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Long live the short story, the short story is dead.
The short story is dead; long live the short story.
Just when we thought the genre was the sole forte of dead hacks, there’s a sudden surge in this area of writing.
In their eternal sleep, we can venture to suggest that masters, and mistresses, of the short story – Olive Schreiner, AC Jordan, RRR Dhlomo, Herman Charles Bosman, Alan Paton, Can Themba, Alex La Guma, Doris Lessing, Bertha Goudvis, the list is endless – will not turn in their graves given the quality of the new talent.
Bearing testimony to this claim is a brilliant short story collection titled African Pens 2011, New Writing from Southern Africa, Winning Stories Selected by JM Coetzee.
Excuse the cliché but this is a literary tour de force!
In his comment about the winning stories, Coetzee says they “were of a generally higher standard than the finalists for the last award, which suggests that the standard of entries as a whole may be higher”.
If so, adds the Nobel laureate, with such great titles to his name as Disgrace, Youth, Waiting for the Barbarians, Slow Man, among others, “this is a promising development.”
The stories do for the genre what Gone With The Wind and Titanic have done for the movie industry.
The winning story, simply titled The Story, by James Whyle gets the normally reticent Coetzee waxing lyrical about it. In the story, he says, dialogue is particularly deftly handled. It is, he says, a fine illustration of the adage that, sometimes, less is more.
Two men meet on a dumping site, one a young cop on duty and the other a man – Frank - with no shred of evidence licensing him to drive the car, or be on the road, in the first instance.
A heart-rending tale of two under-aged brothers with a winning lottery ticket comes out third in Coetzee’s book.
His gripe is that while it is an original and suspenseful story, it is “let down by a somewhat predictable ending”.
But no one who reads The Ticket will go without showering the writer William Oosthuizen, with praise.
Among the five stories that Coetzee said “deserve honourable mention” Parking the Guilt by Kyne Nislev Bernstoff and The Sunday Paper by Rosamund Kendal actually deserve this – and more.
Bernstoff takes us into the world – and identity – of the foreign car guard at the mall while Kendal writes about the man who wakes up in the wee hours of the morning to make sure the complacent world will get their Sunday papers like clockwork.
If the longevity that the likes of Can Themba’s The Suit enjoy in the literary world is anything to go by, these gems will contend for space for a long time to come.
The Suit was adapted to a stage play on more than three occasions, most notably by James Ngcobo at the Market Theatre. Fellow writer Ivan Vladislavic had the following to add: “Bosman’s A Bekkersdal Marathon by a church sermon that goes on for ever remains a classic.
Writer David Medalie has a view on the form: “The short story - a genre in which South African writers have particularly excelled - has been neglected in recent years. Publishers have been reluctant to publish single-author collections of short stories due to perceptions that sales are likely to be very small, and most of the major literary awards in this country deliberately exclude short story collections. However, in the last year or two several new collections of short stories have appeared (by Henrietta Rose-Innes, Elleke Boehmer, Arja Salafranca and others) and it seems that the short story is becoming more popular again. This is a very positive and heartening development.”
Added to his books, Medalie has published short stories - The Shooting of the Christmas Cows.
He’s a university professor in English.
Fellow writer Ivan Vladislavic had the following to add: “South African writers seem to be drawn to the short story. Its popularity rises and falls, but it’s always there in the background. At the moment, we’re in a phase where story collections by individual writers and edited anthologies are more visible. There have been quite a few themed anthologies recently, like Home Away edited by Louis Greenberg or Touch edited by Karina Szczurek (both published by Zebra), and perhaps those have caught the imagination of readers and reassured publishers that there is a market for similar books.”
“Somehow the story seems particularly suited to a diverse and changeable reality like ours. It’s also an open, experimental form, which gives young writers especially the chance to try out bold ideas, and so it’s a good thing that publishers are receptive. I suspect that some beginning writers are pushed to tackle novels before they’re ready, when the freer, less daunting space of short fiction would allow them to find their feet. My first book was a collection of stories and I’ve always been grateful that David Philip took a chance on it.”
Flashback Hotel, his collection of short stories, was published by Umuzi, an imprint of Random Struik.
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