The other day I was trying to write a short story. While procrastinating, I googled ‘How to write a short story?’ The search yielded 1.75 million results, the first being ‘How to write an amazing short story’. This article’s number-one tip was to ‘know what a short story is’, and the author even provided a helpful definition: a short story is just like a story, but short. It shouldn’t be a novel, the article advised, and it should have limited characters. (I assume numerically, but perhaps psychologically. Then I tried to think of a story that had unlimited characters. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate came close, but not quite. I concluded that on this basis, all stories are short stories.) ‘Keep it to 3000 words’ was another suggestion. The article went on to urge budding authors to ‘use everyday occurrences to inspire your short stories’. I realised I may have found the perfect guide to writing an archetypal Australian short story.
But what is an Australian short story?
At every drinks gathering, book launch or outright party I have been to in the past few months, I have asked other minglers the same two questions: ‘What is an Australian short story? And would you read one?’ Of those few who didn’t make their excuses and leave, I ‘interviewed’ Jo Case (Big Issue fiction edition editor and Readings bookseller), Robert Skinner (Canary Press editor and founding member of experimental writing group Kanganoulipo) and Stephanie Beck (Better Read Than Dead bookseller). I also sometimes talk to Matthew Lamb, editor of Review of Australian Fiction, about such things. I haven’t directly quoted any of them here – that would be too much like journalism – but rest assured they have appeared in my dreams and directed a great many of my words herein.
An Australian short story is short. That is maybe the only thing everyone agrees on. They usually clock in at somewhere between 1000 and 3000 words. You might stretch a story to 5000, providing you don’t plan to get it published anywhere in Australia. (Except, of course, Review of Australian Fiction, where length is no barrier – as long as your story isn’t ‘the literary equivalent of a fart or burp’, as Matt described a piece of microfiction I once tried to foist on him. The only problem is that Review of Australian Fiction is currently ‘on hiatus’. The other option is time travel: Julie Koh tells me that the tragically defunct Sleepers Almanac once published a 12,000-word story of hers.)
American short stories really aren’t – short, that is. The other day, at a gathering of Melbourne’s Storytime for Grown-ups (more on this later), someone read aloud an American short story from the 1950s. The reading took nearly an hour. The story was also bewilderingly rambling, with at least two subplots. You wouldn’t get away with that in Australia. The modern-day Australian short story keeps it succinct. One plot, at most. One idea, if that.
How else do you spot an Australian short story? Some of them are set on the beach or in the bush. But most are set in Melbourne, which is a city not unlike a lot of other cities. Usually the story takes place in the present, or maybe the very near future – which, given the slow pace of publishing, might be the present by the time it appears. But contemporariness isn’t particular to Australian stories.
One of my interviewees noted the sparse tone in a lot of the stories he sees. There is no impulse to make sense of things, or to investigate a moral issue, he says. No lightness, no humour. We write serious stories that are more about the story form than about life. And I think, yeah, that sounds about right. And then I think of all the Australian stories that are not like that and all the American stories that are.
For a while I had convinced myself that Australians are particularly good at writing weird short stories – stories that make you think they are realist and contemporary, but then take bizarre twists into otherworldliness. Australia definitely has some great weird fiction writers – but then, what country doesn’t? I look at my bookshelf and there is George Saunders and Etgar Keret and Sarah Hall and J Robert Lennon – so much for that definition!
So, what have we established about the Australian short story? It’s a story that is short and not a novel. Probably contains fewer than 3000 words. Succinct by necessity. Written in Australia, or by an Australian, where an ‘Australian’ includes anyone who lives in Australia but isn’t necessarily an Australian citizen. If Evie Wyld wrote a short story set in Cronulla, would it be an Australian short story? Depends how long it is, I guess.
Does it matter whether we read Australian short stories?
On 3 October 2016, I sent this message to my friend Imbi:
One day we should have an afternoon tea party and everyone has to bring a short story (not written by themselves, but by someone else) and read it out to the group while we lounge on comfy chairs and drink champagne.
Ah, 2016! When I still gave a shit about encouraging people to read books. My grand plan was to start a cult of short-story reading that would end up boosting demand for collections, anthologies and journals all over the country. I decided I would start with the western suburbs of Melbourne, in one small lounge room.
Storytime for Grown-ups has met eight times since. For the most part, I’m the only one who reads contemporary Australian stories at our meetings. Someone did share Fiona McFarlane’s ‘Buttony’; they read it out from the New Yorker, assuming she was American. The same person read Henry Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’. And there has been a startling reading of Margo Lanagan’s naked mole-rat porn story, ‘The Queen’s Notice’, and a classic from Christina Stead, ‘The Old School’. But aside from that, it has been either me, forcing everyone to listen to readings from bloody Review of Australian Fiction again, or it has been William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Donald Barthelme, Ali Smith, HP Lovecraft or Angela Carter.
