BOOKS: A Brief Moment of Madness ; Short Stories Must Be Neat, Tight and Polite, Right? Wrong, Says Mat Coward: They Should Pack a Wild Punch

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The Dog Catcher

by Alexei Sayle Sceptre, pounds 12, 312pp

England Calling:

24 stories for

the 21st century

edited by Julia Bell

and Jackie Gay Weidenfeld & Nicolson,

pounds 12.99, 319pp

You should use a short story, they say, to dissect a single moment or image, to study a fragment of emotion from every angle. Well, do that by all means if you don't mind boring your readers to death. Or else you could do what Alexei Sayle does, which is to cram in far too much stuff, so that if your story were a suitcase you'd need to employ four fat-bottomed Americans to sit on the lid to stop it exploding.

Sayle knows what short stories are for and what you can do with them - namely, absolutely anything. A well-made shortie is an all- terrain vehicle, capable of turning on a sixpence. It may not be fuel-efficient, compared to a novel, but the suspension is dreamy. He also understands that a short story without a story isn't a short story; it's just short.

A touch of madness should be supplied as standard with all short stories. A shortie without madness is like a 99 without the Flake, or a sandal without a scorpion. There's a prevalent belief that because short stories are short, the writer must never waste a word. Nonsense: he should waste as many words as possible, just to show he can. Successful short stories come in many shapes and flavours, but the one thing they must never be is small.

If I want to see still life I'll troll round an art gallery, or plough through a book by an English lecturer's spouse from north London. I read fiction to find out what might happen. Some of the best short stories cover three generations, four continents and at least seven parallel realities.

While every piece in Sayle's marvellous second collection The Dog Catcher combines strangeness and familiarity to moving and hilarious effect, a lack of weirdness is the greatest weakness in the anthology England Calling. For all the sex, drugs and violence their characters get up to, the authors seem reluctant to let themselves go. They are restrained, respectable, determined to be grown-up.

Manifesto-driven story collections are usually born with unconquerable defects. Stories which might seem perfectly acceptable if read on their own struggle when measured against the editors' ambitions. (One Sayle story appears in both books, and is notably less at home in England Calling.)

Julia Bell and Jackie Gay's idea is that "one way of orientating ourselves in new times is through fiction"; that during a period of great change, stories from various parts of the country might, together, provide a snapshot of "England - this turbulent, rebellious, mongrel nation - at the beginning of the twenty-first century". If you're planning a mass snapshot, it's best to synchronise your watches (several of the pieces seem to be about the 1980s or early 1990s). And doesn't "turbulent, rebellious, mongrel nation" sound more like naturally-occurring Britain than man-made England?

Many of the stories, in any case, do not seem obviously connected to this agenda, nor are many clearly stories as opposed to fictionalised reportage, or unfiltered autobiography. Given the book's stated aims, a surfeit of introspection is a particularly irritating vice. Too many of the contributions - a common failing outside the more disciplined popular genres - look as if they're going to be stories, right up until the last page. …