Short stories reprise in age of Internet, attention deficit
The magic of a story told in 2,000 words in returning to the bookshelf in this age of reality television, Internet and short attention spans.
The short story may not be the publisher's ideal profitable literary device because of its position as the novel's poor country cousin, but the sheer diversity of anthologies of short stories on the stands vouches for its growing popularity among new segments of readers - mostly young - pressed for time and attention and overwhelmed by the deluge of information available on the Internet at the click of a key.
The new collections, however, are subtly different from the pioneers of the genre like Graham Greene, Guy De Maupassant, O' Henry, H. H. Munro (Saki) and Roald Dahl. They are contemporary - addressing the realities of the time - and more organised around the thread of topics they want to focus on.
"Logic tells me that people of little time rather than reading a novel would finish a short story in half an hour. The shorter form has a more direct impact," Udayan Mitra, publisher of Allen Lane and Portfolio (Penguin India), told IANS.
Short stories are received wisdom. It comes from everything that we learn and see around us, Mitra said.
"It is not that short stories don't sell. Look at Jhumpa Lahiri's book. It is still selling. The criterion is quality. I am not aware of the genre morphing. But you have to give the anthologies focus - there is definitely scope for themed stuff and new voices in the age of Internet," Mitra noted.
One of the new volumes of short stories that touched almost every heart and became a best-seller was "Love Stories That Touched My Heart" edited by popular mass fiction writer Ravinder Singh. The anthology chosen through a contest for first-time writers was put together from more than 2,000 entries strung around the emotion of love and its nuanced rainbows.
"I wanted to push new creative frontiers with untold stories," Ravinder Singh said.
The master of Indian short stories, Ruskin Bond, still remains the most sought after story-teller with his anthologies like "Time Stops of Shamli and Other Stories", "Secrets", "When Darkness Falls and Other Stories," and "Ghost Stories from the Raj". The stories relate to the young audience with their sudden twists in the tale quality, colourful descriptions of the Himalayan locales and the everyday backdrops on which the narratives build themselves.
Bond, whose target readers are children and young adults, puts the revival of short stories to "a great flowering of books for children because of the Internet and availability of a variety of books which was not the case 30 years ago".
On a personal level, he is inspired by nature, places and people.
Publishing houses like Penguin India, Rupa and Co and Harper Collins diligently compile collections of short stories annually - presenting a mix of old and new writers with unusual narratives.
Anthologies like "The Whispers in the Classrooms" - a collection of classroom tales - and "Winter Evenings" by Navtej Sarna, a book that draws on unusual anecdotes inspired by the writer's diplomatic assignments, represent a new breed of stories about lives not always visible in the everyday world. They are usually inhabited by shadowy characters who live on the margins of life and are unlikely stars of short stories.
Translations of regional short stories into English are bringing to readers a new world of literature unheard of in the English-reading segments, contributing to the popularity of short stories.
"I think India has a great tradition of short story in writers like R.K. Narayan. I have been gifted a volume of stories by Sadaat Hasan Manto that I have started reading," says acclaimed short story writer Jeffrey Archer. "It is a compatible genre for the young readers who have very short attention spans. The best way to catch them is in a couple of chapters... ," Archer told IANS in a recent interview.
The writer, known for his short story anthologies like "A Quiverful of Arrows", "Twelve Red Herrings", "A Twist in the Tale" and "And Thereby Hangs a Tale", says his stories "are based on incidents I come across".
"The germ of the idea for my short stories is either given to me by someone else or I witness it," Archer said.
Some of his stories shine in their simplistic approach to the narrative on the line of classical English short stories of the 19th century. In his volume, "And Thereby Hangs a Tale," Archer narrates about a couple, Nisha and Jamwal, who fall in love while they stand at a Delhi bus-stop, thus striking an instant rapport with his millions of Indian readers.
"Today, people like to read books about realities. Most of the short stories in my books are real life experience. I reflect on them and turn them into stories," prolific children's short story writer Sudha Murthy told IANS.
Fears about their market stock are, however, not unjustified. A writer who has made a name for himself and arrived in the literary mainstream has better acceptance as a short-story writer to publishers and readers and a debutant, sums up writer Shobhaa De.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 02-04-2013)