Best of 2012: Gentle revolutionaries

2012 has been a watershed year in many ways. A triumphant one for feminists, marriage equality activists, K-pop, and people who are sick of reading shitty newspapers. In case you didn’t notice, there has also been a quiet revolution in Australian publishing – a wonderful renaissance of the short story.

Nobody publishes short fiction. Nobody wants to read it. You can’t make any money from it. You have to write a novel to be a writer. These were the self-fulfilling prophecies of publishing circa 2011. In the year since, it’s become clear that writers can’t make any money from anything else, either – so what difference does it make? Write what and how you like. In 2012, the short story noticed a door left tantalisingly ajar and sauntered into the centre of the literary scene without so much as knocking.

Two authors leapt into my consciousness with outstanding collections this year: Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart and Josephine Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake. These are very different books, but both are authors I will follow carefully for the rest of their careers. O’Neill’s playfulness with the forms of language is delightful, and many of his stories take unusual shapes: minutes of meetings, or language lesson homework. Unlike many experimental writers, he never sacrifices emotional resonance at the altar of form. More to the point, many of his stories are about language, and the missed connections and losses in translation that occur in our internationally interconnected world.

Rowe works in a narrower space, on a more intimate canvas, and writes some of the shortest and most powerful fiction you will read. She lives between poetry and prose, in her own crack in the wall, or as she described it on twitter: ‘camped between Poetry and Fiction. Living out of my car, eating beans from a can … tuning into the World Service, befriending injured wildlife, teaching myself the mouth harp.’ For all of her intense scrutiny of lonely, failing people, she is also darkly funny, and her dexterity with imagery will surprise you. Both these collections feel at once local and global, with stories crossing continents and shifting easily between the microscopic and the universal. Both O’Neill and Rowe had other collections published through tiny presses (Ginninderra and Hunter) before moving to Black Inc and UQP, which demonstrates the essential role small presses play in Australia as a proving ground for new voices.

2012 was the year some bigger publishers saw the potential for short stories, perhaps swayed by the possibilities of the digital age – the short story seems perfectly suited to ereaders, one-click purchases and short attention spans. The Affirm Long Story Shorts series of 2010–2011 paved the way, and now several publishers have embarked on new ventures. There’s the short story series from UQP (of which my own The Rest is Weight was the first collection), which will continue in 2013. There were new short story collections and novellas and ebook experiments from large and small publishers (Penguin Specials, Momentum’s list, Giramondo Shorts, Griffith Review’s Novella Project), but it’s the smallest who champion short fiction. New kids on the block Spineless Wonders steadily put out edgy and interesting single-author collections, as well as sponsoring a storyreading night in Adelaide, Spineless Wonders Presents – a reliably enchanting event which has equivalents in Sydney’s Penguin Plays Rough and Melbourne’s Slow Canoe, but which has the added quality of readings being performed by actors, making it closer to New York’s Selected Shorts than anything else in Australia. The proliferation of these kinds of events is evidence of a growing audience for short stories.

Another fine newcomer has been the Review of Australian Fiction, a journal that came to short stories the way many writers do – unintentionally. I have quickly fallen into a pattern of addiction to this project, and look forward to the fortnightly emails immensely, each a discovery of two new stories from established and underexposed authors. Next year the RAF is planning some guest curators, and it appears both the format and its editors are open to more flexibility and experimentation. This project also has my blessing for paying royalties to writers, something few traditional journals can manage, so that each issue can be sold separately like a small book, or by subscription. That income stream feels more like being a member of a productive workshop rather than a writer–editor, worker–boss relationship. The amount doesn’t matter; the process does. These kind of collaborative enterprises offer a way forward for ebook publishing in a time when the industry is working hard to make the exploitative seem inevitable.

The RAF has now extended to The Short of It, a blog that offers a critical space for short stories, curated by Ryan O’Neill. I’m looking forward to that discussion shifting outside the realms of university creative writing courses, in which the growth of the conveniently lesson-sized short story has no doubt been incubated.

Perhaps the proliferation of creative writing degrees is part of a generational shift in which many young writers are literally schooled in short stories and see them as central to their creative practice. This has been the case in the US for around ten years, and it allows for a more vibrant short story culture, which is having an influence here. Australia has its own long and glorious literary history of short stories, too, and I can only hope that these are still being read and interrogated.

If it ever was the case that no-one was interested in short stories, it is certainly the case no longer. Despite the sort of repetitive pessimism I have come to expect from publishing, we have wandered into a world where there is a quiet abundance of excellent collections, new journals and readings, places for critical engagement, and writers to watch. The idea that you need to write a novel to be a writer belongs to a vanishing world. The idea that the short story could be struggling for relevance runs contrary to all evidence.

While so many of the novels published in Australia seem to be vehicles for reassurance and containment, short stories can open up places of wonder and confusion. They can disturb reality like no other form. They are the gentle revolutionaries of literature. I love short stories for many reasons, but chief among them is their capacity to turn life upside-down and shake it. I like to think that in 2012, short stories have done just that to Australia’s literary landscape.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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  1. ‘They can disturb reality like no other form.’ So true! I am yet to read Tarcutta Wake or The Weight of a Human Heart, but hope to rectify that shortly. Thanks Jen.

  2. Jennifer Mills’ ‘Look down with me’ is, for me, the outstanding example of the new Australian short fiction. I keep rereading it and comparing it to James Baldwin’s ‘Going to Meet the Man.’

    Many thanks, Jen.

  3. It always seemed to me that the short story declined exactly as public transport did. You can’t read and drive.

    That might have been the origin of publishers’ disinclination to publish collections of short fiction over the last 40 years or so.

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