came with labels I was not familiar with. For example, Kelley Eskridge’s collection, Dangerous Space, was described to me as “feminist science fiction”. Not being a reader of science fiction, or feminist fiction, or the combination, I naively assumed it would be about female aliens or starship commanders. In truth, I wasn’t looking forward to reading it. What I found was, to quote my review, “seven poignant, sensual and often poetic stories, of musicians, actors, theatre directors, journalists, most of whom inhabit worlds much like my own but with slight twists, shifts of fundamental rules and expectations.” I call this great writing, nothing more and nothing less.
Something else that came as a great surprise to me was how many short story collections and anthologies are actually being published. Bored one day last December, I decided to look up “forthcoming short stories” on Amazon. Pages and pages of short story collections due to be published in 2008. I set up a new page on the site, and listed them all. I have been adding to it ever since as I hear about more and more – collections and anthologies from new names, familiar names, small presses, competition winners. Anthologies on themes: Mongolian women writers, five-minute erotica, fiction inspired by pop groups. The modern Libyan short story; Basque short fiction. Re-releases of Chekhov, Kafka.
I was someone who had been actively searching for short stories to read and I had no idea all these books were being published. 120 books in the first three months of 2008 alone! If I didn’t know about them… how would anyone else?
Along the way, we’ve added extras to the site, such as Author Interviews which are, frankly, for my benefit. An author is asked nine set questions, such as “What does ‘story’ mean to you?”, “How does it feel to know that people are buying your book?”, and “Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?” I wanted to see how other short story writers went about their writing, and how they feel about what they do. I wanted to know what it was like to have a book out there.
For example, Sylvia Petter, author of Back Burning, said: “I’m always happy when people buy my books. But I’m happier when I hear that they have found something in them that has touched them in some way. Once the book is out there, it’s a part of yourself that you’re sharing – what you believe in, in a way”. Sarah Salway, author of Leading the Dance, said she “went through a stage of feeling sick when I knew someone had read my work in case they didn’t like it, or thought I was ‘odd’. But now I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will always be some people who won’t like my stuff and also that I am definitely ‘odd’ !”
Kevin Barry, I learned, hides in bookshops, spying on browsers to see if they are buying his collection, There Are Little Kingdoms. Nikki Aguirre, author of 29 Ways to Drown, carries: “… a negative critic in my head. He keeps me on my toes and says all the biting things no one else dares. I let him too, but sometimes he gets carried away and won’t stop yapping. Then I have to threaten his chocolate intake. Oh, I can be cruel.”
And what does “story” mean to all these short story writers? Anything and everything, from “the feeling of holding onto a sparkling handrail into the dark” (Aimee Bender), and “something jewelled, dense, which will glow in the mind long after you have finished reading it” (Elizabeth Baines), to “the movement of a character from one place to another, how he or she got there, and what it means when they wind up in the new place” (Dave Housley), “a kind of uneasy, fetching trip that has a beginning middle and end, which doesn’t mean anything gets resolved, but an event or a worry gets worked through in an illuminating and, hopefully, generous way and you walk away knowing more than maybe you meant to” (Pia Z. Ehrhardt), and simply “the intense pleasure of getting to know another human being” (Paddy O’Reilly).
So, to sum up: if you want to grasp a sparkling handrail, go on a trip which will leave you knowing more than you meant to, get to know another human being, be delighted by erotic lad lit science fiction or historical magical realism in translation, and make a short story writer lurking in your local bookshop very happy, go and buy – or borrow – a short story collection. Thank you.