The Week In Books
Friday, 31 July 2009 - The Independent
The Caine Prize for African Writing uncovers treasure after treasure from all over the continent while restricting eligible entries to short fiction alone. In the Manchester-based Comma Press and Salt Publishing in Cambridgeshire, Britain has two high-performing specialist imprints with a robust commitment to the briefer forms. This September will see the next edition of Small Wonder at Charleston in Sussex - a festival dedicated to the great fiction that so often comes in modest parcels.
Could any curious newbie read their way through the landmarks of modern narration without ever tackling any piece longer than 100 or so pages? You can easily imagine an eccentric but high-powered syllabus tailored for the short-winded students of today. Tolstoy would mean compressed masterworks such as Hadji Murat and The Kreutzer Sonata rather than War and Peace; James The Turn of the Screw, The Beast in the Jungle and many other marvels in place of The Golden Bowl; Conrad would stand up as sturdily as ever with nothing longer than Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer on the list.
Then move on to Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, Kipling, Borges, Lawrence, Nabokov, Singer, Babel, Katherine Mansfield, all the way through to Italo Calvino, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, Ingo Schulze and the younger Ian McEwan. Whenever anything that matters has happened in global fiction since the 1870s or so, you might plausibly argue that short-ish bursts of innovation have announced the shift of sensibility before the bigger bangs arrived.
Although the Booker spurns stories as such, medium-sized novellas can creep in under its fence. I was among the judges who raised this a fraction to let Anita Desai's flawlessly twinned pair of tales, Fasting, Feasting, onto our shortlist. This year, another sort of jury might have done the same for Geoff Dyer's East-West double-header, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.