'The Penguin Book of British Short Stories Volume I: From Daniel Defoe to John Buchan', by Philip Hensher - Review

By Sansom, Ian | The Spectator, November 7, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The Penguin Book of British Short Stories Volume I: From Daniel Defoe to John Buchan', by Philip Hensher - Review


Sansom, Ian, The Spectator


In this handsome two-volume anthology, Philip Hensher convincingly establishes himself as a world authority on the short story, says Ian Sansom

The Penguin Book of British Short Stories Volume I: From Daniel Defoe to John Buchan Philip Hensher

Penguin, pp.717, £25, ISBN: 9780141395999

The Penguin Book of British Short Stories Volume II: From P.G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith Philip Hensher

Penguin, pp.734, £25, ISBN: 9780141396019

Philip Hensher, the thinking man's Stephen Fry -- novelist, critic, boisterously clever -- begins his introduction to his two-volume anthology of the British short story with typical gusto. 'The British short story is probably the richest, most varied and most historically extensive national tradition anywhere in the world.' Take that, ye upstart Americans, with your dirty realism and your New Yorker swank! Read it and weep, ye Johnny-come-latelys! Look to your laurels, Chekhov and Carver. Jorge Luis Who? Maupassant? Bof!

And there's more -- much much more. In a short introduction of just 35 pages Hensher sets out his stall, settles some old scores and convincingly establishes himself as a world authority on the subject of the short story, even though these days his own books -- The Northern Clemency, The Emperor Waltz -- tend to be vast baggy monsters with grand state-of-the-nation ambitions. (Though it's worth remembering that way back last century A.S. Byatt concluded her Oxford Book of English Short Stories [1998]with Hensher's 'Dead Languages' -- quite a compliment, and well deserved. Hensher now dutifully returns the compliment, dedicating his Penguin Book to Byatt, and including one of her own stories, naturally.)

If you buy both volumes -- Defoe to Buchan and Wodehouse to Zadie Smith -- and you absolutely should, because as books, as objects, they are as good as it gets, quality paper, thick-set, sewn, and handsome enough to hang on a wall -- you get the same introduction twice. Fortunately it's worth rereading. The second time around you start to notice the tiny little pricks and barbs that you missed the first time. Hilary Mantel gets a little dig ('The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' is 'not a very accomplished piece of work'). There is short shrift given to abstruse arguments and 'restrictive explanations' about the short story: Hensher blames such nonsense on 'the rise of creative writing as an academic discipline'. (Hensher is in fact a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University, so presumably partly responsible.)

As for his definition of the 'British' short story, it is, as it should be, delightfully idiosyncratic. The work of Elizabeth Bowen -- born in Ireland, lived in England -- is in, because her 'subject seems indubitably British', whatever that means. But Katherine Mansfield -- born in New Zealand, lived in England -- is out because there is a 'strong movement', apparently, to regard writers like her 'as conferring merit on their place of birth rather than their residence' -- which sounds rather like one of those silly academic arguments worth giving short shrift to, but never mind.

Hensher's tentative definitions of what characterises a typical British short story is perfectly unobjectionable: according to him the BSS is playful, it is 'rumbustious, violent, extravagant, fantastical', but also capable of 'withdrawn exactitudes'. That just about covers everything. You could probably argue that these are characteristics of all short stories, and possibly all literary fiction in all countries at all times. It would be an interesting argument, if one that Hensher would undoubtedly win: he doesn't strike one as someone to be bested.

Just whatever you do, don't get him started on short story competitions. He despises short story competitions (with the notable exception, presumably, of the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, for which he was a judge earlier this year). …

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