I was sitting at a table in the Waterstones Piccadilly lower cafe, sipping my water and watching people trickle in to the opening of the London Short Story Festival (18-21 June 2015) on Thursday evening, when Rupert Dastur asked if he could interview me for his site, The Short Story. When he asked me why I’d come, I said I wanted to know how the short story has changed, how it is different from, say, ten years ago. He promptly asked me how I thought the short story has changed. I said I thought it was moving away from narrative to more use of language to create atmosphere or tone, a more poetic approach to fiction. This was of course blather off the top of my head, as one can no more generalise about the short story than one can about the continent of Africa.
In any case, the first event, the launch of Salt Publishing’s collection, Best British Short Stories 2015 (edited by Nicholas Royle) immediately proved me wrong. The excerpts of stories read aloud by Alison Moore, Helen Simpson and KJ Orr were strong on narrative and dialogue. But can one tell from an excerpt?
In the discussion afterwards, moderated by Nikesh Shukla, Helen Simpson spoke briefly about “domestic noir” — does it mean stories set indoors?
Asked to talk about a good short story writer, Alison Moore mentioned Raymond Carver, Simpson talked about Katherine Mansfield, and Katherine Orr’s was Alice Munro. Asked what made a really good short story, Moore and Orr agreed on the moment – the moment of change, or realisation, a pivotal moment when all the elements of the story come together for a revelation. Simpson compared a good short story to a painting that one revisits to find different things each time. While their ideas for the story differed, their response about Britishness was similar: Perhaps British identity comes from living together on a small island, and so writers are shaped by being contained; and on this island eccentricity and diversity are accepted. Salt’s Jen Hamilton-Emery summed it up: “We celebrate the British short story because of its diversity.”
Ben Okri: “The short story is the most difficult literary form apart from the sonnet.”
Then I went to “An Evening with Ben Okri,” whose work I’ve admired since reading his novel The Famished Road. A late start caused by London’s eternal traffic congestion. He shared his platform with Irenosen Okojie, who has just published her first novel, Butterfly Fish (Jacaranda press). Okri asked to begin with questions rather than a reading. Their discussion ranged from walking as an inspiration for writing (“I walk write”) to how fiction should be read. Okri explained that it is the responsibility of readers to bring the best of themselves to their reading, that reading is an act of intelligence, imagination and concentration. Towards the end of the hour, Okri read his three-part story “Incident at the Shrine.” I did not uphold my responsibility as a listener – I fell asleep, and woke up during part two reaching for my keyboard.
Irenosen Okojie: “The short story lends itself to the frenetic lifestyles that we live.”