Word for Word: A happy ending for the short story
The Cork International Short Story Prize has helped to bring the form back to prominence
Raymond Carver 1969 Photograph: Gordon Lish
Every year, for the past 10 years, somebody somewhere has written about the renaissance of the short story. Aficionados have mixed feelings about these articles, as we are well aware that, to inveterate readers, publishers, writers and touters of novels we are adherents of a subculture that is almost as quaint as the one those poetry people belong to. So starved of attention are we that we welcome any coverage for the short story.
But short stories are ubiquitous. They always have been. What they are not is valued by the marketplace. A great short-story writer could expect to earn a good living in the 1960s. In 1965 the New Yorker magazine would pay $40,000 for the sort of story it might pay $10,000 for today. In 1965, $40,000 was worth about £13,000 in Ireland; the average house cost £2,500. So, back then, a story in the New Yorker could have earned you enough to buy five decent houses. What would that be today? About €1 million? Today, your short story might earn you enough to buy a new kitchen.
The stories being written now are just as compelling, just as artful as those from the 1960s, but in a world where money means everything their creators are generally less esteemed. In 1961, when Samuel Beckett was living in semi-obscurity, Frank O’Connor was regularly called Ireland’s greatest living writer, a man who had published two novels that he acknowledged himself were failures. Although he was a renowned memoirist and translator of medieval Irish poetry, his international literary reputation rested entirely on his many volumes of short stories.
In the 1990s there still existed many outlets and competition prizes for the single short story, but collections were almost impossible to get published. Philip McCann, a young Irish writer whom the Guardian lauded as a great talent, had a collection published by Faber – but only on condition that he follow it up with something longer. It was a common refrain: “We’ll only publish your stories if you produce a novel.” That made the emergence of a new O’Connor or Raymond Carver seem impossible. Some of us decided to do something about it.
As early as 1993 I proposed the setting up in Cork of what I termed the Frank O’Connor summer school. It was another seven years before Munster Literature Centre could establish the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival, whose aim was to resuscitate O’Connor’s reputation and provide succour to a thriving but neglected art form. We wanted to establish a major prize to recognise the achievement of the short-story collection, providing an esteem in counterweight to that enjoyed by the novel, with its Booker, its Whitbread, its Orange, its Pulitzer, its Impac and all the rest.
In 2005 we achieved our aim, establishing the world’s richest award for a book of stories. Our festival is the oldest dedicated to the short story; it has been joined by many more around the world. It is still much easier to publish a novel than a short-story collection, but more are getting published – and occasionally lauded.
Next week we announce the 11th winner of our award – a modest €25,000 rather than €1 million, but still the largest in the world, made possible by the generous sponsorship of Cork City Council and the school of English at University College Cork.
Patrick Cotter is director of Cork International Short Story Festival and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award