The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerPlease keep a look out for the anthology of ghost, fantasy and horror stories The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer and published by Spineless Wonders (and which includes my story ‘Navigating’). These stories were all inspired by the Twilight Zone television series and so are creepy, uncanny and scary. What more do you want for those cicacda-filled nights in the beach house over summer? In bookshops now or from Spineless Wonders. (or click the image below in the sidebar).

From Angela Meyer’s blog Literary Minded:

‘In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Reality TV’, a guest is confronted with her husband’s infidelity under bright lights, while Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ satirises American talk shows and a cultural obsession with sporting ‘heroes’. Chris Flynn’s ‘Sealer’s Cove’ has a nudist caught in a time slip. Carmel Bird evokes Edgar Allen Poe when oversized hares incite the folk of rural Victoria to commit criminal acts, and in ‘Sticks and Stones’ Ryan O’Neill has an academic attacked by a demonic alphabet.

There are darkly seductive artworks, disappearances and reappearances, altered realities, future visions, second chances, clever animals, knowing children, and strange presences in photographs and abandoned motels, in these stories by established and emerging writers. Contributors include Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, AS Patric, Damon Young, Chris Somerville, PM Newton, Deborah Biancotti and Kathy Charles.’

New outlet for stories (but there’s a catch or two)

Since the digital/ebook revolution (you know the one that took Australian publishers two years to catch up with) I’ve thought about ways this could be made to work for we struggling writers. Also, being a long-distance commuter, I saw how much reading people did on the train. I’ve also been very frustrated at the few outlets for writers and their short fiction in Australia. Tens of thousands of students stream out of creative writing courses every year all competing to get their stories into the, maybe, ten literary journals that take two or three stories each.

With digital publishing it’s cheaper and easier to publish works plus the constraints of the ludicrously small word count for short fiction (usually 2,000 to 3,000 words) don’t apply – there longer possible word count means there is space for meatier, more complex stories. The problem of course is how to get these stories out to a readership, and how to get the readership to pay.

Shortfire Press did it one way in the UK (the press is run by an ex-mainstream publisher so she had contacts which is a big start). They set up a website and sold stories off the site in various e-publishing formats for 99p a pop. They got quite good media coverage of their venture plus some fairly well-known contributors, although they do take unsolicited submissions as well. They have been going for over a year and I would have expected them to have hundreds of stories to choose from on their site by now but if you have a look you’ll find they have thirty or forty, not a critical mass. Lately they have also sold some of their stories through Amazon for Kindle. But somehow to get the model to work you have to have readers subscribe to stories on a regular basis like they might subscribe to a newspaper.

This brings me to the new venture called Review of Australian Fiction. This is a digital-only publication that delivers two pieces of short fiction per issue for $2.99. The idea is to have one established writer (so far Christos Tsiolkas and Georgia Blain) and for these writes to nominate one emerging writer (Kalinda Ashton and P M Newton) for the second story. If you subscribe you will get two stories every two weeks. AFR has used the format so you don’t download the stuff to your device but have to log on to the web every time you want to read your purchase.

This is a good option for those with tablets or who are prepared to read fiction on their smart phones, or anyone who reads stories on their laptops (does anyone?). It will be interesting to see what the take up is for this, and while I commend the emerging writer thing and think it’s good to use established writers as the bait (OK, the cherry), it is a blow for other writers that inclusion is by invitation only. If you subscribe you will automatically get new stories every two weeks.

If the subscription model works, then I think that is the way to go but, personally, I don’t like the route. I have bought a couple of things through to read on my iPad but I’m always forgetting the log on when I’d think of reading something while I’m out. I’d much rather get the stories on my Kindle all in one place with my other reading matter.

Best reads 2011

My book reading for 2011 was rather sparse for some reason – so many books in the world, so very few read. The top book from those I read this year is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. This was the novel that affected me the most and, I thought, was the most masterfully conceived and written. A quite good film was made of it and released during the year, and it is well worth checking out but, of course, it’s better to read the book. The book is written in the somewhat prosaic voice of Kathy who is an orphan (we think) living in a boarding school in the English countryside. From her limited perspective we find out more about the children in, what becomes more and more apparent, is a very strange institution. The reader is very subtly brought into this unsettling world, so that the horrifying is normalised. I thought the novel was beautiful, sad and very challenging on a number of levels.

In supporting short stories I commit to reading one short story a week. Not a lot, I know, but I find I’m always reading a novel and it’s easy to forget stories. There is an idea going around that short fiction will come into its own in the age of the smart phone and the tablet, peoples’ busy lives and a commuting culture. Let’s hope so. Okay, my favourite short story for the year is one I just chanced upon while browsing the net. The story is “One Last Winter Moment” by Kathleen Kennedy and this was publishing online in the Canadian Room Magazine. So you can enjoy it yourself here. It’s poignant, sad and beautifully written.

