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To cut a short story long

The short story is no longer a pariah for the English publishing industry in India. The change has come not so much from writers as much as it has from readers, writes Rajiv Arora.

books Updated: Mar 28, 2009 23:46 IST
Hindustan Times

Good things come in small packages. But somehow, short stories by Indian writers in English – in keeping with trends in the Western market -- seem to have always got the short shrift from publishers. Of late, though, collections by both first time writers as well as established ones are making their way to bookshops.

In the last two years, the market has seen a slew of short story collections by the likes of newcomers like Jahnavi Barua (Next Door), Vandana Singh (The Woman Who Though She Was A Planet), Canadian writer (who grew up in Calcutta) Kwai Yun-Li (The Last Dragon Dance in Chinatown), Pakistani debutante Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders) and the US-based Nalini Jones (What You Call Winter). There have also been publications of established authors like Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife and Oriya writer K.K. Mohapatra’s translated collection, Crows and Other Stories).

It was always a different ball game if you were a bigwig, an already established writer. Take Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations. This collection of stories was written and submitted to publishers before he Adiga became the Booker-winning author of The White Tiger. But his publisher (different from the one that published The White Tiger) decided to come out with the book only after the author became famous.

Diya Kar Hazra, Editorial Director, Penguin India, confirms this trend. “Publishers still prefer novels, primarily because short story collections — unless by a well-established writer — don’t sell as well as novels do”.

With non-English language publishers having always thrived on the demand for short stories in India, is it the ‘coming out’ of short stories in English?

Those in the publishing industry admit that shorter fiction has always been a bit of a no-go area. Those writers who did ‘dare’ to stick to the genre, were perceived as ‘lesser writers’ — unlike ‘full-fledged novelists. This inherent bias against the short story and its practitioners may be changing.

Visit a local bookstore today and you’ll find that more editors are clearly at least willing to deal with short stories manuscripts, hoping to find something unique and interesting. Has this change come overnight? What is it that’s actually making publishers roll up their sleeves and deal with short stories?

V.K. Karthika, Editor-in-Chief, HarperCollins India says, “The market is more receptive to short stories now and is willing to experiment with reading trends.” Shruti Debi, Chief Editor, Picador India, has a different take. “Good writing has always been appreciated. Writing short stories is an art and not everybody is good at it,” she says. Of late, with the English publishing industry expanding in India, all forms of writing have got a push. This includes a push for short stories.

But has this new, changed mindset made publishing houses put their money where their mouths are? Yes and no. “It’s still risky, though the extent [of risk] has come down from previous years,” says Karthika. Hazra feels that the element of risk is involved with first-time novelists too. So, if the stories are exceptional, the publishers are willing to play the gamble.

She adds that readers find short stories easier to handle. So, not only has there been a spurt in the number of short story writers, but there has also been more short story readers. Collections like Penguin’s First Proof, have new authors contributing not only short stories but also short non-fiction pieces as well as poetry. This also provides a platform for the newcomer to edge towards the shorter form of writing.

So it is getting easier these days to write short stories and get them published. But the best route available is still to become an established author (read: novelist).

First Published: Mar 28, 2009 23:44 IST