At the end of our most recent meeting, I asked everyone if they are reading more short stories now than two years ago. No, they all replied. Not even to look for material for Storytime? I asked. Not really, they said. We just read the New Yorker, like we always have. Oh, I said.
So far we have read about forty stories to one another and we have really enjoyed the whole thing. And yet, since we started, Tincture has closed down, Canary Press has gone into hibernation and Review of Australian Fiction is on hiatus. Has no-one heard that I’m starting a slow-motion revolution in short-story reading? Can they not wait just one more year?
My revolution does not seem to be working.
Do I personally read short stories?
I like to graph the books I read each year – if you don’t believe me, visit my blog. This means I can tell you whether I read short stories, when I started and whether I like them.
My records start in 2007. Between 2007 and 2013 there is a smattering of anthologies – McSweeney’s, Sleepers Almanac – but the first time I deliberately picked up a collection of short stories by an Australian author was in July 2013. That was the very month my first novel was published. When I became an ‘author’, I suddenly felt like I had a responsibility to read short Australian fiction. Who would take me seriously if I didn’t? Not me, that is for sure.
Anyway, I started with Josephine Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake and it was bloody brilliant, so that worked out well. Each night, at bedtime, I read a story to my husband, who doesn’t give a rat’s arse whether anyone takes him seriously or not, and he loved it too.
From then on, I subscribed to journals, read collections and anthologies, and wrote and submitted my own stories, like any responsible member of Australia’s writing community. Which proves that – as one of my interviewees kind of said but not really – short stories are written for and read by other writers,1 because short stories are a kind of showing off about how much you know about short stories, rather than being stories about people or ideas or any of those other fun things that regular readers enjoy.
In other words, I began reading short stories when I became a writer because short stories are stories for writers. Which would be a perfectly elegant conclusion to this lesson, except that when I looked a bit closer at my data, I realised I had read Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming in 2009 when I wasn’t yet a writer. Damned outliers.
Since 2013 I have read twenty-two collections of short stories by Australian authors and ten or maybe twelve by international authors, and these magazines keep turning up at my house or in my inbox – Overland, Griffith Review, Tin House, Zoetrope – or at least used to – Review of Australian Fiction, Canary Press – so I guess that yes, I read short stories. Maybe more than a lot of people, though certainly fewer than some.
I have some favourites, thanks for asking. ‘Dead Sun’ by AS Patric, ‘Sharks’ by Jennifer Mills, ‘By the Laws of Crab and Woman’ by Jason Fischer, ‘The Walking Thing’ by Marlee Jane Ward, ‘Singing My Sister Down’ by Margo Lanagan, ‘Apocalypse for Harp and Voice’ by Julie Koh, ‘Rush’ by Nic Low, ‘An Anti-glacier Book’ by Ben Walter, ‘Four-letter Words’ and ‘Figures in a Marriage’ by Ryan O’Neill, ‘A Comment about Free Market Forces’ by Wayne Macauley, ‘Unicorn Surgeon’ by Isaac Mitchell-Frey, ‘Sweetest Thing’ by Ellen van Neerven. I’m forgetting so many.
What about Frank Moorhouse? Or Peter Carey? Henry Lawson? Barbara Baynton? Haven’t read ‘em. You haven’t read Carey’s short stories?2 Can you not remember the Baynton stories you read for uni? Why are you even writing this article?
[Reader at this point breaks off to pen a letter to the editor: ‘Dear Dr Woodhead, if you must allow women to write for your magazine, could you not at least find one who has read the work of Henry Lawson? I myself have read several collections of Australia’s classic bush yarns, as well as the many brilliant stories of Tim Winton, and could quite easily undertake a corrective to this dashed-off piece of nonsense you have chosen to publish. Should you wish to contact me …’ etc.]
Does anyone else read short stories?
The other night I went to my workmate’s book club. They were talking about my second novel, From the Wreck, and this was the first chance they had had to invite a real-life author of their meeting. They are a group of women (of course) whose kids went to prep together. They meet once a month in Melbourne’s inner west for dinner and wine and to maybe talk about the book.
I asked them what they like to read. One woman prefers paranormal romance. Another said that, until book club, she only read biographies. Another likes chick lit, and also Terry Pratchett. Another reads the kinds of books that make the Stella longlist.
How do they choose what they read? They use friends’ recommendations or the little notes bookshops put on books; they wander around the library until they see something that takes their fancy; they rely on Amazon’s algorithmic recommendations.
They are busy mums, and most of them don’t get to read that often – it’s pretty rare for everyone, or even anyone, to finish the book. But I’m asking everyone these days whether they read short stories, so I ask them, even though they obviously won’t. Turns out nearly all of them do. They all love anthologies. The woman who reads paranormal romances reads anthologies to work who she should read next. The woman who likes biographies and the library will often pick up a collection at said library, just to check out unfamiliar writers.
