Not brave enough to be boring: Celebrating Katherine Mansfield and the short story

Jonathan Gibbs

mansfield blog 225x300 Not brave enough to be boring: Celebrating Katherine Mansfield and the short storyToday is the 90th anniversary of the death of Katherine Mansfield, from tuberculosis, at the age of 32. During her lifetime her reputation as a writer was dogged by accusations of cosiness – she sometimes wrote stories she didn’t much like in order to pay for medical treatment – but this has changed in the years since. Stories such as ‘The Garden Party’, ‘Bliss’ and ‘Prelude’ open out the so-called ‘domestic’ realm (that prison for women writers) to a wider world of psychological and aesthetic concerns.

Reading Kevin Jackson’s recent non-fiction book about Modernism’s annus mirabilis 1922, Constellation of Genius, it’s obvious how well Mansfield fitted into that set of experimental writers who belatedly heaved Eng Lit into the Twentieth Century. She was friends, of sorts, with DH Lawrence, and rivals with Virginia Woolf, who moaned, when she was alive, ‘So what if K.M. soars in the newspapers, & runs up sales skyhigh?’ but changed her tune after her death: ‘When I began to write, it seemed to me there was no point in writing. Katherine won’t read it, Katherine’s my rival no longer.’

katherine mansfield 185x300 Not brave enough to be boring: Celebrating Katherine Mansfield and the short storyIt’s easy to look to a writer who died so young for a sense of ‘purity’ in her work, but it’s worth noting that Mansfield is one of that ‘pure’ breed of writers who writes, or wrote, only short stories. The longest published piece by Mansfield, ‘At the Bay’, comes in, in my lovely Persephone Books edition of The Montana Stories, at 50 pages. If we’re looking for something to demolish the lazy cultural assumption that the novel is the true measure of greatness in literature, then it’s probably enough to look at the writers who have declined to produce one: Mansfield, yes, but also Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, Jorge Luis Borges, Chekhov.

Among contemporary writers Helen Simpson and Lydia Davis both seem unlikely to ever produce a novel (though Davis has translated them) and I doubt anyone who enjoys their brilliant individual takes on the possibilities of short story would want them to. For fans of Carver, Americans Thom Jones and David Means take his brand of minimalism – that seemed, for a while, to have permanently attached itself to the very idea of a short story – and push it different directions.

Who have I missed? Well, there’s George Saunders, whose new collection Tenth of December shows a master satirist at work. Saunders has actually published one novella, and another book of similar length for children, but I hope that doesn’t disqualify him. He may well disqualify himself, anyway, in any case. As he says in an interview with his editor Andy Ward, “Actually, at least three of the stories in this book were ‘novels’ until they came to their senses. That seems to be the definition of ‘novel’ for me: a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief.”

Perhaps Mansfield would have concurred. In part her continued production of short stories was linked to her knowledge that she was dying. “I am stuck beyond words,” she wrote in her journal in September 1921, “and again it seems to me that what I am doing has no form! I ought to finish my book of stories first and then, when it’s gone, really get down to my novel…”

Would she ever have written a novel? Perhaps, perhaps not. Carver certainly wouldn’t have. “I’m hooked on writing short stories,” he wrote, “and couldn’t get off them even if I wanted to. Which I don’t.”

Simpson, in her introduction to last year’s Bunch of Fives (a collection of five stories from each of her five collections), describes the short story as “like a core sample. Think how much a geologist can learn from a core sample – it’s the same! If it’s a good one, you’ve got absolutely everything you need to know about the history and geography and inhabitants and social conditions of the area, in wonderfully concise form.”

“Maybe the short story writer lacks the novelist’s courage to boring,” she muses.

It’s certainly a good time not to be boring. It’s claimed that the short story is undergoing a renaissance about as frequently as the novel is pronounced ‘dead’.

There are no shortage of high-profile prizes – including the BBC National Short Story Award (winner gets £15,000), The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award (a whopping £30,000) and the Manchester Writing Competition (£10,000, alternating annually between fiction and poetry) – to which we can now add the White Review Short Story Prize, run by the very well-appointed arts journal.

Unlike the other prizes, the White Review prize is specifically looking for stories thatexplore and expand the possibilities of the form”, so it will be interesting to see who – or rather what – wins. After all, you’d think that the short story, of all forms, would be one that is most ready to adapt to the new digital world where we spend so much of our text-based existence.

Many short story competitions (once you get beyond the big game exercises listed above) now include categories for Flash Fiction. Last year saw an inaugural Twitter Fiction Festival, and American writers Rick Moody and Jennifer Egan have both written short stories on the site (Egan’s one, ‘Black Box’ is still available on the New Yorker Fiction timeline – if you can be fussed to scroll back to 25 May). (I am, too, in fact: in a twist on the age-old idea of serialisation, I’m writing my story ‘J’ at @365daystory, at the rate of tweet a day, over the course of 2013).

Any other examples of online innovation? Any other short story-only writers? Please add in the comments below.

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  • Ailsa Cox

    Lovely piece on KM – maybe too brave to be boring? Don’t forget to add the Edge Hill Prize to the list of short story awards – the only UK prize for a published short story collection.

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