For me, and I expect for lots of other people, The Year The Short Story Was Fashionable was a bit like The Year Your Favourite Secret Band Went Global: sort of great but annoying at the same time, because hard-won songs you once mined from the mulch of the ordinary and listened to in private via your headphones are now playing everywhere, even at the supermarket, and as a consequence your favourite secret band will never be quite the same again.
So in 2013, after years of working with short stories as a writer, editor, and then a writer again … all of a sudden, short stories are everywhere. And after years in which ‘what do you do?’ conversations ground to a halt whenever short stories were mentioned — well, things have finally turned around, and people want to contribute to that conversation. Apart from the brother, whom I dragged along to a short story reading this summer, only to be told this was the first and last reading he would ever willingly attend. And he left halfway through. But the brother aside, short story fever is sweeping the planet. Publishers, editors and even literary agents are gritting their teeth and forgetting how little time they had, not long ago, for what they now respectfully refer to as ‘the short story as a form’.
So why 2013? Why this particular year? What made a difference? Well, I guess one key thing is that this year a few really, really big prizes went to short fiction writers. The Nobel Prize in Literature went to Canadian author Alice Munro, who has mainly published short story collections. And another significant prize, the Man Booker International, went to Lydia Davis, an American writer of stories as short as a single line, who has also not had much truck with the novel in her long writing career.
Perhaps sales play a part also? Perhaps publishing insiders are thinking, ‘Since (e)books no longer have a spine, let’s stop worrying about length’ — could that be it? Perhaps they feel it saves paper? I don’t know. Probably it’s not that simple, in the same way there was never a clear cut reason why your favourite band went global, it is an accumulation of inconsequential reasons. My Mum, an avid reader of the thickest of doorstopper blockbusters in their glory day, has mentioned recently how much easier and more satisfying she now finds it to read short stories. Which is nice, except that she then recommends stories that I’ve either already read and liked, or have already read and do not like, so it is hard to think of a useful response. But hey, I guess it is still a Good Thing.
So to celebrate this Good Thing and pass it along, I will share with you a link for a rather unusual story, written a long time before the short story’s current fashionability, and inspired by historical events 250 years before 2013. I first read this story some years ago but it remains a personal favourite, although I prefer not to try to figure out why, as that might spoil its magic. So as my highlight of 2013 please accept a link for ‘The Year Cuba Was British’ by Chris Rose.
And what the hell, to get you started, and to commemorate The Year The Short Story Was Fashionable, why not share with you Chris Rose’s audacious opening paragraph:
Long before the sickly peppery smell of over-ripe guayaba and fruta bomba mixed with that of leady smog in the markets, and in the time when you could still swim in the sea along the Malecon, when there were boys who learned to ride horses by jumping on their bare backs and trying to get away as quickly as possible and when children kept birds of prey as pets and went looking for lizards hiding under leaves that their birds would eat with one sudden dart of the head, unblinking, their gaze fixing you as you watched their casual cruelty, in the time when the clouds that gathered over the Sierra del Escambray looked like solidified rocks, like vast swirls of spilt white paint and when there were storms which would split open the sky and let you see the infinite white light beyond for a fraction of a second before it closed up again and made a sound like the sky itself was shattering and falling down around you, when nothing lined the one road that runs like a backbone along the caiman-shaped island but a few reedy, pale royal palms, when young girls with heavy black eyebrows sat at tall windows in the cooler evening air and looked out from behind barred windows as if from huge gilded birdcages and unfurled fans as beautiful and as intricate as the spread wings of the moths which hid in the shadowy eaves high up in their high-ceilinged houses, and before the fields started to be taken over with the rich green sugar cane that would later make their Spanish owners rich enough to build mansions bigger than those in Seville or Madrid, before all this, there was a year when Cuba was British.
Being the audience that you are, I expect you noticed that the opening paragraph is also the opening sentence, which clocks in at a generous 293 words. Longer than quite a few of Lydia Davis’s stories, by all accounts. Read on (how could you not, really?) and you will find that the other sentences are somewhat shorter. But they’re all good.
‘The Year Cuba Was British’
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis