To read a new anthology of short stories is to be drawn into two questions: how severely has the space afforded to the form shrunk in recent decades, and what exactly is a “short story”? A collection just out, A Different Sound: Stories by Mid-Century Women Writers, selected and introduced by the London-based critic and book publisher Lucy Scholes, touches on both. Scholes does not explicitly explain this, but what the 11 women writers represented have in common is that they published in Britain — and so were fortunate to have lived through what she calls “the golden age for short stories”, with an array of magazines and periodicals regularly and committedly publishing short fiction during World War II and the decade that followed. Of the journals that published these writers, she notes, only The New Yorker is still in existence.
In his Penguin collections of British short stories, Philip Hensher has detailed how the limited opportunities to publish short stories have affected the topics addressed and the quality of narratives. There was, for instance, “the swiftness of response” to World War II “in the form of fiction”. In The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories selected, introduced and some even translated by her, Jhumpa Lahiri sums up a point Hensher too makes about the texture and crafting of short stories during the golden age, as it were: “They were proof of how individually published short stories, free from the economic machinery of book publishing, are by definition autonomous texts: a source of resistance, a means for creative risk and experimentation.”
In his recent selection of short stories by young Indian writers, A Case of Indian Marvels, David Davidar too lingers on the mid-20th century as a remarkable phase in the short story in India, with “Saadat Hasan Manto in Urdu, Kalki in Tamil, Gurzada Appa Rao in Telugu, R.K. Narayan, Ruskin Bond, Khushwant Singh, and Raja Rao in English, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer in Malayalam, to name just a few of the numerous distinguished practitioners of the literary form”.
Capturing humanity’s foibles
On what exactly is a short story, critics and publishers still flail for definitions, and Scholes stays clear of the question, and instead provides a guide for getting the measure of a short story. She quotes Elizabeth Bowen as saying that the short story is a form that “allows for what is crazy about humanity: obstinacies, inordinate heroisms, ‘immortal longings’”.
The 11 stories do all of that here. For the most part, they remind the reader of the anxieties and social change, at the domestic and national levels, sweeping Western (and, in the case of a story by Attia Hosain, Indian) societies in the War and post-War years. Scholes also dispenses with extended author biographies and strained explanations for the criteria on which she chose the stories represented, and orders the stories alphabetically by the authors’ names.
Placed thus, and with Scholes’s guiding introduction, it allows us to re-assess Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, famously adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, afresh. The avian attack had been seen as a metaphor for the Blitz during the War, and tapped the anxieties of the Cold War. Now, she says, it finds relevance amid the “real-life realities of environmental collapse”.
If The Birds can be re-read against the background of the emergencies and lockdowns of the pandemic, so can the story from which the collection derives its title, The Thames Spread Out by Elizabeth Taylor. A woman is marooned in her home outside London by a flood, and the experience nudges her to break free of an oppressive relationship.
And so it is that Scholes quietly makes the point that there is nothing random in a solid anthology of short stories.