Zadie Smith and the Case for the Serious Short Story

Zadie Smith and the Case for the Serious Short Story

Miriam Balanescu explores the power of the shorter form, and asks if the reader experience is outstripping the way the industry feels about it.

Is fiction getting shorter? In our present-day rhythm of plugging in our earphones on the way to work, snatching snippets of podcasts and catch-up television, short fiction would seem to be at peak popularity. The shift from film to television series, making commuter entertainment bite-size and easily streamed, is mirrored in the movement away from hefty novels and toward short stories and novellas.

In recent years, short stories have had numerous triumphs. Canadian writer Alice Munro was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2013 as ‘master of the contemporary short story’. Kristen Roupenian became a global name after her story in The New Yorker (2017), ‘Cat Person’, went viral. Aberaeron-based writer Cynan Jones made his success with short stories published in Granta and The New Yorker and won the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. His longest novel barely stretches over two hundred and twenty-five pages. Jones explains the shortness of his work through his description of it as ‘a moment, not a journey’ (Los Angeles Review, 2016).

The short story seems an ideal medium through which to convey frenzied, fragmented modernity. There is a current obsession over ‘moments’, from Instagram pictures to two-minute news. Social media turns our mind from one thing to the next at a speed-of-phone-screen-light pace. Much has been said about short stories and short attention spans. Perhaps ‘Cat Person’ is a sign of an oncoming story-telling revolution, when short stories and clickbait become indistinguishable.

Yet there is still doubt of the form’s ability to stand on its own. The Bookseller reported in 2017 that short story anthology sales had been at their highest since 2010. Back in 2014, however, Sam Baker claimed in The Telegraph that ‘the short story is having “a moment”’, with similar observations of a ‘welcome’ then a ‘powerful renaissance’ in the Irish Independent and the Spectator between 2013 and 2016. Announcements of the short story’s ‘resurgence’ occur annually. This is forgetting that Shirley Jackson had great success with ‘The Lottery’ all the way back in 1948, and Annie Proulx’s 1997 story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was adapted into a film which grossed 178 million dollars (both published in The New Yorker). Chris Power was one of the first to comment on publishers’ recycling of press releases (Guardian, 2018). For the past ten years, short stories have been sold as cutting-edge because of their form, rather than simply for being good fiction. Critics’ remarks on the short story’s ‘resurgence’ have added to the fact that they aren’t considered commonplace.

zadie smithZadie Smith’s first story collection Grand Union has met with scepticism for this very reason. Why would an established novelist release a collection of stories at this point in her career? This is a question posed by Keith Miller in the Literary Review, based on the traditional notion that an author’s publishing timeline goes: short story collection, a few reviews, then novels. The short story’s reputation has perhaps been damaged by writers selling low-quality stories to magazines to keep themselves financially afloat: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes and even Sylvia Plath are guilty. The result: mainly novels are reserved for the publishing houses. Young author Daisy Johnson, initially a short story writer, was only given a publishing deal on the promise that she would write novels after Fen. Kristen Roupenian, author of ‘Cat Person’, similarly secured a deal for a short story collection, only if it was to be followed by a novel.

Publishers also on occasion pretend that works of short fiction are novels. American author Mary Gaitskill’s most recent ‘novella’ was originally ten pages in The New Yorker. It is now published by Serpent’s Tail for £7.99. Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers is only one-hundred-and-fourteen pages, but it is clearly stated on the cover that this is in fact ‘A Novel’. Lanny, Porter’s latest novel, is still only two-hundred-and-twenty-four pages. This stubborn categorisation of short fiction as longer forms is chipping away at the genre’s standing.

Publishers seem to lack confidence that short fiction will sell, but by ushering budgets in other directions they reinforce the idea that short stories are a less serious kind of literature. Grand Union by Zadie Smith is a fierce push against this. Within the short story form, Smith finds huge potential to extract meaning not simply from words but from the spaces in between. Grand Union isn’t necessarily a fast-paced read; Smith’s ideas need mulling over.

The collection weaves between Poland, London, Felixstowe, Paris and New York, a holiday resort in Spain, unnamed villages and the American border. She opens with a story titled ‘The Dialectic’, and our minds are instantly cast to ancient theory. At its simplest, dialectic means a discourse between two people used to carve out a better truth. Smith encourages us to read the rest of Grand Union with these theories in mind: that we can find a resolution in the difference between two voices.

But for Zadie Smith there is an added dimension: her stories turn dialects into dialectics. She delves into the differences between places, investigating what happens to cultures and communities in the wake of immigration. Whether Irish pub-goers in New York, an Antiguan carpenter in London, satirically British sunbathers in Spain, or a Polish mechanic who has fled for America leaving his wife and children at home, the short story is the perfect form to put these voices in conversation.

For Zadie Smith, choppy vignettes, reminiscent of Hemingway’s In Our Time, best characterise the modern ‘mood’. In a story of this name, we are offered a surreal reflection on our surreal times. ‘Mood’ begins with a pithy city scene about the repetitions of life, annual jumps and the threat of turning into our parents. Flicking further through this series of vignettes, we catch up with ‘old punks’, dive into the existence of a struggling young photographer, read profound snippets from Tumblr, scrutinise where our identity really is (‘are you in your tote bag? In the plants?’), hear a woman and her parrot bemoan Donald Trump, and think about “feeling unreal”.

