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Making short stories controversial

16 November 2015

The fuss that's been sparked off by the recent publication of Philip Henscher's selection of short Stories in The Penguin Book of the British Short Story suggests that short stories may be achieving more traction and visibility than they did even a few years ago.

The 90 short stories included in the two volumes come from the eighteenth century (Daniel Defoe) up to the present day (Zadie Smith). Henscher trawled trough thousands of short stories by hundreds of writers. Top authors such as Rose Tremain, Julian Barnes and William Boyd, surprisingly, didn't make the cut. You can't help thinking that, in selecting Henscher to edit the anthology, Penguin hoped for controversy - which they have had in spadefuls - and also hoped for a vigorously - argued selection.

The Sunday Times had a rather hostile feature on Henscher's efforts, partly because in his introduction he takes aim at the newspaper's own short story prize, describing it as ‘lavishly funded' (surely not a bad thing for writers providing that they share in the largesse) and criticising its choices.

But the really interesting thing is that a short story anthology should arouse so much interest and its editor so much opprobrium. Time was when no-one would have been much interested, although perhaps the title may have challenged writers by its suggestion that it was to be an authoritative choice. Philip Henscher probably thinks it is. It wasn't so long ago that such a publication would have been met with relative silence and the only story collections which made it into print were those by bestselling writers, published to ‘keep the author happy'.

Now short story collections are creeping onto prize shortlists and they are infinitely available on the internet. But unless they have something special to recommend them, there may some resistance to them in sales terms. Short stories do have an advantage when we are all so strapped for time, but many readers still prefer to immerse themselves in the longer form of a novel.

The excellent website Writing Short Fiction now looks as if it may survive but, just in case, visit it while you can.