The short story has had a long and topsy-turvy existence. Over in America, and especially on the east coast, publications such as The New Yorker and Esquire relentlessly peddled the finest in the mini-form for decades from before the Second World War. The New Yorker in particular became a (seriously esteemed) nursery slope on which promising novelists could fine-tune their prose. Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov, Dorothy Parker and John Updike were just a few of the celebrated names that went on to considerable fame following publications in the periodical.
Similarly, back in the 19th century, British short-story writers could enjoy financially viable careers by producing fast fiction. Magazines and periodicals were filled with work rewarded by sums that the footballers of the day could only dream of. How things have changed.
Perhaps because of a lack of comparably enduring magazines and, therefore, a financial-support network for writers of the short form, the publication of short stories in the UK diminished towards the end of the 20th century. This imbalance has been redressed in recent years, and the UK now finds itself in rude short-story health, with more and more collections and anthologies being published. Today, an Amazon search for ‘short stories’ throws up over 600,000 results.
Despite this glut of content, all is not well in the industry. Philip Hensher, editor of the Penguin Book of the British Short Story, laments the fact that the only hope for British writers is to be taken up by an American magazine, or otherwise throw their lot in with the thousands of other hopefuls in the chancy world of proliferating prizes and competitions.
After reading over 20,000 stories during his research for the collection, Hensher was torn between enthusiasm for a form that had shown itself to be experimental and all-encompassing to a degree he couldn’t have imagined, and sadness that a suitable paid-for format to present this infinite pool of invention was proving elusive to writers.
At The Pigeonhole, we are hopelessly in love with the form and excited about what digital publishing can do to nurture it. Our serialisation format lends itself incredibly well to collections and anthologies of short fiction, and, fittingly, the short form lends itself incredibly well to the busy lives of our readers. We aren’t slaves to the high production costs associated with print editions, so we can take more risks and publish lesser-known authors alongside bigger names – as we did for our anthology of retold fairy-tales Fable, for instance.
We also recently collaborated with And Other Stories to digitally serialise Joanna Walsh’s marvellous short-story collection Vertigo, a discombobulating tapestry of tales that examines the adult experience through a range of different narrators, all of whom embody their own internalised version of vertigo. The incredibly warm critical reception of Vertigo proves that there’s no doubt short-story publishing can be viable; there is certainly an appetite and love for the short form. We are part of the discovery of how best to allow the short story to thrive.
More than anything, the reason the future of the short story is so replete with interesting opportunities is because its past is so irrefutably dazzling. I grew up devouring a raft of different short-story writers, so it was with incredible difficulty that I narrowed this pack of talented scribes down to just five. So here they are: my (probably heavily disputed) princes and princesses of the petit.
First up, it’s Guy de Maupassant, a 19th-century French novelist and a master of short stories who was particularly fond of penning politically charged tales of the grotesque and ridiculous. Driven by the demands of the popular press, Maupassant churned out 300 stories in just 11 years, most of which are passable, but a significant number are fantastic, and it is these neatly framed narratives that have guaranteed his reputation. His most famous story, ‘Boule de Suif’ [‘Ball of Fat’], details the journey of some French citizens who pressure one of their number – a portly harlot – to sleep with a Prussian officer who has detained them, so that they can be released; it’s shameful and hilarious in equal measure.
To my eternal shame, she’s only a recent discovery of mine, but it was a delight when I did finally start ploughing through the back catalogue of the godmother of the short story, Alice Munro. Her tales are written in a searingly clean style, with not a single word wasted in her realist depictions of life in the rural parts of her home territory, Ontario, Canada.
Though he’s probably better known for his demographic-defining, sardonic masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger wrote a number of short-story collections. Many of the recurring characters in these stories come from the Glass family: a comically precocious set of children led by a pair of vaudeville parents, who, together, form the cast of Salinger’s consistently neurotic and amusing vignettes.
Different from the others in almost every way imaginable is Anton Chekhov, the Russian doctor who found enough time to heal the sick as well as craft some of the finest short stories and plays ever written. His narratives deal with Russia at the turn of the 20th century: a world of duels, bears, high society and oppressive serfdom. Not so unlike London of 2016 then.
I’ve saved the best for last. Heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway (another genius who just missed out) in both his clipped, almost anaemic style, and a thirst for alcohol that almost killed him, Raymond Carver, assisted by his hands-on editor Gordon Lish, changed the shape of the short story forever. Unconcerned with alluding to specific political or socioeconomic detail, Carver predominantly depicted the mundane, occasionally bizarre, scenarios of the working classes in the Midwest using his less-is-more approach to writing. The depth of meaning is sometimes to be found in what is not said, in stories that rarely offer traditionally satisfying conclusions.
So there you have it: my unashamedly subjective last word on the best short-story writers ever. Disagree and agree at your leisure. We’d love to hear about your personal favourites in the comments section below.