ReadingRoom

The short story shall rise again

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias announces his intention to publish a new New Zealand short story every week.

The rebirth of one of the great pinnacles in all of New Zealand literature – the short story – starts here. Dear old precocious ReadingRoom, four weeks into its infancy, will publish a new New Zealand short story every week, beginning on Saturday, with a kind of black #Metoo comedy by Stephanie Johnson. Five more by a mix of established authors and new writers have already been accepted. It’s a beginning.

The short story! It’s a thing of wonder, a little miracle, just right, small but perfectly formed, even better when it’s small and imperfectly formed – it’s an ideal plant for New Zealand conditions, in this land of the understatement, the laconic observation, the whakataukī. It’s gone in and out of fashion but never out of practise, and its time has come again: it never went away in Landfall, Sport, and other literary cults, but it only ever appears in the MSM these days as summer filler. ReadingRoom is MSM and wants short fiction as a regular feature placed in front of a general audience.

Consider it as a response or a corrective to our Age of Blather. Everything is so goddamned long. Novels weighing in at 600 million words. The entire Netflix story-telling empire is built on padding. A pox on the many artless hacks grinding their longform journalism. Social media is an op-ed without end.

But the short story, with its precisions and its specificities and its light, gossamer touch, walks into a room, and then walks out. One short story paints a thousand pictures. The great masters – Chekhov, Kafka, Hemingway, Joyce, Jackson, Salinger, Carver, Munro – created masterpieces out of very few pages. Hemingway’s famous iceberg theory was built to last in short-form fiction: less is more.

The great masters also include the one New Zealand writer of whom we can say with confidence was in possession of genius. Katherine Mansfield’s stories remain things of wonder, also malice, cruelty, awful things happening to innocent bystanders. She ranged from short short to short long. In 1921, she stayed at the Chalet des Sapins in Switzerland; she recorded in a letter, “I shall tackle something different – a long story: ‘At the Bay’, with more difficult relationships.” Amazing to think that her dawn to midnight portrait of human frailty and “deeper strangeness”, set firmly and intimately at the Days Bay seaside in Wellington, was composed five thousand feet above sea level in the Swiss Alps.

To provide a brief history of the short story in New Zealand literature is to submit to the temptation to bang a nationalist drum. In fact the birth of a true New Zealand literature begins with the vernacular stylings of Frank Sargeson’s short stories. Sargeson came to be admired for his novels and memoirs, but his finest art was his stories. Also ‘That Summer’, his 1943 classic, has a wheelbarrow in it. Janet Frame came to be admired for her novels and memoirs, but her finest art was her stories...very well, that’s likely going too far, but her 1951 story collection The Lagoon remains a masterpiece, and a reminder that there were in fact two New Zealand writers of whom we can say with confidence were in possession of genius.

It’s become a trope that New Zealand fiction is one long, gloomy and humourless wallow but how can that claim be made when New Zealand fiction was at one point dominated by three men all called Maurice? The three Maurices – Duggan, Shadbolt, Gee – all excelled in the minor. Duggan’s widely anthologised short story ‘Along Rideout Road’ (1963) introduced probably the first Māori character of any dimension in local literature, Fanny Hohepa. Shadbolt’s first book, portentously titled The New Zealanders (1959), drove other writers into a frenzy of envy when his collection of stories was accepted by a major publisher in Britain. Gee’s story The Losers (1959), a lurid, powerful melodrama set at a provincial horse race meeting, was really quite brilliantly adapted for TV drama in 1976. Blokes guzzle Leopard beer, women wear headscarves, everyone smokes. The bad guy drives a De Soto, and says, "I'm getting the bum's rush."

And then there were Owen Marshall and CK Stead, and Witi Ihimaera – the first Māori writer of fiction to be published made his debut with the story collection Pounamu Pounamu (1970). And Patricia Grace and Joy Cowley, and Emily Perkins – the mysteries and omissions in her first book, the stories in Not Her Real Name (1996), are an exquisitely sculpted iceberg theory in progress. And in more recent years, Forbidden Cities (2008) and False River (2017) by Paula Morris, and Opportunity (2007) and Singularity (2009) by Charlotte Grimshaw.

And the two great story anthologies, the little one with the sketch of a cabbage tree on the cover, New Zealand Short Stories (1966) edited by CK Stead (who remarks in his Introduction that short fiction is “a means of getting at the exact flavour, the distinct feel, of our experience”), and Some Other Country, edited by Marion McLeod and Bill Manhire, which has gone through four editions between 1984 and 2008, its most recent incarnation including new writers such as Alice Tawhai and Eleanor Catton.

And three new books of stories due to be published in New Zealand in 2019, all by Victoria University Press – two posthumous collections, by 20th century women writers Greville Texidor and Eileen Duggan, and Selected Stories by the very much alive and functioning Vincent O’Sullivan. ReadingRoom wishes to publish a story from each of these books.

But for the most part ReadingRoom wishes to publish new and previously unpublished stories. Any genre, any length (well, within reason; we don’t want a novella), from writers of any experience – the great and the good, the unknown and the deluded. Submissions can be made to stephen11@xtra.co.nz. Please mark the subject line Short Story. Word Document only, no PDFs or Google Doc or any of that jazz. There’s a payment, not much, but it’s something.

It’s a beginning. It might end in a published anthology – but that’s speculative, that’s just a thought. The reality is a story every week at ReadingRoom. Saturday will be along shortly.

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