Literature in the south west of England seems to be thriving. In particular, the short story form is incredibly well supported there. Think of the three Bs - the Bath, Bridport and Bristol short story awards - which each have each developed an international reputation, receiving entries from across the globe. So, in the spirit of supporting these initiatives, and as part of our I Heart Short Stories strand, we decided to have a chat with the movers and shakers in the area and try to find out: just what is going on with short stories in south west England.
Perhaps it makes sense to start with readers - is there any particular uptake in the south west for short stories. Well, according to Dan Ross at Bristol’s Storysmith Books, there is. Launching in October 2018 on North Street, the bookshop’s first event was to launch south-west-based writer Tom Cox’s first collection Help the Witch. Indeed sales of short story collections have been encouraging, from the masters like Shirley Jackson and Dorothy Parker up to brand new collections like Kristen Roupenian's You Know You Want This and Janice Galloway's Jellyfish. Dan says of this, ‘I think the general perception of the short story collection being somehow less substantial than a full-length novel is fading, which is definitely a good thing for bookshops and for publishers who know how to package short stories in an enticing way. We often find customers will buy a Penguin short story instead of a birthday card, for example.’
I think the general perception of the short story collection being somehow less substantial than a full-length novel is fadingDan Ross
It’s not only the readers - writers in the area are active and productive. We spoke to two writers’ events: Talking Tales which is based in Stokes Croft in Bristol and, also Bristol-based, Novel Nights. Talking Tales has been going for four years now and was begun by Christie Cluett and Mel Ciavucco to ‘provide a welcoming place with a relaxed atmosphere for writers at every experience level to tell their stories’. Christie tells us that the reception from writers has been strong: ‘One of the most rewarding aspects of organising Talking Tales is giving a platform to new writers who've never performed before and watching them get their sea legs and flourish into fully formed performers. We've had that with someone, who was so nervous that their legs gave way on the first time on stage, and now sits on a stool just in case, and another, who used to get someone to read for them because they're blind but worked out how to use a text reader and is now able to perform their own stories.’
Novel Nights spun out of a writing group in 2013, and was set up by Grace Palmer alongside Emma Smith-Barton, whose book, A Million Pieces of Neena Gill is published in July 2019. Novel Nights wanted to perform the work local writers were producing and host talks by writers so hired out the backroom of a pub and it all began Grace tells us that 'since then Novel Nights has hosted over fifty author talks with established writers, literary agents and publishers and showcased novel extracts or short stories from over one hundred and fifty emerging writers. The event is now firmly part of the South West literary scene and we provide inspiration, support and expert input to the region’s writers. Last year we expanded to Bath.’ Authors to perform include Nathan Filer and Tessa Hadley, whilst literary agents such as Juliet Pickering of Blake Friedmann and Carrie Kania form Conville & Walsh have also spoken. The group is now moving into writing masterclasses and podcasts are planned.
As an award ourselves, we are always delighted to see other awards thriving whilst discovering new writers and stories. The south west is particularly fertile ground for awards with three of international renown within a few miles, Bath, Bristol and Bridport. The Bridport Prize last year had 4,377 short story entries from 79 different countries. The Bath Award launched in 2013, to complement the Bath Festival of Literature. They publish an anthology each year of 20 shortlisted stories featuring new writers alongside more established figures. Winners have come from as far afield as Australia - David Seley Jones in 2018 - and locally, 2014 winner Elinor Nash, who also provides the illustration for the anthology. Finally, the Bristol Short Story Prize was formed through the editorial board of the Bristol Review of Books - trying to discover and publish exciting new writers. Joe Melia of the award describes the best stories they have found as ‘having a unique atmosphere to them, that you forget you are reading. There isn't a particular style or genre, it happens in many different types of story. It's always a wonderful moment when you come across a story like this.’ A third of the entries to the award come from outside the UK.
So, what is it about the south west which lends itself to such a flourishing of literary activity. Joe Melia of the Bristol Prize sees this as part of a wider movement: ‘Publishing, in general, in this country is witnessing a great age of initiative and invention, mainly outside of its traditional London power base but it's not in any way just happening in the south west.’ Others point to the creative writing courses at Bath Spa and UWE as providing hubs for creativity. Grace Palmer at Novel Nights suggests that it is the size of the area which lends itself to individual creativity. ‘Smaller cities and towns have their own identities and are not sucked into the influence of the metropolis, drowned out by larger voices or large arts organisations. The Bridport prize is a classic example of a small town creating a literature prize which is now nationally known.’ Indeed she points out that creativity begets creativity. Events are started, prizes are begun and this helps to develop a network of writers and community who then start other enterprises. Most of the initiatives we spoke to have developed out of a pre-existing community such as writing groups or magazines.
Smaller cities and towns have their own identities and are not sucked into the influence of the metropolis, drowned out by larger voices or large arts organisationsGrace Palmer
Dan Ross from Storysmith books points out that the culture of Bristol as a city lends itself to a literary scene. He says that ‘so many of the writers and illustrators we meet live in a culturally omnivorous way that just wouldn't be possible in other cities, because it would probably be too expensive. Everyone seems to lead a creative double life: we know illustrators who also teach the accordion, writers who also run ultra marathons.’
Is there then a particularly style of writing in the south west? Grace Palmer suggests that the history and landscape of the area acts as inspirations. ‘There’s an abundance of myths and legends in the south-west, so there is that tradition, and the geography of place and landscape - the Somerset Levels, the Mendips,the Dorset coast - all have their own flavours and settings.’ The theme is picked up by Dan at Storysmith: the ‘genius of writers like Tom Cox (who has lived in the south west for a good long while) is that he's able to keep [folk tales] alive in his storytelling, but he's not treating those traditions as an accessory. Perhaps inevitably there is something of the landscape, urban or otherwise, in the work of many authors from the south west - Thomas Hardy, Helen Dunmore, Nikesh Shukla, Daphne DuMaurier, Agatha Christie, Patrick Gale, Angela Carter, and even Ted Hughes was inspired by the beauty of Devon.’
Perhaps though, there isn’t a distinctive style. As Christie Cluett at Talkling Tales says, the south west is ‘made up of people from everywhere, and the diverse nature of our community means that the stories written and told are imaginative and colourful, but always different in their voice. In a writing and performing scene that is known for its lack of pretension, everyone's welcome. That's our style.’ So possibly there is no great secret, just a collection of passionate people creating spaces for short stories and literature in a diverse region.
However, maybe, as Christie suggests, the secret is ‘cider - haze, not golden.’