A Move against the Dinosaurs: The New Puritans and the Short Story

Article excerpt

Abstract. The short story in Britain experienced a modest, but significant, change in its fortunes at the end of the 1990s and in the first years of the new millennium. Despite the bleak commercial prospects for the short story as a genre, new authors took up the form as an outlet for their creative energies, feeling that established writers already occupied the space reserved for the literary novel and mainstream literature in general. This state of things is perfectly exemplified in the anthology All Hail the New Puritans (2000), an interesting attempt by a group of young writers to introduce some excitement in the somewhat rigid literary scene of their time. In the present article the achievement of this volume of short stories is assessed in connection with similar collections published in the same period.

Keywords: British short story, alternative literature, youth cultures, publishing industry, contemporary British literature, All Hail the New Puritans

The short story and the publishing industry

The end of the 1990s and the first years of the new millennium saw a significant revival of short story collections in Britain. This statement, however, needs to be instantly qualified so that it is not blown out of proportion, because any assessment of the British short story must be written in precise, cautious terms. This chapter will demonstrate that much of the creative surge in the short story at the beginning of the twenty-first century came from stories written by young authors, and will explore the ideological environment that allowed the short story to flourish. The analysis will focus on a particular collection, All Hail the New Puritans (2000) which, in my opinion, encapsulates many of the trends of the new fiction of this period.

The commercial and sociological panorama of the literary short story at the beginning of the twenty-first century is certainly bleak, as authors and scholars have often acknowledged. Short story writer and editor Nicholas Blincoe summarised the situation as follows:

It is possible to argue that there is no living short- story tradition in England. Certainly, there is no market. Mass circulation newspapers and magazines publish them too infrequently to build a vibrant short-story scene. A collection of short stories will always sell poorly compared to a novel by the same author. Anthologies sell even worse. In fact, anthologies sell so badly that the only way of having a hope in hell of shifting even a couple of thousand copies is to make a wild claim on the cover and then sprinkle enough well-known writers throughout to pique the interest of the casual browser. (Blincoe)

When asked about the matter, other authors have expressed their views in a similar vein. In an interview, short story writer Ali Smith lamented the fact that publishers were wary of short stories and added that she had once been offered a third more money if she would write a novel instead (qtd. in Winterson). Likewise Will Self wrote in a note to his first collection Grey Area and Other Stories (1994) that it was a rare thing to be commissioned to write any short fiction at all. Similar testimonies abound. There are complex reasons for this state of affairs, but the most frequently adduced explanation is the lack of a short story tradition in Britain, and thus the absence of a nourishing environment around the short story that might sustain its growth. Paul March-Russell, in his book The Short Story: An Introduction (2009), tells of a survey carried out in the first years of the present century; one of its conclusions was that ccWhat was absent [in Britain . . . ] was a culture of reading and appreciating short stories" (51), which does not differ much from the complaint expressed by V.S. Pritchett concerning his early short stories of the 1930s when he said that "there was not a public for them" (qtd. in Forkner and Séjourné 185). Neither does modern consumerist society contribute to the reading of literary short stories. …