Sunday, September 27, 2015

Promoting the Individual Story: Chapbooks in England

It seems tautological, not to mention obvious, to say, but the basic reason the short story is not a popular form nowadays is that most people don't like stories that are short, but rather stories that are long. There have been times in the past when short stories were widely read—in England during the 1890s and in America in the 1920s—but today? not so much, although there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in England recently.
Some of this drop in popularity has to do with media, for short stories used to be widely read when periodical magazines were the main means of print distribution.
Short fiction films, defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an original motion picture with a running time of 40 minutes or less, have never had a wide distribution in theaters.  They are usually made by independent film makers for nonprofit, with a low budget, usually funded by grants.
In the so-called "Golden Age of Television" in the 1950, anthology shows, such as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were very popular. Now folks watch scripted series shows on television with different stories each week, but with the same main characters, often engaged in a continuing back story about their lives. For example, the popular American series How to Get Away with Murder features a tough professor/lawyer with a small group of smart student followers in which, behind separate cases each week, there runs a continuous story of the murder of the lawyer's husband by the students.
The growing trend to watch a number of episodes of a series on Netflix or Amazon featuring the same characters in what has been called binge viewing is just one more indication that folks like long continuous stories rather than short individual ones.
Writers who write short stories in the hopes that they will find readers thus always face the problem of distribution.  It usually goes this way. A writer submits a story to various small journals, usually sponsored by universities or nonprofits, and if he or she can publish at least a dozen stories this way, an agent or publisher might be willing to publish them in a collection of stories, that is if the author looks promising and promises a novel next time. It helps if some of the stories are picked up by one of the "Best" anthologies. The collection will probably sell better if the author strings the stories together around the same characters and the publisher can promote the book a novel in stories.
It is next to impossible to make a living this way, which usually means that writers have to teach in the growing number of MFA programs in England and American.  Sometimes it seems as if there are more writers of short stories than there are readers.  Or, put another way, it seems that aspiring short story writers are the primary audience for published short stories.
The Internet has made possible some new technological means by which authors can get stories in print and in front of an audience—on special websites devoted to story publication and on blogs. However, Nicholas Royle has taken an old-fashioned 16th century approach to getting short stories out there.  He started Nightjar Press and began publishing short stories as chapbooks in limited, numbered editions, autographed by the authors. At my last count, there are twenty titles in the series. Mr. Royle was kind enough to send me the following five for my reading pleasure.

Christopher Kenworthy, "sullom hill"
Tom Fletcher, "The Home"
Elizabeth Stout, "Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers"
Joel Lane, "black country" (now out of print)
Alison Moore, "The Harvestman"

I have read all five of the books (stories), enjoying them all.  And "enjoy" is the keyword here. My impression of the stories is that they were chosen to be read once with some pleasure, not to be studied and savored through rereadings. They strike me as that hybrid form combining characteristics of the popular plot-based story with some characteristics of the language-based literary story. Sometimes the weight is more toward literary, as in Alison Moore's "The Harvestman," and sometimes more toward the popular, as with Elizabeth Stout's "Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers." Sometimes the weight shifts toward genre story, albeit with literary characteristics, as with the traditional hard-bitten detective story of Joel Lane's "black country," and sometimes a bit more toward the experimental as with Tom Fletcher's "The Home" or the literary with Christopher Kenworthy's "sullom hill."
Because these stories are a pleasure to read for their plot, it would spoil your pleasure if I were to give those plots away. Suffice to say, I liked reading these stories and I give Mr. Royle great credit for promoting interest in the short story by making them available. I assume that if all but seven of the twenty titles in the series are out of print, he must have succeeded in his plans and made enough money to defray publication costs. It is nice to have a single thin volume with a nice cover and an author autograph inside.
A July Facebook post indicates that three other titles are still in print: "Puck" by David Rose, "The Jungle," by Conrad Williams, and "M" by Hilary Scudder.
You can email to place an order for any of the seven titles that may still be in print. Thanks to Nicholas Royle, a true champion of the short story in England, for sharing these chapbooks with me.

1 comment:

Keith Hood said...

Isn't this similar to the concept of One Story magazine, published in the USA?