Tales of the unexpected: the surprise boom in UK short stories

Before the pandemic, Deborah Yewande Bankole was on what she describes as a “steady diet of short stories”. She loved seeking out emerging writers and admired the work of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Julia Armfield and Danielle Evans, but had not considered writing one of her own.

So during lockdown, when furloughed from her job as a creative producer, she found herself with the time to sit down and write, and was surprised when what materialised was her own first short story.

Less than two years on, she has completed a six-month writing course at independent publisher Dahlia Books, been awarded a mentorship by Word Factory, the national short story organisation, with author Toby Litt and hopes to publish a short story soon. “Short story writing allows you to do things in literature in a variety of different ways that perhaps long-form writing doesn’t," ella dijo.

The 31-year-old from London was one of many to try their hand at writing short stories during lockdown as the art form enjoys rising popularity. The Dublin-based literary magazine The Stinging Fly, whose previous editors have included author Sally Rooney, said submissions have increased by 100% in the last two to three years, while subscriptions went up by 50% durante la pandemia (although it lost out on physical sales to closed bookshops).

Such is the apparent appetite for short stories that a new independent press entirely dedicated to them – believed to be the first of its kind in the UK – is to launch in March. Scratch Books’ first publication will be Reverse Engineering, a collection of seven short stories by authors including Irenosen Okojie, Sarah Hall and Mahreen Sohail.

Founder Tom Conaghan said today’s “weird fragmented times” are ripe for short stories: “There’s an appetite for it. Life is coming undone and the short story has that potential to reflect it more than anything.”

mientras tanto, he said that a new generation of short story writers comparable to greats such as Alice Munro, OMS announced her retirement in 2013 shortly before winning the Nobel prize in literature, and the late Flannery O’Connor is coming through. Among the key figures, he names Okojie, Ben Pester, Wendy Erskine y Nicholas Royle.

Through Scratch he wants to democratise the short story, cual, él admite, “has maybe made itself slightly exclusive”. He hopes to one day make short stories so accessible that they are readily available in supermarkets.

Royle, who as well as writing short stories and novels edits the annual Best British Short Stories and runs Nightjar Press, said short stories are finally getting the profile they have “deserved for a long time”.

Entre 1890 and the first world war there were dozens of magazines and newspapers publishing short fiction in Britain, but now there are very few. Royle wants to see more magazines supporting short stories in the way that publications such as the New Yorker, which regularly publishes short fiction, still do in the US. “We just don’t do that [en el Reino Unido]. We have magazines that could do that and don’t, so it’s been disappointing.”

Some have put the rise in popularity down to reduced attention spans, but Royle disagrees. Él dijo: “A good short story requires you to concentrate and it’s the most amazing example of the story coming together between writer and reader. There’s this great intimacy.”

He said independent publishers such as Salt Publishing, Comma Press and Nightjar Press, and prizes such as the Sunday Times short story award, the BBC national short story award, the Manchester fiction prize y the Edge Hill short story prize, the winner of which was due to be announced on Saturday night, have played a key role.

Declan Meade, editor and publisher of The Stinging Fly, said momentum has been building for some time. “Writers are feeding off the energy that’s there for them in the short story and recognising the potential of it and you can see that in the variety of the form itself.”

Ireland’s story writing scene, él dijo, has been helped by increased funding from the country’s Arts Council during the pandemic, with new literary magazines launching all the time.

Cuando The Stinging Fly launched its own press in 2005, it was a struggle for writers to get their first book of stories published. Pero ahora, one of the most positive signs, Meade said, is that short story collections are increasingly being published by big players such as Bloomsbury and Picador. Pero, él añade, there is still a “pecking order”, with authors usually expected to promise to produce a novel soon after. Durante el encierro, the magazine had to bring in extra readers to get through all the submissions as people with long-harboured writing aspirations found the time to do it.

“I don’t know whether the pandemic will swing it in favour of the short story once and for all… but it would be nice to see it happen," él dice.

Cathy Galvin, journalist, poet and founder of Word Factory and the Sunday Times short story award, said the form’s current health has been about 15 years in the making: “There’s a very vibrant, diverso, powerful series of voices that are coming through in the short story form and being heard and making a difference, and that’s why the short story form is alive, because the writing is alive and the writing is rooted in real experience.”

Unlike some sectors of the book industry, print sales of short stories have remained steady through the pandemic in the UK, according to Nielsen BookData, with sales for 2021 from mid-March to the end of the year of £4.1m (the top seller was First Person Singular por Haruki Murakami seguido por Jo Nesbø's The Jealousy Man). But it does not include short stories accessed via online platforms, which have played a significant role for readers and writers across the world globally.

Chimeka Garricks, the Lagos-based author of short story collection A Broken People’s Playlist, said online journals are a vital part of the short story ecosystem – for helping writers to gauge interest and gain a following and for greater accessibility to readers: “They give the writers a platform to publish their work, even if it’s a work in progress.”

What are the short story’s prospects, luego? Paul Baggaley, editor-in-chief for adult consumer publishing at Bloomsbury, said publishers in the UK are increasingly seeing new formats and genres such as autobiographical fiction and essay collections as commercially viable, which they would not have done previously, and this, él dijo, bodes well for short stories. While in the past a publisher might have “gently tried to persuade an author away from writing stories”, ahora, él dijo, “that’s a thing of the past.”

Giving as examples Alan Moore, author of the Watchmen comic book series, y Three Women author Lisa Taddeo, both of whom have short story collections coming out, él dijo: “Once you have that position and that reputation and that fanbase, then they will follow you for everything.”

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