Real Time Short Stories

Formats In Formaldehyde?

Posted on: August 5, 2011

Attempts by writers of short fiction to break into the news cycle might seem to have the makings of the most genteel heist movie since Getaway Driving Miss Daisy but, since BBC Radio 4’s decision to reduce from three to one the amount of short story slots in its schedule, this real time narrative has developed.

As previously discussed here, a petition, launched by the organisers of National Short Story Week, was signed by writers, listeners and broadcasters. In what was seen as a partial U-turn, Radio 4 announced that, in the proposed shake-up, the Sunday evening short story slot – hitherto used for repeats – would feature new stories. Now, the Society of Authors, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and actors’ union Equity have come together to send letters to the Chair of the BBC Trust and the Director General to urge a further climbdown. The letters call into question whether the decision to cut back on the commissioning and broadcast of short fiction “[is] in breach of the BBC’s Charter and, in particular, its duty to stimulate creativity, cultural excellence and its duty to monitor the delivery of public services.”

Let’s consider the proposed change. At its root is a decision to expand The World At One, currently in the 1.00-1.30pm slot, by 15 minutes. This is, of course, a recognition of the broadcaster’s burgeoning impulse to deliver more and better news programming, allied to the world’s capacity to provide it and the audience’s appetite to consume and indeed participate in it. It’s a symptom and product of rolling news formats and the sleepless news buzz and spectacle from the Twittersphere. We know the news doesn’t stop, and the ways in which traditional media outlets have had to adapt their once eternal fixities is now itself an engine for yet more news; it’s the “epiphenomenal” shift Will Self discussed on a star-studded Newsnight broadcast on the day the News of the World’s closure was announced. Like that newspaper, the short story’s weekday afternoon interventions in the business of the world, as brought to us by the BBC, seem also to be falling into the tectonic fissures.

As many of the petition’s signatories pointed out, however, reducing short stories on Radio 4 is not just a denial of work to writers and actors – as disheartening and damaging as this is, it’s not the platform for a compelling case when there are Hell-in-a-Handbasket roadsigns popping up all over the country – but also a needless assault on what should be a perfect symbiosis of form and medium. Radio is considered an ideal medium for short stories: naturally, because the culture of spinning a tale derives from the same oral traditions that inform speech-based radio. Furthermore, radio is enhanced by the nature of the short fiction it broadcasts. Each story in the Afternoon Reading slot occupies twelve minutes of airtime, and that translates as roughly 2000 words. In units of short story measurement, this makes the broadcast story a vignette. Even this is too rigid a definition, though, because these are no decorative contemplations of the passing moment, as a vignette is often entitled to provide. Narrative and pace matter in a Radio short: when I wrote The Prisoners for its eventual broadcast in March 2008, I found it helpful to organise the story into two-minute movements, each taking the characters and listeners deeper into the story. The sense is of a journey of regular progressions, even if, as with an M.C. Escher staircase, that journey leads us nowhere in particular.

As a sidebar, The Prisoners has since been re-edited for my Flax online chapbook, a signal that short stories may be taking some of the tricks learned for the radio into the world of Kindle and the iBookstore, where beguiling but bite-sized may prove the order of the day. There is scope to think back to another epiphenomenal moment, this time contingent on the arrival of radio, when the three-minute pop song emerged towards mass consciousness.

What we’re dealing with, then, is a moment to reflect on the way creativity copes with formatting, and the socio-economic agendas that govern the formats. The modern novel, for instance, has been a fluid entity since what’s accepted as its first incarnation, Cervantes’ Adventures of Don Quixote, which appeared in two books. In between the publication of the two, an errant author had attempted to pass off his writings as the next instalment of the tales of the errant knight. Cervantes used the introduction to Part Two to articulate what can only be described as his “beef” with the imposter, trashing his efforts in a manner later adopted by Ice Cube to diss Eazy-E. So half of the first modern novel became an assertion of authorship over the other half. Just as the novel then developed through serial form, via pulp fiction and the impact of the paperback, to the charming, extended treatments for films already in the pipeline that we enjoy today, the short story has taken shape within a different folio, in which magazines, radio and now the e-book have helped align the creases. This means we can – and should – argue as to the value of a short story’s ability to put the handbrake on a busy day and take listeners out of the remorseless nowness of it all, but we can’t pretend this isn’t a call for licensed subversion. We can argue that the BBC’s Charter is, in these terms, a mandate to subvert the hegemonic imperatives of the market and that’s why it is routinely under attack, but we know we still approach it as part of The Establishment, hence the satisfaction when our words get to be heard on its airwaves.

It comes down, in terms of this particular spoke in the news cycle, to the impact of 15 minutes. Each minute is prized territory in a medium and on a station in which a few seconds of silence would create a vignette of panic, while a whole minute of silence would stir nuclear submarines from their berths. Maybe the outcome of this will be an acceptance that there are fewer minutes to spare but that short stories matter enough to make sure they keep filling them. So we look to the formats within this form of writing: Hemingway floated the idea of the six-word story; flash fiction formats of 50 and 100 words, not to mention the 140 characters of a single Tweet, may often be too flimsy to satisfy, but they offer challenges to writers; and could the broadcaster find new ways to make use of the short story’s capacity to surprise and subvert, rather than simply to pleasantly divert?

We don’t know how this will end, so we stay tuned in.

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1 Response to "Formats In Formaldehyde?"

[…] stories. Listeners had the opportunity to form unfiltered opinions of the works themselves, within a medium which has traditionally bypassed literary hierarchies to allow the stories themselves to fl…. Fresh from completing a PhD at the University of East Anglia, the prize represents a hell of a way […]

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