What is it?
Why is it important?
Can we talk about it anymore, and if so, how?
The term ‘greatness’ seems to be defined as the quality of eminence or distinction. It is a politically fraught term, having excluded literature from huge sections of the population on grounds of race, gender, class etc. It is also an over-used, de-valued word. Greatness, like love, is an abstract noun that means different things to different people. I love my family, I love chocolate.
And yet I think that the concept of greatness, however problematic, is still meaningful to writers and readers, because it’s about what inspires them (motivates, rouses, exhilarates, animates influences) And I believe that in contemporary literature, they are more likely to find it in the short form.
Why is this?
I can think of two possible reasons. One is that short stories are still, despite their growing popularity, a less commercial form than the novel. Relatively few of the major publishing houses accept short story collections. They are published, by and large, in literary magazines, or by independent publishers who make very little money from them.
Commercial publishing is dominated by trends and figures, metadata. If a novel has been successful in terms of sales, publishers will attempt to replicate that success. The people who run literary magazines are usually just looking for the best short stories, essays, poems they can find. J G Ballard, an excellent short story writer better known for his novels, said that novels are an
‘over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit. At its best,…the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination.’
The writing and publishing of the short story is about the pursuit of excellence, the sense that there is still a readership for great fiction.
My second reason is a little more obscure. The great realist novels of the 19th century attempted to represent the societies they came from. Now, with an increased awareness of how diverse and fractured our societies are, it is difficult to imagine that any one person could speak for them. Short stories don’t attempt to do this. They offer marginal perspectives, glimpses, moments of illumination and eloquent gaps. The virtuoso flourish that says so much in so few words.
Or, as the writer and translator Sonya Moor puts it, more beautifully
‘short fiction lets you peer through a crack in the door at seemingly inconsequential moments, and when your eyes adjust you realize you’re looking into a cave or a cathedral – something huge. ‘
This quote comes from the third episode of our podcast series, which has just been released:
It is a series is about ‘great short stories and greatness in the short story form’.
The short stories we have chosen are radically varied in style, theme, perspective, voice and form, but we think that each one has a claim to greatness. Whether because of their depth, breadth, sophistication or distinctiveness we have found them inspirational and we hope you do too.