I’ve been writing about Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s short stories. Q, who has been dead these seventy years, is one of those forgotten writers. He doesn’t make it into the recent Penguin two volume The British Short Story, nor was he in the 1997 Short Fiction Reference Guide (St James’ Press).

When I write about short stories by dead writers I’m conscious of being in some way against the grain. So much so in fact that I feel it’s an activity I have to make a point of justifying, not only to the world, but also to myself. What is the justification for writing about stories that are in one sense over and done with? What is the justification for reading them in the first place?

The answer brings me to a confrontation with much that is going on around me, and to some degree explains my decision in the last quarter of last year, to withdraw from the steering committee of the local ‘book festival.’ I could encapsulate that decision in something fellow writer Vivien Jones wrote, pointing out the difference between ‘book’ festivals’ and ‘literary’ ones. Implicit in those two terms are both the differences between the festival types, and the reasons for reading, and encouraging discussion of dead writers.

The ‘book festival’ mindset is focussed on commercially available products with a view to encouraging sales. The ‘literary festival’ mindset is focussed upon the writing that can and often does find its way into commercially produced books.

I was recently given a subscription to The London Review of Books, and the first copy turned up just before Christmas. I’m not going to suggest that lrb is doing anything that it doesn’t say it’s doing on its packet. In fact, it says nothing on its cover about what it’s doing, but look inside and it becomes apparent that it’s reviewing a particular type of book ….the type that is in print, and newly in print at that.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but in these days when just about anything that has ever been published is available online, and when an awful lot of stuff that would never have been published – but which is quite likely to be better than an awful lot that has – is also available, the newness and ‘in printness’ of books is really only important to the people who have put them into print.

What’s new always catches the human attention, however limited the span. I suppose it’s a survival mechanism. Whenever anything new shows up in your habitat, it’s important to find out quickly whether it’s a threat or an opportunity. Reading for pleasure – in the widest definition of that – though, doesn’t need to be reading of what’s just shown up. I come back to the reminder of how children’s favourite stories are the ones they like to read and read again. In fact, a story can’t become a favourite if you have forgotten it. It has to be remembered, and can be renewed by rereading, by re-hearing or retelling in an aural tradition.

One of the differences between stories, and bookselling, is that stories exist in their own right, whereas bookselling is about brands. A lousy story by a well known writer will outsell a great one by an unknown. And whereas the well known writer’s sales might drop off over a series of lousy stories, and an unknown writer’s sales increase over a series of brilliant ones, the fact remains that the publishing industry is building, and selling on a sort of brand awareness, which favours the collection over the anthology.

Our own reading lives however, create personal anthologies, much as the music lover these days creates his or her own play lists. The play lists of the short story reader can free that reader from the limitations of the traditional book publisher’s need to produce another ‘new’ volume for sale. They can be made up of the works of dead writers; made up of living stories. [some publishers, Turnpike, for example, are specializing now in reviving ‘forgotten’ writers]

And here’s the critical difference. If we concentrate on finding stories we like, to anthologise in our private play lists, we move, conceptually, away from concentration on the writer, towards a focus on the writing. As I have found again and again, stories written hundreds of years ago, by writers I had never heard of, can bring the greatest pleasure, and can spark new stories, and sit alongside new stories quite happily. That’s why the great, and growing resource of the past, from a reader’s perspective, is worth quarrying, mining, harvesting or plundering – whichever is your metaphor of choice.

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