Sunday, December 21, 2008

The renaissance of short-story publishing

Short stories are commonly called the Cinderellas of the literary world. Publishers complain that readers don’t buy short-story collections, and so publish few volumes, then bookstores don’t stock them in great quantities.

All around it seems to be a Catch 22 situation.

But, are things changing? After years of drought, in which you found just a few local volumes published, whether of anthologies or of collections by single authors, 2008 has seen what some are referring to as a renaissance of the genre in South Africa.

These collections include Zoe Wicomb’s The One That Got Away, Liesl Jobson’s 100 Papers, Jane Bennett’s Porcupine, Allan Kolski Horwitz’s Out of the Wreckage and Writing the Self edited by Anne Schuster, Maire Fisher and Annemarie Hendrikz, an anthology of writing from women’s workshops.

That’s not to mention the annual collection of stories published from the Caine Prize; this year’s title is Jambula Tree and other stories, just published by Jacana. Then there’s a forthcoming anthology of stories on the theme “Bed” to be published by Modjaji Books, and another volume, collecting poetry and fiction published online on, is also scheduled for publication. It’s a joint Bleksem Books, Botsotso Publishing and Dye Hard Press publishing venture.

The fourth in the Urban anthology series, edited by Dave Chislett, is also due for publication later this year.

So, is the genre flourishing? Is there more interest in short fiction now than ever before? South African writer Henrietta Rose Innes recently won the Africa Caine Prize for this year with her story Poison, and the resultant publicity helped to put the story on the map.

As Coleen Higgs, writer, poet and owner of Modjaji Books, comments: “This is good for stories in South Africa, it makes them newsworthy.”

Historically, short stories were consigned to small, literary magazines and more recently they have been published on the web. But they are coming out of the closet, as it were.

It’s interesting to note that when You magazine, which is one of the few popular magazines to publish (and pay for) short stories – stopped publishing them a flurry of reader reaction ensured that they were reinstated as a regular feature of the magazine.

You fiction editor Cecilia van Zyl explains: “Readers love the stories. We can only surmise that people enjoy a quick, quality read. Our stories are never longer than 2 000 words.”

Another popular magazine that is throwing its weight behind the genre is Essentials . This has published a number of short stories, and run a short story competition, called Voice of Africa, in conjunction with Mills and Boon.

Then there’s the newly launched Jozi Weekly, a weekly newspaper that offers publication space to both short fiction and another under-read genre, poetry. Editor Sebastian Stent says: “As an entertainment newspaper, we decided early on that we must not only cover entertainment in Joburg, but act as an outlet for the amazing creatives who live here. We are busy preparing a prize which will go to the short story that readers vote as their favourite.”

With literary journals being the traditional vehicle for short stories, this past year has also seen the launch of two new publications, Wordsetc, edited by Phakama Mbonambi, and Baobab, edited by Sandile Ngidi.

Mbonambi professes a love for the short story. “In a nation that is struggling to cultivate a culture of reading, it will encourage more people to read as they will not have to read a whole book chronologically to follow a single tale.

“Rather, they could choose a story that resonates with them or interests them the most. Chances are, readers will read other stories as well.”

Other local literary journals and online sites that publish fiction include titles such as: Botsotso, New Contrast, Ons Klyntji,, ITCH ( and A Look Away quarterly journal. Another online platform – –is also soon to be launched as a platform for creative writing.

And then there are a number of other initiatives that are bringing stories to readers in ways that haven’t been explored before.

The “Novel Idea” is believed to be a first, and was developed by Michelle Matthews, previously of Oshun Publishing. A number of South African writers were commissioned to write stories which were delivered to or “published” via cellphones. Readers subscribed via SMS and then voted for the best story. Sam Wilson, author of the winner, Prestige Animals, walked away with an R8 000 prize from sponsor Vodacom.

The “Can You Twist?” initiative delivered stories to subscriber’s e-mail addresses. It ran for six weeks, featuring authors such as Bridget McNulty and Ragel Nel, who won with her story, Heavens Alive. Again, subscribers were asked to vote for their favourites, and stood to win prizes.

But despite the many varied ways of getting stories “out there”, are readers really interested in reading more local short stories?

While You magazine found their readers demanding that stories be reinstated, Matthews, who published a collection of women’s stories every year while at Oshun, is more pessimistic: “I can say that short-story collections definitely don’t sell as well as novels. With so-called ‘time poverty’ familiar to busy readers, short stories could be a quick fix. I think readers like to get lost in a book."

Another publisher, Alison Lowry, of Penguin, says that although she does not see the genre as flourishing, she does not believe it is entirely neglected either and mentions the role of awards: “Encouragement and support for the genre also come from literary awards such as the Caine Prize and PEN – the last mentioned just announced as being opened more broadly to entrants from across the African continent this year – and the inclusion of winning entries in collections that guarantee a high level of quality for a reader are all signs that the genre is not moribund.”

Booksellers are at the forefront of the buying public, as it were. Mervyn Sloman is owner of an the independent bookshop in Cape Town, The Book Lounge, and says: “There is a lot of interest in short stories – ranging from people who love the genre and are surprised to find a decent selection available for browsing to those who wouldn’t have thought to buy a collection of short stories but through interaction with one of us working here, have decided to give it a shot.”

Corina van der Spoel at The Boekehuis in Melville, Joburg, finds that anthologies of stories “are only ever looked at by people who are looking for teaching material, (although) discerning readers do look at short stories.”

Ann Donald, who opened Kalk Bay Books in 2006, is one bookshop owner who is keen to promote the genre: “A few weeks ago we focused our fortnightly promotion on short stories and it proved popular.

“The biggest hurdle is getting customers to consider short stories as an option or to overcome a resistance to the form.”

In agreement with Donald is literary agent Ronald Irwin, who is upbeat: “I think that good short story collections would certainly garner the interest of the South African public if they are marketed properly and the stories were entertaining. We are looking for fresh, fun, quirky writing that isn’t a one-way ticket to a guilt trip. I think that writers of short fiction have to do the same things as writers of long fiction: Create work that demands to be published.”

(Published in The Star, October 2008)

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