Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

"Best British Short Stories 2017" by Nicholas Royle (ed) (Salt, 2017)

20 stories in all, 6 from themed/competition anthologies and 8 from magazines. Copyright restrictions rather than quality may have prevented the reprinting of stories from collections by the likes of Penelope Fitzgerald. There are stories from "Bare Fiction Magazine", "Structo", "Prole" (all of which I've submitted to in vain), BBC Radio 4 (twice), etc. He says that he saw "Prole" for the first time this year, though it's been going for at least 20 issues. Some venerable outlets are missing - "Stand", "Ambit" - and also specialist outlets like "The Short Story", "London Journal of Fiction" and "Short Fiction" aren't represented. "Ariel" (3.5 pages) is the only piece that could be Flash. James Kelman's the biggest name. To my shame, most of the other authors are unknown to me though they all have a track record.

In his Introduction Nicholas Royle writes "2016 was a good year for the short story", "our best short story writers are not short of outlets for their work" and "we could conceivably double the size of Best British Short Stories without any drop in quality", which is good news.

One can't criticize the quality of the writing, though I think there are stylistic trends -

  • There are no slightly world-weary, wrought essay-like pieces a la Julian Barnes. I think it's rather difficult nowadays to have a narrator who's a philosopher or an analyst. It's easier for a less academic character to sound "authentic".
  • In the guidelines to "Neon", the magazine he edits, Krishan Coupland (who's in this anthology) says "We prefer darker pieces, especially those with an element of the surreal or speculative". Such pieces are pretty common here.

Here's a brief sumary -

  • Jay Barnett - A little team of people is checking animal traps as part of a project. Small talk, bickering and awkwardness.
  • Peter Bradshaw - a punchline story which almost works for me.
  • Rosalind Brown - the story of 2 twitchers having an on/off affair is spliced with bird-watching details that act as metaphors. One of my favourites.
  • Krishan Coupland - A schoolgirl who's an avid swimmer starts turning into a fish, and ends by looking as if she's going to swim out to sea.
  • Claire Dean - A newcomer becomes involved in strange rural events.
  • Niven Govinden - A deathbed scene from the dying person's PoV.
  • Fran├žoise Harvey - children die in a village, mysteriously.
  • Andrew Michael Hurley - a genre-bending piece. Newcomers are involved in strange rural rituals.
  • Daisy Johnson - A dead husband returns, damages with words and actions.
  • James Kelman - An aging guy reviews his life. Doesn't work for me.
  • Giselle Leeb - A youth (a loner?) watches another younger, more popular youth, then seems to throw himself in a river.
  • Courttia Newland - A police shooting. The words of the sentences are in the conventional order, but the order of the sentences has been reversed.
  • Vesna Main - The narrator is taken advantage of by husband and friends. She can't take legal action later because her passivity is interpretable as consent. This piece did little for me.
  • Eliot North - Another village-based story with hints of macabre fantasy. A boy's approaching puberty.
  • Irenosen Okojie - The piece I had the most trouble with. All that imagination come to nothing.
  • Laura Pocock - a model village has spooky predictive power. "The Miniaturist"?
  • David Rose - The piece I was most disappointed by, perhaps because I had such high expectations.
  • Deirdre Shanahan - Gypsy life. Stealing, young pregnancies, deciding whether to leave the lifestyle.
  • Sophie Wellstood - Spreading ashes. Not enough happens for me.
  • Lara Williams - A woman feels that life is slipping by. Seemed a rather standard piece to me.

Other reviews

  • bookmunch (For the seasoned short story reader, the collection can serve as a ‘state of the nation’ snapshot. Though it’s not obvious, and it is certainly not planned, common themes can be divined. Loss and loneliness: an almost tangible entropic sense runs through several of these selected works ... Lara Williams’ ‘Treats‘, a story of a woman whose life has rather un-dramatically folded, is pretty much short story perfection ... In Kelman’s story, my personal favourite, a whole world can be divined from a single paragraph; such is the power in his writing.)

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