For Issue 7, we’re downsizing – celebrating the effort that goes into creating something small, yet perfectly formed. Be it short story, film, flash fiction, haiku, even a single photograph of a fleeting moment, brevity in art rarely means speed in execution. However, all too often we overlook these smaller creative moments. To get you thinking, we spoke to publishing analyst Danuta Kean and filmmaker Neville Pierce about their experiences of short form art.
The best art is that which provokes discussion, gets you hot under the collar and banging the pub table as you and your mates argue over interpretation. Of course, the proliferation of social media means that the world is now one giant pub table and that debate can circumnavigate the globe faster than I can down a pint these days.
A case in point: December 2017, The New Yorker published Kristen Roupenian’s short story, Cat Person, about a woman who goes on a date that eventually leads to an incredibly uncomfortable sexual encounter and borderline (depending on your view) stalking. Within two days it had been shared on Twitter more than 1,000 times, prompted a BBC story written from the man’s point of view (now just an error page) and sparked furious debate about complicity.
“It was just brilliant,” says Danuta Kean, publishing analyst and cultural commentator. “It was one of those stories with enough wrinkle room for you to argue about what he was. It did a brilliant job of dissecting an issue.”
That this debate was sparked by a short story was cause for celebration in its own right. The short story as literary form was arguably invented in the 19th century with the growth in popularity of the periodical press. Pages needed filling and the middle classes had more time to read. Its popularity continued throughout a good chunk of the 20th century, with many of the great crime and comedy writers earning good money for publishing their shorts.
But somewhere along the way we began to favour length, or, at least, assume that length equalled quality. Authors still wrote short stories, but they became niche, managing the strange dichotomy of being considered both too high-brow and yet too easy to write to bother with. “I find it depressing that short story writers get so little recognition when there is so much skill involved,” says Danuta. At the time, certainly in the UK, the form has tended to pool at the Granta magazine end of the spectrum and, therefore, says Danuta, come to feel ‘inaccessible’.
But it is the short story’s ability to get under the skin of a subject, just as Cat Person does that makes them such a vital form. “They can be like a dart,” says Danuta, citing Lionel Shriver’s Prepositions, a story that uses 9/11 as its backdrop to skewer the notion of public and private grief, as one of her particular favourites. “You can take a single issue and just pull out the threads, so we can see exactly what it’s made of in a way that is memorable.”
There is also an intensity to the best short stories that would be difficult to sustain over a 300-page novel. “You look at something like Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad [by Victorian ghost writer M.R. James] and it’s basically a man chased by a sheet,” says Danuta, “but, my God, it doesn’t read like that.” Trying to achieve that in a novel would, she says, be “unremitting and very hard to keep building on that level in a way that doesn’t become too much for the reader, or slip into parody.”
The good news is that change is afoot. In 2017, sales of short story anthologies rocketed 45%, generating almost £6 million in revenue and marking the form’s best year since 2010. This boost was largely driven by some well-known names taking up the form, including novelist JoJo Moyes and – more surprisingly – Hollywood actor Tom Hanks. Released in October 2017, Uncommon Type is Hanks’s first anthology of short stories and sold almost 68,000 copies, despite some very mixed reviews.
This celebritification may have some rolling their eyes, but if Hanks leads readers to go looking for other short story writers – the Jane Gardams, Robert Aickmans, Alice Munros and Sakis, to name just a few greats – then this is surely a cause for celebration for anyone who believes in the form.
And it’s not just the Hanks effect, says Danuta – although she does predict a slew of celebrity authors because “publishers are never slow to get on a bandwagon once a market starts to do better” – but more importantly the way in which stories are delivered. “Amazon has played a huge part in promoting short stories.” No longer quite the Cinderella of traditional publishing that was once predicted, the convenience of the Kindle and the Kindle Single series has introduced readers to a form that they might once have ignored.
And if it can work for prose, then why not film, argues film journalist, writer and director Neville Pierce. Like prose, short films don’t typically get the credit that they deserve but, says Neville, “It would be interesting to see if they found more space in the world now we have on-demand content. Of course you can go to sites like Vimeo, but it would be nice if they ended up in places like Netflix. There’s something about having access to them at the point where you’re just browsing. Instead of choosing an episode of Friends, you spot a 10-minute comedy that might be just what you want to watch before you go to bed.”
Historically, of course, all films were short out of necessity – that anyone could capture movement on film at all was nothing short of a miracle when first introduced. But, while the Academy Awards has recognised the form with its own category since the early 1930s, the viewing public tends to treat them like a distant relative, someone you occasionally have to spend some time with because it’s good for you rather than a pleasure.
“Shorts are tricky,” says Neville, whose first short film, Bricks, earned him praise from Fight Club director David Fincher. “Short films can be poems, or they can be jokes, or they can be really abstract, but you have no room to waste. It’s very hard to tell a satisfying story in 10 minutes.”
For many writers and filmmakers the short is the initial point of entry, the place to experiment with voice and style. It is also a way in which publishers and producers – in other words the people holding the purse strings – can take a chance. “One of the things about short stories is that they can give voice to an awful lot of diverse writers that you don’t really read elsewhere,” says Danuta. “Comma Press is doing great work publishing minority ethnic writers, more working class voices.”
This is something close to author Kit de Waal’s heart, too. In a recent Radio 4 documentary, she asked ‘where are all the working class writers?’ and has just successfully crowdfunded a collection, via Unbound, that will bring together published and unpublished writers from working class backgrounds.
For Neville, short films definitely give him an experimental edge that might not be possible for a newcomer on a big-budget feature film. As a consequence, each of his films feels a little different – be it the choice of black and white for the romantic comedy Ghosted or the pub of Lock In, in which the threat of violence is almost suffocating. Part of this range is also down to his love of genre – his favourite films (depending on the day) include Fight Club, The Searchers and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
“I try and make stuff that interests me and if I was to put my film critic hat on I’d say they’re all linked by being about perception and stereotypes and the quick decisions that we make and subsequently regret. But I also really want to make something that is entertaining, that my mates want to talk about down the pub.”
If anything, though, Pierce wishes he had been a bit more experimental when first starting out. “I felt a pressure to do stuff ‘properly’ – it had to be feature film quality,” he explains. “And so I waited a long time to start, partly because of thinking I needed thousands of pounds to make the first film. I’m not saying it was the wrong way to go about it, but I could have made my first film on a phone in my house as a learning experience – and put it in a drawer if it was no good.
“Shane Meadows made loads of shorts, with mates, before he made a feature. And Edgar Wright made a feature film with his friends and then did lots of TV before he made Shaun of the Dead. The more you make, the better you get. I was incredibly fortunate to receive the support of Stefan Allesch-Taylor, in particular, who has put funds into each of my films. He’s a true patron of the arts. But you shouldn’t wait. You should do. I’d tell anyone starting out now to just get on with it, do it in their spare time with friends.”
Creating anything – regardless of length – isn’t easy. It comes from a place that for many artists feels very nebulous; that creating short film and prose is somehow easier is a complete fallacy. It requires a different kind of patience and a precision of lens and language. What is left out is almost always as important as what is left in. Like a poem, behind those 3,000 words, or that 10-minute film, lie multiple drafts and redrafts, until every word and every angle becomes a pin-prick of intense emotion, be it comedy, fear, passion, or surprise. The very best demand a lot from their reader and viewer, but the reward is always worth it.
With thanks to Neville for letting us share his films. His fourth, Promise, is due out later in 2018. You can find out more about him at his website. For more information on Danuta, visit danutakean.eu. You can also follow both on Twitter @nevpierce and @Danoosha.