Bristol Prize

Best British Short Stories

May 29, 2011   Joe Melia

Nicholas Royle on editing the new Best British Short Stories series

The Best British Short Stories 2011 exists because Jen and Chris Hamilton-Emery, who run Salt Publishing, believe in it and because I emailed them with the idea at just the right time – when they had already lined up an equivalent poetry volume. It was, I believe, the second time I had approached them with the idea, although they dispute this, and as my memory is notoriously unreliable I’m not about to argue the point. I recently asked my teenage son whether he had done something vitally important he was supposed to have done at school. Yes, he said. Really, I said? Yes, he said. Are you sure, I said? Oh, wait, no, he said. I, like, thought about doing it but then I didn’t do it and then when you asked me if I had done it I thought I had.

I wasn’t convinced by this at the time, but on reflection, I do understand. Thinking about doing something and actually doing it can very easily become mixed up in the mind. I often think I’ve written my 1000 words for the day when in fact I haven’t.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter how many times I put the idea to Jen and Chris; what matters is that they said yes. It has since been suggested to me that if I wanted the series to be taken seriously, which I do, I should have gone to a bigger publisher. Well, I did email one or two of the bigger publishers first and predictably they were not interested. You and I know that the short story is enjoying a mini-boom in terms of popularity and perceived status, but nevertheless there remains an antipathy to the form among most of the so-called big publishers. There are exceptions: Faber, for instance. And, er, that’s probably it. Vintage, Granta, Penguin, Sceptre – they have all published excellent collections and anthologies, but not that many in recent years. Manchester’s Comma Press is devoted to short fiction. Salt, now of Cromer in Norfolk, have published more short story collections in the last three years than probably all the big publishers put together. Serpent’s Tail used to be a great supporter of the short story, but that seems to have changed since they were snapped up by non-fiction publisher Profile, presumably for their much-praised fiction list, which soon started to be drained of quirky interest and marginal appeal. Short story collections were the first thing to go, with at least one author who had published several successful collections with the snake on the spine finding he would have to hawk his latest collection elsewhere.

So, yes, I did try one or two bigger publishers, meeting with little enthusiasm. Salt emailed me back with a positive response and immediately, it seemed, the ball was rolling. They are the most dynamic, fast-moving publishers I have ever worked with. You might think that doesn’t say much, given that most of them move at the pace of dining tables, but they – Salt, not dining tables – really are very quick off the mark.

I thought it would be an idea to ask Zadie Smith to write an introduction. She may not have written a lot of short stories, but she clearly has an interest in the form, having edited the partly excellent charity anthology The Book of Other People. I asked her publisher if he would forward an email to her and he kindly agreed. Ten days later someone mentioned to me that it was well known Zadie Smith never responds to emails. I checked with her publisher and he said it was probably best to assume she would not respond as she was ‘super-busy’. I know lots of people who are super-busy, but they all have the good manners to reply to emails. I’m super-busy myself but I am mortified if someone lets me know I have failed to respond to an email. I mean, how difficult is it to write, Dear Nicholas, Thank you for your email. I’m sorry but I’m super-busy right now, so I’ll have to decline your kind invitation. Best wishes, Zadie? How long would that have taken her? Five minutes? Two? Maybe she’s actually super-super-busy.

I didn’t ask anyone else and I wrote the introduction myself, although I don’t know why I bothered. The first review that appeared made it pretty obvious the reviewer had not read it. The introduction, I mean. But it was a very nice review, very generous, and I was grateful to the editor who commissioned it.

When I was working on the book I thought I should probably expand my reading to include the only literary magazine the man on the Clapham omnibus might reasonably be expected to name – Granta. I’ve not been a big reader of Granta over the years, partly because I’ve always disliked the way they wouldn’t say what was a short story, what was a novel extract and what was an essay or memoir. My first love is the short story and I don’t want to waste my time (since I am super-busy) reading a piece that turns out to be a memoir. Which is not to say I’m suspicious of fiction that incorporates autobiography. Far from it, in fact; quite the reverse. But I want to know what it purports to be and what the magazine’s editor believes it to be. And partly because, unlike a lot of other magazines, they were not prepared to put me on their comps list when I was writing a regular quarterly short stories review column in Time Out magazine for almost fifteen years. They never even responded to my request.

So when I started reading for this anthology, I sent them another request via their web site. They ignored it. Consequently I emailed them directly last October. They ignored that as well.

If I bought every publication I need to read in order to maintain a meaningful survey of short stories published by British writers I would be living in a hostel. The publishers of Ambit, the Warwick Review, the London Magazine and Riptide, among others, understand this. Granta don’t seem to. I ended up reading last year’s issues in a university library. More recently I wrote to them to say that I’d like to reprint the Jeanette Winterson story they have just published, in The Best British Short Stories 2012, and to ask if they would put me in touch with the author. That was a week ago. At the time of writing, they still haven’t replied. I guess they must be super-busy.

The Best British Short Stories 2011 (ed Nicholas Royle) is published by Salt Publishing at £9.99.

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