Chekhov, Louisa M. Alcott, Kafka and co. wrote them for money; thinking of them as a lucrative money-spinner to keep their families in bread and potatoes. Now they usually yield so little money from magazines and book publishers that very few writers devote themselves to perfecting the art of the short story (at least in the UK, though it’s not nearly so true in America or Canada). Of the great British magazines that used to churn out stories by Dickens and Gaskell, Hardy and Kipling, only the People’s Friend is left, published since 1869 by D.C. Thomson of Dundee (also publishers of those great products of the literary imagination Beano and the Sunday Post). Young, aspiring writers are instead encouraged by their agents and publishers to go off and produce the next monster novel.
The short story, that perfect snapshot of a life in just a few pages, the jewel-like precision of description, has been in danger of becoming an extinct literary species. All the big-money prizes (and associated kudos) have been devoted to novels, or poetry — until a couple of years ago when the combined forces of Prospect magazine and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts decided to launch a prize, worth a useful £15,000, for the best short story. No age limit; no sex, religion, colour or race discrimination. Just a colourful piece of writing, with a distinct atmosphere and convincing characters, conjured up in fewer than 8,000 words. It might seem an easy way to make a buck until you sit down and attempt it. Great patience and concentration are needed to create the architectural symmetry and distilled essence required of a short work, as opposed to a great, baggy novel.
The literary significance of last year’s prize was overtaken by political controversy as Hanif Kureishi’s shortlisted story, about beheadings in Iraq, was withdrawn at the last minute from its broadcast slot on Radio Four because of sensitivities over its subject-matter.