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Why Are Americans So Good At Short Stories?

27/04/2017 10:16 BST | Updated 27/04/2017 10:16 BST
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Look at the shortlist for this year's Sunday Times EFG Short Story award, the world's richest and most prestigious prize for a short story, and you'll be struck by one thing: the number of Americans - four - on the shortlist of six. Kathleen Alcott, Bret Anthony Johnston, Victor Lodato are up against one writer from Ireland, Sally Rooney, and one from the UK, Richard Lambert for the £30,000 award.

Look back at the list of past winners of the award and you'll be struck again by the number of American-based authors on the list - four of them out of seven: three Pulitzer winners in Anthony Doerr, Junot Diaz and Adam Johnson, plus the inestimable Yiyun Li. Again, only one British author, Jonathan Tel in 2016, has made the cut.

British literary commentators have long harboured an inferiority complex when it comes to comparisons with American writing, but if the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award is anything to go by, in the short story sphere comparisons between the UK and America seem particularly acute.

Why is that? And why is the American dominance so profound?

Some of it, of course, just has to do with size. And tradition, and a line of writing that goes from Poe and Twain via Fitzgerald and Hemingway to Updike and Lorrie Moore. It also has to do with the marketplace for fiction. In the UK before and after the First World War, there were dozens and dozens of publications all looking for short stories - London, for instance, had six evening newspapers all vying with each other. It's no coincidence that the great era of British short story writing - from Kipling to Priestley to Maugham (reputedly the highest-paid writer of the 1930s) - was in that era.

Now, there are very few outlets for short stories in the UK. In the US, however, though there is something of a decline, the marketplace is still strong, with the New Yorker in particular providing a weekly platform.

Then there are the MFA writing programs in the US - some 300 in all at the moment, a staggering number, with some 3,000 people at any one time studying to be a writer. The currency of these writing programmes is short stories - it's what they focus on, and what they mostly train writers in.

The UK has writing programmes of its own - great ones, at the UEA, Birkbeck, Bath and Warwick, say - but nowhere near the numbers.

So, tradition aside, maybe it's no coincidence that Americans dominate the literary landscape. But is there anything in the UK that can be done to remedy the situation?

The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award is certainly trying, along with the BBC Short Story Award and festivals such as Small Wonder at Charleston, to bring short stories more into the foreground, but it's worth taking a look at Ireland, where short story writing - see Sally Rooney this year on the shortlist, with Kevin Barry a past winner - is in a very healthy place.

Part of that is due to publications such as The Stinging Fly, which has created an immensely healthy forum for experimentation and expression in Ireland, and has produced some really exciting new voices.

It's by no means a complete answer, but for short stories to really blossom in the UK, we need our own magazine like The Stinging Fly, ones that will nurture young writers, and help our short story writing tradition blossom.