Penelope Lively and Helen Simpson on literary brevity

Filed under: FictionShort story

Penelope Lively, Helen Simpson, William Skidelsky and Alison Samuel discuss the short story at the award of the 2009 V.S. Pritchett Prize

V.S. Pritchett’s painfully apposite definition of short-story writing was discussed by a panel consisting of writers (Penelope Lively and Helen Simpson), a literary editor (William Skidelsky) and a publisher (Alison Samuel). The evening was also a celebration of the 2009 V.S.Pritchett prize.

Introducing the event, Anne Chisholm told an enthusiastic audience that this award, very generously supported the Pritchett family and also by ALCS, was this year being relaunched in a new collaboration with Prospect magazine. She also warned that the clearly audible mood music from the opening of Somerset House’s skating season event might prove something of a distraction.

Undaunted, Penelope Lively set the scene. Envisaging herself in the role of both reader and writer of short stories, she attempted to close on a list of imperatives: what would make her return to a particular short story, or indeed choose it in the first place? Definite conclusions emerged: a story must be compelling, credible and a particular climate established; characters must ‘stand up at once and convince; and last but not least, what is the story about? But yet, she confessed, when she wrote a story she never thought of the list: ‘An idea arrives with a bang or not at all.’

Penelope Lively spoke warmly of the genesis of a short story as ‘a mysterious arrival, lived experience, springing from something seen or overheard,’ now or in the past. Influenced by word count, new writers tended to cut their teeth on short stories – very different, as Penelope Lively underlined, from the promptings of a novel, which she described as ‘hacking at the mountain face’. But she ended by affirming the particularly demanding nature of short stories, ‘this most difficult form’. There was murmur of agreement from the panel at this and at her bookshelf of greats: Bernard Malamud, William Trevor, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen – whom she constantly reread – and two particular recommendations, Peter Taylor and Frank Tuohy.

A quarter to eight struck, the volume of the music rose, but none in the audience slid out to see Torville and Dean in action. The Observer’s books editor, William Skidelsky, concentrated on the dangers of losing the short story. He spoke of the glory years, when writers could make a living from the publication of short stories, and of US dominance in the form. But still – although to the literary world short stories seemed imperilled, because publishers were of the view that short stories don’t sell and supply now very much outstripped demand – he was reassured by the recent publication of good new collections and regular press outlets, like Prospect and the Sunday Times, which were championing the genre – the latter was running the richest award (£25,000) for a single short story in Britain and Ireland. He also saw grounds for hope in the rise of creative-writing courses, in which short stories could form the ideal teaching tool, and – looking to new technology – speculated on stories as the neat, quick natural download for electronic books.

Helen Simpson was to read a forthcoming new story, Charm for a Friend with a Lump, but first she vigorously countered the view that authors couldn’t make a living out of short-story writing. It might be hard, but if you believed in the form, you simply had to continue writing short stories – and a short story could have a number of incarnations, with first publication in newspapers and magazines, possibly broadcasts on radio, and then selected, collected, in book form, perhaps even on film. Chatto editor Alison Samuel, whose authors included Alice Munro and Jane Gardam, expressed a love of the brilliant short story, but did admit to misgivings when it came to a novelist turning to write a short-story collection – sales would be only half those achieved by a novel.

But there was no dissension about the subtlety and inventiveness of stories, evident amongst entrants for this year’s V.S. Pritchett Award. Tom Chatfield, Prospect’s books editor, speaking for fellow judges Georgina Hammick and Jacob Ross, summed up a strong 2009 entry. Commenting that the art of the short story left no hiding place for the author, he congratulated the runner-up Ruth Thomas, author of The Rock of Ages, who was in the audience, and the winner, poet Kate Clanchy. He commended the sincerity of her vision in The Dead and the Not-Saved, an unexpected and rewarding story and only the third she had written. She was presented with a £1,000 cheque by Prospect’s editor David Goodhart and then joined the panellists for further discussion and questions from the audience. Outside the music went on, louder and rockier than ever, model Lily Cole lost her balance. No doubt about which audience had had the better time.