Writers on Writing: The Art of the Short Story

By Maurice A. Lee | Go to book overview

Apartheid in Literary Criticism

Alfred Birney

If someone were to ask me about setting records, I'd look at how long it took me to write a short story or a novel. My speed record for the sprint lies at three days, for the distance run nine months. So, not unusual. My records for slowness are more interesting. I worked for twelve years on my longest novel and needed just as much time to write one of my short stories. It's somewhere in the middle of my only collection of short stories, one of my finest books and also the only one that was really hard for me to get published. My publisher was impressed by the style and the variety, but didn't publish it without reluctance. Why? Because short stories barely sell in the Netherlands. Is that true?

Short stories have their history. If you wanted to become a writer in the mid-1970s, the rules were set. It was ideal to start with poetry, consequently to devote yourself to the short story, and then make the jump to the novel. Almost all of the current arrives, they said, had taken that route. Poetry as an exercise in style, the short story as a finger exercise. In this context, poetry was of course dutifully considered the highest form of literary art, but it was particularly novels that were talked about in the literary salon. Between these genres lay the no-man's-land of the short story.

If a positive aspect did cling to the writer's traditional route, it would be that particular attention was paid to style. Unfortunately, style was primarily understood to be an erudite way of writing. If you could manage to suggest that you knew your classics well, in playful references for instance, you were sitting pretty. In any case you proved you weren't just somebody off the street. Of course, with the Western classics as your stock-in-trade, the rest of the world didn't count.

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