‘Fiction is becoming darker, weirder, bent-out-of-shape’

Ashley Stokes, who publishes the Unthology series of short fiction, on the state of the short story in Ireland and the UK

“In the UK, it’s hard to make a case that there’s a popular love of the short story,” says publisher Ashley Stokes

Ashley Stokes is a founding editor of Unthank Books and their Unthology series – a periodic anthology of short fiction from new and established writers. Its stated mission is to "champion the underdog and the overlooked, the passed-over, the disconnected" and seek out vibrant short fiction. The publishers, which recently brought Tom Vowler on board, have just brought out the 10th book in the series.

Ashley, what prompted you to begin publishing these anthologies, and more aptly, why haven't you given up?
There was a lot of wild optimism when Unthank was founded in 2010. We thought it would be nice to have a "sampler" to promote the short fiction and work-in-progress of our many novelists. However, we obviously didn't have enough writers in the beginning and opened it up to general submissions. I also wanted to provide a home for longer stories and a range of styles, too. It was quite local for the first two issues but with 'Three' it took off. We're now at volume 10. We're still taking off, but one day we'll either reach cruising altitude or crash.

What are you looking for in a short story – or piece of short fiction?
I don't know what I'm looking for but I know it when I see it. I'm not sure I know what a short story is. I think that helps. I am looking for ideas and voices, structures, too, that I've not seen before. I don't want to guess the outcome in the first paragraph. I like a checkpoint situation or a flashpoint explosion. I do want to hear a distinct and clear voice and not one cribbed in some way. A writer should have a voice and be able to tell a story. That sounds simple, but it seems overlooked sometimes.

What kind of writing is happening at a grassroots level?
At grassroots level, and by that I suspect you mean writing that's not influenced by MA programmes, is becoming darker, weird, twisted-out-of-shape, dripping with fear of the end and apocalypse. The new writing I'm enjoying at the moment – the likes of Gary Budden and Gareth E Rees – are potholing in these caves. This isn't the bent of mainstream publishing, which still seems to favour historical fiction, statements on social issues over political issues, and a longing for "uplif".


These are troubled times, to mention just three flashcards: Brexit, Trump and #metoo. Social media and celebrity proclamations seem to be major forces shaping the Zeitgeist. Can fiction be there in the mix, shaping and making sense of the currents of thought?
The massive coverage attracted by Kristen Roupenian's Cat Person suggests it can, though the issues you mention are complex, with long tails and tongues. Understanding them, if possible at all, may be best handled by non-fiction. Communicating what the fall-out feels like, the flux of the times, the distinct point of view and experience, that's what fiction does best. If you want to understand the Russian Civil War, you read history books. If you want to feel what it meant to be caught up in it, you read Babel or Bulgarkov.

What's your impression on who is reading your Unthologies? Is the short story a form loved by writers and feared by publishers?
I've said before that the superficial rude health of short fiction has a lot to do with writers using the internet as a life support for a form that big publishers were happy to abandon. Unthology might favour writers' writers, I suppose, and it is true that we have a lot of support from writers. Generally, in the UK, it's hard to make a case that there's a popular love of the short story, despite some new prizes and notable first collections from bigger presses recently, such as Jessie Greengrass's An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk. There's only one reason to write short stories: because you can't help it.

Do you think we have a better scene in Ireland for the short story?
I think you have a scene with more focus. I mean, you have major festivals dedicated to the short story that people actually go to. Irish writers also have a weight of tradition, something defined by Joyce and Frank O'Connor, that you can feel palpably if you read Irish journals. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, but tradition always creates in-groups and out-groups. We have, though, published quite a few brilliant Irish writers, like Roisin O'Donnell and Armel Dagorn. Brian Coughlan has a great story in Unthology 10.

You said that the fiction you're getting is getting darker, weird and bent-out-of-shape. Is there something to be said for the view that the short story is the natural form for fragmented times and submerged voices?
Andre Debus said that he loved short stories because "they are the way we live ... what our friends tell us in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cries against injustice". That's about it: the short story as outsider, not insider art.

Have any writers gone on to sign a contract with a big publisher?
I don't think so, and I don't think it really works like that now. We have published some writers who have had success, like Jenni Fagan, who was in Unthology 1, and Jonathan Pinnock was in Unthology 6, but we hardly made those writers' names. Quite a lot of our writers have gone on to have solo collections, though. Gary Budden has a collection now, The Hollow Shore, with Dead Ink. Armel Dagorn has a collection out with The Penny Dreadful. Clare Fisher has just had a collection published by Influx. Ruby Cowling has a collection coming soon. In the future, though, I am hoping to publish more single-author collections. It can be a jumping-off-point, I think.

Who are the best contemporary short story writers working in the UK?
That's a very personal question, and I may answer differently on a different day. Tania Hershman is someone who uses the short story to explore the role and influence of science in our lives, and she's doing that not just in content but in form, too. David Rose is someone else who often forces the short story into new shapes and vocalisations. I also find myself looking out for Angela Readman, Daisy Johnson and Gary Budden, the latter being someone who meshes weird horror with a very English rumination on place and landscape to create stories simultaneously eerie, yet oh-so realistic. And one of our own writers, Sarah Dobbs. Brave, alive, raw, her stories need to be read.