And it reminds me that most of the short stories written and read in Australia and the world aren’t literary fiction. They aren’t in Overland or Tin House or Best Australian Stories. They aren’t even in the New Yorker. They are in women’s magazines and anthologies of romance stories, and they are in the many, many, many journals of fantasy and science fiction that have subscribers by the truckload and properly pay their authors. People are reading short stories all the time. But those kinds of short stories don’t count, right?3
The Pratchett fan tells me she loves the ‘Girls’ Night In’ collections, something I have never heard of. Turns out they are anthologies of stories written by popular women’s fiction writers, with proceeds going to charity. She tells me they were huge a couple of years ago. She can’t believe I haven’t heard of them. I can’t believe it either.
Short stories are having a resurgence because of smart phones (or something)
Of course, it’s no surprise that people are reading short stories. Short stories are having a resurgence, right? Well, the booksellers I spoke to said there are some popular writers right now who write short stories. The people who buy these books don’t necessarily ever want to read another short story once they have finished that collection. More often, people, when offered short stories, say ‘Thanks, but I don’t read short stories’. They also say, ‘I don’t read Australian authors’ apparently. People have strong opinions about books. If you ever write a book about a real-life shipwreck that also includes an alien, you will pretty quickly discover that there are people who don’t read Australian authors, historical fiction or books with aliens. There are a lot of books to choose from so I guess it’s good to have rules. How else would you narrow it down? I don’t read any books with horses in them, for example, or books with children under seven who get a speaking part. It just makes life easier.
Avoiding Australian authors, stories with fewer-than-infinite characters and books involving aliens, horses or alien-horse hybrids makes sense in these harried times. No-one has time to read a novel. Which is why short stories are the right choice for now. It’s television’s golden age. And stories and television episodes are the same, and also you can read a story on your phone on the train. It’s the age of the short story – which is why so many short story outlets are closing down (or on ‘hiatus’).
I once tried to persuade a man who calls himself ‘Melbourne: City of Literature’ on Twitter to go into partnership with Metro trains and incorporate phone-downloadable stories by local authors into a monthly myki pass. I’m not sure what I was thinking – that short stories are what you need when you have limited time and a short attention span?
I was wrong. Stories aren’t the easy option for the time- and attention-starved. Let me tell you a short story to illustrate my point.
This morning I woke up and I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know where I was, or, if I were somewhere, what it was I was doing there.
This is exactly the same as starting to read a new book.
‘Who am I, this I in the story?’ you think when you open a new book, or even when you begin reading a short story downloaded automatically to your phone when you touch on at Melbourne Central Station. ‘Where am I? When? What am I doing here?’
You don’t hear anyone say, ‘I love it when I wake up in the morning and I have no idea who I am or where or why.’ That is a horrible feeling. It’s also a horrible feeling starting a new story. But at least with most novels you only have to go through the process once: after the first few pages you have established where the book is set, who is narrating it and, vaguely, what it’s about. Then you are sorted: you can plough on and enjoy the rest of the book. Reading a novel is like binge watching a TV series: you pick up where you left off, with these people you know and understand, doing stuff you are already kind of familiar with. It’s just so relaxing. But not short fiction – stories plunge you back into that icy pool of not-knowing every 500, 800, 2000 or 5000 words. Who wants that? Pretty much no-one, if bestseller lists are anything to go by.
But what about ‘Cat Person’?
In December 2017, a short story from the New Yorker went viral. I was off Twitter at the time, sulking about not getting on any best-books-of-the-year lists, so I missed it. Apparently it was a big deal, and then the author got offered a seven-figure advance for her story collection. As my colleague Patrick Lenton said, ‘But mostly, I can’t believe we are talking about short stories as if they are relevant? What is this, the 1800s? This is the absolute best. Is steam going to make a massive resurgence too?’ Which just goes to prove my point: the short story is both on hiatus and in the prime of its life, unless written by an Australian or including aliens or horses, in which case, forget it.
- Except that even people who write short stories don’t read them. Ask any journal editor whether most of the people who submit stories have ever read the publication. The answer will inevitably be no. People write stories because they have a story to tell, or because they are doing a creative writing course, or because they have a novel they are trying to get published and they need to build up their CV before they get on to the business of being a real author – in other words, one who writes novels. They aren’t the people who read stories. People who read stories do it because they like reading stories, or because they really loved Looking for Alibrandi and so when Melina Marchetta releases a story in Review of Australian Fiction, they buy and read it. People read all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons.
- This statement was true when I wrote this article, and has since become untrue. I found a collection of Carey’s stories at Savers for $3 and now I have read nearly everything in it. What they say is true: ‘The Fat Man in History’ is one of the best Australian short stories ever.
- At least not in Australia. American author Carmen Maria Machado first published many of the stories featured in her celebrated literary collection Her Body and Other Parties in Strange Horizons magazine. Can you imagine Helen Garner first publishing her stories in Aurealis?
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