Culture in the 21st century is increasingly visual, and information moves faster than ever before, while snap judgments are becoming more and more the norm; even music intros have reportedly declined in length from an average of 20 seconds to less than five seconds per track since the 1980s, in response, reportedly, to the impatient users of steaming services. I wonder what the surviving members of Pink Floyd make of that… Meanwhile, online news sites have begun to display an indication of the estimated reading time for that article that’s caught your eye, warning us in case we can’t commit to a whole three minutes of focused reading. The short story might be considered by some to be the perfect salve to ever-shortening attention spans. However, the writer William Boyd noted that “If the zeitgeist is influencing this taste then it may be a sign that we are coming to prefer our art in highly concentrated form. Like a multi-vitamin pill, a good short story can provide a compressed blast … a sort of aesthetic daisy cutter bomb of a reading experience that does its work with ruthless brevity”.
This selection of short fiction included here, in Issue 38, are certainly guaranteed to provide that concentrated shot of reading pleasure. We have new work from Teresa Sweeney, Some Young One, which is uncomfortable and timely reading in the era of #metoo, and the uneasy, sad and mysterious inevitability of Diana Powell’s The Woman Who Never Begs.
Academic and expert on the short form Charles E. May identified as one of the strengths of the short story its ability to “deal with situations that compel characters to confront their essential isolation as individual human beings, not as social masks within a particular cultural context”. That goal is surely fulfilled here by Brendan Landers’ Green Eggs and Ham, together with Bruce Meyer’s Ear to the Ground, Emma Devlin’s Home Economics, Beetroot Chutney by Melissa Todd, Crow by Jieyan Wang and A Couple with a Baby by Marina Petrova, which all deal with personal relationships in one way or another. Meanwhile, David McVey’s story Last in the Present Series is wry and enjoyable, while Matthew Roy’s An Eye at the Window provides a jolt of the uncanny. I also enjoyed the still alienation of Jeremy Nathan Marks’ short story Hopper, and Lyn Ann Byrne’s tales of second chances For the Love of Words.
As well as reading selections for this edition, I’ve read Helen Mort’s debut novel Black Car Burning, newly published by Chatto & Windus, which I’ve reviewed here. Other work published by mainstream publishing houses that I’ve read and enjoyed over the last few weeks includes Sadie Jones’s modern gothic The Snakes, John Lanchester’s environmental wake-up call The Wall and Max Porter’s poetic, strange and folkloric Lanny. I recently went to see Ian McEwan talk at London’s Royal Festival Hall about his new work Machines Like Me, which focuses on the AI-consciousness dichotomy and is set in a parallel, futuristic version of 1980s England. He was an engaging speaker and revealed that he reads his earlier works with something akin to awe – and fear of never again reaching the heights of his middle years. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in and judging for myself. Certainly, it would be hard to top that near-universal crowd-pleaser Atonement.
I’ll leave you with the words of the legendary short story writer Flannery O’Connor: “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” Enjoy.