Short stories online

Three stories from The Sleeper’s Almanac 6 were reprinted in The Age last week and are up to read on The Age website. “Tiny Acts of Redistribution” by Samantha Dagg here, “Heirloom” by Fran MacDonald here, “The Doctor” by Terry Donnelly here and Uncle by John Bauer here. Happy Reading!

eshorts – yay

Shortfire Press in the UK has done what I’ve been advocating for some time and is making new short stories available as electronic downloads. The stories are chosen by the editor Clare Hey and published online only. You can buy each individual story for £0.99 in pdf, mobi or epub format. There are only three stories up there now (the site only went live last week) but more are to come. This is a great initiative – I just have to work out how to get the stories onto my iPad using Stanza. They are not available through iBooks (what is?) – you purchase the stories through the Shortfire website.

A year of short stories

Last year I decided to dedicate myself to reading a short story a week for a year. That may not seem like much but, although I write short stories myself, they’re not my preferred reading matter and I felt guilty about it – how can I expect other people to read my stories when I don’t read theirs? – so I forced myself into a regime of at least a story a week (see the list of stories I read in 2010 under “Weekly Bread” link at right). After completing the year these are my reflections.

Short stories are hard to find

I had to go out of my way to find short stories to read – I wanted to read both classics and contemporary. I had some collections I’d already purchased such as UTS student anthologies and Best of Australian Stories. I also had the odd collection of short stories on my book shelves (and mostly I hadn’t read these). However, on the whole, I had to search out stories from other sources. I did buy a few collections, mostly anthologies, that I thought had a variety of stories of which I was bound to like some: Jeffrey Eugenides’ My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead and A S Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories, were two. The local library was also another obvious place but, as I discovered, short story collections make up a miniscule portion of the fiction holdings, plus they are hard to find being shelved in with the novels. In the end I also scoured the secondhand bookstores for collections to buy.

Contemporary short stories are published in the literary journals but I find these too expensive to buy to read one or two stories. There are hardly any stories published in cheaper sources such as women’s magazines (remember the old days when Woman’s Day and Women’s Weekly regularly ran short stories?). The Big Issue is a notable exception with its regular annual fiction special.

Genre stories are even rarer

Literary stories have outlets in literary journals and the annual short story anthologies, however genre stories don’t appear to have a home. Surely there is as wide a readership for crime/speculative/thriller stories as there is for novels in these genres but this market isn’t catered for as far as I can see. When they do publish stories, genre writers publish them in their own collections – Joanne Harris’ Jigs and Reels, for instance. There is the odd big anthology in the library like the very enjoyable and high quality Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women and Nightshade: 20th Century Ghost Stories, but there are not as many around as I would have expected.

Beware the editors of collections

I thought I’d purchase couple of anthologies and that would give me a head start in having a large number of stories to read. It hadn’t occurred to me before to scrutinise the editors of anthologies – I’d just look at the table of contents and if there was a couple of writers I liked, I might buy the book – but I learnt my lesson when I bought the Oxford Book of Short Stories edited by A S Byatt. Like a lot of people I loved Possession but I’d forgotten how dry and intellectual I found Byatt’s other novels. After sampling a few of the stories in the Oxford book I realised I didn’t see eye to eye with Byatt – I just don’t like the pieces she selected. To compound matters, I experienced the same thing with Jeffrey Eugenides’ collection. It’s supposed to be a collection of love stories but it’s as though Eugenides thought he’d have the last laugh on any sap who bought the book on the strength of the subtitle “great love stories from Chekhov to Munro”. I’d say these are stories that have a relationship at their centre and that’s about all. It’s also American-centric. However it does include an Alice Munro story I’ve wanted to read for some time, the great “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.

The best of the crop

Reading a lot of short stories from a wide variety of sources concentrated my thoughts on what I actually like about a short story. Unlike a novel I don’t invest so much in a short story so I can afford to read something I might otherwise not read, which is a good thing. On the other hand, lack of investment means it’s easier to give up on one story and move on to another.

On the whole I like a story that is a story, ie has a story arc and enough substance to sink my teeth into. For this reason I thoroughly enjoyed many of the fantasy stories in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women especially “The Lake of the Gone Forever” by Leigh Brackett and “The Ship who Sang” by Anne  McCaffrey.

I also appreciate beautiful, intricate writing in a short story, writing that might be too rich or tiresome in a longer form. In this category I loved “Bridge of Sighs” by Gail Jones, “The Kiss” by Angela Carter, Ted Hughes’ “The Rain Horse” and Annie Proulx’s quite magnificent “Testament of the Donkey” from her collection Fine Just the Way It Is.

Then there are the uncomfortable, sad themes I might baulk at in a novel such as Peter Goldsworthy’s “Shooting the Dog” and Eva Hornung’s “Life Sentence”.

Stories that hang in my mind and I’m not sure why are: Barbara Hanrahan’s “Tottie Tippet” set in 19th century South Australia and with an unforgettable narrator, the unlikely-named but moving “The Slovenian Giantess” by Penelope Lively, a completely unsettling story by Joyce Cary about a father and his daughters called “Growing Up” that I was amazed to find included in a 1964 anthology meant for schools, and a similarly unnerving story “The Fog Day” by Amy Patterson set in Papua New Guinea.

It was an enlightening experience to read so many stories, and one I’m going to repeat in 2011.