When I was one of two authors commended for this year's Orange Award for New Writers, I was stunned. To be singled out, together with the 3-book shortlist! I didn't even know The White Road and Other Stories had been put forward. And while this was something that was very hard for me to internalise on a personal level, not being one of those who thinks her stories are better than anyone else's, it was instantly obvious to me what a wonderful thing this was both for short story collections and for small independent publishers. All around me were novels and mainstream publishing houses. And there was my little book!
There was already a slight tinge here because in the press release announcing the shortlist, C E Morgan and I were commended with wonderful words but our books were not mentioned. Had people seen that something which had "and other stories" in its title was being given a special mention, what a boost this would be!
The Award for New Writers is for: "all first works of fiction, including novels, short story collections and novellas, written by women of any age or nationality and published as a book in the UK." In the Award's first year, in 2006, Nell Freudenberger was shortlisted for her story collection, Lucky Girls. The following year, Yiyun Li's Ten Thousand Years of Good Prayers made the shortlist. Since then, no story collections have been shortlisted. No novellas have even made it to a shortlist.
I went to the Orange Prize ceremony tonight full of joy: joy at my book having been given the kind of attention I never dreamed of, and more than that, joy at the spotlight being shone on short stories. First, I was pretty surprised by the event which was less a literary celebration than a party where the champagne flowed and pretty young things in very short skirts hung around and chattered amongst themselves. Here and there were well-known faces, but it wasn't quite what I was, perhaps naively, expecting. And it wasn't really a celebration of literary fiction: the awards part of the evening was done in less than half an hour, a very quick affair - no readings from any of the books, no taste of beautiful words to whet our appetites.
Of course, I had hoped that C E Morgan and I would get a quick mention. After all, Kate Mosse, co-founder of the awards (and the only person to say the phrase "short stories" all night) talked about how the New Writers Award was to give writers with potential some recognition, a little (or quite big) push. The Award's judges had thought we deserved a little bit of the fairy dust, right?
Nope. One of the judges talked about the judging process before announcing the winner, mentioning that there were 80 books that she and her fellow judges had to choose from. I waited, breath held, as she talked about what a shame it was to whittle it down to three. Three? I thought. But... but... We had been forgotten.
And not only that. When she talked about how she had read the 80 nominated books during her work trip in Africa, she said that the 80 "first novels" had really kept her going.
I felt like I had been slapped in the face. A double blow. Was mine the only short story collection in the 80? I highly doubt it. But we had been "disappeared", swallowed up. You remember us... and then we're gone. We're too short, perhaps. Too slight in comparison. Maybe it is about everything we - and the poor forgotten novellas - are not. How hard would it have been to have taken that extra 30 seconds... to have remembered?
I was deeply upset. I was nearly in tears on the bus home. But not for me. This has already given me a boost, taken me to a new place, gained me entry to rooms I would not have been allowed into. But in this week when my wonderful and tireless publishers, Salt, are desperately trying to survive and are forced to beg people to buy Just One Book, when those who seek great writing should be flocking to Salt and all the other independent publishers out there - in this week, what would a mention have done for them? What could it have done? There were journalists there, I could have talked about Salt, this would have been a story, something a bit different in this world dominated by novels and large publishing houses.
Don't think for a moment I begrudge the novels anything. I have read one of the shortlisted, The Personal History of Rachel Dupre, by Ann Weisgarber, and it is beautiful, powerful. I love great writing, however it comes, in whatever shape or size. But don't mention us, don't look for one second into the corner that short stories are so often made to sit in, don't shine that light and then so rudely turn it off, turn your back. It is as if you never noticed us at all.
What all this makes me wonder is why - when it is hard enough to try and compare one book with another and to call one the "best" - we writers of short stories and novellas allow ourselves to be packaged together with the novels? Short stories should stand alone, or, at the very least, put us with the poets, please. We shouldn't have to compete in this way. Don't make us think we're important, and then so clearly show us that you really don't care. It's cruel. It really is.