On the 23nd of May, Maxine Beneba Clarke was named the recipient of the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript. Time differences being what they are, on the same day in Australia (but the 22nd May elsewhere) Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize. What links these two, seemingly quite different, literary awards together is that they were both awarded to writers of short fiction, for single-authored collections of work.
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s winning VPLA entry, Foreign Soil, is a collection of short stories linked by themes of displacement and migration. Clarke received the award, which carries with it $15,000 prize money, at a presentation during the launch of the 2013 Emerging Writers’ Festival. This award also brings publishers knocking and makes audiences curious – as evidenced by the success of 2012 winner Graeme Simsion, whose novel The Rosie Project has since spent an awfully long time in the bestsellers chart, and had its rights sold in more than 30 countries.
The Man Booker Prize is given for a body of work. Lydia Davis is known primarily as a short story writer, whose work is experimental and form-defying. Her stories range from two sentences or a single thought to a few pages long.
I don’t believe that literary awards exist within a vacuum. Prizes and awards have a wider function than a literary love-fest – they are a way of shining a light on works of merit. Works and authors who already have a reputation often have a boost in sales when an award is received, while lower-profile work becomes something that people want to talk about; something people will recognise and pick up. In both cases, prizes function to put outstanding and relevant works on the radar, and in the hands of readers. Prizes are a way of saying, ‘This work matters.’ And with large sums of money attached to many of them, they’re not given lightly – they are an investment in the future of authors and works.
The bodies who present awards understand this. On the Booker Prize website, one article mentions the inevitable boost in readership for Davis’ work post-prize, and the hope that new readers will be delighted by Davis’ unique work. A similar statement on the Australian Government site concerning the Miles Franklin Award states that prizes ‘greatly assist in the task of selling books’. The prizes that set the reading agenda do so knowingly.
Both Lydia Davis and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s awards have happened in a publishing climate where writers are constantly told that we should abandon any hope of having our short story collections published.
‘Single-author collections don’t sell,’ we’re told.
‘Nothing sends a publisher running faster than the suggestion of a short story collection!’
With eReaders (by this I mean any mobile electronic reading device) becoming more popular, our reading habits are changing, and we’re discovering the strengths of mobile formats. Renewed interest in short-form work is a reflection of that shift. EReaders, if they’re not a person’s primary reading source, are often used when on the go: public transport, lunch breaks, that kind of thing. This makes eReaders particularly well suited to short-form stories. Combined with the inherent strengths of short stories, such as the boiling-down of emotional content, and an arena to show off technical proficiency, this means that on the way to work you can consume and entire work, complete with emotional sophistication and punchy statement about the world, without having to feel interrupted and close the book when you get to your stop. EReaders are opening up the market for bite-sized literature.
A number of new publishing houses have opened for this purpose, while larger publishing houses have dedicated imprints to take advantage of the eReading boom. Penguin have started their ‘Specials’, some of which have also moved to print. PanMacmillan have their ‘Short Reads’ series. A number of literary journals now find it more viable to publish digital editions. Individual authors are also releasing single-story eBooks and collections – Angela Meyer and Elmo Keep are two local authors engaging in this mode, via platforms like Smashwords (which are friendly to all eReaders) or by hosting on their own site. This move towards digital publishing could be a sign that there is rising mainstream interest in the form, or just a way for publishers to engage in short story publishing with less risk. Either way, as the Fifty Shades phenomenon attested, digital publishing is also a predictor for the direction of print publishing.
Perhaps the tide is turning. We’ve just seen the larger institution nod its head to two short story writers and deem their work worthy and important. The bestowal of these two literary awards to short story writers might indicate that big publishing is ready to bring short stories out of the margins of the reading world, and into the fold. As short story writers, we can only hope that these awards’ potential sway means that this is the start of a larger publishing trend.
Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. She blogs as Little Girl With a Big Pen.