Editing at Bandit Fiction teaches you a few things. In the years I’ve worked here, I’ve got to read some brilliant stories, and some less than amazing stories. It’s made me question what makes a good short story.
How would you attempt to write something brilliant? How would you know if you had achieved it? Because they are so various, one amazing story is only a minute piece of the map; we would need an author to send back reports of their progress for us to follow them.
In maybe the earliest piece specifically on short story craft, Edgar Allan Poe wrote that: ‘the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance… without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be brought about.’
Fifty years later, Robert Louis Stevenson went further: ‘I never use an effect when I can help it, unless it prepares the effects that are to follow… the body and end of a short story is bone of the bone and blood of the blood of the beginning.
Emboldened by the possibility of formal rules, the twentieth century saw a great deal of investigation into the short story, hale narratologists chasing it flapping across lawns, to later splay, pin and prod it in lecture halls. What is vital, they said, is its use of revelation, its use of tone, its mystery, its intensity, the presence of a debunking rhythm, an objective correlative, a narrative-matrix.
Some sought aphorisms to understand the short story as the younger cousin of the novel: where the novel is ____, the short story is _____, while others hoped to glimpse its essence within the short stories of the greats. On Raymond Carver’s wall was Chekhov’s ‘and suddenly everything became clear to him.’ But what about Carver’s own ‘it was like nothing else in my life up to now’? Or Alice Munro’s ‘something not startling until you think of trying to tell it’?
Therefore, I spoke to the best short story writers of our generation. Jessie Greengrass, Sarah Hall, Jon McGregor, Irenosen Okojie, Joseph O’Neill, Chris Power and Mahreen Sohail. Between them are Costa prizes, Booker shortlistings and the National Short story award; shortlistings for, and winners of, the Edge Hill prize; stories in The New Yorker, Granta and the Pushcart anthology.
I asked them about the short stories they wrote. Our conversations went into the very heart of what a story is. What a story can do. Where they come from and where they end. What life and writing has taught them. I spoke to Jon McGregor about a story he wrote twenty years’ earlier. His assessment of his younger self was salutary.
From talking to authors you can see the universal human appeal of story; it is something beheld perfectly balance between the left half of the brain (in charge of detail, surety and fixity) and the right half (the more unconscious, aesthetic and mysterious).
Where some authors wrote consciously and painstakingly, others gave themselves to the sensuous feel of a piece. Where these authors couldn’t express the origin of their inspiration, it was illuminating to push them beyond the edge of the normally unarticulated.
The answers they gave were astonishing and too revelatory to hang onto. To share their ideas and collate them into a single document, I started up Scratch Books, a small press dedicated to the craft of the short story. In an innovative twist on the standard short story anthology, our first publication, Reverse Engineering, pairs the seven incredible short stories with the authors’ discussion of how they wrote each piece.
It’s a very exciting project. Colin Barrett has called it: “An anthology to inspire and encourage anyone who reads it,” and Eley Williams says: “Reverse Engineering offers insights into not only writers’ sparks of inspiration but also their stories’ long fuses and more slow-burning processes. A delightful, rousing resource.”
Reverse Engineering is available now and can be bought directly from the Scratch Books website, in your local good bookshop as well as in less local, less ‘good’ online booksellers.
To celebrate the launch of the book, the five UK-based authors are coming together for an event in the London Library to discuss their writing of the short form, in what Chris Power has described: “the Avengers Infinity War of short story writers.”
It appears that Scratch Books comes at an important moment. In our broken times, the agility and vibrancy of the short story is uniquely suited to express how we live now. And so, there is a renewed appetite for the short story and a boom in the popularity of the short form as a whole. A recent article in the Observer hears from some of the brightest stars in its demi-monde to explain why the world at the moment has never needed the short story more.
How did this happen? Take the case of Bandit Fiction. It is no accident this trend has coincided with Bandit’s burgeoning years. Bandit Fiction are no longer “a new voice” in the scene. They are established publishers with a history of staggeringly good short stories. Many up-and-coming writers were given their early break by Bandit. And, as their first collections are published and their work is placed into new hands, our literary twilight zone bobs to the surface of the publishing industry.
And so, maybe very soon, it won’t just be me asking what makes a good story. It will be something we are all closing in on.
For a limited time, Bandit readers can get 15% off their copy of Reverse Engineering when they enter the code ‘Bandido15’. Order yours at http://www.scratch-books.co.uk.
About the Contributor
Tom Coganhan is the publisher at Scratch Books. He can be found on Twitter @tomconagh.