Is There Really A Crisis Gripping Short Story Writing In Australia Today?
A Talk Given at Melbourne Writers Festival, August 2004

The only crisis gripping short story writing in Australia today is, the way I see it, a failure of imagination and nerve on the part of both those who write and publish. The stuff that gets published in the magazines is, for the most part, stylistically and structurally conservative social realism, written to a certain word length and to a vague hand-me-down notion of what a good stolid Australian short story should be. Rare are the times when you come across something that falls outside this paradigm. Short story competitions, the only other potential outlet for this kind of work, likewise (perhaps unwittingly) reinforce this outdated notion of what a ‘good short story’ should be by rewarding (for the most part) conservative over radical forms. As for the big book publishers, their failure of imagination and nerve is legion. Short story collections by Australian authors (even conservative ones) are ‘out of fashion’, they won’t sell; the received wisdom apparently being that, particularly where a new untried writer is concerned, you’re better off publishing a badly-written novel than a brilliantly-written collection of stories because-well, I don’t really know why.

So what is a short story? What’s it for? Why do we bother? Why don’t we write a poem or a novel instead? Why don’t we write a letter to The Age? I do think there is some imperative about the art and purpose of short fiction, something about the form that by necessity concentrates the mind-both writer’s and reader’s-and gives us an experience, a brief glimpse into something else, that no other form of writing can. A good short story has a concentration, a compaction or concertina-ing inwards of language that is all its own. Sure it tells a story, but its ability to tell more than just a story is dependent upon this intensification of language which is of course also an intensification of feeling. Its effects are lasting not just because of ‘what is told’ but precisely because of this concentrated method of telling. It achieves the maximum narrative drive with the minimum amount of narrative machinery.

We simply don’t allow or encourage let alone invite our short fiction writers to be adventurous with the form. To vary the length, to play with the voice, to experiment with structure, to invent new narrative engines, to get outside the straightjacket of realism, or to at least find a new realism that’s not out of the Chekhov/Carver handbook.

A better kind of short story will be written and more (and more varied forms of) short fiction will be published, only when we isolate the art of short fiction writing out as distinct and separate from all other artforms, an art demanding and unique.

In the same way that we wouldn’t suggest to a poet that he or she is writing poetry really only as a prelude to becoming an opera librettist, or to a ceramicist that they’re well on their way now to becoming a sculptor-so we shouldn’t insult the writer of short fiction or their art by suggesting that it’s an apprenticeship to something else, something bigger. Bigger is not always better, in fact, it’s often much worse: we could all care a bit more about the words we use, use them more sparingly, more precisely, more diligently, hitch them more tightly to the things worth saying.

When we start seeing short fiction writing as a thing-unto-itself, an imperative art, with its own restrictions and demands, its own freedoms and joys, its own unique ability to nail an idea, image or a sensation in a way that longer forms of prose simply cannot, then we might be heading towards a revitalisation of the artform. And I suspect, once revitalised, those ivory-tower publishers who have looked down on it for so long might start looking up at it instead.