Once only rarely seen on the shelves at bookshops, collections of short stories are publishing’s new big thing, writes Kushalrani Gulab.
Investment banker Malaika Pradhan doesn’t have very good memories of the bedtime stories her parents occasionally told her. “Sometimes when I asked for a story, this was what I was told: Ek tha raja, ek thi rani, dono mar gaye, khatam kahani,” grins Malaika. “I think it put me off short stories for life.”
Malaika did, in fact, avoid reading short stories. “I used to find them frustrating,” she says. “Just as I got into the story it was over, so I much preferred novels.” But she’s less antagonistic towards this literary form now. Partly, she says, it’s because a collection of short stories makes a good book to dip into at random. But mostly, she adds, it’s because over the last couple of years, lots of very good short story collections have become available. And the sheer variety means she’s free to pick and choose.
A new leaf
Single author collections, theme-based anthologies, collections by new writers, short stories linked to one another to make some kind of a loose novel, stories about Indians in the US, stories about Indians in Mumbai and Delhi, stories about Biharis on the moon… Malaika is correct. With such a variety of short story collections available, we’re beginning to become spoiled for choice.
Which is surprising because even up to two years ago, writers were moaning about a lack of interest from publishers about short fiction. “It was incredibly difficult to find a publisher,” recalls Jahnavi Acharekar, author of the collection Window Seat: Rush Hour Stories From The City. “My book was published six years after it was written. I would get polite rejection letters that told me how the short story doesn’t sell and that I ought to return with a novel.”
But now, Jahnavi agrees, the scene has changed. “There are more Indian writers on bookshelves today,” she points out. “Indian fiction has expanded to include science fiction, graphic novels and chick lit among other forms and genres. The renewed interest in the short story may be a combination of this need for variety coupled with the compulsions of a hectic urban lifestyle that leaves you with precious little time for leisure. And publishers, I think, have begun to take notice of these changing trends.”
Short story writers Mridula Koshy, author of the recently released collection, If It Is Sweet, and Nighat Gandhi, author of the forthcoming collection Ghalib At Dusk And Other Stories, will probably laugh in a disbelieving manner at Jahnavi’s statement. Mridula never even considered writing her stories to create a collection, since she was so aware of how publishers seemed to intone ‘short stories don’t sell’. She just wrote them, read them at literary gatherings, and hoped they would catch someone important’s ear. And Nighat half laughs, half weeps as she shares her stories of rejection. “Turned down?” she says. “It was more like being turned away!”
But their stories have happy endings now – just like Jahnavi’s and lots of other writers. Short stories seem to be in vogue today – though publishers like Chiki Sarkar, editor in chief at Random House India, will tell you they’ve never actually been out of fashion.
If that’s the case though, then where have they been for the last 20 years? And why are we seeing more of them today?
Small is difficult
The answers lie in a fairly complicated tangle of reasons. First up, though, is the stories themselves. “A good short story is really one of the hardest things to write,” says Renuka Chatterjee, editor in chief of Tranquebar Press/Westland Books. “Too many short stories fall flat because they start off well and then taper off into nothing. But when a story works well, it can work as well or better than a novel.”
But a short story, remember, is short. And it’s complete in itself. So unless it’s accompanied by a bunch of other similarly good short stories, it cannot be collated into a book unless that book is an anthology based around a theme.
“A good short story is as exact as a poem,” explains Nandita Aggarwal, editorial director of Hachette, India. “You can’t hide the flab, you can’t bluster your way through. You can’t shy from saying something of import at the end. So with a single author collection, sometimes you are forced to bung in the weak with the strong.”
Sometimes, though, a collection of good short stories does emerge, and the media, willing to cover leisure trends, comes in, making a fuss about the collection and waking the public up to the fact that, hey – here’s something worth checking out. And one success opens minds to other potential successes.
“The interest in short stories today is partly to do with the success of Jhumpa Lahiri,” says Karthika V K, chief editor of HarperCollins India, referring to the author of The Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. “You give the book a try, say okay, she’s good, and start looking around for other books like that. And also, you must remember there are any number of new readers reading for leisure. For them, short stories are more accessible; a big fat novel can be intimidating.”
Time and tide
But there’s another factor at work – time. Or rather, the lack of it. A collection of short stories, however engaging the stories might be, features short stories. Stories you can dip into as and when you have the time, without losing the thread of the plot as you might with a highly interrupted novel.
As Rahul Mehta, author of the forthcoming collection of short fiction, Floating, says: “It’s always surprised me that there hasn’t been more interest in the short story all along. In fact, as a form it seems perfectly suited for the shorter attention spans we keep hearing about.”
Though Rahul’s next book will probably be a novel, he had always intended to write a collection of short stories first. “There’s something about the short form that leads to prose that is somehow more charged, more electric than I typically find in novels,” he says. “So it’s the quality of the language, but it’s also the economy of the storytelling.”
Short attention spans are now being catered to – sometimes by writers who have precious little time to spare for writing. “With three young children, I don’t have enough time to write even a short story, let alone a novel!” laughs Mridula Koshy.
But it wasn’t that that motivated Mridula to explore the short story form. “Short stories challenge the reader,” she says. “A novel creates an ordered universe – every part corresponds to what preceded it and what follows it. But life is not an ordered universe. With short stories, all we can show you is a fragment of something and you have to see how that fragment fits into life.”
Time isn’t the only factor that works in the short story’s favour, says Nighat Gandhi. “Publishers have to catch up with the fact that we’re now living in a world where everyone has a blog, everyone works, and no one has hours to spend burrowed in a novel,” she says. “But that apart, a story chooses its own format, and the short story is a personal favourite of mine.”