#Authorday, agents, Are You Sitting Comfortably?, Cloud Atlas, cookbooks, crime, Elizabeth Strout, George Saunders, Gone Girl, Granta, Jennifer Egan, Liar's League, Neil Gaiman, Peters Fraser & Dunlop, publishers, Rattle Tales, Raymond Carver, short stories, short story collections, Small WOnder, spoken word, The BBC National Short Story Award, The Beatles, The Bridport Prize, The Manchester Fiction Prize, The Word Factory
On Friday, checking in with Twitter, I came across #Authorday, which invited tweeters to ask agents from Peters Fraser & Dunlop questions about their work. I am presently sending out a themed collection of short stories so I thought I’d ask the obvious.
#Authorday how come agents hate short story collections when the best do actually sell better than bad genre?
Because finding a publisher to buy them is like putting a magnet to a haystack for that elusive needle.
I replied that as it was once again the year of the short story it should be getting easier for agents to get publishers interested and asked if it wasn’t a matter of pre-conception all round? Another short story writer commented that he too was disappointed by the lack of mainstream push for the genre. Neither of us got any further response.
This makes me so mad. What is it with British agents and publishers? They seem to be the only ones who hate short stories. It is not the case in the US or India. I have been writing them for a decade now. My ‘novel’ was actually a series of inter-linked short stories, people other than my family bought it and read it (not many granted, but I didn’t even know some of them). In all that time I have only spoken to one person about books who told me they didn’t like short stories. I have co-directed a short story night (Rattle Tales) for the last five years. We have produced 12 shows and most of them were completely sold out, sometimes we had to turn people away at the door. How can this be the case if people don’t like short stories? There are hundreds of organisations putting on similar events up and down the country; Liar’s League, The Word Factory, Are You Sitting Comfortably? to name but a few, plus countless festivals with short fiction strands. There is even a whole festival dedicated to the genre, Small Wonder, at Charleston farmhouse no less, always packed out even though it is in the wilds. How do they continue to run if no-one buys any tickets? How come lit mags like Granta survive if no-one buys short stories? Type the words short fiction journals into Google and look at the huge list that comes up! Are they all running on air and goodwill?
How come The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Times, The Spectator and many other non-literary titles commission short stories? If no-body likes them, why would they bother? Why is there a BBC Short Story Prize (aired on Radio Four), a Costa one, a Sunday Times one, the Bridport? How can The Manchester Fiction Prize offer thousands in prize-money if no-one is interested in anything other than crime and ghost-written celebrity cookbooks?
If no-body likes short stories how come Jennifer Egan and Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer with them? Those two books were not novels in the traditional sense, they were short story collections disguised to suit the pre-conceptions of agents and publishers. If no-one buys them why were collections by George Saunders and Neil Gaiman number one on the New York Times Bestsellers list? Remember Cloud Atlas? Booker nominated, glossy Hollywood movie, Richard & Judy Book of the year. It’s a collection of short stories! Or ‘six nested stories’ if you want to quote the publisher blurb.
Without short stories, there would be no Hemmingway, Chekov, Fitzgerald, Steven King, Laurie Moore, William Trevor, no Flannery O’Conor, no Raymond Carver. Thank god for indie publishers. However, the indies are overrun with submissions (strange that, as no-one is interested in short fiction) many close their windows after just a few weeks, some are only accepting recommendations from authors on their lists and agents. Back to agents. Remember the story about Decca telling The Beatles that they wouldn’t be signing them because ‘guitar bands are on the way out’? Remind you of something?
How many short story collections did you buy in the last year? they ask smugly. About fifteen actually. I know I’m not average in this but I know I’m not the only one. It’s a nonsense question anyway, did Malcolm Gladwell’s agent say how many books of essays on society and genius did you buy last year?
Brighton Waterstones has a stand dedicated to short fiction publications (established by short story writer Sara Crowley when she worked there). The shelves on it are not always full, sometimes there are spaces where books have been bought! They stocked the Rattle Tales Anthology this year and do you know what? They sold some!
Crime and cook books done well are wonderful but no-body needs another version of Gone Girl because it’s easy to sell. Shake it up a bit, dust off the guitars, you might be surprised.