The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2019 Audible Sort Story Award, Danielle McLaughlin, for ‘A Partial List of the Saved.’
The link below is to an article reporting on the 2019 winner of the Australian Book Review’s Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Sonja Dechian, for ‘The Point-Blank Murder.’
Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In this series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.
We live hyperlinked lives, expected to be switched on and logged in 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Time is a dwindling resource, multitasking is our default setting. We’re constantly reading: online articles, emails, social media posts. But for many of us, this dip-in, dip-out reading feels dissatisfying. We crave deeper engagement.
Enter the short story cycle — a hybrid of a novel and a short story collection. In her collection, Barking Dogs, Rebekah Clarkson offers a superbly constructed creative feat into the form, giving us a strong insight into how short story cycles operate and what they can offer to readers and writers.
A long history
Short story cycles are by no means new. Notable twentieth century examples include James Joyce’s Dubliners, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.
However, until recently, short story cycles have received less attention and have been harder to get published than novels. This appears to be changing. Twenty-first century American authors Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Eagan have had significant success with the form.
Recent Australian contributions to the re-emerging short story cycle tradition include The Turning by Tim Winton (2004), Shadowboxing by Tony Birch (2006), The Boat by Nam Lee (2009), Transactions by Ali Alizideh (2013), Plane Tree Drive by Lynette Washington (2017) and Barking Dogs by Rebekah Clarkson (2017).
Barking Dogs was penned by Clarkson as part of her PhD in creative writing through the University of Adelaide. It represents the product of her extensive research into short story cycles and related literary practices.
Clarkson describes the short story cycle as a form in which each individual story can stand alone as an independent work of art, but when arranged with other stories, generates interconnection and perhaps interdependence. The 13 stories in her Barking Dogs can all be read and enjoyed in themselves, but are enhanced when read and appreciated in context. The book as a whole offers something else yet again — a greater tapestry, to which each story adds different threads.
Connections, recurring roles
Of the many links between separate yet connecting episodes in Barking Dogs, the most obvious is place. The book’s setting is Mount Barker, an Adelaide Hills town, portrayed at a moment of major change as housing developers carve the formerly idyllic, quiet community into a bustling outpost of aspirational suburbia.
Issues of this transformation — social, environmental, and economic — are considered from multiple points of view, through the voices of characters whose attitudes differ. This reflects Clarkson’s desire (expressed via email) to “represent a real place through fiction without privileging any particular perspective”.
Character provides another crucial set of interconnections in Barking Dogs. In several cases, major characters from particular stories reappear as minor characters or visitors in others. Elsewhere, this means revisiting the same main character at a different time and in a different situation. In the story Raising Boys, for example, Malcolm Wheeler is a suburban father dealing with relatively mundane albeit relatable everyday issues including marriage tensions, a child struggling at school, and complaints from neighbours about his son’s dog, which barks noisily.
A later story, The Five Truths of Manhood, reintroduces Malcolm as he learns that he has cancer. The diagnosis pushes Malcolm’s underlying frailties and reveals different aspects to the characters of his wife and son. This casts new light on how all three characters behave in the story. The references both stories’ titles make to Steve Biddulph’s books on manhood guide the reader to reflect on how social constructions of masculinity matter for families and individuals.
Another recurring character is Sophie Barlow, a missing schoolgirl who, though not directly present in any story, figures in the memories, thoughts and dreams of other characters.
We first encounter Sophie in Something Special, Something Rare, in which she has left her family home early in the morning but has not yet officially disappeared. Sophie’s father, Graham, reflects on how Sophie didn’t want to go bird watching with the family, and thus slowly recognises his own emotional disconnection from his daughter. Her tragic disappearance is foreshadowed towards the end of the story, when Graham realises:
He missed her. He really missed her. He’d been missing her for a couple years.
In contrast to this deeply personal view of Sophie, the story World Peace concerns Janice, a 12-year-old schoolgirl who cannot remember Sophie’s surname but remembers liking the sound of it:
Sophie Someone. It was the name of a girl you’d want to be friends with. It had a feel to it […] like a good song.
Sophie is remembered differently yet again in two other stories, and thereby hovers, ghost-like, throughout the collection. Her tragic demise falls between the cracks of the community, which is mirrored by how she falls between the cracks of stories.
The hidden tale of Sophie, among other recurrent themes and motifs of Barking Dogs, means each story in the book can be read again and again, with new levels of meaning gained each time. The book therefore meets Clarkson’s own key criterion for a successful short story cycle.
