saving short stories

There is a campaign underway to save the short story slots on BBC Radio 4, which are going to be reduced from next spring. I signed the petition as soon as I heard about it, but as I did I had to admit to myself that I don't actually listen to every one of the stories R4 broadcast. I was signing not because they were reducing my listening pleasure, but because it felt like a move against a form I love and want to defend.

How many people listen to the stories on Radio 4? Do they introduce new readers to the form? Do they increase short story sales? I don't know the answers to those questions but I do think the problem is much bigger than a radio station. If there is a need to save short stories, isn't it from uninterested publishers and an indifferent public?

I've heard several times of writers disguising their short story collections as novels to get them published. Whenever I tell someone I write short stories the first question they ask is, 'And are you writing a novel now?' As though short stories are a training ground or jumping-off point from which to approach the real destination. As though real writers write novels.

In Saturday's Guardian, Neil Gaiman, publicising the campaign's tweetathon, admitted that as a working writer his love for the form was 'a silly sort of love':

You should write novels. Short stories sell for the price of a good dinner, if you're lucky (and the magazines and anthologies that used to buy them are themselves fading away or gone completely). When they get reprinted they won't cover the taxi fare to get to the dinner. I'm lucky, and have collected my short stories into books that sell well for short-story ­collections, but still only a fraction of the number that my novels sell. 
But short stories are the best place for young writers to learn their craft: to try out different voices and techniques, to experiment, to learn. And they're a wonderful place for old writers, when you have an idea that wouldn't make it to novel length, one simple, elegant thing that needs to be said. 

Here, again, there is the idea of short stories as a training ground. I realise many writers can write short stories and novels equally well but there is a very stubborn part of me that wants to say, but why do short stories have to be the warm-up or the fall-back for writers? Why can't they exist independently of the novel, on their own terms?

As for the money thing, does that matter? I would say no. Making a living from writing is the luxury of the very, very few. If the cost of being a working writer is not being able to write what you want to write most, for me that's not a price worth paying (and, yes, I am idealistic and poor and just starting out, but as I said, I'm stubborn). Does getting your stories published and read matter? Well, yes, of course it does. It's good to think they might be read, but I am certain that if I never had another story published I would still write them.

I'm drawn to the often maddening challenge of writing short stories because of how much I love reading them. When I first read the short fiction of Borges and Calvino I told my husband at the time that I'd fallen in love with two old dead men (and this honestly wasn't a factor in our break-up). My addiction to the form started with them. I love short stories because of the beauty and clarity and the strangeness that can be so deftly woven through them. They are story in concentrated form. Small spaces that can contain unlimited dimensions. I love Stephen Millhauser's description of the short story as a grain of sand:

In that single grain of sand lies the beach that contains the grain of sand. In that single grain of sand lies the ocean that dashes against the beach, the ship that sails the ocean, the sun that shines down on the ship, the interstellar winds, a teaspoon in Kansas, the structure of the universe. And there you have the ambition of the short story, the terrible ambition that lies behind its fraudulent modesty: to body forth the whole world. 

In the UK, the championing of the short story is left to excellent independent publishers like Comma PressSalt Publishing, Route, Two Ravens Press, Tindal Steet Press and Nightjar Press and brilliant initiatives such as the Small Wonder festival (on later this week in Charleston). And perhaps in the genre publishing world short stories fair a little better. But a nagging worry still seems to hang around short stories: that they are a minority interest, read mostly by writers, writing students and academics. People talk about their suitability for commuters and for dwindling attention spans (which makes me want to scream) and the promise of e-publishing. And there is a sense that they can thrive online with the myriad of digital magazines setting up (and, yes, I do co-edit one), but I worry about how many stories actually get found and read amongst all the noise of the web.

We can't blame readers. There can't be a change in people's response to short stories until there are changes in the way they're treated by the gatekeepers. And having a few token big-money prizes isn't enough. If short stories can be saved on Radio 4, then, yes, that's a very good thing, but surely the campaign should also be taken up with the large publishers who won't publish them (or when they do, as part of a 'if you give us two novels we'll let you have your collection published' deal, won't put their marketing weight behind them), the national newspapers, which rarely review them, the bookshops who seem unsure where to shelve them and with writers themselves, who in their desire to get published give the big publishers exactly what they want rather than daring to imagine that things could be different.