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There is a 1937 collection of H.E.Bates short stories, Country Tales, to which the author has added an introductory essay called The Writer Explains. Though only four pages long, it throws light on a wide range of issues that might concern us as writers, and even eighty years later holds much that resonates with current experience.

Bates asserts the supremacy of the short story: ‘…it is in every way a finer means of expression…..than either the novel or poetry.’ He bemoans the lack of newspaper and magazine support for the form (in the UK), and cites the importance of other forms of publication: ‘The existence of the short story seems to depend largely therefore on its survival in volume form’. He gives a reason for writing: ‘…for pleasure, and out of a passionate interest in human lives.’ And he writes about his development as a writer: ‘I had the choice either of repeating myself……or of consciously trying to widen my range of sympathy and develop myself’.

This last undertaking, the transition from a writer of ‘the dreamy world of the subjective’ to ‘a wider, harder, more objective world,’ is one that, in some form or another, I suspect any self-conscious writer must eventually confront.

And those outlets he complains about the lack of – and the poor rates of pay: how, I wonder, would he regard the upsurge of magazines and journals devoted to the form, yet which pay nothing. Curiously, he compares the short story to the ‘heroic couplet’ in ‘the age of Pope’, which, perhaps unintentionally raises the issue of to what extent the writers of those times were actually commercial in any real sense. The sonnet was a form that writers of Shakespeare’s time used to show off to each other, surely, rather than to make money from? And even a writer as late as George Moore, according to one biography, was priming the pump of his publications with inputs of money that eventually ate up the value of his Irish landownings.

That assertion of the ‘fineness’ of the form is still relevant, especially in the context of Bates’ associated remark that it is ‘still in its infancy’, something that his writing contemporary, A.E.Coppard, was entirely at odds with – tracing it back to the oral tradition. Bates attacks this idea vehemently in his The Modern Short Story, fearing that it might lead to writers not being paid for their work. Digital recording, podcasts and streaming, and those non-paying magazines, might be seen as proof of this pudding. But also, could be seen as a return to the days when those who want to write do so, among other reasons, for the pleasure of entertaining each other, rather than for money (making them, according to Doctor Johnson, of course, ‘Blockheads!’).

There’s perhaps an irony too, in the title of the collection in which this introduction appears, for that ‘Tales’ was the term that Coppard always used for his short stories, and which so irritated Bates that he condemned it in his history of the form.

It seems to me that when we are interested and engaged in the making of things, be they wooden chairs, or clay pots, or short stories, the means of making must interest us to a much greater degree than they do those who only sit upon them, or fill (and empty) them, and read them!