I was in Cork city at the weekend for this year’s Cork International Short Story Festival. This festival started out as the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival has been running for 17 years.
One of the events that I attended was a panel discussion on ‘The short story – the state of the art’. Tania Hershmann chaired (standing in for Eimear Ryan) and the panel consisted of Nuala O’Connor, Danielle McLaughlin, Tom Morris and Rob Doyle.
I was very keen to hear this discussion as I chaired a panel – that also included Nuala and Tom – on the same topic for Waterford Writers’ Weekend in 2014.
As you would expect from a panel of this calibre, the discussion was hugely insightful and interesting. Tania Hershmann did an excellent job of chairing and making sure that the discussion was well balanced between positive and negative points. Highlights for me were as follows (note that these are my impressions, not a comprehensive account of the event):
Nuala pointed out that we are lucky in Ireland to have a thriving culture of both literary journals and small presses, both of which are good news for emerging and ‘non-mainstream’ writers. She also made that point that it is a positive that our literary critics are interested in the short story and give it column inches.
One thought-provoking observation by Nuala was how regrettable it is that women’s magazines no longer publish short stories. These magazines used to be an important outlet for short fiction. It is also a pity for the form that when short stories are published in mainstream magazines such as the RTÉ Guide (Ireland’s most popular TV publication, which reaches 80% of Irish homes), they tend to be written by authors who are not specialists in the form, such as novelists who have been asked to write a short story. The outcome can be that the short stories that reach a mainstream readership through these magazines are not necessarily of the best quality, not the best examples that the form has to offer.
Tom made some interesting points about the tone of discussions about the short story at writing festivals. The approach, he said, is often disappointingly basic, with questions like “What is a short story?” and “How long should the short story be?” The short story is sometimes spoken of as if it were the post-colonial ‘other’ to the novel, which tends to objectify and restrict the form.
One thing that particularly caught my attention was Tom’s point that short story collections can ‘lock up’ our work. In other words, once a story is published in a collection, it can be stuck there, with no other route to reach audiences. Tom cited his own initiatives of “Out of office stories” (where interested parties send an email to a special address that Tom has set up and in return they receive an out of office reply with a story attached) and “A small, good thing” (where subscribers receive a short story selected by Tom). He also mentioned Twitter as a medium that writers can use in a variety of ways to reach wider audiences.
Danielle McLaughlin is a writer that I was not familiar with, though I had heard of her book Dinosaurs on other planets, which has been making waves recently. Danielle founded and runs a monthly writers’ event in Cork city called ‘Fiction at the friary’. She made the point that the practice of reading fiction aloud in embryonic forms – first drafts, second drafts and so on – can be refreshing and inspirational for both writers and listeners. Danielle also touched on the subject of the tone of discussions about the short story. As an example, she quoted the phrase “The traditional Irish short story”. Whose tradition, she asked, is being referred to here? She emphasised the importance of challenging clichés about the form.
Rob Doyle took up the point about ‘iconic’ short stories and their influence on writers. While he admires Chekovian examples of the form, he said, he finds inspiration in more experimental short fiction. He cited Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Jhumpa Lahiri and June Caldwell (whom I spotted outside having a cigarette; her new book Room little darker (see picture at the end) is getting brilliant reviews). The name George Saunders came up – I think Nuala mentioned him – as a popular writer whose work is more in the experimental vein, as did Lucia Berlin, a short story writer who has been called “one of America’s best-kept secrets”, and Arlene Heyman, who has a new book out about sexuality among older people called Scary old sex.
There was also an interesting question from the audience about the fact that short stories are read and studied in Irish schools. People who went through the Irish education system in the 1970s and 80s will remember the textbooks Exploring English and Soundings, which contained gems of short stories like ‘My First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor and ‘The Widow’s Son’ by Mary Lavin. Some panelists agreed that their love of the form was influenced by their exposure to stories like these in school, although as I said above, Rob expressed a preference for more experimental examples of the form.
I always try at festivals to get to know the work of (to me) new writers. Rob Doyle chaired a reading and discussion with two writers whose work I was unfamiliar with: Tanya Farrelly and Sean O’Reilly. Tanya is the author of two books: When the Black Dogs Sing and The Girl Behind the Lens. Her reading was really entertaining and a pleasure to listen to.
She read at a good, slow pace and did justice to the large amount of dialogue in the extract. I am always struck at readings by how important it is to emerging writers to be good public speakers. We don’t write our work for it to be read aloud, but we are often called upon to do exactly that. Like any skill, some are more gifted with it than others. Sean was also entertaining to listen to, but he read too quickly. This, combined with the seemingly large number of different characters in his extract, made his reading hard to follow.
Despite this, my interest in his work was piqued. His most recent book, Levitation, is published by Stinging Fly.
I came out of these two events feeling really pleased that I had attended. And what brilliant value for money at €5 per event! Kudos to the festival organizers, the Munster Literature Centre (represented at both events above by its administrator, Jennifer Matthews).
My post-event happiness was tempered only by the discovery that I had only €35 with me and so I had to restrict my purchases at the sales table in the foyer to only three of the many books on offer: Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor (which she signed for me), the Summer 2017 issue of The Stinging Fly and Room Little Darker by June Caldwell (I looked for her to sign it but she had gone).