Does Anyone Still Read Short Stories?
(This article contains an edited version of a passage in ‘Paperboy’)
With the arrival of e-reading I’ve found that short story anthologies seem to have largely vanished from shop shelves. My first break into fiction was via a collection of short stories, and I went on to produce ten volumes of them, most of which have never been seen outside of the UK. There are moves now to get them reprinted, so I hope some of these stories, quite a few of which won awards, will finally get a decent airing.
Now, though, it’s almost impossible to sell a short story collection unless it’s through small press, with a limited readership. Have we lost our taste for short stories? The books in the photo are just a smattering of the short story collections I kept, and there are so many brilliant gems of tales in them. So why won’t publishers produce collections any more?
I’m sure I’m not alone in recalling that books were always the cheapest form of decent entertainment as a child, when I discovered a chain of seedy South London second-hand stores called the Popular Book Centres. They stamped their smudged triangular logo inside all their books, and made enough money from thrusting, pointy-breasted top-shelf smut to keep racks of yellowing, soon-to-be-lost, dirt-cheap paperbacks going for real readers. In this way, they were every bit as useful as public libraries.
The Popular Book Centre in Greenwich was presided over by a gimlet-eyed man with black fingernails and the complexion of an old haddock. He looked as though he had been cast to play a lecherous plumber in a porn movie. The great thing about the shop was that I could always find something rare and wonderful lurking in the racks, and as everything was 1/6d I could afford to take a chance on the dodgiest-looking books.
The library had been good to me, but I deserted it for something grubbier and more delinquent. Alfred Hitchcock had put his name to a series of dog-eared anthologies that were wonderful assorted literary ragbags, and from these I started making informed decisions about the writing I enjoyed most. It was important; I did not play sports or ‘join in’, as my mother called it, and reading, by its nature, was an unsocial occupation.
I made my first list of favourite short stories.
‘The Cone’ – HG Wells
‘Leningen Versus The Ants’ – Carl Stephenson
‘Camera Obscura’ – Basil Copper
‘Evening Primrose’ – John Collier
‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ – Evelyn Waugh
‘The Fly’ – George Langelaan
In time I discovered a wealth of beautifully written stories, most of which are now lost from view. In my head I built the ultimate anthology. Dino Buzzati’s story ‘Seven Floors’ was a heartrending study of our fear of illness, while his tale ‘Just The Very Thing They Wanted’ chilled because it denied its characters the rights to their most basic needs – the right to sit down, to be calm, to drink a glass of water. John Collier’s ‘Evening Primrose’ concerned a man who moved into a department store to live among the mannequins, because he could not cope with urban life. Tennessee Williams wrote of searching a cinema for companionship and discovering a ghost in ‘The Mysteries Of The Joy Rio’, as did Graham Greene in the classic ‘A Little Place Off The Edgeware Road’. The first time I read the Williams’ story I was so shocked that I felt he could see directly into my mind. orror
Meanwhile, The Fifty Strangest Stories Ever Told remained under my bed until every story was digested. When the supply of new stories dried up, I headed back to the Popular Book Centre like an itchy drug addict, creeping shamefully past the soft porn in the window to root about in the barely fingered fiction section. Here, the Pan Books Of Horror provided the next benchmark that all other collections had to reach. Their anthologist, Herbert Van Thal, edited the first twenty five volumes, but as the tales became more explicitly gruesome they lost much of their power; heavier shocks were clearly required in jaundiced times. The darkest shadows are found in brightest sunlight, so it’s natural to discover them in childhood, but I still felt guilty about my nascent literary tastes. Other kids weren’t even reading, or if they were, stuck to pilots and pirates. They weren’t checking out worst case scenarios by trawling through horror stories, hoping to find survival tips.
Where are the great popular collections now? Could it be that reading is becoming a more elitist leisure occupation, and traditional ‘popular’ collections are no longer viable?
All thoughts on the subject – pro and con – in the comments please!