Earlier this month, Elizabeth Day wrote an article for The Observer about reading stories aloud. She made the interesting point that audiobook downloads have risen 32.7% since last year, and yet wonders about the lack of intimate events designed for adults. Enter Short Stories Aloud in Oxford, a literary night of readings on the last Tuesday of every month.
Short Stories Aloud is the brainchild of Sarah Franklin, a part-time lecturer at Oxford Brookes and short story aficionado. The event is 'deliberately very unstuffy,' Sarah says, 'We're trying to strike the note between quality, curated stories and performances and a warm, friendly place for Oxford literary and acting types to congregate. Writers provide a short story, which I then give to an actor to read on the night.'
'We try to read between four and six short stories, depending on length, and have two authors there for Q&A. For the most part, authors provide a short story they've written, but occasionally, they 'sponsor' a story which links to their new novel.'
'It's upstairs in the beautiful loft space of the newly-refurbished arts org, The Old Firestation,' she continues with enthusiasm, 'which shares a premises with Crisis in a deliberate attempt to form synergies between all aspects of society. Oh, and did I mention there's a bottle bar and brownies, and audiences are invited to be as involved as possible with the author Q&A that happens after each reading?'
The event seems to have struck a chord with audiences and professionals alike. Novelist Caroline Smailes thinks she knows why: 'Writers create scenes, commit words to paper, let readers imagine voices. SSA steps in, breathes life into words and celebrates stories. This event is unlike any other literary gathering, SSA is about embracing storytelling, about engaging an audience and about cake.'
She may be right. Before the printing revolution and then the tablet, stories were most easily shared from person to person orally. Rhythm, diction, personality of the prose, all comes mediated through the voice of the reader - it's a synthesis between the word on the page and the sounds we hear in our heads. Nuances in the text - the pauses, the exclamations, the peaks and troughs - become intensely personal, yet also shared.
Sarah is very particular about creating the right balance between story and actor, to create the perfect setting for the audience. 'We always have one male and one female actor,' she says, 'usually stage actors from London or Oxford. But not always. For example, in June, TV presenter Sue Cook came in and read a Rose Tremain story.'
Actor Steve Hay, who has performed at Short Stories Aloud, calls the event 'a rare thing.'
'It's not about performance,' he says, 'it's about the words, and creating an atmosphere. Audiences can sit back and listen to words, maybe even shut their eyes and soak it all up.'
Events like Short Stories Aloud give readers the opportunity to discover new talent within a shared experience and the chance for writers to close the gap between the page and the reader. In the first few months of its genesis, Sarah received the support from authors such as DW Wilson, Roshi Fernando, Elanor Dymott, Kerry Hudson and Essie Fox.
Essie Fox, who is a not a short story writer, was offered the opportunity to 'sponsor' a story instead: 'I had no hesitation at all in selecting The Little Mermaid. This is one of Hans Christian Andersen's tales that played a huge part in my childhood and then, more recently, inspired some of the watery themes in my novel, Elijah's Mermaid. I imagine this literary event will only go from strength to strength. It adds something different and fun to the calendar of book events. But, then again, don't take my word for it - go along and listen for yourself!'
Roshi is keen to emphasise the Q&A experience: 'It became a sort of writerly gossip session, which I think the audience found quite entertaining - writers don't often get a chance to have that kind of chat in front of an audience. It's normally one-person answers then another. This was much more relaxed, and I think benefited from that kind of vibe.'
With support like this, it's no surprise that Short Stories Aloud has already broken out of its confines and spread into the airwaves. Producer Maz Ebtehaj records each show for radio broadcast: 'I noticed a few people who had their eyes closed as they listened. And anything that inspires that sort of reaction; where the only sense you need and want to use is your ears then it makes sense to put it on the radio. In some ways it's an odd experience, being read to, but it's actually incredibly relaxing and it doesn't take long for you to completely forget where you are.'
Sarah has no desire to sit on her laurels, however, and sees more room to progress and develop - she's already spoken to Elizabeth Day about collaborating on a future project. 'We've been picking up some terrific audiences in Oxford,' she says, 'and wonderful actors and authors. We put on a show as part of National Short Story Week, where we showcased Salt's short story anthology "Overheard", BBC Radio Oxford have got behind us brilliantly, the local literary community is so supportive, and we've been invited to our first literary festival.'
But what of the future? 'I'd love to see the show picked up for national radio broadcast in the same way that Selected Shorts, the New York based short story event, has a regular NPR slot...'
I wonder if Radio 4 is listening.