The darkly comic ‘Medieval Moods’ reveals a glimpse of a refugee boat on its way to Lampedusa. In the next paragraph, we are swept to the American border where children are separated from their mothers and kept in a tent furnished with a stack of nappies but with no one present to change them. In the next, a young student thousands of dollars in debt. The absurdist style is a daring take on the ridiculousness of the modern world. The major dislocation in ‘Mood’ seems to be between our anxiety about youth and technology (concerns for a future world) and the unbelievable horrors that still happen today (worries that should belong in the past). There seems to be little resolution here, but almost impossibly they meld into the contemporary landscape. Smith articulates through these fragments the idea that when the world feels “unreal”, it is more and more difficult to hold onto our sense of self.

Many have forgotten that Zadie Smith is no stranger to the short story. After her work was printed in student anthology The Mays, Smith attracted the attention of a publisher. She was offered a book deal for what would be written over the course of her final year studying, which became the novel White Teeth. Eleven stories in Grand Union are unpublished, but the rest have appeared in the pages of numerous magazines over the course of six years.

These stories have evolved alongside changes in politics and technology. I agree with Chris Power that short stories have been popular for decades, but I disagree on his point that the form should no longer carry weight. Since the modernist period, when writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce were turning to the form, many short stories haven’t lost that sense of innovation. In Grand Union, Smith’s stories become increasingly self-conscious of their own form.

Zadie Smith’s narrators are shape-shifting, often unsettling, leaving us unsure of where we are, whose mind we inhabit, and how we are supposed to feel when the story ends. Not only do the narrators make us uncomfortable, but by the end of the collection it is very clear that Smith wants us to feel uneasy about narrative itself. After all, what is the point of telling a story?

Holding onto identity after ‘daring to cross an ocean one last time’ is a key consideration in ‘Kelso Deconstructed’. We are given a one-day glimpse into the life of couple Kelso and Olivia. Five lines in and we also know that this is the true history of Kelso Cochrane’s last day alive. In a strange intermingling of fact and fiction, the “dramatic irony” of the couple’s choices that day, the foreshadowing of Kelso’s death by a speaker in Hyde Park and the newspapers headlined ‘SIGNS AND SYMBOLS!’, the relationship between what is fabricated and what is real is tested.

Day to day, we can’t help but fictionalise our existences, filling in details and picking protagonists. Is telling a story always politically motivated? The place of Kelso Cochrane’s murder is marked by a plaque to commemorate his death’s importance to the creation of the Race Relations Act 1965. Yet to reduce Kelso Cochrane, the living human, to a symbol could be considered distasteful. We ignore that he probably never intended to be part of a political movement. In ‘daring to cross an ocean one last time’, from Antigua to America to England, Kelso was intending to start life afresh, pursue his aspirations to become a lawyer – yet he trips into the river of political narrative. Zadie Smith, in her ending to the story, reminds us of the burden that she holds as a narrator. She is contributing to the somewhat disconcerting idea that ‘ALL THE WORLD IS TEXT’.

Paradoxically Smith’s motive is to make us think about the motivations of story-telling itself. Are stories always political? Before Kelso dies, Olivia stitches away at a ‘perfectly pointless’ piece of ornamental embroidery, reading:

‘Words are to be taken seriously.

I try to take seriously acts of language.

Words set things in motion.

I’ve seen them doing it.’

Especially in the present-day, with the burgeoning power of collective words, in tabloids, on Twitter, Zadie Smith is aware that she must tread carefully.

Plot is limited in ‘Kelso Deconstructed’. In much of the rest of the collection, Zadie Smith relinquishes plot altogether. True to the title, in ‘The Lazy River’ nothing happens. The narrator is a ventriloquism of the imagined, perhaps over-stereotyped collective voice of a Brit abroad, ‘en masse’ and ‘unashamed’, who mostly ‘voted for Brexit’. Zadie Smith divulges their very worst secrets down to the ‘scum’ that they leave in the hotel swimming pool. ‘Parents’ Morning Epiphany’ is a hilarious analysis of a hand-out on how to write narratives. ‘Sentimental Education’ explores theories other than dialectics, referencing Nancy Friday and Hélène Cixous in a study of what would happen if the language of desire were reversed. Her experimentation evokes Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in its emphasis on ideas and diminishment of events. Smith lets story flow into essay, with her often conversational tone and pondering detours. Her last book, Feel Free, was an essay collection, and it seems that the inquisitive approach of Grand Union is not so different.

Grand Union demonstrates that short forms can do what the novel cannot quite achieve: expressing disrupted ideas of self, anxiety over political extremes and current feelings of displacement. By trying to harness rivers that dart in different directions, attempting to unify discordant voices, Zadie Smith leaves potential for endless meaning in the gaps.


Miriam Balanescu is a books journalist, writer and illustrator who has previously written for Stylist and will be working with The Guardian in 2020. Her short stories and poems have been included in The Airgonaut and Polyglossia, amongst other publications.