Friday, December 08, 2006

Lost Literature

You can't help wondering what literature, both written and potential, is lost through lack of outlets. Commenting recently on my other blog, nmj relates how she started out as a short-story writer and got an agent on the strength of her short-story writing. However, she discovered, it wasn't the stories themselves the agent was interested in, and she was immediately persuaded to write a novel, and her short-story writing went by the board.

My own experience was the same, and I'm sure we are not the only two. It seems to me that the AL Kennedys and Ali Smiths are only the exceptions that prove the rule: Ali Smith, indeed, has stated in an interview that she feels she was helped towards publication of her first collection by things extraneous to her (marvellous) prose: the fact that she was Scottish, and the fact that she was lesbian.

Once upon a time short stories were all I ever really wanted to write. I loved the form with its special poetic yet muscular compression. Once I had published several stories in literary magazines, I began hoping to publish a collection. I went on an Arvon course and to my delight and gratitude my tutor Martin Booth sent my stories off to his agent, who immediately rang me. (And there are people in the blogosphere insisting that you don't need assistance and contacts to get taken up!) But this agent said the same to me as nmj's did to her: we have to have a novel, it's impossible to sell short stories. So I wrote a novel (The Birth Machine) - not a very long one that first time, more of a novella really; it took me a while to ease out of the short form - and then another (Body Cuts).

I didn't stop writing stories; I just went on publishing them in magazines. But then the magazines began to die away, and there didn't seem any point in writing them any more... And my novel publishers got bought up, the usual story, and the list I was on was remaindered. And, just as I found myself out in the cold, the commercialisation of publishing accelerated, and, after a beginning when all doors had opened before me, getting fiction published seemed no longer the easiest thing in the world. And since the doors in radio were flung wide open - I had written a play on the off-chance and it had been broadcast and won a prize - I became a radio dramatist instead.

Of course you don't stop altogether, you can't keep the urge down. And this week a collection of short stories won the Guardian first book award. Small presses like Comma, Salt, Elastic and Leaf are springing up to specialise in short stories. There are doors swinging open again.

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