In email interview, Clarkson declares “the best response a reader can have is the desire to flip back to the beginning and read again”. Barking Dogs certainly provokes this desire, demonstrating the multifarious potentials of the short story cycle as a form that readers, writers and publishers will continue to develop and embrace in the coming years.
The link below is to an article reporting on the finalists of the 2019 Guardian 4th Estate Short Story Prize.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the regional winners of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The link below is to an article that looks at the announcement of the 100th annual O. Henry Prize winner.
The link below is to an article that reports on free short story vending machines.
The recent publication of Sylvia Plath’s short story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” has been met with much fanfare, with the media eager to highlight that the story had been “lost,” only to have recently been “found.”
And a recent New Yorker article, “A Lost Story by Sylvia Plath Contains the Seeds of the Writer She Would Become,” noted that “not even the author’s estate had known the story existed until the critic and academic Judith Galzer-Raymo stumbled over it while doing research in Plath’s archives.”
But was Plath’s story really “lost”? For years, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” has been preserved – and has been accessible to the public – at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, thanks to the work of archivists and other cultural stewards.
As an archivist, I bristle at this sort of misleading coverage, which is only the latest example of the media ignoring the work of archivists in order to highlight something found in archives as “newly discovered.”
What’s behind this media impulse and why do these mischaracterizations persist?
I’ve become all too accustomed to seeing headlines about “long-lost” manuscripts that have been found.
As another example, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported a “long-lost letter” by René Descartes that had “lain buried in the archives [at Haverford College] for more than a century.” The public also recently learned of letters from interned Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War that had been “long-forgotten in the bowels of Library and Archives Canada.” In all these examples, the documents were already preserved and accessible in archival repositories.
And on the rare occasions that archives are featured in the press or in popular culture, they’re usually characterized as old, secluded and dusty places.
For example, in 2013 The New York Times published an article titled “Leaving Cloister of Dusty Offices, Young Archivists Meet Like Minds.”
If the headline alone didn’t convey this sentiment, the text drove it home: The archivists, it read, had “long spent their careers cloistered, like the objects they protected.”
Any archivist reading this story knows that nothing could be further from the truth. In a letter to the editor, Helen W. Samuels, a former archivist at MIT, responded, “While I was delighted that your article focused attention on the talented archivists now employed by so many institutions, I was saddened that it perpetuated the outdated image of archivists as preservers of dusty, precious artifacts maintained in a cloistered environment.”
Innovators versus maintainers
For the record, “dusty” doesn’t characterize any of the repositories I’ve worked in or visited. For example, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia is clean with an open layout, and its spaces are filled with natural light. Similarly, the University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library spaces do not fit the “dusty” stereotype.
Perhaps the media finds these tropes appealing because they evoke the romance and mystery of unearthing, discovering and rescuing rare books, documents or artifacts, as if they’re hidden treasures. After all, who doesn’t want to feel like Indiana Jones? And by representing archives as dusty, cloistered places, the materials appear to be on the verge of disappearing into obscurity – that is, unless a researcher comes to the rescue.
Another reason these tropes persist could have to do with the way our society privileges innovators over maintainers. Maintainers, according to scholars Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, are “those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things.”
Archivists are maintainers: They perform the “ordinary” work of acquiring, appraising and arranging archival materials. They respond to the inquiries of students and researchers, and work to preserve materials for posterity.
As members of the archival community have pointed out, this sort of work is generally ignored and misunderstood. Instead, when it comes to stories about archival research, stories will focus on the “innovators” – the scholars who write about the rare manuscript or old letter and, in doing so, rescue these materials from obscurity.
In almost every case, these stories gloss over the fact that these items exist in publicly accessible collections and are described in finding aids and databases.
Giving credit where credit’s due
This is not to take anything away from the work of researchers. Archival research is a process that often involves an intense commitment of time and energy. A researcher can see value or significance in a letter or manuscript that might have otherwise gone unnoticed outside of the archives.
Nonetheless, while a researcher might be the first researcher to read a document, they may not be the first person to have encountered it – not when archivists, curators, librarians and other staff work with materials on a daily basis.
Interestingly, the researcher featured in The New Yorker article about the Plath short story doesn’t appear to have been the first scholar to have “discovered” that “lost” Sylvia Plath story. As Rebecca Baumann, Head of Public Services at the Lilly Library, noted, “Many people have written about [“Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom”] … There’s published scholarship that discusses [it].“
But that doesn’t always make for the best story.
The link below is to an article that reports on the finalists of the 2018 Story Prize.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the 2018 BBC National Short Story Award shortlist.