In 2017, there’s a cornucopia of platforms celebrating short fiction. From websites, e-zines and traditional publications, to illustrious annual competitions (for example, those run out of Bridport and Bath), the short story has never enjoyed such attention – at least not in Britain. All this is a boon, for both reader and writer, with every genre and sub-genre finding its own space for appreciation, experimentation and ‘growth’.
Several of these outfits are now publishing anthologies, which of course is a great way to showcase their best. However, where writers have been working to a defined brief, or targeting the ‘bent’ of a particular platform, this can surface in such collections – i.e. the notes being struck within the reader, from one story to another, may be similar – which can dampen the power of the whole.
Salt Publishing’s Best British Short Stories 2017, now in its seventh year, has a different strategy – rather than dangling bait and seeing who bites, they instead trawl deep and long-standing currents: ‘…the editor’s brief is wide ranging, covering anthologies, collections, magazines, newspapers and websites, looking for the best of the bunch to reprint all in one volume.’ And it shows… indeed, the strategy pays a double dividend. Firstly, whatever the editor Nicholas Royle selects, has already been parsed by another critical eye. And secondly, because the area being trawled is so wide, there is no ‘sameness’ – each contributor tests and teases the reader in unique ways.
Laura Pocock’s ‘Dark Instruments’, a tale of next-gen voodoo, is both contemporary and yet classical, possessing the macabre, mysterious edge of Edgar Allen Poe. Courttia Newland’s ‘Reversible’, concerning the gunning down of a young black man by the police, is cleverly constructed – Newland delays drawing the reader’s sympathy, until the point they realise the story’s events are anything but reversible. ‘As You Follow’ by Giselle Leeb is superficially fantastical, but at heart it’s an observation on growing up – on mourning the loss of one’s youth and its concomitant joie de vivre; on stepping out of oneself and seeing how one’s former indefatigability, has slowly withered.
For those new to short stories, the quality and breadth of what is being showcased here, will not easily be bettered. Moreover, the experiential difference that contemporary short stories offer, when compared to novel reading – the unique register they can strike – makes this collection all the more valuable.
For the seasoned short story reader, the collection can serve as a ‘state of the nation’ snapshot. Though it’s not obvious, and it is certainly not planned, common themes can be divined. Loss and loneliness: an almost tangible entropic sense runs through several of these selected works. The desolation of Niven Govinden’s protagonist in ‘Waves’, as he tries to muster resolve to fight a life-threatening illness, is almost palpable. Lara Williams’ ‘Treats‘, a story of a woman whose life has rather un-dramatically folded, is pretty much short story perfection. And in ‘Words and Things to Sip’ by James Kelman, the protagonist’s aching for his life to be stitched back up again, just as it is falling apart, is beautifully rendered. In Kelman’s story, my personal favourite, a whole world can be divined from a single paragraph; such is the power in his writing.
Any Cop?: In the Best British Stories 2017, a sense of loss, isolation and loneliness surfaces time and again; is given artistic expression. There is no such thing as ‘the best’ – declaring the same merely sets oneself up to be bettered – this collection though, will take some real beating.