The short story has been called the ideal literary form for the 21st Century. The internet has given us access to multiple online journals and podcasts, so we can read a short story on our phones on the train to work, or pop in our earphones and listen to someone reading their story while we exercise. In an increasingly busy world, many of us are pressed for time with shortened attention spans, so to dip into a short story is a marvellous escape with minimum intrusion.
There are many ways of describing a short story. Some wit once likened it to a mini skirt, saying that “it should be long enough to cover the essentials, but short enough to be interesting.” Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, put it more elegantly, saying, “At their best they are a whole world in miniature, they are like perfect small gifts. Like a brief encounter, they can be transforming and transfixing, but, unlike longer relationships, they never flag.”
Certainly in the arena of Literary Prizes, short stories have been more prominent in recent years with Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Lydia Davis the Booker International Prize, both in 2013. Story collections have featured on the long & shortlists for the Stella Prize, and in 2015, Murray Middleton won the Vogel Award with his collection, only the second time in the history of the award that short stories have claimed the prize. When the Miles Franklin Shortlist was announced on Sunday night, it was so satisfying to see Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers featured. Anyone who was lucky enough to catch one of his events at the Short Story Festival will be delighted at this news.
And of course, thanks to Caroline and several other talented and dedicated people, last year we had the Inaugural Short Story Festival in this very building, and what a wonderful weekend and great success that proved to be. Author Cate Kennedy in her opening address said that a story “is essentially a machine for creating empathy. It’s the only art form in which you can truly step inside the head of someone else.” The collection of stories that we are celebrating tonight certainly exemplifies this idea of creating empathy. Each story engages the reader’s feelings on several levels. In Emily Paull’s story, Miss Lovegrove, it is impossible not be horrified by the ruthlessness of the title character as she humiliates her students – and when Nicole stands up for herself at the end, we are with her all the way.
In Harbour Lights, by Leslie Thiele, we applaud Tanya’s courage and the decisions she makes when faced with the man who attacked her when she was only fourteen, and who now does not even remember her.
Jo Morrison’s Of The Water, is narrated by a woman grieving the loss of her true love in a surfing accident, and we are touched by both the depth of her pain, and the simple beauty of her words as she articulates her grief. Things to Come, by Charlotte Guest is about a different kind of loss, and it is one which strikes fear into the very core of our being. It is the loss of self and the realisation that it is happening and will become inexorably worse as the mind gradually disintegrates. The words of TS Eliot kept coming into my mind as I read this – “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark. The vacant intersteller spaces, the vacant into the vacant.”
The winning story of The Margaret River Short Story Competition, Joiner Bay, by Laura_Elvery is both a joy to read and a heartbreaking experience. The teenage narrator’s best friend Robbie has just committed suicide, by hanging himself in his friend’s shed. Our narrator is a runner, always striving to improve his time, and as he runs he tries to make sense of Robbie’s death, and why he didn’t do it at his own home. He eventually decides that it was to protect his two little sisters, whom he had dearly loved. My eyes definitely became a little blurry at this point.
This collection was expertly edited and put together by the wonderful Ellen van Neerven, herself a writer of exquisite short stories. She has said that there were a number of things she was looking for in each work, including language, handling of theme, characterisation and setting. She also made the observation that beginnings and endings are crucial. As the aforementioned Ryan O’Neill has said, “Endings are tough to pull off in short stories. Too neat and they seem artificial. Too open and they are unsatisfying.”
This is an excellent point, as with a short story there is a limited amount of space for detail. The writer cannot spend a lot of time on giving the characters’ back stories, or indulgent descriptions. They have to hook the reader right from the start and only give them what they need to know to keep the story going. A short story is only a snapshot of the characters’ lives – we do not know what went before or what will happen after.
English author Graham Swift recently returned to short fiction after years of writing only novels. He says that “Reading a novel is a process of habitation – the reader becomes a sort of lodger under a novel’s roof. With a short story the reader is only a visitor. He or she may not even be let into the house, They may only stand briefly on the doorstep peering in.”
We need to be able to understand that brief view of a life being lived as we stand there on the threshold.
Charles Baxter, professor of Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota claims that short stories differ from novels in more than just length. “The intensity level is higher. These landscapes are more like ones lit by lightning than by candles or incandescent lamps.” Lit by lightning – that is a brilliant image for this luminous collection.
The writers of these seventeen stories have all risen brilliantly to the many challenges put to them by this form and I applaud and congratulate them.
Another terrific local writer is Laurie_Steed, who edited last year’s collection of prize-winning stories from Margaret River Press. In his introduction he wrote that people often say to him that they don’t like reading short stories, and his response is worth repeating here. He said, “One might expect me to be dismayed by such a response. Instead, I’m all the more committed to assuring them that it is not that they don’t like short stories. It’s that they have not yet read the right ones; those stories that sear their mark upon one’s soul, that crack one’s mind open so profoundly that the pieces may in time realign, but never quite fit together the way they once did.”
I remember reading these lines over several times as they perfectly portray the effect that good writing can have upon the reader. We are truly blessed here in WA with ana abundanceplethora of accomplished writers, with new ones constantly appearing upon the scene. Opportunities such as the Margaret River Short Story Competition are the perfect vehicle for emerging writers to have their voices heard, and we are all so grateful to Caroline and everyone at Margaret River Press for their ongoing support and sponsorship, and for publishing this important anthology every year.
My favourite quote on writing is from John Sheffield who said back in 1723, “Of all those arts in which the wise excel, nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.”
Nature’s chief masterpiece – I’m confident that many of you would agree with that.
So to all the writers in the room, and especially to the ones featured in this anthology, I say thank you – and keep striving, keep writing, keep excelling at what you do.
As both a reader and a bookseller, my greatest pleasure after actually reading books, is to recommend a title to someone, knowing that they will love it. Be assured that I will be doing my best to place Joiner Bay & Other Stories in the hands of as many eager readers as I can.
And on that note, I am delighted and honoured to declare this superb book of short stories officially launched!