I like short stories, and I like that short stories are garnering (in my humble, based-on-anecdote opinion) a wider audience; I talk about Nam Le and Miranda July lately as much as I talk about Haruki Murakami and Ernest Hemingway. New Australian Stories is on Scribe’s ‘latest bestsellers’ list, so that’s heartening. The short story’s a great narrative form, and I’m not going to insultingly qualify that statement by saying ‘for our time’ or ‘for my postmodern, YouTube-inhaling generation’, because I’m not sure that those kinds of things are relevant except for as PR pap.
My love for short stories explained: I like the way short stories seem like biopsies, sampling as if for your edification and entertainment lumpy segments of life. My love for short story collections explained: I really like eating at restaurants partly because I love menus — if you read about everything on offer it’s like sampling each one, if only in your head. In the case of short story collections, reading/sampling is consuming. For me, a person who finds picking and choosing hard, that’s great. A local focus is good too; I like seeing what lots of Australian writers are up to, from the ones I’m familiar with from collections, literary magazines, newspapers and small press, through to the ones I’ve never heard of (no fault of theirs, I’m sure, as the authors all have extensive biographies). It’s also great for the writers, because it puts them in touch with a wider audience. So I guess what I’m saying is that I love the idea of an Australian short story anthology, especially considering that short stories (for whatever reason) are still considered black holes for the publishing dollar.
Scribe’s New Australian Stories, most of whose constituent stories are previously unpublished, gives us stories from the likes of Cate Kennedy, Louise Swinn and Paddy O’Reilly as well as lots of writers I’ve never read (my fault, not theirs — most of the authors have extensive biographies). Stories spanning the spectrum of experience, from the beginning of life to the guilt, agony and mystery of death, can be found in this diverse collection. Re: birth, see Max Barry’s anti-couvade experience in How I Met My Daughter: ‘They dragged this bloody, howling thing from my wife’s abdomen, its limbs twitching and clawing, its face like an angry pumpkin, and asked me, “Do you want to take a photo?”‘ Re: death, see Ryan O’Neill’s ‘Last Words’: ‘Most last words, he had discovered, were banal.’
If short stories are biopsies, then the writers of New Australian Stories are skilled surgeons. The best short stories can conjure a past and a future out of a segment of present. Lots of the stories in this collection do this well. Highlights for me included Abigail Ulman’s Chagall’s Wife, whose tale of a high-school student angling for the attentions of a teacher easily evokes the nonchalance and unexamined alertness of burgeoning sexuality. It also stands out for its lean, direct prose; most of the other stories have a tendency towards fleshier prose which can sometimes be less effective. Another stand-out was Vivienne Kelly’s The Third Child. In this story, Frances writes yearly letters about her unchanging life to an aunt who lives abroad. Kelly’s restraint is admirable and pays off in an unexpected way; it’s a breathtaking story.
In relation to the talk of eliminating the territorial copyright provisions, there has been some fear that if it were to go ahead, uniquely Australian voices and stories would be lost. I get the feeling that the production of this kind of book will be negatively affected by major changes to the Australian parallel importation laws; I’d guess that the risk to independent Australian presses of putting out works by new (to books) Australian authors put is offset by their domestic sales of big-ticket overseas titles and books by established local heroes. The way the Productivity Commission is going (i.e. arbitrarily hedging their bets), if you love short stories, you should buy books like these and make them bestsellers in their own right.