Why are collections of short stories so rarely published when their particular features can serve a young audience so well? And why are talented short story writers so underrated? Peter Hollindale discusses the unique qualities of the short story.
In Roald Dahl’s story ‘The Great Automatic Grammatizator’, a character who has won a bogus reputation for writing good short stories complains that publishers think his genius is misdirected. ‘Everyone tells me I ought to do a novel … All sorts of publishers are chasing after me day and night begging me to stop fooling around with stories and do something really important instead. A novel’s the only thing that counts – that’s what they say.’
This story was written long before Dahl’s success as a children’s writer, and though these words are spoken by an unappealing character, one detects a personal ruefulness and resentment behind them. Dahl was a natural short story writer. When he attempted to write adult novels, the results were disastrous. Although he later managed full-length books for children, many of his big commercial successes, such as Fantastic Mr Fox and George’s Marvellous Medicine, are essentially short stories. Even Danny the Champion of the World, one of his longest children’s books, is expanded from a small-scale ‘adult’ story. These tales are often elastic creations, and the boundary between story and novel is vaguely marked. Dahl was not alone in crossing it – Robert Westall’s fifteen-page short story ‘Urn Burial’, first published in 1984, became a fully-fledged sci-fi novel in 1987. But the short-story form has its own unique and underrated strengths.
A publishing enigma
Short stories are a publishing enigma and a readerly puzzle. Their attractions are obvious. For the youngest children ‘Tell me a story’ does not mean ‘Tell me Chapter one of a novel.’ It means, ‘I want events and a satisfying closure before I go to sleep.’ Later on, the short story is convenient for teachers, fitting neatly into school periods, assemblies and examination questions, and older readers should find it ready-made for a sound-bite world. Yet publishers show little confidence in its potential as ‘reading of choice’, unless the author’s name already commands attention as a novelist.
Only in one genre – the ghost story and tale of the supernatural – does the short story enjoy undisputed dominance.
Many books on the market are clearly aimed at institutions. For instance, the name of J.J. Overell is not yet well-known, though it deserves to be. His two collections of stories of home and school for primary school children, The Thought That Counts and Whoever You Are, are accompanied by a statement of moral utility from the publishers. ‘There is no stressing of an obvious moral, but each story involves an important point which will be absorbed by the readers. They have already proved popular for reading aloud in school assemblies and Religious Educational lessons.’ If this worthy purpose gets the stories read, well and good. But these are living, vivid, sometimes funny, sometimes painful, sometimes truly joyous excursions into the business of growing up. They have the freshness of everyday living about them, and need to be set free from institutional formalities. The morals will look after themselves.
Thematic collections also have an eye on the classroom, or school library. They have their uses, of course, but they can also be dull brown wrapping-paper, hiding the bright light of individual stories. How can truly outstanding short stories achieve the same enduring prominence as truly outstanding novels? This is a problem no one has yet solved. For instance, the Mammoth collection Family Tree includes Anne Fine’s story ‘Fabric Crafts’. This story has been printed at least twice before, once in Viking’s The Trick of the Tale and once in Jan Mark’s Oxford Book of Children’s Stories. Quite rightly, because it is a comic masterpiece of anti-sexist writing, that makes its point through successive rapid detonations of surprised laughter. When Anne Fine’s name is mentioned, ‘Fabric Crafts’ should come to mind as readily as Goggle-Eyes or Madame Doubtfire, but it doesn’t. Exceptional short stories are like woodland saplings searching for light: most remain smothered by their larger, book-length neighbours.
Thematic or regional collections currently available include some outstanding work. Two stories in particular, both by established writers, deserve the free-standing reputation that collections rarely give. One is Melvin Burgess’s ‘Coming Home’, also in Family Tree. A book of stories about family life inevitably highlights family break-up nowadays, with children routinely cast as victims. Burgess’s Laurence is a victim of sorts, but he is also a spy, exploiter, agent provocateur, and would-be blackmailer, enjoying his power over adults and his contempt for them. He is a thoroughly nasty piece of work. This is the unseen face of family breakdown and divorce, an unsentimental show of its corruptive opportunities for children. The story is utterly convincing in its bleak and compact ruthlessness, as fine an achievement in its way as Junk.
Just as relentlessly truthful is Jackie Kay’s ‘The Five Sisters of Kintail’, in an anthology of Scottish stories, Points North. Kay is a distinguished poet. Her uncompromising clarity of vision is brought to bear in this excellent story on the awkward, much-evaded subject of female adolescent bullying. Mary becomes a victim of her own girl-gang because she is much later than the others in starting to menstruate, and suffers increasingly hurtful persecution as the odd one out. Some silent areas of widespread pain are opened up in this brief, compelling story. The book is bound to circulate mainly in Scotland, but for teenage girls the experience has no frontiers, and nor should the story.
The best guarantee of permanence is still, it seems, to publish a single-author collection on the coat-tails of successful longer fiction. Several recent books fall into this category. Philippa Pearce, for example, is not a natural novelist. The bulk of her published work consists of short stories, mostly acerbic domestic incidents or spooky tales. Yet where would she be without the backing of Tom’s Midnight Garden? (And where would Jan Mark, the most gifted of all present-day practitioners, have been without Thunder and Lightnings?) The title-story in Pearce’s latest collection, The Rope and other stories, is Pearce at her best, exploring the small-scale, private, unspoken entrapments which always lie in ambush for a child. The small, closed incident which resonates in a life, and changes it, is perfect terrain for short stories.
Michael Morpurgo is another who has earned his short story collection, From Hereabout Hill, by means of longer (and still underpraised) fictions – Morpurgo often seems in closer touch with real children than the majority of writers. There is something engagingly intimate and confidential about his writing, and it means he can trust the child with narrative shocks of unhappiness. There are plenty of those in From Hereabout Hill, but the varied experience he offers is deep, authentic and worthwhile.
