Do short stories get short shrift in Malaysia, or is brevity really the soul of wit? We find out what authors and readers have to say.
Malaysian authors, publishers and readers discuss the long and short of short story collections.
THE greatest short story in the world is only six words long: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”.
The author of that punch to the gut has never been officially identified but the story is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, the American author renowned for succint prose expressed in short, declarative sentences.
Sometimes, less really is more. These words are the mantra of the short story writer, who often manages to create wonderful worlds, with their own beginnings, middle and ends, with the same number of words a novelist would use to introduce a single character or describe one scene.
Compared to novels, however, it seems like short stories are often considered “lesser” than longer works.
So what exactly goes into the creation of a good short story? And do readers like them?
We asked some local short story writers, publishers and fans to find out.
“Short story collections have played second fiddle to novels for a long time, whether in Malaysia or international markets,” says Chua Kok Yee, author and co-editor of the recent horror anthology Remang And Other Ghostly Tales.
He points to Fixi, one of the popular imprints from indie publisher Amir Muhammad.
“Using Fixi’s topsellers list as the bellwether, we can see that novels are outselling collections of short stories. That said, it is heartening to see five out of 10 nominees for fiction in this year’s Readers’ Choice Awards are collections of short stories. It was the same number in last year’s edition of the award, so maybe local readers’ acceptance of short stories is on the rise,” he says.
Chua is referring to this year’s Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Awards for which 10 fiction and 10 nonfiction titles have been nominated; nominees are chosen from last year’s bestselling local titles in Popular and Harris bookstores nationwide, so we know that Malaysians bought a lot of anthologies in 2017.
But could that be because the industry is simply not putting novels out?
Amir, whose imprints Fixi and Fixi Novo publish Malay and English fiction respectively, says not many people publish novels in Malaysia, which results in many short story collections floating around.
Despite this, however, he thinks that most locals prefer longer and meatier works – “It’s the difference between having an entire self-contained nasi lemak versus eating 20 keropok,” as he puts it.
Many of the short story anthologies he publishes don’t sell even 5,000 copies, Amir says, though he adds that there are exceptions, such as KL Noir: Red (2013), which sold 18,000 copies, and Tunku Halim’s Horror Stories (2014), which sold 32,000.
Famous names and popular genres tend to sell more copies, he points out. “Names that are unknown now can always become famous later, just due to one book published later. Mankind needs hope to survive,” he says, tongue-in-cheek.
“Back in the late 1980s/early 1990s many of my short stories were published in Her World and Female and other local magazines here and in Singapore. They published short stories every month; but then they dried up. Others would appear and disappear.
“Recently, Esquire Malaysia magazine began publishing fiction, but then stopped,” Raymer says via e-mail from Kuching where he has been based for 12 years.
A more globalised world, however, means that Malaysians are free to promote their short stories in many more exciting venues.
“The markets and publishers are there; they may come and go, but the writer has to look for them, just like writers do all over the world. Malaysian writers can even submit their stories overseas online. I’ve had Malaysia-set short stories published in 12 countries,” Raymer says.
He has written several anthologies, including Lovers And Strangers Revisited (2008), which was a winner in the 2009 Readers’ Choice Awards.
When it comes to writing short stories, you probably can’t get any shorter than the works in Micro Malaysians (2017), a book of micro-fiction: none of the stories in it is over 150 words long. Editor Anwar Hadi, who curated the works, says it takes a tremendous amount of skill to do well in so little space.
“I think writers are freer to explore their weirder ideas in short stories than they are in longer forms of writing. They don’t have to dedicate as much time to writing short stories as they would novels, so greater risks in writing can be taken.
“The cost in terms of time isn’t as heavy, and I think we readers can be on the receiving end of those riskier pieces and be more expansive in our reading in the process,” Anwar says in an e-mail interview. Chua agrees with this.
“For the reader, short story collections require less of an investment in time and emotions compared to a novel. We can finish a story within 15 minutes or half an hour, and then do something else before starting the next one.
“It is much harder to do that if you are reading a good novel. Many readers would have experienced this; you start reading a novel, and then have to say goodbye to your social life for the next few days or weeks!” he says.
Raymer feels that one of the delights of creating short stories is how they take less time than novels.
“A short story, like a good poem, has a singular effect, a singular voice. Novels can be rangy and loose. Short stories are taut, no wasted words are allowed, no digressions.
“Being short, about eight to 25 pages, it can be roughed out and polished in a matter of days, weeks, whereas a novel can take months, years even. It takes a lot of patience,” he says.
As it turns out, Malaysians are also fond of short story anthologies. Some readers, however feel that anthologies often get the short end of the stick compared to longer works.
“I do think short story collections are generally less celebrated and less effort is put into marketing them. I think they are unfairly dismissed as a gateway medium for novice writers. There’s a certain privileging of the novel format as the ultimate medium of literature,” says avid reader Diana Yeong, 43.
Yeong says while she doesn’t actively seek out short story collections, she doesn’t shy away from them either. Some of her favourite collections included Patricia McKillip’s Dreams Of Distant Shores (2016), Ted Chiang’s Stories Of Your Life And Others (2010) and Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories (2011). “Collections can be hit and miss and more often than not will have at least a couple that miss the mark, and only one or two in the entire collection that have that ‘wow’ factor,” Yeong says.
“There’s an element of delicious surprise going into each story, which is a nice contrast with the immersive nature of novel reading. I like diving deep into characters and places and situations with novels, but short stories are a refreshing change of pace.”
Honey Ahmad, 41, thinks that short story collections are a great way to get to know a new author. She often reads collections online, especially when in the mood for a break. At the moment, she’s reading Miranda July’s Stories and John Connolly’s Night Music. Among her favorite collections are Jhumpa Lahiri’s Intepreter Of Maladies, Lara Vapnyar’s Brocolli And Other Tales Of Food And Love.
“Annie Proulx also writes spare and beautiful short prose. For horror I love Joe Hill’s stuff and in fantasy George R.R. Martin writes some of the best fantasy shorts out there. I also love Ted Chiang’s shorts too as he melds sci-fi, fantasy and the human condition so well in a short story form,” Honey said. “It is a different skill writing short stories. Often they take you down surprising places and I love how a good story can be told with few words. That takes mad skills.”
--Borneo Expat Writer