Monday, April 10, 2006

Container Culture

In vegetable gardening - or any gardening for that fact - the benefits of container growing are that it allows the gardener almost total control over what happens with the container and its contents. Obviously we don't want our lovingly sown cucumbers, tomatoes, rhubarb, sweetcorn, radishes, aubergines ... stop me before I run out of appropriate veg ... mixing in an uncontrolled environment with disease ridden soil and the possibility that if we just gave them a little space to do their own thing, they would turn out alright without too much intervention on our part.
There is a point to this ramble about container growing: have readers been unwittingly forced into a container culture controlled by the head gardeners of the book trade?

A recent wander through a London branch of a soulless chain pointed me in the direction of the answer whose only word was "yes". Having temporarily escaped the clutches of the medical profession I was in search of escapism. But it needed to be short escapism. So I flicked through the leaves of a few poetry books of the pathetically light poetry section of the store - sorry Mr Motion but the Scots do it better than you - and found nothing in the way of escapism at all. Deflated but not entirely defeated I forked through some short looking novels, which may have provided escapism, but escapism which wasn't short enough for my requirements.

What I needed was a short story collection.
Boy (who looked about nine, is it really that difficult to find staff who want to sell books?)behind the counter: No we don't sell those
Me: Why not?
9 year old: Nobody wants to buy them.

Which in turn reminded me of a publisher (who shall remain nameless because I've forgotten their first name) talking to a group of - possibly interested - undergraduate students about ... publishing (can you believe it?). Somewhere towards the end of this talk/ discussion/suicidal adventure the publisher in question told the writers among us not to bother writing short stories because nobody published short stories if they could possibly help it, because nobody brought collections of short stories and therefore nobody read them. It sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. No short stories: no readers.

And we should feel at times, if not permanently, concerned/angry/offended/upset/deprived about the lack of short stories being published. Because short stories have an important place in the world of literature. They can provide moments of escapism when a novel would be too much and a (shortish) poem not enough; in lunch hours/minutes, in doctors' waiting rooms, on buses, at train stations ...

Which is why the National Short Story Prize is important. The short list is being aired on Radio 4 this week at the absurd time of 11.30pm: a time which proves that the media has a reponsibility to the short story which it too has shirked. One can only hope that the publishers and booksellers are humble enough to realise their errors and publish more short story collections.

This is not to say that nobody cares about short stories: for the 2005 festival The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival comissioned eleven short stories from a diverse range of writers, to be performed for the first time at the festival, all under the heading of MultiStory. This was a poineering project, unique in its importance and bravery and one can only hope its a project which is continued in the future. In the meantime as readers we need to rebel against the container we've been forced into.

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