Like Michael Morpurgo, Martin Waddell in his collection provides helpful notes for the reader, explaining how each story came to be written. Waddell’s The Orchard Book of Ghostly Stories sounds misleadingly like an edited collection, but all are Waddell’s own exploration of Ireland’s ghost-haunted landscapes. Preserving the voice of the oral storyteller is one of the short story’s special roles, and Waddell’s book is like a conversation with a secret Ireland.
Helen Dunmore is another whose best writing for children seems to be in the short story form, and Aliens Don’t Eat Bacon Sandwiches is a richly diverse and enjoyable collection which illustrates the sheer range that the genre can offer. The title story is science fiction. ‘The Mars Ark’ is a futurist, dystopian story, sci-fi of another kind, a ‘wake-up call’ to global warming if anyone still needs it. War, and the pity of war, are there in ‘The Old Team’ and ‘The Airman’s Sixpence’. ‘Wolf Weather’ is an unforgettable snow fantasy, and ‘Great-grandma’s Dancing Dress’ another tale about a bullied girl (a younger one this time) with an outcome both cheering and convincing. Dunmore’s stories, like most of those in single-author collections, mainly originate in commissions for edited compilations, but her distinctive imagination is present everywhere and the quality is consistently high.
The collection Talk to Me, by the American writer Avi, is another exceptional book. All but one of the seven stories are in the category of domestic realism, but their angles and perspectives are consistently unexpected. Like many good stories, they make everyday experience seem sharp and strange. Perhaps the best of them is the savagely funny ‘Fortune Cookie’. To celebrate his thirteenth birthday, Parker insists on being taken out to dinner by both his estranged parents. Forced parenthood is what he practises. This marvellous story is like Anne Fine, with an extra litre of acid.
A highly successful if infrequent ruse for propagating the short story is to disguise it in a quasi-novelistic form. The ‘linked short story’ format is nothing new. It was used by Kipling (another short story writer who was ill at ease with novels) in Just-So Stories, The Jungle Book, and Puck of Pook’s Hill. Roald Dahl perceived its strengths in the episodic Boy and Going Solo, and it has proved especially well-fitted to quasi-autobiography for children. Earlier examples of note were Jane Gardam’s A Few Fair Days and Berlie Doherty’s White Peak Farm , and now it has produced a classic (though a very challenging one for most children) in David Almond’s Counting Stars (reviewed in BfK 126).
Since precedents for the linked short story go back to The Arabian Nights it seems strange that writers have not used it more. Anne Fine did so, extremely effectively, in Step by Wicked Step, in which several children, isolated accidentally in an ancient house, and prompted by the house’s past, exchange their individual experiences of parental break-up and broken homes. With so long a fictional history behind us of the ‘tale-within-a-tale’ it seems long overdue that children’s fiction should pick up cues from writers like Kipling and find new ways of blending novel and short story. Awkward but rewarding experiments like Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe have led to disappointingly little technical innovation, and Fine’s book is still a rare kind of hybrid.
The most straightforward form of all, of course, is the episodic life of a single character or group, like Richmal Crompton’s Just William. Crompton’s true modern day descendant is Roger Collinson, whose characters Willy (Willy and the Semolina Pudding) and Grisel (Grisel and the Tooth Fairy) will put unmissable domestic anarchy in the path of every six- and seven-year-old.
Our fast-paced, multi-media world seems perfectly adapted for short stories, yet they are still overshadowed by novels, and even by poetry. The genre is neglected, too little is published, and educational functionalism rules the market. There is scope and need for writers, publishers, librarians and booksellers to experiment with form, presentation and promotion. Perhaps, one day, another book of short stories will win the Carnegie Medal. We might even scale again the heights of 1980, when the winner was Peter Dickinson’s City of Gold and the runners-up included Jan Mark’s Nothing to be Afraid of and Jan Needle’s A Sense of Shame.
Peter Hollindale, formerly at the University of York, is now a freelance writer and teacher.
In the next issue of Books for Keeps, Nikki Gamble discusses the place of short stories in the curriculum.
Recent books discussed
The Thought That Counts, J.J. Overell, ill. Robin Lawrie, Acorn Editions, 0 9065 5416 0, £5.99 pbk
Whoever You Are, J.J. Overell, ill. Robin Lawrie, Lutterworth, 0 7188 3008 3, £7.50 pbk
Family Tree, edited by Miriam Hodgson, Mammoth, 0 7497 3684 4, £4.99 pbk
Points North, edited by Lindsey Fraser, Mammoth, 0 7497 4034 5, £4.99 pbk
The Rope and other stories, Philippa Pearce, ill. Annabel Large, Puffin, 0 14 130914 8, £4.99 pbk
From Hereabout Hill, Michael Morpurgo, Mammoth, 0 7497 2872 8, £4.99 pbk
The Orchard Book of Ghostly Stories, Martin Waddell, ill. Sophy Williams, Orchard, 1 86039 421 3, £12.99 hbk
Aliens Don’t Eat Bacon Sandwiches, Helen Dunmore, Mammoth, 0 7497 3861 8, £4.99 pbk
Talk to Me, Avi, Hodder Signature, 0 340 74965 2, £4.99 pbk
Counting Stars, David Almond, Hodder, 0 340 78479 2, £10.00 hbk
Willy and the Semolina Pudding and other stories, Roger Collinson, ill. David McKee, Andersen, 0 86264 929 3, £3.99 pbk
Grisel and the Tooth Fairy and other stories, Roger Collinson, ill. Tony Ross, Andersen, 0 86264 689 8, £3.99 pbk