The Short Story And The Concept Of The Best

Reader Logo by Elizabeth Baines

I’m all behind the protest against BBC Radio 4’s decision to cut short stories, and urge you sign the petition if haven’t done so already. There’s no doubt that Radio 4 has been the biggest outlet for short stories in recent history, and there is much in the argument that the loss of the platform could damage the cultural status of the short story.

But such ‘cultural capital’ is perhaps not the only thing that should concern us with regard to the health of the short story. The fact that the BBC is the main sponsor of the National Short Story Award, the shortlist of which has just been announced, is an irony not only in view of the proposed cut, but also in view of the fact that the competition claims to aim to look for stories that represent the ‘best’ of British writing in the form. Under such a circumstance ‘best’ here has to include being suitable for radio, and so doesn’t include every kind of best. There’s bound to be a bias against certain kinds of writing – multi-voiced stories for instance, or non-linear stories, those without an obvious and easily-grasped forward motion and needing to be pondered, stories where the typography is part of the reading experience and meaning, any characteristic that isn’t best conveyed by being read out loud.

I like all of the stories on this year’s shortlist - indeed I think it’s a particularly strong one - and in fact I’d say that in terms of form they do a remarkable job of challenging the strictures of radio. Every one of them manages a non-linear ‘flashback’ effect, so that we get that circular sense of tunnelled time and thus the poignant sense of consequence, change or contrast that the short-story form can do so well. Alison McLeod’s ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ and K J Orr’s ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’ did it with least compromise, simply moving, in third-person narrations, between past and present without preamble, but I have to say that there were one or two occasions in both productions when too small a pause was left for the time-change to be instantly graspable. The stories in which such ‘flashbacks’ appeared most natural to the ear were inevitably those that were monologues, the short-story form that, being closest to drama, lends itself best to radio reading: M J Hyland’s ‘Rag Love’ and ‘The Dead Roads’ by D W Wilson. There was also a surprising sexual explicitness (and consequent honesty) overall which seemed to circumvent the usual radio rules. Two of the stories were gratifyingly adventurous with the demotic and its implied psychology, ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’ and in particular Jon McGregor’s closely intimate-third ‘Wires’ which was I’d say the most linguistically innovative of the five. Even so, I was slightly disappointed by the surprise ending of McGregor’s story and, if I’ve interpreted it correctly, its descent into the circumstantial rather than the psychological. And, if I’ve interpreted the stories correctly as a whole, fundamentally they were Afternoon-Story safe thematically: not a lot of politics; apart from McLeod’s heart surgeon not an awful lot of people on the edge. In spite of unusual or quirky scenarios – space travel (K J Orr), a couple bribing their way onto a cruise ship to have sex (M J Hyland) – or attempts to place characters in the context of existential vastness (Orr and Wilson), every story but McLeod’s was really simply about a couple’s relationship going wrong.

I love radio, I’m truly grateful for the opportunity it has provided for the short story. I love many stories, conventional as well as innovative, and I really liked and admired all of this shortlist.

But do we really want BBC Radio 4 to be the only shaper of the way the story form develops? Just asking.

Photo credit: Santibon

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