They say you should never arrive too early. We thought fifteen minutes before the start was safe, but apparently not as the photographer seemed to have become welded to his position in front of us with the lens aimed directly at my friend and I. We tried to seem busy. Talked. Scribbled in my notebook a little. I felt as if I’d returned to my university days. Finally I lifted out my phone and took some photos! That seemed to do the trick as the photographer moved and at last I could concentrate on my surroundings watching the rest of the audience gradually enter in twos or threes.
When nearly full with three hundred eager writers and their friends a hush fell on the lecture room as the three ‘stars’ of the evening entered. Three highly distinguished authors with many worldwide successful books between and with an intimate knowledge of the UK and US markets.
As an entrant to the V. S. Pritchett Memorial Prize short story competition I had been invited to the awards evening at the Royal Society of Literature (RSL). The society was founded nearly 200 years ago by King George IV to ‘reward literary merit and excite literary talent’. New fellows use Byron’s pen or Dickens’s quill to sign in and the sense of history was palpable from the surroundings alone, set near Somerset House at the Royal Institute of Art, London.
V. S. Pritchett is regarded by the RSL as one of the country’s finest short story writers and the society set up this prize in 2000 to commemorate his birth.
The judges for this year’s competition were Philip Hensher, Adam Mars-Jones and Rose Tremain and before the prize -giving there was a discussion between the three of them about the short story. Here are a few snippets of what they had to say.
As author of 16 books, including award-winning ‘Restoration’ and numerous short stories Rose Tremain has been published in over 27 countries. She believes that writing short stories is the closest a fiction writer is to being a poet. She thinks that short stories can be considered a form of poetry in themselves. Philip Hensher, the chair of the discussion, disagreed strongly with her comment, asking how stories such as the Sherlock Holmes ones could ever be considered poetry? At this Adam Mars-Jones interrupted quietly and said, ‘surely the poetry is in the plotting’.
Rose Tremain considers it essential on not knowing yourself where the story is going and that this is part of the journey, telling your reader to come along and find out. Endings can vary and some be such as Mark Twain’s ‘snapper’ tales which have with a real bite at the end.
‘The fictional becomes real, the real becomes fictional,’ said Rose Tremain.
Her stories often start with an image or as a result of overheard conversation. Once during a particularly bad winter storm in America she heard one man say to another that it ‘is really good for roofters’ and from this one sentence she wrote a short story.
As for the fictional becoming real, Rose Tremain read from her short story ‘The Housekeeper’, where the Daphne du Maurier’s fictional Mandeville Hall is recreated as reality with Daphne du Maurier becoming a character in the story who visits the hall one summer.
Adam Mars-Jones, a novelist and also book, film and theatre critic, has just released his memoir ‘Kid Gloves’, admitted he has not written short stories for decades although he considered them a good tool for learning. His co-authored collection of short stories on people living and dying with AIDS was published in 1987.
He mentioned his dilemma of wanting to write one particular story about AIDS but was stuck as he did not want to use the word AIDS – even then, before the world of texting and emailing, he felt it was too shouty, too powerful and would dominate the story. In an epiphany one day he realised he could just substitute that word with another, in this case ‘slim’ and after that he could write the story. It was imbued with a a sense of humour which worked very well.
Philip Hensher, who has written numerous books including his semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Northern Clemency’, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, has recently edited the two rather large tomb-like volumes of ‘Penguin Book of the British Short Story’, considers the short story as a ‘witness’ on topical current events surrounding us, such as the World War II short stories. He reiterated the ‘immediate topicality’ of short stories and their ability to address urgent social issues. However he did recognise that the best short stories could also be totally irrelevant to current affairs.
Markets for short stories were discussed at length and I never knew how vibrant and well-paid the short story market was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Between 1890 and WWI there were at least 34 magazines in Britain printing short fiction. One of those mentioned was the ‘Strand’ magazine which had a huge circulation and could as a result pay handsomely for stories. In 1914 when the average annual salary was £ 400:- a year the ‘Strand’ paid £ 350:- per story. Imagine selling a short story for £ 27,000:-!! As Philip Hensher says ‘No wonder there was eager competition among writers; no wonder the best writers of the day, including Rudyard Kipling, DH Lawrence, Bennett, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells, placed the form at the very centre of their creative practice’.
There was disagreement about the expose these magazines offered to ‘experimental short fiction’ with Adam Mars-Jones believing the magazines did not afford many opportunities early on for this kind of fiction whereas Philip Hensher felt strongly that they did, although they would lead with a ‘safe story’ and often put the unusual experimental ones on the back pages of the magazine.
Although the short story market in the UK is languishing it is still vibrant in the US, the ‘New Yorker’ being a prime example of excellent literary short fiction, the writers agreed.
Another issue quickly discussed by the judges is the seeming unpopularity of the short story by the general public. Rose Tremain feels that the short story requires more effort from the reader as it is often full of original thinking and written in a tight structure which results in the reader having to peruse the work critically. This can be considered exhausting and as a result puts off potential readers. Novels by contrast she says resembles ‘a bouquet’, far easier to read with less expectation on the reader.
After an evening of interesting discussion and readings the winner and runner-up to the £1,000 Royal Society of Literature V.S.Pritchett Memorial Prize 2015 was announced. Following on Philip Hensher’s earlier point about topicality both stories were strong on current issues, one based in China, the other in Ukraine.
The sponsor’s of the prize, Christopher and Jennie Bland, announced the winner– Jonathan Tel with ‘The Seduction of a Provincial Accountant’. Unfortunately he was in San Fransisco writing a story about the current crisis in Syria so his agent picked up the £ 1000:- award. The runner-up was Nick Sweeney with ‘Traffic’.
All in all, my friend and I had an exciting inspirational and enlightening evening surrounded by so many like-minded people and listening to ideas from successful writers about the short story. Wine and refreshment afterwards were most welcome!