Something caught my eye in an old Sunday Telegraph Review section. They run a short story club – that’s for the encouragement of short stories and short story writers! Here is a sentence from their November 17th offering:

‘Short stories are a vital training ground for new novelists and a chance for established ones to experiment’.’

Here’s a sentence from A.E.Coppard’s introduction to his American collecftion of ‘tales’, c1948:

‘the relationship of the short story to the novel amounts to nothing at all.’

The novel is a form made possible by the advent of printing. The short story (or ‘tale’) pre-dated writing and was already a venerable form by the time printing arrived. The printing revolution may have influenced the way short stories are written, but the lineage of the two forms is clearly different.

There are people who can do both, and there are those who can do neither, but having the ability to do the one does not confer the ability to do the other, nor, I suspect does it make it easier!

One of the way-markers that helped me to work my way into writing short stories was V.S.Pritchett’s remark that they ‘spring from a poetic rather than a prosaic impulse’, drawing the parallel away from the novel, and laying it alongside poetry. This chimes in with Ford Maddox Ford’s remark about Coppard, that he had put ‘poetry’ into the English short story. I can’t imagine anyone saying that poetry was a good apprenticeship for short story writing though, nor vice-versa, yet it occours to me that both might be true, and truer than the same remark for the novel.

Of course the size of novels tempts us to see them as bigger brothers of the short story, but, thinking of poetry again, I can remember the Cumberland Poet, Norman Nicholson throwing away the line, when introducing a relatively long poem, that he hadn’t had the time to write a short one! Comparing a single short story with a blockbuster novel seems to give precedence to the novel, but comparing a slim novel with the Decameron – one of the earliest collections of written prose tales – the big brother doesn’t look so big, and will certainly not be so venerable.

Comparing a favourite poem with a favourite novel, and trying to see one as in some way superior to the other seems merely a fatuous exercise. Comparing short stories with novels should seem the same. It’s not so much a comparison of apples and oranges, as one of fruits and jewels – and I’m not sure which would be which!

The Telegraph writer’s comment would be depressing enough in any context, but in the context of having been uttered by the mouthpiece of the paper’s short story club it is doubly so!

Until what Coppard recognised more than half a century ago is more widely recognised the short story will remain in the unsafe hands of those who see it as a lesser art form, and that is doing it no favours.

A Selection of my short stories, Talking To Owls, which probably needs all the favours it can call in, is being ‘launched’ on Thursday evening (6th December) at Bookcase, on Castle Street, Carlisle, at 7.00pm. Come along and buy a copy, or just listen to me reading a couple of stories, if you have a mind to…..

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